On Reading Philemon

Philemon is a brief letter with only 335 words in the Greek text, and it appears in the New Testament without any specific context. Philemon and Onesimus, the main characters in the letter’s story, are unknown elsewhere in the New Testament. Many, if not most of the details, are lost to us as readers to whom this letter appears as a stranger walking out of the fog.

But we are not totally lost.

The letter arises out of a community that confesses Jesus of Nazareth as Israel’s Messiah. This lies at the letter’s core; it is its fundamental narrative. The letter does not defend or develop this confession in terms of its content, but it assumes it, builds on it, and calls others to live within it.

That world is centered on Jesus the Messiah, who is Lord.

  • “prisoner of Jesus Christ” (v. 1)
  • “grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3)
  • “for (into, toward) Christ” (v. 6)
  • “in Christ” (v. 8).
  • “prisoner of Jesus Christ” (v. 9)
  • “in the Lord” (v. 16)
  • “in the Lord” (v. 20)
  • “in Christ” (v. 20)
  • “fellow prisoner in Christ” (v. 23)
  • “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 25).

This is a world where believers belong to Jesus, suffering as prisoners for the sake of the Messiah (3x); where believers live “in the Messiah/Lord” (4x); where grace and peace are gifts of God and Jesus the Messiah (2x); and where everything one does is oriented toward (eis) the Messiah.

The Christian narrative sees the world through the Messiah. It sees the world through grace (v. 3, 25), peace (v. 3), and love (v. 2, 4, 7, 9, 16) from which flow joy (v. 7) and encouragement (v. 7, 9) as the hearts (guts; v. 7, 12, 20) of believers are refreshed within the family of God. In this world, fellow believers are family—brothers, sisters, and children (1, 2, 7, 10, 16, 20). They are co-workers (v. 2, 24) and partners (v. 6, 17) who welcome each other (v. 17). This community is rooted in the gospel (v. 13); it is what the gospel produces. It is the fruit of the Spirit.

Whatever the exact issue or concern Paul addresses in this letter, he does so out of a narrative world centered on his conviction that Jesus is Lord, Israel’s Messiah. The God of Israel has poured out grace upon Israel, renewed peace, and saturated Israel with love.

Paul addresses a community grounded in that work of God. Paul includes the gathered people of God (ecclesia) that meets in Philemon’s (?) house among his addressees. He also sends greetings from other believers who are known to that community. Stretching from Paul’s community to Philemon’s, Paul assumes a shared life (koinonia, v. 7) rooted in familial love, mutuality, and faith.

Paul (and Timothy!) writes from a community to a community about a situation between two believers (Philemon and Onesimus). The church overhears Paul’s requests. Paul attends to the situation—whatever it is—in the context of the whole church. What may have been strictly personal becomes public because Paul assumes that the nature of the Messianic community in Christ involves the whole community when facing this particular issue (whatever it is).

Philemon, then, must respond—not as an isolated individual—but as a person who lives in the Messiah’s community; he must respond as a member of the family.

The gospel drives this; indeed, the gospel demands this (“obedience,” v. 21).

Consequently, when we read this brief letter, we enter a world that assumes a narrative about how the world is different because Jesus is Lord. And the letter says something about what a difference that makes.

The letter to Philemon is a window into the relationality and mutuality of the early Christian church, and the letter evinces what values ground that life together.

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