Life-Study of 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemonby Witness Lee
Printed Copy: Available Online from Living Stream Ministry
Printed Copy: Available Online from Living Stream Ministry
The subject of the book of Philemon is an illustration of the believers’ equal status in the new man. Apparently this Epistle does not say anything concerning the status of the believers. Actually, this book touches the heart of this matter.
When Paul wrote to Philemon, Philemon was in Colosse and Paul was far away, a prisoner in Rome. One of his co-prisoners, Onesimus, was brought to the Lord and begotten by Paul in the Spirit to become not only a believer in Christ and a child of God, but also a dear child to Paul himself. Since there was a church in Rome, why did Paul not recommend this newly saved one to the local church there? Paul did not do this, because Onesimus was a runaway slave and his master, Philemon, lived in Colosse.
The fact that there were churches in Rome and in Colosse indicates that the churches as the expression of the Body of Christ are universal. This was true in ancient times just as it is true today. The first church, the church in Jerusalem, came into existence approximately A.D. 34 or 35. The Epistle to Philemon was written about thirty years later. Even during the comparatively short time of thirty years, churches had been established not only in Judea, but also in the Gentile world. Thus, the church was universal. This was according to the Lord’s sovereignty to carry out the commission He had given to Paul. It also was the fulfillment of Paul’s desire to see a new man on earth.
By the spreading of the Roman Empire the various nations and peoples around the Mediterranean Sea were brought into contact with one another and were even unified politically. There was a great deal of traffic and communication between people in various parts of the empire. This communication was altogether related to the old man. But at the time Paul wrote to Philemon, another man had come into existence on earth. In the midst of the old man, the new man had come into being. This is fully revealed in Colossians 3:10 and 11: “And having put on the new man, which is being renewed unto full knowledge according to the image of Him Who created him; where there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, freeman, but Christ is all and in all.” Philemon was an elder of the church in Colosse. In the Epistle to the Colossians Paul emphasized that all the believers are part of the new man. Furthermore, in the new man there cannot be Greek and Jew, slave and freeman. Philemon was a freeman, and Onesimus was his bondservant. But in the new man they were of equal status.
In Colossians 4 we have a record of the fellowship of the new man. Colossians 4:9 speaks of Onesimus, and verse 17, of Archippus, the son of Philemon. A freeman and a slave who were members of the same household were also part of the church as the new man.
The Epistle to Philemon should be regarded as a continuation of Colossians 4 and considered an illustration of how in the new man all social rank is put aside. In the previous message we pointed out that this short Epistle serves the special purpose of showing us the equality in eternal life and divine love of all the members in the Body of Christ. The distinction of social rank and status among the believers is nullified not by an outward legal act, but by an inward change of constitution. Ranks have been abolished because the believers have been constituted of Christ’s life. Christ’s life had been constituted into Philemon, and the same life with the same divine element had been constituted into his slave, Onesimus. According to the flesh, Philemon was a master and was free, and Onesimus was a slave and was not free. But according to the inner constitution, both were the same. Because of the divine birth and a living by the divine life, all the believers in Christ have equal status in the church, which is the new man in Christ, with no discrimination between free and bond.
In Titus 2:9-15 Paul charges the slaves to behave well in the social system of slavery. He instructed them to live a Jesusly human life in the midst of such a social system. But in the Epistle to Philemon he gives the churches an illustration of how slaves and masters alike have been reconstituted of the life of Christ. As a result, they all are part of the new man. In the old social system, which belongs to the living of the old man, the distinction between master and slave exists. Paul did not touch this social system in the way of trying to reform it. On the contrary, on the one hand he instructed the slaves to live a Jesusly human life under this social system; on the other hand, he illustrated how both slaves and masters are brothers in the Lord and, as members of the new man, share the same status.
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