Introduction to the Epistle of Philippians

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 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. 1:1-6

An Epistle of Joy

The apostle Paul had a special love for and relationship with the church in Philippi. The church in Philippi was unmatched in caring for the physical needs of Paul. His fondness for that church is evident in the way that he begins his Epistle to the Philippians. Indeed, Paul writes to the Philippians, not as an apostle to members of his Church, but as a friend to his friends. Paul’s affection for the Philippians is evident at the very beginning of the Letter. In verse 1, he calls the Philippians “God’s holy people.” In many versions, including RSV and CSB, it says, “to the all the saints in Christ Jesus.” The Greek word for saint is hagios. The Hebrew equivalent for hagios is qadosh, which is usually translated as holy. The word holy implies being set apart for divine purposes. It suggests something that is different from everything else.

At the very outset of his Letter, Paul wants the Philippians to know they are unique. What makes them so special? They are consecrated to God because of their unique relationship with Jesus Christ. Only in Christ Jesus can the believer be made holy (saint). Thus, throughout his letter to the Philippians, Paul uses the phrase “In Christ Jesus” 48 times, in Christ 34 times, and in the Lord 50 times. “When Paul spoke of the Christian being in Christ, he meant that the Christian lives in Christ as a bird in the air, a fish in the water, the roots of a tree in the soil. What makes the Christian different is that he is always and everywhere conscious of the encircling presence of Jesus Christ” (Marvin R. Vincent). In verse 2, Paul proceeds with his standard greeting of “Grace be to you and peace, from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ. That is the same greetings he uses in Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:2; Philippians 1:3. That greeting is unique to Paul. It is his way of taking the “normal greeting phrases of two great nations and molding them into one. Charis is the greeting with which Greek letters always began. The basic ideas in it are joy and pleasure, brightness, and beauty; it is, in fact, connected with the English word charm. Eirene (peace or Shalom in Hebrew) is the greeting with which Jews met each other. It means total wellbeing, everything that makes for a person’s highest good.”

In verse 3, Paul’s affection for the Philippians comes to the fore in a very personal way as he informs them that he thanks God every time he remembers them. This suggests that his recollection of his experience the Philippians is filled with joy, pleasure, brightness, and beauty (charis). It is with that joy that he prays for his friends in Philippi. It is to that point that the Letter to the Philippians has been called the Epistle of joy. Indeed, there are ten references to the theme of joy throughout the Epistle to the Philippians: 1. In Philippians 1:4, there is the joy of Christian prayer. Paul prays for the Philippians with joy because of their partnership in ministry (vs. 4-5). 2. In (Philippians 1:18) there is the joy that Jesus Christ is preached 3. There is the joy of faith (Philippians 1:25). 4. There is the joy of seeing Christians in fellowship together (Philippians 2:2). 5. There is the joy of suffering for Christ (Philippians 2:17). 6. There is the joy of news of the loved one (Philippians 2:28). Life is full of separations, and there is always a joy when news comes to us of those loved ones from whom we are temporarily separated. 7. There is the joy of Christian hospitality (Philippians 2:29). 8. There is the joy of the man in Christ (Philippians 3:1; Philippians 4:1). 9. There is the joy of the man who has won one soul for Christ (Philippians 4:1). 10. There is the joy in a gift (Philippians 4:10).

In verse 6, Paul expresses confidence in the ongoing spiritual transformation of the Philippians by Almighty God. The Greek words Paul uses for begin (enarchesthai) and for complete (epitelein) are technical terms for the beginning and the ending of a sacrifice. They are challenging to translate into English. In Antiquity, all Greek sacrifices were preceded by an initial ritual whereby “A torch was lit from the fire on the altar and then dipped into a bowl of water to cleanse it with its sacred flame, and with the purified water the victim and the people were sprinkled to make them holy and clean. Then followed what was known as the Euphemia, the sacred silence, in which the worshipper was meant to make his prayers to his god. Finally, a basket of barley was brought, and some grains of the barley were scattered on the victim, and on the ground round about it. These actions were the beginning of the sacrifice, and the technical term for making this beginning was the verb enarchesthai, which Paul uses here. The verb used for completing the whole ritual of sacrifice was the verb epitelein, which Paul uses here for to complete” (William Barclay). Therefore, verse 6 is to be understood within the context of sacrifice. Indeed, Paul believes the Philippians should view their lives as a sacrifice ready to be offered to Jesus Christ just as he urged the Romans to present their bodies as a living sacrifice in Romans 12:1. The theological thrust of Paul’s commentary in this verse should not be overlooked. In John 1:29-26, Jesus is called the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. His life was the only perfect sacrifice that could appease the just wrath of the Father. Consequently, Paul is asking the Philippians to offer themselves to Christ, who sacrificed himself for them. That is theologically brilliant!

Application

In light of Paul’s predicament as a man under house arrest, it is encouraging to read his affection for the Philippians. The point here is that a believer should not allow his circumstance to impede his ministry to others. Paul wrote about the Philippians in glowing terms because of their care and concern for him. He loved them with the same love they expressed to him.

Our love for others can be the fuel they need to make it through an existential crisis. Words of affirmation and expression of kindness do influence a person’s attitude and perspective about his or her life. Never underestimate the power of an act of random kindness. The joy that Paul speaks about in verse 4 is the result of the kindness of the Philippians who provided financial assistance to Paul while he was in prison.

Paul prayed with joy for the Philippians because of their love for him. That love sustained him while he was in prison, waiting to be tried before Caesar. The church in Philippi was not wealthy, yet they were rich in love and compassion, which they joyfully gave to Paul. In some cases, their kindness may have been sacrificial. Thus, one of the reasons Paul thanks God when he remembered them.

In verse 5, Paul talks about his partnership with the Philippians. That partnership is not bound by space and time. It is essential to consider other brothers and sisters in Christ as our partners in ministry. Our partnership with one another is vital for spreading the gospel. Therefore, we need to encourage each other and pray for one another fervently. The theological language of sacrifice Paul uses in verse 6 is essential. I preached on this text a couple of times. The point here is that as we offer our lives to God as a living sacrifice, he will bring to completion his perfect will in our lives. When we get frustrated in our Christian journey, it is good to remember that God is still working on our behalf.

Prayer

Blessed Lord, may we joyfully offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice. Let your Spirit overflow our hearts so we can be stirred up to do the work of ministry.

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