Tag Archives: slave

How Jesus redefines “family” – Philemon 8-25, Part 3

28 Aug

How do you define “family”? Biologically? Qualitatively? Some other way? As we continue studying Philemon verses 8-25, today we’re going to see Paul explain how Jesus defines family, and get ready, it is shocking.

So what did Paul say?  Let’s continue his flow of thought from what we already learned in Part 1 and 2 of this series.  We’ve come to verse 13, where Paul admits that he wishes the runaway slave, Onesimus, who has now become a Christian, could stay with Paul. Already in Part 2 we saw how Paul describes Onesimus as “useful” to him.  So as Paul writes to Philemon, saying he wishes Onesimus could stay with him (Paul), that should show Philemon how highly Paul thought of Onesimus.  What Paul says next is where it really gets interesting: Paul writes that if Onesimus could have stayed with Paul, Onesimus would be taking Philemon’s place helping Paul!  That is a bold statement.  Paul is saying that a slave could take the place of his master.  In a slave society, that is laughable.  There is no version of slavery in which a slave could take the place of the master.  But when Jesus enters the situation, he turns society’s convention upside-down.  A slave, Paul is saying, a lowly slave who is transformed by Jesus, can become equal with his master.  Paul’s not done.  It’s going to get even more wild.

Next in verse 14, Paul quickly says that he wants to honor Philemon’s consent. Philemon owns Onesimus and thus Paul is legally bound to send him back.  Also, whatever Philemon chooses to do, Paul doesn’t want anyone to be able to say, “Paul forced this on me.”  Paul wants Philemon’s response to be Philemon’s own free choice.

Now read verses 15-16 where Paul says there might have been another reason for Onesimus running away.  Another reason? What other reason? Isn’t it fairly obvious, Paul? Think about it: normally when a slave runs away, there’s nothing but bad blood between slave and master.  In the master’s eyes, slaves are property that equal money.  Slaves create wealth for their masters.  Thus slaves who run away are seen not only as missing property, but also as missing income.  Add to that, slaves who runaway are disrespecting their masters.  Clearly, masters would often disrespect and mistreat slaves, which is precisely why the slaves wanted to run away in the first place.  So the slave/master relationship was often a fraught situation, and the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon was no different.  Philemon could easily be reading this thinking, “I know why Onesimus ran away, Paul,” and he was almost certainly not happy about it.  Paul is bold, then, in suggesting that there might be another reason. 

What is this other reason Paul hints at? He tells Philemon that it so Philemon could have Onesimus back for good, which is no surprise, but then he adds a shocker in verse 16 when says Philemon “might have him back for good–no longer a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”  Do you see what Paul does there?  He totally redefines the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon.   Master and slave is gone.  Now they are brothers.  Dear brothers.  Totally equal.

This is exactly what Paul taught in other places:

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:26-28

Paul says the same thing in 1 Cor. 12:13. He also writes it in Colossians 3:11, which is interesting, because when Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, almost certainly Onesimus and another ministry partner, Tychichus, were carrying the letter of Colossians with them too, a public letter which would have been read to all the Christians in Colosse, including Philemon.  So Paul doesn’t want this to be just a private matter between Philemon and Onesimus, he wants all Christians to know that in Christ, there is a total redefinition of people’s status.  No more ethnic stratification, he says, “neither Jew nor Greek.”  Nor more gender stratification, “neither male nor female.”  No more slave and master, “neither slaver nor free.”

All are one in Christ.

Paul was asking Philemon to embrace the full truth of Jesus’ teaching, that in Christ there is no more slave or free, Jew or Greek, but all are one in Christ.  All are equal.  Paul says in verse 16 that Philemon should consider Onesimus as even dearer than Paul does.  A brother in the Lord.  And a brother is family.  Does your definition of “family” need redefinition to make it the same as Jesus’? Does your practice of family need to change?

In the next post, we’ll see how passionately Paul continues to argue for this redefinition of family.

Of Slaves and Apostles – Titus 1:1-4, Part 2

11 Jun

Have you ever called yourself a slave to your boss? A slave to your job? Maybe you have slaved over a project in school. Or perhaps you worked slavishly doing yard work. We use the word “slave” in many ways, even though that word has a horrid connotation because it describes the very awful and very real world of many people today, and throughout history. Slavery is terrible. Would it surprise you to learn that in his letter to Titus, Paul calls himself a slave of God? Is Paul off his rocker? Does God have slaves? What is going on here?

In Part 1 of this series of posts on Titus 1:1-4, I said that we are reading other people’s mail. Today we begin to do just that. In verse 1 Paul starts off in two ways that were very common in ancient letter writing, but might seem strange to our modern eyes. First, he begins the letter by identifying himself, “Paul”.  We always start our letters by addressing who we are writing to. 

Second, Paul writes in a fairly formal fashion.  We’re not used to that.  Our letters are so often very informal: “Hey man, how are you doing?” or just a simple, “What’s up?”  But how does Paul start? “Paul, a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness…”  Here is Paul writing to a close friend.  And he starts like that?  To our modern sensibilities, this seems odd.  I want to say, “Geesh, Paul, just talk normal to the guy.”

But that is our culture talking, and I think there is another point that could help explain further why Paul is so formal here.   Look at the end of the letter, chapter 3 verses 12 to the end.  There Paul is more personal in his comments to Titus.  Also in verse 15, the very last phrase, he says, “Grace be with you all.”  Paul doesn’t say “Grace be with you, Titus.”  He says, “Grace be with you all.”  That is a clue, I suspect, that Paul intends the content of the letter to be read to all.  Yes, he is teaching Titus.  But he is also teaching all the house churches in the various towns on the island of Crete.  And thus it makes sense that he would be more formal back in 1:1-4. Let’s continue reading verses 1:1-4.

First of all, he establishes his authority and credentials.  Look at verse 1.

“Servant,” in the Greek language that Paul originally wrote in, is also translated as “slave”.  Slavery in the ancient near east is not the same as slavery that we Americans are familiar with from our history.  In Paul’s day, slaves might actually have opportunity for advancement and position. If you were a servant of the king, for example, you were in a positive position.  Some slaves could purchase their freedom. Slavery was also rarely based on race. But slavery could also be brutal in the Greco-Roman Empire. Please don’t read me as saying that it was okay. It was still one human owning another human, and often mistreating them. That means Paul’s frequent use of this word to describe his relationship with God is curious.  Paul is not saying that slavery is good.  He is saying that he belongs to God.  God owns him.  And that is not a bad thing.  That’s why most English translations use the word “servant” for this Greek word. I tend to think that “servant” takes an unnecessary edge off the concept that Paul is trying to convey. “Slave” is the better word, as harsh as that might sound, because of the connotation that Paul has given up his freedom and submitted it to the will of God.

Second, Paul says he is an apostle of Jesus Christ.  The word, “apostle” can be defined as a special messenger.  There were the 12 disciples of Jesus who became the 12 Apostles, and Paul was added to their number by God’s choice in Acts 9.  The apostolic gift and task is one of seeing where new works for the Kingdom can be started.  Sometimes that is missionary work, church planting, or starting other new ministry.  It is very entrepreneurial and very important.  Paul lived this apostolic life traveling many times across the Roman Empire, starting new churches for God everywhere he went, including the Island of Crete where Paul is now sending this letter to his friend Titus.

So Paul’s primary descriptors of himself are servant and apostle.  In nearly all of his letters, he starts like that.  In other words, he saw his life as defined by God’s mission.  Paul could have talked about his lineage or about his income-earning work, which was tent-making, or about his ministry successes, or his education, or his previous life as an important Jewish leader.  He doesn’t do any of that.  Instead he talks about his role in the mission of God’s Kingdom.  He is a servant and apostle. I find that very instructive.  So can we identify at all with Paul?  Or was he too special, too different? 

I think we can identify in many ways with Paul. 

First, that word “servant.”  Put your name in place of Paul.  “(Your Name), servant of God.” How does that sound to you?  How does that feel?

That is what you are!  But we so rarely identify ourselves as a servant or slave of God.  It is important to ask, “What kind of servant am I?  What should I be doing to serve the Lord?”  For Paul, this was his central identity.  That is something that we can emulate too!  Serving God should be our central identity.

But what about the “apostle” part?  Can we put our name in there?  We are not all apostles are we?  Are there apostles now?  Every now and then, depending on where you travel, you might see a church sign that has the name of the pastor as, “Apostle so and so.”  Some people clearly still use that title.  Are they wrong?  Let’s talk about that.

In my theological tradition, we believe that there were the original 12 Apostles, the 12 that were specifically chosen by Jesus.  One betrayed him, Judas, and then in Acts 1, we read that the remaining 11 replaced Judas with Matthias because he, too, was with Jesus.

But Paul wasn’t a part of that group.  So how did he become an apostle?  Paul used to be a persecutor of Christians, and you can read the story of God’s miraculous intervention in his life in Acts 9, when Jesus called Paul to be a special 13th Apostle of sorts.  Paul, like the other 12, is included in the group of Apostles because he was personally called by Jesus.

While we believe there are no longer specially called apostles on the level of the 12 or 13, we do believe there is an apostolic gift which Paul went on to teach about in his letter to the church at Ephesus in chapter 4 of Ephesians when he says that God called some to be “apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and shepherds and teachers.”  Using the first letter of each of these gifts, APEST, some of given that name to the five-fold gifting of Christians. And these gifts are given by God to all true followers of Jesus.

What gift do you have? What is your role?  Just like Paul we are all servants, but we also have a gifting from God.  Paul’s gifting was to be an apostle.  What is yours?  There are many gifts assessments that you can take to get a starting point. Those assessments are not the word of God for you, but they can help you think about how God might have gifted you. I recommend the APEST test found here. After you take it, I encourage you to discuss it with those people who know you best. Maybe people in your church small group, or your close family and friends. Then start serving in a ministry in your church that could help you practice your gift. See the test as a discussion starter, or a launch pad. Maybe the test was accurate, but maybe in time you’ll see that it needs to be adjusted.

In conclusion what we have seen in the first half of verse 1 is Paul establishing his identity as a servant and an apostle of God, but why? Check back in tomorrow as we continue the study.