As I have written about slavery as it is mentioned in the Bible in the past, I have been struck by how slaves have been called to be obedient to their masters, just as if they were being obedient to Christ, so that they might win their masters to Christ.
I’ve routinely said that this doesn’t mean that the Bible supports slavery. Not in the least. Instead, it means that there is a perspective that is much higher, of much greater importance, than that of our earthly understanding. So, for example, when Paul told Titus to teach slaves to obey their masters and not steal from them, the reason is that their message would become attractive. That is, that the master might also know Christ.
I have always been amazed by this idea that the slave should work hard for the master and be obedient to him because, even though slavery is not right and contradicts the very idea that we are made in the image of God and that we should all stand before God equally, following Paul’s teaching, the slave is deliberately sacrificing themselves so that there might be a chance that the master and his family might also be saved. If they take on this view, they take on a perspective that looks well beyond this world into eternity, sacrificing themselves and their freedom for an eternity with Christ and a vote of thanks from God Himself.
But in the book of Philemon, we see the counterbalancing perspective. Onesimus has fled from Philemon and his household and is now with Paul. Paul says that he would like to declare Onesimus a free man, but he wouldn’t do it without Philemon’s agreement and blessing.
So Paul appeals, instead, to Philemon that he would receive Onesimus back into his household. There has been some reason that Onesimus left, which we can’t understand from this letter, but now Onesimus is coming back so that they would be reconciled together.
But now Paul calls upon Philemon to do what is right and receive Onesimus in love, to receive him as a brother. Paul appeals to Philemon in love. He appeals to him as his brother to receive Onesimus not as a master receives a slave, but as a brother receives a brother.
Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.Philemon v. 15-16
Paul and Onesimus are taking a significant risk here. There aren’t any guarantees that Philemon will forgive Onesimus, and in fact we don’t know how the story ended, but they decide together – possibly even with some trepidation – that it is worth the risk.
They know that reconciliation is needed. Regardless of what has happened, there is more that is at stake than just a relationship between master and slave. Brotherhood in Christ is at stake and that should take precedent over all.
They know that this must be worked out between the men involved. Paul is an apostle, but he does not try to lord that over the men and their situation. They must come to an agreement.
But most importantly, Paul calls Philemon to go beyond his legal rights. He would be within his rights to punish Onesimus. His slave has abandoned his post. Legally speaking, he should be punished.
And what is more, Paul calls upon Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother. He calls upon him to not only be forgiving, but to go beyond forgiveness to return back to brotherhood, to love for one another. No longer a slave, but a brother.
Paul is appealing to not only what is right, but much, much more than that. Justice isn’t all that is being discussed here. Neither justice for Philemon nor Onesimus. Instead, more than justice is love, love that goes beyond just what is right, but to brotherhood that extends past our human situation and our human stations to that of our position before God and before one another before God, as brothers in Christ.