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“With Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They shall make known unto you all things which are done here” (Colossians 4:9) AV.
Paul, the tireless and relentless gospel worker, now chained and imprisoned in a Roman dungeon, scratches out a letter with his aging hand and, as the parchment drinks in the ink of his pen, every carefully crafted stroke drives a nail into slavery’s coffin, each purposely hammered out phrase beats a path to freedom.
The letter to Philemon is one of the New Testament’s shortest epistles, yet, despite its brevity, it remains one of its most effective and profound testimonies.
In our broken world, there are many protesters and demonstrators, men and women, believers and non-believers, who feel they must react against the injustices and evils of society and, by their actions, attempt to effect social change. Often, unwittingly, they become engulfed in the emotional maelstrom, which is part of the human condition and, from which, ultimately, all injustices and evil thoughts and actions spring.
But this veteran preacher and devoted correspondent, though bound and constrained to the narrow confines of a Roman gaol, is no prisoner of the Roman Emperor or of the Roman state. He is, as he writes, “Paul, a prisoner of Jesus Christ” (Philemon 1:1). It is from this standpoint that he is able to effect real ‘social change’, not be means of angry protest or pious resistance, but by means of a deeply personal, sensitive and loving appeal that carries no thoughts or words of condemnation but rests its case on love alone.
When the once recalcitrant slave, Onesimus, cast aside his master’s yoke, to break forever the bonds of slavery, he quickly found, that the human heart is itself nothing but a cage, and the carnal mind of man, a prison. This much he saw, and more, through the preaching of one, Paul of Tarsus, from whose battered, shackled frame this liberating word reached forth to hold him firmly in loves grasp, as it held his former master also in the same embrace.
At once, with endless joy and unspeakable gladness, he stoops to serve, both night and day, his Lord’s imprisoned slave, whom he loves as a father and to whom he becomes a beloved son, most precious.
The absence of condemnation of the practice of slavery, in this short epistle, scandalises many in our modern society, where acceptance of such a practice seems intolerable. However, in the Roman world of Paul’s day, the gospel brought about no revolution in the conventional sense. As Paul writes, a slave is still a slave, a master is still a master. Yet, the pen of Paul inks out, in so few but such gracious lines, the principle of love which undermines the whole concept of slavery and, eventually, as the Christian gospel grows in influence, brings it to an end in an empire that once enslaved whole peoples and nations.
Philemon may be a master and Onesimus may be a slave, but the overriding relationship, forged by the gospel of grace that unites them both in love, is one of brotherhood. Onesimus, Paul reminds the church that meets at the home of Philemon, “is one of you.” (Col 4:9).
Cambridge, England - firstname.lastname@example.org
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