And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, (1:9)
Anyone who is in the least familiar with the New Testament knows that love—of God for men and of men for God and for each other—is at the very heart of biblical Christianity. The God of Scripture not only loves but is love (1 John 4:8, 16). “Love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God … and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:7, 16). God loves fallen humanity so much that “He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Love is an absolute and pervasive attribute of God’s essential nature and a critical reality in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
No one understood the importance of love better than the apostle Paul. Because he loved the Philippian believers, he continually prayed for them. As with all those under his care, the apostle’s constant concern for these saints was for their spiritual growth, for which growth in love was essential. He expressed that same concern for growth to the Galatians: “My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). The responsibility of apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers is
the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.… [And] speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:12–13, 15).
The Greek word agapē (love) is used so uniquely in the New Testament that ancient Greek literature, even the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), sheds little light on its meaning in the New Testament. In both Testaments, however, love is the virtue that surpasses all others; indeed, it is the prerequisite for all the others. When a Pharisee asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” He replied by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:36–40).
Paul also speaks of love in the opening sections of several other letters. Writing to the churches at Ephesus, Colossae, and Thessalonica, he commends believers for their love for each other and for fellow believers everywhere (Eph. 1:15; Col. 1:4; 1 Thess. 1:3; 2 Thess. 1:3). Later in Colossians he speaks of love as “the perfect bond of unity” (3:14). In 1 Corinthians, he elevates love above hope and even faith (1 Cor. 13:13). A few verses earlier he declares that love actually encompasses the other two, because love “believes all things [and] hopes all things” (v. 7). In fact, apart from genuine godly love, every other virtue and activity, no matter how seemingly biblical and sincere, amounts to nothing (vv. 1–3).
In the present verse, Paul mentions or implies at least five distinct but interrelated characteristics of Christian agapēlove. This love is divine, de facto, decisive, dynamic, and discerning.
First, as the statement And this I pray implies, the love Paul wrote about is divine in its nature and in its origin. Paul petitioned God to provide the Philippians with more of the love that comes only from Him. He clearly agreed with his fellow apostle John that “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.… In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.… We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:7–8, 10, 19).
Godly love is produced only by the working of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of those who belong to Him. “The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5). It is the first and foremost of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). Believers are taught by God Himself to love. “Now as to the love of the brethren,” Paul explained, “you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another; for indeed you do practice it toward all the brethren who are in all Macedonia. But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more” (1 Thess. 4:9–10).
Like God’s general love for mankind (John 3:16–17) and His electing love for believers (John 17:23; 1 John 4:16), biblical love is a choice. It is based solely on the intent of the one who loves, not on any merit of those who receive it. The only exception, of course, is the believer’s love for God, who is uniquely and supremely deserving.
Illustrating biblical love in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declared,
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? (Matt. 5:43–46)
It is therefore clear that agapēlove is not based on emotional or sentimental, much less physical, attraction. That is not to say that Christian love is without feeling or sentiment. It is inevitable that believers’ love for others, even those who do not love in return, will produce an emotional attachment (cf. Rom. 9:1–4; 10:1). Paul’s love for fellow believers, especially those like the Philippians, who loved and cared for him so much, was profoundly emotional. But that emotional attraction was not the basis of his love for them. On a volitional level, he also loved the immature, bickering, and ungrateful believers in Corinth.
Second, this love is what might be called de facto. The Philippians were already showing love for Paul and each other. That is why the apostle could say he wanted their love to abound still more. Scripture reveals that all genuine Christians possess godly love, because the Holy Spirit places it in their hearts (cf. Rom. 5:5; Gal. 5:22; 1 Thess. 4:9–10; 1 John 4:7–8).
Love of fellow Christians is a sure mark of saving faith. “By this all men will know that you are My disciples,” Jesus said, “if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Expanding on that truth, John later wrote: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.… If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 3:14; 4:20).
Third, genuine love is decisive. As mentioned above, it is a love not based on feelings, but is rather a conscious, intentional choice to show kindness and generosity. In obedience to the Lord’s command, believers willingly choose to express the love He has placed within them. They do so whether others are lovable or not, and whether they respond or not. Believers unselfishly love others because that is the way God loves and because that is how He commands them to love. By obeying the Lord’s command to “love one another, even as I have loved you” (John 13:34), believers become “imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 5:1).
Jesus gave that command in the Upper Room, not long after He had washed the disciples’ feet, a menial and unpleasant task normally performed only by servants. The Lord went on to explain:
You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. (John 13:13–16)
Jesus also illustrated this volitional, decisive, and sacrificial love in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–35). The Samaritan helped the stranger who was beaten and robbed because the man needed help, not for his own self-satisfaction, self-fulfillment, or feeling of enhanced self-worth. To love our neighbor as ourselves is to do all we can to meet our neighbor’s needs in the same way and to the same extent that we would want our own needs to be met under similar circumstances. It is to apply the Golden Rule: “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).
Again Jesus is the supreme example of sacrificial love. In John 15:12–13 He declared: “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.” “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,” Paul wrote; “and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph. 5:1–2). Husbands are specifically commanded to “love [their] wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (v. 25).
Paul gives perhaps the richest summary of godly love later in Philippians:
Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (2:1–8)
That kind of willful, humble, self-giving love is much needed in the church today, which is all too often influenced by the world’s corrupted concept of love. People care little about beneficent, selfless love (not to mention godly love); the world’s concept of love is one that plays on self-interest, even when promoting causes that are meant to help others. Tragically, even in the church people are sometimes asked to give to the Lord’s work because doing so will make them feel good about themselves.
Fourth, godly love is dynamic. It has the capability to abound. Love is not mere emotion or feeling, and as it grows it always finds increasing expression in a righteous character and humble service. Abound is from perisseuō, which has the basic idea of overflowing in great abundance. In this verse, the present tense indicates a continual progress. Love is to grow and abound throughout the life of a believer. Jesus used the verb in the parable of the sower, explaining that “to you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted. For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him” (Matt. 13:11–12).
Because of its divine nature, this dynamic love energizes the fulfilling of divine law. Jesus declared that fulfilling the two supreme commandments to love God and men is the foundation of the whole Law and the Prophets (Matt. 22:37–40). In similar words, Paul said, “He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:8–10).
The second law of thermodynamics states that all matter and energy in the universe are in a constant state of entropy, a process of continual degradation and deterioration. That law of physics has a counterpart in the Christian life. There is a residual and destructive principle of spiritual entropy that pressures God’s people to slip backwards. To avoid doing so, believers must diligently study and obey His Word, come before Him in prayer, and trust in His continuing grace and power to make them grow and abound in love.
Paul described his own struggle with that residual principle in Romans 7:21–25:
I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.
In Ephesians he called this continuing propensity to sin “the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit” (Eph. 4:22; cf. Col. 3:9). For that reason the apostle reminded the church at Corinth that only “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed” (2 Cor. 9:8). It is also for that reason that he prayed for the Thessalonians that “the Lord [may] cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you” (1 Thess. 3:12; cf. 1 John 3:11).
The dynamic of godly love also abounds in real knowledge, namely, the true and infallible knowledge expressed in God’s Word. Any love that is not grounded and growing in the truth and standards of Scripture falls short of genuine biblical love. Real knowledge is much more than mere factual information about God’s Word, or even the acknowledgment of it as true and infallible. Real knowledge produces holiness through sincere devotion and obedience to the infallible Scriptures. It was because the faithful believers in Rome lived righteously that Paul could say to them: “And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another” (Rom. 15:14). Virtue is inseparably linked to the real (true) knowledge of God’s truth. “For the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth [knowledge]” (Eph. 5:9). Likewise, Peter declares: “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22). “Fervently” is from ektenōs, which carries the basic idea of stretching, straining, or going to the limit, and figuratively speaks of great sincerity, earnestness, and fervor. Obedience to God’s Word, the only source of real knowledge, purifies the soul and enables one to love to the limit.
Biblical love involves obedience to the Word. “If you love Me,” Jesus said, “you will keep My commandments.… He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me.… If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.… 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” (John 14:15, 21, 23; 15:10; cf. 1 John 3:24).
No impulse or feeling that leads one to disobey Scripture can be approved and blessed by God. Such “love” not only does not reflect godly love but also is the antithesis and enemy of it. For example, people who try to justify an immoral affair by claiming the Lord led them to fall in love with the other person repudiate God’s Word. Scripture clearly condemns all sexual immorality without exception, including that of romantic attraction.
Fifth, godly love is discerning. It not only abounds in the life of one who has a true and accurate knowledge of God’s Word but also does so in all discernment.Aisthēsis (discernment) is the source of the English word “aesthetic.” But the meaning of aisthēsis is almost the opposite of “aesthetic,” which largely has to do with personal taste and preference. Paul calls believers to put aside personal tastes and preferences and to focus rather on achieving mature insight and understanding. Aisthēsis appears only here in the New Testament and refers to a high level of biblical, theological, moral, and spiritual perception. It also implies the right application of that knowledge. In other words, discernment is the understanding and appreciation of the real knowledge of God’s revelation that produces holy living. Unlike the way that worldly love is often characterized, biblical love is far from blind. On the contrary, it is wise and judicious. It understands “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16), has knowledge, and makes wise assessments, which provide clear directives for holy living. It is a biblically knowledgeable and discriminating love that is under the control of a Spirit-controlled mind and heart. It is the kind of love that can fulfill Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians: “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21–22).
9 Paul’s twofold thanksgiving for their partnership is balanced by a twofold petition for their continued spiritual growth (cf. Col 1:9–11): that their love abound more and more “in knowledge and depth of insight.” He acknowledges the love of the Colossians, Thessalonians, and Philemon in the thanksgiving sections of his letters to them (Col 1:8; 1 Th 1:3; 2 Th 1:3; Phm 5), but his prayer for the Philippians’ love to increase is unique (cf. 1 Th 3:12; 4:9–10). His passionate appeal for love to permeate their communal life (2:1–2; see also 1:16) suggests that he regards a lack of love to be behind the friction at work between Euodia and Syntyche (4:2–3) that could rip apart the church’s fellowship.
It may seem unusual to pray that love increase in “knowledge” (epignōsis, GK 2106) and “depth of insight” (aisthēsis, GK 151). Insight (or feeling) without knowledge is nothing. Knowledge without love also is nothing (1 Co 13:2), but love without knowledge and insight is dangerous. Christian love is not blind or mindless, and Paul prays for them to abound in love that is instructed and morally discerning.
That their love would abound (v. 9)
This may seem to us to be a very strange request in the light of what we have already noted, that is, that the Philippian church was already characterized by love. We can be sure that Paul is not now denying what he has already stated. He is rather affirming that love is a grace in which we can always advance. No matter how much we love, we can love more.
He is also praying for them to abound in a certain type of love, that is, love with knowledge and discernment. He will soon find it necessary to warn them about the ever-present danger of false teachers (3:2, 18–19). The Philippians would make themselves easy prey for such teachers if, in the interest of being loving, they were uncritically to accept everything that these teachers were presenting.
We should be keenly aware of this danger. How often the church today has refused to stand against doctrinal error because someone argued that we must be loving! And, of course, love was understood to mean being agreeable and tolerant.
No one believed more firmly in love than Paul, and yet he did not hesitate to rebuke a fellow apostle for compromising the truth (Gal. 2:11–21). Paul did this because he understood that love and truth are not enemies. The most loving thing we can do is stand for the truth in a loving way.
1:9 / This is my prayer: which catches up “I pray” in verse 4 (although a different Greek word is now used), may mean “I am praying at this moment” (which was no doubt true in any case) or (more probably) “I pray for you regularly, and this is what I pray for,” that your love may abound more and more. For Paul, “the fruit of the Spirit is love” before all else in the lives of which he takes possession (Gal. 5:22); “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5). If such love increases among the Philippian Christians, it will remove those threats to their unity of heart and purpose that arise from occasional clashes of personality and temperament. Paul returns to the subject in 2:2, where he urges his readers to make his “joy complete by … ‘having the same love.’ ”
This love, he trusts, will be accompanied by knowledge and depth of insight. Paul was not blind to the dangers of emotion uncontrolled by intelligence. He was resolved, by his own account, to pray and sing “with my spirit, but … also … with my mind” (1 Cor. 14:15), and he was equally concerned that he and his converts should love in spirit and mind alike.
It is love that fosters the growth of true knowledge and discernment or spiritual perception. “Knowledge,” divorced from love, “puffs up,” whereas “love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). But if love is indispensable, knowledge and depth of insight are necessary. The truth of the gospel is liable to be subverted where ignorance and faulty judgment provide a foothold for the unsound teaching against which the Philippians are put on their guard in chapter 3.