9 And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; 11 having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. [NASB ‘77]
Paul already told the Philippians that he prays for them with thanksgiving and joy because of their participation with him in the gospel (vss 3-7). In these verses he tells them what he prays, and in so doing explains what God’s work of completion looks like that he referenced in verse 6. As with all of Paul’s prayers recorded in his letters there is much to learn from this passage, the most notable being that there is no more important characteristic for the believer than love. If we asked Paul to pray for only one thing in our life, he would choose love.
After telling the Philippians that he loves them with the love of Christ (vs 8), Paul tells them he prays that they will have the same kind of love for others. He already said that he prays for them with thanksgiving and joy (vss 3-4), now he explains what he prays when he prays. And what he prays for the most is their love.
Everything else in the prayer stems from this request. It’s the baseline. Their sanctification, their preparedness for Christ’s return, their ability to glorify God with their lives – all start with love. Paul makes it the priority. They have to love; if they don’t, nothing else matters.
He doesn’t define love, but verse 8 gives us a clue. It’s the love of Christ in them directed toward others. They are believers saved and sustained by God’s grace. God has begun and will complete a good work in them (vs 6). Thus they are filled with God’s love and can/must show that love to others. It’s what marks them as God’s family. Only those in union with Christ can reflect His love.
He doesn’t just want them to love; he wants their love to abound more and more. He wants their love to continually grow. He doesn’t want them to ever be satisfied with their love for others. He wants it always increasing. Find more people to love. Find people to love more.
How will their love abound? It must grow in real knowledge. Knowledge likely refers to their knowledge of God and His will. In a similar prayer recorded in Colossians, Paul prays for the Colossians to be filled with the knowledge of His will so that they will obey and increase in their knowledge of God (Col 1:9-10). When we know and obey His will we know HIM better. And when we know Him better we better understand His love for us and grow in our love for Him as we appreciate all He’s done. And as that happens, we grow in our love for others. Knowledge leads to obedience which leads to understanding which leads to love.
It’s that understanding that he refers to next. Knowledge must grow along with all discernment. In the Colossians prayer he makes a similar request. There he says he wants them to grow in their knowledge in all spiritual wisdom and understanding (Col 1:9). In both cases he’s asking that they know the truth and how to apply the truth. It’s not enough to just know about God and His will. We have to understand how that will and how God’s nature and attributes affect our life and the way we view others. It’s the difference between knowing about God and knowing God. As we know Him we grow in our ability to discern what is and isn’t critical to life. And it’s the growth of discernment (wisdom) along with knowledge that enables our love to grow.
How do we grow in knowledge and discernment? Time in God’s word. Time in prayer. Time under teaching and preaching and in fellowship with the saints. There are no short-cuts. We don’t grow in these areas if the time spent in them pales in comparison to the time spent ogling the world and its attractions. If we rush through Bible reading and prayer time, we miss the blessing and the power. Often because of misplaced priorities, we unwittingly limp along on a starvation diet of Scripture, forgetting that we have an appointment with Satan, our deceiver and accuser, the minute we rise from our reading chair. Our time in the Word and in prayer should change us. Through it, we should be transformed, equipped, encouraged, and prepared. We should never neglect our Bible reading and prayer time, knowing that we do so only at our own spiritual peril. (Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, Openness Unhindered; 57.)
Along with allowing our love to grow, knowledge and discernment enable us to approve the things that are excellent (distinguish between the things which differ). What are these things? He will later tell them that he counts all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ (3:8), and that his ultimate goal is to know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His suffering, being conformed to His death (3:10). He wants them/us to have the knowledge and discernment to choose the eternal things of Christ over the rewards and temptations of this world. He wants us to be able to see beyond this life into the life to come and to live accordingly. He wants us to be so full of knowledge and discernment that the things of life grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.
Approving the things that are excellent isn’t easy. It’s not something we naturally do. We naturally gravitate toward the things that are in front of us and that we can see. That’s why it’s crucial to cultivate wisdom through exposure to God’s word and through prayer.
[Just this week I was looking online at lake houses. We can’t afford a lake house, but that didn’t stop me from looking at them. I found one that I’d love to buy. Our family loves to boat and this place would be perfect for what we like to do. Right location, right setup, right kind of lake. But we can’t even remotely afford it and that really frustrated me. And though I typically don’t struggle with contentment, I actually became angry that we can’t get it. I thought to myself, “Why can’t we buy this? Why can’t I have this? It would be a blast for the family. Everyone would love it. Why can’t I just go get this?” It affected me for about two days every time I thought about it – honestly. Then I read in a book about a woman who arranges her whole life such that she and her husband can be hospitable to fellow church members and to their neighborhood. Every week they very intentionally open their house to both groups – it’s their priority. Reading that really struck me and changed my whole mindset. I was mad at God for not allowing me to buy a lake house and here’s someone totally committed to arranging her whole life for the gospel. That’s what it means to approve the things that are excellent. She didn’t care about temporal things – she wanted to love others for the sake of Christ. Me? I wanted the rewards of the world for the sake of me and was angry when I couldn’t have them. It’s why we have to pray for discernment – too many shiny things to distract us from what’s important and eternal.]
If we choose the things that are excellent over what the world offers, then we can be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ. Sincere can also be translated ‘pure’ and seems to refer to our inner holiness. Blameless refers to our outer behavior. Seeing all things other than knowing and being conformed to Christ as loss enables us to increase in that conformity and become more and more pure and blameless until we stand before Him. And that’s the ultimate goal. To be faithful and growing until our life ends or He returns.
Notice the verb tenses of this passage. Everything Paul discusses here is ongoing. We don’t suddenly become sincere and blameless. We don’t ever reach a point of ultimate knowledge and discernment. This is a continual process that doesn’t stop until life does. Over time – often LONG periods of time – we grow in wisdom and knowledge which enable our growth in purity and love.
The one who approves the things that are excellent will be filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ. If we choose knowing Christ as our chief pursuit, we will become more like Him and our lives will bear the fruit that only comes through Him. This is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). Note that we don’t bear it on our own or even cause it to appear. We choose Christ and it’s through Jesus Christ that the fruit appears. Our responsibility is to know Christ and to follow Christ and to love Christ. His responsibility is to bear His fruit in our lives.
The fruit we bear is to the glory and praise of God. Jesus told His disciples that bearing fruit glorifies the Father (Jn 15:8) because it is a sign of His husbandry. He’s the vinedresser. Jesus is the true vine. Thus when we grow we glorify both. A healthy fruit-bearing branch points to the vine and the farmer who tends it. The branch can’t bear fruit on its own; the fruit appears only as the branch abides in the vine and is pruned by the vinedresser (Jn 15:1-5).
Paul’s prayer is really a picture of what happens when God completes the good work in us until the day of Christ (vs 6). God works in us to increase our knowledge and discernment so that we can choose the things that are excellent which enable us to grow in purity and blamelessness and bear fruit to the glory and praise of God. We do this more and more until the day of Christ. It’s the fruition and continuation of the work God began in us when we believed the gospel.
And note that Paul prays for this. You could almost say that he prays for what he guarantees in verse 6. But his prayer also means that we have some role in the process. There’s no reason to pray for us if we don’t have responsibility. As we pointed out in the study of vss 3-8, God will work in us to bring us to completion, but we have a responsibility – through His strength and grace – to walk in the Spirit (Gal 5:16) and choose the things that are excellent.
The clearest sign that God is completing us is love. Remember that everything in this prayer starts with Paul’s request that they abound more and more in love. All the characteristics of a growing believer – knowledge, discernment, purity, blamelessness, fruit – show themselves in love. Love is the ultimate gauge of sanctification. Love is the gateway to glorifying and praising God.
In the same passage where Jesus explains to His disciples that He is the vine and that bearing fruit is proof of discipleship, He tells them, “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments, and abide in His love. This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. This I command you, that you love one another” (Jn 15:9-10, 12-13, 17). John will later tell his readers, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent his only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him” (I Jn 4:7-9). The single biggest indication that we are His is our love for others. What marks a life that is through Him is its love.
So what does this mean practically?
- It means I choose people over time and comfort.
- It means I don’t get angry at family members for talking too long after church.
- It means I work at connecting and fellowshipping with the saints.
- It means I care about others’ concerns even when they’re not mine.
- It means I get involved with difficult people.
- It means I take prayer requests seriously.
- It means l let just about anybody borrow just about anything.
- It means I listen to the person who always talks about himself.
- It means I take the time to connect with the guy who’s socially awkward and difficult to talk to.
- It means I don’t care about political and racial and socio-economic differences with others.
- It means I look out for the lonely and disconnected.
- It means I’m willing to walk alongside and/or confront a brother struggling with besetting sin.
- It means I open my house to people I don’t naturally connect with.
- It means I attend neighborhood block parties where I don’t naturally fit in.
- It means I go outside my comfort zone for the sake of the gospel.
- It means I see every interaction with the unsaved as a gospel opportunity.
- It means I truly care about the lost.
- It means I care about injustice and poverty and work to alleviate what I can.
Never think you behave yourselves as becomes Christians, except when you sincerely, sensibly, and fervently love all men, of whatever party or opinion, and whether friendly or unkind, just or injurious, to your or your friends, or to the cause and kingdom of Christ. (Jonathan Edwards, “Farewell Sermon,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, I:ccvi-ccvii.)