Outline of Philemon

Nov 22, 2012

Outline of Philemon.pdf

Today is not only Thanksgiving; it is the day the Orthodox Church celebrates the saints: Philemon, Apphia (his wife), Onesimus, and Archippus. The Synaxarion (an abridged collection of the lives of saints) says, “Philemon, who was from Colossae, a city of Phrygia, was a man both wealthy and noble; Apphia was his wife.  Archippus became Bishop of the Church in Colossae.  All three were disciples of the Apostle Paul.  Onesimus, who was formerly an unbeliever and slave of Philemon, stole certain of his vessels and fled to Rome.  However, on finding him there, the Apostle Paul guided him onto the path of virtue and the knowledge of the truth, and sent him back to his master Philemon, to whom he wrote an epistle (this is one of the fourteen epistles of Saint Paul).  In this epistle, Paul commended Onesimus to his master and reconciled the two.  Onesimus was later made a bishop; in Greece he is honored as the patron Saint of the imprisoned.  All these Saints received their end by martyrdom, when they were stoned to death by the idolaters.  Saint Onesimus is also commemorated on February 15.”

Since all of these saints are mentioned in the letter of St. Paul to Philemon it seemed appropriate to post the chiastic outline with its various chiastic sub-structures in their honor.

The very first thing to note is that the brevity of this letter is no gauge of its complexity.  I have noted, aside from the main chiastic structure, at least seven chiastic substructures.  These vary from short units binding together the syntax of a verse or a short section to longer structures that connect sections and even one that skips a section in order to weave similar themes that St. Paul wished to utilize.   

The main chiasm is made fairly obvious by the outline above. It falls into place thematically, with verbal repetition, and the cues of syntax along with Greek particles and conjunctions (e.g. vs 8 Dio, vs 17 oun).  In addition to the introduction and conclusion there is a two-stage body of the letter that could just as well have been labeled ABBA: a theologically rich prologue leads to Paul’s Appeal for Onesimus.  He then explains this appeal and then addresses some needful closing thoughts.  The chiastic structure of the letter as a whole can assist the reader in coming to a better understanding of the parts.  For instance, it is helpful to see that Paul really does see Philemon, as a partner (“koinonos” partner, associate, companion) in Christ.  He repeats the partnership thought in reverse as he begins his epilogue in vs 17.  So this gives control and specificity to what Paul means in vs 6 when he speaks of “the partnership (“koinonia” sharing, participation, close association, partnership) of your faith”  becoming effective.  The context dictates that this is not about evangelism (“the sharing of your faith”).  Nor is this even about the general benefit that is shared by all the saints because of our mutual participation in Christ (though that is not an incorrect idea).  Paul is praying regarding his partnership in Christ with Philemon - that his faith will work itself out in terms of love (“become effective”).  But it is the connection with vs 17 that makes it clear, Paul is praying specifically that Philemon will receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ (per this letter’s instructions). 

In vs 5, Philemon’s “faith” is associated with the Lord Jesus as its object.  In vs 6, his “partnership of faith” becomes effective “in a full knowledge of every good that is in us into Christ.”  There is always a knowledge content associated with faith in Christ. Verse 6 makes it clear that faith involves and is actually dependent on learning what we have in Christ.  After all, that is why men have died trying to preach the Gospel - not merely for the attainment of facts (2Tim 3:7), but so that all may come to a saving knowledge and understanding of the truth (1Tim 2:4). This learning for the sake of faith doesn’t stop at conversion.  St. Paul often spends half his time in his writings laying the theological foundations of the way things are in Christ before asserting his ethical imperatives.  Seminarians refer to this relationship using a catchy phrase derived from Greek grammar, “the indicative and the imperative.” These two are intimately related and and can be summarized as Paul does in in the chiasm of vs 5-7 in terms of faith in Christ and love for all the saints (as its consequence).  It is this faith working through love (Gal 5:6) that is reiterated in in vs 6-7.  This may not seem at first to make for exciting preaching, but I think the very practical and tangible outworking of our faith in Christ through love is exciting and should itself be be taught and learned. Indeed, maybe more hearts would be refreshed in Christ were this the case!

Here in vs 6, Paul refers to the sphere and of this knowledge using the phrase “into Christ” (not simply “in Christ”).  This was done on purpose and it seems by use elsewhere that it is almost a Pauline technical term for our actual placement and participation (via the new covenant) “into” Christ. I kept this raw form in the translation above in vs 6 to allow the reader to be aware of it since the English translations often smooth it over.  Here are Paul’s other (nine) uses of the phrase:

Rom. 6:3

Do you not know that all of us  who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?

Rom. 16:5

Greet also  the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert (in)to Christ in Asia.

1Cor. 8:12

Thus, sinning against your brothers  and  wounding their conscience when it is weak,  you sin against Christ.  (Perhaps better, “when it is weak into Christ, you are sinning”)

2Cor. 1:21

And it is God who establishes us with you in(to) Christ, and has anointed us,

Gal. 2:16

yet we know that  a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith (of) Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in(to) Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith (of) Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

Gal. 3:24

So then, the law became our guardian (into) Christ, in order that we might be justified by faith.

Gal. 3:27

For as many of you as  were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

Eph. 5:32

This mystery is profound, and I am saying it refers (in)to Christ and (into) the church.

Col. 2:5

For  though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your  good order and the firmness of your in(to) Christ faith.

So one can see there are some key uses and especially with regard to conversion.

This technical usage was not lost on the holy fathers of the church.  They kept this ancient baptismal formulation as the basic structure of the Nicene Creed.  In the Greek, the reader of the creed says (four times, once for each main section) that he/she believes: “into” one God, the Father; “into” one Lord, Jesus Christ; “into” the Holy Spirit; and “into” one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. 

I will briefly outline some key descriptors to help the student see the verbal and thematic correspondence in the other substructures.

The chiasm of vs 8-14 (blue font outline):

  1. a. and a‘   Apostolic Prerogative

  2. b.and b‘    Prison reference

  3. c.and c‘    Intimate Association of Paul and Onesimus

  4. d.and d‘    Onesimus’ Utility

The structure of vs 8-12 paralleled in 17-21:

a. and a‘    Paul’s Authority (same as above) 

  1. b.and b‘    Appeal

  2. c.and c‘    Reference to Conversion

  3. d.and d‘    Corrective Wholeness

  4. e.and e‘    Intimate Connection w/ Paul

The chiasm of vs 15-16:

a. and a‘    Spiritual Dimension of Philemon’s Reunion with Onesimus

  1. b.and b‘    Bondservant

Note there is probably another structure in the latter portion of vs 16 such that:

  1. a.and a‘    Onesimus is brother to Paul in the Lord

  2. b.and b‘    Onesimus is brother to Philemon “in flesh” (referring to Onesimus being there “in person”)

Not included in the outline - an ABBA structure in vs 17-20:

  1. a.and a‘    Reference to the Benefit that Paul is “requesting” (to receive Onesimus)

  2. b.and b‘    Debt

Notice also the “inclusio” of  vs 17 and 22.  Paul, in verse 17 tells Philemon to receive Onesimus “as me” and then in vs 22 makes reference to actually receiving Paul by preparing a guest room (that will be, no doubt, an apostolic follow-up visit to check on things;>)