It is perhaps tempting to think of the Apostle Paul as something of a theological machine. Down through the years it is true to say that he has had something of a bad press. But what easier way is there to avoid facing up to a man’s challenging doctrine than to attach a few labels to him? Then you can dismiss him and his teaching with no further thought required. And so Paul has been accused of being a misogynist, of being an awkward character, or quite simply of being divisive. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that he perverted the simple teaching of a loving Jesus into a religious system that had little to do with the teachings of the Master.
The trouble is that when enough mud is thrown for long enough some of it might begin to stick. And in Paul’s case as a faithful follower of the Lord Jesus the mud was already being thrown while he exercised his ministry. I hope you reject such foolish ideas concerning the apostle who was so very Christ-centred in all of his life and ministry. However, even if you do you may still find yourself subtly influenced by those criticisms and be tempted to think that Paul was a pretty hard-hearted or cold person. These verses however present us with a very different picture of the apostle as he seriously attempted to imitate Christ in every area of his life.
A Warm-hearted Believer
When he wrote to the church at Philippi, Paul was writing to a church with which he had excellent relationships and those relationships had already lasted a long time. As he began his letter Paul told the Philippians that he prayed for them often and every time he thought about them he was both thankful and full of joy. The principal reason he gave for this joyful thankfulness was the fact that they were bearing fruit in their lives, gospel fruit, and it was the presence of this fruit that convinced the apostle that God was truly at work in their lives. And such a conviction was so encouraging, for Paul knew that God does not begin a work in order to drop it part way through.
When Paul thought about the Philippians his thoughts were warm and positive: he loved them and he loved them dearly. And what’s more he thought that his response of joyful thankfulness whenever he thought about them was totally justified, after all how could he be expected to react in any other way when he saw those he loved advancing in the gospel?
Paul might have been a driven missionary and he might have been a deep theologian but neither case in any way prevented him being full of warm feelings too. As Paul declared his affection for his friends he explained to them just what it was that made them so special to him.
It is a good thing to be able to focus upon the positive elements in another person’s life and Paul repeatedly behaved in this way. In doing this Paul wasn’t kidding himself that the Philippians were better than they really were - indeed later in the letter Paul would make it clear that he knew these Christians were not yet perfect and here in this passage he was going to pray for them to make further progress in the gospel, and you can’t make progress if you’re already perfect! No, Paul knew the Philippians had their weaknesses and that there was definitely room for improvement but he didn’t focus his all of his attention on their shortcomings. Sometimes we say that love is blind – that was certainly not the case for the apostle. Yes, Paul saw their faults and he still loved them!
"I hold you in my heart" he wrote in v.7, that is he kept them in his affections, and this implied not simply that he was aware of their existence but that he considered them to be valuable to him as well.
Imagine for a moment that you were a member of that congregation in Philippi when Paul’s letter arrived and was read out. Would you have liked what you heard? The great apostle loved you, valued you and regularly prayed for you. Do you think it might have brought a smile to your face? I bet it would have had a positive effect on me had I been there.
In fact that simple declaration was insufficient for Paul for as he continued to write he underlined the strength of his love for the Philippians in the most emphatic way he could, he called upon God to testify to the truthfulness of what he was saying!
v.8 "For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus."
Surely it is clear from this letter that Paul was a very warm hearted man who had deep feelings for others, feelings which he was not afraid to express. We find that such a conclusion is backed up by other portions of Scripture. In 2Cor.11, for example, Paul wrote very emotionally to the Christians of Corinth. The Corinthians were being misled by some false apostles who, in their attempts to ingratiate themselves, were calling into question Paul’s motives. Paul had planted the church but now these false apostles were trying to sow seeds of doubt about him among the Corinthians. They were trying to infer that Paul didn’t really care for the Corinthian at all and this called forth an emotionally charged rebuttal from the apostle:
2Cor. 11:11 "And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!"
Do you see how firmly Paul asserts his love for these Christian both at Corinth and at Philippi? On both occasions he calls upon God to bear witness to the truthfulness of his declarations. (As an aside you might usefully take a concordance and look up the number of times Paul makes such an appeal to God paying particular attention to the context of those appeals.) But we must move on.
And as I think about these examples in the life of Paul, it is time that I ask myself some questions. And you should ask them too.
Do I like people? Do I like my brothers and sisters in the church as Paul obviously did in the church in Phillippi? Am I thankful for them every time I think about them and does the reality of their Christian faith meet with a similarly joyful response in my heart? Do I pray for them?
My answer to those questions would have to be "I do hope so." And I hope that you too would want to make a similar reply.
The Philippians set an Example too
As we consider this section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians we’ve been thinking thus far about the good example Paul has left us to emulate but his is not the only example that we can consider here. The Philippians to whom Paul has written are themselves good examples to follow. So let’s take a moment to consider what it was that Paul so appreciated in their behaviour and practice.
In explaining what made them so special to him Paul focused his attention upon their partnership with him in the gospel. He’s already stated this in v.5 but expands upon it here in v.7:
"You are all partakers with me of grace"
We might be tempted to understand this sentence as meaning that Paul is thankful for the Philippians simply because they are Christians. Well, Paul certainly was glad that they were Christians but that is not really what he had in mind at this point, he was thinking about something else.
Paul had been set apart as an apostle with the specific task of proclaiming the gospel to the Gentiles. He regarded this ministry as a gracious gift from God, referring to it here literally as "my grace". And it was in this grace that the Philippians had come to participate. They were actively involved with Paul in his ministry of evangelism.
How so, we might ask?
Well in at least three different yet significant ways:
They repeatedly contributed financially to the cause. We have already referred to this in an earlier sermon when we pointed out that the arrival of another of their financial gifts provided Paul with the occasion of writing this letter. But that was not all.
They maintained an interest in him wanting to hear his news, and they found a way of responding to what they heard and of expressing their concerns for Paul by sending one of their own, Epaphroditus, to personally visit Paul in Rome. Paul was thankful for their kindness in wanting thus to share in his troubles. (Phil.4:14)
They also prayed for him – a fact to which Paul was to refer in v.19. (cf. also 4:6)
And Paul added that they were not fair-weather supporters, happy to be associated with the apostle when all was going well but dropping him as soon as things apparently began to go wrong. They stood with him when he defended the gospel in the face of much opposition and criticism; they stood with him when he was more directly evangelistic in his efforts to propagate the gospel; and they didn’t drop their support for him when he got into trouble with the authorities in the exercise of his ministry. They continued to stand with him and to support him when he was thrown in prison.
Well, it is time for us to pause again and to allow the light of this passage to shine into our own lives. When we compare ourselves to the Philippians how well do we match up?
Are we genuinely concerned about the proclamation of the gospel? Are we interested in evangelistic efforts and the work of gospel missions? Do we pray for them and for their success? And what about our own finances? Do we personally invest our own resources in the Lord’s business? These Philippians were especially marked by generosity – here that generosity was for the propagation of the gospel but in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians it seems that the Philippians were also generous when it came to helping poor Christians who were in need of relief. Listen to what Paul wrote there:
2Cor.8:1-5 "We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favour of taking part in the relief of the saints— and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us."
What an example these Philippians have left us!
When you weigh up the evidence don’t you just have to come to the conclusion that it was totally understandable that the Apostle Paul should love a people like this? And Paul wanted the Philippians to know that he did love them so he told them. His love was warm and marked with deep feelings – after all he held them in his heart – but his love did not stop with feelings, real as they were, he went on to pray for them.
And now we’ll turn to look at just what it was that he prayed for them.
vv.9-11 "And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God."
Paul’s prayer as recorded here should make it abundantly clear that there is always room for more progress to be made in a Christian’s life. And if that is true then at least two conclusions can immediately be drawn:
Firstly, however mature we think another Christian to be he/she can still benefit from our prayers. We should never imagine that any Christian is so far advanced that to pray for them is a waste of time and effort.
Secondly, none of us ever ought to think that we ourselves have somehow arrived! We too should always welcome the prayers of others on our behalf and not act as though we don’t need or value such support.
But does our text really make it that clear that the believer always has progress to make? I think it does and this is why I do.
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves just who it is that Paul is praying for. Back in v.1 he made it clear that he was praying for "saints", that is, he was praying for those who had already been set aside by God for Jesus Christ. On top of that Paul clarifies that these people were saints in Christ. They hadn’t attained sainthood by the good works they had carried out, no-one does despite popular views to the contrary. No, they had obtained their sainthood by grace as they had believed into the Lord Jesus and now their whole life was a life of union with Christ. These people had already experienced the power of God in their lives, they were genuinely converted, and Paul prayed and went on praying for them.
Having noted that these people for whom Paul so earnestly prayed were real Christians we then need to remind ourselves that they were Christians who had already made remarkable progress in the gospel – they participated faithfully and generously in the gospel ministry of Paul for the propagation of the gospel and, as we have seen from his letter to the Corinthians, they also exhibited remarkable generosity as they gave beyond their means to help in the relief of other suffering Christians. We have already thought about this and we suggested they were exemplary Christians who have left us a fine example to follow. And it is precisely for such Christians that the apostle prays so fervently. He wasn’t praying here for Christians who were hardly alive and hardly bearing any of the fruit of righteousness in their lives he was praying rather for fine Christians and he longs for them to make yet more progress.
And what is the progress that Paul is so concerned to see made in the lives of the Philippians? The progress Paul prays for is in the realms of love and this is of course in complete harmony with Jesus’ own teaching. Do you remember how Jesus responded to the lawyer who asked him about the most important commandment?
Mt.22:37-40 "And (Jesus) said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."
So Paul prayed for the love the Philippians had to abound more and more – the fact that they were already evidencing genuine love in their lives seemed simply to be the spark that ignited Paul’s prayer to ask for more of the same.
Now Paul has left the details of this love deliberately vague, he simply prays that their love abound more and more. Does he want the Philippians’ love for God to increase? Or is he thinking of their love for other believers? Or does he have in mind their love for those who are yet outside the faith still living in spiritual darkness? Perhaps the fact that he doesn’t specify means that we are to include all three.
While in no way wanting to suggest that the believer’s love for God or for other Christians is unimportant the context here would seem to suggest that Paul may well be prioritizing love for outsiders, for unbelievers. He has after all been commending the Philippians for their partnership with him in the gospel and that most definitely had for its focus the propagation of the gospel.
So Paul prayed for the love of the Philippians to abound more and more. But Paul wasn’t praying for the Philippians to simply experience more and more warm feelings. No, Paul’s interest was a very practical one. Paul wanted their growing love to be an informed love and a discerning love. He wanted them to understand what genuine love meant and involved; he wanted them to appreciate its worth and value and he wanted them to know how it would work out practically in normal everyday contexts; and he wanted them not only to see and understand all that but he also wanted them to personally choose to practice this love themselves. He wanted them having understood this word to be doers of it.
Are you as concerned as Paul was about this harmonization of doctrine and practice? Do you long for such love to grow and develop in you? Do you pray that it might do so in your brothers and sisters in Christ too?
And this is not the end of the matter either. Paul wanted the Philippian Christians to make moral progress. As their love grew and they become better equipped to value the truth Paul wanted them to choose the right thing, the excellent thing, and to do it. And this moral progress he described as leading to them becoming both "pure" and "blameless".
The first of these words, "pure", refers to an internal purity and perfection; it speaks of that wholeness where a person’s motives have been cleansed and brought into line with God’s own heart.
The second word "blameless" describes a person’s actual behaviour and activity. For a person’s behaviour to be blameless involves us in not only doing the right thing but also in not being a stumbling block that causes anyone else to stumble either.
When Jesus spoke to his disciples as he was sending them out into the world to carry out their mission he gave them a careful set of instructions and the type of behaviour he looked for was precisely the sort of thing Paul prayed for on behalf of the Philippians. This is how Jesus put it:
Mt.10:16 "Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."
But I wonder did you notice that Paul prayed with a real sense of expectancy? He wanted the love of the Philippians to go on and on increasing so that they would be pure and blameless for the day of Christ. We’ve already heard Paul refer to that day – it is the day which will see the Father complete the work which he has begun!
And you can pray in the same way for other believers with exactly the same confidence – indeed you can hardly pray anything more for your brothers and sisters in Christ because as Paul contemplated the outcome of his prayers for the Philippians he saw them as being filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Christ. These Philippians had seen their lives turned around by the free grace of God and the goal of their salvation would be achieved as they produced fruit which was acceptable and pleasing to Him. This fruit of righteousness is bound up with love and the Philippians had come to love because he first loved them. Love would motivate and energize them to carry out those good works that the Father had prepared beforehand for them to achieve. And love will motivate and energize us too. And it will all be accomplished through Jesus Christ and only through him!
Small wonder then that Paul could say that this would all turn out to bring glory and praise to God. And that is the very purpose for which first you have been created:
"The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever"
And after you had turned away he saved you and restored you to your original purpose. What a God! What a gospel! And what a work is being carried out in each of his people! May the Lord be pleased to cause our love to abound more and more; may he be pleased to fill us with understanding and discernment; may he grant us the will and the desire to approve and to embrace that which is truly excellent and may he cause us to be filled with the type of fruit that will bring him honour and praise as we live our lives focused on Jesus Christ our Lord.
And to God alone be the glory!