8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) 12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.
“What is the right thing to do?” It is a question that everybody has had to ask themselves and it is a question, collectively, that we ask of nations and institutions and even churches in given situations. “What is the right thing to do?” The question assumes, of course, that there is such a thing as “the right thing to do.” In our day such an assumption is no longer automatic. In our day we are as likely to view actions as “one right thing among other right things” or even in terms of actions being ethically neutral. We are even tempted to believe that there is no “right” or “wrong” by which we can judge actions at all.
For instance, the late John Stott critiqued Abraham Edel in 2010. Edel argued that there was no ultimate right or wrong.
This viewpoint was critically evaluated by the distinguished American moral and social philosopher Abraham Edel (1908-2007), whose first major book was titled Ethical Judgment, and subtitled The Use of Science in Ethics. “Morality is ultimately arbitrary,” he wrote, and went on with a piece of popular doggerel:
It all depends on where you are,
It all depends on when you are,
It all depends on what you feel.
It all depends on how you feel.
It all depends on how you’re raised
It all depends on what is praised,
What’s right today is wrong tomorrow,
Joy in France, in England sorrow.
It all depends on point of view,
Australia or Timbuctoo,
In Rome do as the Romans do.
If tastes just happen to agree
Then you have morality.
But when there are conflicting trends,
It all depends, it all depends.
Maybe we could view that concluding statement as the mantra of this confused age in which we live: “It all depends, it all depends!”
Paul believed that there was a right and wrong thing to do. More than that, he believed that right and wrong were defined by the mores and values of the Kingdom of God and by our King, Jesus. Thus, there will be times when the world says that something is right whereas the Kingdom of God says that the same thing is wrong.
Take, for instance, the situation of runaway slaves in the Roman Empire of the first century. By all human custom and wisdom, a runaway slave should be made an example of when returned to his master. He should, at the least, be severely punished. Yet, Paul was returning a runaway slave, Onesimus, to his master, Philemon, and recommended that Philemon take a different approach. Why? Not because Paul felt that morality was arbitrary, but rather because Paul felt that the morality of the Kingdom of God was superior to that of the world. So he asked Philemon to do something that went against the common mentality of the day. He asked him to do what was right before Jesus Christ even though it would have been considered foolish before the watching and shocked world.
Slavery in the New Testament world.
Before we approach the question itself, it is important for us to understand the historical context in which Paul was writing. In particular, we need to understand the nature of slavery in the New Testament world. In his very helpful book, A Better Freedom: Finding Life as Slaves of Christ, Michael Card offers some summary statements about the nature of first century slavery. I offer them here in his words as a helpful overview of the context in which Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon were living.
- Slaves were despised. To call someone a “slave” was a serious insult. Cato the Elder wrote, “He who has a slave has an enemy.”…
- Slaves played a major role in the economic world. The Roman Empire was dependent on slavery.
- In general slaves had no rights. In the earlier Republic this was literally true. But in the time of the Empire, the New Testament era, some laws were written to give marginal protection, though they were often not enforced. Slaves could be killed or mutilated by their owners.
- Slaves left virtually no “voice” in the ancient records. We only have playwrights like Plautus and Petronius who caricature and ridicule slaves.
- Slaves were often manumitted or could even purchase their own freedom from their own savings (peculium). Exceptions were agricultural and mining slaves, who represent the vast majority of slaves, who were never freed.
- Slavery could present a chance for upward mobility. But this opportunity was limited to an extremely small percentage. It was better to be the slave of an influential person than to simply be free and poor.
- Education enhanced the value of a slave and so was encouraged among house slaves.
- Paternity among slaves was virtually never recognized.
- Prices for slaves varied widely. A doctor was worth fifty times a farm worker.
- Sexual abuse was common and taken for granted. Half of female slaves died before age thirty.
- Slaves could own property, even other slaves. But their possessions were still under the control of their masters, even if they became freedmen.
- Provision for the average slave was meager. Cato speaks of a new cloak and shoes every two years. Archeologists have never verified sleeping quarters for slaves.
- Runaways were frequent, an obsession in the ancient records. Roman law forbade the sheltering of runaways. Professional “slave catchers” captured fugitives. Runaway slaves were branded, mutilated and fitted with iron collars that were sometimes inscribed with the words, “Capture me for I am fleeing.”
- There was never a movement to abolish slavery, though there were several slave revolts, such as Spartacus in 73-71 B.C.
- Roman slavery was not race-based. Slaves were virtually indistinguishable by dress or race. (Exception: Some races were preferred for certain jobs, such as Gauls and Germanics for farming/mines and Greeks for more professional tasks.”
Perhaps this helps us understand not only the background of the letter to Philemon but also the radical nature of Paul’s request. Some have argued that slavery in the first century was not “as bad” as slavery in, say, the American South. But I rather suspect that such distinctions are lost on slaves in any context. Whatever the nature of first century slavery was, it still involved (a) a master, (b) a slave, and (c) the master’s ownership of the slave. We might rightly assume that some slave situations were not as nightmarish as others, but, in the end, surely no nightmare is preferable to a less upsetting one.
Paul’s request and the nature of it.
Regardless, we now have enough of a picture of slavery at that time to appreciate and marvel at Philemon 8-11.
8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)
We learn a lot from these few verses. We learn that Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, fled Philemon, made his way to Paul, and, through Paul’s ministry, though Paul was in prison himself, became a follower of Jesus Christ. This is a beautiful image Paul uses in verse 10: “Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” Truly, when you lead somebody to Christ, you feel a kind of protective paternal or maternal affection for that person. You become, in a sense, a spiritual parent to them. You were the instrument in the hand of God that was used to help lead them to the Savior. You also feel a sense of responsibility for that person. You were there when they passed from death to life. You played a part. This is what Paul is saying. John Chrysostom, commenting on this idea, wrote:
Oh, that blessed chain, with what great effort did it labor that night, and what children did it birth! Yes, of them, too, may he say, “Whom I have begotten in my bonds.” Observe how Paul glories. He will have the children born this way considered even more illustrious! Observe how transcendent is the glory of those bonds, in that they give luster not only to him that wore them but also to those who were on that occasion begotten by him.
Paul led Onesimus to Jesus and so was a spiritual father to him. Yet, Paul also held authority over Philemon as an apostle of Jesus Christ.
8 Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9 yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.
This is an intriguing thing for Paul to say. He could have made Philemon do the right thing, but, instead, he appealed to him “for love’s sake” to do the right thing. What is so interesting and beautiful about this is the fact that Paul, in asking Philemon to set aside his legal rights in this situation, told Philemon that he, too, was setting aside his own “legal” rights as an apostle. Just as Paul could let the full weight of his authority fall on Philemon so too Philemon could let the full weight of his authority fall on the offending Onesimus. However, Paul, appealing to love, refused to do that and his hope was that Philemon would do the same.
“For love’s sake” is the basis of Paul’s appeal. What love? Surely the love that Paul had for Philemon and that Philemon had for Paul is one meaning of this. Since they loved one another, Paul was going to ask Philemon to trust him and to heed his request. But now Onesimus too had become a brother in Christ so love must be extended to him. Paul, as Onesimus’ spiritual father, loved his spiritual son. But this meant that Onesimus was now Philemon’s brother and was therefore entitled to his love as well! It is hard to kill somebody you truly love.
Love is always the greatest operative principle among the people of God. Where love fails, envy, jealousy, strife, anger, violence, vengeance, and hatred come pouring in. But where the banner of love is held aloft, mercy, forgiveness, patience, kindness, and gentleness hold sway. Peter put it like this in 1 Peter 4:
8 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.
“For love’s sake” must be ever on the lips of God’s children!
Because of the love of Christ for us, we are freed now to love where hatred might once have reigned.
11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)
“There was a time, Philemon,” Paul seems to be saying, “when you might have seen Philemon as merely a disobedient, runaway, thieving slave. But you cannot – you dare not – see him in that way now! He is now useful to you. He is now part of the Kingdom. You both bow before the same King, the same Lord. You are both now bound by the blood of Christ. The love of Christ has changed everything!”
The love of Jesus does change everything. It should reside as the core of the Church, expressed preeminently in and through the gospel itself, manifested most clearly in the cross of Jesus Christ, and now working in and among and through and out from us to create a family where there was once enmity and strife. Outwardly, the love of God in Christ compels us to go to and reach toward a hurting and dying world with that same love with which we have been saved.
The love of Jesus is the dynamic, pulsating, beating heart of the Church! We now dare not insist on “our rights” or our sense of power or dominance over others. The only power we recognize is the power of the resurrection of Christ that makes a dead thing live again. And, as living things, we now must be salt and light in a world of death. This is what Paul is asking of Philemon.
Why did Paul not help free Philemon and attack the institution of slavery itself?
For modern readers of the Bible, the book of Philemon as a whole and verse 12 in particular can present a challenge and raise certain questions.
12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart.
Specifically, the question is this: why did Paul not help free Philemon and attack the institution of slavery itself?
The partial nature of a small letter
One thing we should keep in mind is that Philemon is a very small, occasional letter. Furthermore, we read this in verse 22:
22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
Paul announced that he intended to come see and stay with Philemon. Please understand that I am not suggesting that Paul intended to say things face-to-face with Philemon that would in any way contradict what he said here. But it must be understood that this letter was perhaps necessarily brief and that Paul surely had more to say about the situation with Philemon. Even so, the letter is sufficient to communicate the heart of what Paul wanted to say on the matter.
The possibility of Christ’s imminent return
It has been held that Paul viewed the return of Christ as imminent and therefore this perhaps kept him from attempting social reforms that would, by their nature, take a very long time to accomplish and certainly would extend beyond the years he had left in life. Others dismiss this idea as foolishness. I myself think it is a possibility and so should be considered.
Paul never clearly teaches that Christ would definitely return in his lifetime and I am not suggesting that we can definitively know that he did. That is a discussion that goes beyond the focus of this sermon. But many in the first century did, and perhaps Paul did as well. I am not saying either that Paul must have held to such a belief or else his return of Onesimus creates a huge problem. There are various reasons why he might have done so that would not pertain to the imminent return to Christ. Nonetheless, there are perhaps reasons to think that Paul did hold to such a view.
The nature of 1st century slavery and freedom
We must appreciate the historical dynamics at place and understand that it was not quite as simply as buying Onesimus and setting him free or of simply helping Onesimus flee his master. We must remember how pervasive slavery was in the first century and what Onesimus’ life would have looked like had Paul helped to free him at that time. S.M Baugh offers some helpful background information.
The answer involves knowing first that manumission of a slave often did not change his situation much. He simply became a freedman, though he might still remain in the same situation within his former master’s household – only his legal status having changed. The Greco-Roman world was very much family-oriented, and for a slave to be manumitted and sent out of the household would actually be potentially greatly disadvantageous. Without a family, he would have no immediate social, legal, or occupational connections.
Paul may have felt that it was in Onesimus’ best interest to return to Philemon. What is more, Paul clearly knew that if Philemon, as a believer in Christ, extended the love of Christ to Onesimus, then Onesimus’ situation would be much better than it could be otherwise!
The importance of helping slave owning Christians come to understand how the gospel undermines such an institution
It should also be observed that there are indeed the seeds of abolition in the book of Philemon. Taken as a whole, the principles that Paul communicated to Philemon concerning how he should respond to Onesimus on the basis of the gospel would, if allowed to flower, eventually undermine the institution itself. It is one thing to command a person to do the right thing. It is another to help him or her understand the reasons why they should do the right thing and to embrace those reasons in the doing of it.
The fact is the gospel is inherently corrosive to the institution of slavery. S.M Baugh put it like this:
Nevertheless, F.F. Bruce was correct to say that the letter to Philemon “brings us into an atmosphere in which the institution [of slavery] could only wilt and die.” And in the letter of Philemon, Paul applied what he preached: in Christ there is nether slave nor free (Gal. 3:28).
I quickly hasten to add that, while Baugh and Bruce are correct, and while the letter of Philemon, rightly understood, undermines the very foundations of slavery, it is still the case that it took Christians way too long to apply the gospel to these institutions. What is more, there are numerous examples in Christian history of people arguing (tragically and wrongly) for slavery while using the Bible as their basis.
So the corrosive effects of the gospel on slavery were not as self-evident as they should have been, but it must also be said that the implications of the gospel on slavery were seen by many. To begin, and at the risk of being painfully obvious, Paul saw the implications of the gospel on slavery. For instance, Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 is absolutely stunning when compared with how the ancient world viewed slaves.
28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
One might wonder why Paul did not more forcefully push an explicitly abolitionist platform. Some of the reasons why have been mentioned above. But I defy anybody to say that a statement like that of Galatians 3:28 did not represent a radical break from the dominant ethos of the day on the issue. Paul clearly saw and clearly taught that the gospel changed forever the status of people and the way they should be viewed.
Consider the 4th century church father, Gregory of Nyssa.
In the late fourth century a lone Christian voice spoke out against the oppressive institution of slavery in a way that none had before. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394), one of the Cappadocian Fathers, laid out a line of reasoning vilifying the institution as incompatible with Christianity in his fourth homily on Ecclesiastes. It is considered the “first truly ‘anti-slavery’ text of the patristic age.”
Calvin Miller has pointed out that in the fifth century St. Patrick was, for example, always speaking against the slave trade and unkind and cruel leaders (see his Letter to Coroticus).”
In 1792, William Carey, the father of the modern missionary movement, published An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. In it, he wrote:
A noble effort has been made to abolish the inhuman Slave-Trade, and though at present it has not been so successful as might be wished, yet it is to be hoped it will be persevered in, till it is accomplished. (530-531)
Or consider the evangelical abolitionist William Wilberforce who was so instrumental in bringing down the British slave trade.
On and on we could go. And, as I mentioned, on and on detractors can go in pointing to Christians who utterly failed to understand how the gospel undermined slavery. But Paul did understand, even as he navigated a difficult first century context in which slavery was so pervasive. Paul understood that the gospel was a gospel of liberation. While it would take time (and too much time) for this to permeate social structures leading to the end of slavery, the astonishing statement, “there is neither…slave nor free…for you are all one in Christ Jesus” fell on the ancient world like an atom bomb. It signaled the dignity of man because all people were and are created in the image of God and Christ laid down his life for all people!
The Church must be a place in which the love of God grips our hearts to the extent that we see only human beings for whom Christ died, not slaves or freedmen or any such thing. We stand on level ground at the cross and we offer the love that we have received to any and all without discrimination or partiality.
 John Stott, The Radical Disciple (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), p.22-23.
 Michael Card, A Better Freedom. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p.145-147.
 Peter Gorday, ed., Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Gen. Ed., Thomas C. Oden. New Testament IX (InterVarsity Press, 2000), p.313
 Clinton E. Arnold, Gen. Ed., Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.517.
 Clinton E. Arnold, Gen. Ed., p.517.
 Calvin Miller, The Path of Celtic Prayer: An Ancient Way to Everyday Joy (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2007), p.138.
 William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens. Kindle Edition.