Slavery goes back before written history. The earliest evidence for it is found in graves in Lower Egypt dating to 8000 BC. It was a near universal institution, especially in agricultural societies. As late as the beginning of the 19th century, 3 quarters of the earth's population were slaves and serfs. You could become a slave to pay off a debt, as punishment for as crime, because you were a prisoner of war, because you were abandoned at birth or because you were born to a slave.
In the famous Hammurabi
Code the sentence for helping or harboring an escaped slave was
death. But in Deuteronomy 23:15, 16 it says, “Do not return a slave
to his master when he has escaped from his master to you. Let him
live among you wherever he wants within your gates. Do not mistreat
Slavery obviously predates the writing of the Bible.
Its existence is accepted as a fact, yet the Bible does not see
slaves as mere chattel but as human beings. Thus in ancient Israel
they were able to own property, earn money and even buy themselves
out of slavery. Those who sold themselves into slavery to repay a
debt were released every 7 years and every Jubilee year. Slaves were
treated as members of God's people and joined in the Sabbath rest. Biblical slavery was therefore unlike slavery in the US, because it was not necessarily involuntary, lifelong or based on race. The more humane treatment of slaves comes from the fact that the
Israelites were once slaves in Egypt. God makes that history explicit
in the places in which he commands them to treat their slaves fairly.
The Greeks however did not see slaves as anything other than
property. To them slaves were part of the natural order; only
citizens were considered human beings. By the time of the New Testament, the
population of the Roman Empire, due largely to her wars, was made
up of 25% slaves. The Romans did make slavery more humane. They
realized that the more freedoms they allowed their slaves, the more
productive they were. Nevertheless, an escaped slave had to be
returned to his master. And the master was allowed to punish a
runaway slave by beating, whipping, branding or even crucifying him.
Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew
nor gentile, neither slave or free, nor is there male or female, for
you are all one in Christ Jesus.” When Paul used the popular form
of the Household Codes in his letters, he did, as was typical of the
day, tell slaves to obey their masters. But he also reminded masters
that that their slaves were their brothers and sisters in Christ and
should be treated appropriately. And in 1 Corinthians 7:21, Paul told
slaves that they should take advantage of opportunities to gain their
freedom. But he meant lawfully. He did not support the anarchy that
arose every time there was a slave revolt. The most famous is the
Third Servile War, in which Spartacus led 120,000 slaves against the
might of Roman. Like the previous slave rebellions this was
unsuccessful and the 6000 survivors were crucified along the Appian
Way. Violent uprisings did not lead to freedom or the abolition of
slavery in the Roman Empire.
So Paul has a real problem on his hands when he found
out that one of his most helpful coworkers in the ministry was a
runaway slave, Onesimus. We are not sure how this discovery was made.
Perhaps the return of Epaphras from Colosse triggered the disclosure.
Legally, though, Paul must return him to his master. What made it more
difficult was that Paul knew the owner: Philemon, a wealthy Christian
who lets the Colossian church meet in his home. Paul wants to keep
Onesimus in his ministry but can't, not without Philemon's consent.
And it appears that Onesimus has stolen from his master, probably to
finance his escape. Philemon would have every right to punish his
slave severely and even have him killed. So Paul is faced with a real
moral dilemma. The way he deals with it is a beautiful example of how
to work for the right in a culture that is wrong.
Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon but with a letter. The contents of that letter, except for the last 3 verses,
makes up our New Testament reading.
Paul introduces himself as a prisoner of Christ
Jesus. He is probably writing while imprisoned in Rome. It is ironic
that Paul, who has lost his freedom, is writing to secure the freedom
of another man. And notice that Paul for once doesn't
identify himself as an apostle. This is a personal letter. But by
reminding Philemon of his imprisonment, Paul would probably elicit
sympathy from him. And that's the right state of mind for his
Paul greets Philemon as a dear friend. He mentions
Apphia, who may have been Philemon's wife. He also mentions
Archippus, whom he calls a fellow soldier, and who is a partner in
Paul's ministry in nearby Laodiccaea. It's possible that the 2
churches met together. Paul also sends greetings to the church that
meets in Philemon's home. But it is obvious that Paul is speaking
directly to Philemon throughout most of this letter.
Paul tells Philemon that he prays for him and thanks
God for Philemon's love for fellow Christians and for his faith in
Jesus. Paul prays that Philemon sees all the good that his sharing of
his faith is doing. And his love gives Paul joy and encouragement
since he sees how his fellow church members are being refreshed
Because of the greatness of Philemon's Christian
love, Paul refrains from commanding him to do what what Paul thinks
is his duty. Instead Paul will make his appeal on the basis of that
same Christian love. Calling attention to his age and his status as a
prisoner, Paul gets to the heart of the matter.
Paul is making an appeal for Onesimus, who has just
delivered the letter and was probably waiting, rather nervously, as
his master read it. Paul calls the slave his child. He obviously
means that spiritually. Somehow Onesimus encountered Paul—perhaps
he heard one of the apostle's associates preaching and because of his
fervent faith was brought to Paul, who was under house arrest.
Onesimus makes himself invaluable to Paul. He is growing in the
faith. And then Onesimus' secret comes out. Either Epaphras
recognized him or upon seeing Epaphras, Onesimus confesses. Either
way, a man who has become like a son to Paul is now revealed as a
fugitive who must be returned.
Paul tries to lighten the moment by making a play on
words. Onesimus is a slave name. It means “useful.” So Paul says,
“Formerly he was useless to you, but now indeed he is useful to you
and to me.” A slave that runs away has relieved his master of his
usefulness in a sense. But now, as a Christian worker, he is useful,
certainly to Paul. But how is he useful to Philemon? Based on Paul later calling Philemon his partner, a business term but obviously in this context meant in
the spiritual endeavor to spread the gospel, I think he is saying that
Onesimus is useful as a fellow Christian who is doing God's work.
Paul says that sending Onesimus back is sending a piece of his heart. Again, he is indicating how important Onesimus is to
Paul, reinforced by the mention of how he serves Paul during his
imprisonment. And notice that Paul says that he regards the slave as
serving “on your behalf.” In other words, Paul is saying “I
give you credit for what Onesimus does for me.” He is his
slave. But, of course, it makes it harder to punish a slave who is a
credit to you.
Paul would like to keep Onesimus with him, working
with him, but doesn't want to do so without Philemon's permission.
Again Paul is not ordering Philemon to assign Onesimus to Paul's
mission but giving him the opportunity to do so on his own.
Now the next verse makes it sound like Paul is giving
Onesimus back for good, which would seem to contradict the idea that
he wants Philemon to send the man back to Paul. But Paul says,
literally “Perhaps for this reason he was separated [from you] for
an hour, that you could [have] him eternally.” Notice the passive
voice: “he was separated.” Didn't Onesimus do the separating? Or
is Paul implying that God had a hand in this? Did he have a purpose
in permitting Onesimus to escape, to find Paul, to become a
Christian, to work in ministry under Paul? Perhaps.
The "for an hour" is obviously an idiom for “a short time.”
But how could Philemon have the slave for eternity?
Paul says, “...no longer as a slave but more than a
slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you,
both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Onesimus is now a brother in Christ
to Philemon and he will be so for eternity. He is also Paul's brother
in Christ. But how is he much more so to Philemon?
Paul writes, “If you consider me a partner, welcome
him as you would welcome me.” Paul first made Onesimus a stand-in
for Philemon; now he is making Onesimus a stand-in for Paul! How can
Philemon punish the slave if he is to treat him as he would Paul?
Of course, there is the matter of what Onesimus took
when he escaped. Philemon has a right to restitution. Paul says if
any thing was damaged or owed, Paul will repay it. He signs this IOU
with his own hand. Paul is on the hook for whatever Onesimus took.
Then Paul writes, “I say nothing about your owing
me you very self.” How can that be? Paul brought the gospel and
through him Philemon learned about Jesus and God's grace and was
saved. So Paul was instrumental in Philemon becoming a new creation, a new person in Christ. Onesimus owes a debt to Philemon but Philemon owes a
bigger debt to Paul.
That is why Paul says, “Yes, brother, let me have
some benefit from you in the Lord!” In other words, “How about I
forgive the debt you owe me for your life in exchange for you forgiving
Onesimus and giving him a new life?” Christianity is all about
forgiveness. It is about second chances and new life. Paul is saying
that Philemon can give Onesimus something that will be analogous to
what Paul gave Philemon. He can show his fugitive slave the mercy and
grace that Christ showed to Philemon when he was introduced to him by
Paul. That love and faith found in Philemon for which Paul thanks God
has a perfect opportunity for expression here. That is why Paul says,
“Refresh my heart in Christ.” In other words, show me that
Christian generosity I've heard so much about.
Our reading concludes “Confident of your obedience,
I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”
And what could be more than sending Onesimus back to Paul, on loan
from Philemon? Freeing him. If he sends Onesimus back as a free man
then Paul never has to worry about him being pulled back, such as
when Philemon dies and his heir inherits his property which otherwise
would include Onesimus. It would also validate what Paul wrote over
and over in his letters to the churches: that there is no difference
in Christ between slave or free. Philemon would be an example of a
man going beyond human law and living by the law of love proclaimed
Did Philemon actually free Onesimus? I am as
confident that he did as Paul was confident that he would. This is a
private letter. If Philemon refused, he could have destroyed the
letter and no one would know. But he released it to the public. When
Paul died and Paul's letters were treasured and churches were
exchanging copies, the letter to Philemon was as well. Would Philemon
let this happen if he had denied Paul's plea?
There is other evidence. Ignatius, a bishop and
martyr of the early 2nd century, wrote to churches as he
went to Rome and his death. He praises the Bishop of Ephesus, who
succeeded Paul's protege, Timothy. And that bishop was named
Onesimus. And when the letters of Paul were collected, it would be
natural for Bishop Onesimus to make available the letter in which his
spiritual father, the apostle Paul, pleaded for his freedom.
It became common for Christians in the Roman empire
to free their slaves. It was Christians, like William Wilberforce in
Britain and John Rankin in the US, who fought to repeal the slave
trade and slavery itself. As of 1981, slavery was officially illegal
in every country of the world.
Yet it still exists. Poor parents sell
their children to people who work them in factories in Asia or who
have them harvest cocoa beans in Africa. Warlords kidnap children and
make them into child soldiers. Girls in poor countries are enticed
with offers of good jobs in the first world only to find themselves
slaves in the sex trade. 800,000 human beings are trafficked across
international borders every year. The crime of human trafficking
generates $31.6 billion worldwide, coming in just after drug
trafficking and tied with arms sales. 80% of the estimated 27 million modern
slaves in the world are female and half are minors. 38% are
commercially exploited for sex. And unlike drugs or guns, you can
resell a human being for sex over and over again.
Last year I was invited to a presentation on
Commercial Sexual Exploitation of children. I learned that Florida is
the 3rd highest state for human trafficking. The average
age a child enters the sex industry is 12 to 13 years old. 1/3 of the
children who run away from home each year are recruited into
prostitution and/or pornography within 48 hours. Child pornography is
the fastest growing crime in the US, up by 2500% over the last 10
years. Meanwhile, a pimp with an average of 4 to 6 girls can make
from $150,000 to $200,000 a year. Each girl has a quota of $500 to
$1000 a day and must have sex with 10 to 15 men a day. That's
thousands of men a year! 8 out of 12 child prostitutes have had an
abortion. 78% acquire a sexually transmitted disease. 100,000 to
300,000 children in the US are at risk for Commercial Sexual
Exploitation. Yet there are only 200 beds available for such victims
in the entire nation! I came out of that presentation thinking, if there is a just
God, there is a hell for those who participate in and perpetuate such
We however have tools that Paul did not. In our era, government and law
enforcement agencies are dedicated to fighting such things. In
addition, we have the power to vote and to petition our government
and to publicize injustices and to fight them globally. We don't have to pussyfoot around the subject of
slavery. We didn't inherit a society that was dependent on it. We can
reject industries and businesses that are built on it, like companies
that offer low priced clothes we know are made by children overseas.
Or online classified ad sites such as that owned by the Village
Voice which makes $17 million a year and whose personal ads serve as
a major way for pimps to market underage prostitutes. We can donate
to and join activist and support groups like sharedhope.org or
polarisproject.org. We can look for the signs of modern slaves, such
as someone who is not free to come and go as he or she pleases, who is
not allowed to speak for his or herself, who is unpaid, paid very
little or only paid through tips, who has no control over his or her
money, who owes his or her employer a huge debt, who works
excessively long or unusual hours, who isn't allowed breaks, who
shows signs of malnutrition, or mental, physical or sexual abuse, and
who works or lives in a place with oddly high security measures.
Paul went against the culture by pushing for
Onesimus' freedom. We too must go against a culture that sees
pornography as consequence-free, prostitution as a victimless crime,
and the exploitation of the defenseless as standard operating
practice, and even good business. He sought to bring freedom, one
person at a time. We have more resources and government-guaranteed
free speech that he didn't. But like him we serve a God who liberates
people, who hates oppression and exploitation, and whose son kicked
off his ministry by quoting Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon
me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He
has sent me to proclaim freedom for the captives and recovery of
sight for the blind, to set the oppressed
free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's
favor.” And I have seen nothing that says we don't have the same