“PROGRESS AND JOY” is my title this evening – which is what the apostle Paul says he’s looking for in the young church in Philippi. It’s also what he’d be looking for in us. Progress and joy in the faith. I want us to look at Philippians 1.1-11.
The apostle Paul knew how to celebrate the life a local church – but the celebration in this letter is in the midst of difficulty. What’s the situation here? Paul is writing to a church that owed its very existence to his ministry. It was his preaching that had opened the heart of Lydia to respond to the gospel. He’d been flogged and imprisoned. His testimony had converted the jailer and his family. He it was who’d strengthened and encouraged that young, new church. You can read about it in Acts 16.
And now Paul is as good as on death row. He’s "in chains for Christ" as he says in verse 13. He doesn't know whether he will be released or executed.
As for the Philippians, they face the pressure of persecution. Philippians chapter 1 verse 30:
“you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”
There are those among them who are teaching a distortion of the gospel, and leading the others away from a sound faith Chapter 3 verse 2:
“Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh.”
Certainly there is some tension and hostility within the fellowship. Chapter 4 verse 2:
“I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.”
Maybe the problem goes more widely than those two. So Paul urges in Chapter 2 verse 3:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”
Paul is worried. His eyes are wide open to the problems in the church, actual and potential. And no doubt that’s true for us here as well. The better we know JPC, the more aware we become that we’ve a very long way to go.
But for all that, this is an overwhelmingly positive letter. Why? Because it’s full of God. It’s saturated with Christ. In the first eleven verses of chapter 1 there are thirteen direct references to God and Christ. It’s full of Jesus, and it’s full of excitement about what God is doing in the lives of those Christians in Philippi. And we too can be excited about what God is doing among us. We’ve heard about some of it this evening – but there are so many more stories of God’s faithfulness that could be told.
We must beware of losing the characteristic that’s so strikingly evident in this letter. It’s there despite the fact that Paul is in a situation most of us would regard as a living nightmare: awaiting possible execution. That characteristic is joy.
Joy comes from being centred in God. It comes from the liberation of knowing that every aspect of our Christian lives is lived by grace. Not only have we been saved by grace, but we’re being saved by grace and we will be saved by grace, through faith. In other words we depend on the person and work of Christ to do what needs to be done, rather than depending on what we can do. Christ is taking us to glory. We’re not making our own way there. What a relief. What freedom. If it’s down to me, I'm sunk. Thank God it’s not.
Let's see how that works out in these verses. We can see three aspects of what it’s to be a Christian here. Verses 1 to 2 focus on the Christian’s Identity. Verses 3 to 8 focus on the Christian's Progress. And verses 9 to 11 focus on the Christian's Goal. Let's take a look at each of those in turn.
First, THE CHRISTIAN'S IDENTITY
Verses 1 to 2:
“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now this is more than the mere formalities of a standard greeting at the start of a letter. To begin with, Paul calls himself and his co-worker Timothy ‘servants of Christ Jesus’. Why does he do that? Is it a kind of spiritual name dropping? Is it so that the Philippians will defer to him as one who has the ear of the boss? Is it to draw attention to all that he’s done for them so that they’ll be suitably grateful to him for his efforts? Surely none of those things.
He calls himself a servant to make clear that he’s not a free agent. He’s not in control of his own life. Far from exalting himself, he’s drawing attention to the fact that his life is ruled by the command of another. And that ruler is Christ. It’s not up to Paul what he does. It’s up to Christ. Christ calls the shots. Christ is in control. And what was true for Paul and Timothy was true also for the Philippians and for every Christian – and for us.
Before the First World War my wife Vivienne's grandmother was a scullery maid up at Cragside. She was a servant of Lord Armstrong. She used to tell how during that time, her life was not her own. She had to be up at dawn to be the first down to the kitchen. She would open the door and listen to the woosh of the cockroaches scurrying in to any available nook or cranny. She would scrub stones and skin rabbits. Alice, servant of Lord Armstrong. She did what she was told. As Christians, like Paul, we’re servants of the Lord of Lords. He deploys us. He commands. We’re not our own. We’ve been bought at a price.
Then not only are we servants of Christ Jesus, we’re also "saints in Christ Jesus". To be sure Paul recognises the particular leadership role of some of the Philippian Christians. There are the overseers and the deacons. Appropriate leadership structures are needed in any church. But the significance of those leaders does not lie in such roles. It lies in their relationship to God through Christ, as with everybody else. They’re all "saints". They’ve all been chosen and set apart by God to belong to him. They’ve been rescued from a life of rebellion and now they’re the possession of Christ Jesus. They’re holy. They’re sanctified.
It’s vital for us to grasp this. It’s right that as Christians we struggle for holiness of living. But we must understand where we’re starting from. It’s not that sainthood is an unattainable goal on the far horizon that seems to move farther and farther away the more we move towards it. Sainthood is something that we’ve been given in Christ. We’ve been taken into his possession. So in this sense it’s not primarily in order to become holy that we should live lives of holiness. It’s because we are holy. We’re set apart for God. We’re saints.
A Christian is a servant of Christ. A Christian is a saint in Christ. If you like alliteration here are two more totally unforced S's from verse 2: A Christian is a sibling of Christ. And a Christian is a subject of Christ.
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father...”
The Christian belongs in the family of God not only in the sense that all mankind is the creation of God and dependent on him. This is much more personal, much more intimate. The miracle of grace is this: that God is our Father as he’s the Father of Jesus. By grace we’re adopted into the nuclear family of God our Father, our "Abba", our Dad.
And in this sense Jesus is our brother. It’s not just that he shares our humanity (which he does, totally). It’s that he’s brought us into the inner circle of his relationship with the Father. We have open access to the Father through the Son. We share his Sonship. We’re siblings of Jesus.
If that doesn’t create a deep, inexhaustible, subterranean reservoir of joy and celebration in our lives, then either we’re not yet Christians, or we’ve so far failed to grasp the immensity of the privilege that’s ours. Jesus is our brother. Because we deserve it? No. No more than the fact that you are your parents child is something you need to work for. God has done it for us.
Servant of Christ. Saint in Christ. Sibling of Christ. And subject of Christ. Verse 2:
“Grace and peace to you from ... the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Not only are we on his staff, and in his possession, and in his family. We have a place in his kingdom. Jesus is our King. He reigns at the right hand of God. There are no elections for him. There’s no legitimate or loyal opposition to his government, because he is eternally and rightfully King. He has supreme power. And he’s in the process of returning not only his people but the whole universe to its rightful ownership. No other authority has a claim on our lives that can override his claim.
Such is our identity as Christians. Servants. Saints. Siblings. and Subjects. And we haven’t even got beyond the greeting yet! But that’s OK because when we’ve begun to understand who we are as Christians, then the nature of Christian progress and joy begins to fall into place. The Christian has already been given everything in Christ. We’ve already been transformed by grace through faith. We’re a new creation. And now God is growing us, like a master gardener. And that is what you can see in verses 3-8. So:
Secondly, THE CHRISTIAN'S PROGRESS
Oswald Sanders was for many years the Director of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship. He tells of a missionary who was greatly discouraged. He knew that his work was not progressing as it should. One day he was visiting another missionary and he saw a card on the wall with a simple motto on it. It said: ‘Try Thanksgiving!’. Those two words went like an arrow into his soul. He realised that gratitude was missing from his heart. There had been plenty of asking God for things he desired and needed – desperately at times. But he had been failing to see what God had already done. It was a turning point. He began to pour out his heart in thanksgiving. And what is more he found there was a new effectiveness in his ministry.
“I thank my God every time I remember you”
Paul says in verse 3. Why? Because it’s the Lord who’s responsible for the progress they’ve made in their faith. He it was who brought them to faith. He it is who’s nurturing them and caring for them, and making sure that their faith develops. Paul doesn’t say to them “Well done, you lot. I know it’s been hard but you’ve stuck at it. Jolly good. Pat yourselves on the back, and keep going.” He looks at them, sees their progress, and turns to God with gratitude in his heart for what God is doing amongst them. And I look at you, and I see your progress, and I turn to God with gratitude in my heart for what God is doing amongst us. And we can all do that as we celebrate God’s goodness to us this evening.
Now of course Paul is encouraging the Philippians, not just praying to God. After all he’s telling them what he’s praying. This is not just between him and God. He’s making it public, because he wants them to draw strength from the fact that he can see God at work in their lives. But he leaves no room for pride. The credit goes to God and not them.
Perhaps we should be more alert to similar opportunities around us. What do you do if you see someone growing in faith? Do you do nothing? That’s a missed opportunity. Do you tell them they’re doing well? That might encourage a misplaced pride. Do you give thanks to God and say nothing? Surely better, but still a missed opportunity. Or do you do what Paul is doing here, and give thanks to God, but tell them that’s what you are doing?
When someone does that for us it can be a powerful spur. It helps us to see what progress we’re making, and encourages us, and at the same time turns our minds towards God, and ensures that we give him the glory. Then we can have a growing heart, full of gratitude, without a growing head, swollen with pride.
Thanks to God is followed by joy in gospel partnership. Verses 4-5:
“In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…”
Let’s not fail to notice the extent of Paul’s praying that’s revealed here. Paul’s praying for his fellow Christians is not an occasional thought, an arrow prayer now and then. There are two “all’s” and an “always” just in verse 4. Paul is continually in prayer for those who are on his heart. That’s a challenge for all our praying for one another.
And he rejoices in the fellowship that he shares with them. What is this fellowship? Not just a chat and a joke and cup of coffee. It’s working with them in their common task of gospel ministry.
Such ministry is the work not just of some, but of the whole church. Paul singles no one out here. Sharing Christ is a task for all of us, not for specialists alone. It’s a task undertaken not alone but together. It requires the whole range of gifts that are present in the church. And it rejoices Paul’s heart when he sees everybody pulling together consistently to further the cause of the gospel, as had been happening in Philippi right from the time when the first Philippians had become Christians. One of the most wonderful things about being part of this church is to watch so many people all working together for the glory of God in so many different ways.
And there’s a strong bond of love between Paul and his brothers and sisters in Christ. Verse 8:
“God can testify how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.”
But as he speaks of their partnership in verse 5, he goes on, verse 6:
“..being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
The progress of the gospel among them, and the progress that they’ve been making in the faith, is not their work. It’s God’s. He began it. He’s carrying it on. And for all the obstacles and hardships and detours that they may make, he will ensure that it gets finished. Because what God begins he finishes. He doesn’t forget. He doesn’t get distracted. He can’t be overcome by a higher power because there isn’t one. Paul knows that. No wonder then that he’s confident. Not that there aren’t problems to be sorted out. That’s why he’s writing to them. But the final outcome isn’t in doubt. God’s grace wins through, and, as he says in verse 7:
“all of you share in God's grace with me.”
There’s no question then that they will reach the goal that God is leading them towards. That’s a truth that needs to be engraved on that the heart of every Christian. It frees us from fear. It fills us with just the kind of assurance that God wants for us: an assurance based on confidence in him and his power to keep us safe in him to the end.
Our own goals for our lives and our church are often very fragile and uncertain. It’s as well to recognise that, so that we’re not too devastated if they crumble before our eyes. But we need to know that God’s goals will be accomplished. Then we can have the freedom and boldness to follow Christ however risky the path looks, because we know that our lives are secure in his loving and powerful hands.
So let’s ask ourselves whether we share Paul’s attitudes in relation to his fellow believers and partners in the work of the gospel. What are his feelings towards them? They’re these: thanks to God; joy in gospel partnership; confidence in good work; and affection through shared grace.
But what exactly is the good work that God is doing among them? What are God’s goals for our lives? Paul expands on that in the last three verses of this passage: verses 9-11. So to my last heading:
Thirdly, THE CHRISTIAN'S GOAL
The Scottish preacher Robert Murray McCheyne said:
“What a man is in his prayer closet is what he is.”
Why is that? It’s because when we’re alone with God, our real attitude towards him is exposed. These verses expose the real Paul. Verse 9:
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more…”
Paul doesn’t specify the object of this love. But love for God and love for others cannot in the end be separated. No doubt he wants to see both kinds of love grow. And it is to be abundant growth.
And just as love for God and others grow together, so too love depends on an understanding of the truth. So Paul continues:
“..that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best…”
Paul wants to see what we might call ‘runner bean love’. Speaking as a man with an allotment, I have to say that runner beans astonish me. Plant one six inches high and in no time it’s spilling over the top of your 6ft canes in all directions, with beans everywhere. And the more you pick, the more they grow. If you don’t like eating them you’re in big trouble. You get nothing else for weeks. Our crop for this year is already on its way up their canes. Paul prayed for love to grow like that.
We grow in proportion as we know. Ignorance stunts growth. And knowledge of God comes through Christ. Knowledge of God is a gift of God. It comes through Jesus by revelation. Knowing God, knowing the truth, and knowing how to please God all belong together. So, for instance, in Philemon verse 6 Paul says:
"I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ."
We can’t begin to live lives that please God unless we have a knowledge of the blessings that are to be found in Jesus. And at the same time it’s as we live for Christ that our grasp on the blessings that Jesus brings gets tighter, and our understanding grows. As we’re active in sharing Christ, we get to know him better.
So Paul prays, too, for growth in holiness (verse 10):
“..so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.”
Purity is what you might call “inner holiness” - a profound Christ-centredness of mind and heart. Blamelessness you could call “outer holiness”. It’s the outworking in life and example of that inner quality of obedience to God’s will.
Then finally Paul prays that they will be…
“..filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.”
This is a picture of a full crop ready for harvest; effective service flowing from a loving, willing and mature obedience.
There was a Sunday School teacher whose teaching seemed to be unusually powerful. Child after child who went through her hands seemed to come to a living and growing faith in Christ. After her death, her simple diary was found. Among the entries, it contained these three:
“Resolved to pray for each scholar by name.”
Then at a later date:
“Resolved to wrestle in prayer for each scholar by name.”
Then later still:
“Resolved to wrestle for each by name and to expect an answer.”
Those entries show a repeated and strengthening resolution which reflected a deep concern for those in her charge.
What is the harvest that Paul is looking towards? It’s “the day of Christ” (verse 10) – the Second Coming, the Day of Judgement. And what is this harvest for? What’s the purpose of it all? What’s all this abundant growth in aid of? It’s all “to the glory and praise of God” (verse 11).
Paul’s praying always heads like an arrow for the glory of God. And there’s nothing that glorifies God more than the spiritual growth of his people. Our growth glorifies God. Why? Because that growth isn’t down to us. When it happens, we can take no credit for it. It’s an answer to prayer. It’s a work of grace in the lives of those who are servants of Christ, saints in Christ, siblings of Christ, and subjects of Christ. What a relief. What freedom.
So when we think about our growth, let’s learn not to wince with guilt because we’re all too aware of how much further we’ve got to go, but let’s learn to rejoice and celebrate. God is growing his people. He’s growing this church. Let’s with Paul be thanking God for all he’s doing among us, rejoicing in our gospel partnership, full of affection for one another through the grace that we share, and confident that he who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus - to his glory and praise.