Several years ago, we received a Thanksgiving Day card titled “Blessed and Grateful.” The sender wrote, “We hope your celebration of God’s blessings is a joyful one.” It was an excellent sentiment. Although Christians are extraordinarily blessed by the treasures we possess in Christ, we often don’t reflect joy, as we should. We walk around with long faces, advertising to everyone how miserable we think our lives are.
Not so with the apostle Paul. Writing from a Roman prison while chained to a guard, Paul was so filled with the Holy Spirit that he rejoiced, knowing the Lord’s love, will, and power were guiding him.
For Christians, joy should not depend on circumstances or world conditions. Instead, it should come from a personal relationship with Christ. In his epistle of merely 104 verses to the Philippians, Paul used the words joy, rejoice, rejoiced, or rejoicing 16 times. In fact, joy is the key word in the book. Bible scholar John MacArthur described spiritual joy this way:
Spiritual joy . . . is not an attitude dependent on chance or circumstances. It is the deep and abiding confidence that, regardless of one’s circumstances in life, all is well between the believer and the Lord. No matter what difficulty, pain, disappointment, failure, rejection, or other challenge one is facing, genuine joy remains because of that eternal well-being established by God’s grace in salvation. Thus, Scripture makes it clear that the fullest, most lasting and satisfying joy is derived from a true relationship with God. It is not based on circumstances or chance but is the gracious and permanent possession of every child of God. Therefore it is not surprising that joy is an important New Testament theme.1
Paul expressed his joy for the Philippian believers by rejoicing over his fellowship with them in the gospel (1:3–5), their salvation (vv. 6–8), and their spiritual growth (vv. 9–11).
Rejoicing Over the Church
Paul told them, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now” (vv. 3–5).
The Greek word for “I thank” (eucharisteo) is present tense and means Paul continually thanked God for the church he founded many years ago.
He had vivid memories of his Philippian ministry, where he saw the conversion of Lydia, who opened her house as a church meeting place; the deliverance of a demon-possessed girl; an earthquake that miraculously opened the prison doors for him and Silas after they had been severely beaten, illegally jailed, and put in stocks without a trial; and the salvation of the Philippian jailer and his family.
But above all, he treasured the Philippians’ ongoing friendship, prayers, and support. Though Paul had not seen the Philippians for 10 years, the word always means he never failed to petition God on their behalf, praying “with joy” (v. 4). He evidenced victory, without regrets.
The word making is in present tense, emphasizing that such prayer was Paul’s ongoing practice; and the phrase you all means he did not exclude anyone when he prayed.
By “fellowship in the gospel” (v. 5), the apostle meant the Philippian church stood solidly behind him in prayer from its inception and helped him evangelize, even while he was a Roman prisoner.
Reflecting on the Church
Convinced God would continue working in the Philippian church, Paul wrote, “Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (v. 6).
The word confident is in the Greek perfect tense, meaning the apostle came to a settled conclusion that the Philippians’ salvation would produce ongoing, eternal results. Salvation is by God’s grace from start to finish. Paul was teaching that the same faithful God who saved the Philippians would complete this good work of salvation all the way through to “the day of Jesus Christ” (v. 6), that is, to the Rapture, when Christ comes for His church. Thus, once we are born again, we definitely will be glorified and our salvation completed. This is a powerful statement concerning the believer’s eternal security.
Paul added, “Just as it is right for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart, inasmuch as both in my chains and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers with me of grace” (v. 7). Because Paul and the Philippians were in Christ, it was natural for him to love them deeply. They had shown their deep love for Paul by treating him well during his “chains” (imprisonment).
The Philippians were not merely onlookers: “You all are partakers with me of grace” (v. 7). They were involved. They shared the gospel, showed Paul love and kindness, prayed for his ministry, helped support him in the work, and kept in contact with him during his persecutions. Thus, they were fellow participants in God’s grace.
Paul called on God to confirm how deeply his affection ran for the Philippians: “For God is my witness, how greatly I long for you all with the affection [“in the bowels,” KJV] of Jesus Christ” (v. 8). His love was not tainted by self-pity or superficial sentimentality but was the same ongoing love and affection Christ had for them. In fact, Paul went a step further when he used the word for “bowels,” a metaphor that expressed his longing in the very core of his being.
Request to the Church
Paul then explained how he prayed for the Philippians. He prayed that their love:
1. Would overflow. He asked that their “love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment” (v. 9). The Greek word translated “love” is agape, a self-sacrificing love that God freely bestowed on them. Paul expected their love would go beyond their own fellowship and “abound,” or overflow continually, as a river overflows its banks. Thus, the Philippian believers were to love one another as Christ loved them.
2. Would be grounded. Their love was to be rooted in “knowledge and all discernment” (v. 9). The word knowledge refers to spiritual knowledge gained by understanding Christ through the inerrant, infallible Word and putting that knowledge into practice. As these believers grew in the knowledge of God’s Word, they would learn how to love others in a purposeful, intelligent, wise, and benevolent way.
The word discernment refers to insight, moral perception, or wisdom in applying knowledge or expressing love to a fellow believer. Often Christians think they’re showing love but are unwise and tactless.
3. Would be tested. He prayed that they “may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ” (v. 10). The word approve connotes testing or examining things to distinguish between genuine and imitation. In Bible times, metals were tested to prove their quality and purity, and pottery was held up to the sunlight to see if dishonest dealers had filled cracks with wax.
By testing things in the spiritual realm, we can determine what is more excellent. Paul told the Philippians to study, probe, scrutinize, and evaluate the most appropriate ways to follow the Lord’s teachings as presented in God’s Word. That way, they would show themselves “sincere” (v. 10), meaning pure and genuine, “without offense,” and blameless in their daily conduct toward both believers and unbelievers “till the day of Christ” (v. 10), meaning until the Rapture, when they would be glorified and rewarded according to their works.
He reminded them the fruit that righteousness produces comes not through their own works, but by Jesus Christ: “Being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (v. 11). Only the Holy Spirit can produce the fruit of the Spirit as we abide in Christ (Jn. 15:4–5).
The apostle closed his prayer “to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:11). Glorifying God was Paul’s prayer for every Christian. We glorify God through the Holy Spirit’s ministry in us, developing love, joy, holiness, and service. May we live each day letting the joy of Christ radiate through us for all to see.
- John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Philippians (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2001), 10, exported from Logos Bible Software.