Tuesday, April 14, 2020
“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. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”
Following his greeting to the Philippian believers (vv. 1-2) Paul included an introductory word of thanksgiving. This is a common feature of Paul’s epistles as it was in most correspondence of the day. It is clear that Paul had great affection for the Philippian congregation. One commentator points out that Paul’s thanksgiving in this letter “is distinguished by emphatic repetitions and emotional intensity” (Silva, 45).
While Paul utilized the common format for correspondence, at no time did he waste words on meaningless pleasantries. Even the introductory words of thanksgiving are laden with theological depth. Indeed, Paul’s words of thankfulness foreshadow the letter’s most important themes.
“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.”
The Philippian church was made up of a variety of different people, with different backgrounds. There was a successful business woman named Lydia. There was a Roman guard who no doubt would have had more than a few rough edges here and there. These were former pagans whose lifestyles would have to go through a radical change. This is not easy soil for a pastor to work. There’s nothing convenient about a church like this. Add to this the fact that even to this healthy church Paul must correct two feuding members, Euodia and Syntiche.
But far from drudgery, this is joy for Paul. He gives thanks for being witness to God’s redeeming grace in the lives of these men and women. Paul has finely tuned spiritual eyes. He sees everywhere the grace of God in every life changed, in every kindness given, even in every trial that Paul endures he finds cause for joy.
Even now as he writes with shackles on his wrists or ankles what pours forth from him is joyful prayer. Paul is not unrealistic and he’s given neither to sentiment nor denial. His joy was hard won. It is certainly the fruit of God’s grace in his life above all else. But it is also true that Paul was a man who’d gotten over himself. Paul was not impressed with himself. He was not impressed with his resume. He was content to be the slave of Christ and the servant of Christ’s people.
Paul knew he was replaceable. He didn’t demand that people and circumstances conform to his preferences beyond what was demanded by God. As far as Paul knew his latest imprisonment could be the last. This may be the time when Rome finally decides to rid itself of this pesky preacher.
But Paul’s life, even in Roman chains, is suffused with joy. Philippians is Paul’s most joyful letter and yet is written during one of his most significant trials. Sixteen times in Philippians, Paul will use the word joy or one of its derivatives. He doesn’t merely talk about his own joy either. He urges joy upon the Philippians as normative to the Christian life.
“I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise, you also should be glad and rejoice with me” (2:17-18).
“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and it is safe for you” (3:1).
“Rejoice in the Lord. I say it again, rejoice” (4:4).
“Genuine godly gratitude works itself out in praying for others by freeing us from our self-sufficiency and self-absorption in order to recognize the grace of God at work in other’s lives” (Harmon, 80).
“It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart…”
What tenderness characterizes Paul’s feelings toward the Philippians believers. Certainly Paul held great affection for all of the churches he served. But it is also true that the Philippian church held a special place in his heart. No doubt his imprisonment and their faithfulness to him in those terrible circumstances peaked his affection for them.
Have you noticed that God uses times of trials and suffering in your own life to stoke the fires of love in your heart for particular people? In Paul’s case, he must have been deeply moved by the willingness of the Philippian Christians to publicly identify with him even though he was under Roman scrutiny. To identify with Paul at that point was a risky prospect.
“…for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”
Paul’s gratitude was no perfunctory literary convention. To read Paul’s thanksgiving in Philippians is to be taken into his inner world of deep affection for these who shared not only God’s gracious salvation in Jesus Christ but also were his partners in advancing the gospel through their material and spiritual support.
In reading Philippians we are not merely eavesdropping on a pastor’s letter to a church. Paul is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit so his letter to the Philippian church is simultaneously an expression of love from Jesus to us today. “Paul’s thankful heart shows that as we entrust ourselves to Jesus, he gives two gifts: a love that stretches our hearts to embrace others, and a joy that places our pain into perspective, enabling us to see our suffering in the context of God’s comprehensive plan to make us more like his Son” (Johnson, 22).