Commentary on Philippians 1:3-11
What would your parting words be to a faith community whom you have planted, loved, and nurtured? How do you possibly find the appropriate final words to thank the folks who have risked their own welfare just to be associated with you, who have supported you and stood by you—even though they could have been harmed by the scandalous, treasonous claims that you made, and whom you know may face some hardships in the near future?
That is the dilemma in which Paul finds himself as he pens the letter to the Philippians. Imprisoned and awaiting another trial, Paul knows that he could face death. Prisons in the first century were not intended as punishments in and of themselves. They were places to wait—wait for trial, wait for pardons, wait for hearings, and sometimes wait for death.
And Paul deserves death. He has been going around the empire preaching that there is a king other than the emperor. It is of little surprise that the charges leveled against him, as recorded in Acts, claim that he and his associates are turning the world upside down and preaching another king, Jesus (Acts 17:7). After all, in this very letter, the only letter that we have to this church, he will make the bold claim that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord—that is, every knee on earth, under the earth, and in the heavens, even Caesar’s knee (2:10-11).
In his final words to these believers, Paul is neither defiant nor despondent. He is joyful, full of warmth and love for this community of faith that has not only stood by him and supported him during his imprisonment, but has remained true and faithful to the gospel. What does he tell the Philippians? He urges them to continue to lead lives worthy of the gospel (1:27) even though this path could lead to suffering (1:28-30). The Lord that they serve is worth the risk; they serve the real Lord after all, the one whom the whole world will someday recognize as the rightful king (2:6-11).
In the passage this week, the apostle expresses gratitude to God for the believers. In this thanksgiving section, he mentions matters that he will develop in the body of the letter. The first matter of note is joy, of all things. There is nothing about the situation that seems joyous. Paul will assure the Philippians that his imprisonment has served to advance the gospel even “among the whole praetorium” (1:13-14). The reference to the praetorium here echoes Acts 23:35 where Paul is being held in Caesarea in the praetorium of Herod, but if Paul is writing this letter from his Roman imprisonment then he could be referring to the imperial guard. We do not know which imprisonment this is. In either case, the point is that his scandalous message is even infiltrating the ranks of those who maintain the hegemony of empire. This success can only be met by joy.
Joy permeates this letter. Paul will make use of the language of joy or rejoicing sixteen times. The apostle can have joy in the midst of suffering because of his confidence in God’s work through Christ. His joy is wed to God’s activity rather than to his own personal circumstances. Joy is an appropriate theological response. It is not joy because of suffering, but joy because those who cause the suffering will not have the last word.
God will destroy anti-God powers and enemies (1:28; 3:18-19). The “harvest of justice” or the “fruit of righteousness” is in the hands of the real King (1:11). Paul hopes that the church will see the current situation through this larger picture of what God is doing to rectify the world. It is no surprise that he will close the letter with an exhortation, then, for them to share in his joy by rejoicing with him (4:4-7).
The source of joy is the certainty of Christ’s return. Twice in this thanksgiving section Paul mentions the day of Christ (1:6, 10). The Philippian hymn (2:6-11) serves as the theological underpinning for the advice in the letter. Christ, though equal to God, emptied himself and took the form of a slave. He endured great suffering—even death on a scandalous cross, and God “super-exalted” him (2:9) and honored him with a name so great that every tongue will confess his lordship (2:10-11). With Christ’s return and exaltation, God will complete God’s work among the Philippians (1:6). The cross embodies God’s love; the resurrection fuels our hope.
The letter is also concerned with the Philippians’ partnership with Paul. Partnership, or koinonia, is more than fellowship. It is more like an investment together in an enterprise. The Philippians have invested in Paul’s ministry—even during a time of uncertainty. Since prisoners were at the mercy of their family and friends to provide basic needs, the church sent Epaphroditus with goods for Paul during his imprisonment.
Now, the Philippians may be wondering what would occur to the mission if Paul’s trial ends in the death penalty. The apostle writes to let them know that the mission does not end. The mission lives on with them as they, too, walk in the footsteps of Christ. After all, they have been “partakers in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (1:7).
What does it mean to read this passage in the darkness of Advent? The words of Paul beckon us to continue our partnership in this great faith as we await the Coming One. We will need each other on this journey, because the days ahead may be daunting. Even in the darkness of imprisonment, though, there is joy—joy not in our circumstances but in the great God who has brought us together and in God’s Son who willingly took on flesh because of his great love for us. May we hear the words of Paul spur us on to live lives worthy of the good news.