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.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.