How does Paul follow-up with the church at Philippi? We have been asking this question in previous posts about Galatia, Thessalonica, and Corinth. Our source of information has been Paul’s letters to these churches. Today we will look at his letter to Philippi.
Philippians, a Friendship Letter
Many commentators have noted that Philippians has features common to friendship letters in the Greco-Roman world.1G. Walter Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians, Eerdmans: 2009, p6f. and Gordon Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, NICNT, 1995, p 2f. For instance, expressions of affection and terminology like “yoke-fellow” (Phil. 4:3) were common in letters between friends at that time. Yet the letter is more than just communication between friends. Gordon Fee writes:
But “hortatory letter of friendship” is only part of the story, and in many ways the least significant part of that. For in Paul’s hands everything turns into gospel, including both formal and material aspects of such a letter. Most significantly, friendship in particular is radically transformed from a two-way to a three-way bond – between him, the Philippians, and Christ. And obviously it is Christ who is the center and focus of everything. Paul’s and their friendship is predicated on their mutual “participation/partnership” in the gospel.2Gordon D. Fee, p 13.
Partnership in the Gospel
In Paul’s opening thanksgiving for the Philippians (the saints and leaders, Phil. 1:1) he acknowledges the partnership in the gospel (Phil. 1:5). The word translated “partnership” in Phil. 1:5 is the Greek word koinonia which is often translated “fellowship.” It is deeper and more intense than coffee and donuts on Sunday morning. For example, included in this partnership is being “partakers” of grace with Paul. Furthermore, this partnership was evident “both in my (Paul’s) imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil. 1;7). So, partnership in the gospel meant that the Philippians were active in sharing the gospel with others from the beginning of their Christian life. Likewise, partnership in the gospel seems to be central to Paul’s follow-up with the church at Philippi.
Later in chapter 1, Paul continues this partnership in the gospel. First, he informs the Philippians how his present circumstances have “served to advance the gospel” (Phil. 1:12-26). Second, he expresses his desire to hear that they are “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27-30). In this way Paul’s letter is an example of partnership in the gospel. We see then that advancement of the gospel is a shared responsibility of the church planter and the planted church.
Do we cultivate partnership in the gospel with the churches we plant? Remember Paul’s partnership with the Philippians was “from the first day” (Phil. 1:5). So, it’s never too early to begin. The following components of partnership in the gospel observed in the letter will provide some guidelines for practicing partnership in the gospel.
Christian Growth is part of Partnership in the Gospel
After acknowledging their partnership in the gospel, Paul expresses his confidence that God will complete his work in their lives (Phil. 1:6). He prays that their love will grow “with knowledge and discernment . . . [to] approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Phil. 1:9-11). In addition, he urges them to grow because God is at work within them (Phil. 2:12,13)). This growth includes their lifestyle (Phil. 1:27). Paul, likewise, continues to grow (Phil. 3:12-16) providing an example for the Philippians to follow. So, as we seek to nurture partnership in the gospel, we need to practice and encourage growing in our walk with Christ as Paul did. For example, the Learning Communities section on the SEND U wiki would be a good format for this.
Suffering is part of Partnership in the Gospel
Paul is writing from prison so suffering is inherently part of the partnership in the gospel (Phil. 1:7). In fact, life or death may result from his imprisonment (Phil. 1:20). In the midst of this suffering, Paul’s confidence is firmly in Christ (Phil. 1:21). The Philippians are also experiencing suffering (Phil. 1:29). So, Paul encourages them not to be frightened by their opponents (Phil. 1:28). Instead he points them to the resurrection (Phil. 3:11, 20-21) and prayer (Phil. 4:6-7) as a source of comfort and peace in the midst of suffering.
Unity is part of Partnership in the Gospel
Paul’s desire was to hear that the Philippian’s participation in the gospel was characterized by unity (Phil 1:27). In fact, their unity would complete his joy (Phil. 2:2). This is so because unity is grounded in “encouragement in Christ, comfort from love, participation in the Spirit, affection and sympathy” (Phil. 2:1). Further, Philippians 2:5-11 gives an extensive explanation that unity in the church follows Christ’s humble example. Because Christ is central to the gospel, his example provides a powerful motivation for the church. In his appeal for unity Paul mentions individuals who need to “agree in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2,3).
Joy is a part of Partnership in the Gospel
Paul frequently expresses his joy in the partnership in the gospel with the Philippians (Phil. 1:4, 18, 25). The “affection of Christ” fuels this joy (Phil. 1:8). This is because Christ is central to partnership in the gospel and creates the bond between believers. They rejoice when Christ is proclaimed and even suffering does not diminish that joy (Phil. 2:17,18). Also, joy accompanies their prayers (Phil. 1:4; 4:4-6). When our partnership centers on the gospel of Christ, our relationships will be joyful.
Giving and Receiving is part of Participation in the Gospel
Part of Paul’s purpose in writing this letter is to thank the Philippians for their recent gift (Phil. 4:10-20). Yet he makes it clear that he is most interested in “the fruit that increases to your (the Philippians) credit” (Phil. 4:17). Yet, we should not be embarrassed that financial sharing is part of partnership in the gospel.
Standing firm is part of Partnership in the Gospel
True partnership in the gospel stays committed to the Lord. Twice Paul writes about standing firm (Phil. 1:27; 4:1). He also commands them to “hold fast to the word of life” (Phil. 2:16). So, there is no partnership in the gospel when people depart from the message (Phil. 3:18-20).
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there is a fellowship of the ring that brings together hobbits, elves, dwarfs, and men. Interestingly, the fellowship breaks down the barriers between these groups and unites their purpose and energy on destroying the ring and restoring peace to middle earth. The fellowship (partnership) in the gospel, in a more powerful way, brings people together from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). While the fellowship of the ring in the Lord of the Rings is fantasy, the fellowship in the gospel expresses God’s purpose in restoring mankind and creation. Hence, the advancement of the gospel is the purpose of the fellowship in the gospel. In his summary of his introduction to Philippians, Gordon Fee writes:
In sum: Our letter invites us into the advance of the gospel, the good news about Christ and the Spirit. It points us to Christ, both now and forever. Christ is the gospel; Christ is Savior and Lord; thus Christ is our life; Christ is our way of life; Christ is our future; Christ is our joy; “to live is Christ; to die is gain”; and all to the glory of our God and Father, Amen.3Fee, p 52.
So in our follow-up with churches let us cultivate a partnership in the gospel remembering that it needs to start “from the first day” (Phil. 1:5). Let our relationship with churches we plant be characterized by mutual growth, shared suffering, unity, joy, giving and receiving, and standing firm.