As Paul draws his letter to the Philippians to a close he conscientiously thanks them for a financial gift, and uses the opportunity to express certain truths about Christian contentment and the resources that God puts at the disposal of His people. He diligently expresses love for them, while lifting their eyes to behold the greatness of their God. Simultaneously, he returns to themes from the opening paragraph of the letter, as Thielman explains:
‘In 4. 10 – 20 Paul returns to the themes and style of the letter’s opening prayer (1. 3 – 11). The similarities between the two sections include the note of joy that begins each section (1. 4/4. 10), the concern of each section with the Philippians’ practical display of fellowship with Paul in the work of the gospel (1. 5, 7/4. 10, 14, 18), the importance to each section of the Philippians’ progress in the faith (1. 6, 9 – 11/4. 17b), and the conclusion of each section with an ascription of glory to God (1. 11/4. 20). In 4. 10 – 20 Paul then provides a fitting conclusion to the body of the letter by visiting again the central themes of the letter’s opening’.1
A Bible teacher of a former generation described this section as ‘a rare blending of affection, of dignity, of delicacy, with a certain undertone of gentle pleasantry. It is an embodiment of ideal Christian courtesy’.2 Their generosity caused Paul to rejoice in the Lord, for he saw their action as rooted in His work in them. It is important for believers to remember the basics: we must be kind and thoughtful of others – to do otherwise is a bad testimony.
‘The apostle depicts their renewed support in somewhat figurative language by using imagery taken from horticulture; this is shown in Moule’s rendering of ‘hath flourished again’ as ‘you have shot forth thought (as a branch or bud) for me; or, less lit., you have burgeoned into thought for me’.3 Another adds, ‘To be sure, there had been this concern, this interest, all along, just as throughout the winter-season the tree that seems to be dead is actually alive. But just as in spring-time the tree puts forth fresh shoots, thereby proving that it is alive, so also the Philippians’ interest in Paul had at last found a way to express and demonstrate itself concretely’.4 This language is appropriate, because the Philippians’ kindness towards Paul was an organic reaction rooted in the Lord’s work within them by means of the implanted divine life, Phil. 2. 13. It was not lack of interest in the apostle, but lack of opportunity to send a gift that hindered their practical help, 4. 10.
In referring to their financial gift, Paul does not want there to be any mistaken notions. He was not desperately needy, nor was he entirely dependent on them for his physical maintenance. In large measure his independence stemmed from his super-circumstantial contentment, which encompassed every possible material scenario. The ever-eloquent Spurgeon describes this uncommon Christian attitude:
'contentment is one of the flowers of heaven, and if we would have it, it must be cultivated; it will not grow in us by nature; it is the new nature alone that can produce it, and even then we must be especially careful and watchful that we maintain and cultivate the grace which God has sown in us. Paul says, ‘I have learned … to be content;’ as much as to say, he did not know how at one time. It cost him some pains to attain to the mystery of that great truth…Do not indulge the notion that you can be contented with learning, or learn without discipline. It is not a power that may be exercised naturally, but a science to be acquired gradually. We know this from experience. Brother, hush that murmur, natural though it be, and continue a diligent pupil in the College of Content’.5
Paul demonstrated this grace whether he abounded – enjoying ample provisions and overflowing to help others – or was abased – suffering meagre fare, privation, and other physical hardships, v. 12. Wiersbe remarks, ‘The Greek word means “self-sufficient" and was a favourite word of the stoic philosophers. But the Christian is not sufficient in himself; he is sufficient in Christ. Because Christ lives within the Christian, he is adequate for the demands of life’.6
He speaks of learning this satisfaction, using a word from Greek mystery religions; it means ‘to be initiated into a mystery’. Just as other people sought to be initiated into the secret rites of secretive cults, like Mithraism, Paul apprehended the secret of contentment that transcends one’s surroundings. W. W. Fereday comments,
‘Blessed superiority over all circumstances – Christ engaging the heart, the Spirit operating powerfully in the soul! It is easier for some to be abased than to abound. David, when hunted as a partridge upon the mountains, trusted God; when dwelling at ease in Zion, Satan allured him into the foulest sins. Jehoshaphat, when weak, counted on God, saying, “We know not what to do”; when strong and rich, he joined affinity with Ahab and helped the ungodly’.7
Both prosperity and penury have their temptations, as Smith notes, ‘In adversity we may be tempted by the devil to lose confidence in God and question His ways or His love. It was thus Job was tested (Job 1. 20-22; Job 2. 9, 10). In prosperity we may grow self-confident and forget God. It was so with David (Ps. 30. 6). Moses warns God’s people lest in days of temporal fullness the heart be lifted up and God be forgotten (Deut. 8. 14)’.8 ‘Give me neither poverty nor riches– Feed me with the food allotted to me; Lest I be full and deny You, And say, “Who is the Lord?”. Or lest I be poor and steal, And profane the name of my God’, Prov. 30. 8-9 NKJV.
Paul’s equanimity in his changing circumstances was rooted in his dependence on the Lord. In the famous words of chapter 4 verse 13, he affirms, ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me’. The word for ‘can do’ has the sense ‘I receive strength/ability to accomplish something’. The second phrase ‘who strengtheneth’ is from the same word group as the well-known Greek word dunamis – from which we derive English words such as dynamic. Thus, Paul possessed comprehensive ability to meet any and every situation that he faced in the Lord’s work. Whether he lived well or poorly materially he could handle it through – literally ‘in’ – the empowering Saviour. If one seeks one’s satisfaction in Christ, then He will fill one with this supernatural contentment.
Having made the point that he looked to God and not to man for his support, Paul reiterates his gratitude for their good deed towards him in his ‘affliction’, v. 14. They had come through with timely help once again. In verses 15-16 he details their past gifts, when other churches were unable to aid his pioneering endeavours in the gospel. He then raises their thoughts above mundane financial matters to see their earthly gifts in terms of their spiritual importance.
To the Philippians, physical substance had been imparted, but Paul asserts that it is actually spiritual ‘fruit’ – that is, man-ward their generosity resulted in spiritual rewards to be enjoyed in glory. On the God-ward side, their gifts were viewed as spiritual sacrifices, after the order of the sweet smelling savour offerings in Leviticus.9 This lifts their financial contributions to an entirely different level; material gifts please God. As J.H. Jowett noted, ‘How vast, then, is the range of an apparently local kindness! We thought we were ministering to a pauper, and in reality we were conversing with the King. We imagined that the fragrance would be shut up in a petty neighbourhood, and lo, the sweet aroma steals through the universe. We thought we were dealing only with Paul, and we find that we were ministering to Paul’s Saviour and Lord’.10
The Philippians seemed not to be an economically robust group; therefore, would their generosity not put them on dangerous financial ground? Anticipating this anxiety, Paul directs them once again to God’s provision in Christ, as Hole maintains, ‘But what of the Philippians themselves? They had further impoverished themselves, further reduced their already slender resources by their gifts in favour of an aged prisoner who could in no wise reciprocate or help them. Paul felt this and in verse 19 he expresses his confidence as to them. God would supply all their need. Notice how he speaks of Him as, “My God,"– the God whom Paul knew and had practically tested for himself. That God would be their Supplier, not according to their need, nor even according to Paul’s ardent desires on their behalf, but according to His own riches in glory in Christ Jesus’.11 The supply would be commensurate with the infinite wealth of God Himself – not merely out of His treasury, but qualitatively ‘according to his riches in glory’. It is not surprising that these great truths culminate in a doxology: ‘Now to our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen’, v. 20; such a deity deserves all honour and praise in keeping with His great person and work.
Frank Thielman, NIV Application Commentary: Philippians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995, Electronic ed. (Pradis.)
C. R. Erdman, Philippians, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977, pg. 146.
H. C. G. Moule, The Epistle to the Philippians. Cambridge: The University Press, 1893, pg. 116.
William Hendriksen, Exposition of Philippians, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963, pp. 202-203.
C. H. Spurgeon, Entry for Feb. 16 a.m., Morning And Evening, electronic ed. (Logos).
Warren Wiersbe, Be Joyful: Philippians, electronic ed. (Quickverse).
W. W. Fereday, Thoughts On Philippians. Electronic ed. available here: http://www.stempublishing.com/authors/fereday/PHILIPPI.html#a4
Hamilton Smith, Philippians, electronic ed. available here: http://www.stempublishing.com/authors/smith/Philippians.htm#a4
The Septuagint employs the same Greek word in Leviticus that Paul uses in Philippians chapter 4 verse 18.
J. H. Jowett, The High Calling. London: Andrew Melrose, 1909, pg. 225.
F. B. Hole, Philippians. Electronic ed. available here: http://www.stempublishing.com/authors/hole/NT/PHILIPPI.html#a4