April 16th, 2018

It’s God who began the good work and God who will finish what he started.

Philippians 1:1-11


By God I love you!

If you heard somewhere recently that Luke is my favorite book of the Bible, that was so last week! Today we dive into Philippians. I chose a verse from Philippians at age 15 for my “life verse.” My senior year in Bible college I preached from Philippians for my “senior chapel message.” Philippians was the first book I preached all the way through at Corinth 25 years ago. I probably have more of Philippians memorized than any other book in the Bible.

Luke was certainly a great study, and one thing I noticed is that Luke is born to travel. He loves a good journey, whether it’s his own or someone else’s. Luke believes you open yourself to something new God wants to do when you’re on the move.

I find irony in noting a sharp contrast Philippians. As he writes, Paul is not going anywhere. He’s in prison, stuck in one place, acutely aware that this might be for him, literally, a dead end. Paul shows us how God can work in and through you when you are immobilized, stranded, trapped. Paul thinks deeply and feels passionately in prison.

I was on the verge of writing the introduction to this sermon on Thursday when I walked from my secret sermon-writing hideout to my regular office. There on my desk was a handwritten letter to Linda and me from prison! The writer, Marcus, was in our home a year ago for Thanksgiving and Christmas. His letter is four pages long, so I can’t read it all to you. He writes about prison life and his spiritual and emotional struggles. These excerpts are from his closing paragraph:

Anyways I’m praying for you, I love all you guys. Praying for Phil & his family, Cara, Jeni, and Jonah (Cara’s dog) and Jeni’s dog even though I can’t recall his name….? Y’all have been nothing but a blessing. I pray for you guys often, think of you often, and can’t wait to see y’all again. Love, Marcus.

By God I love Marcus! That’s an unusual expression for a sermon, isn’t it? It’s a kind of oath, maybe bordering on using God’s name in vain. I am swearing to emphasize the truth and passion of what I am saying. It’s precisely what Paul does in the opening verses of his letter to the Philippians. What makes Paul swear?


Three key words in verses 1-11 prefigure Paul’s themes in Philippians:  peace, joy, and love. First, peace. Here’s how Paul begins:  Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:  grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1-2).

Paul’s opening is typical of first century letters: sender, recipient, greeting. If Marcus wrote in the first century he would start, “Marcus to Bob and Linda, hello!”

Paul was the infamous Pharisee who determined to exterminate the followers of the Way before the Christian movement could get off the ground. Luke records how God met him on a journey and then how he became Christianity’s most celebrated traveler, establishing the first churches Asia Minor and Europe. We know about him not only from the book of Acts but from his own correspondence to pastors and churches.

One of Paul’s protégés, one to whom Paul wrote two personal letters included in our New Testament, is with him: Timothy, son of a Jewish mother and Greek father. Paul is hoping soon to send Timothy for a personal visit to Philippi (2:19). At this point, Timothy seems to be acting as Paul’s secretary. Paul is dictating; Timothy is writing.

In most of Paul’s letters he introduces himself as “Paul an apostle…,” establishing his authority to speak on behalf of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is speaking authoritatively to his readers. This letter is different. Here he and Timothy are “servants” (or “slaves”) of Jesus Christ. He starts low in this letter.

He writes “to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus in Philippi” (emphasis added). “All” is a theme word in Philippians (32 times, sometimes translated “every”). He specifically calls out their “overseers and deacons,” which we might paraphrase as “leaders and servants.” More than likely these were officially designated offices, one to make decisions and the other to do the grunt work. We’ll come back to the story of the church in Philippi; first, let me tell you about the city.

The father of Alexander the Great, Philip of Macedon, named Philippi for himself when he conquered the city in 356 BC. Located near the coast on the north end of Aegean Sea (between Greece and Turkey) Philip wanted access to its gold mines and also wanted to station a military base at a coastal location.

Three centuries later, during the Roman era, the assassins of Julius Caesar (Brutus and Cassius) lost the Battle of Philippi to Mark Antony and Octavian, who became emperor. Octavian recolonized the pivotal city with retired Roman soldiers, so you can imagine the level of loyalty to Rome. Philippi in the first century AD was wealthy, prosperous, proud, and very Roman. Rome was known for its infrastructure, including amphitheaters for entertainment and roads for commercial and military traffic. The Ignatian Way, a Roman interstate, ran through Philippi.

Rome was also proud of the Pax Romana, two centuries of international stability starting in 27 BC and unprecedented in world history to that point. Comparable to the height of the British empire in modern times, Rome connected a diversity of nations and cultures around the Mediterranean rim in commerce and defense. British loyalty was to the Crown; Roman to the Emperor, called “Savior and Lord” of his empire.

Now you know why verse 2 is so significant. Paul uses one of his favorite words, “grace,” which he almost singlehandedly redefines in the Greek language as the sum total of how God sees us in Jesus Christ. The word order is important in Greek – not “grace and peace to you,” but “grace to you – and peace,” emphasizing peace that only comes when we first experience grace. “Peace” is a potent word in the Hebrew Bible but also in the Roman empire, in Philippi.

What’s most significant, however, is the source of grace and peace. “Our” modifies both “God Father” and “Lord Jesus Christ.” Since Jesus means “Savior,” Paul is stressing that in contrast to Caesar, our Savior and Lord is Jesus Christ. This will be a very Christocentric letter. Grace that results in peace comes only from Jesus. This is previews chapter four, where Paul will write that “the God of peace” (4:7) promises “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding.” You might say, “But Paul didn’t have to deal with chemical attacks and political division and school shootings. Of course he could write about peace.” Then you will remember that Paul was on death row and Nero was his emperor.


Beginning in verse 3, Paul conveys how he feels about the Philippians. He thanks God for them. He gives thanks to God at the beginning of every one of his letters in the New Testament (except Galatians, because he’s ticked at them). Philippians is different. In no other letter does Paul gush with the kind of enthusiasm he expresses here.

He’s probably using hyperbole when he says, I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy… (3-4, emphasis added). We find our word “all” four times in two verses. The “you” would be sufficient, because it’s plural (meaning “y’all”), but he adds “all” – “my prayers for all y’all.” His prayers for “all y’all” constantly fill him with joy.

I listened to one sermon this week on this text where the pastor thundered about the “pitiable” people in his congregation who were unconverted or apathetic during his sermon. Toward the end he said, “I say with sadness, I can’t say as Paul did, ‘I thank God for you all.’…” I understand the concern of my brother and colleague, but I would suggest Paul can’t personally validate the spiritual condition of every individual in this church. He hasn’t been in Philippi in about twelve years. Paul’s confidence is not based on who they are or how they perform. It’s God who began the good work and God who will finish what he started.

Why does he thank God and pray for them all? …because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now… (5). The church at Philippi was pivotal in Paul’s ministry, but he was forced by God to go there the first time. His first missionary journey was focused on Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), and he hadn’t finished yet. While he was frustrated by blocked attempts at movement north, he had a vision of a Greek man begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” At that point in Acts, Luke the writer changes his pronoun from “they” to “we,” meaning this is when he joined Paul’s missionary team.

In this Roman colony there were apparently not even enough men to form a synagogue, but Paul found a prayer gathering of God-fearers at the river. The first convert in Europe was Lydia, a wealthy merchant. She and her household were baptized. Not long after that, Paul cast a demon out of a fortune-telling slave girl. This caused a near-riot in Philippi because the girl’s activity was like a gold mine to the idolaters. Paul and Silas were flogged and jailed, but an earthquake freed them, and the jailer and his household believed and were baptized. By the end of that story, Paul was asked to leave Philippi. A church had been born, and subsequently this Pauline church plant grew, became organized, and supported Paul generously.[1]

Paul continues, 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. I love this verse, and sent it back to someone yesterday who’s struggling with life right now. He had texted me Jeremiah 29:11, which is certainly a wonderful verse. Jeremiah is speaking to Jewish exiles in Babylon, and he’s delivering God’s promise that they will someday “prosper.” I would rather hang my hat on Philippians 1:6, because first, Paul is writing to all God’s holy people in Philippi, and by extension to all believers, even today. Second, Jeremiah 29:11 might lead one to believe that what God’s planning to do is make my life easier or better, and that is not always God’s intention. God’s purpose is to finish what he started in us, and that might be a journey that only gets harder or ends in a prison.

This section ends with the line where Paul swears:  It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus (emphasis added).

When Paul says “God can testify,” he is saying “By God I love you!” Look how much joy he finds in them! His words are both “mind words” and “heart words.” “Feel” in verse 7 is literally “think,” but the NIV is probably right to put an emotional spin on it, as he follows with “have you in my heart.” The last phrase in verse 8 is literally “with the bowels of Christ Jesus.” Sure, it reflects ancient culture more than ours to seat the affection in the intestines, but we still talk about a “gut-wrenching experience” or a “visceral response.”

All of this remembering and emoting about the Philippians brings joy to Paul. This will be another theme as we work our way through this letter. Eventually Paul will tell the Philippian believers, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” That’s quite direct, isn’t it? But he’ll add, “I will say it again:  Rejoice!” Paul believes that the Christian life is necessarily a life overflowing with inexpressible joy, and that you can choose joy.

You might say, “But Paul doesn’t know my situation, my problems, my hurts.” Then you will remember that Paul wrote this, his most joy-filled letter, from the isolation, discomfort, and uncertainty of a prison cell.


Today’s text ends with the content of Paul’s prayer for the Philippians. The same preacher who said in his sermon he couldn’t thank God for all his people spoke eloquently about our being eavesdroppers to Paul’s private prayer closet. He writes,

And this is my prayer:

that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 

so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—

to the glory and praise of God (emphasis added).

Notice the sequence in his prayer. He prays only one prayer:  that their love would grow. The result will be a fruitful life of character, and that will bring praise to God. Love results in fruit, and fruit brings glory to God.

“Well,” you might say, “the Philippians were great people. They brought Paul deep joy. He was praying they would grow in love, but they were already so lovable! If Paul knew the people I have to love….”

This is one of the surprises of Paul’s letter. To be sure, the Philippians were generous of and supportive of Paul, and he was grateful. But as we read this letter we’re going to find out that in addition to opposition from the outside, love for one another (or lack thereof) was their biggest problem. Paul will address their “selfish ambition and vain conceit” (2:3) and “complaining (and) arguing” (2:14). He will even name two women who can’t get along. How would you like your name forever inscribed in Holy Scripture as someone in a spat? You wouldn’t even like it if I used it in a sermon – “I need Neil and Joe to find some unity.”

They have a problem with love and unity, and Paul wants them to grow in it more and more. If they do, it will change everything.

Taking stock

So where are we going with Philippians? Our studies will take us in many directions, but let’s start here. It’s time to take stock of your peace, joy, and love. My hunch is that the Holy Spirit is going to push you in one or more of these areas over these eleven weeks. Are you willing to open up yourself to his scrutiny?

First, peace. How’s your overall spiritual wellness? How’s your soul peace? Is it rocked by what you see on the news? How’s your peace quotient been this past week? Are you counting on politicians or tax returns or relationships or new opportunities? The Pax Romana eventually crumbled, as will every peace that looks to a human savior and lord. Do you lay your head on your pillow every night in the assurance that life is OK since the Lord, Jesus Christ, is in charge? Or is there peace-work to be done?

Second, joy. Do you look around at the people and situations in your life and “rejoice in the Lord always?” You can always find a reason to be unpleasant, discouraged, angry, hopeless, frustrated. There are good things and bad in every life, in every home, on every job, with every change of political power. Has the world around you robbed you of your joy? Do the people that know you most say your life is characterized by joy? Paul wants your joy to grow as we study Philippians.

Finally, love. Is your love abounding more and more in knowledge and depth of insight? Paul’s not talking about a blind love – about naiveté or the kind of pseudo-love that is really an insecure plea for someone to make up for something lacking. Paul is talking about love that knows the other person, warts and all, that understands the complexity of intimate relationships, but that ultimately is about giving not getting. It’s the kind of love that even extends to enemies, Jesus said. Is there someone – even just one – person you’ve decided is so unworthy you cannot and will not love them? Or do you want Paul to teach you about love in these next weeks?

By God, I love you, people of Corinth. You are my joy, not some of you but all of you. We are together in this, you know, this journey or this imprisonment, whatever you want to call it. We have been called by God to help each other grow in the kind of peace, joy, and love that only comes through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s do it as we study this remarkable letter. Amen.


[1] Click here and here for my sermons from 2015 on the beginnings of the Philippian church in Acts 16.

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