The Global Message of Philippians
Because of what Christ has done, believers worldwide are invited into the practice of joyful self-giving that marked Christ’s own life. This is the message of Philippians for the global church. As believers face various kinds of adversity around the world, there is a stable source of joy in the good news of a righteousness before God that is given to us rather than generated by our own feeble efforts (Phil. 3:8–9). Responding gladly to this unspeakably precious gift, we are set free for a life of humble service to those around us.
Philippians and Redemptive History
While the letter to the Philippians does not actually quote a single Old Testament passage, the book is clearly built on the Old Testament (see Phil. 2:17; 3:3–6; 4:18). In two ways, in particular, Philippians gives us glimpses into the whole scope of redemptive history. Both come from the beautiful description in Philippians 2:6–11 of what Christ, the pinnacle of the story of redemption, has done.
Perfect man. First, Jesus Christ is the second Adam, the perfect human. In Genesis 1–2 God formed Adam out of the dust of the ground and created him in his own image and likeness (Gen. 1:26–28). Adam was to represent God on earth, spreading God’s dominion everywhere on the planet. As the Old Testament unfolds, however, we see that Adam failed to do this, as did all those who followed him. Yet at the climax of history God sent forth another head for mankind, his own Son. This Son was to undo the ruin that Adam, his first son (so called in Luke 3:38), had brought into the world. And Philippians 2 tells us that this Son “was in the form of God”—that is, he was the perfect image of God (see also Rom. 5:19; 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:41; 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:4; Col. 1:15; 3:10). After looking back to Genesis in Philippians 2, Paul looks ahead in Philippians 3 to the end of history, when Jesus will return (Phil. 3:20). At that time Christ “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (3:21). The image that Adam had and which was marred when he sinned was perfected in Christ; and through Christ, we who believe in him will one day be perfectly restored into the same image and likeness that he bears.
Perfect God. Second, Jesus Christ is himself divine, perfect God. In Isaiah 45, in one of the most exalted Old Testament affirmations of God’s utter uniqueness and sovereignty, God himself declares that “to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance” (Isa. 45:23). Yet this is precisely what Paul says in Philippians 2 will be true of Jesus: at Jesus’ name every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that he is Lord (Phil. 2:10–11). In a startling connection, Paul here identifies Jesus as destined to receive the worship only God himself deserves. In this way Paul underscores Jesus’ own divinity.
Universal Themes in Philippians
Selflessness rooted in the gospel. Throughout Philippians Paul exhorts his readers to give of themselves gladly for the sake of Christ and others. Paul himself says that he is content even with imprisonment as long as Christ is lifted up (Phil. 1:12–18). He tells the Philippians that he will be glad to be “poured out as a drink offering” if it will strengthen their faith (2:17). He reminds them of the self-giving love of Timothy (2:20) and Epaphroditus (2:30). And he exhorts the Philippians themselves to count others more significant than themselves and to look to others’ concerns (2:3–4). In all of this it is the gospel that fuels such self-giving. For Christ gave of himself for our sake (2:6–11; 3:10). In this self-giving love the global church has its fundamental motivation to love and serve our neighbors, recognizing how God in Christ has loved and served us.
Hard work for God’s sake. Paul says he is straining forward and pressing on in the upward call of God in Christ (Phil. 3:12–14), calling on the Philippians to join him in this strenuous effort (3:17) and to “work out” their salvation (2:12). The apostle reminds them of the hard work of Timothy and Epaphroditus (2:22, 25, 30). While the central message of the Bible for God’s people is his great love for them in Christ—love that has eliminated the need for anyone to work his way into God’s favor—this does not mean Christians around the world are encouraged to be passive or apathetic. God’s love and grace in the gospel is the very thing that fuels heartfelt Christian activity and service (see 2:13; 3:8–9).
The crucial place of joy in the Christian life. Throughout Philippians Paul describes the Christian life as one of joy (Phil. 1:4, 25; 2:2, 29; 4:1) and encourages his readers to rejoice (3:1; 4:4). This is the great call and the great need of the Christian church today. Whatever our circumstances, whether we are rich or poor, comfortable or afflicted, we are called to rejoice in God (4:10–13). The gospel will multiply not as Christians around the world display superior intellect, or material blessing, or social influence. The gospel will grow as we display joy, a joy that is unconquerable whatever the circumstances.
The Global Message of Philippians for Today
As we look around the world today, it is not hard to find reasons for discouragement. Joblessness, homelessness, illness, hunger, marital strife, economic hardship, persecution of believers both publicly and privately—the challenges of life in a sin-ravaged world quickly feel overwhelming.
The battering that our hope takes comes not only from outside the church but also from inside it. Gossip, slander, envy, disunity, laziness, grumbling, and simply the ongoing temptations and failings of believers all take their toll on the church and the church’s witness around the world. The sickness of sin impartially infects all people—unbelievers and believers, Western and Eastern, rural and urban, rich and poor.
The letter to the Philippians addresses head-on the human tendency toward discouragement and hopelessness. In Christ, who was in the form of God yet emptied himself and went to a cross for our sake (Phil. 2:5–11), an invincible hope is given to all Christians everywhere, whatever we are facing. Without in any way downplaying the real adversity that afflicts us, the gospel gives us a comfort and solace that no human circumstance can take away (4:10–13). Whatever happens—personally, politically, economically—God has freely granted to those who trust in Christ a righteousness that is not dependent on their obedience but on Christ (3:9). For this reason we have “ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus” (1:26) despite the storms raging around us.
“Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). If we have Christ, we have everything.