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