Philemon 1: structural clues

On Sunday evening, September 19, our Philemon study group began.

Content-wise, our activities commenced as any study group should–directly in the text. Well, OK, I did give about 5 min. of introductory background from the Int’l Standard Bible Enclopedia, Vol. IV, but as soon as we collected ourselves, we read the text.  Six times. You can do that with Philemon.  🙂

This past Sunday evening, we started delving earnestly into the organization, the structure, the linguistic clues, the historical background (and anything else we might be led into).  Drawing from material penned by my friend Greg Fay, we looked first at clues that outline the structure of a letter in first-century Graeco-Roman culture.  Admittedly, some of these seem simplistic and might be assumed, without much ado.  The “introduction,” while not always found at the outset, is most often right there where you expect it to be.  And in Philemon, we are not surprised to find the introduction in verses 1-7.

The middle/body/meat is in verses 8-20 or 21, and the conclusion, in verses 21-25.  Greg points out the transitional material in verses 8-10 that delineate the beginning of the Main Body of the letter and later comments, “With skilled writers, it’s sometimes difficult to tell exactly where a Conclusion begins because the transition is natural and fluid.”  I’m confident that as our little study group digs more deeply into Philemon in the coming few weeks, we’ll develop a more solid sense of the God-breathed message, and will gain understanding of the elements that provide clarifying delineation around said message.

The thoughts of skill and transitioning into concluding material reminded me of a preacher I heard during a certain year in my life, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, Tennessee.  I can hear his voice now, as he transitioned into his concluding material in each sermon.  His voice ascended in pitch, and became a little more nasal and annoying.  The clue words were “And so …” with the word “so” nearly an octave above the pitch of “And.”  We always knew when to scrape the hymnal against the rack, dragging it out to be ready for the invitation song, because the closing clues were so obvious.  This preacher’s gifts were not necessarily in public speaking, as you might have guessed.

Thankfully, Paul was not such a humdrum preacher.  There’s an inspired message here in this little book, and that includes the intro, the body, and the conclusion.  I aim to discover more of this message, to help others discover it, and ultimately to let it affect my efforts at being a disciple.

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