Have you wondered how faith works? What is faith? I long ago heard that faith is like sitting in a chair. You sit down, believing and trusting that the chair will hold you up. Of course, the chair might be poorly built, and when you sit on it, the chair breaks apart and you fall to the ground! While I get the chair illustration, it can still seem difficult to know if I am truly placing my faith in God. What do I actually do?
As I said in the previous post, Jesus has numerous really important purposes for this letter Paul is writing to his friend Philemon, and one purpose that is to explain how faith works. If you haven’t started with Part 1 of this series on Philemon 1-7, I encourage you to pause reading this one and start with Part 1. Then continue with Part 2. Ok, all caught up?
Now look at Philemon, verses 4-7, which is Paul’s brief introduction to the main part of the letter. In this intro, Paul will set the tone for what he has to say to Philemon. So let’s look at it closely.
Verse 4 is pretty straightforward. Paul often talks like this in his other letters. He tells Philemon that he thanks God for Philemon, as he remembers Philemon in his prayers. What a wonderful example Paul sets for Philemon and anyone who would read this letter, even 2000 years later. We should pray for people, and thank God for them. How often do you pray for the people in your life, thanking God for them? What if that became a new habit for you?
Also, imagine how Philemon would have felt reading that. He would love it. It’s so encouraging. Paul, the guy who was one of the foremost Christians of his day, even when he is hundreds of miles away in Rome, on house arrest, is personally remembering Philemon, praying for him, and thanking God for him? Who do you need to write a note of encouragement to, just saying, “I’m praying for you, and I’m grateful for you”? And then actually pray for them. I think the note itself is a prayer too. This day and age with texting, it is so easy to send a note of thanks and prayer for people. A few weeks ago, someone put a card on my desk in my office. It simply said, “You are loved and being prayed for you!” It was anonymous. They made sure the focus was on God, not on them. It was really encouraging!
But Paul is not nearly done with the encouragement for Philemon. Look at verse 5. There he explains the reason that he thanks God for Philemon. Two reasons, really. First, he heard about Philemon’s faith in the Lord. Second, he heard about his love for all the saints. So word got out. People who visited Paul were saying to Paul that Philemon is the real deal.
I always get a little weirded out when I hear that people are talking about me. Whether that is good or bad. It can just feel uncomfortable. How about you? Do you feel that way when you find out people are talking about you?
But it sure does help, though, to hear that they have good things to say about you. Paul has heard people say very good things about Philemon: about his faith in the Lord and love for all the saints. Those are two really important aspects of being a disciple of Jesus, so think with me about how faith and love work together in the life of a disciple of Jesus. Faith in God that shows it is true faith by loving people.
I recently heard a talk about faith that was very helpful. The speaker said that we so often think of faith as “assent,” meaning that faith is when we believe in or agree with certain ideas or concepts. It is saying, “I agree or I believe that Jesus is God, that he died and rose again, and so on.” But in the New Testament, when the writers, including Paul and Jesus himself, talked about faith, they were almost certainly not talking only about assent. When they talked about faith, it included assent, but it went beyond assent to allegiance. In other words, when we have faith in Jesus, we are saying, Jesus, you are the one true King, and I pledge my allegiance to you and you only.” Paul says that is what Philemon was doing. Philemon was showing that he was a true disciple of Jesus, by living out a faith that demonstrated love.
Paul is also setting a tone here. He definitely wants Philemon to self-identify as a person who demonstrates faith in God by loving all Christians. He has a reason for encouraging Philemon so much. That reason will become very apparent in verse 8 when Paul says “therefore”. We’ll get to that next week when we study the rest of the letter. For now, observe what Paul is saying about Philemon, and ask yourself how that might apply to you. How is your faith in the Lord? How is your love for the people in the church? Is your love and faith being talked about? Are there ways you could improve? How so? What do you need to do differently?