I recently gave my middle school students an assignment to write an imaginary letter recommending a character in the novel they’d just read for a medal of honor. I explained I wanted this to be a business letter, not a friendly letter, and I provided a template for them to follow. You’re probably familiar with those trusty templates from when you were in school! Imagine my surprise when I learned some two millennia ago in the Greco-Roman world, two letter-writing manuals were penned under the pseudonyms of Demetrius and Libanius. They had more templates to choose from in those days; Demetrius’ manual lists and illustrates twenty-one different types of letters! The first on his list was “the friendly type,” and a variation of this was the “letter of moral exhortation.” Paul’s letter to the Philippians seems to be a mixture of these two.
The Greco-Roman world emphasized reciprocity in friendship, and this emphasis can be seen throughout the letter to the Philippians. While Paul’s letter follows many of the common letter-writing conventions of his day, his content is far from common, as Gordon Fee states, “For in Paul’s hands everything turns into gospel, including both the formal and the material aspects of such a letter. Most significant, friendship in particular is radically transformed from a two-way to a three-way bond between him, the Philippians and Christ. And obviously it is Christ who is the center and focus of everything. Paul’s and their friendship is predicated on their mutual participation/partnership in the gospel.” (Philippians, p. 21)
So what exactly is gospel partnership? The word partnership in the Greek is koinonia. We often see this word translated as “fellowship.” Our modern conception of “fellowship” tends towards socializing with those with whom we share something in common. As C.S. Lewis said in Four Loves, friendships are discovered when you say, “What, you too? I thought I was the only one!” We often categorize our friendships based on commonality — church friends, Bible study friends, work friends, gym friends, school friends, neighborhood friends, Facebook friends. But, as Tony Merida states, “Gospel friendships are much deeper because there is a ‘you too?!’ that’s radically deeper. We share in a common Savior, are united by the same Spirit, and are headed for glory together” (Exalting Jesus in Philippians, p. 24). Gospel partnerships don’t just share a deeper commonality; they share a mission. In gospel friendship, we are participating together in something way bigger – we are partnered together in the spread of the gospel.
“We share in the common mission of making the gospel known to the world. Through Christ, we are friends and coworkers with other believers. It’s one thing to have gospel-centered friendships, but it’s another to have coworkers on mission. If you get both, friendships and co-laborers, then you can enjoy what many never experience…Paul says that in the fellowship of the gospel, we recognize our differences, but we celebrate our unity in Jesus and commit to give ourselves for the mission of making the gospel known. If you have partners in the gospel, you should celebrate!” (Tony Merida, Exalting Jesus in Philippians, p. 26).
As we study Paul’s letter to the Philippians together this spring, our prayer is that we would grow in our friendships with one another as we are renewed in our mission to share the Good News of Jesus with a world in desperate need of his mercy and grace.