I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.
Philippians 1:3–5 (ESV)
Paul’s letter to the church of Philippi is quite unique from most of his other letters. In Philippians, Paul is not writing to correct rampant sin or false teaching, as with the Corinthian letters and Galatians. Nor is he writing primarily to teach major doctrines or even the basics of the faith, like his letters to the Romans and Thessalonians. Instead, Paul writes to Philippi (a church that he planted) in response to a gift that they sent to him through a man named Epaphraditus. Philippians then is part ‘thank you’ letter and part encouragement to distant friends. From what can be gathered in the letter itself, the Philippians appear to be quite doctrinally sound and growing in love, but Paul still encourages them to continue growing more and more into Christ, which will enable them to rejoice in Christ even in the midst of suffering and persecution.
Last week, we studied the greeting of Philippians, reintroducing ourselves to Paul and Timothy and learning about Philippi. Now we move into the body of Paul’s letter where he begins by expressing his thankfulness for the Philippians and their partnership with Paul in the gospel. We should learn much by the example of thanksgiving, prayer, and gospel partnerships found within these verses and the rest of the letter to come.
THANKS TO GOD // VERSES 3
Leaving the greeting, Paul begins the body of his letter by expressing his thankfulness for the Philippians. Notice that I said for the Philippians instead of to the Philippians. Since Paul is writing this letter in response to the Philippians sending him a gift via Epaphroditus (4:18), we might naturally assume that his thanksgiving would be rightfully directed toward them. Paul, however, has other plans. His thankfulness for the Philippians is given to God.
Why is this?
Why does Paul give God credit for the generous giving of the Philippians?
As we will soon see in verse 6 and later in verse 13 of chapter two, Paul understands that behind every act of love and obedience that we perform lies the grace, will, and power of God to enable those very works. Paul is also merely applying the words of Jesus from John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Without the powerful working of Christ in the Philippians, they could have done nothing.
We also see this in Ephesians 2:8-10:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Notice that two kinds of works exist here. First, there are works toward salvation, which cannot save. Second, there are good works for which we were created to walk in. Paul explicitly tells us that we cannot boast in any work toward our salvation since we can only be saved by grace through faith. Justification is a gift of God; therefore, all of our boasting can only be in Him. Since we contributed zero effort and ability, we get zero glory.
And while the good works that we do in our daily sanctification require effort and work on our part, the prohibition on boasting applies to these as well. Paul clarifies this working in 1 Corinthians 15:10, saying: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Paul’s hard work was only possible by the grace of God within him. All of our good works are performed by God’s gracious working in us. Paul knew that to be true of himself, and he knew it to be true of the Philippians. Rightly then was Paul thankful for the Philippians to God.
Do you find this line of thought fair? Do you agree that God deserves the thanksgiving for your good works? In expressing your thankfulness to other believers, do you give thanks to them or to God for them? The implications of this thought may prove quite awkward to act out at first, but is it not worth it to give God the glory that is due to Him?
JOYFUL PRAYER // VERSE 4
As Paul’s thought moves forward, he explains the avenue through which he expresses his thanksgiving to God for the Philippians: prayer. Notice how Paul connects his remembrance of the Philippians to his prayer for them. The apostle makes this connection to emphasize to the Philippians that he prayed for them as often as he remembered them. For Paul, prayer was not merely a routine to be completed in the morning and/or at night, nor was prayer a to-do item that earns us bonus points with God. Instead, prayer infiltrated his daily life. He likewise commands us to pray at all times (Ephesians 6:18) and without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). And because prayer so saturated his life, Paul gave a prayer of thanks to God each time he remembered the Philippians.
For many Christians, this kind of prayer may seem extreme or simply unachievable, but Paul will later in the letter urge the Philippians to imitate him and his example (3:17). This must be the type of life that we long to live: a life of constant communion with our God. If this sounds like a great burden, note that Paul made these prayers with joy. The apostle was able to pray without ceasing because he was not constantly battling against himself to pray. Prayer was for him a joy. He enjoyed and delighted in prayer.
Unfortunately, believers today often seem to want to find joy in prayer, but doing so is difficult because prayer to us is often more of a duty than a delight. We know we need to pray more, but the task can be incredibly daunting. Questions race through the mind. What is the best time to prayer? Where should I pray? Does posture matter in praying? What do I say? What happens if I say the wrong thing? Do I pray to the Father only, or can I pray to the Jesus and the Spirit as well? What’s the minimum time I should spend in prayer? Do I need to spend more time praying for others than I do myself? Soon they cease being questions, morphing instead into excuses.
How then should we pray?
And just as importantly, how do we learn to enjoy praying?
First, we must note that deliberate and private times of prayer are absolutely necessary for the Christian walk. While the Bible sets no strict time or time-limit for these times of prayer, it offers plenty of guides and content to help us shape these times. The most famous is, of course, the Lord’s Prayer, which is a wonderful, structured outline to pray through each day. Verses 9-11 also provide powerful direction for how we might pray. In fact, with a robust knowledge of the Scriptures, all of God’s Word may serve a guide for our times of focused and private prayer.
But, as have already suggested, prayer can and must leave the closet. In order to pray without ceasing, prayer must continue beyond times of focused, private prayer. We ought to pray these prayers whenever other believers come to mind (like Paul did with the Philippians), whenever we are stressed or anxious, whenever non-believing loved ones come to mind, or really anything else that can be brought to the LORD. Please don’t let this kind of praying intimidate you. They need not be long and lengthy. They can be as short and simple as, “Father, give me wisdom for making this decision” or “LORD, thank you for the fellowship within my community group.” This type of praying simply keeps dialogue with God throughout the day, acknowledging that He sees and controls everything and submitting ourselves to His will and kingdom again and again.
To use an imperfect analogy that nearly each of us can relate to: if prayer was a phone, established times of private prayer would be like phone calls and in-the-moment prayers would be like text messaging. In the same way that text-messaging cannot replace the depth of hearing one another’s voice, so in-the-moment prayers cannot replace deliberate times of prayer. But also just as texts can be sent in times when phone calls aren’t possible, so these quick prayers can be made in any circumstance.
But still none of this answer the question of how we can come to enjoy praying.
Unfortunately, there is no quick answer to this question. No multi-step program can increase our joy in communing with God; enjoyment of prayer can only come through knowing God more. And of course, we only come to know more of God through praying and reading the Scriptures. So we learn to enjoy praying by praying. Ultimately, when we begin both to practice and understand the beauty of having constant access to the Creator as our Father, we will also realize the joy of prayer. Little by little, we will come to have the same mentality of Thomas Brooks when he claims that “a man whose soul is conversant with God in a closet, in a hole, behind a door, or in a desert, a den, a dungeon, shall find more real pleasure, more choice delight, and more full content, than in the palace of a prince” (11).
What does your prayer life look like? Do you practice both private and constant prayer, and what does that look like? Do you enjoy praying? Is it a duty or a delight?
PARTNERSHIP IN THE GOSPEL // VERSE 5
In verse 5, however, Paul cites a more specified reason for rejoicing in his prayers for the Philippians: their partnership in the gospel. The Greek word that is translated partnership here is frequently translated as fellowship or community. This word has tremendous theological implications throughout the New Testament.
It refers to the close communion among God’s people, the community that Jesus is forming by His own blood.
It is the fellowship that united church in Jerusalem after Pentecost (Acts 2:42).
It is the fellowship that marks us a being children of God: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).
It is the same kind of communion that we now have with the Spirit (2:1).
It is the same participation that causes us to share in the sufferings of Christ that we might also be glorified with Him (3:10).
This partnership, fellowship, and community is, therefore, horizontal and vertical. It is our communion with Christ and with one another. It is the embodiment of the call to obey the Great Commandment, loving God and loving our neighbors.
But why exactly is this partnership so intrinsically rooted in the gospel?
Without a communion first with Christ, we cannot fully have community with each other. Why, you might ask? Being a community is hard work. In fact, because of sin’s dominance in the world, true community should be little more than a daydream. God designed us to need other people, but as we studied in Ecclesiastes 4, we repeatedly hurt and scar one another. Sin doesn’t just separate us from God; it also alienates us from our fellow humans. This, therefore, gives us another depth to the beauty of the gospel.
As we discussed in the previous text, the gospel (or good news) is that God forgives sins and makes us His children because of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Although our sin alienated us from God and made us hostile in mind toward Him, Jesus reconciled us to God, making peace by the blood of His cross. By His death and resurrection, Christ bore the complete wrath of God in our place, while also freely giving us His perfect righteousness and obedience. By the cross and the cross alone are we reconciled to God our Father and now have communion with Him by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Such truth is enough to meditate on the goodness of God for all eternity.
However, the power of the gospel extends even beyond our relationship to God; it also repairs the damages of sin amongst each other. In the second chapter of Ephesians, Paul describes how the gospel destroys the “dividing wall of hostility” between the Jews and Gentiles (2:14). The strained relationship between these two groups is meant to essentially serve as an example of “if God can help these two, He can help everyone.” Or as Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Also in Colossians 3:11, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”
Other than Paul (a Jew) and the Philippians (predominately Gentiles) being united in the gospel’s message, they were also united in its mission. For all believers, as with Paul and the Philippians, our partnership in the gospel is centered upon this mission: to spread the gospel to every nation. Such a mission unfolds from the reality that the gospel itself is a rescue mission. Jesus came to save us; now He sends us out to spread that message. Paul’s journey to plant churches was a literal mission to accomplish that goal. The establishment of a church in Philippi was a fruit of Paul’s mission. We are then told that the Philippians shared in Paul’s mission through some form of a gift (4:18). The gospel united them together in fellowship and then scattered them in partnership to spread the good news. These are the two essential and inseparable marks of Christian community.
On a church-wide level, how is a fellowship within our own congregation? Is it healthy or in need of growth? But how are we also partnering with other congregations (both near to us and abroad) to spread the gospel?
On a personal level, how are partners in the gospel? Which of your friends pray not just for your physical needs but for your walk with the LORD to deepen each day? Who is challenging you to be missional with your neighbors, your job, and your family?