This Epistle aligns perfectly with the Advent proclamation of Christ’s coming (Malachi 3:2). God Himself is making ready the church for, “the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). He will make them, “blameless for the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:10). The text also serves as an interpretive key to the Baptist’s preaching who calls Israel to, “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). Nothing here can be our conjuring-up fruits of repentance, nor can we fill ourselves with, “the fruit of righteousness” (Philippians 1:11). The fruit comes, as Paul clearly states, “through Jesus Christ.” He is the vine and we are the branches.
Personally, I have been struck in the recent pericopes by the Holy Spirit’s emphasis on our holiness and purity before the coming of our Lord Jesus. All along, the preaching of John the Baptist is present: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance!” Truly, each of us will have to give an account for what we have done in the body. In the face of Christ’s final judgment, preachers are sometimes drawn to emphasize the judicial pronouncement of “not guilty” during the church year’s season of judgment—and rightly so. The pronouncement of “not guilty” is the very heart of our Gospel preaching and comforts consciences deeply troubled by sin and in fear of God’s Last Judgment. However, very often the Scriptures emphasize the effect of this justification and the Gospel’s power to purify us and give us access into God’s presence, to give us understanding and discernment, so that we approve what is excellent, and to abound in love (Philippians 1:9-10). In other words, if we are speaking with Scripture, we will emphasize the fruits of righteousness in the final judgment that flow from the righteousness of Christ alone.
Andreas Osiander, who we remember from the conflict in the Formula of Concord, Article III, was concerned that justification appeared in Lutheran preaching often to be a legal fiction, imputation of righteousness without any real fruits of righteousness. Even though any change that God works in us cannot be the basis for our justification or salvation, Osiander’s concern may be an indictment against some modern Lutheran preaching. We confess that the justifying word of the Gospel is incredibly powerful to create and sustain faith and to cause fruits to flourish in us, even in this life. If our preaching devolves into nothing more than, “You’re a sinner, but God died for you,” we have not preached the full Gospel that endures until the end. God desires our sanctification and Paul at least is convinced, “that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). This is not something that the Law can do, but only the Gospel!
It is an all-too-frequent confusion of causes when we speak of the fruits of faith as a response to the Gospel, as if faith of itself can now produce good works. Preaching that demands a response to the Gospel is not preaching the Gospel, but the Law. The Lord’s example of a good tree ought to spare us from preaching good fruits as a matter of human effort. God makes bad trees good by His Word of truth (James 1:18), and it is this Word that produces good fruits, sometimes 30, sometimes 60, sometimes 100-fold (Matthew 13:8). The distinction may seem subtle. We may assume that if our people are, in fact, good trees then they will respond to the Baptist’s demand for fruits worthy of repentance or St. Paul’s exhortation to abound in love, as if it were merely an exercise of their will. Osiander mixed up the unadulterated Gospel by making that justifying Word based on some tangible change in us. Our preaching can unintentionally do the same when we make love and purity a matter of responding rightly to God’s Word. The Law takes the place of Gospel, as if the Gospel was not sufficient to sanctify us. The Gospel most certainly is, as the Day of Christ will make plain.
The context of the pericope and a few phrases in these verses should be given special attention. We have already mentioned Paul’s very monergistic view of sanctification, which is clear from the text, but the emotional language of St. Paul is also striking. I expect it will catch the ears of hearers. We cannot take Paul here to be hyperbolic, as if he were buttering up the Philippians. Neither is he being merely emotional in a human way because he is in prison and lonely. Paul represents the overflowing affection that pastors ought to have for their congregations, not based on the congregation’s loveliness, but because of Christ’s justifying Word that they believe and by which they are all by grace made lovely in Christ. Surely there is a loving affection for them personally, but this cannot be the basis for Paul’s genuine love. Paul’s love mirrors Christ’s love for the Church. His inner parts are stirred up with love for them (ἐπιποθῶ πάντας ὑμᾶς ἐν σπλάγχνοις Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ – literally: “I long for you all in/with the bowels (splanchnois – inner parts, emotions, heart, seat of deep emotions) of Jesus Christ”) in Philippians 1:8. This deep, expressive love is the same love that Paul describes Titus having for the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 7:15). The language of koinonia (partnership/contribution) appears in verse 5 of the Philippians text, which is a reference perhaps to Holy Communion in Christ’s body and blood or the fellowship of those who bear the office with Paul and Timothy.
As you work through this Philippians text, it is helpful to keep in view the addressees of the letter. Paul and Timothy write not only to the congregation, but to the church that consists of both preachers and hearers in Philippi. Therefore, when he says, “for you all,” he means both pastors and hearers. This implies the expectation that his letter be read in a liturgical setting, as is quite apparent throughout. For example, he is praying for them (1:3-11) and they are praying for him (1:19). Preachers are present and are being sent between Paul in prison and the local church. The Gospel is having free course throughout and, according to Paul’s prayers, in their hearts, minds, and bodies. Both pastors and hearers are all bound up together in Christ, as He purifies them for the day of His coming with His grace (1:7).
In preaching, I would suggest taking up Paul’s beautiful language of Christ completing the work that He has begun in us. Baptism gives it all, and yet there is a consummation. His coming in the flesh, dying and rising, is the start of the new creation, but He will finish what He started in the world, in His Church, in us who attentively preach and in us who attentively listen. Comfort abounds in this Sunday’s Epistle!
Concordia Theology: Various resources to assist you in preaching Philippians 2:1-11.