“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 (Philemon 1:4-6 – italics added for emphasis).
Interestingly, two things often cause people to be confused within these two small verses. First, many popular expositions of the book get tangled up in trying to explain how Philemon had love for Christ and faith toward the saints, but this expression is just a chiasmus, or crossover, as was often used in Greek. It should be understood as “faith” in “the Lord Jesus” and “love” for “all the saints” rather than the other way around, as it might appear. You can see a clear example of this kind of chiasmus in Matthew 12:22, which tells us “The blind and dumb both spoke and saw” – which clearly means the blind saw, and the dumb spoke.
The second often misunderstood point about these verses is found in Paul’s statement “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective…” (Philemon 1:6, NKJV). I wish I had the proverbial dollar for the number of times I have heard and seen this verse used as a proof text that we should verbally witness or share our faith with others, but the real meaning is different and makes an important point. Here, the expression “the sharing of your faith” seems to mean not verbally sharing but rather communicating one’s faith through an outpouring of good works. The NIV captures this meaning quite well: “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” (Philemon 1:6).
The Nineteenth Century “Barnes Notes” commentary first summed up the meaning of this verse relative to how Philemon’s faith was to be expressed: “That his faith, expressing itself by good fruits, might be shown to be true … For although faith has its proper seat in the heart, yet it communicates itself to men by good works.” Most commentaries since that time have agreed that this is the clear meaning of verse 6.
So, properly understood, these verses in Paul’s letter to Philemon make two important points: first, they show the necessary link between our faith in Christ and love of the saints (Philemon 1:4-5), and then they show that the faith within us should be “communicated” or “shared” by good works (vs. 6). This two-pronged argument represents something Paul wanted to stress to Philemon: that faith in Christ involves loving the brethren, and that this true faith is manifested in good works to them. These are important points for our understanding of the Book of Philemon, and of faith, too.