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.
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