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