The Believer's Equal Status in the New Man, Life-Study of Philemon, Message Two, pp. 9-13
A BROTHER RECOMMENDED FOR THE ACCEPTANCE OF THE NEW MAN
Scripture Reading: Philemon 17-25
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 34 or 35 A.D. 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.
Philemon 16 makes this relationship very clear. Concerning Onesimus Paul says, "No longer as a slave, but above a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, and how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord." Through regeneration Onesimus had become more than a slave and even more than a free man, for he had become a beloved brother. Now Onesimus had a relationship with Philemon "both in the flesh and in the Lord": in the flesh as a slave and in the Lord as a brother. In the flesh Onesimus was a brother as a slave, and in the Lord he was a slave as a brother. Philemon, therefore, had to receive Onesimus and embrace him in a loving, intimate way. Of course, he was to receive him not in the old man, the old social system, but in Christ and in the new man. Although Onesimus was still Philemon's slave, in Christ he had become Philemon's brother. Now, in the new man, Philemon had to receive Onesimus as a brother and one of equal status. Here we see Paul's recommendation of a brother for acceptance in the new man.
In the book of Philemon there is no mention of the expression "the new man." But as we examine the situation portrayed in this book, we see that Paul was recommending a brother not to a local church in the city where he was at the time, but to a local church in a remote city. This indicates that Paul's recommendation took place within the sphere of the new man. As we have already indicated, this can be proved by Colossians 3:11, where we are told that in the new man there is no bond or free. As Paul was writing to Philemon, he may have been thinking something like this: "Onesimus has become a dear brother in the Lord. Now I wish to recommend him, a slave, to a brother who is a free man. I want to help them both realize that as brothers they are equal. One should be received, and the other must be willing to receive him." This is what I mean in saying that the Epistle to Philemon is an illustration of the equal status of the believers in the new man.
As long as we see that the believers have an equal status in the new man, there will be no problems among us concerning social rank, nationality, or race. We shall have no problems with different peoples. Those who discriminate among people in any way do not practice the proper church life. If we would have the genuine church life, we must receive all the saints regardless of race, nationality, or social rank. It is a fact that in many places believers are not willing to do this. As a result, they cannot have the proper church life.
We should never speak of a church according to race or color—there is no white church, yellow church, black church, or brown church. The church has only one color, and that color is heavenly blue. After you come into the church life, there must not be deep in your being any discrimination between believers on the basis of race or color. As long as such a discrimination exists within you, as far as you are concerned, you are nullifying the church life. The colors which represent the different races have already been nullified by the cross. Now we must be willing to pay the price to have them nullified in the real and genuine church life.
In society distinctions are still made on the basis of color, nationality, or social status. But no such distinctions can exist in the church, in the new man. The old man has been divided by these distinctions. But in the new man distinctions on the basis of color have been nullified. Paul strongly taught this, and we must consider it part of the full knowledge of the truth.