The thanksgiving and prayer focuses on Philemon. This is a very important section because it introduces many key themes in the letter and prepares the way for Paul’s appeal in verses 8-20.
4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 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. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people (TNIV).
Paul thanks God because he hears of Philemon’s love and faith (4-5). Verse 6 is more difficult and needs some clarification. The Greek word koinōnia, which the TNIV translates as “partnership,” refers to the close participation or fellowship (so NASB) that Christians share with one another by virtue of their faith in Christ. Paul prays that (literally) “the fellowship of your faith will become effective. . . .” Greek grammatical rules allow us to translate this as the fellowship “produced by” or “based on” your faith, which I believe makes the best sense of the context and overall argument. In other words, Paul hopes Philemon’s faith will produce a type of fellowship that’s deeply authentic, one that will enable him to more fully understand all that is good in Christ. But of course in order to truly know this type of fellowship, Philemon will have to allow his faith to work in a radical way. We’ll soon find out what this entails.
In verse 7, Paul calls attention again to Philemon’s love. His love has been a great source of joy and encouragement to Paul and has also refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. The Greek word for hearts here (splagchna) is literally “inward parts” or “bowels” as the King James Version translates. Unlike today, where we say the heart is where our deepest affections and feelings reside, the first-century folks viewed one’s splagchnon as “the seat of emotions.” I’m sure we can understand why—just think about those times when you’re really anxious or nervous—things churn down there, don’t they? Paul is therefore saying that “Philemon has refreshed the people of God at the deepest and most significant level of their being” (Moo, Philemon, 396), presumably through his Christian ministry or service.
In this section Paul has highlighted Philemon’s love and faith. In a way, he’s buttering him up for his request. But there’s no reason to believe that Paul’s praise lacked sincerity. Philemon’s love had benefited the saints in a very real way—Paul simply hopes for its continued effectiveness.
Key words/themes introduced: love, partner(ship), refresh, hearts, good, brother
Application: The application is that our faith ought to produce radical, counter-cultural results. I believe this is the lesson of the letter. But I reckon that we, like Philemon, won’t fully grasp this until we understand Paul’s request and live it out. We’ll continue to look at this in the weeks ahead.