Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi says more about joy than any other New Testament book. Even though Paul is under arrest and in chains, he rejoices because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He writes to thank the Philippian Christians for the help they gave him and to encourage them to face their own trials with “joy in Christ Jesus.”
Prayers of joy and love
Paul follows first-century custom by first saying who he was, then the people he was writing to: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons” (1:1).
In some letters, Paul introduces himself as an apostle. But since the Philippians already accept his authority, here he introduces himself simply as a servant of Christ Jesus. He views his chains, his mission and his entire life in the context of doing Christ’s work. He writes to “the saints” — the holy ones, those who are set apart for God.
First-century Greek letters often began with chairein, “greeting.” Paul modifies this to charis, “grace.” Grace is part of his identity, and he begins writing with a prayer for grace and peace “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 2).
He then praises the Philippians — not directly, but by thanking God for them (v. 3). Not only is this giving credit where it is due, it reminds and encourages the Philippians that God is working in their lives.
“In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy,” Paul writes, “because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…” (vv. 4-5). The Philippians supported Paul’s missionary work, and had sent him help (4:15; also see 1 Cor. 8:1-5). Paul rejoices that these people have such a zeal for the gospel, and this letter shows them his gratitude that God is using them in this way.
Paul’s joy is rooted in God’s faithfulness: “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (v. 6). Since the Philippians had begun so well, Paul is confident that they will persevere in the faith — not on their own strength, but because God will continue to work in them. “All of you share in God’s grace with me” (v. 7).
Prayer for love
God knows how much I care for you, Paul writes — I care for you as much as Jesus himself does (v. 8). The Philippians are concerned about Paul, but here, the man in prison expresses compassion for them. As we will shortly see, they faced some trials of their own.
Then Paul tells them what he prays for: “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ — to the glory and praise of God” (vv. 9-11).
The Philippians already love. Paul wants their love to grow into wisdom and good behavior, and this letter will help them do that. As they grow in knowledge, they will have a better foundation on which to make decisions, and their behavior will come not from their own righteousness, but from Jesus Christ working within them. And the praise will go to God, because he is the source of the righteousness.