Christian fellowship—whether between individual believers or the partnership between churches or other ministries for some aspect of edification or evangelism—is not an end in itself. On one level, it fulfills an aspect of God’s creation design in that it is God’s new covenant answer to the unfittingness of being alone (Gen. 2:18). But even that unfittingness is because Adam could not fulfill God’s purposes for him if he were alone! Human relationships, of any kind or degree, find their ultimate sense of place when in the context of God’s kingdom program. This is no truer than in the fellowship Christians enjoy and are exhorted to maintain.
Yes, fellowship is for the fulfillment of something greater (both our design as relational beings by a relational God and the furtherance of the divine purposes). Great commission ministry, the establishment and building of God’s kingdom, and the progression of God’s plan cannot be done by ourselves. But how do we effect real gospel partnership with other believers? How is it maintained? More specifically, what are the heart attitudes necessary for its existence and flourishing? Paul’s letter to the Philippians gives three dynamics of gospel partnership that will enable Christians to be lovingly bound together and to thus become an unstoppable force for God.
A. Be joyful in thanksgiving (vv. 3-5)
Can you say what Paul says here? He is lit. “always continually in thanksgiving” for the Philippian church. Why is this? Well, first, note he is grateful to God. This is vital. He expresses verbal, vertical gratitude to God for His work in and through the Philippians. Paul is radically God-centered! Because his focus is on God and His work, Paul can have gratitude always and in all circumstances because God is never not at work and all that He does is good, wise, purposeful, and glorious. Of course, sometimes we need divine magnifying glasses called faith to see what God is doing in especially trying times! But if we have eyes to see it, we can be grateful, and that can beautifully transform us and our experiences.
Note what he is grateful to God for: “in every remembrance of you…in view of your participation in the gospel” (vv. 3b, 5a). Every time he remembers the Philippians, he cries out in gratitude to the Lord. Here is the heart of Paul’s statement: because of their participation in the gospel. That is the main idea; everything in verses 3-8 flows to or from this central point. “Participation” is the familiar Greek word koinonia, which means something held in common. Some commentators restrict this fellowship to a formal financial partnership with Paul, supporting his missionary efforts, but this is unwise. Certainly, financial giving is part of the fellowship, but Paul is not limiting it to that. Rather, Paul is looking at their entire sharing in the gospel in both in it fruit and ministry, including their very salvation itself. (Their salvation is the root reason they can have fellowship with Paul and other believers, and be useful to God in gospel ministry.) Paul is thankful to God for their fellowship because God is the one who accomplishes it. Note also that Paul routinely expresses gratitude in his prayers for the Philippians (“prayers” is the Gr. word for urgent and personal petitions; cf. 1:19, 4:6). As he appeals to God for intervention, for blessing, for favor and mercy and enablement, his prayers are mingled with, “O God thank You, praise You, how good You are, for making these people rich manifestations of Your grace.”
B. Be unbounded in confidence (v. 6)
No one whom God brings to a saving knowledge of Christ can ever be lost. There are two sides to this truth, each emphasizing certain aspects of God’s gospel work and each bringing Him glory. The divine side is preservation. By His sovereign decree and the miracle of regeneration, as well as His meticulous providence and personal exercised power, God keeps the believer saved from conversion to eternal glory. He holds them fast so they cannot finally or totally fall away from the faith but their flesh and the devil are overcome. The other side is perseverance. God keeps us saved, but we are responsible to persevere. People often incorrectly equate the perseverance of the saints with eternal security, when actually they are two sides of the same coin. Perseverance refers to our divinely-enabled, Spirit-wrought, grace-empowered continuance in obedience, sound doctrine, and personal faith until they meet the Lord in heaven, as the holiness without which no man can see the Lord. We will not be finally saved apart from perseverance, but God swears Himself to keep us saved, through the means of our (imperfect!) perseverance. The new covenant promise is, “I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me” (Jer. 32:40). Our perseverance is guaranteed by God’s unfailing, unyielding, unstoppable perseverance with us!
In the Greek text, verse 6 is a continuation of the sentence begun in verse 3. The idea is that not only is Paul confident, but his confidence is tied to their participation in the gospel and is expressed in prayer. Paul knows they are God’s people because of their heartfelt and sacrificial devotion to gospel ministry, and because they are God’s people, Paul knows God will keep them. The language he uses is beautiful. It pictures God as beginning a work in them that He is continuing up to the present moment and will not stop working until it is done—when the believer arrives in heaven (cf. v. 11). “Perfect” carries the idea of completing a process, but perfect is used because here it carries the nuance of an ongoing refinement and purification leading to an appointed end.
Commentators are somewhat divided over what the “day of Christ Jesus” is. Some dispensationalists insist it is to be distinguished from the “day of the Lord,” with the latter referring to the tribulation and the former the rapture which precedes it. I tend to think a better deduction is that the day of Christ Jesus is the day of the Lord, emphasizing that Christ Himself is the Yahweh whose judgment will be executed in that time. (It is also better to see the DOL as extending from the tribulation to the Great White Throne at the close of the Millennium.) A perfected salvation and blamelessness in that day imply both exemption from that day (cf. Rev. 3:10; 1 Thess. 5:1-9), as well as acquittal at the final judgment which closes it (Phil. 1:9-11). Even if my deduction is incorrect, the point is that Paul was irrepressibly confident that the salvation God began in the Philippians He could be trusted to complete, and that its completion would find itself in a glorious end. God’s sovereignty and unlimited power is exerted for the good of His covenant people. Paul is a wonderful model of how this realization is to impact our affections, our payers, and our view of ourselves and others
C. Maintain affectionate love (vv. 7-8)
These verses build on Paul’s declaration of confidence in verse 6. Literally, “for” is “just as,” the idea being that to the same degree he is confident (which is very!), it is right (lit. just or righteous) for him to feel (lit. “to think” — refers to a disposition of mind or attitude, though it does encompass and affect the emotions) this way about the Philippians, because he has them in his heart. In other words, Paul can justly, before a holy God inspecting him, have a confident attitude about the Philippians’ final salvation because he continually holds fast to them in his heart. The only way I know to make sense of this is that Paul’s depth of relationship with the Philippians – so great he could be said to hold them fast in his heart, the center of his being – meant he knew them, on both an intellectual and affectional level (sometimes we know things in our affections that the mind cannot, or at least to a degree and in a way the mind cannot), which enabled him to know them as they truly were, and to see God’s work in them thereby.
What ought this to say for the role right affections ought to play in the Christian life! Transformed affections are a consecrated way of knowing the Lord, His people, and His work in the world. But he goes on: He holds them in his heart because of their partaking of grace with him in his defense and confirmation of the gospel. As Paul ministered to Gentile nations, he gave a defense of the faith (apologia) and thereby confirmed it (bebaiosis, a legal term meaning to “show to be true”). The Philippians partook in the same grace Paul was proclaiming, and the grace which empowered him to proclaim it, and the grace it was to even be used by a holy God to proclaim and participate. This partnership in the things of God (especially in a hostile and pagan context) enabled Paul to really know the hearts and character of the Philippian church, and that endeared them to him.
He closes the section with a for: Because they partake in grace with him, because they have furthered the gospel with him, because they have growing in Christ and walk faithfully with Him, because God is so evidently at work in and through them – all of this and more is “participation in the gospel” – Paul yearns for them with the affection of Christ. I do not know which is sweeter: that the risen and reigning Messiah has tender affections for His people in a glorious confluence of glorified humanity and perfect deity, or that He could so transform a self-righteous Pharisee that he could – in his own unique humanness – embody and express those same tender feelings Christ has for His people! Christian, is this your experience now? Do you know what it is to bear personally the feelings of Christ Himself for His people in your own regenerate, personal affections? Do you know the blessedness of that experiential union with Him? Paul appeals to God to testify that this is true of him. O that our fickle, often cold, often inconsistent human love could be so sanctified and so elevated by the filling of the Spirit that we can say with Paul to God’s covenant people, “how I yearn for you with the very affection of Christ!”
God transforms needy, broken sinners into glorious executors of His kingdom purposes. Only as we manifest these attitudes, and the whole panoply of sound doctrine and the Spirit’s fruit, will we be most effective at advancing the Lord’s kingdom and fulfilling His purposes to the glory of His name!