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Yearning For Freedom

(Philemon vv. 8-16; a study of Philemon 1-7 appeared in our Nov. ’13 issue)

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God, making mention of you always in my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints, that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. For we have great joy and consolation in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed by you, brother. 

Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting, yet for love’s sake I rather appeal to you—being such a one as Paul, the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ— I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me. I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary. For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 

If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides. Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow laborers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.

A group of singers on a television program were discussing African-American spirituals. One of them said that when the slaves sang about the hope of heaven, they were really expressing a longing to return to Africa.

That may be so. We can easily imagine slaves employing code words for things they did not feel free to express openly. But knowing the power of the gospel, we can also easily imagine slaves who longed for freedom taking hold of Christ’s promise of a life free from all the troubles of this life.

In the short letter of the apostle Paul to Philemon, we find two captives yearning for freedom. One is Paul himself, a prisoner in Rome. The other is Onesimus, a runaway slave.

The conditions of Paul’s first Roman imprisonment were not harsh; he lived in his own rented house and was able to receive visitors there. The last verse of the Acts of the Apostles speak of him “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him” (Acts 28:31).

Still Paul was not a free man. In this portion of his letter to Philemon he refers to his chains. If he had had a choice, Paul would no doubt have preferred to be free to travel and move about as he chose. There were places where he wanted to preach the gospel. There were Christian congregations he wanted to visit to encourage them.

But Paul also found freedom during his imprisonment. He continued to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who visited him. And from his confinement he received reports that the gospel continued to be preached by others.

And the apostle’s gospel witness bore fruit. Philemon’s slave Onesimus who had run away to Rome found Paul and, hearing the gospel from him, became a believer. Paul calls him “my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains.” Onesimus was to Paul living proof that though he himself was imprisoned, the gospel was not!

So we learn that the slave who yearned for freedom also found a freedom higher and greater than the kind he had tried to find by running away from his master. Though still legally a slave bound to his earthly master, Onesimus was now “the Lord’s freedman” (1 Corinthians 7:22). From Paul he had learned that he had a Savior who had freed him from his sins and from death and punishment for his sins. He found joy in serving Christ by humbly acting as hands and feet to Christ’s imprisoned apostle.

We may not be prisoners and we certainly are not slaves, yet we may feel that our circumstances keep us imprisoned and bound. Workers may feel stuck in a job that is demanding or unrewarding. Parents may feel imprisoned by their responsibilities to their children. Teenagers may feel penned up by rules and schedules made for them by parents and teachers.

But like Paul the prisoner and Onesimus the slave, we who know Jesus Christ as our Savior know real freedom. We know that real freedom is not found in abandoning responsibilities or breaking rules. Real freedom is the freedom from guilt that comes with the gospel of forgiveness. It is freedom from worry and anxiety which comes from the knowledge that we have a heavenly Father who loves us and is both willing and able to take care of us. It is freedom from fear that comes from knowing that regardless of what may happen tomorrow, we have eternal life.