The Communion of the Saints as Practical Ecclesiology

This week we are beginning a study of Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. This series will cover each passage in the book in a continuous exegetical manner. In other words, we are going to walk through the whole book, verse by verse, and try to see what Paul had to say to the 1st century church at Philippi. Along the way we will learn some historical material, we will be able to better understand what the early church looked like, and, in all things, we will be pointed to Christ. The major themes of Philippians are friendship, church unity, like-mindedness, and charitable giving, but all of these themes boil down to the one: “Have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus.”

Today’s text introduces us to one of the foundational ideas of the letter and indeed of the Christian life. Paul tells the Philippians that they share in the fellowship of the gospel and are partakers with one another in grace. This fellowship also appears in the fact that Paul remembers the believers and this causes him to pray for them and to share in their lives even from abroad. Each of these expressions are aspects of one thing, the communion of the saints. This doctrine is very practical, and it applies to all believers everywhere, especially those in the same congregation. The communion of the saints means that we are partners in one another’s lives. 


The main theme of this passage is unfortunately somewhat obscured in the English translation. You probably don’t see the term “communion” here at all. But, several of the words Paul uses are variations of that word. For instance, the “fellowship” in vs. 5 is the Greek word koinonia. You’ve probably heard of this word before. It is often translated as “fellowship,” but it means more than a good conversation over a meal. Koinonia is a sort of intimate sharing with one another where lives are knit together. Some translations render it “partnership in the gospel.” It could just as legitimately be translated “communion in the gospel.”

We see this term koinonia again in vs. 7 where Paul says that the Philippians have been “partakers with me in grace.” The term translated “partakers” is synkoinonios, or “those who commune with me.” The Philippians “partake” of Paul’s grace because they have communion with him in the gospel.

To fully understand this term koinonia, we should look to the books of Acts where it is first introduced. Acts 2:42-45 describes the communion of the early church in this way:

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together,and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.

The word “fellowship” is, you guessed it, koinonia, but what’s really fascinating is that the word for “common” where it says that they had all things in common is koina, a root word from which koinonia is derived. Simply put, the terms “communion” and “common” are directly related. To be in communion is to have things in common, and in the early church this was more than just an internal spiritual brotherhood. The spiritual communion created an actual community where people shared food, goods, and money. They truly lived together.

This is the type of communion that Paul has in mind in Philippians. He certainly does mean that he has as spiritual bond with the Christians there, but he also means that this spiritual bond brings his life together with theirs in a real way. As we will see when we get to chapter 4, the church at Philippi had given Paul financial support. This was a big way in which they “shared” in his ministry and “partnered” with him. In fact, some liberal commentators say that Paul is really buttering up his audience the whole time in order to ask for them for money. They see the whole thing as a fundraising letter. That’s far too cynical a way to read things, but it would be equally wrong to remove the financial component altogether from the communion which Paul shares with the Philippians. Apart from their charitable giving, he would not have been able to conduct his ministry. And this means that our money is a legitimate aspect of our communion together. We do not give money to the church, to ministers, to missionaries, and to those in need merely out of obedience to some command, but rather we give because we are participating in one another’s lives. We are a gospel family.

Real Presence

This doctrine of communion is so strong that Paul effectively says that wherever he goes, he brings the Philippians with him. They labor in his labors because they share in his life. There is a sort of “real presence” at work in their spiritual unity.

Paul writes:

I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ; just as it is right for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart, inasmuch as both in my chains and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers with me of grace. For God is my witness, how greatly I long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:3-8)

To fully appreciate what Paul is saying here, we need to understand the full importance of memory or remembering in the Bible. It’s actually a very important thing. To remember in the Bible usually means to bring something to mind in such a way as to inspire action. Typically it is used in connection with the covenant. When God “remembers” His covenant, He remembers the promise He made to His people and He then acts in such a way as to keep that promise. The most famous example of this is in the case of the rainbow after the flood. God says:

I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be for the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud; and I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. (Gen. 9:13-16)

You see, the rainbow “reminded” God that He had promised not to destroy the earth again, and so whenever God’s wrath was incited against the earth, He would see His rainbow, remember the covenant, and relent.

And there are many more instances of covenantal memory in the bible. We don’t have time to talk about them all in detail, but we can mention a few. The Sabbath day was a memorial day. There were also memorial sacrifices. The priest had memorial stones on his breastplate. And in the New Testament, we have a covenant memorial in the Lord’s Supper. Jesus told the disciples to eat the bread and drink the wine “in remembrance of me.” That remembrance was not simply remembering that Jesus existed and lived and died, but rather remembering the saving acts which He accomplished and the covenant itself. And we don’t only remember it in the sense of calling it to our minds internally, but we memorialize it, or, in the words of Paul, “show forth the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). Our keeping the Lord’s Supper is an act of covenant memory, and in it, we are calling ourselves to remember the covenant and we are calling on God to remember His covenant in the hopes that He will act.

Now, I gave you that background on remembering in order to point out that when Paul “remembers” the Philippians, he is not just being sentimental. He is actually sharing the mission with them. And more than that, when he calls them to mind, it is as if they are actually there with him. He says, “it is right for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart, inasmuch as both in my chains and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers with me of grace” (Philippians 1:7). Paul says that it is “right” for him to think of them because they are in his heart. And they are in his heart because they partake with him of grace, because of their communion together. Paul is actually saying that it is right for him to remember the Philippians because they Philippians are there with him. They are present through their communion.

And this all means that wherever Paul goes, he carries the Philippians with him, and the Philippians continue to participate in and through Paul as well. Whatever happens to Paul happens to them. Paul says later on in this chapter that the Philippians have “the same conflict which you saw in me and now hear is in me” (vs. 30). The things that are happening to Paul are happening to the church in Philippi because their lives are shared. They are present with one another. And this teaches us about the nature of the church.


The communion of the saints might sound like fancy theology but it is actually practical ecclesiology. That means it teaches us what the church is and how it functions. The communion of the saints means that every member of the church belongs to every other member of the church and that they are truly one body in Christ. In fact, they are even one body with Christ. Do you remember what Jesus said to Saul before his conversion in the book of Acts? “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”( Acts 9:4). But Jesus had already ascended to heaven by that point. Who was Saul actually persecuting? It was the church. He had Stephen killed and was arresting the other Christians. Yet Jesus said that Saul was persecuting him. This is because the communion of the saints is also communion in Christ. We are one body, the body of Christ.

The most famous verse in this passage is undoubtedly vs. 6, “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” This verse gives us assurance of our perseverance in the faith. We don’t have to worry that we will come up short because it is God Himself who is at work within us. But this should not be read only in terms of individual salvation. That isn’t really Paul’s purpose here. He says that God has begun a good work in “you,” but he uses the plural form of the pronoun. Paul actually writes, “He who began a good work in y’all will be faithful to complete it.” And this means that Paul is talking about the church as a group. He is faithful that God will continue the work He has begun in the church, in bringing them together, in growing them into maturity, and in supporting Paul’s ministry and continuing to share in it.

This means that the Philippian church at work is actually God at work. They are the means He has chosen to use to further His mission. When the church supports Paul, it is actually God supporting Paul. This is how God works. He uses means and specifically He uses His people. And this is true of us today. Our mutual partnership in one another’s lives is a major way in which God works in us. And since Paul is confident that God will continue to work in the church at Philippi, knitting them together and using them to support him, we ought to be confident that God will continue to work in our church today and bring us to maturity and fulfillment.

Indeed, we need to begin thinking about our relationship with one another in the church as God’s calling. He has put us here, and as many of us who have faith in Jesus Christ are also one in Jesus Christ. We have the same Spirit, and that Spirit is singular. It is the Holy Spirit. It is God in us. And that means that we are one. Our communion makes us full partners and equal partakers in one another’s lives. Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that we become the Borg from Star Trek. We still have our own individual families and our own specific jobs and functions. We are varying members of the one body. But we are one body. And this means we are in it together. There can be no spiritual libertarians. What happens to your spiritual life happens to mine. What happens to you in the church happens to me in the church. And what God does in and through you, He also does to me in and through you. And what God does in and through me, He also does to you in and through me. We are all of us connected.

This also means that the ministries, the missionaries, the pastors, and the various individuals that our church supports and will support in the future is but an extension of our church in its carrying out God’s mission. We are not outsourcing our ministry when we do this. That is a key form of our ministry. And so we should have a personal investment in our ministries. We should remember them in our prayers and carry them in our hearts. And this cannot be sentimental language. It has to be real communion.

But I have actually gotten ahead of myself there. We shouldn’t only remember our specialized ministries and carry them in our hearts. We should remember one another in our prayers—the members of this church. We should carry each other in our hearts, because we have the most basic gospel partnership, the covenant of the local church and the living and active community of faith. Please, pray for me, and I promise to pray for you. We need to know one another, and we need to love one another. This is true even if it doesn’t come naturally—especially if it doesn’t come naturally. You see, there are always people who “click” and people who don’t. There are people who have an easy and automatic affinity for one another and those who don’t. There are people with shared interests, a similar sense of humor, and who just fit in, and there those who don’t have those things and, subsequently, don’t fit in. But if they are in Christ, they have something in common, and it is something big. They have the Holy Spirit. They have the communion of the saints. They have the same life in Christ. And so it is their duty to love one another, to carry one another in their hearts, and to pray constantly for one another, hoping for them to abound in love, grace, and discernment.

Paul then tells us exactly what he prays for:

And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (9-11)

We are going to talk about each of these things in the coming weeks, what they mean and how they are realized. But for today the point is simple. Our love, knowledge, and discernment will not come on a one-on-one basis. No, it comes to us as a people, together. We each grow in love as we love one another. We each grow in knowledge as we know one another and learn from one another. And we grow in discernment as we make mistakes together, as we have conflict, and as we stick with it and resolve things together. We grow up into the fullness of the Body of Christ together.

Let us pray.  


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