Paul had begun his letter to the Philippians following the usual literary formalities of his day. He had identified himself, addressed his readers and then expressed an initial desire to see them receive blessings for God. Now he could move on and begin to introduce some of the themes that he would go on to develop in what would follow. He opens by putting everything in the spiritual environment of prayer and what an environment it was for the apostle! It was a warm and lively environment that was marked by a profound thankfulness and a real joy.
Prayer is, for many of us, a difficult subject. It is said that if you want to embarrass a group of ministers all you need to do is to ask them about their prayer lives and I guess that would be true of others too. Perhaps at least part of the difficulty we encounter is because we all too easily allow ourselves to slip into a formal and cold state when it comes to prayer. We know it is something we ought to do but... and then the excuses begin to pile up.
Paul’s example here shows us that it doesn’t have to be like that, there is another way. And our task this morning will be to take a look at it.
We’re going to restrict ourselves to a consideration of ch.1:3-6 which in the Greek original is just one longish sentence: let me read again the words of our text before we look more closely at the various ideas that it contains:
Phil.1:3-6 "I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."
In these verses (as well as in vv.7-8 that follow) Paul is really describing the spiritual context of his prayer life – he won’t actually get to his actual prayer requests until v.9. His prayer life, and in particular his prayer life as it relates to the Philippians, is marked by certain characteristics and based upon certain truths and he wants the Philippians to know this before he proceeds to tell them just what it is he prays for them.
Let me begin by mapping out for you the journey that lies ahead of us:
Paul’s prayer begins with thanksgiving: I thank
It is personal prayer: my God
Paul describes something of the when, how and why of his praying – we’ll spend most of our time with this.
I thank my God
Let’s begin with the first part of that short phrase "I thank" or "I give thanks".
It’s a simple thing isn’t it to say "thank you" but it doesn’t always come easily. Good parents work hard at teaching their children their p’s and q’s but getting them to write their thank you letters is far from easy. As adults we may say the words but we don’t always mean what we say. But the world is a nicer place to live in when people are genuinely appreciative of what is done for them and when they say with those simple words "thank you".
The OT frequently refers to thanksgiving. We’re told there that:
It is a good thing to give thanks to the LORD
We ought to "give thanks" to God
Believers responded to such commands with their "I/we will give thanks"
In the NT too we are confronted with the importance of giving thanks:
It was something Jesus did
When he fed multitudes
When he instituted the Lord’s supper
When he prayed
It was something that characterised Paul
So you’re expecting the question, aren’t you? Is thankfulness something that characterises you? And more specifically in your relationship with God do you give thanks to God? Always? Sometimes? Never?
Paul makes it clear here in his letter to the Philippians that thankfulness to God was a constant feature of his prayers and that may just be one of the reasons why he had the rich prayer life that he had. If our own prayer lives are hard going maybe we would do well to take ourselves in hand and ensure that thankfulness was high on the list of our priorities.
The second part of the phrase "I thank my God" gently points us in the direction of the importance of having a personal relationship with God. Indeed if we really are to pray at all we must have this kind of relationship that enables us to speak genuinely about God being "our God". You see true praying is not the same as "saying your prayers". It’s possible to learn prayers by heart, to repeat them perfectly and yet not to be engaged with God at all.
When Paul declares that he gives thanks to his God we are not to imagine him regarding God as his personal possession, his divine buddy who is just waiting for Paul to call upon him, no, Paul is referring to him as the God he serves!
Can you refer to God as your God in that sense? Is there any evidence in your life that you are serving God? Are you seeking to live for him and to honour him now that he has forgiven you your sins for Jesus’ sake – assuming, that is, that you have asked him to do so?
When does Paul thank God and how?
vv.3-4 "in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all"
If you want a simple answer as to when Paul gave thanks for the Philippians the answer would be "whenever". Whenever he thought about them he turned to God and gave thanks for them. Whenever he wanted to pray for them he couldn’t do so without being thankful for all the memories he had of them. He remembered the extraordinary circumstances in which individuals had been converted and how the church had been founded and he thanked God for them.
The lasting impression we have is that Paul prayed repeatedly for the Christians in Philippi. He didn’t think his duty was over when he prayed once or twice for them but kept on praying and giving thanks just as they were maintaining their interest in him.
v.4 "with joy"
I suppose that when we hear the word "duty" we think of something that probably is necessary but not very enjoyable but that is not how the apostle reacted. Paul didn’t simply grind out his prayers as though this was a burden to be endured and neither did he limit his praying to cover just a few special friends in the congregation though doubtless he would have liked some of them more than others. His praying brimmed over with thankfulness and his praying was a joyful business. When he prayed he prayed with joy.
How was this possible? How did he manage this?
We might be tempted to think that we’re just not like the apostle after all we’re not always happy and we don’t always feel like praying for others whereas it all seems to have been so different for him.
And of course we might be right if joy were simply an emotion dependent upon our circumstances. Happiness might be like that: one moment everything is going swimmingly and we’re happy and light-hearted but then we receive some bad news, our circumstances are suddenly and completely altered and our happiness has gone. But Paul does not speak of praying when he is full of happiness instead he relates his praying to joy and there is a big difference between joy and happiness. For Paul, joy was an overriding mindset which allowed him to look beyond the immediacy of his own personal situation and the prevailing circumstances to see the Lord who controls all things. Indeed it is when those circumstances are at their worst that this joy begins to show its full power because the Lord is always in control and has not changed.
Why does Paul pray and give thanks?
Paul explains why it is that he wants to give thanks for the Christians in Philippi when he thinks about them. As he does so he focuses upon the fruit that their lives are producing and he understands such proof to be firm evidence that demonstrates the reality of their status as Christians.
v.5 "because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now."
Paul could joyfully give thanks for the Philippians because from the very moment they responded to the gospel they were committed to it. When Paul wrote of their fellowship/partnership with him in this gospel he had in mind two different though related things:
They participated in the work of evangelism, the same work that had brought Paul to Philippi in the first place, that work which bore as fruit the very creation of the church in Philippi. Having come to appreciate the value and worth of this gospel the Philippians had been converted and from that moment on were keen that others too should hear the truth that had so transformed their lives.
They also financially supported the ministry of Paul as he continued his evangelistic ministry elsewhere. It is sometimes said in our sceptical society that the last part of a man to be converted is his wallet. Well here was evidence that this last part of the Philippians had been touched. As Paul continued his task of making the gospel known the members of the congregation in Philippi put their hand into their pockets and dug deep in order to help out. Paul didn’t usually like to receive monetary help from churches lest those who gave thought they were somehow securing their salvation by their generosity. But it was different with the church in Philippi. It was special and Paul was ready to receive help on more than one occasion from them. They were genuinely converted and the fact that their partnership in the gospel hadn’t grown cold with the passage of time gave Paul grounds for confidence. The Philippians were still eagerly making their contributions even while Paul was once again in prison as the gift they had recently sent along with Epaphroditus testified.
If Paul were around today and thinking about me – would he see evidence that my faith in the gospel is real? Would he find in me a serious commitment to making it known? I wonder: would he be filled with thankfulness and joy seeing these evidences in your life?
Paul’s Confidence is in God
If Paul was confident that the Philippians were thoroughly converted he did not attribute that conversion to the Philippians themselves. He certainly never suggested that they could buy their way into the faith as they contributed to the furtherance of the gospel. No, such generosity is the outflow of gospel grace in the life of a believer, it is the cart that must follow the horse but can never precede it.
Paul’s confidence is firmly anchored not in the Philippians themselves but in God himself who is clearly at work in their lives.
v.6 "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ."
Paul confidence that the Philippians will last the course is not because they have made a profession of faith, nor is it because he considers them to be somehow spiritually strong or inherently gifted. He is confident because the fruit that they have begun to bear in their lives is evidence of a work of grace in their lives, a work that only God can carry out.
The fruit in the lives of the Philippians is evidence for Paul that God is truly at work in their lives and Paul is convinced that when God begins a work he will see it through to the very end.
There are perversions of the good news of Jesus Christ that suggest that belief is everything and that to insist upon the fruit of a changed life is to turn the gospel into away from free grace and into works. But how wrong that is! It is to seriously pervert the message of the gospel to suggest that a person can be born again and remain unchanged. Paul rejoiced when he saw the fruit of a changed life but he never attributed a person’s salvation to those changes neither must we. Similarly we must not be content with a fruitless easy-believism – the apostle James hit the nail on the head when he declared:
Jas.2:18 "I will show you my faith by my works."
And how encouraging Paul’s statement is! The fact that a good work has been begun in the life of a believer is proof that he’ll be kept in the faith, he’ll persevere to the end and shall be saved in the end, because God will bring that work to completion – anything else would be a sign of failure on God’s part and God does not fail!
Before we come to a close this morning I just want to say a little more about that expression "he...will bring it to completion".
The purpose of the gospel is to restore sinners to the divinely intended perfection that has been so clearly revealed in the sinless Jesus of Nazareth. Lives that have been spoiled by sin are redeemed, recreated and restyled when God is at work. Conversion is the start of that work and it is a great work. We could even say that the major part of the work has been achieved as the forgiven sinner is transferred out of the domain of darkness into the light, the marvellous light of the kingdom of the Son of God. But the work while massively inaugurated at conversion still needs to be brought to completion and Paul’s expression suggests that the ongoing work of God is akin to him adding his finishing touches.
Surely this should affect the way that we view other Christians. I’m not talking now about those who are only Christian in name but of those who do demonstrate genuine evidence of grace being at work in their lives. Now we know that no living Christian is yet the finished item for God hasn’t finished with any of us and yet we can all too easily focus upon their shortcomings. If we do that we will find it hard to pray to God for them with our hearts full of thankfulness and joy. However if we remind ourselves of the truth of v.6 we will begin to think God’s thoughts after him – we will see our friends as God’s building site where the major work has already been done – the building isn’t quite ready for use but the work is already far advanced that it’s only those finishing touches that need to be added. The walls are built, the plaster applied and perhaps it’s just the wallpaper that’s left to be done – not much left but the visual effect will be considerable.
This is a mindset to adopt – that mindset of joy that I said earlier was the way in which Paul looked to God rather than to the obvious circumstances.
Let us be those who give thanks with joy to our great God every time we think of Christian believers we know. We don’t need to pretend that they’re perfect none of them are but they all will be one day – the day of Christ Jesus! That is the day when Jesus on the throne will judge all who stand before him and if you are a believer you will be made complete, mature, whole for that day. Rejoice that your friends in Christ will be too.
Let us too be those who bear the fruit of the genuinely converted – let us be involved in telling others the good news and in supporting those who do – and then when others think of us and they see the fruit of God’s grace in our lives they will give thanks with joy to God and praise him for his mercies.