Throughout Paul’s letter to the Philippians Paul has been encouraging them to pursue unity, and the primary attitude that fuels unity is self-abasing humility, which allows us to listen to and find common ground with others. Early in chapter 2 Paul pointed to the ultimate example of humility in Jesus Christ, that although He really was fully divine, He cloaked Himself with humanity, became both a servant to others and a sacrifice for others. That kind of attitude should percolate within the minds and hearts of every believer.
Having focused on Christ’s example, Paul exhorted the Philippians to “work out” their corporate salvation by not griping and arguing against one another. He then ends this chapter by pointing out three other examples of self-abasing, self-giving men who were worthy of honor and imitation…Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus.
14 Do all things without grumbling or questioning, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. 19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. 20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. 23 I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, 24 and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also. 25 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
Today we’re going to look at Paul’s example of humility, expressed in vv. 16-18.
Paul speaks of his ministry among them using three metaphors, ones that he uses often:
- Running a race
- Working a project
- Sacrificial worship
Paul’s ministry among the Philippians was first of all like “running” a race. This is a metaphor that Paul uses of his own spiritual life, most particularly in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Philippians 3:12-14 and 2 Timothy 4:7, but it also a metaphor for his ministry among others (cf. also 2 Timothy 2:5).
Paul wanted to run the race in a way that he would win the prize, the crown, the imperishable stephanos, “in the day of Christ,” or at the judgment seat of Christ. Winning requires agonizing training (1 Corinthians 9:25), straining towards the finish line (Philippians 2:14) and playing by all the rules (2 Timothy 2:5).
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 the potential of winning is dependent primarily upon one’s own diligent efforts. But here in Philippians the potential of winning is tied to whether others were running well. It’s like a relay race which is won through the combined efforts of several. Paul had run well, but he was passing the baton to the Philippians and wasn’t sure they were going to run well.
In 1 Corinthians 9:26 Paul says, “So I do not run aimlessly…” He did not run recreationally, but with a clear purpose. He wanted to win! But what did a win look like as far as his ministry? His goal is declared in such passages as Colossians 1:28, “to present everyone mature in Christ” and Galatians 4:19, “until Christ is formed in you.”
Paul’s aim for the Philippians and all his converts is that they would display greater and greater likeness to Jesus Christ. For the Philippians that particularly meant living with humble, other-centered attitudes, as illustrated in the example of Jesus in vv. 5-8.
It would be possible for Paul to “run in vain,” not so much with regard to his own personal life, but with regard to the Philippians’ lack of imitation of Christ in this way. If they persisted in conflict, entrenched in their own ways, allowing that conflict to divide them, then Paul feels like his race among them would have been for nothing, that all his efforts would have been ultimately useless.
The idea that his work might somehow end up to be in vain was a troublesome thought to him, as it would be to any serious pastor.
This is the true heart of a shepherd: to have few burdens for one’s self, but many for others; to not be content with one’s own relationship with God, but also longing to see others walking with the Lord.
Paul enriches this metaphor with one drawn from Isaiah. In Isaiah 49:4 the Servant of the Lord expresses dismay that he appears to “have labored to no purpose,” to “have spent [his] strength in vain for nothing”; but he also expresses his confidence that his reward is in the Lord’s hands. Later the prophet promises that in the final day, when God creates new heavens and a new earth, his people “will not toil in vain (Isa. 65:23).
This second metaphor of laboring may call to mind that we labor like a farmer, faithfully planting the seed of God’s Word into people’s hearts through preaching and teaching, hoping that it will be fruitful.
Jesus told His disciples that fruitfulness depended upon the condition of the soil, or the condition of a person’s heart. Some hearts are hard and will not receive the Word of God; others are shallow and while they show initial excitement, eventually wither away under persecution; then there are those who could have borne fruit but their lives were so filled with cares and comforts of this world. Only a few, Jesus said, would hear the Word and bear fruit in their lives.
Paul draws upon this imagery in Galatians 6 when he says…
7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. 9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
Sowing seeds and harvesting crops require a lot of hard work. It is easy to get discouraged. It is easy to grow weary of doing good and give up. But God wants us to realize that although we may not reap today, we will eventually reap and we will only reap what we sow. So we have to be careful what we sow.
It is also possible that the laboring metaphor came from Paul’s experience as a tent weaver. In that context, hard work, resulting in being able to hand over a finished product, meant what we would call a “paycheck.”
Laboring in vain would be like putting all your effort into a superior or artistic product and having it rejected as badly woven.
Both metaphors stress not so much the honor and dignity of the apostolic calling, but rather the need to toil and take pains to reach full potential. Paul was putting his heart and soul, his energy and endurance, into making sure they would fully work out their corporate salvation and be a loving, united congregation.
Was all of that in vain?
Paul had sown the seeds of gospel joy into the hearts of the Philippians. Many of them had come to faith in Christ, but the full fruitfulness of the gospel—expressed in humility and others-centeredness—was in danger of not appearing and Paul felt that his labor might have been in vain.
Paul wanted to hear a “well done” with regard to his ministry among the Philippians when he stood before God’s tribunal. So he is expressing his desire by reminding them just how much energy and hard labor he had poured into their growth.
The third image that Paul uses is the pouring out of a drink offering as a sacrifice to God.
17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
This may be a reference to his own death, which would turn out to be a few years later, but he did not know that at this time. Or it could simply point out his sufferings.
Paul uses the exact phrase again in 2 Timothy 4:6, where he says, “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.”
It was possible that Paul’s trial would go against him and he would be executed. But this did not rob Paul of his joy. His death would be a willing sacrifice, a priestly ministry, on behalf of Christ and His church, and this would give him joy.
The grammar of I am being poured out is in the present tense. With this Paul indicated either the possibility that his execution may be imminent, or that his sufferings for them were ongoing.
Here Paul compares his present life to the pouring out of a “drink offering” in Israel’s worship (cf. 2 Tim. 4:6; Num. 15:1-10; Num. 28:4-7). After the priest offered a lamb, a ram, or a bull as a burnt offering, he poured wine beside the altar.
This was the last act in the sacrificial ceremony, all of which symbolized the dedication of the believer to God in worship. The pouring out of the wine pictured the gradual ebbing away of Paul’s life, that had been a living sacrifice (cf. Rom. 12:1) to God since his conversion.
The ancient Greek word translated service is leutrogia. It meant, “Service to God or His cause… any priestly action or sacred performance” (Muller). Therefore, in this verse we have a sacrifice, a priest, and an accompanying libation that makes the sacrifice even more precious.
Since the sacrifice and service were connected with the faith of the Philippians, it is best to see Paul’s picture describing them as the “priests” and their faith as the “sacrifice,” to which Paul added (and thereby enriched) his martyrdom as a drink offering.
Gerald Hawthorne writes:
“To the degree that his sufferings are for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the church in general, and for the sake of the church at Philippi in particular, they act as a seal on whatever sacrificial service the Philippians may make, just as a libation completes the offering made to God.”
The purpose of all Paul did among them and all his sufferings was for their “faith.” He wanted them to fully trust God and His promises so that they would fully experience the spiritual blessings and empowerments available to them.
Paul wasn’t suffering for himself. He was suffering for their sake, to help their faith develop.
So Paul is expressing his confidence in the Philippians, that they would offer their bodies as living sacrifices through faith, and his sufferings would seal theirs. He was also confident that whatever he (and they) suffered now, would result in greater reward in heaven.
Listen to Paul’s words to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 4:8-18
8 We are experiencing trouble on every side, but are not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are knocked down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our body. 11 For we who are alive are constantly being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal body. 12 As a result, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. 13 But since we have the same spirit of faith as that shown in what has been written, “I believed; therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak. 14 We do so because we know that the one who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 For all these things are for your sake, so that the grace that is including more and more people may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God. 16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:8-18, emphasis mine).
And that is what leads Paul to express his joy. Literally he said, “I rejoice and co-rejoice with you all.” Could his ministry among them be in vain? Yes. But Paul expresses an even greater confidence that the Philippians would respond to his exhortations to humility and unity and that ultimately his ministry would not have been in vain.
Notice that Paul said in verse 17, “I am glad and rejoice with you all.” This means they were already rejoicing, at least somewhat. Paul wants to encourage more.
John Piper notes:
What are they rejoicing in? He just said, he “poured out” his life for their “faith.” How does Paul think about the relationship of their faith and their joy?
Here is what he said in Philippians 1:25. Though he is in prison, he expects there to be a season of life to minister to the Philippians, and he describes it like this: “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith [literally: joy of faith].” For Paul, joy and faith are inseparable. When you have saving faith, you have tasted the joy that belongs to faith — the joy of faith.
The sacrifices and sufferings that Paul expresses in these three metaphors are marks of the submissive mind that was present in Christ’s example back in vv. 7-8 and it will be present in the examples of Timothy (vv. 21-22) and Epaphroditus (v. 30) as well. Through these consistent examples of the same humble, other-centered, self-giving love Paul was encouraging the Philippians to adopt the same.
And God was working in the Philippians to give them the same desire and then the power to live that way in their relationships with each other.
So Paul invites them to join his double-dose of joy with a double-dip of their own: “Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me” (v. 18).
The Philippians would not “rejoice” over the prospect of Paul’s death, of course, but over the knowledge that they, as Paul, had offered themselves as acceptable sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1). The apostle urged them not to sorrow over their own trials and his, but to rejoice as they worked out their own salvation, adopting his attitude toward their situation in life and believing in God’s present and future grace.
Paul has just said that his joy was the joy of being poured out for the sake of their faith — the joy of dying so that they could have the joy of faith. And now Paul says, rejoice with me as I die for your joy of faith.
Piper again says:
Ten verses later, Paul is going to say that his precious friend Epaphroditus almost died for Paul. And he said, “But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow” (Philippians 2:27). Paul would have wept if Epaphroditus had died. But he would not have stopped rejoicing in Epaphroditus’s joy in dying for Paul. We know this because in 2 Corinthians 6:10, Paul says he is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
So there are three facets of the diamond of Christian joy in Philippians 2:17–18. Let me name them in the order that they actually occur in life:
- The joy of faith (verse 17, at the end).
- The joy of pouring out your life for the sake of the joy of faith (verse 17, at the beginning). There is no Christian mission without the surrender of safety.
- The rejoicing with those who joyfully die for the sake of other people’s joy (verse 18).
This threefold joy is an invincible force in global missions.