This article is part of the Christ in All of Scripture series.
If there ever was a clarion call to rejoice because of the gospel, it is Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. Writing from his jail cell in Rome (Phil. 1:12–16), Paul calls the Philippian readers to turn their gaze back to the power and joy of the gospel—and particularly their deep fellowship in it—and away from outward circumstances.
By outward appearances, as Paul writes, there is little reason for the Philippian believers to rejoice. Their beloved leader Paul is in jail; they face tremendous opposition from enemies; their church is experiencing rivalry and disunity; one of their key leaders, Epaphroditus, has nearly died twice; and some are subtly teaching confidence in the flesh rather than the cross of Christ. How can they rejoice?
Despite all these circumstances, Paul calls the Philippians to remember the power and joy of the gospel and their secure citizenship in heaven (Phil. 1:27 [ESV footnote]; Phil. 3:20). What matters more than any earthly event is what God is doing as a result of his good news (Phil. 1:6; 2:9–10). Because of the gospel, and their unity with Christ in it, the Philippians can stand firm (Phil. 1:27) in the face of opposition. Paul himself, remembering his longstanding gospel partnership with the Philippians (Phil. 1:7; 3:14–15), rejoices. Seen through the lens of the gospel, his imprisonment and their suffering are actually, counterintuitively, reasons to rejoice. For such hardships, painful as they are, serve to advance the gospel.
Furthermore, the key to retaining proper gospel perspective and avoiding getting caught up in petty conceit and rivalry is to look to Christ himself. If he humbled himself and made himself nothing, and if God has now exalted him above all, how much more should we be willing to humble ourselves as well? Jesus’ example sets the model for servant-humility as a normal part of the Christian life.
Paul’s own life (Phil. 1:25–26; 2:17–18; 3:7–17), as well as the lives of Timothy and Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:19–30), follow Christ’s servant-model of prioritizing the gospel above all else. This prizing of the heavenly includes discounting the emphasis on “the flesh” (Phil. 3:1–11) and pressing on to the heavenly prize (Phil. 3:12–4:1). Two prime marks of standing firm in the gospel are unity (Phil. 4:2–3) and joy (Phil. 4:4–7). Paul concludes his letter with further rejoicing and thankfulness for the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel (Phil. 4:10–23).
Jesus’ example sets the model for servant-humility as a normal part of the Christian life.
Union and Unity with Christ
Several sets of keywords help us trace the emphases in Philippians. The most obvious are words related to joy, which occur twenty times (Phil. 1:3–4, 18, 25; 2:2, 9, 17–18, 28–29; 3:1; 4:1, 4, 6, 10). A second key term in Philippians is fellowship (Greek koinonia), translated as “partnership” or “participation” (Phil. 1:5, 7; 2:1; 3:10; 4:14–15), which can relate either to other believers (Phil. 1:5; 4:14–15), the gospel of grace (Phil. 1:7), or Christ himself (Phil. 2:1; 3:10). A third key term is citizenship, which occurs only twice but is strategically placed (Phil. 1:27 [ESV footnote]; Phil. 3:20). A fourth key expression, “in Christ,” occurs in some form at least nine times, reflecting the spiritual union that gives us status and resources from the Savior in all of life’s circumstances. Finally, of course, are the words for the good news itself: grace, which appears three times (Phil. 1:2, 7; 4:23) and gospel, which occurs nine times (Phil. 1:5, 7, 12, 16, 27 [2x]; Phil. 2:22; 4:3, 15).
Our union with and unity in Christ are the basis for joyful, humble service—no matter what the circumstances. Paul calls us to stand firm, rejoice, and humbly serve others even as Christ humbly served us through his redemptive work. May we “strain forward” (see Phil. 3:13) for the prize of citizenship with Christ—whom God has exalted for universal praise!
This article is adapted from the ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible. Browse other articles in this series via the links below.
Genesis • Exodus • Leviticus • Numbers • Deuteronomy • Joshua • Judges • Ruth • 1–2 Samuel • 1–2 Kings • 1–2 Chronicles • Ezra • Nehemiah • Esther • Job • Psalms • Proverbs • Ecclesiastes • Song of Solomon • Isaiah • Jeremiah • Lamentations • Ezekiel • Daniel • Hosea • Joel • Amos • Obadiah • Jonah • Micah • Nahum • Habbakuk • Zephaniah • Haggai • Zechariah • Malachi
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