Philemon 1-3


1 Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

In 1642, Blaise Pascal, at the age of nineteen, started working on building a mechanical calculator, primarily in order to help his father with his business as a tax commissioner. The calculator came to be known as “the pascaline.” This invention was significant for a number of reasons, as Wikipedia explains:

Besides being the first calculating machine made public during its time, the pascaline is also:

  • the only operational mechanical calculator in the 17th century.
  • the first calculator to have a controlled carry mechanism that allowed for an effective propagation of multiple carries
  • the first calculator to be used in an office (his father’s to compute taxes)
  • the first calculator commercialized (with around twenty machines built)
  • the first calculator to be patented (royal privilege of 1649)
  • the first calculator to be described in an encyclopedia (Diderot & d’Alembert, 1751)
  • the first calculator sold by a distributor[1]

Jean-Claude Carriere has told the story of how a man he knows discovered one of Pascal’s calculators.

I also knew a superb bookseller in the rue de l’Universite,’ who specialized in scientific books and objects…He lived on the rue du Bac, on the other side of boulevard Saint-Germain. One night he was walking home up the rue de Bac. He crossed the boulevard and, as he was walking along, he noticed a small piece of brass poking out of a rubbish bin. He stopped, lifted the lid, went through the bin and pulled out one of the twelve calculators made by Pascal himself. Absolutely priceless. It now lives in the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, the CNAM. Who had thrown it out?[2]

Absolutely amazing! That something so priceless and so revolutionary as this amazing invention could have been thrown out with the trash. The shock comes in the disjunction between the value of the object and the flippant and dishonoring treatment it received. What a breathtaking moment, then, when somebody who knew better rediscovered it!

One cannot help but think that the Church needs a pascaline moment, a moment of rediscovery and outrage concerning the flippant dismissal of the gospel and its implications for our lives that appears to have taken place in too many churches. The gospel seems to have been cast either into the rubbish bin of privatized religion or the rubbish bin of mere social gospel reductionism or the rubbish bin of largely theoretical theological pursuits or the rubbish bin of politics, left or right. But what of the gospel found in the New Testament, proclaimed by Jesus, embraced by the Church, and proclaimed throughout the world? What of the gospel itself: the life-changing, community-forming, world-revolutionizing gospel that has been entrusted to the Church?

Yes, we need a pascaline moment, a rediscovery of the gospel from the garbage cans of our own selfishness. And I would propose that the little book of Philemon is a great place to start. It is an unlikely place to start, at first glance, for it is not explicitly theological in nature. It is rather situational. The book is a relatively short letter from the Apostle Paul to a man named Philemon about a runaway slave named Onesimus who Paul was sending back. Again, on the surface, this does not seem like the first book to turn to if we want a pascaline moment of rediscovery.

But not so fast! I would further propose that it is precisely because of the situational nature of this little book that we are enabled to see the practical and deep implications of the gospel of Christ in our lives and for us as a body. This letter shows us what the gospel looks like when it is set loose in the everyday decisions and circumstances of life. As such, I would argue that it is profoundly theological. We might call the book of Philemon a case-study of theology in action, or, more specifically, what the gospel looks like in practical operation among the people of God.

The specific situation of the book might be different than the situations with which we are normally faced, but the point of the book is not.

The gospel means that we can no longer approach the issues of life from the vantage point of social status.

We oftentimes skip over the introductions to the New Testament letters as if they were merely formulaic. In fact, however, Paul’s introduction to the book of Philemon is quite unique and also theological rich. It is also, to be sure, strategic, but it would be an injustice to suggest that Paul was being simply calculating in what he was doing here.

1a Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker

Paul’s chosen self-descriptive title is both telling and worthy of consideration. He calls himself “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” It is generally agreed that the book of Philemon was written while Paul was in prison in the early 60’s A.D. In a sense, then, we might consider Paul’s chosen title to be descriptive and nothing more. Yet doing so would blind us to something quite intriguing.

New Testament scholar Douglas Moo has observed that Paul “usually identifies himself as an ‘apostle’ in his letter openings and that the only exceptions are Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon.” Futhermore, of the five letters that Paul wrote when he was in prison (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 2 Timothy, Philemon), “it is only in Philemon that he begins by calling himself a ‘prisoner.’” Moo has listed some of the many theories that have been proposed as to why Paul called himself “a prisoner for Christ Jesus.”

  • “Paul may be asserting his authority, the authority of one who has been sent to jail for his commitment to carry out his apostolic calling.”
  • “…because he has decided to pursue a particular argumentative strategy.”
  • “Paul empties himself of his rights to compel Philemon also to waive his rights” (Luther)
  • “With his reference to being a prisoner, Paul also aligns himself with the weak and powerless Onesimus.”
  • “At the same time, the title…also serves another key implicit theme of the letter: the reconfiguration of relationships in terms of the gospel.”[3]

Surely some of these have more merit than others (one does not gather from reading this book, for instance, that Paul’s chosen title was intended to stress his authority), but one of Moo’s proposals in particular has real force. It is the last listed here: “the title…also serves another key implicit theme of the letter: the reconfiguration of relationships in terms of the gospel.”

To be sure, there is a political note in the title. Paul sees himself as a prisoner “of Christ,” not “of Caesar.” This means a couple of things. It means, first of all, that whatever happened to him on the earthly realm, his calling and all that happened to him was in the hands of Christ.

But it also meant that being in Christ changes and redefines the old social categories and all levels of social status. To be a prisoner was to be despised. Paul was a criminal in the eyes of Rome. But to be a prisoner of Christ was to be gloriously and paradoxically free! The great fourth century bishop, Ambrose of Milan, put it beautifully when he wrote:

How many masters he has who runs from the one Lord. But let us not run from him. Who will run away from him whom they follow bound in chains, but willing chains, which loose and do not bind? Those who are bound with these chains boast and say: “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus…” It is more glorious for us to be bound by him than to be set free and loosed from others.[4]

Yes, Paul was never more a prisoner than when he was free of Christ and he was never more free than when he became a prisoner of Christ. So it is with us as well! Christ sets us free, even if we are in chains as a result of following him.

By calling himself “a prisoner of Christ,” Paul was making a powerful statement about how the gospel changes the old social categories. The gospel means that we can no longer approach the issues of life from the vantage point of social status. Not is all as it seems. Paul, a prisoner, was actually truly free.

Why is he making this point? He is making this point because what Paul is about to do in this letter will hinge on this great truth. Just as Paul, the prisoner, was truly free, so too Onesimus, the slave, was now truly a brother in Christ.

Beware your lust for social status! Beware your desire for a title! Beware the temptation to look down on the prisoner, the poor, the slave. A prisoner who is a prisoner of Christ is actually free! The poor man who is rich in Christ is the wealthiest man in the land! The slave who is a slave of Christ is gloriously liberated!

The gospel means that we can no longer approach the issues of life as if they are merely private and “my business, not yours.”

What Paul says about himself is intentional and profound. So too is the scope of his addressees.

1b To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house

Paul addressed the letter to four parties: Philemon, “Apphia our sister,” “Archippus our fellow soldier,” and “the church in your house.”

All that is known of Philemon is known from this letter. He was a Christian, a man whose conversion was somehow connected to the ministry of Paul, a leader, a man wealthy enough to own a house large enough in which to hold church meetings, and apparently a man who Paul felt was mature enough to understand the radical implications of the gospel and salvation in Christ.

Next, Paul mentions “Apphia our sister.” Some conjecture that “Apphia was probably Philemon’s wife…”[5] The word “sister” appears to be a Christian title just as we use it today, calling fellow Christians “brothers” or “sisters.” There is perhaps merit to the idea that Apphia was Philemon’s wife. James Dunn makes the interesting point that the idea that Apphia was Philemon’s wife “makes good sense, since if Onesimus had been a household slave Philemon’s wife would have had much to do with him and therefore would have as much interest in the Onesimus’ affair.”[6]

The identity of Archippus is an interesting question. He is mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament. In Colossians 4:17, Paul writes, “And say to Archippus, ‘See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.’” This means that whoever Archippus was, he had a ministry. Does this mean that he was a pastor? Was he the pastor of the church that met in Philemon’s home (or was Philemon?)? Or was he very involved layman upon whom God had put a calling to some Kingdom task?

There are various theories as to who Archippus was. These theories were already represented in the early fathers of the Church. For instance:

  • Chrysostom (4th/5th): Archippus “was…one of the clergy.”
  • Theodore of Mopsuestia (4th/5th): “Archippus was their son.”
  • Jerome (4th/5th): “I think that Archippus was the bishop of the church at Colosse.”
  • Pelagius (4th/5th): “Archippus is a deacon of the church.”[7]

Most interesting, however, was Paul’s inclusion of the church in his list of addressees.

1b To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house

Some suggest that this letter was purely private and that Paul was simply acknowledging the church that met in Philemon’s house. However, the letter is addressed “to” the church as to all the recipients:

  • To Philemon
  • To…Apphia
  • To…Archippus
  • To…the church in your house

Furthermore, while the singular “you” (i.e., referencing Philemon alone) is primarily used, the plural “you” is used three times in the letter (vv.3,22,25). The most natural reading, then, would be that the letter was to be read to the church. Yet, it has an unmistakably personal air to it and involves a question that would seem to be only personal: the need for Philemon to accept his runaway slave Onesimus back with grace and an understanding informed by the gospel.

While this fluidity in pronouns raises interpretive questions, it actually provides a very important theological answer, for it tells us something very important about what the gospel means for us and for our lives. Namely, it tells us that the gospel means we can no longer approach the issues of life as if they are merely private and “my business, not yours.”

In Christ, we are joined to a family. That family is called “the Church.” Our lives are therefore now bound together with all who are in Christ. This means that none of our business can now ever really be private, as we understand the term. This does not mean that every aspect of our lives is to be shouted aloud in the congregation, but it does mean that every aspect of our lives now effects and should be informed by the reality that Christ has bound us together with all others who are in Him.

Paul’s inclusion of the church in an issue that we, as modern individualists, would assume is a private matter, means that the body of Christ is now a factor, and no small one, in the decisions we make.

James Dunn, while noting that Paul’s reference to the church was “a not altogether subtle way of bringing pressure on Philemon,” observes rightly that “the very fact that it could be done indicates that Philemon was likely to recognize the church’s right to take an interest in and even advise on the internal affairs of his own household…This is all the more striking since almost certainly slaves (Philemon’s or others’) would also be members of the house church (cf. Col. 4:22-25).”[8]

This last point is worthy of deep consideration! So powerful is the communion into which Christ brings us through His cross and so level is the ground at the foot of the cross, that Paul suggests Philemon was accountable even to the slaves in the congregation in this question of a runaway slave. Surely this sounds crazy to the watching world, but to those who know what the gospel means, it is the only answer. Such a vision of church is hard to find today!

In March of 2016, Plough Quarterly magazine interviewed the always provocative Stanley Hauerwas. They entitled the interview, “Why Community Is Dangerous.” In this interview, Hauerwas told a story that illustrates well the point.

Years ago I was giving a lecture at Houston Baptist University at their new business school. At the dinner before the lecture, the associate dean of the school told me how her church grew between fifty and one hundred members every Sunday. My lecture was called “Why Business Ethics Is a Bad Idea.” When I finished the lecture, the dean said, “This just sounds so despairing. Isn’t there something we can do?” I said, “Yes, but it’s too late for your students. By the time they get to business school they’re too corrupt. However, I think before you let anyone join your church you ought to have them disclose how much they make. ‘I make $85,000 a year. I want to be a member of the church.’ ‘I make $150,000, I want to be a member.’” She said, “Well, we couldn’t do that. That’s private.” I said, “Where are the fundamentalists when you need them? God knocked off Sapphira and Ananias for not sharing what they made. Where did all this privacy stuff come from?”[9]

Now, I do not repeat that story in order to advocate Hauerwas’ specific proposal. In fact, I think that everybody voicing aloud what they make could have some unintended harmful consequences. But, in typical Hauerwasian fashion – that is to say, in typical hyperbolic fashion – his point is well made. “Where did all of this privacy stuff come?” indeed!

Paul’s point is essentially the same: how Philemon received Onesimus back would ultimately impact the entire church meeting in his house, for nothing that the believer does, even if done in secret, can be consigned wholly to the realm of “the private.”

Your life impacts my life and my life impacts your life. Why? Because we are the Church, the body of Christ, and are individually members of the one body. We are knit together. We are bound together. My business is your business and your business is mine. This is not an invitation to meddlesomeness or to overreaching, but it is a recognition that everything we do affects everything we are.

We are Christ’s together!

The gospel means that we can no longer approach the issues of life as the sole or even primary judges of our own circumstances.

As you can see, this is, again, a rich, rich introduction! But the most powerful element is the final element.

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul offers them all grace and peace “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This last phrase carries with it a statement about where our ultimate allegiance lies, Who we ultimately answer to, and what the ultimate consideration in our lives and our behavior must be: “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

The gospel means that we can no longer approach the issues of life as the sole or even primary judges of our own circumstances.

All we say and all we do is done in the sight of “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

That is an interesting way of wording it, and it is not without significance. Moo points out that Paul’s wording in verse 3 “implies that Paul puts Christ on the same level with God the Father.”[10]

True! And there it is, the great and scandalous truth of the gospel: Jesus is God, and the divine Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. Philemon must therefore remember and take into account the lordship of Jesus Christ in his response to Paul’s appeal. So must you. So must I.

We are the people of the risen King! We are to do His will, not our own. Our decisions are to be informed by His wisdom, not our own.

As the Moravians say, “Our Lamb has conquered. Let us follow Him.”



[2] Jean-Claude Carriere and Umberto Eco. This is Not the End of the Book. (London: Harville Secker, 2011), p.149.

[3] Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Gen. Ed., D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), p.380.

[4] Peter Gorday, ed., Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament. Vol. IX. Gen. Ed., Thomas C. Oden. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p.310.

[5] H. L. Willmington, Willmington Bible Handbook. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1997), p.750.

[6] James D.G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Eds., I. Howard Marshall, W. Ward Gasque, Donald A. Hagner. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), p.312.

[7] Peter Gorday, ed., p.311.

[8] James D.G. Dunn, p.313.


[10] Douglas J. Moo, p.380.

2 thoughts on “Philemon 1-3

  1. Reminds me of Bonhoeffer who was bound but free and shared his bread of freedom , unbound for those to might follow. Yet still just a man.

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