The heart of Paul’s letter to Philemon has to do with the person of Onesimus. He was Philemon’s slave who had somehow wronged his master (v18), fled and through an unknown sequence of events met Paul in prison (v9), was converted (v10), and became a useful partner to Paul in the gospel (v11-13). But Paul knew the existing law in Rome demanded that Paul return the slave Onesimus to his rightful owner Philemon. In this letter Paul pleads with Philemon to receive Onesimus back (v17), to forgive him (v18), to treat him no longer as a slave but a brother (v16), and to return Onesimus back to Paul so he can continue to labor in ministry alongside him (v13, 21). We’ll get to all this soon in the coming posts, but today focus on verses 1-7, which is made up of 2 sections: v1-3 where we see the greeting, and v4-7 where we have Paul’s first remarks.
The Greeting (v1-3)
I think it’s fair to say that in Paul’s greeting to Philemon we see things we’re used to seeing in Paul’s greetings, and we see things we’re not so used to seeing in Paul greetings. We’re used to seeing Paul’s name at the beginning of his letters, this is simply how one wrote letters in the first century. We’re used to seeing Paul include Timothy with himself in greetings, (he does it in 5 of his letters), and he did it here because Philemon had probably met Timothy in Ephesus where Paul was being held in his Roman prison. We’re used to seeing names to whom the letter is addressed in Paul’s greetings, and we’re used to seeing Paul say v3. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” appears in the greetings of all 13 of his letters, and shows Paul’s affirmation of the deity of Christ by linking the Father with the Son.
We’re not used to Paul addressing letters to individual people. Of all 13 letters only 9 are addressed to churches while the remaining 4 are addressed to 3 different people: Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. v2 shows us Philemon was a personal friend of Paul’s in that Paul calls him a beloved fellow worker, which also means Philemon was a minister of the gospel as well. We see Paul mention “Apphia our sister” and “Archippus our fellow soldier” who very well could be Philemon’s wife and son who also knew Paul well. We actually here of Archippus in Colossians 4:17 where Paul calls him a fellow soldier and encourages him to fulfill the ministry he’s received from the Lord, which shows us that Archippus was undoubtedly one of the leaders in the Colossian church along with Philemon. We’re not used to Paul identifying himself as a prisoner in his greetings. Out of all his letters the only ones where he doesn’t introduce himself as “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus” are Philippians, both letters to the Thessalonians, and here in Philemon. Plus, only here in Philemon do we see Paul identify himself as a prisoner in the greeting. That he does this rather than identifying himself as an apostle is telling and purposeful, and it sets the tone of the whole letter.
By beginning this way the letter immediately feels personal, gentle, and more like a friendly appeal than a letter of full blown apostolic authority. Don’t get me wrong, the letter is still from Paul and Philemon knew that, but Paul is intentionally going out of his way to reduce the feel of ‘command’ here. It also would have reminded Philemon of the severe hardship Paul has had to face in preaching the gospel and in comparison with Paul’s suffering for the gospel the thing Paul is about to ask Philemon to do will seem very small in comparison to what Paul has gone through.
So you see, even in this greeting Paul is already at work, using gospel-logic to prepare Philemon for what he’s about to ask him.
The First Remarks (v4-7)
As Paul concludes his greeting, he begins with his first remarks, and these first remarks are exactly what you’d think they’d be if you were listening to a conversation between close friends as a fly on the wall.
Paul genuinely, warmly, and honestly expresses his affection for this man. Why? Paul’s not just buttering him up in preparation for what he’s about to ask him, no. He gives reasons for this affection in v5 and v7, and Paul prays for Philemon in v4 and v6. Look at reason 1 in v5 = Paul has heard of Philemon’s love and faith toward the Lord Jesus, and Paul has heard of Philemon’s love and faith toward all of the saints. Because of these things Paul says in v4 that every time he remembers Philemon he always thanks God. v7 contains reason 2 = Paul’s heart has received much joy, comfort, and refreshment through Philemon’s love for him and for Christ’s Church. Apparently to Paul, to the Church in Colossae, and to many others Philemon is like water to a thirsty soul, refreshing. Because of this refreshment Paul says in v6 that he prays Philemon’s knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ becomes full through the sharing of His faith. This means that Paul is asking God to refresh the one who has been such a refresher to others. And specifically that God refresh Philemon by making his knowledge of all the good things he has in Christ, full. Paul is asking God to give Philemon more of God. What a prayer!
Now, we cannot read to quickly through v4-7, as if there just mere niceties because if we do so we’ll miss what God means to teach us about Philemon, and we’ll miss what God means to teach us about what happens in our hearts if we truly love Him.
There are two implications for us here:
You cannot claim to truly love Christ if you have no love for His Church
This is precisely what Paul sees in Philemon’s heart, and what prompts Paul to thank God for His work in and through this man in v4-5. Christ and His Church are separate things and they are the same thing. They are separate things in that love for Christ and love for Christ’s Church are different loves. They are the same thing in that love for Christ leads to a deeper love for Christ’s Church. The principle at work here is this: the more you seek to love Christ the more you’ll find your heart beginning to love the very things that Christ loves. What does Christ love the most? His glory. What is the primary means Christ employs to display His glory among the nations? His Church. Therefore the more one grows in love for Christ, the more one will naturally grow in love for His Church. More so, Christ and His Church are intimately connected so that if you turn away from one you inevitably turn away from the other. God placed this twofold love in the heart of Philemon, and Paul loved it, and thanked God for it.
Has God placed it in you? What do you feel about the Church? Do you feel a love, respect, yearning, and desire to be in it and used by God so it grows more and comes to bring a lasting influence on the cities we live in? Or, do you feel somewhat neutral or disinterested in the Church? Are you just putting on a face and going through the motions, faking your Christianity before the eyes of the world? Philemon’s love for Christ and love for Christ’s Church shows us the normal pattern for all believers. If we truly love Him we’ll truly love His people.
The normal pattern for all believers is to be laboring within the Church
v6-7 show how Philemon was not only a spectator, attender, and member of the Church, but that he was involved in the lives of the people, being used by God to refresh His people. This is the normal pattern for all believers. I want to say something here that may catch you off guard. I once heard Mark Dever say, “If you aren’t helping others follow Jesus, I don’t know what you mean when you say you’re following Jesus.” Do you think Church is just about what you can get out of it? Is it just about how myself and the other elders, or the worship team, or the Bible studies cater to your needs? Is it just what we can offer your kids? I hope not. If you’re here and not seeking to help others follow Jesus, you’re nothing more than a barnacle on the bottom of the boat. If you’re a barnacle don’t be afraid you’ll still be loved for sure, but you can be sure of this – the Christians around you won’t let you settle for something less than Biblical reality, and because of that they’ll keep pressing into you in as many ways as they can think to get you moved from a barnacle on the bottom of the boat just along for the ride to a worker on deck.
In these 7 verses it is crystal clear that Philemon’s life has been radically changed because of the gospel. He now exists to serve His master, the Lord Jesus, by ministering to others. This is what the gospel does. Philemon’s not refreshing in and of himself. You or I are not refreshing in and of ourselves. The thing refreshing about Philemon is the gospel, flowing into him, and flowing through him to others.
May God do such a work in us.