KNOW - PHILEMON
WHO GOD IS
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Philemon 3
Following the naming of sender and recipient, a standard Ancient Greek letter would begin with chairein—“Greetings!” In his letters, Paul restyled this opening into a prayer for his readers to receive grace (charis) and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 1:7).
Short but sweet, this prayer of Paul’s tells us a lot about who God is.
First, He gives grace. While we tend to think of grace as a religious word, in the first century AD it was a very social word, referring to the generosity of a benefactor towards someone in need of help. God’s grace, however, goes beyond the grace of a typical giver, being totally self-initiated and extending even to his enemies (Rom 5:6-8).
Second, He gives peace. Paul likely had the background of the Hebrew word for peace in mind here: shalom. Shalom was not simply the absence of war or anxiety, but total wholeness—every part of life set right. This peace—this wholeness—is God’s heart for His world.
Third, He is our Father. Jesus Himself invited people to speak to God not only reverently but also intimately, as Father (Matt 6:9). While the Bible affirms our personal relationship with Him, here and in the Lord’s Prayer the emphasis is on God as “our” Father —the one Father whom all His people share.
And fourth, Jesus is God. Paul’s greeting puts Jesus on the same level as the Father and refers to him using the Greek translation of God’s personal name in the OT, Yahweh. Though the Trinity is hard to grasp, the NT nonetheless affirms that Jesus (and the Holy Spirit) are included in the divine identity.
Short, sweet, but packed with content, Paul’s greeting to Philemon reveals so much about who God is.
WHO WE ARE
Paul’s short letter to Philemon is saturated with highly relational language. In it, every person he mentions is described by a word or phrase reflecting the closeness of his relationship with them.
– Timothy : our brother
– Philemon : our beloved fellow worker; my brother
– Apphia : our sister
– Archippus : our fellow soldier
– Onesimus : my child, whose father I became; beloved brother
– Epaphras : my fellow prisoner
– Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke : my fellow workers
This is because Paul understood that Jesus’ death and resurrection did more than reconcile him with God — it also reconciled him with others, especially other Jesus-followers. He believed that those who put their faith in Jesus become a new family, members of the same household (Eph 2:19; Gal 6:10).
Paul didn’t just make this idea up. He got it from Jesus himself, who re-oriented his disciples’ concept of family when he suggested that the biological family was not the fundamental unit to which one belonged. When Mary and his brothers came looking for him, Jesus no doubt surprised everyone by pointing to his disciples and saying, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk 3:34-35).
In Philemon, Paul’s use of affectionate and familial language to refer to other believers reveals his commitment to and connection with them. They are his new and primary family, just as Jesus said.
If you identify as a follower of Jesus, you’ve been placed in a new family! Does that scare you? Encourage you? Affect your life in any practical way?
WHAT WE BELIEVE
“If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self.” Philemon 18-19
An IOU is a document that acknowledges a debt. Here, Paul offers Philemon an IOU on Onesimus’ behalf and at the same reminds Philemon of his own IOU, based on his debt of sin.
Paul wrote more about this IOU in his letter to the Colossians: “When you were dead in your sins…God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13-14).
The picture painted here is of an IOU that humanity has signed, acknowledging that we have not given to God what we owe him—which is everything (Rom 11:36). However, rather than demand that we pay up, in Jesus, God has wiped this debt away.
When Paul writes that Philemon owes him his own self, he is referring to the fact that Philemon has had his personal IOU to God totally torn up as a result of Paul’s ministry: Paul had delivered to him the good news that in Jesus our debt is paid! He was forgiven everything!! So now he is being asked to forgive Onesimus.
As Christians, we believe we owe our Creator-God everything and we have failed to give him his due. But in Jesus, God made a way for our IOUs to be obliterated (Mark 10:45). And because of this, we have become empowered to forgive the debts owed to us.
HOW WE LIVE
“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” Philemon 8-9
The ideas contrasted in these verses tell us something very powerful about Paul and how he discipled people.
The Ancient Roman world in which Paul lived was one of well-defined social hierarchies. Patronage, a system of honour and indebtedness, dictated the interactions between individuals of different classes. A lower class person (aka “the client”) was loyally bound to their superior (aka “the patron”), who provided “the client” with various social and/or economic advantages.
Aspects of patronage—this relationship of give-and-take between “patron” and “client”—can be seen in the way Paul related with the churches he founded. Made a minister of the New Covenant by the power of the Spirit, Paul had great boldness (2 Cor 3:4-6, 12) and God-given authority (2 Cor 13:10). This authority would have extended over Philemon, who had become a Christian because of Paul’s ministry (v19).
For this reason, Paul could have boldly commanded Philemon to do the right thing and forgive his runaway slave Onesimus, whom Paul had sent back to him (v12). However, he instead preferred to encourage Philemon’s forgiveness to be motivated by love—a love which Paul knew Philemon had for all of God’s people (v5).
Paul acknowledges the hierarchy (he is Philemon’s “patron”) in order to abolish it, laying down his right to command and choosing to appeal to what he knew was already inside of Philemon.
Philemon well-knew the authority bestowed upon a “patron,” being one himself (a slave-owner with a house big enough to host a church and for a guest room, v2, 16, 22). Can you imagine how Paul modeling a “patron” laying down his rights would have impacted him and helped him to release Onesimus—his inferior—from the debt he owed?