Devotional for Wednesday, May 13

Today, let’s look at a whole “book” of the Bible, although it’s really no more than a short letter.

In fact, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to read all of Philemon. Just click on the word “Philemon” in this sentence, and you’ll have Paul’s note in front of you.

Short as it is, Philemon has had a huge impact on history. Most people who read it very carefully begin to pick up on just how subversive it is.

Paul wrote the letter to send back with a runaway slave, Onesimus, who had been helping Paul in prison but now was returning to his master. Onesimus may have been just a boy.

The slave owner and recipient of the letter, a Christian named Philemon, had the right under Roman law to punish Onesimus harshly, but Philemon found himself in a difficult position once his slave returned. In the letter, Paul applied the principles of love declared by Christ, referring to the slave as a brother in Christ, and addressing the letter so it would be read before the entire congregation of Christians.

“If you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me,” Paul wrote. “If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.”

If you missed it on the first go-around, I would encourage you to read the whole letter with an eye to how Paul cleverly tried to free Onesimus, letting the power of love go to work on a slave owner’s heart. We don’t have clear evidence one way or the other, but I am confident Onesimus was freed. Some scholars believe the early church’s Bishop Onesimus of Ephesus was the boy slave grown into manhood.

And yes, the trajectory of this particular biblical idea continued into the future. Slavery became illegal in the western world largely because of British Christians, most notably William Wilberforce and others with ties to Methodism.

They understood the enslavement of others was contrary to the teachings of Christ. In fact, I think one could argue that without Christianity, slavery might continue as a legal institution even now.

Slavery is just one example of biblical ideas shaping the world. Christ’s teachings, given time, change everything.

Lord, thank you for the way your holy word changes our world for the better. Amen.

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