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The fellowship of the gospel

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Philippians 1:1-11

The lost art of letter writing

The art of letter writing is perhaps a skill that many of us are losing, if indeed we ever had it in the first place. The fact is that we just don’t write letters to friends and family the way that previous generations used to do. We tend to send one another short emails or texts or we post messages for one another online. I guess things probably started to change when telephones becoming more readily available. Why write to someone when you can ring them? But still when I was growing up there was still a big place for letters in our lives.

Although most households had phones you still did not tend to make long distance phone calls. It was too expensive. You only tended to ring locals who were in your local area code. You wrote letters to overcome the tyranny of distance to keep in contact with those who you cared for and who you couldn’t visit or ring because they were just too far away. Letters were written to maintain long distance friendships and relationships. n When it was impossible to be there for someone you cared for you, you did the next best thing, you poured out your heart for them in a letter.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians

The letter to the Philippians was such a letter. At the time all the evidence suggests that Paul was in Rome (see Phil. 4:22) which was a long way from the city of Philippi.  Philippi was more than a thousand-kilometre journey by road and sea. But of course, it wasn’t just the distance that was preventing Paul from seeing them, it was the fact that he was in chains for the gospel in Rome. Therefore Paul did what he had done on other occasions, he wrote a letter to the believers in Philippi because he knew that were also going through the same sort of struggle that he had been going through on account of the gospel. He wrote this letter to encourage them to press on together as one in the gospel and to do this no matter whatever might happen. As he says later in verses 27 and 28 of chapter 1.

Phil. 1:27-28

27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.

This is a letter where the gospel gets a lot of mention for Paul wants believers to live in manner worthy of it and to work together to advance it.

We want to study this letter because it not only spans geographical distances between believers it also spans the tyranny of time. Paul wrote this letter for the Philippians in the early 60s[1], but the Holy Spirit intended this letter for more than just the believers living in Philippi at that time. The Spirit of God intended it to span the ages of time so that it might help every generation press on in together in the gospel whatever might happen.

This morning we are going to look together at the first 11 verses which together form the introduction of the letter introducing some of the main themes that we find in it.

Paul’s greetings

Most ancient letters started with a greetings and Paul’s letters were no exception. But in Paul’s greetings he always adds his own unique twist to not only inform them who it was that was writing to them but to also teach them about who they were in Christ and the privileges of belonging to him.

Philippians 1:1-2

1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. [2]

While there are number of things that I could say about these verses I just want to draw to your attention to a couple of things that Paul brings out that Paul wanted the believers to understand right from the very beginning.

  • We are all servants of Christ

The first is we are all servants of Christ. In many of his letters Paul in the greeting Paul begins by referring to himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus[3] and he did this to highlight that his message and authority had been given to him by the Lord Jesus. In this letter he doesn’t need to do this and instead he refers to both himself and Timothy as servants of Christ Jesus highlighting the fact that we all share this common identity as those who belong to Christ. We are those called to no longer live for ourselves, but we belong to the Lord Jesus and like the Lord who humble himself to serve us, we now serve him how gave himself for us. We are servants of Christ Jesus.

  • We are God’s holy people

The other thing to notice is how he talks about the believers there in Philippi. The letter is addressed to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi. The word that has been translated “God’s holy people” is a word that was used in the OT to describe God’s people who had been set apart to belong to him. From the start of this letter Paul wanted the Philippians to understand who they were in Christ. They were his servants who had become God’s holy people, people who had been set apart in Philippi to belong to the Lord.

At one time the believers in Philippi would have regarded themselves as citizens of Rome. Philippi was a Roman colony and its people enjoyed similar rights and privileges to those living in Rome. These people would have been proud of who they were as Roman citizens. But the believers in Philippi were now more than just citizens of Rome. Through the gospel they had become servants of Jesus Christ and they had received grace and peace from God and had become his holy people.

From outset of the letter Paul reminded them of who they were for if we are to live like we are meant to live we must understand who we are in Christ Jesus. You are I are God’s holy people living here in Sydney. We are those who have been called through the gospel to belong to Jesus so we might serve him in this city. What this will look like for the believer Paul will spell out for the Philippians and us in this rest of the letter, but we get a glimpse of what it means in his introductory prayer in verses 3 to 11.

Paul’s Thanksgiving

It was normal in ancient letters after the greetings for people to express a prayer for the health and wellbeing for those who they were writing to. But Paul does more than just express some pleasant platitudes, he mentions exactly what he had been praying for the Philippians and why he was confident that God would answer these prayers. He begins by telling them he thanks God every time he remembers them in prayer.

Philippians 1:3-6

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 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.

By explaining what he was thanking God for Paul reveals what he delights to see in the people of God. We hear what was important for the apostle about the way that the believers in Philippi were conducting themselves.

  • He thanked God for their partnership in the gospel.

What Paul thanked God for was their partnership in the gospel that had gone on from the first day until that time. This partnership had been going on for at least a decade and from what Paul tells us later in this letter it was just as strong at that time as it was in the beginning when the Philippians had first believed the gospel.

The Greek word that has been translated “partnership” in the most recent edition of the NIV was the koinonia. The Greek word is also sometimes translated “fellowship” in the NT. You could use either word so long as you understand meant here by using it. “Partnership” is preferred by some for the word koinonia meant more than just sharing something in common, it meant participating with others in a common cause[4].

In Tolkien’s book, “The Lord of the rings” when a partnership was forged between the Gandalf, Frodo, the elves and the dwarves and men to destroy the ring in the Fires of Mordor they call it “the fellowship of the ring”. They call it this not because they were going to sit down together and each have turns at wearing the ring, but it was because they were going to work together for a common cause which was to destroy the ring. If two carpenters on the shores of Galilee got together to build boats on the shores of the sea of Galilee, they might have used this word “fellowship” or “partnership” to describe the arrangement that they had entered into to build boats together.

As servants of Christ we have all entered into the fellowship or partnership of the gospel by virtue of being servants of Christ. As Paul says later in chapter 1 whatever happened he wanted them to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel (v27) and he then goes on to explain this meant striving together as one for the faith of the gospel (v28). Later he will talk about Euodia and Syntyche who had contended at his side “in the cause of gospel along with Clement and the rest of [his] co-works, who names are in the book of life” (Phil. 4:3)

As servants of Christ we have become part of the fellowship of the gospel. We are partners together in the cause of the gospel. What Paul does here is he thanks God for the sort of partners that the Philippians were. They were the sort of partners that put a smile on his face and brought joy to his heart and that he would hold out in his letter to the Corinthians as an example that they should follow.

I do not think Paul could have said this about every church and all believers. While all might be partners, not all partners are necessarily good partners, are they?

If you’ve ever had to do a joint assignment with a group of people at university, you probably know this. Not everyone pulls together to get the assignment done in the way that they ought to. There are some people who sit back watching others do all the work and who contribute virtually next to nothing to the project at hand. Then there are others who do more than you expect or hope for and you are extremely thankful for them. The Philippians were like this and so Paul was filled with joy and thanksgiving every time, he remembered them in his prayers.

It begs the question doesn’t it! As servants of Christ what sort of partners are we? Are we contending as one for the faith of the gospel here in this city? Are we the sort of partners that others thank the Lord for, or have we forgotten who we are and what we are meant to be doing? What filled Paul with joy was when he saw believers joining in the fellowship of the gospel. He doesn’t talk about what that involves here but he will go on in the rest of the letter to mention proclaiming it without fear (1:14); living in a manner worthy of the of it (1:27) serving in the work of the gospel (2:22), contending in the cause of the gospel (4:3).

  • He thanked God for his work in them

But the other thing that Paul recognised and was thankful for was the work of the gospel is also the work God was doing in them. He told the Philippians that he was confident that he who began a good work in them would carry it on to completion. Paul goes on in verses 7 to 8 to explain that it is right for him to feel this way about them because no matter what happened to him he knew that they all shared in God’s grace with him (8). We to can have this sort of confidence that God will complete the work that he begins in our lives and we ought to be thankful for this.

Paul’s prayer

But how do we live a life worthy of the gospel? I think this is what Paul’s prayer for the Philippians is about. In verses 9 to 11 Paul reveals to the Philippians what he was praying to God for when he prayed for them.

Philippians 1:9-11

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

I think Paul told them what he prayed for them so that might go on living a life worthy of the gospel so that one day they would stand before Christ pure and blameless filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Christ. This prayer reveals what we all should be praying for one another and ourselves.

  • To grow in love

We are firstly to be praying to grow in love. Paul prays that they their love might abound more and more. It wasn’t that the Philippians were unloving, but that Paul wanted for their love for one another to continue to grow and increase. It is a little like what he wrote to the Thessalonians about growing in love.

1 Thessalonians 4:9-10

Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. 10 And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more…

  • To grow in knowledge and insight

But he qualifies this further by adding the idea of growing in knowledge and depth of insight. It was not just a matter of having a bigger heart for people, but also a deeper understanding of God’s will and purpose them in Christ so that they might discern and do what is best (v10).

We need love AND knowledge to live lives that are worthy of the gospel. We need to know the love of Christ and we need to understand his gospel. We might love someone but fail to do what is best for them because we lack the understanding and the depth of insight that the gospel of Christ provides with. We need both love and knowledge.

A child can have a high fever and they might tell us that they feel really cold and that they want us to give them a blanket and our heart might go out to them and we might want to give them what they are asking for. But in this case, the best thing for someone with a temperature is not to wrap them up in blanket, but to cool them down and reduce their temperature. Without knowledge and understanding we might think we are doing what is best, but we might be making matters worse.

On the other hand, without love we might know what the right thing is to do but lack the compassion to put the interest of the others above our own and do something about it. Without love you might know exactly what you ought to be doing but not be willing to do it.

If we are to be living out the gospel we need to be growing in love and knowledge and depth of insight.

This is the sort of prayer that we need to be praying for one another as God’s holy people and servants of Christ. We need to be praying that we grow in this way so that we might be the sort of people who together live lives worthy of the gospel in this city. Sadly, sometimes our prayers do not reflect this sort of concern for those around us to be living out the gospel as God’s holy people while we wait for the coming of the Lord. When was the last time you prayed like this for others at church or in your small group or the members of your family? Partners in the gospel pray this sort of prayer for one another and their joy is to see it answered.

What matters

In the opening of this letter Paul has revealed his heart and shown us what really matters, what we need to understand about ourselves and what we have been called to do.  We are God’s holy people living here in Sydney. We are servants of Christ Jesus who have been called into the fellowship of the gospel.

Be partners in the gospel

We are to be partners in the gospel with others. And we ought to be the sort of partners that others thank the Lord for because we work together with them encouraging them in the gospel and working together to advance the gospel in this world. This is our calling and what we are meant to be giving over our lives to. We can’t forget who we are. You and I are called to live in manner worthy of the gospel, and we are to contend together for the faith of the gospel to advance the cause of the gospel in this world.

Be partners in prayer

What also matters is that we are the sort of partners that keep on praying for one another. We are to pray that we might be living in a manner worthy of the gospel. This what Paul’s prayer for the Philippians teaches us. We should be praying for others that their love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight. We should be praying this so that they might understand what is best and so that they might be pure and blameless for the day of Christ. We should be asking God to fill them with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ. And when we see these prayers being answered we should be rejoicing and thanking God for his grace at work in our lives.

Are we praying like this or have we have we lost sight of who we are in Christ and what God has called us to be doing in this time and place where we live? We must remember who we are. We are servants of Christ and we have entered into the fellowship of the gospel. We are those who have been called to strive together as one for the faith of the gospel.


[1] Gordon Fee and other scholars suggest that it was written sometime between AD 60 and 62 basing this on the likelihood that Paul was imprisoned at the time in Rome (see Fee, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Philippians, page 33).

[2] Unless otherwise indicated all Scripture citations are taken from The New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] See Romans 1:1, 1 Corinthians 1:1, 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 1 Timothy 1:1, 2 Timothy 1:1; Titus 1:1.

[4] Fee talks about the word primarily referring to “participating in something rather than sharing something in common with others.