Philemon 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Some of the most significant explorations of the literary genre of Paul's letters have been in the second parts of his letters, where he gives thanks to God and then offers a prayer on behalf of his audience. Generally speaking, such expressions of thanksgiving and petition serve three purposes: (1) to establish good rapport between Paul and his first readers, so that they will respond positively to the advice that follows, (2) to set forth in the context of thanksgiving the religious ideals or moral virtues toward which the congregation should aspire, and (3) in the petitions offered, to introduce the spiritual crisis that threatens the readership's spiritual advance. Paul's epistolary thanksgiving functions, then, as a critical preface to what follows in the letter's main body (see also commentary on Col 1:3-12). Not only are specific goals established and a motive given for following the apostolic advice, but the crisis that might undermine these goals is sometimes suggested. We should take particular care to explore the meaning of the special vocabulary that Paul uses in this part of his letters, since it will often form the basis for the advice that follows in the main body.
In the case of Paul's letter to Philemon, the ecclesial ideals established in thanking God are faith and love (v. 5). The implied threats to these twin ideals are, first, whether the faith of Philemon (Paul's thanksgiving has a single person in mind) will be shared in a sufficiently active way (v. 6) and, second, whether his love, which Paul claims has given him great joy and encouragement, will continue to refresh the hearts of the saints (v. 7)--including Onesimus, as we will see.
Paul gives thanks to God for his friend Philemon. His language is emphatic--adding personal pronouns to emphasize that he is the subject of the sentence and Philemon is its object--and immediate, expressing the verbal ideas in the present tense. Not only is the content of Paul's thanksgiving formed by current reports of Philemon's faith and love, but Paul is ready to always thank God for Philemon's Christian witness. The iterative force of the present tense of Paul's thanksgiving impresses the reader with the security of their relationship: Paul continually gives God thanks for the continuing good reports he hears of Philemon's faith and love.
Paul often uses a triad of Christian virtues, such as faith, hope and love, to express his thanks to God for his readers; he highlights qualities that characterize mature Christian life (see commentary on Col 1:4-5). Although only two are mentioned in this letter, they constitute the Christian ideals he desires to find in Philemon's life. Certainly Paul reworks the triad to introduce his subsequent appeal: Philemon is characterized by the very virtues that will forge a restored relationship with Onesimus.
The Greek syntax of verse 5 is difficult and remains contested among commentators. Literally, the verse is a participial phrase that expresses the cause of Paul's thanksgiving: "hearing of your love and the faith that you have for [pros] the Lord Jesus and for [eis] all the saints." In untangling this verse's grammatical knot, Harris (1991:249-50) discusses its three possible meanings: (1) Philemon's love and faith may characterize his relationships with both the Lord Jesus and the saints (so NEB, JB, NASB); (2) Philemon's faith (but not his love) may characterize his relationships with both Jesus and the saints (so RSV); or (3) the verse may be an inverted parallelism (AB:B'A'), keyed by the two different prepositions for for. In this case, the "hearing of your love" is parallel to "for [eis] all the saints" and "the faith that you have" is parallel to "for [pros] the Lord Jesus." This third possibility is preferable (so Harris). Unfortunately, I think, the NIV obscures this parallelism by reversing its order. Paul actually mentions Philemon's love for the saints first and again last for emphasis, since his appeal to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus will require his love most of all.
After Paul thanks God for Philemon, he prays for him. The content of his petition actually reverses the terms of his thanksgiving: first he prays for Philemon's faith (v. 6) and then for his love (v. 7). O'Brien contends that Paul's intercessory prayer for Philemon is that he may acquire sufficient faith and love from God to respond favorably to the request to reconcile himself with Onesimus (1983:279). Most commentators, however, link the opening clause that you may be active in sharing your faith with my prayers (v. 4) rather than with as I re- member you (v. 4) as O'Brien would have it (see Harris 1991:250-51). Paul's prayer is not for Philemon's character, for which Paul has just given thanks, but for the koinonia or sharing of Philemon's faith. In this case, Paul has in mind "the mutuality of Christian life which springs from a common participation in the body of Christ" (Wright 1986:175). He is mainly interested in the kind of fruit that God harvests in the relations between believers (see commentary on Col 1:5-12). Paul's implied prayer, then, is that Philemon welcome Onesimus gladly as an equal koinonos (translated "partner" in v. 17) in the faith.
We should not underestimate the strategic importance of Paul's use of koinonia to focus this petition for Philemon. Unfortunately, koinonia is difficult to define with any precision (see Koch 1963:183-87; Wall 1992:1003-10; also Wright 1986:176; O'Brien 1983:279-81). In the ancient world, it defined a whole community of persons in which something is shared in common and as essential for life. In Paul's handling of this word, the community is a koinonia in the sense of sharing a faith and missionary praxis. Wright adds that "Christians not only belong to one another but actually become mutually identified" (1986:176); that is, koinonia takes place where believers recognize that other believers are essential for their well-being. Paul is therefore praying that Philemon's personal faith in Christ be worked out in appreciation of the important roles that other believers, including Onesimus, have in his spiritual formation in Christ.
Koinonia, then, requires a particular understanding of the church's corporate life. God calls each believer into a congregation and provides each with certain gifts and opportunities to minister to other believers, so that all may be brought to maturity together in Christ Jesus (1 Cor 12; Eph 4:1-16). This sense of partnership marks out a congregation's koinonia and is found where persons view one another as equals in worth and importance. It aims at partnership with Christ in God's salvation, so that with him we are able to find those resources necessary to enable us to minister, to love, to view one another as important and valuable. Christianity is about a transformation of the way we see and think about other people. When we begin to view others as those with whom life and faith are shared equally in Christ, arrogance and bigotry are finished.
Further, in referring to Philemon's faith Paul probably has in mind his public demonstration of Christian faith rather than his personal faith in Jesus Christ. While the immediate result of Philemon's faith is koinonia, the ripple effect is extraordinary: out of the experience of koinonia comes a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Critically, the word translated "understanding" (epignosis) refers not to theoretical knowledge but to knowledge acquired by experience. Paul is speaking about every good thing Philemon experiences while in Christ, where God's grace is found.
The NIV takes Paul's phrase eis Christon (literally "toward Christ") as meaning virtually the same as his important formula in Christ (see commentary on Col 1:2 and Col 1:15-17; also see O'Brien 1983:281). However, I think Paul's meaning here is telic (see Harris 1991:252-53) and envisions the christological aim or direction of spiritual formation. That is, our experience of divine grace moves us toward unity with Christ (Eph 4:13; see Wright 1986:177). In sum, Paul's first petition is that Philemon's faith produce koinonia, which will enable the kind of understanding that matures him spiritually.
Paul's second petition is for Philemon's love. Unfortunately, the NIV omits a connecting "for" (gar) that links verses 6 and 7 together: ". . . we have in Christ. For your love has given me . . ." The impression left by the NIV is that verses 5 and 7 rather than verses 6 and 7 are bound together as complementary notes of Paul's thanksgiving for Philemon's spirituality. Paul's point, however, is to join verses 6 and 7 by a connecting "for" (gar), integrating them as a single petition (see Harris 1991:253). In this sense, verse 7 complements the central idea of verse 6, koinonia, and reveals Paul's incentive for prayer: the essential characteristic of and incentive for koinonia is love. Since Philemon's capacity to love is confirmed, Paul remains confident that his prayer will be answered by Philemon's positive response to his request. Yet in another more implicit sense verse 7 extends Paul's petition for Philemon's faith to include the prospect of a future demonstration of his previous love.
To further develop the connection of love and koinonia, Paul introduces another catchword into the petition--hearts (splanchna). Like koinonia, splanchna is a difficult word to translate. Literally it refers to human entrails. According to Greek psychology, however, one's splanchna or "guts" is where the visceral feelings of compassion are produced; compassion is a "gut feeling." The image created is that compassion is not a detached emotion; rather, it is an experience of lovers who are moved by and toward someone else. For example, Luke uses the verbal form of this same word in two of Jesus' most beloved parables to illustrate true discipleship: how the good Samaritan is disposed toward the rejected, hurt man (Lk 10:33) and how the father is disposed toward his prodigal son (Lk 15:20). Each had compassion on and was moved toward the needy other. Compassion is not to pity someone but to be drawn toward another in order to love and care for that person. One might draw intriguing parallels between Onesimus and the prodigal son and between Philemon and the son's father. The restoration of Philemon's relationship with Onesimus--receiving his troubled slave back into his home (see commentary on verse 17)--requires from him the very same compassion that was required from the father to welcome his prodigal son back home.
For Paul, compassion is both the capacity to love and the experience of being loved. His prayer for Philemon is for a greater capacity to love; but such compassion is also the experience of those saints he has refreshed. In this way, the compassionate heart is the mark of the koinonia of shared faith. More important, Paul's prayer introduces in a positive way what the main body of his letter develops: that the compassion and so koinonia of the congregation are now threatened by the problem between Onesimus and Philemon. Given Paul's twofold petition, then, the reader realizes that Philemon's response to Paul's appeal will largely determine whether the congregation's witness to the gospel in Colosse will survive.