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New Testament Study - Philippians 1:1-8

This is the first article in a series that will cover Paul's Epistle to the Philippians.

The Epistle to the Philippians

To many, Paul's Epistle to the Philippians is one of the most beloved books of the Bible. Certainly, it contains many words of encouragement for the believer and many verses that are valuable to commit to memory:

...being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:6).

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Phil. 1:21).

I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:14).

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Phil. 3:20-21).

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Phil. 4:4).

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 4:6-7)

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things. (Phil. 4:8).

I can do everything through Him who gives me strength. (Phil. 4:13).

The main theme of this epistle is joy through suffering. Paul not only wrote on this theme, but demonstrated it. He wrote this letter, which is full of rejoicing, while in captivity under a Roman guard. Paul exhibited through his life that his joy was not dependent upon outward circumstances, but upon his relationship to Christ. Paul, in this epistle, is telling us that we too can have such an unshakable joy.

In addition to this main theme, there are other threads of thought that are present throughout the epistle. Paul speaks much on humility, unity with other believers, and salvation through faith alone (having no confidence in the flesh). Paul also refers implicitly and explicitly a number of times to the possibility of his own death. In addition, since this epistle is basically a thank-you note to the Philippians for their financial support, Paul alludes here and there to their generosity in sharing in his ministry.

May the Lord bless you as you study this letter and may this epistle be valuable as you apply what you learn to your own life.

Greetings to the Philippians

1Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: 2Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul begins the letter following the format of letters of that time. The letter is from "Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus", and to "all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons."

Though the letter was undoubtedly written by Paul, he includes Timothy as co-sender of the letter. There are various reasons for this. First, Timothy was with Paul in Rome at the time, most likely attending to his needs. Also, the Philippians knew Timothy, for he visited them with Paul (see Acts 19:21,22; 20:3-6). Moreover, Paul planned to send Timothy to Philippi soon, presumably for the edification of the church there, and also so that Paul may receive news about how the church is doing (see Phil. 2:19,22).

Paul identifies himself and Timothy, not as apostles (as he does in other epistles, in which he emphasizes his authority to write to the recipients of his letters), but as "servants of Christ Jesus." Of the two titles--servant and apostle--servant is by far the more important one. Indeed, one cannot be an apostle of Christ without being a servant of Christ. The word translated "servant" here could also be translated "slave". This would be an appropriate translation, for (as Paul says elsewhere), we were "bought at a price", we are not our own (see I Cor. 6:19-20). We have all been purchased by Christ, we belong to a loving Master, whom we should gladly serve and be proud to be called His slave. To the world, servanthood is not an honorable thing. But here, Paul proudly takes the title of "servant of Christ Jesus." This is a noble title for the Christian, for our greatness comes in our service and our humility.

Paul is writing "to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi." The word "saint" denotes those who are set apart from this world for the service and worship of God. The Biblical usage of this word is different than the present common usage of it. Paul is not addressing his letter to all of the extraordinarily holy, canonized people in Philippi, but to all those who are committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul, by addressing them as "saints", is identifying a trait that we should all have. We should all view ourselves as being set apart from this world for the service and worship of God. We should consider ourselves pilgrims in this world, not tangled up in it, but living in it lightly. John tells us: "Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world--the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does-- comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives for ever" (1 John 2:15-17).

Paul is not speaking to just "saints", but to "saints in Christ Jesus." There are those who are set apart from this world, but not to Christ. In fact, the first person that Paul converted in Philippi, Lydia, was a "saint" (strictly speaking) before she met Paul, but she was not a saint "in Christ Jesus." When Paul met her, she was worshiping God by the river outside Philippi, so certainly, physically and spiritually, she was set apart from those of the world; however, she was not, at that time, "in Christ Jesus." The fact that this letter is written to "saints in Christ Jesus" is important contextual information, for only "saints in Christ Jesus" are able to experience the joy in the midst of suffering of which Paul speaks. By the way, a good test of whether you are "in Christ Jesus" is that when others look at you, they see Christ, because you are "in" Christ.

More specifically, this letter was addressed to the saints "at Philippi." Philippi at the time was a Roman colony in the province of Macedonia. The site of Philippi is modern day northeastern Greece (south of Bulgaria). Paul first visited there on his second missionary journey when, having been prevented by the Holy Spirit from going to Bithynia (Acts 16:7), he saw in a vision a man from Macedonia "standing and begging him, `Come over to Macedonia and help us'" (Acts 16:9). Paul, "concluding that God had called [him] to preach the gospel" in Macedonia (Acts 16:10), immediately set out to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Upon arriving in Philippi, Paul and his companions sought a place to pray outside the city on the Gangites River (which empties into the Strymon River in modern day Greece). They found some women who worshiped God (Acts 16:14) and, from them, brought a business woman ("a dealer in purple cloth", Acts 16:14) named Lydia to a belief in Christ. After she was baptized, she welcomed the whole missionary team into her home. Later, a demon possessed fortune teller was hassling Paul. When Paul exorcised the spirit, the owner of the fortune teller (for she was a slave girl) brought Paul and Silas before the local magistrates for ruining their source of income. Paul and Silas were "severely flogged" (Acts 16:23) and thrown in prison. Rather than being dejected and wondering at the ways of God (who led them to Philippi), they sang praises through the night "and the other prisoners were listening to them" (Acts 16:25). Then, there was an earthquake that caused the prison doors to open and loosed the prisoner's chains. The jailer, upon finding the door open and assuming the prisoners had escaped, was about to commit suicide because he thought he would be held accountable for the escaping prisoners. The prisoners, however, did not escape. Paul stopped the jailer from committing suicide and brought him and his family to a belief in Christ. The next day, Paul and Silas were released from prison.

Paul, in his address that starts this epistle, includes a special mention of the "overseers and deacons" for the church at Philippi. They are probably mentioned specifically because of their role in leading the church in contributing to Paul's ministry. The immediate reason that Paul is writing to Philippi is to thank them for their gift that Epaphroditus (a Philippian) brought to him.

After addressing the letter, Paul blesses the Philippians by saying: "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." In this blessing, Paul combines the traditional Greek ("grace") and Hebrew ("peace") greetings. By doing so, Paul unites west and east, Gentile and Jew under the blessing of "God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." "Grace" is God's favor (undeserved by us) in our day to day lives; "peace" is the result of God's grace: a feeling of contentment, satisfaction and fulfillment in one's life as a consequence of being reconciled to the Lord of the universe.

Paul's Thanksgivings for the Philippians

3I thank my God every time I remember you. 4In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. 7It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me. 8God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

Paul pays quite a compliment to the Philippians with his kind words here about their support of his own ministry and their faithfulness to God. He first says, "I thank my God every time I remember you." Implicit in this statement is Paul's spirit of prayer. We can envision Paul here sending up a prayer of thanks under his breath "every time" the Holy Spirit brought the Philippians into his remembrance. We should have the same spirit of prayer at all times, "praying continually" (I Thess. 5:17), sending prayers of praise and petition as the Holy Spirit brings people and situations into our remembrance.

Specifically, Paul prays with "joy" for the Philippians because of their "partnership in the gospel from the first day until now." The Philippians supported Paul in his ministry literally from the "first day" of their knowing Christ. Lydia invited Paul's whole missionary team (probably including Timothy, Silas and Luke) into her home the first day she and her family were baptized (see Acts 16:15). The Philippians demonstrated the truth of their commitment to the Gospel of Christ by their efforts to support the work of the Gospel "from the first day."

Their support was seen as "partnership" in Paul's work. What a privilege! To be a partner in the great work of Paul! Not all of us can go out and be on the front lines (so to speak) in the spiritual battle, as Paul was. However, those of us behind the lines can join in the active work of the ministry by support in prayer and finances. Never think of your giving to the ministry of the Gospel as just a tax write-off. You are a partner, standing alongside the saint who is planting churches in Mexico, or bringing Bibles into Russia, or praying with a hardened criminal in prison.

Implicit in Paul's prayer is thanksgiving to God for the Philippians' perseverence, for they were partners "from the first day until now." It is a rare thing to be faithful from the beginning, and to persevere to the end. We are normally slow to begin, fickle in the middle, wavering and dying out at the end. Paul was well acquainted with those who did not persevere. In another "prison" epistle, he tells Timothy of "Demas" who "loved this world" and deserted him (II Tim. 4:10), and "everyone in the province of Asia" deserting him (II Tim. 1:15). We may go through spiritual highs and lows, but it is important that we not let our emotional feelings prevent us from persevering. When our will is flagging, it is time to get on our knees and ask the Lord, by His Spirit, to restore fervency to our hearts so that we, like the Philippians, may persevere.

Seeing the truth of their commitment and their perseverence, Paul is "confident...that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." At times, even those who persevere feel as if their work is going nowhere. We all at times hit physical roadblocks and spiritual walls. The enemy demoralizes us by telling us that our service is useless and fruitless and so we get discouraged. We think of quitting, but we must remember that, for those who are committed to the service of God and who persevere, "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." We must remember that our service is God's work: He "began" it; He guides and directs it; He chooses the path that it takes; He is the one who "will carry it on to completion."

If we hit a road block, it is by God's will. God often uses such road blocks; He works through us even when we do not realize it. If anyone could be seen to have hit a road block, Paul had. He was in prison when he wrote these words. Paul did not view his imprisonment as the end of his service, but rather as God carrying on His work to completion. And why would God not carry His "good work" in us on to completion? Does God get tired and give up? Are there obstacles that are too great for God to overcome? Does He change His mind? Of course not.

A key point here is that it was God Himself who "began a good work" in us. Paul had first-hand experience of this, as did the Philippians. God, of course, "began a good work" in Paul's life. Paul was bent on destroying Christianity when God supernaturally intervened in his life and turned him into the greatest adherent of Christianity the world has ever known. God also "began a good work" in the lives of the Philippians. Paul was not even planning on going to Macedonia (the district that contains Philippi). He and his fellow missionaries tried to go to Bithynia, but, we are told, "the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them" (Acts 16:7). Then God sent Paul a vision "of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, `Come over to Macedonia and help us'" (Acts 16:9). We are told of the first convert in Philippi, Lydia, that "the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul's message" (Acts 16:14). We also see God beginning a good work in the conversion of the Philippian jailer. God sent an earthquake that opened the prison doors and shook loose the chains of the prisoners. Then God restrained the prisoners from fleeing. This intervention of God led the jailer to ask Paul and Silas: "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30).

Also, think of your own conversion. Think of the preparation of your heart and mind for it. Think of the events that led to your giving your life to Christ. Was it not also the work of God? So, if He "began a good work in you", why would He not also "carry it on to completion"? We, as Paul, should be "confident of this." We must realize, as David: "The Lord will fulfill His purpose for me" (Ps. 138:8). May this realization give you comfort as you serve Him, and cause you all the more to persevere.

And we are to persevere. Our work will not be done "until the day of Christ Jesus." There is no retirement on earth for us. Our work will not be completed until the day of Christ Jesus. And it is the "day of Christ Jesus" that we all look toward in our service. That is where our sights are, that is where our hearts are: His day, the day He will come to rule and reign.

Paul wanted the Philippians to know that his imprisonment was the work of God (indeed, it was "God's grace"!), and that his imprisonment was not a waste of the Philippian's gift. Paul tells the Philippians: "For whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me." Paul's circumstance did not lessen their gift or God's grace to them due to their giving.

Our circumstances do not imply the absence of God's grace. Paul was in prison, but he was able to tell the Philippians that they "share in God's grace" with him. Paul had a painful "thorn in [his] flesh" (II Cor. 12:7), but the Lord told him: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (II Cor. 12:9). No, troublesome circumstances do not imply the absence of God's grace; on the contrary, the depth of one's suffering is often an indicator that God will use the sufferer greatly, so that His power may be made perfect.

Indeed, the grace of God is demonstrated in a powerful way through those who suffer. The ability to be at peace (as Paul was), even in the direst circumstances, is a powerful testimony to the world of the grace of God. To be able to shout, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" (Phil. 4:4)--to be able to shout this while in chains--displays concretely the power and truth of the gospel. Rather than being weakened, the words of Paul are strengthened by his adverse circumstance. We should all strive to have such an attitude in our suffering. God can use powerfully those who suffer, more powerfully than He can use those who live in comfort. Was not Stephen used more powerfully than Joseph of Arimathea? Were not the martyrs used more powerfully than the secret Christians on the sidelines? Are not the hands of an invalid whose body has been ravaged by disease--are not his hands raised in praise to God a more powerful testimony than even the most fervent worship of the healthy man?

And make no mistake: you will suffer. We will all find ourselves, at some point, in a prison of some sort, our faith being tested. We will all have the opportunity to test these words of Paul and to rejoice in midst of suffering. May we all live up to the task.

Yes Lord, give us the ability and the grace to rejoice through our suffering. May we realize that our joy does not come from the comfort of our lives, but from the resting in Your salvation. By Your Spirit, give us Your peace that Paul so effectively displayed. We ask these things in the name of our Lord, who suffered more than all of us, Amen.

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