This post brings to a conclusion one of the more ostensibly imbalanced treatments of my 2.5-year blogging history. By that I mean I’m not sure I’ve ever given anywhere near eight posts–more than 4,000 words–on any subject that originally amounted to only 335 words in its entirety.
Because it is impossible, as far as I know, to paste into WordPress a fully formatted, word-processor document, I’ll not be able to share my friend Greg Fay’s chiastic Philemon layout in all its clear, color-coded glory. Instead, I’ll paste in each section in proximity with the other section to which it relates, adding my own comments in italics. In other words, instead of trying to show that vs. 4-5 relate to vs. 20-22 by formatting, I’ll simply put them next to each other, so the syntax will be “all messed up”–but in reality, it may be clarified!
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1-3 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus and Timothy the brother, To Philemon the beloved and our fellow-worker, and Aphia the sister, and Archippus our fellow-soldier, and to the church at your house. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
23 Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus greets you. [And so do] Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow-workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Above, note the personal greetings, of course, and the bookends: the repeated use of the words “grace” and “Lord Jesus Christ.” In addition, a clue is found in the word “fellow.” The Gk. here is not koinonia and does not even use the same prefix, yet the notion of “together” is seen in both these words.
I thank [euxaristo] my God always
making mention of you in my prayers, hearing
of the love
and the faith
which you have
toward the Lord Jesus
and for all the saints,
[praying] that the fellowship of your faith might become active through the knowledge of every good [thing] which is in you for Christ.
For I had much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints are refreshed by you, brother.
Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord.
Refresh my heart in Christ.
Confident of your obedience, I have written to you, knowing that you will do even more than what I say.
And, at the same time, also prepare for me the guest room.
For I hope that through your prayers, I will be freely given [xaristhasomai] to you.
The emboldened words show the bookends here: xaristhasomai and eucharisto. Precise, literal translation is often difficult, and these words are no exceptions, which is why English-readers almost never perceive this connection.
Looking at v. 5 now, in the first indented set, the (implied) praying is a connection. As mentioned in a prior post, the construction of this mini-chiasm in v. 5 introduces ambiguity: love is typically thought of as horizontal, i.e., toward other saints/Christians, while faith is held in the Lord Jesus. Here, the converse may also be a possibility.
The “benefit” Paul desires in 20 relates to the refreshing of hearts in 7; further on this point, the hearts of the saints become connected to the refreshing of Paul’s heart in 20. Also, note the connection to v. 12–Onesimus is Paul’s heart.
Therefore, having much boldness in Christ to order you to do what is proper,
on account of love,
I rather appeal to you,
being as I am, Paul, an old man, and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus.
If, therefore, you consider [have] me as a partner, receive him as [if he were] me.
And if he’s done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.
I, Paul, am writing with my own hand, “I will pay it back”—
lest I remind you that you owe me your very self
These parallel sections begin with “therefore” (Gk. “inferential particles” –G.F.). Here, Paul has emphasized personal aspects—his age, his captivity, his own hand, and his name. There also seems to be a sort of financial connection—“on account of love” (8) being related structurally to what Onesimus may or may not owe to Philemon, and what Philemon “owes” to Paul (18-19).
The nature of the appeal Paul makes is in evidence here, as well: it is based primarily on relationship and not on authority, although an apostolic “authority clause” is also present (8).
I appeal to you for my child
who was born to me while I was in chains, Onesimus—
the one formerly useless to you
but now useful to you and to me—
whom I am sending to you,
this one, he is my heart,
no longer as a slave, but above a slave,
a beloved brother,
especially to me, but how much more to you,
both in the flesh and in the Lord.
These passages are exceedingly significant! As I’ve indicated previously, the delay tactic is clearly seen in v. 10 as Paul “waits” before finally mentioning Onesimus’s name. The connection between 10 and 12 is clear: Onesimus is Paul’s spiritual child and is also his “heart,” both depictions pointing up a rather extreme personal attachment. The attachment is further borne out in the last phrase of 16: both physical/human and spiritual relationship are referenced.
Back to 10-12 now . . . moving inward, the next sections show a kind of physical direction—Onesimus’s having come to Paul, so he could be spiritually begotten, and then his being sent away from Paul to Philemon. This travel appears to me to foreshadow the overall thrust of the letter, which will be seen even more clearly in the next section.
The pun on Onesimus’s name (11) is more than a play on words; it hints at a spiritual directive, which, again, will hence be seen. That Onesimus would to this point be seen as useless to Philemon is no surprise; after all, the slave Onesimus ran away and probably stole. Yet despite his earlier wrongs, Onesimus has a new identity and is now useful, which is the meaning of his name. This new identity is seen in the related passage (center of 16): put plainly, he is now a brother. The expression “beloved brother” seems to cap the commendation of the “new” Onesimus to Philemon, in case there could be any doubt at this point.
One more item in this marvelous pairing . . . note the chiastic relationship of the concept of chains, both for Paul (10) and in Onesimus’s former slave relationship (16a).
And now we move to the final section. Considered in a western, linear fashion, this whole presentation would be assumed to be messed up; I’m ending with the center. But seen as Paul (and the Spirit of God!) intended, this coming “center” is really the end of the line. . . .
whom I would like to have kept [to have] for myself,
so that he might minister to me for you in the chains of the gospel.
But without your consent, I did not want to do anything,
so that not according to constraint your good thing might be but according to free-will.
For perhaps for this reason he was separated from you for an hour,
so that you might have him back forever,
There is more than one way to delineate and organize these verses, but the differences are not ultimately all that significant, in my estimation. I have chosen 14b as the center of the letter’s overall structure; one other possibility has vss. 13-14 forming a longer center.
In the outer phrasings of 13-15 there is a sense of ownership of Onesimus–first, Paul’s desire to have “kept” the new brother (hold that thought). Then in 15, first there is the lack of ownership that resulted from Onesimus’s having run away . . . followed closely by a new proposition from Paul: that Philemon could now newly, more deeply, possess relationship with Onesimus, their new brother.
Note also in 13-15 that there are three “so that” (Gk. ‘ina) clauses. What seems apparent—and this is based as much on the whole of the letter’s message as on verses 13-15a in particular—is that the middle instance (the “so that” expression in 14b) stands at the epicenter of the letter’s single, overall chiastic structure.
Paul is asking not only for Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother, but he is asking more. He is asking that Philemon do the previously unthinkable. He is asking that Philemon enable Onesimus to continue ministering to Paul for the sake of evangelization.
Paul is asking, in 14b, that Philemon willingly (operative word!), lovingly release Onesimus back to Paul. Onesimus is now a personified “good thing,” and Philemon’s “good thing” will be to release, of his own will, Onesimus to return to Paul.
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At the time he wrote this letter, Paul could have been captive in such a city as Ephesus (not in Rome until his second imprisonment). A few years down the road, someone named Onesimus was a leader in the church in Ephesus. I like to think that this was the case, and that Onesimus had in fact been released to live in Ephesus with Paul for a time, remaining there for the rest of his life. Having come across the theory that Onesimus might have been influential in having the letter to Philemon included in subsequent collections of scripture, I might further theorize that if Onesimus lived out his days in just such a central city, where he clearly would have first- and second-hand knowledge of the letter to the Ephesians and the both letters to Timothy, not to mention the ones to Philemon, Colossians (and Laodiceans), it would be easy to believe that Onesimus was uniquely used by the Lord in the process of collection an ultimate canonization of many of Paul’s writings.
To close this study of Philemon, I will share a quotation from Greg Fay’s book-in-progress on reading scripture. In the following, Greg does what I believe he has the right to do, having exegetically, soundly interpreted the scripture: he applies it to current day. I hope that I, together with all those I contact in the Kingdom, will be true to God’s scriptures–not applying them carelessly, but seeking earnestly to uncover their original contexts and intended messages. Then we may apply the scripture to our current-day situations!
I want extreme community. I want to participate in it, which means I want to know, respond to, and share the grace of God in Christ. I want to have faith in the Lord Jesus and be a lover of all saints, regardless of skin-color, social-status, or savings account. I want to treat those who have wronged me with the depth of refreshing faith and love that Paul asks of Philemon—an active sharing of my faith that will help them find real the extreme community of Christ that begins to share in Christ’s own love and community with the Father. I won’t always feel like it, and I will sometimes fail miserably. But God’s word spoken to us through the book of Philemon envisions and calls for no less.
. . .
From Philemon—among other things—the word of God is
love beyond boundaries,
forgiveness beyond hurts,
community beyond differences, and
purpose beyond failures.
Now, read Philemon again, and seek to live it as you follow Christ.
– Gregory L. Fay, PhD, Inkblotitis: How To Read the Bible to Miss Get God’s Point (manuscript)
 The only ambiguity for me in this choice resides in 15a, where the expression “might have him back forever” might be interpreted in more than one way. My current choice is that this means “Philemon, even though you won’t have him physically forever, you now have a lasting, eternal relationship with Onesimus, and this will enable you to do, in good conscience and in love for me, what I am asking.”
 The likes of F.F. Bruce have written about such possibilities. Caesarea has also been considered an option for the place of Paul’s captivity. Scholars are divided on this question.