PJ’s Daily Devotional for Monday, March 20, 2017.
There is a popular Christian song on the radio called, “No Longer Slaves” by Jonathan David & Melissa Helser which has a powerful message of redemption and repurposing of our lives based on what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It is a simple song, but the conviction in which this husband & wife team sing causes my heart to yearn for my birthright as a child of God. Here are some of the lyrics:
I’m no longer a slave to fear
I am a child of God
From my mother’s womb
You have chosen me
Love has called my name
I’ve been born again
Into your family
Your blood flows through my veins
This song captures the heart of Paul when he writes to Philemon about Onesimus.
Listen to Paul, “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 . . . For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 10-12, 15-16).
Philemon is a slave owner and Onesimus is a runaway slave, a fugitive, whose name literally means, “useful”. Onesimus fled from his master, Philemon, and found himself hiding in Rome, where Paul is under house arrest. In an act of God’s providence, Onesimus encounters Paul and becomes a Christian and his life becomes transformed. From a fugitive on the run, filled with fear at discovery, to becoming a brother in Christ to Paul, a man who knew his former master, Philemon. Paul writes to Philemon, not to throw Onesimus under the bus, but because this is an opportunity to give God glory—for Onesimus who was once deemed useless by his owner has now truly become useful through the redemption of Jesus Christ. His status has been changed eternally, but now they had to deal with his earthly circumstance.
The circumstance of this letter may seem to be what to do with a runaway slave, but the purpose of this letter is the redemption of a person’s life; the transformation of someone’s story. When we are saved, everything should change about us and about how we relate to the world. Paul is calling forth for these transformed relationships and leveraging both Philemon and Onesimus to do the right thing with everything he’s got at his disposal—friendship and apostolic authority.
This letter is unbelievably counter-cultural and what Paul is asking of both Onesimus (to return to his master, Philemon, who the Roman culture would expect to punish Onesimus with a brutality that could lead to death) and Philemon (to forgive Onesimus, possibly to the point of emancipation, and to have a transformed familial relationship with him now) could have serious, if not life-threatening, consequences. God’s sovereignty is at work because greater than Onesimus’ slave status and Philemon’s slave owner status is their bondage to fear to live according to the systems of the Roman Empire. According to Paul’s letter to Philemon, Onesimus’ conversion to Christ not only called him to get right in the former things of his life, but also demanded of Philemon to have a transformed relationship with him—no longer as a slave, but now as a brother in Christ. Paul is calling them to trust in a God who is bigger than their circumstance!
Paul is banking on both these men being true disciples of Jesus Christ, because this takes courage and trust, in God and in their brother! It’s amazing to me how much transforming a society depends on the local church’s convictions and how the members relate to one another, not as according to the traditions of the culture, but as citizens of Heaven. Society does not change if Christians conduct themselves as citizens of Rome!
There are critics of Paul today who said he didn’t go far enough in his letter by making a searing statement against the Roman Empire’s practice of slavery, but those critics are possibly so caught up with their own contemporary activism that they miss Paul’s radical call of the Christian within worldly systems of structural and systemic injustice. For Paul to have written against the economic practices of the Roman Empire any more overtly would have served to only intensify the existing persecutions and alienated all the people Paul was trying to reach in the name of Jesus. Paul threads the needle well, just like Jesus when answering the question about Roman taxation practices, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17).
God’s people have throughout time been called to live differently; though we are in the world, we are not of the world. Christians should not participate in the corruption of such things as slavery or the economic injustices that fed it in the Roman world; or slavery and the racism that fed it in American culture; or the contemporary practices of slavery that are a product of economic injustices, racism, bigotry, exploitation of children, and unconstrained passions of depraved people.
For the Christian to truly live up to the radical call of the letter of Philemon, they first must become a child of God and in that new relationship with God through Jesus Christ realize that God removes fear through faith. The Christian, no matter whether a new convert or an experienced saint, is to carry the Cross of Jesus Christ into every sphere of life influence.
What does carrying your cross look like for you in your circumstances in today’s world?
What fears are preventing you from doing this?
I exhort you today that you are no longer a slave to fear, but you are a child of God. You have had your story transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, His Spirit indwells you, and you are now part of a new family. You are a citizen of a Kingdom that is not of this world, rise above your circumstances and live for Jesus where you are . . . today!
Respond to this message as you worship to the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8TkUMJtK5k