Letters from the apostles and other leaders were typically read to the congregation – even those that were addressed to certain persons. This was especially true of the apostolic writings since Christians understood them to be God’s revelation. They even made written copies of them to pass around to other cities so the message would spread quickly.
Paul knew that they would do that. And while he desired to write primarily to Philemon, he understood that there would be others receiving it. So he greets them, as well.
It was sort of like those times when you called someone to speak about something really private and important. And although you never heard the sound of another phone picking up, you knew the person on the other end had a few friends on the line, listening. Midway through the conversation, you say, “Hi so-and-so, I know you’re there.” It was a lot like that – but without the phones and it was totally okay with Paul. Moreover, he desired it.
He first says “hi” to “Apphia” (Phile. 1:2). She was the closest to Philemon. Since the name is female and appearing immediately after Philemon, she is understood to be his wife. Traditionally this is believed to be the case. She is called “our sister” (Phile. 1:2). Paul did not refer to her as “your wife” because of the nature of the letter. This was a spiritual letter where all are referred to as beloved of God. Timothy is “our brother” and so Apphia is “our sister” and the unity of the church is pictured. Paul is basically saying, “We belong together” in the sense of family and equality.
After Apphia, Paul greets “Archippus” (Phile. 1:2). Unlike the name preceding his, this one is male. We know him to be the son of Philemon. There is a little bit more about him in the Bible than his mother. He is cited in Paul’s letter to their church where Paul says to him, “See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord” (Col. 4:17). So evidently he was also a co-laborer like his father. Thus Paul calls him “our fellow soldier” (Phile. 1:2). Again, he employs the use of the possessive pronoun “our,” which reminds us of the unity they share as the beloved of God.
It might be good to mention that Paul distinguishes Archippus’ labor from that of Philemon. Both are said to be ministers of Christ. But they differ in their type of work and probably even in their nature. Sort of like army troops where one position is primarily for hand-to-hand combat and another is for long distance shooting. Both workers serve in the army, but they serve the army in different ways. Paul calls Archippus a “fellow soldier” while he calls Philemon a “fellow worker.” It might be true to say that the son’s ministry was something closer to Paul’s rather than Philemon’s.
Archippus was likely called to work outside the church as a traveling evangelist or as a pastor within. His duty required him to be bold, strong, and long-suffering. Philemon’s duty required him to give from the abundance of his resources while ministering inside the church. Nevertheless, they both had their function within the church body. They were ministers of God.
From Philemon’s wife, to his son, and then to “the church” (Phile. 1:2), Paul extends his greeting to outside the immediate family. The church is said to be meeting in Philemon’s house. This is the church known as the Colossian church.
By “church” Paul does not mean the church building as we often use the word today. Rather it is the word ekklesia which refers to the whole body of Christians scattered throughout the earth. Jesus, using this word, said: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). The gates of hell will not win against God’s Kingdom although church buildings will come and go with the times as well as troubles. Thus the church spoken of here is a group of people.
Taking the lead of these people is Christ. Paul wrote “He put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). As we are in Christ, we are said to be His body and we are lead by Him. Therefore, the church is collectively the people who are in Christ, submitting to Him.
At this period of history, most Christians gathered in homes rather than the buildings we normally see today. They were intimately involved in each other’s lives, caring and praying for one another. They were close and very dependent, thus, they shared the burdens and the joys of one another equally.
The reality of the fugitive Onesimus was something they were all familiar with. They knew of the drama, the theft, and the discontentment. They knew what had happened and knew how generous Philemon was. So they were saddened as he was with the news of Onesimus’ betrayal.
No doubt when Paul wrote this letter, he knew the church would need to hear it as much as Philemon. And just as family members stand up for the rights and reputations of one another, these people probably did the same. The forgiveness that Paul exhorted would therefore affect not only Philemon and his wife and son, but the church gathering in his home, as well. And because they would go through it with him, they would all come to understand the blessing of forgiveness. By including them in the letter, Paul calls into Philemon’s life accountability and support, also, dismissing any doubt of Onesimus’ return, should anyone object.
From the book, Forgiveness: A Commentary on Philemon, by Jacob Abshire