The Opening and Closing of the Letter to Philemon

As is common in ancient letters from the first century, the letter to Philemon has an identifiable opening (vv. 1-3) and closing (at least 23-25, some say 19-25).

Though brief, they are significant for several reasons.

First, they introduce us to the people connected to this letter. This includes not only the letter’s primary author (Paul) and its main recipient (Philemon) but also the community that surrounds them. Those communities are, apparently, deeply integrated in a common life and narrative.

Second, they introduce use to key theological ideas that shape the world in which these communities live. What appears in the opening and closing is not simply formulaic but arises out of the worldview that shapes these communities.

The Community

Interestingly, whether calculated or not, there are five names in the opening of the letter and five names in the closing of the letter. The symmetry is fascinating, and, if nothing else, balances the brief letter in an interesting way.

The names in this letter unite it with the letter to Colossae. Paul and Timothy are the authors of both letters, Archippus (Colossians 4:17) and Epaphras (Colossians 1:17; 4:2) are prominent in both, and the same four coworkers are named by Paul in both Colossians and Philemon: (John) Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke (Colossians 4:10, 14).

Due to this shared milieu, most have believed Philemon lived in Colossae, and Epaphras and Archippus were ministry leaders in the church there. One ancient commentator, Theodoret of Cyrhus in Syria (d. 466?), reported that Philemon’s house had “remained to this day” in Colossae (a translation of his commentary is available in the Westminster Theological Journal [Spring 1999]).

If Philemon lived in Colossae, where was Paul a prisoner? Most have suggested Rome, but a strong case can be made for Ephesus. Onesimus is more likely to have met Paul in Ephesus than in Rome. Ultimately, we don’t know.

Either way, Paul emphasizes his imprisonment throughout the letter (vv. 1, 9, 10, 13, 23). He calls himself a “prisoner of Jesus the Messiah” (cf. Ephesians 3:1). Though this might be claimed as an honorific title, socially it was a shameful situation. This emphasis probably intends to socially locate Paul with Onesimus rather than assert some kind of authority over the community. Paul shares the social location of a slave as a prisoner in the Roman system.

Paul, with Timothy, addresses the letter to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and to the church in “your” (singular) house. Philemon is Paul’s “dear (or, close) friend” (literally, beloved) and “coworker.” This suggests a kind of intimacy as well as shared mission. Coworker, in fact, is probably a technical term for some kind of known or gifted ministry (cf. Romans 16:3, 9, 21; Philippians 2:25; 4:3). Paul, Timothy, Luke, (John) Mark, Demas, and Aristarchus—along with Philemon—are “coworkers.” They are, in a broad sense, a ministry team.

Apphia is the only woman mentioned in the letter. Some suggest she is Philemon’s sister (some manuscripts read “his sister”), a few suggest she is Paul’s biological sister, but most think she is Philemon’s wife. They are addressed as a couple or a husband-and-wife team, much like Priscilla and Aquila (cf. Acts 18:18, 26). The fact that she is named probably intimates that she, along with Philemon and Archippus, are leaders in this house church. Much like “Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” in Micah 6:4 or like Priscilla and Aquila, she is a leader in the community.

Archippus is called a “fellow soldier.” This metaphorical expression reflects his devotion to his vocation or the work he shares with Paul. Some think Archippus is the son of Philemon and Apphia, but it is probably best to regard him as a leader in the church at Colossae, which is also suggested by Colossians 4:17 (“complete the ministry that you have received from the Lord”).

The church—the gathered assembly—meets in someone’s house. The language is singular, but whose house? The most natural suggestion is Philemon, and if Apphia is his wife, then this reflects her interest in the situation as well. Some think it is Archippus’ house since his name is the closest referent and that Philemon and Apphia were members of the congregation. Some suggest the “your” refers to Apphia because when Paul mentions women it is typically because they are leaders in the community in some fashion (cf. “Chole’s people” in 1 Corinthians 1:11). It is impossible to tell though it seems most likely that “your” (singular) refers to Philemon since he is the main addressee in the letter and the other singular second person references are to him throughout the rest of the letter.

Among Paul’s coworkers named in the closing of the letter, four appear as part of Paul’s seemingly regular entourage at this moment in his ministry: (John) Mark, Demas, Luke, and Aristarchus. The latter is the most interesting because Aristarchus is identified as a fellow prisoner in Colossians 4:10. If this is the same person that appears in Acts (19:29; 20:4; 27:2), Aristarchus was involved in the disturbances in Ephesus, traveled with Paul to Jerusalem, and accompanied Paul to Rome as well. Wherever Paul is imprisoned, Aristarchus shares that fate with him.

He was not, however, the only one imprisoned with Paul. Epaphras was as well. Colossae knew Epaphras who, presumably, was a leader in the church at Colossae and was sent by the church there to minister alongside Paul or even to minister to Paul in his adversity (Colossians 1:7; 4:12).

This is an impressive group of people—on both the receiving and sending ends of the letter. Their names loom large, and their names lend weight to the letter’s purpose and request. This is a communal moment about a communal concern; this is no mere personal concern.

A Common Narrative

The opening and closing of the letter project (and assume) a shared worldview, a common narrative. We may recognize this in what is repeated in both the opening and closing, particularly in the language of the “grace of the Lord Jesus the Messiah.”

Shared Lord, Jesus the Messiah. This is such familiar language we may miss its world-shattering significance. It signifies, at least, two major points that identify the narrative of the early Christian movement.

First, Jesus is Lord, not Caesar. This is, in part, a political statement. It sets allegiance to Jesus over against allegiance to the Roman Emperor. As such, it marks this community as an alternative one that is different from the surrounding imperial world. The fuller meaning of this confession is lived out in the day-to-day political and economic values of the Roman world, and we see the ramifications of that conflict in the Apocalypse (the book of Revelation) in particular. The believer’s fundamental allegiance is to Jesus.

Second, Jesus is the Messiah (Christ, the Anointed One). To call Jesus the Messiah is to link this community with the story of Israel and Israel’s God. The narrative, then, is shaped by all sorts of values, history, and liturgy that constitutes Philemon’s community as part of Israel itself. This confession is not about a Greek “Christ,” but a Jewish Messiah. The church at meets in Philemon’s house is a missional outpost of Israel, part of the diaspora.

Shared Grace. This is the grace of the Lord Jesus the Messiah as well as the grace of God the Father. Grace is the fundamental disposition of God toward Israel, toward those who confess Jesus as Lord. This is the atmosphere the church breathes. We are gracious toward each other because God is gracious toward us in Jesus the Messiah. This community is originated in grace, is rooted in grace, and lives that grace. It begins and ends the letter just as it shapes every aspect of the believer’s life in God and with each other.

Shared Mission. “Coworker” appears in both the opening and closing sections of the letter. Practically everyone named is a “coworker,” and we might think of all those named as such. They work together in the same field toward the same goal for the same God whose Messiah is the Lord Jesus.

Shared Hardship. Though it is not the same word, the shared social condition of imprisonment is highlighted in both the opening and closing. Paul is a prisoner, but so is one of Colossae’s own—Epaphras. Paul and the church in Colossae share the same hardship or affliction. They share the same risks as believers. Their common faith places them in a common danger.

Essentially, the opening and closing say, “We are family; we share the same story, mission, and grace.”

The question is, and it remains with us to this day, will we act like family?

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