“Jacob Paul Abshire!” I heard my mother holler from across the house. I understood my full name to be used only when the words that would follow were less than pleasing. She needn’t say much more after that, I knew it wasn’t going to be good – not to me at least. Funny thing is, my wife does the same thing with our kids. There is just something about the full name that says “I’m serious!” It sets the tone.
In a sense the same is true of letters; we can learn a lot from the first few words or sentences. This is especially true of Paul’s letters. A quick survey of the first few verses of Paul’s letters will help you see a consistent, formulaic beginning. It is quite similar to our corporate memos today. (Those cold legal documents you hate to read but must.)
Within the New Testament letters we discover the author, intended recipient, a short greeting and sometimes an initial blessing or expression of thanksgiving. To skip this part can be a way of communicating a harsh tone or even an overemphasized urgency.
Paul was well-trained in linguistics. He knew how to communicate and argue. He understood the patterns of thinking and how to get his message across, instilling a good tone even through the most elementary forms of communication. Although the truth he wrote was often complex, his ability to get it across with the appropriate tone was not.
He employed simple structures like the one we find here in his introduction. His choice of adjectives lends a great deal to understanding the tone of the letter. Notice the difference in tone between Paul’s introductions found in Galatians and 2 Timothy. Galatians reads:
“Paul, an apostle — not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead — and all the brothers who are with me. To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Gal. 1:1-5)
Notice how Paul explains his apostleship. He didn’t just call himself “an apostle.” Rather, he explains himself to be “an apostle – not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” It is as if Paul needed to defend his office as an apostle and the way in which he was called by God.
He says that he was not called by men or through man, but from and through Jesus Christ. There is no higher being than Him to call someone. Paul recognizes both Jesus and God to be the ones responsible for the resurrection of Christ from the dead and vindication of the gospel truth. And by doing so he points to the greatest source of calling.
Then in his greeting to the church, he identifies Jesus as the one “who gave himself for our sins,” as if there were another Jesus to reference.
Paul, in the first few verses of his letter is already apologetic and stern about his calling. Of course we soon find out in the remaining parts of his letter, that the church suffered false teachers who questioned Paul’s apostleship.
Now, consider Paul’s second letter to Timothy. This is his final letter, for Paul was on the verge of execution. He is old and writing his final words.
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God according to the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus. To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” (2 Tim. 1:1-2)
For starters, it is much shorter – though not to sound angry or perturbed – he is short with his rhetoric. In other words, he is being brief, but not offensive. Notice his submission to the “will of God” rather than the “command of God” as it was in his first letter to Timothy (1 Tim. 1:1). There is a sense of pleasure and conformity to the desires of God rather than a stern obedience. Since he is old and having suffered so much, he speaks of “the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus.” He loves the Lord and this love has found him completely absolved of himself. He is satisfied in Christ alone. And now in his final moments, he looks forward to the glorious life in heaven with Him.
He calls Timothy his “beloved child” and not just another disciple. There is a strong sense of dearness and fatherly affection. Paul cares for Timothy. He loves him and while considering the beginning of a new life in heaven, he thinks of Timothy, his cherished, spiritual son. Through the words of Paul in this letter, we find that Paul is passing the spiritual baton, as it were, to his closest disciple.
The tones of both passages are dramatically different. The first was full of explanation and preparedness for argument. The second was soft and sacred and prepared for a ceremonial-like blessing from generation to generation.
These introductions set the tone of the letters. They help us get existential with our reading. They enable us to put ourselves back into the ancient picture in order that we can better draw out the meaning and principles that the Lord would have us know and believe.
With that in mind, we turn to Paul’s letter to Philemon and focus our attention on the first three verses, where Paul makes his introduction and thereby sets the tone to forgive.
“Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother. To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Phile. 1:1-3)
Notice the extensive use of the possessive pronoun “our.” Timothy is said to be “our brother.” Philemon is “our beloved fellow worker.” Apphia is “our sister” and Archippus, “our fellow soldier.” Lastly, God is “our Father.”
These words imply a sense of equality and togetherness. It is as if Paul is putting himself and his readers in one big family. This is not the same sense that we might have expected when speaking as an apostolic officer. You don’t get the tone that may be typified of an ambassador of Almighty God. Moreover, Paul was considered the most revered apostle since he was schooled far more than the others. He was one of the best of Pharisees. Yet none of that is conveyed in his introduction. Rather, it is altogether replaced with humility and equality.
You know how all coaches teach: “There is no ‘I’ in team!” In this case, even the coach is part of the team. Paul has laid down his authority to speak to a friend and fellow worker. It feels outside the normal chain of command. This is brother to brother and in brotherly love. We find out later in this letter that Paul does this because he is confident that Philemon does not require an overseer to instruct him in the way of godly living. So Paul speaks to him as a mature Christian and a man of great integrity.
The use of the word “our” changes in the body of the letter to “my” and “your” as well as other similar pronouns. So Paul keeps the tone alive and personal. He says “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers” (Phile. 1:4). And, “confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (Phile. 1:21). This is very personal.
There is a reciprocating bond between the two. It is deeply intimate and specific. It is Paul to Philemon and Philemon to Paul. And in every phrase that these personal statements are made, they are done in reference to good things.
Never in this letter does Paul rebuke or even instruct. It is all praise and exhortation. In fact, Paul even mentions that every time he prays for Philemon, he is giving thanks to God. Paul found nothing in him that required apostolic attention. Therefore, he finds no reason to mention himself as the apostle of Christ. (A big difference, had Paul been writing to me.)
So, unlike the tone of many other letters of Paul, this one is kind, personal, and exhorting. He evidently had a holy affection for Philemon and those in the church at Colossae. He cherished Philemon’s godliness and his work for the sake of the gospel. And his introduction speaks to that fact as it sets the tone in what remains.
Let’s look at these three verses a little closer and see if we can get an even more precise picture of it all. We should consider the people mentioned and the greeting Paul uses in more detail.
From the book, Forgiveness: A Commentary on Philemon, by Jacob Abshire
- Paul often faced false teachers during his ministry who taught a false gospel and pointed to a false Jesus – some other Jesus, figuratively speaking. This was so in Galatia (Gal. 1:6).