1. Philippians provides a helpful theological framework for Christian fellowship.
The term koinōnia, often translated “fellowship,” “partnership,” or “solidarity,” bookends Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul and believers have koinōnia in the advance of the “gospel” (Phil. 1:5, 7), in “suffering” (Phil. 4:14), and in “giving and receiving” (Phil. 4:15). But this horizontal koinōnia is rooted in a vertical koinōnia in gospel advancement with the Father (Phil. 1:3, 5), a “koinōnia in the Spirit” (Phil. 2:1), and a “koinōnia in the sufferings” of Christ (Phil. 3:10). This koinōnia is thoroughly Trinitarian. God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is the One who completes the work He began (Phil. 1:6) and who wills and works in and through His people (Phil. 2:12–13).
God advances the gospel through Paul in prison, so Paul highlights his essential role by employing a passive verb when describing “what has happened” through his incarceration (Phil. 1:12). God advances the gospel Paul proclaims (Phil. 1:12, 25). God also functions as the primary Giver in their giving and receiving, so Paul rejoices in the Lord for the gift that the Philippians sent to Paul in prison, a gift that caused him to abound: “I received full payment, and more [literally, ‘abound’]” (Phil. 4:18). But Paul just noted that he experiences abundance and knows how to abound because of the One who strengthens him (Phil. 4:12–13). God gives through human givers. These gifts are likened to “a fragrant offering” and “acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18). A gift to Paul is a gift to God, “for all things are from him, through him, and to him. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).
Lastly, God grants believers suffering to make them more dependent on Him and other believers; or, we could say, dependent on Him through other believers, like Epaphroditus. He nearly died to alleviate Paul’s suffering with his presence in prison and his gift from God through the Philippian church (Phil. 1:29; 2:25–30; 4:14). The next time you think of missions, preaching, suffering, and all your relationships, remember God’s divine involvement and enablement. It changes everything, especially our understanding of Christian fellowship.
2. Philippians sets forth not just how to think, but how to live.
The “ Christ Hymn” in Philippians 2:5–11—the blazing center of the letter—is not merely a theology for the mind but a theology for life. The good news concerning Christ’s humiliation and exaltation for us and for our salvation is a gospel message we should believe with our hearts, proclaim with our mouths, and exhibit in our lives. This becomes evident from Paul’s use of the word “mind” in Philippians 2:1–11. In the first four verses, believers are encouraged to be “of the same mind” and “of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). Then, in verse five, believers are commanded to “have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus.”
Paul then shows the church what that “mind” looks like—Christ not insisting on His rights but lowering Himself for others to be exalted (Phil. 2:6–8). Have this Christ-shaped mind in you, which is not solely a way of thinking (important as that is) but also of feeling and acting toward one another. In other words, Paul wants Christ to be heard and seen in us. When we “in humility count others more significant than [ourselves],” people see Christ who selflessly humbled Himself (Phil. 2:3, 8). Or, when we, like Epaphroditus, “nearly die for the work of Christ,” they see Christ who became “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8, 30). Paul intentionally applies key words from chapter 2 to describe the Christ-shaped paragons in Philippi. All this illumines the more neglected portion of Philippians 1:21—“To live is Christ”—though one cannot live like Christ unless one lives in Christ. We must, as Martin Luther argued, receive Christ as gift before example.
3. Philippians promotes co-interest and co-obligation as Christian virtues.
Does this point make you feel uncomfortable? The terms “interest” and “obligation” may conjure up old memories of the cut-throat world of business, where dog eats dog. But Paul appeals to the gospel. In Philippians 2:3–4, he says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition . . . Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” The “not only . . . but also” correlation is key. Christianity is neither purely self-interested nor solely other-interested. Christianity is both self- and other-interested. Co-interest, properly understood, is biblical.
Co-obligation is also biblical, which is seen in the Christian fellowship of “giving and receiving” (Phil. 4:15). Paul preached the gospel to the Philippians. He gave them this glorious gift. Culturally speaking, after receiving this gift, they could be obligated to him. That’s why he describes Epaphroditus risking his life “to complete what was lacking in [the Philippians’] service [leitourgias] to [Paul]” (Phil. 2:30). A leitourgia describes the obligatory duties (“public service”) of the Jewish priesthood (2 Chron. 31:2). In the gospel of Christ, the difference is that the God of grace enables us to fulfill our obligations (Phil 1:6; 2:12–13).
Further, co-interest and co-obligation are tied into a three-way knot in Philippians. Co-interest comes to be defined as “the interests of Christ,” and co-obligation is ultimately our obligation to God, just as the Philippians obligation to Paul is a sacrificial obligation to God (Phil. 2:21, 30; 4:18).
Keeping these three things in mind while reading Philippians may help to generate a Christ-shaped way of thinking, feeling, and acting as we enjoy Christian fellowship with God and one another, if the Lord permits.
This article is part of the 3 Things You Should Know collection.