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Recovering an Overlooked Verse on Missions: The Promise of Philippians 1:6


Editors’ note: 

Take part in TGCs Read the Bible initiative, where were encouraging Christians and churches to read together through Gods Word in a year.

Philippians 1:6 is one of the most familiar verses in Scripture. You may know it well: He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6).

We often quote these words for their hope-filled message of personal assurance for all believers. But perhaps weve missed how they can spur us to greater support and sacrifice for the gospels spread.

From the First Day Until Now

When Paul mentions the good work God began in the Philippians, it would be easy to focus on his active grace in their initial moment of conversion, such as when Lydia first responded to the gospel down by the riverside (Acts 16:1314). But Paul might be thinking about more than just the Philippians individual salvation. In the immediate context of this missionary support letter, Paul directs his thanks to God for their mutual fellowship (koinonia) in his missionary labors from the first day (Phil. 1:5). They were his partners from the beginning.

We often quote these words for their hope-filled message of personal assurance. But perhaps weve missed how they can spur us to greater support and sacrifice for the gospels spread.

Luke records that, shortly after her heart was opened to the gospel, Lydia graciously opened her home to Pauls missionary team (Acts 16:15). Later, when Paul and Silas departed for Thessalonica (Acts 17:1), they did so with the financial backing of the fledgling Philippian believers. As such, Paul says they were part of the beginning of the gospels advance into Thessalonica (Phil. 4:1516). Their valuable partnership and evident faith led Paul to regularly thank God with joy (Phil. 1:45). And why wouldnt he? Not every church willingly and quickly supports missionaries. As Paul himself acknowledges, the Philippians are truly unique in this way (Phil. 4:15).

Thankfully, the Philippians koinonia with Pauls mission didnt stop as quickly as it started. While we cant be sure of the amount or regularity of their support, we do know that the Philippians continued in this act of grace. In response to Pauls financial request for the struggling Jerusalem church, they became a model of generous giving. In fact, their abundant offering was striking since it occurred during a time of their own significant hardship (2 Cor. 8:14).

Later, when Paul says the Philippians were partners from the first day until now, that now (Phil. 1:6) refers specifically to Pauls defense and confirmation of the gospel in Rome (Phil. 1:7). As Paul pens his letter to the Philippians from prison, hes thanking his Macedonian partners for their vital support delivered by Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25). Having stood with Paul from the beginning in Philippi and all the way to Rome, the Philippians became partakers with Paul of grace. They shared in the supernatural work of his apostolic ministry by supplying his everyday needs. The work God began continued in the now and was moving to a glorious end.

At the Day of Jesus Christ

Some commentators shrug off the idea that Philippians 1:6 is an explicit promise for those who partner in missionary efforts. For one, Paul writes that Gods work is happening in the Philippians (as opposed to through them). Further, that work is completed at (or until) the day of Christ. Surely, they argue, Paul isnt assuming the Philippians will provide for his physical needs until the end of the age. Instead, many believe this verse is best understood to refer to personal sanctification, to individuals bearing the fruit of righteousness when they stand before the Lord (Phil. 1:11; cf. 1 Cor. 1:8). This is plausible since the content of Pauls prayer clearly includes aspirations for their spiritual growth (Phil. 1:9).

But other commentators see more going on in Philippians 1:6. The disgrace of associating with an incarcerated criminal could easily threaten the Philippians willingness to stick with Paul. So he writes to thank them for their gift and encourage them to persevere in their partnership. This is why Paul highlights their share in his work (Phil. 1:7). By virtue of their ongoing gospel koinonia, whatever happens in and through Paul is simultaneously happening in and through them. Thus, as they partner with the imprisoned apostle, they experience some measure of his shame. But, by the same token, they also have fellowship in the glory of the gospel’s unimaginable spread among the imperial guard (Phil. 1:1213).

As ministry partners, the Philippians partake in the fruit of Pauls labor. When he stands before the Lord one day, Paul expects to exult in a harvest of souls who, like the Philippians, have ripened to maturity (Phil. 2:1416; 4:1; cf. 1 Thess. 2:19). But if Paul the missionary anticipates joy on judgment day because of his ministry efforts, surely those who pray for and support his work will share in that same boast (cf. 2 Cor. 1:11, 14). The Philippians, then, are not merely a conduit for missionary grace. Theyre also recipients of the missionary reward at the day of Jesus Christ (cf. Matt. 10:41).

The Philippians are not merely a conduit for missionary grace. Theyre also recipients of the missionary reward at the day of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, Paul eagerly invites them to continue in their fellowship through prayer and sacrificial generosity, not because he seeks the gift but because he desires fruit that increases to their credit (Phil. 4:17). They need to recognize that the work God began in them will come to completion one day before the throne. And what a day of joy, thanksgiving, and reward that will be!

Recovering an Overlooked Missions Verse

This brings us to an important question. If we understand Gods work in Philippians 1:6 as necessarily involving missions, wont we lose one of the greatest verses of comfort and assurance for Christians regarding Gods saving and preserving work in us? I dont believe so. We dont have to choose between these two options. Gods work in us as described in Philippians 1:6 can refer to personal sanctification and missionary cooperation.

It’s possible, if not entirely likely, that Paul intends both meanings. Elsewhere in the same letter, the apostle is clear that Gods effectual work in the Philippians extends beyond their missionary partnership and involves their active pursuit of holiness (Phil. 2:1213, 16). The work of salvationlike the work of missionsis Gods from beginning to end. But it necessarily involves our effort and sacrifice.

The work of salvationlike the work of missionsis Godsfrom beginning to end. But it necessarily involves our effort and sacrifice.

By suggesting that missionary partnerships are in view in Philippians 1:6, we dont run the risk of losing the doctrine of divine preservation. If we merely apply this verse to our individual salvation and neglect Gods work through our collective mission, though, weve overlooked the context of Pauls prayer and the broader impulse of his missionary appeal. As a result, we’re missing out on one of the greatest encouragements Scripture has to offer for faithfully and generously supporting gospel ministryfrom now until the final day.

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