A Retake On "The Book Of Philemon"
Gentle Reader, please consider this "retake" on the translation and interpretation of St. Paul's epistle to Philemon. This "book" or "letter" is usually taken to be little more than a diplomatic request by Paul on behalf of the run away slave Onesimus. It is that, but much more! Have your Bible handy as you read this, and those who are so able, your Greek N.T.
v. 1 Like all of Paul's sermons / epistles, this one is also written into the context of the Eucharistic assembly. Thus Philemon is "beloved" and "brother" both weighted Eucharistic terms.
v. 2 It is addressed to the church in his house. Church, is never an abstract with Paul. It either refers to the Eucharistic assembly in the act of worship, and / or the universal church of heaven and earth.
v. 3 This is not a pro forma greeting, or a religious way to say: hello. But I feel very strongly that it is a liturgical element that Paul employs, knowing where this letter will be read aloud and heard. In the worshiping assembly.
v. 4 I don't think we can take verse 4 at face either. When Paul thanks / eucharistizes God it is not standalone. Not something disconnected from the church's worship. Nor are his prayers for Philemon. Rather Paul is speaking of his own celebration of the Eucharist taking place on the Lord's day, on the same day that his words are being read in Philemon's local assembly. And in this context he includes Philemon in the church's prayers, even as we include intercessions today. He also shows the unity of the church's prayer. Wherever and whenever it occurs, it is all one.
This is so because in the church of Jesus Christ there are no independent assemblies, but one, unified and ongoing worship of the Father in Spirit and Truth whether it be taking place in heaven, or in any locale of this world.
v. 5 is also Eucharistically charged. The words "love," "faith" and "saints" used this way together bespeak the holy Christian faith, as it is practiced in holy worship by and among the saints. Nor is "saints" merely a nice way of referring to Christians. But it is the name / title given to the baptized who particpate in the Lord's Body. Which is "the Lord Jesus Christ and all his holy ones." The "faith and love" that Paul hears about, and here refers to, are not simply emotions and sentiments of love that Philemon has for his Savior. But a love that is incarnate. One that is instantiated and demonstrated by the celebration of the Eucharist by God's people. By people who hear Christ's word "this do!" They are doing it.
v. 6 "sharing" is the wrong word here. The greek is "koinonia" refers to holy communion, which IS the practice of the "faith". As the disciples recognized the Lord in the breaking of the bread, even so the Eucharistic celebration occuring in real time for Paul and Philemon gives to the faithful "knowledge of all the good things we have in Christ Jesus." Divine fellowship. Communion with the Holy. Intimacy of the Bride with her Groom. A foretaste of the Feast to Come. Tomorrow's bread given today. And so much more.
v. 7 Again in v. 7 the three terms: love, brother, and saints point to a benefits gained (joy and comfort) from Paul's Eucharistic association with Philemon. In this Supper the hearts of the saints are fed and refreshed with Joy (another Eucharistic term cf. Philippians 4:4).
v. 8 Though Paul could command Philemon to do what he asks, he doesn't do that. Instead he appeals on the basis of the Eucharist they share. The body of which Paul, and Philemon and Onesimus are members. This is what makes Onesimus, once "achreiston," "eucheiston." (v. 11) "Once useless, now useful." But even that translation doesn't cover what's being said here. It's not a case of functionality, or a play on words as commentators like to point out. But Onesimus is now "in Christ" (literally) by baptism, along with Paul and Philemon.
v. 9 Paul is not "an old man" as things are normally translated, but a Presybter. This is a techinical term for the church's clergy. Paul, as all the apostles, are the pre-eminant clergy of the church.
v. 13 Nor was Onesimus simply one who "serves" Paul (ESV) as a factotum, but one who has been elevated to the Office as a Deacon. Deacons served (and still do) as subordinates of the presbyters (celebrant, pastor) in the church's worship, which is by definition Eucharistic.
v. 16 Onesimus is not a simply a "colleague." But a baptized communicant. A Beloved Brother.
v. 17 "Partner" is not the right word (ESV). But "fellow communicant" is. Paul appeals to the Eucharistic fellowship held in common by himself and Philemon (and now Onesimus).
vss. 18 & 19 This is the love that Communing with the Holy breeds: Paul is willing to take on the debt of Onesimus as his own. In Christ like fashion!
v. 20 Again Philemon is addressed by his proper Eucharistic title: Brother. Paul wants this benefit "in the Lord" which is not simply a notion, but a factual baptismal and Eucharistic incorporation. To read anything less than this is to miss the entire point of the holy Christian faith.
v. 22 Nor do I think "guest room" or "lodging" is the right word or thought. A "xenos" in N.T. speak is a fellow Christian who is travelling, and wishes to be welcomed to the table of the church he is visiting. Cf. Hebrews 13:2. Also cf Mark 14:14, and Luke 22:11 where a "guest room" is prepared for Jesus to celebrate Passover with his disciples. I sense a strong Eucharistic aroma in these terms, even if Paul uses a different word than Mk and Lk. He is, as it were, announcing himself for Holy Communion to Philemon, in whose house the church of that locale meets. It is unclear if Philemon himself is a clergyman, but as the church meets in his house, he holds power there.
v. 23 As I've written many times elsewhere "greet" / "aspodzomai" is not a churchy way of saying: tell the folks there I said hi. Greetings is a specifically Eucharistic term, equivalent to our Pax Domini in the liturgy of the Sacrament.
v. 25 in my reading this verse is a Proper Preface! As the liturgy of the Word is about to conclude (which Paul well knows, since he taught the churches the form of Christian worship), and the Liturgy of the Sacrament about to begin: both in Philemon's house church, and Paul's divine service (be it occurring in prison). Paul here provides the liturgical preface as he does in nearly all his "epistles / sermons." It is a signal to proceed to the Eucharist.
This understanding and interpretation of "the book of Philemon" gives the hearer a very different take on what it means to be a Christian.
Different than its normal sterile and scientific interpretation, which is but a diplomatic letter from Paul to Philemon, regarding poor Onesimus and his future. It is that, but executed within a fully Christian context, which is to say, a fully Eucharistic context. Because this is what the church is. This is what the church does.