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Philemon - The Gospel: Transformed Lives, Transformed Societies

Philemon - The Gospel: Transformed Lives, Transformed Societies

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Published by Ron Lair
Why does the Bible seem to condone slavery? Rather than abolish it, the Gospel sets up a paradigm that ensures slavery's demise: Your slave is now your brother!
Why does the Bible seem to condone slavery? Rather than abolish it, the Gospel sets up a paradigm that ensures slavery's demise: Your slave is now your brother!

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Published by: Ron Lair on Feb 20, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The GospelTransformed Lives... Transformed Societies
Paul's Letter to Philemon
Have you ever studied Philemon before? Read it so that you have a grasp of what the letter is about? Philemonis an oft neglected book of the N.T. Not a lot of doctrine, not too much as far as direct instruction. Paul doesn'tgive any great revelations or deep theological statements. It's small - only 25 verses.Most of Paul's letters were written to local churches, but there are a few that were written to individuals. (I &II)Timothy and Titus were written to instruct and encourage young men who were beginning to become pastors.The only other letter to an single person is Philemon. I would imagine that Paul probably had written quite afew personal letters to key people that he met during the course of his travels preaching the Gospel. If so, wedon't have any record of Paul's letters to individuals other than Philemon. God saw fit for this one to make itinto Scripture for every Christian to benefit. The question is "what's the benefit?" What does God want us totake away from this little letter?When researching for this lesson, I googled Bible and Slavery. Interestingly, a lot of what I came up with wereAtheist sites and Bible critic blogs.evilbible.com:
"Except for murder, slavery has got to be one of the most immoral things a person can do. Yet  slavery is rampant throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. The Bible clearly approves of  slavery in many passages, and it goes so far as to tell how to obtain slaves, how hard you can beat them..." 
Have you ever given the subject any thought? How do you reconcile the Bible's apparent support of slavery in yourmind?
What we know about slavery from the American experience has very little to do with slavery of Bible times.American slavery was based on racism and the notion that one race of people was inferior to another and in fact"sub-human". That idea just wasn't in play in Bible times.The economic system in the ancient world was completely different than today. For instance there was no suchthing as "wage earners" in the sense of having a full time job where you're paid for your time.
The Rich:
owned the land, businesses, and the means of production
Produced or bought items or commodities for resale at a profit. The only real 'middle class' of theday.
Skilled craftsmen:
Trained in a particular trade such as carpentry, masonry, or tent-making.
Day Laborers:
They would be hired a day at a time when extra help is needed (harvest time for example)They were easily taken advantage of. Wages were low and if they didn't work that day, they probably didn't eat.A very precarious position to be in.
Servants (Slaves)
If a person with means needed a full time worker, he didn't hire an employee, he took ona servant. The job may be manual labor, keeping house, tutoring the children, or managing a business. Theslave would receive (at the minimum) the basic essentials- housing, food, and clothes. Some slaves made out
quite well. They lived in nice houses, ate rich foods, and wore fine clothes.Of course, it was the master who determined the welfare of the slave. Some masters treated their servants welland others were harsh task masters who were only interested in giving enough to protect their investment. Thereweren't many civil laws to protect a servant. That is why the Bible has so much to say about how a slave should be treated. In many ways it was a cruel time when the rich had all the advantage and the common person (bethey slave or free) had little protection or recourse. Within that backdrop, God had plenty to say about fair treatment of slaves.That's the context that we come to when studying Philemon. It's a story of a runaway slave named Onesimus,who apparently had stolen from his master, Philemon and then hightailed it out of town. Somehow, Onesimusfinds himself hundreds of miles away from his hometown of Colossi in the city of Rome. While in Rome, hemeets up with Paul who is being held under house arrest by the Roman government. Paul shares the gospel withOnesimus and Onesimus believes and becomes a Christ follower. There must have been some long, intenseconversations between the two. Paul convinces Onesimus that he needs to return to Colossi and make thingsright with Philemon.
Why do you think Onesimus went to Rome and how did he hook up with Paul?
So Onesimus travels back to face the music, not knowing how Philemon will react. Under Roman law, his actwas punishable by death. Philemon had every legal right to turn him in to the authorities if not kill Onesimus byhis own hands. Onesimus had to be more than a little nervous about returning to Colossi!Onesimus didn't return empty handed, though. He carried a letter from Paul to Philemon. Paul very tactfully pleaded with Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ.
Philemon - A Fellow Worker in the Gospel (1-7)
I'd call this section "Paul's Butter Job" He has a huge request of Philemon and what better way to start than by'buttering him up' just a little? That's not to say that Paul is insincere or is stretching the truth, but he does agood job of reminding Philemon of his faithfulness to this point. Paul wants to express to his friend ,Philemonthe personal nature of this letter.While we don't know a lot about Philemon. We can glean a few things from these verses. We know that he waswell to do since he owned at least one slave. He certainly had the means to be a great resource to the Colossianchurch. It was fairly unusual to have a rich man in your congregation. I'm sure he did a lot to support theministry. Philemon was truly a great resource in the Colossian church But it wasn't his checkbook that Paul praised. He considered Philemon to be a partner in the work of spreading the Gospel.
From this passage, how would you describe Philemon?
Was he active in the church? What about his personallife? Would you expect him to have a good spiritual life?He said he continually thanked God for the continual good reports he hears about Philemon. He said that wordgets out. Even under guard in Rome, he hears of good things from Philemon.
Faith in the Lord.
Philemon must have been a man of great faith. Enough faith to prompt Paul to thank God... not just here and there, but Paul infers that Philemon was a regular part of his prayer time. How coolwould it be to have the Apostle Paul regularly praying for you and thanking God for you!
Love for all the saints.
This was a man who walked the walk. He was known for his relationships with his brothers and sisters. Paul was impressed by the love Philemon had shown. And you know Paul's view of love.It's not hearts and flowers and having good feeling. We know that to Paul, love means action. Philemon musthave been doing something extraordinary to receive such praise. As we will see, Paul is about to make a requestthat will put that love to a test.Paul prays that Philemon will be active in sharing his faith. According to several commentators, this doesn'tnecessarily refer to evangelism as it may seem. the word for sharing here is koinonia, speaking of community.In this case, Paul has in mind
"the mutuality of Christian life which springs from a common participation in thebody of Christ" (IVP Commentary)
So the focus here is relationships. Paul is paving the way to bring upPhilemon's relationship with Onesimus. Notice that the end result of being active in relationships within the body of Christ is
"a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ." 
How does that happen?
 Again, in verse 7, Philemon's love crops up again. It must be some love! It's enough to give Paul joy andencouragement, because he "
refreshed the hearts of the saints." 
The word for 'heart', here isn't the usual wordthat means "inner being" but it's the Greek word 'splanchna' It literally means bowels or as we might say 'guts'In Greek thought, it's not the heart that embodies the emotional self, but the bowels. It's what we mean when wehave a 'gut feeling' That's where the visceral feelings of love and compassion are felt. That's the image that Paulwants to play on: Philemon's capacity for compassion toward the brethren.
Paul's Plea for Onesimus (8-21)
Paul is ready to approach the heart of the matter. It's time to finally bring up the touchy subject of Onesimus.Can you imagine Philemon's reaction to seeing that 'no good, thieving, conniving, runaway slave' darken hisdoor? I'm guessing that whatever his thoughts were, they weren't good. So now Onesimus walks in announcingthat he brings a letter from the Apostle Paul, whom he spent time with in Rome and where Onesimus was brought to the Lord. Wow! Now what's Philemon thinking?
An Appeal, Not an Order (8-9)
Paul makes the statement that he
command Philemon what to do, based on his own apostolic authority.He's not shy about 'throwing his weight around.' On other occasions, he has boldly written such as "I commandyou in the Lord..." But, in this instance, he was not only prodding Philemon to do the right thing, but to feel andthink the right way. He's not just concerned about Philemon's actions, but also his heart.So, he says he's not ordering Philemon to do anything, instead he appeals to Philemon "
on the basis of love
."What does he mean by that?
1. Paul's love for Onesimus.
He's come to know and love Onesimus and certainly couldn't bear to see him putto death.
2. Paul's love for Philemon.
Paul wants to see Philemon grow and mature and sees his treatment of Onesimusas crucial to his growth. I think that he's also trying to save Philemon from great pain down the road. If he wereto have Onesimus punished, he would possibly be filled with guilt and remorse, eventually, having realized thathe had harmed a brother.
3. Philemon's love for God's family.
Paul has already mentioned Philemon's love and compassion for thesaints. As Philemon is about to discover, that includes his new brother, Onesimus.

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