A sermon by Howard Batson, First Baptist Church, Amarillo, Tx.
October 13, 2013
Last week, we concluded a sermon series from the Old Testament book of Proverbs. And today we begin a sermon series from a New Testament book, the book of Philippians. Philippians is a letter. It’s not a Gospel. If it were a gospel, like Matthew or Luke, it would consist of a series of stories and sayings focused on the rabbi named Jesus. Philippians is not like Proverbs – it’s not a collection of maxims or little lessons. “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20). Nothing like that in Philippians. It’s not from the school of wisdom.
It is a letter – a letter between the founder of the church, a Jewish man by the name of Paul, and those who were members of the church that met in the city of Philippi. In fact, it starts out just like a letter – an ancient letter, at least. “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi…” (1:1). Timothy is not an equal with Paul; he’s Paul’s son in the faith. But Paul always works as a team – Paul and Timothy.
It has all the elements of a letter. A greeting (v. 2), “Grace and peace.” A thanksgiving was also commonplace in ancient letters. “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you” (v. 3).
Paul couldn’t be with the church at Philippi at the moment. He’s in prison, he’s in jail – in Rome or perhaps Ephesus. And when Paul could not be personally present with the churches that needed him, he wrote letters. And the letters served as his apostolic parousia, his apostolic arrival. So his letters carried the same authority as if the Apostle himself had shown up in the flesh.
“Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus….” Now, that’s an interesting way of referring to the Christians at Philippi, calling them “saints in Christ Jesus.” The word “saints,” which can be translated “holy ones,” was God’s way of claiming them as God’s people. It was the language used of Israel, people bound in a covenant with God (Exodus 19:6; Deuteronomy 7:6). God spoke of Israel as “My people, a holy nation.” Psalms speaks of Israel the same way. “As for the saints who are in the land…” (Psalm 16:3). Or Psalm 34:9, “Fear the Lord, you His saints.”
Who are these covenant people in Philippi, and how did the story begin?
Turn back for a moment to Acts 16. Paul is on his second missionary journey with Silas. He was wanting to go to Bithynia, but the Spirit of God said, “No, that’s not where I have a divine appointment for you.” Finally he comes to Troas, and at Troas, he has a vision (Acts 16:9). “A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” In verse 10, Paul says, “I concluded that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
In Acts 16:12, he arrives at Philippi. It’s the Sabbath, the day of worship. There is no Jewish synagogue in Philippi because there are not enough Jewish men (it took ten), so Paul went down to the riverside where the women had a place of prayer and began speaking to the women who had gathered to pray.
The first convert in all of Europe is a woman by the name of Lydia from the city of Thyatira – a wealthy lady who sold either purple dye or purple fabrics. Look at Acts 16:14, at the end. “The Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.” Paul baptized Lydia. He baptized her family. Paul stayed in her home. Paul had also cast out demons from a slave-girl who had the gift of foretelling. Paul and Silas were imprisoned over the clamor that resulted from Paul’s casting out the demon. They were beaten with rods. Busted with fists. They were in the stocks, fastened feet in the inner prison. It’s midnight, and Paul and Silas began singing and praying, praising God. The prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there is a great earthquake. The foundations of the prison house were shaken. The doors fling open. Everyone’s chains are unfastened. And when the jailer was awakened by the clamor, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, because if the prisoners escaped his life would be required. Paul shouts, “Do yourself no harm, for we’re all here.” The other prisoners were doing what Paul commanded – this one who could cause the earthquakes with his singing. Someone rushes in with a light, a torch. And the Philippian jailer, whose life is spared by Paul’s command for the prisoners to stay put, cries out, “What do I need to do to be saved?” If you ever experience an earthquake of God, you will ask the question, “What do I have to do to be saved?” “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). And he was baptized, and his whole household.
That’s the beginning of this Philippians church. A wealthy woman who sells purple dye and purple fabrics. A slave-girl who has had a demon cast from her. And a jailer who had, himself, fastened the stocks around Paul and Silas – hand and feet. The baptized believers gathered at the place of Philippi ended up forming Paul’s favorite church.
Back to Philippians 1. I want you to notice a few things about this passage in Philippians 1.
I. Paul is grateful for their participation in the gospel.
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.
And then, at the end of verse 7 he says, “…you all are partakers of grace with me.”
The word for participation is koinonia. It’s the word of fellowship, sharing something in common. How had the Philippians participated in the gospel? They had participated in the gospel by supporting Paul’s ministry with their gifts, with their money. For Paul, to give one’s means, one’s money, to support the ones who teach and preach the gospel is to participate in that gospel message.
In fact, there is much evidence that the church at Philippi was always so generous to the ministries of Paul. When Paul is gathering his gift to take to Jerusalem for the poor saints in the temple city, he says (Romans 15:23), “For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.” Or in 2 Corinthians 8:1-4: “Now brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia” (Philippi is in Macedonia), “that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation (there’s our word again) in the support of the saints.”
Every time you put a gift in the offering plate of First Baptist Church, you are participating in every ministry that we have. You’re feeding the hungry over at Buchanan Street. Hundreds come every month looking for food and clothing. You recently provided a space for the Burundian Congregation to sing praises to God and worship, as their custom is, on Saturday afternoon. You’ve delivered a Bible to a new baby in labor and delivery. You’ve supported a missionary on a foreign field. And you’ve paid the light bill for your child’s Sunday School class. All this every time you place a gift in the offering plate. When you give, Paul says you are participating.
And in Philippians 4:10 Paul says, “But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity.” They had supported Paul – there he is in prison – and he rejoices when they arrive with a gift, carried by Epaphroditus. A cause for rejoicing.
In Philippians 1:7, he calls them “partakers of grace with me.” While Paul is in prison in Ephesus or Rome, their gifts have sustained him and encouraged him as he stands firm for the gospel. Thus, they share in God’s grace with him.
II. God is a finisher, as well as a beginner.
I found no less than 55 film projects – that is motion pictures – that were never, ever finished. I found a list of good men who never finished school: Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Grover Cleveland, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, John Glenn, Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill, Robert Frost, Ray Kroc (founder of McDonald’s), Dave Thomas (founder of Wendy’s), Ralph Lauren (fashion designer), Peter Jennings (news anchor), Karl Rove (presidential advisor), Ted Turner (founder of CNN), Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, Charles Dickens, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates. You get the point – maybe they all intended to, but never did, finish school. Great men, but beginners, not finishers.
What are the things in your life that are unfinished? A college degree? A dissertation? A book that you were always going to write? A book you started to read but put down two years ago? A piece of needlepoint? A crocheted afghan? A jigsaw puzzle? A crossword puzzle yesterday? An exercise program? A remodeling project in the back bathroom? Refurbishing the old 1957 Chevy? You all know the feeling. You start something with all the gusto in the world but, somewhere along the line, the hill looks too tall to climb, the race looks too long to run. (By the way, a lot of you have unfinished marathons.) One setback after another, and then…well…it never happens.
Most of us die with unfinished business. After a death I sometimes ask: “What did she wish to accomplish that never happened? What was left undone?”
Not God. God always accomplished what God wills. God has no unfinished business at the end of the day. And He who began a good work in us will complete it.
In verse 6, Paul says, “I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” We could translate verse 6 this way: “I am persuaded that the good work God began in you, in terms of your long-term partnership in the gospel in every possible way, He will bring to a glorious consummation at the end when Christ returns.” I like the way he writes: “I am confident of this very thing….” From the beginning until now and continuing to the end.
But the confidence has little to do with the folks in Philippi and much to do with the God who began the work. The day of Christ Jesus is the goal of the present life in Christ. The Day of the Lord of the Old Testament, the parousia of the New Testament – the coming of Christ, the final exaltation and glorification of the crucified and resurrected Lord. Believers in Christ are people of the future. We have a certain future that has begun in the present. We are citizens of heaven who live on earth. We must lean to, strain toward what is ahead – with the goal to win the prize for which God has called us heavenward.
God is not just the God of beginnings. God is the God of finishing. God did not save you to lose you. God saved you to glorify His Christ. “I am confident that he who started the work in you will be able to finish it.”
III. Paul concludes that his circumstances may advance the gospel.
A few week ago, I heard Alan Williams, former basketball player at Wake Forest University, recall the day his father gathered the family together to inform them that he had cancer. He remembered his dad commented, with chin up, “We will all see how God will use this to bring glory to His kingdom.” I could tell that his father’s response to cancer had served as a guiding light for Alan Williams’s walk with Christ.
When Alan’s team had the opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden, the world’s most famous arena, all of his team mates had their fathers in the stands. During the warm-up, he noticed Dick Vitale sitting courtside, doing a live broadcast for ESPN. Back in the locker room, Alan took out a pen and pad, went into the bathroom, and composed a letter to Dick Vitale.
Dear Dickey V,
You don’t know me, but my name is Alan Williams, and I am #20 for Wake. My Dad’s name is Bowman Williams, and he can’t be here tonight because he’s waiting to begin chemotherapy treatment in Texas. Since he can’t be here, I was wondering if you would be willing to say “hi” to him during the game and tell him how much I love him and that I wish he could be here…. I hope you can help me out.
He folded the notebook paper, stuffed it in his sock, and handed it to Vitale.
Alan sat the bench that night because he was neither a starter nor a star. But Dickey V. came through, and Alan’s cell phone lit up with messages after the game. His dad said that was one of his most meaningful moments in life – to be sitting in front of the television and hear his son’s unexpected message of love. (Alan Williams, Teammates Matter)
Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known through the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.”
The Philippians, of course, already know about Paul’s imprisonment. They sent the gift to support him through Epaphroditus. Paul says his suffering, his chains, have caused the advance of the gospel. “Greater progress of the gospel” (verse 12) could be translated “advance of the gospel.” Paul doesn’t want them to be anxious. Paul doesn’t want them to worry about his chains (vs. 13, 14, 17). Rather than a hindrance to the gospel, as they might believe, his chains, his imprisonment, have actually been an advance to the gospel. Advancing the gospel was Paul’s lifelong passion. To get the story of Jesus out, the message of the Christ. Paul wanted the broken world to have the good news of God’s healing, God’s grace.
From times of old, there is the widespread belief that there is a direct connection between what kind of person you are and what happens to you. That idea was prevalent in the first century with Paul and is prevalent today. “If preaching the gospel gets you arrested, what’s the point of being a Christian anyway?” some might be asking.
Paul interprets his chains. You interpret your cancer. You interpret your divorce. You interpret the death of your family member. You interpret your accident.
There is no pain so sharp as uninterpreted pain. No tragedy so heavy as the one without meaning.
First of all, Paul says, “Because I’m sitting here in chains, the gospel has been shared with these unbelieving guards and others in the Roman headquarters.” Secondly, Paul says imprisonment has generated new courage among Christians in the area of his confinement. “They are speaking the word of God fearlessly” (v. 14).
This is a hard thing for me to say, for I wish no suffering on you and no suffering on me. But whenever life throws us a curve, the first question is, “How is this going to be used to glorify God? How is God going to use this death in my family to bring glory to Him? How is God going to use my cancer to bring glory to Him? How is God going to use my – you fill in the blank – to bring glory to Himself?” The cross of Christ brought glory to the Father, and our suffering can bring glory to Him, too.
IV. The gospel will never leave us in shame. The gospel ultimately will never disappoint.
Look at Philippians 1:20
According to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”
Whatever happens to me, the gospel hasn’t disappointed me, as long as my life or my death can exalt Christ Jesus.
Paul says in verse 19, “I know I’ll be delivered.” He doesn’t mean freed from prison. He means he’ll be saved. Paul is sitting there, waiting for his trial, and he’s not discouraged. Rather, he has the mood of one looking out the window in anticipation. Whether Rome says yes or no over his life, his witness, by word and conduct, will honor and magnify Christ.
Two vivid terms here: shame and boldness. “I will not be put to shame.” There will be no failing. There will be no shrinking back. You know, the good news is that if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, the gospel will never disappoint you. Whether things go with ease for you or with great difficulty, Christ will always see you through to the end, to eternal salvation. Therefore, in boldness, we can exalt the Christ. “Out in the open” is a good translation. Living or dying, waking or sleeping, we belong to Christ. And that’s what we’re living for, and that’s what we’re dying for – to be devoted to Christ.
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Let me remind you this morning that:
1. When you support your church, you are a partner in the gospel of Christ Jesus.
2. God is the finisher of all He begins.
3. Your circumstances, even in the midst of your suffering, may advance the gospel.
4. When you believe in Jesus, you will never be put to shame.