Summary: What do you as a follower of Jesus Christ when someone close to you has hurt you?

The Hardest Thing You’ll Ever Do


What do you do when the person closest to you has betrayed and hurt you? I had a friend in college with whom I reconnected after I moved back from seminary. Let’s call her Jane. She had a whirlwind romance and after just six months, got married. All of her friends, including myself asked her to slow down. Despite our advice, they married. A year later, he fell sick and was unable to work. While incapacitated, Jane’s husband, who had terrible credit, received the mail each day and began filling out Jane’s credit card offers and also got a card in his name. One day, Jane received a call from a collection company and was told she owed $40,000 of credit card debt. She discovered her husband had been filling out card offers, receiving one for himself, never telling her about it. When he maxed out one, he would get another. On top of that, New Orleans booted her car because he had $1500 of parking tickets which he just stuffed in the glove box. Plus, he hadn’t paid rent on his office in the World Trade Center and the locks had been changed making her grandmother’s dining room unretrievable. Can you imagine her hurt and sense of betrayal. The problem is those closest to us have the greatest opportunity to wound us the deepest. And when they do, what do you do?

The Book of Philemon was written by the Apostle Paul in approximately 60 A. D. to a man named Philemon who lived in Colossea and was a leader in the church. He appears to have been a fairly wealthy Colossian. Philemon evidently came to faith in Christ as a result of Paul's influence (v. 19), perhaps when Paul was residing at Ephesus. The city of Colossea was located in the province Phyrgia or modern day Turkey on the busy Lycus River where it merged with the Meander river. Thus, Colossea was a hub of commercial boat traffic on these two rivers. The city was also located on the Roman Road which ran directly east from Ephesus passed through Laodicea, and eleven miles farther, Colossae. It ran all the way to the Tigris Euphrates river in modern day Iraq. Paul writes this letter from Rome where he was under house arrest for more than two years. He does not know his fate but this does not keep Paul from continuing his ministry. He continues to receive visitors to teach and mentor them in the faith and one of those was Onesimus, who was a runaway slave who made his way to Rome. Scholars believe that Onesimus carried not only the letter to Philemon but also Paul’s letter to the Colossians and the Ephesians. From those three letters, we learn of Paul’s obedience, dedication and faithfulness to the mission of Jesus Christ in spite of the circumstances he is facing.

This is the first mention of slavery in the New Testament though it was prominent throughout the Roman Empire. Scholars believe there may well have been 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire in the first century and comprised 40-50% of the inhabitants of most large urban centers. Slaves were critical to the social and economic structure of the Empire. It was everywhere and all-embracing. Paul and the early church must have been constantly in contact with it from the beginning. One of the difficulties we Americans have when reading about slavery in the New Testament is that we see it through our own history of antebellum slavery in the South. But slavery in the urban cities of Rome was very different from slavery in the South. Most people in Paul’s day owned slaves. Urban Roman slaves were more like household servants in Victorian England than slaves in the antebellum South. They came from the peoples and land the Roman Empire conquered and were culled from the middle class. They were teachers, engineers, doctors, accountants, cooks and skilled craftsmen. Slaves lived with their masters and thus, became one of the family. They were encouraged to be entrepreneurs and start their own businesses and could save up the profits to purchase their freedom. A freed slave gained Roman citizenship though they could not hold public office, a process called manumission. But many decided not to purchase their freedom because they were so well treated and wanted to stay in their master’s care and protection.

Onesimus is a runaway slave and non-believer at that time. This is unusual because many slaves came to faith with their Christian master. This happened because the first century Christian church were house churches and Roman villas were perfectly set up to accommodate this. The front of a Roman villa faced the street and had commercial space in it. Behind that was the atrium which was a public room for business and meetings and a perfect settings for the early church to meet. The largest atriums were 30-35 square feet and could hold 50-80 people. As a result, masters brought their slaves with them and thus they heard the Gospel and came to faith. We also know this because most of the meetings of the first century church were at night and night meetings were outlawed by Rome because that’s when plans of sedition were made. Night time meetings accommodated the many slaves who had to work during the day. What’s interesting is that Onesimus did not come to faith under his Master. Why did he run away? There is no evidence that Philemon treated Onesimus harshly. Some scholars have surmised that because of his faith, Philemon may have given too much grace and freedom to Onesimus and thus when the opportunity presented, he took advantage of it and slipped away.

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