Sermon: Greetings From Prison

If you have a Bible with you, I invite you to turn or scroll with me to the book of Philippians. Philippians, chapter 1. If you do not have a Bible, don’t fret, but simply open your ears and prepare your heart to hear God’s Word. We are beginning a new series this morning through Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which is a letter filled to the brim with joy in the midst of challenging circumstances. Philippians is in the New Testament – Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians. Philippians 1, verses one through eleven. 

During his missionary journeys, the Apostle Paul planted a church in the Roman colony of Philippi. While he endured a lot of hardship in that city, the church holds a special place in his heart. Later, one of the Christians there named Epaphroditus makes his way to Paul to care for him. When Paul receives the report of how this church is doing, he is moved by the Holy Spirit to write a letter and send it to the church. It’s a letter of encouragement and love to the church. And we begin with Philippians 1:1-11, but before we hear God’s Word, please take a moment to pray with me. 

Father, may your word be our only rule, 

your Holy Spirit our only teacher, 

and the glory of Jesus Christ our only concern. Amen.

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. 

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

When you haven’t seen someone in far too long, what do you say first? Maybe you know the feeling, even have someone in mind. They might travel for work or be deployed and its days, weeks, or even months since you have last seen them. Upon seeing them, your face lights up. Maybe its someone who lives in another country and you cannot travel right now, so you long to see them. What would you say first? I think back to this year’s food drive. It was right before we started gathering again in the sanctuary for worship and all of us who were participating had not seen each other face-to-face in months. We were supposed to meet in the parking lot and stay in our cars waiting for directions, but it was such a struggle. There was genuine gratitude to see each other as well as some teasing, which I have learned is how some of you show love. 

What we have in our passage this morning are Paul’s opening words to a church he loves, to a people he has not seen in far too long, but holds in his heart. As we study these verses, we are going to pay special attention to what Paul says about himself, what he says about the Philippians, and what he says about God. 

Paul

First, when Paul has not seen these people in so long, when he finally has a chance to speak to them, what does he say about himself? 

Paul says he is a servant, moreover a servant of Christ Jesus. It’s verse 1: Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus. While we usually begin letters and emails by saying who it is to, it was common at that time to begin by saying who the letter was from. In most of Paul’s letters, he reminds the church that he is an apostle. He reminds them of his authority over them. Usually this is because there are false teachers challenging Paul’s authority, Paul being sent by Christ himself, but not here. Why? 

This church, who love Paul and are loved by God, do not need to be reminded of Paul’s power, but they do need to hear the call to humility. So he begins: Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus. To be a Christian, to walk in the way of Christ, to live as one who belongs to Christ, is not a path to power or prestige or worldly gain. Instead, it is the call to be a servant.  It is a call to humble ourselves. We will hear this call to humility again and again in this letter, but it begins already here in how Paul describes himself. 

He sees his primary identity, primary calling to be a servant – to put others ahead of himself, to consider their interests ahead of his own. In our world of power and prestige, to be first a servant is profoundly counter-cultural. Our moment values the leadership of the strong and confident, of the visionary and bold. How different to be a servant first. How would it turn the world upside down to see the highest calling in life not to be in charge, not to be served by others, but to be a servant? 

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus. Servants first, and servants of Christ. 

Everyone serves something, but Paul and Timothy serve Christ, which is freedom. To serve anything else is slavery and will destroy us. The economy, the government, our sports teams, our brands (online or off) all want us to be their servants. Yet, we are called to be servants of Christ Jesus. To give your service first and foremost to Christ is a protest against all the other powers that will claim your time and loyalty.

In these opening words, we learn something important about Paul, but also something important about what it means to be a Christian. The Christian life is a call to humility and service – to be a servant in a world where everyone wants to be served. The Christian life is also one of unswerving loyalty to Christ. There are so many things in your life and mine that call for our time and attention, that demand our loyalty. Yet, we are called to be servants of Christ Jesus. The Christian life involves making a stand on where our loyalty lies and doing so by being a servant. 

But there is something else we learn about Paul in these opening verses. Paul is in prison. He makes it clearer later, but already in verse 7, he talks about the Philippians share in God’s grace with him during his imprisonment. Paul is in jail. Yet here is something interesting. We know Paul is in prison, but as he writes this letter, we are not completely sure which prison stay it is because there are so many. Most likely he is writing this from prison in Rome in the couple years before he would be martyred for faith by the Emperor. But we are not positive because there are so many times that Paul is imprisoned. This happens to him a lot. 

Yet, imprisoned again and again, Paul is filled with joy and thanksgiving. Listen to verses 3 and 4: I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you. Joy and thanksgiving. Does this sound like a man trapped in prison? If Paul was looking only at his outward circumstances, there was no reason for joy and thanksgiving. He is stuck in prison, maybe for the final time, but certainly not for the first. From the outside, his life is pretty miserable. Yet, what comes through again and again from Paul is joy. We can feel the joy, love, and thankfulness of Paul in these opening verses. How? How can Paul find joy while stuck in prison?

I believe it is because though Paul is aware of his circumstances, his eyes are not fixed on them. In these opening verses, his imprisonment is mentioned once, but he mentions Christ seven times and God the Father another five times. Paul knows his situation, he feels intimately the aches and pains of prison. He doesn’t deny them. But his eyes, his attention, his hope is fixed on Christ. This then is a place of joy.

A few weeks ago, we had the privilege of witnessing Joanna Vellenga make profession of faith. During that service, she was asked to promise to exhibit the joy of new life in Christ. Joy flows from our new life in Christ. 

Maybe you can relate to Paul right now. From the outside, your situation is miserable. If you just looked at your outward circumstances – your health, your family, your work – there would be no reason for joy and thanksgiving. But what we see with Paul is not that we need to deny what is happening, or pretend our circumstances are different than they are. Instead, we see that Paul’s focus, his joy, his life is found in Christ. So there is reason for joy whatever the circumstances. While sitting in chains, Paul can constantly pray with joy because he sees the work of Christ in the Philippians. So whatever your circumstances today, whatever life looks like for you on the outside, fix your eyes on Jesus. Make him the joy of your heart and that joy will never run empty, but will keep flowing no matter the circumstances. 

Philippians

So yes, in these opening verses we learn important things about Paul that speak to our life in Christ – the call to humility and service, the call to faithfulness to Jesus, and the power to exhibit joy even in difficult circumstances. But what about the Philippians. Paul’s letter is to them. What does he say about who they are and what might that say to us? 

The Philippian church is characterized by sharing. This doesn’t mean ‘sharing’ like we teach our children to share their toys, though I don’t doubt there was plenty of that. This sharing is about participating together in something. It is the word ‘koinonia’ – a deep, thick word that doesn’t translate well into English. We sometimes translate it ‘fellowship,’ but it means more than coffee after church. It is more than just deciding to spend time with each other, but it is being tied and knit together into something much bigger and better than yourself. 

Paul gives thanks to God and prays with joy because the Philippians share with him in the gospel. He receives comfort in his affliction because the church shares with him in God’s grace, both in his imprisonment and in defending the gospel. Because they belong to Christ, they have all been knit together in God’s grace and in the gospel. There is a unity between Paul and the church that crosses the distance of space and time because it is unity found through union with Christ. Paul longs for them with the compassion of Christ Jesus. They hold Paul in their heart. There is a mutual love and care.

Koinonia, Sharing, Fellowship, Knit together in Christ. This is what it looks like to be the church. I think of the countless conversations I have had with those suffering or shut in or in the hospital and I say to them, we are here with you. We are praying for you. And I don’t mean that in the contemporary sentimental fashion, but truly. In Christ, we are knit together with Art and Henny Winkler. In Christ, we have fellowship with Alberta and Christine, Margaret and Jackie, Jim and Reinie. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. Koinonia, Sharing, Fellowship, Knit together in Christ. This is what it looks like to be the church.

Though they share in the gospel and in grace with Paul, he continues to pray for them. He prays that the love they already have would grow and grow, overflowing. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, The image is of our hearts being so filled with the love of Christ that it spills over the top, flowing down into love for others. In this way, it is our love and yet it is a love that comes from Christ – we overflow in love when we meditate on the love of Christ for us, when we are filled first by his grace and love. There also seems to be no end to this overflowing love. More and more implies ever growing love. We don’t get to a point where we can say, ‘I’ve reached enough love now.’ In fact, the more we are in Christ, with Christ, belong to Christ, the more our love will overflow, so that a trickle becomes a stream becomes a waterfall of love. 

He prays that this love would be wed with knowledge and insight, leading to discernment of what is best. In short, Paul prays not only that they would love more, but that they would love in the right direction. Love cannot be divorced from knowledge. Paul does not pit these against each other, but speaks of love overflowing with knowledge. Love is not blind, actually. Love is filled with knowledge and insight. It discerns the good (v. 10). Part of overflowing with love is loving well, in according with truth and insight, and directed toward the good of God’s will. We cannot let the world define this overflowing love, but must let our love overflow with the knowledge and full insight of God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures.

This is my prayer for us too. I pray that when people see Bethel Reformed Church, they would see our sharing, our fellowship, our koinonia. I pray that we would share together in the beautiful saving reality of the gospel and God’s grace. And I pray that our love would overflow more and more as a church. That this love would be filled with knowledge of God’s will and directed toward what is best. And I pray that we would never reach a time where we are content with our koinonia or with how much love this congregation shows, but that we would always pray with Paul that they would overflow more and more each day. 

God

We have heard in these verses what Paul has to say about himself. He identifies as a servant of Christ Jesus – a call for each of us to embrace humility and servanthood with our loyalty to Christ. He was imprisoned and yet filled with joy because of Christ and Christ’s work in the church. We also heard what Paul has to say about the church. The church shares together in the gospel and God’s grace. We participate together in these great realities and by this God knits us together. And we heard Paul’s prayer for the Philippians to grow in love and knowledge and that this should be our prayer too.

Yet, more than any of that, what do these verses tell us about God? If, as we have seen, Paul’s vision is fixed upon Christ, what do we learn about God here? 

Briefly, we learn three things. First, God is the source of grace and peace. It’s verse 2: Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. There is one place to go for all in need of grace and only one place to go for all who are in need of peace. God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul’s greeting here is not a matter of politeness. He is telling us where to go. He is speaking words of blessing over this congregation. Grace. Grace – that undeserved favor of God given through the sacrifice of Christ. Grace, tied so closely to forgiveness. Peace – the ending of hostility and restoration of right relationship that comes through the reconciliation found in Jesus Christ. Peace with God and peace within. As Matthew Henry says, “There can be no peace without grace. Inward peace springs from a sense of divine favor. There is no peace but from God the Father and no peace from God the Father but through Jesus Christ.” Grace and Peace are not things we search for and find, not things we work for and achieve. Instead they are words spoken over us, a benediction, a blessing. They are a declaration of grace and peace which must be received (heart and soul, mind and body). Grace and Peace also have a source – God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. If we think back to Paul’s ability to exhibit joy in the midst of trials, we need look no further than this opening blessing. Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. When we come to the Father through the Son by the Spirit, we find abundant grace and peace for us, just as Paul found. We learn in these verses that God is the source of grace and peace. 

Second, we learn that God is faithful to finish what he starts. Verse 6: I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. What God starts, God will finish. When God starts a work in your life, when God redeems you and begins to make you like Christ, to sanctify you, God will finish what he started. When God claims you and lifts you up in his redeeming arms, he will not fail to bring you all the way across the finish line. Oh, there is striving and straining and serving to be done by us – no doubt about it. But it is God’s work that bring us home. 

This is comforting news. If you are not completed yet, if you have not arrived as a Christian in your walk with Jesus, you are in good company. All of us are there. The work will not be done until the day of Jesus Christ. Yet, it will be done and done by God. We can be confident that what God started, in us, in our life, in this world, he will finish. 

Lastly, we learn here that God deserves all glory and praise. Verse 11: having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. Paul prays that God would fill the church to overflowing with love, knowledge, and insight so that they would discern what is best and be pure and blameless, producing a harvest of righteousness. However, the end goal of that whole process is that God would receive the glory and praise. All the way back to the opening call to humility – Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus – through the beautiful promises of grace and peace, the knitting together of Paul and the church, and the amazing work of God filling and sanctifying the church, there has been one goal in mind: that God would be glorified and praised. 

As we close, let that be our prayer. The book of Philippians is rich and deep. Every word is filled with the power of the Spirit. We will come again and again to the themes of humility and joy in Christ, to the fellowship of the church and the unswerving loyalty to Christ, but let our hearts be set on this one goal: having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Or as we prayed earlier: Father, may your word be our only rule, your Holy Spirit our only teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our only concern. Amen. 

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