Perhaps you’ve heard that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6). Perhaps this promise has encouraged you to press on in the Christian life, maturing and becoming more like Jesus day by day. And while this could certainly be part of Paul’s intended meaning in this verse, perhaps there is something more in the context we tend to miss.
Context matters. When we learn to read the Bible properly—and not merely as a collection of quotable quotes or personal promises—we’ll find that some of our most familiar sayings have more to say than we typically assume.
The popular usage of this verse—to refer to an individual’s sanctification between now and the day of judgment—can certainly be supported from the context.
Paul follows up the promise in verse 6 with a defense of how he feels toward the Philippians (Phil 1:7). He then prays for their love to abound, with knowledge and all discernment (Phil 1:9). He wants them to approve what is excellent (Phil 1:10a). And he wants them to be pure and blameless for the day of Christ (Phil 1:10b), filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ (Phil 1:11).
So with the repetition of “day of (Jesus) Christ,” the explanation of his affection, and the clarification of each person’s purity and righteousness—the popular use of this verse to refer to individual sanctification fits. So much, so good.
But look at what else we find in the surrounding context.
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you…because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.”Phil 1:3-5
The sentence immediately preceding the promise of verse 6 is Paul’s expression of prayerful thanks for the Philippians’ financial partnership in his gospel ministry. Paul will return to this thanksgiving in chapter 4. In fact, he likely asks them to stop giving, since he knows they can’t really afford it (“Not that I seek the gift itself…” Phil 4:17).
In short, we see that the letter of Philippians is, at its heart, a thank-you letter from a missionary to members of his support team. And in that light, it is altogether possible that when Paul wrote of the “good work,” begun “in you,” and “brought to completion at the day of Christ,” he was speaking of this gospel partnership. God’s good work among you, Philippians, includes this outrageous generosity, which has borne much fruit in Paul’s labors around the world.
And it will be brought to completion when the final harvest is reaped on the last day, when Jesus returns to judge. The gospel will go forth, and the good work of God will be completed when the redeemed have been gathered in.
We Don’t Have to Pick One
I don’t think we can or should nail down exactly one thing that Paul meant by the “good work.” He certainly has their financial partnership in mind. But then he also immediately moves into their personal sanctification (of which their financial partnership is but one expression).
So I’m not arguing that Phil 1:6 is not about personal sanctification. I only want to add that, when we see how their communal partnership is also in view, we see personal sanctification tangibly demonstrated in the community. In this way, Phil 1:6 is similar to 3 John 8, which describes financial support of missionaries in partnership language, and as an expression of walking in the truth (3 John 4).