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The Letter to the Philippians – “Pressing Toward the Goal”

The Letter to the Philippians – “Pressing Toward the Goal”

Paul here is writing to a church that he established by God’s grace and one for which he had a special fondness (Acts 16:1-40).  Paul is writing from prison probably from Rome (Acts 28:16,30-31) and he is then facing the possibility of execution at the hands of Nero.  The Philippians are concerned about him.  They also would be concerned for themselves.  The fact that they had the privilege of Roman citizenship would normally have given them security.  Yet Paul was a Roman citizen.  If he could be executed for his faith in Christ so could they.  The whole situation appears to be an anxious one.  However, Paul in the midst of this is joyful and he wants to encourage the Philippians to be joyful too.

Chapter 1:1-14 – “Greater Boldness and Without Fear”

 

  1. Paul’s Prayer – 1:1-11

This letter is from Paul and Timothy.  Timothy himself was an early convert who accompanied Paul on his ministry to Philippi along with Luke and Silas.  We can presume that Timothy was staying with Paul during his house arrest in Rome.  (Acts 28:30).   Paul presumably has heard from Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:19-30) of the Philippians’ concerns about him and invariably their own vulnerability if Nero proceeds to hunt down Christians and kill them (which of course he does).

Paul wants to do more than encourage the Philippians (who also have internal conflicts).  He wants them to share his joy.  How can Paul be joyful under arrest in Rome awaiting possible execution?  Paul has several reasons for his joy.

The first is that he wants to remind the Philippians that they are saints.  He has a similar greeting to his other churches (I Cor. 1:2; II Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1).  They are saints solely through the grace of God. They have been made saints in Christ by Christ and for Christ.  It is not an accomplishment on their part.  Karl Barth called grace God’s “Nevertheless.”  In spite of who and what we are, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).

Paul then adds that he not only thanks God for them but prays for them “with joy.”  They have shared with Paul in his ministry from the beginning when he first brought the gospel to them.  Paul uses the word “koinea” here which is often translated “community”.  However, Paul’s view of “koinea” is the idea of not only getting together for fellowship but is also the idea of sharing in a common goal.  This is a unity born of a shared goal and purpose.

Paul then states that his joy in based on a confident hope.  The God who began a good work in them will bring it to completion on the “day of Jesus Christ.”  This is an incredible statement of assurance.  Our salvation, our relationship to God is not our work.  It is God’s work.  God has called us to himself in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:4).  We are not passive in this call.  However, the call does not depend on us.  The God who works all things after the counsel of his own will (Eph. 1:11) is the one who is bringing us to the full goal of life in Christ.  The day of Jesus Christ is nothing less than the victory of Jesus Christ.

Focus on Christ has changed the whole tenor of Paul’s situation.  He is not looking on his present status as a prisoner in Roman captivity.  Instead he is talking about the victory of Jesus Christ.  Paul certainly is no ordinary prisoner.

Paul rejoices in the fact that the Philippians hold him in their heart.  This is not a formal relationship.  It is deeply personal and also emotional.  Paul’s prayer for the Philippians is that their love may overflow more and more.  Paul sets before them no law, no set of rules or code of conduct.  He presents them as he does all his churches with the focus on love.  This is not love as a vague concept.  It is a love that in the Spirit overflows with knowledge and full insight.  The goal of this love is to enable the Philippians to “determine what is best.”

We should not read over this statement too quickly.  This “knowledge and full insight” is no small thing.  We will see later in this letter that there were those in this church as in many others who wanted to return to the Law, to the original controversy of the Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1).  Love demands risks.  Faith also requires risks.  As we apply Christ’s love to the many difficult and complex issues of life we have to have the confidence that we already have a “harvest of righteousness.”  This comes from Jesus, not from us.  This harvest comes through him.  This is why faith and prayer are so important.  What is supremely important is the opening statement of grace (1:2).  Grace, God’s undeserved mercy, defines everything else.

Finally, the goal of our actions is not for our benefit, not even for the benefit of the church.  The goal quite simply is the “glory and praise of God.”  This goal then guides our knowledge and insight.   We don’t always have a clear understanding of how we are applying God’s love to particular situations.  We are sustained by Paul’s statement of confidence.  The work has already begun in us.  It will be completed as part of the final victory of Jesus Christ.  God has begun it.  God will complete it.  God will not fail.

  1. The Freedom of Imprisonment – 1:12-14

Paul now adds that his imprisonment, instead of being an obstacle, has in fact turned out to help spread the gospel!  Paul’s accusers had intended the exact opposite.  They wanted to eliminate Paul and silence his message.  However, the opposite was the result.

To say that Paul’s case was known by the “whole imperial guard” is an astonishing statement especially if we’re speaking of Rome with its thousands of troops.  This may be a generalization although Paul usually isn’t given to overstatement.  Certainly the idea of a Roman citizen being imprisoned over a message about the death of what in Rome’s eyes was an obscure carpenter would have received attention.  The Roman historian Tacitus refers to Christianity as “a most mischievous superstition.”  Clearly the message was spreading.

Since this is Paul’s basic goal he does not lament the fact of his imprisonment.  What is even more striking is that the Christians of Rome were in fact more confident to spread the gospel (This however would not last.  When Paul’s situation became more desperate he was abandoned by the other Christians, II Tim. 4:16).

For the moment he is encouraging the Philippians (and us) with his hopeful attitude.  This attitude is not based on his circumstances as serious as they appear to be.  It is based instead on the promise of the One who already began a good work in them.  Because of this they should be prepared to speak God’s Word “with greater boldness and without fear.”  That should be true of us as well.

Questions for Us –

  1. Why is it so important that we all share together in the work of the gospel?
  2. How can we develop greater knowledge and insight in showing Christ’s love?
  3. What are some of the ways we can maintain confidence in the midst of trouble and adversity?

Next Study – Phil. 1:15-30 – “Christ will be Exalted”