We all too often just skim the introductions to the Epistles. Yeah, yeah, greetings and salutations. Ho hum. When do we get to the good stuff?
But in Paul’s letters the introductions ought never be overlooked. They introduce the key themes he’s going to touch on and also give us keen insights as to where he’s coming from in his address. For example, why does Paul when writing to the Philippians not invoke the title Apostle? Of the 13 letters which bear Paul’s name, only four don’t include it (Phil., 1 & 2 Thess, and Philemon). On several occasions in Philippians, Paul refers to koinonia between himself and the Philippian church. koinonia can refer to partnership, community, fellowship. It implies a relationship not of authority, but of equality. Paul wrote at length to the Corinthians about his authority as an Apostle. Why the different approach? Well, as we dig through the different letters we see different types of Churches. The Church of Philippi is showered with praise for all they are doing. There’s a few squabbles and a bit of trouble, but Paul writes to them, “I thank my God every time I remember you,constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing (or partnership) in the gospel from the first day until now” (1:3). There is no need to use that title Apostle in this situation. When writing to the Galatians and Corinthians he has to set them straight. They’ve got a lot of drama and fighting and general ugliness happening. So he pulls out the title to demonstrate that he has the authority to speak words of loving correction. He, as an Apostle has a basis on which to claim the right to provide that type of instruction.
There are some words of correction in Philippians, but yet there is a sense that these issues are minor. They have issues, but Paul calls them “all God’s holy people”. Sometimes we (to varying extents depending on your tradition) romanticize “the Saints” (hagios which just means “holy ones”). We make an exclusive club of God’s best brightest; the folks who have moral and spiritual accomplishments above and beyond ours. We look at St. Paul, St. Patrick, St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi etc.- giants of the faith, who perform miracles and convert nations. But Paul uses the same word hagios to refer to his friends. The mostly anonymous Christians of Philippi who worship, pray, work, love, and live life. The whole Philippian church is God’s holy people. Remember holy doesn’t mean spiritually and morally perfect. It means different and set apart. The Christians at Philippi are set apart by and for the Gospel. Their holiness is not about their accomplishments, but about the fact that they are “in Christ”. They have been drawn by the Gospel into Christ and Christ’s people. We’ll get back to that in a second.
The Philippian church is often called Paul’s “favourite”. Paul says of them, “I hold you in my heart” (1:7) (some debate regarding whether it should be “you hold me in your heart” [NRSV]; see G. Walter Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians [Pillar New Testament Commentary], 58-9) and “I long for you” (1:8).As we go through chapters 3 & 4 we’ll see how this church is a vital part in funding Paul’s ministry, and supporting various churches’ work. They are generous, and faithful in the mission of the Gospel. They are engaged in Philippi, and supporting beyond their city as they are able.
The Philippian Church was planted by Paul. You can read the story of their origins in Acts 16. Paul, Luke, Silas and Timothy are planning to head to Bithynia, but the Holy Spirit actually blocks them. And then Paul has a dream of a Macedonian man asking Paul and his co-workers to come help them. So they head off to Macedonia, eventually ending up in Phillipi (a city built to honour Phillip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, who spread the Hellenistic rule and cultural influence across the Eastern Mediterranean and as far east as India), and there is no synagogue (a quorum of 10 men [sorry ladies] was required for a synagogue). Generally, Paul would go first to the Synagogue and preach there. The few Jews (mainly women) in the city worshipped by the river outside the city walls. A woman named Lydia (a wealthy merchant woman [quite the accomplishment in her cultural milieu], who had moved to the city from Asia Minor, a gentile who worshipped the God of Israel w/ the Jews) coverts, is baptized and hosts them. After only a short time Paul and Silas have been thrown in jail. But they are released and asked to leave the city. And their short work is able to build a church which thrives. In just a short time, a healthy, growing Church is established, and with little training, they’ve become partners in regional church planting. This theme of koinonia- the work of community building and partnership- becomes one the key themes of the book of Philippians (referred to 6 times in all).
The second dominant theme in Philippians as a whole is the Lordship of Jesus Christ (see Hansen, 32-35). I won’t say much on this one this time around, as it comes up a lot, especially in chapters 2 & 3, and this is a huge theme across the board in the Pauline epistles. Various Pauline letters have varying degrees of emphasis on “Jesus is Lord”. Here in Philippians we see “Lord” 15x, “Christ” 37x, Jesus 21x. Jesus shows up three times in the first 2 verses (and again in verses 6, 8, 10 & 11). Philippians has a lot to say about Jesus, and specifically with the slant that he is Messiah/Christ and Lord. But we’ll explore that as it gets fleshed out by Paul.
Paul then says of his friends, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ…” (1:6). When I was little, we used to have this wall hanging on the door to the room I shared with my brothers. It had a picture of a small boy trying to hide a sling shot behind his back. Under the boy were the words “Please be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet.” One thing that becomes clear in Philippians, perhaps more than any other New Testament book is the idea of the progression of discipleship and the connection between salvation and the journey. Before Christians were called Christians, before Christianity got that name, it was called “the Way” (Acts 19:23, 24:22). The content of Christianity is not static propositions; we do make several key affirmations, and proclaim them to the world, but our faith is not an equation to be solved or a set of dogmatic things to be affirmed. It is walking the Way of Jesus. And that walk is not finished until “the day of Jesus Christ”- that is, the day when he makes all things new. Philippians makes it clear that we walk towards our glorious future, confident, not in ourselves, but in Jesus Christ. Our future is held certain in Christ. “A sure future has already begun in the present” (Gordon Fee, Philippians [IVPNTC], 48). Our transformation is still on the go, but our future glory is being made manifest in the present.
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers records an encounter of St. Sarapion (an Egyptian monk) who when on a pilgrimage to Rome met a celebrated monastic woman. She remained in her house, never leaving, and never even standing, she sat in prayer for years on end. Sarapion asked her “Why are you sitting here”. The woman replied “I am not sitting, I am on a journey” (Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 7). Our faith is not a set of principles, but a living out of the life of Christ- being a work in progress. We have confidence that God has begun a good work in us, but he is still working it out. Not being perfect doesn’t exclude you from God’s holy people.
Christianity is a journey with Christ, walking the Jesus way, following him. It must be lived out first hand. Kallistos Ware says “No one can be a Christian at second hand. God has children, but he has no grandchildren” (Ware, 8). God has begun a good work in you, but he isn’t finished.
So what is that “good work”? Well given the community mentioned all around this phrase and the plural “y’all”, it seems Paul is speaking of the development of the holy people of God, the Gospel community. This good work includes, but is not limited to individual salvation for each person (Hansen, 50). God has begun to make all things new. That which is in Christ is part of the new creation. God has created a “new creation people”- a people of the Resurrection. We are the people who have new life through death. This good work is the regeneration of creation, through the working out and fulfilment of the gospel. “On that day of Christ Jesus, the new creation of God- the new community of Christ- will be perfect and complete” (Hansen, 51).
But one thing we also have to grasp about this journey- it’s not always a straight line. Sometimes it’ll feel like one step forward two steps back. It may look less like a freeway and more like cooked spaghetti dropped on the floor; and that’s ok. The point isn’t “am I getting better or further along”. The question is am I “in Christ?”; “am I pursuing Christ?”; “am I confident in the God who is began a good work in me?”. Paul, in later chapters compares this process to a race not yet finished. He is running, pursuing the prize, but isn’t there yet. God has begun the good work, and he will see it through. Paul, and we, can have confidence in God’s follow-through.
Then Paul adds a prayer (common in ancient epistle format): “And this is my prayer, that your love may abound more and more with knowledge and full insight” (1:9). That word abound (περισσεύῃ) can be translated as “to be extremely rich, overflow, grow, progress, excel” (Hansen, 57). Paul praises their work, but then prays that they would learn to excel more, progress more, and become more abundant. There is always room for more and more grace.
You can never out-grace God.
There is always room to grow in love. “Paul viewed love not as a static possession, but as a dynamic process. True love is not something you possess; true love constantly grows and increases.” (Hansen, 57).
But Paul isn’t done there. This abundant love and knowledge is “so that you may approve/discern what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (1:10-11). Love and insight allows us to discern what is best/excellent. Love isn’t just that warm and gushy feeling, but it is the desire and the working for the best for another. “Love seeks what is best for the other person, but what is best is not always obvious” (Hansen, 60). We grow in love so that we can be better at discerning and helping others. We grow in love to be better at showing love.
This ongoing transformation allows to be “pure and blameless”. We aren’t perfect, but we can be pure and blameless? Wait, what?
Pure in this sense refers to “sincere, or without hidden motives or pretense” (Hansen, 61; cf. Fee, 53). In other words, we love because we choose love. We don’t show kindness and love for selfish reasons; to get kindness in return. We do it selflessly and sacrificially- we live in a cruciform manner. We do what is best for the other simply because it is what’s best. “To be pure and blameless is not the result of a self-improvement program, but the good work of God. God’s good work of multiplying love in the community is a work in progress” (Hansen, 61) and is a work which will produce the fruit of righteousness- not a righteousness which comes from performance, but from Christ. Paul provides some discussion later on his earlier life. He says he had all sorts of things he could brag about, but he chucked all that performance-based religiousity for a righteousness from Christ;
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ,the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christand the power of his resurrection (3:4b-10a)
Christ living in us produces this righteousness which brings glory to God.
So, here’s what you need to remember (aka the three main points of Philippians)…
Be encouraged, God’s at work to do something good in his people. It isn’t done yet, but he will see it through to completion.
We can be a community which brings the gospel to our place, and be partners in the global work of taking the gospel to all nations. We’re all on the same team.
Jesus is Lord, and we are his holy people.