[K:NWTS 12/1 (May 1997) 23-32]

A Redemptive-Historical Consideration of Philemon

Danny Olinger

Kerux 12N1A3

Traditionally, theologians and commentators divide the epistle of Paul to Philemon into four literary units: salutation, thanksgiving, body of the letter and close.2 In their opinion, the letter neatly fits into this rhetorical pattern. Verses 1-3 serve as Paul's salutation and introductory greetings: verses 4-7 serve as Paul's thanksgiving and intercession for Philemon; verses 8-20 serve as Paul's plea for Onesimus and constitutes the main body of the letter; and verses 21-25 serve as Paul's final remarks, greetings and benediction.3

Although this traditional division of Philemon is helpful and correct insofar as it goes, the question remains whether Paul has structured his letter in a more detailed rhetorical fashion in order to help his readers unlock its theological significance. It will be argued in what follows that Paul's rhetorical structuring of his letter is deliberate and meaningful as it drives the reader to the heart of his theological argument.

Structure of the Letter

In the letter to Philemon, Paul arranges his material in the form of a loose concentric pattern with the related verses forming rings around one central verse. In such a concentric pattern, the central portion of the letter is complemented and clarified by the verses which envelope it. The suggested concentric pattern of the letter is as follows:

vv. 13-16 F
v. 12 Ev.17 E'
vv. 9-11 Dvv. 18-19 D'
vv. 7-8 Cvv. 20-21 C'
vv. 4-6 Bv. 22 B'
vv. 1-3 Avv. 23-25 A'

In this concentric structure the paired verses A and A', B and B', C and C', D and D', E and E' reflect each other in structure, content and theme while enveloping the central verse, F.

A (vv. 1-3) and A' (vv. 23-25)

The rhetorical parallel between A and A' in structure and content is hard to miss. The letter begins in A with the mention of five individuals: Paul, Timothy, Philemon, Apphia and Archippus. In parallel fashion, the letter ends in A' with the mention of five individuals: Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke. Added to the list of names in A is the phrase, "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ." Again in parallel fashion, added to the list of names in A' is the phrase, "the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ."

B (vv. 4-6) and B' (v. 22)

B establishes the proper mood of the letter and communicates goodwill to the reader while linking its praise to the subject in question. For example, in B, Paul writes, "I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers" (v. 4). This is then linked with B' where Paul repeats the Greek word for "prayers," but now amplifies it from his personal prayer for them to their efficacious prayers on his behalf.

C (vv. 7-8) and C' (vv. 20-21)

In C, Paul writes that the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through Philemon (v. 7). In C', Paul writes that in order for his own heart to be refreshed, Philemon must refresh Onesimus (v. 20).

D (vv. 9-11) and D' (vv. 18-19)

 The concentric relationship can again be seen in the relationship between D and D'. In D, the begetting of Onesimus is in view (v. 10). In D', the begetting of Philemon (v. 19) is in view in that Philemon, having been released from the power of sin, is a debtor to Paul for the life which he now has. Also, in D, the imagery Paul portrays is that of himself as the father sending the son (v. 11). In D', Philemon assumes the role of the father as Paul as the son makes payment for the sins of Onesimus (v. 18).

E (v. 12) and E' (v. 17) 

The connection between E and E' is in the sending of Onesimus. In E Paul in sending Onesimus is sending his heart. Philemon in E', therefore, is to accept Onesimus as if he were receiving Paul himself.

F (vv. 13-16)  

According to the proposed concentric pattern of the letter, F represents the axis around which the whole epistle revolves. Here, the argument of the whole is summed up precisely and formally advanced. Paul, in building to this point, now persuasively puts forth the main thesis of the letter. Paul desires Philemon not to do anything by compulsion, but of his own free will even as Philemon now finds himself enjoying the freedom that comes from being united to Jesus Christ. Such is his freedom in Christ that Philemon can be the father who can send his heart, the son. Thus, Philemon is put in the opportunity of ministering to Paul through Onesimus. Paul petitions Philemon to express his own freedom in Christ and in imitation of Paul by sending Onesimus to him.

Although a brief attempt has been made to show the connection between the related verses in Philemon, the following is a more detailed theological look at one of the pairs. The pair chosen for closer observation is A (vv. 1-3), the salutation, and A' (vv. 23-25), the benediction.

Theological Examination of A and A'

A (vv. 1-3)

In typical Pauline fashion, the letter begins with a salutation. It includes the mention of five individuals: Paul, Timothy, Philemon, Apphia and Archippus. Theologically, the list has importance because of the way Paul presents himself. Paul, the apostle, has the preeminence among the persons named because of his office, but he deliberately humbles himself and exalts the others.

Paul's humility is apparent immediately after he identifies himself when he writes that he is a prisoner of Christ Jesus. Some have concluded that Paul's mentioning of his being a prisoner in the salutation is a direct reference to his imprisonment in Rome during the writing of this letter. Although he was in jail in Rome at the time of the letter's composition, his usage is more ironic than anything else. To Paul, being in humble submission to Christ Jesus as a prisoner is a positive. Though he is a prisoner to Christ Jesus, he is free with the freedom that only Christ Jesus can give.

Paul, then, gladly confesses that he is a prisoner not of Caesar, but of Christ Jesus. In his semi-eschatological identity, Paul acts according to the impulse of this profound motivation-freedom in Jesus Christ. In a sense, the words that follow the opening phrase, "Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus," will be a lesson in the nature of freedom that is found presently in the Kingdom of God. Paul himself learns this lesson on the road to Damascus upon encountering the risen Christ when he is transformed from bond-slave of Satan to bond-slave of Christ.

But, there is more here than just the personal transition for Paul from death in Satan to life in Christ—there is also the transition from the old era to the new era in regard to authority. Acts 9:1-9 signals the close of the leadership that pertains to Old Testament Israel (represented by Saul) and the constituting of the new leadership for the church (represented by Paul). In other words, the experience of Paul on the road to Damascus represents a redemptive historical transition not only for Paul personally from bondage to freedom, but also for the church. The old leadership has passed away in light of the coming of the new. Paul, then, serving as a corporate figure, leads as one who is joined to Jesus Christ. Because Paul is now the prisoner of his Lord, his ministry will reflect Christ's ministry.4

Evidence of Paul's deliberate modelling of his ministry after Christ's ministry is seen in his treatment of Timothy, Philemon, Apphia and Archippus in the salutation. For example, concerning Timothy, Paul humbles himself while he exalts Timothy to a seemingly co-equal position in the authorship of this letter. Paul's use of the singular pronoun in verse 4 onward (apart from verse 6) indicates that he alone is the literal author of the letter. The significance, then, of the exaltation of Timothy in the salutation goes beyond the literal authorship of the letter. Timothy here represents the post-apostolic age and is to be the sharer and conveyor of the message of the apostolic ministry represented by Paul.5 In this regard, the post-apostolic age is the "brother" of the apostolic age in its labor of love for the Lord.

Paul also exalts Philemon, calling him "beloved and fellow worker." Paul's adjectival use of "beloved" in regard to Philemon indicates that Paul saw his life enriched because of Philemon in that to not have one's "beloved" meant death. Paul also indicates that he considers Philemon to be his "fellow worker" in the ministry.

At first, this is somewhat surprising since Philemon is not an elder in the church, but rather a layman. The effect of the apostle calling Philemon "beloved and fellow worker" is that the unordained, represented by Philemon, also participate in the apostolic ministry. Thus, the post-apostolic ordained (Timothy) and the unordained (Philemon) are included in Paul's apostolic ministry.

In verse 2, Paul continues to exalt others while bringing to expression the unity that exists between the post-apostolic unordained and ordained in his apostolic ministry. Here Paul praises Apphia as "our sister" and Archippus as "our fellow soldier." Although unordained, Apphia is elevated to the status of her husband Philemon. She is a sister in the house and has an identity independent of her marital relationship.6

Archippus appears as the pastor of the church in the house and as such he is a "fellow soldier" with Paul in the ministry of the word. Evidence of Archippus's status as ordained comes from Colossians 4:17: "and say to Archippus, 'take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfill it."'

Apparently, the church was meeting at the home of Philemon and Apphia, and Archippus served as their pastor. It is evident that Paul here places primary emphasis on the church as the people of God. Conversely, the apostle has no regard for the church as the building or structure where the people meet.7

In the salutation, Paul also announces that what he has to say is a royal message from the King he serves.8 Paul, as an apostle, is an emissary or ambassador of the kingdom of God communicating the greetings of the King from his throne to his vassals. The King speaks through his messenger, the apostle, with a greeting that contains a testimony to what his kingship offers and guarantees with absolute surety.

This Pauline salutation, then, communicates the reality of the covenant that exists between God and his people. The life of the King, God himself, is so bound to the realities of his kingdom that if he fails to provide these blessings to his people he forfeits his life.

More particularly, the blessings of the kingdom in this letter are "grace ... and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." The grace that Paul has in view is not saving grace, but the continuing and sustaining grace which is the possession of those who are citizens of the kingdom.

In fact, a strong case can be made that Paul understands the content of this grace of the kingdom to be the benevolence of the sovereign God to his subjects in both disposition and reward. The king who failed to place his wealth at his people's disposal was condemned in ancient society. The King whom Paul serves, however, has made his own possessions the possessions of his people.

Support for such a position can be seen in Psalm 31:19 where the day of God's visitation and the vindication of his people is described as the day in which the full deposit of God's goodness (or literally "grace") shall be granted to those who fear him. In other words, the goodness stored in heaven will be present for those who take refuge in him before the sons of men.

One of the primary blessings, then, that God promises to bestow upon his people in his coming is grace, and Paul is telling his readers here in this letter that such grace is now theirs with the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Moreover, the grace of the kingdom of God (i.e., that which God gives for his people's full satisfaction) is God himself.9

The other blessing of the Kingdom that Paul communicates in the salutation is peace. In the Old Testament, the king believed that peace was that which he himself was empowered to preserve and extend for his subjects. Paul has the same sort of peace in mind. It is a peace that belongs to the conditions of the realm, i.e., life in the kingdom. This is a peace that is being extended to believers in their present situation out of the realm of the "not yet."10 The eternal peace of God is a possession presently accessible to the Christian through the work of the Prince of Peace (Is. 9:6) who gives to his people blessing and rest without end for he is their peace (Mic. 5:5) in the new day that has arrived with him.11

It is in this light that grace and peace are inseparably connected as kingdom blessings. If God in this last day is extending his grace to us, it follows that there cannot be any anxiety in the kingdom. In this way, heaven is a realm of peace free of frustration and worry.

Furthermore, from the salutation it can be seen that Paul communicates the grace and peace of the kingdom in a priestly manner." He operates in a priestly manner in conforming his will to the divine will. As the king has bound his will to the matters in view in the salutation, the apostle in his service has done the same thing. The supreme desire of the apostle in writing this letter is that such grace and peace would be found in the people he addresses. He will have himself poured out as a drink offering so that the grace and peace of the kingdom might be realized in those addressed—the church.

A' (vv. 23-25)  

Paul's closing greetings and benediction parallel and reaffirm the truths declared in his opening greetings and salutation. As mentioned previously, five individuals are identified in both the opening and closing greetings. The divine communication to these people (Paul included) is that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is theirs. This is reminiscent of the Aaronic blessing found in Num. 6:22-27. At the conclusion of that benediction, God places his name upon the people so that the people carry his identity.

The import of such a blessing is that as God is in himself, so are his people. He lacks nothing, so they also lack nothing. They are filled with the fullness of the goodness of God, and being filled they are at peace. The placing of the name of Christ upon New Testament believers acts in a parallel fashion. Believers in having Christ have every good thing. They are at peace, living in absolute confidence that he has risen from the dead and now presides in heaven.

In this regard, the benediction functions with respect to the divine intention. The intention of God is to bestow his goodness or grace upon his people as it is found in the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul as the emissary, then, prays in the benediction that this blessing might come to pass. His deepest desire is that his King's intention might be fulfilled and to this end he labors and gives his heart in love. Paul wishes nothing more than that the wealth of the kingdom belong to those whom he serves. Christ before him has given his life that these blessings might be bestowed upon the people of God, and Paul, as his prisoner, does nothing less, and that freely.

Hopefully, the preceding has illustrated a glimpse of the potential for the exegete in viewing Philemon from such a concentric pattern. Christ stands at the heart of this letter, and in him, all who believe have been made free being transformed from darkness to light by his death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ has set Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus free, and now that freedom is to come to expression in their lives as they relate to one another in a Christ-like fashion.13

Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Sewickley, Pennsylvania

End Notes

1 I would like to express my personal thankfulness and indebtedness to my fellow pastor at Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Sewickley, Pennsylvania, the Rev. Charles G. Dennison, for many of the insights found in this paper.

2 James T. Dennison, Jr., "Paul, Philemon, Onesimus and the New Creation in Christ Jesus." Kerux 6/3 (1991): 40.

3 Two examples among many commentators who propose this structure for Philemon are Peter O'Brien, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 44 Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982) 270, and Eduard Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, trans. W. R. Poehlmann and R. J. Karris (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971) 187.

4 Concerning the ministry of the apostle, Geerhardus Vos writes, "His entire task, both on its communicative and on its receptive side, can be summed up in his reflecting back the Christ-glory, caught by himself unto others. To behold Christ and to make others behold him is the substance of his ministry." "The More Excellent Ministry," Grace and Glory (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994) 94.

5 Leonhard Goppelt, Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Times (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980) 198-200.

6 S. B. C. Winter comments that adelphia, "sister," was a term used among early Christians to designate someone who participated in the Christian Community. "Methodological Observations of a New Interpretation of Paul's Letter to Philemon." Union Seminary Quarterly 39 (1984): 206.

7 Concerning the preeminence of house churches in the New Testament, Murray J. Harris comments, "There is no evidence of special buildings for church activities until the third century A. D. New Testament reference or allusions to house churches and their hosts are: Gaius at Corinth (Rom. 16:23), Aquila and Priscilla at Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19) and at Rome (Rom. 16:3, 5), Lydia at Philippi (Acts 16:15, 40), Numpha at Laodicea (Col. 4:15), Philemon at Colossae (Philm. 2)," Colossians and Philemon (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1991) 246.

8 In light of the Old Testament passages such as Daniel 4:1, 6:25 and Ezra 4:17, the king and his kingdom and the greeting must be connected. The messenger who bore the letter in the Old Testament would be the apostle of the New Testament.

9 According to Vos in his article, "The Kingdom of God" (Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. R. Gaffin [Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980]), "The king is according to oriental conceptions the source of grace and the fountain of blessing for all his subjects" (304). The implication of Vos's insight is that the blessings of the realm of the great King are merely an extension of his person scaled with the literal giving of himself.

10 Vos writes, "...there is neither quietness nor repose for the believer's heart except on the bosom of eternity, There and there alone is shelter from the relentless pursuit of change." "Heavenly-Mindedness," Grace and Glory (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994) 117-18.

11 Xavier Leon-Dufour, ed., Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Second edition, Revised and Enlarged (NY: Seabury Press, 1973) 413.

12 Two passages that openly illustrate Paul's own recognition of the priestly manner of his ministry are Romans 15:16, "ministering as a priest," and Philippians 2:17, "being poured out as a drink offering."

13 The pattern established in A and A' is immediately continued in B and B' where Paul states in verse 4, "I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers," and in verse 22, "...for I hope that through your prayers I shall be given to you." As Jesus Christ ever lives to intercede for the saints at the right hand of the Father in heaven, so Paul prays for Philemon and beseeched Philemon to imitate him as he imitates Christ.