Philemon 4

‘I thank my God always,
making mention of you in my prayers’
(Philemon 1:4)

Christians should be a thankful people, because we’ve much to be thankful for. That’s the key to it. If we’re not feeling thankful, we needn’t begrudgingly force thankfulness upon ourselves, but rather must dwell on our amazing blessings, then find thankfulness naturally welling up inside. It seems the apostle Paul was particularly good at this, even when in ‘chains’(Philemon 1:13), in prison, which was his predicament as he wrote this letter to Philemon, his ‘beloved fellow worker’(Philemon 1:1).

Philemon hosted a house church, apparently in Colossae or somewhere nearby. In a letter written to the Colossians, about the same time, likely from the same prison, Paul mentions our joy in Christ ‘giving thanks to the Father, who made us fit to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light, who delivered us out of the power of darkness, and translated us into the Kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have our redemption’(Colossians 1:12-14). The joyful light of this message outshone the gloom of any prison cell for Paul. Moreover, he seems to have derived particular delight from seeing it spread and bear fruit in the likes of Philemon, the Colossian church, and fellow Christians more generally.

For example, in this particular letter he’s thankful for Philemon’s ‘love and… faith’(Philemon 1:5), the former especially being a source of ‘much joy’(Philemon 1:7) for Paul. Many of his letters start with a note of joyful thankfulness like that, regarding the work of God in its recipients. Again his letter to the Colossians shows this well: ‘We give thanks to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, having heard of your faith… and… love… because of the hope which is laid up for you in the heavens… the Good News… bearing fruit and growing’(Colossians 1:3-6). So basically Paul rejoices in the gospel, our eternal hope in it, and temporal fruit from it, which he summarises famously elsewhere as ‘faith, hope, and love’(1 Corinthians 13:13); and importantly his joy and thankfulness are not purely about his own blessings and fruitfulness, but that of his ‘beloved fellow workers’ like Philemon, and others, like the Colossians, or Philippians etc., remembering the latter for instance with similar thankful, prayerful ‘joy, for [their] partnership in furtherance of the Good News’(Philippians 1:4-5).

The other important thing to note is that Paul’s thanksgiving for all of these fellow Christians is expressed in the form of prayer, so firstly addressed to God. Do we pray with joyful thanks regarding our partners in the gospel today? Hopefully we don’t just pray about our own needs, but we mustn’t just pray for the needs of ourselves and others either. It’s important that we remember to rejoice with thanks like Paul here regarding the faith, love and hope etc. that we see in each other.

Note also however, aside from praying, Paul tells those he prays for that he rejoices and gives thanks to God for them, obviously for their encouragement. In this letter, he was especially keen to encourage Philemon in his reputation for love, before making a request that would require radical Christian love from him.

All of this joyful thanksgiving and encouragement often seems to carry Paul into further prayers that are strikingly positive. He prays that Philemon’s comprehension of our blessings in Christ might be enhanced by expressing the ‘faith’(Philemon 1:6) – grace/love. Likewise he prays for the Colossians growth in ‘spiritual wisdom and understanding, that [they] may walk worthily of the Lord, to please him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God, strengthened with all power, according to the might of His glory’(Colossians 1:9-11). For the Philippians it’s that their ‘love may abound… in knowledge and all discernment, so that [they] may approve the things that are excellent… being filled with the fruits of righteousness… through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God’(Philippians 1:9-11).

Prayers generally, especially amazing prayers like these, are an important part of our work in the Lord. No doubt that’s why the apostles spent much time ‘“in prayer and in the ministry of the word”’(Acts 6:4), not just word ministry. Likely Paul was referring to the same thing when he told the Colossians ‘greatly I struggle for you’(Colossians 2:1), since later he describes a fellow worker as ‘always striving for you in his prayers, that you may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God’(Colossians 4:12) – note the positive theme again. So let’s strive for each other today, with similar amazing prayers, and joyfully give thanks.

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