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a better obedience

The issue of slavery and the Bible often comes up, particularly with the question why the Bible does not forbid slavery outright. It is clear there are limits and parameters placed on slavery as the law of Moses had plenty to say about slavery, which was primarily a poverty-alleviating solution that was intended to be temporary. I’m not going to go through this now. In our sermon series in 1–2 Timothy I covered the issue of slavery and I would encourage you to check out that particular sermon. We will address the issue again in our Ephesians series later this summer.

In that sermon I explained that a significant reason Paul did not simply say, “You shall not own slaves” is because he thought he had said essentially that very thing! I used the illustration of a doctor. Imagine a Roman doctor writing a letter to a group of people warning them that if they continued using lead goblets and lead dinnerware they would soon begin experiencing muscle and joint aches and pains. If they continued they would also begin to experience difficulty concentrating and a loss of memory capacity. They would eventually begin to have seizures. Their fertility would drop and the number of miscarriages and stillbirths would increase. You might think, “Well, why didn’t he just tell them to stop using lead goblets and lead plates?” Which part of his warning is not saying this? Implicit in his warning about the dangers of lead is the very present though unstated instruction to stop using lead.

In his letter to a man named Philemon, Paul addresses the issue of slavery, but from a very different perspective than the one skeptics often claim they want from the Bible, namely, the magical words “You shall not own slaves”. In this brief letter Paul makes an appeal to Philemon that is far more powerful than a direct, apostolic command against owning slaves, and illustrates for us a powerful motivation for living for the Lord.

We’re not sure how it came to be but a slave named Onesimus ends up in Paul’s care. New Testament scholar S. M. Baugh believes Onesimus ran away from Philemon to avoid punishment of some sort and searched for the apostle Paul halfway across the empire. He says he did this to have Paul intercede with Philemon for him.

This was actually common in the ancient world. Ancient Roman historian Cassius Dio shared the story of the emperor Augustus visiting his friend Vedius Pollio who was known for his cruelty to slaves who angered him. He kept a pool filled with dangerous eels and would often order a slave who had offended in some way to be thrown into the pool where he would be eaten alive. While serving him in the emperor’s presence, a slave broke a crystal goblet. Completely ignoring the emperor Vedius ordered the slave to be fed to the eels. The slave fell to his knees and begged the emperor to intervene. Augustus tried to persuade—not command!—tried to persuade his friend to show leniency but he refused. At this the emperor ordered Vedius to have his servants bring all his valuable drinking vessels to him for him to use. When the servants did so he immediately ordered them to smash them all. He was the emperor; they could only obey. Seeing all his crystal goblets smashed to pieces, Vedius understood he could not be angry with his slave for doing what the emperor had done all the more and allowed his slave to live.

Whatever the situation, Onesimus ends up in Paul’s service, attending to his needs and helping him in his apostolic ministry. Like the emperor, he writes to Philemon to plead with him for leniency on behalf of his runaway slave. Like the emperor, Paul has spiritual authority over Philemon. Those who were in the office of apostle, which was limited to the Twelve plus Paul, had incredible spiritual authority over the church. In verse 8 of this letter Paul refers to this authority:

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required…

Philemon 1:8 ESV

Paul understood that he, as an apostle of the Lord Jesus, could bind the conscience of God’s people. This was the authority of the office of apostle. These were men who were appointed to this role by the Lord Jesus. There were others who had the spiritual gift of apostleship—think “church planters” or “missionaries”—but they did not possess this level of authority. (We’ll take a closer look at this distinction in Ephesians 4 in the spring.) Paul had the authority to command Philemon what to do with his “property” and his resources and how he conducted his household and business. However!

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord.

Philemon 1:8–14 ESV

Though he could order Philemon to free Onesimus from slavery, he instead appeals to him for love’s sake. He doesn’t want compulsion or mere obedience to be the reason for releasing Onesimus from slavery. He wants love to be the reason he frees him. He goes on to tell Philemon he hopes that love will motivate this freeing of Onesimus so that Philemon might receive him back “as a beloved brother”. Then he adds a shocking clarification:

So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.

Philemon 1:17–18 ESV

Paul directly connects Onesimus’ status and worth to his own. If he, a holy apostle of the Lord Jesus, means anything at all to Philemon, then Philemon must receive Onesimus as if he were receiving the holy apostle! Here Paul is illustrating his declaration in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ “there is neither slave nor free”. Even the lowliest runaway slave has all the dignity inherent in being one of Christ’s apostles, and the incredible status of being one of Christ’s apostles is to be on the level of a slave. In Christ, there is neither slave nor free, even though in Christ one may be either slave or free. One’s earthly status has no bearing on one’s status before the Lord.

What is implicit in Paul’s words to Philemon is there is therefore no basis for him maintaining “ownership” of Onesimus. Would Philemon ever “own” the apostle Paul? Of course he would not, so he must receive Onesimus as he would receive Paul, as a brother in Christ who is his equal and has all the rights and dignities he has. Paul went even further, however, and tells him any debts accumulated by Onesimus, whether damage to property or loss of income or whatever, that is now Paul’s debt. Paul has just placed on himself the obligations of a slave.

What we see here is the outworking of Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself. We must treat our neighbors as ourselves. We must hold them in the same regard as we hold ourselves. This is what Paul is getting at. Rather than command Philemon, “You must free your slave”, he says essentially the same thing but does so with a better obedience in mind: “Love your slave as you love yourself.” Or even, “Love your slave as you love me.”

What I find so compelling in this brief letter from Paul is his understanding of this better obedience. There is an obedience that obeys out of fear or out of compulsion. Then there is an obedience that obeys out of love for God and for neighbor. It is this love that truly honors the Lord. Paul would know this. He himself had once obeyed the law of Moses and in his words did so in a way that he could claim he was blameless (Philemon 3:6), yet his obedience was not motivated by love. It was an inferior “obedience” that did not honor the Lord. As such it counted for nothing.

What this means for us a church, and this goes back to my article about accepting others where they are rather than as they are, is we do not need to try to force one another into obedience. There are times in which we must confront one another over sin, but this is only necessary when one is blind to sin. As the Lord works in us he moves us to greater faith and repentance and he brings about the changes needed in our lives. Last Sunday one of our dear members confessed to the church she has been addicted to certain substances that help her sleep. She wants to break free of this addiction so she asked the church to pray for her. She did not come to this point because someone was in her face wagging a finger and clucking a tongue. She brought this to the church because the Lord has been working in her, and out of love for the Lord she confessed.

This is Paul’s approach to Philemon! Rather than come down on Philemon with all the incredible authority he has as an apostle, he appeals to him through the gospel of Jesus, through love! Surely the Spirit who inspired Paul to write this very personal letter to Philemon was present and active in Philemon as this letter was read not only to him, but to the church that met in his house. Even in this Paul is not attempting to shame him or somehow strong-arm him into compliance. He is allowing the Spirit of God to move in him in response to the truth of the gospel from which Paul is appealing to him.

This is the essence of true discipleship. Discipleship is never about conforming a person’s behavior to some external standard. True Christian discipleship is about transformation and transformation begins in the heart. It works itself out through a person’s behavior, but constraining a person’s behavior isn’t the point. The point is to help one another love the Lord from the heart, and it is this heart change that truly changes behavior. This is what Paul is doing in this letter to Philemon. He’s reaching into his heart, to cause him to remember the freedom that is his in Christ, to remember the standing he has been granted by the Lord. This is why Paul tells him he always thanks God for him when he hears “of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints”—including Onesimus (Philemon 5)! Discipleship is pointing one another to the gospel of Jesus, that the love of Jesus may begin to permeate every fiber of your being, and out of this Spirit-empowered transformation and love for the Lord and his people, you will obey him. This is a better obedience.