Theology

Fully empowered faith – Reflections on Philemon (Part 2)

Having begun by re-reading Philemon in light of its protagonist Onesimus, the reflections continue using the three sons typology of Luke 15 as an interpretative tool.

also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:

The letter is addressed to “Philemon…and the church in your house” and therefore was supposed to be read publicly. So, while it is primarily addressed to Philemon as an individual and the host of a church in his house (and therefore most likely a church leader) it is also written to a community of believers in order to for them to learn its important lessons too.

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

“God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” – Plummer explains that having the Father and the Son alongside each other shows Jesus’ equality with God and his deity. This is fascinating in light of Paul’s opening statement of equality with prisoners and by implication Onesimus in verse 1. It is as if Paul is saying: by getting close to those in need he gets to be close God (see Matthew 25). And there are obvious theological implications from reading the trinity this way – anti-hierarchical and more familial.

At this point, I want to jump a few lines to arguably the most complex verse in the letter in terms of translation.

“[I pray that]…the sharing [or communication] of your faith may become effective by the acknowledgment of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus” (NKJV)

Whatever else we can say about verse 6, it summarises what is to come in the rest of the letter.

“Sharing” or communication comes from the Greek koinonia, meaning partnership. It resonates with an air of impartation and, according to Vincent, is expressed in financial giving.

“Effective” – Energeo – Pertains to doing anointed exploits for God: “This adjective, and the kindred energeo to work, be effectual, energes – working, operation, and energeia energy, power in exercise, are used in the New Testament ONLY of superhuman power, good or evil”, Vincent explains. To give an example of New Testament usage of the word, take a look at James 5:16b – “The prayers of a righteous man avail much and are dynamic in their working [energeo]” and compare it with Ephesians 1:19; Matthew 14:2; Philippians 2:13; 1 Corinthians 12:10; Hebrews 4:12. It would therefore be unwise to overlook this supernatural element when interpreting the text. Indeed, effectiveness and usefulness are repeated themes in this short letter. Therefore we can say that Paul’s goal is to help Philemon and the church become more truly effective and empowered.

According to the King James Version (and several others, see above), we appropriate this in the ways that are explained in the rest of the letter by “the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus”. It all starts from the point of view as seeing yourself as a new creation in Christ Jesus. Read this way, verse six represents an introductory precis of the rest of the letter, establishing the goal and the method of what Paul is pointing to.

Put this in the context of the connected verses four and five and Paul appears to be saying something like: “you are doing great in a number of things – let’s see that you sharing of your faith becomes “fully” effective.”

Specifically, he is saying that Philemon is doing a great job: believing Jesus and loving the saints. But what we are presented with in the rest of the letter is a challenge to look outside those two categories and “love your [apparent] enemies”. Not only this but Paul enacts and embodies the ministry of reconciliation, challenging Philemon (and us) to see far beyond what may (or may not) have been done to who Onesimus is in Christ.

Browse the complete series here.

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