Friday, December 13, 2013
Scratching the Surface of Philemon
Scratching the Surface of Philemon
Christian behavior is supposed to be different from worldly ways; or as Paul wrote in Colossians, "Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth."
Christians are counter-culture when culture is antithetical to Kingdom.
Christians pray and labor for society as well as Church to be "on earth as it is in heaven."
If Christians fit in too well to their culture at the expense of their citizenship in the Kingdom, it's time for Christians to recognize, as James emphasizes, creeds and deeds are inseparable; deeds confirming creeds.
We can say we believe in Jesus as our Lord and Savior; yet it is our behavior that gives credibility to our belief.
While we cannot work our way into heaven (works righteousness), righteous works (aka obedience) indicate we're going to heaven.
That's what Paul's letter to Philemon is all about.
Though it is the apostle's shortest letter, it is also his most personal and most precisely passionate when it comes to distinguishing Christian behavior from worldly ways.
It's about two Christians named Philemon and Onesimus who were probably evangelized by Paul (i.e., introduced to Jesus) and most definitely discipled by him (i.e., educated about what it means to follow Jesus).
Philemon was a wealthy member of the Colossian church.
Onesimus was his slave.
Quickly, it's important to provide the historical context of slavery in the 1st century.
While occasionally practiced in Israel, slavery was never widespread and regulated carefully by the Torah.
Conversely, the Roman Empire was built on the backs of slaves. Whenever the Romans conquered somebody, their supply of slaves was replenished; and I remember reading somewhere that there were more slaves than citizens in the Roman Empire.
While the Torah demanded humane treatment of slaves, Roman law was harsh. Slaves were considered property not people. Slave owners could mistreat slaves and even kill them. Roman law allowed slave owners to execute runaway slaves.
Contextually, because Onesimus the slave apparently had run away from Philemon his owner, Philemon had the legal right to execute Onesimus.
Paul wrote to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus because all three of 'em believed in Jesus as Lord and Savior and this letter would emphasize that believing in Jesus requires behavior proving belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
And don't miss this very, very, very big point!
Christians don't care about cultural legalities when they conflict with the Word of God: "We must obey God not man!"
That's why, as we read this letter, we can see how it/Christianity contributed to the historical Christian crusade against slavery because, again, Christian behavior must be different from worldly ways when they contradict Christianity as enfleshed by Jesus and explained in Holy Scripture.
Paul writes he is sending the slave back to the owner to be accepted as a brother through Jesus rather than for severe punishment as allowed to provide a contrast of Christian behavior from worldly ways.
The letter begins with the apostle's typical way of softening 'em up by commendation so he can slip in the knife of truth/commandment and twist/demand it: "I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and faith...I have great joy and encouragement from your love..."
"For this reason," he elaborates, "although I have great boldness in Jesus to command you to do what is right, I am appealing to you."
If he were going to confirm his Christianity, Philemon was told he must act like a Christian.
Paul's expectations were absolute: "I am sending him back to you...so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave - as a dearly loved brother...So if you accept me as a partner, accept him as you would me...I am confident of your obedience...knowing you will do even more than I say."
As a Christian to a Christian about a Christian, Paul expected Philemon to practice what he preached by forgiving Onesimus and treating him like a brother not a possession.
While laying the groundwork for the Christian crusade against slavery, it is a radiant illustration of how Christianity contradicts culture when culture contradicts Christianity.
Identity in, through, and for Jesus governs the creeds and deeds of people who claim identity in, through, and for Jesus.
Christians are Christians first, foremost, and always no matter who, where, what, when, or why.
Or as Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters."
Slaves to Jesus are slaves to no one else.
...to be continued...
Blessings and Love!