Greetings & Grace (Philemon 1-3)
Topic: One Truth: Your Word is Truth Passage: Philemon :1–:3
I. The Need for Transparency
Over the years, I've heard many people talk about “the need for transparency”. I'm sure you've heard that phrase as well. Usually we hear those words in the context of a corporate or political scandal. But this morning, I'd like to use that phrase in reference to God's word. No, not in reference to any one passage specifically. Rather, we need transparency when it comes to how to study God's word.
My hope whenever I teach is to model what the Apostle Paul described in his second letter to Timothy, his younger associate in ministry. He wrote,
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (II Timothy 2:15)
But even though modeling is important, it's also important at times to be transparent about the how of studying God's word. For some of you, learning how to study God's word on your own, to feed yourself spiritually, to get the most out of, to “rightly handle” Scripture, is exactly what you're looking for. And for those who already feel equipped in this way, I hope this will be a good reminder of the solid principles and practices we should use, in addition to hearing from God through the word itself.
Speaking of the word itself, the study this month, this study on how to study the Bible, will be focused on the very small and often neglected book known as Philemon. I thought it would be just the right size to tackle in a short amount of time, and clear enough for almost any reader.
II. The Passage: “To... Our Beloved Fellow Worker” (vs. 1-3)
So without further delay, let's look together at the book of Philemon. You'll find it in your Bible, in the New Testament, right after the book of Titus. Look at the opening three verses:
Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker  and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
1. Sounds Like a Letter (vs. 1-3)
Now, if you knew nothing about the Bible, but heard those words, I think the first thing you might think is, “Hey, that sounds like the beginning of a letter.” And guess what... you'd be exactly right. This is a letter, or what is sometimes called an epistle.
These verses are what we would still call a greeting. All the ingredients are there, aren't they? You know who's writing, you know who's being addressed, and you have a short blessing of sorts. We still see all of these today, don't we, even in e-mails and texts: “Tom, my good friend, this is Bryce, your old neighbor from Tempe. I hope this note finds you doing well and your family in good health.”
So whether your know it or not, you just figured out the genre of this biblical book. Does that matter? Absolutely. Knowing that you're reading a letter puts things in a different perspective. If you thought Philemon was a newspaper article or a book of poetry or an obituary page, you'd be thoroughly confused, right? The same is true when you study a book of the Bible.
2. Who's Who (vs. 1, 2)
If we wanted to learn more about this letter, but only had these three verses, what should we do next? Well, we could start by examining the names that are listed here. Now, the person writing the letter identifies himself as “Paul”. His name, along with the next name, “Timothy”, are still names in use today. But the next three names, “Philemon”, “Apphia”, and “Archippus” sound a little more exotic, don't they. That's a good reminder that we're looking at a letter from both a different place and a different time. Let's keep that in mind.
So why do these names matter? Because, in many cases, the Bible itself can tell us more about the people mentioned in these books. For example, if we only knew the letter was written by a Paul, we might ask, “But which Paul? Paul McCartney? Paul Rudd? Paul Blart?” No. Remember this letter is really old. Well, what if there was a Roman Emperor named Paul? That would definitely change the way we studied this letter, right?
But we know who this Paul was. Using a simple Bible app or website like Blue Letter Bible, or Esv.org, or Bible Gateway (or a classic concordance), you could easily search the name Paul. If you did, you would discover the very first time the name appears in the New Testament is in Acts 13:9. And that verse explicitly tells us Paul's name used to be Saul. And if searched that name, we'd find the beginning of Saul/Paul's story in Acts chapters 7, 8 and 9.
In that story, we would read about Saul, a man who rabidly persecuted followers of Jesus... until... Jesus himself appeared to Saul in a vision. That meeting radically changed Saul's life. In another one of Paul's letters, we find this once-popular saying about Saul/Paul's drastic transformation: “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” (Galatians 1:23) And that is exactly what happened. The book of Acts goes on to tell us how Paul taught about Jesus, helped establish churches, taught Christians, and yes, even was imprisoned for his faith in Jesus (remember that opening phrase in Philemon 1, “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus...”?).
So consider the principle: interpreting Scripture with Scripture: specifically, another book of the Bible, Acts, has helped identify the author of this letter. And if we did the same kind of search for the name Timothy, we would read in Acts 16 how Paul met Timothy in the ancient cities of Derbe and Lystra. He was impressed by this man and so brought him along as they traveled and ministered in the name of Jesus. There are, of course, two letters in the NT that bear the name of Timothy. These were also written by Paul, and reveal more about how Paul was training this young man in the work of the gospel.
But what about the other names listed here? Well, the only other name listed here that's also found somewhere else in the NT is the name Archippus. A simple search would take us to Colossians 4:17. There we would read...
And say to Archippus, “See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord.”
So the location seems to be Colossae, a town in what is today, western Turkey. But do these verses in Philemon tell us anything else about these people with the exotic names? Yes! Philemon was Paul's “beloved fellow worker”, Apphia was regarded by Paul as a “sister”, and Archippus was considered a “fellow soldier” under Christ's command. But also notice there is a church meeting in someone's house. Most likely, since Philemon is the first listed, the letter is formally addressed to him. And most likely, this church was also meeting in him home.
So how are these three people, three followers of Jesus, three people Paul and Timothy cared about, how were they related? Given the order, the context, and other clues from the letter, Apphia was probably Philemon's wife, and Archippus may have been their son. So Philemon provided a place for the local church to meet, and Archippus, according to Colossians 4:17, was actively involved in the ministry.
3. Beginning with Blessing (v. 3)
But there's one more element here to talk about. It's the blessing we find in verse 3. If we looked at the other letters of Paul in the NT, we would discover that this same greeting can be found in every letter by Paul, at least some version of this greeting. Eight of Paul's thirteen letters have the same exact blessing we find in Philemon 3, and the other five have a modified version of this same blessing.
So this introductory blessing was important to Paul. But why? I think because it communicated both his heart for those to whom he was writing, and it directed them back to the source of every blessing: “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Paul's prayer was that the recipients of his letters would experience abundant grace and abiding peace from God through Christ.
III. What Would You Write?
So consider what we've discovered together about Philemon. We identified the genre of the book (a letter), we established who wrote the book (Paul), and we considered the recipient of the book (a man named Philemon). We also talked about Philemon's location, his family, and their connections with the Christian ministry. But as interesting as these facts are, we still don't know why Paul was writing to Philemon. But that's precisely what we've positioned ourselves to discover! Asking the right questions is a major part of “rightly handling” the Bible.
Now, figuring out things like the genre, the author, the audience, the geographical setting, etc., is not always easy or obvious. Some books require more digging, and for some books, we'll never know the identity of the writer. But we can always tell something about any writer from the things they write. These are the kinds of things that position us to ask the even bigger questions: why was a book written, and how does it accomplish that purpose.
But the Bible isn't simply just another book. All the things we've talked so far are just basic principles of reading and interpreting and connecting the literary and/or historical 'dots'. But there's a 'so what' factor in all this, right? Even if we 'get it', even if we understand that a long time ago Paul wrote a letter to some guy named Philemon, why does it matter... to us.. today... here in Buckeye, Arizona? Well...
Only faith can make that kind of connection. The Bible is a book that calls us to faith. And when we really do believe these words, they become for us incredibly valuable, precious, and powerful. Why? Because we believe God spoke, and still speaks through these words. That means in the same way God spoke through Paul to Philemon long ago, God wants to do the same thing today, through that ancient correspondence. So we have failed to rightly handle God's word when we fail to ask, “What is God saying to me, to us, through these verses?”
So... what is He saying to you this morning, through Philemon 1-3? Well, there are so many things in this passage we could think about in terms of present-day application. For example, we could ask, “Am I prepared, if need be, to be 'a prisoner for Christ Jesus'?”, “What does it look like to truly be a “fellow worker” or a “fellow soldier” for Christ Jesus?”, or “If I had the means, would I gladly welcome the church into my home?”
But consider with me the broader spirit of this greeting. This greeting speaks directly to the radically redefined relationships that are ours through faith in Christ. Do you see that? This is no cold or formal or mundane greeting. This greeting is warm and rich. It speaks to relationships that are framed with words like “beloved”, “brother”, “sister”, “worker”, “soldier”. These are people who have loved one another, labored together, and in some sense, fought together. Do you see that?
And as Paul exemplifies in verse 3, these relationships are characterized by a deep concern for the spiritual well-being of the other person. We want God to bless them, in the ups and downs of life, with the abundant grace and abiding peace only he can give us through Jesus.
So then, the question God is putting to each of us through Philemon 1-3 is simple: if you wrote a letter to the people closest to you, would the greeting sound anything like this? Are you experiencing these radically redefined relationships? With whom are you laboring together and fighting together for Jesus? Do the people you know from church really function as brothers and sisters in your life? Is it really your desire that God blesses them with abundant grace and abiding peace? And if not (to any of these things), why not?
As we will go on to see in the coming weeks, the whole letter resonates with this same theme: radically redefined relationships in Christ. Brothers and sisters, will you talk with God this morning about how that theme is or should be present in your own life? Some of us need to cultivate these relationships. Others of us need to repair these relationships. Still others need to strengthen these relationships, and not take them for granted.
I would ask you to not only pray about cultivating, or repairing, or strengthening such relationships, but also, let's 'name names'. In just a moment, I'd ask you to pray for one or two individuals, fellow disciples of Jesus, with whom you want to grow in a Jesus-inspired, radically redefined relationship. And just as Paul faithfully served God, and took the initiative to reach out to Philemon, may God help each one of us to reach out, in light of Christ, who took the ultimate initiative and reached out to lost and hostile sinners like us. Amen?