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Paul advocates for change

Who was the first Baptist missionary to leave his home country and go to another with the gospel?

Adoniram Judson went to Burma from America in 1812, but it’s not him. William Carey went to India from England in 1793, but it’s not him. The first was George Leile, who went to Jamaica from America in 1782.

Leile was a black man, born into slavery on a Virginia plantation around 1750. Early in life he was sold away from his parents and wound up in Georgia.

In 1773 in his twenties, Leile was converted and baptized under the preaching of Matthew Moore. For the next 2 years George preached in the slave quarters of plantations around Savannah, and many were saved.

Recognizing the hand of God on George, his owner, a Baptist deacon named Henry Sharp, granted George his official freedom so he could freely travel and preach the gospel.

George was ordained in 1775 at a white church in Burke County, Georgia, the first ordained black Baptist pastor in Georgia. In Savannah he founded the very first Black Baptist church in North America, a church that still exists today.   

Since most of his congregation were slaves, George was always bi-vocational. He worked as a farmer and earned extra transporting goods for people with his horse and wagon. Eventually he married and had four children.

Then in 1778 his former master Henry Sharp was killed in the Revolutionary War. Henry’s sorry descendants sought to re-enslave George. They had George thrown in jail as they tried to re-assert their claim on him. What would come next?

I will let you know in a while.

Read Colossians 4:7-18 & Philemon      Paul advocates for change            Let’s Pray!

This is the next to last message in the series “facing life with the Apostle Paul.”

Last time we saw Paul face possible death from Roman imprisonment around 62 AD. He declared those wonderful words from Philippians chapter 1, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

Paul wrote Philippians, as well as Colossians and Philemon, from imprisonment in Rome when he was in his early 60’s as a man. That was old – only 36% of Roman men lived to be that age, and only 27% of women.

One day while Paul was imprisoned there in Rome, a runaway slave from Colossae named Onesimus was put into the prison with him. Paul did what Paul always did – shared the faith with this man, and Onesimus was saved!

As they were talking, Paul realized something else – on one of his missionary journeys he had led Onesimus’ master Philemon to the Lord.

Perhaps another man from Colossae, Epaphras, helped Paul understand the situation. Epaphras was probably the Pastor of the Colossian church, and had gone to Rome on behalf of the church to support Paul during his imprisonment.

Now picture this in your mind – Philemon is at church, and standing before him is his runaway slave, delivering two letters from Paul. One is to the whole church, and the other is an open letter to you that the church also gets to hear.

To understand what Paul asks of Philemon, let’s first understand what the Old Testament taught about slavery, and what was practiced in the Roman Empire. 

Now let’s talk about slavery in the Old Testament and in the Roman Empire

In the O.T. Law there are several examples of God regulating what He did not condone, because all the people around Israel did those things and He knew their sinful hearts would lead them to as well. So God regulated those things for the sake of the vulnerable people who would be exploited by their sin.

An example is Divorce. In Malachi 2:16 the Lord says He hates divorce.

But under Old Testament law, if a male did divorce his wife for selfish reasons, he had to give his wife a certificate saying it really wasn’t her fault. She could produce that to any concerned suitor to come and remarry.

God regulated divorce for the sake of the vulnerable without condoning it. Something like that happened with slavery. We don’t have time for a full discussion, but here are several things in the O.T.

Several key things the Old Testament says about slavery:

In the Old Testament chattel slavery that involved kidnapping was forbidden.

If a man is found kidnapping any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and mistreats him or sells him, then that kidnapper shall die; and you shall put away the evil from among you.  -Deuteronomy 24:7

Kidnapping, mistreating, or selling another meant the death penalty for you.

In fact, if a slave escaped from their master and sought refuge within your community, you were commanded to provide it. 

You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you. He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him, you shall not oppress him.                                                         -Deuteronomy 23:15-16

If a slave escaped from their pagan master, Israel not only was told not to return them, they were told to give them a new home, called to practice refuge ministry!

The Old Testament did allow a man to sell himself into temporary 6-year indentured servitude until he paid off his debts.

If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh year he shall go out free and pay nothing.           -Exodus 21:2

Many of us feel that kind of indentured servitude to the bank today, for far more than 7 years, with no Year of Jubilee in sight!

Any abuse meant the immediate freedom of the servant.

And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of the tooth.                              -Exodus 21:27

The racist chattel slavery practiced in America and the world until our Civil War failed to meet all those criteria!

Any other references you find in the Old Testament related to slavery need to be understood in light of those commands.

Unfortunately for Onesimus, the slavery in the Roman Empire was more like chattel slavery than like Indentured servitude.

Slavery in the Roman Empire:

There were about 5 million slaves in the Roman Empire in the 1st century. They accounted for 10 percent to 40 percent of the population depending on what part of the empire you lived in.

Although Roman slavery was not based on race, many of the slaves were from people groups the Roman military had conquered. Slaves were considered property under Roman law and had no legal personhood.

Most slaves would never be freed. Unlike Roman citizens they could be subjected to punishment, torture, execution, and sexual exploitation. The average slave died at 17 ½ years of age, ten years less than the average citizen.

At one time there were legal restrictions on freeing slaves, and escaped slaves would be hunted down and returned, often for a reward. Owners sometimes tattoed ownership claims on their slaves to discourage running away.

Unlike Jewish law, Rome forbade the harboring of fugitive slaves. Professional slave catchers hunted down runaways. Wanted posters were posted.

Over time, however, they gained a path to citizenship and increased legal protections, including the right to file complaints against their masters. Many of those changes were brought on as Christianity permeated the Roman Empire.

In 161 AD a Roman jurist named Gaius finally  wrote that slavery was contrary to nature, but that was 100 years after Paul’s life and ministry.

When Paul wrote Philemon let’s optimistically say the worldwide church had grown to 100,000 Christians, many of them slaves without rights. That’s out of 60 million people in the Roman Empire, or 0.001% of the population.

No wonder Paul didn’t spend his time telling Rome or future governments that their laws needed to change. They would have just thrown him in prison and declared the church illegal.

Paul spent his time instructing Christians on what God commanded them to do within any future government.     

Paul taught believers to submit to the government authorities unless they commanded you to do something against God’s higher law.

And Paul’s words make clear that slavery is against God’s higher law.

Before Philemon was read that day Colossians was. And Paul made clear that in Jesus Christ’s eyes no person is inferior in worth to another.  

“Where is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.” -Colossians 3:11

Along with the doctrine of creation that’s where our founding fathers got the idea that “all men are created equal.”

Rome viewed some people as inferior to others. The church was taught that members are equally brethren in Christ despite what the law taught.   

Yes, within Roman law Paul taught that Christian servants were to be the best of servants, but the new teaching he brought was to the masters to treat their servants with dignity equal to their own, and that masters would have to give an account to the Master in Heaven – they could not treat their servants badly.  

In I Corinthians 7:21 Paul actually tells slaves that if they are able to get their freedom to go for it!

And here in this letter to Philemon Paul advocates not only the forgiveness of Onesimus without punishment, but I believe he is calling Philemon to free Onesimus once and for all for gospel ministry.

Paul’s advocacy between Philemon and Onesimus:

Paul advocates for Philemon to free Onesimus for ministry                  V. 10-14

Look at verse 10    

Onesimus’ name means “Useful.” The play on words here suggests Philemon had called him useless. That is no longer true! He is now saved and serving Christ, just as Philemon had done after Paul had led him to Christ (verse 19).

Look at verse 11

I am sending him back to meet his legal responsibilities to you.

But I am asking you to then free him and send him back to me to join my team.

Look at verse 12

I could command you to do this as an apostle, but I am hoping you will do it voluntarily.

The shame for too many White American Christians is that we had to be compelled by law to what we should have done voluntarily – reject Jim Crow laws.

The heart of the matter is always the matter of the heart!

Paul was not in a legal position to advocate for this change. But he was using the influence the Lord had given him to advocate for this change.

God also calls us to use our influence to reach others with biblical truth!

Paul makes clear Philemon and Onesimus are equal brothers in Christ   V. 15-16

Every country has some version of the class system, the haves and have nots. Sinful humans just can’t help themselves. We divide ourselves in so many ways.

The gospel was fixin’ to change everything in the Roman Empire. When people got saved, the way the world separates people is to be jettisoned in the church. No matter what separates them, their faith brings them together!

Philemon and Onesimus both had the same spiritual father – Paul. And he expected them to act like brothers and love one another.

One Indian man talked about how this teaching had permeated America. “America is the only country I know of where a billionaire will call the waiter ‘Sir!’

Paul explicitly makes clear Philemon needs to forgive Onesimus         V. 17-18

Whether Paul is referring to the act of running away or that Onesiumus had also stolen from Philemon before he left, Paul says, “Receive him as you would me!” And if any debt remains, I will make it right.

Paul stood in the gap to reconcile Philemon and Onesimus, just like Jesus did for Paul and the Heavenly Father!

Philemon was on the spot to obey, but understand that Paul had already put Onesimus on the spot! Paul had made clear Onesimus needed to go back and ask forgiveness and face whatever consequences there would be.

It would free him from legal trouble, and be a great moment of reconciliation. Still, it would be tough to do.

One thing I like is that John Mark was with Paul, which was itself a testimony to reconciliation! Paul wasn’t asking Onesimus or Philemon to do something he was unwilling to do!

I don’t advocate people looking around during church, but I would have loved to see them looking around that day! 

As servants eyes met each others, as masters eyes met each others, as servants and masters eyes met! What a sight it must have been!


Remember George Leile? In 1778 the sorry descendants of his former master sought to re-enslave George. They had George thrown in jail. Fortunately, he was able to produce his freedom papers, and was released.

But he decided not to stick around! In 1782 George sold himself into indentured servitude to borrow $700 to get him and his family to Kingston, Jamaica. Hardworking George eventually paid off his debt and was freed again.

He immediately formed a church with 4 members and began preaching at the Kingston Race Course. White citizens of Jamaica harassed him and his converts and the government imprisoned him several times, but he was undeterred.

In his first 8 years of ministry there he baptized 500 people. In 1805 the government made it illegal to preach to slaves, but he kept doing it. By 1814 there were 8000 Baptists in Jamaica, and by the end of his life there were nearly 20,000.

He and his church sent out church planters to other parts of Jamaica, America, and Canada, and over 50 missionaries to Africa!

George Leile was a revolutionary war era Onesimus, useful in the Lord’s work. And Henry Sharp was his Philemon. George Leile made every day count after his conversion. Let’s make every day count!

Martin Luther said, “all of us are Onesimuses!”                   John 14:6

Won’t you let Jesus bring you and the Heavenly Father together like Paul brought together Philemon and Onesimus?

Let’s Pray!