Philemon 4-7


4 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 6 and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. 7 For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote this about flattery in Crime and Punishment:

It’s the well-known resource – flattery. Nothing in the world is harder than speaking the truth and nothing easier than flattery. If there’s the hundredth part of a false note in speaking the truth, it leads to a discord, and that leads to trouble. But if all, to the last note, is false in flattery, it is just as agreeable, and is heard not without satisfaction. It may be a coarse satisfaction, but still a satisfaction. And however coarse the flattery, at least half will be sure to seem true. That’s so for all stages of development and classes of society. A vestal virgin might be seduced by flattery.[1]

Dostoevsky is correct: flattery is a powerful, powerful thing!

Interestingly, there are some who suggest that Paul is attempting to flatter Philemon in the first seven verses of this great book. That, I think, is an unfortunate theory. It is perhaps easy to understand why some think that, though. The book of Philemon is, by any reckoning, very precisely and strategically worded, but one can admit this without suggesting that Paul resorted to anything as crass as mere flattery.

On the contrary, we have no reason to think that Paul did not mean exactly what he said in verses 4-7. These verses actually constitute a beautiful description and working out of what we might call the two great marks of the Christian: faith in Christ and love for the Church. I would argue that what Paul provides us with in these verses is a beautiful unpacking of these two crucial ideas. It would be a shame to miss the significance of these verses due to a unfortunate reduction of them to something as coarse as flattery.

The Marks of a Christian: Faith in Christ, Love for the Church

Verses 4 and 5 present us with Paul’s recognition of Philemon’s twin virtues: faith in Christ, love for the Church.

4 I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers

It has been observed that in one sense verse 4 is a fairly standard introduction as far as the conventions of the ancient world go. For instance, Eduard Lohse quotes the introduction of a letter from a second century man to his sister.

The soldier Apion writes to his sister Sabina (second century A.D.): “Before all things I pray that thou art in health, for I myself also am in health. Making mention of thee before the gods…”[2]

Notice the similarity between Paul’s introduction and Apions. Paul was a man bound to a particular culture and time and we would expect such similarities. But the content of what Paul wrote was compelling and unique.

For instance, some note “that in the pagan world of Paul’s day it was the practice to increase the number of names and epithets in one’s address to the gods. This sprang from uncertainty and skepticism.”[3] We do not see this in Paul’s letters. There is a kind of humble, refreshing, confident simplicity in Paul’s usage of the name of God. Even so, there is never flippancy or casualness in the way Paul speaks of God. Paul speaks of God as one who knows Him through His Son Jesus Christ. Therefore, there is no need to try to placate God with titles richly bestowed. Christ came to reveal to us that the heart of God is the heart of a loving father, not the heart of an emotionally unstable demiurge.

Verse 5 really sets the stage for what Paul is wanting to say about Philemon’s life.

5 because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints

Many believe that verse 5 is an example of a New Testament chiasm in which Philemon’s “love” is connected to “all the saints” and his “faith” is connected to “the Lord Jesus.”

A your love

B and of the faith

B’ that you have toward the Lord Jesus

A’ and for all the saints

Peter O’Brien believes “there are good reasons for taking this verse in this way: first, chiasmus is common enough in the NT…Second, here the usual order of graces for which the apostle gave thanks is reversed. Paul normally placed ‘faith’ before ‘love.’”[4]

Perhaps this is so, and, if so, it is an intriguing look into the care and skill with which Paul and the other biblical writers wrote. Even so, I am most struck by how the two-fold commendation of verse 5 (i.e., faith in Jesus and love for the saints) parallels what Jesus said was the greatest commandment and its corollary.

In Matthew 22, Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment.

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

When this is put within the chiastic structure of Philemon 5, we find the following parallel between the two passages.

A your love

B and of the faith

B’ that you have toward the Lord Jesus [“You shall love the Lord your God…”]

A’ and for all the saints [“You shall love your neighbor…”]

Philemon was therefore fulfilling the greatest and second greatest commandments. Paul is not pronouncing Philemon to be sinless, of course. The rest of the letter is a challenge to Philemon to allow his love to extend even to his returning runaway slave. But Philemon’s character is clear in what Paul does say: he has faith in Jesus and love for the Church.

In verses 6 and 7, Paul moves on to consider the full significance of Christian faith and love and what both bring with them when they are allowed to grow in the believer’s life.

Faith that brings greater understanding

We begin with faith.

6 and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.

This is a tricky verse to translate, and it might be helpful to consider how various translations have approached it.

and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. (English Standard Version)

That the fellowship of thy faith may be made effectual, and that whatsoever good thing is in you through Christ Jesus, may be known. (1599 Geneva Bible)

I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ. (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

And I pray that those who share your faith may also share your knowledge of all the good things that believing in Jesus Christ can mean to us. (J.B. Phillips New Testament)

That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus. (King James Version)

And I pray that as you share your faith with others it will grip their lives too, as they see the wealth of good things in you that come from Christ Jesus. (Living Bible)

And I keep praying that this faith we hold in common keeps showing up in the good things we do, and that people recognize Christ in all of it. (The Message)

I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. (New International Version)

The one thing these all have in common is a picture of faith that is to be shared for a great good. This sharing of the faith, which the English Standard Version expresses as “the sharing of your faith,” is an interesting idea. In Protestant Evangelicalism in the United States, to “share your faith” is basically synonymous with witnessing or evangelism. When we say, “share your faith,” we implicitly mean, “with lost people.” But the wording of this verse seems to be saying that we should share our faith with one another, the Church. To be sure this is not an either/or. We must likewise share our faith with the lost. But to relegate “sharing our faith” only to the sphere of evangelism is to miss an important point, and one that Paul was making here to Philemon: we are commanded and privileged to share our faith with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ!

I had a dear friend who succumbed to cancer and went to be with the Lord. His name was Joe Cook. Joe was a phenomenal lay leader in the church and in the community at large. Shortly after he was diagnosed with stage four cancer, I went to visit Joe. I will never forget him telling me through tears that the Lord had appeared to him in a vision and informed him, “Joe, I have chosen you for this honor.” “What honor?” Joe asked. “The honor of cancer,” the Lord told him. Joe went on to tell me that this visitation from the Lord had changed him and that he immediately felt an overwhelming peace and a complete absence of fear. He came to feel that God had indeed chosen to honor him with his disease so that Joe could share with others the goodness of God.

I was stunned to hear this. It stuns me still. I walked out of his house thinking, “Wyman, you have very little faith!” More than that, I felt encouraged, humbled, and overwhelmed with what I had heard.

What had happened in that conversation? I will tell you: Joe Cook shared his faith with me. I am a Christian and Joe is a Christian, but Joe shared his faith with me. Joe is now with Jesus and I feel closer to Jesus because Joe shared his faith with me.

6 and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.

What happens when we share our faith? Our shared faith becomes “effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.”

Doors our opened in our understanding as faith is allowed to flower. We grow in our faith in Christ and, in so doing, we grow in our understanding. Our understanding of what? Our understanding “of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” That is, we come to see more and more just what it means to be in Christ, just what Christ has won for us, and just what life can become for us as we walk with Jesus.

Our faith opens the door to a great knowledge that itself expands the possibilities for growth!

James Dunn has nicely explained the meaning of this verse in a way that I think is helpful.

The prayer is that this shared experience of a common trust in Christ might be or become…“effective, active, powerful”…in the knowledge…of all the good which was their common lot as Christians. The thought is of the shared experience of faith as a dynamic relation with the Lord Jesus which constantly fed their understanding and consciousness, making them aware of how much they were benefiting as a result.[5]

That’s beautifully put. It is our common lot as Christians to explore together and discover together all that is ours in Christ. Our faith grows with us and is shared outside of us with the end result that we grow up together in Christ in both our knowledge and experience which in turn creates even greater faith!

Loving that brings joy, comfort, and refreshment to others

And love, too, bears great fruit!

7 For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.

Paul tells Philemon that Philemon’s love has resulted in three things for Paul:

  • Joy
  • Comfort
  • Refreshment

Paul “derived much joy” from Philemon’s love. Paul “derived much…comfort” from Philemon’s love. “The hearts of the saints” have been “refreshed” through Philemon.

Just as faith grows outward impacting both the one who has it and the ones with whom he shares it, so too with love. The picture that emerges from Paul’s little introduction of appreciation for Philemon is in fact a wonderfully enlightening statement about the power inherent in faith and love.

This is a beautiful statement from Paul on faith and love. He has used the terms before, most powerfully linking them together in the famous text, 1 Corinthians 13.

1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

In Philemon Paul links faith and love.

To the Corinthians Paul links faith, hope, and love.

But, in reality the book of Philemon also includes hope, for the entire letter is Paul’s declaration of hope that Philemon’s faith and love will grow to the point where it can extend even to the most unlikely of people: Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave and the reason why this letter was written. This will require Philemon to push his faith and love beyond what he has done heretofore. It will require him even to go against social conventions and customs. More than even that, what Paul is going to ask of Philemon is so radical that it carries within it the seeds of revolution that, in time, will undermine slavery itself.

Philemon will need to be prepared to show great faith and love. Fortunately, as Philemon 4-7 shows, Christ had already begun this great work within him. And fortunately Christ is working the same work within and among His people even today.


[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment. (New York: The Modern Library, 1994), p. 546-547.

[2] Eduard Lohse, Colossians and Philemon. Hermeneia. Ed. Helmut Koester. (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1971), p.192.

[3] Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon. Word Biblical Commentary. Gen. Ed., Bruce M. Metzger. Vol.44 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2000), p.277.

[4] Peter T. O’Brien, p.278.

[5] James D.G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Eds., I. Howard Marshall, W. Ward Gasque, Donald A. Hagner. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), p.319.

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