Saturday, 21 July 2018
…no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. Philemon 1:16
The reason that Paul alluded to in the previous verse as to why Onesimus may have departed from Philemon for a while is now revealed. Paul believes that it may be that the Lord was behind the scenes, directing the events, so that Philemon might receive him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave.” This is now truly the first time that the status of Onesimus, in relation to Philemon, has been revealed.
Until this point, it was really unknown what their relationship to one another was. But now, we find that Onesimus was Philemon’s slave. And yet, Onesimus had obviously run away from him. This wasn’t like someone not showing up for work in today’s world. It is similar to a military man going AWOL from his post. This was a direct crime against his master.
If one was reading this letter for the first time, they would truly understand the extreme care that Paul has taken to ensure every word was meticulously chosen and written out. The life of Onesimus could be in jeopardy, depending on the reaction of Philemon. But Paul appeals to him to receive him not merely as a slave, but ever more closely as “a beloved brother.” The words, “no longer,” are intended to direct Philemon’s heart away from the master/slave relationship and to have him look at the union of fellowship which has come about because of a third party who intervened in both of their lives, the true Master of both of them.
A new relationship exists between the two because of the new-found faith of Onesimus. Yes, he was a slave to Philemon, but he was now a brother in Christ. Paul implores him to receive him as such. He then increases the hope of such a reception by saying, “especially to me.”
Paul had a new brother in Christ, one he had come to love as a son (verse 9). He was asking for that to be considered. It was Philemon’s right to act as he chose towards his property, but it was his duty as a Christian to consider Paul’s feelings and needs as well. And so the appeal by Paul would be hard to turn down. What Christ had done in both of their lives necessitated them to consider one another’s needs, hopes, and feelings. However, Paul doesn’t stop there. He then adds on another thought for Philemon to consider by saying, “but how much more to you.”
Paul’s appeal is actually of less weight than what Philemon should consider in doing right towards Onesimus. There was already a set relationship between the two. It is almost impossible to find any close relationship which has not been strained at times. But those that are based within the home are normally overlooked in a different way than those outside the home. Further, Onesimus was willing to voluntarily come back to Philemon, carrying the very letter that Paul wrote in order to face whatever decision was rendered. And even more, in coming back, he would be far less likely to repeat such disobedience in the future, having learned that his rebellion was a cause of real trouble for any and all who were touched by it. Unlike a person returned by force, he was willing to return on his own, thus showing that he understood the seriousness of his actions and a willingness to not repeat them.
Philemon was being asked to consider this and apply these things from both a human and a divine perspective. As Paul says it, “both in the flesh and in the Lord.” In the flesh, refers to Philemon’s human side. He had gained a brother in Christ, but that still involves a human element. We all deal with other Christians from our human perspective. The dynamic changes when another comes to Christ, but everything about who we are, and who they are, remains in a physical state. Philemon could expect a better worker. Onesimus could hope for a more accepting master.
And both of them would also have to consider their state “in the Lord.” How one perceives the grace and mercy that has been bestowed on himself is an indication of how he will then pass those same benefits on to others. As Jesus Himself said, “…to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (Luke 7:47). Both Philemon and Onesimus had been forgiven much in Christ. If Philemon forgave Onesimus’s minor offense against him because of Christ, Onesimus would go to great lengths to be the best worker – slave or free – that he could be in the future.
Finally, like an earlier verse, this verse has been used to speak against slavery. Commentators have attempted to show that because of the new relationship between them in Christ, slavery is entirely unacceptable. No such thought is on Paul’s mind. He has elsewhere told both bondservants and masters to handle the relationship properly, not to end it (see Ephesians 6:5-9). He didn’t tell them that the relationship was wrong. Instead, he told them how to correctly handle it.
Today, the relationship is changed one from bonded slavery to employers and employees, but it is actually similar in how the relationships are handled. To use such faulty logic concerning what is wholly acceptable, both in a given society and within the pages of Scripture, will eventually lead to even nuttier ideas, such as socialism and communism. Societies choose how to handle earthly relationships; but the common and decent treatment of others, regardless of the type of relationship, is outlined in the pages of Scripture.
Life application: Keep all things in context, and do not insert personal biases or presuppositions into Scripture. Let the word speak for itself. If someone is opposed to a social issue, such as slavery, they are to make their case apart from the Bible if the Bible is silent, or neutral, on that issue.
Lord God, we come before You to offer our gratitude and praise for what You have done for us. Regardless of our station in life. Whether rich or poor, slave or free, we have all of the riches of eternity before us, and our chains of sin have been broken; we are free. May we now live out our lives always in anticipation of the wonder and blessing which lies ahead. In doing this, we will always be filled with gratefulness and praise for what You have done! Amen.