Philemon 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Paul's Greetings

The significance of epistolary greetings goes beyond identifying author and audience; it is more than saying hello. The author's salutation, however conventional and formal, specifies the nature of the relationship between author and audience and even draws lines around the conversation being carried on by the letter in hand. Meanings are more readily and rightly determined in terms of this "rhetorical relationship" formulated by the letter's opening words. Thus, Philemon and the others mentioned in verse 2 hear the following request for Onesimus's restoration in terms of Paul, whose importance (and therefore the legitimacy of his appeal) is made clear by his opening self-introduction: the author is a prisoner of Christ Jesus. It is a claim so important to Paul's purpose that he repeats it thrice in the body of this very short letter (vv. 9, 13, 23).

Paul's first audience is also made clear by his greeting. His address establishes an intimacy, even solidarity, with his readers--they are "dear brothers and sisters" and "coworkers and soldiers"--that can only increase the impact of his request and enhance the prospect of its compliance. And while it is true that Paul's salutation, found in verse 3, is rather conventional, it does present his essential understanding of what it means to belong to the church. He writes for the true Israel of God--an inclusive community called out of the world by the preaching of the gospel in order to bear witness to God's salvation within the world order (see commentary on Col 1:2). That is, the readers of Paul's letter must finally understand his subsequent request for Onesimus's restoration to reflect what it means to be the church and to do as the church ought.The Author (1:1)

Paul's introduction of himself is both similar and dissimilar to his Colossians greeting (Col 1:1-2). As before, he refers to Timothy as his cowriter (in some sense) and calls him brother (see commentary on Col 1:1). Unlike Colossians, where Paul cites his apostolic credentials to give his subsequent polemic greater legitimacy, he refers to himself here as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, thus introducing immediately an important motif for the rest of his letter (see introduction). Certainly, Paul intends to convey more than his historical situation (contra O'Brien 1983:271); in fact, he is not first of all a prisoner of Rome but a prisoner of Christ Jesus. His appellation interprets his literal imprisonment as a worshipful act--an act of devotion to Christ, of obedience to his calling. Paul does not appeal to his apostolic office (see vv. 8-10), not because it might offend his readership, close friends all (contra Melick 1991:348), but because the personal costs exacted by his imprisonment "allow him to speak to the community with greater authority" (Lohse 1971:189).

The use of prisoner without the article is unusual and may suggest that Paul uses it as part of his proper name, which regularly is given without an article (Harris 1991:244). Since added names suggest the nature of a person's calling (Jesus is "Savior," Peter is "Rock"), Paul may well identify himself as Christ's prisoner to indicate the very substance of his missionary task and its costs. Further, he may be implying that the costliness of Christian ministry is the result of the revolutionary content of his message, thereby preparing Philemon for the revolutionary character of Paul's request of him. Paul's message bears witness to a new social order, and for that reason he finds himself in jail. This prepares us, then, for a radical word concerning the relations between a Roman slave and his owner.

While Paul's imprisonment represents his missionary identity, it is Jesus for whom Paul is imprisoned. The response Paul strongly desires from Philemon springs from his orientation toward discipleship: because of Christ Jesus, Philemon should respond favorably toward Onesimus, even though it may be costly and at odds with the surrounding social order.The Audience (1: 1-2)

As the first person mentioned, Philemon is Paul's principal addressee. J. Knox contended that Paul's principal addressee is rather Archippus; his opinion, however, has not been accepted by scholars (see introduction; also see O'Brien 1983:266). Perhaps Philemon is named first because he is the patron of the household church that meets in his home and not because Paul's request will be directed primarily to him. Yet Paul's affectionate greeting of him as dear friend and fellow worker suggests a more significant intent. Actually, "dear friend" translates a single word, agapetos, "beloved one." Elsewhere in his writings Paul uses this as a term of affection for believers (Rom 1:7) and congregations (Phil 2:12). Paul further refers to Philemon as a fellow worker, which identifies him as one among others (see v. 24) who worked with Paul in the Gentile mission.

In his epistolary greetings, Paul's view of his addressees largely determines what is said to them and how they are treated. Paul views Philemon as a trusted and dear colleague and treats him as a peer and friend. Precisely this same attitude undergirds Paul's request that Philemon view the slave Onesimus as a brother and partner in faith.

Certainly, however, Philemon is not Paul's only addressee. Two other names are mentioned, Apphia our sister and Archippus, along with the church that meets in [Philemon's] home. The exact identities of Apphia and Archippus are unknown. Most scholars speculate that Apphia is Philemon's wife; her name is Phrygian, she is a Christian sister, known to Paul, and Paul places her name alongside Philemon's in the address (Lightfoot 1876:306-8). Probably this Archippus is the one mentioned in Colossians 4:17, where Paul's cryptic exhortation suggests that he has fallen prey to the Colossian "philosophy" (see commentary on Col 4:17). The reference to him here as a fellow soldier tells a different story. According to O'Brien, the term Paul uses to address Archippus designates him as one who has "played an important part in assisting Paul in his missionary labors, and has faithfully stood at his side through persecution and trial--perhaps even imprisonment" (O'Brien 1983:273).

Paul's reference to the household church is important for two reasons. In the rhetorical pattern of this letter, Paul's opening address establishes an important contrast between a secular household, where slaves are an underclass and often exploited, and the Christian household or church, where slaves are loved and treated as equal partners in the faith. Also, Paul's reference to a household church reminds the contemporary reader that believers first met in private homes rather than in buildings in the public square. We should not suppose that living rooms are somehow better places to worship God than downtown sanctuaries. I am reminded of John's great vision of the New Jerusalem, in which he noted that he saw no temple during his tour of the city because "God and the Lamb are its temple" (Rev 21:22). Worship is not determined by places or buildings but by the spiritual vitality of the relationships between a people, God and the Lamb. In fact, Paul's reference to Philemon's house church may well indicate that Christianity was still an unofficial, underground religious movement in Colosse, or that it was such a new work that a social structure had not yet been fashioned. Nevertheless, Paul addresses his readers as the church, composed of people whom God has called out of the world for salvation.The Greeting (1:3)

Paul's conventional greeting finally comes in verse 3, and as usual contains both the traditional Greek salutation, grace (charis), and the traditional Jewish salutation, peace (eirene shalom). The theological point Paul's greeting makes is that for him the church of God includes every believer, whether Jew or Greek (see commentary on Col 1:2). In Philemon Paul adds the phrase and the Lord Jesus Christ (which many ancient manuscripts add to Colossians 1:2 as well) to indicate that the congregation receives its salvation-creating grace and its experience of "peace with God" from God through Christ (see Rom 5:1-11).

Next commentary:
Paul's Prayer

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