I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
As was the custom of that time and place, Paul moves from his greeting into a prayer of thanksgiving for his recipient in vv. 4-6, and transitions into the main body of the letter in v. 7. In writing this the way he did, Paul shows extreme skill as he approaches his reader with a touchy subject. Notice how his prayer prepares the way for things he would say in the body of the letter… prayer in verses 4 – 22; love in 5 – 7,9; fellowship in 6 – 17; good things in 6 – 14; hearts in 7 – 12,20; refresh in 7 – 20; and brother on 7 – 20 (see also this passage cf. Col. 1:3-14).
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers (v. 4) If you are Philemon and you have found out, or are about to find out that your runaway slave Onesimus has been with Paul, you might wonder what he has been saying about you: Has he been telling Paul all sorts of lies about your treatment of him to justify his having run off? From this you can see that he hasn’t told Paul anything that would cause him to think ill of you, for Paul is always thanking God for you.
because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. (v. 5) Paul continues here from the preceding verse and gives the reason for his thankfulness, and in doing so, he has an opportunity to remind Philemon of what kind of man he is in the faith− one who truly loves God’s people and whose faith is in Jesus Christ.
I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. (v. 6) Sad to say, this is the controversial verse in the paragraph with scholars debating almost every word and ending up with various interpretations. The genesis of the debates comes from the fact that the original Greek doesn’t have any words for “I pray that”. Thus, the NIV and many other translations, include those words as a matter of interpretation on the part of the translators to make the English work in the sentence. We are left with an unanswered question: Is this actually what Paul was praying for, or was he making a statement?
When I look at it, it doesn’t really matter. Whether Paul prays this, hopes this or knows this doesn’t really change anything for us, and I have to assume that Philemon caught Paul’s intent in a way we cannot so far away in time and culture. For our purposes, considering the reason for writing in the first place, notice Paul’s use of certain key words: “your partnership with us” “effective in deepening your understanding” and “we share for the sake of Christ”.
Paul is about to ask that Philemon share Onesimus the slave with him for the sake of Christ; his meaning seems a bit obvious to me.
Finally, the last sentence brings us the transition to the main body of the letter, which we will dive in to in the next section.