We are about to embark on a journey into the personal lives of several early Christians. In this letter we will see Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus and how they interacted after a difficult situation. But we will also see evidence of the change that Jesus makes in a person’s life and how that affects relationships in the church.
Who wrote this letter? The apostle Paul wrote this letter. But he did not refer to himself as an apostle because it was a personal letter not one of authority written to correct something in a church. He referred to himself as a prisoner because he was currently in prison for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.
To whom was the letter written? Paul addressed several people and the church which met in Philemon’s house.
Philemon — He is the one to whom the letter was addressed. He was probably the husband of Apphia and father of Archippus. He was also the beloved friend of Paul. To me it is odd to call anyone “beloved” except my wife. However, love is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) and Christians are to be known for loving one another (Jn. 13:35). He was also considered a fellow laborer. In other words, he was a Christian who was working toward the same goals as Paul and Timothy.
Apphia — She was probably the wife of Philemon and mother of Archippus. Nothing more is known about her except that she was also beloved by Paul. She must have been a sweet sister in Christ who also contributed to the ministry of Philemon and the church in their home.
Archippus — Archippus was probably the son of Philemon and Apphia. I am sure that Paul loved Archippus, too. However, the main description of Archippus is “fellow soldier.” After reading through Ephesians 6, this gives me the idea that Archippus was a Christian who was fighting the good fight of faith and may have been a minister of the gospel just like Paul. The only other mention of Archippus is in Colossians 4:17 where he is told to fulfill the ministry God had given him. Perhaps he was a minister who needed to be encouraged from time to time.
The church that meets in your house — Where was this church? The letter to the Colossians gives us evidence that the church was located in Colossae. Both Archippus (Col. 4:17) and Onesimus (Col. 4:9) are mentioned by Paul at the end of his letter to the Colossians. And since both were from Colossae, this is probably where the church met.
We are accustomed to churches meeting in church buildings. However, “the practice of churches meeting in private homes for worship was common up to AD 200. Not until the third century did churches meet in separate buildings” (Deibler, Edwin C., “Philemon” in Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament, (USA: SP Publications, 1983), 771.). So, why do we have separate buildings now? At the beginning, he early church met in the temple in Jerusalem (Acts 2:46-47). But persecution scattered the Christians and kept meetings secret. As a result, home churches became common (Acts 12:12-13; Rom. 16:5). But once the persecution stopped, Christians decided to build their own meeting places. As you know, most homes are not big enough to accommodate many people. So, a separate meeting place makes sense for a larger group of people. But there is something special and intimate about having a church meet in your home.
Paul was addressing Philemon. While the letter was addressed to three people and the house church, the rest of the letter is addressed to a singular person — Philemon. This is not clear in the modern English since we use “you” as singular and plural. But if you were to look at the Greek Bible, it is very clear that Paul is addressing one person after the initial greeting (see verses 4-7). He mentioned the others as a way of saying, "Pass along my greeting the others."
In many of his epistles, Paul said this very same thing: “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.” Look a little closer and note the word order. Each word is dependent on the one before it. God’s grace (unmerited favor) is available to us because we have peace (the absence of hostility) with God because he is now our Father through the new birth which is made possible through the Lord Jesus Christ who died in our place for our sins. That is quite the greeting. This verse made me think of our study in Ephesians 1. There Paul reminded us of what we have “in Christ.” Take some time to review what you have in Christ in Ephesians 1 and you will be very thankful.
Knowing what lies ahead may cause you to think that Paul was buttering up Philemon before making his plea for Onesimus. But that is not the case. Paul sincerely love Philemon and rejoiced at what God was doing in and through him. Furthermore, “every letter of Paul’s except Galatians includes an expression of thanksgiving in the opening. This follows the custom, in both pagan and Christian first-century correspondence, of including a word of thanks in the salutation” (Deibler 771). For Paul, there was no difficulty thinking of what to say about Philemon. He sincerely thanked God for what he knew about Philemon.
He was thankful for Philemon’s character (4-5).
Philemon was known as a loving person. He loved both the Lord Jesus (we love him because he first loved us) and also other saints (those set apart by God). Remember what Jesus said about our love? (John 13:35) He was also known as a trusting person. The NIV applies love to the saints and faith to the Lord Jesus. But that’s not how it is written in the Greek language. One commentator said that faith really means faithfulness or loyalty. I think both are trying to avoid faith being in anyone but Jesus. But the Greek construction implies faith toward Jesus and faith in saints. It simply means that Philemon was like Barnabas. His faith in Jesus shaped his faith in those who were changed by Him. In other words, he saw what God could do in other people.
He was praying for Philemon’s fellowship (6).
Whenever I find a difficult verse in English, I like to define the major words in the Greek text. In the NKJV, this verse was difficult to understand. So, let's take a look at three words in verse six:
κοινωνία – fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation
ἐνεργὴς – effective, active, powerful
ἐπίγνωσις – precise and correct knowledge
What was Paul saying? First of all, Paul had already heard of Philemon’s love for other Christians. And yet he prayed that that love would become a powerful fellowship based on all that they had in common in Christ. In other words, an intimate knowledge of what we have in Christ should affect our fellowship with other Christians in a powerful way. This ties in well with Ephesians 1:3-13. Our Christian fellowship does not exist for better tea parties and potluck dinners. Our fellowship has a specific purpose (Eph. 2:10). The good that we do brings glory to God and points people toward Christ. We ought to pray that this happens in all of our relationships with other Christians.
He was joyful because of Philemon’s hospitality (7).
Paul and his companions were sitting in jail (not a very happy place) but they were joyful and encouraged to hear of Philemon’s love for other Christians. Somehow, he had communicated his love to other Christians in such a way that they had been refreshed by him. The news must have gotten out to Paul and this brought great joy to his heart. Again, this reminds me of Barnabas who gave (Acts 4:36-37) and was known as an encourager. This must have been an encouraging indicator of how Philemon would respond to Paul’s pleas in the rest of the letter.