Philippians 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Prayer as Petition

Since Paul's thanksgiving for his Philippian friends takes place in the context of his praying for them (vv. 3-4), he now goes on to spell out the content of his prayer. Here are some specifics regarding the "good work" begun in them which he repeatedly prays God will bring "to completion" on "the day of Christ."

The prayer report is also a single sentence, whose overall concern and meaning seem clear enough. The connections between the various parts can be easily traced:

Paul prays (1) for their love to abound yet more and more;

that (2) this be accompanied by full knowledge and moral insight,

so that (3) they might approve those things that really matter,

so that (4) they might be unsullied and blameless when
Christ returns,

as (5) they are now full of the fruit of righteousness,

fruit that is (6) effected by Christ Jesus

and (7) for the glory and praise of God.

Items 1, 2, 3 and 5 thus give the "what" of his prayer; item 4 gives the "why"; and item 6 offers the means to the (ultimate) end expressed in item 7. The "what" begins on a familiar note, that their love grow still more and more. It ends on a similar note, that they bear the fruit of righteousness. The middle item (3), though a bit puzzling, is likewise concerned with behavior--that their knowledge (of God) and moral insight (into God's will) also increase so that they may test and approve what really counts. The whole, therefore, is singularly concerned with their behavior, with the ethical life of the believer in Christ.

Paul in part prays for the continuation of the very things for which he has just given thanks. This should surprise us none, since both reports reflect the same basic theological framework--present existence in Christ as both "already" and "not yet." This is where the "what" and the "why" join: Paul's prayer for them is that they might live the life of the future in the present, so that they might thereby be blameless at its consummation on the day of Christ. The concern is with present life in Christ; the orientation is toward its consummation--that they live for Christ now, and do so in light of his coming day.What Paul Prays For (1:9) Paul's primary concern for the church in Philippi, as he will exhort them in 2:2, is that their love may abound [yet] more and more. Love is such a common word to us that it is easy to miss Paul's concern. Following the lead of the Septuagint, his use of love first of all points to the character of God, and to God's actions toward his people based on that character. God's love is demonstrated especially in his forbearance and kindness (1 Cor 13:4), manifested ultimately in the death of Christ for his enemies (Rom 5:6-8).

Thus the primary connotation of love is not "affection," as in the preceding phrase about Christ (Phil 1:8), but rather a sober kind of love that places high value on a person and actively seeks that person's benefit. This is what Paul now prays will abound ( be present in an abundant way) yet more and more among the Philippian believers. The rest of the prayer, after all, emphasizes love not as affection but as behavior, behavior that is both pure (stemming from right motives) and blameless (lacking offense).

The more and more indicates that Paul is not getting on them for something they lacked. His concern is rather that "selfish ambition and vain conceit" (2:3) not undermine what has long characterized them, to which 2 Corinthians 8:1-6 bears eloquent testimony. The problem is similar to that occasionally experienced by families, where love is sometimes more easily shown toward those on the outside, who are known very little and with whom one does not have constant association. But actively to love on the inside, to love those with whom one is in constant relationship and where one's own place in the sun is constantly being threatened--that can be another matter. Thus he prays that the love that has long characterized them will overflow still more and more toward one and all.

Paul also prays (item 2) for a similar increase in knowledge and depth of insight. Although this phrase grammatically modifies that your love may abound more and more, it nonetheless moves in a slightly new direction, so that Paul is in effect praying a second thing. Along with an ever-increasing love, he wants them to experience an ever-increasing knowledge (of God and his will) and moral insight.

The primary sense of the word translated knowledge is not so much "knowledge about" something as the kind of "full" or "innate" knowing that comes from experience or personal relationship. The second word denotes moral understanding based on experience, hence something close to "moral insight." Very likely this phrase is something of an abbreviated equivalent to the similar phrase in the (roughly contemporary) prayer in Colossians 1:9 ("that by means of all of the Spirit's wisdom and insight you might be filled with the knowledge of God's will"--my translation).Why Paul Prays for Them (1:10) The opening clause of the prayer is followed by two purpose clauses. One (item 3) expresses immediate purpose, why they need ever-increasing knowledge and moral insight--so that you may be able to discern what is best. The other (item 4) expresses his ultimate concern for them--so that they may be pure and blameless until [better "for"] the day of Christ.

For a truly Christian life, some things matter and others do not. In light of the term fruit of righteousness in verse 11 and the contrast in 3:1-11 between righteousness in terms of lawkeeping and that which is through faith in Christ, this petition probably anticipates the warning and personal testimony of that passage. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for a thing, Paul says elsewhere (1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:6; 6:15). What counts, rather, is keeping the commandments of God (1 Cor 7:19), which in Galatians 5:6 is interpreted as "faith expressing itself through love." This is the kind of insight he prays for them to have, so that they will be able to continue to discern what is best.

The ultimate purpose for the preceding concerns, that they might be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, reflects the urgency already voiced in the thanksgiving that they be found complete at the coming of Christ. Pure most likely refers to purity (sincerity) of motive, in terms of relationships within the community. Likewise, the word translated blameless is not Paul's regular word for this idea. Ordinarily, as in 2:15 and 3:6, he uses a word denoting behavior that is without observable fault. But this word suggests being blameless in the sense of "not offending" or not causing someone else to stumble.

This choice of words probably reflects the present situation in Philippi. The behavior of some appears to have the latent possibility of mixed motives, or at least is a potential source of offense. Paul prays that they may stand blameless on the day of Christ, not having offended others through equivocal behavior.The Ultimate Goal of the Prayer (1:11) Not one to leave his prayer hanging on what may sound like a negative note, Paul immediately qualifies his aspiration for them in verse 10 in two ways. First, by pure and blameless until the day of Christ he means that he wants them to arrive at that day already filled with the fruit of righteousness (item 5), whose source, as always, is through Christ Jesus (item 6). Second, the ultimate goal of everything, especially righteousness expressed by their ever-increasing love, is that they might live to the glory and praise of God (item 7).

But by the fruit of righteousness does Paul intend "filled with fruit that comes from the righteousness Christ has provided," thus emphasizing the fruitfulness that has God's gift of right standing with himself as its source? Or does he intend "filled with fruit consisting of the righteousness that marks one who belongs to Christ," thus emphasizing the righteousness that, coming through Christ, has a new kind of content? Although my theological proclivities lie with the former, the Old Testament background of this phrase and the grammar of the sentence favor the latter.

In this letter the word righteousness occurs elsewhere only in 3:6 and 3:9. In contrast to "legalistic righteousness" (3:6), Paul says God has given him a different righteousness that expresses itself in particular by his adopting a cruciform lifestyle (3:9-11), like that of Christ himself (2:6-8). To be filled with the fruit of righteousness for Paul means to go the way of the cross, self-emptying so as to become servant of all in place of "selfish ambition" and, in that servanthood, humbling oneself to the point of dying for another in place of "vain conceit" (2:3-8). This is what it means for Paul to "know Christ." This is the righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ. All other righteousness, especially religious righteousness, is filth in comparison (3:8).

Such righteousness alone is to the glory and praise of God (item 7). Here is the ultimate goal of all things. Everything is to the single end that God will receive glory through the work he is doing in their lives. Love that reflects God's own love is the only righteousness that counts, the only righteousness that is to God's glory and to his praise.

This prayer is ever relevant for those who are caregivers in the church--pastors, leaders, teachers, parents and others. Most people entrusted to our spiritual nurture, like all of us, need love to overflow--not to mention the need to have knowledge of God and insight into his will also overflow so that they (we) may give themselves only to what really counts as believers in Christ. Who of them--of us--does not need to be filled with the kind of righteousness that characterizes God and that Christ has modeled? Thus we would do well to use these very words when we pray for those in our care.

There is paradigm here as well. Here is one who has a keen sense of priorities in Christ and who is concerned when those in his care grow slack in some areas. That this prayer anticipates a great deal of the burden of the letter itself tells us much about Paul in prayer. Before talking to the Philippians about some matters that need an increase, he talks to God about them--and tells them so. We could learn much here.

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Prayer as Thanksgiving

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Paul's Affairs: Reflections on Imprisonment

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