Friday, April 6, 2018

Philemon, A Short but Captivating Book in the New Testament

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

The Hebrew letter mem represents water. The pictograph was drawn as a wavy line depicting waves of water. When the mem is the last letter of a word it is written more squarish like calm water. There are many words starting with this letter that have to do with water like bath (miqveh), fountain or spring, source or origin (maqor or ma’ayin), rain (matar), the flood of Noah (mabul) and baptized or immersed (mutbal). Other keywords that start with mem are king, kingdom and bowels (yes, I know, sounds gross – many translations use the word heart instead).

Paul opens his letter to Philemon by identifying himself as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” He uses the same phrase in his letter to the Ephesians where he adds “for the sake of the Gentiles.” I like that he reveals the “prisoner” status as he was, at that time, writing from prison. I think he is stating that although he is incarcerated he knows that this is the best place for him to be of service to Christ.

He writes to Philemon (and Apphia, Archippus and the church that meets in their home) and uses a greeting in verse 3 of “grace” and “peace.”  In the original Greek the word here for “grace” has the connotations of that which causes joy, pleasure and gratification. “Peace” means quietness and rest.

Our mem word “bowels” comes into play three times throughout this letter where your translation may use “heart” (verses 7, 12 and 20). Three times is a high occurrence considering how short this epistle is.

Paul appeals to Philemon for mercy on behalf of Philemon’s escaped slave, Onesimus. Onesimus has made himself useful to Paul in prison and, as a matter of fact, the name actually means “useful.” Paul is going against Old Testament tradition and is sending Onesimus back. In Deuteronomy 23: 15, 16 there is a law which says:

 15 If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. 16 Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him.
Of course, Paul can break this law as he is no longer bound to the law, but set free through faith in Jesus. Paul sends him back with this letter that contains subtle suggestions to influence Philemon. Read verses 13 through 18 with that in mind: 13I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. 15Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good— 16no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.
 17So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.

Boy, Paul is really steering things in a certain direction, isn’t he? We know he didn’t always write his own letters and it was probably Tertius (see Romans 16:22) who was writing this for him, except for verse 19 when he mentions that he is writing this part. This is undoubtedly to give more strength to his offer to pay Onesimus’s debts. This is a picture of Christ paying for our sins. Paul prods Philemon’s conscience two more times in verses 21 and 22:

21Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
 22And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

This Onesimus may be the same person who, years later, became the Bishop of Ephesus, mentioned by Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, in a letter to Ephesus.