“Saul of Tarsus!” I doubt that is what Paul’s mother shouted when he was young. But that is how we know him. Prior to his Christian name, “Paul”, he was Saul of Tarsus.
He wrote thirteen of the twenty-seven New Testament writings. In twelve of those writings he refers to himself as an apostle or a servant of Christ Jesus, if he makes any reference at all. He was a general of generals in the Christian army. However, here in his letter to Philemon, it’s “Paul, a prisoner” (Phile. 1:1). He was not pulling rank at all.
Three other letters of his were written while in Roman prison – Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. None of them have references in their introductions to his being a prisoner, not even Colossians which was written and delivered to the same church. It was not that he was embarrassed (Rom. 1:16) and it was no coincidence. Paul was a master of linguistics and I doubt he was afraid of anything. Rather, he meant to communicate something here.
The Greek word translated prisoner literally refers to physical bonds. It is used to mean captivity. It is used later in this same letter when Paul expresses why he sets aside his apostolic authority and exhorts in love. He says it is “I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus” (Phile. 1:9).
As we’ll see later on, Paul is courting sympathy. He is old and has put in many years for the sake of Christ Jesus. And as if his old age and suffering were not enough, he was also imprisoned.
There was no need to make mention of imprisonment when commanding others with apostolic authority. Sympathy was not necessary. But when exhorting in love, identifying himself as a prisoner, or one who is suffering for the Kingdom, it was quite useful.
Think about it for a moment. You and your good friend have scheduled a weekly lunch which has continued for many months. You both enjoy this lunch, the fellowship, the encouragement, the prayer, the confession. It is a good time in the Lord. However, this week your money is tight and you two usually go dutch. What do you do? You call your friend that morning and let him know that your money is tight and you really can’t swing a lunch right now. In your heart, you really want to go and you are hoping that your buddy will pick up your tab, no problem. (Hopefully, my buddies are reading this.)
Not to trivialize Paul’s situation by comparing it to a lunch bill, the idea is similar. Paul desired that some real spiritual things happen and he was unable to be there due to his current imprisonment. Share the burdens. This is the idea. And to the true believer who cares, this is what family does.
This is not to mean that Paul is being coercive or deceitful. It is good to seek sympathy from our fellow beloved. We are called to bear each others burdens. Plus, it communicates sincere need and is certainly consistent with the overall tone.
Still, there is something even deeper to this. Paul is “a prisoner for Christ Jesus” (Phile. 1:1). The word “for” is not in the original text. The translation could read “prisoner of Christ Jesus” as much as “prisoner for Christ Jesus.” Both are possible. Both imply something real and rich about Paul’s calling.
He was a prisoner of Rome. That is to say that he was in a Roman prison. But he was also a prisoner of Christ Jesus, meaning that Christ has imprisoned him. One imprisonment is merely physical. The other is primarily spiritual but overflows into the physical. In fact, Paul was often in prison because of the spiritual reality of being a prisoner of Christ Jesus. He preached Christ and was imprisoned for it.
Prisoners were limited in their freedom. They were bound to whatever liberties that were allowed by those who bound them. Under house-arrest, Paul was at liberty to move about and interact with people. However, he was not allowed to leave. It was a like a jail in our rural cities today.
Elsewhere, other prisoners, like Paul in a later time, were bound to a confined place. There was no real interaction or walking about. Prisoners only had the liberty to do what their chains and guards would permit them. They were much more limited than what Paul was experiencing at this point in time.
In Christ Jesus, we are said to be prisoners of Him. We are bound to Him and are at liberty to do only that which God wills. The freedom that we receive in Him is not open-ended and libertarian freedom to do whatever we desire. We are bound by the law of Christ – the law of love (Jas. 2:12).
The Bible teaches us the way to live. It doesn’t teach us to live the way we want. The Apostle John taught that “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 Jn. 3:9). Christians are prisoners of Christ Jesus and for Christ Jesus. We are bound to Him to do what He desires.
So it is true with Paul. He is a prisoner of Christ Jesus first. And because of his obedience, he is a prisoner in Rome for Christ Jesus. Paul understood this to be the sovereign will of God (cf: Phil. 1:12-16). He has a strong sense of trust in the Lord. Paul was not worried about the calamities he faced. He knew that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
This was God’s will. It was His purpose. Good things would come of this imprisonment. Some of which are the four epistles we have in our Bible, mentioned earlier. Another is the forgiveness of Onesimus and the wonderful reception of a sinner saved by grace. Yet another is the book of mine that you are now reading – but I doubt you were thinking that. Rather, you probably thought of the lessons, the principles, the truth, the doctrine, and the stories that come from Paul’s imprisonment. And this is by no means an exhaustive list.
Paul, humble and old, suffering throughout his labors, whether free or imprisoned, sets the tone to forgive by calling out for Philemon’s sympathy and understanding. He was chained for the same work that Philemon endeavors to do each day – obey the Lord who binds us to Him.
No doubt, Philemon was reading this at his estate. He was free to walk as he needed and to interact as much as he desired. He had wealth. He had servants. He had food and water. He had friendship and family. He had the church. Granted, he had his own troubles, but nothing like that of Paul. He must have been moved just with these first few words identifying Paul and his imprisonment.
From the book, Forgiveness: A Commentary on Philemon, by Jacob Abshire