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.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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