Bill Lockwood: How to Change Society-A Look at Philemon

by Bill Lockwood

Philemon was a Christian brother who lived in Colossae, Asia Minor (Turkey). The apostle Paul was imprisoned in Rome where,  by God’s providence (Phile. 1.1) he met a runaway slave named Onesimus. It so happened that Onesimus was a slave to Philemon, with whom Paul had been closely associated in Christian fellowship. What then occurs is instructive to all.

Paul sent Onesimus back to his owner Philemon with the inspired cover letter in the New Testament by the same name. After introductory matters, the apostle begins in (v. 8) with Accordingly, though I have all boldness in Christ to enjoin [command] you to do that which is proper … Paul is asserting he can be more assertive that he is presently.

An Alternative

But instead, he writes (v. 9), because of love’s sake, I would rather encourage you as Paul the elder. What is the essence of Paul’s encouragement? I beg you for my child, whom I have begotten in my bonds, Onesimus (v. 10). The prisoner of the Lord recognizes that Onesimus was “once unprofitable to you [Philemon] (v. 11), but now, because of his conversion to Christ, he is profitable to you and to me.

Now comes the key point. Paul says, I have sent him back to you (v. 12), but at the same time I would like to have kept him with me that in your behalf he might minister to me in the bonds of the gospel; but without your approval I would do nothing.

The word “approval” in my translation above is from the Greek word (gnome) which is “purpose, intention, mind, mind-set, opinion, opinion, judgment, approval.” In other words, Paul needed Philemon’s agreement to have kept Onesimus on in Rome as his assistant. Note that the apostle considered the slavery of Onesimus still binding.

Slavery

Slavery is an institution at variance with the gospel of Jesus Christ. As one writer puts it, the principles of Christ “cuts up slavery by the roots.” “The principles of the gospel worked into the conscience of a nation destroy slavery.” However, the institution of slavery has imbedded itself in nearly every society and culture in the world. Instead of overturning society by upheavals or riotous behavior, the gospel of Christ works like leaven upon not only the hearts of men, but upon societies and cultures (Matt. 13:33).

Changing a person begins with the heart and works outward in behavior (Matt. 12:33). Changing society is much the same. It is gained one heart at a time, not by taking a wrecking ball to a culture to overturn what is despised.

In 1 Corinthians 7:20 Paul gives us further insight into the question of slavery. Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called. That is, whatever life situation you may find yourself in, so remain in Christ. One does not come to Jesus Christ to be removed from a physical situation. Were you called being a slave? Care not for it; even if you can be free, use it rather! (ASV). Colloquially the text reads: Even if you were called into Christ being a slave—don’t worry about it. Use your slavery – that is, for Christ. The word “use” has often the sense of “undergo” or “endure.” That is, “use your slavery” for Christ.

The central point here is that there are greater questions of import to men’s souls than whether they are slaves or not, or descendants of slaves or not. The chief question is a spiritual relationship with God. Would that America would learn this simple truth from Paul’s letter to Philemon.

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