Paul’s affinity and connection to the Philippian church is well documented, and these lines from our second Sunday of Advent highlight the issue. Paul gets emotional when he prays for his friends there.
This opening section can be broken up into three loose categories: Opening, A celebration of God’s work among the Philippians, and Paul’s prayer for them.
The apostolic greeting is familiar enough to most of us.
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is so familiar we tend to skip over it, but let me tell you there is a lot of juice in these lines. The first drop of juice would be word selection. Paul refers to himself and Timothy as servants, but the people at Philippi as saints. Then he drops the words “grace” and “peace” as blessings. His desire for them is shalom.
The second drop of juice flows from the leadership language. The ESV renders these as overseers and deacons. The words are actually episkopoi and diakonoi which could be rendered bishop and servant, respectively. Some people put a lot of meaning on these types of words, but I am not one of those people. My reading of the New Testament leads me to think of all of these leadership words as synonymous–pastor, bishop, elder, deacon and so forth. The one word that is different, and is a cut above, is that of apostle, which Paul will use in other places, but curiously, note how he doesn’t use apostle in the greeting. He uses the word servant, a different word that means servant from the word deacon. Curious indeed. Also note, the words are plural.
One more slurp of juice from these lines is the language of “in Christ Jesus”. I’m telling you, if I were preaching this passage this Sunday, I could spend a lot of time on what it means to be “in Messiah Jesus”.
2. A Celebration of God’s Work Among the Philippians
A quick outline shows us that verses 3-8 are Paul’s description of the work and how this bonds him together with the saints at Philippi.
I thank my God in all remembrance of you . . . because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now . . . he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ . . . for you are all partakers with me of grace in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness . . .
The tricky part here is identifying the work itself. This becomes more problematic because of generations of self-appropriation of verse 6. By that I mean, people have become accustomed to view the promise of completing work “in you” to be that somehow God will bring each of us into greatness and completion. The “you” here is plural, and I take it to mean the unified church and its mission—you saints as a group, rather than some divine promise that guarantees success in any particular venture. Failure happens, and we who love and follow him must admit failure in some task or project is often God’s plan for us and for those around us.
The work Paul is celebrating is the presentation of the gospel, which the Philippians joined in with him almost immediately. He calls this a partnership, a fruitful theme in Philippians–sharing in labor, sharing in ministry, sharing in suffering. Not even prison and distance had terminated this partnership.
Nor can time. To me the most interesting pat of this is the almost thrown away line, “at the day of Jesus Christ.” It might take a while for this work to be completed.
3. Paul’s Prayer
The prayer is beautiful because it specifically asks from the Father attributes, rather than things, for the church at Philippi.
It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be 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.
It might be helpful to enumerate these prayer requests as a flow that starts with love and finishes with glorifying God.
Abounding love → leads to knowledge and discernment → to approve right behavior → to be pure and blameless → which is filled with righteousness → to the glory of God
Paul is praying about their character and spiritual strength. He does not pray for ease, comfort, wealth, or even health. He doesn’t pray for the things most of us spend our time praying for. Instead, he prays that the Philippians will be better people, and as such, the Lord will be glorified. We think of God being glorified by the great things we do or accomplish (v. 6), but the reality is the Lord is glorified when we live the way we should.