A prayer for all believers - Philippians 1:3-11
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
A Prayer for All Believers SJN. EP. 29.8.18
I have done it and I am sure you have done it too. You are having a conversation with someone after the church service and they share with you a particular problem they are having or a decision they are facing and so you say, ‘I’ll pray for you.’ Sometimes we do and sadly, sometimes we don’t, we simply forget because we are on to the next person or the next thing. But when we do remember, just exactly what is it that we have committed ourselves to pray for? What kind of things should we be praying for one another which will actually benefit each other? In these few verses in Philippians chapter 1 which we are looking at tonight, we are told exactly what we should be praying for, the kind of praying we should be engaged in, namely, transforming prayer.
There is no doubt that the Apostle Paul loves these people deeply, every time he thinks of them his heart is filled with joy and his lips are full of praise, v3, ‘I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy’. And why?-v 5, ‘because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.’ And I must say these are some of my favourite verses because they pretty well capture the way I feel about you and for the same reasons as Paul.
You see, they have supported Paul ten years now since he first preached the gospel at Philippi. They have been fully behind him in their prayers and in their giving whether he is arguing for the gospel or suffering for it, whether he is out preaching to crowds or shut away in prison. He has them in his heart and the lovely thing is, they have him in theirs, which is why Paul is confident that he and they share one grace, the saving and keeping power of God vv 6-8.
So having told them that he prays for them in v3, Paul goes on to say what he prays for them in vv 9-11- and if this is good enough for Paul, it is more than good enough for us. So let’s take a look at what he says.
First we have the root of transforming prayer, v 9, ‘And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.’ These are terrific Christians in Philippi as is evident from Paul’s opening remarks and what he goes on to say later in the letter. But Paul is never content with the status quo- Christians coasting along until they eventually get to heaven. The Christian faith is a living and dynamic thing, growing and developing, moving and maturing. That is exactly what he is praying for here- Gospel growth in the believer.
In the first place there is asking for a growth in love which the believers already have, it is to getter bigger and better- ‘abounding more and more.’ Now it is interesting that Paul doesn’t specify the object of this love. So some ask: is he talking about love for God, or love for each other or love for the lost? Well, surely love moves out in all directions like the love of God itself. Just think about it: The love of God is the reason there is anything else but God. God was and is supremely self-sufficient, nevertheless it was out of his love that he decreed to bring into existence the whole creation, to share his life with angels that would never fall and human beings that would. It was love that spared a world gone so badly wrong from judgment and hell. It was love which sent his Son into the world in order to save it and to secure for his Son a bride to love into all eternity-the Church. Within the fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit there is love, and heaven itself is supremely the place of love because that is where God is who is love. And if love does not grow then it shrivels, if it is not shared, it dies.
Now for this love to have traction in the life of the believer it has to be shaped and enriched. This means it has to be accompanied by two things: ‘knowledge’ and literally, ‘all insight’.
You see, love without knowledge can become sentimental and mushy and in the long run-unloving. Let me explain. We are often told that we must be compassionate- of course, we don’t want to be uncompassionate. But compassion is in some ways a disposition towards someone, a feeling for them. They are in a bad way and you genuinely care for them. But for compassion to be practiced you also need to know what the best thing to do is for the person in need. It is not necessarily compassionate to give someone whatever they want and whenever they want it, that can simply indulge and ruin them which is hardly compassionate. We also need knowledge and insight- knowing what is true and knowing what to do. Both things Paul prays to be in increasing measure in the life of believers.
And so we grow in love as we grow in knowledge- supremely of God and his ways in the Gospel. And this puts us in touch with ultimate reality- God, and the way he sees things which are meant to shape how we see things and prioritise what is important. This is how C H Spurgeon describes this knowledge of God which results in greater love: ‘The highest science, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father. There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity….. No subject of contemplation will tend to humble the mind, than thoughts of God…..But while the subject humbles the mind, it also expands it. ….The most excellent study for expanding the soul, is the science of Christ, and Him crucified, and the knowledge of the Godhead in the glorious Trinity. Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued investigation of the great subject of the Deity. And, whilst humbling and expanding, this subject is eminently consolatory…….Would you lose your sorrow? Would you drown your cares? Then go, plunge yourself in the Godhead’s deepest sea; be lost in his immensity; and you shall come forth as from a couch of rest, refreshed and invigorated. I know nothing which can so comfort the soul; so calm the swelling billows of sorrow and grief; so speak peace to the winds of trial, as a devout musing upon the subject of the Godhead.’ And he was only 20 years old when he preached those words. It is growing in that knowledge which leads us to love more because how can you not love a God who is like this and who pours his love into our hearts by His Spirit?
However, having knowledge is one thing, knowing how to apply it is another, which is why we need ‘all insight’, knowing which parts of the Bible apply to which parts of life and how they apply. This is more of an art you develop rather than a science you acquire. And of course we see this in the life of Jesus, don’t we? Have you ever noticed he never treated two people in the same way, and often the way he treated people surprises us, that is because he had insight as well as knowledge. So to the enquiring religious professor, Nicodemus we might have expected Jesus to say to him to say, ‘God is Spirit and those who worship him must worship him in Spirit and in Truth’, and to the sexually immoral woman of Samaria, ‘You must be born again’. But no, he switches them, it is the religious man who has to be born again, his religion has blinded him- that’s having ‘all insight’ do you see? And if we are going to really love people as we want to and genuinely help them as we need to, this is precisely what we require more and more together with a deeper knowledge of the God we serve. And we have to put in the hard yards to get them.
And there is a purpose for this growth in love, knowledge and insight, namely, the results of transforming prayer, v10, ‘so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.’
The main reason why we are to abound more and more in love with knowledge and insight is that we will be able to know what is ‘best’ or, as one translator has put it, ‘what is vital’. The fact is many decisions we have to make are not simply between right and wrong, good and bad, but between the good and the the best, that is, the best in terms of God’s priorities and values, what will most be in line with his kingdom.
Let me put it this way: often the greatest enemy of the Christian is not the worst, but the good. Most of us will not be tempted to be swayed from doing God’s best by doing something contemptable. That could happen. But what is more likely to happen is missing out on the best because we have been concentrating on something good- and so we need insight to distinguish the two. Don Carson pinpoints the outworking of what Paul is saying like this, ‘What do you do with your time? How many hours do you spend with your children? Have you spent any time in the past two months witnessing to someone about the gospel? How much time do you spend watching television or other forms of personal relaxation? Are you committed, in your use of your time, to what is best? What have you read in the last six months? If you have found time for newspapers or news magazines, a couple of whodunits, a novel or two or perhaps a trade journal, have you also found time for reading a commentary or some other Christian literature that will help you understand your Bible or improve your spiritual discipline or broaden your horizons? Are you committed in your reading habits to what is best?’ He then goes on, ‘Behind all your answers to all of these questions are choices. The last thing I want to do is generate a load of guilt because of the choices constantly before us…. But if our love abounds more and more, shaped all the while by knowledge and moral insight, then these are the kinds of choices we will be wanting to make- and make them well.’ That is right. And it is prayer which will lead to transforming grace. So let me ask: will you pray this for me? Because I will pray it for you.
But there is more. In verse 10, there is no ‘and’ in the original between ‘may be able to discern what is best’ and ‘may be pure and blameless, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus’. This is a new phrase. So what Paul is actually saying is that we discern what is best in order that we may ‘be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.’ We need to be able to work out what is vital in every area of our lives so that our lives themselves will have a ring of authenticity about them, there will be a match between what we say and what we do, or as we might put it today, ‘we walk the walk and not simply talk the talk.’ The word translated ‘blameless’, doesn’t mean perfect. It literally means ‘tested by the sun’, so just as when you want to see whether something is genuine or not or if it is marred in any way, you hold it up to the light of the sun, so our lives should be open to scrutiny and if we have been abounding in love, cultivating real discernment, then there should be fewer blemishes for people to see.
This is so important as part of our witness, which is one of Paul’s main concerns in the letter, v 27, ‘Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’- he is passionate about commending the Gospel by right living and not bringing it into disrepute by wrong behaviour. The Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias, pointed out that when he began his work in the 1970’s it could be said that people were often won over by the integrity of the message. Does Christianity make sense? Now he says, people are more aware of the integrity of the messenger. Is Christianity lived? When people see the marrying of belief with behaviour, then they will be more likely to listen. And if they don’t –they won’t.
This is the ‘fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus’ that Paul is talking about.
What might that look like?
One of my favourite films is ‘Chariots of Fire’ which has two main characters, one being the Scottish runner, Eric Liddell. Not everyone realises that after his fame at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, he went to China as a missionary and when it was invaded by the Japanese, he together with many other Westerners were interned, in fact he died in one of those camps. And it is under those conditions that people watch you very closely to see if your life matches up with your faith. Eric Liddell was no exception. So what did people see? Here is what is recorded in his biography by Sally Magnusson, ‘He was a friend: someone around if you needed him. He used to spend a lot of time carrying water for infirm people and carrying coal.. ‘When Eric died, one of the women in the camp, a Russian prostitute, told my mother that Eric Liddell was the only man who had ever done anything for her, and not wanted to be repaid in kind. I think when she first moved into camp he’d gone and put up shelves for her, she didn’t have anyone to do that kind of thing for her. And it didn’t matter what walk of life a person came from….. There were missionaries in the camp who wouldn’t have helped someone like her but Eric didn’t see things that way…’ Then Sally Magnusson goes on to write this, ‘What they (these witnesses) keep coming back to again and again, is the way he lived his Christianity. Eric is portrayed as the Christ-like figure here at the camp….he befriends the prostitute and the despised businessman; he carries coal for the weak and teaches the young; he gets ready to sell his gold watch and tears up his sheets for hockey sticks.’ That is what it means to be pure and blameless until the day of Christ. Don’t you just want to be like that? Let us pray this prayer of Paul for each other so we do become like that.
And what is the reason for transforming prayer? -v 11, it is all ‘…..to the glory and praise of God.’ This is vital. Some of us are motivated to excellence because we fear appearing to be failures. Some of us are perfectionists by nature and so become a perfect nuisance. But I guess that while most of our motives are mixed when it comes to the Christian life, at rock bottom, when all the dross is put to one side, when all the self-seeking is seen in all its ugliness and we repent- deep down don’t we want our lives to result in the praise and glory of God? For people to say ‘Isn’t God amazing that he could so such a thing with a person like that?’ Probably the greatest evangelist since the apostle Paul was George Whitefield in the 18th century. Thousands here in Britain and also in the Americas came under the most powerful preaching and conviction of the Holy Spirit. If anyone could have gone after a great reputation it was Whitefield. But he once wrote this- and meant it- ‘Let the name of Whitefield perish, but Christ be glorified.’ (rpt) And at the end of the day, that is what ultimately matters. It will not be the praise of Melvin Tinker, or Scott MacKay or Pete Birnie that is going to be heard in heaven in a million years’ time, but the praise of Jesus Christ who managed to save such wretches and guaranteed a safe passage for them into heaven inspite of themselves. But in order to ensure they will get there, together with you- we need this kind of praying to take place.
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