Philippians (2): An Apostolic Thanksgiving
Philippians (2): An Apostolic Thanksgiving
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:3-6, ESV).
As is usual with St Paul, the opening greeting of his Epistle to the Philippians is followed by an expression of thanksgiving. This is never merely formulaic, however. Each has its own flavour. Here, while the thanksgiving is for the Philippians, it is not addressed to them, but to ‘my God’: a phrase which he also uses in Chapter Four (verse 19), where he assures them that ‘my God’ will meet all their needs.
The very fact that the Apostle thanks God for the Philippians is instructive in itself. He sees so much that is commendable in these young Christians. The idea that ‘Christ is all’ and that believers neither have nor do anything praiseworthy is often carried too far, even to the extent of frowning on any sort of praise directed to fellow Christians. Here, however, Paul clearly recognises praiseworthy features in the lives of the saints at Philippi. He is fully aware, of course, that these qualities are themselves gifts from God; after all, it is God he is thanking, not the Philippians. Yet, whenever he remembers the Philippians (and they come to mind, he says, whenever he prays) he does so with joy, and this joy focuses for the moment on one specific thing: their partnership in the gospel.
The word ‘partnership’ (KJV ‘fellowship) translates the Greek koinōnia, taking us back to the basic idea of sharing, or having something in common. Here, the partnership Paul has in mind is a partnership with a view to (eis), or for the purposes of, the gospel. What he and the Philippians have in common is a passion for the Christian message and for collaboration in making it known. This is amplified later in the chapter. In verse 27, for example, he speaks of the Philippians as standing for the faith of the gospel, and in verse 29 they are described as suffering for it. In Chapter Four (verse 3) he refers to women in the church at Philippi who have stood side by side with him in the gospel (or, in evangelism), and a moment later he mentions Clement ‘and the rest of my fellow workers’. Then as he comes to the end of the letter, and thanks them for the gift they have sent through Epaphroditus (4:18) he clearly sees the gift as part of the same gospel partnership (4:15).
The picture is a most attractive one. Every believer is a partner in the whole ministry of the church, whether it be evangelism, pastoral care or its ministry of compassion; and at the precise moment of writing what this meant for the Philippians was that they were partners in Paul’s imprisonment and in all the privations, and all the opportunities, which this involved.
The ‘good work’?
But what is the ‘good work’ to which Paul refers in verse 6? It cannot be their gospel partnership itself, because that was bound to be transient, whereas the work the Apostle has in mind was one which would be brought to completion only ‘at the day of Jesus Christ’: that is, it would continue till the Lord returned in glory at the end of time. The reference must be to the 'good work' which God began in us when he renewed us by his Spirit and drew us to Christ; and having begun it, God will never give up on it. The great Master Builder never builds ‘follies.’ What he begins, he finishes; and he will keep putting the finishing touches to us (or touching us up) till our souls are made perfect in holiness and our bodies share in the wonder of the resurrection. This is the complete salvation that Christ purchased for his people, and it flows from a love that will never let us go.
But this, glorious though it is, doesn’t mean that we are simply ‘secure’ and that once converted we are to sail effortlessly into heaven. In Chapter Two (verse 12) of this very epistle Paul urges us to work out our own salvation, and in Philippians 3:12-16 he paints a vivid picture of himself pushing on towards his ultimate spiritual goal. It is by keeping alive within us an insatiable spiritual hunger (Mt. 5:6) and a murderous attitude towards sin (Rom. 8:13) that God brings his work to completion. He does indeed ‘keep’ us by his power (1 Pet. 1:5), but what that power does is to ensure that we persevere, finish the race and keep the faith (2 Tim. 4:7).
Yet, if the Philippians’ partnership in Paul’s ministry is not itself the 'good work,' it is the basis of Paul’s assurance that the work has begun, and the guarantee that one day it will be completed. It is right, he says, to feel this way about them all because he holds them in his heart; and he holds them in his heart because they are all sharing in his ‘grace,’ that is, in the privilege of his bonds (for Christ) and of his efforts for the defence (apologia) and establishment of the gospel.
And here Calvin raises a fascinating question: ‘How can anyone be sure of the salvation of others?’ We can be sure of our own salvation because of the witness of the Spirit within, but we can have no such witness to the salvation of others. What we do have, however, is the grace of God shining outwardly and visibly in their lives. This is what Paul saw in the Philippians, and whenever we, in turn, see it in others we should , says Calvin, be stirred up to a good hope, to a loving judgement, and to gratitude to God.