Are you a refreshing influence on others, or does your attitude and temperament add to the burden they carry? Instead of draining others’ energy and motivation with complaints and problems, do replenish their spirits by encouragement, love, and a helpful attitude? Read on for more insights like this from the book of Philemon, (it’s only 25 verses!) but powerful. I’ve included the commentary, background and explanation of verses 1 through 7. I included Life Applications® in each section, I am a HUGE fan of the Life Application® Bible’s and Commentaries. (If you missed the introduction go here, or the overview go here. Now for the first 7 verses, here we go!
Philemon’s heart must have skipped a beat as soon as he saw who this letter was from. Paul was the legendary apostle largely responsible for the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. He was also the one who had led Philemon to Christ (v. 19). So, from the view of both his vast influence and his personal touch in Philemon’s life, the name would compel Philemon to read on eagerly. What a privilege—to have a personal letter from Paul, an inspired letter. Only Timothy and Titus could also claim such an honor.
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Letters in Paul’s day often would begin with the writer’s name instead of adding it at the end. So Paul always identified himself at the beginning of his letters.
Paul wrote many letters—some during his time of imprisonment, others during his travels. He wrote to congregations to settle disputes, deal with problems, or give necessary doctrinal teaching. He wrote to friends (such as in 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), to church congregations that he knew well (such as Ephesians and Philippians), and to believers whom he had never met (such as Romans and Colossians).
In some letters Paul would identify himself as an “apostle” of Jesus Christ for the sake of those who had never met him and/or were doubting his authority. In other letters, he would call himself a “servant” of Jesus Christ. Although neither Paul nor Timothy had visited the church in Colosse, they had, during their earlier travels, met individual Colossians such as Epaphras, Philemon, Archippus, and Apphia who, after their conversion, had returned with the gospel to their native city. So Philemon was a friend and fellow believer. But this letter does not present doctrine or give commands; instead, it is a request on behalf of another believer. Paul chose to introduce himself in this letter as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. This is the only one of Paul’s letters where he used such an introduction. Paul was indeed a prisoner, captive in Rome for preaching the gospel—the Good News of Christ Jesus (see Philippians 1:13).
And Timothy our brother. Timothy’s name is included with Paul’s in 2 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Timothy was one of Paul’s trusted companions; Paul wrote two letters to him (1 and 2 Timothy).
Timothy visited Paul frequently during his imprisonment (see also Colossians 1:1) and was with Paul in Rome when he wrote this letter. Timothy was not imprisoned with Paul, but he had stayed in Rome to encourage Paul and to help with ministry needs. Timothy had grown up in Lystra, a city in the province of Galatia. Paul and Barnabas had visited Lystra on Paul’s first missionary journey (see Acts 14:8-21). Most likely, Paul had met the young Timothy and his mother, Eunice, and grandmother Lois (see 2 Timothy 1:5), during that visit. He may have stayed in their home.
On Paul’s second missionary journey, he and Silas had returned to several cities that Paul had already visited, including Lystra. There Paul met Timothy (see Acts 16:1-3). Timothy probably had come to believe in Christ through Paul, for Paul later would call him “my true son in the faith” (1 Timothy 1:2 niv). Paul and Timothy had developed a special bond, like father and son (Philippians 2:22). Timothy became Paul’s assistant and emissary—traveling with him and sometimes for him.
Although mentioned in the salutation, Timothy is not considered a coauthor. Paul wrote in the first person throughout this letter (the same is true for the letter to the Philippians).
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker.NIV Philemon was a wealthy Greek landowner living in Colosse. He had been converted under Paul’s ministry (v. 19), perhaps in Ephesus or some other city where he had met and talked with Paul. During Paul’s years of ministry in nearby Ephesus, Philemon had been building up the Colossian church, which would meet in his home (v. 2). Paul considered him not only a dear friend but also a fellow worker on behalf of the gospel. (Paul also referred to him as “brother” in vv. 7 and 20.) Like most wealthy landowners of ancient times, Philemon owned slaves. Onesimus, the subject of this letter, was one of those slaves.
2 To Apphia our sister.NRSV Apphia probably was Philemon’s wife or another close relative who helped manage his household; otherwise, she would not have been greeted with Philemon in a letter concerning a domestic matter. At this time, women handled the day-to-day responsibilities of the slaves. , the final decision about Onesimus would have been as much her choice as Philemon’s. Paul greeted Apphia as our sister, that is, a sister in the Christian faith. Like Philemon, Apphia was a believer.
To Archippus our fellow soldier.NRSV Archippus may have been Philemon’s son, or perhaps an elder in the Colossian church (at the end of the letter to the Colossians, Paul had given special encouragement to a man named Archippus; see Colossians 4:17). In either case, Paul included him as a recipient of the letter, possibly so that Archippus would read the letter with Philemon and encourage him to take Paul’s advice.
Paul described Archippus as our fellow soldier. Paul often used military metaphors for serving Christ (see, for example, Romans 7:23; 2 Corinthians 6:7; 10:3-5; Ephesians 6:10-18; Philippians 2:25; 1 Timothy 1:18; 2 Timothy 2:3-4). Soldiers must be disciplined, committed, and unified. So, too, believers must lead disciplined lives, stand strongly committed to the faith, and work to remain unified because they fight the same battle—that of bringing the gospel to an unbelieving and increasingly hostile world. Paul was in chains for preaching the gospel; apparently Archippus was fighting the battle well as he also worked to spread the gospel.
And to the church that meets in your home.NIV The early churches generally met in people’s homes. Because of sporadic persecutions and the great expense involved, church buildings were not constructed at this time (church buildings were not built until the third century).
Because Philemon was one of those who had worked to begin the church at Colosse, it was natural that believers would meet in his home. The church could refer to the entire body of believers, although it seems unlikely because Paul had been writing a letter to the entire Colossian church at this same time. It may have been that, as in any large city even today, smaller groups of believers met regularly in various private homes. One group met in Philemon’s home; some in other believers’ homes, such as Nympha’s. Paul had greeted Nympha and the church in her house in Colossians 4:15. (For references to other house churches, see Romans 16:5 and 1 Corinthians 16:19-20.)
Because of the personal nature of this letter, Paul apparently chose not to include his instructions to Philemon in his general letter to the Colossians. Paul greeted the believers who met in Philemon’s home because Paul knew that not only would this group know about the runaway slave, but they would also become Onesimus’s “family” upon his return as a new believer. The church would need to understand Paul’s request and Philemon’s response to it. Then there would be no gossip, and they could immediately and lovingly accept Onesimus into their fellowship.
LIFE APPLICATION – OPEN HOUSE
|Philemon opened his home for church meetings and for Christians who traveled through that region. Hospitality honors Christ. When we share our homes and our food, we honor our guests as those created in the image of God and loved by the Lord. Meeting another person’s need for food or shelter was and still is one of the most immediate and practical ways to obey God. It helps build relationships, offers time for talking, and gives children the opportunity to learn about how God uses other people in a variety of situations and cultures. As God has blessed you, share your provision with others. Open your home and invite others in.|
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul used grace and peace as a standard greeting in all his letters. “Grace” is God’s undeserved favor—his loving-kindness shown to sinners whereby he saves them and gives them strength to live for him; peace refers to the peace that Christ made between sinners and God through his death on the cross. “Peace” refers to that inner assurance and tranquility that God places in a person, producing confidence and contentment in Christ. Only God can grant such wonderful gifts.
The phrase God our Father focuses on the family relationship among all believers as God’s children. In the context of this letter, Paul was emphasizing the family relationship that the master, Philemon, and the slave, Onesimus, had because both were believers.
By using the phrase, Lord Jesus Christ, Paul was pointing to Jesus as a full person of the Godhead and was recognizing Jesus’ full deity. God the Father and Christ the Lord are coequal in providing grace and peace.
4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God.NRSV Most ancient letters included a thanksgiving for the addressee immediately after the salutation. With these words, Paul was expressing his love for Philemon (the word you is singular, as it is through the entire letter, except in vv. 22 and 25). Paul constantly prayed for churches and for individual believers who had specific needs.
LIFE APPLICATION – THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
|Every time Paul prayed for Philemon, he would thank God for him. Paul’s prayers of intercession flowed from loving and grateful memories. When you think of people to pray for, do you also express thanks to God for them? As you pray for people, thank God for their salvation and for the good work that God has done in their lives. Like Paul, make thanksgiving a regular part of your prayer life (see Colossians 3:16-17).|
5 Because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.NRSV Philemon had been converted under Paul’s ministry and then had returned to Colosse. Although Paul had never visited Colosse, he had heard (perhaps from Onesimus or Epaphras) about Philemon’s continued faith and love for the believers. Paul was saying that if Philemon truly loved all the believers, then he certainly would be willing to include another believer—Onesimus—in that love.
The niv reverses the words “faith” and “love” to match all of Paul’s letters where he thanked God for believers’ faith and love. However, other versions (as nrsv above) place the word “love” before “faith” as it is in the Greek text. Some scholars think that Paul purposely reversed his typical words of greeting because he would appeal to Philemon’s love later in this letter. In the Greek text, the phrase is “I hear of your love and faith which you have to the Lord Jesus and to all the saints.” The Greek word pistis can be translated “faith,” “faithfulness,” or “loyalty.” Loyalty may be a more natural meaning for Paul’s usage here. Paul always thanked God for Philemon because of his faith and love that had ministered to many believers in Colosse and, Paul hoped, would continue to be true with Onesimus.
The phrases love for the saints and faith toward the Lord Jesus are often connected in the New Testament epistles because faith in Christ brings us into a new community based on love. Love is required to unify the community of believers. Love and faith reinforce each other.
6 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.NIV This verse describes Paul’s prayer for Philemon. After all, the more share the blessings of Christ with others, the better we know Christ and experience more of His blessings. Finally, the words “in Christ” explain that, as for all believers, everything Philemon was, had, and would become was because of Christ; everything he did, then, ought to glorify Christ.
LIFE APPLICATION – ACTIVE SHARING
|Paul’s prayer for Philemon was setting the stage for the request Paul would make in this letter. As Philemon was active in his faith and in sharing its blessings, as he learned more about God and his ways, and as he gained fuller understanding of all that Christ had done on his behalf, this knowledge should cause him to respond appropriately to Paul’s request regarding Onesimus. Are you active and effective in sharing with others your faith, your resources, and your love?|
7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.NIV The love that Philemon showed to all the saints (v. 5) refreshed their hearts and gave Paul joy and encouragement. Philemon probably had acted out his faith among the believers in many ways beyond sharing his home for church meetings. But Paul was concerned less about Philemon’s actions than about the spirit in which he was performing them. Paul hoped that Philemon’s loving spirit—which had given others joy, encouragement, and refreshment—would also show itself in his dealings with Onesimus.
Paul had written to the Colossian church: “Epaphras . . . told us of your love in the Spirit” (Colossians 1:7-8 niv). The outpouring of love among believers is a sure sign of the Spirit’s work among them (Galatians 5:22). Philemon’s love refreshed the hearts of the saints. The word “refreshed” (anapepautai, see also v. 20) is the same word that Jesus used in Matthew 11:28 to describe the rest (“refreshment”) he would give those who came to him. Philemon had the ability to give refreshment to people. The word “hearts” is splangchna; it refers to the inner parts of the body. The Greeks used the word to describe the place of deepest emotions. Paul also used splangchna in verse 12, calling Onesimus his “very heart.” Paul’s use of the word showed his intense emotion about the situation. Paul knew Philemon’s response to his request about Onesimus would then, in turn, “refresh” him (v. 20).
LIFE APPLICATION – REFRESHMENTS
|Like iced tea on a hot day or cold water on a long hike, this Christian brother Philemon knew how to be refreshing. He was able to revive and restore his brothers and sisters in the faith. His love and generosity had replenished and stimulated them. Philemon also encouraged Paul by his love and loyalty. Are you a refreshing influence on others, or does your attitude and temperament add to the burden they carry? Instead of draining others’ energy and motivation with complaints and problems, replenish their spirits by encouragement, love, and a helpful attitude.|
Next time we’ll look at verses 8 and beyond.
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Until next time, Darrell