Ordinary Time Bible Study: Philippians – Friends in the Gospel (1)

Art from the Orthodox Chapel at the Gangites River. Lydia and women at the river as Paul approaches.

Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians: Friends in the Gospel
Study One

Ask any number of people to name their favorite Pauline letter, and the majority will say Philippians. For good reason. Whereas we meet an erudite Paul in Romans, a bombastic Paul in Galatians, a sometimes caustic Paul in 2 Corinthians and a sometimes baffling Paul in 1 Corinthians, here we find a very personal and warm human being who pours out a heart of affection for his friends in Philippi. In short, many of us like Philippians because we like the Paul we meet there.

• Gordon Fee

• • •

The first book of the Bible I preached as a pastor was Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I had fallen in love with it in Bible college, and could think of no better way to start my ministry. Of course, my understanding was minimal and I was as green behind the ears as a young minister could be, but looking back, I think my instincts were correct. This was thirty years before I heard Michael Spencer use the phrase “Jesus-shaped spirituality,” but that kind of spiritual life was what I found in this delightful epistle.

  • Jesus the Christ is mentioned three times in the first two verses of Paul’s greeting.
  • Paul looks forward to the Day of Christ and the harvest of righteousness that will come through Christ.
  • He says he loves his friends with the compassion of Christ.
  • His perspective on his current imprisonment is that it is for Christ.
  • Despite wrong motives of his competitors, he can still rejoice that Christ is being proclaimed.
  • For Paul, to live is Christ.
  • To depart is to be with Christ, which is far better.
  • He expresses confidence that their prayers and the help of the Spirit of Christ will lead to his deliverance.
  • He wants to share in their joyful boasting in Christ when he rejoins them.
  • Paul urges them to live worthy of the gospel of Christ.
  • He reminds them of the privileges of believing in and suffering for Christ.

And that’s just chapter one!

Also, although I’m sure I had no understanding of this as a novice pastor, Philippians was an excellent place to begin because it portrays a pastoral figure (Paul) and a congregation of people who, for the most part, get along and are engaged in a vibrant “partnership in the gospel” (1:5, NIV). They had their problems, and Paul had to exhort them pretty directly at times (when was the last time your pastor pointed out people by name from the pulpit? — see 4:2). But he could do this because of the quality of their relationship, which had been shaped by acts of mutual service and love. On the whole, the church of Philippi appears to have been one of the healthiest and stable churches in the New Testament. What better place was there for me to start in a new ministry than with this positive, uplifting, encouraging letter?

As we study Philippians together during Ordinary Time this year, I hope we will all be buoyed up by the Spirit of God and refreshed in our faith.

For my primary resource in this study, I will be consulting Gordon Fee’s brief but excellent commentary on Philippians in the IVP NT Commentary Series. NOTE: You can read this commentary at no cost online at Bible Gateway. Fee also has a longer, more scholarly commentary on Philippians in the NICNT series.

I will supplement this by referring to one of my favorite New Testament studies, Gerald F. Hawthorne’s Word Biblical Commentary on Philippians (43).

If anyone would like to read along with a good devotional, pastoral guide, I recommend Tom Wright’s volume on the Prison Letters in his NT for Everyone series.

Of course, there are many other good commentaries out there, including two that are usually rated highest as the best seminary level texts: Peter T. O’Brien’s The Letter to the Philippians (NIGCT) (out of print) and Moisés Silva’s Philippians (BECNT).

• • •

I have entitled this study “Friends in the Gospel.” 

In previous studies, I used the phrase “Partnership in the Gospel” as my main theme, building upon Phil. 1:5, as Tom Wright does in his guide. However, Gordon Fee has persuaded me to change my approach from “partnership” to “friendship” based on his discussion of the genre of Paul’s epistle.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, letters followed certain forms depending upon the writer/recipient relationship and the content of the letter. Without repeating the details, Fee notes that Philippians reflects the characteristics of (1) letters of friendship, and (2) letters of moral exhortation. Philippians is rather unique among Paul’s epistles in following the friendship form, and this is why many people find it so attractive. Paul followed the forms of his day, but he also transformed them into distinctly Christian communications by filling the forms with Jesus-shaped content.

Fee cites one scholar who found seven general characteristics of Greco-Roman friendship letters, which we see in Philippians:

  1. Address and greeting (cf. 1:1-2)
  2. Prayer for recipients (cf. 1:3-11)
  3. Reassurance about the sender and his circumstances (cf. 1:12-26; 4:10-20)
  4. Request for reassurance about the recipients and their circumstances (cf. 1:27-2:18; 3:1-4:9)
  5. Information about the affairs of mutual friends/intermediaries (cf. 2:19-30)
  6. Exchange of greetings with third parties (cf. 4:21-22)
  7. Closing wish for health (cf. 4:23)

But this is mere form. Paul fills out the letter with effusive expressions of friendship (matching the ideals of friendship accepted in his culture) such as their working partnership, joy in their relationship, the mutual affection they share, the generous and practical help they have given each other, their mutual desire to see each other face to face, and their mutual desire for each other’s well being.

One interesting feature of Philippians as a “friendship” letter is that, even though it contains exhortations and appeals, Paul does not appeal to his apostleship and authority but rather to their mutual faith in Christ and the example he and others have set for them. There is a remarkable sense of egalitarianism in their relationship, especially when contrasted with letters such as Galatians and the Corinthian correspondence.

Gordon Fee ultimately casts Philippians as “Christian hortatory letter of friendship.” Each of those terms is key. Philippians is about friendship. It contains appeals and exhortation. The letter is centered upon Christ and their union with Christ and therefore, with each other.

The marks of the letter of friendship are everywhere. Philippians is clearly intended to make up for their mutual absence, functioning as Paul’s way of being present while absent. …Thus he informs them about his affairs, speaks into their affairs and offers information about the movements of intermediaries. Evidence of mutual affection abounds. The reciprocity of friendship is especially evident at the beginning and the end, and thus is probably to be seen in the other parts as well. Moreover, in the two sections in which Paul speaks into their affairs the letter functions as moral exhortation, which is tied very specifically to exemplary paradigms.

…He is altogether concerned for his friends in Philippi and their ongoing relationship with Christ.

• Fee, pp. 20-22

26 thoughts on “Ordinary Time Bible Study: Philippians – Friends in the Gospel (1)

  1. Dana, I sat in on a semester of classes on the Life of Jesus that Dr Fee taught at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, way back in 1980. A friend was at the seminary while I was at Gordon College, so I sneaked on over there every week. Fee is an electrifying speaker, and the content was also terrific. I probably still have the notes somewhere.


  2. I’ve been leading a men’s fellowship group through Philippians for several weeks now. It’s been a true marvel for this 30-plus-year Christian. To paraphrase Fee, I’ve liked the Paul I’ve met there. It’s like a new discovery, or a new path for me to take on my Christian walk.


  3. Yes, important, Greg.

    Fr Stephen also writes that koinonia also carries the ideal of “participation” – it’s something deeper than even the important social equality. The faithfulness extends to at least seeing “my brother is my self”, as in the Monday post.

    Also, when Jesus says we must love our neighbor as our selves, what he’s getting at is not simply that we treat others the way we want to be treated, but that we only have a self as we are loving our neighbor. My understanding is that this is the sense of the Greek.



  4. I was blessed to be able to hear him at a conference. I was able to thank him for supporting women in Protestant ministry; his work in that area helped me a great deal.



  5. Fr Stephen doesn’t have to borrow from Moltmann; that’s already there in EO theology.

    Why are you against nature? Real question.



  6. ‘Friendship’ and ‘fellowship’ (both denoted by ‘koinonia’) in the ancient world, and the early church, is more than what we thing of as ‘friendship’ and ‘fellowship’ (pot lucks and going to dinner after church). And Paul’s use of those ideas in Philippians (in particular) has huge social implications (the first part of Phil 2 is packed with terms with great sociological significance [social status] in the Greco-Roman world). David deSilva writes of ‘friendship’ in Paul’s world:

    ‘Relationships of reciprocity also occur between social equals, people of like means who can exchange like resources, neither one being seen by the other or by society as the inferior of the other [as opposed to patron-client relationships]. Such relationships went by the name of “friendship.” The basic ethos undergirding this relationship, however, is no different from that of the relationship of patrons and clients; the same principles of reciprocity and mutual fidelity is the bedrock of both. . . . Where we see people called “friends” or “partners,” therefore, we should suspect that we are still looking at relationships of reciprocity.’

    In other words, ‘friendship’ (koinonia) in the church is 1) based on equal status, 2) and has reciprocal obligations and expects fidelity (faithfulness). That Paul calls the Philippians ‘friends’ and emphasizes ‘koinonia’, clearly crossing Greco-Roman social boundaries, was a big deal (usually missed in modern Bible study), and says a lot about the heart of Paul’s thinking and theology. No wonder he was accused of ‘turning the world upside down’ – he is upending the class structure of his society. This is truly radical thinking, and the fact that Paul writes these things to Philippi, a Roman colony where status and class were probably on display every day, suggests Paul’s mission and vision is about more than ‘gettin folks saved’.


  7. I used “How to Read the Bible for all its Worth” and “How to Read the Bible Book by Book” a number of times in small group settings to help folks who were used to proof-texting (or were new believers) better understand how to read Scripture. They are true gems and incredibly helpful.


  8. There’s a word I’m thinking of along the lines of “calling someone’s parentage into question and suggesting they are illegitimate and continue to skew all that they touch”…starts with a b.

    I have a hard time connecting the various strains of pentecostalism to any form of historic christianity, even tho I’ve studied Azuza Street and the major players and preceding movements and things. It shares a lot of historical similarities with dispensationalism: a single (or group) of people get upset or disillusioned with their local church, concoct a crafty idea, and go off and start their own thing. There’s always a rogue, brand new, X element that gets introduced, above and beyond a differing of views or opinions.

    But they’ve been retroactively brought into the fold, I guess. Along with the Millerities and their offshoots.

    And in 25-50 years, I imagine LDS will be in the fold as well. They’ve always been bible believing spirit-filled true believers.


  9. #11 – we reject the NAR and all it’s heresies populated through music like Bethel and Hillsong and IHOP?

    I’m not holding my breath.


  10. >> consume with the intent to replace

    This sounds like your just completed most-expensive-in-history special election. Your aggressiveness might have been more appropriate in 1970, but my impression is that Spirit today has found more effective means than setting off M-80’s, even within full gospel circles. I still am going with “spread”. It’s fairly neutral and non-threatening unless you’re John MacArthur. On my bucket list is attending a service at a little Foursquare Church about thirty miles from me, these 35 years later.



  11. I.e. “consume with the intent to replace, which would be an overall good thing.” Can you think of a good word for that?


  12. OK, point taken. “Diffuse” is probably the appropriate word from biology with less negative baggage, but it lacks the aggressiveness I wanted.

    Maybe “cannibalize”, like the Internet did with the switched telephone network, but that word is even more negative.


  13. 1. Pathology. (of malignant cells or disease-producing organisms) to spread to other parts of the body by way of the blood or lymphatic vessels or membranous surfaces.
    2. to spread injuriously:
    Street gangs have metastasized in our city.
    3. to transform, especially into a dangerous form:
    The KGB metastasized after the fall of the Soviet Union. Truth metastasized into lurid fantasy.

    John MacArthur would probably get on board with these standard definitions.


  14. Just a bad disposition. When I read “The Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit” I was baffled by all the great, billowy clouds of imprecise and obscure language that, I felt, served only to blunt the edges of a rather doctrinaire Marxism. A more thoroughgoing and consistent Marxist would just come out and say ‘we need to string up the landlords using the entrails of the magistrates’ and be done with it.

    Moltmann left a bad taste in my mouth. I had just come back from three years in Spain and South America and the last thing I wanted to read was a romanticized apology for the FSLN, the FARC or the Sendero Luminoso.

    I’m not saying that Moltmann isn’t useful, but I’m basically an 1818 vintage reactionary and don’t have much sympathy for Moltmann’s politics.


  15. >> . . . Pentecostals continue to metastasize . . .

    Possibly you might consider exchanging this word “metastasize” for one with somewhat less baggage such as “spread”.


  16. What do you dislike about Moltmann, Mule? I’m genuinely interested. Seems to me that Stephen Freeman has borrowed some stuff from him (‘made in the image of the crucified God’, etc.).


  17. What a pleasant surprise to run into Gordon Fee this morning. A searcher or a new Christian would do well reading his general teaching on how to read the Bible. Certainly one of the most balanced and grounded teachers to come out of the last century and he’s still going strong, a treasure.


  18. Glad to see Dr. Fee making an appearance here. Back when I was a Pentecostal, he was a bird of rare plumage indeed – a Pentecostal academic theologian with the respect of that community. As the Pentecostals continue to metastasize through what remains of Protestantism, I look forward to seeing their academic theologians triumph as well.

    I would recommend you store all of Moltmann in the attic and use the freed-up bookshelf for Fee’s God’s Empowering Presence.


  19. The “egalitarianism” is reminiscent of my first days in evangelicalism. That first love. A heavenly equality. How beautiful it was for brothers to dwell together in unity. Unity of thought, unity of purpose, unity of intent. I couldn’t wait to get to the next fellowship meeting, whatever that was. Prayer meeting, Bible study, coffeehouse, whatever. Joy and adventure filled my soul. It felt very much like being a contemporary of the Philippians as described here, living it out in real time. Friendship with God and his people. ” I no longer call you servants but friends.” Just a reminiscence that came to mind.


  20. Friends. ….Quakers. ……Holy Spirit. …just expressing the first thing I thought of. I sometimes wonder where are the roots of today. Saw different history on eastern orthodox and how corrupt some people thought it. Seen the same with west. Quakers seem to say friends a lot and that’s what this reminds me of. I’m not trying to cut down the east or west as they have had struggles which was promised.


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