“For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, 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 1:15-16 NKJV)
Slavery was an integral part of the Roman culture and economy. As the Roman army conquered other nations, they took captives. Captives were either killed or became slaves. Some people in Rome were still bothered by that slavery and began setting their slaves free. As a result, the Romans passed a law that limited the number of slaves that one could set free. As widespread as slavery was in Rome, treatment of slaves never reached the shocking cruelty that happened in the early days of the United States.I say all this to remind you that Philemon, to whom this letter was addressed, was a slave owner. He had apparently sent Onesimus to Paul, and Onesimus in the process ran away, and then came to know Christ under Paul’s teachings. As Paul sent a letter to the church at Colossae by Onesimus, he included a letter to Philemon asking for Philemon to give Onesimus to his care. Onesimus was once not useful, but now, he was serving Jesus first as a brother in Christ which made him more useful in the work of the kingdom. Paul’s appeal tugs on Philemon’s heartstrings, but even more importantly, called on him to do the right thing.
While slavery in general didn’t exhibit cruelty in ancient Rome, it was still slavery. Philemon could have punished his runaway slave severely. Paul’s appeal was to treat him not as a slave, but as a beloved brother who was useful to the kingdom of God. The gospel message here stretched the cultural mores as Paul asked Philemon to forgive his runaway slave. I don’t know any slaveholders today, although we still have slavery in these times. Think about human trafficking. What I do know is that often people come from lives where they’ve been in bondage to sin. Once they come to Christ and been freed from that bondage, they come to us. How do we treat them? Do we welcome them with open arms, thanking God that someone who used to be in bondage to sin is free, or do we hold them at arm’s length and watch them to make sure they don’t fall into sin again? When I came to Christ, God’s people welcomed me and helped me grow. When I sinned, they picked me up. I got a lot of judgment from people outside the body of Christ who tried to remind me of my past. People who leave the bondage of sin will be reminded of their past by those whom they used to associate with; let’s work hard to accept new believers, love them when they sin, and lovingly draw them closer to Christ instead of waiting for them to mess up so we can accuse them of being fake Christians.
Lord, there are so many caught up in the slavery of sin. I pray that they might experience freedom in the grace of Christ. I pray that I might welcome them with open arms and lead them to grow in Your love and, Your grace.