3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, 5 in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. 7 For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. [NASB ‘77]
Paul in this text effectively pens a love letter to the Philippians. He encourages them with the news that he prays continually for them and with his confidence that their commitment to the gospel shows God working in them. His longing and thankfulness for them are built around God’s ongoing work in their redemption. Because Paul clearly sees God’s hand in their lives he confidently asserts that God will continue to perfect them and will complete their salvation on the great day. With his encouragement of the Philippians Paul gives us a vital truth to inform our daily walk and affect our perspective on every aspect of our lives.
Notice what Paul doesn’t say in verse 3. He doesn’t say, “Thank you for being such good friends.” What he says instead is that he thanks God every time he thinks of them. This is how a servant of God with a keen sense of God’s sovereignty thinks. He’s been blessed by the Philippians because God brought them to him and because God works through them. It goes along with what he’ll say at the end of verse 7 – they are partakers with him of the same grace. Since that’s the case, the gratefulness for them should be directed to God. As we experience blessings in our lives – whether they’re people or circumstances – we should give thanks to the God ultimately responsible for them. When we thank God we acknowledge the truth of what James tell us – Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow (James 1:17). Perhaps the highest praise we can give someone is to tell them we thank God for them – if they understand God’s grace in their lives they’ll be greatly encouraged.
Paul goes on to explain when he gives thanks for them. He says he prays continually for them with joy. When he prays he joyously gives thanks for them even as he makes requests for them. That’s what he means when he says that he’s offering prayer; he means that he asks God to act on their behalf. He doesn’t just give thanks, he also prays for specific needs. By explaining how he prays he shows that he practices what he’ll later teach them. Later in the letter – 4:6 – he’ll tell them that instead of worrying they should make their requests known to God with thanksgiving. That’s what he does here – he joyously and thankfully prays for them. And he prays this way always. Every time he prays – and it’s a good bet that someone who admonishes in another letter to pray without ceasing (I Thess 5:17) prays frequently – he prays with thanksgiving and joy. And just like his thanksgiving to God in verse 3, this is a picture of Paul’s life. He’s so centered on God that his prayers for others are saturated with thanksgiving and joy for God’s actions both in his own life – through the people he prays for – and directly in the people’s lives themselves. When we see all of life through our identity as bond-servants of Christ Jesus (1:1), it becomes more natural to pray continually and to season those prayers with thanksgiving for the people God puts in our lives and with joy for all that God does through them.
What specifically makes Paul so thankful for the Philippians? Their participation in the gospel. Any study of Paul’s life shows how gospel-centered his life is. He lives the gospel, preaches the gospel, and desperately wants to spread the gospel anywhere it hasn’t been heard. He sees everything in life through the lens of furthering the gospel. So as he thinks about these people he loves and longs for, he thanks God primarily for their commitment to the gospel. We’ll find out later that they’ve sent a gift more than once to support Paul in his ministry. And since there’s a church in Philippi, they apparently have spread the gospel he preached to them years ago. So their commitment to the gospel greatly encourages Paul and he joyously thanks God as a result.
Notice how long they’ve participated in the gospel – from the first day until now. They’ve persevered. This is another reason to give thanks but also is proof that God works in their lives. Paul’s about to express how confident he is that God will bring them to completion. One of the reasons he’s confident is the perseverance that’s evident in their lives.
We’ll come back to verse 6, but it becomes more meaningful when we understand its context in light of verses 7 and 8. In verse 7 Paul somewhat elaborates on his statement in verse 5. The Philippians’ participation in the gospel has taken the form of supporting Paul through his ministry, his trials, and his imprisonment. Throughout all of what Paul’s been through, the Philippians have stood with him. To Paul this is hugely encouraging and shows that they appreciate their standing in Christ. They aren’t ashamed of Paul’s imprisonment; they understand that he is where he is because of the same gospel that causes suffering in their lives (1:29). And since they share in suffering for the gospel and stand with Paul, they share in God’s grace with him. They are believers because of God’s grace and it’s that grace that commits them to the gospel and by extension to Paul’s work. They love and support Paul because of God’s grace in their lives. And Paul loves them because of their participation in the gospel and the grace that participation shows.
That’s what he expresses in verse 8. He caps this section of love and affection by telling them that God is his witness how he longs for them with the affection of Christ Jesus. The evidence of God’s grace in their lives and the actions toward him that that grace motivates cause him to love them with more than just feeling. He loves them with the love Christ’s work enables in him.
So Paul’s encouraging words to the Philippians in verses 7 and 8 show us how our dependence on God’s grace should inform our love for one another. Just as our shared identity as bond-servants of Christ Jesus should unite us, so our shared participation in God’s grace should cause us to love each other. As we see evidence of God’s grace in the lives of others we should thank God and love them. None of us stands except by God’s grace. All of us are united with Christ and live through Him. Thus we share in everything that’s vital in life, and love each other as brothers and sisters in the family of God.
The culmination of this section of the letter is Paul’s amazing expression of confidence in what God will do for the Philippians. He has seen their participation in the gospel, and he’s experienced their support and love as he’s gone through humiliating persecution and imprisonment. Thus he knows God works in them. And since he knows God works in them he knows God will complete the work.
He first says that God will continue what He began in their lives. The history of the Philippian church clearly shows what Paul means when he says God began a work in them. Acts 16:14 says God opened the heart of Lydia, the first convert in Philippi, and enabled her to believe the gospel Paul preached. He also enabled the jailer in Philippi – the second named convert – to hear the gospel when Paul and Silas were delivered from the jail by an earthquake. In both cases the converts believed as a result of God’s actions. Thus the body of believers is what it is because of God’s work in their lives.
So if Paul knows God began a work by causing the Philippians to hear and believe the gospel, and if he knows God continues to work because of their continuing commitment to that gospel, then he can express confidence that God will complete the work by perfecting the Philippians until the day of Christ Jesus.
The logic makes sense. The progression of what God did and the evidence of what He continues to do in the Philippians inform Paul’s confidence that God will continue the work and perfect it (complete it). But what does perfect it mean? There may be different ways to read his meaning, but it seems to include the idea that God won’t let them go. God won’t take them half the way. He made sure they heard and believed the gospel. He continues to overwhelm them with His grace and give them a love for the gospel. So He’s not going to suddenly desert them and leave them floundering. He’ll bring them to completion. They will stand with Him on the day of Christ Jesus. They are saved now but they will someday fully realize that salvation when history culminates and Christ returns. They can have confidence that God will bring them to the end.
Paul doesn’t only say that God will complete their salvation on the great day. He says God will perfect His work in them UNTIL the day of Christ Jesus. There is a continuing element to God’s work. God will not leave them alone at any time from their conversion that He enabled to the day that they stand before Him complete in their salvation. Thus God has worked, will work, and is working in them and on their behalf. And this will never stop until they are complete in glory.
What does God’s continuing work look like? Paul doesn’t explain here, but it makes sense that it consists of circumstances and people God uses to shape them/us for His kingdom and conform us to the image of His Son. Hard times, good times, prosperity, want – all the things that make up life and influence us. When we live as Paul lives – centered wholly on God and seeing God in everything as we serve only Him – then we understand our lives as a series of events meant to bring us closer to Him and more like Him. It causes us to THINK as we live. Our lives aren’t just routines strung together to make up days and weeks and years; they are a chain of God-ordained opportunities and circumstances sent by God for His purposes and glory. And God will send them UNTIL He can present us to Himself complete in our salvation.
Paul wants his readers to be encouraged by this. In the midst of his expressions of love and thankfulness he means this to be the most encouraging statement of all. The Philippians believe the gospel, they love the gospel, they will stand before God because of the gospel, and it’s all of God. And since it’s all of God they can have confidence that God will complete what He started. They have partaken of God’s grace and His grace will bring them to glory. And their future glory is unassailable. Their inheritance is guaranteed – a living hope that is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for those who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (I Pet 1:3-5).
So the truth expressed in this verse is amazing and encouraging, but it may also be perhaps a little hard to understand and fully incorporate. What does it mean practically that God will perfect His work in my life until the day of Christ Jesus? What is my responsibility for my sanctification if it is absolutely certain that God will bring me to completion? Does God’s continuing work in my life get interrupted when I completely blow it as His child? How do I reconcile besetting sin with God’s perfecting work? If God is completing all believers, why do our levels of sanctification differ so much?
To answer these questions it’s helpful to compare scripture with scripture. As far as my responsibility for my sanctification, it’s revealing that Paul will later admonish the Philippians to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel (1:27). On the other hand, Paul tells the Corinthians that the grace of God in him has caused him to labor more than the other apostles (I Cor 15:10), and tells the Ephesians that God gives different gifts to different people and different measures of grace to each (Eph 4:7-13). Thus I have a role in my sanctification but God also works differently in each one of us, meaning that I can’t compare myself to others but also can’t blame God for my lack of progress in godliness. It goes along with what we’ll see in 2:12-13; I must obey and work out my salvation, but ultimately it’s God who is at work in me for His good pleasure.
And while my sin can’t derail the plans of a sovereign God, it can set back the progress of my sanctification (since I have a role in it). It can’t, however, stop God from working in my life and pursuing me to bring me to completion. It’s why God disciplines His children (Heb 12:3-13); He won’t allow His own to continue in sin and threaten their eventual salvation.
Thus verse 6 – once understood in light of other scripture – IS in fact one of the most encouraging truths we could ever know. It’s what we must live on as we endure the trials and disappointments of this world. God brought us to Himself. God enabled us to hear and believe the gospel. And since God started this work in our lives He WILL continue it until it’s complete on the day of Christ Jesus. God never gives up. He is God and He loves us, so He can’t fail us or be unfaithful in His plans for us.
What Paul means is this: if Christ died for you when you were an enemy and a rebel and hated Him (Rom 5:10), if He died for you in that condition, how much more, then, will God keep and sustain and hold you, and finish the work by the love of Christ – it is unanswerable logic. The character of God guarantees the completion of the work. (D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Life of Joy and Peace; 43.)