I take no joy in letting you know a good reputation does not come natural to any man – nor does goodness. Take for example the rich young ruler who, referring to Jesus as “good teacher,” inquired of him the way of salvation, assuming he could attain it through good works. Jesus responded with the question, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Lk. 18:18-19).
Goodness is not in man. We are not born good. We do not do good. (Rom.3:12) Despite all of our strongest efforts, we fall short of goodness. We are stained with evil and so are all of our well-intended actions (Rom. 14:23). This is why Jesus responded the way He did.
Paul understood this. This is why he was thanking God for Philemon’s good reputation. He knew that his reputation was not something he could accomplish on his own. This was evidence of God’s grace in him (Jas. 1:17).
Logically, Paul draws his attention first to his faith. A good reputation is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). The Spirit, alive and working in the transformation of our life, is proof of genuine salvation and faith. So this good reputation indicated to Paul that Philemon was a man of divine faith. He believed and submitted himself to the Lord.
Paul writes that he always gives God thanks when he mentions Philemon in his prayers “because I hear of the faith you have toward the Lord Jesus” (Phile. 1:5).1 Good things come from the Lord through the Holy Spirit. A good reputation is one of them. Not only is this the logical place to begin when assuring the heart with evidences of grace, but it is the most motivational and meaningful. Having Christ and being accepted by the Lord is the greatest gift one will ever have. It is the only one that we will never earn. And it is the one for which all things were made. So it is special.
However, it is also difficult. Jesus said that “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:14). Peter advised us to “be all the more diligent to make [our] calling and election sure” (2 Pet. 1:10). Our faith is important to us. We want it to be real and divinely driven. We want assurance that we are not just fooling ourselves (Jas.1:16). We want to be confident of our salvation. Nothing could be more motivating to us than hearing that others find our faith to be genuine.
Paul wrote that he was thankful to God for the faith that Philemon had in the Lord. His faith was first to be mentioned because it is the first fruit of the Spirit and at the very center of the believer’s mind. It is the beginning of meaningful purpose and the fuel for meaningful living. Without faith we cannot please God (Heb. 11:6). Without faith we cannot genuinely forgive. Without faith we are lost and do no good. Without faith is without God. Without faith, we have nothing. And so with faith, Paul begins assuring Philemon’s heart.
Since he had a reputation of good, Philemon has a reputation of faith. How does this motivate him to forgive? Consider at least these two ways. First, it strengthens his desire to obey because he is reassured of his salvation. He knows that through Christ he can do all things (Phil. 4:13). Second, it strengthens his willingness to forgive, because forgiving others pleases the Lord (John 14:15 with Matt. 6:14).
Expressing your acknowledgement of another’s faith in the Lord will never fail to motivate them to be more Christ-like. It is the foundation of our new life in Christ, and therefore most influential in the motivation of our heart and desire to obey and please Him. In summary, Paul assured the heart of Philemon by telling him that he had a reputation of faith.
From the book, Forgiveness: A Commentary on Philemon, by Jacob Abshire
- Philemon 1:5 was written in a form of writing called a Chiastic Arragement. The ESV translations reads, “because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.” I have broken up the arrangement in order to read through his writing progressively. In this case, it would read, “because I hear of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and your love for the saints.”