Passage – Philippians 4:10-23
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. 15 And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. 16 Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. 18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.
21 Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. 22 All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.
23 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Do you ever have that friend who calls and then 45 minutes later transitions the conversation with, “Now, for the reason I called…” Well, Paul is that friend. We’ve traversed 4.5 chapters of introduction for Paul to finally get to the point of this letter. Whether you realize it or not, you’ve been studying a thank you letter.
The Philippian church sent Paul a gift to care for his needs while he was in prison. In this letter, Paul is going to model how to respond to the generosity of others in a way that cultivates spiritual growth in your soul and theirs. To do this, Paul weaves together the themes of gratitude and contentment, two virtues that travel together and have a highly symbiotic relationship with each other.
Contentment and Free Generosity (v. 10-13)
Paul starts his thank you by focusing on the Philippians concern, not the gift itself. Paul is more encouraged by the love represented in the Philippians gift than the groceries he could buy with their money. This is an easy thing for many of us to miss. A mark of relational maturity is when we see the “I love you” behind the “you got me…”
Next, Paul clarifies that he would have been okay without their gift. This isn’t an overly assertive “you shouldn’t have” response, nor is it something we need to mimic in our response to every gift. Paul was in a difficult situation – prison. Paul was in a unique role – pastor. Based on these two things, it would be easy for the direness of Paul’s situation to begin to compel guilt-based giving from the Philippians. That wouldn’t be healthy for their soul, so Paul speaks to it.
The reason Paul was not desperate was that he had learned to be content. Contentment is when our sense of rest in God’s care doesn’t fluctuate with the ups and downs of our circumstances. Contentment is when we don’t feel “on top of the world” when things are good and “abandoned by everybody, including God” when things are hard.
To illustrate this, Paul cites examples of these kinds of ups and downs he’s been through. The Philippians know Paul well enough to put stories from Paul’s life with these brief examples. The pivotal phrase of this paragraph is, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (v. 11). This contentment allowed Paul to be grateful for their gift without being needy in a way that would have compelled the Philippians to give beyond their means.
To extend this point on contentment, Paul says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (v. 13). In context, this verse doesn’t mean every middle school playground warrior can become an NFL quarterback. It means, in Christ’s strength, every Christian can be content in any circumstance. That’s actually more powerful. Because even NFL quarterbacks retire and must find contentment when they’re no longer famous and not at their physical apex anymore.
Following the flow of this passage should challenge us to want to grow in contentment, not just feel guilty when we’re discontent. Here are questions to help you make that assessment.
- Do view contentment as something to pursue, not just discontentment as something to avoid?
- Do I cultivate contentment in good times, so that it protects my souls in hard times?
- When I see contentment in a friend, coworker, or family member, do I verbally affirm it?
- Do I intentionally make choices of moderation to strengthen my “contentment muscles”?
- In hard times, do I pray for contentment as much as the removal of the hardship?
If we valued what Paul said a relationship with Jesus Christ creates within us, our answer to each question would be, “Yes.”
But we don’t exhibit contentment by succumbing to the opposite extreme. Notice Paul did not decline the Philippians’ gift to revel in his hardship. Paul was content until God provided, and then grateful once God provided. That’s the character God wants to cultivate in us.Paul was content until God provided, and then grateful once God provided. That’s the character God wants to cultivate in us. Click To Tweet
Gratitude and God’s Provision (v. 14-20)
Contentment sets up gratitude. Blessings received where contentment is absent get lost in a sense of entitlement. We see the implications of this connection modeled in how Paul spoke of his lack of support from other churches. He wasn’t bitter. He wasn’t critical. He was simply grateful for the Philippians support.
Put yourself in Paul’s shoes. You go on several church planting trips, each lasting 2-3 years. You face many hardships. You are eventually imprisoned for your work. You’re in prison and can’t be a bi-vocational tent maker anymore (how Paul typically supported himself on these trips). Then only one of the churches you planted sends financial support. Where’s your focus, upset with the many or grateful for the one?
Remarkably, Paul’s focus was on nurturing the faith of those who were supporting him. That is the power of contentment. It fosters gratitude and allows us to respond in healthy ways to those who are good to us without being distracted by those who are not. Contentment protects our mindset in hard times, so we can be fully present with and grateful towards those who are generous with us.
Notice that contentment allows Paul’s standard to remain at, “Do I have what I need?” In response to their gift, he can say, “I am well supplied” (v. 18). In a Roman prison context, that likely means adequately fed and adequately clothed. Reflect on all that Paul taught in this letter and realize these are the conditions in which he wrote these things.
Paul affirms the Philippians’ gift as, “A fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God,” (v. 18) and then promises, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (v. 19). But that promise should resonate with us differently as we consider this context. There is nothing extravagant being promised. Simply that God will supply what we need.
When we read this letter from a culture of affluence, we are prone to focus on the “riches in glory” and mentally equate what God is committing to provide accordingly. In its original context, the recipients of this letter would have been thinking of fledging churches across the Roman empire facing persecution. God’s “riches in glory” would be needed to meet these new believers’ base needs.
Seeing this helps us not read our circumstances on to this passage but begin to interpret God’s promises from this passage for our circumstances. God’s promise is to always give us what we need to be content (i.e., emotionally free from desperation or bitterness). A primary fruit of this contentment is the ability to respond to generosity – God’s grace or the kindness of others – with genuine, healthy gratitude. That is the freedom the gospel brings and it’s amazing!
Anonymous Greetings and Encouragement (v. 21-23)
It is easy to quick read the final words of a letter like this. After all, it comes across as, “Tell everyone I said hi.” There doesn’t seem to be much soul nourishment from that. But there’s a covert message embedded in Paul’s final words.
When Paul speaks of the brothers with him, he is talking about those who came to faith in his prison Bible study. Paul is saying, “Your gift to me, even in prison, is still supporting my church planting efforts. They can put me in prison, but they can’t stop me from living on mission.” You can imagine how the Philippians would have smiled at this. It was quintessential Paul, and the a representation of how Christians are to respond to persecution.
But there’s more. Paul says, “Especially those of Caesar’s household” (v. 22). To those who were facing Roman prosecution, this would have been a big deal. This is more than a “conversions of the rich and famous” story. It is a seed of hope; some of those who were persecuting us are starting to realize who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and placing their faith in him. That means things may not always be this bad.
For a counseling commentary, it is worth noting what Paul didn’t say. Paul didn’t say the names of these high-ranking new converts. Even though it would have made his encouragement more concrete, it would have also put these new believers in danger. Paul moderated what he shared based on what was best for the person he was sharing about. Paul didn’t let the “good of the flock” come before the “good of the sheep.” Paul limited what he said in public ministry to honor those with whom he was in personal ministry.
In counseling, this is called honoring confidentiality. Sharing what you learn about someone in a formal helping relationship without permission is harmful to them. It is more (not less) than gossip. It is breaching confidentiality. Like Paul, we should honor those with whom we are in personal ministry.
Is this the main point of Paul’s conclusion to Philippians? No. Is it an accurate observation and application to those involved in counseling ministries? Absolutely. Since our journey through Philippians has been with an eye towards the ministry of counseling, this seems like a fitting conclusion to our study.
- What’s the best (most meaningful) gift you’ve ever received?
- What are the awkward ways you see people respond to the generosity of others?
- What are the best responses of gratitude you’ve seen, responses that convey appreciation and cultivate a greater desire to be generous in the giver?
- Before this study, where would you have ranked contentment on your list of top 10 virtues?
- What are the ways that you seek to cultivate contentment in your life and those you care about?
- In your own words, describe the relationship between contentment and gratitude.
- How well do you embody this description of Paul, “Paul was content until God provided, and then grateful once God provided”?
- How would you define the way the word “need” is used in verse 19?
- Given the type of helping relationships you most frequently engaged (i.e., friendship, mentoring, formal lay counseling), what does it look like for you to honor confidentiality?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.