Paul and a Runaway Slave
The Law of God: Questions and Answers
How shall we understand and apply God’s Law today?
How could Paul, contrary to God’s Law, send a slave back to his master?
I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me). I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. Philemon 10-12
Onesimus was apparently a slave to Philemon (v. 16), and not a very good one at that. He was “unprofitable” to Philemon (v. 11). Was he lazy? Stubborn? We don’t know, but whatever the conditions under which he “served” Philemon, Onesimus was known by all the people in Colossae as more of a burden to his owner than a boon.
He had run away to Rome, for whatever reason, we do not know. In Rome he managed to connect with the Apostle Paul, and Paul was able to lead him to a saving knowledge of God (v. 10). And now Paul was sending him back, bearing this letter (and, perhaps, the letter to the Colossians?) to his friend Philemon, with instructions as to how he was to receive this runaway slave.
But wait a second: Didn’t we just see that Hebrews, according to the Law of God, were not supposed to return runaway slaves to their masters? Weren’t they supposed to make appropriate accommodations for them, and let them enjoy their freedom? Is Paul setting himself above the Law of God here?
Not in the least (as you might have guessed). Paul is tapping into the very spirit of the Law, going beyond the mere letter of the Law to disclose and accomplish the true purpose and intent of the Law with respect to Onesimus, Philemon, the church in Colossae, and, as we shall see, the very institution of slavery itself.
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In the Gates is a devotional series on the Law of God by Rev. T. M. Moore, editor of the Worldview Church. He serves as dean of the Centurions Program of the Wilberforce Forum and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He is the author or editor of twenty books, and has contributed chapters to four others. His essays, reviews, articles, papers, and poetry have appeared in dozens of national and international journals, and on a wide range of websites. His most recent books are The Ailbe Psalter and The Ground for Christian Ethics (Waxed Tablet).
Scripture quotations in this article are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, (c) copyright 2001, 2007 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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