This past week, convicted murderer Ponchai Wilkerson was executed in Huntsville, Texas. He was apparently a violent man. He was one of those who attempted to escape from death row in the Ellis Unit at Huntsville on Thanksgiving night, 1998. This was but one of his two attempts to escape. Last month, he held a guard hostage during a 13-hour standoff with prison officials. Prior to his execution, Wilkerson declined a last meal, refused to tell prison officials how to dispose of his body, and refused to leave his holding cell near the death chamber. Physical force and additional restraints were required to strap him down to his gurney. In the final seconds of his life, Wilkerson turned his head to the side and—to the amazement of prison officials—spit out a key that was used on handcuffs and leg restraints. One does not know for certain, but it would almost appear that this was his final act of rebellion. A bitter and angry man could certainly find some satisfaction in producing such a key, leaving officials to wonder how he possibly obtained it, and then managed to conceal it until his final breath.
What a refreshing and remarkable contrast the Apostle Paul is to this Texas prisoner. Paul was a prisoner for the cause of Christ. He wrote the letter to the Philippians during his confinement as he waited for the time when he would stand trial before Caesar. From what Paul tells us in chapter 2 of this epistle, one could almost say that he was on “death row.” Consequently, the outcome of his trial was not yet known, but it was apparent that he might be found guilty of treason and thus condemned to death by Caesar. But far from reading the bitter words of a hardened, belligerent prisoner, we find a wonderfully warm and tender man, taking what could be his final opportunity to express his love and concern for the saints at Philippi.
I do have a confession to make. I agonized a great deal over this message. I had read a scholarly article on a couple of verses in this text, and I found it appealing. But by embracing this point of view, I could not seem to get a handle on this text. It was then that I remembered a friend who is a preacher in another part of the country. He was struggling with a certain passage of Scripture, and Sunday was bearing down upon him. He could not decide what to do, and so we talked by e-mail. After hearing his dilemma, I wrote this response:
“I think you are suffering from a case of over-scholasticitis. You’ve gotten so entrenched in the details that the big (and, in my mind, rather obvious) picture is getting out of focus. I must say that I often experience the same thing, and when I do, I realize I have to put the technical works (most commentaries fit here) away, read the text repeatedly, and ask myself what the flow of the author’s argument is.…The Bible wasn’t written for technicians (linguistically and literarily speaking); it was written to common, everyday people. If your argument cannot be followed by the person in the pew, reading in their English text, then it’s probably flawed.”
Late this week, I realized I was experiencing the very same problem, and I had to go back through my e-mail messages to find my own advice and read it again, as it applied to this text and this sermon. Our text is not really that difficult at all, but I had made it difficult by getting overly technical and missing the message. You might say I had been “straining gnats and swallowing camels” (see Matthew 23:23-24).
I decided to simply step back from the text and to look at it more broadly. In his so-called “second missionary journey,” the Apostle Paul and his colleagues had been divinely directed to “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Paul and the others traveled to Philippi, where they proclaimed the gospel to Lydia, the Philippian jailor, and others (Acts 16:11ff.). These and others had come to faith, and a church was born. The relationship between Paul and this particular church had been especially close. This epistle is written to the Philippian church some 10-12 years after Paul first came to Philippi. During this interval, Paul has corresponded with a number of other churches. From my reckoning, this would include his Epistle to the Galatians and his two Corinthian Epistles.
As you will recall, there were very serious problems at Corinth and elsewhere that required Paul to speak quite sternly to these saints. I am impressed with how different the spirit (or tone) of this Philippian correspondence is from that of Galatians or 1 and 2 Corinthians. When Paul writes to the Philippians, he tells them that he is eager to come to see them and to minister to them. When he speaks to the Corinthians, he is warning the church that if they don’t correct some of their problems before he arrives, they are not going to like what they see when he arrives personally (2 Corinthians 12:20--13:2).
Paul was a man who deeply cared about the saints, even those who had come to faith apart from his ministry. He had a deep concern, and he agonized over reports of sin and willful disobedience: “Apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxious concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not burn with indignation?” (2 Corinthians 11:28-29)
As Paul writes to the Philippians, he is incarcerated in Rome, awaiting trial before Caesar. He is not able to visit this church; all he can do is get reports, either from visitors like Epaphroditus, or by receiving correspondence. He can write, and he can pray, but he certainly is not free to minister as he would prefer.
As I read Paul’s words in our text, I am reminded of these words, penned by Moses and recorded in Psalm 90, a prayer of Moses, the man of God:
1 O sovereign master, you have been our protector through all generations! 2 Even before the mountains came into existence, or you brought the world into being, you were the eternal God. 3 You make mankind return to the dust, and say, “Return, O people!” 4 Yes, in your eyes a thousand years are like yesterday that quickly passes, or like one of the divisions of the nighttime. 5 You bring their lives to an end and they fall “asleep.” In the morning they are like the grass that sprouts up,6 in the morning it glistens and sprouts up; at evening time it withers and dries up. 7 Yes, we are consumed by your anger, we are terrified by your wrath. 8 You are aware of our sins, you even know about our hidden sins. 9 Yes, throughout all our days we experience your raging fury, the years of our lives pass quickly, like a sigh. 10 The days of our lives add up to seventy years, or eighty, if one is especially strong. But even one’s best years are marred by trouble and oppression. Yes, they pass quickly and we fly away. 11 Who can really fathom the intensity of your anger? Your raging fury causes people to fear you. 12 So teach us to consider our mortality, so that we might live wisely. 13 Turn back toward us, O LORD! How long must this suffering last? Have pity on your servants! 14 Satisfy us in the morning with your loyal love! Then we will shout for joy and be happy all our days! 15 Make us happy in proportion to the days you have afflicted us, in proportion to the years we have experienced trouble! 16 May your servants see your work! May their sons see your majesty! 17 May our sovereign God extend his favor to us! Make our endeavors successful! Yes, make them successful! (Psalm 90:1-17, emphasis mine).
No one really knows when Moses wrote this psalm, but it is my opinion that it may well have been written during the time the first generation of Israelites was dying in the wilderness. Moses had invested his life serving these people, and they had often stiffened their necks against God and rebelled. Knowing that the end of his days was near, and that this generation was dying off, Moses became painfully aware of the mortality of man. Men come and quickly go. Moses desired that God would impress him with the brevity of life, and that He would somehow prosper the work of his hands, that his lifetime of ministry would not be wasted.
Can we not see that Paul could have felt the same way? Paul was now under house arrest, and his ministry had been greatly restricted, so far as his freedom to visit the churches was concerned. Paul knew, thanks to Rome, that his days were numbered, and he surely wanted his ministry to have counted for eternity. He wished to be comforted by knowing that those in whom he had invested his life would carry on in his absence.
I believe these early verses in Philippians 1 emphatically declare Paul’s perspective regarding the Philippian saints, their spiritual growth, and their future. In verses 12-18a, Paul discloses his perspective on his present adversity and the response of others to it. Then, in verses 18b-26, Paul will give us his perspective on his future, whether that be life or death. Let us listen well to this great man, so that we may learn to see things as he does, for our good and the glory of God.
3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 Always in my every prayer for all of you I pray with joy 5 because of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.
If there is one thing that is clear in these verses (not to mention the rest of the book), it is that Paul is a happy, joyful Christian. His present circumstances looked less than promising, but Paul was jubilant and joyful. John Piper has written many excellent books, but my all-time favorite is still, Desiring God: The Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Piper’s thesis is that it is not wrong for a Christian to experience great pleasure in this life, so long as his pleasure is in the right things. To take pleasure in God is good. To take pleasure in one’s fond remembrances of a dearly beloved church is a good thing.
Just what is it, though, that gives Paul such pleasure when he thinks about the saints at Philippi? He tells us in verses 3-6. Note first that Paul’s thoughts of the Philippians are in the context of his prayers for them. When Paul says he “remembers” these saints, he means that he is remembering them in his prayers. Every time Paul uses this term of his remembrances, he uses it in reference to his prayers of remembrance.15 His prayers for the Philippians are joyful.
Paul gives two reasons for his joyful prayers for the Philippians. First, Paul is joyful because of their participation (fellowship or koinonia) in the gospel from the first day to the present (verse 5). Here is where scholasticitis almost did me in. I read a scholarly article in which the author concluded that the “participation” to which Paul referred was primarily (if not exclusively) the gifts he had received from the Philippians. I would not go so far as to say that Paul completely avoids their gift here, but I am persuaded that this is not his primary meaning.
Second, Paul’s prayers are joyful because Paul is assured that the Philippian church will persevere and grow, with or without him: “For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (verse 6).
The “good work” here is surely that of salvation, and not the giving of the gifts Paul had received (contrary to the scholarly article I read). Here was Paul, confined to his quarters, accused by Jews of treason, and accused by some of his brethren of wrong doing (Philippians 1:17). If Paul were to be found guilty by Caesar, and his life was cut short, would this church survive? Could these people manage to get along without him? Would God (in the words of Moses) “confirm the work of Paul’s hands”?
The answer is a resounding and confident, “Yes!” First, this was not Paul’s work; it was God’s. This was not Paul’s church; it was God’s. Paul had not begun the work in Philippi; God had. From the Macedonian vision in Troas (Acts 16:8-10) to the meeting with the women by the riverside to the miraculous conversion of the jailor, it was all the work of God. God finishes what He starts. No one was more confident of this than Paul. God initiated the salvation of the Philippians and the birth of the church. God would complete His work, with or without Paul. The Philippians’ security did not rest with Paul, but with God. Whatever Paul’s fate might be, the fate of the Philippians was not at risk.
Paul’s confidence in God’s ability to preserve and prosper His church is seen in another text as well:
9 He is the one who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not based on our works but on his own purpose and grace, granted to us in Christ Jesus before time began, 10 but now made visible through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus. He has broken the power of death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel! 11 For this gospel I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher. 12 Because of this, in fact, I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, because I know the one in whom my faith is set and I am convinced that he is able to protect what has been entrusted to me until that day (2 Timothy 1:9-12, emphasis mine).
The NET Bible has done an excellent job here, because most translations render verse 12 in a very different way:
For this reason I also suffer these things, but am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day (NASV, emphasis mine).
There is a difference of opinion as to how this verse should be rendered, but I believe the NET Bible is correct. Paul is not just confident about his own salvation; he is confident about his ministry. Those whom God entrusted to the apostle, to serve and shepherd for a period of time, God will surely protect. God cares for His own. What an encouragement this was to Paul, whose future was certainly at risk. He was an endangered species, and he knew it, but the church was not. Here was the basis for Paul’s confidence and joy, in the midst of his adversity.
7 For it is right for me to think this about all of you, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel all of you became partners together with me in the grace of God. 8 For God is my witness that I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
I confess, I borrowed the title “Religious Affections” from Jonathan Edwards, since this was the title of one of his finest works. Verses 7 and 8 are about Paul’s “religious affections” for the Philippians. When you read books like 2 Corinthians or Galatians, Paul comes across like a watchdog, but when you read Philippians and Paul’s Thessalonian epistles, Paul comes across like a lap dog. Paul has a deep, enduring love and affection for the Philippians that is mutual. Paul has deep affections for these folks, and it is right for him to do so. He does have these folks in his heart. In other words, thoughts of them are constantly in his mind, and this is reflected in his prayers for them. The intimacy of their relationship has grown through times of blessing, times of need, and times of adversity.
The word “partners” in verse 7 is a slightly different form of the term “koinonia.” They have become co-partners with Paul in his imprisonment and in his defense of the gospel. Paul’s imprisonment was not about treason, as his Jewish opponents contended; it was about the gospel he preached: Christ and Christ crucified. It was dangerous business to identify with a man charged with treason. They, of course, remained faithful to Paul because they understood his role in defending the gospel. There is a bond which we form with those in the heat of battle or in times of great sorrow or trials. The Philippians had not forsaken Paul, and thus he had them constantly on his heart. He loved these people in Christ. He loved these people like Christ.
9 And I pray this, that your love may abound even more and more in knowledge and every kind of insight 10 so that you can decide what is best, and so be sincere and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.
Paul’s prayer for the Philippians is similar to his prayers for other saints, as you might expect. But this is no “boilerplate prayer” either. Let’s focus on what is unique about the specifics of this prayer. First, take note of the fact that Paul prays for their continued growth in Christ. In verse 6, Paul has just indicated his certainty that God would complete the work He had begun in the Philippians’ lives. In other words, Paul was convinced that they would continue to grow, because God would bring that to pass. But now, Paul prays that they will grow in their faith. It is obvious, is it not, that Paul prays for what God promises? Paul’s certainty regarding the sanctification of these saints was not an excuse for failing to pray toward that end. We pray for what God has promised because He is the One who will bring it to pass. We are to pray because we are instructed to pray, because prayer expresses our dependence on Him, and thus it glorifies Him.
Second, Paul prays that the Philippians will grow as their love grows in knowledge and discernment. One of the most foolish statements I have ever read is, “Love is blind.” Love is not blind! Love does not close its eyes to the truth, to reality, to sin. What a horrible thing it would be if love truly were blind. Christian love must operate according to truth. We are to “practice the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Love has its eyes wide open to how things are, as well as to how things ought to be. Love acts wisely, making choices that are based upon discernment. Love does not always do what the other person wants us to do. Love does not always do what our culture thinks we should do. Love acts wisely to achieve what is in the best interest of the one loved.
Third, Paul’s prayers reveal a heavenly perspective. Paul’s prayers are not that the Philippians might experience “the good life” of peace and prosperity in this world, but that at the coming of our Lord, they might be found pleasing to the Savior. Paul is like the father of the bride, who wants to present the bride to her groom in purity and perfection: “For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy, because I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2). Paul desires that the Philippians will bear the fruit of Christlikeness, which will bring glory and praise to God. Bringing glory to God should be the ultimate goal of every Christian:
31 So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. 32 Do not give offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I also try to please everyone in all things. I do not seek my own benefit, but that of many, so that they may be saved (1 Corinthians 10:31-33).
I remember very well the first funeral I ever performed. This woman was dying of cancer, and she had come to faith through the witness of her Christian friends. I visited her quite often, and we openly talked about her death and the blessings that were waiting for her. One day, a Christian friend had been there visiting just before I arrived. This dying woman told me that their conversation had not turned to spiritual things, and that it was not a very profitable visit. This woman had her eyes on the goal; she wanted to talk about the Christian’s hope, not about the Dallas Cowboys’ football score. And when she died, her husband went around to those gathered at her grave saying, “She never knew.” I couldn’t believe it. It never occurred to me that she didn’t know she was dying. She knew, and she was heaven-bound. That’s why she wanted to talk about the day of Christ.16
I can almost hear my readers sighing in relief. This looks like the kind of passage that won’t be too hard on us, doesn’t it? Well, I have to tell you that this text has proven very convicting to me. Let me focus on some areas of application.
First, in our text, we see that Paul lived as though his days were numbered. You will recall that I likened Paul’s circumstances to those of Moses, and his concerns as being similar to those expressed in Psalm 90. Paul had learned to “number his days.” Paul wrote to and prayed for these saints, because he knew that sooner or later he would not be able to minister to them personally.
I wonder how many of us have learned to “number our days.” We act as though tomorrow were a certain thing, but such presumption is sin (James 4:13-17). Our lost friends and relatives are rushing headlong to their eternal destruction apart from Christ. Are you and I living in the light of our departure and of the coming of our Lord?
Second, notice that Paul did not use the sovereignty of God as an excuse for passivity in prayer. It was Paul’s assurance that God would finish the good work He started in the Philippians that motivated Paul to pray (and work) for their growth. God’s sovereignty is the incentive for effort, not our excuse for passivity.
Third, Paul’s words and actions in our text remind us that we don’t have to be physically present to minister. I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul writes to the church concerning their toleration of sin. A man was living with his father’s wife, and the church did nothing about it. Worse yet, some seemed to take pride in this. Paul, though distant, takes action. In effect, he commences church discipline long distance.
In our text, Paul is far removed from the Philippians and is not free to come to them. This does not keep Paul from ministering to these saints. Paul writes this epistle; he will send Epaphroditus and then Timothy, and he persistently and fervently prays for these saints and their growth. Look what Paul did to minister to the Philippians without a mail service, without telephones, without e-mail. Absence is really no excuse for us, either. We can minister from a distance, as Paul did.
Fourth, we can learn much from Paul’s joy. What was it that gave Paul such joy, such pleasure? It was the Philippians themselves, especially their participation in the gospel and their growth in their faith. Paul’s joy was not in receiving gifts, not in comfortable living. Paul’s joy was in having a part in the salvation and growth of lost sinners.
17 But when we were separated from you, brothers and sisters, for a short time (in presence, not in affection) we became all the more fervent in our great desire to see you in person. 18 For we wanted to come to you (I, Paul, in fact tried again and again) but Satan thwarted us. 19 For who is our hope or joy or crown to boast of before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not of course you? 20 For you are our glory and joy! (1 Thessalonians 2:17-19)
Paul’s joy and his reward (crown) was people, specifically people who had been saved from their sins, and who were growing in their faith, love, and knowledge of Him.
I have to ask myself, “What is it that really gives me joy?” Is my joy self-centered, or people-centered? Do I take joy in serving others, when I have to do so sacrificially? Do I really rejoice when others prosper in their faith and walk? Or am I jealous of their success? What gives me pleasure tells me a great deal about myself. Paul found pleasure in giving his life in ministering the gospel to others.
Fifth, we can learn a great deal from Paul’s prayers. If I were honest, I would have to confess that my prayers don’t begin to measure up to Paul’s. Paul’s prayers have a fervency, a frequency, and a focus that mine often are lacking.
Paul’s prayers don’t fit my formulas or the formulas of others. You must now listen very carefully to what I am saying because it would be easy to misunderstand what I am saying. I am not saying that we should not pray to praise God for His attributes, or His gracious acts on our behalf. The Psalms are clear on this matter. But sometimes we superimpose a certain pattern or structure on our prayers or the prayers of others, which cannot be found in Paul’s prayers in his epistles. Here, as elsewhere, Paul’s prayers contain praise and petition. The praise, however, is focused on God’s gracious work in the lives of the saints, and the petitions are also directed toward the growth of the saints in their faith.
I am beginning to see the relationship between verses 1 and 2 and verses 3-11. In verse 1, Paul speaks of himself and Timothy as slaves of Jesus Christ. A slave is one who adopts and embraces the agenda of his master. The slave seeks what his master seeks. The slave loves what his master loves. The slave finds joy in what causes his master to rejoice. Paul, the slave, has the same perspective as his master. Put differently, Paul has the same attitude and affection for the church as Christ.
Our Lord deeply cares for His bride, the church (all those who believe in Him for salvation):
22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, 23 because the husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church—he himself being the savior of the body. 24 But as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her 26 to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word, 27 so that he may present the church to himself as glorious—not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In the same way husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one has ever hated his own body but he feeds it and takes care of it, just as Christ also does the church, 30 for we are members of his body. 31 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. 32 This mystery is great—but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless, each one of you must also love his own wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband (Ephesians 5:22-33, emphasis mine).
Paul cared for the church, the bride of Christ, as Christ did. He sacrificed himself for the salvation of men and for their spiritual growth. His desire was to promote purity and holiness, and to present the bride to Christ without fault or flaw. Paul’s deep love and affection for the church was a picture of Christ’s love and affection for His own.
Paul’s prayers do not (at the moment) dwell upon God, but upon the apple of God’s eye. Paul focuses upon that which God cares most about and toward which He is working. Paul’s praises and petitions are thus people-oriented because God’s delight is in saving and sanctifying lost sinners.
As I was drawing near the end of my study on this text, I came across a startling application. If we took this text seriously, it would transform our marriages. Bear with me a moment. Paul’s prayers and affections are an accurate reflection of the heart of God toward these saints. Paul thus prays and labors to bring about that which God desires (and has purposed to accomplish). Paul’s devotion and his sacrificial ministry is a reflection of our Lord’s sacrificial work on the cross of Calvary.
What would happen if we who are husbands embraced this same perspective of our Lord, as Paul did? And what if we looked upon our wives as Paul looked upon this church? What if we prayed for and sought the same things for our wives that Paul sought for the church? That is precisely what Ephesians 5 commands us to do as Christian husbands!
I am told that there are now more divorces in the church than in the world. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I do know that there are all too many divorces in the church. Why is this happening? I think that in general we can say that husbands and wives are not looking upon their marriage and upon their mates as our Lord looks upon His bride. If Paul’s perspective and practice toward the church were to be our perspective and our practice toward our wives, marriages would be transformed. Instead of looking to our mate to “meet our needs,” we would joyfully sacrifice our selfish interests to promote the best interest of our mate.
A masochist is one who endures pain for the pleasure it brings him. A martyr is one who gladly endures pain for the pleasure and benefit it will bring to others. We need more “martyrs.” We need more folks who love their wives as Christ loved His church, and as Paul loved it too.
We live at a time when churches seek to enhance their size (and sometimes their status) by attracting new members. The way some seek to attract new members is by calling attention to all the benefits they offer. The church thus becomes the place where we go “to have our needs met.” The church is thus not a place to serve, but the place to be served. Sacrifice and servanthood are not very popular elements of church life. People don’t come to “take up their cross,” but to be served. Let us see in Paul that frame of mind that was the mind of Christ:
42 Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. 43 But it is not this way among you. Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).