More thoughts from Michael Card’s A Better Freedom: Finding Life as Slaves of Christ.
Owing to the prevalence of sexual abuse, sometimes the master of the child being sold on the auction block was also the father. Slave owners in both the Roman and American worlds would often be guilty of selling their own children.
As in Roman times, American slavery existed in a political context where our founding fathers put forth the notion that “all men are created equal,” and that freedom was an “inalienable right.” In fact, the founders’ greatest complaint against King George was that he was enslaving them. Like first-century slaves, African American slaves were forced to exist within the context of this galling discrepancy where the same Constitution that granted whites freedom determined, in Article One, that they were to be valued (taxed) as only three-fifths of a person. Men and women were made slaves on the basis of what ex-slave Lunsford Lane referred to as “the crime of wearing colored skin.”
Saul, whose name had been changed to Paul (slaves were usually renamed when they were purchased).
Jesus had also said, “I have appointed you as a servant [hyperetes, one who serves a master or superior] and a witness.”
When you look at the life of Paul, when you understand the severity of his calling, you begin to see that the title “slave of Christ” is more than a metaphor. It is an accurate description of someone who gave up everything, his choices, his expectations and all his rights. Even though his Jewish background might have reckoned the term “slave of the Lord” as one of honor, remember that Paul lived in the Roman world, where being anyone’s slave was seen as a mark of humiliation.
In the first century, even after a slave had been set free, he still maintained an interdependent relationship with his master. Just because you had become a “freedman,” it did not necessarily follow that you were free. In fact, the ongoing relationship between master and freedman often led to a deeper relationship. Tomb inscriptions from the New Testament period reveal that freedmen were often buried with their masters, or that their tombs had been paid for by their masters. Once our Master justifies us, a deepening of our relationship with him occurs. Discipleship inevitably follows and flows out of justification. “For he who is called by the Lord as a slave is the Lord’s freedman.” (1 Corinthians 7:22)
These last two paragraphs a worth thinking about and considering in connection to Paul’s writings, especially Romans 6, much of Galatians, Ephesians 6:5-9, Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 3:22-4:1 and 7-18, 2 Timothy 2:20-26, and Philemon among many other references to being slaves, bond-servants, etc.
Paul uses two different words that are translated into English as “redemption.” The first, apolytrosis, refers to the process of buying back a slave, of paying the ransom to set one free (Romans 3:24; 8:23; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Ephesians 1:7, 14; 4:30; Colossians 1:14; compare with Luke 2:38; Hebrews 9:12). This word is based on the Greek verb lyo, which refers to freeing someone from prison. As a noun (lytron) it is usually translated “ransom.”
While this is the word he uses most frequently for “redemption,” one other vivid term Paul makes use of is exagorazo(Galatians 4:5), which literally means “to purchase out of the agora or marketplace.” The simpler form agorazo, means “to buy.” To be redeemed, in Paul’s imagination, means to be bought back, as a slave is purchased from the slave market (1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23). Paul makes it clear however that the price paid was not a purse full of silver coins, but the blood of Jesus. He is the Master who becomes the slave to purchase his servants with his own life.
Onesimus was one of the three most common slave names of the first century. (The other two were Eros and Hermes.) Upon purchasing a slave the owner customarily gave them a new name that reflected the identity of their bondage. Each time a person was sold they might take on a new name and thereby lose a part of their identity. (The process was virtually identical in African American slavery.) One popular name given to slaves by their masters was Philodespotes, meaning “master lover.”
The name Philemon gave to his slave Onesimus means “useful.” Paul, perhaps poking fun at the pompous custom, writes in verse 11, “Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful both to you and to me.”
In excavations all around the Mediterranean, archaeologists have unearthed circular metal bands that usually contain as a part of the inscription the words “Capture me, for I am fleeing.”
Aristarchus, who seemed to be everywhere with Paul, sends his greetings as well. And finally there are Demas and Luke, both former slaves, their names exhibiting shortened forms, nicknames known as “hypocorisms.” This was another method for naming slaves in the first century. For example, a man named Lucius would give his slave a form of his own name, hence the name “Loukas,” which we translate as “Luke.” Demas could also be such a slave nickname derived from a shortened form of the name “Demetrius.” Their names always appear together, and it is suspicious that Paul never refers to either of them as “slaves.” Instead he grants them the title “fellow workers,” a designation that had nothing to do with slavery. It is a title he also uses for Philemon (v. 1)! It appears that Paul refers to free men, like himself, as slaves. To slaves who are laboring alongside him, he gives the name “fellow workers.”
Paul did not directly confront the world of Roman slavery because his call was to introduce another world shaped by a transcendent value system derived from the servant life of Jesus. He did not preach the end of slavery, but rather a new kind of slavery that was a new beginning, a better freedom.