Expressions of Joy from Philippians 1:1-11
I encourage you to read Philippians 1:1-11 before reading my commentary so that you may be “examining the Scriptures … to see if these things [are] so” (Acts 17:11).
These verses of Philippians serve as the letter’s introduction. In these verses, Paul follows his standard introductory formula for his epistles by opening with a greeting, thanksgiving, and prayer. Paul’s expressions of joy, however, do not merely model different ways that we can express joy; more importantly, these expressions of joy teach us to glorify God by basing our joy in Him.
Joy Expressed in Greeting
Paul opens his epistle, per the contemporary writing style, with an identification of the sender and addressee. Notably, when Paul identifies himself in v. 1, his designation as apostle is missing. (Only in his letters letters to the Thessalonians and Philemon does Paul also omit an overt assertion of his apostolicity in the letter’s greeting.) Incredibly, Paul also equates himself with Timothy by referring to each of them as “servants of Christ Jesus.” In the original Greek, “servants” is douloi. Douloi choose to serve their masters; rather than be free, they bind themselves to serve one master throughout their lives. This term “pictures the absolute surrender of one who is totally devoted to his loving Master! Use by NT writers emphasizes their acknowledgement that they are no longer their own but that they have been bought at great price” (preceptaustin).
For Paul to refer not only himself but also Timothy as douloi of Christ, then, is for Paul to greatly humble himself. And one cannot be humble without prior joy. As Jonathan Edwards writes in his Religious Affections: the Christian’s joy, “even when it is unspeakable, and full of glory, is humble, brokenhearted joy.” This is an admittedly implied expression of joy, but it is an expression of joy nonetheless.
In the latter half of v. 1, Paul then projects this humble joy onto the Philippians by addressing them from the bottom-up, so to speak. Rather than addressing the congregation’s leaders first, Paul first addresses the laypeople. In doing so, Paul affirms Jesus’ statement in Mark 10:43. “Whoever would be first among you must be doulos [sing. of douloi] of all.” There’s that word again! True Christian leadership is marked by humble (joyful) service. Thus, Paul addresses “all the saints” first, lists the pastors next, and greets the deacons last. Therefore, when Paul addresses the Philippian church from the “lower ranks to the higher echelons,” if you will, he emphatically denounces all joy in various forms of man-built (and man-centered) ecclesiastical hierarchies. As Christians, we should not find our joy idolatrously in our Christian leaders—though we should “honor such men” who give their all for Christ (Phil 2:30)—rather, we should “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4).
Paul concludes his joyful greeting with a blessing of grace and peace. This blessing of grace and peace is particularly important because if we, like the Philippians, are to rejoice in the Lord, we must first experience and be overwhelmed by grace and peace. Apart from God’s salvific grace, we would rejoice in anything and everything except in our Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection. Apart from the peace that we receive from God when we pray thankfully (Phil 4:6-7), we are also unable to truly rejoice in the Lord. When Paul blesses the Philippians (and us, by extension) with grace and peace from “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” he does not bless the Philippians with a mere conventional greeting. No, Paul rather genuinely blesses us along with the Philippians with grace and peace because we need both in order to fulfill this letter’s central command to “rejoice in the Lord.”
Joy Expressed in Thanksgiving
After expressing his joy through humility in vv. 1-2, Paul then states in vv. 3-8 why he thanks God “in all [his] remembrance” of the Philippians. Before we analyze why Paul thanks God, though, we must first realize that thanksgiving is truly an expression of joy. Paul reveals this truth in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” God’s will for us Christians is that we “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, [and] give thanks in all circumstances.” In this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul presents joy, prayer, and thanksgiving all together. Joy, prayer, and thanksgiving are intertwined and naturally follow one another. If we Christians are joyful (in the Lord, as we should be), we will pray. Our prayers, however, should not be a list of demands but rather thankful, as Paul commands in Philippians 4:6—“with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Thanksgiving in prayer, then, stems from joy in the Lord.
With this necessary groundwork laid, we may now examine vv. 3-5 for Paul’s first reason for thanksgiving: the Philippians’ “partnership [with him] in the gospel.” Paul loves the Philippians, and he is first grateful for their longstanding partnership with him in the gospel. Specifically, Paul is thankful for their financial contributions that helped him propagate the gospel while imprisoned at Rome.
Paul then reveals in v. 6 that he is also thankful because of God’s faithfulness. Paul writes “that he who began a good work in you is faithful to bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” The “good work” that Paul refers to is the “good work” of salvation. God begins this work in a person’s life when His Holy Spirit indwells a person and gives him or her faith (Eph 2:8-9) and repentance (Acts 11:18 and 2 Tim 2:25). Since God begins this good work in those whom He saves, He is also “faithful to bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
God’s faithfulness is not the only reason Paul is assured of the Philippians’ ultimate salvation, though; the Philippians’ own “defense and confirmation of the gospel” also assures Paul that they are genuine Christians. Although Paul is thankful because of God’s faithfulness, he also acknowledges that God is faithful to work through people. As Paul writes in Romans 8:29, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” God faithfully and sovereignly conforms us to the image of Jesus, but as he conforms us, we nevertheless “work out” what God works in us (Phil 2:12-13).
Although Paul does not explicitly reveal his love as the application of his thanksgiving until v. 8, he begins to intimate this in v. 7, which we have already begun to examine. Paul holds the Philippians “in [his] heart, for [they] are all partakers with [him] of grace.” Paul loves the Philippians because they are Christians, as is he. As mentioned above, both God’s faithfulness and the Philippians’ subsequent evangelism assure Paul of their salvation. Before he mentions their evangelism, however, he mentions that they partake with him of grace by partaking in his imprisonment. For Paul to write of the Philippians that they partake “in my imprisonment,” then, is for him to acknowledge that they, too, suffer for the gospel. Specifically, the Philippians suffer for the gospel by their sacrificial financial gift to Paul (Phil 4:15-18), by being persecuted in a manner similar to Paul (Phil 1:30), and by defending and confirming the gospel (since the unregenerate mind is hostile not only to God but also to the things of God; see Rom 8:7).
After hinting at his love in v. 7, Paul explicitly expresses his love for the Philippians in v. 8. Paul emphatically evokes “God as my witness.” However, though Paul is joyfully thankful, he suffers in chains and yearns for the Philippians with the very affection of Christ Himself. Herein lies the great application of this particular verse: true Christian joy perseveres through hardship. Paul himself writes this in Romans 5:3-5. We learn in Philippians 1:8 that joy is not a mere emotion to be affected by circumstances; rather, joy is an attitude, a lifestyle even, that strives to affect the very circumstances that seek to crush it.
These verses in Philippians (vv. 3-8) not only tell us why Paul is grateful, but they also reveal that for which Paul is grateful: namely, the Philippians’ salvation. Just as Paul thanks God for others’ salvation, so should we, while also affirming (as Paul does) the necessity of people’s perseverance. Since Paul’s joy as expressed in his thanksgiving perseveres in the midst of suffering, so should our joy likewise persevere, even as we persevere in the faith.
Joy Expressed as Prayer
Though thanksgiving is one aspect of prayer, it is not the only aspect of prayer. As Paul reveals in Philippians 4:7, thanksgiving is merely a characteristic of prayer, whereas prayer itself is the act of making our requests known to God. Paul first prays that the Philippians’ “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment.” Specifically, Paul prays that the Philippians’ love for each other would grow. In Philippians 2:2, Paul explicitly commands the Philippians to complete his joy by loving one another. Paul is not admonishing the Philippians, though, for a lack of love; rather, Paul is expressing his desire that the love they already have for one another “abound more and more.”
When Paul prays that their love would abound “with knowledge and all discernment,” he further clarifies that he desires for their love to be practical. In 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, Paul gives Christians a comprehensive definition for agapē, which is also used here in Philippians 1:9. Agapē is not a mere sentimental affection but a deep-abiding, sacrificial love. (Read 1 Corinthians 13 before you disagree.)
This love that is abounding more and more, is knowledgeable of God’s will, and is wisely discerning would result in the Philippians’ approval of what is excellent. By approving what is excellent, the Philippians would “be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” By being “pure and blameless for the day of Christ Jesus,” Paul specifically means that the Philippians will be “filled with the fruit of righteousness.” Paul lists this “fruit of righteousness” as the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23.
Notice, though, that Paul’s prayer for the Philippians’ growth does not depend upon the Philippians’ own natural ability to love one another. Love does not come naturally to anyone. Even as born again believers, all saints still live with their old sin natures while on this earth. On our own we can do nothing (Jn 15:5), but God by the empowering of his Holy Spirit will complete at the day of Christ Jesus the good work of salvation that He began in us (Phil 1:6). The “fruit of righteousness” does not come from ourselves but “through Jesus Christ” so that God alone is glorified and praised (cf. Matt 5:16).
Glorify God by Basing Your Joy in Him
2 Timothy 3:16-17 teaches that the Bible is profitable “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work,” which includes the “good work” of Christian joy. From Philippians 1:1-11, we have much from which to profit. These verses apply to our modern lives with the timeless truth: glorify God by basing joy in Him. We see this theme in each section of these verses. In his greeting, Paul’s God-based joy results in humility and a desire to share this joy with the Philippians. Paul’s subsequent thanksgiving actually reveals that God’s faithfulness is the basis for all joy in v. 6. Paul’s prayer in vv. 9-11 concludes that by exercising joy in loving fellow believers, we glorify God. How beautiful: verses that begin as a result of God’s glory end with a statement of how we can glorify God.