Salutation (VV. 1–3)

Paul began this letter like his other epistles. He identified the writers, the readers, and sent a greeting. At the same time, this salutation is unique. Its brevity is noteworthy, but more significantly, Paul did not use his usual title in describing himself.

The Writers (V. 1a)

1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother

1a The epistle identified two writers in the opening verse: Paul and Timothy. From the contents of the letter, Timothy was secondary, and one wonders why he was mentioned at all. He had a significant ministry around Ephesus both before and after this time. The most likely reasons for including him are enumerated in the Colossians commentary. Yet perhaps there was a reason unique to Philemon. If Timothy ministered with Paul in Ephesus and that was where Paul introduced Philemon to Christ, Philemon may have known Timothy. Thus, although Timothy did not actually participate in the content of the letter, he was mentioned out of courtesy.

Normally Paul used a title appropriate to his position in God’s economy. Sometimes it was the title “apostle” because the situations he addressed demanded the authority which came with that office. At other times, he introduced himself as “slave,” which seems to have been the title he preferred (see Phil 1:1). Some commentators call attention to the parallel with the Old Testament “servant of the Lord” and claim that it was a title vested with authoritative overtones. At any rate, Paul did not use either title here. Neither would have been appropriate. He wrote to a good friend, and to call attention to an office or authority in a private letter would be offensive.

Paul did refer to his situation. He stated that he was a “prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Some have suggested that even here Paul used a term of authority. Although it is a softer form, they say, it still speaks of superiority in Christ. Some take a mediating position, assuming that the reference paved the way for his request. If so, Paul would have been saying something like, “In comparison with the sacrifice that I am making, is not the favor which I am asking you to grant a rather easy matter?” Elsewhere when Paul used the term, however, he had no such motives (Eph 3:1; 4:1; 2 Tim 1:8). In light of these references and Phlm 9, 10, the best understanding is that Paul used the words to speak of his location when writing. If anything, perhaps it explains why he could not travel with Onesimus to ask Philemon personally for Onesimus’s forgiveness.

The Readers (VV. 1b–2)

To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, 2to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home

The text appears to address four readers. The letter makes clear, however, that Paul directed his comments to Philemon alone. The pronouns of the text parallel this pattern. In vv. 3, 25, the salutation and conclusion, Paul used the plural pronoun “you.” Some have suggested that the letter was actually written to a public audience based on this evidence and the fact that the letter survived publicly. In vv. 1–2, 4–24, he consistently used the singular “you.” The letter clearly addressed Philemon, and the subject matter discussed refers to him alone. Most likely, Paul included the others because they were part of Philemon’s family and courtesy demanded it.

1b The first addressee was Philemon. Obviously Philemon was a man of some means since he had at least one slave and a house in which a church met. In the major cities, most people lived in rooms, rather than houses, and the fact that he had a room large enough for a meeting suggests he had above-average means. Paul called him a “dear friend” and “fellow worker.” Paul used “dear friend” (agapētos) of groups (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 10:14; 15:58; 2 Cor 7:1; 12:19; Phil 2:12; 4:1) and of certain individuals (Col 1:7; 4:7, 9, 14). He used the term “fellow worker” (synergos) of several close friends (Rom 16:9, 21; 1 Cor 3:9; 2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25). The terms probably recall the time when Paul and Philemon served together in Ephesus, but no doubt Philemon continued his service when he returned home to Asia Minor. These terms of endearment reveal the closeness between Paul and this dear friend and make Paul’s request all the more remarkable. Perhaps he had known Onesimus before, and now, after his conversion, Paul willingly risked his friendship with Philemon to become an agent of reconciliation.

2 The second addressee is Apphia, “our sister.” The name occurs often in extra-biblical sources and was a distinctively Phrygian name. She obviously had a Christian commitment since Paul called her a “sister.” From the way he addressed her, apparently she was well-known to him also. Could she have served with Philemon and Paul? Apphia was probably Philemon’s wife. Two factors suggest that: the warm, personal tone of the letter, which addresses house matters, and the close contextual connection with Philemon. Because women took charge of the house affairs, she probably had an interest in Onesimus. Although she may have been invited into the discussions regarding Onesimus, Paul handled the matter with Philemon.

The third person is Archippus. Because of the family context, many assume he was the son of Philemon and Apphia. Paul called him a “fellow soldier,” applying a military metaphor to this Christian brother. He seldom referred to Christians at large by that designation.

Finally, Paul addressed “the church that meets in your home.” In the major cities, social groups gathered in the homes of patrons who served as unofficial sponsors of the groups. Urban Christians followed the same pattern, hoping for a benefactor who had the resources to sponsor a church. Graciously, the Lord provided such people in most places, and Philemon was one of those.

The Greeting (V. 3)

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

3 Paul’s greeting was a Christianized form of typical greetings. The logical order preserves the way God works: Grace produces peace. These qualities come jointly from God the Father and Jesus. For Paul, Jesus performed the same activities as God. Particularly, he can supply grace and peace to the hearts of people.

Prayer of Thanksgiving for Philemon (VV. 4–7)

Paul began this letter by praying for the people to whom he wrote. The prayer includes a thanksgiving which resembles Col 1:3–14; the commentary notes there should be consulted. One unique factor of this thanksgiving is that it concerned an individual, Philemon. Because of this, the thanksgiving became a commendation of this man’s character and Christian faith. Philemon embodied the good qualities Paul sought in all Christians.

Paul’s Prayer (VV. 4–6)

4I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. 6I 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.

Structurally, the thanksgiving follows a typical pattern for Paul. The primary differences between this one and others are that this one is shorter and has some distinctive expressions. The thanksgiving revolves around the verb “I thank my God” (eucharistō). Two modifying expressions translated “as I remember you” and “because I hear about your faith” continue the idea. These are followed by the specific content of the prayer, “I pray that you may be active.” Often Paul divided such introductions into two segments: thanksgiving for the readers and petition. He followed that pattern here, but cryptically, both components occur in one sentence. It is best, therefore, to discuss this section in its logical (thematic) patterns of thanksgiving and prayer. This one long sentence in the Greek text captures both the spirit and the style of Paul’s longer thanksgivings.

(1) Thanksgiving (VV. 4–5)

4a When Paul thought of Philemon, he did so with joy and thankfulness. Some interpreters understand “always” as modifying the phrase “as I remember you” so that the construction reads, “I thank my God every time I think of you.” The Greek is capable of either translation, but the stress most naturally is on always thanking God. Paul did not mean that he always gave thanks when he remembered Philemon. The expression does not mean that Paul did nothing but think of Philemon. He had many pressing matters on his mind. It does emphasize that Paul constantly remembered the Christian people who stood with him in ministry and the Christian life. They were a constant joy and occasion of thanksgiving.

4b The first modifier of “I thank my God” is “as I remember you in my prayers.” The Greek construction is a participle with a temporal force. It means “while making remembrance of you,” and it is followed by an expression of time, “as I pray.” Both parts of the expression stress the fact that Paul actually thanked God for them. He remembered them in prayer (see Col 1:3; Phil 1:4). Consistent with other passages, Paul gave the readers insight into his prayer life. He prayed with a thankful heart, and he prayed for Philemon with thankfulness.

5 The second modifier of “I thank God” is “because I hear.” The present tense (I hear) rather than the past (I heard) suggests that Paul continued to hear a good report, perhaps from Onesimus and the others who surrounded him. It stressed the character of Philemon and, perhaps, his consistency.

The interpreter must make a syntactical judgment about the precise meaning of the words in v. 4b. What is clear is that Philemon was a man of faith and love and that he had a concern for both God and people. The NIV correctly interprets the text, understanding “faith” as a trust in the Lord Jesus and “love” as a quality directed toward Christian people. Some other translations keep a more literal wording. The Greek text is “the love and the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and unto all the saints.” The statement has two possible interpretations. First, love and faith could be directed to both the Lord and the saints; however, this requires an awkward understanding of “faith.” How could faith be directed toward the saints? Further, the parallel in Col 1:4 clearly relates the two qualities to the two different objects. Second, the faith could be toward the Lord and the love toward all the saints. This must be correct. The original construction is a chiasm.

From this statement, two outstanding qualities of Philemon appear. First, he was genuinely Christian. His faith is described in present terms (“you have”), probably indicating a life consistent with his faith in Christ. Second, he demonstrated love for everyone. He possessed qualities which made him exemplary as a Christian, and these attributes made him sensitive to Paul’s request.

The mention of faith and love anticipates a statement about hope. The triad typically occurs together, but hope is not discussed here. Since it is a major theme in Colossians in this connection (1:5–6), the omission seems strange. Perhaps two suggestions account for the absence, though one can never understand why something is not included. First, this epistle has virtually no eschatological orientation. It deals entirely with a social/religious question. Second, and more importantly, this was a letter to a friend. There was little need to explain why Christian qualities emerged; friends understand such things. It served Paul’s purposes well to identify the qualities, not explain them. Love is the more pronounced, as the “outside” member of the chiasm because of its importance to the letter (vv. 5, 7, 9). If Philemon really possessed a love for all the saints, he would act in love regarding Onesimus.

(2) Content (V. 6)

6 Although structurally Paul continued to modify “I thank God,” the meaning changed direction. Recognizing this, the NIV begins a new sentence here. In a single sentence, Paul incorporated both thanksgiving and prayer for Philemon. Almost every part of this statement demands interpretation. It is “notoriously the most obscure verse in the letter.”

Four exegetical problems occur. First, what is the meaning of “participation of faith” (“sharing your faith,” NIV; koinōnia tēs pisteōs)? Second, how is “in Christ” (lit., “into Christ”) to be understood? Third, is “in Christ” to be connected with “effective,” “good thing,” or “knowledge”? Fourth, how should “in knowledge” be interpreted? These questions interrelate, so the difficulties multiply.

The phrase “participation of faith” uses two common words in the New Testament. “Participation,” koinōnia, occurs frequently in Philippians, and the reader should see the discussions there. “Faith” expresses the heart of Christianity. Both words individually and together have various shades of meaning. The NIV translation is highly unlikely because of what it communicates to many readers. It suggests evangelism, but that is far removed from any context supposed for this letter. Paul was not encouraging Philemon to be an evangelist. Elsewhere, Paul acknowledged the importance of evangelists, but that has little to do with this epistle. The suggestion that koinōnia means a contribution because of being in the faith is more to the point. Paul’s words, however, depend on the deepest meaning of “fellowship.” “Christians not only belong to one another but actually become mutually identified, truly rejoicing with the happy and genuinely weeping with the sad.” Philemon’s “participation in the faith” would mean that he also participated in the good things that promoted the cause of Christ.

Paul prayed that this “participation in the faith” would work in the test case involving Onesimus. The other problems identified in this context may be resolved in harmony with that idea. The word “active” (NIV) translates the Greek energēs. The word means activity, and the request was for the Christian faith to become active. The phrase “in knowledge,” (“full understanding,” NIV) occurs often in similar prayers of Paul, and its meaning is clear (Eph 1:17; Phil 1:9; esp. Col 1:9–10). Paul realized that in the sphere of knowledge such activity would take place. The Greek word “knowledge” (epignōsis) combines experiential and intellectual meanings, stressing a personal acquaintance with knowledge. Thus, knowing how to apply the faith to the matter at hand comes from experiential knowledge.

The content of the knowledge is provided in the remainder of the verse. The words “of every good thing to us” modify “knowledge.” Paul hoped that Philemon would come to a realization of everything good, “unto Christ.” This phrase is not the same as “in Christ.” Perhaps the best parallel is Eph 4:12–13, where the leadership of the church is described as enduring “unto” the perfect unity. The English translators often make the phrase temporal, “‘until’ we all attain.” Thus, when Christians act in accord with the blessings they have in Christ, they grow closer to Christ.

Paul prayed that Philemon would use this knowledge to work out the implications of his faith in the matter with Onesimus. The “good thing” he knew to do was to forgive an erring and repentant brother who sinned before his salvation. Such a reconciliation would have far-reaching implications in the whole church. It watched this test case with great interest. If Christianity could work in such tension-filled relationships, it could work anywhere. Paul, Philemon, Onesimus, the church, and all of Christianity had much at stake in Philemon’s response. Paul prayed that Philemon would make the correct choice.

—New American Commentary