How did the Philippians “participate in the gospel” (Verse 5)?
There is significance in the phrase partnership or participation in the gospel that is often missed at first glance. The Greek word is the familiar koinonia, meaning “fellowship.” Upon first reading, many may say that this is speaking of their salvation. The meaning would then be that they share in like faith regarding the gospel message, and have fellowship as Christians. Taking it this way would agree with the eternal security take on verse 6.
However, agreAeing that Jesus is risen from the dead, and being brothers and sisters in Christ is not the only way that Christian “fellowship” is portrayed in the Bible. Particularly, Paul uses the word koinonia in the epistle to the Philippians in a different sense. In chapter 4 he twice mentions how the church at Philippi “shared” (same Greek word) with him. In verse 14 he says that they shared, or had fellowship/koinonia in his afflictions. Note that this does not mean that they suffered the same pain, but that by giving to his mission they had a partnership with him. Whichever way we read it, however, we still see that “fellowship” reaches further than just being fellow Christians. Then verse 15 is more clear, saying that their fellowship regarded “giving and receiving.”
In addition to these, there are several places outside of Philippians where koinonia is used to describe financial support (Rom. 12:13; 15:26; Gal. 6:6; 2 Cor. 8:4; 9:13; Heb. 13:16). If this use of the word “fellowship” seems odd, consider that some of the above verses speak of sharing. Common beliefs are not the only thing Christians share, but we lay down our possessions to help one another as well.
Now it may very well be objected here, “Sure, fellowship can refer to giving money, but the context has to specify that it is goods that are being shared. Here in Philippians 1:5, however, the gospel is what their fellowship involves.” That is a good observation. However, several commentators (i.e. Melick, Banker, Lightfoot, Motyer) see additional significance in the preposition eis, or “unto/towards” the gospel. They see this as signifying furtherance (RSV) or progress of the gospel message, and mainly their financial support of Paul’s mission, which is the main theme of the letter.
We also cannot miss the parallel between “from the first day until now” in verse 5 and “began…will complete it” in verse 6. Clearly these must be referring to the same thing. The meaning in both is that right from the very formation of the church they were one that sought to financially bless Paul’s missionary efforts. This is stressed later on in the epistle. We see in 4:15 that the Philippian church supported Paul financially when he was in Thessalonica. Following the timeline of Acts, this was the very next city Paul visited!1 Note further how he calls this the “first preaching,” or another way of putting it is, the “beginning of” preaching, which must parallel the terminology of 1:5-6.2
What “grace” did the Philippians “partake of” with Paul (1:7)?
Just as in verse 5, here we have a phrase that at first glance seems to be talking about salvation. Paul says that the Philippians are “partakers of grace with me.” If one says they partake of grace, they could very well mean that by personal faith in the Lord Jesus they have received the gift of salvation (God’s grace). However, once again a closer look will show that Paul has something else in mind, which again will shine light on our interpretation of verse 6.
Commentators see significance that there is an article here (“the grace”), which is absent in English translations. The presence of the definite article, they say, shows that a specific grace is meant instead of grace in general. What then is this grace? It is helpful to see that another possible way to translate this phrase is “partakers of my grace.” In that case, it is not so much grace that both Paul and the Philippians partake of in the same sense, but that this is specifically Paul’s grace. And so, examining his other epistles we find that Paul frequently uses the term “grace” to mean his apostolic ministry.3 Silva lists Rom. 1:5; 12:13; 15:15; 1 Cor. 3:10; Gal. 2:9; Eph. 3:2, 7, 8.
Beyond this, a look at the rest of the sentence shines light on how they “participate in grace.” Apostolic ministry was clearly in Paul’s mind, for his imprisonment and (courtroom) trials4 are mentioned. Paul says that he feels confident5 of the Philippians because they were partakes of grace while he was in prison and in court. Is he simply saying he’s grateful that they were Christians while he was in prison? Is it not more likely that his emotions relate to how they supported him during those times, especially considering that this is the whole occasion for writing this letter?
Conclusion: the “good work” is the Philippians’ generosity
In sum, although commonly taken as a proof text for eternal security, Philippians 1:6 is not actually talking about God finishing the work He starts in salvation. Rather, the surrounding context, and the purpose and occasion of the letter itself shows that Paul instead had the Philippians’ generosity and support of his apostolic ministry in mind. Paul saw that the church was persistent in giving toward missions. This went way back to day one (“began”), when they supported Paul financially while he preaching in the very next town. This same church was willing to give on other occasions, even out of their poverty (2 Cor. 8). Seeing this consistent passion in them for seeing the gospel of Jesus preached, Paul had confidence that the God who stirred up their hearts in the first place will keep the ball rolling so long as the church exists.
1 Consider also 2 Corinthians 11:9, that the churches of Macedonia, which would include Philippi, supported Paul while he first preached to the Corinthians as well. Again, looking in Acts, this was not that long after the Philippian church began.
2 For how odd this take on the passage may have seemed to many of you, note that I am not making up anything new. In fact, it may surprise most of you to hear that the majority view is that “fellowship of the gospel” refers to the Philippians’ financial support of Paul’s mission. This view is held even by those who see eternal security in verse 6. The only commentary I examined while teaching through Philippians that holds that the fellowship here is salvation and nothing more is Calvin’s. Hawthorne, Hellerman, Silva, Lightfoot, and Melick see it as financial support. Muller and Wuest see it primarily as salvation, but broaden it to financial support as well.
3 Again, this is nothing new, but is rather the majority view among commentators. Hawthorne, Banker, Melick, Thielman, Hellerman, and Silva all see this as a reference to his apostolic ministry.
4 “Defense” and “confirmation” are apologia and bebaosis, two legal terms, like making a case in a courtroom. They are used in this sense in Acts 22:1; 25:16; 26:29; 1 Cor. 9:3; Cor. 7:11; 2 Tim. 4:16; Heb. 6:16. Although they can be used for supporting arguments for the faith in general (like apologetics, see Rom. 15:8; 1 Cor. 9:3; 2 Cor. 12:19; Heb. 2:2; 1 Pet. 3:15), clearly the courtroom setting is meant because of its connection with imprisonment (“both…and”), that the two courtroom terms are used together, and Paul’s life situation at the time of writing.
5 The “feel this way” most likely points back to verse 6 just before, although some commentators take it all the way back to the thanksgiving and joy of verse 3-4.