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Greeting and Thanksgiving
Philemon, Chapter 1, verses 1-7
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.
As he addresses Philemon, both here and later in the body of this epistle, Paul emphasizes not his apostolic authority but the fact that he is a prisoner for the gospel’s sake. It is a prisoner, but certainly not an ordinary prisoner, who sends Philemon this special plea. Paul calls himself “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” The apostle rightly regards his imprisonment not as a disgrace but as a badge of honor, because it resulted from his faithful service to the Lord. He is confident that all the details of this imprisonment, as well as its final outcome, are in the hands of the Lord, who governs the whole universe in the interest of his church. Paul’s reference to his imprisonment for Christ’s sake both here and again in verse 9 is certainly also part of his tactful appeal to Philemon.
Philemon was to understand that the special request of this letter was coming from one so deeply committed to the cause of Christ that he had surrendered his very freedom for it. How could Philemon refuse to honor such a request? Philemon might reflect on the fact that although he was outwardly a free man, he was not necessarily free to do what he pleased. As a servant of Christ, he was free to do what was right. Timothy, Paul’s associate and a brother in faith of both Philemon and the apostle, joins Paul in sending greetings. He agrees with all that Paul is about to say to Philemon in his brother-to-brother request.
Paul calls Philemon “our dear friend and fellow worker.” Love for the Lord Jesus joined Paul, Philemon, Timothy, and the whole family of believers together in a special union. On the basis of that love, Paul will make the appeal of this epistle. He is confident that Philemon will respond on the basis of that same love. By calling Philemon a “fellow worker,” Paul refers favorably to the manner in which Philemon has given evidence of his faith, especially among his fellow believers. Some of the specific ways in which he did that will be mentioned later, especially in verses 5 to 7. It is sufficient to note here that Paul addresses Philemon respectfully, as an active lay leader of the church, a man who worked according to his ability for the cause of the gospel. Still today, the efforts of believers like Philemon help the visible Christian church to survive and to flourish.
“Apphia our sister” and “Archippus our fellow soldier” are so closely associated with Philemon that the apostle mentions them in the same greeting. The inference here seems to be that Philemon is the head of the family to which Apphia and Archippus also belong. It is generally assumed that Apphia was Philemon’s wife. Archippus was probably their son.
The encouragement that Paul gives to Archippus in Colossians 4:17 seems to indicate that Archippus was the pastor in charge of the Colossian congregation, at least during the time that Epaphras was in Rome with Paul. Paul addresses him here as a fellow soldier, a companion in arms who stands together with the apostle in the forefront of the battle against sin and the forces of the devil.
Philemon, of course, is the person to whom this letter is first of all directed. It is he, and only he, who will have to decide on the matter Paul sets before him, but Paul wants those who are close to Philemon to hear the letter too, so that they can encourage Philemon to decide on a God-pleasing course of action. Paul also wants them all to have their Christian knowledge increased and their spirit of forgiveness broadened.
Finally, Paul also greets the church that meets in Philemon’s house. In the first and second centuries, church buildings were practically non-existent. Families would usually hold worship services in their homes for their own households. Those who had larger homes would often invite other families to join them in their worship. Mary, the mother of John Mark, did this in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12); Lydia did it in Philippi. Philemon seems to have had a large house, which he offered as a place of worship for the believers in Colosse. This was one of the many ways in which Philemon made his love for the Lord and his fellow believers evident. Paul acknowledges this here and then takes the opportunity to extend greetings to all who gathered for worship in Philemon’s house.
The greeting in this epistle is Paul’s familiar “grace and peace.” Upon Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the members of the Colossian congregation, Paul pronounces God’s forgiving love. He reminds them that the love of God in action, Christ’s substitutionary death for a world of sinners, brings sinners peace of heart and conscience, because through Jesus’ blood they are reconciled to God. These basic and vital spiritual blessings have their source in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus. It is to one he knows has been deeply affected and greatly blessed by God’s grace and peace that Paul addresses this epistle with its special appeal. The apostle is confident that God’s grace and the peace with which God’s forgiving love has filled Philemon’s heart will move Philemon to show the same kind of forgiving love to the penitent Onesimus.
According to his usual custom, Paul follows his greeting with a thanksgiving and a prayer. Whenever Paul thought of Philemon or remembered Philemon in his prayers, there was much for which he gave thanks. Epaphras, the founder of the Colossian congregation, who was now with Paul in Rome, as well as others, including the newly converted Onesimus, must have told Paul about Philemon’s exemplary faith and Christian life. Philemon’s commitment to Christ and his energetic work for the Lord’s cause, together with his love for his fellow Christians, were well known in and beyond the Colossian congregation. He had opened his home for the worship services of the congregation, given help to the less fortunate, and made valuable physical and spiritual contributions to the welfare of the Christian community in Colosse.
The apostle’s approving mention of these evidences of Philemon’s faith was not just insincere flattery. It was honest praise. Paul no doubt intended it to serve another purpose as well. By reminding Philemon of the many ways in which his faith had already shown itself in love, the apostle wanted to prepare his Christian friend for the great request of this epistle, a request to carry Christian love one step further than ever before by forgiving and receiving back the slave who had so severely wronged him.
Paul tactfully prepares Philemon for that great request. He also prays that the Lord will strengthen Philemon’s love at its source by strengthening his faith and enabling him to share and give evidence of that faith. Christians possess incomparable spiritual treasures in Christ. The more they are aware of those treasures and recognize the good things that are theirs in Christ, the more active they will be in promoting and sharing their faith and in reflecting the Savior’s love in their lives by adopting a loving, forgiving attitude toward others. Paul’s prayer is that the Holy Spirit, who has filled Philemon’s heart with faith and enabled Philemon to give so many practical evidences of that faith in the past, will continue, through Word and sacrament, to bless him with growth in spiritual understanding. Such growth, in turn, would lead to increasingly greater evidences of faith and love in Philemon’s life and enable him to perform the special act of love that Paul is about to request of him.
Philemon was not a stranger to faith’s firstfruit. In the past, Paul says, Philemon’s love had often refreshed his weary fellow believers. Reports of his love had often filled the apostle’s heart with encouragement and joy. Now Paul will appeal to the man whom he regards as a true brother in the Lord Jesus to refresh his fellow believers once more and to bring joy to the imprisoned apostle’s heart by lavishing the full measure of his mature Christian love on a returning runaway slave.
We can hardly imagine a greater example of Christian tact than what the inspired apostle shows here as he prepares Philemon for his special request. What an impressive reminder the apostle’s words are for all of us. Our lives as Christians also should be a constant growing in the faith and subsequent love that will enable us to take more and increasingly greater steps of love as we deal with one another and with all our fellow human beings.