An Application of Philemon for the Modern Day

The book of Philemon is a true story which touches the heart.  Onesimus, a runaway slave, somehow while on the lam, came in contact with the imprisoned apostle Paul.  Paul converted Onesimus (Philemon 10).  Yet, there remained a problem: Onesimus was still a fugitive slave.

Paul sent him back (Philemon 12).  This could have meant that he would face severe punishment, or worse, even death.  Adam Clark correctly penned, “The Christian religion never cancels any civil relationship” – that is, which does not violate the law of Christ (Commentary vol. 6, p. 665).  David Lipscomb similarly commented, “The Christian religion does not destroy the relations regulated by civil law.  It sanctifies, makes the Christian use them… with the fidelity he would serve God” (Gospel Advocate Commentary Series, vol. 5, p. 298).  Guy N. Woods well wrote, “Christianity does not remove moral, financial and legal obligations, it sanctifies them and establishes additional reasons why they should be honored (“Paul writes to His Friend Philemon,” Gospel Advocate, May 7, 1964, p. 298).

Paul was not heartless.  He truly cared for Onesimus.  He knew his master, Philemon.  It’s likely that he had even converted him at some point in the past (Phile. 19).  Therefore, Paul wrote to plead for mercy.  He used the following points to persuade: (1) Onesimus may have never been profitable unto you, but he will be now (Philemon 11, 15-16).  Note – the name Onesimus, itself, means profitable.  He had not lived up to his name in time past, but he would now.  (2) He has been a great help to me (v. 13).  The suggestion shows that he is capable of work and service.  (3) It may well be by God’s providence that he met up with me, and was converted (v. 15-16).  (4) He is a “brother” in Christ (v. 16).  Note – Paul earlier had referred to Philemon by the same term (v. 7).  Yes, he is a slave; But he’s more, he is a brother with whom you may have fellowship forever more.  (5) If you’ve suffered a financial loss due to him for which you demand justice, I will repay you (v. 18-19).  Remember, what you yourself owe to me (1 Corinthian 9:11; Galatians 6:6).  Do you understand the value of the Christian life?  All else pales in comparison.  (6) You doing the merciful thing would give me great joy, and I have confidence that you will go beyond what I am asking (v. 20-21).

Perhaps, Paul also showed his concern for Onesimus by having Tychicus accompany him in travel (Colossians 4:7-9).  This may have been to help keep Onesimus from falling into the hands of the slave-catchers (suggested by Coffman in his commentary, Vol. 9 on New Testament, p. 354).  It may have been to help keep Onesimus to have the courage to return.  It may have been to help with intercession for Onesimus, and smooth the reception.  Or, it may be that Tychicus was already traveling that way.

Modern Application

It is estimated that there are as many as 20 million illegal immigrants in this country.  Pat Buchanan put this number in perspective saying, “If near the mark, we have millions more illegal aliens in the United States today than the sum total of all the Germans, Italians, Irish, and Jews who ever came to America in the four hundred years of our history on this continent.” (State of Emergency, p. 10-11).  A 2004 Time Magazine article, “Who Left the Door Open?” concluded, “It’s fair to estimate… that the number of illegal aliens flooding into the U.S. this year will total 3 million – enough to fill 22,000 Boeing 737-700 aircraft, or 60 flights everyday for a year” (ibid, from Time magazine, Sept. 20, 2004).

Most of this is no doubt driven by economics.  “Between 1940 and 1970, the population of Mexico more than doubled, from 20 million to 54 million.  In those years, there was almost no migration to the United States from Mexico.  Since 1970, however, some 65 million more Mexicans have been born – and about 20 million of them have migrated northward, with most of that migration occurring after 1980… In the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, the Mexican economy grew an average rate of almost 7 percent a year… since 1980, Mexico has averaged barely 2% growth.  The average Mexican was actually poorer in 1998 than he had been in 1981” (The Melting Pot Boils Over, p. 29 from an article by David Frum).  Mexico ranks 12th out of 212 countries in GNP; America ranks 1st (World Reference Atlas c. 1998).  Per Capita Mexico ranks 80th out of 224 countries in GNP; America ranks 6th ( Mexico’s  Per capita GDP is $5,000 compared to America’s which is more than $40,000 (Buchanan, p. 123).  The reason so many want to come to this country, even illegally, is understandable.

Another thing driving it is America’s inconsistent and mixed message.  The Federal Government calls it illegal (though I question their lack of aggressiveness in dealing with the situation), while some cities are ‘sanctuary cities’.   The Federal Government says it’s illegal, but American companies hunger greedily for the cheap labor.  In 1986 the Reagan administration  put in place a plan which granted amnesty to 3 million illegals.  The borders, however, were never secured.  Thus, this fueled the desires of many more to come over illegally.

  Now, let’s get some things straight.  I am not anti-immigration.  I am not suffering from Xenophobia (though some may be!!).  I am not writing this from political motivation, or nationalism (though some do).  I am not necessarily defending our immigration policies (in large measure our inconsistencies have created much of this mess).

Moreover, this is not written just about illegals from Mexico.  I have heard of illegal and fraudulent immigration by Jamaicans.  I saw a report on a television program recently about illegal immigration from India.  Many from India have been brought over as guest workers for certain skilled or high-tech jobs (under the H-1B Visa).  Many overstay their visas and do not return home.  It is true that most illegal immigration is from Mexico, however illegal immigration comes from nearly everywhere.

The reason I believe this issue needs to be addressed is biblical.  God’s people are to be subject unto the laws of the land (Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13-17).  This we are to do so long as human law does not violate God’s law (Acts 4:1-20; 5:12-32).  Consider two situations: (1) Some who illegally enter this country are converted once here.  (2) Some who illegally enter this country are church members (that is: they were even before entry).  Brother Cliff Martin, friend and Gospel Preacher in Jamaica, has told me that some Jamaican Christians would sell their soul to the devil to get to America.  He said that they have been known to marry just to get to America, divorcing soon after arrival.  One preacher married his cousin in a pre-planned scheme to gain U.S. citizenship; divorcing and going separate ways once the mission was accomplished.  Some buy and used forged and fraudulent documents in order to gain employment once here.

Another problem is not illegal immigration by man’s laws, but is a related sin problem.  It involves the breaking of promises, and the siphoning off of native preachers.  Some impoverished church in Jamaica (or some other place) scrapes their money together to send one of their own to a school of preaching in America.  The one sent promises to return home and labor in that same local church, or at least in that native land.  However, upon completion of studies, it is common for the one here legally to decide not to return and look for a way to either become a U.S. citizen or at least maintain legal immigrant status.  These are serious issues.

What should we do?  (1) Like Paul did with Onesimus, we need to teach that obedience to the Gospel does not make their illegal status go away.  (2) Like Paul, we need to encourage them to make things right.  They either need to get immediate legal standing, or they need to go home.  (3) Like Paul, we should be compassionate.  We should do what we can to help in the situation.  (4) We need to remind them that their soul is worth far more than the blessings that this country can offer (Mark 8:36-37; Hebrews 11:25; 12:14-17).  (5) We should not knowingly employee illegals.  We should not aid or abet criminal behavior.  (6) If we don’t like the law, we should peacefully seek to change it.  (7) Use this influx of illegals as an opportunity to convert souls to Christ.  The mission field is here!  Perhaps one-fifth of Mexico is here.  “Los Angeles has the second largest Hispanic population of any city in the world.  Chicago is the second largest Polish city.  New York City has the second largest Puerto Rican population in the world.  Also, more Jews are in New York City than in Tel Aviv, Israel.” (Gospel Advocate, June 1995, p. 13 – article Evangelistic Challenges in the United States by Everett Huffard).  Chinatown in San Francisco is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia (  There are more Jews in the United States than in all of Israel (

It saddens me that so many churches seem to care more about the score board (attendance figures / contribution amount) than they do about teaching the truth on this subject.

It’s confusing to me how some would teach that adulterous unions must be severed, but they see not problem with illegals remaining illegals.

It is time that we go back and re-read this touching account of Onesimus’ situation as is told in the book of Philemon.

Something else: We should not assume that just because someone is of Mexican, or Central American origin that he’s illegal.  Assuming this is nothing short of prejudice; And, no, we should not ask to see a “Green Card” before we allow one to worship with us!

About Bryan Hodge

I am a minister and missionary to numerous countries around the world.
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