Most of Paul’s letters include a prayer that he prays for his readers. In this short letter to Philemon, Paul begins his prayer by thanking God for some specific things demonstrated by Philemon. His love and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and his love for his fellow saints. Philemon 1:4-5 says, “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.” Paul had heard about Philemon from others, but most commentators agree that Paul knew him personally from his time in Colossae. It’s possible that Paul had led Philemon to the Lord himself as well.  That Paul is using the present tense for “hearing” implies that this is the continual testimony about Philemon. It’s not just what Paul had heard in the past, but it’s the ongoing character reference for Philemon. When Paul remembers Philemon in his prayers, what comes to his mind is how Philemon loved God and his fellow believers. This was Paul’s reason for giving thanks. Although there seems to be a little disagreement among the commentators, most think that Paul is thanking God for Philemon’s faith in Jesus and Philemon’s love for the saints.

Melick explains, “The statement has two possible interpretations. First, love and faith could be directed to both the Lord and the saints; however, this requires an awkward understanding of ‘faith.’ How could faith be directed toward the saints?” He quotes from Colossians 1:4, where Paul makes clear what he means. Paul says to the Colossians, “We heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints” Melick concludes, “The faith could be toward the Lord and the love toward all the saints. This must be correct.”[1] When one comes to faith in Jesus, there is a sense of love for others who have done the same thing. Jesus is, of course, the most profound demonstration of God’s love for mankind. Thus, when one recognizes and receives God’s love, the natural reaction is to love what God loves as well as those who have also received God’s love. John, in his first letter to the church, suggests this as a test of our fellowship with God. In 1 John 3:14, he writes, “We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.”

Coming to faith in Christ definitely changes the company one keeps as well as the activities one participates in with that company.  I was 32 years old when I became a believer, and at that time, I was a Navy Chief Petty Officer recruiting for the officer programs in Detroit, Michigan. My association with my fellow Navy Chiefs and fellow recruiters consisted of stopping at the bar for a drink on my way home from work, sharing sea stories of our past duty assignments overseas, and talking about all kinds of unsavory activities. When I became a Christian, I was befriended by the believers from a small church. With them, we shared singing together, helping each other whenever needed, getting together to study the bible, talking about edifying and uplifting things, as well as our burdens in life. I grew very close to these fellow believers in a way that would never have happened with my various other connections. I did not “love” my fellow shipmates in the Navy like I “loved” the brothers and sisters in Christ from the church. There was a radical difference. My faith in Christ helped me relate to these fellow believers in a whole new and satisfying way. I don’t want to compare myself to Philemon, but I was “born again” to a new life. I know that I changed for the better in all areas of my life. I like to think I became more like Philemon. I’d like to be thought of the way Black thinks of Philemon. He wrote, “We do not know what Philemon did to express his faith or to show his love for all the saints (v. 5), but from these few details, we picture a warm, openhearted individual who was a great asset to the church at Colossae.”[2]

[1] Melick, Richard R. 1991. Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. Vol. 32. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

[2] Black, Robert, and Ronald McClung. 2004. 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon: A Commentary for Bible Students. Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House.