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A Letter of Grace

8 Mar 2008, Dr Barry Wright

(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)


In the 1970s a global survey made by an American organization under the name of Freedom House revealed some horrifying statistics. It was to show that half the world was not considered to be free. For eighty-five million people in seven different countries, personal freedom was seen to be diminishing at a rapid rate. Sixty-six countries with 42 per cent of the world's population were already termed 'not free' (Tan, 1991: 460).

The well-known 18th century French Philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, once made the observation about the society of his time that 'Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains' (Water, 2000: 381).

Just over half a century ago, American President, Franklin D. Roosevelt made the comment that 'There never has been, there isn't now, and there never will be, any race of people on the earth fit to serve as masters over their fellow men (Tan. 1991: 462).

The aspiration for freedom could not be better seen than in the famous speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jn. on Aug 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. He suggested that:

'When we let freedom ring…when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up the day when all of God's children: black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last' (Water, 2000: 380).

The ancient practice of enslaving one person to another human being and the loss of freedom incurred takes us right back to the beginning of this earth's history. We see reference to this in the words of Noah to his youngest son in Gen 9: 25 where he said, 'Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.'

The concept of slavery was still seen by the Apostle John right down to the end of time when he says in Rev 6: 15 'And every bondman [or slave], and every freeman, hid themselves in the rocks of the mountains.' John was talking here about the events associated with the Second Coming of Jesus.

We often think of slavery as only being part of the culture of the Old Testament, but we need to recognise that it has been with us in its various forms right down through history to our modern day.

If we open the Scriptures we see the existence of slavery in its many different forms showing the depth to which even the people of God found themselves within the cultures of their day.

Household or domestic slavery was the most common form and we see this in the story of Hagar, who lived in the home of Abraham and Sarah (Gen 16: 1).

The practice of Temple slavery was seen during the time of Moses and Joshua where they would assign people captured in war as slaves to the Levites for temple services (Num 31: 25-31).

Another common form was seen in the enslavement of whole groups of people like the Israelites themselves who, during their sojourn in Egypt were placed under the subjection of their Egyptian masters (Ex 5: 6-19). Later we find Solomon doing something similar by enslaving some of the Canaanite peoples (1 Kings 9: 20-21).

By the time the Roman Empire arrived on the scene we see a very powerful nation-state whose economy was basically run on slavery. A large percentage of the population were enslaved, but unlike the American institution, it did not have an ethnic basis. People became slaves through birth or piracy, or by falling into debt (Gen 37: 28; Lev 25: 44; Ex 21: 2-6; Gen 15: 3; 17: 12-13). Their status varied greatly. Some slaves were highly educated and, through various circumstances, became tutors, philosophers or musicians. They ran shops or factories and managed large estates for their owners (Johnsson, 2007: 269).

However, the slave owner held absolute power over them. They could not own property, could not legally marry and, if they were, they could be separated from their wives and children at their masters slightest whim. They had no appeal for justice and no place to flee for asylum. It was to see slavery become a school for cowardice, flattery, dishonesty and immorality  (Nichol, 1957: 376).

It was not a pretty picture and one could understand the situation when in 73 BC a Thracian slave by the name of Spartacus rebelled against the Roman authority. Beginning in the town of Capua, in southern Italy, these rebels, who had been trained as Gladiators to fight in the Roman arena, were now to find refuge on the slopes of nearby Mount Versuvius. Soon they had organised an army of about 70,000 runaway slaves. They quickly defeated the Roman forces and created havoc throughout much of central and southern Italy for a period of about two years before finally being slaughtered by an army led by Marcus Licinius Crassus. Many of the survivors were crucified to send a message out to all slaves what their final end would be if they ever followed this course again (Nault, 1988, Vol 18: 767).

Rome, in the first century during the time of the apostle Paul, was no different from its earlier history. Slaves were still recognised as part of the social structure and were still considered members of their master's household. The Roman historian, Pliny, writes that between the years 146 BC to AD 235 the proportion of slaves to freemen is said to have been about three to one and that during the time of Augustus one freeman named Caecilius held 4,116 slaves (Nichol, 1957: 376). With over 60,000,000 of them, it is no wonder that there were strict laws in place to prevent their escape or revolt. Owners had absolute power of life and death over their slaves. However, the records still show that all hope of freedom was never denied and could be obtained in a variety of ways (Barclay, 1975: 270).

Having some knowledge of this situation makes our following story even the more remarkable. 

Today I want to share with you one of the Apostle Paul's letters to a man named Philemon. For those that have read this shortest of all his letters it is seen by many Bible scholars as a 'letter of grace'. It is here in this seemingly unimportant set of writings that we see grace shining through every verse.

The fact that this letter survived at all is a miracle in itself as it came from Paul's pen while he was still a prisoner in the city of Rome around 62 AD.

This letter to Philemon, a Christian slave owner living in the city of Colossae during the first century AD, is only twenty-five verses in length and is a very personal piece of writing. It is hardly more than a note and yet it is seen to be rich in content and even richer in feeling.  It is more to our loss that we hear very little about this letter from the pulpits in our churches.

Paul's letter was in response to a crisis that had taken place in the life of one of his converts. It would seem that a young slave by the name of Onesimus, a slave belonging to Philemon, had decided to run away taking with him some of his master's money or possessions (V 18).

This was to be a very desperate and dangerous move by Onesimus. If caught, he could be crucified or branded by a hot iron designating him as a slave for life or thrown to the lampreys. Lampreys were voracious fish kept on many Roman estates that were able tear the flesh off a person and reduce them to bare bones (Johnsson, 2007: 268). Regardless of these consequences, this young man had made his fateful decision.

Somehow Onesimus had found his way to Rome, as did many of the slaves who were expecting to lose themselves in the vast crowds of that city. At the time he arrived in this bustling metropolis it was home to just over a million people (Ibid: 271).

While there, Onesimus met Paul.

We don't know whether it was because he was destitute and had sought out the Christians because of their reputation for providing charity.

We don't know whether it was because of his troubled conscience and the need of spiritual guidance that he turned to Paul, who he may have seen many times as a guest in his master's house.

Whatever the reason, we know that Onesimus was guided there by a divine hand. This lad, apparently born into slavery, had been given a name that was common to many slaves of that time. It meant 'useful' and while for a time during his escapade from Philemon's house he could have been described as useless, Paul in his letter to his friend says in Philemon v 11 that 'now he has become useful [again] to [both] you and to me.'

What had brought about this transformation in his life?

Through his contact with Paul Onesimus had become a Christian. We don't know how this happened but Paul had come to love this young man as a son - part of his spiritual offspring - a miracle of God's saving grace. However, we need to remember that he was still seen as Philemon's property and a decision was soon made to have him return to Colossae. In doing this Paul was subjecting Onesimus to a grave risk because of the severe penalties that could be invoked as a result of his escapade. Nevertheless, he needed to go back to make amends and be restored to his master. Paul could not keep him without Philemon's willing consent.

However, it was to be a very different Onesimus that would return, from the one who ran away.

Paul now writes a covering letter to Philemon with a very special appeal and as Col 4: 7-9 tells us, a man called Tychicus was to go with him for company and moral support, taking the latest news and a letter from Paul to the Colossian Church.   Let's read his words in Philemon v 8-16. (NIV)

V 8 'Therefore, although in Christ, I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of Iove. I then, as Paul-an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus - I appeal to you for my son Onesimus who became my son while I was in chains. V 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

V 12 I am sending him - who is my very heart- back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel.

V 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favour you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good - no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me, but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.'

Paul in these verses is appealing to Philemon, on the basis of love, for his help in reconciling this problem of a repentant Christian slave. Knowing Philemon's Christian record he feels that this counsel will be graciously received (Nichol, 1957: 380). Paul's description of himself as an old man and a prisoner adds a further dimension to his emotional appeal. He would have been in his late fifties or early sixties at this time, as twenty- eight years had now passed since the stoning of Steven at which time he was considered by the author of Acts to be a young man (Acts 7: 58). However, these intervening years were obviously strenuous ones that had taken their toll on this special man of God.

Through the mysterious working of Providence Paul and Onesimus were brought together and, it is possible that his conversion may never have happened had he not run away. In some way Paul offers a slight rebuke to Philemon by intimating that, as a Christian, he had the same opportunity to accomplish what had now been done by him for this runaway slave.

However, the Christian love that Paul developed towards Onesimus in such a short period gives some indication of the rich fellowship awaiting Philemon on his return.

The runaway slave was now to return as a 'Christian Brother', an exhibit of the grace of God. This life changing experience once again shows the power of God, as He is able to bring good out of evil. Though hindered by the faults and failures of men and women the Lord can still accomplish His purposes with those who acknowledge Him (Ibid: 382).

The letter to Philemon begins with grace and ends with grace. This is seen with Paul's customary introduction in V 3 that says: 'Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ and in his closing benediction in V 25 where he says: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.' (NIV) (Johnsson, 2007: 267).

Paul is reminding Philemon that every good purpose and trait of character that he possessed was due to the grace of Christ; this alone was to make him different from those around him. This same grace could also make a debased criminal a child of God and a useful labourer for Him (White, 1911: 457).

While Paul is able to set forth the theology of grace in his other letters, particularly Romans and Galatians, in this letter he demonstrates grace. He shows what grace is like. He shows how grace works.

Let's read Paul's words in Philemon 17-21 as he continues to appeal to a very real and tender motive in Philemon based on personal friendship. He says:

'So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back - not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.'

Paul sends Onesimus back, asking Philemon to welcome him, no longer as a slave, but as a brother. He is to receive him as Paul himself would have been received.

He is also suggesting that the debt incurred by Onesimus, if any, be charged to him personally. We need to understand that this covering of the failures of a repentant sinner was to be only a reflection of what Jesus has done for you and me. While not responsible for the failures of men Jesus stands in man's stead covering his debt so that we may stand justified before all creation.

Therefore, when Onesimus returned to Philemon, his master was not to see the slave and his debt, but only to see Paul and his promise of repayment. This was Paul's promissory note designed to remove any obstacle that might delay or hinder the master's full acceptance of this repentant slave.

Paul finishes with his promise of repayment by saying in Philemon v 21 that he writes '…knowing that you will do even more than I ask.' Even more!

There are those that would suggest that Paul in this verse is, in effect, asking Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom.

There are also those who would suggest that Philemon understood Paul's comment and acted on it. It is believed if he hadn't, that this letter would not have survived, but have been thrown away (Johnsson, 2007: 271).

Up to this point in the story there are those who have found it difficult to reconcile slave ownership while being a Christian. There are many reasons, but it may be that Philemon's practice lagged behind his knowledge of the Gospel. It may have been that the Gospel of Grace had yet to have full sway in his life (Ibid: 269).

We also need to remember that slavery was an integral part of the ancient world; the whole society was built on it. Aristotle's view, accepted by many, was that it was in the nature of things that certain men should be slaves to serve the higher classes of men. With this philosophy engrained in society, it was almost impossible to imagine a world without it.

With slavery so widespread across the Roman Empire, it would be naïve to believe that there weren't other followers of Jesus Christ who were in the same position as Philemon.

In his many letters Paul often refers to the relationships between masters and slaves. In 1 Cor 7: 21 he wrote: 'Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you, although if you can gain your freedom, do so.'

In Eph 6: 5-9, Col 3: 22; 1 Tim 6: 1, 2 and Titus 2: 9, 10 he advises slaves to serve their lords with honesty and faithfulness, and slave owners to treat slaves fairly and justly.

Many people ask why it is that Paul does not deal directly with the issue of slavery in his letters. Why is it that he does not seem to condemn it, even though there are many who would suggest that 'The word 'emancipation' seems to quiver on his lips, but he never utters it' (Barclay, 1975: 271)?

Nowhere do we see Paul counselling slaves to revolt and directly telling slave owners to set their slaves free.

As noted by author, William Johnsson (2007), Paul's moral compass was right where the Lord had placed it. 'With slavery institutionalised within the society of his day and Christians a tiny minority without legal standing, it would have been folly to call for a change in the social order'. (Johnsson, 2007: 270).

William Barclay (1975: 271) expands this thought further by suggesting that '…if Christianity had, in fact, given the slaves any encouragement to revolt or to leave their masters, nothing but tragedy would have followed. Any such revolt would have been savagely crushed; any slave who took his freedom would have been mercilessly punished; and Christianity itself would have been branded as revolutionary and subversionary, Given the Christian faith, emancipation was sure to come- but the time was not ripe; and to have encouraged slaves to hope for it, and to seize it, would have done infinitely more harm than good. There are some things which cannot be suddenly achieved, and for which the world must wait, until the leaven works.'

However, Johnnson and many other scholars believe that Paul was, in fact, changing the social order.

He says that: 'His message, the gospel of grace, planted ideas that were time bombs, ticking, to eventually blow slavery away. Time bombs such as 'There shall be neither…slave nor free, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3: 28) and 'There is no slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all' (Col3: 11).

While the New Testament writers, and particularly Paul, do not directly attack the institution of slavery, they do outline principles that would eventually prove fatal to this despicable and degrading institution.

Paul, particularly, was carrying out God's plan for solving the slave problem by the slower process of growth and enlightenment, rather than by direct confrontation (Nichol, 1957: 384).

The letter to Philemon provides clear evidence of how Paul deals with slavery within the community of Christ. It is not acceptable and he intends the Christian community to be an example of what the world should be like. While not addressing slavery as an institution, it is believed that his requirement lays a depth charge beneath it. His letter is seen as laying an axe at the root of that very cruel institution (Lockyer, 1986: 832).

What Christianity did was to introduce a new relationship between humankind, in which all the external differences were abolished. Christians are one body  in Christ whether Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free men. If the master treats the slave as Christ would have treated him, and if the slave serves the master as he would serve Christ, then it doesn't matter if you call one the 'master' and the other 'slave' for they are both in Him.

This demonstrates the power of grace in the life

Have you ever wondered what happened to Onesimus?

Well, we need to move on about fifty years. Ignatius, one of the great Christian Martyrs, is being taken from Antioch to Rome where he was to be executed. On route, he wrote many letters to the Churches of Asia Minor. Most of these have survived.  One letter in particular was written to the Church at Ephesus after his convoy stopped at the city of Smyrna. In the first chapter of that letter he has much to say about their wonderful Bishop by the name of Onesimus. In his letter he plays on the meanings of useful and useless just as Paul did referring to him as Onesimus by name and Onesimus by nature, the profitable one of Christ.

Believed by many scholars, it may well be that the runaway slave had, with the passing of years, become the great Bishop of Ephesus.

The story of Onesimus is all about the transforming power of God on the human life. It is a story of Grace and Paul's short letter to Philemon is a practical demonstration of this power to change.  This very short note was in effect, to be a letter of Grace.



Barclay, W.  (1975)  The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon. The Daily Study Bible Series. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Johnsson, W. G.  (2007)  Jesus - A Heart Full of Grace. Hagerstown: Review & Herald Publishing Association

Lockyer Sr., H.  (ed)  (1986)  Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary. New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers

Nault,  W. H.  (1988)  The World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago, USA: World Book Inc.

Nichols, F. D.  (1957)  Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary. Vol 7. Washington DC: Review & Herald Publishing Association

Tan, P. L.   (1991)  Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations. Hong Kong: Nordica International Ltd.

Water, M.  (2000)  The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations. Hampshire, UK: John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

White, E. G.   (1911)  The Acts of the Apostles. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association.

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