Paul’s letter to the Philippian church has been described as his most personal letter to any of the churches he planted and pastored. The pages of this book are literally saturated with his deep love, affection and longing for the church family.
Some people have said that reading this letter to the Philippian church is kind of like eavesdropping on somebody else’s love letters (Johnson 2013: 20).
In this letter we hear Paul saying, “I hold you in my heart… I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus… you are my beloved… whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown” (Phil. 1:7 – 8; 2:12; 4:1).
It’s as though Jesus, through the apostle Paul is loving the Philippians enough to not only embrace them in all of their messiness but to also correct them firmly and gently (Johnson 2013: 21).
We can’t forget that, while Paul uses emotionally compelling words to express his affection for the Philippians, he also uses very direct language to correct the infection of self-centeredness, pride, complaining, arguing, disagreement and division in the Philippian church (Phil. 2:3 – 8, 12 – 13; 4:1 – 7).
The apostle Paul knows that to love someone well in the midst of the battle against spiritual disease, he must lovingly embrace and lovingly correct the people in Philippi at the same time.
And the only thing that will empower and enable this kind of loving embrace and loving correction is if the crucified, risen and returning Christ is at the center of everything.
The only thing that will help me to stand firm in the joy of Christ while working out my own salvation in Christ as I put on the mind of Christ is to keep the crucified, risen and returning Christ at the center of everything.
So, how does Paul get after this in Philippians 1:3 – 8? How does Paul lovingly embrace and lovingly correct the Philippians in these verses?
PHILIPPIANS 1:3 – 8
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.
Paul says an awful lot here in these six, short verses. He says, “I’m thankful for you (vs. 3); I have fond memories of you (v.3); I am praying for you (v.4); I am overjoyed because of you (v. 4); We are not alone (v. 5); I am convinced that God will finish what he started in you (v. 6); I love you as a partner and a partaker in God’s grace (v. 7); Because of you I know that I am not alone in my circumstances (v. 7); I miss you deeply (v. 8).”
You can’t miss the loving embrace in the words that Paul has written here and yet at the same time these words or also lovingly corrective.
Paul isn’t just merely piling on really nice words to butter his listeners up before he drops the hammer. It’s important to notice that Paul uses a combination of the words “all, always and every” seven times in these verses.
These three words are expansive, all-encompassing words. They’re meant to help us understand that what Paul says here is not just aimed at a select few trouble makers in his church family; these words are meant for everyone; the extent of Paul’s heart for the Philippians is broad and it’s intense.
The extent and the intensity of Paul’s love for these Philippians along with the extent and the intensity of his desire to correct his listeners continuously runs off the page with every word he writes.
Let’s not forget that Paul is writing this letter to a very diverse crowd. We know at the very least that his listeners were as diverse as Lydia the Asian saleswoman and the ex-slave girl who has been released from demonic possession and the Roman prison guard who had previously locked Paul and Silas in a prison cell.
So, Paul deeply loved this hodgepodge group of believers and because of his deep love for them he wanted to embrace them and correct the sin he sees in their lives.
These people that he had personally ministered to, witnessed transformation in, and shared in the ups and downs of ministry with, they needed to be lovingly corrected so that their reputation would be transformed from a church family that was full of self-centeredness, pride, complaining, arguing, disagreements and division, into a church family that consistently put on the mind of Christ, worked out their own salvation in Christ and stood firm in the joy of Christ as they kept the crucified, risen and returning Christ at the center of their hearts and minds.
So how does Paul get after this in verses 3 – 8? How does he seek to lovingly embrace and lovingly correct this beloved church of broken people?
I think the answer to these questions is just simply that Paul opens up his heart in a very vulnerable and transparent way. Vulnerability and transparency can get you in trouble especially if you have legalists and moralists in the room because legalists and moralists can’t be honest about their shortcomings and their sin; they’re more concerned with keeping up the appearance of godliness rather than growing in true godliness (2 Tim. 3:1 – 5).
Let’s not forget that the apostle Paul is in chains while writing this letter not because some big bad unbelieving worldly people are oppressing him.
Paul is in chains because his legalistic and moralistic religious opponents had placed him there. So, what does Paul do?
He becomes vulnerable and transparent with his beloved church because he knows that the gospel has freed him to do so and he also knows that what the Philippian believers need is an authentic model of what it looks like to keep the crucified, risen and returning Christ at the center of everything.
So, Paul simply expresses his heart in a very vulnerable and transparent way as he lovingly embraces and corrects the Philippians.
#1: A HEART OF GRATITUDE (VS. 3)
What do you need when you are sick with the infection of self-centeredness, pride, complaining, arguing, disagreeing and division?
It seems to me that a good old-fashioned dose of affectionate gratitude may do the trick. Paul could have sat back in his jail cell, chained to a Roman guard without any privacy, shaking his head in self-centered pride at the antics of the Philippian church.
He could have complained to the guards about these immature believers: “How could they act this way while I’m sitting in prison? They call themselves Christians?”
He could have spouted off some really argumentative words. He could have let the Philippians know just how disappointed he was with them; how he disagreed with them vehemently.
But instead the apostle Paul chooses to express his heartfelt gratitude for them by saying, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you” (v. 3).
My friend Mike Sander reminded me this week that while we often say that actions speak louder than words, reactions speak louder than actions.
Paul is reacting to his knowledge that the Philippian church is infected with sin and his reaction is like a vaccination as he vulnerably and transparently expresses his gratitude for them. Gratitude inoculates the infection of self-centeredness, pride, complaining, arguing, disagreements and division.
Paul knows that the Philippians are gifts from God in his life, so he gives thanks to God for them. Who are you grateful for today? Who are the tough people that you are grateful for?
The people that are hard to deal with are gifts from God because they’re meant to shape your heart into the image of Christ.
#2: A HEART OF JOYFUL PRAYER (VS. 4)
It’s often been said that it’s really hard to stay angry with someone when you genuinely pray for them. It would seem that Paul would have a good reason to be angry given the circumstances of his current situation.
He’s in chains for preaching the gospel and the people he loves deeply are acting like fools. They’re slipping into being concerned for their own welfare. They’re spinning out in spiritual pride. They’ve given themselves over to complaining about their circumstances. They’ve become preoccupied with arguing amongst themselves. They’re divided over little disputes that have become major disagreements.
How do you stop the madness and bring people back to their senses? Paul says, “I’m praying for you joyfully” (v. 4). He models for these Philippians what it looks like to walk in the freedom of the gospel despite your surrounding circumstances. He expresses his joy-filled practice of praying for them so that they can see that he is lovingly embracing and correcting them.
But what is it that motivates Paul to pray with joy despite his surrounding circumstances; despite any frustration he may have felt about the Philippians?
The answer is that Paul knows that they belong to one another because of the work of Jesus at the cross and the empty tomb.
#3: A HEART OF BELONGING (VS. 5)
When I begin to think that I am all alone in my circumstances, I begin to get a little more self-centered. I pridefully begin to think that the world revolves around me and my problems. I start complaining about all of the things that frustrate me. I begin to argue that my circumstances are worse than others. I fall into the trap of believing that minor disagreements are major reasons for division. The result of this cycle is that I feel more alone than I did before.
I think that the apostle Paul knows that if he’s going to make any headway in repairing the damages of the sin that has infected his flock then he’s going to have to remind the Philippians that none of us are really alone and that we belong to one another.
The same Spirit that gives us brand new hearts and adopts us into the family of God is the very same Spirit who produces true unity between very diverse people.
Why would an Asian saleswoman and a young ex-slave, ex-demon possessed girl and a Roman prison guard all partner together and belong to each other? The answer is the gospel.
Paul reminds them that they’ve experienced the unity of the gospel when he says that he’s been praying with joy for the Philippians “because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (v. 5).
He’s saying that we can be released from our selfishness, our pride, our complaining attitudes, our silly disputes and our stupid arguments by remembering that we all belong to one another because of the crucified, risen and returning Christ.
The message of the gospel, the message of the cross, reminds us that we are not alone but in fact we are partners in Christ; we are brothers and sisters in Christ; we are family in Christ Jesus; we belong to one another in Christ.
You can be assured of this if you’ve trusted in Jesus which brings to me to my next observation.
#4: A HEART OF ASSURANCE (VS. 6)
Difficult circumstances have a tendency to bring out the worst in us. Our fears, our anxiety, our mistrust, our selfishness, our arrogance, our self-reliance, etc. etc.
When tough times roll across the headlines we get squeezed and what comes out of us proves what’s inside of our hearts; proves what we rely on; proves what we lean on for assurance; proves where we turn to for security, acceptance and affirmation.
When hard times come, we search desperately for something that will give us some kind of assurance of what the future may hold; that things might go back to normal; that our spouse will remain faithful; that our kids will get their acts together; that our jobs will be secure; that our cars won’t break down; that our bank accounts won’t be empty; that our health will remain intact. The point is, we long for assurance, security, acceptance, affirmation and control and we often look for it in the physical realm.
But Paul doesn’t rest his heart on some kind of cheap, momentary, physical assurance. He knows that while anything good in this physical life is a gift from God, nothing gives the human heart authentic assurance outside of the work that God is doing and will continue to do in his children until the job is done.
This is why Paul says, “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” (v. 6). Paul is simply saying that he is convinced that God will finish what he started; God doesn’t leave projects half done; he completes what he begins.
The work that God will complete in us if we have trusted in Christ crucified, risen and returning, is the Spirit’s work of turning stone-dead people into living, loving replicas of Jesus (Johnson 2013: 29[1 Jn. 3:2]).
The God who finishes what he begins lets nothing limit the extent of the salvation he achieves for, and in the people he rescues (Johnson 2013: 33).
The work of God in me is not stopped by my failure. My self-centeredness, my pride, my complaining, my arguing, my disagreements and my divisiveness do not nullify God’s work of salvation in and through me; my right standing before God isn’t changed by my sin.
This is the kind of grace that motivates real obedience and authentic transformation. This is the grace that all believers are bound together by.
#5: A HEART OF FELLOWSHIP (VS. 7)
Once again Paul returns to the theme of belonging from verse 5 when he says in verses 7 that “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.”
Paul is saying that he loves the Philippians as partners and partakers and fellow recipients of God’s grace. The word partnership from verse 5 and the word partakers in verse 7 is the word that we commonly call fellowship.
Fellowship comes from the Greek word “Koinonia” and it simply means to share in something intimately; it’s the sense of being connected like a ligament is to a bone.
In Biblical thought the concept of fellowship here is deeper than physical fellowship where we share belongings or food or even physical touch.
The idea here is that we are a fellowship of God’s grace; God’s grace is the glue that cements us together for eternity. The reality is that you and I are going to spend eternity with other believers; even believers that rub us the wrong way.
Paul knew this kind of grace. You can even see it in the way he responds to other people who are preaching the gospel for selfish motives (Phil. 1:15 – 18).
God’s grace had dealt a deathblow to Paul’s self-confidence and pride, exposing the misguided arrogance that had lurked beneath the surface mask of his pious law-keeping activity; Paul used to be one of the best legalistic moralists in town until he had an encounter with true grace in the presence of Christ (Gal. 1:11 – 17).
This same grace answered the accusations of Paul’s insecure conscience, assuring him that the gift of Christ’s righteousness provides a firm foundation for confidence in the Lord’s approval (Johnson 2013: 29).
This grace was the glue that bonded Paul’s heart to the hearts of the Philippians and it’s the same glue that would cure the Philippians of their self-centeredness, their selfish pride, their complaining hearts, their gossip-filled arguments, their inflated disagreements and their petty divisions.
Paul’s conviction here is that grace is the medicine that deals the deathblow to every strain of sin that could infect a church body.
Being a constant recipient of God’s grace turns you into a dispenser of God’s grace and when the church becomes full of dispensers of God’s grace the Gospel becomes front and center in the church; the gospel is defended, and the gospel is confirmed.
This is the beauty of grace. An encounter with true grace in the presence of Jesus puts skin and clothing on the gospel. This is what it means to have a heart of fellowship in God’s grace.
#6: A HEART OF AFFECTION (VS. 8)
How difficult is it to truly, emotionally, thoughtfully and affectionately express your love for people even when they fail to meet your expectations?
When fellow Christians’ (and even unbelievers’) offenses and defects loom large in our minds, it’s because we’ve lost sight of the marvel that all of us are recipients of God’s abundant grace at some level or another; the air we breathe is an extension of God’s grace (Johnson 2013: 29).
Paul is able to express his deep affection for the Philippians when he says, “God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” (v. 8).
Paul is simply saying here, that he misses the Philippians deeply, despite their inconsistencies, their failures and their foolishness. In these final words we see the depth once again of the apostle Paul’s deep compassion and affection for messy, misguided, sin-infected people.
It’s not that the apostle Paul has a problem with using sharp words or even using harsh words to correct and inoculate the infection of sin in the church.
His writings to other churches and even to the Philippians in later chapters will be laced with some harshness. Sometimes harshness is exactly what the doctor orders. But even harshness must be tempered with compassionate, grace-filled, affection if the pill is going to do its work.
This is why the apostle Paul expresses his heart of affection for the Philippians; he knows that affection will effect the transformation he longs for.
We’ve taken a peek at (eavesdropped on) some of the opening lines of Paul’s corrective love-letter to the Philippian church. We’ve listened in as Paul shares his heart with the Philippians.
We’ve heard him say, “I’m thankful for you (vs. 3); I have fond memories of you (v.3); I am praying for you (v.4); I am overjoyed because of you (v. 4); We are not alone (v. 5); I am convinced that God will finish what he started in you (v. 6); I love you as a partner and a partaker in God’s grace (v. 7); Because of you I know that I am not alone in my circumstances (v. 7); I miss you deeply (v. 8).
We can see the extent and the intensity of Paul’s loving embrace and correction of the Philippian church family.
We know that Paul sees the self-centeredness, the pride, the complaining, the arguing, the disagreements and the division in the Philippian believers. But Paul also sees the crucified, risen and returning Christ standing right in the middle of the mess and he knows that Jesus will finish the work he began in his friends.
Paul has no problem with being transparent and vulnerable with the Philippian church because he knows that his expression of transparent and vulnerable love will gently embrace and correct his friends’ wayward hearts.
When I hear Paul speaking the way he does in this love letter I hear the voice of my Savior speaking to me.
Can you hear Jesus speaking to you now? It’s the simplest yet most profound discipleship question we can ask one another. What are you hearing Jesus say to you right now through his Word?
I hear him saying:
I see you and I love you. I see every nasty part of you, and I love you with every ounce of my being. I am grateful to my Father for giving you to me. I am asking my Father to give you every spiritual blessing he has for you. You are not a disappointment to me. Even when you act foolishly, I still love you and I accept you and I cherish you. We belong to each other because of my work at the cross and the empty tomb and I am returning to take you home with me very soon. Don’t despair, my Spirit is at work in you and the day I take you home is the day that my work in you will be complete. You do have some imperfections in you right now but those are thorns in your side to keep you focused on me; my grace is sufficient for you. I miss you and I can’t wait until we can be together again.
It has been said that the Bible is sixty-six love letters from God to us. We can take a peek at it any time we want to. The question is: How is Jesus speaking to you through his Word today?
How do you hear him expressing his loving embrace and correction over you?