In studying Ephesians last week, I found that 1:15 has some “stock” wording:
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints (NRSV)
To my ear, that sounds like “typical Paul.” I quickly recalled, though, that Philemon, which is easily among my three favorite¹ letters in the NT, includes similar wording:
I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus (NRSV)
We could slice and dice and parse the English translation in this version or any number of others. We could discuss the chronology and Christology of both letters, but I doubt there would be any major discoveries in those respects. The thing is, the Philemon wording is not the same as the wording in Ephesians, and that fact just might be significant. The difference might be attributable only to style or preference . . . or it could give us a clue into one or more emphases in each letter. Let’s break it down a little.
In Ephesians, the hearing is in the aorist tense—a basic past tense—but it is a participle, and participles come in different flavors, and my palate isn’t refined in this area, ll just leave that alone before I get myself in grammar trouble. In Philemon, the hearing is in the present tense but is again a participle in “mood.”
Note the next difference, carefully. The succeeding phrases are quite different. In Greek, word order is not nearly the same thing as it is in English, but these are two different bunches of coconuts. “Your love and faith that you have toward Jesus and all the saints.”
Ephesians: I have heard of your . . .
faith in the Lord Jesus (pistin en to kurio iesou)
the conjunction and (kai)
the love for/to all the saints (ten agapen ten eis pantas tous hagious)
Philemon: I hear of your . . .
love and faith that you have (agapen kai ten pistin en exeis)
toward Jesus and all the saints (pros ton kurion iesoun kai eis pantas tous hagious)
Isn’t the difference curious? I observe first the inclusion of the verb “to have” (exeis) which is not present in Ephesians. This verb is used again later in Philemon, so its (ostensibly unnecessary) inclusion here may be notable.
Next—and I think quite significant textually—are the phrases that involve faith, love, Jesus, and the saints. Philemon has things sort of mashed together on both sides of the verb. Whereas the wording in Ephesians is more “stock,” Paul’s wording in Philemon reveals, or at least hints at, a purposeful mixing of things: love and faith can both be directed toward Jesus and other Christians. (1) Love of others and (2) faith toward Jesus are obviously norms, but we can also love Jesus. Moreover, we learn in Philemon that Paul is attempting to elicit faithful behaviors from Philemon (and his house church) toward Onesimus, who is newly a Christian brother. This possibility becomes especially pregnant when pistis (faith) is translated as “faithfulness” a la Matthew Bates.² Bates continues to influence my thinking, now particularly as I study Ephesians 6:10-20 and the shield of faithfulness.
¹ Not only is Philemon a favorite; it is among my three most ardently studied—and not because it’s brief. This is no “‘Jesus wept’-is-my-verse-to-memorize” thing. It’s simply a great letter!