Solving Problems

     We remember Paul’s letter to Philemon. Philemon was a fellow worker of the apostle. The first few lines of the letter demonstrate that they were close friends and that Paul held him in high esteem.

There was a practical and spiritual problem which Paul sought to head off. It had to do with a man named Onesimus. Onesimus was an escaped slave who was owned by Philemon. He had come in contact with Paul while Paul himself was under arrest and confinement in Rome (Acts 28:30-31). As Luke told us Paul was held in his own hired house but was able to see people and teach them. He referred to Onesimus as “my son” (verse 10) because the fleeing slave had obtained spiritual freedom in Christ in response to Paul’s teaching.

     Though Onesimus was free from sin in Christ (see Paul’s letter to the Romans, particularly chapter 6) there still remained the matter of his bondage to Philemon. Slavery was not only legal in the Roman Empire it was one of the things that allowed that empire to prosper. Roman society was divided into specific classes. If you were a citizen you enjoyed substantial advantages. If you were a wealthy citizen, all the better. A slave was owned by another person. Many became slaves through military conquest. They did much of the everyday hard labor. They were also used as teachers, doctors, musicians and to do whatever else the ruling class desired.

     As the Roman Empire grew and became wealthier the number of slaves obtained and kept also grew. The number of slaves greatly exceeded the number of slaveholders. Consequently the punishment for rebellion among slaves was very harsh up to and including death. Of course, slaveholders really did not want to have to kill their slaves because of the value associated with them, but they could not afford to allow escape to go unpunished. If they did, all the slaves would just leave. I certainly would; wouldn’t you?

     So in the empire harsh punishment was legal and the fear of it was hoped to motivate obedience. Thus Onesimus had a big problem. As an escaped slave he was a lawbreaker and thus subject to severe punishment. But he had become a Christian and the man who had taught him the truth was a close friend with the man who was his master. What was he going to do?

     Well, it seems that he put the problem in Paul’s lap. Now, some folks who are barely aware of the lessons of history contend that Paul should have taken this occasion to outlaw the practice of slavery in the Roman Empire. There is no doubt that slavery is contrary to how God would have us treat each other. Indeed, the Golden Rule (as in Matthew 7:12) eradicates slavery wherever it is practiced. But, had Paul encouraged rebellion in Onesimus and others at this time the result would have been the punishment and death of many slaves.

     So Paul encouraged Philemon and Onesimus to do the only thing that would work. He sent Onesimus back and he encouraged Philemon to receive him as a brother in Christ. This solution required some effort and risk by both men but if Paul’s plan was faithfully obeyed, the problem would be solved.

    Paul did two more things to help Philemon see the seriousness of the matter. He offered to pay for any loss Philemon had incurred and he asked Philemon to get a room ready for Paul to visit. He also reminded Philemon that he had done something for him too (v. 19). I can just imagine Philemon thinking about Paul’s letter and, on top of considering the merits of Paul’s plan, wondering what he would tell him if he did not agree. So we have this line: “Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (v. 21).

     Our problems are different but just as tough. We may think there is no way to solve them. But there is. Obey God. He has the answers.