etching of Paul in prison studying with the slave Onesimus

What Philemon Taught Me About Grace

For such a small book, there are many lessons in the book of Philemon that apply directly to our daily Christian lives. For me, the biggest of these is a lesson about grace. Philemon teaches us about God’s grace and forgiveness. In turn, that teaches me about the grace and forgiveness I should show others.

Grace from God

Philemon 1–3:

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother: To Philemon our dear friend and coworker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church that meets in your home.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul opens his letter to Philemon with a statement commending God’s grace and peace to Philemon. This reminder of God’s grace is important because Philemon is going to need to show a great deal of grace himself. For the rest of this letter, Paul doesn’t speak explicitly about the grace of God. Rather, he shows God’s grace working in Philemon.

Philemon 9–16:

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. But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will. 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.

In short, Paul tells Philemon that he met the escaped slave Onesimus, taught Onesimus the gospel, and now sends him back to Philemon as a baptized brother in Christ. He appeals to Philemon to treat him as such and to forgive him for his sins against Philemon.

Keep in mind:

  • Onesimus had broken the law by running.
  • Onesimus had sinned against Philemon by running.
  • He could fix neither while with Paul.
  • Paul taught him and baptized him anyway.

Was Philemon a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:16–21) before making things right with his master? Was Philemon truly forgiven of his sins — even the outstanding ones? I’d say yes. Paul calls Philemon “my son” and “part of myself.” He calls Philemon a “dearly beloved brother…both in the flesh and in the Lord.” This is not language to describe someone still lost in their sins. This is language describing someone who has experienced sanctification and whose sins have been blotted out.

We don’t have to have everything figured out and resolved before coming to Christ. We have a High Priest who is sympathetic to our struggles (Hebrews 4:14–16). He knows what it is to be human. Therefore, He extends grace in our time of need. That includes when we need forgiveness. Onesimus receives forgiveness. He still needs to put things right with Philemon, and he intends to do so, but he does so forgiven of his sins.

We too may have long-running challenges or things we still have to put right when we understand our need for God’s grace, but we shouldn’t let those stop us. Repenting of our sins doesn’t mean we come to God in a perfect, spotless state. That would undermine our need for God’s grace. Rather, we come to God with a contrite and humble heart, acknowledging our past sins, and resolving to be better in His name. That is the magnitude of God’s grace.

The Grace We Show Others

We need to show this kind of grace to others as well. That’s what Paul asks Philemon to do in Philemon 17–21:

So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me. And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it — not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self. Yes, brother, may I have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Since I am confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

There are three big points I take out of this:

1. Grace Comes Before Judgment

We can split hairs here as much as we want, but the principle is this: if someone expresses interest in Christ, we should not turn them away because of the sins in their life. We should not deny baptism in Christ because of unresolved wrongs. Yes, we should always work with each other to overcome sin and hold ourselves to a higher standard of conduct, morality, and attitude. But we don’t have to start perfect.

Sometimes we want God to forgive our wrongs and punish those of others. We want God to be patient with us while swift to wrath with others. This is how we often treat sin we see in others — especially sins that make us personally uncomfortable or that we somehow rank as worse than our own. Instead we should see sin the way God does: as a separation from Him, yes, but also an opportunity for grace.

2. Grace Compels Us to Growth

To clarify, this does not contradict Romans 6:1–14. Those of us who have been baptized have died to sin. We therefore work to reject sin in our lives and serve God in purity of heart and conduct. But this is a work in progress. Even Paul never felt he attained perfection. See what Paul says in Philippians 3:12–14:

Not that I have already reached the goal or am already fully mature, but I make every effort to take hold of it because I also have been taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus.

We are all works in progress. I still struggle with certain temptations and even sins, and I have to accept the fact that you do too. Your struggles may not be my struggles. Your struggles may be more visible or more currently controversial than mine. But my obligation to show you grace is no less. Onesimus does not return to Philemon a perfect person, but Paul expects Philemon to show him grace the same way God shows grace to all of us.

3. Grace Is Generous

Philemon 17–18:

So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me. And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.

It’s not enough for Paul that Onesimus intends to put things right with Philemon. He offers to set things right on Onesimus’s behalf. It’s not enough to acknowledge someone has to set things right in their lives. We should be the first to offer, “I can help.” In Paul’s case, he writes that he’s willing to pay off any money Onesimus might owe his master. Paul’s statements about wishing to keep Onesimus with him suggests he is even willing to buy Onesimus’s freedom himself.

It’s quite likely Onesimus did take money, at the very least for passage to Rome. On foot, the journey from Colossae to Rome would have taken three or more weeks. If you instead travel across the Aegean and Adriatic seas, it only takes about eight days. Additionally, I think the fact that Paul even writes this demonstrates that he already knows Onesimus owes Philemon recompense. It would have come out in their studies together if Onesimus was as repentant as Paul claims. It’s likely Paul writes this to give Philemon a chance to show additional grace and forgive that debt. True grace makes us generous.

How would you or I respond in a similar situation? A modern equivalent would be to study with and baptize an undocumented immigrant. We know they can’t perpetually live in that state and remain pleasing to God. What then are you willing to do on that person’s behalf? Your answer speaks to the extent you allow grace to drive you.

Grace Covers All

1 Corinthians 15:9–11:

For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by God’s grace I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not ineffective. However, I worked more than any of them, yet not I, but God’s grace that was with me. Therefore, whether it is I or they, so we proclaim and so you have believed.

Think about where Paul came from. There was no way Paul could ever undo all the pain he had caused when he persecuted Christians. He could not release all those he imprisoned. He could not bring Stephen back to life. He could not undo the consequences of his past sins. Paul understand the greatness of God’s grace perhaps better than any other New Testament writer because he experienced its extent firsthand.

You can repent from your sins without fixing everything. You may still continue to struggle with sins that you struggled with before baptism. There may be consequences that continue to affect others after baptism. You can even have unresolved problems with a government and still find God’s grace. He can wash us of all these things.

Then the question becomes what you or I do with these unresolved sins. Paul had to find peace with what he could not fix and press forward in His resolve to serve God. Onesimus resolved to put things right — both personally and legally. He would go back to Onesimus, and we never hear the end of that story. It’s not important if we know whether or not Philemon released him. The important thing is Onesimus’s repentance and follow-through.

Would you teach Christ to:

  • Someone in an unscriptural intimate relationship?
  • Someone who has had an abortion?
  • An undocumented immigrant?
  • A long-time drug addict?

Additionally, would you personally help them right what they can? If we are going to show grace in our lives, then the answer to all of these has to be yesWe have to be willing to cover a multitude of sins with our grace and forgiveness just as God has covered ours. God’s grace is great, and the letter to Philemon exemplifies the depth and the extent of that grace. It shows us what it means to live that grace. Sin is terrible, yes, but God’s grace is greater.

Sin is an opportunity for grace. When God forgives us, we have a chance to reflect on grace’s power in our lives. Let’s then use the opportunities we have to extend that grace as well. The world needs grace, and they should experience that grace through grateful recipients of it. They should see grace in us.

etching of Paul in prison studying with the slave Onesimus

An Overview of Philemon

Philemon is one of my favorite books, and it’s a surprisingly relevant one — both to our spiritual lives as well as to some current cultural trends. It’s a remarkably short book, one of the five shortest in the Bible. Paul’s letter to Philemon is focused yet deep, and we would do well to fully appreciate the implications therein.

The book is also unique in that it’s one of a very few letters written to individuals instead of to congregations. The letters to Titus and Timothy are other examples, and 2 John and 3 John may also be for individuals. This letter gives us an insight into how Paul interacted with his fellow Christians on a personal level and teaches us how to do the same.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Cultural Backdrop

Paul is writing this letter in regards to his time with an escaped slave named Onesimus who rightly belongs to Philemon. There’s a complication, however. Onesimus became a Christian during his time with Paul, and this fundamentally changes the relationship between Philemon and his slave. At the same time, Onesimus has broken the law, as has Paul by harboring him.

In ancient Rome, slaves were not looked upon as citizens in any way. As with the practice of slavery in the Untied States fewer than 200 years ago, slaves in Rome were property. They were soulless objects to be bought and sold as one would clothing or produce. Many Romans viewed slaves with a certain amount of fear and distrust. According to Naerebout and Singor in “De Oudheid,” there was a common saying in Rome: “As many enemies as slaves.”

According to Professor Keith Bradley, slaves were often criticized for:

  • Laziness and Loitering– People would complain about them mulling about in public entertainment areas.
  • Being a Threat– Many officials seemed to see unsupervised slaves as a threat to national security. (“They’ll revolt!”)
  • Being Murderers– Some slaves escaped captivity by killing their masters. They were often prime suspects in any murder regardless of evidence.
  • Theft– If food disappeared from a vendor’s stall, nearby slaves would face blame.
  • Vandalism– Slaves were frequently accused of defacing buildings and monuments.

Does any of this sound remotely familiar? Historian Moses Finley recounts that the tracking and capture of fugitive slaves was almost a national obsession. There were professional slave catchers one could hire to track an illegally freed slave. Those who harbored fugitive slaves faced punishment if caught. Recaptured slaves were branded on their forehead (F, for fugitivus). Slaves would even have collars to wear, proclaiming promises of reward should the slave be returned to their rightful owner. This was the climate under which Paul encountered Onesimus.

A Quick Outline

The letter to Philemon can be broken down into three basic sections:

  1. Paul’s greeting to Philemon (vss. 1 – 7)
  2. Paul’s appeal for Onesimus (Vss. 8 – 20)
  3. Paul’s confidence in Philemon (vss. 21 – 25)

Pauls’ Greeting and Thanksgiving

I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and faith toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints. I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ. For I have great joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.

Philemon 4–7

Before Paul gets to the reason for his letter, he reaffirms the esteem in which he holds Philemon. He reiterates their common faith and relationship in Jesus Christ. When facing a challenging conversation, we should do the same. We should recall our commonalities in Christ and put our Christian love at the center of the conversation.

Can you imagine if Paul had jumped right to the part about Philemon’s escaped slave without this opening? Too often, that’s how we approach each other. “Do you know what your problem is?” “I have something I need to say to you.” We create walls where there should be bridges. In this case, Philemon has done nothing wrong, but Paul knows his request is going to be challenging. Therefore, he starts with their common ground.

Paul’s Appeal for Onesimus

So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me. And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it — not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self.

Philemon 17–19

When Paul reveals that Onesimus is with him, the very first thing he covers in vss. 10–11 is that this slave is now a Christian. This sets the tone for the rest of the letter and is the foundation upon which Paul bases his request. It’s hard to know how long Onesimus had been gone, but it’s safe to assume he was with Paul for some time. After all, Paul had time to teach Onesimus the gospel, and he calls Onesismus “my very heart.” On top of that, we know Philemon was part of the Colossian congregation (putting together Colossians 4:9 and Philemon 1–2), and the trip to Rome from Colossae would have been long.

Time can often make wounds deeper, and I wonder what Philemon felt when he saw Onesimus’s name in Paul’s handwriting. However, Paul doesn’t want Philemon to dwell on the past. He wants Philemon to accept this new reality that his escaped slave is now a brother in Christ, equal heir to salvation.

Look at the ways Paul seeks to help Philemon accept this:

  1. Paul admits that he wants to keep Onesimus with him, but he says he doesn’t want to force his friend’s hand (vs. 14).
  2. Paul makes the case that it might even be God’s will that Onesimus escaped and found Paul (vss. 15–16).
  3. Paul offers to repay any debts Onesimus might have to Philemon (vss. 18–19).

That we would advocate for one another so deeply! Paul wants Philemon to truly understand that Onesimus is now his equal brother in Christ, that their relationship has forever changed. This requires Philemon to set aside generations of tradition and possibly even prejudice. This requires Philemon to set aside the way things are “supposed to be” to accept a new reality in Christ. We can quote that there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female in Christ Jesus, but how would you or I react in a situation like this? That’s the real test of Christian love.

Paul’s Confidence in Philemon

Yes, brother, may I have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Since I am confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

Philemon 20–21

Paul assumes the best of Philemon, and we should assume the best of each other. Remember when Paul wrote that love “hopes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7)? This is what that hope looks like. Paul is confident that Philemon will set tradition and hard feelings aside to accept Onesimus in Christ.

Other Notes

  • Paul is under guard while all of this transpires. It’s another example of Paul’s selflessness. He’s more concerned about Onesimus’s spiritual freedom than his own physical captivity, and he undertakes the risk that harboring this slave could make matters worse for himself. This is self-sacrifice in action.
  • This is the same Paul who wrote Romans 13, stating that Christians should submit to and live peaceably with their government. Yet he’s breaking the law by keeping Onesimus around. Let that sink in.
  • Onesimus was baptized by Paul before returning to Philemon. He was able to make things right with God before fixing everything in his life. We don’t have to be perfect to respond to the gospel call.
  • The end of the letter contains some hope that Paul will be released. Unfortunately, this will not happen.
  • Based on Colossians 4:9, I like to think Onesimus delivered Paul’s letter to the Colossian church upon his return, further cementing his new relationship with them in Christ and the esteem Paul had for him.

In the coming days, I’m going to share a few more posts about Philemon, specifically about what Philemon teaches us about Romans 13, about earthly citizenship versus spiritual citizenship, and about God’s grace.

etching of Paul in prison studying with the slave Onesimus

Onesimus and Perfection

The letter to Philemon is one of the most fascinating books in the New Testament. It’s among the shortest books in the Bible, but it’s incredibly dense in terms of practical applications. It’s also a book that stirs my curiosity; there’s so much unspoken backstory that I really want to understand.  But there’s only one thing I want to focus on right now: Onesimus’s legal status when he was baptized.

Onesimus, Paul, and Roman Law

Onesimus didn’t just break household rules when he fled Philemon’s household. He broke the law. The Roman government was paranoid about the possibility of a slave rebellion, so laws regarding slaves were harsh. Not only was it illegal for a slave to travel any distance without permission from their master, but it was also illegal for slaves to gather in groups, and it was illegal to harbor an escaped slave. A Roman’s civic duty was to immediately turn in any slaves suspected of escape.

It was illegal for Onesimus to be with Paul. That’s important to understand when thinking about the implications of his conversion since it’s obvious that Onesimus was baptized by Paul before he reconciled with Philemon. Verse 10 says, “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” So what does this mean for us when we come to Christ for salvation?

Baptism, Repentance, and Perfection

We often break salvation down into tidy steps: hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. I don’t think it’s wrong to put repentance before baptism, but I think we need to consider what repentance really means. We often associate repentance with being sinless; nothing could be farther from the truth. Repentance is a process; it doesn’t mean that we have fixed everything. If it did, we could never repent enough before baptism.

Onesimus had not yet fixed his legal status or his relationship with Philemon when Paul baptized him. He was still a fugitive. He was yet to completely correct these sins in his life when baptized, but Paul did not let that stand in the way of salvation. Onesimus was not perfect when baptized, but he did have this: he had repented. He had a plan to set things right.

When you or I come to Christ, we don’t have to have our lives in perfect order. All we need is a heart ready to make things right. We need to repent — meaning we recognize the error in our lives and are willing to change. Onesimus would return to Philemon; with Paul’s support, he would fix his standing with his owner and with the law. But that repentance was a process for him, and it’s a process for us.

If some standard of perfection is holding you back from baptism in Christ, I would invite you to go forward with it despite any shortcomings. Christ wants you to come to Him broken, in need of His grace, and willing to start anew. Baptism is the beginning of your journey, not the end. Wherever you are, take that first step, knowing that Christ will forgive you in your imperfections and that your new family in Christ is there to help you on your journey.

 

Stop Throwing People Away

I want to challenge you to do something today – or, rather, to stop doing something, as the case may be. I want you, me, us to stop throwing people away. Just stop. Don’t do it anymore. Take that proverbial garbage bin we carry around in our psyches, and toss it in the recycling bin. When we look around at those around us – at our friends, our colleagues, our coworker, our peers, our waiters and waitresses, our telemarketers – we need to stop seeing something that’s disposable and worthless and instead see something to be treasured and preserved.

I guess something needs to be cleared up first, though. What do I mean by “throwing people away?” It’s simple. Someone says, or does, or condones, or writes something we don’t like, and that’s it. Suddenly, that person is trash. They are anathema. It may be something they said in a planning meeting; it may be a comment they made in Bible class; it may be a political view they have; it may just be that they had the audacity to disagree and hurt our feelings. Whatever it is, we hold onto that event like a precious treasure, and we then cut that person out of our lives.

We effectively throw people away for the various petty reasons we have, and it has to stop. People see these behaviors among us, and they don’t see a people of peace. They don’t see a nation of priests. No, they see Pharisees. They see fools. They see a people of hate and resentment, and who would want anything to do with that? What do we do to ourselves? When we start throwing people away, we start throwing away the divine. We remove the Prince of Peace and Mercy from our lives and instead enthrone an idol of bitterness and hatred – an idol that is much harder to serve than our Lord of forgiveness.

Disposable Individuals of the New Testament

There are a few people in the New Testament about whom I have to wonder: if they did these things to any of us, would we toss them aside?

John Mark. In Acts 13:13, we see John Mark abandon during the first of Paul’s missionary journeys. We aren’t really given a reason, but we can see Paul is still upset about it in Acts 15:37-39, even to the point of parting ways with Barnabas. That could have been the end of the story. We could look at that and feel justified in our eternal feuds, but that’s not the end. Some time later, in II Timothy 4:11, Paul calls this same deserter “useful to me for ministry.” We might have disposed of John Mark as “weak,” as “spineless,” or as “useless,” but Paul found the time to restore their relationship and gained an encourager in Christ.

Peter. We could look at a few events in Peter’s life where you or I might have given up on him, but my mind returns time and again to Jesus’ conversation with him after those terrible denials. We know the story of Mark 14:66-72, how Peter denies Christ time and again in the temple courtyard, even to the point of cursing and swearing. When Jesus restores Peter, in John 21:15-19, Jesus doesn’t demand an apology. He doesn’t wait for Peter to make the first move. He simply reaches out to one that we might have considered a backstabber and heals their relationship and Peter’s faith.

Onesimus. Onesimus, in the book of Philemon, is one we might not even realize we would dismiss, but consider this: Onesimus was an “illegal.” He was on the run from his master; he was not a true Roman citizen; he was a law-breaker; he deserved imprisonment and perhaps worse. In verses 8-16, Paul reveals to Philemon that Onesimus is now a brother in Christ and encourages him to treat the slave accordingly. Here’s what he didn’t do: he didn’t send Onesimus packing. Paul didn’t write Onesimus off because of his secular citizenship. He was more concerned with the slave’s spiritual citizenship. Where we might have turned Onesimus over to the first Roman guard we saw, Paul, instead, turned him to the love of Christ.

Whether we’re talking about wanting to throw someone aside because of their history, or if we’re wiling to toss them aside because of some way we feel they affronted us, that’s not the conduct we see reflected in the lives of Christ and His apostles. My friend Derek once told me that we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions, but we judge others only by the consequences of their actions. Let’s think about showing others the same amount of mercy we show ourselves.

Setting Down the Weight

The problem is, when we look at people, sometimes we have a great deal of access baggage we are carrying around that we blame on them. We call these grudges. And these grudges needlessly weigh us down. There’s an old Zen proverb that illustrates this burden:

One day two traveling monks reached a town and saw a young woman waiting to step out of her sedan chair. There were deep, muddy puddles and she couldn’t step across without getting mud on her silk robes. She impatiently scolded her attendants, who were burdened with heavy packages.

The younger monk walked by the young woman without speaking. But the older monk stopped and picked her up on his back, carrying her across the mud. Not only did she not thank the monk, she shoved him out of her way when he put her down and scurried by him haughtily.

As the two monks continued on their way, the younger monk was brooding. After a long time, he finally spoke out. “That woman was so rude but you picked her up and carried her! She didn’t even thank you.”

“I set the woman down hours ago,” the older monk responded. “Why are you still carrying her?”

That’s what it comes down to, then, doesn’t it? We throw people away because we can’t unburden ourselves of the weight of our own grudges. We choose to bear the weight of our anger rather than the weight of friendship.

We put our strength and our efforts into holding onto our grudges rather than humbly letting them go. In Matthew 18:22, Jesus tells Peter (and later demonstrates) the innumerable times we must be willing to forgive. Colossians 3:12-14 calls on us to put on love, compassion, kindness, patience, and forgiveness. Finally, Hebrews 12:1-2 admonishes us to lay down those weights that slow down our run of faith. Jesus and His followers were able to lay aside the weight of grudges to pursue and share the hope within them. Why are we still carrying them?

Again, Perspective

Again, it comes down to what we see when we look at others. If we look at each other the way God looks at us, we won’t see each other as disposable commodities to be casually thrown away when suddenly inconvenient. Matthew 18:1-4 calls us to become as little children if we are to be of His kingdom. Romans 8:15-17 calls us adopted children of the Father, and I John 3:2 again says we are now God’s children, waiting to see Him in His glory.

If God sees us as His little children, we should see the same in each other. How easily do you stay angry at a small child? Against which children do you harbor long-lasting grudges? Are there any children you seek to cut out of your lives, that you give dirty looks to, that you assume the worst of the moment they enter the room? Of course you don’t because that would make you a pretty terrible person, don’t you agree? Wouldn’t you be a sad case if you couldn’t get over the fact that a five-year-old clumsily broke a vase in your home? What kind of person would you be to hold that over their head for the next several years, even if the break was the result of carelessness or malice? Yet, this is how we treat each other. Just like that younger monk, we can’t seem to lay aside the burden of our indignation, and we let those burdens weaken us. Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Galatians 5:13-15 warns us against biting and devouring one another. We have many euphemisms for this: we say we are “calling it like it is;” we may feel someone needs to be “put in their place” or “taught a lesson;” we may say that we are “saying what needs to be said;” but all we’re doing is consuming each other in fits of temper. We also consume one another when we bear grudges instead of bearing each other’s burdens. We devour relationships. We decide our personal feelings are more important than a person’s soul. This must not be. Once we see each other the way God sees us, we have no choice but to tear down our idols of bitterness, indignation, and self-justification. We have no reason to carry around the weight of grudges and resentment. Once we unburden ourselves of these, we will have the strength to carry one another’s loads and to bear each other up in love and mercy, and we will finally stop throwing people away.

Paul, Philemon, and One “Illegal”

At 460 words (in the ESV), Philemon is the third shortest book in the entire Bible. Only II John and III John manage a greater economy of words. It’s a small book in which little happens, and, in Bible studies in many congregations, it will seldom even get a full lesson to itself. I’ve found myself returning to this book time and again, however, while trying to decide how God would want me to interact with illegal (read: undocumented) immigrants as well as what my priorities should be if I become aware of someone’s undocumented status.

Illegally Free in Rome

I think the conversion of the word illegal into a noun is among the worst things to happen in the English language. By using illegal as a noun, we allow ourselves to dehumanize those immigrants coming to our country in unapproved ways. They are no longer illegal aliens (a term I’ve never been fond of either), undocumented immigrants, or illegal immigrants. They are simply the illegals. How might Paul have treated Onesimus had he been carrying the attitudes and judgments implicit in that dehumanizing term? After all, we can’t get around the fact that Onesimus was, indeed, an illegal.

In ancient Rome, slaves were not looked upon as citizens in any way. As with the practice of slavery in the Untied States fewer than 200 years ago, slaves in Rome were property. They were soulless objects to be bought and sold as one would do with clothing or produce. Many Romans viewed slaves with a certain amount of fear and distrust. According to Naerebout and Singor in “De Oudheid,” there was a common saying in Rome: “As many enemies as slaves.”

According to Professor Keith Bradley, slaves were often criticized for:

  • Laziness and Loitering – People would complain about them mulling about in public entertainment areas.
  • Being a Threat – Many officials seemed to see unsupervised slaves as a threat to national security. (“They’ll revolt!”)
  • Being Murderers – Some slaves escaped captivity by killing their masters. They were often prime suspects.
  • Theft – If food disappeared from a vendor’s stall, a slave would be the first to receive blame.
  • Vandalism – Slaves were frequently accused of defacing buildings and monuments.

Does any of this sound remotely familiar? Historian Moses Finley recounts that the tracking and capture of fugitive slaves was almost a national obsession. There were professional slave catchers one could hire to track an illegally freed slave. Those who harbored fugitive slaves faced the prospect of punishment. Recaptured slaves were branded on their forehead (F, for fugitivus). Slaves would even have collars to wear, proclaiming promises of reward should the slave be returned to their rightful owner. This was the climate under which Paul encountered Onesimus.

Paul’s Treatment of An “Illegal”

What would you or I have done upon hearing Onesimus’ story? Would we have immediately turned him into authorities? After all, if we had been in Paul’s position (verse 9), we would have had some guards conveniently nearby. Would we have asked for a reward from Philemon? One would have been due. Oddly, Paul takes a different approach, and while he does eventually return Onesimus to Philemon, he does so with more instructions for Philemon than the escaped slave.

Paul begins by reminding Philemon that they are fellow laborers in Christ (verse 1). They are both servants of a greater master. I have little doubt that those words kept coming back to Philemon as he reached the main topic of the letter. In verses 4-7, Paul encourages Philemon spiritually. He is about to address a touchy subject, and he takes time to put Philemon in a spiritual mindset before tackling the issue of Onesimus.

When Paul does come to the subject of Onesimus in verses 8-16, Paul is upfront about the slave’s new spiritual status. Understand this: Paul shared the gospel with and baptized Onesimus before reconciling him with his master. Paul’s priorities center around Onesimus’ spiritual citizenship before addressing the problems of his secular status. In doing so, Paul harbors a fugitive slave, placing himself in danger of greater censuring from those authorities under whom he was already captive. Paul’s primary concern is for Onesimus’ soul. Everything else is secondary.

In verse 13, Paul admits to considering keeping Onesimus with him, but he declines to do so, fearing he would wrong Philemon. I can’t help but wonder, however – had Philemon treated Onesimus cruelly upon their reunion, might Paul have purchased the slave to free him? After all, in verse 18, Paul agrees to pay any debts Onesimus may owe Philemon (leading some to believe that Onesimus had stolen from his master). Yes, Onesimus has to right himself with the laws of the land, but Paul takes care of his soul first. Had he treated Onesimus more like the criminal he was, the escaped slave might have never turned to Christ, might have even fled from Paul and into worse circumstances.

There Is No Jew, No Gentile, No American, No Mexican, No Cuban…

Once freed, a slave became a liberti, second-class citizens that would never be completely free from the stigma of their past station. A freed slave wore a special cap, called a pileus, that served as a symbol of their former lives. Even those who, against all odds, rose in wealth and power were derided as “new money.” They did not come from established families and would never be treated as equals among the Roman noble class. These days, racial heritage plays a similar role to that pileus. You are suspect if you have certain accents, certain skin tones, certain customs. You are “illegal” until proven otherwise. In verses 17-20 of Philemon, Paul admonishes Philemon to treat Onesimus as an equal in Christ, for equality in God’s eyes is more important than inequality in man’s eyes.

Secular conservatism teaches us to deal with undocumented immigrants harshly. Deport them; jail them; put them in internment camps. Some even advocate shooting people they see crossing the border without authorization or those they even suspect of not being true United States citizens. This is not what we see in Paul’s treatment of Onesimus at all. Instead of reacting with our self-assured hammer of justice, perhaps we could show some mercy. Perhaps we could prioritize souls over legal issues (knowing full and well that a soul truly converted to Christ will want to voluntarily set things right). We might help set things right, even going as far as helping them apply for citizenship, helping them learn English, even easing their burden by paying any legal fees or fines involved in their naturalization process. Instead of setting them on a boat back to Central or South America, we might actually take the time to take their hand and guide them to Christ’s footsteps. Isn’t this the essence of bearing one another’s burdens, of going the extra mile, of putting the spiritual before the physical?

Let’s be careful of following the examples set by figures on TV and on the radio who face no accountability in this life for the secular gospel they proclaim. It should not be these influences that shape our hearts and our attitudes toward the tired, the weary, the huddled, the wretched, the homeless, the tempest-tossed, those longing to be free. Instead, our hearts should be shaped by the attitudes we see in Christ and his closest followers. When Paul encountered the “illegal” Onesimus, his main priority was the man’s soul. Rather than viewing undocumented immigrants in the way those pagan Romans viewed slaves – as detritus, as vandals, as thieves, as murderers, as threats to our comfortable society – we should instead see them as souls in need of God’s word and God’s mercy.

For what are we all but strangers and exiles on this Earth, looking for a city where our true citizenship is, whose builder and foundation is God?