Many of Paul’s epistles follow the straightforward outline familiar to students of Scripture: Theology, then application. Paul often presents theology at the beginning of his epistles (i.e., Romans 1-11, Galatians 1-4, Ephesians 1-3) and follows up this theology with application (i.e., Romans 12-16, Galatians 5-6, Ephesians 4-6). Yet, as you read through the New Testament, you may notice not every epistle follows such a scheme exactly. Notably, the little letter to the Philippian church breaks this mold. Buried between Ephesians and Colossians, this 4-chapter long letter of Paul contains no theological treatise at its start. It sticks out – though it would be wrong to label it a “sore thumb.” Personally, I have always struggled to find a salient, unifying theme in Philippians. While it is no doubt of much practical encouragement, it did not appear, to me, to have a readily apparent structure or theme.
This article is borne out of studying the Philippian epistle further. Is there a coherent flow and theme to the book? What is the significance of theology and application in Philippians? We endeavour to answer these questions while walking through Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. In the next two articles, we will consider key texts in Philippians and note how they contribute to the theology and application of the letter.
As we read this opening to Philippians, we may be struck by the repetition of a particular phrase. This phrase is unique to Philippians – no other New Testament book makes use of it. 1:6 and 1:10 both mention the day of Christ. As we may recall from the eschatology presented in the Old Testament prophets, this day is the day of the Lord (for we know that Christ is the Lord). Paul appeals to this future event as the theology which ought to undergird how the Philippians are living their lives. We may say that Paul exhorts the Philippians to live in light of the day of Christ. This theme of living rightly in light of the end runs throughout the entire epistle and will help us to understand the letter as a whole.
What is it to live in light of the day of Christ? In chapter 1, Paul offers us a few pointers. First, we live knowing that God will continue to sanctify us until that day (1:6). God is at work in us, and He will continue to work good works until Christ returns. Further, though, we ought to be working as well. Paul notes this in 1:9-11. How ought we to live in light of the day of Christ? We must be pure and blameless (1:10). What does it mean to be pure and blameless? It is to approve what is excellent (1:10). That means we are able to discern good and excellent things, and we pursue those things. What is it to approve what is excellent? It is to abound in love, knowledge, and all discernment (1:9). Fundamentally, then, we keep ourselves pure and blameless for the coming day of Christ by living in love (practically towards others), knowledge (theologically from God’s Word), and discernment (ethically in choices we make).
The result of such pure and blameless living is that we are filled with the fruit of righteousness. We live righteously because we are in the Righteous One, Jesus Christ. We are declared righteous before God in Him, yet we also live now in His righteousness no longer enslaved to sin. Such a righteous life brings glory to God (1:11)!
After articulating how the Gospel has gone forth in his imprisonment (1:12-13) and even how self-interested teachers may inadvertently proclaim the Gospel on occasion (1:15, 18), Paul continues to discuss how the Philippians ought to live. He introduces a key concept into the epistle – that of Christlikeness. This is stated so bluntly as Paul declares, “For to me to live is Christ,” (1:21a). Paul’s life ought to be so in accord with Christ’s commandments that it is as though Christ Himself were living. What a testimony to Christ’s righteousness through the believer.
How does Paul pack his theology of righteous living? He exhorts the Philippians to live in light of the Gospel – live in a manner “worthy of the gospel of Christ,” (1:27a). To live in light of the Gospel is to live Christ. Practically, though, what does this mean for us?
It means that we are willing to die. Paul says that to live is Christ and to die is gain. Paul is not afraid of death – rather, he eagerly anticipates seeing the Lord! The Christian must be ready and willing to die if indeed that is the end to which he is called. After all, if to live is Christ, we know that Christ has died for His people. How much more ought His people to be willing to die for Him!
Though we find the prospect of one day seeing the Lord exciting, it does not mean we may recklessly throw our lives away in pursuit of being with the Lord. We will see Him at the time He has appointed. So until then, we live for Christ. We live in light of the Gospel. And this means, as Paul goes on to say, that we live eager to edify the body of Christ. Paul notes that he has work to do while he remains on the earth. There is fruitful labour (1:22) to be done. That fruitful labour is to work to edify the church (1:24-26). While we remain on earth, this must be our goal as well. Edification happens, primarily, in two ways: Salvation and sanctification. That is, edification, in one sense, includes evangelism. Paul has already discussed evangelism in 1:12-18a. When a lost sheep is saved through evangelism, the Church is most literally built up. Another soul is added to the fold! This is how salvation is related to edification. In addition to this, edification must happen for those already saved. They are built up more and more in the love, knowledge, and discernment mentioned in 1:9. In 1:25, Paul notes that edification entails progress and joy in the faith. Our mission, while we remain on this earth, is to work for both the salvation of God’s people and the sanctification of God’s people. We look to build up the body of Christ and must be busy doing so while the Lord has us here.
Finally, we must be prepared to suffer. Those who believe in Christ must also be ready to suffer for His sake. Yet, we ask, how are we going to suffer? Suffering, biblically, is not running into financial difficulty. Suffering for the Gospel is not getting sick or being hurt (though through these the human body may suffer, this is not directly related to being a Christian). I suggest three manners of suffering for the believer that are presented in the New Testament: Theological opposition, legal stress, and physical abuse. Theological opposition is mentioned by Paul in 1:28. There are opponents of the Gospel, and this may create a level of suffering for the believer. He must work to actively oppose false doctrine, and will likely endure slander and backlash at the hands of teachers promoting the gospels of men. In addition, the believer may face legal stress. While not directly noted in Philippians, Paul’s legal troubles certainly resurfaced in his visit to Philippi (see Acts 16:19-24). Legal stress may manifest itself through literally being dragged before magistrates (like Paul), or legal interference with one’s life and possessions (such as seizing real estate, levelling fines, restricting travel, etc.). Often, legal stress can be a pre-cursor to physical abuse. This sort of suffering is probably most often thought of, likely because it is very tangible. Physical abuse means the Christian will feel pain and hurt. While Paul did experience this at Philippi in Acts 16, Philippians notes his imprisonment, a type of physical abuse (Phil. 1:12-14). Beyond jail time, physical abuse may mean forcible seizure of persons, torture, or ultimately death. It is very likely that this type of physical abuse is the most feared type of suffering for the Christian.
Not every Christian has experienced all three types of suffering – certainly not in North America. While the coming days indicate all sorts of suffering, to this point, many have not had legal stress or physical abuse (though, notably, some have). At the very least, it is likely all true Christians have experienced opposition to the true Gospel. How can we prepare for greater sufferings to come?
Very practically, we may know God’s Word and know the truth. Know it inside out. Read, study, and meditate upon God’s Word. Memorize verses and chapters, because one day you may not have access to a Bible from which to read! Pray for strength as suffering increases. And directly in the text, Paul offers a way in which we can prepare for suffering: Unity. He wanted to hear of the Philippians “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents,” (Phil. 1:27b-28a). The unity and firmness of the church standing as one body is something we will consider next article, as we pick up the stud