In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, his references to prayer follow the familiar pattern we have noted in his other letters (esp. 1 Thessalonians). The focus on prayer is a prominent element of the introduction (exordium) portion, in which Paul offers thanks to God for the believers whom he is addressing (here, in Philippi):
“I give thanks to my God for (His) good favor upon every remembrance of you, (at) every time and in every need [de/hsi$] of mine (expressed to God) over all of you, with joy making the need [de/hsi$] (known)…” (vv. 3-4)
Prayer is defined here (as it frequently is by Paul) in terms of making one’s need (de/hsi$) known to God. As Paul does this, he makes mention (bringing to mind/memory, mnei/a) of the believers in the congregations where he has worked as a missionary (such as in Philippi). Indeed, many of the requests he makes to God are “over” (peri/, i.e., on behalf of) these believers. This is an important point of emphasis that we have noted repeatedly in these studies—how the focus of one’s prayers ought to be for the needs of others, at least much (or more) than for our own needs.
Part of Paul’s focus in prayer, and which features prominently in the letter-introductions, is that the believers for whom he prays will continue to grow in faith and Christian virtue. Just as they responded to his initial preaching of the Gospel, so he asks that they will continue to respond:
“…upon your common-bond in the good message, from the first day until now, having been persuaded of this very (thing), that the (One hav)ing begun in you a good work will complete (it) until (the) day of (the) Anointed Yeshua” (vv. 5-6)
As is typically the case, Paul frames this faithfulness of believers in eschatological terms. Given the fact that first-century Christians almost universally evinced an imminent eschatology, this is hardly surprising. The “day of Christ Jesus” —that is, the day when he will return to earth to usher in the Judgment—was expected to come very soon, within the life-time of believers.
In the expression e)pi\ th=| koinwni/a|, the preposition e)pi/ (“upon, about”) should probably be understood in a causal sense (i.e., because of); in English idiom, we might say, “on the grounds of”. The noun koinwni/a is a fundamental word used to express the unity (common-bond, community) of believers (cf. Acts 2:42; 1 Jn 1:3ff), and is used with some frequency by Paul (13 of the 19 NT occurrences are in the undisputed Pauline letters). This “common bond” is defined in terms of the Gospel (“good message, good news”). As is often the case in the New Testament, the noun eu)agge/lion is used in a comprehensive sense, extending from believers’ initial response to the Gospel preaching until the present moment (“from the first day until now”).
The “common bond” between believers can also be viewed in the specific (local) context of the relationship between Paul and the Philippian congregations. In this regard, Paul gives thanks for the Philippians’ continued support for his missionary work; this support certainly includes their prayers for him (v. 19). We have discussed this aspect of Paul’s prayer-references in the previous studies.
It is Paul himself who is persuaded (vb pei/qw) of the fact that God is faithful and will complete the work begun among the Philippian believers. As believers, we also have to do our part, remaining committed to the Gospel (and the common-bond of unity), following the example of Jesus (2:5-6ff), and allowing ourselves to be guided by the Spirit (2:1ff).
Following the thanksgiving of vv. 3-6, Paul shifts to address the Philippian congregations directly in vv. 7-8:
“Even so it is right for me to have this mind-set over all of you, through my holding you in the heart—both in my bonds and in the account (I give) and (the) confirmation of the good message—all of you being my common partners of the favor (of God). For God (is) my witness, how I long after all of you with (the) inner organs [spla/gxna] of (the) Anointed Yeshua.”
Paul says that it is right (di/kaio$) and proper for him to hold this view regarding the Philippians, because they have already demonstrated their faith and commitment to the Gospel. Indeed, they continue to support Paul through the difficulties and travails of his mission-work, even to the point where he has been imprisoned (“in my bonds”). The noun sugkoinwno/$ (“common [partner] together”) is, of course, related to koinwni/a, and reflects a more active and direct manifestation of the “common bond” of Christian unity—in terms of participation and cooperation in the Christian mission. The bond of unity is also an emotional bond, as Paul describes how he “longs for” the Philippian believers, with a longing that reflects the very “inner organs” (spec. intestines, as the seat of emotion) of Christ himself. This longing is further manifest in Paul’s prayers for the Philippians:
“And this I speak out toward (God) [proseu/xomai]: that your love still more and more would abound, with (full) knowledge and all perception, unto your giving consideration (to) the (thing)s carrying through (as pleasing to God), (so) that you would be shining like the sun, and without striking (your foot) against (a stone), until (the) day of (the) Anointed” (vv. 9-10)
Paul essentially repeats his confident hope (and wish) from verse 6 (cf. above), regarding the Philippians being ‘made complete’ in anticipation of the return of Christ (“the day of [the] Anointed”). The Christian growth in virtue is understood in relation to the fundamental ethical principle of love (a)ga/ph), and it is this ‘love principle’ (or ‘love command,’ cf. Rom 13:8-10, etc) that informs Paul’s ethical instruction and exhortation in the body of the letter (beginning at 2:1ff). If the love of Christians continues to grow and abound (vb perisseu/w), then all other important aspects of Christian life will follow. The ultimate goal of this growth is expressed through the rather colorful pair of adjectives: ei)likrinh/$ (“shining like the sun”) and a)pro/skopo$. The latter term literally means something like “without striking/dashing against,” which, as an idiom, relates to the idea of striking one’s foot against a stone (and thus falling); in simpler English, we would say “without stumbling”. The promise of being made complete in Christ is summarized more succinctly in verse 11 as “having been filled (with the) fruit of righteousness”. How often do make such a prayer—that our fellow believers would be “filled with the fruit of righteousness”?
This interrelationship between Paul and the Philippian congregations continues to be a key point of emphasis throughout the remainder of the exordium. Paul prays for the Philippians’ continued growth in the Gospel, while they are to pray for him in his continued mission-work of preaching the Gospel. The latter is the focus in vv. 19-26, while the former is emphasized in vv. 27-30. His prayer for the Philippians is expressed as an exhortation to them, marking a transition to the ethical instruction in chapters 2-4:
“Only as it comes up (to the level) of the good message of the Anointed, may you live as a citizen…” (v. 27)
The verb politeu/omai (lit. something like “live as a citizen”) refers, in a comprehensive sense, to a person’s daily life and conduct. The exhortation means that this does not happen automatically for believers—it requires commitment and attention on our behalf. The power to achieve this measure of growth, and to realize the ideal of unity, does, however, come from God (and His Spirit); if we are faithful, and allow God’s work to proceed in our hearts and lives, then we will be made complete. Indeed, Paul’s prayer is that the Philippians would be faithful in this regard; let us, too, make such prayer on behalf of our fellow believers, asking (together with Paul):
“…that you stand in one spirit, with a single soul striving together in the trust of the Gospel”