No Longer a Slave: A Lesson From Philemon

Freedom. While nations look to their leaders to carry out justice and freedom from oppression, true freedom is not given by a government of men, but by a sovereign God who rules over all.

This is not a new movement unfolding in our country–this unrest we are seeing under the banner of “freedom” is not a new fight. Neither is it uncommon for some to use this word to justify their wrong actions. The way we live our lives tells the true story–we might be free from the rule of dictatorship, but trapped in fear of another threat. Poverty, injustice, prejudice, oppression, disease, and death all spark a reaction. Countless are the fears that can easily move in and take control of our hearts and minds if we let them.

Whether it is a pandemic or pandemonium, fear is a powerful weapon of the enemy.

“For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgement.”

2 Timothy 1:7

In reading the short book of Philemon in the Bible, I am struck by the contrast of the missionary Paul’s condition and the circumstances of Onesimus, a runaway slave. Paul is in prison, and even though he is physically not free, he speaks of peace and love and faith and true freedom. Freedom that a runaway slave never really experiences because of the fear of being caught.

Paul calls himself a “prisoner (or slave) of Christ Jesus” (v.1), confessing that even though he is imprisoned in Rome for preaching that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 26), his Roman chains could never really take away his freedom.

True freedom comes in surrendering to God’s plan for our life.

So the question is, how are fear and freedom related? How can one have freedom without fear?

Look at Paul’s example. He is in prison, but his faith tells him that God has allowed his present situation for His glory, and Paul need not fear. Paul has seen God’s power, has experienced God’s love and his life has been transformed by the forgiveness of the Savior. “Sound judgement” only comes when we keep the right perspective. Focusing on God’s provision, we know that He is “able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us–” (Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 3, verse 20)

Looking at Onesimus we see a different kind of freedom:


We can see in this letter that Onesimus is a runaway slave who had possibly stolen from his master, Philemon. I can’t help but wonder how he found his way to Paul in Rome. I believe that God allowed him to escape the tyranny of slavery so that Onesimus would find true freedom–the kind of freedom that is not determined by our circumstances, but through faith in Christ. (Read Romans 8!)

“For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, no longer a a slave, but more than a slave–as a dearly loved brother.”

Philemon 1:15-16

Under normal circumstances there would be fear in returning to Philemon. The penalty for runaway slaves who were caught was severe, but God gave him the courage to obey. Not knowing the consequences he would face, he knew that it was the right thing to do. Faith says yes to God, and that means trusting Him to guide us through whatever it is that we have to face.

While obeying God is not always easy, it is always the right thing to do.

“Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff–they comfort me.”

Psalm 23:4

We won’t know until heaven how this story turned out. We don’t know how Philemon responded to this letter and to Onesimus’ return. What we do know is that a slave became truly free because he placed his life in the hands of the only One who could rescue Him from his fears.

The “rod and staff” of the Great Shepherd in the 23rd Psalm were symbols of God’s protection. A shepherd would use the rod to defend predators and the staff to guide and to pull back a wayward sheep from danger. Maybe today we need a fresh reminder that we don’t have to be a slave to fear. God is sovereign. He sees. He knows. He wants your faith to grow, and even in difficult times your faith can be effective–all for His glory.

Take this verse to heart today:

“Every good thing that is in us…” Don’t miss that part. Any good that we have in us comes from God and is for His glory! Let’s focus on that instead of our fears.

I am blogging through the Bible, and this will be the verse I try to memorize for the book of Philemon. Won’t you join me in this Scripture Memory Verse Challenge? Hiding God’s word in your heart is always a great way to combat the enemy of fear!

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