Philippians: The Fellowship of the Gospel
Click on image to enlarge.
by R. Kent Hughes
Description: In this Preaching the Word commentary on Philippians, R. Kent Hughes gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at this joyous letter of thanksgiving and encouragement in the midst of a fallen world.
eBook Publisher: Crossway Books, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: July 2009
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [396 KB]
Reading time: 227-318 min.
A Particular Joy
PHILIPPIANS 1:1, 2
This is admittedly subjective, but it seems to me that the four chapters of Philippians have provided more favorite quotes and sound bites than any other section of Scripture of similar length--certainly it has done that for me. Here are some of my favorites:
+ "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." (1:21)
+ "I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better." (1:23)
+ "Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ." (1:27)
+ "Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also the interests of others." (2:3, 4)
+ "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (2:5-10)
+ "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (2:12, 13)
+ "...that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ." (3:8, 9)
+ "But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." (3:13, 14)
+ "But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." (3:20)
+ "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice." (4:4)
+ "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (4:6, 7)
+ "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable..." (4:8)
+ "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content." (4:11)
+ "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (4:13)
You can see that I love this book. But there is a danger in knowing these lines so well: they can take on a life of their own apart from their context and become sentimentalized and emptied of their depth. For example, "Rejoice in the Lord always" has become for some within the church and outside it a motto for merely willing a superficial happiness, rather than the deep theologically grounded command that it is.
[Footnote 1: Frank Thielman, Philippians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), p. 24.]
As a matter of fact, Philippians is not (as is commonly thought) "The Epistle of Joy." But joy is a motif in Philippians, and when it flashes forth, as it does sixteen times, it is sparked by the deeper themes of Paul's letter. Philippians calls us to a particular joy, the joy experienced by Paul in Roman captivity facing a capital charge while his leadership was being contested by usurpers within the church. So as we journey through Philippians it is my hope that these favorite verses and other familiar lines of this amazing letter will take on their first-century depth and power.
PAUL'S JOURNEY TO PHILIPPI
The background of Philippians is this: Paul and Barnabas had returned victoriously from the famous Council in Jerusalem, with the Council's decisive ruling that Gentile believers did not have to be circumcised or adopt Jewish customs to be saved. It was a watershed ruling. Gentile evangelism was given a mighty liberating boost. But then Paul and Barnabas separated, and Paul took Silas and set out on his second missionary journey (cf. Acts 15:36-40). Timothy joined them in Lystra (cf. Acts 16:1-5).
Paul's plan was to retrace the steps of his first missionary journey and encourage the churches. As they traveled west, the trio attempted to go back down to Ephesus, but the Holy Spirit checked them. Then they tried to go north to Bithynia by the Black Sea, and again the Spirit of Jesus did not allow it (cf. Acts 16:6, 7). Thus, Paul, Silas, and Timothy were effectively funneled west to Troas and the mouth of the Dardanelle Straits, the gateway to Europe. There Dr. Luke joined them, forming a dynamic foursome.
It was there at the Dardanelles that Paul beheld standing before him in a night vision a man from Macedonia (a European from what today is northern Greece), urging him and saying, as Luke tells it, "'Come over to Macedonia and help us.' And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them" (Acts 16:9, 10). In an instant came one of the great turning points in history as Paul and company made a two-day crossing to Neapolis and walked nine miles along the Egnatian Way to Philippi. Rome did not know it, but the flag of Christianity was unfurled in the Empire that day.
Philippi was not a big city, no more than 10,000 at the most, and rested on a narrow shoulder of land, crowned by an acropolis guarding the Via Egnatia, the famous highway between Rome and her eastern empire. Philippi had been founded by Greeks in the fourth century B.C. Phillip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, had named it after himself.
[Footnote 2: Markus Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians, Black's New Testament Commentary (London: A & C Black Limited, 1998), p. 3.]
But now it was a Roman colony because in 42 B.C. Philippi achieved note as the place where Mark Anthony and Octavian (Augustus) fought the forces of Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, defeating Cassius. Later in 31 B.C. when Augustus defeated Mark Antony in the battle of Actium, Augustus renamed the colony after himself--Colonia Iulia Augusta Philippensis. As a Roman town it was governed by Roman law. Roman expatriates made up the citizenry. Latin became the official language, and the citizens wore Roman dress. The public inscriptions in the forum and on all the buildings were exclusively Latin. So the leadership and aristocracy of Philippi were completely Roman and Latin. This naturally created a Greek-speaking underclass that made up the local populace. These were the construction workers and tradesmen and merchants. It is to this social group that Paul initially came.
[Footnote 3: Peter T. O'Brien, Commentary on Philippians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 4]
[Footnote 4: Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians, p. 4.]
Paul's custom when entering a town was to go first to the Jews, to the synagogue (cf. Acts 14:1). But there were so few Jews in the city that the necessary quorum to form a synagogue of ten men did not exist. However, after a few days Paul did discover a Sabbath congregation meeting alongside a river outside the city walls. It was a group of God-fearing Gentile women meeting in "a place of prayer" (16:13). Today there is a general agreement that the exact site of that "place of prayer" was just outside the southern gate at the bank of the Gangites River, which still flows only fifty meters from the old city wall. That was likely where Paul and Silas made initial contact with Gentile women worshiping the God of Israel--women who would soon become the first Christians of Philippi.
[Footnote 5:Ibid., pp. 9, 10.]
[Footnote 6:Ibid., p. 15.]
PAUL'S RECEPTION IN PHILIPPI
The first of these women was a merchant named Lydia. As Luke tells it, "One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul" (Acts 16:14). The man in the Macedonian vision turned out to be a woman! Lydia believed, her entire household believed, and they were all baptized on the spot in the Gangites (v. 15).
Spiritual opposition was almost immediate in the form of a girl who had "a spirit of divination" (v. 16; literally "a pythonic spirit," referencing demonic control). The girl's loud, incessant heralding of the truth about Paul and company--"'These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation'" (v. 17)--was a demonic attempt to co-opt the gospel and destroy it. Paul exorcised the spirit on the spot--and found himself in deep trouble because he had driven out the girl's owners' source of income! Paul and Silas were seized and were taken to the "Roman" magistrates, were identified as "Jews" (appealing to the Romanness of the officials and their anti-Semitic prejudices), and were savagely beaten by the lictors-- they got their licks!
We all know the story. As the bruised and bleeding duo sat in stocks in the bowels of the prison and sang songs in the night, "hymns to God" (v. 25), a great earthquake freed them from their stocks and opened the prison doors. And the gospel further invaded Europe when the jailer cried out, "'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?' And they said, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household'" (vv. 30, 31). Then came another round of baptisms!
When the magistrates learned that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, their arrogance turned to quaking fear and profuse apologies as they urged them to quietly leave town. They did leave, but not before visiting Lydia. There were undoubtedly tears and maybe even some laughter and hoots in Lydia's home. Possibly they sang a few "prison songs." Certainly there was praise and thanksgiving to God and prayers for the new church--Lydia and her household, the jailer and his household, perhaps other God-fearing women from the riverbank, maybe even the ex-pythoness. The flag of the gospel had been raised on a new continent. We should take note in this day of the science of church growth and the promotion of the homogeneous unit principle that this was not a homogeneous church plant but rather the body of Christ in glorious diversity.
It is important to understand here that the church in Philippi would become Paul's favorite church. Paul enjoyed a unique closeness to the Philippians, which we see in exceptionally warm and friendly expressions in this letter. Paul makes this clear right after his greeting as he says, "I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now" (vv. 3-5). The word "partnership" is the Greek word koinonia, "fellowship"--Paul feels a warm "fellowship in the gospel" with the Philippians. As we will see in our next study, the same word (fellowship, partnership) or its derivatives appears six times in Philippians (cf. 1:5, 7; 2:1; 3:10; 4:14, 15 [twice]). And we shall see that this is not a church social fellowship as Christians today often think of the word, but a robust fellowship that rides on their mutual commitment to the gospel. This gospel fellowship grew from their commitment to support Paul's mission spiritually and materially (cf. 4:15, 16).
[Footnote 7: Thielman, Philippians, p. 18.]
What we must understand as we go through Philippians is that while there are various reasons for Paul's writing, this letter comes from the depth of fellowship that Paul and the Philippians shared in the gospel. This accounts for the feel of this letter and is the basis for what Paul said to the Philippians and how he said it.
This is why this book has the subtitle "The Fellowship of the Gospel"--it is an epic fellowship as suggested by Tolkien's title The Fellowship of the Ring. No punch and cookies here. This is the fellowship of compatriots bound together in a great cause. You will not understand the letter if you do not understand this.
PAUL'S LETTER TO THE PHILIPPIANS (vv. 1, 2)
The occasion for Paul's letter to the Philippians came years after the founding of the church and sprang from their financial support of him as a prisoner in Rome (cf. 4:18). Their monetary gift had been carried to him by a church member named Epaphroditus who had nearly died during its delivery (cf. 2:27). And when Epaphroditus recovered and prepared to return, Paul asked him to carry the letter home. So the letter arrived late in Paul's imprisonment, after A.D. 60 and probably after A.D. 62.
[Footnote 8: Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians, p. 32.]
Paul's letter reveals many purposes: to express gratitude for their generosity, to explain why he sent Epaphroditus back so quickly, to catch them up, to inform them that he would shortly be sending Timothy, to warn them of Judaizers, to urge them to stand firm and be united. But under and around all these purposes was the reality of their fellowship in the gospel.
[Footnote 9: O'Brien, Commentary on Philippians, p. 38.]
The very words of Paul's greeting evoke his attitude of partnership with the Philippians as he tailors his greeting for the occasion. Most noticeably he omits the use of the title "apostle" and begins, "Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus." The disuse of his title evidences the familiar warmth that existed between him and the Philippian believers. And his inclusion of Timothy as coauthor indicates that Paul would share his authority with those in the "partnership [fellowship] of the gospel." As Karl Barth put it, "A hero, a genius, a 'religious personality' stands alone; an apostle has others beside him like himself and sets them on his own level." Even more, Paul identifies himself and Timothy as "servants [literal translation, "slaves"] of Christ Jesus"--a term that in its Philippian/Roman context carried negative connotations that were just as repugnant to the fashionable middle class of the first century as today. Paul knew exactly what he was saying because the only other use of "slave" in this letter will come in 2:7, used of Christ who "took the form of a slave."
[Footnote 10: Moisés Silva, Philippians, 2nd edition, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1992, 2005), p. 39.]
[Footnote 11: Karl Barth, Epistle to the Philippians, trans. James W. Leitch (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 9.]
[Footnote 12:Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians, p. 50.]
Along with these careful self-designations Paul identifies his recipients as "all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons" (v. 1). Thus while he recognized the church leaders, he emphasized that he was writing to all those in Christ. Paul was not playing favorites. His emphasis on "all" foreshadows the call to unity that he would powerfully voice.
Paul and the Philippians' fellowship in the gospel, their gospel partnership, gives the theological and relational context and texture for his major themes. At the very heart of the letter is Paul's call to the Philippians to let their "manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ" (1:27) and as such, living a gospel-worthy life becomes the theme that extends to the end of chapter 2. Thus, to live worthy of the gospel there must be unity-- "standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel" (1:27)--in gospel partnership. They must be "of the same mind" (2:2). They must look to "the interests of others" (2:4). They must have the mind of Christ (cf. 2:5-8). They must "work out [their] own salvation" as Christ works in them (2:12,13). They must live like Timothy and Epaphroditus (2:19-30)--men who walked worthy of the gospel.
This said, Christ is the center of the letter. No other noun occurs more in Philippians than his name. The Christology of the hymn of Christ in 2:611 can be said to underpin the thinking of everything else in Philippians. Philippians is about Christ. Philippians is about people in Christ Jesus (cf. 2:29; 3:1; 4:4, 10). Philippians is about people who are in the fellowship of the gospel because they are in Christ. Philippians is about people whose "citizenship is in heaven" (3:20).
[Footnote 13: Ibid., p. 41.]
Such grand themes and purposes! And understand this--the motif that sparkles and effervesces throughout them is joy.
+ 1:4b: "making my prayer with joy."
+ 1:18b: "Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice."
+ 1:25b: "your ... joy in the faith."
+ 2:2: "complete my joy,"
+ 2:17, 18: "Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me."
+ 2:28: "that you may rejoice."
+ 2:29: "so receive him in the Lord with all joy."
+ 3:1: "Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord."
+ 4:4: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice."
+ 4:10: "I rejoiced in the Lord greatly."
Philippians evokes a particular joy. It is the joy of Christ and joy from Christ. It is a joy that effervesces in the dark places of life. It is available for those "in Christ," who stand together as they partner in the fellowship of the gospel. Our studies in Philippians will enhance our experience of this particular joy.