Philemon and Colossians


I. Introduction

Along with Philippians, the epistles of Philemon and Colossians represented the faith of the Church in the early 60's CE. While scholars do not dispute Paul's authorship of Philemon, many do dispute his hand in the composition of Colossians. Irregardless, Philemon revealed Paul's interest not only in the fate of an individual slave but the value of all humanity in Christ. Colossians showed the heightened view of the Lord; for Christians in the 60's CE, he was the divine instrument for creating and maintaining the universe.

II. Dating: Philemon in 60-61 CE
and Colossians in 60-70 CE

Philemon and Colossians were intertwined for several reasons. First, both contained language of Paul's imprisonment (Philemon 1:1, Philemon 1:9-10, Philemon 1:13, Col 4:3, Col 4:10, Col 4:18). Second, both shared a list of people involved in ministry to the addressed community (Archippus, Onesimus, Aristarchus, Demas, Mark and Luke in Philemon 1:1, Philemon 1:10, Philemon 1:24 and Col 4:7-17); if we assume the people listed in both letters were the same, we can infer both letters were written to the community at Colassae.

So, first, where was Paul imprisoned? As we investigated in Philippians, three possibilities existed: Caesarea (Acts 23:31-35; imprisoned for two years in Acts 24:27), Rome (Acts 28:11-16; imprisoned for two years in Acts 28:30-31) and Ephesus (implied in Acts 19:1-3; 2 Cor 1:8). Several factors pointed towards the origin of the letters: distance traveled to deliver the letters and the age of Paul at the time of authorship. While Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea for two years, he could not have reasonable written the letters from the Palestinian port based upon the long distance to Colossae. Ephesus proved promising based upon distance; Colossae lie in the province of Phrygia, about 95 miles from the ancient port city.

However, we must consider Rome based upon Paul's age. In Philemon 1:9, Paul noted his old age. In the ancient world, one could be considered elderly as early as ages of 48-58, not just based upon frailty but upon the wisdom amassed over a lifetime of experience. In Rom 1:8-10, Paul indicated his desire to visit the Imperial City; in Acts 23:11, he received a vision of the Lord who commanded him to testify in Rome. Philemon 1:9 implied he was in jail because of his evangelization efforts. In that verse, Paul saw both the limits of his life and the purpose for his life realized. So, we could reasonably assume the apostle wrote his letter to Philemon from Rome. Colassae lie approximately 1300 miles from Rome; the ancient road system and ship lanes had been developed to the extent that made that journey possible in less than a month. Based upon those factors, Paul wrote Philemon from Rome after his arrival to the city (Acts 28:30-31) in or after 59 CE.

When was Colossians written? Dating this letter has proven to be more difficult based upon language and theme development. Some scholars have argued that words and phrases do not follow typical Pauline style; the author of Colossians used 48 words not found in Paul's undisputed letters, 33 of which were not found in the New Testament. However, many scholars have contended that the style of the letter in general does match that of Paul's other undisputed letters.

The high Christology of Col 1:15-20 indicated a development of thought that envisioned Jesus not only as the first fruit by the Resurrection (1 Cor 15:23) or as the pre-existent One who emptied himself to die on the cross (Phil 2:7) but now the instrument of creation itself (Col 1:15-17); the belief found in the liturgical hymn of Colossians matched those in Hebrews 2:10 and John 1:3. The theme of Jesus as the creative and maintaining force in the cosmos did not find any parallel in First Thessalonians, First or Second Corinthians, Galatians and Romans; only the Kenosis hymn of Phil 2:5-11 gave a hint of Christ's heightened role in the appearance of the universe. So, Colossians was written later, in the decade of the 60's CE, either by an aging Paul or by a disciple who personally knew the community both in Rome and in Colossae.

III. Philemon

A. Introduction

Paul wrote this letter to Philemon, a man of some means who hosted a house church (presumably in Colossae). For some unstated reason, his slave found refuge with the imprisoned Paul and proved useful in the apostle's ministry. Yet, Roman law provided harsh penalties for errand slaves and those who enabled such behavior. In his letter, the apostle implicitly sought to obey the law, but also wanted fair treatment for Onesimus. So, he crafted the epistle as means to shame Philemon into such action. First, he addressed it to several people in the church leadership (Philemon, Apphia and Archippus in Philemon 1:1-2) so the existence of the letter would become public knowledge. Second, he asserted his authority over Philemon (Philemon 1:8), even to the extent of reminding the church host of the debt owed to the apostle (Philemon 1:19). Third, by expressing the faith and usefulness of Onesimus in ministry, he asserted the slave stood as an equal not only to Philemon but to Paul himself (Philemon 1:15-17). Finally, he couched that shame in language that elevated Philemon's place as a leader (Philemon 1:4-7). If the house host treated his slave in a manner contrary to Paul's praise, such behavior would cause scandal among the faithful. (In modern terms, we might call Paul's tactic "passive-aggressive.") So, Paul sought a particular outcome while preserving a certain sense of dignity for those involved.

B. Synopsis and Commentary: Philemon's structure is ABCCBA:

1. Step A1: Greetings (Philemon 1:1-3)

Paul and Timothy greeted "brother" Philemon ("beloved one and coworker"), "sister" Apphia, Archippus ("fellow soldier") and the house church that met in Philemon's home. Timothy joined Paul as a co-author in First Thessalonians, Philippians, Second Corinthians, Second Thessalonians and Colossians.

2. Step B1: Praise for Philemon's faith and hospitality (Philemon 1:4-7)

Paul commended Philemon for his faith and his hospitality for his fellow believers ("love for the saints"); he prayed for Philemon's growth and was encouraged by his friend's acts of kindness.

3. Step C1: Appeal to treat the slave as an equal (Philemon 1:8-16)

Paul, elderly and imprisoned, could have commanded Philemon over the fate of the slave Onesimus but implicitly appealed to the master's sense of charity. The slave served the apostle with such devotion that a father-son relationship grew between the two men. Onesimus helped Paul in his evangelization efforts to the extent that he found the slave's value equal to that of the master. Paul did not want to usurp the rights of Philemon over his slave, so he appealed to the freeman's faith, to accept the slave back as an equal, a brother in Christ.

4. Step C2: Faith treatment for Onesimus as repayment for debt owed (Philemon 1:17-20)

Paul implicitly made Onesimus an equal, a partner in the Good News, and asked Philemon to treat the slave in the same manner, as a "stand-in" for the apostle. He agreed to repay the master any debts the slave might have incurred. He also explicitly reminded the slave owner of the debt the later owed the former ("you owe me your very self"). So, he asked leniency to the slave as a "benefit from you in the Lord."

5. Step B2: Confidence in Philemon (Philemon 1:21-22)

Paul expressed confidence that Philemon would exceed his expectations in the matter of Onesimus. He thought we would be released from jail soon, so he requested the house church host prepare him lodging.

6. Step A2: Greetings from those with Paul and grace from the Lord Jesus (Philemon 1:23-25)

Paul included greetings from many of the community where he was imprisoned: his "fellow prisoner" Epaphras and his "coworkers" Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke. He ended the letter with a pray for grace upon Philemon.

C. Conclusion

Paul wrote a personal letter to a church leader in such a way to achieve the results he sought. While he manipulated Philemon, he sought fair treatment for a slave who also proved effective in the ministry of evangelization.

IV. Structure for Colossians

The overall structure is ABCDCBA:

A. Step A1: Greetings from Paul and Timothy (1:1-2)

B. Step B1: Thanksgiving (1:3-8)

C. Step C1: Paul's ministry to the community (1:9-2:5)

D. Step D: Life in Christ vs. life in the world (2:6-3:17)

E. Step C2: How to live in the community (3:18-4:6)

F. Step B2: Letter carriers (4:7-9)

G. Step A2: Greetings and farewell (4:10-18)

V. Synopsis and Commentary for Colossians

A. Step A1: Greetings from Paul and Timothy (Col 1:1-2)

B. Step B1: Thanksgiving (1:3-8)

The author praised God for the hospitality the church at Colossae showed to other Christians, implicitly missionaries (Col 1:3-4). He recognized spiritual growth rising out of their hope for a blessed afterlife which was rooted in the gospel they hears proclaimed (Col 1:5-6). He recognized the founder of the church at Colossae, Epaphras (Philemon 1:23), as a co-ambassador for the gospel (literally "slave") and as a faithful servant who actively represented Paul (Col 1:7-8).

C. Step C1: Paul's ministry to the community (1:9-2:5)

1. Prayer for the community (1:9-14)

Hearing of their growth, the author prayed they be filled with the charisms of wisdom and understanding (Col 1:9), so they could continue to grow in their faith, doing good works and increasing in the intimate knowledge of God (Col 1:10), showing other charisms ("all power of his glorious might") with patience and endurance (Col 1:11) and living in a spirit of gratitude for their share in eternal life ("the saints' inheritance in light"; Col 1:12). God himself saved believers from pagan immorality ("power of darkness") for the a place in the church ("into the Kingdom of his beloved Son") where they found peace ("redemption, the forgiveness of sins"; Col 1:13-14).

2. Liturgical Hymn (1:15-20)

Here the text shifted to what many scholars consider a liturgical hymn. The passage praised Christ ("he" in Col 1:15) as the likeness ("icon") of the invisible God (not represented in the figures of idols) and as the firstborn over all creation (Col 1:15). The term "firstborn" ("prototokos" in Greek) could mean the eldest child or a person of preeminent status; in the first sense, it described the Davidic king in Psa 89:27; in the second sense, it describe one with power. Col 1:16-17 implied the first sense ("firstborn" of the Father) but clearly stated the second sense; Christ stood over all Being as the instrument that created everything (including spiritual powers) and held all thing together. He ruled over the height of creation, his Body the Church, as its head (the Church Fathers later held the Church implicitly existed at the beginning of time, then was made manifest after the Resurrection); here, the text modified the meaning of "firstborn" to mean the Risen One, so the ruler over creation ("first in all things"; Col 1:18). God ("he" as the subject) was pleased to have the fullness of divine permanently dwell in the Son and, thus, reconcile all creation to himself through the Crucifixion ("blood of his cross"; Col 1:19-20).

If the author adapted a hymn already present in the community at Colassae, he recognized a quickly developing "high Christology." In the decade of the 60's CE, believers exalted Jesus not only as the Risen Christ but as the instrument for and maintainer of creation itself. The Nazarene stood as the firstborn in three senses: "son of David," the first of the resurrected and preeminent in rank over the entire cosmos. But, the song took the notion one step further; Jesus proved his status by reconciling the Creator and the created through his death on the cross. In other words, he was "firstborn" as the Crucified One, as well as the Risen One and Creating One.

3. Saved in the gospel (1:21-23)

The author continued the theme of reconciliation by comparing the formerly immoral and estranged lives of the neophytes to their new place of intimacy with God. By dying on the cross, Jesus reconciled them with the Father (presenting them as "holy and blameless and above reproach before him"; Col 1:21-22). The author exhorted his audience to maintain that status by remaining faithful to the gospel they openly heard proclaimed ("preached under all creation") by its servant (Col 1:23).

4. Paul's ministry in the Church (1:24-2:5)

In Col 1:24, the author made what many consider to be, at best, a controversial statement. What he physically endured for the sake of the church made up for "what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ." If the Crucifixion completely reconciled humanity with God, what was "lacking?" The human response to the divine offer. To fully find redemption, people must accept what God presented to them. The author, through his efforts to spread the Good News, made it possible for people to hear the message and believe. In this sense, he made up for the "lack in the sufferings of Christ."

The author explicated the notion of fulfilling the lack by explaining his place in the plan for salvation. He received a commission from God ("stewardship") to serve the community in order to bring converts into the Church ("complete the word of God"; Col 1:25); he saw his role as a "middle man" who preached what he heard and believed to engender faith in those he met, thus fulfilling the purpose of the Good News to bring the lost into the assembly of the saved. Indeed, he saw the gospel as the "mystery" hidden from peoples in the past, but revealed to the saints through his efforts (Col 1:26). When he preached the gospel, he "made known the glorious riches of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory" at the end of time (Col 1:27).

In Col 1:28, the author expressed the universal nature of evangelization. He employed the word "all" four times to add emphasis; he preached to all people and taught all people with all wisdom so that he could commend all people to God as mature in Christ. This was his goal that, along with God's grace, he struggled to accomplish, where personally or through intermediaries in neighboring towns ("Laodicea"; Col 1:29-2:1). In Col 2:2-3, he spoke to the results of his goal: unity marked by common affection, mutual encouragement and assurance of salvation found in faith in Christ; he described the Risen One as the "mystery of God," the repository of all wisdom and knowledge. Notice he shifted the meaning of "mystery" from the gospel he proclaimed to the content of his message, Christ himself; the Good News and the Christ it proclaimed were two sides of the same coin. So, the author couched evangelization in such lofty terms to dissuade his audience from seemingly reasonable arguments to the contrary (Col 2:4). While, in prison, he could not visit them, he expressed solidarity with them and complemented them on their orderly conduct and their steadfast faith (Col 2:5).

D. Step D: Life in Christ vs. life in the world (2:6-3:17)

1. Chiasmus 1a: Status of the Christian (2:6-15)

The author exhorted the believers to grow in their faith ("walk in him") just as they were taught and to live out that faith in gratitude (Col 2:6-7). He warned against outside influences of "empty" philosophies and traditions by comparing their origins to that of the church; the former came from "elemental" spirits and the later from Christ (Col 2:8). Notice the difference between the two if you consider a hierarchy of being where the elemental (or base) spirits lie at the bottom and Christ reigned at the top. Christ contained the fullness of divinity in a bodily form, hence he ruled over every "ruler and authority." The faithful have been incorporated (literally, placed into the body or "filled in him") into Christ (Col 2:9-10).

The author described the conversion experience from a pagan life to membership in the Church with three metaphors. First, he described conversion as a spiritual "circumcision" (one "without hands") rooted in the Crucifixion ("circumcision of Christ"). In other words, entry into the Church implied a certain amount of suffering from possible loss of family and social ties ("putting off the body of the flesh") that connected the neophyte to the Passion (Col 2:11). Second, he described baptism, the sacrament of conversion, as a metaphor for the death and Resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:3-4); the baptized died to their trespasses and unrighteousness ("uncircumcision of your flesh") and were risen up into new life and forgiveness. Here, he moved to the third metaphor, forgiveness as freedom from debtor's prison. God forgave (in the legal sense) sin (the debt owed) by "nailing" the "record of debt" to the cross (Col 2:14). Notice that all three metaphors revolved around the Crucifixion and Resurrection; the change new Christians experienced connected them to that Christ which underwent.

In Col 2:15, the author described Christ's death and Resurrection as total victory over "rulers and authorities" (including the "elemental spirits" of Col 2:8); he implied that, if believers practiced "empty philosophies and traditions" they would align themselves with lower spiritual powers and, so, abandon the higher life as a disciples of Christ.

2. Chiasmus 2: Disregarding the opinions of others (2:16-23)

In Col 2:16-23, the author expounded on the "reasonable" arguments he alluded to in Col 2:4. What could distract one from faith in Christ? He implicitly insisted the answer lie in two areas. First, he argued against the Judaizers with their focus upon the precepts of the Law over holiday rituals (Col 2:16) or kosher requirements (Col 2:22). Second, he rejected derivative spiritualities, whether based upon asceticism and visions (Col 2:18) or upon dietary restrictions (Col 2:23). For the author, these distractions do not address the core issue of faith; people find salvation in Christ and his Church (Col 2:17, 19). Anything beyond this was an "indulgence of the flesh" (Col 2:23).

3. Chiasmus 1b: Practical implications of status as a Christian (3:1-17)

Here, the author returned to the "higher-lower" description of the Christian life. He encouraged those "raised with Christ" to seek a faith and morality that were from "above" where Jesus reigned with God, and not focus on "earthly" ethics (those of the elemental spirits; Col 3:1-2). He implicitly reminded his audience of their baptism as a spiritual death and their new life in Christ as "hidden" in the present age; in the Second Coming, that new life would reveal itself as glory (Col 3:3-4).

The author continued with a death metaphor. Just as believers "died" to self and rose to new life in the Risen Christ, they had an obligation to put "earthly" immorality to "death." He saw such lack of morals (sexual promiscuity, shameful passions, evil desire and greed) as idolatry to the elemental spirits (Col 3:5). He reminded believers of the Final Judgment and of their previous lives as pagans as an exhortation against the effects of earthly immorality (anger, rage malice, slander, abusive language and dishonesty; Col 3:6-9).

The author concluded with a clothing metaphor that reflected the robing in the white tunic after baptism. During Christian initiation, the naked neophyte was baptized in private, robed in the clean tunic and then presented to the community. The clothes that the person wore before baptism represented the "old man" and his earthly ethics; the baptismal robe presented the "new man" who was made new in the image of the Creator (Gen 1:27; Col 3:9-10). Under Christ who ruled all things in the universe, believers understood the social, ethnic and religious differences that the "earthly" minded considered important did not matter; "Christ is all, in all" (Col 3:11).

E. Step C2: How to live in the community (3:18-4:6)

If the author described the "what" of Christian ethics in Col 3:1-17, in this passage he outlined the "how" through practical exhortation. He began with the ideal view of the ancient clan. Women and children owed the patriarch loyalty; in turn, the patriarch had an obligation to treat those under his care with love and patience (Col 3:18-21). Indentured servants were to obey their masters, not to curry favor, but as a means to serve the Lord, for their ultimate reward would arrive at the Second Coming (Col 3:22-24). Christian masters were to treat their indentured servants justly, for they, too, had a heavenly Master (Col 4:1). In all cases, the author warned, evil doers would receive punishment, for God had no favorites (Col 3:25).

The author concluded with three more pieces of advice. First, continue to pray, mindful to be always grateful (Col 4:2). Second, the author asked for prayers that his efforts in evangelization might be successful even in prison (Col 4:3-4). Finally, he exhorted his audience to treat outsiders graciously and reply to their inquiries wisely ("walk in wisdom...seasoned with salt"; Col 4:5-6).

F. Step B2: Letter carriers (4:7-9)

The author sent Tychicus as the letter carrier and personal ambassador; he gave a three part resume for the messenger ("brother, faithful minister and co-servant in the Lord"). According to Acts 20:4, Tychicus was from the province of Asia and accompanied Paul on his journey to Rome. Ephesians 6:21 and Colossians 4:7 ranked the messenger as a brother and fellow servant. He was also mentioned in Titus 3:12 and 2 Timothy 4:12.

The author also sent Onesimus, a fellow Colassian and brother, as Tychicus' assistant (Col 4:7-9). Paul intervened with Philemon on behalf of his slave Onesimus (Philemon 10).

G. Step A2: Greetings and farewell (4:10-18)

The author listed five sets of fellow believers whom the Colossians would recognize:

1. Three Jewish Christians (Col 4:10-11):

a. Aristarchus from Thessaloniki, a "fellow prisoner" (Col 4:10) and "fellow laborer" (Philemon 1:24). Acts mentioned him three times. A mob at Ephesus dragged him into the amphitheater for judgment (Acts 19:29). Acts 20:4 noted he went with Paul from Greece to Asia Minor. And he accompanied Paul as he sailed from Caesarea to Myra in Lycia.

b. Mark, cousin of Barnabas (whom the author gave previous instructions about and asked the Colossians to welcome; Col 4:10). In his "On Seventy Apostles," the third century theologian Hippolytus (170-235) argued "Mark, cousin of Barnabas" was a different person than John Mark (Acts 12:12, Acts 12:25; Acts 13:5, Acts 13;13; Acts 15:37) or Mark the Evangelist (2 Tim 4:11).

c. Jesus called Justus.

2. Epaphrus from Colossae ("one of you;" 4:12):

In Philemon 1:23, Paul mentioned Epaphrus as a "fellow prisoner" but in Col 4:12-13, the apostle praised his assistant as an equal ("servant of Jesus Christ") who continually prayed for the community's spiritual growth ("maturity") and self-confidence ("fully assured in all the will of God"). Paul witnessed to Epaphrus' efforts for Christians in Colossae and the surrounding areas of Laodicea and Hierapolis.

3. Luke, the physician, and Demas (Col 4:14 and Philemon 1:24)

According to tradition in the early Church, Luke penned the gospel that bore his name as well as the book of Acts. If we assume Luke and the author of Luke-Acts was the same person, he personally witnessed much of Paul's ministry (the "we" passages in Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–15; 21:1–18; 27:1– 28); he traveled with Paul to his imprisonment and remained with the apostle. In 2 Tim 4:10, Demas abandoned Paul and returned to Thessaloniki.

4. Nympha and the house church at Laodicea (Col 4:15-16)

Nympha was a woman of some means (based upon she hosted the house church in Laodicea). The author personally greeted the Laodicean community and instructed the public reading of this letter and exchanged correspondence.

5. Archippus (Col 4:17)

In a personal note, the author urged Archippus to "fulfill" his ministry calling. In Philemon 1:2, Paul named Archippus as a leader to the house church. If we assume the two verses referred to the same person, Archippus assisted the faithful when they met in Colossae; Col 4:17 might have referred to a responsibility he had to the community.

In Col 4:18, the author ended the letter with a reference to his own signature (implying the author dictated the epistle) and his imprisonment ("in chains").

VI. Conclusion

Prison and personalities tied the letters of Philemon and Colossians together. Philemon represented the personal side of Paul in his late forties or early fifties while "in chains." Colossians, whether written by Paul or by a disciple, revealed an evolving doctrine about the place of Christ in creation itself. Together, both letters gave us a snapshot not only of the faith of the Church at the time, but of the evolving church structure. While Paul realized his name still had cache, the apostle was passing leadership into the hands the next generation of local leaders.


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