And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight . . .
– PHILIPPIANS 1:9
When writing a letter, we tend to follow certain formats or conventions. We start by identifying the recipient (e.g., Dear Jane). We then write the body of the letter. Finally, the letter concludes with a polite closing that identifies the writer (e.g., Sincerely, Joe). These conventions vary somewhat depending on the specific type of letter, but they tend to follow a general guide. One of the first and most important things we should notice about the book of Philippians is that it is a letter. When the apostle Paul composed this letter, he followed some of the standard conventions used in his culture – the Greco-Roman culture.
This is especially clear in the opening section of Philippians (Philippians 1:1-11). Paul begins this letter by identifying himself as the writer (Philippians 1:1). Then he identifies Philippian Christians as his intended recipients (Philippians 1:1). He follows this with a greeting (Philippians 1:2). Finally, he ends his introduction with a note of thanks and prayer (Philippians 1:3-11). This was the standard way that letters were written in Paul’s culture.
While Paul was guided by ancient letter-writing conventions, he also felt the freedom to transform some of these conventions to make powerful points. For example, in this and other letters, Paul created a wordplay on the standard Greek greeting charein (“Greetings”). He did this by substituting it with a theologically profound phrase containing the same letters: charis kai eirene (“Grace and peace”). Paul often greeted people this way because he wanted to express more than a simple “hello.” He wanted his readers to experience the grace and peace of God that had radically transformed his own life.
Another way Paul’s letter to the Philippians differed from the conventions of his day is found in the note of thanks and prayer included in verses 3-11. In other Greco-Roman letters, this section usually included a prayer for the health or wealth of the recipients. Paul made no such prayer for the Philippians. Instead, he prayed that their “love may abound more and more” (Philippians 1:9). Paul prayed this, not because he didn’t care about the physical well-being of his Philippian readers, but because he understood from personal experience that allegiance to Christ did not always lead to better physical circumstances (Philippians 1:7, 12-14; 3:10; 4:11-12). What was more important was that these Christians maintained a spirit of love, no matter what situation they found themselves in. This is a prayer that we would do well to make our own. Imagine what our churches would look like if our prayers became less about improving our physical circumstances and more about expanding our capacity to love.
1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:
2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
THANKSGIVING AND PRAYER
3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.