I was teaching two classes in Manhattan, one on Philippians and the other on God’s love. What I taught on God’s love was apparently irrelevant to one student until we happened upon this verse in the Philippians class:
For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of [Messiah] Jesus. (Philippians 1:8)
Suddenly, the eyes of her heart opened to the nature of God’s love. Ever since, this has been one of my favorite verses.
The most important words from this verse for this exhortation are “long” and “affection.”
Quickly, epipotheo, translated “long for,” means “to pursue with love, to long after.” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon)
The word translated “affection” is one of those messy words having to do with internal organs, in this case, the intestines. At the risk of a bad pun, let’s mention that applying this to the transcendent and glorified Son of God is “gutsy.” It is not the well thought out concept of a theologian. Instead, it is a word (splangchna) which indicates feeling. This word describes a “visceral” emotion. It is often translated, “compassion.” Louw-Nida (a lexicon used in translation work) puts it like this: the deep, inner seat of tender emotions in the whole personality. That works for me.
Longing for You with Jesus’ Affection
Now, it seems that there are a few possible explanations for this radical expression. If I’ve left something out, please write me and let me know. Meanwhile, let’s take a look at some of our options…
Maybe Paul’s reference to the Messiah’s affection is about his experience of something alien to his own soul. A temple is not the same thing as the God who indwells it. Was he perhaps like a temple and Jesus’ affections like the manifest presence shining from a human holy of holies? Was he, perhaps, like a riverbed and the affections of Jesus, the river?
“Philippians, I am experiencing something that is way more than I could ever have in and of myself. I am experiencing Jesus’ own longing and affection towards you.”
Was Paul overwhelmed by Jesus’ affection, similar to a revival phenomenon of spiritual inebriation? Was this like experiencing a flame of fire, burning over him, which had no relationship to the apostle at all? (Acts 2:3) Sort of like a burning candle? The candle is not the flame.
“Brothers and sisters, I am experiencing the Messiah’s affections for you, not my own.”
Is it possible that this was a spiritual enhancement of Paul’s human affection? Is this a description of Paul and the Messiah’s spirits being united? After all, “he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” (1 Corinthians 6:17) Is this what the apostle meant?
“My affection for you is like a glove and the fullness of this longing and affection I have for you is like the hand in the glove.”
Orthodox Churches have a doctrine of sanctification called “theosis.” They explain that a sword in a fire ends up with similar qualities, yet remains a sword. So the human soul which abides in the Lord “may become partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4b) I think of it more like a carton of milk being put in a refrigerator – it eventually shares the same temperature.
“My soul has been in communion with the Son of God so intensely that I have come to share His affection for you. My affection is like His because of His presence in my life.”
Or perhaps it has to do with the quality of Paul’s sanctified and empowered emotional attachment. (Romans 5:3; Galatians 5:22-24) Paul might be saying,
“My longing and affection for you is just like the longing and affection of Jesus. When you experience my longing and affection, you are experiencing that which is analogous (just like) to the Son of God’s heart for you.”
At the risk of wearing you out, we’ll stop exploring these possibilities. One way or the other, Paul is saying something he expected believers to believe: Jesus longs for them; Jesus is affectionate towards them.
Whole, Full, Powerful Longing
It is important to know that the Lord’s emotional life is whole, full, and powerful. This includes “longing” as well as “affection.”
In this instance, Paul is connecting to, and conveying, an emotion which we call “missing.” The reason someone longs for something, or someone, is a sense of incompleteness. When you miss something, or someone, you have a longing – which can become a pining. Paul wasn’t pining away for the Philippians, he was oriented towards knowing Jesus, but in the depths of his heart he longed to see them. Isn’t it amazing that this emotion is paralleled by Jesus’ heart towards us?
“Longing with affection” feels similar to homesickness. Doug Collins, a chaplain in Iraq, wrote (in the Gainesville Gazette, 11/14/08), “…homesickness. It is probably the No. 1 (sic) issue that I deal with here. Homesickness also is the hardest thing to deal with … I have nothing that can take away the longing in the heart to be at home with family and friends…”
In Light of This
There is warmth radiating from this verse that can provide comfort and reassurance. To think that the Lord’s heart is affectionate towards these believers provides emotional and spiritual security. These Philippians weren’t perfect. They had problems with pride and schism which provoked apostolic adjustment. Yet, they warranted affection from the Lord – as do you. Jesus thinks of you with affection; you stir His emotions in the direction of loving affection. He enjoys your company and longs to be with you. In his emotional motivations towards the Philippians, Paul was like Jesus.
In the light of this, let’s close this meditation with Paul’s prayer found in the next verse:
it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of [the Messiah], filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus [the Messiah], to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11)