No one gets anywhere alone. Think you’re the master of your own destiny? Just wait. Sometimes something as simple as a cold or a check-engine light can remind you that you don’t have it together the way you think you do.
In a very real sense, that’s what the letter to the church in Philippi was all about. At its simplest, Philippians represents a thank-you letter, issued by Paul to his supporters in the metropolitan city of Philippi.
These past few days we’ve looked at Paul’s relationship with the church as its founder. But to better understand the themes of this great book, we have to peel back its pages to see the larger story that lies underneath.
THE THEOLOGICAL STORY
Our understanding of the gospel has to begin with the character of God. I don’t know about you, but growing up Christianity always struck me as a list of rules. Don’t cuss. Don’t watch R-rated movies. Read your Bible more. In other words, God always seemed like a cosmic traffic cop, watching with his radar gun to bust you at nearest available opportunity. Want to stay out of jail? Simple. Avoid sin. Be nice. But as I’ve grown older I’ve begun to wonder how much of this message has to do with the Bible, and more to do with the mixed-up religious culture that we’ve created.
Instead, what if God was deeply, powerfully, ferociously committed to our joy? What if his fundamental design for all of reality was that we experience overwhelming joy in his presence, his character, and his creation? What would change?
See, now I understand that God’s desire for my heart and for my life are not rooted in arbitrary standards of “goodness,” but in the eternal designs that he has for the whole world. The Bible says that if we violate those designs, we are in a state of “sin.” The only thing that stands between you and your joy…is you. Sin, therefore, is displaced love. Instead of a steadfast love of God, I’ve come to value things like career, sex, entertainment—even religious duty—as ways to measure myself, and find value and security.
The cross changed all that. On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for my misplaced love. The empty tomb promises hope for a better world to come. What do we do in the meantime? We pursue God’s kingdom by sharing the good news of the gospel with everyone we meet.
PAUL IN PRISON
That brings us to Paul. Have you ever looked through the Bible and struggled to know how you’d relate to these obscure characters? When you meet Paul, your search is over. As we’ll learn later, Paul was one of the most religious people you’ll ever meet—raised in a devout home, privileged with the finest Jewish education. But Paul was equally one of the least religious people you’ll ever meet—when Christianity was beginning, Paul was so desperate to silence this disruptive movement that he had early Christians dragged from their home and executed. Do you get these extremes? Home school kid. Murderer. No matter where you lie on the spectrum of belief, Paul will tell you, Been there; done that. Who better to pen the majority of our New Testament?
So after Paul has a miraculous vision of the risen Savior, his whole life changes. Now, he abandons his religious pedigrees to become a church-planter throughout the Mediterranean world—we touched on this in the book of Acts in our previous posts.
But toward the end of his life, Paul is taken into Roman custody. He’s placed under house arrest. Now, being in house arrest was better than being in an actual prison—but this wasn’t exactly high living, either. He was free to write, but he was entirely dependent on supporters for supplies and for meals.
So imagine Paul’s joy when a knock came at the door. The man’s name was Epaphroditus. He’d come with a gift basket for Paul—which probably included some writing supplies and some food. This, then, forms the occasion for Paul’s thank-you letter to the church.
When I was a graduate student at Dallas Seminary, I went through something similar. Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the idea; I’d just lost my job—didn’t know where to turn. Checking my mailbox one day I received a slip informing me that a package had arrived for me at the campus mail center. The sizeable box confused me, since I hadn’t ordered anything. Opening it up, I found a small—maybe 10” tall—doll in the shape of Bob’s Big Boy. And I was confused. But when I heard the rattle, I pulled its head off (it was designed that way—don’t give me that weird look) to discover it was filled with wadded-up bills. I assumed—based on the quantity—that they were dollar bills. They were twenties. To this day, I have no idea who sent it; I only know that I received enough to pay my upcoming bills. I named the doll Epaphroditus, whose gracious gift came to me while I was (ahem) imprisoned in graduate school. He’s been on my shelf ever since.
THE LETTER TO PHILIPPI
We finally get to the actual text of Philippians. This is the story that Paul’s been living; now we see how he responds to his supporters in Philippi:
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 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. 7 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. 8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:3-11)
If there’s a key phrase to the book of Philippians, it’s found in verse 5. The “partnership in the gospel.” No one gets anywhere alone. The gospel gives the church her identity; its love that fuels her mission.
Do you hear how the gospel penetrates Paul’s every word here? Righteousness—including righteous deeds, or “fruit”—isn’t something that comes naturally. It comes supernaturally, through the One who “began a good work” in us. And that tells us something else: no matter who we are, no matter where we are, God’s not finished with us yet. If our joy ever seems less than full, if our love ever seems less than complete, it’s only because we are but a few chapters into a much larger, much more expansive story. And to best understand this story, we need each other. We need the Church. And we need more grace than we could ever have conceived.