Our Epistle reading for this week is almost the entirety of Paul’s letter to Philemon. After the reading ends in verse 21 there are four additional verses which ask for a guest room and send greetings from several others. The letter is addressed to Philemon, who is known to Paul and who hosts a church congregation in his home. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, has run away from him. He has somehow found his way to Paul while in prison The location of Paul’s imprisonment is not stated and is not entirely clear. Yet Paul seems to hope that he will be released in the near future and be able to visit Philemon (v. 22).
While entire commentaries have been written on this letter, weighing in at under 350 words, I think we’ll be content for today with a few comments. Onesimus is a slave. There is no dispute about that. He is not considered free. Observe that Paul does not suggest that Onesimus has no obligation to Philemon, his owner. Paul, also in bondage, observes to Philemon that Onesimus is in essence just like Paul. Though he is not free legally and possibly not physically free to come and go as he wishes, Onesimus has been set free from sin and death by Jesus. Both Paul and Onesimus are, therefore, free. They may be in chains, they may even be put to death. Yet nothing can change their freedom in Christ.
Paul urges Philemon not to release Onesimus from bondage, but to receive him back as “more than a slave - a beloved brother” (v. 16, NKJV). The treatment and respect that Onesimus will show Philemon is that of a respected brother. Paul asks Philemon to treat and respect Onesimus as a brother as well. They may have different roles in life, but the respect of brothers in Christ will stand despite those roles.
We are well advised to consider the freedom that we have. In an age characterized by offense and statements of ill treatment and discrimination, people who belong to Christ are well equipped to view and treat others with the dignity of brothers. This goes beyond social status, economic security, career choices, and ethnic origin. May God bless our efforts in this regard.
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