“Therefore, my brethren, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown . . .”
– Philippians 4:1 –
The way Paul addresses the Philippians in this verse is unparalleled in his writings. It is a piling up of no less than five terms of endearment, and it illustrates the love and affection that can and should exist between believers. Those final two terms are particularly noteworthy.
He calls the Philippians themselves his joy. And that is a striking designation for a number of reasons. First, given Paul’s overwhelming emphasis on joy throughout the letter (there is some reference to joy and rejoicing 16 times in these four short chapters), it’s significant that he would identify his joy as the Philippians themselves. It’s also striking, secondly, because of where Paul is as he expresses that the Philippians are his joy: chained 18 inches away from a Roman soldier under house arrest, waiting to stand trial before the Roman Emperor. Paul’s joy is unshakable, because he does not derive his joy from the pleasantness and ease of his circumstances.
And finally, it’s a striking statement to say that fellow believers are his joy, rather than saying that Christ Himself is his joy. But given that the believer displays the glory of Christ by virtue of his conformity to His image, we find the distinction between joy in Christ and joy in His people to be a false dichotomy. Because Paul can so clearly see the evidence of God’s grace at work in the lives of the Philippians, it is precisely because his joy is in Christ that the Philippians are a cause for his rejoicing. When he thinks back to the founding of that church in Philippi, and remembers how he had begotten them as his spiritual children through the preaching of the Gospel, and now considers their growth in grace and evident spiritual maturity, his heart overflows with joy. He expresses that same sentiment in 1 Thessalonians 3:9, when he says, “For what thanks can we render to God for you in return for all the joy with which we rejoice before our God on your account?”
But not only are the Philippians a source of present joy, their progress in grace is also a guarantee of Paul’s future rejoicing in the day of Christ. This is what he’s referring to when he calls them his joy and crown. Now this crown is not the diadema—the royal crown that a king or sovereign would wear. This is the stephanos—the laurel wreath awarded to the victor in the Greek athletic games. Paul speaks about this stephanos, in 1 Corinthians 9:25, when he uses the illustration of the games to stir us up to greater effort in the Christian life. He says there, “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath.” They run to win! To stand on the highest platform and be crowned as victor!
But throughout the New Testament, the Apostles take that image of the wreath and use it as a metaphor for the believer’s final reward in the day of Christ Jesus (cf. 2 Tim 4:8; Jas 1:12; 1 Pet 5:4; Rev 2:10). And unlike that perishable wreath that would begin to wilt as soon as the laurels were picked from the tree, this wreath that the believer strives after and yearns for is an imperishable wreath (1 Cor 9:25); it is an unfading crown of glory (1 Pet 5:4).
And so do you see what Paul is saying by calling the Philippians his crown? He’s saying what he said of the Thessalonians in 1 Thessalonians 2:19 and 20: “For who is our hope or joy or crown of exultation? Is it not even you, in the presence of our Lord Jesus at His coming? For you are our glory and joy.” He is saying that the proof of the effectiveness of his ministry will be the spiritual maturity of the believers he’s invested in. They themselves, in the progress of their holiness, will be his crown. This is precisely what he says in Philippians 2:16, as he exhorts them to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, so that they might stand out as stars shining in the night sky, “so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory”—to rejoice!—“because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.”
Pastor Albert Martin paraphrases this beautifully. He says, speaking as Paul,
“If you Philippians continue in the path of obedience, so that Christ is formed in you to the extent that you shine as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, when the Lord Jesus comes, I will not be found as one who ran but was not crowned—as one who has nothing to show for all my endeavors but sore muscles! Oh, if you Philippians continue to be monuments of the power of the Gospel in practical holiness, in the last day I’ll wear the victor’s crown as a minister who was used to realize the great end of the ministry!”
Laboring for that Crown
And friends, we Christians need to have this very same view of one another—that our fellow believers are our joy and crown of exultation on the day of Christ. Now of course, we are not each other’s pastors and spiritual leaders like Paul was to the Philippians. But we all need to be involved in each other’s lives—to be laboring diligently to aid in the sanctification of our brothers and sisters in Christ!
Progressive sanctification—this race of Christian holiness that we’re running—is not an individual endeavor! It’s a team effort. Sanctification is a community project. The brothers and sisters in your local church are given to one another by God so that you might encourage one another, and sharpen one another, and stir one another up to greater likeness to Christ—greater hatred of sin, and greater love for righteousness. This is what we as Christ’s people are here for! To build into the people of God, to invest our lives in each other’s spiritual maturity. We’re here to get into each other’s kitchen, to ask the hard questions, to give of our time and energy, to be devoted to one another in prayer, to model for one another how to put off sin and put on righteousness, and ten thousand other things as we seek to conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel.
Alexander MacLaren, that great Scottish preacher, said that “the crown of victory laid on the locks of a faithful teacher is the character of those whom he has taught.” And I would broaden that out to apply it to all of us: the crown of victory laid on the locks of a faithful believer is the character of those brothers and sisters whom the Lord brought into his life, whom he poured himself into, and labored to see them mature in holiness.
So, are you investing your lives in the lives of your fellow believers whom the Lord has given to you in your local church, such that in the day of Christ you will have a number of brothers and sisters who will be something of your joy and crown of exultation? If not, then with the thought of that glorious day in the horizon of your mind, you need to ask yourself what you’re going to do here and now to change that. What in your life will you sacrifice in order to invest in that crown? How can you more faithfully give yourself to spending and being spent for the souls of your brothers and sisters? It will be worth it. Don’t forfeit your own joy. Don’t forfeit your crown of exultation.