Gospel Partnerships (Part 3)
The Philippian Model for How a Local Church Joins in the Global Proclamation of Christ
Sharing the Benefits
As a local church partners with a missionary to advance the gospel of Christ around the world, the members of that congregation share not only in the work but also in the benefits of this ministry. These shared benefits come through clearly in the opening and closing of the letter, in 1:7 and in 4:14-18. The mutual reward of the missionary endeavor is rooted in the reality that the church universal is the one body of Christ.
As the Philippians share in Paul’s hardships, they also share in his grace. In 4:14, the Apostle makes clear that the Philippians share his trouble with him through their financial assistance. He continues this idea in 4:15 where he describes them as entering “into partnership with me in giving and receiving.” Notice, that the church not only gave but also received from Paul. This was not a one-sided partnership. It was reciprocal.
Philippians 4:14-15 hints at what becomes even clearer in 4:16-18: the Philippians receive much through their partnership with Paul. Their gifts lead, as Paul tells them, to “fruit that increases to your credit” (4:16). They gain from their giving. Paul goes on to describe their gifts as “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (4:18). They give not just to Paul but to God himself as they support Paul’s missionary endeavors. The church’s gifts have the added reward of pleasing the Lord.
While the conclusion of Philippians highlights the blessings the church itself receives from their support of Paul, a verse in the opening chapter demonstrates that through their partnership with him they partake of the same benefits as Paul himself. In 1:7, Paul affirms the good that the Philippians share with him:
It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.
He describes the entire church as “partakers with me of grace.” They share in the same grace that Paul experiences. The question then becomes: what is that grace? From the rest of the letter, it is clear that the Philippians share in the grace that leads to salvation. The previous verse expresses Paul’s confidence that God is at work in the Philippians and will bring about their final salvation in the eschaton (1:6).
However, it seems that in 1:7 Paul speaks of “grace” as their sharing in his sufferings. This shared partaking of grace occurs “both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” This turns our expectations of grace on their head. Paul sees God’s grace in his being bound in chains and put on trial for the gospel.
For Paul, it is God’s grace to us that we should suffer on account of Christ. He expresses this same sentiment in 1:29, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” Where most other English translations speak of “granted,” the NRSV helpfully translates “graciously granted.” It seems we could go even a step further and speak of suffering here being “gifted” or even “graced” to the Philippians.* It is a privilege to suffer for Christ. Elsewhere, Paul calls belief in Christ a free gift of God (Eph. 2:8), and so here in Philippians 1:29 both believing in Christ and suffering for Christ are gifts from God.
Paul’s view of suffering as a gracious gift from the Lord keeps in step with how the other Apostle’s viewed their suffering. Consider Acts 5:41, where the Apostles stood trial and were beaten for their witness to Christ and then “left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” In the New Testament era, the followers of the suffering Savior counted it their honor and God’s grace to follow him in his sufferings.
In Philippi, the members of the church suffered alongside Paul financially, socially, and possibly even legally. The conclusion of this letter demonstrates how these Christians willingly put aside their own financial well-being through their generous gifts to support Paul and his ministry. They also risked a great deal socially by standing in solidarity with one who had been publicly charged in Philippi with disrupting Roman customs and order (Acts 16:20-22). And now, this same man was once again in the custody of the Roman authorities. As a Roman colony, Philippi took its connection with Rome quite seriously, and the church there opened itself up to legal action by supporting an imprisoned man.
The Philippian church suffered in their own town with Paul, but in 1:7, Paul also describes their suffering in union with him. In his imprisonment and trial, they are sharing with him in the grace of suffering. As he suffers, they, too, endure his suffering. They are partakers with him of suffering even as he is hundreds of miles away in another city.
Such sharing in the grace of suffering demonstrates the fundamental unity that believers have in Christ Jesus. Throughout his writings, Paul makes clear that believers together make up one body of Christ (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 6:15, 10:17, 12:12-31; Eph. 1:22-23, 3:6, 4:4, 4:11-16, 5:29-30; Col. 1:18, 1:24, 2:19, 3:15). The church universal, throughout time and space, constitutes the body of Christ. Each local congregation is a microcosm of this unified reality, but it is together as believers who span both time and space that we make up the body of Christ. Our union with Christ unites us to all other Christians.
The bond of this union surpasses any other relationship in this world. Believers are so united with one another that Paul can speak of the Philippians as being “side by side” with him even when they are physically far away (1:27). In other writings, Paul describes himself as spiritually present with a congregation while being physically absent (1 Cor. 5:3; Col. 2:5). The opposite seems to be true in this letter. While physically separated from Paul, the Philippians are present with him. As they are united to Christ, they all share in one Spirit (1 Cor. 6:17).** It is this bond that allows Paul to speak of the Philippians being “partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in defense and confirmation of the gospel” (1:7). As Paul is bound in chains and standing trial before a Roman magistrate, the Philippian church experiences the grace of this suffering with him. They share in the benefits of Paul’s proclamation of the gospel.
Missionaries and the members of a local church are united together as they are united to Christ by faith. Together, they are part of the body of Christ. As one body, they rejoice when another member rejoices, and they mourn when another member mourns. They share in the joys and pains of taking the gospel to the nations. They suffer together as one part of the body suffers.
Sharing the Mind of Christ
The Philippians’ partnership with Paul in the proclamation of the gospel is an overflow of God’s grace in their lives. They share with Paul in the work and the benefits of gospel ministry because they share the mind of Christ. Their collaboration with Paul results from the transforming grace of Jesus Christ in their lives.
As the church in Philippi partners with Paul, they live out on a global scale the Apostle’s calling to humility in Philippians 2:1-11. They are not motivated by selfish ambition or conceit; rather, their generous financial, relational, and spiritual support of Paul stems from their counting others as more signifiant than themselves (2:3). The church certainly supports Paul as though his needs are more important than their own. Indeed, Epaphroditus put his life on the line for Paul’s sake. Their sacrifices, however, were for more than Paul. They gave of themselves because they recognized that the salvation of others was more significant than their own comfort and well-being. In doing so, they were looking not only to their own interests but also the interests of others (2:4). They put the interests of others, whom they had never met, above their own interests because they recognized “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (3:8). Their own interests paled in comparison to others coming to know Christ.
It does not come naturally to count those you know and love as more important than yourself, looking out for their interests above your own. How much more difficult, then, to consider those you do not know as more important than yourself and to put their interests ahead of your own. Such care requires supernatural intervention. In fact, it is only because the Philippians have “encouragement in Christ,” have “comfort from love,” and participate in the Spirit that they care about people they do not know being reconciled to God (2:1). Only because the Philippians have been redeemed are they concerned about the salvation of others. Their sacrificial love for others is an overflow of God’s grace in their lives.
As they have been redeemed by Christ, the Philippians are being conformed into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). They are being sanctified. They are being made more like Jesus. Or, to use Paul’s language from this letter, they are sharing in the mind of Christ. They partner with Paul in proclaiming the gospel around the world because God the Father is working by his Holy Spirit to the give them the mind of Christ the Son.
Only because Christ emptied himself for their salvation can the Philippians give freely of themselves in order that others might be saved. Only because Christ became a servant can the Philippians serve Paul and those to whom he preaches. Only because Christ laid down his life can the Philippians sacrifice themselves and risk their own lives for the sake of the gospel. Like Christ Jesus, their concern is that others would be reconciled to God and that God would be glorified.
The Philippian partnership in the gospel is God working through his church to accomplish his mission. Their work with Paul overflows from what God has done in their own lives and evidences the Lord’s continued grace that makes them long to see others know him. This gospel partnership provides a model for how a local church can join with a missionary to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the world.
*Thanks to Dr. Paul Cable who pointed out these readings to me.
**David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians in BECNT (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2003), 164-65.