Saturday, September 12, 2020

The True Revolution: Gospel Meets Slavery

"I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you" (Philemon 12)

Onesimus was a slave in the household of Philemon. He ran away, for reasons we are not told, and came to Rome. There he encountered Paul and became a Christian. Onesimus means “useful,” and true to his name, he became very useful to Paul.

It shocks our modern thinking to see Paul send Onesimus back to Philemon. Paul did not say that Philemon should free Onesimus; Paul certainly did not free Onesimus. Why would he do this?

Paul knew that the Gospel is the most revolutionary force ever unleashed in this world. The Gospel was turning the world upside-down in Paul’s day, and Paul had preached that in Christ there is neither bond nor free. Paul was not interested in a merely superficial social revolution. If all the Gospel did was free slaves from outward bondage, it would not change history. When slaves become free, they simply become new masters, and soon other people are enslaved. Proverbs 30:21–22 says, “Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up: A slave who becomes king.…”

For there to be a true social revolution, the hearts of both slaves and masters must be turned. Paul made this point by writing to Philemon that Onesimus had become Paul’s very heart, so that the way Philemon would treat Onesimus is the way he would treat Paul (v. 12). He encouraged Philemon to receive Onesimus back as someone better than a slave: a brother (v. 16). He asked him to regard Onesimus as a partner in the same sense as Paul (v. 17). All of this hints at Onesimus’ eventually becoming free, but Paul was careful not to require Philemon to free him immediately.

As Christianity has gone out into the world, slaves have been freed. Only in Islamic nations is slavery still practiced today. Sometimes violence has been used to free slaves, but the Christian Gospel strikes at a far deeper level than mere superficial social change. Slaves who are merely freed outwardly will soon find it necessary to find another master to care for them, because they are unaccustomed to personal responsibility. Masters who are forced to give up their slaves will not be motivated to help them become productive members of society. Only the Gospel can change the hearts and lives of men and make for a new world.