The Holy Spirit: The Holy Spirit in Philippians

Of all the churches planted by the apostle Paul, the relationship he held with the assembly at Philippi seems to be unique. This distinctiveness is reflected in the cordial tone of his letter to them. There is a warmth of affection, a geniality of expression, and a pastoral care which are unparalleled. The concern is mutual. On the one side, there is the author’s for the readers, and on the other, the readers’ for him. He, at the time of writing, is in prison. They are in persecution. They have other problems as well, not the least being internal friction. His confinement, in various locations, has now been running for the greater part of four years. There is great need on both sides, but where can the resources be found which will enable both writer and reader to cope with the overwhelming circumstances surrounding each? Part of the answer to that question lies in the ministry of the Holy Spirit.


It is in the context of Paul’s own suffering that we have the first reference to the Holy Spirit in Philippians. Here is a man whose liberty has been curtailed. The contours of his ministry have been greatly altered by the circumstances of the recent years. Every time he moves, the rattle of the chain on his wrist reminds him of his captivity. Not all, however, are sympathetic to his situation acting in a way which they hope will “add affliction to his bonds.” In the midst of all this we have a man rejoicing and confident. He does not become depressed, introverted, and frustrated. To succumb to such attitudes would be normal, given the situation, but this man is different. To what does he ascribe the credit for his deliverance from such negative reactions? Here is his answer in v 19: “My salvation through your prayers and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.” This “salvation” is not to be perceived as deliverance from captivity. Actually, he still considers death a possibility. This is a special preservation from those Christ-dishonoring attitudes which can often be displayed by those undergoing situations of stress and suffering. But how can this man bear up? Where does his secret lie? He is being sustained by the supplication of the saints and the ongoing supply of the “Spirit of Jesus Christ.” The resources required by one in such circumstances as Paul’s can only be supplied by a divine person. Indeed, the exact title, “Spirit of Jesus Christ” is unique to this passage. It may well be that the apostle indicates the very same Spirit who operated in the ministry of One Who was known as Jesus in humiliation but who is now the exalted Christ, is the Spirit available for the support of those who are now suffering for Christ’s sake. In Galatians 3:5, using a verb related to the noun here, God is described as, “He that supplieth the Spirit” (RV). This word “supply” in both passages indicates a liberal endowment, and the supply once given is never withdrawn. The superiority to the crushing and cramping circumstances of Paul’s service is not attributed to a rigid, stiff upper lip determination. Neither is it an unfeeling stoical resolve. This is not natural bravery, but the supernatural supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Such divine help will enable Paul to achieve his unwavering ambition to “magnify Christ in his body, whether by life or by death.”


With the second reference to the Holy Spirit in this letter, the apostle has turned from his own difficulties to those of the Philippian assembly. As well as the problem of persecution without, there is dissension within. The apostle is appealing for their unity. If unity is to exist, there must also be humility since pride and partisanship go together. He has already called for their oneness in gospel testimony inch 1:27 and now he prefaces his passionate fourfold appeal for this solidarity in ch 2:2 by a fourfold reminder of their Christian experience in 2:1. As believers, they have enjoyed “consolation in Christ, comfort of love, fellowship of the Spirit, and bowels and mercies.” Given four such compelling encouragements, could the Philippians possibly resist the apostle’s request for their “oneness of mind and Spirit?” One of their common blessings has been “fellowship of the Spirit,” an expression occurring elsewhere in the NT only at 2 Cor 13:14. But what exactly does this mean? The alternatives are broadly two. Firstly, it may well refer to that communion of saints which has been produced by the Holy Spirit. There is no fellowship so sweet and sublime as this, and certainly this “fellowship on earth begun” is in itself a strong argument for the practical harmony of saints. Alternatively, the word “fellowship” can be understood in its very normal meaning of “common share.” In this case, the expression comes to indicate the participation which all believers have in the Holy Spirit. Such a deep and rich mutual involvement on the part of the saints in this divine person is surely a strong incentive to their harmony. Either understanding of the expression is effective in the present context, but the latter probably best fits the demands of language. Saints are expected to live in unity, despite differing temperaments, abilities, and personalities because they share the indwelling and energy of the same Holy Spirit.


The third reference to the Holy Spirit in this letter presents a context quite different from the other two. Here in ch 3:3, it is a question of Christian identity. Even in Paul’s day, different “brands” of Christianity had been invented. One of the most vigorous and competitive of these was the one propagated by the Judaizing school. For them, complete Christianity was a mixture of Christ, law, and, predominantly, circumcision. This substitute message belonged to those whom Paul, with biting irony, calls “dogs, and concision” in ch 3:2. If he rejects these, what then were the hallmarks of true religion? This definition comes in three parts. “We are the circumcision, which worship God in the Spirit.” The reference to the Holy Spirit in this clause is not immediately apparent in the common version, but as given in the RV or JND this becomes clear. Both these authorities have: “Who worship by the Spirit of God.” This phrase is employed by the apostle as a corrective to some who desired to impose carnal regulations such as physical circumcision upon the believers. Our distinguishing feature is not a mark “in the flesh” as circumcision was but, the apostle asserts, is a service rendered only “in the Spirit.” Our dependence upon His energy is coupled with a renunciation of all that belongs to the flesh and is accompanied by a singular confidence in Christ alone. These are the badges of genuine faith. Some today who make much of class, status, pedigree, education, and liturgy as an important part of Christian service would do well to reconsider Paul’s definition of “in the Spirit” service to God.

For all their brevity, one is impressed with the comprehensiveness of these few references to the Holy Spirit in Philippians. He is presented as the distinguishing mark of true service; as the uniting bond in the communion of saints and as the supplier of the necessary equipment for the changing scenes of life. May our hearts be filled with an increasing appreciation of His significance and our lives with an increasing degree of His power, so that our souls may be thrilled with the fullness of “Philippian” joy.