Philemon (day 1133)

Philemon 1 (day 1133) 6 February 2013

          1-3: The letter is from Paul and Timothy to Philemon, Apphia and Archippus. Timothy we know. Philemon is only mentioned in this letter, nowhere else; the same with Apphia. Archippus, however, is mentioned elsewhere. In the letter to the Colossians Paul closes with, “Tell Archippus to complete the task he has received in the Lord.” (Colossians 4:17). This leads to the tantalizing theory that this letter was not written just to Philemon but to the leaders of the church in his community, probably Colossae, although some scholars think the nearby town of Laodicea is the address to which the letter is sent and that this letter which we call Philemon is the “letter from Laodicea” Paul mentions in Colossians (4:16). Following that theory, the command for Archippus to “complete the task” is a reference to Paul’s demands for their treatment of Onesimus when he is sent back to them. In other words, Paul wants the decision to receive Onesimus gracefully to be a community decision, not an individual one. Even if Philemon is the owner of the slave Onesimus, he should give way to the wisdom of the church in dealing with the situation. But we get ahead of ourselves.

4-7: However, we have to concede that the “you” in this paragraph (and through verse 21) is in the singular form. Which of the three addressees, then, is Paul giving thanks for in this passage? Nearly everyone agrees it is Philemon, but it is possible that the “you” is intended as a reference to the congregation as a single unit and the singular form would thus be appropriate. In verse 6, where the NRSV translates “we,” some ancient manuscripts have “you” plural. Enough of this speculation: It is apparent that these are people Paul knows personally, and his greeting is most complimentary.

8-16: Now Paul is making an appeal and asking them to grant it for two reasons: because of their “love for all the saints and faith toward Christ Jesus” (verse 5); and because poor Paul is an old man in prison. In verse 10 we have the first mention of Onesimus, and every indication is that Onesimus is a runaway slave who has made his way to Rome (where scholars believe the letter was composed) and has become Paul’s attendant. The name means “useful” or “profitable,” and Paul makes a play on words from it, praising Onesimus for his usefulness to him. He wants to keep Onesimus with him, he says, but needs Philemon’s (or Apphia’s or Archippus’) consent. But he goes on to say that Philemon should receive him back not as a slave but as a brother. I doubt that he intends that Onesimus be set free, but he certainly does mean that because of their mutual faith their relationship has changed. On more than one occasion Paul has declared that in Christ there is no slave nor free (1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11).

17-21: Like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), Paul offers to pay whatever cost is involved in receiving Onesimus back. There may be an implication that Onesimus had stolen something when he ran away and Paul is offering to make it good. He pads his case by reminding Philemon that he, Paul, is responsible for his very being, probably meaning that Paul is the one who brought him to faith in Christ.

22: Although in prison, he is the consummate optimist. Get ready for me to come for a visit, he says.

23-25: He closes with greetings from others who are with him, all of whom we have met before. Epaphras was from Colossae (Colossians 4:12). Mark is John Mark (Acts 12:25), with whom Paul had a falling out (Acts 15:39), but now they seem to be back in good standing. Aristarchus from Thessalonica was one of Paul’s traveling companions (Acts 20:4 and 27:2, Colossians 4:10). Demas was another one with whom Paul had a falling out (2 Timothy 4:10), but now is reconciled. Luke is, of course, “the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14) and, we think, the author of the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts.

Postscript: The early church father and martyr for the faith Ignatius, about 50 years after this, wrote a series of letters to churches in Asia Minor while he was on his way from Antioch to Rome to stand trial for treason. One of those letters was to the church in Ephesus, and in it he praises the bishop of Ephesus, whose name is given as Onesimus. Could the runaway slave of Philemon have become a bishop of the church in Ephesus?

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