This article is part of the Why Study the Book? series.
More Than Food and Fun
When I was child growing up in church, I heard the word “fellowship” quite a lot. In our context, it seemed to mean “Christians getting together with food.” Adults would talk about “stuff” while they ate, and the kids would try to find something fun to do.
Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with Christians getting together to eat, chat, and/or play. But this is far from the “fellowship” that occupies Philippians as its major theme.
Paul’s vision for fellowship is more like J. R. R. Tolkien's in The Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf and his diverse cohort shared an all-consuming mission. They shared extraordinary, harrowing experiences. This, in turn, led to a deep and meaningful bond.
That’s what fellowship means—the sharing or bond of identity, purpose, mission, and experiences.
The Fellowship of the Cross
Behind the text of Philippians stands a riveting story shared by Paul and the Philippian Christians—what we might call the “fellowship of the cross.” They shared deep love and affection, even tears. We read of imprisonment, the threat of death, great sacrifice, opposition, and boldness—all springing from the joyful reality of the gospel and toward the ultimate priority of the gospel’s spread throughout the world.
Epaphroditus, a servant and messenger of the Philippian church, risked his life to get resources to Paul who was on the front lines of the battle in a Roman prison (Phil. 2:25-30). The Philippians had, on multiple occasions, supported Paul’s gospel-spreading mission with funds and prayers. Paul wrote Philippians, in large part, to thank the church for their most recent care and to update them on Epaphroditus, who was well and heading back home with the Philippian letter.
This fellowship-bond between an apostle, a church, and their messengers is practically everywhere in Philippians (see 1:5, 7, 14-19, 27; 2:1-8, 17-18, 22, 25, 30; 3:16-17; 4:1-3, 10-16). They shared the gospel of grace and they shared in the gospel-mission. Indeed, through their support and prayers, the Philippians even shared in Paul’s “imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil. 1:7).
The Philippian church shared the gospel and gospel-mission not only with Paul but between themselves as a church. As such, Paul urges them to live in unity, humble selflessness, and peace with each other (Phil. 1:27; 2:1-5; 4:2-3). Once again, it is because of what they share in Christ that Paul’s call to unity and peace is so repeatedly and strongly insisted.
A Unique Epistle
A few other interrelated themes are worth pointing out. Philippians is an unusually warm and deeply personal letter. Paul’s pen drips with affection and appreciation for the saints in Philippi. And yet, the Philippian letter also contains some of the most precise theology (specifically, Christology) in all the Bible (Phil. 2:5-11). It contains one of the clearest and most personal explanations of the gospel (Phil. 3:1-11), as well as the manifold outworkings of the gospel (Phil. 3:12-4:9).
Finally, Paul is deeply experiential as he frequently returns to the believer’s communion with Christ (e.g., Phil. 3:10, 20). It is this Christ that they share. Their bond and fellowship is in his gospel, his grace, his mission, his presence, his promises, and his peace.
All this in four short chapters
For these reasons and others, Philippians is a book of the Bible that deserves not just our routine reading but our careful study and meditation.
Even now, prayerfully ponder the last few verses from the first chapter, which aptly summarize Paul’s aims and themes in Philippians:
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. . . . 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, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Phil. 1:27-30)
*This illustration of Tolkien's Fellowship of the Rings has been suggested by several Philippians commentators over the years, most recently: Kent Hughes, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon: The Fellowship of the Gospel and the Supremacy of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 19.