The Epistle of St. Paul to Philemon
The story behind the epistle:
The epistle is an adventure, but the risk was calculated: St. Paul tasked Onesimus with carrying the letter to his angry master, Philemon, whom he had cheated and from whose house he had fled. But it would seem that Philemon had a kind heart, and he had a high regard for the returning slave who had served him faithfully over the years. Also, the slave’s return, with apologies and a letter from his friend St. Paul, rapidly softened Philemon, as he read the letter from the teacher and Church leader. Here, we have a repeat of the story of the repentant prodigal son, who returned to find the father awaiting him: “…and fell on his neck and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)
Furthermore, Onesimus’ conversion to the Faith transformed, at the same time, the nature of the old master-slave relationship. They were now equal partners in one body – the body of Christ. They were equal members in the Church that God redeemed with His blood. He left as an escaped slave, and returned as a brother in Christ’s congregation. In this way, St. Paul convinced his friend Philemon to accept his slave willingly – not grudgingly due to St. Paul’s position with respect to his slave.
All those events worked together for the overall good. First, there was Onesimus’ slip, followed by his escape signaling rebellion against his master; then his arrival in Rome with difficulty, followed by his being carried by grace to St. Paul in his prison, then his conversion to Christianity due to St. Paul’s teaching about the loving Christ: hence, from an escaped slave roaming the empire’s capital, to a helper in God’s ministry.
Who can believe such an amazing trans-formation? It is a significant transformation for a slave such as Onesimus, who was not considered equal to humans having rights. He became not only a free man, but also a disciple of Jesus Christ’s. This changed his personality, and imparted to him self-confidence, plus a feeling of human dignity as Christ’s follower.
Thus, Onesimus’ return to Philemon gave him the opportunity to apply the Lord’s comm-andment to love others, whether enemies or slaves. When everyone puts on the Lord Christ, all societal discriminations dissolve; hence, “…. where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.” (Colossians 3:11) And, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
Sections of the Epistle:
- Apostolic greeting: (1-3)
- St. Paul’s love to his friend Philemon: (4-7)
- St. Paul’s appeal with Philemon to accept Onesimus’ return: (8-21)
- The Conclusion: Request, salutation, and blessing: (22-25)
Apostolic greeting: (1-3)
From the first line, St. Paul diligently tries to gain a sympathy from Philemon, his friend, to accept Onesimus who sinned against his master (Philemon) and escaped from his service for a long period of time, but is returning to him now a new person quite different from what he was. At the same time, St. Paul is trying to strip Philemon from his anger and his spontaneous tendency to punish his slave for his trans-gression.
As such, St. Paul does not introduce himself as an Apostle and leader of a Church extending through Asia and Europe, but as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” a prisoner in Rome for preaching of the Savior. He is thus hoping that these words find an echo and acceptance in Philemon in recognition of the circumstances of the great preacher.
He is including, in his salutation to his friend, his disciple, the faithful servant “Timothy our brother” whom Philemon knows and has met in Ephesus or Colosse. He does not call Philemon his son, but “our beloved friend and fellow laborer”, i.e. a participant in the ministry. In this way He is urging him, being a co-minister, to look at this issue with an apostolic spirit, as a minister of Christ.
He directs his epistle also to “the beloved Apphia”, who is most likely Philemon’s wife. And he does not hesitate to call her “beloved” despite his celibacy. Pure love to brothers and sisters does not hide in shame, unlike lust that works secretly in darkness and flees from light and publicity.
And he sends his greeting also to “Archippus”, Philemon’s son, who served with St. Paul in Colosse (was commissioned to a special service, Col.4:17), describing his participation in service as “our fellow soldier”. This was the vision of St. Paul to the participants in the service of the Lord that they are soldiers in the army of salvation. Thus he encourages Timothy to “endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:3) and uses the military language in describing the spiritual struggle of believers, “against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places”, “the fiery darts of the wicked one”, like breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, helmet of salvation, and sword of the Spirit, which he mentioned in his Epistle to the Ephesians (Eph. 6:10-17).
He also sends his Apostolic greetings “to the church in your house” where believers gathered for worship. Churches started in houses till believers increased in numbers when the need started for church buildings as well as arranged prayers and their associated rites.
Finally, he prays for grace and peace to all “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”, as he used to write in all of his epistles.
St. Paul’s love to his friend Philemon: (4-7)
St. Paul subsequently primes Philemon for forgiving Onesimus, discounting any possibility of Philemon’s punishing, or rejection of, his returning slave, while promoting his acceptance as a son and a brother in the Faith. St. Paul penetrates Philemon’s heart through the avenue of love, spiritual brotherhood and service fellowship. He thus states that, while in prison, he remembers Philemon in his prayers, giving thanks to God as he learns of Philemon’s faith, and love of the Lord as well as of all the saints – members of the church – while asking God “that the sharing of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus” coupled with growth of His Church. For St. Paul, this constituted a source of “great joy and consolation,” especially upon learning that Philemon’s love had won approval and acceptance in the “hearts of the saints.”
St. Paul’s appeal with Philemon to accept Onesimus’ return: (8-21)
The apostle then focuses on the epistle’s primary objective. He started by saying that despite his boldness through Christ, “to command [Philemon] what is fitting,” yet Paul appealed to Philemon “for love’s sake…” since love obliges Philemon to accept Onesimus, especially as the request was coming from the Gentiles’ evangelist. St. Paul also added to this attribute two facts compelling a positive response to his request! Those were his old age, which he had reached having spent all his life evangelizing, and his suffering, since he was spending his days as a “prisoner of Jesus Christ.” His final appeal was for the sake of “my son Onesimus.”
At that point, St. Paul changes the earlier perception of Onesimus as a slave. Having been led by St. Paul to the faith in Christ, Onesimus is now the son begotten by St. Paul in his chains. The returning Onesimus is different from the one who had erred and fled: “…. who once was unprofitable to you [contrary to the meaning of his name!] but now is profitable to you and to me.” Put differently, having converted to the Faith and helped St. Paul in his evangelical endeavours, he would be helpful to Philemon’s service (hence, consistent with the meaning of his name.) St. Paul then asks Philemon to receive Onesimus, that being much against St. Paul’s wish: “…. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary [Put differently, the apostle did not want to keep Onesimus against Philemon’s will, ensuring that Philemon’s acceptance of Onesimus then giving him to Paul be voluntary rather than out of obligation].”
(To be contd.)
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