Gospel praying - Philippians 1:1-11
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge is one of the most amazing feats of engineering in the world. It is the world's largest steel arch bridge, and, in its beautiful harbour location, has become a renowned international symbol of Australia. Its total length including approach spans is over a kilometre long and its arch span is 503 metres. The top of the arch is 134 metres above sea level and the total steelwork weighs 52,800 tonnes. Work was begun on the bridge in 1926, and 1500 workers laboured for 5 years until it was officially opened on March 19th 1932. It now connects North and South Sydney spanning the Sydney Harbour, and carries about 160,000 vehicles a day across it's span. So how on earth could such an amazing bridge have been constructed? Well in the end it was very simple. It required a group of people to work closely together at a shared task and with a shared aim. And when everyone is working well together, it is amazing what you can achieve.
Well this evening we're beginning a new sermon series looking at Paul's letter to the Philippians. And one of the underlying themes of the letter is that of partnership. Working together in a shared task with a shared aim. Now the apostle Paul had founded this church about ten years before he wrote this letter. Philippi was a cosmopolitan Roman city in Northern Greece, a city vibrant with culture and trade. In fact, in many ways it was the gateway between the West and the East, sitting as it did on a major trade route. And amazingly in this city, a little church had been begun. And right from the start, this church was devoted to the apostle Paul. There was a genuine bond of affection between Paul and the Philippians, which you can see all the way through the letter. Paul has a real joy and love for these people. And they in return had been devoted supporters of Paul, support which included prayer and financial aid. And just recently Paul, who was by this time in prison in Rome, had received another aid package from them. And this letter is really a thank you letter written by Paul back to the Philippians, thanking them for their support as well as tackling a few other issues which they were being troubled by. It's a bit like a letter you might write to Granny after Christmas thanking her for the knitted vest she kindly made you, but obviously it's a lot better.
Now we can see the very heart of Paul's concern for the Philippians in chapter 1 v 27: "Whatever happens conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then whether I come and see you, or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel." That's what the letter is about: It's about a church being devoted to the gospel and standing firm as partners together in that gospel. And friends, that is why this letter is just as relevant to us today as the day Paul penned it. Because in our individualistic society, the temptation for us Christians is simply to think that we are individuals who happen to have the same religious hobby. We're all Christians, but we're individual Christians going about our separate lives with little or no connection between each other, apart from on a Sunday. But Paul's letter smashes that lie to bits. No, a church is a group of believers with a shared identity, engaging in a shared task and having a shared aim. We are partners together for the sake of the gospel. And this letter will challenge us to the core about our commitment to one another and our commitment to the gospel. So let's see what the apostle has to say to us this evening as we look at this opening passage together. And he teaches us those three elements of what it means to be Christ's church.
1) A Shared Identity (Vv 1-2)
2) A Shared Task (Vv 3-8)
3) A Shared Aim (Vv 9-11)
1) A Shared Identity (Vv 1-2)
So the first thing Paul teaches us is that we have a shared identity. Now knowing who you are is absolutely vital for your personal sanity and growth. You may remember the film "The Bourne Identity" which came out a couple of years ago. It tells the story of a man who is found by an Italian fishing crew floating in the sea half dead. When he comes round he has no memory of who he is or what he is there for. He cannot remember why he was in the sea, nor can he remember being shot in the back. The only thing he has is a computer chip implanted into his hip which helps him begin the long search for his identity. It is a terrible thing not to know who you are. And it's spiritually disastrous when Christians have spiritual amnesia and forget who they are in God's eyes. Which is why Paul begins his letter by reminding the Philippian Christians of their shared identity. Look with me at verses 1 and 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 it's tempting to think that these verses are just greetings to be skipped over, standard platitudes just to start the letter. But Paul never wastes words, and in these verses Paul reminds his readers of their identity as Christians. And he says they are "saints in Christ Jesus." Now we need to be clear that when Paul says they are saints, he is not thinking of beards, baths and beds. That is people, with long beards, who wear itchy clothes, like cold baths and rarely spend much time in bed. And that's just the women! No that's not what a saint is. A saint is not some supper elite Christian. A saint is short hand for a Christian, any and every Christian. For a saint literally means a holy person, someone whom God has forgiven and washed clean, someone who is right with God again. And how does that happen? Through what Jesus has done for us. He died to take away our sins and bear the punishment we deserved, and in doing so he gave us his holiness, his perfection. So God looks on the Christian and sees a forgiven, holy person. And Paul's short hand for that amazing process is to say that we are in Christ. It's a phrase that is jam packed with spiritual gunpowder. It just explodes with meaning. We have been united to Jesus through his death and resurrection. We're adopted into God's family as his sons, his dearly loved children. We are co heirs with Jesus of God's kingdom. That's what it means to be in Christ. And we now know God's grace and peace. And that is our spiritual identity.
And notice that the phrase "in Christ" comes before where we live. The Philippians are "in Christ at Philippi". In other words, your identity in Christ is far more important than your earthly standing. They are God's people who happen to live in Philippi. So if Paul were writing to us, he'd say "to the saints in Christ Jesus at Hull." In one sense it doesn't matter where you live. You might be from Hull or Hong Kong, Bradford or BogotIt really doesn't matter. What matters is whether you are in Christ or not. Whether you are a child of God or not. Whether you've accepted God's forgiveness or not.
And friends, if you are a Christian here tonight, then it is vital for you to remember your identity in Christ. For so many of the problems we face as Christians stem from forgetting how precious we are in God's eyes. We perhaps go through a period of wondering if God really does love us. And yet the Bible tells us we are deeply loved, so much so that God allowed his Son to die for us. We perhaps live our Christian life wondering if we have done enough for God, yet forgetting that we can never do enough, and he longs for us simply to delight in him as his child. But even more importantly in this letter, we forget that we have a shared identity. This letter is not written to individuals. It is written to a church family. So how can we treat other brothers and sisters with indifference. What right do we have to just hang out with our friends instead of seeking to care for others in the church family. What right do we have to back bite and gossip when we are talking about our brothers and sisters in Christ. For we are a family with a shared identity. No-one deserves God's grace any more than anyone else. We are all children of grace. And when we remember that than our love and concern for one another will be radically counter cultural.
But before we move on, it's worth us noting that this shared identity in Christ is exactly what many of our friends who do not know Christ are searching for. An answer to the question of identity. Frederick Schleiermacher was a famous German philosopher who did much to shape the progress of modern thought. One day as an old man he was sitting alone on a bench in a city park. A policeman thinking that he was a vagrant came over and shook him and asked, "Who are you?" Schleiermacher replied sadly, "I wish I knew." And it's not just the philosophers who struggle. All last week in one newspaper there was a series of articles which investigated what people in their twenties thought about life in Britain in the 21st century. On the surface many young people are happy with their lives. Young people today have far more than their parents could ever have dreamed of at their age. But reading between the lines, many of those interviewed are simply not content. There is an aching void that cannot be filled by wealth, binge drinking, one night stands or New Age religion. In fact, when the paper summed up the findings last weekend, this was the headline: "How does it feel to be a twentysomething? Answer: Confused, broke and worried." One twentysomething put it like this: "Sometimes I get the urge to buy videos of all the cartoons I used to watch as a child. I feel unbearably sad when I watch Tom Hanks in "Big" on sunless Sundays afternoons. I don't really know what I want." The problem is we're looking in all the wrong places. Only in Christ is our identity to be found, which is why we must think very seriously about how to reach this generation. And if you are a twentysomething and do not yet know Christ, then take the opportunity to check him out. For only in him is our true identity to be found. Because that is what we were made for. And as a Christian family, we have the amazing privilege of a shared identity in Christ Jesus.
2) A Shared Task (Vv 3-8)
A shared identity, but then secondly Paul says that we have a shared task. Because if as a Christian family we do have a shared identity in Christ, then it stands to reason that we have a shared task. And the shared task that Paul rejoices in in verses 3-8 is a gospel partnership based on solid assurance rooted in devoted love.
a) Gospel Partnership- First it's a gospel partnership. See what Paul says in verse 3: "I thank my God every time I remember you. 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." So what does it mean to be a gospel partner? Well this word "partnership" is often translated "fellowship", and that is a word that is frequently misunderstood. Fellowship is often thought to mean when you have tea or the like with another Christian. But if you have tea with a non Christian, then it's evangelism! But in the NT, fellowship means something much more dynamic. It's used of the fishing business that some of the disciples have together in the gospels. It's a fishing fellowship. Or in 2 Corinthians fellowship is used to describe the Macedonians giving sacrificially to the famine fund for poor believers in Judea. They gave sacrificially to help others. That's fellowship. Not a hint of tea in sight. Or to use a modern illustration, imagine for one moment that Mark 2, the teenagers group, decided to go into business together and open a fish and chip shop. They seem to spend most of the time eating fish and chips, so it makes sense. So Geoff and the leaders buy and renovate the building at 548 Beverley Road and open the business. And the whole of Mark 2 gets involved. Some buy the fish, others cook it, others serve the customers, others pay off the health inspector. Everyone is involved. That is what the NT means by fellowship. It's an active partnership committed to a particular goal, in this case serving fish and chips. So how were the Philippians involved in gospel partnership with Paul? Well one way was financial. But that wasn't the only way. No doubt they prayed for him as well. In verse 7, Paul says that they share God's grace with him as he defends and confirms the gospel. They weren't ashamed of the apostle. No, these people were devoted partners with the apostle in his work of getting the gospel out. It was a gospel partnership.
b) Based on Solid Assurance- But it's a gospel partnership based on solid assurance. Because Paul is convinced that this work he and the Philippians are engaged in, is not a human work, like building a great bridge, or setting up and chip shop. No this is God's work. That's why he gives thanks to God for the Philippians' partnership. And it's God's work that gives him great confidence. See what he says in verse 6: "[I am] 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 logic is this: Those whom God has saved show that they are genuine Christians by getting involved in the work of the gospel. It takes something supernatural to change us from being enemies of God into his friends, those who would be God's allies. And because the Philippians have shown such commitment to Paul and the gospel, then Paul is convinced that God must be at work in them. After all, how else would they have survived ten years of persecution and difficulty? How else would they have the drive and passion to be gospel partners? No God is at work in you, says Paul. And where God is at work, then he will finish the job. God is the ultimate starter-completer. If God starts a work in a person's life, then he will bring that work to a completion, to be displayed to the whole world when Jesus returns. Doesn't that give you confidence if you have trusted God for your future? If you have given your life to him, then you can be cast iron guaranteed that he won't dump you along the way. No, says Paul, he'll finish the job. He'll complete his work he's doing in individual lives and he'll finish building his church. And that's why being a gospel partner is so exciting. That's why it is worth all the hard work. Because it's God's work and what he starts he finishes.
c) Rooted in devoted love- And notice thirdly that this gospel partnership is rooted in devoted love. Verses 7-8: "It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus." Do you see how Paul is so passionate about these gospel partners? Here there is no cold professionalism or ministerial distance. No, here is a man deeply devoted to his fellow workers. And it shows the amazing love and bond there is between those who are truly serving Christ together in gospel partnership. It's a gospel partnership based on solid assurance rooted in devoted love.
And what is the heart beat of this loving partnership? Well it's the gospel itself isn't it? That's what really makes Paul rejoice. You see no doubt he could have reminded the Philippians of those fun times they had watching the games, or those nice meals they had in the market place tavern, perhaps the church BBQ at the beach. No doubt he could have recalled a hundred and one different memories of wonderful times together. But the thing that most excites him is their partnership in the gospel together. It was their shared identity in Christ and their shared task of proclaiming the gospel.
And it begs the question what drives us as a church family? And what drives you as a member of this church family? What is it you get most excited and passionate about? You see Paul is telling us here that what drives a God honouring church family is a wholehearted commitment together to living the truth and telling the truth. So when it comes to each of us, then what it boils down to is this: Are you are partner or a passenger? Are you a gospel partner, committed to the gospel vision of the church, committed to putting your energy and passion behind the work, or are you along for the ride? Because quite frankly, the NT knows nothing of the Christian who is a passenger. It's a contradiction in terms. No what gives Paul confidence that these Philippians are genuinely converted and that God is at work in them is their commitment to gospel partnership. So what will that mean? Well it may surprise you to hear that it won't necessarily mean doing more things. That's a secondary issue. The primary issue is the attitude of the heart. It's an attitude which says: "I am here working with my fellow believers for the sake of God's good news. I am 100% committed to the work of the gospel in this church family." And when the attitude is right, then you will happy to apply yourself to whatever needs doing. And it doesn't matter whether you are a student who is here just for a short time, or perhaps a member of Mark 2 who maybe thinks they have little to offer, or someone who perhaps feels they cannot contribute very much. No, everyone is important and has things offer, however long or short a time you are here, however much or little practically you can do. The question is: Am I in partnership with my fellow believers for the sake of the gospel devoted to them in love, or am I along for the ride? Because if you claim to be in Christ having that shared identity, then the challenge is to be a faithful gospel partner in this shared task.
3) A Shared Aim (Vv 9-11)
A shared identity, a shared task and then finally a shared aim. And that shared aim becomes clear in what Paul prays for the Philippians in verses 9-11. And time and again, Paul's prayers in the NT reveal where his priorities and heart really lay, and this prayer is no exception. Verse 9: "And this is my prayer: 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 and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ--to the glory and praise of God." What Paul prays for is what is best for the Philippians. That's his aim for them and for himself. So what is the best?
He prays first that their love may abound more and more. Now he doesn't give the object of that love here in these verses, perhaps because he wants to keep it ambiguous. Because love for God leads to love for others. In fact you cannot love God without that love pouring out to others. But such love is not mere sentimentalism. The Philippian church weren't to become all gushy with one another and to spend their meetings telling each other how wonderful they were. Why not? Because Paul goes on to pray that this love is to be in knowledge and depth of insight. This love is to be shaped by the knowledge of God and spiritual insight. So what Paul is praying for is spiritual growth for these Philippians which begins with a love and knowledge for God and results in a love for others. And where does such love and knowledge lead? Verse 10: So we may be able to discern what is best and that we may be pure and blameless till the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness. Paul's prayer has an aim in mind. It is that we might be godly and pure and know what is best. He wants the Philippians and us to pursue what is best. He wants us not to meddle in spiritual mediocrity, but to excel in love and knowledge of God which leads to a changed life. And at it's heart this prayer is a gospel prayer. Paul's prayer is motivated by the gospel. For if the gospel is good news about how men and women can know God through Jesus Christ, then Paul is praying that we would grow in that knowledge. He's praying that we would grow more secure in our shared identity in Christ. He's praying that we would be able to have the maturity to serve God in our shared task of spreading the gospel. All to God's glory!
Now let me ask, when was the last time you prayed a prayer like that? So often our prayers are shaped by our own concerns and issues. It's not that it's wrong to pray for things on our mind, like a friend in need, a job, or an issue at work. God longs for us to bring all our cares before him. But if you work through the prayers of Scripture, and especially of Paul, then you'll find that time and again they are prayers for spiritual growth and maturity. And here Paul prays things that will promote the gospel in his churches and which will bring glory to God. So is that the sort of thing you are praying for yourself and St. John's? That God would allow our love to increase that we might grow to maturity and know what is best for the gospel's sake? Because when God's gospel agenda is at the heart of a church's prayer life then God's will is being done. For that is what God himself longs for. And when you do pray this sort of prayer for yourself and your church, then when all else is stripped away, when disaster strikes, when times are tough, you know where your security lies. You'll know what is really important: The love of God and the spreading of his gospel. "In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song; this cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm."
One man who faced many storms in his life was the great 20th century preacher Martin Lloyd Jones. One of his toughest storms came at the end of his life when he was suffering from a debilitating disease. He had had a profound ministry and was always very active in preaching and writing. But now he could do nothing. The only strength he could muster was to get from his bed to his chair. When someone asked him how he was coping now he could no longer serve God as he used to, he replied in the words of Luke 10 v 20: "Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven." In other words, your foremost joy and delight is to be your Saviour and King. And then he added: "I am perfectly content!" I wonder if we could say the same in such circumstances. Well by God's grace we can, if we make a habit of praying Paul's prayer for ourselves and our church. Having that shared aim of maturity in Christ and God's gospel agenda. For when that is our shared aim as a church, then we will be able to stand firm in tough times.
Well when Paul penned his letter to the Philippians, he had much to rejoice in. What do you think he would say to us? Well the truth is that by God's Spirit, God speaks this same message to us 2000 years later. And he issues us with the same challenges. To be a church which delights in its shared identity. To be a church which works hard at its shared gospel task. And to be a church which prays towards that same aim of godly gospel focused maturity. And its all for God's glory!
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