In the context of his opening prayer for the Philippians (Phil. 1:3–11), Paul shares his conviction of God’s work in and among the Philippian believers. “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). The “work” Paul refers to is the work of new birth in Christ, which leads to salvation. Paul himself had a hand in that work by preaching the gospel to them. He continues that work as their teacher and apostle, and he says it is “fruitful labor for me” (Phil. 1:22). Yet the underlying worker is not Paul but God, for God is “the one who began a good work among you” (Phil. 1:6). “This is God’s doing” (Phil. 1:28).
The NRSV speaks of God’s work “among you,” while most English translations speak of God’s work “in you.” Both are apropos, and the Greek phrase en humin can be rendered either way. God’s good work begins in individual lives. Yet it is to be lived out among believers in their fellowship together. The main point of verse 6 is not to restrict God’s work either to individuals or the community as a whole, but rather to underscore the fact that all of their work is God’s work. Moreover, this work isn’t completed when individuals “get saved” or when churches are planted. God continues working in and among us until his work is complete, which happens “by the day of Jesus Christ.” Only when Christ returns will God’s work be finished.
Paul’s job is evangelist and apostle, and there are marks of success and ambition in his profession, as in any other. How many converts you win, how much funding you raise, how many people praise you as their spiritual mentor, how your numbers compare to other evangelists—these can be points of pride and ambition. Paul admits that these motivations exist in his profession, but he insists that the only proper motivation is love (Phil. 1:15–16). The implication is that this is true in every other profession as well. We are all tempted to work for the marks of success—including recognition, security, and money—which can lead to “selfish ambition” (eritieias, perhaps more precisely translated as “unfair self-promotion”). They are not entirely bad, for they often come as we accomplish the legitimate purposes of our jobs (Phil. 1:18). Getting the work done is important, even if our motivation is not perfect. Yet in the long run (Phil. 3:7–14), motivation is even more important and the only Christ-like motivation is love.
James Strong, Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon (Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship, 1995), G2052.