If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me
Many of our grandmothers and grandfathers avoided the book of Philemon because of the idea of sending a slave back to his master seems foolish and un-Christian. We should read and interpret scripture in the eyes of spirit and early church history. If we interpret by more modern standards alone, we run the risk of missing the truth.
SURRENDER FOR THE GREATER
There is a picture on the buliten board of a slave with horrible scars on his back. They were the result of a beating or beatings he received from a master or overseer. There is also at least one image of Harriet Tubman. Known to some as General Moses, she made more than 100 trips to the south to help slaves escape. There was no question of what would happen to her and the people she aided had they been caught. The scars on the man’s back are evidence of how cruel slavery in America was.
Slavery in the Greco-Roman world was neither based on race nor was it the basis of a plantation based agricultural economy. Any black Roman citizen could buy a captured German or Britton for his services. Any person in debt could sell himself out for an agreed amount of years to a master. But, the standard of the antebellum south was no different than that of the Roman Empire. The slave was property. If the property was defiant or disobedient, the master had every right to punish the slave as he saw fit. This included beatings, imprisonment, and in some cases even death.
Knowing the cruelty of the master/slave relationship, it seems odd in our eyes today that a Christian would send a slave back to his owner. It seems foolish that the slave would actually return and risk punishment. And since the owner had legal rights over his property that a Christian would ask the owner to accept the returning runaway slave as his brother. These 25 verses that make the “book” of Philemon seem unworthy of being included in the Bible when compared to the glory of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, wise instructions of the Epistles of Paul and the other writers, and the history and promise of Acts and Revelation respectively. Philemon seems to be a more private matter between Paul, who at the time was under house arrest, Onesimus, a man who only wanted his God-given human rights, and Philemon, who legally should have his slave sent back to him. What is the lesson of this letter of the scriptures? I submit to you this morning that there are moments where we must surrender our rights for the greater righteousness.
The slave, Onesimus, is being sent to surrender his freedom and return to servitude. As a runaway, this return can be underscored with a stick or whip if the master, Philemon, chooses. His time as a slave can be extended as he violated any previous contract with his master by running away. What sort of slave would risk a lifetime of bondage and a beating to boot? Onesimus served the Apostle Paul while in Rome. According to early church tradition, he was also one of the 70 apostles sent to preach by Jesus in Luke 10:1-16. Surely he heard Paul teach the lessons of Jesus Christ that the greatest among you must be a slave and a servant to all. Surely he must have heard a reference to Isaiah that “He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed.” Surely, he must have understood that Jesus was obedient to suffer and die on the cross for the greater glory of salvation. Thus, Onesimus understood how Paul was right to direct him to lay aside his human rights and go back and risk bondage and brutality for the greater glory of Jesus Christ. It could not have been an easy decision. But, the slave knew that his master was being asked to give up something as well.
For a slave master to lose his property was a source of embarrassment that must and legally can be avenged. Philemon could do whatever he wanted with Onesimus as just punishment. But, Philemon was a Christian and also one of the 70. Reading the letter his runaway property handed him, Paul appeals to this master’s sense of compassion and faith. The apostle does not make a direct order to him, as he could have. But, he asks him voluntarily to do something so unheard of that Philemon’s status in Roman citizenry could be greatly scandalized. “If then you count me as a partner, receive him and you would me.” Philemon, no doubt, counted Paul as more than a partner in the faith. He saw him as the senior partner for his vision of Christ on Damascus Road, his meeting with the original disciples, the great missionary journeys where he established churches, various miracles, and willingness to suffer for the Gospel of the Lord. He is being asked to consider his lowly, disobedient slave to be equal to this great apostle of salvation. And he is given a promise that Paul himself would repay him for anything Onesimus owes him knowing that the Apostle is under house arrest and may not get out. Philemon is being asked to surrender his rights and status in society for the greater glory of Jesus Christ no doubt with the words of the Savior in his mind, “Whatever you have done for the least of these, you have also done for me.”
And here is the reason why this 25 verse letter is in our collection of holy books. We must understand that sometimes we need to surrender what is rightfully ours for the greater glory. Not all of our ancestors ran away with Harriet Tubman nor rebelled with Nat Turner. But, they served with the hope that one day their owners might understand Philemon and take the risk he did. Not all white southerners were too afraid to risk their status as part of the privileged race. Somebody had to tip off the runaways as the where the slave patrollers were. Someone had to write editorials in the newspapers that it made more sense to open parks and schools to everybody rather than keep them closed.
Even in today’s world there is a need to set aside rights for righteousness. Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela were victorious over the evils of South African Apartied. But, rather than seek punishment for the white Afrikaaners who had caused great suffering for the native Africans, they established the truth and reconciliation committees. If the worst of Afrikaaner oppressors who did the worst of crimes was willing to face the committee and the victims, tell all and exactly what they did, and humbly apologize, they would be forgiven. By doing this, there was no great bloodbath of revenge nor extermination of whites as was feared. Instead, South Africa is one of the better off third world countries and hosted one of the world’s greatest sports competitions, the World Cup in 2010. When we hold too closely to our rights, we risk developing a spirit of revenge. This spirit destroys the one with the right because he cannot see the greater righteousness of forgiveness and reconciliation. And if we can’t forgive and reconcile with each other, we breed mistrust and hatred which is the ruin of nations, communities, and families. But, when in faith and wisdom, we surrender our rights for the righteousness of God, we receive blessings of forgiveness, reconciliation, and are worthy to be used by the Lord to work for his glory.
That is what happened to Philemon and Onesimus. The Bible doesn’t say it. But, in early church history, Ignatius the third bishop of Antioch after Peter and Paul wrote a letter praising the Bishop of Ephesus. His name was Onesimus. Philemon became the Bishop of Gaza and was killed for the faith. If Onesimus not returned to Philemon, he would have missed his opportunity to rise above his status. If Philemon had punished and maintained ownership of his slave, he would have been a hypocrite in the sight of Christ not died as a hero in the early church. Maybe that is why some of us are not receiving blessings that God has for us. We are so determined to hold on to an earthly right that we are unable to receive heavenly righteousness. Maybe that is why some of us struggle to understand what God’s will is for our lives. We want to keep what is ours rather than give everything to the Lord.
I am not saying we should foolishly give away any and everything to everybody. This is why everyone needs to have a strong and growing prayer life. There is a time and a season for everything and sometimes we need to hold on to what we have. But, when it is time to let go and we refuse to do it, we are doing ourselves unnecessary harm. So, in all things, pray and keep praying. And as the Lord reveals His will, surrender for the greater glory. According to His directions, if we give up what is rightfully ours for the righteousness of Christ, there is a promise of blessings both here and here-after. We can build bridges of brotherhood, towers of trust, and plant great fields of fellowship that will be a witness of God’s mercy for generations to come.