Philippians 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Prayer as Thanksgiving

In every truly Christian life the most obvious evidence of the experience of God's grace and peace is gratitude and joy (cf. 4:4, 6). Thus in his earliest letter, to a church that was experiencing severe trial, Paul concluded by exhorting, "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this [all three of these] is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess 5:16-18). Our letter is the clear evidence, some twelve years or so later, that Paul was as good as his preaching.

It had long been Paul's habit to begin his letters with a thanksgiving and prayer report. This is not to be understood as thanksgiving and prayer in general, however, but it anticipates matters taken up in the body of the letter. Here one often finds expressed both the immediate urgencies and the theological basis for much in the letter. Philippians is no exception.

Three matters make up most of our letter: (1) genuine gratitude for the Philippians' partnership with him in the gospel over many years, evidenced most recently by a material gift brought by Epaphroditus; (2) news about his present imprisonment and what he expects to come of it; and (c) an appeal for steadfastness and unity in light of some relational breakdowns, present opposition and the danger of false teaching.

These concerns predominate in Paul's thanksgiving and prayer. First, he is genuinely grateful for them; indeed every time he thinks about them in prayer, he both thanks God for them--and for their lifelong partnership with him in the gospel--and prays for them with great joy, confident that God will bring his own good work in them to full fruition (vv. 3-6). Second, Paul's present joy and confidence stem from his deep sense of personal relationship with them, evidenced both by their partnership with him in the gospel and his profound affection for them (vv. 7-8). They share in God's grace with him even in his present chains.

Finally, he reports the content of his prayer, whose concern is primarily for an increase in their love for one another, and thus that they be filled with the fruit of righteousness now and blameless at the coming of Christ (vv. 9-11). Thus through prayer and thanksgiving he anticipates the various concerns of the letter--their partnership with him in the gospel, his deep concern for them, and the need for love to replace internal bickering.Thanksgiving--to God for His People (1:3-4) At this point in letters between friends, the writer usually inquires about her friend's present well-being, as in "I trust everything is finally going better for you, and that you have gotten over the bug that has been plaguing you." Ancient letters of friendship also began in this fashion, very often in a similar, somewhat standardized form, usually as a prayer-wish to the gods (e.g., "before anything else I pray that you are well"). Like the greeting, in Paul's hands these kinds of conventions become transformed by the gospel.

Paul's various thanksgivings reveal some generally consistent patterns. First, they are always directed toward God on behalf of the people who are receiving the letter. Paul is first of all grateful for them, for the special gift of brothers and sisters whom God has brought into his life, not for "blessings" or material goods. Second, the thanksgiving occurs whenever his thoughts are focused on them in prayer (every time I remember you). Third, for Paul prayer and thanksgiving blend; his thanksgiving for them always takes place in the context of his regular habit of praying for them (in all my prayers . . . always).

What is different in our letter is the mention of making his prayer and thanksgiving with joy. Whatever else, the Philippians were for Paul a cause of great joy. The word order ("with joy the prayer making") gives this phrase special emphasis; indeed this is the first of sixteen occurrences of this word group (joy) in the letter. While this is not as dominant a motif as many suggest, it is a recurring motif and can scarcely be missed. The very awkwardness of the phrase in this case forces it upon the Philippians'--and our--attention.

Joy lies at the heart of the Christian experience of the gospel; it is the fruit of the Spirit in any truly Christian life, serving as primary evidence of the Spirit's presence (Rom 14:17; Gal 5:22). Precisely because this is so, joy transcends present circumstances; it is based altogether on the Spirit, God's way of being present with his people under the new covenant. Hence joy prevails for Paul even in prison; he will urge that it prevail for the Philippians as well in their present suffering in the face of opposition.

Here, then, is the paradigm of Pauline spirituality: thanksgiving and prayer, filled with joy, on behalf of all of God's people in Philippi. See further on 4:4-7.Basis for Thanksgiving--The Past (1:5) Paul's thanksgiving is not finished. Verses 3-4 focused on the Philippian believers themselves and Paul's joy in remembering them in prayer. He now indicates the basis of his joy, which serves as further reason for his thanksgiving: their partnership (koinonia) in the furtherance of the gospel.

The precise nuance of koinonia in this clause, however, is not easy to pin down. Usually translated into English as "fellowship," the word primarily refers to participating in something rather than sharing something in common with others. Its basic sense here, then, is "participation in the spread of the gospel," which in light of verse 7 very likely carries the further connotation of doing so in "partnership with Paul."

It does not take much reading of Paul's letters to recognize that the gospel is the singular passion of his life; that passion is the glue that holds this letter together. The gospel, especially in Philippians, for Paul refers primarily neither to a body of teaching nor to proclamation. Above all, the gospel has to do with Christ, both his person and his work. To preach Christ (vv. 15-16) is to preach the gospel, which is all about Christ; to preach the gospel is to proclaim God's good news of salvation that he has effected in Christ. Thus Paul's joy in prayer is prompted by their partnership in [the furtherance of] the gospel.

The present focus is on the Philippians' longtime association with Paul in the gospel, from the first day until now. According to the rest of the letter this took place in two ways: first by their sharing with him of their material means as he is imprisoned for the sake of the gospel (4:15-16); second by their proclaiming, and living in keeping with, the gospel in Philippi, where they are urged to "contend as one [person] for the faith of the gospel" (1:27) as they there "hold out the word of life" (2:16).Basis for Thanksgiving--The Future (1:6) Paul is still not done with his thanksgiving. His mention of their participation in the gospel from the first day until now leads him to add, in a somewhat digressive way, that he is fully confident that what was true from the first day and is still true now will be true at the end as well. But this confidence has very little to do with them and everything to do with God, who both began a good work, which is still in evidence, and will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ. Thus, having reminded them of his joy over their good past and present, Paul turns now to assure them of their certain future.

The good work that God has begun and will bring to full fruition may very well include their grace of giving, or perhaps their continued participation in the gospel in every way. More likely, however, it refers to God's good work of salvation itself, of creating a people for his name in Philippi. If so, the sentence anticipates 2:12-13, where Paul urges them to keep working out their common salvation in the way they live together as God's people in Philippi, since God is at work in them both to will and to do for the sake of his own good pleasure. Thus the concern is for their participation in the gospel in yet another sense, not so much their sharing it as their experiencing it and living it out in Philippi.

The day of Christ, on which God will bring his work in them to completion, points to the final consummation of salvation at Christ's (now second) coming. The reason for this otherwise digressive clause is probably related to another concern that surfaces at several points in the letter: that some of them have apparently begun to lose the basic future orientation that marks all truly Christian life. In 3:15-17 they are urged to follow Paul's example of desiring to know Christ above all (3:6-11) and eagerly to pursue the prize of knowing him fully at the end (vv. 12-14). Here Paul anticipates that exhortation by focusing on God's own commitment to bring them to completion on the day of Christ.

Believers in Christ are people of the future, a sure future that has already begun in the present. They are citizens of heaven (3:20) who live the life of heaven, the life of the future, in the present in whatever circumstances they find themselves. To lose this future orientation, and especially to lose the sense of "straining toward what is ahead, . . . toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called [us] heavenward" (3:13-14), is to lose too much. Thus their present gift, which also reminds Paul of their long association in the gospel, leads him to digress momentarily, to remind them that even in the midst of present difficulties, God has in Christ guaranteed their future as well as blessed their present situation in Philippi.Basis for Confidence and Thanksgiving (1:7-8) Paul is still not finished with his thanksgiving, at least not with the (now convoluted) sentence that began as a thanksgiving. With the comparative conjunction "just as" (omitted from the NIV), he proceeds to offer justification for his confidence in verse 6 and to elaborate on his grounds for thanksgiving in verses 4-5.

It is, after all, Paul goes on, quite right for me to feel this way about all of you. The verb translated feel is especially prominent in Philippians. It has to do with having or developing a certain "mindset," including attitudes and dispositions. The NIV's feel this way about all of you, in the sense of having you in mind--being well disposed toward you--is good colloquial English for this idea. This is the proper verb to introduce the clause that follows and its companion in verse 8, a passage full of friendship motifs toward which this verb points; it also anticipates the kind of "mind" Paul will urge on them later in the letter (2:2-5; 4:2-3).

In giving the reason for his having them in mind in this way, Paul once more emphasizes their mutual relationship, one side of the three-way bond around which this letter finds focus. Certain realities--three are singled out--about that relationship call for such an attitude: his own deep affection for them (cf. vv. 3-4), their past partnership with him in the gospel (cf. v. 5) and the extension of that partnership to his imprisonment--and the defense of the gospel.

The basic reason for such affection is that (literally) "you all are participants together with me in the grace." But which grace? Many take it with the NIV to refer to God's saving grace, others to Paul's apostolic ministry. But in light of verse 29, where the verb of this noun occurs in conjunction with their mutual suffering for Christ, Paul very likely is referring to being "partners together in this grace," namely, in defending and confirming ( vindicating) the gospel in the face of suffering (chains).

The gospel, as always, is the primary matter; both he and they have had a part in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. But the Philippians are also partners together with him (NIV share) in his present circumstances of being in chains. Here is the first mention of the suffering motif that will recur throughout the letter. Whether Paul was literally in chains or whether this is simply a metaphor for imprisonment cannot be known. In any case, the studied repetition of chains in verses 13, 14 and 17 indicates that he is smarting under the imprisonment.

But how do the Philippians share in this grace with Paul? Does this refer simply to their gift to him while he is presently in chains? Or does it possibly allude to what he will affirm in verse 30, that some of them are undergoing "the same struggle" as he in a nearly identical way in Philippi? One cannot be sure. Very likely the recent gift is more immediately in view; that, after all, is the immediate occasion of his thanksgiving.

Nonetheless, this may also refer to their own defense of the gospel in Philippi, especially in the face of hostility similar to what he has suffered. The hostility, after all, comes from the empire itself, of which both they and he are citizens, now in trouble because they hold allegiance to a citizenship in which Lord Christ holds sway even--especially--over lord Caesar.

The mild oath with which the thanksgiving finally concludes (v. 8) reveals the depth of feeling out of which the letter is written. The affection that one senses throughout the thanksgiving now spills out as open and unfeigned feelings toward the Philippians. At the same time, however, Paul is experiencing a measure of distress, because all is not right with them, and he can only sit in prison and pray. Pray he will, but now, having just noted their own love for him in Christ, he returns to the affirmation in verse 7 that he has them in his heart.

This oath also brings into focus once more the three-way bond between him and them and Christ that holds the letter together. For his part he longs for them, not simply to see them again (1:24-25; 2:24) but for them, his dearly beloved brothers and sisters in Christ (see 4:1). Whatever in fact was going on among them, reported to him by Epaphroditus, he wants them to know how strongly he feels toward them--toward all of you. Nonetheless, this relationship serves as only the second predicate on which the letter rests. The first predicate is their own relationship to Christ, which is the ultimate urgency of the letter. Thus Paul's own deep longings for them come with the affection of Christ Jesus himself--almost certainly meaning "the love Christ has for you, which is also at work in me for you."

Such an uninhibited display of affection makes it clear that Paul was not an academic! He was, in fact, a passionate lover of Christ, which made him an equally passionate lover of Christ's people. Much can be learned here by those who have pastoral care of any kind, including parents for their children. Paul's emotion, after all, is simply the outflow of his theology and the spirituality that issues from such theology. His theology has to do with the gospel, which has God as its source and sustainer. Whatever else, those whom we love in Christ first of all belong to God. God has begun the good work in them that he has committed himself to concluding with eschatological glory. That good work is the result of the affection of Christ Jesus, through whom God has brought this "good news" on behalf of his people.

The net result in terms of pastoral care is thanksgiving and joy for the people themselves, for all of them, even those whose antics often seem to bring more grief than pleasure. They belong to God; it is ours to be grateful for what God has done, is doing and will continue to do in their lives. And all of this works much better if the caregiver also shares in the affection of Christ Jesus, by having a good measure of the same affection, predicated on being participants together in the gospel.

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