As we take up Paul’s letter to the Philippians, let me remind you briefly of the history of Paul’s acquaintance with these people. As we saw last time, Paul founded the church on the preaching/church planting tour usually called his second missionary journey. Luke, the physician, was a part of his entourage on that first visit to Philippi and so was young Timothy, a convert from Lystra. Having been asked to leave the city by the authorities, Paul left Luke in Philippi to consolidate the work and headed west to Thessalonica. During three weeks of difficult ministry in that city Paul several times received material assistance and encouragement from the new believers in Philippi. Paul moved on through Berea and Athens to Corinth where he was to remain a year and a half. During his time in Corinth he again received financial help from the Philippian believers. After returning to Jerusalem, Paul set out on his third missionary journey. If you remember a major purpose of this tour of the Gentile churches was to raise money for the relief of the poor in Jerusalem.
By this time the great controversy of Paul’s ministry was in full flood. His insistence that Gentiles be admitted to the church as Gentiles, without being required to submit to circumcision or to observe Jewish ceremonies, had provoked bitter opposition in some quarters of the Jewish Christian church. The Judaizers – as these particular Jewish Christians are usually called – set out on a campaign to persuade Paul’s Gentile converts that they should be circumcised and should observe certain Jewish ceremonial regulations as essential to their becoming Christians. The synod of apostles and elders that met in Jerusalem several years before – the meeting described in Acts 15 – had contradicted this teaching, but it flourished nevertheless. It is against that judaizing teaching and its legalistic principle that Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, as you remember. Paul traveled to his churches to confirm them in the gospel of grace but he also conceived a plan for raising money in his Gentile churches for the Christians in Jerusalem to show in a concrete way that his welcoming Gentiles into the church as Gentiles, that is, without requiring them to become Jews in order to become Christians, did not require a separation between Jews and Gentiles in the church. The brotherhood between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, nothing more was needed to make it real than a shared faith in Christ.
As Paul traveled through Macedonia on his third journey he warned his churches of the Judaizing threat – we hear that warning in Phil. 3:1-2 – and urged them to give generously to the offering for the Jerusalem Jews who, for various reasons, had come into financial straits. As it happened, however, because the Philippians had been so generous in their support of Paul’s work previously and because they had recently fallen on hard financial times, Paul was not planning to ask that church to contribute to the offering. As soon as they heard of the offering, however, they insisted on contributing their share and, as we read in 2 Cor. 8:1-5, they humbled Paul with the size of the gift they gave out of their poverty.
After Paul completed his project and took the gift to Jerusalem, along with representatives of these Gentile churches, as you remember, he fell prey to the Jews and was arrested. He spent two years in a prison in Caesarea before he made his appeal to the emperor and was sent to Rome. The year was 59 or 60. The Philippians heard that he was in prison in Rome and, wanting more specific information about him and desiring to help, they again raised a large gift and dispatched Epaphroditus, one of their number, to Rome with the money. Epaphroditus, however, fell seriously ill en route and only after a substantial delay was able to make his way to Rome. The gift came at a good time – Paul had been in prison in Rome approximately one year when Epaphroditus arrived – and touched Paul deeply. He knew how sacrificially they had given.
But Epaphroditus also brought news of troubles in the Philippian church: the judaizing threat had appeared, financial troubles and other problems were creating doubts about their new found faith in some hearts and minds, and discord had surfaced in the church. Knowing they needed some help, they had asked Paul to send them Timothy, with whom they apparently had a strong bond and for whose leadership they had great respect. Timothy could not be spared immediately, however, and to cushion the disappointment and to address himself to their concerns and difficulties, Paul sent back with Epaphroditus a letter full of thanksgiving and encouragement, instruction and correction, doctrine and exhortation. It is undoubtedly the case that Paul at the time would never have imagined how this letter would speak to the hearts of countless generations of believers in the centuries to come. [The above extracted from Moises Silva, Philippians, 2-5]
As you know, while we put the addressee first in our letters, the people of that time typically listed the sender first and the addressees second. That was typically followed with, “Greetings.” Paul followed the conventions of Hellenistic letter-writing, but modified them to make his letters more distinctively Christian. “Greetings” was replaced with “Grace and peace” and the source of that grace and peace identified as God and Christ. Timothy is mentioned in the address because of his connection with the Philippian church and because they had asked for Timothy to be sent to them (as we learn in 2:19ff.). It is a mark of Paul’s large heart and of his gentlemanly spirit that he includes his young associate in the address of the letter, as if Timothy was as much the author of the letter as he was. Usually Paul identifies himself as an apostle. Here, apparently, the church’s relationship with him is so warm and loyal that there is no need to remind them of his authority.
Why Paul mentions the church officers here – which he never does in any of his other letters – is a question with no certain answer. They represent the church as its leaders and perhaps were the ones instrumental in raising the generous offering that was sent to Paul. In any case, they will be most responsible to ensure that Paul’s counsel in the letter is followed in the life of the church. [O’Brien, 49-50]
Typical of Paul, his sentences run on. For the sake of clear English the translators break it up into more than one sentence.
One thing that bears mention here, at this early stage, is Paul’s mention of joy. Joy, especially joy in the midst of adversity and hardship, is going to be a key theme of this letter. Take note of rejoice in v. 19, joy again in vv. 25 and 26; and that is just chapter 1. You have it five times again in chapter 2 and so on.
That God’s grace and work was the origin of their new life and would be the continuation of it and bring them at last to the perfection and consummation of it is also a theme to which Paul will return later in the letter.
And so concludes Paul’s opening thanksgiving. It was his usual custom to begin a letter with a thanksgiving but here in Philippians, as one scholar writes, he “dwells long and fondly on the subject.” [Lightfoot, 82]
Paul and the Philippians formed a mutual admiration society and for reasons that ought to make the same of Christians everywhere. Paul writes that, because he loves these folks as he does, when he is at prayer he finds it easy to remember the Philippians and ask the Lord for blessing on their behalf. Why is it, after all, that you parents pray so much more faithfully for your children than for others? Is it not because of the affection you have for them and the concern you have for them because you love them as much as you do? Well, so it was for Paul. He found it easy to pray for the Philippians. The beautiful prayer he prays for them – in vv. 9-11 – is itself some indication of his affection for them. He wants the best for them. He says, very beautifully, that he has them in his heart. And, still more, he says that he longs for them with the affection of Christ Jesus.
It is an arresting statement and one we ought to pause to consider. How do you long for someone with the affection of Christ Jesus? Well by “long for” Paul is speaking of his desire to see his friends and brothers again. But what does it mean to long for someone with Christ’s affection? Well the best commentators agree that we must not lessen the force of the words Paul uses here. He is saying that Christ’s love for the Philippians is being expressed through Paul. Paul is, as it were, a conduit for Christ’s love for these people.
You remember what Paul so famously wrote in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me…” Well, that is the idea here. Christ lives in Paul and his love for the Philippian saints is Christ’s love for them expressing itself in and through Paul’s heart. Paul feels about them as Christ does and for the same reasons. When he longed for them he was only following the impulses of the Spirit of Christ within him. He was, as we say, thinking Christ’s thoughts after him and, even more, he was feeling Christ’s emotion after him.
Now that is a beautiful thing to say and a still more beautiful thing to feel: Christ’s love for others in your own heart, a love strong enough to take you to your knees on their behalf and to feel that they live in your heart.
You don’t have to read very far in the Bible before you realize that this is the way Christians should feel about one another, all Christians. John, for example, in his first letter, makes a similar connection between Christ’s love for his people and his people’s love for one another. And Jesus, of course said the same thing: “As I have loved you; so love one another.” This strong affection that animates prayer should be found in every Christian’s heart toward the other Christians he knows and, in a general way toward all Christians. But, alas, it is not always so. We have to admit that. We often don’t feel particularly affectionate toward other believers in our church or other believers that we know. We could not honestly say that they are in our heart or that our strong feeling for them sends us naturally to our knees to pray for the Lord’s best for them. So, while this is Christ’s love in Paul – Christ’s love for the Philippian Christians that Paul finds stirring within himself – it is a love that can be weaker or stronger in our feelings. Christ’s love is the same, but our experience of it, our sense of it, and its course through us can be more or less powerful. For this, even Christ’s love in us for others, is a love with reasons. It is a love – so far as it becomes our love – that can be cultivated, nurtured, deepened, and purified, on the one hand, or neglected, on the other.
Indeed, Paul is going to tell us later in this same letter that there are some Christians in that Philippian church who do not love one another and are, in fact, alienated from one another. Two women, in particular, have got sideways toward one another and though Paul loves them both and both love Paul, the same strong love is not passing back and forth between the two of them.
So while we are struck with Paul’s statement that it is Christ’s own love for them in him that moves him so deeply and makes him long to see them and to hear that they are enjoying all the blessings of God – a beautiful reality that we know we ought to share – we realize, at the same time, that there is something for us to do here if we are to have such affection for one another. It is Christ’s love, but it can be cultivated by us! And we know that because Paul tells us why he feels so strongly – or, better, why Christ feels so strongly in him – for the Philippians. We might think this love—being Christ’s love in Paul, would have no reasons. It would be the mysterious but wonderful love of God for unworthy sinners, Christ’s love for his enemies, a love that has no reasons. But, no; this love has reasons. Though Christ’s love, it is love responding to and being deepened by what the Philippians did!
He says it twice. First in v. 5 we read that they had participated in the work of the gospel with Paul and again in v. 7 we read that they had shared God’s grace with Paul by supporting him in his work as an evangelist and defender of the faith. The link between those two thoughts is stronger in Paul’s Greek than it appears in the English translation. In both places – vv. 5 and 7 – Paul uses a form of the word κοινωνία, the Greek word for sharing or fellowship or partnership. When he says in v. 7 that they shared God’s grace with him he certainly means, in the first place, that they shared a common experience of Christ’s love. He remembered with joy the remarkable experiences they had shared as some of them came to live in Christ under his ministry. There is an unbreakable bond that unites evangelist and convert, spiritual father and spiritual children. The joy of seeing their salvation was a feeling that often came flooding back into Paul’s heart. But there was more.
They had on several occasions sent gifts of money to enable him and his assistants to devote themselves to the work of preaching and building the church. They had done so even when their own financial circumstances were difficult. They had showed enough interest in his ministry that they were willing to contribute to the offering for the poor Christians in Jerusalem even though Paul had not been inclined to ask. And, upon hearing of his imprisonment in Rome they again took an offering and sent it by the hand of a trusted emissary. Paul the apostle had no more faithful friends or eager partners in his work than these Christians in Philippi.
This history of God’s grace shared together and this partnership in the work of the gospel had forged an uncommon bond between Paul and this congregation.
Now, as a minister of the gospel, this passage convicts me and must convict me. No minister can read these verses and not be struck by the description they give of the true heart of a gospel minister. John Chrysostom once said in a sermon to his congregation in Constantinople:
“There is nothing I love more than you, no, not even light itself. I would gladly have my eyes put out ten thousand times over, if it were possible by this means to convert your souls; so much is your salvation dearer to me than light itself…. This one thing is the burden of my prayers, that I long for your advancement. But that in which I strive with all is this, that I love you, that I am wrapped up in you, that you are my all, father, mother, brethren, children.” [NPNF, xi, 24; Homily III on Acts]
Now, I cannot say that about you. Even allowing for the typical extravagance and hyperbole of Chrysostom’s sermonic style, I can’t say that I feel that way about you. If I said it, you wouldn’t believe it in any case!
But, I can say this without reservation. Among you are many with whom I have shared the grace of God in wonderful and memorable ways and there are many of you who have been marvelously helpful to me and precious to me as helpers in my life and my work. And, naturally and understandably, it is about you that I most feel as Paul felt about the Philippians. No doubt, even in Paul’s case, there was a specificity of his longing and affection for some of the Philippian Christians and a generality for others. After all, there were some folk in that congregation that Paul had never met, people who had become Christians subsequent to his departure after his second visit. And, no doubt, among those with whom he was acquainted there were people in the congregation he knew much better than others. So it must have been and so it will always be.
It is a simple law of the kingdom of God. The more of this partnership in God’s grace, the more of this common experience, the more mutual help, the deeper the affection and the greater the pleasure in our brotherhood and the more frequent and fervent the prayers for one another. And, there is this also: the more some of you connect to one another in the ways of God’s grace, the more all of us fall into the orbit of your love and of Christ’s love through you. That is what happened in Philippi. All the church members are to some degree loved by Paul in large part because of his bond with some of them. And what is all of that but a calling and a summons to be involved in the lives of and to be useful to other Christians: to share God’s grace with them and to participate in their Christian lives and to support them in their Christian calling. Believe me, those who care to help other Christians be and do all they can as Christians are invariably Christians who are deeply loved by many others.
We might have thought that Paul, the great Apostle to the Gentiles, would have said that, with Christ’s love in Him, he loved all Christians the same. But Paul is human enough and honest enough to tell us that, even with the love of Christ in him and passing through him to others, he had a special love for those with whom he had shared his Christian life and for those who had loved and supported him.
Here is the application of this beautiful thanksgiving with which Paul opens his letter to the Philippians. If Christ loves his people through his people, and if we can cultivate a deeper feeling of this love for other brothers and sisters, then we are certainly doing his will when we give ourselves to others and give them reasons to love us more. Love is something to be cultivated – it is feeling and action together, the feeling and the action feeding one another – and Paul as much as tells us here how to cultivate it: participate in one another’s lives, be useful in important ways, and, in particular, share the experience and the work of God’s grace with one another. No love is so pure and so indefectible as love built on the common experience of and common commitment to the grace and salvation of God.
That should be a very hopeful thing for Christians to hear. After all, there are many things that you don’t have in common with other Christians. You have different personalities, perhaps are older or younger, perhaps one is male and the other female, you work in different worlds, have different interests, read different books, you like to do different things. We may well wonder how we could possibly get very close to people so different from ourselves. How would we ever find ourselves animated to prayer by a deep affection for people that we don’t find ourselves naturally drawn to. Well, nature will not bring you so close together, but God’s grace will. Think of Paul the Apostle – the highly educated Jewish rabbi who has in his heart a Gentile businesswoman, a former slave girl, a hardboiled ex-Roman soldier, now the chief jailer in Philippi. Not much in common in any natural sense; but they had shared the grace of God when Paul came to Philippi the first time and then shared the work of the gospel in the years that followed.
And those same things are things you do and can have in common with any and every Christian: the experience of God’s grace and a heartfelt effort to see that grace triumph in human hearts and in the world.
I’ve been reading a fascinating book the last few days. It is a reissue of a book first published in 1947 entitled Company Commander. It was written by a young army captain about his wartime experiences in Europe, a 21 year old replacement captain who suddenly found himself responsible for a rifle company, some 180 men, a company that had been in combat for months, had taken severe casualties, and had been reduced to but fifty men in action just a few days before Charles MacDonald took over as their commander. The book is an account of the rest of the war as it was fought by the two rifle companies that MacDonald commanded. He gave up command of his first company when wounded in action and when returned to service was given another company. MacDonald won the silver star and the purple heart and his book, written while the memory of combat was still fresh in his mind, became something of a classic, a firsthand account of the life of combat soldiers written by a highly intelligent, interested, and eloquent combat soldier.
Books of this type always leave a singular impression. Here were men who had very little in common. They came from different parts of the country, some were college graduates and others hadn’t finished high school, they were Jews and Gentiles, some were religious others were profane. What is more, there was a constant turnover as casualties were replaced. But in the crucible of war they found a brotherhood, a fellowship if, a kind of κοινωνία, if you will. And why? Because of a shared unique experience and because of participation in what was desperately important to all of them. MacDonald reflects from time to time on the affection he had for his men – some he knew much better than others – the pride he felt in them, the concern he had for them, the hope that each one would survive the war. He says that he would see them standing together and tears would well up in his eyes. These were not people he would otherwise have been acquainted with or had anything to do with. Indeed, there is enough in the narrative to indicate that he very likely would not have liked many of them had they become acquainted in peacetime. But, as it was, just the sight of them brought tears to his eyes and his concern for them led him to pray for them many times. I know nothing of MacDonald’s faith or whether those were prayers that God would hear, but you see the point. That kind of affection, that way in which people come to be in your heart, that sense of loyalty to others and concern for them: that all comes from a shared experience and a mutual participation in great things.
The experience of war is a powerful thing to share. The gospel and the advance of the kingdom of God in the world is a still greater and more powerful thing – a more pure and holy thing – and, above all an eternal thing. And a shared experience and a mutual participation in the gospel and grace of God – such as Paul describes here – produces the experience of the only perfect love in this world: Christ’s love coursing through human hearts.
You should aspire to that, I should. To that and nothing less. And Paul has told us how to build that love and the experience of that love between us. To share with others God’s grace and to participate with others in the gospel’s work. It is in that way that the channel is opened wider through which Christ’s love flows through a Christian’s heart to others. There should be, there must be others prominently a part of your life – others with whom you are sharing the grace of God and with whom you are participating in the work of the kingdom. Make sure there are such and enlarge the number as fast as you can!