Partners in the Gospel – Philippians 1:3-6
By: Northern Seminary
The one thing inevitable about the speech of a Hollywood Oscar winner is the long list of thanks to those who have helped them achieve their prestigious prize. It could include members of the Academy, mom, dad, children, director, producer, their agent, their script writer, their supporting actors, their voice coach, their make-up artist, their dog, the people whose story they got to tell in the film, the person who gave them a start in the industry, the teacher who chose them for the lead part in the school play, the orthodontist who straightened their teeth, the obstetrician who brought them into the world.
Yes, I have exaggerated a little, but Oscar winners, entertainers, and sports stars and others often talk about the great team who have worked with them and made their successes possible.
And they’re right. Whatever that performer has achieved, they needed their team. They could never have succeeded on their own.
Right up front in his letter to the Philippians, Paul gives thanks for the Christians in Philippi, because he would never have been able to do his work for God without them, without their partnership in the gospel.
3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
Sometimes a preacher can give a one sentence summary of a short passage of scripture. Here is my summary of these four verses: Paul not only remembers the Philippians, he gives thanks and prays for them because they have been his partners in the work of God, knowing that God will never stop his work in their lives until the day of Jesus.
That summary gives me three headings for this Bible study.
First, Paul not only remembers the Philippians, he gives thanks and prays for them.
Looking back through many years, there are people I remember but I know I never gave thanks for them:
- Neal, who punched me so hard when I was about ten years old I still remember seeing stars swimming around in my head.
- Watson, a teacher who bullied and beat students whose work was not up to his standard. He was not a good man.
- Simon who was so desperate to defeat me in a golf match he resorted to gamesmanship, making distracting comments at strategic moments to put me off my game. I won.
- The unknown person who, when I was in my early twenties and doing Christmas vacation work for the British Post Office, had put dog poo in the mail box I had to empty.
- Davis, the dentist who was rude and hostile and would not treat me because I was late for an appointment. It really wasn’t my fault.
- My brute of an opponent in a high school rugby match who tackled me hard with his knee up into my back. I still feel the pain.
I remember them all. It was at least forty years since any of these people were in my life, but I remember them! However, I don’t believe I have ever given thanks for them and probably never prayed for them.
Paul remembers his Christian brothers and sisters in Philippi in a far deeper and better way, and he is grateful for them. They’re not superficial contacts. It’s not as if he preached at their church one Sunday, shook their hands, and was never back there again. He knew these Philippians, loved them, and had served with them in God’s work. A few verses later he writes “I have you in my heart” (Phil. 1:7). That’s affection, and also a strong statement of belonging together.
Tom will always be in my heart. We met in our early twenties as we both set out on a career trajectory towards Christian ministry. We’d both left other work to become pastors. We helped each other through some very difficult studies. We went on mission trips to tell people about Jesus. We fell asleep on our knees as we tried to pray through a whole night. We talked through our deepest temptations as well as our deepest longings. Tom was the one I told about my love for a beautiful girl called Alison, and he told me to stop messing around and get on and marry her. In later years, Tom and I met up as often as we could, sharing the joys and sorrows of pastoral ministry, encouraging, correcting, and praying for each other. Tom died a few years ago, and I miss him. He was not just a friend. He walked with me through some of the most significant years of my life, and helped me be the person I’ve become.
I suspect many of us need to stop and remember those who have made all the difference in our lives. They taught us important things. They picked us up when we fell. They kept us humble when we were carried away with our own brilliance. They told us what we needed to hear even if it wasn’t what we wanted to hear. They loved us and never gave up on us, even when we’d gone wrong. They shaped us into the people we are today and, if the truth were told, we would not have achieved nearly so much without them.
As Paul gave thanks for the people in Philippi, there are people for whom we should be truly grateful and about whom we should be constantly prayerful. God put them in our lives, and their influence and support has mattered so much.
Second, Paul gives thanks and prays for the Philippians because they have been his partners in the work of God.
When Paul calls them his ‘partners’ he uses the Greek word koinōnia. That word appears nineteen times in the New Testament for a range of meanings centered around fellowship, joining together, and, of course, partnership. The sense is always of a shared relationship, a two-sided relationship. Imagine John and Joan meet. John falls in love with Joan but Joan’s heart is unmoved towards John. That’s not koinōnia – it’s a one-sided, uni-directional relationship. But if Joan returns John’s love, now it’s mutual – it’s bi-directional. Each is giving themselves to the other. That is koinōnia. (And hopefully John and Joan will live happily ever after.)
The Philippians mean so much to Paul because they have been partners with him in the gospel. He is committed in relationship to them, and they are committed in relationship to him.
There are several ways Paul would have thought of the Philippians as partners.
- They were joined in Christ. Acts 16 tells of how Paul and Silas went to Philippi and evangelized there. Lydia came to faith and then also a jailer and his household. So a fledgling church was born. God gave these people eternal life, but it was Paul and Silas who brought them the gospel. That bound the new Christians to these evangelists, and the evangelists felt an equal bond for their spiritual children.
Many years ago Alison and I led a church youth group and had the privilege of helping many young adults put their trust in Jesus Christ. One was a bright-eyed girl called Susie. Her faith shone brightly, and I baptized her.
Eventually we moved on to another church, and it was years before we revisited. But there was Susie in church, now married and with a young son. We spoke together of those earlier years and of her faith in Christ. As we parted she said, “By the way I called my son Alistair,” and she smiled. It was a lovely, humbling and moving moment for me to hear she had used my name. Sharing the experience of someone coming to faith creates a bond in Christ, a deep and lasting partnership.
- They went through suffering together. Paul and Silas were severely persecuted in Philippi. Acts 16:22-24 says:
“The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.”
That experience was very serious for Paul and Silas. The crowd’s beating and the official flogging could easily have killed them. There was nothing good about it other than the opportunity to evangelize the jailer. Soon after, Paul, Silas and others in their group were able to leave the city. But the new Christians couldn’t. And the hostility of the citizens and officials of Philippi didn’t leave either.
So that hostility now focused on those who had responded to the gospel in Philippi. They shared the same experience as those who gave them the gospel. Christianity never comes with a promise or a pass to avoid hardship, and the faith of the brand new Christians of Philippi was tested by persecution right from the start. That suffering bound them to those who had brought them the faith.
- They shared together in the cost of missionary work. The Philippians did that literally, in other words financially. These were not rich people, but the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to them is full of appreciation for their financial gifts in support of his work. Paul writes:
“…when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need.” (Phil. 4:15-16)
Paul was the evangelist called to travel the Mediterranean area with the good news; the Philippians made that possible with their finance.
At Northern Seminary we have a massively tall step ladder. It’s ideal for a worker to get up to the highest lights in our largest hall. But when our maintenance director is at the top, he’s so high the ladder could easily tip over. But it doesn’t because someone is at the base holding it secure. Therefore changing the lights in that hall is not done by one person but by two. Likewise, evangelizing around the Mediterranean needed a team. Paul did the travelling and preaching while the Philippians made it all possible. They shared in the work.
All this is in Paul’s mind when he writes that he is thankful for partnership with the Philippian Christians:
- They are joined in Christ.
- They are fellow sufferers for the faith.
- They share together in God’s work.
Nothing Paul had done would have been possible without them. It was a partnership that was essential for the kingdom.
Third, Paul is thankful for his partners, knowing that God will never stop his work in their lives until the day of Jesus.
Some things can’t be left half done. A half built boat won’t take you across a river. A half-hearted leap won’t get you across a chasm. A half completed application won’t secure you a job. A half cooked meal might give you food poisoning. The point is obvious. In countless areas of life, a good beginning has to be matched by a good ending.
Paul witnessed a wonderful beginning of faith in the lives of the Philippians. But now he’s not with them. Should he worry about them now? Should he be concerned about how they will live out their faith for the rest of their days?
He should not and is not. He tells the Philippians: “I was with you in the beginning and I saw the good work God began in your lives. Because of that good work you have grown to become partners with me in God’s mission. I cannot be with you now, but what God started he will finish. You are in his hands these days and he will bring you safely and gloriously home to be with him one day.”
I’ve been part of groups where everyone had ideas. The room would be buzzing with creativity, and we’d write every idea up on a board and then sift through a long list. By the end we might have narrowed our radical ideas down to five realistic initiatives.
But then we’d be faced with two questions. What will we do next? Who will take these ideas through to completion? Heads would go down. No one would catch the eye of the chairperson. Those fabulously creative people either had no ability or no wish to do the detailed work of turning initiatives into working programs.
Thankfully God not only initiates our salvation but works in us to complete it as well. He will stay active in our lives until everything he has purposed reaches its completion.
Later in the letter Paul will tell these Christians to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil. 2:12) God had saved them, but there was more to be done in their lives. That might have frightened them. What if they didn’t have the ability to move forward?
There was no need to fear. Yes, God was not done with them but God was also not done working in them. Paul adds:
“For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Phil. 2:13)
God provides both motivation and ability for everything he wants done. The Living Bible translates those words of Paul this way:
“For God is at work within you, helping you want to obey him, and then helping you do what he wants.” (Phil. 2:13)
God has no intention that his work in our lives will fail. He didn’t only start us on the race of faith. By his Spirit in us, he gives everything necessary to get us to the end of that race.
That truth should inspire us in both encouragement and endeavor. Nothing is more demotivating than believing your work will never be enough, that you’ll fail the exam no matter how much you study, or the project will never work no matter how many hours you give it. But when someone gets alongside and helps you really understand the subject or someone brings their skills alongside you in the project, suddenly you know that you can succeed. You’re encouraged and you pour your best endeavors into it. Now you can give yourself to seeing this thing through to the end.
Paul’s promise at the beginning of this letter is that “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). He is not finished with us yet, but neither has he finished working in us yet.
We are not alone, not in any sense. God has given us people for whom we should be both thankful and prayerful. God has given us partners in the work of the gospel because this work needs the whole body of Christ. God has given and keeps giving us himself so that nothing of his plans for our lives should fail and one day we will be taken home in triumph to be with the Lord forever.