Philemon 1:6

Philemon 1:6

There was a question about this challenging verse on Dec 18, 1998 with one response on Dec 21. But it has a number of challenges, so I thought it would be worthwhile picking it up. All English versions are struggling. The NIV 2011 redid the previous rendering rather drastically, but IMO without getting it right.

ὅπως ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου ἐνεργὴς γένηται ἐν ἐπιγνώσει παντὸς ἀγαθοῦ τοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν εἰς Χριστόν hOPWS hH KOINWNIA THS PISTEWS SOU ENERGHS GENHTAI EN EPIGNWSEI PANTOS AGAQOU TOU EN hHMIN EIS CRISTON

There are some textual variations, the major one whether it is EN hHMIN or EN hUMIN. The textual evidence is fairly evenly divided, but it does not make any significant difference to the meaning. Some mss have Jesus after Christ at the end, but again, that does not change the meaning.

First, hOPWS. This conjunction normally refers to purpose or goal and may be rendered as “with a view to”. It probably relates back to “my prayers” in verse 4, and many English versions make that explicit by adding “I pray that…” It does not introduce the direct content of the prayer, but more the gist of it, the main goal of his prayers for Philemon and the local saints/believers whom Philemon are commending for loving in v. 5.

Second, we have a nuclear clause followed by two prepositional phrases where the first one is complex with another embedded prepositional phrase. The nuclear clause is ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου ἐνεργὴς γένηται hH KOINWNIA THS PISTEWS SOU ENERGHS GENHTAI. Paul is praying that the KOINWNIA may become ENERGHS. Vulgate had fiat evidens, Tyndale said fruitful, Luther powerful (kraftig werde). BDAG has “effective, active, powerful”. LSJ mentions that it is used to describe medicines as strong, powerful. So far, we don’t have too much of a problem. Paul prays that this KOINWNIA may become (more) powerful or strong.

What is the meaning of KOINWNIA in the NT? I would say it is the status and activities of believers who have the strong bond of a common faith in Jesus. This feeling of commonality may express itself in different ways. The believers may come together to encourage one another and strengthen that bond (Acts 2:42). They may express their feeling of being in a community together by collecting money for fellow believers in need (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:4, 9:13). Sometimes one of the key bonds that ties them together is described by a genitive (1 Cor 1:9 – fellowship of Jesus Christ, our Lord; 1 Cor 10:16 – fellowship of the blood of Christ, the body of Christ; 2 Cor 13:13; Phil 2:1 – fellowship of the Holy Spirit; Php 3:10 – fellowship of the sufferings of Jesus). Sometimes, the people that experience this commonality and bond are described as in Gal 2:9 where the common ministry is affirmed between Paul and Barnabas on one side and the other apostles on the other side. In 1 John we have this fellowship with somebody (META) expressed several times. For Philemon, NLT zeroed in on the generosity aspect, but I do not think that is correct in this context. Vulgate had communicatio. This was picked up by KJV as “communication”. I don’t know what this word meant 400 years ago, but KOINWNIA certainly does not mean “communication” in English today. I suppose the KJV tried to express being in a community together, or they simply followed the Vulgate. NIV1984 and several other English versions talk about “sharing your faith”, and that is close to the modern “communication”, but it is not an attested meaning of KOINWNIA as far as I know. This was dropped in the revised NIV.

How is the genitive ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου hH KOINWNIA THS PISTEWS SOU to be understood? The SOU must refer to Philemon. But is it “the fellowship of his faith” or is it “his fellowship of faith”? This is ambiguous. My preference is to see the THS PISTEWS genitive as a description of the bond that ties the community together, a faith-fellowship or a fellowship centred around a common faith in Jesus. Philemon would probably be a part of other social or business fellowships, but this one is a faith fellowship. The SOU would then indicate Philemon’s relationship to that faith-fellowship. It is his fellowship, not Paul’s, so I do not think it is matter of the fellowship between Paul and Philemon. It is Philemon’s, not in the sense that he owns it, but in the sense that he is part of it and may even have been the instigator of that faith-fellowship. It is likely that there was a group of believers whom Philemon took care of and they may have met in his house, since he was a well-to-do man. Verse 5 talks about Philemon’s love for the local believers, the saints, and v. 7 about how he has refreshed or brought to a position of rest (ANAPAUW – ἀναπαύω). Although KOINWNIA primarily refers to the activity of having fellowship, it cannot be separated from the believers who engage in that activity. It is the fellowship that should become powerful, but that is tied to Philemon (and probably also the local believers) becoming powerful in what they do. NIV2011 says “your partnership with us in the faith.” My main problem with that is the addition of “with us” which is not in the text. The Danish authorized version of 1948 said in an English back translation: “the fellowship around/pertaining to the faith that you are part of.”

How is this KOINWNIA to become powerful? By means of a full/complete understanding/recognition – EN EPIGNWSEI PANTOS AGAQOU TOU EN hHMIN – ἐν ἐπιγνώσει παντὸς ἀγαθοῦ τοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν. The object of EPIGNWSIS would be: every good thing which is in us (or you). In other words, you people who have this fellowship of faith need to understand your potential for good, recognize fully every good thing that God has given you (to serve him). Paul prays for the believers in terms of this full understanding of truth, God and his will/plans. This will help them to be powerful/effective as they live out the fellowship they have that is centred around their common faith. There is a similar prayer in 2 Thess 1:11: προσευχόμεθα πάντοτε περὶ ὑμῶν, ἵνα … πληρώσῃ πᾶσαν εὐδοκίαν ἀγαθωσύνης καὶ ἔργον πίστεως ἐν δυνάμει PROSEUCOMEQA PANTOTE PERI hUMWN, hINA…PLHRWSHi PASAN EUDOKIAN AGAQWSUNHS KAI ERGON PISTEWS EN DUNAMEI – we always pray for you-all that … he (God) may (ful)fill every intention/desire for goodness and a powerful work of faith.

Finally, we have EIS CRISTON εἰς Χριστόν – towards Christ. The good things we (or they) have, as given by God, need to be used in the direction of Christ, to glorify him. This is somewhat parallel to 2 Thess 1:10. The NET has a good note at Philemon 6, but I cannot agree with them translating EIS CRISTON as if it had been EN CRISTWi. It is not “in Christ”, but “towards Christ”. I suppose the “in Christ” is simply carried over into so many English versions from the KJV which apparently got it from the Vulgate “in Christo Iesu”. The Bishop’s NT had “towarde” and Darby “towards.”

Any comments? It has many challenges, so I am not expecting much agreement.

Iver Larsen

7 thoughts on “Philemon 1:6”

  1. My take on Phm 6a

    so that the participation of life [with them] from your faith may become more effective …

    Oun Kwon.

  2. Dear all,

    What about this: [Phlm 1:6] “OPWS H KOINWNIA THS PISTEWS SOU ENERGHS GENHTAI EN EPIGNWSEI PANTOS AGAQOU TOU EN HMIN EIS CRISTON” = “such that the communion (sharing) of your faith might come to be operative in recognition of every good [thing] in us for Christ”?

    I believe the original conveys the sense of “the communion/sharing pertaining to your faith” instead of “your faith-communion/sharing”. Otherwise the author could have written “SOU H KOINWNIA THS PISTEWS” to prevent the ambiguity. 1 Pet 1:9 also has “TO TELOS THS PISTEWS UMWN” which is clearly “the end of your faith (the end pertaining to your faith)”.

    Also, would “for Christ” be acceptable to convey “EIS CRISTON”? I also understood it as “when you recognise every good thing in us which is for Christ”, and I felt that “for Christ” conveys the meaning better than “towards Christ” since that would be closer to “PROS CRISTON”.

    What do you think?


    David Lim


  3. Dear Iver,

    The ambiguity is not resolved that easily. To front the SOU would give a

    Can I also ask you, why do you say that “SOU H KOINWNIA THS PISTEWS” would give a very different meaning? I thought it would mean “your ( communion of the faith )” (which would imply “your faith-communion”) or “( your communion ) of the faith” (which would imply “your communion that is of the faith”), both of which seem to be almost the same. Anyway how about “H THS PISTEWS KOINWNIA SOU”? Would this unambiguously mean “your faith-communion”?

    Thanks a lot,

    David Lim

  4. Hi, David,

    Fronting the SOU would put a contrastive spotlight on YOUR fellowship of faith as opposed to Paul’s or somebody else’s. Such is spotlight seems quite irrelevant to the context. The key part of the noun phrase (head noun) and the subject for the later verb is KOINWNIA. It is this fellowship that Paul prays will become strong (ENERGHS), be energized. It ought to come first. PISTEWS limits the fellowship to the kind of fellowship that is built around a common faith, since there can be many possible kinds of fellowships. The SOU further limits the faith fellowship to the one which Philemon is part of. Presumably Paul is not part of that fellowship, or I would have expected “our” rather than “your”.

    Similarly, fronting THS PISTEWS would put a spotlight on FAITH and thereby remove the natural focus from FELLOWSHIP. I don’t think that would fit what Paul wanted to say. Ambiguities are not resolved by playing around with word order, but by context and the background information that is shared by the writer and reader. The main reason that we have a hard time dealing with grammatical ambiguities is that we lack much of the shared background information, in this case between Paul and Philemon and the situation that Philemon found himself in, including the local saints that he has shown such love towards. Later Paul appeals to Philemon to accept Onesimus into his fellowship of faith. V. 16 describes Onesmus as no longer a slave, but a beloved brother in the Lord. Paul appeals to Philemon to show love (including forgiveness/compassion) to Onesimus both as a human being (EN SARKI) and as a brother in the faith (EN KURIWi). After all, he has already shown his love to other brothers that he has fellowship with as indicated in verse 5 and 7. It is these verses that seem to be the most crucial part of the context. The immediately surronding verses (5,7) are always the most important.

    Iver Larsen

  5. Dear Iver,

    communion [which is] of your faith” is the same in this context because Philemon’s faith is precisely the reason and foundation of the communion that he has. Others may place their faith in different things but Philemon’s faith (not Paul’s faith or their common faith) is specifically mentioned in verse 5, which is “THN PISTIN HN ECEIS PROS TON KURION IHSOUN KAI EIS PANTAS TOUS AGIOUS” = “the faith that you have towards the lord Jesus and for all the holy [ones]”. This faith that Philemon has results in the communion that he has, therefore I believe verse 6 likewise is referring to his faith and the communion which is of his faith.

    Also, verse 5 mentions both Philemon’s love and his faith, “SOU THN AGAPHN KAI THN PISTIN”, and I find it natural that verse 6 is about his faith, “THS PISTEWS SOU” just as verse 7 is about his love, “TH AGAPH SOU”. Just as verse 7 says that Paul has much grace and comfort upon (based on) Philemon’s love because; “CARIN GAR ECOMEN POLLHN KAI PARAKLHSIN EPI TH AGAPH SOU”; so also it seems to me that verse 6 implies that Paul prays that the communion based on Philemon’s faith might come to be operative in recognition of every good thing in them for Christ Jesus; “H KOINWNIA THS PISTEWS SOU ENERGHS GENHTAI EN EPIGNWSEI PANTOS AGAQOU TOU EN HMIN EIS CRISTON IHSOUN”.

    So while I agree that the phrase is still ambiguous, I wish to ask if my interpretation of the grammatical structure is a valid possibility, since I see no reason why the phrase cannot refer to Philemon’s faith.

    Best regards,

    David Lim

  6. Dear David,

    Yes, I am not denying that the text talks about Philemon’s faith rather than Paul’s faith. But I still see faith as limiting the type of fellowship, Philemon’s faith fellowship. Philemon is not the only one having faith, but all who are part of that faith fellowship of his have that same faith in common. I think we have come as far as we can with the grammar. A grammatical analysis will only take you to a certain point, and the overall meaning is derived from grammar, semantics, pragmatics and context, all taken togehter.

    Iver Larsen

  7. Dear Iver,

    Agreed; grammar is just not enough, unfortunately; but I found your perspective interesting nonetheless even though I could not find sufficiently convincing evidence in this passage.

    Thanks a lot! David Lim

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