The Church at Philippi in Asia Minor is often said to have been Paul’s favorite congregation. It is not that he did not love all those with whom he worked, of course, but his letter to the Philippians shows a special affection for them and their dedication to the work of God.
As he begins his epistle Paul states how he gives continual thanks for the Philippians because of their “partnership in the gospel” (vs. 5), but then he continues the thought by saying that their work in the gospel gave him great confidence that God would complete his work of transformation in them.
This is a vital thought in Paul’s theology. He is not saying, of course, that because of the Philippians’ good deeds God will complete his work in them – we have all of Paul’s letters to show that this could not be what he meant. So what exactly did Paul mean?
When we read the epistle to Philippi in its entirety, it is clear that Paul was stressing his certainty that because of their dedication to the work of God and the love that showed, the Philippians would naturally be living in such a way that God would be able to fulfill his purpose in them as individuals. Look at what Paul tells us a few verses later in the first chapter:
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11).
Here, if we need to see it, we find clear expression of the fact that Paul is not talking about the Philippians' own works of righteousness. He specifically states that what they are doing is a result of their being “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (vs. 10b). But Paul makes it equally clear that they will be filled with this fruit of righteousness as they continue to grow in love (vss. 9, 11).
Putting all these verses together, we see that Paul equates the Philippians’ love with their partnership in the Gospel – their selfless dedication to the salvation of others. He shows (in verses 6 and 10) that that the expression of that love through God’s work will lead to their own growth.
If this seems in any way like complex theology, its principle is profoundly simple: the more we concentrate on the welfare and development of others, the more God can and will develop us personally. It is a simple truth that the way to maximum spiritual transformation and growth is often not through self-focused spiritual exercise, but through the other-focused work of love that we are called to do.