Close

Whiter Than Snow

Isaiah 1:16–18:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

This is such an interesting contrast Isaiah uses because of the materials involved. Once blood stains something, can be incredibly difficult to get back out. During Isaiah’s life, it might have been practically impossible to clean. Likewise, snow falls the purest of whites, but it’s impossible to return snow to that pristine state once stained. Think of slush on the side of a rode. That snow will never be white again.

Isaiah basically says that God cleans us from impossible stains to make us impossibly clean. But with God, we know that the impossible is always possible. Our sins make us unclean, but no stain of sin is so permanent that our Savior cannot cleanse us.

David expresses a similar idea in Psalm 51:7–10:

Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones You have crushed rejoice.

Turn Your face away from my sins and blot out all my guilt. God, create a clean heart for me and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

See also 1 Peter 2:19–21:

In that state He also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in the past were disobedient, when God patiently waited in the days of Noah while an ark was being prepared. In it a few — that is, eight people — were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Our Savior cleanses us through baptism today. He invites us to come to Him, be cleansed of our sins, and be made whiter than snow in our Father’s eyes. We have a Father who wants us to be with Him, remove our impurities, and make us impossibly clean of our transgressions. We just have to come to Him in faith and humility.

May we be a people who learns to do good, seeks justice, corrects oppression, and loves justice. May we repent of the sins that stain us so thoroughly and allow our Savior to make us whiter than snow.

Why Did Onesimus Go to Paul?

As I wrap up this set of posts about the letter to Philemon, I have a persistent question that keeps invading my mind as I study. Why did Onesimus go to Paul in the first place? This assumes Onesimus deliberately set out to meet up with Paul, but I find that scenario far more likely than this being a chance meeting.

This study is going to delve deeper into the realms of speculation that I am usually comfortable with. There’s much we simply don’t know about Onesimus, his journey to Paul, and Philemon’s household. Our faith does not hinge on these things. So please take this exercise for what it is — wondering aloud about an unspoken piece of Christian history.

Running Away from Home or Toward Paul?

Some slave owners required their slaves to wear collars, but my research indicates that most slaves had no distinctive dress to differentiate them. In that case, the easiest place to blend in and disappear would be in a larger city. However, I find the idea unlikely that Onesimus fled over a thousand miles to the center of Roman civilization and then coincidentally stumbled across the guarded apostle Paul.

The likeliest scenario in my mind is that Onesimus learned of Paul and his situation by overhearing others talk about him, and perhaps even hearing his epistles, in the congregation that met in Philemon’s home. (See Philemon 1–2.) Hearing so much about Paul led Onesimus to seek him out personally — even at great personal risk — specifically to hear the gospel from him.

The Unanswerable Question

Why Paul? With a congregation meeting the house in which he served, why undertake such a journey and risk so much? The only explanation I can come up with is that, for one reason or another, Onesimus wasn’t getting what he needed among the Christians meeting in Onesimus’s home.

Perhaps Philemon and the other Christians who gathered in his home had simply not overcome their prejudice against slaves yet. We can read that James specifically prohibits this kind of prejudice in James 2 as well as Paul’s assertion that all are equal in Christ — including slaves —in Colossians 3:11. Still, how easily do any of us set aside generational prejudice? The church in Philemon’s household might have simply seen Onesimus as less.

Or their inattention to Onesimus’s spiritual needs may have been less insidious, simply failing to notice his interest in the gospel because they were used to slaves being invisible. I find this the likeliest scenario. How many people do you ignore in your daily routines — the beggar at the intersection near work, the cashier at the grocery store, the kid delivering pizzas? You mean them no harm; you may just filter out their existence.

We may be standing right next to someone hungering for the hope provided by Christ’s gospel, but we may fail to notice them. We may harbor some prejudice, or they might just be invisible to us. However, we must challenge ourselves to grow our compassion and be more like the harvesters Jesus says we should be in Matthew 9:35–38:

Then Jesus went to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. When He saw the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were weary and worn out, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”

Who Can You Touch?

We may never know with certainly why Onesimus went to Paul, but we do know that Paul was uniquely qualified to help him. Paul saw the opportunity for what it was and shared Christ with a soul in need. Who is your Onesimus? Who are you in a unique position to help?

If Paul had blown off Onesimus or turned him in to the nearest authorities, a soul would have been lost. Paul overcame societal and even legal boundaries to share the gospel. Who can you reach out to just by making a step you might not otherwise take? You may be the only person to share the gospel with some of the people in your life. Isn’t it worth being uncomfortable or taking a risk if it means a soul is saved?

Somewhere in your life, you have an Onesimus knocking at your door. What will you do for them?

1 Peter and Christian Mistreatment

Radically Christian: How Christians Respond to Mistreatment: What I Noticed When I Read 1 Peter

The vast majority of this book deals with how Christians should respond when they suffer mistreatment. Modern readers, especially those in the United States, seem to have a very difficult time taking these commands seriously. We try to insert our own caveats, creating excuses for why we shouldn’t have to obey the instructions Peter gives to his audience.

There are no caveats. There is no nuance. No matter what sort of mistreatment a Christian is suffering, Peter tells them to respond the way Jesus responded, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” That is the simple and undeniable message of 1 Peter, do not respond in kind to those who revile and mistreat you.

But it even goes beyond just not retaliating. Peter writes, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.” Peter tells his audience to “bless” (speak and do good to) those who do evil to them. Why should we be surprised 1 Peter is a book about doing good to persecutors and not responding violently to those who mistreat us? The entire New Testament preaches this message without fail.

This is the message of the cross. This is how Christians are to join with Jesus in overcoming evil: when we are mistreated we bless those who do evil to us, hate us, revile us, and even kill us. I admit, this isn’t very American. It certainly isn’t John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. It’s Jesus. This is what it looks like to follow Jesus.

Fasting Out Loud

Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts: We’re Fasting Today

Today we’re having a time of prayer and fasting as a congregation.

Gasp! He broke the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule about fasting!

Isn’t it about time we got over that? Yes, Jesus said not to tell anyone when you are fasting. He also, in the same chapter and the same context, told us to only pray in a closet. Ever seen that commandment violated? To be honest, I’ve rarely seen that one followed!

Have you ever let your left hand know what your right hand was doing when you were giving? Did that invalidate your generosity?

If we don’t talk about fasting (in the right way), we’ll never learn about fasting. And to be honest, we’ll rarely practice fasting.

Observing Religious Holidays

Radically Christian: Is It Wrong to Celebrate Religious Days Like Christmas and Easter?

I have to admit, Brother McAdams has changed my mind on a couple of things with this article. It’s well worth a read.

Some might say, “But aren’t we supposed to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus every Sunday and not just one Sunday a year?” I would agree with that. I believe we have rightly inferred from Scripture and history that early Christians met on Sundays because Jesus was raised on Sunday. However, an annual celebration of Jesus’ resurrection no more negates the weekly celebration any more than a wedding anniversary negates a husband telling his wife, “I love you” daily. They are not mutually exclusive. You can celebrate the resurrection of Jesus weekly AND you can celebrate the resurrection annually.

Others may quote Paul’s words from Galatians 4:10-11, “You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” However, Paul is not arguing it is inherently wrong for someone to observe special days any more than he is arguing it is inherently wrong for a male to be circumcised. He was admonishing the Galatians because they were being convinced that keeping the Law of Moses (including feast days, kosher diet, and circumcision) was necessary to be part of God’s covenant people. If someone tries to convince you that you must observe Passover or Sabbath in order to be right with God, they are violating this passage.

Discernment & Hope

Borrowed Light: What if The Foundation of Discernment is Hope and Not Suspicion?

This post really has me thinking.

I’m talking about foundations here. Starting points. I’m convinced that we’ve gotten this wrong and because of it the gift of discernment has now become synonymous with the “gift” of being a jerk. True discernment will spot error. And it’ll call error out. But that’s not the intention of the search.

Think of it this way. Hope-fueled discernment is like a guy with a metal detector out in a field because he has heard reports of a buried treasure. He’s profoundly hopeful. Not skeptical. He wants to find the treasure. And so he keeps digging. All those places where he checked and didn’t find the treasure he is going to call them out. He’ll put flags there so people know treasure isn’t to be found here. Each “miss” is marked with sorrow but tinged with hope. So he keeps on swinging that detector in the hopes of finding treasure.

That’s quite different than the guy who has heard a report of a treasure in a field but he wants to prove all the idiots wrong.

Who We Are Instead

Wineskins: Who We Are Instead

Let us remember that the Church is the alternative to all the political divisiveness and partisan politics.  It is above the fray of mudslinging.  Christ gives His Church a distinct role to shine our light and point to Jesus.  The Church speaks to earthly powers, not for them.  We speak for God.  God’s power and God’s Word are the final authority and therefore, are superior to anything or anyone.

Instead, may we remember who we are instead:  Christians.  We are the bedraggled underdogs of the world in which God has given the Kingdom to.  We are ambassadors of a higher ethic, an alternative one. When we stoop down to nationalism and partisan politics, we divide Christ. Scripture is clear on this:  dividing the Body is a sin. We can do better. We can dialogue better.  We can love one another, even if we disagree. We must.  For if we do not, it is my fear, that we will continue to speed toward irrelevancy in an already doubting culture. Even worse, my fear is that we will repeat atrocities of the past.

What Philemon Taught Me About Romans 13

Romans 13:1–7

Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.

Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong.

Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s public servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor.

It’s hard for me to avoid cynicism whenever Romans 13 comes up. Christians vary widely on how we use the passage depending on our own political preferences. The same preacher can teach contradictory things from the passage informed by nothing more than whether or not they side with the current administration.

What we often ignore is the Romans 13 exists in a context. It exists in the context of Romans 12 which tells us to never repay evil for evil, to care for those we consider our enemies, and to overcome evil with good. It is a message that Christians should live in peace. It also exists in the context of Romans 14, which says we answer solely to the divine law of liberty and that we should be careful of violating fellow Christians’ consciences over secular matters.

Beyond these, Romans 13 exists in the context of the author’s life.

Paul and Romans 13

Paul was a Roman citizen, but he would have been subject to Roman rule regardless of his citizenship. The entire region where he lived was under Roman control — and not because anyone had invited them. Rome had forced themselves upon the region, as they had many before, in conquest. They overwhelmed local military and offered the benefits of Roman rule in return for taxes and obedience. Many Jews did not see the emperor or his people as legitimate rulers.

Yet Paul said to submit. And we see this time and again in Paul’s life. When he appeals to Caesar in Acts 25:1–12, he goes on to submit to everything that entails — standing trial, being shipped to Rome, living under house arrest and eventual imprisonment. Paul never complains of injustices visited upon him. Paul never retaliates. Paul never calls on Christians to take up arms and free him. He submits to the government, even though it will mean his death.

Paul and Disobedience to the Government

The letter to Philemon may contain the only time we see Paul overtly break what we would call a federal law. Yes, he disobeyed Jewish leaders and local officials who would tell him to quit preaching Christ, even stoning or imprisoning him in some cases, but he had never broken a Roman law. In the case of Onesimus, he does.

Remember that in the eyes of the Roman government and most Roman citizens, slaves were property — not people. A Roman slave owner had complete power over a slave’s body, and the slave had few to no rights of their own. An escaped slave was a fugitive — an “illegal,” if you will. And it was also illegal to aid or shelter an escaped slave in any way. If you encountered an illegally emancipated slave in Roman culture, your responsibility would have been to report the slave immediately.

Yet Paul spared Onesimus. Paul decided his obligation to Onesimus’s soul was greater than his obligation to Rome. Look what he writes in Philemon 8–12:

For this reason, although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I fathered him while I was in chains. Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. I am sending him back to you as a part of myself.

Paul’s writing indicates that he loves Onesimus’s as a son, a bond that supersedes any legal standings. Yes, Paul writes in Romans 13 that we should be submissive to the government under which we live, but his example shows us that we should not submit to the government at the expense of souls.

Our Application

So what does all of this mean to us? Again, we can be very inconsistent with how we apply Romans 13, based on how much you or I like a particular administration. But Paul shows us the way. Paul submitted to Rome, even when it disadvantaged himself to do so. This does not mean he gave allegiance to Rome; submission and allegiance are two different things. We, like Paul, can live peaceably as citizens of a worldly government without being attached to that government. For our real citizenship is in Heaven.

Above all, our allegiance to God is more important than our obligations to any worldly power. Souls are more important than worldly laws. For me, that’s the line in the proverbial sand between obedience and disobedience — not whether I feel offended, not how I feel about my civil liberties, not how fair I feel the law is, not how much I like the person or party behind it. But this: does my adherence to a law put souls in jeopardy? If not, I’m not likely to resist. But I have no tolerance for laws and policies that endanger or devalue souls made in God’s image.

In all of this, you will seldom find me publicly advocating for any law, policy, or campaign promise. My hope is in Christ alone, not in the promises of any politician or official. My hope is not in border walls, military might, court rulings, or my civil liberties. My mission is to preserve none of these things. My calling is to save and preserve souls. And the things we all choose to submit to should reflect our hope in Christ and our love for souls. That is the lesson the book of Philemon teaches us about Romans 13.

Further reading:

For a few additional and excellent commentaries on Romans 13, see these posts by Wes McAdams and Brian Zahnd:

 

 

 

illustration of a cross against a nearly black background

The Day Between

It’s a little late to be posting this, but as I sit here awake in the middle of the night, I find myself wondering about the apostles on this same night some 1,970 years ago. How many of them were having problems sleeping? Jesus had been crucified the day before. He wouldn’t raise agin until tomorrow. In between that was a long and lonely Saturday where it seemed all hope had been lost.

A Fearful Day

Between the gospel accounts, we see that some visited His grave, like Mary and Martha. Others, like the disciples in John 20:19, were in hiding, fearful of what might happen to them. Of course, these things happened after the Sabbath Day, on the Sunday when Jesus would rise from the grave. The Bible is conspicuously silent about Saturday, but based on the events leading up to the cross and what we see after, one thing is clear: many of Jesus’ closest followers had lost hope.

When the mob takes Jesus away from Galilee, His apostles scatter. Peter follows at a distance, but he then goes on to deny any association with Jesus all. The only apostle we see near the cross is John. Even after the apostles reunite and Jesus appears among them, Thomas still doubts — Thomas who once pledged to die alongside Jesus in John 11:16. They had lost sight of Jesus’s promises. They had lost sight of His hope.

Waiting for His Return

We too live in a day between our Savior’s departure and His return. Each of the gospel accounts ends with Christ lifting into the sky. He departs this world to return to Heaven, but we have promises that He will return.

Acts 1:11 (right after Jesus’ ascension):

“Men of Galilee, they said. “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Acts 3:19–21

“Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you — even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”

Colossians 3:4

When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Revelation 22:20–21

He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen, Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.

And there are several more passages like these. Our Savior has risen, and we await His return. But the challenge to us is the same as to those first disciples the day before the Resurrection — to not lose faith, hope, or sight while we wait.

Keeping Perspective

When Jesus appeared before the apostles, how foolish do you think they felt for being so fearful the day before? Likewise, how foolish might we feel when the Lord returns, when we realize how much time and energy we’ve spent focusing purely on the things of this world? Sure, we have longer to wait than the apostles, but in the context of eternity, this life will seem no more than a day — a day where we either waited on the Lord or a day where we let the cares and concerns of this world choke Him out of our lives.

Those early disciples were legitimately fearful that the Jewish leaders would have them killed as they had Jesus. Likewise, the concerns of this life can feel equally legitimate and immediate, but they don’t have to rule us. Fears stoked by politicians, by health struggles, by tragedies, by terror — these are all tools of the devil to keep our eyes planted on the here-and-now rather than the hereafter. They can cause us to lock ourselves up spiritually. They can make us forget the promises we have.

Instead, let’s learn from the mistakes of our spiritual forerunners. Let’s keep focused on our hope and faith. Let’s keep our eyes on Christ’s promises. Let’s stay focused on His return. That should then put everything else in perspective. It should break the locks on our hearts. It should drive fear away, and that enables us to then live like Him and for Him. We should be living with a hope that none can take away. We don’t know when our Lord will return, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are ready.

Titus 2:11–14

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to the intent that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we would live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world; looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of the great God and our Savior, Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify to himself a people for his own possession, zealous for good works.

What Philemon Taught Me About Citizenship

Paul was a Roman citizen. In fact, based on the account in Acts 22:23–29, Paul benefited from the status of cives Romani — citizens who had full legal protection under Roman law. What’s more, Paul inherited his citizenship through birth, a distinction that gave him a certain prestige among those who might have purchased citizenship.

As they were yelling and flinging aside their robes and throwing dust into the air, the commander ordered him to be brought into the barracks, directing that he be examined with the scourge, so he could discover the reason they were shouting against him like this. As they stretched him out for the lash, Paul said to the centurion standing by, “Is it legal for you to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen and is uncondemned?”

When the centurion heard this, he went and reported to the commander, saying, “What are you going to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.”

The commander came and said to him, “Tell me — are you a Roman citizen?”

“Yes,” he said.

The commander replied, “I bought this citizenship for a large amount of money.”

“But I was born a citizen,” Paul said.

Therefore, those who were about to examine him withdrew from him at once. The commander too was alarmed when he realized Paul was a Roman citizen and he had bound him.

It’s important to understand that being within the boundaries of the Roman Empire did not automatically make you a Roman citizen. For example, most people living in First Century Judea would fall under the legal status of Provinciales – peoples who fell under Roman control but had few rights compared to higher classes. In the book of Philemon, Onesimus didn’t even enjoy that limited legal status, for Onesimus was a slave.

Not Citizens, Not Even People

Slaves lacked legal personhood in the Roman Empire. The question of citizenship was a moot point because they were property, not people. In the First Century, there were few protections for slaves. Masters could use corporal punishment, sexually exploit, torture, and even kill their slaves with little fear of reprisal. After all, they weren’t abusing a person. In their minds, they were doing nothing more than mistreating property, worthy of no more consideration than a piece of furniture. (See Marcel Mauss. 1979. “A Category of the human mind: the notion of the person, the notion of ‘self'”.)

Professor Keith Bradely puts it this way in Resisting Slavery in Ancient Rome:

In Rome and Italy, in the four centuries between 200 BC and 200 AD, perhaps a quarter or even a third of the population was made up of slaves. Over time millions of men, women, and children lived their lives in a state of legal and social non-existence with no rights of any kind. They were non-persons – notice that in Plutarch’s story the slave does not even have a name – and they couldn’t own anything, marry, or have legitimate families.

Their role was to provide labour, or to add to their owners’ social standing as visible symbols of wealth, or both. Some slaves were treated well, but there were few restraints on their owners’ powers, and physical punishment and sexual abuse were common. Owners thought of their slaves as enemies. By definition slavery was a brutal, violent and dehumanising institution, where slaves were seen as akin to animals.

The public distrusted slaves, who were the first to be blamed for any public disturbance or crime. The capture of escaped slaves was a national obsession. An escaped slave was known as a fugitivus — a term loaded with the same derision we might reserve for illegal alien. Harboring an escaped slave was illegal, and captured slaves would often be whipped, tortured, or killed. Any slave returned living to their master would be branded on the forehead with the letter FUG, for fugitivus.

This is the climate under which Onesimus meets Paul sometime prior to the book of Philemon. Onesimus has no legal right to be in Paul’s presence. He has no right to expect any special treatment. He should entirely expect Paul to tun him into the authorities as a fugitive slave with no rights. At worst, this journey could be a death sentence for Onesimus, but something about Paul draws the slave to him.

A Message Greater Than Citizenship

There is no evidence at all that Paul holds Onesimus’s lack of legal citizenship against him in the book of Philemon. This should come as no surprise from the man who wrote 1 Corinthians 9:19–23.

Although I am a free man and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law — though I myself am not under the law — to win those under the law. To those who are without that law, like one without the law — not being without God’s law but within Christ’s law — to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so I may become a partner in its benefits.

Or who wrote Romans 1:13–17.

Now I want you to know, brothers, that I often planned to come to you (but was prevented until now) in order that I might have a fruitful ministry among you, just as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am obligated both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and the foolish. So I am eager to preach the good news to you also who are in Rome.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it God’s righteousness is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith.

Or Galatians 3:27–28.

For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.

Paul knew the gospel is not constrained by social class, by geopolitical boundaries, by national allegiances, or any other worldly division we might create. Christ’s gospel is for all, and if we put artificial boundaries between lost souls and the truth of Christ, even those of citizenship, then we are like the Pharisees of Matthew 23, who “lock up the kingdom of heaven from people.”

Onesimus would have known of Paul by reputation at the very least. He would have known of this prophet who spoke of a faith that eliminates all social status. Before meeting him, Onesimus saw Paul as a safe space, a place where he could learn of the man called Christ without fear and from a person who would treat him as a person, not as property,

An Aside on Applying Authority

We often speak of Biblical authority in terms of direct commands, implications, and apostolic example. I also respect the notion of the silence of the scriptures — the idea that if you cannot find authorization for something, then the silence on that topic is prohibitive; it’s not something God wants from us. The book of Philemon hits all of these in terms of how a disciple of Christ should treat a non-citizen in regards to the gospel.

1. Direct Command

Onesimus has not yet reconciled his legal status when Paul writes this in Philemon 1:15–17:

For perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a brief time, so that you might get him back permanently, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave — as a dearly loved brother. He is especially so to me, but even more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me.

If there’s any question how Paul views this statement, see verse 21, where Paul writes, “Since I am confident of your obedience…” These are not the words of one who views this as a request. It is a command. Onesimus is a brother in Christ above all, legal status notwithstanding.

2. Example and Implication

Paul writes, in Philemon 1:9–13:

I appeal to you, instead, on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my son, Onesimus. I fathered him while I was in chains. Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me. I am sending him back to you as a part of myself. I wanted to keep him with me, so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place.

  • Paul taught Onesimus the gospel and baptized him into Christ.
  • Onesimus was still a fugitive slave when Paul converted him.
  • Therefore, Paul’s actions demonstrate that citizenship in Christ’s kingdom is of greater urgency than earthly citizenship.

Paul sets an example for us that demonstrates how we should conduct ourselves in similar circumstances. If, for example, I have opportunity to teach an undocumented immigrant — an illegal — then my responsibility is to their soul first. Any earthly citizenship is purely a secondary consideration. It will be important to reconcile that problem eventually, but it’s not the first concern.

3. Silence of the Scripture

There’s no record that Paul alerted the authorities about Onesimus. There’s no record he berated or tried to turn away Onesimus as an illegally free slave. There is evidence to the contrary that Paul insisted Onesimus fix his legal status before learning about Christ. The lack of these details means they were not part of Paul’s encounter with Onesimus, nor should they be part of the way we conduct ourselves in similar circumstances.

The Promise of a Better Kingdom

Worldly nations are inherently broken. Rules for citizenship are often discriminatory and overwhelming. And what do they get us? At best, we have a few worldly rights and privileges afforded in a transient geopolitical entity surrounded by imaginary boundaries that have no meaning beyond a tentative agreement with other such entities. Jesus Christ offers us something better.

Philippians 3:20–21

…But our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject everything to Himself.

1 Peter 2:9–10

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

The book of Philemon teaches me that heavenly citizenship is better than and more important than earthy citizenship. Being a Christian is more important than being an American (or insert your own country here). In my life, I should put Christ first, not America first. I should seek to share the greatness of Christ, not make my nation great. The only question of citizenship I should ask of anyone is whether or not they are part of Christ’s kingdom.

Paul did not idolize his citizenship, and neither should we. My call is not to make proselytes to American civic religion but to bring lost souls to Christ. My call is not to teach Western culture but to teach the grace and forgiveness of Christ. It is not to make you like me, but for me to prefer you and help you on your spiritual journey. Through Him, we add to the citizens of His kingdom, which knows no class, no race, and no boundaries.