Recently at our church, I had the opportunity of participating in “team teaching” through the book of Philippians for the adult Sunday School class. The book was divided up, and each of the six men were given 3–4 passages to teach. I am posting the text of my four lessons on this blog. If you are interested in hearing all the lessons for the whole book they are available here. #Philippians
Opening: Paul’s Thanksgiving
As we move on this morning in our study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we find Paul following his normal pattern of thanksgiving and prayer. This week we will look at his statement of thanksgiving about the Philippians, and next week we will look closely at his prayer for them.
After the standard salutation and greeting, Paul’s letters typically included a statement of thanksgiving and a prayer for the recipients. In this instance he is thanking God for the fellowship of the saints at Philippi, and their participation in the gospel. This, in turn, will lead him to examine the foundation of their fellowship and of his joy—the work of Christ in them. In short, what God has done, and is doing, is the theme of this passage.
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Philippians 1:3-5 ESV)
In the last lesson we talked a bit about Paul’s close relationship with the Philippian church, and that comes through even more in this section of thanksgiving. Before we get into the details of this passage, there are a couple of things worth pointing out.
The first is Paul’s general attitude of thankfulness regarding fellow believers and the work of Christ in them. He finds himself regularly thinking about them, and joyfully thanking God for them, and for the work of Christ in them.
What things give you joy as a believer? What do you rejoice in? Do you take joy in growing in personal holiness, conquering indwelling sin, and evidences that your are growing in maturity to become more like Christ? You should! But looking at Paul’s attitude here causes me to ask, “Is the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work in other believers a source of joy to me? Am I thanking God for the things I see him doing in their lives?”
We live in a very narcissistic culture and it is easy for us focus exclusively on ourselves—our needs, our growth. Paul’s words here, and in his other letters, should challenge us to pay closer attention to what God is doing in the lives of other believers around us—particularly in the context of the local church. It should bring us when we see them growing in grace, and the knowledge of the truth. We should be thanking God for the grace that he is displaying in those believers who’s lives he has knit with our own.
The second thing to notice, is the frequency of Paul’s prayers for these believers. The believers in Philippi are a constant subject of prayer for Paul. He remembers them fondly, and frequently. He is regularly praying on their behalf.
We may be faithful to pray for specific needs as they are requested or mentioned on the prayer chain, but do we go beyond that? Do we pray for them to pursue righteousness, and grow in grace; to resist temptation and to trust god in adversity? We should.
“[Prayer] is not simply a listing of the requests we have, it involves entering into other’s situations, needs, triumphs and failures, and carrying them into the presence of God.” — Sinclair Ferguson
I pray for myself, that I would grow in holiness, that I would rely more fully on his grace, and that he would guard my heart from temptation. Yet, how often do I pray that for others? It is vital that I do so! We need one another. It has rightly been said that there are no “Lone Ranger” christians. To be a believer is to be a part of the body, working together, supporting one another, and all depending upon Christ, the head. I think, if we apply this consistently, it will greatly effect our prayers for one another.
The Cause of Paul’s Joy — Partnership in the Gospel
As Paul remembers the Philippian believers and prays for them, it is with joy. Why did the Philippian church have this effect on Paul? It was because of their “partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.”
This word, which is rendered in the ESV as “partnership”, is the word κοινωνίᾳ which is often translated as “fellowship”. It refers to participation together, or sharing in something. In this instance their fellowship together is “in the gospel”. This is the source of Paul’s joy.
Their participation in the gospel has two aspects. It is practical, and it is relational.
Gospel Partnership Is Practical
The Philippians partnered with Paul in supporting his ministry of advancing the gospel by providing for his material needs. Paul uses this same word κοινωνίᾳ several times throughout his letters to refer to contribution of funds for the care of the saints and and the support of the ministry. He uses the verb form of the same word in 4:15 to describe the financial and material support the Philippians had given him.
Partnership in the gospel has a very practical side. The apostle John, in his first letter, ties our love of Christ to our love of believers as it is expressed in care for their practical needs (But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 1 John 3:17). An essential part of our fellowship and ministry together is the giving that takes place when we gather. One of the reasons for which Paul is writing this letter is to thank the Philippians for their continued participation in supporting his practical needs.
Gospel Partnership Is Relational
More importantly though, gospel partnership is relational. Its greatest effect is on our relationship to God. The Philippians have taken part in the gospel by being united to Christ. They have become partakers of, or participants in, the grace of God by responding in faith to the gospel. At the moment of regeneration, we are made partakers—“partners” to use the term here—in the work of Christ. We share in his death and resurrection by dying to sin and being raised to spiritual life as a new creation. We now have fellowship with God.
In Christ we also have fellowship with one another. As believers, we are in partnership together in the gospel. Christ not only draws us to himself, but also draws us to one another. Our common love for Christ, and our shared commitment to his kingdom bind us together.
Commitment to Christ goes hand in hand with a commitment to his people. Jesus tells us in Matthew 25:40 that a love for the brothers is love for him. (‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’)
I am often struck, as I gather with you all on the Lord’s day or in small groups, how very different we all are. We have widely varied personalities, interests, and backgrounds. Yet some of my closest bonds are with the people sitting in this room. It is because we are united in the most central thing of all, our identity in Christ.
Their Partnership Is Ongoing
Paul also mentions that the Philippian’s partnership was ongoing. Others had, no doubt, partnered with Paul for a time, but they had eventually stopped, or faded away. However, Paul gives thanks that the Philippians partnership has continued “from the first day until now.” They were faithfully consistent in supporting Paul.
Their lives were also consistent. They were not only professing to be believers, but they were faithfully living lives that demonstrated the work of grace in their hearts. And this remained true of them. The early church father Polycarp, approximately 50–70 years after this letter was written, also wrote to the Philippian church. In the opening of his letter we find this.
“I rejoiced with you greatly in our Lord Jesus Christ, …that the steadfast root of your faith which was famed from primitive times abideth until now and beareth fruit unto our Lord Jesus Christ” (Polycarp to the Philippians 1:1-2 AFL-E)
All those years later, the Philippian church was still known for their faithfulness, and the fruit they bore. Their lives were true portraits of the grace of God. The faithfulness and continued growth of the Philippian believers was a cause of joy to Paul and those whom God had placed in leadership over them (cf. Hebrews 13:17). In short, the reason Paul was so joyful about the Philippians is because the work of Christ was on full display in their lives.
This is New Testament christianity. It is not church buildings, or steeples topped with a cross, nor hymns, or the name over the door that identifies a New Testament church. It is people who live lives that have been transformed by the gospel and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. It is those who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit, those who share in the sufferings of Christ, who love one another like Christ, who humbly serve like Christ, and who seek to live lives patterned after the commands of Christ.
The Foundation of Paul’s Joy — Christian Assurance
What if Paul’s joy is misplaced? What if the Philippians fail to persevere? Will his rejoicing prove to be futile?
No, Paul has every reason to be joyful. Why? Because his joy is not grounded in their good works, or faithfulness, or on the effectiveness of his own ministry. He has a more sure foundation. His joy is grounded in the Work of Christ.
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6 ESV)
Paul’s confidence is in the certainty that God completes what he begins. If salvation were our work we could fail. But Salvation is God’s work. Can he fail? (1 Thess 5:23-24; Jude 24)
Begun In You
Paul argues that it cannot fail because the work did not begin with you, it was begun in you by God. The Philippians were acutely aware of this, just think back to Pauls first visit in Acts 16.
- Paul and his companions weren’t even intending to go to Philippi, but the Spirit of God altered their plans—closing door for ministry in Asia and directing them by a vision to Macedonia.
- There was seemingly no synagogue in Philippi—no established group with foundational knowledge of God and the scriptures.
- Shortly after arriving there they were tossed into prison, and the next day, rushed out of town.
None of these are things you would look for as encouraging signs for fruitful gospel ministry. And then there were the early converts.
- Lydia, the first convert who Luke tells us responded because “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”
- The slave girl, a demon possessed fortune teller who actively opposed Paul.
- Their Jailer, who was brought to his knees only by an act of God, an at the point of suicide ask, “What must I do to be saved?”
It would be hard to come up with a better set of people to illustrate that salvation begins, not with us, but with the divine action of God.
Completed at the Day of Christ
Just as certain as the fact that God began the work of salvation, is the assurance that he will complete it. We are justified at the moment that we place our faith in Christ and are regenerated by the Holy Spirit. We say that we are saved. However, that does not mean that this initial work is all that is involved in our salvation.
If you have been a believer for any length of time you likely know from experience that the Christian life is not an initial experience after which you simply coast on into eternity. Instead, it is a life-long process of God transforming a broken sinner into the glorious image of his Son.
This is what Paul means by “bring it to completion”. It is the idea of putting the finishing touches on something—refining it. Just as Christ’s work, by which we are justified, is certain, so too is this ongoing work of salvation in us.
It will not be completed in this life, but will finally be accomplished, and finished when Christ returns! So do not fear. God’s timetable of completion may not proceed according to your expectations, but it is certain. Nothing will be left undone at the Day of Christ!
Christian Assurance — A Precious Doctrine
This is the great doctrine of Christian assurance. How terribly frail would be a salvation based on the whims of human will that swings from cold to hot to cold again. If my salvation depended upon my own faithfulness and holiness I would have no hope, but if Salvation is God’s work in me, then I can rest secure. My salvation can no more be forfeited than God can fail or lie!
One objection to this is that it makes men complacent, and leads to arrogance. Indeed, I have encountered some twisted versions that do that very thing. However, true Christian assurance gives no place to pride because:
- It is God’s work alone
- Our assurance grows as we grow in grace
- The evidence of our assurance is our commitment to the gospel
Paul sees the outward evidence of the Philippians perseverance (v.5), and their endurance and defense of the gospel (v.7). So his joy over the work of Christ in the Philippians is secure. It does not rest on them, but on the work of Christ in them.
The Expression of Paul’s Joy — The Affection of Christ
We have seen the cause of Paul’s joy—their partnership in the gospel, and the foundation of his joy—the certainty of Christ’s work. Lastly, we will look at the expression of that joy.
It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:7-8 ESV)
It was right for Paul to feel this joyful affinity for the Philippians because they shared a common bond of participation in God’s grace.
The Common Bond of Grace
Looking beyond salvation for a moment, when we think of the grace of God at work in our lives what comes to mind? Perhaps we think of health, financial security, or other material blessings. Maybe we are more spiritually minded and think of growth in our sanctification, or the children God has given us. Indeed, all these are gifts of God’s grace.
Yet, notice what Paul describes as participation in God grace—imprisonment, and defense and confirmation of the gospel. The greek words translated “defense and conformation” are judicial terms that suggest being called to witness during a trial. That is not at all what we typically think of as “grace”, but Paul recognized even these trials were gifts of grace from he hand of a loving and sovereign Lord.
The Philippians likewise, recognized God at work, and so they stuck with Paul—participating in his imprisonment by sending support, and by being willing to identify with him. If they were looked down on for their association with Paul the prisoner, so be it. They also would participate in the defense and confirmation of the gospel by their own willingness to stand firm, even in the face of persecution.
The Affection of Christ
It is evident why Paul had such a bond of love with the Philippians. He describes this affinity as holding them in his heart, and yearning for them “with the affection of Christ”. These terms refer to a deep seated expression of compassionate love. What an amazing transformation of Saul the persecutor who, breathing out threatenings, went from house to house dragging believers, both men and women, off to prison. What could bring about this kind of transformation other than the grace of God?
Likewise the Philippians had a strong affection for the apostle. This is evidenced by their participation with his ministry, even the difficult parts. This is a stark contrast to the mindset about ministry and the local church that we often witness today.
The criteria for selecting from among the many options for a church to attend often centers upon what is comfortable and convenient rather than a commitment to the truth of the gospel. Is it surprising then that, as soon as some difficulty or hardship arises, many drift on elsewhere or simply fall away?
Paul rejoiced that the Philippians were characterized by a commitment to the truth, and not by a pursuit of comfort.
The affection of Christ mentioned here is not unique to Paul and Philippians. It should characterize all believers who participate in the gospel. It is one of the distinguishing marks by which true believers are know.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 ESV)
It is my prayer that we would imitate the Philippians and remain faithfully committed to the work of the gospel, and to the people of God, knowing that the foundation of our faith is Christ’s work in us which can never fail.