Every Good Work (Philemon 4-7)
Topic: One Body: Love One Another Passage: Philemon :4–:7
I. Reading, Studying, and Applying
If you are follower of Jesus Christ, a Christian, a believer, ask yourself this: “What does God expect of me when it comes to his word; when it comes to the Scriptures?”
As we talked about last time, we believe that just as Paul challenged his younger co-laborer in II Timothy 2:15, so also, God has called each and every follower of Christ to be a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (II Timothy 2:15)
Brother, sisters, does that describe you? It should. It can. This is what motivates me to share with you some (what we might call) 'Bible study basics'. In addition to books, classes, and one-on-one discipleship, it's important, even on Sunday mornings, to take time to be as transparent as possible in terms of the how of reading, studying, and applying God's word.
To do just that, I've chosen the tiny book of Philemon to be our focus. You may recall how in our first lesson we were able to work together with the first three verses of this short book. And as we did, we talked about several things: the genre of the book (which, in this case, is a letter), using other parts of the Bible to identify named individuals, and thinking about Paul's opening blessing by considering how Paul began his other letters.
Since we determined that Philemon is a letter, it became clear that verses 1-3 are what we might call a greeting. But what comes next? Let's find out by looking back at this smallest or shortest of Paul's preserved letters.
II. The Passage: “I Hear of Your Love” (vs. 4-7)
Look with me at verses 4-7. Paul writes...
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,  and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.  For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.
Now the first question we need to ask here is... to whom is Paul speaking? Though there are, apart from the senders, three people named in verses 1 and 2, there is only one person addressed here in verse 4. Do you see that? So what makes the most sense is simply to consider the first person named. This would be the main recipient of the letter. And as we see from the end of verse 1, that would be Philemon.
So what might this next set of verses reveal about Philemon and/or Paul?
Having just looked at those verses, I hope you can see they are a mix of some clear and less clear (or we could say simple and complex) encouragements. But... please don't miss that the overall 'takeaway' is encouragement, right? That lines up nicely with the affectionate description of Philemon in verse 1: He was Paul and Timothy's “beloved fellow worker”.
So what do we do now? What do we do next with these verses 4-7? How do we truly hear them, but also, truly heed them? Let me suggest that we always begin by considering...
1. The Author's Intention
This is one of the most basic, but at the same time, one of the most overlooked (or neglected) principles when it comes to reading and understanding the Bible. While the Scriptures are incredibly unique, since they alone, unlike other books, are the inspired word of God, they are still the product of human writers. Amazingly, God chose human beings writing words to write his word. That means the first question we ask is not a spiritual or mystical or supernatural question like, “What is God saying to me right now?” No! The first question we ask is, “What did the human author intend to convey through his choice and arrangement of these words?”
The danger of missing this is, of course, that when the author's intention is not central, you can ultimately make the text say whatever you want. Sadly, there is no lack of so-called Bible teachers who do just that. So... with all this in mind, we have to ask, “What did Paul intend to convey here?” That question could lead us to consider a number of things, including...
2. Paul the Prisoner
Does that description sound familiar? It should, it's the very first thing Paul tells us about himself in this letter. Verse 1: Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus... Now, in trying to understand the writer's intention here, we could just starting dissecting his words and phrases in verses 4-7. We could look at the way he uses keywords in that passage and compare those to other parts of the letter, and even other letters from Paul. But it also makes sense to think, not only about the what of Paul's words, but also the when of Paul's words.
If we were to scan through the remainder of this letter, we would find not only find the word “prisoner” again, this time in verses 9 and 23, but also the related word, “imprisonment”, in verses 10 and 13. If we were to then search both of those words in a concordance or a Bible app or an online Bible, we would discover several other letters that Paul wrote during this same time period. These are often called Paul's 'prison epistles'. How do we know they were written at the same time? Simply reading through these letters (Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians), you would quickly detect similarities (including many similar openings & prayers).
Not surprisingly, one of these letters is Colossians. Last week, we learned that Archippus, who is mentioned in Philemon 2 is also mentioned in Colossians 4. That same chapter (i.e., Colossians 4) also refers to Onesimus, who is, as we'll see, central to the book of Philemon.
While all of this is very interesting, you may be asking, “How in the world does any of this help us understand what Paul has written here in Philemon 4-7?” Great question! I think it helps us by driving us to think more carefully about...
3. Faith, Love, and Koinonia
You may have noticed that verses 4-7 contain some repeated words and ideas. Look again at verse 5. Paul has heard, not only about Philemon's “love”, but also his “faith”. Speaking of faith, we find Paul talking again about Philemon's faith in verse 6. Do you see that? In the same way, the Apostle goes on in verse 7 to also mention Philemon's love once more.
So if we made a simple chart of what this passage tells us about Philemon's faith and love, it might look something like this (figure 1). Though the syntax seems strange to us in English, we read in verse 5 about Philemon's love for all the saints and faith in (or “toward”) Jesus.
But Paul has more to say about this brother's faith and love. First, he prays that Philemon's faith would “become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ”. That's the “less clear” or “complex” phrase in this passage. The clearer part expands on Philemon's love, which has not only (v. 7) refreshed the hearts of fellow believers, but because of that, has brought joy and comfort to Paul's own heart.
So how might we clarify that “less clear” statement in verse 6? What exactly does he mean when he prays, that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. Huh? So at this point the when of Paul's letter becomes helpful. On apps or Bible website like Blue Letter Bible, you can click on a word like the word “sharing” in verse 6, and discover that when Paul wrote or dictated this letter in Greek, the word he used is the word koinonia.
If we continued, and clicked on that word koinonia, we would see that it also appears at the beginning of another one of these prison letters, one written to the Philippian disciples. Listen to the similarities between that opening and the opening here in Philemon. Philippians 1:3-5...
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,  always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy,  because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.
Did you see the word koinonia? No, not in English. But with a little clicking, a little digging, you would realize that same word is translated in Philippians 1:5 as “partnership”. So we could say that Paul is praying in Philemon 6 in light of the “partnership” of Philemon's faith. Now consider how that translation fits better into this context: this man Philemon a (v. 1) “beloved fellow worker” in the gospel, who has (v. 2) opened his home and hosted a church, is continuing to love that church. As a result, their hearts are being spiritually refreshed. This, of course, is incredibly encouraging to Paul, who has (II Corinthians 11:28) “daily... anxiety [or concern] for all the churches”. How wonderful for him to know these believers are being loved.
But Paul is praying that God would take things a step further, right? That Philemon's active and engaged faith will become (click!) energes in Greek, that is, would become 'energized' for “full knowledge”. Knowledge of what? The full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For what Paul is praying?
I think he's praying that Philemon, a man who clearly cares about the service of Christ, would come to understand the broader, wider, larger scope of what the Holy Spirit, through faith, can empower us to do in the service of Christ, for the glory of Christ.
III. His Prayer, Your Prayer
Now as we will discover in our next lesson, Paul's prayer and encouragement here really do lay the groundwork for the difficult subject matter that occupies the central place in this letter.
Before we go any further, let's stop and think about what we've seen: 1) we learned that what the write meant is where our search for understanding begins. That's true in any Bible passage. As that little 'a' author's intention becomes clearer, so does the message of the capital “A” Author. 2) We talked briefly about how the when of a verse's composition can help us better understand the context, use of language, etc. Finally 3), we talked about the importance of identifying and exploring repeated words, phrases, and themes. Recognizing what a writer is emphasizing, brings you that much closer to understanding their larger point.
But having thought carefully about the author's intention, about what Paul has said, now we're ready to think carefully about what God is saying... to us... to you, this morning!
As we talked about last time, there are many ways we could apply what's been revealed in this passage. But let me recommend one simple approach, an approach that you can use with any verse or passage in Scripture. That approach is simply to ask, “How could I pray for myself using the language and ideas of this verse or passage?” Look back at our main text and think about that for a second.
Now for some of you, what will stand out is Paul's practice of praying for his brothers and sisters: remembering them and thanking God for them regularly in prayer, as we see in verse 4. But consider the broader point here: Philemon was a man of faith and love, and that faith, and that love, were being used by God to refresh the hearts of fellow believers... (v. 5) “of all the saints”. What a beautiful prayer to pray, in terms of application: that God would use your faith in Christ, to fill you with Christ's love, that you would be a 'heart refresher' for Jesus; to the extent that still other believers would (v. 7) derive “much joy and comfort from your love”.
But in light Paul's broader point here, in fact, in light of Paul's prayer for Philemon, I think there would still be another way we could pray for ourselves. Would you ask God, even this morning, to help you recognize “every good thing” he has put inside you, through his Spirit, to bless those with whom you are partnering or participating “for the sake of Christ”. As you give and as you bless, God wants to grow your vision for what He wants to do through you in the church. Do you believe that? If you do.. then pray... then obey.
If the greeting of this short letter speaks directly to the radically redefined relationships that our ours through Christ, then this opening encouragement, this opening prayer, speaks to the radically renewed way in which God wants us to love and bless one another.
But please don't miss how faith and love are connected here. There is no “love... for all the saints” without saving faith in the One who sanctified them through his blood; there is no “every good thing” apart from the everything Jesus gave for us on the cross. No heart can refresh or be refreshed unless it is a new heart; that heart made possible by Christ's new life, life from the dead.
If I am to pray for God's work in and through me, in light of God's work in and through Philemon, let me, let us do so (v. 6) “for the sake of Christ”. Amen? Let's pray in this very way.