Partners in the Gospel – Philippians 1:3-6
By: Alistair Brown
Dr. Michael Quicke is Professor of Preaching and Communication at Northern Seminary. He warns budding preachers against taking a meaning from a passage of scripture which is different from the meaning intended by the biblical writer. It is right to apply the text to a modern context, but we are never entitled to change its meaning.
I want to use a passage to express my appreciation for all those who share in the work of Northern Seminary. If I stray too far with the text I will be risking a rebuke from my colleague and friend, Dr. Quicke. But in this passage the apostle Paul expresses his joy before God for those who are his partners in God’s work, and that’s exactly what I mean to do as well.
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. So, 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 my headings for this Bible study.
1. 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’m fairly sure 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.
- Mr. 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 deliberately tried to put me off my game. I won.
- The unknown person who, on the year when I worked for the British Post Office one Christmas, had put dog poo in the mail box I was emptying.
- Dr. Davis, the dentist who would not treat me when 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 right 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 suppose 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 sense. These people are not superficial contacts he made one time. It is not as if he preached at their church one Sunday and was never back again. He knew them, 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, but also a deep statement of belonging together.
My children and grandchildren are four thousand miles away from me, but there is not one day I don’t think about them, not one issue in their lives that does not matter to me, and not one moment when I don’t feel thrilled and privileged that we are family. So, of course I give thanks for them and of course I pray for them. That’s what you do when you belong together.
Northern Seminary has just celebrated its centennial. Among the very many exciting events was the gathering of well over two hundred who travelled from all over the country because they have Northern in their hearts. I can say with complete honesty on behalf of the trustees, faculty, and staff of Northern that we hold these alumni and friends in our hearts too. And there are many, many more who also care and who are part of Northern’s life. We give thanks for each other and we pray for each other. We really are one family.
Christians belong together. We have each other in our hearts. Those that God has brought together should give thanks and pray for the Christian family to which we belong.
Paul is thankful and prays for the Philippians…
2. Because they have been his partners in the work of God.
When Paul calls them his ‘partners’ he uses the Greek word koinōnia. It 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, one direction relationship. But if Joan returns John’s love, now it’s mutual. It’s bi-directional. Both are 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 work of God.
There are several ways Paul would have thought of the Philippians as partners.
1) They were joined in Christ. Acts 16 tells of how Paul and Silas went to Philippi and evangelized there. Lydia came to faith and also a jailer and his household, and so a fledgling church was born. It is only God who saves, but these Philippians will have also felt a deep bond to Paul and Silas who brought them the gospel, and Paul and Silas would feel an equal bond for their spiritual children.
Many years ago Alison and I led a small youth group and had the deep joy of helping many of these young adults put their trust in Jesus Christ. One was a bright-eyed girl called Susie, and I baptized her. Eventually we moved on to another church many miles away, and it was years before we returned. 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 were partners because…
2) They went through suffering together. Paul and Silas went through severe persecution in Philippi. Acts 16: 22-24 – “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.”
This was serious. Paul and Silas could easily have died. What they went through was appalling hardship with nothing good about it other than the opportunity to evangelize the jailer. In that city any convert would share their experience. Those first Christians in Philippi would walk the same road as Paul and Silas, a road of persecution and suffering.
They were partners because…
3) They shared together in the cost of missionary work. It is literally true that they shared in the cost. The fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is full of appreciation for 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 tallest hall. But he can do that only if someone is down below holding the ladder steady. At the top our maintenance manager is up so high the ladder could tip over, but it doesn’t because someone is holding it secure. Changing the lights in that hall is not done by one person but by two. Likewise, Paul did the travelling and the Philippians made that 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:
- Joined in Christ
- Fellow sufferers for the faith
- Sharing together in God’s work
Nothing Paul has done would have been possible without them. It’s a partnership that matters for the kingdom.
These last days I have looked out over the faces of partners in the work God is doing through Northern Seminary. And there are many more partners, all over the country and, indeed, all over the world. One delightful Northern graduate now has a very significant ministry in Malaysia. He deeply wanted to be back at the seminary for the centennial but he could not get the exact dates free. But he came anyway.
Some people use the phrase that something is better late than never; this friend’s visit was better early than never. It was so good to see him. He is our partner, and we could not carry on the vital work of preparing a new generation of leaders for God’s church without him and hundreds and indeed thousands of others like him.
Paul is thankful for his partners…
3. Knowing that God will never stop his work in their lives until the day of Jesus.
Paul is almost saying this to 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 have talked over the years with many of Northern’s alumni. Some graduated in recent years and some well over sixty years ago. There are a few, just a few, who found faith in Christ while they were students of Northern. When they enrolled they had thought they were Christians, but as they came to understand the gospel better and faced the claims of Christ they had their moment of decision in a seminary class!
I can think of one of these former students now and that is his story. Like John Wesley back in 1738 this student felt his heart strangely warmed and he gave himself to Christ fully for the first time while a student at Northern. He went on to very effective church and institutional ministries. He retired years ago but continues to lead Bible studies and witness for Christ today. God, who began a good work in him, is carrying it on to completion.
Most Northern graduates, of course, found faith long before they came to seminary, but the overall story is the same: God had begun his work in their lives, being at Northern took them further on, and through years of ministry and right to this day that continues.
And I would say the same for the many friends of Northern who are not alumni, just people in whom God has placed a vision of equipping new leaders for the church. What God began in their lives continues and as they give they grow. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 9:6, “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.” Paul is saying: sow generously with God and you reap generously from God. God would take care of them. God never disappoints.
And Paul saw the Philippians as partners with him in the gospel but he also saw the deeper truth, that they were partners with God. And as they lived for God and served God, God would bless them and keep them safe for all eternity.
I am so grateful for all those who partner with Northern Seminary. They matter to us, and we pray for them and give thanks for how they share in this important work. But I give thanks above all that their lives are in God’s hands, that he provides daily for them, uses them in his service, and will take them home safely and wonderfully to his presence one day.
The trumpets will sound, the angels will sing, there will be a great shout of triumph, and God will say: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”