Paul and Timothy had written a personal note to Philemon to accompany their treatise on Christian faith, now called “Epistle to the Ephesians,” and their more personal open letter to all the assemblies in Colossae, where Philemon lived.
Philemon was a wealthy slaveholder in Colossae, a respected leader in the church, and the host of an assembly who met in his home. His household included Apphia and Archippus, very likely close family members (I say perhaps his daughter and son because of the similarity in their names, others posit his wife and son).
Paul had written glowingly in his letter to the Colossian Christians of a third erstwhile member of Philemon’s household—Onesimus. But Philemon’s and Onesimus’ relationship was severely strained. It was the purpose of this personal note to mend what had been so egregiously ruptured.
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Encouragement
I give thanks to my God always bringing recollection of you in my prayers, hearing of your love (agape) and faith that you have to the Lord Jesus and into all the holy [ones] so that the fellowship of your faith would become effectual/powerful in full discernment of everything good of [the/that in us into Christ].Paul (and Timothy) to Philemon 1:4-6 (my translation)
You see that one little sketchy bit there, right? [the/that in us into Christ]
Part of my commitment to read the scriptures in their original language (as best I can from what has been preserved) is to be absolutely transparent in how I translate these words myself. So, I checked through other scholars’ work, and here’s how they have resolved it:
- Amplified Bible: that is ours in [our identification with] Christ Jesus [and unto His glory]
- Darby: which is in us towards Christ [Jesus].
- Common English Bible: among us in Christ.
- Disciples Literal New Testament: in us for Christ.
- NRSV: that we may do for Christ.
- NASB: which is in you for the sake of Christ.
It is actually kind of a relief that it is not just me. Paul’s wording here is not that clear for us.
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed Paul was talking about the mystery of our lives in Christ, and Christ’s life in us. Here is how I might try to paraphrase what Paul said here.
Power of Community
Paul made some important points not only about Philemon but about the community that he fostered in the church.
Whenever Paul prayed, and Philemon was brought to mind (presumably by the Spirit), Paul broke out in thanksgiving. Regular reports reached Paul of Philemon’s agape love and his belief and faith, to Jesus, and just as meaningfully, to all the believers.
All the believers.
Let us dwell on that for a moment. Not a word of this letter was written without careful thought, for that was simply Paul’s way. He wanted Philemon to remember who he really was, in his character, in the integrity of his love for Jesus and his brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul wanted to inspire within Philemon his gift of shepherding, for pastoring, borne out in both the good reports that found their way back to Paul, and by the thriving ministry happening in his own home.
He also wanted Philemon to remember the strength and depth of his faith in Jesus, which spread out to the brothers and sisters. For they, too, had the Spirit of Christ, and, it seems, Philemon consistently put great stock in that. As Paul said, Philemon had agape love and faith to the Lord Jesus, and to all the believers.
Philemon’s vision of himself through Paul’s eyes—and indeed, through the eyes of all those who had gone back to Paul with reports of Philemon—would be necessary when Paul presented his radical request.
As you might expect, even in this brief personal note, Paul followed a chiastic structure. The heart of Paul’s message was going to be the hope that Philemon would do good because he would himself see the good and recognize the Lord at work in him, through his love and his faith to Jesus and to all the holy ones, the brothers and sisters in Christ.
Fruit of Faith and Love
For I had much joy and encouragement at your love, that the hearts of the holy [ones] have been refreshed through you, brother.Paul (and Timothy) to Philemon 1:7 (my translation)
Philemon’s love and faith, to Jesus and to the brothers and sisters in Christ, not only refreshed those in Colossae, but also Paul—who was also a brother in the faith. Imagine how that must have felt, for Philemon, to read those words aloud to himself (as was the custom of his day). Imagine his pleasure as those pressed in close to him—at the very least, Apphia and Archippus, but assuredly also the other members of his household who were believers, as well as Onesimus, who was standing there, and Tychicus—heard the apostle’s warm words of approbation.
Paul leaned in, in just these first few opening sentences, on the importance of familial relationship within the Body of Christ, and the significance of their ties in the greater fellowship of the church. How many more had been refreshed by Philemon’s faith and love? How many more had been encouraged by his generosity, his hospitality, the work of the Spirit through him?
However way Philemon saw himself, Paul was now mirroring to this church leader what the apostle saw in him, and what his reputation meant to those with Paul.
Paul was also making Philemon accountable to the person he was becoming, the sanctified Philemon, the man in whom the Spirit was at work. Philemon, as he read Paul’s letter, spoke those words about himself in the presence of witnesses. Whatever he did next would need to come from this version of himself, for this was his true self.
Worldly High Status Versus Heavenly Position
We do not often talk about what it must have been like for high status males such as Philemon to embrace all that Jesus offered. The church had grown exponentially in numbers of widows, those who were enslaved, tradespeople, workers, and those on the fringes of society—publicans and prostitutes. There were also small yet significant minorities of priests and Pharisees, Greek women of high standing, Jewish people with some wealth such as Barnabas.
But what of wealthy Greek men, landholders who also kept slaves, men who were used to the deference and service of others, who were automatically in the right, whose patronage others longed for and considered a great privilege to have?
As I think about that, I wonder what Philemon did and said, initially, as he saw Onesimus approach? Was it Tychicus who led the way, and handed Philemon Paul’s letters? Did Tychicus say, “Sire, there is a personal note for you Apostle Paul was resolved you should read first, before gathering the church to hear his open letter.”? Did Onesimus hang back, knowing he was in a precarious position?
Or did Onesimus lead the way, full of hope, confident both in Paul and Timothy’s letter, and in the Spirit at work in Philemon? That Philemon’s love and faith indeed would be powerful and effectual in discerning every good thing in us from Jesus, and every good thing to Jesus as well (for he is in us, and we are in him)? Was it Onesimus who handed Philemon this personal note, and told him, “This is from our brother Paul,”?
Either way, there were witnesses as Philemon next read Paul’s bold request.
[Leaf from the Rochester Bible, c. 1130-1140 AD, you can read “incipit epistula ad phylemonem” at the top, the epistle of Philemon | By Anonymous (England) – Walters Art Museum: Home page Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18845827%5D