The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached in January 2022*
Sermon Audio: The Love of God’s People (Phil 1:1-11)
Power is an unstable foundation to build a relationship on. Power, like authority, used wisely is a wonderful blessing from God. Power can get you many things in life, but raw power alone cannot get you a friend, it cannot get you what matters most. Power can get you enemies, it can get you allies, or sycophants, but not real relationships. Towards the end of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s life, he would require his top advisers from the politburo to daily come to his house to have dinner, watch movies, and converse with him till 5 or 6 in the morning because he would become terribly depressed when left alone. And they dutifully came, but not because they loved Stalin, but because they knew that if they did not they would immediately be put on Stalin’s extermination list as a potential conspirator. There were arguably few people who had power to compare with the likes of Stalin in the 20th century, yet when he had a fatal stroke, whether out of fear of repercussions from him if he recovered or an eagerness for his quick demise, after finding him collapsed on the floor, soaked in his own urine, his “friends” simply covered him with a rug and waited three days before calling a doctor. He died a few days later.
Our contemporary world is no different from the ancient world in its obsession with power. Ever since Cain killed Abel, mankind has assumed that an exercise of power, rather than love, was the best way forward.
It is something that men like Julius Caesar assumed when he thought that by exalting himself as the first emperor of Rome, ceasing power from the Senate, he would be beloved, only to find himself assassinated by his closest friends. And it is something that the assassins, Brutus and Cassius, misunderstood when they assumed that after killing Caesar they would then be beloved, only to find they were reviled. Devious power grabs and the use of overt force always leads to more brutality and similar repercussions.
Brutus and Cassius were hunted down by the Roman generals Marc Antony and Octavian, and on the battlefield outside a little Macedonian town of Philippi, Brutus and Cassius were defeated. Eventually Octavian turned on Antony and defeated him, and the wheels of man’s pursuit of power carried on. One hundred years later, a Jewish missionary arrived in that same town to preach a message that the King of the Jews, the one who had all power and strength, voluntarily set that power aside and became a servant, taught people to love their enemies and become servants like Him. He was willing to even die so that He could make His enemies His friends. And now anyone, even the Roman citizens of Philippi, could themselves become disciples of this Jewish Messiah and receive His friendship, His acceptance, His love. But if they did, they would then become like Him—they would prefer the needs of others over themselves; they would become servants, they would prioritize love of others over their own selfish gain. When Paul the missionary preached this message in Philippi, he was met with the same brutality of the world—he was beaten and thrown in jail. But when an opportunity for escape presented itself, he didn’t take it. Rather he remained and his faith led the very jailer who had kept him in prison to have faith in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ.
We are beginning a study of the book of Philippians, a book that has much to say about the upside-down kingdom of Jesus and the value of becoming a servant, of eschewing the normal patterns of the world, and emphasizing love and service over power and prominence. So let’s turn there now:
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
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. 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. 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. 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. – Phil 1:1-11
You can read about Paul’s first visit with the Philippians in Acts 16 and the harrowing details of his preaching, persecution, and imprisonment there. Philippi was a city of about 10,000 people in Macedonia, but since the battle between Brutus, Cassius, Antony, and Octavian, it had formally become a colony of Rome and all its citizens were granted complete Roman citizenship, which exempted them from taxes and secured certain judicial rights (a right they were very proud of). The town had become a military outpost of Rome and lay right at a critical road that connected Rome to the Eastern section of its empire. There was a small Jewish population, but no synagogue, so the church in Philippi likely was comprised mostly of Gentiles who had converted to Christianity under Paul’s visit or shortly thereafter.
The letter opens with a greeting from both Paul and Timothy as, “servants of Christ Jesus.” Paul doesn’t use the title of “apostle” in his letter here, but simply refers to himself as a lowly “servant” or “slave” of Jesus. The letter is addressed to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons,” (Phil 1:1). The “saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi” just refers to the members of the church, while the “overseers and deacons” refers to the elders and deacons of the church. This shows us right away two things: (1) Paul cannot conceive of an identity for a Christian that is not bound up in their union with Christ, and (2) we see from the earliest evidence in the New Testament that Paul assumed each church had multiple elders/pastors in it—churches did not have one leader who presided over them, but a plurality of leaders. He writes to the “overseers” another term for an elder in a church (cf. Acts 20:17; 20:28).
In typical Pauline fashion, Paul opens with: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” (Phil 1:2). But Paul concludes his letter with 4:23, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” Paul opens all his letters with “grace to you” and concludes almost all of his letters with “grace be with you.” Why does he do that? I think that Paul opens each letter with the greeting “grace to you” and concludes with “grace be with you” because Paul understands that his letter itself is a word of grace (cf. Acts 20:32). So, when he says “grace to you” Paul understands that what he is about to write is itself a means of grace.
You’d be hard pressed to find a tighter summary of the gospel than “grace and peace.” The fundamental message of the gospel is a message of grace and peace, not wrath and judgment, not self-love and acceptance, not improvement and technique. Just “grace and peace.”
What does grace mean in the Bible? Grace is a holistic term that describes God’s generous disposition to do you good despite you deserving the opposite. Grace excludes human merit or worthiness, it is just the overflow of God’s love and commitment to you. It acknowledges your sin, it acknowledges your failure, it doesn’t turn a blind eye to them or pretend they don’t exist—but God’s grace, in spite of your sins, is God’s love directed for your good.
What about peace? If grace is God’s generous and loving disposition towards sinners who deserve nothing but Hell—something that describes God to us—then peace is what grace creates in us. A man sentenced to the gallows may receive grace when his sentence is suddenly commuted by the king, but it is peace that is created inside the man who thought he was about to die. We were likewise under the sentence of death, but God’s grace has secured our pardon. Therefore, we have peace, peace with God.
Paul’s letters are messengers of grace and peace, proclaiming the startling news that God has extended undeserved grace so we have access to inexplicable peace.
“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,” Phil 1:3-5.
Paul is thankful for the Philippians, really thankful. Every time he remembers the Philippians, he just stops and thanks God for them. And it makes him happy to do so; he makes his regular prayers for them with joy. Why? Because of their “partnership in the gospel” from day one, up to now. The word used for “partnership” there is the word κοινωνίᾳ, the word commonly used for the fellowship of Christians with one another. Paul thanks God for the Philippians fellowship, koinonia in the gospel.
I wonder what comes to your mind when you hear “fellowship”? Christians today usually use the word “fellowship” to refer to simply hanging out together, spending time with one another. And the term is not less than that, but much more.
In Acts 2:42, the followers of Jesus are said to be devoted to the “apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” but then just a few verses later we read, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,” Acts 2:44-46. Their fellowship involved spending time together, but it also included a willingness to care for the needs of one another. There are several places in the New Testament that use the word koinonia in reference to financial gifts that churches have raised to help other churches that are currently struggling (see 2 Cor 8:3-5; 9:13; Rom 15:26; cf. Heb 13:16).
The fellowship, or partnership, that the Philippians have in the gospel has led them to not only have a share in Jesus, but causes them to want to share with others who have also had fellowship with Jesus. When we enjoy fellowship with Christ it makes us become committed to the fellowship of other believers in Christ. We see this clearly in verse 7, “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,” Phil 1:7.
The Philippians have drunk from the same well of God’s grace Paul has and it has caused them to stand by Paul’s side, even through opposition, even through suffering. It is easy to have lots of fair-weather friends stand by your side when you’re on top, when you’re winning. But it is a precious thing to have friends who will stand by your side when you lose, who will suffer with you, who will care for you when you are down and out. Prisoners in the ancient world didn’t have the state to provide them food or anything, so prisoners would only survive from the generosity of people caring for them. The Philippians cared for Paul as he was imprisoned for his ministry, even when no one else would, as we see later in his letter:
“Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again,” Phil 4:14-16.
This shows us that Christian fellowship is more than just an affection for one another or more than just the time we spend with each other—it is a willingness to take the burdens of each other and make them our own. This is why in our membership vows here the congregation stands and vows to care for the new members and open our lives, homes, dinner tables, and resources to them.
When we look at the teaching of the New Testament we repeatedly see the assumption we see plainly here in Philippians: to become united to Christ is to become united to others united to Him. To join His body is to join every other member of the body. To be adopted into His family is to now gain brothers and sisters. This is why Paul often ends his letters the same way he ends Philippians, “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you,” (Phil 4:21). Every saint, every Christian you meet, you should be open to and willing to engage in relationship. In other words, we are commanded by God to have a unique openness to relationship with the fellow Christians in our life.
Here is another way of putting it: the Bible has no category for someone having fellowship with Christ and not also having fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ.
This is one of the reasons why our church practices church membership—it is a way for us to try to practice the kind of committed concrete fellowship and love that is to be an organic outgrowth of believing the gospel. It is one thing to claim to love other Christians in general, but the rubber meets the road when you have to be committed to and love Christians in particular. It is particular, real Christians who can offend us, who have different interests than us, who we may not get along with. Real commitment is proven when it is difficult, when it isn’t easy. It was the fact that the Philippians continued to support Paul when he was embattled that made him so grateful for them.
You choose your friends, but you don’t choose your family. What a great opportunity to get to put the rubber on the road when the family God has placed you in requires you to love people who are different than you! If you aren’t a member of a church, how do you know you aren’t just choosing relationships of convenience, never needing to exercise the muscle of commitment and fellowship we see here? If you are a member, are you living out your membership vows? Is your life marked by the kind of costly fellowship in the gospel we see the Philippians practicing, that we see Paul thanking God for? If Paul were to write a letter to our church, would he be thanking God for our fellowship in the gospel?
But Marc, I’m introverted—relationships are taxing. My life is busy! I don’t think I can practically make this work. I understand. Few people like making new relationships or relationships with people who are different than them. And life is busy, we tend to fall into the ruts of the immediate needs we have. Here is what I am encouraging you towards: make church one of the ruts of your life, one of the immovable commitments you have that displaces other ones. You’re going to be at church on Sunday, you’re going to be at small group, you’re going to be at coffee Friday morning with that brother or sister.
One thing that sticks out as you read this section, and the entire book of Philippians, is just how encouraging Paul is towards the church. In verses 3-5 Paul said that he always thanks God when he prays for them, with joy. I don’t know how you picture Paul in your mind’s eye, but I have always viewed him as a bit of a bookworm, a guy who was really serious about study, an intellectual—maybe he was kind of a dry person to be around, but really serious about theology. But the emotive language here breaks that picture up. Listen to verses 7 and 8 again, “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,” (1:7-8).
It is hard to read this and not be struck by the fact that Paul seems to genuinely love this church. Read that passage again slowly. It is right for Paul to feel this way about them, because he holds them in his heart, he yearns for them with the affection of Christ. There is a love and affection for the Philippians that Paul has received from Jesus, and Paul tells them as much. Later, Paul tells them, “Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved,” (Phil 4:1).
Do you want to create a community here marked by fellowship in the gospel? Speak words of encouragement to one another. Tell one another that you appreciate each other, tell someone what it is about them that you are grateful to God for.
We see the bullseye of Christian encouragement in verse 6: “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,” (Phil 1:6). Philippians 1:6 may be one of the most encouraging verses in the entire Bible. If you are at all worried that being an over-the-top encourager may run the risk of inflating people’s egos or make you bend the truth slightly to make someone feel better, look no further than Philippians 1:6. This turns our attention off of the person we are encouraging as the source and onto God, to praise and thank Him for what He has done in the life of the person. Notice, it is God who begins the good work and it is God who finishes it. In other words, God is the one who saved you, God is the one who redeemed you, He is the one who started this whole thing, so He is the one who will see it through to the end. Jesus loves His own to the end (John 13:1). And this is something that Paul is certain of. This tells us what Markus Bockmuehl reminds us of: “Christian assurance rests not in the Christian-ness of our Christianity but in “the God-ness of God.”
So, there you have a discouraged Christian in front of you. She is deflated by her sin, by her own deficiencies. She feels like an airplane that has lost power and is slowly gliding closer and closer to the ground. It’s just a matter of time before she crashes. And left alone, she likely will. But put that same sister into a church that takes the ministry of encouragement seriously, and she will have others around her communicating the very love of God to her that they have received in Jesus. They will speak words of encouragement, they will tell her that she is loved, and they will remind her of the great truth that her Christian faith was a gift God gave her and it is something He will not take away. She is not about to implode, not about to crash, but God upholds her faith with His loving providence. One of the ways we can cultivate a fellowship in the gospel at our church is through the ministry of encouragement—telling one another of our love, of our gratefulness for each other.
And, in the mysterious providence of the Lord, that will create a feedback loop effect where the love and affection we have for one another will be amplified. In the same way that peevishness and criticism amplify short tempers and bad moods and creates a culture where its easy to dislike people, so too does affirmation and encouragement amplify love and affection for one another and creates a culture of grace.
One other way we can create this kind of fellowship here at Quinault is through prayer. After thanking God for the Philippians and encouraging them, he then turns to pray for them even more: “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,” (1:9-11).
He prays that their love would increase even more and would be coupled with knowledge and discernment to approve what is excellent. Knowledge and discernment are not antithetical to love, they sharpen it. We do not want a love at our church that comes at the expense of our knowledge of God and our discernment. When we couple love with knowledge it leads us to be pure and blameless on the last day, filled with fruit of righteousness, probably another term for what Paul labels the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5.
Note the confidence Paul has here that his prayer will be answered. His prayers will result in them being filled with the fruit of righteousness. Note also his certainty and confidence earlier in verse 6: “And I am sure of this…” One of the greatest tools in our toolkit of encouragement is the certainty of God hearing our prayers, the certainty that God will fulfill His promises, the certainty that God Himself will accomplish what we know we cannot accomplish ourselves.