Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians: Friends in the Gospel
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
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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).
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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:
- Address and greeting (cf. 1:1-2)
- Prayer for recipients (cf. 1:3-11)
- Reassurance about the sender and his circumstances (cf. 1:12-26; 4:10-20)
- Request for reassurance about the recipients and their circumstances (cf. 1:27-2:18; 3:1-4:9)
- Information about the affairs of mutual friends/intermediaries (cf. 2:19-30)
- Exchange of greetings with third parties (cf. 4:21-22)
- 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