Joyful, From Beginning to End
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Philippians 1:1–1:11
“JOYFUL, FROM BEGINNING TO END”
1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.
2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 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.
“Joy!” It’s a simple three-letter word, but one whose meaning goes deeper than we might imagine.
For instance, the dictionary definition of “joy” is “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” But is “joy” primarily a “feeling,” a passive emotion that comes to us purely as a result of pleasant and happy circumstances? Or is it more than that? Is there an active component as well? It would seem to me that there must be, or else the New Testament would not repeatedly command us to “rejoice” (cf. Matthew 5:12; Romans 12:15, 15:10; Philippians 3:1, 4:4; Revelation 19:7; et al).
You and I may be tempted to equate “joy” with “happiness,” as if the two words were synonymous. Or, if we are willing to tip the scales slightly, we may say that “joy” is perhaps a “higher” level of “happiness.” But even that falls short of the biblical meaning of the word.
When the Bible speaks of “joy,” it refers to a work of God produced by the Spirit of God in the children of God. It is even called a “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22. And in John 15:11, Jesus says that that “fullness of joy” is found only in Him.
“Joy” for the Christian, therefore, is not just a passive response to pleasant circumstances, but rather a gift granted by God to those who are His and one that is activated within them in spite of their circumstances.
The natural mind is unable to wrap itself around such a thought. How can we experience “joy” at times when there appears to be little-to-nothing in life to be joyful about? How can we be expected to “rejoice” when life seems to be working against us?
Augustine, the great 4th-century theologian of the Church provided a glimpse into the mystery of Christian “joy” when he prayed “Give what You command, O Lord, and command what You will.” Augustine understood that when God commands His people to rejoice, He provides both the grounds and the grace to do it.
The “grounds,” as we discover throughout this letter, is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on behalf of hell-deserving sinners. And the “grace,” as we shall also see, is the presence of the indwelling Spirit of Christ given to those who repent of sin and trust in Him.
With that backdrop before us, welcome to The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians. What we find here is a letter in which the dominant theme is “joy.” Interestingly, Paul was not enjoying pleasurable circumstances at the time that he wrote it. He was, in fact, under house arrest in Rome, detained for telling others about Jesus, sidelined from his mission endeavors, and separated from most of his ministry support group. It was a confinement that may have extended over several years, and at the time his future was uncertain. Nevertheless, the content of this letter is filled with the “joy” that inherently belongs to the people of God. He had it, and he wanted his readers to have it and experience it as well.
You may recall from Acts 16 that Philippi was the first church planted on the European continent. The Lord had altered the travel plans of Paul and his team and had sent them across the Aegean Sea into Macedonia. Ten miles inland, they arrived at the Roman-colonized city of Philippi. On the Sabbath they ventured outside the city to a river bank where they had intended to pray. There finding a group of women gathered, they shared the Gospel and one of them named Lydia was converted, along with the members of her household. It was in the home of that woman—believed to have been the first Macedonian convert—that the church of Philippi was planted. The year was around 50 A.D.
From the outset of their ministry there, the missionary team met with spiritual opposition. After several days of sharing the Gospel, Paul and Silas were arrested, beaten, and cast in the city jail. Instead of turning inward and feeling sorry for themselves, they began “singing hymns to God” (cf. Acts 16:25) in hearing of their fellow prisoners. God sent a powerful earthquake that opened the jail doors and unfastened the bonds of all who were incarcerated. Seeing what had happened, the jailer sought to kill himself, knowing that he would be put to death if the prisoners were to escape. When Paul and Silas assured him that all were still in their cells, he fell before them pleading, “What must I do to be saved?” To which they replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus” (cf. Acts 16:30-31). He did, and soon the members of his household trusted Christ as well. Thus, they—like Lydia just a few days earlier—became charter members of the Philippian church.
Paul and Silas were soon released to continue their missionary travels throughout Macedonia and into Achaia and Greece. Five years would pass before Paul would revisit Philippi (cf. Acts 20:6). Five more years would pass before he would write this letter, a copy of which we now hold in our hands. Philippians is the most personal of all of Paul’s epistles, and perhaps the most practical as well.
We have no way of knowing for certain, but maybe Lydia and the jailer were present on the day that it was first read to the Philippian congregation. As you and I wade into it over these next several Sunday mornings, imagine yourself hearing it read for the first time. That may, in fact, be the case for some of you today. Whatever your familiarity with this letter, I believe that the Lord has something significant to show all of us. It begins with the...
Preface to an epistle of joy (verses 1-2).
It was typical of ancient epistles to begin with a greeting similar to what we find here. There is, first of all, the identification of the writer and the addressees (which we see in verse 1), followed by a greeting (found in verse 2).
The fact that Timothy is mentioned along with Paul does not suggest that the letter was co-authored by both men. Paul writes in the first-person singular throughout these four chapters. It is conceivable that Timothy may have served as his scribe, writing down on parchment the words as Paul dictated them. Or maybe Timothy was visiting Paul in Rome at the time of his detention, and Paul wanted to note that. Whatever the circumstances, what is noteworthy is that Paul describes them both as “servants of Christ Jesus.” The word actually means “slave” (“δουλοs”). John MacArthur has written an entire book, explaining how we weaken its meaning by translating it “servant” instead of “slave.” He argues:
True Christianity is not about adding Jesus to my life. Instead it is about devoting myself completely to Him—submitting myself wholly to His will and seeking to please Him above all else. It demands dying to self and following the Master, no matter the cost. In other words, to be a Christian is to be Christ’s slave.
Timothy was several years younger than Paul, having joined the missionary team only a short time before it was to set sail across the Aegean and find its way to Philippi (cf. Acts 16:1ff). In time he become Paul’s faithful “son in the faith” (cf. 1 Timothy 1:2, NIV), and perhaps his most trusted and dependable ally.
The epistle is addressed to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” The phrase “in Christ Jesus” establishes the link between the writer and his readers. Their common bond was their relationship with the Savior.
A “saint” is a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ. The word itself (“‘αγιοs”) implies one who has been “set apart” by God...called out and separated from the world. In its truest sense, a “saint” is not what we are becoming or what we will be one day...it is what we are right now. That designation carries with it major implications as to how we are to demonstrate its reality in our everyday lives. Christians are those who have been “called out” from the world and “separated” unto the Lord.
A decade or more had passed since the church had been planted in this city, and by now it was firmly established. There was a plurality of leadership in place. They had “overseers” (“επισκοποs”), which is another title for “pastors” or “elders,” and they had “deacons” (“διακοποs”). Although both roles carry the responsibility of ministry, there is a distinction between them. In brief, “overseers” (or elders) are focused on oversight over the entire congregation through their work of teaching, praying, shepherding and leading, whereas deacons aid the unity of the church by attending to physical, administrative matters. Both are essential to the proper functioning and well-being of a healthy church.
The greeting is found in verse 2: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The salutations in most of Paul’s letters begin in a similar way, but we should not presume that they mean little more than pleasant but hollow affirmations that we sometimes share with others. They are actually anticipated blessings being invoked by God through His messenger upon the recipients. The “grace” of which he speaks cannot mean the “grace that brings salvation” (cf. Ephesians 2:8), but rather the “grace” that sustains one’s walk in the Christian life. It is the “grace” of sanctification.
And the same understanding is true of the “peace (that comes) from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here, it cannot mean “peace with God,” because that it already theirs by virtue of being rightly related to Him by faith in Christ. Instead it refers to “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” in their daily walk with the Lord and with one another. Paul will deal more specifically with this subject in chapter 4(:7).
Having identified the writer and recipients of this epistle, and having extended a personal and meaningful greeting, the apostle moves rather seamlessly into the body of the letter. In verses 3 through 8 we find him giving...
Praise for partners in the Gospel (verses 3-8).
Paul is “thankful” for these Philippian Christians...“all” of them. Every time they came to mind, he recalled their “partnership (or “fellowship”/“koinwvia”) in the gospel,” and was compelled to pray for them. Notice the superlatives found in verse 4: “Always in every prayer of mine for you all.” This was more than mere “spiritual overstatement.”
There are a number of words for “prayer” word found in the New Testament. The one that Paul employs twice in this verse (“δεησιs”) means “petition” or “entreaty.” As he interceded on their behalf, he did so with “thanksgiving”...grateful for their positive response when the Gospel found its way to them ten years earlier.
“Thanksgiving” and “joy” are inseparable partners in the Christian life. Notice how they form the “bookends” of verses 3 and 4: “I thank my God...with joy.” These are not emotions that can “whipped up” on command—and neither does the Lord expect that. Instead, if “thanksgiving” and “joy” are to be genuine and authentic, they must be based on something substantive. Otherwise, they become meaningless expressions.
Paul’s substantive reason for giving “thanks” is stated in verse 5. It was “because of (their) partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” More than a decade after the Good News had first been declared and received among them, these Philippian believers continued to persevere in the faith. Demonstrations of this were evident in the manner through which they had revived their support of his ministry in his absence. That is something else he will discuss more directly in chapter 4(:10-20).
Paul’s “thankfulness” was also based on a “confidence” or “settled conviction” that he had concerning them. The reason for his being “confident” is stated in verse 6: “I am sure of this...” What was Paul so sure of? Notice this carefully: it was “...that he who began a good work in (them) will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Paul’s “confidence” rested not in the Philippians’ ability to persevere, but rather in the fact that the work that “he”—God—had started in their lives, “he”—God—would bring to “completion,” to its full and final realization. Consider the following observations from this critical verse:
- In the first place, both our salvation and sanctification are the “work” of God. He began it and it is He who will “complete” it.
- Secondly, it is His work done “in” us. Although God is the principle actor in bringing to pass our salvation and sanctification, this does not mean that we remain passive in the process. In chapter 2(:12-13) of this same letter, Paul charges that we are to “work out (our) own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
- Third, what God does “in” us is “a good work.” The Lord always works for our good and for His glory. Those two things perpetually intersect as the believer makes his/her way through life. (We saw that repeatedly in our recent series from the life of Joseph).
- And finally, this “good work” of God “in” us will continue and culminate “at the day of Jesus Christ.” Paul refers to “the day of Christ” again in verse 10. It is the “target date” for every Christian...the day for which we await...the “day” when Jesus returns to call those who are His to Himself, so that they may dwell in His presence forevermore.
Verse 6 thus becomes the verse that drives this entire passage that we are looking at today. It also serves as the motivation for the entire letter. The “joy” of the Christian life is one that began when we first heard and responded to the Lord’s call to turn from sin and receive the grace of God through Jesus Christ. And it is upon the basis of that great truth that joy is maintained throughout this life and into the one that Jesus is even now preparing for us to enjoy throughout eternity.
At times Paul’s reflections on God’s goodness to us “in Christ” launches us with him into heavenly spheres. But living as we do in the “here and now,” we must keep our feet planted in this life. In verse 7, he brings his thoughts back down to earth and says, “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.”
There is some difference of opinion whether the text should read, “I hold you in my heart,” or “you hold me in your heart.” The former reading seems to be preferred, but both were likely true. It is clear that this group Christians were dear to the apostle.
The Philippian church was not only in Paul’s mind (cf. verse 3), but they were in his heart as well. As you know, when the Bible speaks of the “heart,” it refers to the deepest center of human consciousness, emotion, and will. To “hold” something in our hearts is to place great value and importance upon it. The apostle wants these believers to know that he esteems them in that way. That is because they are his “grace-partners,” having stood by him “both in (his present) imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”
That last phrase, “the defense and confirmation of the gospel” is significant inasmuch as it holds up the Philippian believers as verifying “proof” of Paul’s ministry and the demonstration of God’s grace. Every local church should be able to put forth a similar testimony. Should someone ask, “How can we know that the Gospel is real?” we should be able to point to our members as say, “Look at him” or “Look at her.” The radically-changed lives of believers are “the defense and confirmation of the gospel” that we preach. And by looking at those lives that have been transformed by the Gospel of grace, others should be able to see the Christ who made it all possible through His death and resurrection. We should persistently be evaluating ourselves by asking if that is happening among us.
It was altogether fitting that Paul felt that way about those with whom he had invested so much in order to bring the Gospel to them. At times it takes being separated from those whom we love in order to reflect upon just how much they mean to us. Paul was confined—a prisoner in chains—at the time that he wrote these words to the Philippian believers, and his heart was very tender toward them. It may have been hard for them to have realized the depth of Paul’s love and concern for them, which is why He calls God to testify on his behalf in verse 8: “For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.”
His longing for them was, as far a humanly possible, akin to the “affection” that Jesus Himself feels for His own. The term for “affection” (“σπλαγχνον”) literally means “intestines.” It was used to describe “the seat of emotions” or the “intense feeling of passion” that a person had toward something or someone. Paul’s “affection” for these believers touched his inner core. Even in his own present unpleasant circumstances, he “felt” for them and with them. His motivation for doing so was the person of “Christ Jesus.”
Perhaps because this local church represented the first Christian converts in Europe and had persevered in the ministry of the Gospel since its inception, Paul had a special affinity with the Philippian church...and he wasn’t afraid to express it. In fact, he praised them for their continued “partnership in the gospel.” But his praise was not just cause for them to now “rest in their laurels.” Remember, Paul was persuaded that God would “bring...to completion” the “good work” that He had begun in them.
All of us need this encouragement and reminder from time to time, because living as blood-bought Christians in a sin-cursed world can be challenging and difficult. Paul had the Philippians in his mind, in his heart, and also in his prayers. Because that was true, we find in verses 9 through 11 his...
Prayer for an abundant Christian life (verses 9-11).
The word that Paul used for “prayer” in verse 9 is different from the one found earlier in verse 3. Despite the way our English texts translate this passage, the word here (“προσευχομαι”) is actually a verb. The emphasis, therefore, is with “the act of praying” rather than with the specific nature or subject of the prayer itself. Literally, the verse reads, “And this I pray, in order that your love may abound yet more and more in full knowledge and all discernment.” In other words, the apostle actively prayed on their behalf.
Paul wanted their “love”—which I take to mean for Christ, for him, and for one another—to flourish “with knowledge and all discernment.” That is so important to see. It was to be a “discerning” “love,” not some syrupy, “sloppy agape” that is found in many Christian gatherings today. Given the enormity of the price Christ had paid to purchase them and the Spirit-given power that had been invested within them, they were to exercise “depth of perception” based upon their ever-increasing, experiential knowledge of Christ.
And as that growth occurred, they would advance in their ability to “approve (or ‘test and see’) what is excellent.” The temporal things of this life would be revealed as inferior in light of the surpassing value of knowing Christ, and they themselves would be shown to be “pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”
Let’s not miss what Paul is saying here. The ultimate focus of Christ’s death was not primarily our present forgiveness, but rather our future glorification. To lose sight of the future appearing of Jesus is to lose sight of the cross as the means of our salvation. Jesus did not die just to save us, but to bring us home with Him to the Father. The writer is advocating that it matters greatly how you and I as Christians live our lives, and what we are living them for. This present world is not our home, and we must not settle into it as though it were.
Some New Testament commentators have suggested that the word “pure” (“ειλικρινηs”) conveys the idea of being “tested by sunlight.” And while that presents a beautiful and contextually-appropriate word picture, it is probably more accurate to render it “sincere” or “without mixed motives.” It is by keeping our thoughts on the fact that Jesus might return any day that keeps us living “pure and blameless(ly)” each present day.
Despite contemporary appeals in our day, the New Testament writers knew nothing of “accepting” or “receiving” Christ at a point in life and failing to grow in our relationship with Him over time. If that is what you have been taught, then I plead with you to examine the Scriptures afresh in light of what means to declare oneself a follower of Jesus. The “purity” and “blamelessness” for which Paul prays is not something that happens to us on the Day that Christ appears. It is rather something that progressively happens within us day-by-day by the means of God’s indwelling Spirit in anticipation of that future “day.”
It is the prayer of the apostle that every Christian be “filled with the fruit of righteousness.” Certainly that includes “the fruit of the (Holy) Spirit” listed in Galatians 5(:22-23). In verse 11, we are told that it comes to us “through Jesus Christ.” There is no way that anyone is able to live a life of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, (and) self-control” apart from Christ and the presence of His indwelling Spirit. But there is a huge difference between spiritual fruit and religious activity.
Spiritual “fruitfulness” also implies “fruit-bearing.” In Proverbs 11:30 we read that “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and whoever captures (or wins) souls is wise.” Is your life “bearing fruit” for the Lord by imaging Him and making Him known, or are your days—days that pass so quickly—being spent on yourself and your own temporal pursuits?
The greatest of all motivations for us choosing the kind of life for which the apostle prays is found at the end of verse 11. It is “to the glory and praise of God.” It is the “glory of God” and the “praise” of His great name that drove the ministry of the Apostle Paul. Throughout his epistles he repeatedly reminds us that it is for the acknowledgment of God’s “glory” that we were created and live. Every word of Scripture testifies to that great truth.
The “glory of God” refers to His immeasurable and incomparable greatness. And yet to describe it in that way falls far short of its meaning. To “glorify” God means to see, savor, and show Him to be the greatest treasure in the universe. You and I cannot “make” God “glorious,” but we can display His “glory.” We can show Him to be “glorious.” In fact, to do less is to deny Him the “glory...and praise” that He exclusively deserves and demands. There is no way this can be stressed strongly enough.
God’s “glory” and our “joy” are inseperately linked together. Psalm 16:11 says that “In (God’s) presence there is fullness of joy.” The wise among us have long understood this.
- Augustine prayed, “You have made us for Yourself, O God; and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”
- Jonathan Edwards wrote that the “glory” of God was “the end for which God created the world.”
- The framers of the Westminster Catechism began with the premise that “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
- And in our own time, John Piper has repeatedly said, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”
May you and I be counted among those who find that to be true.
So where does you “joy” originate? In what do you find the greatest level of pleasure? Is it in “the glory and praise of God”? Paul’s purpose in this Epistle to the Philippians was not merely to inform the mind of his readers about the “glory” of God. His ultimate goal was to awaken and sustain the heart’s deep and unshakable joy and satisfaction in the God who is “glorious” above all else. This is not “icing on the cake” of Christianity. It is rather the heart and essence of what it means to be a Christian.
If you are not yet discovered this “joy,” then I pray that you will have your eyes open to the “glory of God” as it is revealed through His Son, Jesus Christ, and that you will turn from your sin and surrender to Him as Your Savior and Lord.
If you are already a follower of Christ—and I say this particularly, but not exclusively for the members of our church—then my earnest prayer is that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
But if the “joy” that was yours at the beginning of your Christian life has begun to fade, then may a renewed recognition of the grounds of “joy” provided by Christ and a fresh appropriation of God’s enabling grace cause you to once again to be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.”
The closing words of Jude’s epistle bring together the three aspects of God’s “glory,” Christ’s appearing, and our “joy.” Will you please close your eyes, bow your heads, and let these words resonate in your heart and mind this morning? “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25).