There are two major motion pictures out right now that depict the struggle over slavery in America in radically different ways. In “Lincoln” the story covers a relatively short period of time at the end of Lincoln’s life as he worked to pass the 13th Amendment. The second movie, “Django UnChained,” is the fictional story of a freed slave, turned bounty hunter, who travels to a plantation in the deep south to free his wife. Each of these movies depict the struggle over slavery from different points of view. In Lincoln the issue is seen primarily as a political struggle, but the ever present horrors of the civil-war remind the viewer that slavery in America was ended through tremendous violence. In Django UnChained, the violence and horror of slavery is constantly thrown into the face of the viewer. I found many of the images in Django to be utterly repulsive and yet could not turn away. Each of these movies , in their own ways, depict the struggle over slavery in America in terms of violence. While watching these two movies I could not help but to ask, “How could the gospel have been applied to the issue of slavery?” Thankfully, all we have to do is to open our Bibles to the book of Philemon to find and answer to that question.
Paul wrote the letter to Philemon from prison sometime between A.D. 58-60. The letter is addressed to a man named Philemon concerning one of his runaway slaves named Onesimus. Somehow Onesimus had made his way to where Paul was imprisoned and had been converted to the gospel. Upon discovering that he knows Onesimus’s owner, Paul decides to intercede on behalf of the runaway slave who has now become a valued part of Paul’s ministry. There are many facets of this letter that I find interesting, but the one that is most powerful is the simple way that Paul applies the gospel to the situation.
In verses 14-16, Paul writes, “but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for awhile, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother— especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Paul’s basic argument here is that when Onesimus became a believer in Christ, his relationship status changed with Philemon. Rather than just being a slave, Onesimus was now a brother in Christ and Philemon had to treat him as such. Paul, in other words, was saying that the gospel changes the way we see each other.
The gospel gives us a place of common ground and starting point for all kinds of reconciliation. One of the interesting changes I observed in my dad after he became a Christian was in the area of racial reconciliation. My dad grew up in a community that had no racial diversity and somewhere in his life he became very bigoted. I am not sure where or why it started but at some point in his life my dad learned to fear and dislike anyone who was of a different skin color. It was not uncommon to hear him use the n-word or other disparaging, racist names. Several years after he was saved we attended a state evangelism conference together and he sat next to the Pastor of a large African American church in Ohio. At one point in the conference the speaker asked us to turn and give the person next to us a hug. Why he asked us to hug each other was irrelevant in my mind because all could think about was how awkward my dad looked hugging anyone, let alone a large black man. What happened next shocked and demonstrated the power of the gospel to change the way we think and behave— my dad invited him to come to lunch with us. That may not seem like a big deal to you but in my mind this was an indication of just how deeply the gospel had penetrated my dad’s life — He no longer saw race, he saw a brother in Christ. As it turned out, this was not an isolated event in my dad’s life and it became clear that the bigotry he had grown up with was transformed and changed by the gospel.
The gospel changes how we see each other. It changed the way Philemon saw Onesimus and it changed the way my dad saw that black preacher more than 20 years ago. As believers, we need to promote reconciliation through the most powerful message the World has ever heard— the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel changes our relationship with God and with each other. Tomorrow, I will look at how Paul model’s the gospel in v.17-18 of Philemon. Be sure to stop by tomorrow to read part 2 of this series and share this article with your friends on Facebook or Twitter.