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 Prayer
This morning we conclude our look at the opening section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In verses 1–2, we have the opening salutation which identifies the author, Paul, and with him Timothy—The young man he has mentored. It also identifies the recipients—all the saints at Philippi who along with the overseers and deacons constitute the church of Christ at Philippi.
The in verses 3–8, we have Paul’s typical expression of thanksgiving in which he expresses his joyful gratitude to God for the Philippians and their continued participation in the gospel; both by their firm faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and by their faithful support of Paul even as he is in prison for the defense of the Gospel.
In these two sections we also see many of the themes that will reappear throughout the letter.
- The Philippians position and security in Christ
- Paul’s special affection for the church at Philippi
- Responding joyfully in the face of hardship
Now, in verses 9–11, we have set down Paul’s prayer for the Philippian believers. He has already mentioned the frequency with which he prays for them. In these verses we will get a glimpse of the contents of those prayers.
And 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 Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9–11 ESV)
Given the bold affirmation in verse six that their salvation and sanctification are God’s work which cannot fail, our human reasoning might think of prayer as a mere formality with no real consequence for them. After all, if it is all God’s work, and God cannot fail, then Paul can surely relax his frequent prayers, and the Philippians can relax their participation in the work of the gospel.
Now I trust, that even hearing that expressed, should make you a little uncomfortable. You should recognize that that statement is at odds with the revelation that we have in Scripture. Scriptural reasoning is that God is at work, and therefore, we have a responsibility to respond to that work. God’s absolute sovereignty in the work of Salvation in no way reduces our responsibility to respond, both to the command of the gospel (repent and believe cf. Acts 17:30), and to the work of the Spirit in sanctification.
Paul will flesh this out further in chapter 2:12–13 and 3:12–14. However, I find it instructive that Paul follows his confident statement regarding the certainty of the completion of sanctification in them with a prayer for their continued growth in sanctification.
How do we understand this? We cannot fully comprehend it for, “who has known the mind of the Lord?” But something I have found helpful is to understand that God sovereignty ordains the ends as well as the means. In other words, God has not only ordained the Philippians ultimate sanctification (the ends), but also the means by which their sanctification is to be accomplished such as prayer, study, and faithful endurance in hardship.
Growth in Sanctification
In Paul’s prayer for their continued growth in maturity what does he focus on? What sort of things might we prayer for? Boldness? Holiness? Increased biblical knowledge? Unity? All of these are essential to a believers growth, but Paul gets right to the heart of the matter—love.
The first thing we must ask is whither he is talking about love for God or for fellow believers? I believe both are in view.
Growing in our love for God will result in increased personal holiness, a boldness to speak the truth and a love for the Word of God. Likewise, growing love for the believers will result in humility, unity, and faithful service to the body of Christ.
Love is a central theme of the Christian life. Salvation is the ultimate expression of God’s love towards us which results in a heart that loves God above all else, and therefore loves his people.
As believers, the Philippians are already experience this love, but Paul prays for their love to grow—to “abound more and more”. An abundant, ever-increasing love is one sign of growth in sanctification as a believer.
Indeed growing in their love toward one another is important as there seem to be signs of division creeping into the Philippian church (cf. 2:1 ff and 4:1 ff).
That Paul prays this for them should not be surprising then for this is how love grows. Our love grows in difficult circumstances. The kind which stretch it to its full potential. Do not be surprised then, when you pray for increased love, if you find yourself providentially placed in situations where it is difficult to be loving. Love grows when it is put to the test in situations and circumstance which require us to love more sacrificially and deeply.
Our sinful flesh balks at these circumstances. It will ask things like, “Who is my neighbor?”, and “How many times must I forgive?”. Yet it is through the work of the Spirit in these trying times that our love abounds “more and more”, as we imitate the selfless love of Christ. This too is a mark of our growing sanctification.
In this work of sanctification, love does not stand alone. This is not the modern concept of love which is unmoored from any objective foundation. Love works hand-in-hand with another mark of maturity for which Paul prays—knowledge.
In order to love God truly, we must know God truly—as he has revealed himself. I can no more love God apart from knowledge about him, than I can love my wife while ignoring everything I know about her. Paul prays for the Philippians to have love with knowledge.
As we live the Christian live our growth in knowledge about God is in two overlapping spheres.
- Revelational Knowledge — This is knowledge of what God has revealed in his Word. A sure mark of growth as a believer is an increased knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures. By this, I do not mean just knowing facts about Scripture, but knowing how to handle it rightly and to apply it consistently in our lives.
- Experiential Knowledge — This is the knowledge of God’s character that comes from a life time of trusting him. We know of God’s faithfulness because we have seen it. We know of his mercy because we have experienced it time and again.
This knowledge deepens our love for and trust in God. We find ourselves to be less shaken by trials and hardships when we have walked through these before and seen God provide.
Now, Before we continue I want to give two warnings regarding this subject of knowledge.
- Experiential knowledge must always submit revealed knowledge (i.e. God’s work trumps my experience).
- Just as love without knowledge is empty, so too is knowledge without love (1 Cor 13:1–3). The absence of love shows our “knowledge” to be worthless.
Paul also prays for their love to be joined with discernment. Discernment, as it is used here, is the ability to differentiate between the true and false, and to determine what is real.
Love, when coupled with discernment, is more effective. Discernment allows us to determine where the real need is, and what it is. It helps us know how best to apply love in each situation and circumstance. Love is not just emotion or depth of feeling. For love to truly benefit others and glorify God requires the application of discernment by the Spirit-transformed mind.
How do we grow in discernment? By prayer, for it is a work of the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit in us. We also hone our discernment through use by applying careful biblical thinking to all areas of our lives. This ability to discern, sharpened by constant use, is a mark of spiritual grown and maturity.
But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:14 ESV)
Fruits of Sanctification
…so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:10–11 ESV)
Notice the transitional phrase “so that”. Paul has been praying for their growth in specific areas of sanctification; now he prays for the fruit produced by that growth. He mentions three things which result from the growth of love, knowledge and discernment in a believers life.
Approve What Is Excellent
The first result of this growth is that they would “approve what is excellent”. The word “approve” here refers to the practice of proving something through testing. It is similar to how they would test the purity of metals, by exposing them to intense heat. Through this process of maturing we come to confirm and do those things which are truly pleasing to God. This works out both internally, and externally.
A mature believer will not settle for the desires of the flesh, but will be able to identify what is of real importance. They will, grow to love and desire the things that God values.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2 ESV)
A mature believer will not be swayed by grand claims and charismatic personas, but will prove the words and actions of others by applying to them the standard of truth found in God’s Word.
I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. (Revelation 2:2 ESV)
Be Found Pure and Blameless At Christ’s Return
A second result of their growth in sanctification is that they will have the confidence of being found pure and blameless at Christ’s return. Similar to the term “approve” the word “pure” here describes something scrutinized to judge its worth. It refers to testing something by sunlight. Think of how you might access the quality of something by bringing it into the bright sunlight for careful examination.
As we see the Spirit at work in our lives conforming us to the image of Christ it gives us assurance that—when tested—we will be found pure and blameless.
Paul is not teaching here the idea of sinless perfection that is achieved in this life. Notice that the timing of when we are found pure and blameless — at the return of Christ. We will not always be without fault, but we will finally be without fault. This is God’s work of salvation brought to completion (see v. 6).
Filled With the Fruit of Righteousness
The third result of growth in sanctification is lives that are filled with the righteous fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in us. (cf. Galatians 5) As we grow in grace, there should be an evident increase in our fruitfulness.
Writing to the church at Rome, Paul argues that the fruit we produce is as inescapable outworking of the condition of our heart. Apart form Christ, when we were slaves to sin we certainly, consistently produced the fruit of sin.
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. (Romans 6:22 ESV)
Pay careful attention to the order though. Fruitfulness does not lead to sanctification. Rather, our sanctification leads to our fruitfulness.
Sanctification Is God’s Work
Finally, lest we forget, Paul reminds them that their growth in sanctification, just like their salvation is God’s work. The “fruit of righteousness” is not something we work up by our own ability. Instead Paul says that it “comes through Jesus Christ.”
Remember Jesus analogy of the vine and branches in John 15.
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:4–5 ESV)
It is essential that we see the dual truths reflected here. Our fruitfulness is a result of being connected to the vine. “Apart from me you can bear no fruit.” Fruitfulness is God’s work in and through us; “he is it that bears much fruit.” Fruitfulness in our lives is no cause for self-glory. All the work done in us and through us is “to the glory of God”.
In summery, Paul’s prayer for the Philippian church is that they will grow in grace, maturing, and bearing fruit, all to the glory of God.