Paul’s letter to an individual, Philemon, includes a mentoring call for fire for more effective sharing of faith: “I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (Philemon 4-6).
In the context of the situation that provoked the writing of the letter – the treatment of an escaped slave who now was himself a Christian – the prayer emerges as a plea for ethical and moral maturity. The letter as a whole focuses on Philemon’s reception of Onesimus, an (apparently) runaway slave who now returns to his owner after having spent some time with Paul. Onesimus had become a Christian since leaving Philemon’s home; he also had lived up to his name, which means “useful,” by being useful to Paul. With the focus of the entire letter in mind, the prayer acquires new focus. The way in which Philemon treats Onesimus should testify as to how their relationship has changed in Christ. The slave is now as much a brother in Christ as the apostle. If Philemon thought to distinguish himself from Onesimus by one being free and the other a slave, he might have noticed that Paul throughout the letter stresses that the apostle is “a prisoner of Jesus Christ (twice)” and “in chains (twice).”
Sharing, or fellowship, of faith develops more fully our understanding of what it means to be in Christ. However, such sharing does not only mean teaching Bible classes or talking to neighbors about Jesus. It includes acting like a Christian in every facet of our lives, from treatment of employees to extending hospitality and to forgiving those who have wronged us. Paul’s prayer for Philemon challenges the latter to “energize” his faith and increase his understanding through a Christ-like treatment of a returned slave who now also is a brother in Christ. Philemon might have struggled with the concept of his rights (We certainly do in our time.), but Paul anticipates his objections by shouldering Onesimus’ debt himself while reminding Philemon how much he himself owes to Paul (verses 17-18).
Paul mentors Philemon through prayer on dealing with a social dilemma; he encourages Philemon to grow in spiritual maturity and in the effectiveness of his testimony for Christ by making decisions based on moral grounds and spiritual relationships rather than his rights as a property owner. How may we pray like Paul as we pray on behalf of others? As “Philemons,” what may we who also read this letter learn from Paul’s prayer about how we may grow in our “understanding of every good thing we have in Christ?” What issue in our lives is our “Onesimus,” a situation in which insisting on our rights may not be doing the right thing? How may we grow in ethical and moral maturity? In what ways do our actions subvert our evangelism? Social relationships that seem normal enough to us and that our society accepts may in time turn out to be as unacceptable to Christians as slavery now is to us. Paul’s prayer for a Christian slave-owner did not end slavery overnight, but by sharing that prayer, he forced attention on Onesimus as a brother in Christ rather than as property. Paul’s prayer reveals how prayer-motivated ethical and moral behavior produce spiritual growth.