We want to begin our studies in the book of Philippians today and through the summer continue in what I consider the most delightful epistle of the New Testament. There is a wonderful note of joy and thanksgiving that runs through this entire epistle, and yet as you know this is one of the so-called "prison epistles" written while Paul was a prisoner. It was written to the saints at Philippi. If you have an atlas you will find it was a Roman colony situated up in the area anciently called Macedonia. It was the first place Paul preached the gospel in Europe. You remember the thrilling account in the sixteenth chapter of Acts of Paul and Silas as they came into Macedonia, in answer to the Macedonian call, and ultimately ended up in a prison cell, where in the dead of the night they were singing praises to the Lord and an earthquake came and shook loose the prison walls and they were delivered. As someone has well put it, the gospel first entered Europe in a sacred concert which was so successful it brought down the house. So we have a tremendously interesting background to this letter to the Philippians.
We probably know more about Philippi than any church, and the apostle was a prisoner awaiting trial. We have the background of this letter from his standpoint in the closing chapter of the book of Acts. In the sixteenth verse of chapter 28, Luke tells us "when we came into Rome Paul was allowed to live by himself, with a soldier to guard him". Luke doesn't tell us this, but we know from Roman custom that the soldier was chained to the apostle. The guard was changed about three times a day and the apostle was never allowed to be more than a chain's length away from the soldier who guarded him. But Luke also tells us in verse 30 he lived the two years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered, so though he was fettered and guarded and watched continuously nevertheless he had a relative degree of freedom that permitted him to have his friends in, to have his own home. In that setting he wrote this letter to the church at Philippi.
The opening verses of this letter are an unconscious commentary on the Christian life, both Paul's and the Christians at Philippi. Now since this letter was written, long and very painful centuries have passed by and the world we live in is a great deal different from the world Paul lived in, but the essentials of Christian faith and practice are completely unchanged. That is why this letter speaks loudly and clearly to us today. As we look at the first eleven verses of this letter we will see here seven distinctives of a Christian.
"Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons" (or perhaps more accurately, with the pastors and workers, because deacons were not officers of the church but anyone who did anything in the church was a deacon, a worker.)
The ancient practice of correspondence had one very distinct advantage over our modern method. They signed their name at the beginning of the letter. Have you ever received a letter, perhaps two or three pages long, and had to flip through the pages to see the name at the end before you knew who the letter was from? The ancients were much more efficient, putting their name at the beginning.
"Paul and Timothy" (Timothy was with Paul in Rome),"servants of Christ Jesus." But the address of the letter is very distinctive: "to the saints in Christ at Philippi." "In Christ" was the source of their lives. In Philippi was the sphere in which they lived it. Both are very important in this letter. For what these people would be as citizens in Philippi would be determined by who they were as Christians. This letter if addressed to us would be to the saints in Christ at the Peninsula, for "in Christ" is the source and atmosphere of our lives. The sphere in which we live it is on the Peninsula.
As you read through this letter you will see that there are four major propositions that govern the Christian life. There is first of all those who are without Christ. There was a time when we all were without Christ, strangers, far-off, without any inheritance of our own. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, we were under the control of the God of this age, driven about by forces of which we were unaware and we entered into the same concepts and lies that people are brainwashed with everywhere. We were without Christ.
Then there came a time. as with these Christians, when we were in Christ, that is, we entered into His Life and His Life entered into us by faith in His work and in His person. We became personally related to a living Love. We didn't merely exercise faith in what He did or said. We knew Him. We became part of Him, a throbbing vital part of His life. We were in Christ. "If anyone be in Christ he is a new creation. Old things have passed away. All things become new."
Then as you read along you see there is a relationship of speaking and working and going out for Christ. That is, our lives are lived on His behalf. He is the focus of every activity. And finally there will be that moment when, as we sang in our hymn this morning, "Face to face I shall behold Him" We shall be with Christ. These four propositions govern the Christian life. It begins, you see, by being in Christ, at Philippi or wherever we may be.
Verse 2 sets forth the Christian's atmosphere.
"Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
This is always the salutation in Paul's letters. These two elements, like nitrogen and oxygen, make up the atmosphere of the believer, an atmosphere from which we can never be successfully shut away. These are the two elements we continuously need and which are continuously available to us in Jesus Christ. Nothing can keep them from us. They are absolutely inexhaustible. We can never exhaust them, and in this atmosphere of grace and peace from God all Christians live. The trouble is they don't always breathe very deeply.
What is grace? Grace is all God's wisdom and power--all of it--constantly available to someone who is utterly undeserving. All the richness, might and wisdom of the person of God continually available to us, even though we are constantly aware we don't deserve Him at all. Peace is the inevitable result of the activity of grace.
Why is the Christian attitude different from others? Why are we not like the rest of the world--dissatisfied and discontented? Well, sometimes we are! When we are it is because we are not being all we could be in Jesus Christ. Why are we not? How do we find this peace that permits us to live untroubled lives in the midst of very troubled circumstances? The answer is we are constantly experiencing grace, God's riches continually available to us in Jesus Christ, and as we moment-by-moment draw upon them the result is peace and rest.
The third verse brings before us a very important element in the Christian's life: the Christian's associates.
"I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now."
This is the recognition that no Christian lives his life alone. He can't. We can't live as Christian hermits. We are members of a family, and we need each other very, very much. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian, one who has no relationship with anyone else. I know occasionally you meet people who because of difficulties they experience in Christian relationships want to go live their lives by themselves. They never want to come to church or have anything to do with other Christians. When I hear that I am immediately suspicious as to whether they are really Christians, because one of the first signs the scriptures tell us of new life in Christ is that we love the brethren. John says this is an unmistakable sign that we are born again, that we love the brethren, and if we choose to live apart from them something's wrong.
You notice how Paul thanks God continually for all of the believers in Philippi. He needed them--even the irritating ones, and there were some. We'll read about them a little later on in the letter. There were two ladies who couldn't get along with each other, and evidently with a lot of other people too. We'll meet them at the end of the letter. Paul loved them all! You notice how he specifically says "always in every prayer of mine for you all." If you are reading this from the King James Version, you will notice how frequently he employs this term, "you all" (so much so that someone accused Paul of being a Southerner, or at least that the church in Philippi was located in South Macedonia).
Now what is he thankful for? First, for the recollection he has of them. That prayer meeting out by the riverside where he first met Lydia, that remarkable business woman who was the means of opening the gospel in that whole city. And then the occasion when they were thrown into prison and God did such a marvelous miracle of deliverance for them, resulting in the salvation of the Philippian Roman jailor. I think Paul always looked with humor on how all the city fathers came down to the prison to apologize for throwing him into jail and escorted him out of town, giving him a special honorary escort. He is thankful for their participation, you see, for their partnership in the gospel, for this one church above all others sent him help from time to time. How much this association means to him!
In the next verse we have the Christian's assurance:
"And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."
Perhaps his joy in these people at Philippi was that he was seeing them by faith. Not as they were, but as they would be when God's work was done. He was looking at them with the eye of faith. He was sure that He who began a good work in them was going to finish it, so he could say even though you rub me the wrong way once in awhile I know what you are going to be. I think this is the key to getting along with other Christians. Sometimes it's difficult, but when we see what they will be we can do it. I remember hearing once of an artist who called a friend in and asked him to comment on a picture he was painting. He said, "this is my masterpiece. It is beautiful." The man said "I guess I don't see what you see. It just looks like dabs of different colors to me, without form or anything." The artist said, "Oh I forgot. I'm seeing it as it will be when finished. You are seeing it as it is now."
This is what Paul was doing. He was seeing these Christians as they would be and he says thank God it's going to happen. What a comforting verse. Many times, I confess, in times of discouragement with myself when I utterly despaired of being what I ought to be, because I was so aware, as you must be at times, of the deceitfulness and subtlety of the flesh, that even when I want to be, I end up deceiving myself. I see the utter futility of depending on me to get this job done. Then I've remembered this verse, "being confident of this very thing that He who has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ."
This means that life is not perfect yet. It has an adequate goal, and it is a goal which will be reached, and the final responsibility is not in my hands but in God's. I love that! You see his confidence is placed in a Person, not on himself. Some of you remember Dr. Gerhard Dirks telling us how he became aware that the electronic computers with which he works which he helped to invent, cannot correct their own problems. They must rely upon the operator to clear out all the error, and how this convinced him that he could not change his own life no matter how much he wanted to, but he must come back to the one who made him. That brought him to Christ.
This is what Paul is saying. We are all, if we know Christ, in the hands of the One who can change us. Sometimes we don't want to be what God wants us to be, but it's being done despite us. God knows how to bring us into the circumstances that will make us willing to be made willing, if He needs to. It's a great consolation to recognize in whose hands we are. I think the impression is often given by we Christians today that our main task is to keep Christianity going. Christianity didn't start that way. These early Christians gave the very clear impression that it was their faith in Christ that kept them going. There are those who tell us that we can lose our Christian life, but if this is something we can lose, then it must be based on some human factor, that it depends on us. If it depends on us, then we can't depend on it. I am so grateful that this rests upon a Person who is capable of doing the work. Thanks be to God who is able to keep us from falling.
In verses seven and eight we have a Christian's affection.
"It is right for me to feel thus about you all, because I hold you in 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."
He is anticipating their reaction to what he has written. He knows that when they read verses three and four they will say, "Oh Paul, you shouldn't say that. We're not that good. We're not that worthy of your praise" And he said, "No, it's right for me to think that. In fact you are so close to me it's as though you are sharing my imprisonment and my ministry everywhere I go. That is how I hold you in my heart."
But it's not mere natural affection, and now the secret comes out. "God is my witness," he says, that it is not my natural affection for someone who has been kind to me, but the affection I have for you is Jesus Christ's affection through me--His affection. This is the secret of loving the unlovely. Sometimes we are called to do that, you know. If a man, woman, boy or girl is a brother or sister in Christ, we are expected to love them. Not only that, we can love them. Well you say, "you don't know the one I have to live with. Oh I know they are a Christian, but the way they carry on and the difficulties they put in my path to loving them--you don't understand." Well, perhaps I don't, but that doesn't change the fact we are to love them. Well, how do we do it? I'm sure Paul would have said, begin to think how does the One who lives in me look at these people? What is His attitude? Is it resentment, bitterness, anger because of their actions? Or does He see them differently than I? Then act on that basis. Begin to act toward them as you know the One who is in you acts and thinks toward them. The amazing things is when you do there comes an answering sense of affection for these very ones who were so hard to love.
Then in verse nine we have the Christian's activity.
"And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment."
Now if you and I were writing a letter to new Christians, wanting to stir them up to activity, what would we say? Would we not probably urge them to witness, because somehow in our day there has come the idea that all Christian life exists for but one purpose--that the believer may be a verbal witness. And if we are fulfilling that job in talking with someone about God, we are fulfilling all that is expected of us in our Christian lives.
You notice Paul doesn't say a word about this. Because, of course, love in action is the greatest witness. He says, "I pray that your love may abound more and more." That the love of Christ which is in you, and which you can't help but find there if you are at all a believer, may now find expression in affection. What does that mean? That means there is some resulting activity--love in action! Not promise but performance. I think they needed this in Philippi, and I think we need it here in Palo Alto too, that our love may abound in activity. Otherwise, it's what James says, "faith without works is dead." If love doesn't show itself in some action, then it's not real love.
I confess I was disappointed last week to hear of an occasion here in our own midst when love could and should have been exercised but wasn't. When one of our longtime members moved away, a widow who had been sick, was weak and needed help, of all her friends no one volunteered to go over and help her get packed, or see that she got on board the train or bus. It was almost by accident that one couple stopped by to see her, discovered her need and did help her out. Thank God for that, but it was disappointing to think of those who knew of her predicament and didn't help her. I don't mean to blister anyone this morning, because I'm so conscious of how much I also fail in this respect. But somehow today we have developed what we might call a committee mentality. Because we have a department or bureau in the government to take care of all these things we leave it to them. But a Christian must never do this. We are all equally responsible, when we see a need in someone's life, to do all we can to meet that need. This is what Paul is praying for, "I pray that your love may abound more and more."
There are two things added: with knowledge and with discernment. Love by itself, left to flow unchecked and unregulated, can sometimes be disastrous. Love acts like hate when it refuses to think. All of us have had experience with some of these folks we call consecrated blunderers, who deal in sanctified stupidity. They mean well; their hearts are in it, but they never bother to get the facts and to see if they can help intelligently, and sometimes they are a great nuisance. Paul says that isn't enough. Love with knowledge. Learn the situation. See how you can really help. Don't just plan to help without any investigation as to whether it will do the job.
Then, "love with discernment". I think Paul means there is a time to help, and people to be helped, but there are times not to help and people who ought not to be helped. One of the weakness of present church life is that we give money freely to activities that ought not to have it. We don't exercise discernment. There are some people that because of their attitude and situation, can't be helped at the moment. I think of that story of the prodigal son, when that boy was down there in the far country. I think the father in some way knew where that boy was and what he was doing, but he never offered to help him. He couldn't. He let him go into the far country because for that moment there was nothing else he could do. He couldn't help the boy until he came back, and when he did the help was available to him.
And then the last thing, is the Christian's accomplishment. What will love do, with knowledge and discernment? What will be the result? There are four things mentioned. First, so that you may approve what is excellent. That is, you will put the proper priority on things. You will approve the things that matter most, and not spend your time on trivia. One of the weaknesses of our Christian lives is that we are constantly putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable. We emphasis the wrong things. Life gets out of focus, out of perspective. It's because love is not exercised with knowledge and discernment. When it is, we will approve what is excellent.
Furthermore, we will be sincere and blameless. This word "sincere" is most interesting. In the Latin it means "without wax" and in the Greek it means "sun tested". Both of these come from the same experience. In the ancient world oftentimes they made little images or pottery which would develop cracks. In order to pass these off as perfect, some of the merchants would fill the cracks with wax so the crack was not observable. There was a way of find out. They put the item out in the hot sun for awhile. If there was wax, the sun would melt it and the crack would become visible, so it was "sun tested". Paul is saying that the Christian life ought to be one without hypocrisy, without wax, so constantly exposed to the light that is in Jesus Christ that it is continually Son tested, This is where the Christian lives, in the light of the glory that streams from the face of the Father in heaven. If in our lives before Him we hide nothing we are then sincere, blameless, and as a result we are filled with the fruits of righteousness.
What does that mean? The fruits of righteousness are the fruit of the Holy Spirit, that wonderful list in Galatians 5:22, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." This is not something achieved by the effort of the will. It is growth of character, evident when our lives become honest and sincere. They come through Jesus Christ, not through positive thinking, or some psychological experience or psychotherapy. It's through Jesus Christ.
Remember what Ian Thomas taught us when he was here about our Lord. He put it this way: "He had to be what He was to do what He did, and He had to do what He did in order that we might have what He is." That is why we gather at the Lord's table this morning, because this is a remembrance of what He did, and what He did was done in order that we might have what He is and thus manifest what He is to the world. When we do, it is for the glory and praise of God. That is what God is looking for in your life. He isn't looking at what activities you perform. He is looking for the character you present--what you are. And what you are ought to be so continually abounding in love that it will result in glory and praise to God. Now as God looks at our lives as we come to this table this morning have we seen that all He is, is made available continually to us by grace, and all we need to do is dare to believe Him and appropriate all that He is?
Prayer: Our holy Father we thank you for the glimpse into the lives of these early Christians. What world-changing possibilities were involved in these simple lives. What a tremendous impact they left upon their world. How much this is needed today! Lord, keep us from the folly of thinking that it is the crusade we launch or the activity that we fulfill or our busyness that accomplishes your will today, but rather what we are in Jesus Christ, and all that marvelous love of His being flooding through our experience and actions. We pray this may be clear to us. In Jesus' name. Amen.