Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians: Friends in the Gospel
Note: When passages are quoted at the beginning of new sections, I will be using The Message translation because of its conversational, friendly tone. You can compare this version with others, as well as have access to Gordon Fee’s commentary, at Bible Gateway.
Here, then, is the paradigm of Pauline spirituality: thanksgiving and prayer, filled with joy, on behalf of all of God’s people in Philippi.
• Gordon Fee
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Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart. I am so pleased that you have continued on in this with us, believing and proclaiming God’s Message, from the day you heard it right up to the present. There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.
It’s not at all fanciful for me to think this way about you. My prayers and hopes have deep roots in reality. You have, after all, stuck with me all the way from the time I was thrown in jail, put on trial, and came out of it in one piece. All along you have experienced with me the most generous help from God. He knows how much I love and miss you these days. Sometimes I think I feel as strongly about you as Christ does!
In ancient letters, the opening greeting was usually followed by an expression of thanksgiving and a wish/prayer for the well being of the letter’s recipients. Philippians takes this pattern, and in verses 3-8, we read of Paul’s gratitude for the Philippians.
A few observations about the way Paul states this:
- He expresses his thankfulness in the context of his habitual prayers for the Philippians.
- He bases his thankfulness on the good relationship he has with the church, and with their ongoing partnership in life and gospel ministry.
- His thanksgiving is filled with joy.
- His thanksgiving is filled with affection.
- His thanksgiving leads him to make confident statements about them and the faith-path they are on. Paul sees God at work among these believers and he affirms that God will continue to work in and through them to the end.
When I was in high school, I worked in a couple of shoe stores. In one of them, I had a decent boss and coworkers. But we were in a declining downtown location and the store’s business was beginning to fade. I enjoyed interacting with my boss, but she didn’t do much more than supervise my work and communicate the bare minimum of expectations. I would say that this store was in maintenance mode, and that those of us who worked there drew a paycheck but didn’t get much more out of the experience than that.
A neighbor of my parents owned another shoe store, and when I was looking for additional work, he brought me on. The difference could not have been more stark. He gave me regular verbal affirmation, asked me to take responsibility for certain aspects of running the store that I had not done before, and regularly praised me when I succeeded in fulfilling even the smallest task. I found that I wanted to work harder for him, to ask more questions and learn more about the business. It became more than a job. I looked forward to going to work and finding out how I could contribute more.
My second boss had the spirit Paul exhibits here toward the believers in Philippi. He is encouraging and affirming toward them. He expresses confidence in what God is doing in their midst and how they are responding with faith and participation in the work of the gospel. I love the fresh way Eugene Peterson translates Paul’s positive words: “There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.”
Of course, it is easy to say such affirming things when all is well, when relationships are strong, when the work is advancing and succeeding. However, remember that Paul was in prison and perhaps facing a death sentence when he wrote these words. And the Philippians were by no means a perfect church, as this letter will reveal.
Note also that Paul gave thanks for a church like the one in Corinth, that was about to go off the rails:
Every time I think of you—and I think of you often!—I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God, given by Jesus. There’s no end to what has happened in you—it’s beyond speech, beyond knowledge. The evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives. (1 Cor 1:4-6, MSG)
In fact, in every letter except Galatians (which may be understood as an emergency intervention), Paul says “Thank you” before he gives any doctrine, any instruction, any exhortation, any warnings.
What a profound lesson on how to relate to others! What a great example of the kind of leadership that builds others up and sets them free!
What a rare quality and approach in our day.
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Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians – Friends in the Gospel