By Barnabas Piper
The word “always” is rarely an accurate term. Most absolutes are exaggerations, so when a writer of the Bible uses “always” we should sit up and take notice. Something so sweeping and so totally complete is not to be overlooked or downplayed. The Bible does not misspeak or overplay its hand. So, when Paul says, “I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers” (Philemon 1:4), it is significant.
He could have said “I pray for you often” or even “I’m thankful for you,” but he went with “always.” Why? What moved Paul to such a heightened level of gratitude for Philemon? The following verses tell us: “I hear of your love for all the saints and the faith that you have in the Lord Jesus” (v.5). Paul goes on to write of his “great joy and encouragement” from Philemon’s love and how his faith has refreshed the hearts of other believers (v.7).
Philemon was someone Paul was grateful for, but so were many Christians and leaders of churches Paul wrote to. So why this effusive thanks? Philippians 1 offers further explanation because Paul says something similar there: “I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you.” Why? “Because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now… I have you in my heart, and you are all partners with me in grace” (Philippians 1:3–5,7).
What moves Paul’s heart is the unique unity and love that is only found through Christ, a profound bond defined by the gospel. It is not merely working for the same cause or having fond feelings. It is a supernatural oneness in Christ. In Colossians, Paul longs for the “hearts [of believers] to be encouraged and joined together in love, so that they may have all the riches of complete understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery—Christ” (Colossians 2:2). In Philemon, he speaks more personally to the man himself, lauding his love and expressing a desire to see his “participation in the faith… become effective” (Philemon 1:6).
We see the love of brothers in the faith who are also partners on a mission. The affection is not passive but pushes the recipient more and more toward Jesus and toward holiness. The growth in holiness elicits more love and affection. In writing these words to Philemon, Paul is pressing him onward in love and faith. It is not cheap praise, but rather identifies him as a true partner, brother, and minister. This is especially important given the difficult and sensitive request Paul makes of Philemon later in the letter.
Most of all, what we should see in these words is the centrality of Christ. It is Philemon’s love of Christ that causes Paul’s gratitude to overflow. And so, Paul prays that Philemon’s faith would grow even more, further glorifying Christ. This is a supernatural affection, something outside of human norms, and Paul is emphasizing it so that every challenging word that follows will be rooted in love and in Christ.
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