The word Euangelion (good news or gospel) is used more times proportionally in the book of Philippians than any of Paul’s other letters. While the essential definition of euangelion doesn’t change throughout Paul’s writings, the implications of the good news/gospel vary letter to letter. Here are four things we learn about the gospel especially from Philippians:
First, the gospel is living. The gospel is not a simple fact that can be toted around in a back pocket. No, the gospel demands life change – it is itself living. In 1:27, Paul writes: “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…” The gospel doesn’t simply demand intellectual assent, but a radical reshaping of life. Once the gospel is believed, one literally becomes a politeis– a citizen – of the gospel. This relationship is profound; the benefits of the gospel (2:1) are likened to Christ’s very mind poured into us. Thus, Paul is able to say in 2:5: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” One might say the gospel itself is living, for in Pauls’ opening lines he thanks God for the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel, and continues: “…he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” What is the work of God? It is the gospel; the living message of God that began with Paul’s initial proclamation and will continue until its completion. This sets the stage for chapter two, where Paul weaves between the dramatic dogma of Christ’s incarnation and the behavior of its citizens.
Secondly, the gospel is a proposition. This is abundantly clear in Paul’s writing to the Philippians. Twice, in 1:7 and 1:16, Paul uses the term apoloyia – “answer” or “defense” – to describe his activity concerning the gospel. He is answering objections, defending a proposition. He is confirming the gospel to those whom he preached. The gospel is a thesis, or a word (1:14); it is a matter that must be confirmed. It is a controversial proposition, in fact, for in 1:27 Paul encourages the Philippians to stand fast against the opponents of the gospel. What then, is the proposition? While the thrust of Philippians doesn’t define the gospel explicitly, it clearly states that the gospel is good news (the definition of euangelion itself) concerning Christ. In 1:12 Paul’s preaching of the gospel has caused him to be imprisoned for Christ; in 1:15 “proclaiming Christ” is considered synonymous with “preaching the gospel” in 1:16; in 1:27 the gospel is the “good news of Christ”. The gospel, then, is not simply an injunction for moral reform or life change. Rather, it is a living word or proposition concerning Christ that reshapes all of life.
Thirdly, the gospel demands to be spread. The gospel cannot sit still; it cannot be idle. It must penetrate everything. In 1:12 Paul encourages the Philippians that through his imprisonment, the gospel has spread throughout the region. He delights that Christ is being “proclaimed”, even through false motives (1:15-18)! Such interest in the proclamation of the gospel indicates that Paul was zealous for this living word about Christ to advance throughout the world. This zeal causes Paul to view the gospel as a weighty responsibility. It causes believers to labor and struggle together (4:3); mission is the very proof of gospel-legitimacy, for Timothy has proven himself by serving with Paul in the ministry of the gospel (2:22). Labor, work, striving and partnership are all part of what it means to be a responsible citizen of the gospel.
Finally, the gospel demands unity. Three times Paul associates some form of koineneia (fellowship or communion) or sunamai (partnership) with the gospel. The Philippians are “partnering” with Paul financially in 1:5, “sharing” or being “fellow partakers” of God’s grace in 1:7, or Timothy’s partnership in service in 4:3. Paul goes on to define the living as citizens of the gospel as living with “one mind” and being of “one spirit” as they strive side by side for the faith of the gospel, and make their own defense against its opponents (1:27-28). These two verses are the climax of Paul’s argument – because the living word of Christ has come to you, it demands your labor to advance it; therefore, be unified that the gospel might increase.
We know that the book of Philippians is geared to some of Paul’s most mature converts. This tells us something: Paul sees the pinnacle of Christian maturity climaxing in unified mission. This lines up well with the climax of Jesus’ beatitudes, which end with two blessings to those who are hated and persecuted for the sake of “my name”. Just before this is Jesus’ injunction to be peacemakers. The gospel cannot spread without peacemaking, but peacemaking cannot occur without a deep, penetrating understanding of the good news of Jesus Christ.