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Geographical Context of Philemon

This is the fourth lesson in a series of lessons on the book of Philemon. In this lesson I’m going to talk about the geographical context.

Watch the video or scroll down to read a transcript.

Transcript:

Thanks for visiting Bible Mountain. This is the fourth lesson in a series of lessons on the book of Philemon. In this lesson I’m going to talk about the geographical context. 

In the first lesson I talked about why. Why is Philemon in the Bible? We learned that Philemon contains a story about Philemon and Onesimus which illustrates for us commands that are given in the Bible about how masters and slaves are supposed to treat each other, particularly when one or both of them is a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

We also saw that the story is an illustration for us in our culture, because even though slavery is illegal, we still have scenarios in our culture where people exercise authority over other people. Sometimes Christians exercise authority over other people. Sometimes Christians have to submit to those in authority. Sometimes Christians exercise authority over other Christians. As Christians, we have to know how to treat each other in those situations. The story of Philemon helps us understand how to live out those scenarios. 

In the second lesson, I talked about the biblical context. I showed how slavery is mentioned throughout the Bible. In the third lesson, I talked about the historical context. I put these references to slavery on a historical timeline to show that slavery is something that has been in existence throughout history. In this lesson, I’m going to talk about the geographical context and show that slavery is something that has been very common in a huge swath of the world. Again, that has bearing on how relevant this story is for you and me.

This is a map of the Middle East. Just about every event in the Bible took place somewhere on this map. The countries that you see listed here are the modern day countries. 

As you know, the Bible starts by telling us about creation. Then people began to multiply, but they were very sinful. Then during the life of Noah, God brought a flood to destroy all mankind, but he saved Noah and his family in an ark. 

To the best of our knowledge, the Ark probably landed somewhere in modern day Turkey. After they got off the ark, men began to multiply again. They move down and lived in a plain that we know as the Mesopotamian Valley. It was in this area that the tower of Babel happened, and God confused the language of all people and dispersed them all over the earth. 

Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth. The descendants of Shem headed east and became the Asians. The descendants of Ham when southwest and became the Africans. And the descendants of Japheth went northwest and became the Europeans. Those are the three basic people groups that we see throughout the world today. All three of these people groups met each other in the Middle East, which helps explain why the Middle East has always been so volatile. 

After the Flood and Tower of Babel we read about a man named Abraham. Abraham was born and grew up in an area in modern day southern Iraq. Then Abraham was told to leave his homeland and go to the land of Canaan. So Abraham and his family traveled up the Mesopotamian Valley to modern day Syria. They lived there for a while. 

It’s at this point we read in the Bible about Abraham purchasing people as slaves. Eventually, Abraham moved down to the land of Canaan. We also read about Abraham spending time in Egypt. We read that Pharaoh gave servants to Abraham. What this tells us is that very early in history, slavery was in existence in this area of the world, what we call the Middle East. 

Abraham had a son named Isaac. Isaac had a son named Jacob. Jacob had a son named Joseph who was sold as a slave into Egypt. Joseph lived in Egypt as a slave. Eventually, all the Israelites ended up in Egypt and all the Israelites became slaves. They were slaves for about 400 years until Moses came along and led them out of slavery, out of Egypt, out into the wilderness. 

Out in the wilderness God gave the Israelites the Mosaic Law. Some of the provisions in the Mosaic Law regarded slavery. God gave the Israelites instructions on who they could and could not sell and buy as slaves. Then the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Eventually, they came to the Promised Land. In the Promised Land they live for several hundred years with no king. Every man did what was right in his own eyes. 

Then we read about David becoming king. David ruled in Jerusalem. When David died, his son Solomon became king. Solomon engaged in some massive building projects. He built his palace, and he built the temple. The Bible tells us he used forced laborers to build those buildings. So again, we see a reference to slaves in this area, reminding us that slavery was something that existed back then.

After Solomon died, the kingdom of Israel was split into two parts. There was the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom. Both those kingdoms got more and more sinful. Eventually God brought the Assyrians from the Mesopotamian Valley and they conquered the northern kingdom. Later, Babylon conquer Assyria and then they came over and conquered the southern kingdom. 

At that time, a lot of Jews were forced to leave their homeland and go back to Babylon as exiles. That was a form of slavery because the Jews were forced to leave their homeland and go to another land and serve the king of Babylon. Towards the end of the Old Testament, some of the Jews were allowed to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and rebuild the temple. That ends the Old Testament. 

Between the Old and New Testaments, there was a huge geographical shift. During the Old Testament time period, the dominant world empires were in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Between the Old Testament and New Testament there was a shift west. Greece was the dominant empire for a while. Greece came through and conquered all of the Middle East. Then Rome came through and conquered Greece and they also conquered the whole Middle East. 

At the time of Christ, when the New Testament started, Rome was the dominant world empire. They controlled pretty much everything around the Mediterranean Sea. We see this geographical shift reflected in the Bible. The events of the Old Testament happened in Israel and the Mesopotamian Valley. The events of the New Testament happened further west, around the Mediterranean Sea, reflecting that geopolitical shift westward. 

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Israel. He spent a little bit of time in Egypt, but most of his lifetime was spent in the Holy Land. After Jesus’s death, burial and resurrection, His apostles went out and started sharing the good news of Jesus. They started spreading out from Jerusalem. We read about this in the book of Acts.

The book of Acts tells us about events that occurred on the east and north sides of the Mediterranean Sea. Most of those events involved the Apostle Paul. We read about Paul’s missionary journeys. During his first missionary journey, he shared the gospel in modern day Cyprus and Turkey. During his second and third missionary journeys, he spent a lot of time in modern day Turkey and Greece. At the end of the book of Acts, we read about Paul traveling from Jerusalem to Rome. 

It was in the context of Paul sharing the good news of Jesus throughout this area that he wrote all of his letters. In those letters were commands to masters and slaves about how to treat each other. That was relevant to them because slavery was something that existed in the Roman Empire. 

It was also in that context that Paul wrote the book of Philemon. Philemon was a letter asking Philemon to give grace and mercy to his slave Onesimus because Onesimus had become a brother in Christ. The story of Philemon and Onesimus is an illustration of how to live out the commands that Paul gave to masters and slaves on how to treat each other. 

Now, let’s zoom out and take a look at a map of the world. The Middle East is right in the area where Europe, Asia, and Africa meet each other. That’s where all the events of the Bible took place. 

After the end of the New Testament time period, the gospel message continued to spread, particularly into Europe. The church did a very good job of evangelizing Europe, to the point where eventually Europe became known as a Christian area. 

Eventually Europeans settled North America and they brought Christianity with them, so for most of the last several centuries, North America has been known as a Christian area. South America has been predominantly a Christian area. 

However, slavery was still a reality for most of the last 2,000 years in this area. We know slavery existed through the first millennium. We certainly know that in the last 500 years, there was a huge slave trade which took people from Africa and sold them into slavery, both into Europe and into North America. It’s only been in the last two centuries that this slave trade was stopped, and slavery became illegal. 

As the gospel message spread from the Holy Land into Europe and the Americas in the last 2,000 years, the story of Philemon has, for the most part, been very relevant, because slavery is something that has been a reality and has been very relevant to Christians. The story of Philemon illustrates how masters and slaves are supposed to treat each other. 

As I mentioned earlier, Philemon is still relevant to you and I because, even though slavery is illegal, we do have situations in our culture where people exercise authority over other people. There are commands in the Bible pertaining to those situations. There are commands in the Bible telling Christians how to treat those they exercise authority over. There are commands in the Bible telling Christians how to submit to authority. Sometimes Christians exercise authority over other Christians. 

In those scenarios we have to operate both within a structure of authority and at the same time remember that both the person exercising authority and the person under authority are brothers and sisters in Christ. We have to live in both those situations at the same time. Philemon is a short little story that illustrates how to live in those situations. 

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Scripture quotations from Philemon taken from a translation by Bible Mountain.

“All other Scripture quotations taken from the New American Standard Bible®,
Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973,
1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation
Used by permission.” (www.Lockman.org)