When Paul writes to Timothy, he sends a three-fold blessing of grace, peace, and mercy. In all the other letters he only commends grace and peace. This is the way he begins his letter to Philemon. He says, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers.” During this short letter, Paul is pleading for Philemon to have “mercy” on his runaway slave, Onesimus. I guess it’s not necessary to include that concept in the opening greeting since it will be the subject of the entire letter. Grace and peace are the twins that identify the Greek or Roman greeting along with the Jewish greeting of peace. The Roman and Greek greeting is a word that is usually translated as “hello.” But with just a one-letter change in the word, it becomes “grace” in Paul’s writings. Shalom, to a Jewish audience, is the normal greeting and is used for hello and goodbye, even in Modern Israel. But Paul uses it with the clear idea of how God’s grace through Jesus gives us peace with God. Richison observes, “A Christian can no more operate in the Christian life apart from grace and peace than he can run his car without gas and oil.  Grace is God’s favor and goodwill that He bestows on us because of Christ.  We do not earn or deserve this favor.  God is not only the Giver, but He also is the Gift.  Grace is personified in the person of Christ.”[1]

Philemon was a wealthy slaveowner in Colossae. Apparently, the Apostle Paul had led Philemon to faith in Christ. This letter is encouraging Philemon to have his newfound faith which brought him God’s grace and peace in Christ, affect the way he handled his relationships in the world. One of the great dangers of religion is that we can live two different lives. First, we profess our faith and perform religious rituals. Then we go about our lives as if nothing has changed. Paul was encouraging Philemon to allow his new faith to change his life. Colson tells the story of Mickey Cohen’s conversion, “Mickey Cohen was one of the most infamous gangsters of the fifties, and something of a publicity hound. On one occasion he visited an evangelistic meeting and there showed an interest in Christ. Christian leaders, realizing that Cohen’s conversion could have a great influence upon others, visited him regularly. One night after a lengthy conversation on Revelation 3:20, he opened the door of his life. There were great expectations, but as the months passed there was no substantive change in the gangster’s life. Finally, his Christian friends confronted him. Cohen responded that no one had told him he would have to give up his work or his friends. After all, there were Christian football players, Christian cowboys, Christian politicians; why not a Christian gangster?”4

In some of Paul’s letters, he asserts his authority as an Apostle. We see that in the letter to the Galatians where he even stands against the Apostle Peter on a particular issue. Some argue that Paul “pulls rank” on his readers when he does that, expecting they will listen and pay heed to his instructions out of respect. But this doesn’t seem to be the case with this letter to Philemon. Paul is interceding on behalf of Onesimus, a man in bondage. Paul himself is in bondage in a Roman prison. I like the way Exell put this thought. He writes, “Himself a bondman, Paul pleads the cause of that other bondman, whose story is the burden of the letter. It is when he is a much-wronged captive that he begs forgiveness for a wrongdoer, and when society is making war upon himself, he plays the part of peacemaker with others. As dewdrops are seen to best advantage on the blades of grass from which they hang, or gems sparkle brightest in their appropriate settings, so may we regard Paul’s imprisonment as the best foil to the design of this letter. Wrongs and oppressive suffering may drive even wise men mad; but here it only seems to evoke Paul’s tenderest feelings, and open wide the sluices of his affectionate sympathies.”[2] Although he doesn’t mention mercy in the letter to Philemon, he is taking up the case of Philemon’s slave and asking for mercy on his behalf.

[1] Richison, Grant. 2006. Verse by Verse through the Books of James and Philemon. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems.

4 Charles Colson, Who Speaks for God? (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985), p. 153.

[2] Exell, Joseph S. n.d. The Biblical Illustrator: Second Timothy–Titus, Philemon. Vol. 3. New York; Chicago; Toronto; London; Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell Company.