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Journey Through Scripture: Philemon 1:1-6
September 20, 2019, 11:00 AM

Background to this Book

This letter by Paul to a Christian named Philemon is one of the shorter books of the Bible. The purpose of the letter concerns an escaped slave of Philemon, Onesiums, who at some point encountered Paul while in prison, came to believe in Jesus as the Christ, and who has now returned with this letter. In it Paul pleads for grace to be shown Onesimus, in spite of the legal rights Philemon may have had under Roman law. Even more, not just grace, but Paul argues Philemon should not see Onesimus as a slave - but as a fellow brother in Christ!

Interestingly, this letter and Colossians seem related, to the point where it is probable they were both sent at the same time to the same people. Even more interesting, based on the connection to Colossians, Onesimus the slave likely became the Bishop Onesimus of Colossae as recorded by the Early Church. Truly God calls people from any social background to serve him as leaders in his Church!

Philemon 1:1-6

"Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker,  2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:  3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God  5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.  6 I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ."
~Philemon 1:1-6  

Usually Paul’s letters begin by asserting his apostolic authority or calling for the Gospel, but uniquely here in v.1 he calls himself  “a prisoner of Christ Jesus”. Though Paul calls himself that elsewhere in Scripture (Eph 3:1) this is the only time he does so as a title, and he will use this phrase twice more in the same letter (Phlm 1:9; Phlm 1:23). If Colossians and Philemon were sent at the same time then it is interesting to note that in that letter Paul calls himself an “apostle by the will of God”. For his personal letter to Philemon Paul is stressing his status as in prison for the Gospel over this authority as an Apostle. This reflects the way Paul makes his argument to Philemon throughout the letter – as an appeal to his conscious rather than an assertion of power. Timothy, who traveled with Paul and was a major supporter of his ministry, is listed as well.

Philemon is addressed directly as a “dear friend” and “co-laborer”. Being called a “dear friend” seems to indicate Paul had a close connection with Philemon and is making an appeal to him on a personal level. Paul also acknowledges his work for the Gospel as a “co-laborer” and in so doing adds to his argument, as St. Chrysostom pointed out “if Philemon is a fellow laborer then…apart from any request, Paul says, you have another reason for granting the favor. For if he is profitable to the gospel and you are anxious to promote it, then you should be the one pleading with me” (Homilies on Philemon I, in “Ancient Christian Commentary”, pg.311)

Paul then addresses his letter to three more persons in v.2: Philemon, Apphia (likely his wife), and Archippus. Calling Archippus as “fellow solider”, and the reference to him in Colossians 4:17, suggests that he is an active minister for the Gospel in some way (See Philippians 2:25). In addition Paul addresses the “church in your house”. Though the letter may be personal, the issue is not private! Likely the entire church in that area would have been talking about the runaway slave. Perhaps even various opinions had formed over what do to. Roman law was very harsh and strict when it came to escaped slaves so as to discourage a massive revolt. But Christians were supposed to be different, and now the church was possibly facing a controversial choice. How Philemon treated Onesimus on his arrival could set the standard for how that Church treated enslaved persons in Colossae for the future – and so Paul addresses the personal letter to the whole Christian community in that house. At the time, Christians had not yet begun to own ot build special buildings, and instead met at the homes of wealthy patrons or patronesses such as Nypha (Col 4:15)

Paul understood the new Church of Jesus was in a precarious place  -already under pressure from Roman culture and threat of Roman authorities in some places. If he advised Philemon to take full legal remedy against his new brother in Christ, Onesimus, then it would undermine his Gospel that in Jesus there is no longer “slave or free” (Galatians3:28 ). But if he made a direct command to free Onesimus or not punish him, then it could be seen by Roman authorities that the Church was even more of a dangerous social movement and the entire church at Colossae may be in danger from the Empire! And so this personal letter was addressed to the entire church that met in this house.

Verse 3 is a standard phrase for Paul, desiring his readers to have grace and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ; a variation of this appearing at least ten times throughout the letters. (eg Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3). Paul in all cases hopes his letters bring both: God’s grace and peace for that church. In addition Paul is placing the God our Father and the name of Jesus as “Lord” on equal footing! This shows an early high Christology – that already in Paul there is a very high view of Jesus as equally God, as fully divine. “Lord” was not just an honorary title but also the word used to translated the Divine Name Yahweh in the Greek version of the Old Testament. Not only that, but Paul is asserting that grace comes through Jesus as well as the Father, something blasphemous if Jesus isn’t fully God! Though some scholars assert Jesus’ divinity was a late development, statements like this demonstrate that already by the time of the Apostles Jesus was seen as both God and Man.

In verses 4-5 Paul informs Philemon of his thanksgiving prayer for him and the church in his house - praising Philemon and the church for their love towards “all the saints” and their faith in Jesus. On one hand this is an encouragement for them to continue in their faith as they are doing, but on the other it seems Paul is subtly starting his argument on behalf of Onesimus. In a way Paul is reminding them of the Christian command to love *all* the saints! It’s Paul saying “well, of course you love everyone, right? I’ve heard how faithful you are! Now, it’s time to act that way towards Onesimus!”

The main theme and key verse for Philippians is in verse 6 which will urge Philemon to welcome Onesimus as a fellow believer in Jesus. Paul begins with the Greek word “hoti” which is a connector meaning “so that” – in that v.6 is connected to the prayer mentioned in vv.4-5. His prayer of thanksgiving is “so that” the “sharing” of their faith may be “may become effective” when they “perceive” the good that can be done for Christ.  

The word translated by the NRSV as “sharing” is “koinonia”. In other places this word is translated as “fellowship” and is an important word for Paul in such places as 1 Cor 10:16, 2 Cor 6:14, 2 Cor 13:13, Phil 1:5, and Phil 2:1. It means more than community, sharing time together, eating, or other associations. Instead it explicitly means to participate in each other (Darrell Bock, in “A Biblical Theology of the New Testament”, pg.307) – for the Church is a new community with new social dynamics that transcend old social barriers. Even further, koinonia means “Christians not only belong to one another, but actually become mutually identified” (NT Wright, “Tyndale New Testament Commentary”, pg.176) such that how one is treated all are treated and the debts of one belong to all.

This idea of koinonia is the center of Paul’s petition as the letter progresses. Paul is saying here that his prayer for their love and faith is so that they may have this koinonia – and that having it will result in (“become effective”) a proper “perception” (or knowledge). This new knowledge as a Christian koinonia will guide them to the right solution created by this social problem caused by Onesimus’ return, and so this right koinonia will result in the greater good done for the Gospel – for Christ.

Application and Takeaway

God's view of the Church is not just as an organization, nor is being a member of the Church just having a name on the rolls.

Though Paul, God has given us an image of the Church as a koinonia, a community of mutual connections in our Lord Jesus Christ - and through that koinonia God makes effective in us his grace to do his good works for Christ.

What would this mean to live out a life of grace as a community? What does this mean to be a "member" of St. Stephen's if the goal is Biblical Koinonia? How can we at St. Stephen's better become a koinonia?

Often Church membership is seen as a club member - as just a name on a list. But the Bible says that being a member of a Church is a commitment to love and serve Jesus as part of a living community of Christians, on mission to grow as disciples and spread the Gospel. Being a member is a high calling indeed!

Obviously life happens! Some will have more or less energy, more or less time, more or less resources. The point is not we all give the same, but that we live as a true part of the Church community.

The takeaway this month:
What is one thing you can do this month to help St. Stephen's become more of a true koinonia of Christ in Sherman?