Hortatory Letter of Friendship
While studying and reading to write this Meditation for Preparation, I came across a commentary on Philippians by Dr. Gordon Fee. His commentary begins by making the argument that the letter to the Philippians is a “Hortatory Letter of Friendship.” If you are like me, “hortatory” isn’t a word that is in your everyday correspondence. Hortatory can be understood as exhorting or encouraging as well as edifying, advising, and instructing. This struck me in an illuminating way. Why? Because, when studying Philippians 2:12-18, my legalistic, rule follower, to-do list, type “A” personality can view verses such as these as another list to add to my daily agenda. I might think of it as something I need to achieve and accomplish, and if I can accomplish it, that means I can also fail at it. Yet, my view changes when I think of this as an admonishment from a caring mentor and friend whose concern isn’t the reader’s ability to achieve. Their concern is the depth of understanding of the love of Christ and how that shapes the very essence of their lives.
Philippians is a letter of deep friendship. That is evident in 1:7 when Paul writes, “I have you in my heart.” Multiple times throughout the letter he refers to the Philippians as his brothers and sisters. In 4:1 he calls them “my dearly loved and longed for brothers and sisters, my joy and crown.” This section(vs. 12-18) even begins with this term of endearment: “my beloved.” The love Paul has isn’t satisfied with sentimentality though. It goes further as it pours over into his concern for their souls.
This concern is seen in the fact that verse 12 begins with the word “therefore.” This word suggests he is pointing backwards. Backwards to what? Back to this truth: Jesus Christ himself is our ultimate example. He is our example of humility, selflessness, and obedience. His exaltation and Lordship is the hope that must frame our thoughts as we read this “moral exhortation” portion. For, as Dr. Fee says, “in Paul’s hands everything turns into gospel.”
Verse 12-18 can be viewed as the application of the lesson and example of Christ that Paul has just laid out in verses 6-11. When instructed to obey, Christ obeyed to the point of death. Paul instructs us to “do everything without grumbling and arguing.” In 1:7 we are told that Jesus the Son of God “emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity.” He lowered himself, and He did it with joy and love. Paul’s concern is that the church will grow in its Christlikeness, and by being more Christ-like, the church will bring glory to God the Father. This to-do list isn’t about what can be achieved; it’s about who we serve.
In these particular verses, it can be easy to look for our own accomplishments. After all, verse 12 does say, “work out your own salvation.” To read this as a call to accomplish it in our own strength, we must stop right there and most certainly not read verse 13; “for it is God who works in you.” We are called to act and submit. We can only bring God glory if we are following Him and trusting Him to work in us to do such a task.
In addition, what if we took the idea of “fear and trembling” and flipped it on its head? Michael Reeves has written a book titled Rejoice and Tremble:The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord. In it he points to the beauty and joy that is had in fearing the Lord. Consider his words in relation to verse 12:
Our desire for God and delight in him are not intended to be lukewarm. As our love for God is a trembling and wonder-filled-yes, fearful- joy. For the object of our joy is so overwhelmingly and fearfully wonderful. We are made to rejoice and tremble before God, to love and enjoy him with an intensity fitting for him. … Normally our joy in God is cold and tarnished, but as we work out our salvation “with fear and trembling,” we become ever more fearfully happy, like our God.
As we continue to dive into the depths of Philippians, I hope we hold tight to these ideas. Cling to the idea that a mentor lovingly wrote to his congregation to encourage them as they faced opposition to their faith. Be encouraged that he admonished them, not because they were failing, but because he loved them enough to be concerned about how they lived their lives that were bought by the blood of Christ.
Just as Paul urged the Philippians to do, may we also understand that the depth of love which the Lord has shown us should make us fear and tremble in the best of ways–like a groom awaiting his bride. The groom is blown away by the bride’s beauty and the life that lies ahead. He is not naive to the responsibility he is about to commit his life to. The joy that lies ahead of him makes him fear and tremble. The life we have in Christ should lead us to do the same, but we must take the time to recognize how we have been blessed and loved. Christ has given us Himself; God has given us His Son; the Spirit gives us teaching and comfort.
What will we do with these verses? Will we pick them apart for our own sense of achievement? Will we look to Christ to be our example and our Savior when we stumble? Will we openly ask the Lord what He for us and trust Him to continue the work He has started for “his good purpose”? What do you think of Michael Reeves’ idea of “fear and trembling”?
- Gordon Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Revised: New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT)
- Michael Reeves, Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord