Having concluded fourteen consecutive readings through the Epistle to the Romans, we now embark upon successive readings in each of the four chapters of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. It is a solid choice for this time in the church calendar since this epistle also addresses matters theological and pastoral, overlapping saving doctrine with sanctified Christian practice. Which is why the Church has long regarded Philippians as divinely inspired devotional literature concentrated in the celebrated Hymn of Christ (2:6-11).
The preacher will do well to note that Philippians is an epistle, not a sermon (like Hebrews) or a polemic (like 1 John). As such, the preacher will need to construct sermons from its content as an apostolic letter to the Church. It bears all the marks of an ancient epistle, including its tripartite construction (salutation, body, and farewell) and features personal, not private, content in which the intimate relationship between Saint Paul and the Philippian Christians is laid bare. Moreover, the Apostle’s expectation was that this letter—this Scripture—would be read as part of the Eucharistic gathering. So, it carries within its chapters the basic confession of Christ, a hymn, doxology, prayers, and benediction. Thus, the reading and preaching of Philippians is most at home among the liturgy of Holy Communion.
The first of our four lessons in Philippians, stretching from the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost to the Nineteenth, omits the Apostle’s greeting and opening berakah prayer (1:1-11). Instead, it begins with three verses (1:12-14) coupled with the bulk of the chapter to its end (vv. 19-30). Altogether, these verses extol the central theme of, “To live is Christ” (v. 21). Verse 21 stands as the central thought of the chapter within the domain of Christian living or sanctification, applicable to every person baptize into Christ.
Paul signals the first major portion of the letter and alerts his auditors (and readers) to its importance with the formal opening, “I want you to know, brothers” (1:12). This unit runs through verse 26 since verse 27 shifts to different subject matter. Notwithstanding, the two units hold well together by their context: Paul’s imprisonment and its effects on the Gospel, the Church, and Paul himself. Note the key words which emphasize confidence in the effect of Christ’s Gospel and expansion of His Kingdom: “Advance” (v. 12) and “progress” (v. 25). The, “Advance of the Gospel,” and the, “…progress and joy in the faith,” dispel any notion that Paul, while imprisoned, sits wringing his hands, longing for better days. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit is converting hearts and minds to the truth about Christ, the truth that is Christ, through the imprisonment of Paul. The Gospel is not hampered by the faithful preacher or missionary or average Christian’s circumstances. Even prison presents itself as a forum for gospel proclamation and the making of disciples. In fact, Paul says his imprisonment has embolden many brothers, “…to speak the Word without fear” (1:14).
The Gospel is not hampered by the faithful preacher or missionary or average Christian’s circumstances.
Verses 12-18 tell the story about the effort spent during Paul’s imprisonment towards proclaiming the Gospel with the result being, “Whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I [Paul] rejoice” (1:15). Preachers should emphasize the efficacy of God’s Word preached and proclaimed, administered and sacramented. It is the Word of the Lord and His Word accomplishes what it says. Our favorable or unfavorable circumstances neither help nor hinder the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These are words well worth remembering amidst a contentious election season and ever-shifting American socio-religious landscape. Paul stands within the Epistle to the Philippians as an everlasting monument that his imprisonment has advanced the Gospel in almost unexpected ways. Religious freedom and economic prosperity are not necessary conditions for the advance of the Gospel. Even prison provides fertile soil for the work of the Lord. Western Christians would do well to note that Paul was not, “Living his best life now,” but rather was living in faith for the, “…advance of the Gospel,” trusting in the providences of King Jesus who, as we shall see in chapter 2, “…emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant… becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:7-8).
While the preceding section concentrated on the Gospel, the next section, in verses 1:19-26, more particularly concerns itself with the effect Paul’s imprisonment has had upon the church and himself. Again, incarceration contextualizes what follows when the Apostle sets forth the reminder: “Rejoice!” Verse 18 says to “rejoice” in what has already occurred (1:12-18) and “rejoice” (v. 19) looking ahead to events yet uncertain, but now discussed in 1:19-26. In other words, Paul rejoices over what has happened, but because of his confident faith in the once-crucified-and-now-resurrected-and-reigning Christ Jesus, also over what will happen. Additionally, Paul encourages them regarding their personal concern for his welfare by reaffirming his joy. Verses 29-30 apply this disposition to the Philippians as they themselves endure a similar conflict.
Paul rejoices over what has happened, but because of his confident faith in the once-crucified-and-now-resurrected-and-reigning Christ Jesus, also over what will happen.
Preachers in the Way of Christ will understand that Paul’s fate and the destiny of the church are inextricably bound together, just as it is with any pastor/priest who loves and cares for the sheep of the Good Shepherd. The Yoke of Christ in ministry, often symbolized by the stole of ordination, comes with intense mental conflict as articulated by Paul’s soliloquy: “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (1:23-24). Pending death keeps Paul’s perspective outside of the domain of Pollyanna platitudes and grounded in the real. Lost souls need salvation and the baptized need sanctification. So, the tension is resolved: “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith” (1:25-26). The advance of the Gospel and the progress and joy in the faith of the Philippians is “necessary,” not anything else, much less Paul’s desire to be spared additional hardship in this life for the beatific vision of Christ. Would that American Christians were of the same mind, as pastors forsake their obligations to Christ’s Kingdom, “…because of COVID,” and Christian parents obsess over their children’s education, career, and material belongings. Paul taps into a dimension of freedom resultant from the Gospel, as well as a prioritization of life, that imprisonment could not hinder and about which American Christianity knows very little. Preach it! Preach it boldly, “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” (1:29).
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30.