How to Read Philippians Theologically
At first glance, the major themes of humility, unity, and joy are clear in the letter to the Philippians. Yet, each of these themes has a common foundation: they are possible for the church solely in light of the gospel.
Paul assumes the saints in Philippi have a solid understanding of the gospel. In some of his other letters, Paul explicitly specifies what he means by the “gospel”; in Philippians, he never defines it clearly. Perhaps this is because the Philippian church remembers the gospel as Paul proclaimed it to them. Or perhaps, though the gospel is a primary feature of the letter, Paul intends to spend his time addressing issues of gospel fruit rather than the gospel itself.[i]
Though the gospel is not defined here as it is in other books, we would be foolish to ignore its importance to the letter. Indeed, gospel concepts weave throughout the pages of Philippians, providing theological source for everything that follows. Namely, God has saved his people and united them to himself in Christ. In light of this truth, the saints are equipped to live worthy of the gospel, bearing fruit in keeping with the experience of salvation. What, then, is the gospel according to Philippians?
The Gospel According to Philippians
The Gospel is the news that Jesus, who was God (2:6), came to earth as a human (2:7). He lived in perfect obedience to God the Father (2:8), died (2:8), and rose from the dead (2:8; 3:10-11). Through all of this, those who believe in Christ (1:29) will be united to Christ and counted righteous as Christ is (3:9). Those who believe will be saved, but those who do not believe will face eternal destruction (1:28; 3:19-20). In this union with Christ, the believer will belong to Christ (3:12), be equipped by the Spirit to bear Christ’s image and message to the world (1:18-20; 2:1), and share in his resurrection and glorification (3:11, 21).[ii]
Union with Christ
Union with Christ is a key component of the gospel in Philippians, as Paul reminds the believers that Christ is not only for the saint in legal justification but Christ is also in the saint in covenant relationship. The saint is united with Christ, and in this union, the believer shares in righteousness (1:11), humility (2:7-8), obedience (2:8), suffering (3:10), resurrection (3:10-11), and glory (3:21) with Christ. This union with Christ becomes a structural foundation upon which everything else is built[iii]. Combined with a remembrance of the gospel and the empowerment and participation with the Holy Spirit, union with Christ becomes the source and encouragement for the Christian to live a gospel-worthy life (1:11, 2:1).
When viewing Philippians with the rest of Scripture, Paul reasserts here what he says in Rom 6:1-14; 8:8-11, 2 Cor 4:10, Gal 2:20, Eph 2:4-10, and 2 Tim 1:8-9. The believer is united with Christ in life, death, and resurrection, freed from sin and equipped for righteous living. In John’s gospel, Jesus calls himself the vine, in which every branch is rooted. Jesus exhorts the Christian to remain in him, as He will remain in them (John 15:1-5), pointing back to the covenant God who desires covenant relationship with his people. In John 15, as in Philippians, we see a direct connection between union with Christ and the fruit of righteous living: apart from Christ, we can do nothing.
The message of Philippians, then, is that, because of the gospel and the union with Christ it grants, believers can bear fruit in accord with salvation. In Christ, we can do all that the Lord asks of those who are His (Phil 4:13), displaying humility, unity, and joy to the world despite the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The message of Philippians, then, is that, because of the gospel and the union with Christ it grants, believers can bear fruit in accord with salvation. Click To Tweet
The Fruit of Christ-like Humility
In response to the gospel, one of Paul’s exhortations to the Philippians is to display the fruit of a humble life, sharing the same humility which Christ embodies in his obedient incarnation and death (2:5-8). Because they are in Christ, the saints are called and equipped to “adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus” (2:5). As a humble people, they should consider one another and their interests (2:4), serve one another sacrificially (1:24; 2:17, 21, 29-30; 4:15-18), exhibit grace (4:5), and find confidence in Christ instead of in the flesh (3:2-11).
The Fruit of Christ-given Unity
A second exhortation to the Philippians in response to the gospel is to display the fruit of unity amongst themselves. Since they have united with Christ, experienced Christ’s love and mercy, and participated with the Spirit, they are now called to exhibit unity of spirit, mind, purpose, and love and to battle together for the advancement of the gospel (1:27; 2:1-2). Because God has and is working in them, they are to serve without grumbling or arguing (2:13-14; 4:2-3), working together instead of serving their own ambition (1:12-20; 2:3). They can function as a unified body because they are first in Christ.
The Fruit of Christ-exulting Joy
The final exhortation to the Philippians in response to the gospel is to display the fruit of joy, produced from an assured relationship in Christ. Gaining Christ and being found in him alters their perspective, such that Paul (and the Philippians) rejoice in loss, suffering, and death (4:7-11). They look forward with eager anticipation to the joy of resurrection, when their humble condition will be exchanged for the likeness of Christ’s glory (3:20-21). With this in mind, Paul can say—despite circumstance—that he rejoices in the Lord (1:18; 4:10-13). Contentment, then, is not an end to itself but a fruit of the gospel, the product of dwelling on the goodness of Christ and that which is worthy of praise (4:6-8).
According to Murray, union with Christ is not just a step in the process of redemption, but, “in its broader aspects it underlies every step of the application of redemption”[iv]. This is what we see in Philippians. The gospel truth—and specifically union with Christ—determines the application of redemption for the saints in Philippi and for us today as well.
Today’s Christian must remember that the substance of our humility, unity, and joy is the gospel. Christ in us is the source and power for any righteous fruit we might produce, and we can obey and work out our salvation because “it is God who is working in you” (2:12-13).
The theology evident in Philippians is absolute and essential. We cannot waver from our roots of gospel truth, from the Christ who unites himself to us, or from the subsequent call to display Christ’s likeness to the world. Instead, may our boasting in Christ abound ever more!
[i] Gordon D. Fee, Philippians: The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1999), 35.
[ii] The basic concept here is derived from John Piper’s “Look at the Book” episode for Philippians 1:27-28, with adaptations made accordingly: https://www.desiringgod.org/labs/what-does-gospel-mean.
[iii] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance –Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 103.
[iv] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1955), 171.