I have read Philemon so many times and because it is such a short letter, it is so easy to skim over what is really important about the letter. Many times we look at something like this letter and right away make a judgment call as to how important it really is and then of course, we lose so much that we could actually glean from it.
Sure it’s a personal letter. Sure it’s an historical document, but it is so much more than that. For one thing, if you truly believe the Bible, the Whole Bible is the inspired, infallible Written Word of God (at least in its original meaning) then you can’t deny the fact that the letter to Philemon is and has been inspired by the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Apostle Paul wrote it to a friend and brother, but I hope to point out the wisdom and example of the Christ-like character that we are all commanded to imitate.
In this letter, Paul does just that and in doing so gives us a perfect example of how we are to treat one another but even more importantly how our treatment of one another should coincide with the Lord Jesus’ behavior and actions when He walked the roads throughout the Holy Land.
This letter shows us that the Apostle Paul didn’t just speak the words, but he also put them into practice himself and demonstrated that yes, we CAN be more like Jesus.
Now as far as a little background history, we are pretty certain that Paul is in prison in Rome when he wrote this letter. The time period varies between scholars who have studied his travels, but most are pretty positive this was during his travels to Rome in the early 60s AD. There are two other options that are most often discounted though as the time of this letter and that was when he was in prison in Ephesus in the mid 50s AD, and possible Caesarea in the very late 50s AD and maybe the very first turn to the 60s AD. Again however, his stay in Ephesus and Caesarea are most often dismissed and the majority of Bible Scholars believe it was his imprisonment in Rome.
This puts the writing of this letter much later in his life and it would explain one of the references he makes to being an “aged Paul.”
Paul is writing to a friend and one he considers a fellow worker in the Lord. But he is also addressing those who are assumed to be Philemon’s wife, Apphia and to Philemon’s son, Archippus. Beside this, he also addresses, “the church that meets in your house.” Though it is a personal letter, the reason he addresses the others besides just Philemon is because the nature of the letter will impact everyone he has addressed.
Philemon had a slave, Onesimus who ran away and in his attempt to get far, he actually came across the path of Paul. Through Paul, Onesimus was converted to Christianity and as happens with all true conversions, Onesimus’ life changed. In Paul’s eyes, Onesimus became as a son to him as Paul felt this way to most all who were converted to Christ through his ministry. Evidently though Onesimus was also a very welcome help while Paul was imprisoned.
Since during that time, most of the slaves were appointed their duties by the wives, and since the son was so close within the family unit and the church met there, Paul wanted to make sure nothing was being done or asked in secret. Paul was always conscious of being above-board with all of his dealings.
A word of note here; this is not a treatise on slavery per se. Slavery for the most part was, however, vastly different than what most of us are aware of during American Colonial times though there were some similar instances. For the most part, slavery was often voluntary to help pay off debts owed or to better one’s future life. It is not however known what the case was with Onesimus’ situation or circumstance.
Even though this is a letter of request, it is very much an instruction and a reference in how different classes in society should behave towards one another when it comes to a spiritual and a Christian sense. There were rules in place in society that kept classes apart, but Paul’s writing is very clear that IN Christ Jesus, the new lifestyle that is reborn within those saved through Christ Jesus leaves no room for class differences and in the eyes of Christ, Himself, there is no ethnicity, gender, class, etc. (Galatians 3:26-29).
Paul plays upon Philemon’s own conversion and his surrender to Christ himself to lay the foundation for a renewed relationship with Onesimus. How the Apostle does it is very intriguing and yet also very wise and Paul demonstrates that following after Christ Jesus and His example is not to be in words only, but actually in actions.
Again, there is so much depth for such a short letter and when you truly delve into and ask questions like who, what, when, where, why and how, you begin to see the intricacies of the Word and how it truly can relate in practical ways to our journey in this lifestyle of living and being in Christ.
Philemon 1:1-3, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Unlike some of Paul’s other greetings, he does not start out reminding of his spiritual authority as an Apostle. This is the one letter Paul does not begin with that but rather taking the “low-road” as it were and describing himself first and foremost as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Remember, Paul IS imprisoned at this time for his efforts to spread the gospel of what the Jews and Roman authorities consider a “new” religion and one that is causing a stir within their occupied cities.
However, I need to remind the readers that Paul does not consider himself a prisoner of the state, by any means. He is looking beyond the emperor to the King of Kings as it were and thus even while imprisoned is continuing his mission to spread the gospel.
At this time he does acknowledge that Timothy, whom Paul considers a son and a loyal disciple is with him, though it is clear that it is the Apostle that is the primary writer and sender of the letter. Paul addresses Philemon as a BELOVED friend and fellow laborer and it is fitting because the name Philemon actually means “affectionate,” and it appears from what Paul writes further on Philemon’s character demonstrates the truth and nature of his name.
As stated in the introduction, Paul includes Apphia also as “beloved” and in some versions is added “our sister,” which would most undoubtedly indicate she and Philemon are together and actually co-workers in the Kingdom of God, therefore she is indeed a sister in Christ. This is why among Bible scholars it is very much assumed that she is Philemon’s wife and not that of a guest or even a relative.
He also addresses the letter to a young man named Archippus, as also being a part of the household and for that reason is assumed to be Philemon’s son. Paul also identifies him as a “fellow soldier” which coming from Paul is meant as an honor and it seems that Archippus is known for his Christian work and Paul made a point of acknowledging him probably due to a note that he addressed concerning his work in the closing salutation to the Colossians found in Colossians 4:17.
Interestingly enough, this opening greeting can give us a glimpse, possibly, into the early New Testament church, due to the fact that if these three are indeed a family, it gives us an insight because of how the Apostle adds “and to the church in your house.” It is most likely the meeting place for fellow believers in order for them to gather in worship, prayer and even Bible study and reading. As hinted in the Introduction, you can see how many may be influenced by Paul’s request to Philemon.
So it appears that Paul’s inclusion of the church meeting in Philemon’s home is to not just prepare a path for reconciliation for Onesimus, but also demonstrates in advance, that ALL Christians are brothers and sisters on equal footing and standing when it comes to the true Church.
Now as far as Paul’s usual greeting, I am sure that he gives it to those that he truly loves with all the best intentions and he packs a whole lot of meaning from the very gospel he teaches into it. We often read a greeting like this and just pass over it without giving it any thought, but I’m going to show you the depth behind this greeting.
As you know, GRACE means all the undeserved, the unmerited favor that God bestows upon those who believe and follow after Him. PEACE is that inner calmness, the serenity AND assurance which tends to stabilize and create a foundation for those gifted with God’s grace. Paul is reminding the reader that both, the grace and the peace come from One source, God the Father AND God, the Lord Jesus Christ! Now think about it. This has a lot of meaning despite it seeming so simple. It means, as confirmed in so many other Scriptures as well as the Words of Jesus Himself, that the Lord Jesus Christ is EQUAL with God the Father in gifting grace and peace! As I once read a long time ago, it would be blasphemy to give such honor to Christ if He were not truly and fully God.
Again, we see the Oneness of God in the Trinity. God is ONE, but He IS the Father, He IS the Son and He IS the Holy Spirit! Awesome to think about and meditate on!