“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
In the first half of the 16th century Martin Luther, the famous German reformer, said that
"there are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, the conversion of the mind, and the conversion of the purse."
Since then plenty of writers have suggested that of these three, it may well be that the conversion of the purse is the most difficult.
In the 18th century John Wesley declared: “The last part of a man to be converted is his wallet.”
And in the 19th century it was the turn of Charles Haddon Spurgeon who put it like this:
"With some (Christians) the last part of their nature that ever gets sanctified is their pockets."
Money plays an important part of human life – we can have problems when we don’t have enough of it and we can have problems when we have too much. And all the way along the spectrum we can have problems in knowing quite how to use our money for the best. With money playing such a role in our lives it is hardly surprising that the most practical of books, the Bible, has a lot to say about it.
This morning we’re to think about some of the issues that can arise when money is involved and we’re going to do so by considering these verses in Paul’s letter to the Philippians where he responds at some length to the gift that they had sent to him. There are some important lessons here for us to learn.
Generosity – a Christian Hallmark
The Bible presents a God to us who is exceedingly generous in his dealings with us. Right at the very beginning of the human race God placed Adam and Eve in a Garden that was full of good things – and only one tree was forbidden to them while they were encouraged to make good use of everything else. In the NT, writing to Timothy, Paul referred to God as a God:
“who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” 1Tim.6:17
The full extent and the marvellous quality of his giving is most clearly seen in the gift of his unique Son:
Jn.3:16 ““For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
And when this God brings us into his family he wants to see his likeness restored in the lives of his adopted children. Those who have freely received are expected in their turn to freely give. This is by no means to suggest that only Christians are generous but it does point to the fact that generous Christians are to be the norm rather than the exception. The comments of Luther, Wesley and Spurgeon all assume this to be the case while adding their comments that such generosity might take some time in coming.
In the case of the Christians in Philippi, however, generous giving began right from the beginning of their Christian experience:
v.15 “And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.”
The partnership to which Paul referred was one which involved financial and material support flowing from the Christians in Philippi to further the promotion of the gospel in which the apostle was actively engaged. Now Paul, nearing the end of his letter, returns to the subject of financial support and specifically refers to the latest gift that they had recently sent to him. He writes to express his appreciation for their renewed interest in him and for their concern both for him and his ministry.
As we have just said, this was not the first gift they had sent him having helped him already on more than one occasion in the past. After those initial gifts an interruption occurred and the gifts stopped flowing but it seems they had only stopped due to lack of opportunity. Whether this lack of opportunity was due to a shortage of available funds, the lack of a person who could carry a new gift all the way to Rome (which was at least 800 miles away) or whether they had simply lost contact with Paul and didn’t know where he was, we don’t know. But of late they had found the opportunity again, they had gladly seized it, and so Paul was the beneficiary of a new gift.
Paul was grateful for this new gift, though he didn’t express his thanks perhaps in the way we might have expected. In fact some have criticised him for offering “thankless thanks” but they are wrong failing to recognise the very positive things Paul has to say as well as failing to understand the cultural context in which Paul had to operate.
As Paul responded to this new gift he did want to express his appreciation but at the same time he wanted to make sure that the Philippians did not entertain misguided notions about Christian generosity. In addition Paul wanted to avoid giving the Philippians the impression that he was in desperate need of what they could offer or that he wanted to receive more of their money for his own personal benefit. He certainly didn’t want his thanks to sound like a veiled request for more of the same.
The care with which he wrote in itself teaches us two important truths:
1. He was genuinely concerned for the spiritual welfare of the Philippian Christians and even in dealing with financial matters he was doing what he could to promote that.
2. Money and financial matters can, if not dealt with wisely, cause real problems. Some of us know only too well the difficulties that disagreements and misconceptions over the use of money can provoke. My own mother’s family had just such a dispute and it resulted in one of my mother’s brothers not speaking to her for years. I knew his name but although we lived just a few miles apart I never knew him, my uncle – I don’t even remember ever meeting him. You may have experienced something similar – how sad it is that money can ruin even good friendships. How wise we need to be!
Well Paul was wise and we can learn from his wisdom as it is displayed in these verses.
I don’t know about you but as a kid no sooner was Christmas over and I was being told that I had to write my thank-you letters. I don’t remember the task as being one I enjoyed but I do remember the verbal pressure that was applied to overcome my hesitancy:
“If you don’t write and say “Thank you” you won’t get anything next year.” I was told.
Now I do think it is a good thing to show your appreciation for gifts received but only to do so with a view to receiving more in the future is hardly something to be commended.
Paul wanted to express his genuine appreciation to the Philippians but he most certainly didn’t want to appear to be fishing for more. He did not want the Philippians to assume that the only reason he was interested in them was for what he could get out of them. Sadly not all religious leaders have copied Paul’s example in this with plenty being more than happy to exploit their followers and to enrich themselves at their expense.
It would appear that when Paul had received this latest gift from the Philippians he had done so at a time when he didn’t really have any pressing needs but he did not allow that to dull his gratefulness or his appreciation of what the Philippians had done for him. However, he appreciated their gift more because of what it said about them rather than for any benefit he might receive from it.
How was this possible and what did Paul mean? Well, over a number years Paul had been growing as a disciple of Jesus Christ himself and as he grew he had learned some important lessons in life. He had learnt from all the various ups and downs of life that he could depend upon his Lord, that he could find his satisfaction in Christ; he wasn’t dependent upon his economic circumstances because he could be content in a whole range of different circumstances. Through it all he had tasted and seen that the Lord was good and come to know by personal experience that godliness with contentment was indeed a very great gain. And such experiences had convinced him that he could cope equally well with hunger or plenty whichever extreme was to come his way.
This conviction was not the result of some revelatory flash of inspiration, it wasn’t some mystical secret he had discovered, it was a conviction that had simply been hammered in the reality of life lived trusting the Lord. And it is something that we too can learn. It is interesting for us living in the affluent west, to note that Paul included being content when living in plenty and in abundance and not just hardship and need. How encouraging that he did for we can be tempted to think that we’d be ok if only we had a bit more! Yet so many wealthy folk use up their energies either straining for more and more or else worrying about how they can hold on to what they have – and there is no contentment or satisfaction for them there.
Paul was content. He was grateful for the latest gift and he was well supplied by it and of course he wished to express his appreciation for it. He knew that it had been kind of the Philippians to have sent it to him and in this way share with him in his troubles and he didn’t hesitate to tell them so.
But there was more he wanted to tell the Philippians thank a mere “thank you”. He wanted them to know what their gift really signified and he wanted them to know how God was involved in it all.
As far as Paul was concerned the most important thing about the Philippians’ gift was not the material help it brought him but that it was evidence: it was evidence of gospel fruit in their lives, it was evidence of their relationship with Paul and it was evidence of their relationship with God himself.
Paul referred to the gifts he had received as evidence that the church in Philippi was partnering with him in his gospel ministry. These gifts served to help him personally, yes, but primarily they helped him in the exercise of his ministry. They brought Paul the tremendous encouragement of knowing that he wasn’t in it alone – he had partners who were just as keen as he was to see the job done and done well. And Christian ministry works best as partnership and not competition. When I hear people praying for the ministry in Sunnyhill I don’t interpret that as a subtle way of drawing attention to my own shortcomings or as criticising my own feeble efforts (though there would certainly be scope for doing that) but I interpret it as a genuinely expressed desire to see the same gospel success that I long to see produced amongst us. As a result when I preach I don’t feel that you, the congregation, are daring me or challenging me to do well and waiting for me to fail but rather you are longing for me to do well, for your own benefit and for the honour and glory of our Saviour. We’re not in opposition but standing alongside one another eagerly desiring the same thing. And that Paul’s view of partnership – not bosses versus workers but all collaborators together.
The Philippians needed to realise that by their acts of generosity they were not just offering gifts to a friend they were actually investing in God’s kingdom work. As they gave, and gave freely, they were in the process of laying up treasure in heaven and it was this benefit that for Paul was the most important and he longed to see the Philippians’ spiritual credit grow. You see Paul was still interested in their spiritual well-being even though he was absent from them.
Remember, these were Christian people who were already right with God – Paul had not the slightest doubt about that – he wasn’t at all suggesting that they might buy their way to heaven with their gifts. No, their generous giving was evidence to Paul that they were already on the way because of what Christ had done for them.
Further to this as the Philippians “invested” in the kingdom of God by their gifts they were actually making their gifts primarily to God rather than to Paul. Do you see what Paul said about the gifts sent by the intermediary Epaphroditus? You read it in v.18 were those gifts are described as being:
“a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God”
The Philippians would be spiritually very short-sighted if they thought they were just giving to the apostle when in reality they were giving gifts to God which pleased him enormously. Is that how you see your gifts too?
Indeed if the Philippians failed to properly realise that they were first and foremost making offerings to God they might easily be tempted to view their gifts as buying themselves favours from the “apostle” as they put him in their debt. And surely they could exert an influence over him by means of their money.
Now why do I say that?
Well, because that is the way the culture of the day functioned in Philippi and the Christians were not unaffected by it any less than you are unaffected by the culture in which you live.
In graeco-roman culture true friendship was not considered possible if it was based upon the meeting of need. We might find this odd as we probably imagine that a friend is the best person to meet another’s need. But friendship can be placed under real pressure if the flow is all in one direction. When a friend continually comes to you for help the time may come when you dread them coming again because you fear they are only turning to you for what they can get out of you.
And so in the culture prevalent in the Roman empire a gift offered to a friend was met with a counter-gift so that no-one could be considered in the other’s debt. Such behaviour could easily lead to a spiralling upwards of cost as one gift is met with another of greater value which in turn calls for a response and so it goes on. And if a friend can’t repay in kind he remains in the other’s debt and open to undue influence. Friendship that is unbalanced in this way easily shifts away from genuine friendship to something more like a Patron-client.
Now before you yawn and begin to think this is too complicated for you and doesn’t say anything to you stop and think a moment – you are not unaffected by this sort of thinking. Have you never received a card at Christmas from someone to whom you’ve not sent one and then thought that you ought to get one in the post asap? Or you receive a present but have nothing to offer in return – have you not felt even the slightest bit of embarrassment? Then again it may be the other way round – you’ve sent a card but not had one back, or you’ve given a present but didn’t receive one – don’t you feel even just a little bit let down? And have you never heard the expression “he who pays the piper calls the tune”? In case you haven’t let me tell you what it means. It means that the person who provides the money decides what will be done. Money can be used not necessarily to help another person but to buy influence. You know that and it is something that has happened for centuries, in the Book of Proverbs we read in a pithy modern translation:
Pr.18:16 “A gift gets attention; it buys the attention of eminent people.”
Well Paul wanted the Philippians to know that their relationship was not to be affected by this type of gift or by this type of thinking about gifts. Their relationship was not based upon need – how so? Because Paul had learned to be content and being content in whatever circumstance he might be found meant that their gifts to him could be free of this potentially negative influence. But that was not all, not only did Paul downplay his personal needs he had pointed out to the Philippians that they were not primarily giving to him but to God.
Paul could not match the gifts the Philippians sent him but he didn’t need to because God would. Paul knew he could not meet the needs of Philippians, they had to look to God rather than to Paul for that. But then God was well able to meet their needs and he would so for it is impossible for anyone to outgive him:
v.19 “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
Their gifts didn’t establish a Patron-Client with Paul either – he wasn’t “selling” his services to the highest bidder, unlike some who promise their prayers in return for a donation to the cause. No, God was in charge and genuine partnership relationships were possible as a result.
I suppose we could make any number of applications – we could talk about our individual giving to the Lord’s work, we could talk about laying up treasure in heaven, we could talk about developing true and proper motives for our giving. Maybe these are areas that you need to consider carefully for yourself.
Let me conclude however with a congregational application. We have before us in these verses the example of a generous congregation. The church in Philippi had produced fruit in this area from the earliest days of their existence and their giving was not a one-off wonder. They gave often and they gave when they could. Their giving was not impersonal giving either: it was involved giving, for it signified partnership and a sharing in the troubles of others. May our church be a church like that. May our giving be generous and kind. And may our prayers follow and accompany our giving to the glory of God.