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Freedom as Slaves

Weekly Devotionals

Freedom as Slaves

I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love…Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother. (Philemon 1:8-9, 15-16)

In the book of Philemon, we’re introduced to Onesimus, a slave that ran away from Philemon, a wealthy Christian. Having ran away with money, he meets the apostle Paul and becomes a follower of Christ. The letter urges Philemon to accept Onesimus back as a brother and Paul promises to pay whatever debt is owed. If you stop and read this story through the eyes of Onesimus, you start to realize just how crazy Paul must have sounded.

Having won freedom, why should he risk going back, knowing full well that Philemon, by law, had every right to put him to death? Although slavery in Roman times was very different from the chattel slavery that we usually identify with, it was still an injustice and Onesimus surely felt justified to run away.

So why did Paul send Onesimus back to Philemon? I believe it was to teach both Philemon and Onesimus a Gospel lesson.

Paul does not command Philemon to let slaves go free, but rather appeals on the basis of love. Imagine the shock of Philemon, to see his escaped slave standing at the gate. Imagine the dread Onesimus felt, waiting to hear the first words out of his master’s mouth, words that can pronounce his death or give him life.

We are called to freedom, but in Galatians, Paul urges us to use this freedom to becomes slaves. There is a wonderful paradox here.

You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. (Galatians 5:13)

This wasn’t a quaint metaphor for Onesimus. He was a free man, a Christian brother, but Paul urges him to go back to slavery. It’s an astounding request.

Every story in the Bible ultimately points to Christ and what he has already done, surrendering every freedom he had to die for our sins. The good news is not only that Jesus chose to become a slave to set us free. The Gospel plants a seed in every follower of Christ so that we are given the opportunity to lose our freedom to serve others. Without taking such risks, we fail to see the power of the Gospel in our own lives.

The Gospel doesn’t end with our freedom. It’s the start to a new found life that considers it pure joy and risks everything in losing our freedoms to love and serve our neighbor and our enemy.