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