etching of Paul in prison studying with the slave Onesimus

What Philemon Taught Me About Citizenship

Paul was a Roman citizen. In fact, based on the account in Acts 22:23–29, Paul benefited from the status of cives Romani — citizens who had full legal protection under Roman law. What’s more, Paul inherited his citizenship through birth, a distinction that gave him a certain prestige among those who might have purchased citizenship.

As they were yelling and flinging aside their robes and throwing dust into the air, the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, directing that he be examined with the scourge, so he could discover the reason they were shouting against him like this. As they stretched him out for the lash, Paul said to the centurion standing by, “Is it legal for you to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen and is uncondemned?”

When the centurion heard this, he went and reported to the commander, saying, “What are you going to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.”

The commander came and said to him, “Tell me — are you a Roman citizen?”

“Yes,” he said.

The commander replied, “I bought this citizenship for a large amount of money.”

“But I was born a citizen,” Paul said.

Therefore, those who were about to examine him withdrew from him at once. The commander too was alarmed when he realized Paul was a Roman citizen and he had bound him.

It’s important to understand that being within the boundaries of the Roman Empire did not automatically make you a Roman citizen. For example, most people living in First Century Judea would fall under the legal status of Provinciales – peoples who fell under Roman control but had few rights compared to higher classes. In the book of Philemon, Onesimus didn’t even enjoy that limited legal status, for Onesimus was a slave.

Not Citizens, Not Even People

Slaves lacked legal personhood in the Roman Empire. The question of citizenship was a moot point because they were property, not people. In the First Century, there were few protections for slaves. Masters could use corporal punishment, sexually exploit, torture, and even kill their slaves with little fear of reprisal. After all, they weren’t abusing a person. In their minds, they were doing nothing more than mistreating property, worthy of no more consideration than a piece of furniture. (See Marcel Mauss. 1979. “A Category of the human mind: the notion of the person, the notion of ‘self’”.)

Professor Keith Bradely puts it this way in Resisting Slavery in Ancient Rome:

In Rome and Italy, in the four centuries between 200 BC and 200 AD, perhaps a quarter or even a third of the population was made up of slaves. Over time millions of men, women, and children lived their lives in a state of legal and social non-existence with no rights of any kind. They were non-persons – notice that in Plutarch’s story the slave does not even have a name – and they couldn’t own anything, marry, or have legitimate families.

Their role was to provide labour, or to add to their owners’ social standing as visible symbols of wealth, or both. Some slaves were treated well, but there were few restraints on their owners’ powers, and physical punishment and sexual abuse were common. Owners thought of their slaves as enemies. By definition slavery was a brutal, violent and dehumanising institution, where slaves were seen as akin to animals.

The public distrusted slaves, who were the first to be blamed for any public disturbance or crime. The capture of escaped slaves was a national obsession. An escaped slave was known as a fugitivus — a term loaded with the same derision we might reserve for illegal alien. Harboring an escaped slave was illegal, and captured slaves would often be whipped, tortured, or killed. Any slave returned living to their master would be branded on the forehead with the letter FUG, for fugitivus.

This is the climate under which Onesimus meets Paul sometime prior to the book of Philemon. Onesimus has no legal right to be in Paul’s presence. He has no right to expect any special treatment. He should entirely expect Paul to tun him into the authorities as a fugitive slave with no rights. At worst, this journey could be a death sentence for Onesimus, but something about Paul draws the slave to him.

A Message Greater Than Citizenship

There is no evidence at all that Paul holds Onesimus’s lack of legal citizenship against him in the book of Philemon. This should come as no surprise from the man who wrote 1 Corinthians 9:19–23.

Although I am a free man and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law — though I myself am not under the law — to win those under the law. To those who are without that law, like one without the law — not being without God’s law but within Christ’s law — to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so I may become a partner in its benefits.

Or who wrote Romans 1:13–17.

Now I want you to know, brothers, that I often planned to come to you (but was prevented until now) in order that I might have a fruitful ministry among you, just as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am obligated both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish. So I am eager to preach the good news to you also who are in Rome.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.

Or Galatians 3:27–28.

For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.

Paul knew the gospel is not constrained by social class, by geopolitical boundaries, by national allegiances, or any other worldly division we might create. Christ’s gospel is for all, and if we put artificial boundaries between lost souls and the truth of Christ, even those of citizenship, then we are like the Pharisees of Matthew 23, who “lock up the kingdom of heaven from people.”

Onesimus would have known of Paul by reputation at the very least. He would have known of this prophet who spoke of a faith that eliminates all social status. Before meeting him, Onesimus saw Paul as a safe space, a place where he could learn of the man called Christ without fear and from a person who would treat him as a person, not as property,

An Aside on Applying Authority

We often speak of Biblical authority in terms of direct commands, implications, and apostolic example. I also respect the notion of the silence of the scriptures — the idea that if you cannot find authorization for something, then the silence on that topic is prohibitive; it’s not something God wants from us. The book of Philemon hits all of these in terms of how a disciple of Christ should treat a non-citizen in regards to the gospel.

1. Direct Command

Onesimus has not yet reconciled his legal status when Paul writes this in Philemon 1:15–17:

For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave — as a dearly loved brother. He is especially so to me, but even more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me.

If there’s any question how Paul views this statement, see verse 21, where Paul writes, “Since I am confident of your obedience…” These are not the words of one who views this as a request. It is a command. Onesimus is a brother in Christ above all, legal status notwithstanding.

2. Example and Implication

Paul writes, in Philemon 1:9–13:

I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I fathered him while I was in chains. Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. I am sending him back to you as a part of myself. I wanted to keep him with me, so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place.

  • Paul taught Onesimus the gospel and baptized him into Christ.
  • Onesimus was still a fugitive slave when Paul converted him.
  • Therefore, Paul’s actions demonstrate that citizenship in Christ’s kingdom is of greater urgency than earthly citizenship.

Paul sets an example for us that demonstrates how we should conduct ourselves in similar circumstances. If, for example, I have opportunity to teach an undocumented immigrant — an illegal — then my responsibility is to their soul first. Any earthly citizenship is purely a secondary consideration. It will be important to reconcile that problem eventually, but it’s not the first concern.

3. Silence of the Scripture

There’s no record that Paul alerted the authorities about Onesimus. There’s no record he berated or tried to turn away Onesimus as an illegally free slave. There is evidence to the contrary that Paul insisted Onesimus fix his legal status before learning about Christ. The lack of these details means they were not part of Paul’s encounter with Onesimus, nor should they be part of the way we conduct ourselves in similar circumstances.

The Promise of a Better Kingdom

Worldly nations are inherently broken. Rules for citizenship are often discriminatory and overwhelming. And what do they get us? At best, we have a few worldly rights and privileges afforded in a transient geopolitical entity surrounded by imaginary boundaries that have no meaning beyond a tentative agreement with other such entities. Jesus Christ offers us something better.

Philippians 3:20–21

…But our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject everything to Himself.

1 Peter 2:9–10

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

The book of Philemon teaches me that heavenly citizenship is better than and more important than earthy citizenship. Being a Christian is more important than being an American (or insert your own country here). In my life, I should put Christ first, not America first. I should seek to share the greatness of Christ, not make my nation great. The only question of citizenship I should ask of anyone is whether or not they are part of Christ’s kingdom.

Paul did not idolize his citizenship, and neither should we. My call is not to make proselytes to American civic religion but to bring lost souls to Christ. My call is not to teach Western culture but to teach the grace and forgiveness of Christ. It is not to make you like me, but for me to prefer you and help you on your spiritual journey. Through Him, we add to the citizens of His kingdom, which knows no class, no race, and no boundaries.

Link: It’s Submission, Not Subjection

Challies: It’s Submission, Not Subjection

We may also rebel against submission because we fail to carefully distinguish it from another term: subjection. Submission is not the same as subjection. What’s the difference between the two? Subjection describes actions taken by the one with authority where submission describes actions taken by the one under authority. When it comes to marriage, church, and our shared life with other believers, we are instructed to submit, not to subject.

Subjection is the act of a ruler to force obedience. He uses fear or force or intimidation to break the will of the people so they eventually surrender to him. They give up and wave the white flag. They’ve been conquered. They are now in subjection to this leader.

Submission is the act of someone who acknowledges legitimate authority and willingly arranges himself or herself accordingly. Submission is voluntary, never forced. It is responding to the divine order of things first in the heart and then in the life.

The church is not in subjection to Jesus Christ; we haven’t been ruthlessly conquered by him. No, the church has been won by Jesus Christ, so we willingly submit to his rule, guidance, and instruction. We acknowledge his right to govern, we acknowledge his overwhelming love, we respond to his Spirit, and we arrange ourselves accordingly.

This is a thoughtful article on a touchy subject. I recommend you follow the link to read the rest.

white lifted cross against a black background

In Christ Alone

The 11 disciples traveled to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. When they saw Him, they worshiped, but some doubted. Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:16 – 20

This should be the basis of every Christian’s faith, conduct, and attitudes — that Jesus Christ has all authority in our lives. This is our foundation and our goal. We should build on Christ alone, and we should be striving to live like Christ alone. Everything we say, do, study, or meditate on should go through the filter of Christ; is it drawing me closer to Him, or is it pushing Him aside?

When we put Christ foremost in our faith, all other labels fall away. Too often we become like the Christians of 1 Corinthians 1, allowing worldly loyalties and causes to come between us and Christ, us and one another. This should never be. We are not the Christian Right; we are not the Christian Left. We are not defined by political allegiances, ecumenical creeds, secular identities, or celebrity preachers. We are Christ’s alone, and we cannot supplant Him with any other influences or alliances.

Christ Through His Apostles

So what does this mean for the words of the apostles? Do we reject the writings of Peter, Paul, and His other disciples because they are not the actual words of Christ? John 16:5–15 records Jesus promising His apostles the Spirit of truth who would guide them in truth, declare what is to come, and glorify Christ. I believe this is what Paul is talking about in Galatians 1:11–12 when he says:

Now I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel preached by me is not based on human thought. For I did not receive it from a human source and I was not taught it, but it came by a revelation from Jesus Christ.

That revelation comes through the Spirit that Christ promised His apostles. Paul and the other apostolic authors wrote by the authority of Christ; they give us all truth as promised through that Spirit. Believing the words of the apostles is believing the words of Christ. They are inseparable. Accepting the words of the apostles is accepting Christ; rejecting them rejects Christ.

Christ Through Other Christians

What about others like Max Lucado, Franklin Graham, or even Martin Luther? John has this to say about how we should view the words of others, and I include myself in this:

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to determine if they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. But every spirit who does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist; you have heard that he is coming, and he is already in the world now.

You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them, because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world. Therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Anyone who knows God listens to us; anyone who is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deception.

1 John 4:1–6

When someone else proclaims to speak for Christ, do their words and conduct line up with what we see in Jesus Christ? If they harmonize with Christ and His apostles, then they are worth listening to. If they contradict Christ in any way, then they are not of Him. Paul has a sterner warning in Galatians 1:8–9, going so far as to say that any angel from Heaven that contradicts Christ should be rejected.

And I expect you to hold me to that same standard. My goal here is to write about things that will help Christians get closer to Christ and non-Christians discover Christ. If my foundation is in anything but Christ alone, then my words are empty.

Putting Your Faith In Christ Alone

All of this requires study and self-examination. James 1:22 – 25 compares studying Christ’s law to looking into a mirror. We should be able to see ourselves in the words of Christ and His apostles. We should be able to see where we are growing, where we struggle, what we accept, and what we reject. Putting our faith in Christ alone requires that we look into that mirror with self-honesty and then change accordingly. We should always be changing to be more like Him, to do what He wants of us, to share Him with others. Being in Christ alone means we sacrifice self to submit entirely to Him, and we expel anything from our lives that make us put our hope and faith elsewhere.

My faith is in Christ alone. He is my light, my strength, my song. Won’t you let Him be the same for you?

Photo by Orkhan Farmanli on Unsplash

“In Christ Alone,” song written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend

Some Scriptures for an Election Day

polling station

I struggle with election season in context of my spiritual life. Instead of trying to flesh my thoughts and struggles out into anything coherent, here are some scriptures that have been running through my head.

Philippians 4:8–9

Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable — if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise — dwell on these things. Do what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

So much negativity gets thrown around leading up to elections, even relatively minor ones. Each side tries to vilify the other, and we Christians can get caught up in that. How may Christians still perpetuate lies about President Obama’s birth or religion as a result of past elections? We cannot let such things rule our minds.

I Timothy 5:21–22

I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels to observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing out of favoritism. Don’t be too quick to appoint anyone as an elder, and don’t share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.

When we get involved in politics, we usually choose a party, and then we end up marching in lockstep with everything that party stands for. We let favoritism guide our steps and we may implicitly approve of sin, especially the lies and hatefulness that often go into campaigns, for the sake of defeating different sins.

Romans 13:1–7

Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s public servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor.

Whoever comes out in front in an election, God is still in control. God allows those in power to have the authority they have. When we Christians allow election season to fuel our anger at public officials or cause us to treat them disrespectfully or even to pass on lies about them, we are not behaving as God would have us.

Hebrews 11:13–16

These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. But they now desire a better place — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

This world is not our home. Getting too caught up in politics can make us behave as if this world is all there is. It makes us forget that we are strangers in a land that is not our final home. This is a layover on a greater journey.

I Corinthians 13:1–3

If I speak human or angelic languages but do not have love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I donate all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.

I’m not going to tell you whether or not you should vote. That’s between you and God. But if you are going to participate in an election, be motivated by love. If your vote is based on hatred, anger, or animosity, it’s time to take a hard look at how the world and its influences are affecting your spirituality.

Matthew 5:29–30

If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell!

And it’s better to turn off political news shows, ignore the PACs, and abstain from politics entirely than it is to let those things drag you away from God.

Lessons from the Old Testament

In I Corinthians 10, Paul refers to the Old Testament, the “things written aforetime,” as something from which we can benefit and by which we can grow spiritually.

Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did…They were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

– I Corinthians 10:6-12 (excerpted)

What can we take from these ancient writings to help us on our spiritual lives? What can we learn about our God and ourselves?

The Seriousness of Sin

In Genesis 3, after the creation of nature and humankind, Adam and Even are driven from the Garden of Eden because of sin. Genesis 4 sees Cain punished for his sinful conduct. Genesis 6 tells of a population who care for nothing but evil conduct. We can see that sin was a problem then just as it is today, separating them and us from God just as Isaiah speaks of in Isaiah 59:2. Likewise, Paul makes this same case in Romans 3-6, and we can see the seriousness of that separation through those Old Testament examples.

God’s Authority

In Genesis 8:13-14, Noah opens the ark to see the dry land in the beginning of one month, but he and his family do not leave the ark until the end of the next month when God finally tells them to do so. In II Samuel 7, David expresses a desire to build a better house for the Lord, but God responds by asking when He had ever asked for such a house; David respects God’s authority and relents. As Paul writes in Colossians 3:17, we need to look to God’s authority for all we do, and the writing of the Old Testament help us understand the completeness of that authority.

God’s Expectations

In Genesis 2:16-17, God lays down a single ground rule for living in Eden, simply expecting faithful obedience. In Genesis 4:3-4, God gives regard to Abel’s offering of faithful obedience. Genesis 22:12 records God recognizing the significance of Abraham’s faith, and Acts 10:34-35 shows Peter expressing that God will accept all who will serve Him in faith and reverence. God’s expectation has always been simple faithful obedience, and we can see that expectation endure from generation to generation.

God’s Love

When Adam and Eve sin in Genesis 3, God approaches them and talks to them. He also, in verse 15, sets in motion a plan of reconciliation for all of mankind. Genesis 12, 26, 28 – these record promises of blessings to the nations. Time and again, we see God deal patiently with imperfect and sinful man. We see His love ultimately in the sacrifice of His son, and how can he be so forgiving and loving to those who continually resist Him?

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

-Isaiah  55:6-8

In Luke 13:34, we see Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem, expressing that continual desire to gather His own to Him, even though they reject Him. II Peter 3:9 reminds us that God is patient with us, wishing that all would come to repentance. His love is still the same.


In I Corinthians 10, Paul writes about some specific events and shows how they point to the New Covenant. Our salvation in Christ began with roots in the times of Adam and Eve, and that plan built up through generation after generation. During that time, the problem of sin persisted, as it does today. Also persistent is God’s love, though, and if we respect His authority and render unto Him the faithful obedience He expects and deserves, then we can hope to be with Him one day.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Demonstrating Our Devotion

This past Wednesday is commonly referred to as Ash Wednesday, which begins the observation of Lent – a time of fasting and prayer leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Christians demonstrate solidarity with Christ by sacrificing something of import to them, but, in the modern day, these sacrifices have become trivial – giving up television, chocolate, video games, or other such conveniences. What do we do to be one with our God? Around the world, various faiths have different rites and ceremonies – some painful and dangerous – to show their commitment to their god or gods. What is God looking for in our devotion to Him and the way we demonstrate that devotion?

How Do We Show Devotion?

This is a question humankind has wrestled with since Creation. In Genesis 4, two brothers bring their sacrifices to the Lord. Cain and Abel bring offerings to the Lord, and God respects Abel’s sacrifice. Hebrews 11:4 says that Abel’s sacrifice is the result of faith. He worships in God’s way where Cain does not. Also, Leviticus 10:1, Nadab and Abihu die because of their worship, and, in verse 3, Moses reminds the people what it means to sanctify and glorify the Lord. Finally, I Kings 18 records Elijah challenging the prophets of Baal and Asherah to invoke their gods against his. They go to extreme measures to show their devotion to Baal and Asherah in contrast to Elijah’s quiet prayer.

Micah 6:6-8 records God’s people asking the very question: “What can we do to please God?” They propose more and more extreme measures to invoke God’s presence, but Micah’s response is simple – to walk humbly before Him in love and justice. He calls on us to put Him before us. When God speaks I listen. When God’s word requires change, I change. When God’s words calls for obedience, I obey. As His spoken word has the power to create, His written word should have power to move our lives.

What Does God Require?

Contrast the prophets of Baal and Asherah in I Kings 18, leading up to verse 36. Their callings upon deity could not be more different. The idolatrous prophets seek to please their Gods with methods that seem impressive and holy to them where Elijah comes to God in God’s way. In I Kings 8:46-52, Solomon offers a prayer at the dedication of God’s temple, and He calls on God to hear the people’s prayers, to recognize their repentance, to honor their complete faith. Jesus puts it this way in Matthew 10:38:

“And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

This means we crucify our self – the man of pride and selfish will – to completely humble ourselves in submission to Him. There is nothing I can do to show myself worthy of God’s love and grace. I cannot earn the favor of Christ’s love. Romans 5:6 speaks of our weakness in comparison with the strength of God’s love. I cannot do anything that compares to what God has done for us. All I can do is walk in a manner worthy of the gospel as Paul writes in Philippians 1:27, standing fast in the spirit and for the gospel. I can conform my life to His by sacrificing self and submitting to His word.


We meet a soldier named Naaman in II Kings 5, a leper in need of God’s healing. He sends for Elisha to bring God’s power upon him, but when Elisha commands a simple washing in a dirty river, Naaman is upset. He expects something more, something greater, something more outwardly impressive. FInally, though, when he humbles himself to God’s command, he is healed. God is not looking for our great acts. God is not looking for worship impressive in our eyes. Instead, He simply calls on us to hear and obey, to repent and turn to Him, to devote ourselves to Him in every detail of our lives. We can be restored to Him from our captivity of sin if we only come to Him on His terms and in His way.

lesson by Tim Smelser