We are continuing the blog series with content from Biblical scholar Scot McKnight. McKnight has recently published New Testament Everyday Bible Study series with Harper Christian Resources. McKnight combines interpretive insights with pastoral wisdom for all the books of the New Testament. Each volume provides original meaning, fresh interpretation, and practical application.
In this blog series, we’ll be sharing Scot’s insights and wisdom on the book of Philippians. It is available as a book as well: Philippians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians: Kingdom Living in Today’s World.
Each week for the next 12 weeks Bible Gateway will publish a chapter from the Bible study book, taking you through the full text of McKnight’s study on Philippians. For this week, here is the second study, Our Common Life | Philippians 1:1-11
Imagine two things as you read this passage.
First, imagine the first two verses written on the front of an envelope. Those verses inform us of the sender and address as our envelopes do today. Second, imagine someone reading this letter aloud to the house churches in Philippi – in fact, not just reading but performing the letter in such a manner that you suddenly find yourself thinking you see Paul and Timothy and not the person standing there reading it. It is the reader’s voice, but you hear Paul and Timothy.
Timothy often occurs at the top of Paul’s letters. Not only are you hearing them, but you are feeling every word of the letter because the reader has so mastered the letter that he’s (or she’s) not even looking at it. She’s (or he’s) memorized it and you know the reader is even adlibbing at times to make it all very clear just for you. To imagine this, you and I will have to remove ourselves from thinking this is the Bible being read.
We will have to remember this is an actual letter by actual authors sent and read to actual people in actual homes in the Roman colony Philippi, an utterly gorgeous colony not far from a decline down to the northern tip of the beautiful Aegean Sea.
OUR COMMON LIFE
Our ‘Common’ Life in Christ includes our greetings, our affection, our prayers, our mission, and our suffering.
Paul and Timothy like the word “partnership,” which can be translated as “fellowship” or “friendship” or “sharing” or “partnership” or “common life” or “together.” The central idea is to participate with one another in a common life, which is a theme important to the entire letter. Lynn Cohick develops a linear thought process in this letter: God and our Salvation in Christ leads to our life together in Christ. There’s that word “together.”
In this letter we have a common life “in the gospel” (1:5), in God’s Grace (1:7), in the Spirit (2:1), in the sufferings of Christ (3:10), in the troubles Paul himself experienced (4:14), and the need to share in one’s provisions (4:15). It is indeed quite likely that the “partnership” of 1:5 also involved their providing financially for Paul’s mission work (2 Corinthians 9:15). All of this is what life together looks like.
Believers in Jesus can greet one another in ways they can’t greet others. Notice how the authors identify themselves: “servants of Christ Jesus.”
Actually, the word is stronger so it’s worth running a line through your word “servant” and writing “slaves” above it. To call themselves slaves both locates them at the bottom of the status heap and affirms the intensity of their devotion to the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 6:20). Oddly enough, in this common life to be a slave of Christ is to be at the top of the status heap. We will soon read that Jesus himself was a slave (Philippians 2:7)! Plus, some of God’s major leaders in the Bible used the term “slave” for themselves. (Numbers 12:7; Jeremiah 25:4). With one another we know our relationship to Jesus: he is Lord, and we are but slaves of the Lord. Carolyn Osiek makes an important observation: “A slave’s status did not derive from the legal condition of slavery, but from the status of his or her owner, the slave’s own position, and its importance.”
For a Christian to be a slave of Jesus was to be Owned by the Lord of all, and this would have given the Christian transcendent status. Lynn Cohick rightly counters the leadership craze of our culture with the terms Paul and Timothy use for themselves. They are not “leaders” or “vision casters” or “entrepreneurs” or “senior pastors” or “teaching pastors” but slaves together of the Lord Jesus.
They address their letter to “all,” not just the upper crust and inner wheels, “God’s holy people.” This does not mean these people are sinless, because the term “holy” means someone devoted to God and therefore no longer devoted to Rome and its gods, to the market and its monies, or to status growth in the Roman upward climb to honor and fame and glory and a monument on Main Street when you die. His wish for them is to know and to indwell in the special “Grace and Peace” that come our way only in the Power of God the Father and in the “Lord Jesus Christ.” There’s some definite insider talk, but it all is set up for a major theme in this letter: fellowship or the common life together that believers in Jesus now have in Philippi.
The common life of Christians means reciprocating affections for one another.
So many think of Paul as some gruff old guy hobbling along, always in a hurry, from city to city along the Mediterranean barking out orders to one new church after another. Any reading of Philippians 1:7–8 reveals to the contrary a warm and fuzzy Paul! He says they hold him in his heart, like our saying “I heart you!,” and they together share in God’s abundant Grace of redemption and Love and transformation.
They risk this new life together even though he is in prison in Rome for ‘Gospeling’, and we might need to learn again that identifying with an imprisoned troublemaker does not make for friends with Philippi’s Rome-based authorities. In fact, they share a life in preaching the ospel. All this is in verse seven.
Then Paul goes fizzy in his fuzzy: “I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus” (1:8). His love for them is the kind of love that lays down one’s life for others. He learned the heart of a life together in the Way Jesus Lived (and we’ll see more of this in chapter two).
A common life entails affections in our relationships with one another, but this common life is more than the classical sense of friendship because (1) it is in Christ and (2) it transcends gender and status. Friendship in the Roman world was voluntary, between males especially, and was elitist. Paul never calls another believer “friend” because their relationship is deeper than friendship; they are siblings.
Since Paul speaks so much in the first person, we need to remind ourselves that Timothy was a co-author and not just a co-sender. After all, Timothy’s not just sitting there letting Paul make all the decisions. The letter is Paul’s voice but behind that voice were contributions from Timothy. The Philippians knew Timothy well: he was with Paul when the church was planted (Acts 16:3–4), and Paul is about to send Timothy to Philippi (Philippians 2:19–23).
A common life in Christ includes praying for one another.
We discover the theme of prayer in 1:3– 6 and 1:9–11. It’s not hard to exaggerate verse three: “I thank my God every time I remember you” can make us think Paul was thanking God for them every day all day long, but behind his “every time” is the common spiritual practice of praying what we today call the “hours of prayer.” That is, Jews prayed at sunset, at sunrise, and in the middle of the day. Three times a day. Every day. Except on the day of the funeral of one’s parents.
Three times a day Paul says he prayed for the Philippians. He prays “with joy.” When this was read to the churches in Philippi there were some smiles of pride about Paul’s affirmations. His joyful prayers are rooted in their common life commitment to the work of the Gospel–preaching, it and teaching it and living it and suffering for it–and his utter confidence in God’s Powerful work of transforming the Philippians believers into people fit for the eternal Presence of God. In spite of appearances, the work of God cannot be stopped.
We can learn how to pray for others in following the categories Paul uses for his intercessions for the Philippians believers. His prayers were not reducible to the “Bless Sarah and Sam” prayers we so often hear. No, he prayed specifically for profound transformations (1:9–11). As the Lord’s Prayer can be a model prayer for us, so this prayer can be a guide for all those ministering, mentoring, and parenting others.
First, he prays for their love to flourish (1:9). To “flourish” is not so much bigger and better as it is deeper and wider.
Second, he prays their love will flourish into “knowl- edge and depth of insight,” that is, into wise living (1:9). This flips the order for moderns who think first comes knowledge then comes love. Not so for Paul: love leads to a deeper knowing. N.T. Wright has often observed this order: “Ordinary human wisdom, ordinary human knowledge, is not just cancelled. It is taken up into something” and that “new ‘something’ is Agape, Love.”
Third, he prays their flourishing wise love will lead to profound discernment of how to live as believers in Philippi (1:10).
And fourth, following hard on this flourishing, wise, and discerning love, that the vines of their moral life will be loaded with the fruit of doing what is right–a kind of doing that can only be accomplished because of their common life participation in Christ (1:11).
Notice how Paul’s petitions unfold:
Such an orderly unfolding set of prayers leads me to examine what I pray for when I pray for others. One leads to the next and the next and so on until it brings “glory and praise” to God, not to the believers, not to Paul and Timothy, and not to the “overseers and deacons” (1:1), that is, supervisors (or mentors) and servants. That they single out these leaders cracks a door slightly on church order and pastoral care in Philippi and the importance they will have in explaining the letter.
A common life will include our greetings, our affections, and our prayers. And next we will see it involves mission.
Questions for Reflection and Application
What are some key elements of the “common life” together in Christian living as seen in Philippians?
How does Paul and Timothy calling themselves “slaves” run counter to today’s culture of church leadership?
What are the elements of Paul’s prayers for the Philippians?
Think about your relationships. Who in your Christian life has been to you like Timothy to Paul? Like Paul to Timothy? Like the Philippians to Paul, and vice versa?
Write a prayer for a beloved Christian friend or church community following Paul’s prayer model.