We begin a new series in Philippians looking at how we might respond to the current lockdown. Tom speaks on how Paul rejoiced in the truths of the gospel despite his isolation in Philippians 1:1-11.
It was written while Paul was physically in lock down in a prison in Rome. Soon after this, as Paul already knew, he would face execution. But, for Paul, even more distressing than this, was his separation from the churches that he loved. So it is remarkable that this is one of the most joyful letters in the New Testament.
From an earthly perspective this letter makes no sense.
But from a heavenly perspective it makes every sense.
For every believer, this letter helps us; it brings the word of God to us; and it gives us lessons about how to remain joyful and confident in Christ, even in lockdown.
1. Remember Who we are in Jesus.
Anyone familiar with Netflix will know the ‘skip intro’ button. It is a good option and can save us a lot of time if we already know the storyline from previous episodes. But if we were to ‘skip the intro’ to this letter to the Philippians, it would be a terrible mistake. Because this introduction provides everything we need to know in lockdown. First and foremost, the name of Jesus Christ is mentioned three times in the first 2 verses:
Paul is a servant of Jesus Christ; the church is holy in Jesus Christ; and grace and peace come from God and Jesus Christ.
So already we know that the key to Paul’s lockdown contentment will have a lot to do with Jesus Christ.
On earth Paul is the slave of Rome. In truth he is a servant of Jesus Christ.
On earth the church looks pathetic; In truth they are the saints of Jesus Christ.
On earth the church receives shame and scorn; but in truth they receive grace and peace in Jesus Christ.
Knowing who we are in Jesus is the lesson that upholds every other lesson and if we skip that, everything else will seem empty and hollow.
It would do us good to spend time reflecting on this introduction to the letter.
2. Remember our gospel partnership
You will be familiar with the phrase ‘Out of sight out of mind’.
This expression can apply in all sorts of ways, but is pertinent when we think about the dreadful levels of poverty that exist in other countries. If we have visited such places we may be greatly affected and sickened by it at the time, but later, once we’re home, and time passes we no longer see it. It’s ‘Out of sight’ so it’s ‘out of mind.’
Paul’s concern for the church was never out of his mind, even though they were out of sight.
Social distancing was not going to mean spiritual distancing for Paul. He prayed for all of them every time he remembered them.
For this very reason it is good to keep praying for the persecuted church We must never let them slip out of our mind. For this very reason we should remember the Cornerstone church family and bring them before the Lord.
One of the ways to grow in unity is by praying for each other, even in Lockdown. If we are praying for each other it is hard to sustain feelings of irritation against others.
As we approach the throne of grace, we will remember that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, saved by grace, and made complete in Jesus Christ.
It is a humbling experience to pray for our church family, and as we do so we come to realise that we are actually more alike than different. Through prayer our hearts are drawn to our brothers and sisters, knowing they are our gospel partners and, we are able to be thankful for them.
When this crisis is over, and we eventually get back together our sense of unity will have grown if we have prayed thankful prayers for each other.
Our phrase, as a church, should be ‘Out of sight but never out of mind.’
What makes Paul so thankful and yearning for them with the affection of Jesus Christ is their partnership in the gospel.
Paul is in prison; It is shameful. He has been before the judges; it is dangerous. But the church is not ashamed of him or of the message that put him there. It is in fact the opposite. In chapter 4 the church had sent one of its members with gifts for Paul. They wanted to show practical support for him, even though he was shamed by the Roman Empire. No wonder he prayed with such joy and thanks. Come what may, from the beginning they were with him and with this gospel. They were not afraid as he was not afraid of the gospel message.
One of the surprising things about the current lockdown situation is that it reveals the longing of our hearts.
In the last few weeks we have been moved when we have seen each other on zoom calls. We have felt bonded in new ways, and we don’t want to let this opportunity pass. It shows that we don’t come to church for something to do but because we are united in the gospel. We can’t be physically together but we want to partner in ministry through the joys and sorrows of our experience. We are seeking to love each other well and we want to get the gospel out. We are partners in grace and in ministry. And we should praise God for the deep fellowship that exists with each other in the gospel.
If we’re not sure how to pray then start by giving thanks for this partnership in ministry
3. We can be confident in God’s work
Recently I have been watching the Mont Blanc Ultra Trail; a long distance run of 100 miles round the base of Mont Blanc crossing through France Italy and Switzerland. To finish this race is an incredible achievement. Just to qualify you have to be a serious long distance marathon runner, and even in this elite group there is no guarantee that you will have what it takes to cross the line.
But the Christian life is the most challenging ultra-marathon of all, and a good question to ask is how will we know that we are going to complete the race?
The answer is plainly given in these verses. ‘Because he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus’ [V6]. Our confidence is in God.
In Acts 16 Lydia is mentioned. How did she get converted? ‘The Lord opened her heart to believe the message’. Who began the work of salvation? God did. Every good work of salvation that God begins, he will finish.
Paul is in prison; the church is in Philippi. How can Paul know that the believers there will stay the course of the Christian life. How can he speak with such confidence? Knowing how far distant they are, isn’t it dangerous to give them this assurance?
Well it’s all about the partnership. Paul’s confidence was based on the evidence that a deep work of God was happening in this church. They showed that they were going to stick with him, they were not ashamed, they kept proclaiming Christ, and giving sacrificially to him. They were consistently demonstrating the fruit of the sprit and this gave Paul the assurance that the work of God was going to be completed in them.
Paul knew he may never see them again in this life, but he rejoiced that on the day of resurrection he would be reunited with them.
One of the reasons that he could pray with such thanks was because he had seen the evidence of God’s working in their lives, and he knew that God is the ultimate ‘starter-finisher’.
If the message in these verses is true, then Corona and lockdown are not accidents. We are not on the ‘pause button’ waiting until we can get back to ‘proper’ gospel work. Without the virus we would not be ready for the day of Christ. God is not ‘making the best’ of a bad situation. This is part of his divinely ordained plan to make us like our saviour.
We should praise God for this, and we should ask ourselves, in what ways God may be wanting to work in us now to make us more like Jesus. What sin is he wanting to confront in us? how does he want us to grow? what new grace does he have in store for us? how is this season of life necessary for us to become more like Jesus?
Being in Lockdown is not easy, but God is encouraging us in this letter. Physically separated or not, we are gospel partners, socially distanced but not spiritually distanced and if we belong to Jesus Christ we will finish the ultra marathon. This ‘virus-stretch’ is just one part of the journey to make us more like Jesus Christ.
Philippians 1:1 - 1:11
1:1 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. (ESV)
Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Text provided by the Crossway Bibles Web Service.