By Christopher VanDusen
In about 61 AD, the apostle Paul was being held under house arrest in the city of Rome, awaiting a decision from the Roman Emperor regarding the charges brought against him by his Jewish countrymen. They had accused him of many crimes against things they held sacred, and he was forced to use his right as a Roman citizen to ask the Emperor to grant him release from his imprisonment because of those charges.
While awaiting this decision, one of the churches he had planted sent a messenger to him who brought him news of their condition, and brought him things to support his needs — most likely including money. This church was the church in the Roman city of Philippi, located in northern Greece.
In response to the news he got, and the gifts they sent, Paul wrote a letter to them expressing his thanks, and instructing them on how to deal with some of the issues they were facing. This letter is what we call the Epistle to the Philippians.
In the first eleven verses of this letter, Paul introduces himself, and explains to the Philippians how he prays for them. As Christians, this is very instructive for how we view ourselves, and how we think about and pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially within our own churches.
Here’s what Paul says in Philippians 1:1-11:
“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve 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.”
In this introduction to his letter, Paul:
- writes as a slave of Christ to saints in Christ (v. 1)
- wishes God’s grace and peace for them (v. 2)
- joyfully thanks God for their partnership in the gospel (vss. 3-5)
- is confident of God’s perfecting of their work (v. 6)
- delights in them because they partake of the same grace (vss. 7-8)
- prays for their love so they’ll approve the excellent (vss 9-10)
- prays for God to be praised through them (v. 11).
Slaves of Christ to Saints in Christ
First, Paul introduces himself and his trainee, Timothy, as “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus”. Paul, of course, was the human founder of the Philippian church, while Timothy was his spiritual son, whom he was training to be a pastor. Now, the word, “servants”, is not actually a completely accurate translation of the original Greek word, doulos. The word doulos literally means “slave”, and was used in that way most of the time in that day. It refers to someone who is owned by someone else. And who is the Owner in this case? Christ Jesus. The word “Christ” comes from the Greek word christos, which literally means “anointed one”. It refers to Jesus’s role as God’s supreme Prophet, High Priest, and King of the church. “Jesus” is Jesus’s human name, which literally means “the Lord is salvation”, pointing to His role as Savior. However, in this introduction, He is clearly described as the Master of Paul and Timothy, and they are His slaves.
Second, Paul describes the Philippians as “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” The term “saints” is related to the words “sacred” and “sanctified”, which both literally mean “holy” or “set apart”. In this case, the Philippians are set apart from those who aren’t in Christ Jesus, since they are only saints “in Christ Jesus”. What does this mean? It means that, because Christ Jesus is set apart from non-Christian humanity as God’s Chosen One, the Philippians are also set apart as God’s chosen ones. Why? Because they’re in Christ Jesus, or spiritually united to Him. Therefore, God identifies them the same way He identifies Christ Jesus.
Paul goes further with his description of the Philippians, and specifically points out “the overseers and deacons”. The word “overseer” is translated from the Greek word episkopos, from which we get the word “episcopal”. It refers to someone who has charge over someone else, and is responsible for supervising them, and making sure they do something. The overseers mentioned here are the leaders of the Philippian church, who oversee the congregation, and lead it in fulfilling its mission. The word “deacon” is translated from the Greek word diakonos, and literally means “table waiter” or “servant”. Whereas the overseers are responsible for the spiritual oversight of the church, the deacons are responsible for the physical needs of the church. However, they are just as much saints in Christ Jesus as the rest of the church.
Slaves Wish the Philippians God’s Grace and Peace
In verse 2, Paul includes his typical “prayer-wish” by saying,
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
First, he wishes the Philippians “grace” from God their Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The word, “grace”, is translated from the Greek word charis (pronounced kah-reese) and literally means “benefit” or “favor”. However, since any benefit that people receive from God is undeserved, Christians often call God’s grace “unmerited favor”. So Paul wants their Father and Lord to give the Philippians more of Their undeserved favor.
Second, he wishes them “peace” from their Father and Lord. In the Old Testament, God’s peace refers to a state of spiritual prosperity and health, so Paul, being someone who believed and taught the Old Testament, has the same thing in mind. He doesn’t just want God to give the Philippians rest from conflict among each other, or peace of mind, but spiritual well-being.
And who are the Givers of these things? First, God the Father, and second, the Lord Jesus Christ, both of whom are able and willing to grant divine grace and peace to the Philippians.
Paul Joyfully Thanks God for Their Partnership in the Gospel
After identifying himself and the Philippians, Paul then expresses his joyful thankfulness for the Philippians’ partnership with him in the gospel. He puts it like this:
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.”
First, he says that he always thanks God whenever he remembers them in prayer. Second, he says that he always prays for them with joy.
Then, he explains that the reason for his habitual thankfulness and joy is that the Philippians have been partners with him in the gospel from the first day. First of all, what does it mean that they are partners with him in the gospel? Well, as I said in the introduction, they were one church who sent him money for his needs, so that was a major way in which they partnered with him in the gospel. But why is the partnership in the gospel? Because his whole mission was to share and teach the gospel. And what is the gospel? The good news that God sent His Son to die for our sins, to rise from the dead, and to reign as our King who offers to forgive all our sins if we trust in Him as our Substitute and King.
The second question that needs to be answered is what does Paul mean by “the first day”? This must refer to the first day that the church met together as a church. From that day to then, they had been helping Paul with his missionary work.
Paul is Confident of God’s Perfecting of Their Work
In verse 6, Paul expresses his confidence that God will perfect the work he started in the Philippians. This verse is often misunderstood because people assume that the “work” referred to is the work of salvation in the Philippians. But is that what the context shows? Let’s see:
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Notice that Paul says nothing specifically about the Philippians’ salvation, forgiveness, regeneration, or the like. Rather, what he’s talking about is the Philippians’ partnership with him in the gospel. That is the “good work” that God began in them.
And what is Paul confident that God will do? That He will “bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ”. First, what does it mean that God will complete it? It means that it will reach its intended end. That is, the Philippians’ missionary endeavors will result in the salvation of sinners, and in the glory of Christ. And when will this be brought to completion? On “the day of Jesus Christ”. Like “the day of the Lord” in the Old Testament, this refers to a climactic day of judgment that will result in the punishment of God’s enemies. And what day will that be? The day when Jesus Christ comes to earth to punish His enemies. However, it won’t only be to punish His enemies, but to complete the work of building the church that He started when He sent His apostles to make disciples of all the nations. And the Philippians’ work in that mission will be completed on that day.
Paul Delights in Them Because They Partake of the Same Grace
In verses 7-8, Paul expresses his delight in the Philippians because of their partnership with him. He conveys this as an explanation of why he’s thankful, joyful, and confident about what God is doing with them:
“It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.”
First of all, he explains that it’s right, or proper, for him to think that way about them. I say “think” because the Greek word translated “feel” doesn’t meant “feel” in any sense. Rather, it literally means “think”, or “direct thought toward”. Paul didn’t feel thankful and confident — he was thankful and confident.
Next, he explains the reason for this truth. The first reason is that he has a place for them in his heart. In that day, the heart didn’t refer primarily to the place of the affections, but to the place of the intellect and will. Instead, it was “the inward parts”, or “bowels”, which stood for the place of the affections. The heart referred to the innermost being of a person, so Paul is basically saying the Philippians are a part of him.
And why are they a part of him? Because they are partakers of the same grace of God that he’s a partaker of. What is this grace? He elaborates that this grace is,
“. . . both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”
The grace refers to his ministry of defending and confirming the gospel through his imprisonment and hearing with the Emperor. But how are the Philippians participants in this grace? By supporting him materially while he’s under house arrest. And what is he doing by appealing to the Emperor? He’s defending and strengthening the gospel. Since he had an audience with the Emperor, Caesar, as well as with anyone who interacted with him during his imprisonment, he was able to share the gospel, and to demonstrate that it was true with his Christlike behavior.
Paul finishes this explanation of his joyful thankfulness by simply saying that he longs to see the Philippians “with the affection of Christ Jesus”. Why does he call this affection that which belongs to Christ Jesus? Because he’s related to the Philippians in a similar way that Christ is — as their brother, and also as their shepherd — like the Eldest Brother and Good Shepherd.
Paul Prays for Their Love So They’ll Approve the Excellent
In verses 9-11a, Paul starts to detail exactly how he prays for the Philippians:
“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve 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 . . .”
First, he asks God to continually increase their love. But in what ways? First, with “knowledge”. The Greek word here is epiginosko, and doesn’t simply mean “knowledge”, but real knowledge, or knowledge that’s gained by experience. The second way he prays for their love to increase is in “all discernment”. Discernment refers to the act of evaluating, or judging, things, and determining how God defines and values them. So the first thing Paul prays for is that the Philippians’ love will continually increase in their experiential knowledge and their every act of discernment.
Second, Paul explains the purpose of this increased loving knowledge and discernment — so they’ll “approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ”. The word “excellent” doesn’t just mean something that’s good, but something that is better than its alternative. Really, Paul’s implying that he wants the Philippians to approve of what is best.
And why does Paul want them to do this? To “be pure and blameless for the day of Christ”. The word “pure”, in the Greek, was used to refer to something that was genuine, and not contaminated, such as pottery or metal. Hence, Paul wants the Philippians to be sincere and devoted believers, and not pretenders, worldly, or compromising. Second, the word “blameless” means that someone has nothing in their life that someone else can blame them for — no habitual sin, or something that may be easily seen as sin. In other words, their purity refers to their inward righteousness, while their blamelessness refers to their outward righteousness.
But why does Paul want them to be pure and blameless? “For the day of Christ.” Again, Paul is referring to the impending and climactic day of judgment, when Christ comes, punishes His enemies, and rewards His people. On this day of judgment, Paul wants the Philippians to be judged by Christ as having been “pure and blameless”.
And what will be the result of approving what’s excellent, and being pure and blameless? They’ll be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ”. Is this fruit the fruit that comes from righteousness, or the fruit which is righteousness? Well, if it’s the first, then the righteousness must be right standing with God, whereas if it’s the second, then the righteousness must be right character of heart.
Since Paul is in the context of talking about righteous character, it seems that Paul is speaking of that type of righteousness here. However, there are also other Scriptures that shed light on this. The best example is James 3:18, where James says,
“And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (ESV)
Here, the fruit, or harvest, is righteousness itself. In fact, this idea of the fruit of righteousness comes from the Old Testament, in such places as the Proverbs, from which James basis its writing style.
Given these two facts, it seems correct to see Paul as speaking of the fruit, or product, which is righteous character. This, of course, only comes “through Jesus Christ”. Therefore, Paul is saying that he wants the Philippians to approve what’s excellent, so they’ll be “filled”, or overflowing with, the fruit of their approval, which is righteous character from Jesus Christ.
Paul Prays for God’s Praise Through Them
Finally, Paul concludes his explanation of his prayers by saying that he prays for their increased love and approval of the excellent so they’ll be “pure and blameless for the day of Christ . . . to the glory and praise of God”.
The word “glory” comes from the Greek word doxa, which is used in 1 Corinthians 15 to refer to the light of stars. It literally means “apparentness”. Since it’s God’s glory, it refers to the communication of His character and attributes. In other words, it’s who He is on display. The word “praise”, of course, refers to describing and admiring God. These two things are the ultimate purpose for which Paul prays for the Philippians, and for which the Philippians are pure and blameless, and filled with righteousness.
But how will these things come about? When Christians manifest righteousness, they bring attention to God, since He’s righteous, and as a result of their behavior, people praise God. In eternity, both people and angels will praise God for His work in His people.
Are You a Thankful, Prayerful, Joyful, and Affectionate Partner in the Gospel?
How does this passage apply to you? First of all, are you a slave and set apart one in Christ Jesus? If not, then you are a slave of evil and set apart as one of God’s enemies. You need to trust in Jesus as your Redeemer who took God’s punishment for your sins, and as your King who rose from the dead and now reigns in heaven, or you will face Him as your Judge who will eternally punish you for your sins against Him. If you trust in Jesus as your Substitute and Master, then God will forgive all your sins and make you one of His children.
If you’re trusting in Jesus as your Redeemer and King, then do you also wish for God’s grace and peace for your brethren, so they will become more like Christ, and obey Him consistently?
Do you also thank God for your partners in the gospel, especially your local church?
Do you also rejoice in prayer because of your partners in the gospel?
Are you also sure that God will bring your involvement in missions work to completion?
Do you also hold your gospel partners in your heart?
Do you also yearn for your gospel partners with the affection of Christ Jesus?
Do you also pray that their love will abound more and more in knowledge and all discernment, so they may approve what’s excellent, and be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, to the glory and praise of God?
Are you seeking God to make your love increase in knowledge and discernment, so you’ll approve what’s excellent to be pure and blameless for the day of Christ?
This passage calls us to devote ourselves to praying for and working together with our brothers and sisters to spread the gospel and be pure and blameless. Are you a thankful, prayerful, and affectionate partner in the gospel?
All Scripture references are taken from:
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.