A Church Alive
Paul had some tough times as he traveled around the Mediterranean telling people about Jesus. He faced opposition from various sources: from the Jewish leaders who were worried that he was taking people away from their Jewish worship, from Roman authorities who were concerned that this new religion was causing civil disturbance and even from commercial interests who were bothered that this new found faith might take people away from their superstitions so they’d stop buying the religious mementoes that were on sale everywhere. This particular opposition came to a head in Philippi when Paul and Silas cast out an evil spirit from a female slave; an evil spirit that had enabled her to tell fortunes, at considerable profit to the woman’s owners. As a result Paul & Silas had been thrown into prison and even when they were released were asked to leave town quietly.
So Paul & Silas had left Philippi, not being quite sure how effective their ministry of the gospel had been. They had a couple of converts, Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth and the Philippian gaoler, who’d been converted when God had miraculously freed them from gaol. But you can imagine him worrying. Lydia and the gaoler were from opposite ends of the social spectrum. She was a well-off Jewish woman, he a working class Greek. How would they go working together?
So just think how he must have felt when he finally received word that the church there was flourishing. And now he’s just received another visitor with a gift of money sent from the Church in Philippi to help him while he’s living under house arrest in Rome. And so he writes to them, telling them about his joy and explaining what it is that he prays for them. In fact it’s quite instructive to see what he prays for them and to think about what it is that makes a Church alive.
I thank God for you - v3
The first thing to notice is that the thanks for their faithfulness goes entirely to God. Too often the person who gets thanked is the minister or the evangelist. I guess we’ll be thanking Roy next week for the work he’s done here for the past 6 years and it’s quite right that we should, but at the same time we need to remember that it’s God who brings the increase, God who gives the harvest. We need to remember that, because it’ll inform our prayers. So we won’t just pray for the ministry team but we’ll be praying that God would bless their ministry, that God would be at work among us.
I pray with joy - v4
Secondly he says he prays with joy. It’s not always easy to be joyful when things aren’t going smoothly. Paul would have had lots to worry about. He was in prison in Rome. The Church in Philippi, like the Church in most places, was under attack from those who wanted to bring Christians back under the control of Judaism and he had little control over what was happening so far away. Yet he says whenever he thinks of them he prays with joy. So what is it that gives him such joy?
Because of their sharing in the gospel - v5
He says it’s because of their sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. You see, they didn’t just receive it. They shared in it. I guess that means they continued to speak the gospel to those around them. Speak the gospel was part of their mission statement as well as ours. The church had grown because they’d become fellow workers with Paul, even in his absence. Just as the gaoler had taken Paul to talk to his whole household, so the church had continued to tell others.
Does it give you joy to see the way people in this Church are sharing in the gospel? When you read the reports of the Youth Group or Tom’s Crew or the Rainbow Fellowship or the ESL service and you see how young people are coming to faith in Christ do you get excited? I can tell you, I do. Just the week before last Jan rang me to say that one of the Chinese students who’s been coming to our 6pm service for the last 5 months has decided she needs to give her life over to God. Isn’t that encouraging? On Easter Sunday we’re going to baptise a number of the Rainbow Fellowship members who have become Christians in the last year or so. Isn’t that exciting?
We may be flat out getting ready for Christmas, we may be dreading the work involved in moving everything from Broughton Rd to Station St, but God is at work among us.
God will finish his work in them - v6
What’s more, if God is at work among us then we can be confident that he will finish his work in us. Every one of us is a work in progress. From that young woman who’s just become a Christian to those old codgers sitting around the room who’ve been Christians for 80 years or more we’re all in the process of being formed into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Paul reminds us in ch2 that God is at work in us enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure. This work in us may not be completed until the day that Christ returns, but in the meantime God continues to work in us.
We all share in God’s grace - v7
Can you see what it is that gives him this confidence? He says “7It 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.” Again, it’s the grace of God that we share that gives us confidence to say that God will bring his work to completion. And as he says, whether it’s in his imprisonment or in the defence and confirmation of the gospel God is at work and they’re with him.
One of the reasons God has gathered us together into a church is so we can share with one another in this work of the gospel. None of us should feel like we’re on our own. None of us should ever feel we have to bear our burdens by ourselves. We have Christian brothers and sisters who share the grace of God with us and who are here to support us when we need it.
That your love may overflow with knowledge and insight - v9
And look at what it is he prays for them. First that their love might overflow. He doesn’t say what this love is directed to, but he does say what he wants it to overflow with. Can you see it there? He prays that their love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight. He wants them to love in an informed manner. This isn’t to be some wishy-washy sentimental love that gushes over the object of its love. No, this is to be love that’s informed, knowledgeable and insightful. Why? Because love that’s informed by knowledge and insight is much more effective. The doctor who looks at a sick patient might make a guess as to what’s wrong but to make a proper diagnosis they need to do some tests. What’s their temperature? Is anything broken? Is there inflammation somewhere? They might need to do X-rays or a CAT-scan or an MRI to work out what’s happening inside the body. And only then can they prescribe a treatment.
So too we need to know what’s going on if we’re to love others most effectively. We also need to have a deep knowledge of the love of God if we’re to love those people we come across who are difficult to love. We need to have an insight into the way God loves us with all our flaws if we’re to love someone else with all their flaws.
So you’ll be pure and blameless - v10
In fact it’s more than just that isn’t it? He prays “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless.” The love he’s talking about is more than just the love we show to others. First and foremost it seems to be talking about our love for God. He prays for knowledge and insight so they’ll know how to please God; so their lives might be pure and blameless.
You see there’s a spiral that happens in our relationship with God. The more you know God the more you’ll be able to love him. The more you love him, the more you’ll want to know him.
If you’re not someone who wants to learn more about God by studying his word more and more, perhaps you should ask yourself just how much you love him. If you can’t say you love him above everything then perhaps you need to get back to studying his word so you can get to know him better.
And notice that knowledge on its own is not enough. He also prays for insight or discernment. That is for the ability to apply the knowledge you have to yourself, to your decisions, to your character, to your behaviour, so that you’ll end up pure (internally) and blameless (externally).
Producing a harvest of righteousness - v11
And finally the purpose of this prayer is so they’ll produce a harvest of righteousness. Does this remind you of one of Jesus’ parables? When I read that I immediately thought of the parable of the sower, who sows the seed of the gospel and when it bears fruit it bears it a hundredfold.
Paul prays that their love might overflow, first so they might be pure and blameless within themselves, but secondly so this newfound purity and character might produce a harvest - a harvest of righteousness. As always, the aim of our Christian maturity isn’t inwardly focussed, it’s outwardly focussed. It’s aimed at bringing others to receive the righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Well, are these the sorts of things you pray for your Christian brothers and sisters here at St Thomas’? Is this what you pray for us as a Church? That our love might grow in knowledge and insight? That our knowledge might overflow so that others recognise it for what it is, the outworking of the grace of God? That our love might result in a harvest of righteousness that comes from faith in Jesus Christ? This is what will make us a Church alive. This is what will help us fulfill our mission, of speaking the gospel, teaching the Bible and building community that reflects God’s love.