3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. – Philippians 1:3-11 ESV
When reading the letters of Paul it is essential to remember that, in most cases, he was writing to a community of believers, not a single individual. There are those cases where he wrote personal letters addressed to individuals, such as Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. But the majority of his correspondence was addressed to a corporate body of believers located in a specific city or community. This letters are usually referred to as his pastoral epistles. In them, we get a glimpse of Paul’s strong sense of calling as a shepherd over the flock of Jesus Christ.
At one point in his ministry, Paul told the elders of the church in Ephesus:
“I have done the Lord’s work humbly and with many tears. I have endured the trials that came to me from the plots of the Jews. I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear, either publicly or in your homes. I have had one message for Jews and Greeks alike—the necessity of repenting from sin and turning to God, and of having faith in our Lord Jesus.” – Acts 20:19-21 NLT
He wasn’t boasting, but simply reminding these men that he had made their spiritual well-being his highest priority. Without an ounce of pride or arrogance, Paul was able to say to them:
“I declare today that I have been faithful. If anyone suffers eternal death, it’s not my fault, for I didn’t shrink from declaring all that God wants you to know.” – Acts 20:26-27 NLT
And then he challenged to follow his example.
“So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders.” – Acts 20:28 NLT
Paul had a deep and abiding sense of love for the church, the body of Christ. Yes, he cared for each individual Christian, but he knew that the strength of the church lie in the overall health of its constituency. While the body of Christ was made up of individual believers, God had chosen to place them within a single unit where their spiritual gifts, talents, and mutual love for one another could have the greatest impact. Paul made this point clear when writing to the church in Corinth:
“For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” – 1 Corinthians 12:14 NLT
“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” – I Corinthians 12:27 NLT
His emphasis was always on unity and community.
“But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” – 1 Corinthians 12:24-26 NLT
So, as we read the opening lines of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, we must keep in mind that he is writing to a group of people. Even their reading of his letter would have taken place in a group context. But typically, we tend to read Paul’s letters as part of our personal devotionals. And, in doing so, we make the mistake of reading the letters as if they are addressed to us as individuals. We take every personal pronoun personally. When we see the word “you,” we assume Paul is somehow speaking to us as an individual. So, when we read, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” we apply it to ourselves. When Paul states, “I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding,” we read it as if he is addressing us individually, and by name.
But each of these personal pronouns used by Paul are plural in nature. He is addressing the body, not the individual. You could almost read them as, “you all.” So, as you make your way through this letter, imagine it is being read to you as you sit alongside your brothers and sisters in Christ from your local fellowship. Yes, his admonitions most certainly apply on an individual basis, but we miss the point of his letter if we fail to see them as messages to the corporate body of believers.
With all that in mind, look at how Paul opens his letter to the church in Philippi. He expresses his thanks to God for their very existence. He is grateful that God has allowed him to play a part in the establishment of this local fellowship. Remember, it all began with the conversion of a woman named Lydia, who came to faith in Christ after hearing the gospel from Paul and Silas. This wealthy and influential Gentile woman became a key leader in the new faith community there in Philippi, even hosting the fledgling church in her home.
Paul is grateful to God, because he realizes that the ministry he played a part in establishing was continuing without him. Paul was under house arrest in Rome and unable to visit the many churches he had helped to plant. But he was encouraged to know that the believers in Philippi were his partners in the gospel. In his absence, the message of the good news of Jesus Christ was being spread throughout the city. The Greek word that is translated as “partnership” is koinōnia, and it can also be translated as “fellowship.” Even though they were separated by many miles, Paul shared a sense of unity and mutual commitment to spreading the gospel throughout Philippi.
But while Paul was concerned about the good news of Jesus Christ be taken to every corner of Philippi, he knew that the success of that enterprise hinged on the spiritual health of the faith community to whom he wrote. Paul always maintained a balance between his desire for salvation and sanctification. He greatly desired to see people come to faith in Christ, but was equally concerned that they grow in their knowledge of and likeness to Christ. That is why he told the believers in Philippi that he was confident that God “who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.” God would finish what He started – in the church there at Philippi, but also in the lives of each individual believer.
Yet, it is essential that we see Paul’s emphasis on spiritual growth within its corporate context. Any increase in Christ-likeness we may experience is not for our own benefit. The gifts of the Spirit we have been given are not meant for us, but are intended to benefit and bless the body of Christ. Our salvation is not meant to be myopic and self-centered, but other-oriented and selfless in its focus.
When Paul states that his prayer is that their “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,” he is speaking to the entire body of believers there in Philippi. He desires that their love for one another grow exponentially. He longs that their knowledge and discernment increase steadily. But knowledge and discernment of what? The will of God. What is excellent or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “what really matters.” And, later on in this same letter, Paul will summarize exactly what he means.
“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing.” – Philippians 4:8-9 NLT
And as their love, knowledge and discernment grows, they will become “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:1-11 ESV).
The fruit of righteousness. That’s an interesting phrase that can be easily overlooked. Paul is letting his audience know that their corporate increase in righteousness will have benefits. It will produce fruit. And if you think about it, a tree that produces fruit does so, not for its own benefit, but for the benefit of others. And when Paul discusses the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5, the list of attributes he provides are all outwardly-focused: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
None of these things are meant to benefit the individual. Love is meant to share, not hoard. Joy is something we give away, not greedily pursue for own satisfaction. Peace is something we enjoy with others, not in isolation. Patience is impossible without the presence of others in our lives who put it to the test. All of these things are meant to be mutually shared and enjoyed as a faith community. As Paul told the believers in Corinth: “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other” (1 Corinthians 12:7 NLT).
So, Paul begins his letter to the believers in Philippi by reminding them that they are in partnership with him and with one another for the cause of Christ. They were in this together. Christianity is a team sport, not an individual event. Our salvation is meant to be lived out in community, not isolation. Our sanctification is intended to be a group activity, not an individual pursuit done in secrecy and seclusion.
The fellowship of faith is powerful. The community of faith is transformational. The greatest impact any believer will have will be in proportion to his or her connection to and reliance upon the faith community into which God has placed them.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.