I Give Thanks: Paul on Philemon’s Faith and Love

For those familiar with Paul’s letters, it is no surprise that Paul follows his opening salutation with a thanksgiving. Like the opening itself, we should read this thanksgiving as more than formulaic. Rather, it introduces themes and concepts upon which Paul builds in the body of the letter, including his three requests or hopes. Paul’s thanksgiving, like his opening and closing, lays some groundwork for those requests and cultivates an atmosphere where Philemon (and the church in Colossae) might live out the narrative of Jesus in this situation.

Thanksgiving (Philemon 4-5)

“I give thanks to God” are the first words Paul addresses to Philemon specifically in isolation from others. When we start a difficult conversation with someone in gratitude, we start with common ground, humility, and appreciation. When we start with the positive, focus on the good, and embrace what is shared, then we are empowered to talk about the difficult dimensions of our lives together. Moreover, when this gratitude is oriented toward God for others, then we humble ourselves before God’s gifts to us in other persons, and we situate both them and ourselves under the reign of God.

Paul’s letters offer small windows into his prayer life. While those windows don’t tell the whole story, of course, they do suggest a habit of prayer in which thanksgiving and intercession figure prominently. His prayers were, apparently, filled with people as he remembered his associations in the gospel. He named them and stayed connected through prayer if not also through presence and letters.

More specifically, Paul is particularly grateful for two things. First, he gives thanks for Philemon’s faith toward the Lord Jesus, who is Israel’s Messiah. This is a way of describing Philemon’s most basic orientation toward life—faith (trust, allegiance) to the Lord Jesus. Faith is the conviction that Jesus is Lord rather than Caesar; it is a commitment to love the God of Israel above all else. One might say it is one way in which Paul affirms the first commandment, that is, to love God with all one’s heart, mind, and soul. Philemon loves God through his allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

Second, Paul affirms Philemon’s love for people, specifically for “all the saints.” This, of course, expresses the heart of the second greatest commandment, which is to love your neighbor. In this light, Paul is grateful for Philemon’s commitment to loving God and loving neighbor. Apparently, Philemon lives this.

Faith in Jesus and love for others is the heart of Christianity. 1 John summarizes it in exactly the same way: faith and love (1 John 3:23). Paul’s thankfulness recognizes Philemon’s participation in the story of God revealed in Jesus.

I wonder if Paul anticipates his requests when he stresses how Philemon not only loves the saints but “all the saints.”

Intercession (Philemon 6)

When Paul remembers Philemon, he gives thanks and he also intercedes for him. He petitions God will actively accomplish the purposes of the kingdom in Philemon’s life.

There are some difficult translation problems in verse six. For example, does “fellowship of the faith” (NASB, literal translation) mean the “sharing of faith” (NRSV, as in evangelism, the spread of the kingdom), a “common faith” (NEB, as in a shared commitment to Jesus), or participating in the faith (HCSB, as in Philemon’s active generosity). Whatever the precise meaning, the term koinonia (fellowship, commonality) signals a shared community or something shared with others in the community, and “faith” is the content or context of that sharing and commonality. The point, however construed, reflects the partnership and community Paul and Philemon share.

Paul prays that this common faith—if we read it that way—would become “effective” or “come to expression” (NJB) as Philemon recognizes all the “good” that they—Paul and Philemon together (“us”)—do for Christ.

Paul’s request pushes for a deeper understanding of this commonality that yields positive goods within the community for the sake of Christ. Paul prays God will work in Philemon in such a way that Philemon will comprehend and embrace the good God is doing within the community, including Paul. He wants God to show Philemon the good that God is accomplishing “among us” for Christ. The “us” assumes a deep connection between Paul and Philemon, a shared mission. They both see the good God is doing, and how they both participate in what is happening “for Christ” (literally “toward, for” rather than “in” Christ) or “for Christ’s sake” (NASB).

Paul prays for Philemon’s growth and development. Everything is about Jesus; it is for the glory and honor of Christ. God is working good through Paul’s ministry and in Philemon’s life for sake of the kingdom. Paul wants their “common faith” to become even more “effective” (energized or operative) as Philemon’s grasp of what God is doing expands and deepens. Philemon, Paul desires, must see beyond his own circumstances and see everything through the lens of what is “for Christ.”

Refreshment (Philemon 7)

Paul has high hopes because he knows Philemon’s faith and love has already been effective within the community. Paul sees his own intercession coming to fruition because Philemon already has a track record of loving the saints.

Philemon has “refreshed” the “hearts of the saints” in so many ways. We can only speculate what that refreshment was. Perhaps it is Philemon’s generosity, or perhaps it is patronage of the church through hosting the community in his home, or perhaps it is some other acts of love and kindness toward the people in his community (“the saints”). We don’t know, but it is sufficient to bring Paul “great joy and encouragement.”

Paul writes this letter—and thus makes his requests—out of this basic experience with Philemon: joy and encouragement. Philemon’s life has put a smile on Paul’s face and reassured his heart.

This is who Philemon is, Paul believes. He is a person of faith who loves the saints and generously refreshes their hearts. The people of God, as Paul represents them, rejoice over Philemon’s work and are encouraged by his life.

May God, Paul prays, deepen Philemon’s grasp of the good God is doing in the world among us for the sake of Christ.

2 Responses to “I Give Thanks: Paul on Philemon’s Faith and Love”

  1.   Terrell Lee Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts about this very personal and delicate letter.

    Years ago I developed a sermon with these three moves: (1) Philemon had a reputation for “refreshing hearts,” (ta splanchna ton hagion anapepautai, v. 7); (2) Paul’s “heart” had left him, (ta ema splanchna, v. 12); (3) So, would Philemon do for Paul what he has a reputation of doing for others and “refresh his heart” (anapauson mou ta splanchna, v. 20)? Which means, Philemon would welcome Onesimus as he would Paul (v. 17), which is the kind of heart-refreshing Paul desired.

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