LOVE ABOUNDING - Lessons from Philippians
As we read through the pages of the New Testament we come across the various church that were established by the apostle Paul. They were unique in their own way. If you were to have asked him which was his favourite I suspect that he would have said that they all were, in the sense that he had the same love and concern for all of them.
However, there was one particular congregation that Paul seemed to have had a specially close affection for. We get our first glimpse of it in Acts 16. So if you could turn there to verse 6. Now at this point Paul and those people with him are in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and they are planning to take the gospel into more of the regions in that area. But the problem is, the Holy Spirit is not letting them.
6 And they went through the region of Phry'gia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 And when they had come opposite My'sia, they attempted to go into Bithyn'ia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.
So the question arises as to what does God want them to do now?
9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedo'nia was standing beseeching him and saying, "Come over to Macedo'nia and help us."
10 And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedo'nia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
12 and from there to Philip'pi, which is the leading city of the district of Macedo'nia, and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days;
I had the opportunity to visit Philippi several years ago. And I must say that I was quite impressed. Even though it’s just an archaeological site now, enough remains to make you realise what an important city it once was. We might imagine that Philippi was some sleepy little town in some distant outpost of the Roman Empire. Far from it. The Roman emperor Augustus Caesar had given the city the status of a Roman colony, which gave the city a lot of advantages over most other cities in the Roman Empire: its citizens governed themselves, they were immune from paying tribute to Rome and in fact were treated the same as if as if they actually lived in Italy. It was almost like a little bit of Rome transplanted to Greece.
13 and on the sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together.
I went down to the riverside myself when I visited. The river is quite a small one, but the riverside itself is well shaded by trees and it’s really a very pleasant spot. I can well understand why people would use it as a place of prayer if they were not able to meet indoors in some kind of building.
14 One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyati'ra, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul. 15 And when she was baptized, with her household, she besought us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay." And she prevailed upon us.
As far as we know, Lydia was the very first person to have been baptized as a Christian in the continent of Europe, and Philippi became the place of the first European Christian church.
So far, so good. However, Paul’s visit to Philippi soon provoked opposition from the authorities. If you read further on in chapter 16 it will tell you about how Paul was harassed by a demon-possessed slave girl, how he cast the demon out and how the girl’s owners’ then incited the local magistrates aided and abetted by the crowd to have them beaten and then thrown into prison. How then by a miraculous earthquake the jailer was converted and then eventually Paul and Silas were released, and having established the Philippian church then left and moved on.
However, I don’t really want to do that today because what I really like to do is to go to Paul’s letter to the Philippians itself. So if you would turn now to the book of Philippians chapter 1.
What I’m going to try to do today is to read through as much of the letter as I can – although I’m sure I won’t manage all of it - pointing out some interesting verses as we go. This might mean that, in some places, this sermon is perhaps going to sound more like a Bible reading than a sermon. But sometimes it can be good to read a whole book of the Bible and let it speak for itself, rather than trying to analyse every single verse. That way we get the context, and it is of course would have been the way the Philippians themselves would have first heard it. But we’ll see how we get on.
Now most commentators think that the letter was probably written during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome described in Acts 28, which was somewhere around 60 AD. This means that the timing of this letter is about 10 years after the visit of Paul to Philippi we just read in Acts 16. So by now 10 years have gone by and I should think by now the church in Philippi is pretty well established.
Phil 1:1-2 (RSV)
1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philip'pi, with the bishops and deacons: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In those days, letters tended to follow a fairly standard and somewhat elaborate formula, which Paul follows himself. And the way the letter would begin would tell you a certain amount about the relationship of the writer to the people or person he was writing to.
We have remnants of it today in a very much simpler form. If I receive a letter at work which begins “Dear Sir” it tells me that it is a fairly formal letter, probably addressed to the organisation I work for, written by someone who doesn’t know me and who has no idea who is going to be answering his letter. On the other hand, if it begins “Dear Mr Howick” well the person writing has at least heard of me, but probably doesn’t know me or at least not very well. If it begins Dear Peter” then it’s likely to be from someone who knows me fairly well.
When Paul begins most of his letters to New Testament churches he begins by emphasising his office and authority as an apostle of Jesus Christ.
A few examples (no need to turn there).
Col 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
Romans 1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God
1 Paul an apostle -- not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead --
Fairly formal I think you’d agree. However, in Philippians, Paul never refers to himself as an apostle. But then perhaps he doesn’t need to. Because he is writing to people he regards first and foremost as friends. And for that reason it can be a bit difficult to analyse Philippians, because when friends write to each other (or perhaps send an email these days) they tend to say what’s on their mind without worrying too much about exact content of their letter or email or a formal structure.
Phil 1:3-9 (RSV)
3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.
6 And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to feel thus 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. 8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.
Paul is full of thankfulness and joy whenever he thinks or prays about the Philippians. And verse 5 tells us why: because of their partnership in the gospel. This I think is an important key to the whole letter. I note that James Henderson in his recent letter to the church a few weeks ago said “Thank you for your participation in the Gospel, to which God has separated us” - which is pretty much the same thing.
The King James version translates the word “partnership” as “fellowship”, and the Greek word underlying it means a "close association involving mutual interests and sharing, association, communion or fellowship." And that’s what a true partnership is - very much a two-way street, a mutual exchange in which the parties both give and receive. Sometimes I think we can perceive our role in the Gospel as lay members of the church as being rather a one-sided arrangement – we “pay and pray”, in the words of the old cliché.
Now Paul said in verse 3 that he was praying for the Philippians, But what is he praying about? Verses 9 - 11 tells us.
9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
I must say that I think that verses 9 – 11 is a wonderful prayer to pray for a congregation, another individual, or even for oneself. If you read it closely, you can see that in the space of only three verses Paul mentions seven different specific things:
(1) for their love to abound yet more and more;
(2) that this be accompanied by knowledge and discernment,
(3) so that they might approve what is excellent,
(4) that they might be pure and blameless when Christ returns,
(5) that they be filled with the fruits of righteousness,
(6) which come through Jesus Christ
(7) to the glory and praise of God.
You could probably devote an entire message to just expounding those points. I’m certainly not trying to do that today, but it might be worth thinking about this passage in your own time with perhaps the point of view as using it as a framework for prayer from time to time.
It’s worth noticing Paul’s first priority in this prayer, the very first thing he prays about at the beginning of verse 9 which is that the Philippians love may abound more and more. Of course, love needs to be informed by knowledge and discernment, but Paul does put love first.
Of course, knowledge of the scriptures is very important, because it tells what is God’s will and how we should love others. And Paul is not implying that it doesn’t matter if the Philippians are ignorant. However, there is a sense in which knowledge needs to know its place. In the final analysis, knowledge without love can actually be harmful. Satan himself has plenty of knowledge but it somehow doesn’t seem to benefit him or anyone else. Why not? Well, there’s no love to go with it. Frankly, this world is full of religion without love. And somewhere or other people experience its effects every single day.
12 I want you to know, brethren, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ; 14 and most of the brethren have been made confident in the Lord because of my imprisonment, and are much more bold to speak the word of God without fear.
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.
16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel; 17 the former proclaim Christ out of partisanship [ the King James says “envy and strife”] , not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.
Incidentally some translations have verses 16 and 17 round the other way – but it doesn’t really make a lot of difference.
18 What then? [Or, what does it matter?] Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice.
It’s not entirely clear who these people were, except that as Paul was in Rome at the time, they probably were in Rome themselves. They preached Christ certainly, but it was from the wrong motives, probably mainly to build a following for themselves. But Paul was able to look past peoples’ motives and rejoice in the fact that Christ was being preached. Sometimes I think we get too picky about some other ministries, aspects of whose theology we might not entirely agree with. Because the reality often is – Christ is being preached, and we should rejoice in that.
19 Yes, and I shall rejoice. For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance,
20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Although Paul was at that time in prison, he thought he still had work to do and that therefore God would make sure that he would be released or delivered from prison. But note the means: through your prayers and the help of the spirit of Jesus Christ. Notice incidentally, he doesn’t say through my prayers – he says through your prayers.
In my experience, God seems to take particular notice of prayers when we offer them on behalf of other people. And we get plenty of opportunities to do this. Virtually every week in announcements we hear about people who need our prayers.
Skipping down now to verse 27.
27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear omen to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine.
Notice verse 29 that it has been “granted” to us that we should suffer for the sake of Christ. This has recently been the time of year when lot’s of people give gifts. Well God has a gift for us too, and it’s the gift of – suffering!
Have you ever had a gift you didn’t really want? I think one’s normal reaction is to try to change it for something else! Like we say to God, “well I really appreciate the thought but, err, suffering doesn’t really suit me. Do you think I could be rich instead”?
So why might God want to give us the gift of suffering? Well there’s nothing like suffering for testing our motives, and refining them.
1 Peter 4:1
1 Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought [or the same mind], for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin,
Ouch! I always feel like wincing whenever I read that verse. It tells us that the experience of suffering is rather effective in refining us spiritually. Would that it were not so – but it is.
We now get into chapter 2 of Philippians. The heading in this Bible says “Christ our model”. A good theme I think for chapter 2.
1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
I suspect that if Paul is asking the Philippian church to “complete” his joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, being in full accord and of one mind, then the Philippian church had a bit of a problem with unity. Otherwise Paul wouldn’t need to spend time exhorting them to be united.
I don’t think Paul is saying that we all need to be exact clones of each other in everything we think, do or say. For example, you can see in I Corinthians 12 that there are legitimate differences between people in the particular spiritual gifts they have, and that they have different roles in the body of Christ.
But Paul is calling upon them have the same attitude of mind, the same humility, the same way of thinking about others, the same kind of unselfish love for each other.
3 Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Christianity is not all about us - our status and blessings in this life, our salvation, our reward in the life to come. Christ did not come to the earth and give up his glory just for himself. He did it for us. And as followers of Jesus Christ we need to have the same mind as him. All of us I suspect at times tend to focus much too much on ourselves. And if we do that, it’s hard to find much time for others.
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
Skipping down to verse 14
14 Do all things without grumbling or questioning, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.
Paul is saying in verse 16 , look you are going to be the proof in the day of Christ’s return of whether or I have laboured in vain. If you do the things I have taught you it will be evidence in the day that Christ returns that the work I did was effective. But if you don’t, it won’t. It puts quite a responsibility on the Philippians congregation, and frankly on any congregation including us here in London.. The ministry can only teach us and guide us. They can’t follow Christ for us. We have to do that.
From verse 19 onwards we are presented with two example of people who modelled themselves on Christ. The first one is Timothy.
19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. 20 I have no one like him, who will be genuinely anxious for your welfare. 21 They all look after their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.
Personally, I find verses 20 and 21 a bit disconcerting to say the least. Is Paul really saying that there were people who were with him who were out for themselves? I must say that is what he appears to be saying. One has to say, being realistic, sometimes our motives can be mixed.
I think that one of the failings of the Christian church is that there are teachings of Christ we all give mental asset, and try to live by most of the time. But sometimes, perhaps in a particular set of circumstances, we somehow forget. And when we do that, we can - temporarily anyway - revert back to the kind of behaviour we once had before we became a Christian.
Moving down to verse 25, we find another one of Paul’s associates mentioned.
25 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphrodi'tus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26 for he has been longing for you all, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill.
27 Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy; and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete your service to me.
It’s not entirely clear what exactly the risk entailed, although traveling was always risky in those days, and some areas of the Roman Empire were known to be disease-ridden. People serving in certain third-world countries run much the same risks today. However, one thing is clear, which is that Epaphroditus was prepared to sacrifice himself in service to others. And when you do that, there is always a price to be paid. There is a reward of course but the price comes first; the reward comes afterwards.
Moving on to chapter 3:
1 Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is not irksome to me, and is safe [or as some translations say, a “safeguard”] for you.
Ever get fed up with the minister saying the same things over and over again? We think “Oh no, not another sermon on…….” (insert the missing words). Well, it’s a safeguard for us because we don’t always understand things the first time, and when we do, we tend to forget so easily – so we should be thankful!
2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evil-workers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh.
In the Bible I have here the phrase “put no confidence in the flesh” appears right at the beginning of a new page – you have to turn over a page to read it. And it does make it rather hit you in the eye – almost as if it was a direct message from God, which of course I guess is what it is.
4 Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, 6 as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.
Now I don’t think that any of us could say that before we became Christians we had the kind of career that Paul did. But somewhere along the line we trusted in the flesh, and all that entailed – for us. And when we came to the point of baptism, we had to take our leave of it.
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.
8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Wow! This is a passage we can all read and agree with, I’m sure. But I were to stand in front of a mirror and repeat those words I wonder whether my reflection would stare back at me in amazement and say something like “whoaaeeyyy – steady on old boy, lets not get too extreme! It might be OK for Paul to talk like that (but you know what these people are like). I mean, moderation in all things and all that”.
Well, Paul obviously didn’t seem to think it was too extreme. Maybe that was one of the reasons he was an apostle.
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call [I think the King James says “high calling”] of God in Christ Jesus.
Sometimes, brethren, we need to remember things but sometimes we need to forget. There are things I suspect that have happened in the past, either that we have been involved in or that others have that it would be better that we forget.
15 Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained. 17 Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us.
18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
This is a good description of society today. It’s all around us.
I get a newspaper every day on my way to work (I normally get The Times) and one the sections I particularly enjoy reading is the Obituary section. Its always interesting to read about other peoples lives. And you get all types of people featured there. You read the account of some peoples’ lives and you get the feeling that their lives that were worthwhile and full of accomplishment and, in their own particular way, were intended to make the lives of others better too. But with other people you are left with the feeling that well they didn’t make the world a better place or even try to – they just lived for themselves. They put their confidence in the flesh and, in the end, the flesh let them down.
20 But our commonwealth [or citizenship] is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.
I have a passport. It informs me of my earthly citizenship. The possessor of this passport, judging by the picture at the back, definitely has a “lowly body”. But, never mind, I have another citizenship – dual citizenship, so to speak. At the moment it’s in heaven. But do I have another passport as a token of this other citizenship? I think I do. I wonder what it is? Maybe I’ll leave that one with you!
Moving on to Chapter 4.
1 Therefore, my brethren, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. 2 I entreat Eu-o'dia and I entreat Syn'tyche to agree in the Lord.
I think this is the only mention in the NT of Euodia and Syntyche. And what is the first thing we learn about them? That they couldn’t agree with each other! This is not the best possible way to go down in history. It has to be said that quarrelling Christians are not the best possible advertisement for the Christian faith. Because if we can’t get along with each other, why should a non-Christian believe that we’ve got the answers to the world’s problems?
However, this is not the whole story, because it appears that they were able to put aside their differences when it came to supporting Paul.
3 And I ask you also, true yokefellow, help these women, for they have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. 6 Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
I ask myself. Am I ever anxious about anything? ‘Fraid so. Have I always made such cases known to God? I don’t think so. But to the extent I do or don’t will affect how much I know “the peace of God”.
8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
This is another example of a verse that easy to agree with, but much more difficult to actually apply. Society these days bombards us with all kinds of ideas, good bad and indifferent. It’s all too easy to sit back and let it all wash over us. Paul is saying take care what you think about.
10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me; you were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. 12 I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. 13 I can do all things in him who strengthens me.
I have a suspicion that Paul originally came from a background where there was plenty of money around. He was of course a highly educated person. So I doubt that Paul had much experience of “hunger and want” before God called him to be an apostle. He had to learn subsequently to deal with it and accept it as being God’s will for him to go through at times.
Phil 4:14-19 (RSV)
14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. 15 And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedo'nia, no church entered into partnership [or participated with me] with me in giving and receiving except you only; 16 for even in Thessaloni'ca you sent me help once and again.
In James Henderson’s recent letter that I mentioned earlier, he touches on the topic of participation or partnership. As I mentioned before he said “thank you for your participation in the Gospel to which God has separated us.”
“We are called for a purpose to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. In that transformation everything about us changes. We cease to be selfish and we become selfless as Jesus was. “ [This is pretty much what we read in Philippians chapter 2]
Mr. Henderson goes on” We glorify the Father by bearing the fruits of conversion. “By this my father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be my disciples” (John 15:8). Christ produces the fruit of the Spirit within his followers: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5) Our greatest participation in the gospel is reaching out to others through the fruit of the Spirit.”
17 Not that I seek the gift; but I seek the fruit which increases to your credit.
18 I have received full payment, and more; I am filled, having received from Epaphrodi'tus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
Philippians concludes as befits a personal letter with greetings, and then finally with Paul’s prayer of blessing.
20 To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
21 Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brethren who are with me greet you.
22 All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar's household.
23 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit [or as the King James says, with you all].