It’s beautiful to remember that Paul was not only the greatest theologian who lived (besides Christ), but his argumentative writing skills were unparalleled as well.
One instance of such theological and argumentative skills is seen in his letter to the Colossians.
I think it is good to sit and read entire letters of the Bible in one sitting. I love dwelling on single verses at a time, but sometimes we can miss the forest for the trees if we’re not careful. By taking in an entire letter at once, we can see Paul (or the others who wrote letters in Scripture) building his argument, addressing various subjects in his exhortation to the churches to whom he wrote.
Here in Colossians, Paul is laying out who we are in Christ, namely, that our status, race, or heritage is secondary to who we are in Christ (Col. 3:11). The full force of that argument can’t be felt unless we begin to understand who these barbarians, Scythians, and slaves were.
They were seen by civilized societies as lesser humans, humans who could be bought and sold, beaten and whipped, discarded and forgotten.
Paul reminds the Colossians that all things – seen and unseen – were created by Christ and for Christ. All humans, rich or poor, sick or healthy, Jew or Gentile, were created by and for Christ.
Then Paul tells the Colossian Church that those distinctions, including those of the “lesser” humans, no longer define who they are in Christ. The barbarian, Scythian, slave, and Greek, in Christ, are just as much a forgiven, adopted child of God as the most devout Jew. A radical notion in that day, and an argument of the powerful impact Christianity had on the world.
One doesn’t get the notion of freedom and equality without Christian ethics. (For a book that shows the immense impact we now enjoy, see British Historian Tom Holland’s, “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.”)
He then moves to argue that we should, as fellow Christians, put on compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, before moving on to how slaves should serve their masters and masters should treat their slaves.
Nestled in between this section of slaves and masters, Paul inserts this sentence: “For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.”
Notice how he placed that little sentence between how slaves are to serve their masters (because they are really serving the Lord), and masters are to treat their slaves (treat them justly, because you have a Master in Heaven).
Lastly, note one of the two persons Paul entrusted this letter with. Onesimus.
Who is Onesimus, this “faithful and beloved brother,”? The very slave who ran away from his master Philemon, who was also a member of the Colossian Church. Who, we will also note, received his own letter from Paul telling him in no uncertain terms to release him from slavery, appealing to their common brotherhood in the Lord.
Paul not only calls Onesimus, who used to be owned by another member of the church, a faithful and beloved brother, he also writes that he is “one of you.”
Onesimus left a slave; he returned free and equal. And not only that, a man entrusted by the great Apostle with carrying the letter to the Colossian Church.
Paul just subtly and deftly subverted the system of slavery in his day.
Joseph Hamrick is a semi-professional writer and sometimes thinker. He lives in Commerce and serves as a deacon at Commerce Community Church (C3). He can be reached at email@example.com