So how would you feel? Your financially strapped college group has scraped together a considerable amount of cash in order to help a former member do humanitarian missionary work in Central Africa. After some time you receive word back—a long letter in fact—which goes on and on about how the group might better serve the Lord on its own campus, but nary a word about the gift. And then at the end, with a kind of "by the way," the gift is mentioned; but even so more time is spent on how little the gift was really needed than on thanksgiving itself. You would have a right to be a bit miffed. Both our secular and spiritual cultures expect something better of friends, and no one likes an ingrate. Which is exactly how many feel about Paul at this point in the letter.
Carrying our own feelings about our "missionary friend" back into Paul's letter to the Philippians, however, is its own form of cultural gaffe, a clear reflection that we cannot really imagine a culture in which such things might be done differently. But different they were indeed; and we know this because many of the philosophers wrote treatises on friendship and on the benefits of friendship that were a part of their cultural presuppositions. It turns out in fact that the placement of Paul's gratitude for their gift at the end, his avoidance of the word meaning "thank you" and the way he wrestles with reciprocity (the "giving and receiving" [v. 15] of benefits) are all perfectly explainable on the grounds of Greco-Roman friendship, which is presupposed at every point in this letter, and now especially in this passage.
With his major concerns about the Philippians' affairs now addressed, and the concluding exhortations given, Paul turns at last then to the first reason for the letter—to acknowledge their recent gift and thus to rejoice over this evidence of friendship renewed. To this point he has not thanked them directly, although his gratitude is clearly implied in 1:3-7 and 2:25, 30 (perhaps 2:17). But now he does so, and at the end (4:18-20) does so in a profuse way.
Three matters thus intertwine. First is his genuine gratitude for their recent gift, expressed three times in three variations (vv. 10, 14, 18). This is set, second, in the primary context of friendship: mutuality and reciprocity, evidenced by "giving and receiving" (v. 15)—a theme that gets strained in this case because of (1) his being on the receiving end of that for which he has nothing to give in return and (2) his and their mutuality also carries some of the baggage of a patron-client relationship, due to his role as apostle of Jesus Christ. Third, and most significant (and typical!), this sociological reality is subsumed under the greater reality of the gospel; thus the whole climaxes in doxology. All of this is fashioned with consummate artistry, so that their "giving," his "receiving," and the long-term partnership in the gospel which their gift reaffirms climax in verses 18-20 with gratitude (from Paul), accolade and promise (from God to them), and doxology (from both to God).
A passage like this should also be read in light of Paul's unsolicited, lavish praise of this church in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5, with its (thoroughly Christian) equation "affliction + poverty abounding in generosity." It is unlikely that the Philippians have changed radically in the intervening few years. Indeed, it is precisely this quality of their Christian life, expressed toward him within the cultural context of friendship, that leads Paul to give thanks in this way—as "rejoicing in the Lord" (see v. 10) and as an outburst of praise to God's glory (v. 20). Here is a community where the gospel had done its certain work.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.