More Than Bond Servants
Philemon was written by Paul, but I think one of the reasons that we don't look at it very often is because it's not addressed to a church nor to an individual that we know much about outside of the context of this letter. It's written to its namesake, Philemon, who's a fellow worker in Christ who at one time owned a slave named Onesimus. But Philemon doesn't really meet the mental picture that I have in my mind of a slave owner. Paul commends him on his love and his faith toward not only Jesus but to all the saints. He is called joyous and comforting. He's a brother who refreshes those that he interacts with. Really looking at this book, Philemon seems to be a Christian in every sense of the word. Starting in verse 8 of Philemon:
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. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.
I don't know about you, but this section, this pattern that Paul has laid out here, feels familiar. It's interesting to me that we have this personal letter that Paul wrote. But it doesn't necessarily give a lot of instruction to a church or build upon much New Testament doctrine. It's not really even necessarily practical in an immediate or explicit way to us today in a society without sanctioned slavery. But what it does here is parallel very nicely the gospel message.
Paul begins by telling Philemon that he could easily command him to do what is required, but rather he appeals through love. This is the foundational principle of our free will. God could so easily force us to do what is right. That's what we have required of us after all for eternal life. But he doesn't force us to do that. Instead, He appeals to us through love.
Paul then goes on to say what he is appealing for. He's appealing for Onesimus this former slave. Reflect, if you will, on several parallels of the characters involved in our own salvation. Paul reflects Christ interceding between the master (Philemon in his case; God in ours) and the fallen from grace slave (Onesimus in his case; us in our case). The language that Paul uses is very symbolic and sacrificial matching much of what Christ went through so that we might be spared as well.
12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart…. 17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
Philemon 12, 17-18
This is the level that Christ went to for us. He gave up His very heart, His life blood to save us. He traded places with us, accepting the condemnation for our sins so that our account might be wiped clean.
15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
We know that we are called to be bond servants of Christ. But in John 8, Jesus tells us that we are bond servants of sin in order to be freed from our slavery to sin (John 8.34-36). As we read in First Corinthians 7, we must become bond servants of Christ (1 Corinthians 7.22-23). And that's the beautiful thing about this horrible sacrifice that we reflect on each and every week. That's the beautiful thing about our relationship that we can have because of that with Him. It's that we are, as Paul says to Philemon, more than bond servants. We are beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, true servants of our heavenly Father. This is how we live our lives as Christians. We are servants of God; brothers of Christ; both in the flesh and in the Lord. And we partake of the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week to reflect upon what made that possible.
Christ chose out of love to appeal on our behalf to the Father. He took up the cross. He gave up His life. He suffered all the brutality of that Passover weekend.
So that we might be returned to God.