Monday, November 3, 2014

Part 1 Joy through Participation

A study of the Biblical Book of Philippians
Part 1 –Joy through Participation
Introduction & Chapter 1: 1-11

Introduction to Philippians

Picture if you can an ancient town of around 10,000 inhabitants, called Philippi, in the Mediterranean area of Europe, bordering the Aegean Sea. This town is mid-point on a major trade highway known as the Via Egnatia, that runs from modern-day Turkey across to Greece.  It is the major town in the District of Macedonia and home mostly to Greeks and Romans. Many nationalities, including Jews, are present in the city, but they are not highly regarded.

The religious life of the city is diverse. The official religion is the worship of the Emperor of Rome, but older religions such as the cult of Dionysus (a religion that was practiced by the earliest residents of the region known as Thracian's) and Orphism (which emphasized union with the Divine) also attract a following.

According to the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul one night had a vision of a Macedonian man pleading for him to bring the gospel message to his area.

 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." Now after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them. Therefore, sailing from Troas, we ran a straight course to Samothrace, and the next day came to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is the foremost city of that part of Macedonia, a colony. And we were staying in that city for some days.  (Act16:9-12NKJ)

In Philippi there is no synagogue, the normal place Paul would have sought to attract disciples to the religion of Christianity he first knew as ‘The Way’, but he discovers that there is a place of prayer down by the riverside.  He meets there a gracious lady known as Lydia, who invites Paul and his companions to stay at her house that she may learn more of their message.  They also encounter a ‘fortune-telling’ slave girl, who turns out to be most annoying, following them around saying, “These men are servants of the Most High God”. We pick up the story at verse 18 of Acts Chapter 16;

And this she did for many days. But Paul, greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And he came out that very hour. But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities. And they brought them to the magistrates, and said, "These men, being Jews, exceedingly trouble our city; "and they teach customs which are not lawful for us, being Romans, to receive or observe." (Act16:18-21NKJ)

The local magistrates are not impressed. Paul and his colleague, Silas, are firstly beaten and then thrown into prison, their feet placed in the stocks. This incident provides a glimpse into a characteristic that becomes the dominant theme of the letter he later writes to the Philippian Church, namely; ‘Transformed by Joy’.

Whereas most of us would be nursing our wounds and be about ready to throw in the towel we read  “At midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. (Act16:25NKJ)

There is an earthquake. The chains fall off, the jailbirds can fly free.  The chief jailer, realizing that his life is on the line as he has allowed his prisoners to escape, is about to commit suicide, but Paul and Silas call out, ‘Hey… we’re still here!’ This incident leads the jailer and his household to embrace the Christian message.

The magistrates also have a change of heart… particularly when they find out that Paul was a Roman citizen and their treatment of him had been unlawful.  They ask him to leave the city, which he does, but not before again spending some time at the house of Lydia.  From out of these incidents, the encounter with Lydia at the riverside and that of the Jailer and his family’s conversion, the church in Phillipi comes into being.

Time goes by. The Church in Phillipi grows.  From within new leaders emerge. Paul continues on a journey that leads to imprisonment in Rome. Contact with Paul is maintained by church workers such as Epaphroditus, a fellow worker with Paul who brings him news of the developments in Phillipi as well as carrying to them his own concerns.

From Epaphroditus  (a name which means ‘lovely’) Paul receives gifts from the Philippians as well as news.  Some of the news warms his heart. Other things concern him. He worries about divisions he hears of in the church and encourages reconciliation. He is concerned at the influence of divisive teaching.  He fears that their success had led to complacency, and that they were losing the ‘edge’ that had caused them to stand out against the rest of society, an ‘edge’ defined by love and service to each other and those around them.

He also wants them to never to lose sight of the transforming power of true Christian joy. The kind of joy that he had experienced in the jail cell at midnight the first time he ever went to their town. A joy that could shake the foundations, and overflow in streams of blessing towards others.

Above all this joy was not defined by outward experience but by inner conviction. He worries that they may see his imprisonment in Rome as a defeat. That his current circumstances would discourage them. He is anxious they realize that what was happening to him was part of a bigger picture… that God was working out God’s purposes and they therefore had no reason to fear for him.  He again encourages them to ‘Rejoice and be glad!’.

Around our lives today are circumstances that cause us great concern. The threat of violence. The uncertain economy. Cultural shifts and technological developments. The uncertain future of traditional denominations such as the PC (USA). These are anxious days!

The challenge Paul lays at our door, is this. Can we allow our lives, both as individuals and churches, to be transformed by joy? Can we connect with the grace and love of God in such a profound way that our whole attitude becomes one of gratitude?

Can we find our lives defined not by the outward situations we travel through, but through their internal relationship to God? A God who is always creating that which is good, always setting free that which is imprisoned and always calling us to care and share out of the abundant blessings showered upon us? 

For our motivation Paul invites us, (in a wonderful hymn-like passage that occurs in the second chapter) to focus on Jesus Christ. From Eugene Petersen’s transliteration ‘The Message” we read;

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of Himself. He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of Himself that He had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, He set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!

‘Responsive obedience’ to God’s call, digging deep into the resources God places in and around our lives, staying focused on what is really important in life… such things, Paul suggests, can give our life a joy-filled center!

Part One : Joy through Participation  Philippians Chapter 1: 1-11

We begin our journey by looking at the opening greetings, in which joy is expressed by Paul for the way the Church in Phillipi has blessed him whilst he was imprisoned in Rome.  Verses 1-2…

Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

What is special about Paul's’ greeting to the Philippian Church is that it begins the letter on a note of friendship. In many of his letters, Paul is anxious to proclaim his status as an apostle, but here he describes himself using a Greek word ‘Doulos’... a word meaning servant, or more literally ‘slave’. 

He has no need to emphasize his position, so instead he talks in terms of the relationship that he and his co-worker in the gospel, Timothy, had with them, a relationship based upon mutual service and recognition of each others standing with God.

In this light he calls the Philippian Christians ‘saints’, not intimating that they were somehow all perfect individuals, but that they were people, like himself, who had found a new identity in life through their relationship with Jesus Christ.

I remember hearing the old gospel song ‘When the saints go marching in’ being sung at football matches. By singing the song the supporters were identifying them selves with the team. In a similar way, we are on God’s team; through grace, through baptism, through our daily participation in the life of God’s Kingdom. Sainthood is here a mark of intent rather than an achievement!

He mentions that among the ‘saints’ were ‘bishops and deacons’.  We should not interpret those terms in the light of 21st Century practice. The offices of bishop and deacon had not yet fully developed.  Bishops came in time to be seen as ‘Fathers’ to newer believers, whilst deacons had a particular role in serving the practical needs of the congregation.

His greeting continues by offering them ‘Grace and Peace’. William Barclay in his commentary points out that Paul here was taking the greeting phrase of two nations and molding them into one.

“Charis” (Grace) is the greeting with which Greek letters always began and “eirene” (Peace) the greetings with which Jews met each other. Each of these words had its own meaning and each is deepened by the new meaning Christianity poured into it”

He goes onto speak of how grace was a word associated with joy, beauty and charm, whilst peace was a word associated with wholeness … rather like the Hebrew ‘Shalom’. Both were joys that Paul, Timothy and the Philippian disciples were called to share in through their faith in Jesus. 

All that in one sentence… let us move on! Verses 3-7

I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ; just as it is right for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart, inasmuch as both in my chains and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers with me of grace.

Again, Paul is emphasizing the joy of the partnership he felt with the church in Philippi. Things had gone well with the ‘saints’ in Phillipi from the very beginning. He had cause to offer many thankful prayers whenever he thought about them.

This wasn’t the Church in Galatia, being torn apart by divisive teachings.  It wasn’t the Corinthian Church, struggling to stay focused amidst a diverse and sometimes decadent culture. It wasn’t Rome, a church situated at the power center of an empire. This was Philippi, a congregation who had embraced both Paul and the gospel he proclaimed, with warmth and love.

Paul is confident that the seed that had been sown in Philippi, having shown evidence of growth, would continue to blossom and flourish.  This reminds us that the hope we have in Jesus, is not just for the past (as in we are forgiven for whatever held us back from following the way). It is not just for the present (as in we have daily opportunity to call upon God in prayer). It is also a hope for our future, ‘that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it

Matthew Henry, my favorite commentator of olden times, notes the following things about this verse.

Firstly, notice that the work of grace is a ‘good’ work. It is a good work that God is doing in us. At times we may not see it that way. At times we may struggle to understand our faith. But even that struggle is a ‘good’ thing because it’s taking us somewhere and moving us forward. We can treasure the questions and embrace our doubts, because we are confident that this search for understanding is a ‘good’ thing.

Secondly, note that it is God who has started this work in us, it is not of ourselves. God is the instigator of our strivings to find out more. Our confidence is not in our own ability or tenacity to see things through, but in the faithfulness of God to finish what the Holy Spirit has started to stir within us.

Thirdly, note that this work of grace is never completed in this life. The verses speak of it not being complete ‘until the Day of Christ’. We could say ‘It ain’t over till the fat lady sings’. Throughout our whole journey of discipleship we are always a work in progress.  In this life we never arrive; we are always becoming.

Finally, notice that if God didn’t make it part of the program to finish what the Holy Spirit has started, then it would never be complete! Our quest is God breathed, God maintained, God sustained, God blessed and only in God completed! As with so many things in Christian life it is a matter of trusting in God. That ‘He who has begun a good work in you will complete it.’

Paul rejoices as he witnesses the grace of God at work in the Philippian congregation. In a phrase that sounds like it could have been lifted straight from a country song he declares ‘I have you in my heart’.  Even though he was now confined within the walls of a prison he knew that they were supporting him and praying for him and working hard to see that the Good News he had delivered to them was still being declared to others and taken on board their own lives. “You all are” he says  “partakers with me of grace”. I love you guys! Why? Because we are in this together! So he continues…

For God is my witness, how greatly I long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ. And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Phi1:8-11NKJ)

Paul here outlines some of the things he will later return to.  He lets them know what sorts of things he desires that they may find in their lives through their relationship with God in Jesus Christ.  He prays that their love will keep on growing, stronger and stronger. That it will bring with it knowledge and discernment that they may, as it says in the margin of some older translations ‘Try the things which differ’. By doing so they will know when something excellent comes their way and be able to lift it up as being a good thing.

One of the problems of the overload of information we receive in our culture today is that we don’t have a lot of time for ‘discernment’. In our throwaway world much of what we seek is just for the now. We see it, we try it, we move onto the next thing.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons folk are no longer attracted to ‘traditional, mainline’ churches.  Our minds are befogged by the mantra which tells us ‘If there’s nothing new about it there can’t be anything good about it!’

Paul prays that they may be sincere, a wonderful Greek word ‘heilikrines’ that can also mean ‘pure’ or ‘unsullied’ or even  ‘found pure when unfolded and examined by the sun's light’, having its root in the Greek word for the suns rays ‘heile’. Sincerity is here defined as deep intentions of the heart, so deep, that even when our motives are revealed, they are wholesome and true.

He prays that they may be without offense, meaning not so much that they will not cause offense to others, but have nothing in their own lives which would cause them to stumble in their spiritual journey.  Rather they are to be “filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”

Notice here that the goal of discipleship is not to be empty of desire or longing, but rather Paul envisages an emptying of our ‘negativity’ in order that we may be filled with ‘positivity’… the ‘righteousness’ of Christ… which enables us to share good things (good fruits) with others and brings glory and praise to God.

So our initial greetings conclude and we are given a hint of what is to come.  Paul will go onto address concerns they had regarding his situation, offer some advice as to how they could avoid problems in the future, urge them to seek unity and offer more greetings! Yet even undergirding even these few opening sentences is a note of joy.

The first part of the first chapter Paul of Philippians is all about joy through participation. Paul found in the Philippians some true friends who are concerned for his well-being and are carrying on his work. This brings to his soul a feeling of deep joy.

Can we not learn from this? As we consider the friendships and the faith that sustain us, surely we cannot help being thankful. We too have experienced the joy of participation through our fellowship with each other.

Next time we will move on to consider joy through endeavor and look at how Paul framed his life experiences in a bigger picture than just life on earth. 

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