Friday, 6 July 2018
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, Philemon 1:1
Welcome to the epistle known as Philemon. It is a single chapter, containing only 25 verses. Thus, it will take less than one month to evaluate it one verse at a time. It is a tender and loving letter in several ways, and it is a marvelous conclusion to the epistles of Paul. The letter will provide insights into ethical issues for and between Christians. It is a letter which has a social component to it, particularly the issue of slavery. And yet, that particular issue is truly taken out of context by many. Using Philemon as an argument either for, or against, slavery is something the epistle was never intended for.
The book is also one which highlights disobedience in one way, and yet a request for mercy in another. The providence of God is clear and evident in the events which are described, and how they came about. Without explicitly relaying some details, it is evident that a tapestry has been woven nonetheless. In this, it mirrors other stories in the Bible, such as the book of Ruth, which show a “behind the scenes” working of God in order to effect an intended outcome.
Philemon also adds in an eternal element to things. Paul will relay in verse 16 that a new relationship has been established between Philemon and Onesimus, an eternal one, because of Jesus Christ. There is a new dynamic in play in their lives which will hopefully be the impetus for Philemon to respond favorably to Paul’s request.
Philemon is a wholly personal letter, written by Paul, and which is lacking any outward signs of doctrine or exhortation. And yet, it is a letter which contains an immense amount of underlying theology concerning what is right, and what is considered proper in matters of Christian charity. One scholar, Frankius, says that “This single epistle to Philemon very far surpasses all the wisdom of the world.” How could that be in such a short, personal letter? It is because it deals with issues that require wisdom which the world does not possess without a knowledge that man is accountable to a higher Source than this temporary life provides.
And so, with an all-too short introduction to this beautiful letter now concluded, Paul begins with his name. He has identified himself as he does in his other letters. However, he immediately diverts from what he normally says. Instead of identifying himself as an apostle (a title he also skips with the Macedonian churches of Thessalonica and Philippi), he says, “a prisoner.”
The reason for this is not yet evident, but Paul is going to be appealing for his beloved “son” Onesimus. By identifying himself as a prisoner, he is eliciting sympathy from his addressee, Philemon. Elsewhere, he does identify himself as a prisoner, but it is for the sake of glorifying God in his imprisonment, not to elicit sympathy from it. He also elsewhere identifies himself as a “bondservant” of Jesus Christ, thus showing his allegiance to the Lord in all ways. In his identification as a “prisoner” here, he is demonstrating that his allegiance has led him as far as prison for the sake of the gospel.
Paul is literally a prisoner under Nero, but more significantly he is a prisoner “of Christ Jesus.” In adding this in, he is showing that he is not just a prisoner for general wrongdoing against the empire, but he is a prisoner for doing right towards God and the gospel of His Son. It is a second way of eliciting sympathy towards his yet-to-be-stated cause.
He next adds in, “and Timothy.” Timothy is often included in Paul’s initial greetings, along with others. However, Paul ensures that he is further known as “our brother.” Paul has introduced the fraternal bond between the two, which then extends to Philemon as well. This is another way of eliciting sympathetic feelings from Philemon. In verse 10, he will explicitly call Onesimus “my son.” In calling Timothy “our brother” here, he is tying all four together into one family bond. Every time that Paul opens a letter, the choice of his initial greeting reveals much about the connection he has towards his audience. The same is certainly the case here in his final epistle.
Next, he identifies his addressee as “Philemon.” This is the only time he is mentioned in Scripture. He is a Christian, and he is a man of Colossae. The name is derived from phileo, which signifies “affectionate friendship.” Therefore, his name means “Friendly” or “Kindly.” He was brought to saving faith in Christ by Paul (v. 19), and he was evidently a faithful Christian as is evidenced by Paul’s words in the letter.
Paul then calls him, “our beloved.” His inclusion of this is to ensure that the fraternal bond which he has already established is realized as precious and enduring. The word used has two specific applications. The first is “the Beloved” when speaking of Christ in relation to the Father. The second is between believers, as beloved by God, and also as beloved by one another.
Finally, he adds in, “and fellow laborer.” It is a title which he uses frequently in his epistles when speaking of other believers in relation to the gospel; in fulfilling the calling which is placed upon believers concerning doctrine, instruction, evangelism, etc. Paul again establishes a specific bond through the choice of this term. His plea for Onesimus in verse 13 includes the thought of him ministering to Paul for the gospel. How could one fellow laborer deny such a request, especially when it was needed because Paul was still in chains? As he could not actively do certain things for the gospel, he needed Onesimus there with him to ensure those things got done.
In all, Paul’s opening salutation is precisely stated in order to set an exacting tone for the rest of the letter. Every word has been carefully chosen to meet the intended and desired outcome.
Life application: We should look to Paul’s example of how to address others, not for the sake of manipulating them, but for the sake of meeting our true needs as they arise. Paul’s intent was sincere, his need was real, and his love of all concerned was obvious. In choosing his words so carefully, he was ensuring the most favorable outcome of the decision which he is making his appeal for.
Lord God, thank You for the fraternal bond which exists between believers in Christ. And yet, it is unfortunate that the bond isn’t as strong as it should be in many cases. There are times to sever fellowship, and there are times to be merciful and forgiving. Help us to make the right choices about these things. Help our friendships to be based on a love of You and Your word first. From that, our relationships with other believers will be easier to define. Thank You for guiding us in this. Amen.