Koinonia and Coredemption in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians

Updated: May 30



The search for an adequate theology of coredemption as a foundation for the development of mariological dogma must, sooner or later, arrive at the question of whether coredemption is found in Sacred Scripture. And no biblical theology can leave out a detailed consideration of the most important author in the New Testament canon, St. Paul of Tarsus. Pauline theology has been the foundation of so many, maybe most, doctrinal developments in the history of the Church. And still today, Paul’s epistles are a disputed territory in matters of ecumenical dialogue. A full study of coredemption in the Pauline corpus would be a monumental task, but such an investigation holds out the promise of establishing a solid exegetical foundation for the dogmatic development of Mariology. This article is a first attempt to explicate the Pauline teaching on coredemption and represents a moderately in-depth treatment of the notion of participation in Philippians.


At first glance, Philippians may not seem like a promising candidate among Paul’s letters, but this impression yields to a more profound understanding of Paul’s language when the details of the text of Philippians are examined.{footnote}For our purposes, it makes little difference whether the imprisonment mentioned in Philippians is Roman or Ephesian. The classic view of Philippians being written from Rome appeals to 1:13 (praetorium) and 4:22 (“those of Caesar’s house”). For a discussion of various views of Paul’s imprisonment, including the widely accepted Ephesian theory, see Brendan Byrne “Letter to the Philippians” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (ed. Raymond Brown et. al.) pp. 791-792. Bornkamm advanced the idea that Philippians is a composite of several letters pieced together by a post-apostolic redactor. G. Bornkamm “Der Philipperbrief als Paulinische Briefsammlung” in Neotestamentica et Patristica Eine Freundesgabe (Oscar Cullmann) (Leiden: Brill, 1962) 192-202. For a discussion of the compositional issues see Byrne ibid. pp. 791-792. The question of composition and unity of Philippians may have some impact on interpretation but our concern here is with explicating Paul’s underlying theology.{/footnote} Paul’s theology of apostolic ministry, I argue, rests on the idea of coredemption understood, not as a supplemental or competing redemption with that of Christ, but as a personal and corporate appropriation of Christ’s redemption. Paul’s language of participation (e.g., koinonia) provides the basis of coredemption.


From Paul’s statements of his apostolic ministry-sometimes passing, sometimes central-one can infer a deeper level of theology concerning the redemption of Christ and how the Pauline ministry participates in that redemption. This thesis involves an apostolic-mediatorial reading of Philippians in contradistinction to a simple parallel reading of various texts within the epistle. In other words, statements about the Christians at Philippi helping Paul, such as those in 1:7 and 4:14 using the language of participation (koinonia), are not simply additional parallels to his statements about participation in Christ such as in 3:10. I argue that the former kind of statements are based on, and flow from, the latter in Paul’s theology. If the mediatorial relation holds between these two kinds of statements, then it is justified to speak of a notion of subordinate or participatorial coredemption in Paul.


This article treats the notion of participation in redemptive grace in Philippians by examining four themes within the epistle. First, I survey statements about the Philippians sharing in Paul’s apostolic ministry. We shall see that, for Paul, this sharing involves more than material assistance. Second, I examine Paul’s teaching on participation in the sufferings of Christ as it comes to light in Philippians. Third, the notion of participation as sacrifice flows from the first two themes. Finally, Paul’s exhortations to unity within the epistle are intimately connected to participation in Paul’s theology. These four themes have a cumulative effect. Taken together, they teach a subjective appropriation of Christ’s redemption in such a way that the Church, as the body of Christ, participates in the redemptive sufferings of Christ through a reciprocal sharing between Paul, the apostle, and the other members of the body.


Participation in Redemptive Grace in Philippians


For Paul in Philippians, those who share in the apostolic ministry by serving the needs of the Apostle, also share in the grace that comes through the Apostle in his ministry. This suggests that, for Paul, one of the greatest features of koinonia is reciprocity. We will see that reciprocity is one of the distinctive features of Paul’s concept of the “body of Christ.”


1) Participation in Paul’s Apostolic Ministry


From the very outset of the letter, in his thanksgiving section,{footnote}These thanksgiving sections occur in most of Paul’s epistles and argue for the genuine Pauline character of Philippians (see Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 1:4 ff; 1 Thess 1:2 ff; 2 Thess 1:3 ff.). Notice also the similarity between Second Corinthians (1:3 ff) and Ephesians (1:4 ff) in their benedictio section. The most thorough treatment of these thanksgiving sections can be found in Peter T. O’Brien Introductory Thanksgivings in the Letters of Paul (Supplements to Novum Testamentum, vol. 49 (Leiden: Brill, 1977).{/footnote} Paul signals this participation in the apostolic ministry by rejoicing in the Philippians’ koinonia in his imprisonment and ministry. This thanksgiving section (1:3-7) contains two terms central to this service of sharing: koinonia (communio) and sugkoinonos (socius = companion):


I thank my God at every mention of you (v. 4) always in all my supplication in behalf of all of you when, with joy, I make supplication (v. 5) because of your sharing (koinonia) in the gospel from the first day until now (v. 6). I have been persuaded of this very thing that he who initiated a good work in you will bring it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (v. 7) just as (kathos) it is right for me to think of you all because I have you in my heart. All of you are my fellow partakers (sugkoinonous) of grace in my bonds and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel (1:3-7).{footnote}All translations from the Greek are my own unless otherwise noted. I have used a rough phonemic transcription of Greek with two notable exceptions. The letter e may represent either the Greek epsilon or the eta. The letter o may represent either the omicron or the omega. I have not used anything to indicate Greek subscripts. The letters ch represent the letter chi.{/footnote}


In this text Paul gives the participation in the gospel on the part of the Philippians as the reason for his joy and gratitude. The phrase of verse 5 “from the first day until now” refers to the day when the Philippians first heard and embraced the gospel that Paul preached.{footnote}Paul’s ministry and confinement in Philippi is recounted in Acts 16:12-40.{/footnote} The phrase under consideration, (i.e., “because of your participation in the gospel” 1:5 epi te koinonia humon eis to euaggelion) may be rendered several ways in light of the range of meaning of epi. Its normal, locative meaning is “on” or “upon” but this, of course, is naturally extended into nonlocative contexts to be the basis on which an action is performed or a thought expressed.{footnote}Paul uses epi with the meaning “because of” in 1 Cor 1:4 “Because of (epi) the grace of God given to you in Christ Jesus” and 2 Cor 9:15 “Thanks be to God for (epi because of) his ineffable gift.”{/footnote} “Koinonia in the gospel” certainly denotes that the Philippians have received and embraced the gospel through Paul’s preaching. Their heartfelt reception of the gospel provides the grounds for Paul’s confidence (pepoithos) in verse 6 that “He who initiated a good work will bring it to completion.”


Koinonia could also be understood as including the Philippians’ monetary gift that came through Epaphroditus (see 2:25ff). Their partnership with Paul’s mission among the Gentiles has made them his fellow workers (cf. sunergoi in 2:25; 4:3). It seems wisest to take koinonia in the widest sense since there are no contextual clues to limit the meaning of the term. This wider sense is confirmed by the statements in verse 7.


These thoughts flow naturally into verse 7 with its initial conjunction “just as” (kathos). The appropriateness of Paul’s expressed affection lies in his hearers’ being “fellow participants in grace” (sungkoinonous mou tes charitos). This phrase develops the notion in verse 5 of “koinonia in the gospel” by stating that the Philippians are with him in his imprisonment as well as in his proclamation of the gospel.{footnote}O’Brien’s otherwise full treatment of 1:3-11 fails to link koinonia of verse 5 with sungkoinonous of verse 7 and, thereby, misses the deeper sense of participation.{/footnote} The most natural rendering of the phrase in question is “my fellow participants in grace” although the possessive pronoun “my” (mou) could modify grace (i.e., fellow partakers in my grace).{footnote}The Vulgate translates it in the second way socios gratiae meae omnes vos esse translating ontas by esse. The former rendering (taking “my” with “fellow partakers”) leaves the grace mentioned as somewhat undefined and unqualified. Even though it is used with the definite article, it could still be a generic meaning referring to the grace coming from God. The latter rendering (taking “my” with “grace”) suggests that Paul thinks here of the grace he has received in his apostolic ministry as coming through him to those who share in his ministry. If they share in his ministry, then they share in the grace he receives in that ministry. The second rendering is more explicitly mediatorial, but such an interpretation is not excluded even where it is translated “you all are my fellow partakers of grace.”{/footnote} This phrase, being a hapax legomenon in Paul’s letters, strikes an unusual note.{footnote}Which is probably why Eberhard Nestle suggested the emendation chreiras, meaning “need.”{/footnote} Does Paul see his recipients as standing alongside of him in receiving the same grace which he receives from Christ, or does their union with him in the gospel and its attendant afflictions, somehow act as a conduit of grace? The specification of the connection between grace and Paul’s imprisonment in verse 7 argues for a reading which takes the Apostle’s distress as the channels through which the grace flows to him and to all who share in his ministry.

The most natural reading of verse 5 accords with this more embodied interpretation. I suggest that it fits well into the pattern of Pauline thinking if we keep in mind that, for him, all grace is communicated through human mediation.


This apostolic-mediatorial reading of this thanksgiving section in chapter one also conforms to another unusual phrase in 4:14, “But you have done well by your having participated in my affliction.” Several modern English versions ameliorate the theological force of this sentence by minimizing its rich content.{footnote}NEB “But it was kind of you to share the burden of my troubles.” RSVCE “But it was kind of you to share my trouble.” NAB “It was kind of you to share in my distress.” Kleist and Lilly “Still you have done well by sharing in my affliction.” Didache 4:8 has a similar expression: “Don’t turn away from a needy person but share (sugkoinoneseis) all things with your brother.” Here we have an accusative of the thing shared (all things) and a dative indicating the recipient (brother). In Philippians 4:14 “affliction” is in the dative. While the English versions cited tend to play down the theological content, Schattenmann seems to acknowledge the deeper meaning of the participle (sungkoinonesantes). See J. Schattenmann “Koinonia” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975) vol. 1 p. 644.{/footnote} The participle (sugkoinonesantes) translated as “sharing” or “participating” is the verbal counterpart of sugkoinonous in 1:7. If the participle of 4:14 is read in light of the Philippians’ koinonia in the gospel mentioned in 1:5 and in light of their being fellow partakers (sugkoinonous) of grace in 1:7, the participle can be seen as another expression of Paul’s belief that the Philippians are partakers in the grace of his ministry and imprisonment because they are sharing in his affliction (thlipsis).{footnote}See below how this verse is connected to the idea of sacrifice in 4:18.{/footnote} The material gift from the Philippians implied in 4:14 introduces a note of reciprocity into this picture. Their material gift rebounds as a spiritual grace for them because they have shared in Paul’s affliction. The idea of reciprocity occurs also in Philippians 1:19.


1:19 occurs in a context of Paul’s joy that the gospel is being proclaimed despite the false motives of some of its preachers (see 1:12-18). His future joy rests on the confidence expressed in 1:19:


But I also will rejoice because I know that this will issue forth in salvation for me through your prayers and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.


In contrast to the texts already considered, 1:19 suggests that Paul is the beneficiary of grace through the Philippians’ prayers. What is especially noteworthy is how the prayers of the faithful will become an instrument of bringing about Paul’s salvation.{footnote}Soteria could simply mean “deliverance,” i.e., from the present imprisonment, but the word almost always bears a theological meaning in Paul.{/footnote} What is the relationship between the prayers of the Philippians and the supplying of the Spirit of Jesus Christ? Is the supplying of the Spirit in answer to the prayers or is it just an additional statement in Paul’s mind? Again we can see two modes of reading the Pauline statements. One is a parallel reading in which no special connection exists between the prayers and the giving of the Spirit. The other is a mediatorial reading in which the prayers become the instrument of the giving of the Spirit. Second Corinthians 1:11 is a close parallel that suggests the latter reading, “as you join in helping by your prayers for us that the gift given to us may be the occasion of thanksgiving from many persons through many prayers.” The preceding verse spoke of deliverance that might come through the prayers of the faithful and so, in Second Corinthians 1:11, we have clear evidence that Paul conceives of prayer as an instrument of divine communication. On the same pattern, Philippians 1:19 then would mean that Paul’s hope of salvation rests ultimately on God supplying the Spirit of Jesus Christ. That divine gift, however, will come through the prayers of the faithful Philippians. Thus, the koinonia, made possible by the apostolic ministry of the gospel, has a reciprocal dimension, to the point where the salvation of the preacher is realized through the prayers of those to whom the gospel is preached.


2) Participation in the Sufferings of Christ


What I have dubbed a mediatorial reading means that the sharing or participation in Paul’s imprisoned ministry on the part of the Philippians possesses not only a horizontal or human cooperation but that the horizontal is based on a vertical participation. By “vertical” I mean that participating in the apostolic ministry is rooted in a deeper kind of participation, one that shares in the Paschal Mystery. Most all NT scholars would agree that Paul teaches that the Christian life possesses a participation in Christ’s death and resurrection (cf. Rom 6:1-5). In Philippians, the language used to express this participation takes on a powerful dimension.


In 1:29, Paul speaks of suffering in the name of Christ in the context of an exhortation to unity and in the face of opposition by pagans:


Because it was given to you in behalf of Christ not only to believe in him but also to suffer on his behalf.


This verse acts as an explanation for verse 28, “do not be intimidated in any way by the opposition which is a sign of their destruction but of your salvation. This comes from God.” And the larger context from 1:27 to 2:4 treats the need for unity in the face of pagan opposition at Philippi.{footnote}We will return to this passage under the rubric of unity below.{/footnote} Paul can speak authoritatively about such suffering because their struggle against pagan persecution is matched by his own (see 1:30).

The syntax of verse 29 moves us closer to Paul’s view of participation. His choice of the verb “bestowed” or “granted” (echaristhe) may reflect a more exalted language than simply “being given” (edothe) and could be translated “given or bestowed as a gift.” If such a distinction is lexically justified, Paul is choosing the verb to contrast the nature of suffering with the normal human expectation. In case the Philippians do not see that faith in Christ entails suffering, Paul reminds them of this intimate connection. The Philippians may not be inclined to regard suffering as a gift, but Paul wishes them to see with new vision, a vision that looks on circumstances, not as an inevitable fact but as divine donation.{footnote}One fairly recent study by Peterlin sees Paul’s language in this manner, “Suffering is a God-given gift, or grace, and the Philippians should consider it their privilege to suffer for Christ … it also suggests that the Philippians must share Paul’s approach to sufferings, i.e., accept them as God’s gift or grace.” Davorin Peterlin Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in Light of Disunity in the Church. (Supplements to Novum Testamentum vol. lxxix (Leiden: Brill, 1995) p. 54.{/footnote} Further, the actual phraseology of verse 29 emphasizes the centrality of Christ in their suffering. A more literal (almost too literal) translation reveals its structure:


This for Christ (to hyper christou) was granted to you, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him (to hyper autou).


The prepositional phrases with the article are difficult to render in modern English, but the word order of the verse suggests that, for Paul, one’s whole life is for Christ (to hyper Christou) as he expressed verse 21 “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” That faith in Christ is a gift, may have been well understood, but the fact of suffering persecution may have caught the Philippians by surprise. By the order of the sentence, Paul wanted to stress that they have been given an additional gift of suffering as well as that of faith.


What does it mean to suffer “in behalf of Christ”? The preposition hyper (+ genitive) would suggest substitution in certain contexts but it is difficult to imagine any sense in which the Christian suffers in Christ’s place. Perhaps Paul simply means that the Christian represents Christ on earth so that persecution of the Christian is, in effect, persecution of Christ. Such would not have been surprising since this idea had been expressed to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:4, 5). From the vantage point of human action, one could be a substitute for the other. However, sharing in the sufferings of Christ finds an even more mystical expression in 3:10.


Philippians 3:10 contains one of the most explicit expressions of sharing in Christ’s sufferings in the epistle. The immediate and proper context of verse 10 begins with the purpose clause, beginning at the end of verse 8: that I may gain Christ, (v. 9) and be found in him, not having my own righteousness which is from the law but the one that is through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith, (v. 10) to know him and the power of his resurrection, and the participation (koinonia) in his sufferings while being conformed to his death (v. 11) if possible to attain to the resurrection from the dead.


These verses occur within a broader contrast between Paul’s Jewish achievements (e.g., persecuting the Church, blameless with regard to the law) and his present gaining of Christ. But this passage stresses that, for Paul, gaining Christ is still a goal to be achieved and such striving (see 3:12) requires the total renunciation of all claims to self-boasting.


Close attention to the syntax and structure of these verses will show that “participation (fellowship) in his sufferings” functions as a singular means of attaining the righteousness which can be found only in Christ. Furthermore, such suffering is not an incidental addition to the imprisonment Paul is experiencing. Rather, the latter suffering is the temporal means of embodying the koinonia with the cross of Christ. In other words, Philippians 3:10 gives the ultimate ground of the more general expression of suffering mentioned in 1:29.


Let us examine verses 10 and 11 first. These verses have a chiastic structure which is based on the semantic similarity of the two A portions (A and A’) and the two B portions (B and B’) of the chiasm:


A. The power of his resurrection

B. The participation in his sufferings.

B’ Made conformable to his death.

A’ If somehow I might attain to the resurrection from the dead.


Paul probably uses this chiastic structure to emphasize that the resurrection from the dead is the final goal of his relentless pursuit of Christ. Sharing in Christ’s resurrected life is the highest calling for the Apostle, but it is only achievable by sharing in His suffering as well. The resurrection and its power, along with participation in Christ’s sufferings, are further explications of the phrase “to know him” (or “that I may know him”).{footnote}The pronoun “him” (auton), and the phrases “the power” and “the participation” are all accusatives functioning as direct objects of the infinitive “to know.” Most translations and commentators take tou gnonai as an infinitive of purpose. The articular infinitive admits of several usages. Depending on which one we choose, the syntax of 3:9-11 has to be understood differently. In most modern translations, the articular infinitive (tou gnonai auton) is taken as an infinitive of purpose, “To know him, etc.” If this is the proper meaning, then verse 10 parallels the hina (purpose) clause that occurs in verse 8, “That I may gain Christ and be found in him, etc.” It could be taken another way as well. The articular infinitive (tou gnonai auton) might be construed as parallel to the me echon of verse 9 and the summorphizomenos at the end of verse 10. We must ask several grammatical questions: 1) Is the genitive of the articular infinitive ever used to express purpose? 2)

In the Pauline corpus, is an articular infinitive (or infinitive in general) ever used to continue the line of thought expressed by a hina clause? 3) In support of the second reading, does the genitive articular infinitive in Paul ever parallel participles to express a subordinate clause as the participles here do?{/footnote} Thus, Paul seems to be using the verb “know” (ginosko) in the sense of intimate and experiential knowledge rather than as simple intellectual recognition (cf. John 17:3). If this is true, then Paul wants to know Christ in all His life, death, and resurrection.


His reference to sufferings in the inner brackets of the chiasm (B and B’) function to highlight the power of Christ’s resurrection, not simply as a past event or a future hope but as a present reality of his apostolic life. The phrase “participation in his sufferings” (koinonian ton pathematon autou) is further defined and explicated by the following phrase “made conformable to his death” (summorphizomenos to thanato autou). The suffering through which Paul can know Christ better involves the work of conformation of his person to the agony of the cross. This conformity reminds us of 2:8 where the kenosis of the Son of God means obedience to the shameful death on the cross. Paul also uses the cognate “conformable” (summorphos) in speaking of the eschatological transformation of the faithful from a “body of humility” to the “body of his glory” (3:21). If in Paul’s mind, the conforming of the believer’s body to Christ’s glorious body, brings about the full possession of one’s heavenly citizenship (3:20 politeuma), then the present conforming of the person (body and soul) to the death of Christ, surely means a full participation in the mystical body of Christ in which the redemptive work of Jesus is manifested. Nor can one read Philippians 3:10 without thinking of Second Corinthians 4:10 where Paul describes the vicissitudes of his life as “always carrying around in the body the dying (nekrosis) of Jesus that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in the body.”


After looking closely at the syntax of these verses, now we can ask what this suffering is that Paul envisions and what is involved in Paul’s participation in it. It is here that we see the contrast between the ways in which different theologies read this text. Numerous Reformed commentators have given competent exegeses of this text. Few would disagree with Jac Mueller’s statement that all suffering, both bodily and spiritual, is characteristic of the Christian life.{footnote}Jac J. Mueller The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and to Philemon in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1955) 1980 reprint. p. 117.{/footnote} Another South African Reformed scholar, Groenewald, in his study Koinonia by Paulus averred that “the nature of the suffering can be twofold: purely spiritual and inward as a struggle against and grief over sin in the heart, or otherwise outward and real, as privations owing to persecution or bodily pain in the struggle against the world.”{footnote}E.P. Groenewald, Koinonia by Paulus (Afrikaans), 1932, p. 146.{/footnote} Similarly, the nineteenth century British biblical scholar, Lightfoot, sees the complete passion of Christ as communicable to the believer when he says, “it implies all the pangs and afflictions undergone in the struggle against sin either within or without. The agony of Gethsemane, no less than the agony of Calvary, will be reproduced, however faintly, in the faithful servant of Christ.”{footnote}Cited in Mueller, ibid.{/footnote}


These Reformed writers and many others recognize the inexpungable place of suffering in Paul’s theology, but they always take pains to emphasize that Paul does not mean anything redemptive in the sufferings of the faithful. For example, Mueller says:


This [suffering] does not mean sharing the atoning and redemptive suffering of Christ on the cross, but it means a personal dying to sin (mortificatio), the crucifying of the flesh, and suffering for the sake of Christ and his cause … the expression “becoming conformed unto his death” … does not mean that the believer must die as Christ did, and if need be die on the cross.{footnote}Mueller op. cit., pp. 116, 117.{/footnote}

Consistent with the conceptual structure of Reformed theology, Mueller is denying that the believer’s suffering is anything more than being the recipient of the benefits of Christ’s death. In that theological system, only Christ’s death on the cross has redemptive value. Any claim to the redemptive value of a believer’s sufferings would be denied. Paul’s fellowship in the sufferings of Christ would be for his benefit only.


There are several problems with this reading of Philippians 3:10. First, such an exegesis of Paul leaves loose ends in the Apostle’s theology. A Reformed reading of koinonia 3:10 is unrelated to the koinonia in the gospel mentioned in 1:5 or the sugkoinonos of 1:17 or the sugkoinoneo of 4:14. In that theology, there are different senses of participation or sharing that are not theologically interrelated. Second, such a reading does not take seriously the phrase “being conformed to his death” (summorphizomenos to thanato autou) in 3:10. What kind of death did Jesus die? It was a redemptive death, an atoning death. If the Apostle is being conformed to Christ’s death on the cross, then it is reasonable to take his own sufferings as being, in some sense, redemptive like Christ’s death. Finally, a Reformed reading which sees no redemptive value in Paul’s suffering, eliminates the inner bond between Christian suffering and ecclesiology in the Apostle’s mind. That connection is very explicit in Colossians 1:24 where Paul’s sufferings “fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ … in behalf of his body.”


A mediatorial reading of Philippians 3:10, on the other hand, makes central that which is driven to the periphery in a nonmediatorial reading. The apostolic-mediatorial interpretation unites the different uses of koinonia in the Pauline corpus.

In this reading, Paul’s participation in the sufferings of Christ, makes his daily life conform to the death of Christ (cf. 2 Cor 4:10) and this union allows him to share with the whole Church the graces which flow from that union. Thus, the Philippians share in those graces not only because they have received the gospel from Paul, as in 1:5, but also because they are his fellow participants (sugkoinonous) in his imprisonment (desmois in 1:7) and trials (thlipsis in 4:14). This sharing in the redemptive sacrifice of Christ’s death has a reciprocal effect as well. Not only is the Apostle a conduit of grace in the lives of the Philippian Christians but they, too, are conduits of grace (through prayer in 1:19) for him so that he might achieve the salvation promised him by Christ. The best explanation for this reciprocity of grace lies in Paul’s view of the Church as the mystical body, in which each member fosters the salvation of others through meritorious acts. Such realistic language by Paul is further seen in his use of sacrifice in Philippians.


3) Participation as Sacrifice


This mutual participation between the Apostle and his Philippian correspondents, takes on a sacrificial character in two texts. This first is 2:17-18, while the second is 4:18: but if I am being offered up on the sacrifice and service of your faith, it is my joy and I rejoice with you all. The same is true for you. You rejoice with me (2:17-18).

I have everything and abound in every respect when I received from Epaphroditus the things you sent. They are a sweet-smelling odor, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God (4:18).


These two texts share a common vocabulary and thought. Paul’s life is characterized as a sacrifice (thusia) for their faith in 2:17, while the gift of the Philippians through Epaphroditus is an “acceptable sacrifice” (4:17). The question before us is why Paul would employ sacrificial language in the context of mutual service between himself and his spiritual children. In both contexts, nothing in the preceding verses suggests any anticipation of sacrificial language or anything that might evoke such vocabulary. In the context of 2:12-18, Paul is drawing out the implications of the christological hymn (2:5-11) which he has just quoted (or at least paraphrased). His command in 2:12 to “work through your own salvation with fear and trembling” is based on his belief that salvation is a matter of applying the moral implications of Christ’s humiliation in His Incarnation. And verse 13 introduces the mysterious synergy between human work on one’s salvation and the divine will working in that same process: “For God is the one who is effecting this in you by his willing and his activity for the sake of what pleases him.” It is Paul’s confidence in God’s work which allows him to boast in the Philippians “on the day of Christ,” i.e., the last judgment. In this context, verse 17 has the flavor of hyperbole when he says, “but even if I am being spent” (i.e., my life is being spent). In other words, Paul’s joy (both his own and the shared [sugchairo] joy) is full, even if it means being a sacrifice that is consumed (cf. whole burnt offering).


The expression “I am being offered on the sacrifice, etc.,” (spendomai epi te thusia, etc.) suggests that the Philippians’ faith is viewed as a place of sacrifice upon which Paul’s life is offered to God.{footnote}The preposition epi te thusia kai leitourgia tes pisteos humon, can be translated with its normal locative meaning (“on or upon”) or it could have the sense of “for” i.e., “in behalf of.”{/footnote} The term leitourgia could be used in the general sense of public service, as it was in secular Greek, or it could be used with connotations of liturgy. If the former meaning is intended, then the nuance of the genitive “of your faith” (tes pisteos) is probably an objective genitive, i.e., service in behalf of your faith. If the liturgical connotation is present in Paul’s mind, then the genitive “of your faith” (tes pisteos) might be construed as an explicative genitive where the faith denotes the place of liturgy. Of course, the latter meaning accords well with the language of libation (spendomai) and sacrifice (thusia). In either case, Paul clearly characterizes his life as a sacrificial offering for the benefit of the Philippians as he does in other contexts (e.g., see 2 Cor 12:15).


The sacrificial language of 4:18 also shows the reciprocity we observed earlier in that the gift, which the Philippians sent through Epaphroditus, is described as “a sweet-smelling odor, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” Paul not only sees his service to their faith as sacrifice but he sees their service to his material needs in the same light. It would be very superficial to see these uses of sacrificial language as only passing metaphors drawn from Old Testament language. The sacrifice of Christ’s death in 2:8 now finds an appropriate response in the Philippians’ service to Paul’s needs. This material service has already been characterized as a participation in his affliction (see 4:14). Paul sees such service in not only a horizontal light; he clearly views it as a participation in sacrificial love, the greatest expression of which was Christ’s death on the cross.


4) Exhortations to Unity in Philippians


The final set of texts which bears on the question of participation in redemption, is Paul’s exhortations to unity. This is especially evident in 1:27 to 2:4 (note also 4:2). Some, in fact, have seen this section as the central core of Paul’s letter, inferring from this pericope and others, that the problem of unity was especially heightened in the Church at Philippi.{footnote}N.T. Wright “Philippians, Book of” article in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible Kevin J. Vanhoozer (gen. Ed) (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Books, 2005) pp. 588-590. Davorin Peterl in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in Light of Disunity in the Church. (Supplements to Novum Testamentum vol. lxxix (Leiden: Brill, 1995).{/footnote} And there can be no doubt that the proper context for the christological hymn quoted in 2:5-10 begins back at 1:27 with its appeal for holiness and unity within the Church. The relevance of this text for our theme of participation lies in the relationship it implies about the unity and the suffering of the Church. Unity among the members of the body of Christ is both a sign of Christ’s presence and a means of making Christ’s redemptive work more embodied in the Church. In other words, as Christ’s redemption comes to dwell more and more in the hearts of the faithful, greater unity results.


These two aspects of Paul’s ecclesiology are intertwined. 1:27 says, “only conduct yourselves worthily of the gospel of Christ so that whether I come and see you or only hear about you while absent you may stand in one spirit, with one soul contending together for the faith of the gospel.” This hope for unity in fighting for the truth contained in the gospel comes from being en heni pneumati which may mean “in one spirit” or “in one Spirit” with the latter referring to the Holy Spirit. The first reading is more likely since “with one soul” (mia psyche = dative) surely expresses the inner unity of heart and soul within the persons who contend for the gospel. Thus, in such a close and parallel context, “in one spirit” most likely refers to an inner condition of the same people rather than to the Holy Spirit.


This unity in spirit and soul among those contending for the gospel becomes an effective weapon against those who oppose (v. 28). Their unified response to that very opposition, works itself out for their salvation (cf. 2:12). Then Paul links these two-unity in common work and salvation-with suffering for Christ. 1:29 says, “because being for Christ was given to you not only in the sense of believing but also in the way of suffering for him.” Thus, suffering for Christ (to hyper Christou) is a gift that results from a willingness to contend for the gospel. That willingness is increased and made more effective by a unity of spirit and soul among the citizens of the Church.{footnote}I use the term “citizen” because Paul uses this kind of language in this context. In 1:27 he uses politeuomai and in 3:20 he uses politeuma.{/footnote}


The Mariological Implications of the Pauline Koinonia


Thus far, I have sketched an outline of Paul’s doctrine of koinonia as participation. We have seen two trajectories involved in koinonia. One has been the horizontal direction in which a mutual giving and receiving (reciprocity) is evident in the way Paul speaks to, and about, the Philippian Christians. We have seen indications that this reciprocal share is conceived by Paul as a sharing in the grace which Christ has given to Paul in his apostolic ministry. Though I have not had time to do so, it should be evident to all that these expressions in Philippians are an essential part of Paul’s doctrine of the Church as the mystical body of Christ (soma Christou). The second trajectory has been the vertical relationship that exists between Paul and the Paschal Mystery. A fuller investigation would logically lead to a higher level of analysis in which Paul’s doctrine of the Church would reveal the richness of participation as a central connection between the death and resurrection, and the experience of the members of the mystical body.


Let me employ a metaphor from classical astronomy to explain this higher level of structure in Paul’s theology of redemption and coredemption.{footnote}In classical (Ptolemaic) astronomy, an eccentric point is the point needed by an astronomer to explain the irregularities in a planet’s orbit. The eccentric point is a small distance away from the real center of the orbit. In its theological application, Christ’s Paschal Mystery is the real, true center of theology, but the eccentric point is all the somatic manifestations of the Paschal Mystery, preeminently the Marian manifestation of Christ’s redemptive work.{/footnote} We can now begin to see how redemption and coredemption in Paul form two centers of revolution around which the orbits of his theology circle. These centers of revolution reveal the asymmetry between redemption and coredemption. In Paul’s theology, the redemption accomplished by Christ in the Paschal Mystery is the absolute, real center of Christian theology.

Nothing can substitute for this historical foundation. This foundation, however, is complemented by an eccentric point, a point completely defined by the absolute center but which is necessary to explain the apparently irregular orbits of the Church’s existence (e.g., persecution and suffering). As the Church continually returns to its center in the Paschal Mystery-annually in the Triduum, daily in the liturgy, personally in private prayer-it finds that it cannot maintain its ministry and vocation without having another point to which it must refer. This eccentric point derives its significance and meaning from the Paschal Mystery but, at the same time, functions as a point of radiation through which the Paschal Mystery emanates out to the Church on pilgrimage. This eccentric point is the somatic manifestation of the Paschal Mystery. In other words, the Church is not only the recipient of the Paschal Mystery; it is also the body which acts as a conduit for the radiation of grace outwardly to the world. The body (soma) of Christ is the primary locus where the Paschal Mystery is expressed and lived out in the real world.


This link between the Paschal Mystery and the Church is koinonia, a real sharing in Christ’s redemptive work that, in turn, allows the grace flowing from Christ to radiate out to other members of the body. This way of stating the matter shows the wisdom of thinking of Mary as the most perfect (sanctissima) embodiment of redemption.

Because the Mother of God was and is so profoundly perfected in grace, She is also a model of the Church, that is, of the Church in its eschatological epiphany. She is the model of what St. Paul says he was striving for, that is, to grasp that for which he was grasped by Christ Jesus (Phil 3:12).


This study of koinonia in Philippians begs for a wider and deeper analysis of the entire Pauline corpus, as well as an investigation of the relations between koinonia and such characteristic Pauline terms as mysterion and soma. But this study has, at least, shown that the idea of coredemption is a proper formulation of the Pauline theology of koinonia. This situation augurs well for an ultimate, dogmatic formulation, solidly founded on the most important writer of the New Testament canon, St. Paul of Tarsus. St. Paul, Apostle to us Gentiles, pray for us!


Dr. Kenneth Howell

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