The point of Paul’s opening prayer is that the congregation’s love would “abound more and more.” Similar to Paul’s prayer in 1 Thess 3:12, he wants his readers to “abounding in love” more than they already do. Perhaps this is an allusion to God’s character, in Exod 34:6 he is “abounding in love,” a verse that resonates in many other texts in the Hebrew Bible (Num 14:8, Neh 9:17, Ps 86:5). To “abound” is fairly simple, it means to have enough to go around and then some. It is used for the food Jesus provides in the wilderness (Matt 14:20). If you have an abundance of something, you are “rich,” so this word (περισσεύω) can be translated in that way, “be rich in love.”
Someone might ask, how do I “abound in love”? First, study the character of God, who is the one who ultimately “abounds in love.” Second, observe how Jesus reveals the character of God’s love in his ministry. Third, love is not a commodity that can be hoarded; it does not bear interest when it is not used. You know someone is a loving person because they are acting in some sort of a loving way!
Since love is the first of the fruit of the Spirit, it is possible that Paul uses love as a kind of shorthand for all the things that characterize the person who is “in Christ” and bearing fruit. Knowledge (ἐπίγνωσις) refers to intellect, knowing “facts.” In the New Testament it is often “knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4, for example). It is very common in Paul’s letters to find this kind of balance between the practical (love) and doctrinal (know). The more you know God and his story (the Bible), the better you can demonstrate love (peace, patience, etc). The more you bear the fruit of the Spirit, the more you understand God. There is a balance between the two.
“All discernment” refers to the capacity to understand something. Rather than facts, Paul has in mind here the wisdom to understand and apply those facts. This particular word for knowledge (αἴσθησις) is rare in the New Testament (only here). In the LXX it is almost exclusively found in Wisdom literature (only once in Exod 28:3). “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7), and that knowledge is better than choice gold (Prov 8:10).
If the church is abounding in love, they will be able to “approve” of what is excellent. This does not mean the church serves as a “board of approval” for what is excellent in a culture (and disapproving of what is not). The verb (δοκιμάζω) refers to a critical examination of something to determine genuineness (BDAG). I think of the people on the Antiques Roadshow who examine a Civil War sword in order to determine if it is real (and very valuable) or fake (and worthless).
The subjects of this test are “different things.” The ESV translates “what is excellent,” and this is not bad. The verb (διαφέρω) refers to two different things and in the context of a test between them: which is better? Paul used the same phrase in Rom 2:18: the believer will be able to weigh various options in order to discover the best course of action. This follows Paul’s use of wisdom language in his prayer since wisdom is often described as the ability to choose the better of several options. What he likely has in mind here is living life as a believer in a Roman city like Philippi. Every day the believers were confronted with a bewildering array of cultural options. How does an individual believer decide how they should eat and drink, whether they can go to the theaters or participate in civic events? Some of these should be obvious (no, worshiping a false god is not an “excellent thing”), but others were more difficult. Should a slave follow his master’s orders even if they conflicted with his Christian convictions? Could a businessman work in the marketplace if it was dedicated to several gods?
This kind of discernment is still necessary for believers today. Many readers of this blog are living in countries where Christianity is not the majority religion. Most Christians in the world have to daily make these kind of discerning decisions – how does my faith as a Christian change the way I think about some culturally accepted practice? But this discernment is important for Western Christians as well. American culture has become post-Christian. Behaviors once not even considered by the culture are now common Christians have forgotten to even think about them.
The Christian person must develop this discerning heart so their “love may abound.” In what ways might this be applied in your cultural context?