Themes in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: Koinonia

Over the next few weeks we are going to be going through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. As you probably know Philippians is a very personal letter, it almost has the tone of an encouraging chat between two friends. Nevertheless this letter does have a point, there are reasons why Paul wrote this letter (its not that he was bored in prison and hand nothing better to do than write a letter). First Paul wanted to give them an update about how he is doing. Second he wanted to inform them about Epaphroditus. Third he wanted to express his thanks to the Philippians for their financial gift.

Over the next few weeks I want to highlight some prominent themes in this letter. Instead of focusing too much any specific verse each week I am going to focus on one important theme found in each of these chapters. Two major themes we will be talking about throughout these next few weeks are “rejoicing” and “fellowship” (koinonia). This week we will look at “koinonia,” hopefully it will spark some discussion.

Paul opens up the letter to the Philippians by praying a prayer of thanksgiving and joy because of the Philippians “partnership” in the gospel from the first day until now (1:5). However the word that Paul uses for partnership is a lot stronger than the way we often use “partnership.”

In Philippians 1:5 Paul uses the word koinonia; this word basically means “participation in something with someone.” It connotes “oneness.”

(I know that is kind of vague, but the word has a very wide range of meaning.) Usually this word gets translated as “fellowship.” Honestly I think using the word “fellowship” is a horrible translation, so I’m glad the ESV translated it as “partnership.” The word “partnership” connotes that you partner up in something with someone else. This is quite unlike our usual use of the word “fellowship.” The way we often use “fellowship” is very watered down. We use the word fellowship to denote all sorts of things, whether it be hanging out after church, having our “social” at our small group, or playing board games with our Christian friends (or maybe even having a church potluck!).

This sort of “fellowship” is certainly not what Paul had in mind!  

Paul has in mind something a lot more weighty than this. In using the word koinonia he is bringing to his reader’s minds a sort of “oneness” together in the gospel. This is the same word that Paul will later use with reference to the Holy Spirit and to the sufferings of Christ. There is a sort of insoluble bond, a “oneness” we Christians experience together with the Holy Spirit. There is a sort of union, or “oneness”, we experience with Christ when on mission with Him. This is the same sort of “oneness” that Paul has with the Philippians. The “oneness” between Paul and the Philippians has served to advance the gospel. This “oneness” that has advanced the gospel has come primarily through financial gifts on behalf of the Philippians.

The fact that Paul and the Philippians experience koinonia (or “oneness”) in the advancement of the gospel should force us to ask ourselves some questions:

  • How does our koinonia with other Christians serve to advance the gospel? (John 17:20-23)
  • What does this passage say about how important it is to financially support the advancement of the gospel? It almost seems like there is an equal partnership between the one who preaches and the ones who support the one who preaches.

So as you think Philippians 1 here are some questions you might want to discuss:

  1. If koinonia is so important for the advancement of the Gospel how are you experiencing koinonia (oneness) with other Christians?
  2. Why is our koinonia such an important asset for mission?
  3. Are you experiencing koinonia with anybody who is on the mission field (whether financially or in some other way)? How could you grow in this area?

Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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