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. . . continued from yesterday . . .
This beautiful letter is of course about Philemon and Onesimus, but it is about more than the two of them. It is about grace, about Christian togetherness, about relationship and identity in Jesus, and more. Its inclusion in the canon appears to be no accident!
Looking at the opening greeting can give us some important, initial clues as to the meaning and intent. Paul does not just say “Paul to you, greetings.” Adjectives and expansions of the basic form give us clues into the situation and purposes of the letter. Paul’s letters are, by the way, not “epistles” in the truest sense. They are letters, and by that I mean they were 1) occasional and 2) non-formal-literary in nature. They were intended for a specific audience and not for broad publication. The structure of the writing tends to indicate that they were personal letters and not carefully crafted orations that Paul thought would be widely read. The occasional aspect, when phrased that way, may get some of our backs up, because the word seems to downplay the significance of the writing. In using the word “occasional,” though, I in no way intend to denigrate the purpose–me gonoito! Rather, I am attempting to help myself and others to hone in on the specific situation–the historical context–that gave rise to, or occasioned, the letter.
The community dimension is implied in the address to Philemon, (his wife) Apphia, (his son) Archippus,¹ and their house church.
Greg Fay has pointed out these things regarding the introduction to the letter, which is found in verses 1-7.
- “A clear, repetitive emphasis on community and partnership in the cause of Christ thus fills the Address.”
- “Close scrutiny of the language of Philemon as a whole reveals the concept of Christian relationship or community to be the pivotal idea on which the theology of the letter depends. Paul clearly and forcefully identifies Onesimus as having a new, spiritual son-like, useful, emotional, vital, beloved, serving relationship with himself—in other words, Onesimus is now a devoted Christian. Paul shares a similar relationship with Philemon.”
- “As Paul will explain, Onesimus has been reborn and has become a child of Paul and, more importantly, a child of Christ—he is now a “saint.” If Philemon loves all the saints, he will now also love Onesimus, necessarily. The argument turns on Onesimus’s change of identity (“. . . my child Onesimus, whose father I became . . . Formerly, he was useless to you, but now . . .”) There is a then and a now, and they are not the same. The implication is unassailable and unyielding. But notice that Paul doesn’t draw the implication here; he simply builds the literary and theological context for the purposes of his letter.
To be continued . . .
¹ That Apphia and Archippus had some special standing in the household is clear. That they were wife and son, respectively, to Philemon is not explicit. Archippus is also mentioned in the letter to the Colossians.