This Sunday, Lord willing, I’ll preach the last message in a verse by verse study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians that I began in January. (You can listen to the series here) And as is always the case, after spending many months and well over a thousand hours studying, thinking about, praying through, and preaching the book I have new insight into the letter. Perhaps more so than any other book of the Bible that I have preached, my understanding of Philippians has, if not changed, greatly deepened as I have worked through it. Here are a few of the insights I have gained.
The Central Theme Is Not Joy
I know this is a debated point but I am fully, 1000%, convinced that the central theme of the letter is not joy but unity, specifically unity within the local church. There seems to have been division brewing in Philippi and Paul goes out of his way in this letter to stress unity. It starts with all of the “you alls” in chapter 1 and runs like a thread throughout the letter. A manner of life worthy of the gospel is standing firm with one spirit and one mind (Phil 1:27); be in full accord and of one mind (Phil 2:2); Count other as more significant than yourself (Phil 2:3); have this mind (singular) among yourselves (Phil 2:5); Let us hold true to what we have attained (Phil 3:16); My brothers…stand firm thus (Phil 4:1); Euodia & Syntyche (Phil :2-3), not to mention that almost all of the “you’s” in the letter are plural.
Yes, joy is a major theme in the letter, and it has been well said that Philippians is the “Epistle of Joy”; joy in the Lord is even commanded in the letter, twice, and then Paul modeled rejoicing in the Lord (Phil 4:10), but that said, I don’t think joy is the central theme, I think it is unity and one sentence really cemented my opinion.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. – Philippians 2:1-2
Yes, Paul mentions joy and rejoicing many times in Philippians, but what makes his joy complete? Unity in the body at Philippi.
It Is A Primer On Healthy Body Life
All of Paul’s letters are instructive when it comes to body life, but I think Philippians is the best. In it we see how to pray for the local church (Phil 1:3-11), how to live in light of the gospel in community (Phil 1:27-30), how to be selfless in community (2:1-8), how to have a great witness as a body (Phil 2:14-18), how to be vigilant as a community (Phil 3:2-3), how to solve conflict in the church (Phil 4:2-3) and how to give in a worshipful manner (Phil 4:14-20).
If Titus is a how to for church planting, surely Philippians is a how to for healthy body life in an established church. If you want to grow as a church member, sink your teeth into Philippians.
The Kenosis Is To Be Contextually Interpreted
What I mean by this is that a proper understanding of the kenosis of Christ depends on understanding how it functions in the letter. We find the kenosis (which is the name given to this passage taken from the Greek verb commonly translated as “emptied”) in Philippians 2:6-8:
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Undoubtedly there is a very high Christology there, but too often these verse are ripped from their context, and treated as if they are teaching Christology, but these verse are actually an illustration that Paul uses as part of an exhortation to unity for the sake of the gospel. Read these verses in context:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. – Philippians 2:1-12
Now of course as we develop a systematic Christology, these verse are important to understand because the humility of Christ is important to understand, but the authorial intent of these verses is to show the Philippians what Christlike selflessness truly looks like. Divorcing these verses from their context is a recipe for interpretational disaster.
In fact, even though it has recently (rightly so) been lampooned for its over use by exegetes, I think there is a chiastic structure here that really helps us to understand how these verses function in the letter. Remember the center of the chiasm is the main point.
I really think that when we loose sight of the context, we strip the kenosis of much of its beauty and power as a passage. (I wrote more about this here.)
Joy Is All About The Eternal Perspective
The more I study the Pauline Epistles the more the importance of maintaining an eternal perspective emerges as a major theme in Paul. While there is nothing as crystal clear as James 1:9-11 in Philippians, the fleeting nature of mortal life and the importance of maintaining an eternal perspective is hardly opaque. Paul says to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil 1:21), that Christ was eternally rewarded for His sacrifice on the cross (Phil 2:9-11), that his earthly gain he counts as loss in order that he may gain Christ and be found in Him and attain the resurrection (Phil 3:9-11), that those who are spiritually mature press on toward the goal of the upward call, that believers are citizens of heaven and from heaven we await a Savior who will transform us (Phil 3:20-21), that there is always reason to rejoice in the Lord (Phil 4:4) and that our God is eternally glorious (Phil 4:20). Philippians is all about joyfully living in the here and now in light of eternity.
And these are just a few of the things that were impressed on me. I know that I am greatly privileged to live in the study of the Word the way I do. But let me encourage you to dive deep. Pick a book of the Bible and spend the next year studying it, I promise you that you will behold marvelous things from the Word and grow in Christlikeness too.