“No Longer a Slave: A Study of Philemon as a Transforming Story!
Pastor Jerry Ingalls
May 28, 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 it now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQqkXg-C9jo
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, awaiting his trial with Caesar and what will be his eventual martyrdom (execution for his faith).
In an act of God’s providence, Onesimus encounters Paul and becomes a Christian and his life becomes transformed. From a fearful fugitive on the run to becoming a faithful 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. But, Paul had to do something that would have scared Onesimus to really help him. Onesimus had to trust this church leader.
Have you ever felt like someone was throwing you under the bus, but it ended up being the best thing for you because God was in it? Do you have a hard time trusting the motives of other people? How do you handle those moments?
Paul writes with a faithful view of God’s sovereignty, but how will Philemon and Onesimus interpret their own situations and options: with faith or with fear?
Listen to Paul call forth Philemon: “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. 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 8-16).
The story is so much bigger than its circumstances. Have you ever went shopping for a diamond? When the diamond dealer showcases the diamonds, he always puts them on a piece of black velvet. Why? Because the darker the backdrop, the brighter and more beautiful the presentation of the diamond’s qualities. The same is true when God wants to show off His power through His people. The darker the night, the brighter the stars!
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 and Philemon could have serious, if not life-threatening, consequences. For Onesimus: to return to his master, Philemon, who the Roman culture would expect to punish Onesimus with a brutality that could lead to death. For Philemon: to forgive Onesimus, possibly to the point of emancipation, and to have a transformed familial relationship with him now.
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.
Tweet this: “How I view myself transforms how I view my life.”
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 of 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!
How does this story apply to you and me today? Here are some examples:
- Open the borders of you heart by loving people who are different than you. Love straights, gays, and lesbians. Love blacks, whites, and people of all colors. Love rich, poor, and the working man. Love believers and non-believers. Love democrats, republicans, libertarians, and non-voters. Love in word and deed! #loveworks
- Remain faithful in your sexual purity. When you view pornography, you support an industry that imprisons children, men and women, in sex slave, as well as continues the objectification of fellow human beings who are made in the image of God and are someone’s son and daughter. Love in word and deed! #loveworks
- Be generous as a lifestyle. Pay your taxes, pay your bills on time, tithe to the church, give alms and offerings to help out those in need, use your talents and skills to help out a widow or neighbor, give of your time to increase community well-being in tangible ways. Love in word and deed! #loveworks
Love demands action, not inaction! Paul calls Christians to be someone within the worldly systems of structural and systemic injustice. Paul was being radical in his call to both Philemon and Onesimus, to transform them from the inside-out, in the depths of their circumstances. God doesn’t always change your circumstances, but God changes you! And you are the tool I God’s hands to now change the circumstances! Without God first transforming our stories, society will not change!
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 our 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 throughout all cultures.
I invite you to join us in our #forHenry campaign. God is for our county, are you? Let’s catch people doing things that are for our neighbor, that show the community that God’s love works; that God is for our communities and so are we and so am I. It happens in simple ways:
- Be pro-love by how you truly care for all people, from the unborn to the elderly. Start a ministry to support young mothers (e.g. babysitting so mom can finish her education) or a ministry that visits and provides practical helps to widows (e.g. water softener salt bags weigh 40 pounds and must be lifted). #forHenry
- Be pro-serving by how you are productive at work and at home, as unto the Lord and not for man (Colossians 3:23). When everyone else is trying to get by with the minimum prescribed work, you set the example. Help with dishes and chores at home. Be a helper. #forHenry
- Be pro-promise by letting your yes be yes and your no be no. Be a person of integrity, first in your Christianity and then in your everyday relationships—whether at school, work, or in the marketplace. #forHenry
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.
When I was in Atlanta, GA for the Orange Conference last month, I had the honor of listening to the Dr. King, the Rev. Dr. Bernice King, the daughter of the former Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I want you to hear what she said about her father’s murder. This coming from the daughter of a father who was taken from her at age 5. Dr. King said, “What killed my father was not hate; it was indifference and apathy and the absence of the people of God and the spirit of good. Hate and evil and injustice will be with us. The children of darkness are often more zealous than the children of light. We have to be more zealous as the children of light.”
This takes faith and courage.
What does living as a child of God, a child of Light, look like in your circumstances in your communty?
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 . . . every day that is called today!