“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother…” (Philemon 1 (ESV)
As was the case with every one of Paul’s epistles, he immediately identified himself as the author of the epistle. This differentiates the first century letter format with what we are familiar with today. In today’s writing style, the identity of the author is usually revealed at the letters, or emails, conclusion.
Dr. John MacArthur writes, “Following first-century custom, the salutation contains the names of the letter’s author and its recipient. This is a very personal letter and Philemon was one of only three individuals (Timothy and Titus are the others) to receive a divinely inspired letter from Paul.”
Paul did not identify himself as an apostle or even a servant of Jesus Christ as he was prone to do (Rom. 1:1). Rather, he called himself a prisoner. The word prisoner (δέσμιος; desmios) primarily refers to an individual under arrest (Matt 27:15; Mark 15:6; Acts 16:25; 23:18; 25:14; Eph. 3:1; 4:1; 2 Tim. 1:8; Phm. 1, 9). Within the context of Philemon, along with Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, Paul was under arrest in the capital city of Rome. Luke records the details of the apostle’s initial incarceration and eventual imprisonment in Rome (Acts 21-28).
The Greek word desmios can literally mean to be bound or a captive in bonds. However it may also refer, and the context supports this, that Paul was a prisoner for Jesus Christ. His imprisonment was for preaching the gospel.
One author writes, “Paul’s imprisonment (literally “fetter”) has special religious significance in phrases like désmios Christoú Iesoú (Eph. 3:1; Phlm. 1, 9), désmion autoú (2 Tim. 1:8), désmios en kyríō (Eph. 4:1), and cf. Phlm. 13 and Phil. 1:13. Actual imprisonment underlies the usage, but the real bondage is to Christ for whose sake it is suffered and to whom self-will is offered in sacrifice. Imprisonment symbolizes his whole life and ministry.”
Paul indicated that Timothy was with him in Rome. Timothy was not the coauthor of this letter, but probably had met Philemon at Ephesus and was with Paul when the apostle wrote the letter. Paul mentioned Timothy here and in the other epistles (e.g., 2 Cor. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1). This was because he wanted Timothy recognized as a leader and the non-apostolic heir apparent to Paul.
Dr. MacArthur explains, “Paul was imprisoned for the sake of and by the sovereign will of Christ (cf. Eph. 3:1; 4:1; 6:19–20; Phil. 1:13; Col. 4:3). By beginning with his imprisonment and not his apostolic authority, Paul made this letter a gentle and singular appeal to a friend. A reminder of Paul’s severe hardships was bound to influence Philemon’s willingness to do the comparatively easy task Paul was about to request.”
In studying this brief epistle, take time today to read the entire letter. It’s only twenty-five verses. Select a couple of verses to mediate upon. Perhaps today’s verse may be one to consider. How can you relate to Paul in being a prisoner for Jesus Christ?
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Soli deo Gloria!