This statement from Paul’s first century letter to the Macedonian church at Philippi is familiar to many Christians:
“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6 NAS).
Most of us have either used this verse to bolster our confidence that God will accomplish good things in our lives despite circumstances that appear to be doing the opposite or encourage us that God will finish His work in our lives despite our failures. As wonderful, and true, as these concepts are, they are not what the words were intended to convey. Unless we see what Paul meant we will miss the powerful message God intended us to get from them.
In order to understand this verse correctly we have to determine what good work Paul was confident God would complete and who the “you” refers to.
To accurately understand the principles laid down in Scripture, it is important to get into the minds of the people who penned them. In this case we need to do the best we can to understand the history Paul had with the people he wrote to. While we don’t have as much information as we’d like, we are obligated to use what we have. So in order to stay on the right track in interpreting Paul’s letter to the Philippians, let’s walk along with Paul on the journeys that brought him into a relationship with this church and then sample some of his comments that reveal to us the nature of that relationship.
It will greatly help if you have a map of Paul’s second and third missionary journeys handy. Also here’s a link to a chronology of Paul’s life and missions.
Syria to Philippi
Most Christians have heard or read the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus around the year 33. (Acts 9) Soon after this momentous event Paul retired from public view to rethink his understanding of Judaism and Jesus. (Galatians 1:11-24) It was during this time the risen Jesus appeared to Paul and personally prepared him for the task of laying the foundation of the faith among the Gentiles. A number of years later Paul began ministering in the Syrian church of Antioch from where he was eventually sent to spread the Gospel in a region called by many names at that time, but now known as Turkey. (Acts 13) For simplicity, I will call the region Turkey so readers can quickly grasp its location.
On his first journey, Paul set sail for the island of Cyprus; no doubt because his companion, Barnabas, had family there (Acts 4:36) then continued to the southern shore of Turkey. From there they traveled north on foot, working their way inland to plant several churches before retracing their steps and returning to Antioch around 49 AD. (Acts 13-14) The trip was tough. Besides traveling on mountain roads and covering significant distance, in one city Paul was stoned and left for dead.
The next year, with Silas accompanying him instead of Barnabas, Paul set out to revisit the new churches, this time following a land trade route north east from Antioch into central Turkey. (Acts 15:36ff) The plan was to appoint elders in each of the churches started on the previous trip, then to move into new territory, namely northwestern Turkey. While visiting one of the fledgling churches, Paul met a young man named Timothy and asked him to join the expedition. (Acts 16:1-3)
As they moved into northwestern Turkey, Jesus let Paul know that there was to be no evangelization done there (Acts 16:6) so Paul, Silas and Timothy quickly came to Troas, a sea-port on the eastern edge of Turkey where God used a nighttime dream to redirect Paul across the Aegean Sea into Macedonia. (Acts 16:9)
At this point in the Acts story, the narration that described Paul’s troupe in the third person, “they”, changes. “So putting out to sea from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace… (Acts 16:11). By this change of pronoun, Luke lets his readers know he joined the expedition to Macedonia.
The Philippian Church-Plant (Acts 16)
Philippi1 was the site of Paul’s first evangelistic effort in Macedonia. Since normally ten Jewish men were needed to establish a Synagogue and Philippi did not have one, we can conclude that there was a very limited Jewish population there. It was customary for Jewish worship to involve the washing of hands before praying on the Sabbath, so whether in a Synagogue or in the open, services were often conducted near a source of water; here it was in the open along a river bank. What an honor it would have been for this group of worshipers to have a distinguished Pharisee from Jerusalem, trained by the famous Gamaliel, another Jew from that honored place and a learned physician (Luke)2 arrive at their riverside meeting.
As Paul proved from Scripture and recent events that the promised Messiah had arrived and was in fact Jesus, a Gentile woman worshiping along with the Jews responded with faith in the message. Lydia must have been quite wealthy since she had a house large enough for four men to lodge there without creating any impropriety. So it was in her house that the Philippian church started.
Events then took a turn. A young woman, who made money for her masters by telling people’s fortunes followed and heckled Paul for days. Tiring of her mockery, he cast a demon out of her, ending her fortune telling career and setting in motion a series of events leading to a near-riot among the populace for which Paul and Silas were blamed, beaten and imprisoned.
While the two men were spending a painful, but worshipful, night locked in stocks in the deepest part of the prison, an earthquake shook open all the cell doors and the stocks that bound the two evangelists. Rushing in to inspect the damage in the dim light of his torch the jailer only saw open cell doors and assumed he had failed his responsibility to keep the prisoners. After all, what normal prisoner would stay given such a chance to escape? Whether he was a retired Roman soldier or not, he knew what would happen to him, so he immediately made ready to fall on his sword rather than face disgrace and execution. However Paul stopped him with an earnest cry from the dark, assuring him that no one had escaped. This experience resulted in the jailer’s family joining the faith and, if we can presume, possibly some prisoners from the jail.
In the morning, the town magistrates sent word that Paul and Silas were to be released, but Paul chose that time to reveal his trump card; he was a Roman citizen whom they had beaten without due process of law. He insisted the city leaders personally come and release him, which they did with apology while asking him to leave the city. At least this way the new church would not be plagued with doubt about the integrity of those who brought them the Gospel. Paul and Silas returned to Lydia’s house to prepare for travel and say goodbye to a fledgling church, perhaps made up of Lydia’s household, a number of river-side worshipers, a former fortune teller, the jailer’s household and a few prisoners.
As the Apostle’s band left Philippi, (Acts 16:35-40)probably around 51 AD, we note Luke’s choice of pronoun shifts back to “they”, informing his readers that Luke stayed in Philippi.
Philippi to Corinth
Paul, Silas and Timothy set out from Philippi on a 100 mile journey south along the Roman road3, the Via Egnatia, to the major city of Thessalonica, a city large enough to have a Jewish Synagogue of significant size.
The response to Paul’s preaching in the Thessalonian synagogue was great. Within the first three weeks a number of Jews, a large number of Greeks and leading women of the city became followers of Jesus (Acts 17:4). But some Jews, not convinced by Paul’s arguments for Jesus being the Messiah, stirred up a violent mob against him. So leaving Timothy behind, Paul and Silas hastily exited town at night, and breaking off of the Via Egnatia which continued westward, headed south down the Macedonian peninsula toward Greece, stopping next in Berea, some sixty miles away. (Acts 17:10) Timothy joined up later.
There was also a good response to the Gospel among Jews and Greeks in Berea, but when the more violent Jews of Thessalonica heard about it, they quickly arrived to once again stir up vicious trouble. Silas and Timothy stayed on in Berea (Acts 17:13-14) while some new believers escorted Paul to the sea, then accompanied him by ship to Athens and leaving him there, returned home.
Paul spent little time in Athens, quickly moving on to Corinth to wait for Timothy and Silas. Though we can’t be certain, it seems reasonable to surmise from Paul’s comments in 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 that as he left Berea, he instructed Timothy to return to Thessalonica. Since they had been in that city perhaps less than a month, Timothy may have been assigned to continue the basic teaching of the faith among the new believers. (To which Paul added by writing the letters 1st and 2nd Thessalonians from Corinth.)
Thus, as Paul arrived at Corinth on the southern tip of Greece (Acts 18, 51-52 AD) his team was tending to the newly planted churches; Luke in Philippi, Timothy in Thessalonica and Silas in Berea.
Corinth to Roman Imprisonment
At first Paul lived and worked with a Jewish couple, Aquila and Priscilla who had fled Rome when the emperor commanded all Jews to leave the city.4 When Timothy5 and Silas arrived from Macedonia, Paul quit tent-making with the couple and went back into church planting mode. There was good response to his preaching, but there was also the now familiar and intensely discouraging opposition. Jesus personally gave Paul needed assurance of protection and an encouraging command to keep preaching.
While the Acts account doesn’t provide details about why Paul broke off from tent-making when his protégés arrived, Paul’s comment in 2 Corinthians 11:9 (among others) leads me to think it was because they brought financial support from Philippi. I can’t help but wonder if Luke had a hand in instigating this gift.
After staying in Corinth for 18 months, Paul set out for home through Ephesus on the west coast of Turkey, arriving back at Antioch of Syria around 53 AD. (Acts 18:22)
Soon Paul set out yet again, (Acts 18:23) this time retracing his steps westward along the now familiar trade route through central Turkey to Ephesus. After a 2 year stay there (Acts 19:8, 10) Paul sent Timothy ahead to Macedonia and followed later, personally visiting the churches at Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea before spending three months in the area of Corinth and Athens. Then, deciding to return to Jerusalem (partially to take a collection from the churches to help the suffering Christians there) Paul retraced his steps back up the Macedonian peninsula (Acts 20:3, 56 AD). As he passed through Philippi for the third time, Luke rejoined Paul on his further travels6.7
So Luke had been in Philippi around five years. I can’t help but wonder if Luke’s influence helped instill in this church the committed support for the expansion of the Gospel that Paul later commends them for sharing with him.
We’re not sure who arrived in Jerusalem with Paul, but for the continuity of our story we note that Timothy and Luke accompany him. (Acts 21:15) Acts 21-28 record all the details of further events leading to the time when Paul wrote to the Philippians. In summary, some Jews in Jerusalem created a violent riot and a murderous plot to get rid of Paul. After spending over two years under arrest in the Judean area, he appealed to Caesar (Acts 24:23, 27) and was sent to Rome where he spent another two years in custody (Acts 28:16, 30). Luke and Timothy accompanied him the entire time.8
It was during this last imprisonment, around 60-62 AD, some ten years from the founding of the Philippian church, that Paul wrote the letter to them we have in the New Testament.
Paul’s Remembrance of the Philippians
Just before we turn to the Philippian letter, let’s review Paul’s thoughts about his experiences connected with this church.
“For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn – fighting without and fear within.” (2 Corinthians 7:5. ESV)
Remembering his first visit to Thessalonica:
“And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. ” (Philippians 4:15-16. ESV)
And his first time in Corinth:
“And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied my need. So I refrained and will refrain from burdening you in any way. ” (2 Corinthians 11:9. ESV)
Paul once again mentioned the Macedonian churches (Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea) in connection with the collection he solicited for the Christian poor in Jerusalem:
“We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints- and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. ” (2 Corinthians 8:1-5. ESV)
The Philippians also sent him financial support when they heard he was imprisoned in Rome:
“But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. ” (Philippians 4:10. NAS)
Considering these fragments alongside the prior narrative we can see two things. First, Paul remembered the planting of these churches as a very traumatic time. Second, the Macedonian churches were generous. They gave even though they were poor. Their giving came from a vision for supporting not only the spread of the Gospel but also helping Christians in a far away land (in the case of the Philippian church, a predominantly Gentile congregation helping poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem). And time had not diminished their vision. Even a decade later, while Paul was in the Roman prison, the Philippian church sent him one of their leaders bearing generous provisions.
The Work God Finishes
That was a long introduction, but without it people greatly misunderstand what Paul words in the Philippian letter were intended to convey. Now that we have explored the extensive involvement and connection Paul had with the Macedonian churches, especially the Philippians, we are better prepared to investigate Paul’s letter. Let’s begin with Philippians 1:3-8, then focus on verse 6.
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now for I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect [bring about its completion] it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. ” (NAS95)
A peek at the original language reveals that each “you” is plural, not singular. Paul was addressing a church, not individuals, so the lessons we learn should first apply to corporate bodies of Christians. Only after having those principles firmly established, can we legitimately seek applications for individuals.
Paul’s every remembrance of this church engendered thankfulness and joy before God for which he gave three reasons in Philippians 1:5, 6, and 7.
Notice the highlighted words “participation” and “partakers.” If we were reading the original language we would find that these words have a common root and are pronounced very similarly. The root is a word familiar to many Christians, koinonia. While Christians often associate this word with thoughts of caring group fellowship, it’s more fundamental meaning is partnership. It was commonly used to describe business partnerships because its basic meaning is one of participation in a common endeavor.
Their common participation with Paul was the first thing that came to his mind about the Philippian church. He was thankful and joyful because this church had consistently shown that they cared about the Gospel being affirmed and spread from “the first day until now”, that is, from their founding a decade ago right up to Paul’s current incarceration in Rome. This is so significant to him that he repeated and expanded the thought in Philippians 1:7. They not only participated in Paul’s activities with their many gifts, including a recent one delivered to Rome by one of their leaders (Philippians 4:10,14,18), they also shared his concern that Christians defend and live out (confirm) the Gospel in their own community. Their participation in the Gospel, as Paul puts it, was not only their individual trust in Christ, but the church’s support for the promotion of the Gospel in the world.
We can glimpse what he meant by the idea that they were confirming the Gospel when we look at his prayer for them in Philippians 1:9-11. By asking God to give them more love, knowledge, discernment, and excellent behavior, he not only validated that they already possessed those qualities in some measure but held them out as the desirable results and proof of the value of the Gospel.
The central thought, Philippians 1:6, is most significant. He had joy in his remembrance of them because he saw God accomplishing a particular work in this church body. It is not by accident that this reason is sandwiched between two statements about their partnership in the Gospel. The arrangement reveals what work he had in mind. Paul was confident that God was the agent working in their church to bring about their faithful commitment and concern for the progress of the Gospel in the world over all these years. He knew this was God’s handiwork, not his own, and was therefore confident God would finish the work He had started among them that first day by the riverside.
In Philippians 1:3-11, God used Paul to hold up a church as an example of the high value He wants all churches to place on the expansion, defense, and confirmation of the Gospel. Philippians 1:6 expresses the fact that God is the one who will continue this work in any church that will be faithful like the Philippian church had been. This insight should then drive us to mine the rest of the letter for the ingredients God wants to develop within congregations and individuals so they can best cooperate with God in bringing that work to full effectiveness in their church.
Some teach the central theme of the Philippian letter is personal joy. However if you look at the letter through the lens of “how do I get joy?” you will likely miss Paul’s intent and God’s point. The rejoicing they discuss occurs in the context of faithfully pursuing what’s important to God, which is the announcement, defense and the confirmation of the great news that Christ has died to make man’s reconciliation with God possible.
In this letter we see Paul lay out the commitment to the Gospel, the character traits, unity, emulation of Godly leaders, and the utter dependence upon God that every church must intentionally incorporate into it’s life to be effective in promoting, defending and confirming the Gospel. History has witnessed the opposite become reality in many churches over the last two millennia. Churches that started well but eventually abandoned their sacrificial support of missionary and evangelistic efforts, their defense of the true Gospel, and their commitment to confirm the Gospel through spirit-led, Christ-like behavior have either become irrelevant or agents of Christ’s enemies.
While the Philippian letter has intense personal implications, those who only take them for personal comfort, will end up settling for an anemic Gospel and church. This letter should lead every Christian to ask serious questions about the local church body they attend. What about yours?
For further reading about Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible Series: The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians; Revised Edition, 1975
Bruce, F.F., New International Biblical Commentary – Philippians, 1983
Carson, D.A., Basics for Believers; An Exposition of Philippians, 1996
Fee, Gordon D., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 1995
Ferguson, Sinclair B., Let’s Study Philippians, 1997
Hawthorne, Gerald F., Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 1993.
Houlden. J.L., Paul’s Letters From Prison: Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, 1970
Loh, I-Jin and Eugene Albert Nida. A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. UBS Helps for translators; UBS handbook series, 1995.
MacArthur, John, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Philippians, 2001
Motyer, J. A. The Message of Philippians. The Bible speaks today,1984.
Plummer, Alfred, A Commentary: St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, 1997
Of these, Carson has the best over-all analysis useful for getting the big picture and application. Plummer provides good language insight for the Greek student.
- Luke thought it important to note that Philippi was a Roman colony, a title with special significance. The Romans created a colony by taking 300 retired soldiers, granting them a plot of land, and perhaps citizenship, then settling them in a strategic location. Philippi, named after Philip of Macedon, was on a Roman road near a mountain pass that was the site of an important historical battle. Roman colonies became very patriotic “little Romes” where people dressed, spoke and kept a culture like the city of Rome itself. [↩]
- In Colossians 4:14, Paul refers to Luke as the “beloved physician” [↩]
- Rather than dirt paths, Roman roads were engineered structures. They were about 20 feet wide. The ground was excavated, back-filled with gravel and covered with paving stones cut from nearby sources of rock. These 250,000 miles of roads formed the backbone of the Empire by allowing trade, troops and news to move easily and quickly. [↩]
- The expulsion of the Jews from Rome was due to the conflict over Christ. The Romans saw the Christians as a sect of Judiasm and like a parent scolding two fighting siblings without caring who started it or who was right, the Romans just decided to throw them both out of the house. This edict in Rome was a factor in the Philippian riot. The loyal Philippians, being a Roman Colony, saw Paul’s troupe as part of the same conflict. [↩]
- Some people teach that Timothy was timid. They presume that Paul’s many admonitions to him (1 Tim. 4:12; 2 Tim. 1:7) imply that the man lacked courage. However, Paul sent Timothy into middle of many a controversy with great trust. Not only was he sent back to the dangerous situation in Thessalonica immediately after the team fled for their lives from there, but was sent back to Thessalonica several times later, sometimes bearing Paul’s letters (1 & 2 Thessalonians) written from Corinth. Timothy was also sent to deal with problems in Ephesus and a number of other churches. He acted in Paul’s stead, not just as his messenger. This was a young man who could be trusted to deal with serious problems (1 Cor. 4:17; 1 Thess. 3:2; Phil. 2:20). Five of Paul’s letters include Timothy in the opening salutation and two of Scripture’s documents are addressed directly to him. Perhaps he was a gentle, even quiet man, and did need encouragement (even Paul did), but these qualities in a person do not mean they lack the courage and fortitude to faithfully walk into danger and conflict for Christ. [↩]
- The pronouns change from “they” to “we” which continues through the end of Acts [↩]
- It is interesting to observe that men from many of the places where Paul had been persecuted are now tagging along for training as Paul heads back to Jerusalem for the last time. Acts 20:4-5 tells us “And he was accompanied by Sopater of Berea, the son of Pyrrhus, and by Aristarchus and Secundus of the Thessalonians, and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy, and Tychicus and Trophimus of Asia.” [↩]
- This gave Luke over two years in Judea where he probably visited numerous eye witnesses of Jesus’ life, perhaps including his mother, brothers, and many others while collecting information for his Gospel account. [↩]