Today we begin our journey into Philippians. This is an epistle written by Paul most likely at the end of his imprisonment. Three other books, Ephesians (which we just finished), Colossians, and Philemon are considered along with Philippians as the prison epistles. We’re not exactly sure when all four of these books were written during Paul’s imprisonment and in what order, but seeing as it is likely that Philippians was written last (or at least close to last) we may see some very distinctive ties to earlier books.
Philippians is considered an informal epistle. This means that the words flowed from Paul (under the Spirit’s guidance, of course) and were not put in an extremely logical and structured format. This is unlike Ephesians which was a formal epistle. The logic and structure of thought in Ephesians was more formal than we will see in Philippians.
This is an important distinction for Philippians. Knowing this, we don’t necessarily need to primarily look for the rigid structure and flow of logic that you would find in other “formal” epistles. Reading Philippians is more like reading a letter from a dear friend, one who is expressing his overflowing love for you. As opposed to reading an ordered list of godly applications or a theological deep dive into an aspect of Christ.
Throughout Philippians Paul covers a lot of different topics and themes, but one stands out above the others. That is the subject of joy and its expression through the verb rejoice. Both joy and rejoicing are words (a noun and a verb) found throughout Philippians. This repetition should draw us to the joy that Paul is experiencing as well as the joy that we as believers should be experiencing. But it’s more than just joy that Paul is trying to get across to us. It is a joy within circumstances. Overall, Paul is saying be in a state of joy, always rejoicing in all circumstances:
as we imitate Christ (a.k.a., Christlikeness, this one will become more and more important as we study Philippians)
along with our brothers and sisters in Christ
as a safeguard for us in dangerous times
in our walk
We read in Philippians 3:1 the recurring theme of joy:
1Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you.
But understand there is an even deeper theme we will find as we walk through the letter to the Philippians. Yes, this letter talks of an unbounded joy. However, we must ask how we seek and obtain this unbounded joy. Once we find it, how do we rest in this joy? As we dig deeper into the joys of Philippians we will answer these questions and more.
1 Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
This letter is directed towards the church, the believing body of Christ. But here in verse 1 Paul additionally calls out the overseers (elders) and deacons. These are the leaders of the church and as such they are called out specifically to take this letter to heart and be an example to their flock. In fact, Paul does ask the leadership of the Philippian church to work to resolve conflicts later in this book. However, I think that Paul specifically points to the leadership here to imitate Paul’s example of joy and contentment.
Notice that every time Paul mentions joy or rejoicing that it is within the context of something else such as persecution or our walk with Christ or our unity as a church body. It is likely that the Philippian church was experiencing some persecution probably from without since Paul does not really chastise this church as he does some other churches for their internal strife.
The last line of the introductory paragraph introduces a common greeting as well as a way that Paul closed his letters (see the last two verses of Ephesians 6). While this is a loving greeting to the faithful I believe it is also closely tied to the idea of being joyful. Keep this in mind as we study Philippians.
3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, 5 in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.
Paul begins his letter with telling the church at Philippi how he is remembering them in his prayers. Prayer is one of the most important things we can do. It should always be first before we do anything, even reading the bible. Paul confidently believes prayer is powerful and wants to show this by placing it first in his letter.
Paul describes his prayers for the Philippians as being offered to God along with joy. All his prayers for them have been offered with joy. This is important because Paul also offered prayer with tears for other churches. But the church at Philippi was deserving of joyful prayer. Why? Well verse 5 explains the why. It seems that the Philippians had been partnering and in unity with Paul ever since the church at Philippi had been established by Paul (see Ac 16:12–40). Indeed we will soon see later in this book that the Philippians had been in partnership with Paul and his ministry since the beginning, for example:
12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,
15 And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.
Partnership (or participation as Paul states) in the ministry of one another is precious to Paul and caused him great joy. Joy to the point that it was difficult to express in words as we shall see in verse 1:8. You see, this kind of joy is a result of working closely with others in ministry to further the gospel of Christ. We can read in Ac 16::12-40 that the ministry of Paul was great and brought about many confessions of faith not to mention the founding of the Philippian church. However, we must not forget the persecution that went along with that victory in Christ. Paul and Silas were wrongfully imprisoned, beaten, and tortured. How could such a horrible persecution give birth to joy in Paul? Well, Paul was not one to look at the situation either in the past or in the here and now. Rather, Paul looked to the future. Paul saw that the ministry Christ had given him was bearing fruit, that people were being saved and their future was to be with Christ forever. Paul always looked to the future. The future is where our hope lies. A future with Christ and with the body of believers in heaven for all eternity. Looking to the future in this way is the foundation of our joy.
6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. 7 For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me.
Because of the way the Philippian church has acted in faith, Paul was supremely confident that God will continue their work to perfection. Now this word for “perfection” is probably more aptly translated as “completion” (as it is in many other Bible translations). For believers working in ministry this is probably the most important thing that they could have heard.
Put yourself in their shoes as they are reading this letter from Paul. They have heard how Paul is praying for them and now that Paul is supremely confident that God will continue their ministry to completion. What a joyous moment that would have been for the believers at Philippi. Knowing that their work was not in vain and that their continued ministry into the future will not only be blessed by God but will give glory to God.
Verse 7 would have brought to mind the imprisonment that Paul and Silas endured in grace for those in Philippi. Again, read Ac 16:12-40 for a deeper understanding of Paul’s ministry to them and what it cost. Through this ordeal the Philippian believers shared (partook) in grace by seeing to Paul’s needs before, during, and after his imprisonment there. Through this same grace Christ was able to bring people such as Paul and Silas’ jailer, his family, and many others to salvation. This was made possible through the grace that Paul and Silas lived out towards their jailer and possibly towards the other prisoners held in that jail (remember how none of the prisoners escaped the jail, they all most likely followed Paul and Silas’ example and stayed).
Understand that this jailer had probably overseen the beating of Paul and Silas and then bound them in stocks, which was a very painful ordeal. Paul and Silas had no reason to be gracious towards the jailer but they were nonetheless. This grace helped to bring about the jailer’s salvation. You can see that if Paul’s joy was founded on what was happening in the present, there would be no joy…and no grace. But because his joy is founded on the future hope in Christ, grace abounded all the more.
8 For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.
This single verse expresses Paul’s love and affection for those at Philippi more than any other verse. Paul begins with “For God is my witness…” showing that he is speaking the truth. Paul would never have written those words if he felt even a small bit different. Truly his words are the truth.
Paul longs for the Philippians with affection. This word for “affection” in Greek is special. There is no other word in Greek that expresses such a deep inward affection and tender mercy towards others. But Paul adds that this inward tender affection comes from Christ Jesus. Jesus fills our hearts with love and only then can we let that love flow out to others as Paul is doing.
Why does he express his love for the Philippians in such deep terms? Because of their participation with Paul in ministry and in the way that they all share in the same grace together. This brought Paul inexpressible joy and affection towards them.
9 And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment,
10 so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; 11 having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
As a result of this joy Paul prays all the more for his beloved Philippians.
Paul prays for an over-abundance of love. But notice that this love is rooted in “real knowledge” and “all discernment”. The Greek word for “real knowledge” a slightly nuanced one, but is aptly translated here. The idea of “real knowledge” involves a deep and personal relationship with Jesus. One that can be cultivated through Bible study and much prayer. This seeking out of real knowledge will lead us to correct discernment between good and evil in all situations.
As our love grows and grows in true knowledge and discernment we are able to make appropriate judgements as to things that Christ Himself would approve of (i.e., things that are excellent). This maturity in our faith allows us to continue in our sanctification so that we will be holy to a holy Lord. This is our praise to our Lord and savior.