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.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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