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Praying With Joy

Date: Jun. 21, 2020

Author: Michael Mark

Philippians 1:1-11

Key Verse: Philippians 4

In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.

Happy Father’s Day to all you dads out there.  This year is my first year as a dad, and God has blessed me and my wife with a daughter who brings us so much joy.  Her laughter is pure joy.  I am excited to see her every morning of every day, and every time, it never fails, but she always smiles at anyone she sees after waking up from sleeping, whether it’s a full night’s sleep or a nap.  Such joy, such pure joy that children have.  Think about having this kind of joy.  Perhaps you have children of your own, or if not, you were children at one point – but even in your adult life, can you think of moments you’ve experienced joy?  Now how about experiencing that joy in prayer?  When you pray do you have such joy?  We don’t have to have that kind of joy in every instance of prayer.  Some prayers are struggles, others are simply communing with God.  But there are reasons, good reasons to be joyful.  Joy is what satisfies our hearts, gladness energizes our being, and when we learn about the joy that comes from God, he will enable us to pray with joy.

We are beginning a new series today, and for the next several weeks we will be studying the letter to the Philippians.  This letter is considered by many scholars to be the New Testament letter of joy.  The word joy and its variants occur 16 times throughout its 4 chapters, culminating in Ch 4’s resounding “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!”  One of the reasons we selected this book is because of its themes of joy, and thanksgiving, and peace – some things that perhaps we need to hear in these times.  As we read through this letter week by week, we hope you may find more and more reasons to rejoice always in the Lord.

As its name suggests, Philippians was written to the church at Philippi.  Philippi was a major Greek city in Macedonia, named after King Philip II of Macedon, who was the father of Alexander the Great.  Later, Rome had colonized the city around 42 BC, and it became a retirement haven for veteran soldiers of the Roman army.  Though not in Italy, it enjoyed status as a Roman city, and the residents prided themselves on being Roman citizens.  Paul established a church there on his second missionary journey (49 or 50 AD), recorded in Acts 16.  There he met Lydia, who was a dealer in purple cloth, and it may have been at her house that the early church in Philippi met.  This church had supported Paul faithfully even after he left for his other missionary journeys, and eventually he ended up in prison in Rome for preaching the gospel, around 11-12 years later in 61-62 AD.  It was at this time the church in Philippi sent an offering and a church member, Epaphroditus, to support Paul and take care of his needs.  Epaphroditus got sick on the way, and almost died – and hearing that the Philippian church was distressed about the news, he thought it best to send Epaphroditus back to lessen their anxiety.  In order to express his heartfelt gratitude for their mindfulness, and to assure them Epaphroditus is being sent back on good terms, he took this opportunity to write this letter that we are reading today.

Let’s take a look at the greeting in v.1, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.”  Here we see that Paul is the author of this letter.  Timothy was considered his dear son in the faith, and well known by the Philippian church, so his name is included in the opening salutation.  He then addresses this letter to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, and calls out the overseers and deacons to honor them. It’s similar to how we always pray for the church in Malaysia.  If we were to write a letter to them, we might say, “To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus in Malaysia, together with Ison and Vincent,” who, as some of you may know, came from IIT and HP UBF ministries.  After this is Paul’s standard greeting and benediction, that is found at the beginning of all of his letters: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  There is a personal pronoun “our,” as he describes it, “God our Father.”  As Christians, we can call God our Father.

Now we get to the body of the letter starting at v.3, “I thank my God every time I remember you.”  Notice again the personal pronoun, “my God.”  God is a personal God, and in Christ, we can confidently say, “God is my God.”  Paul begins this letter with thanksgiving, which is one of the purposes for writing this letter.  He thanks God every time he remembers them.  This is quite the accolade for this church.  Paul planted many churches, but the Philippian church is an exemplary church, one perhaps we can learn from and follow.  By contrast, he opens his letter to the Galatian church like this: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Gal 1:6).”  To the Philippian church he said, “I thank my God every time I remember you.”  Paul is not playing favorites – the Galatian church he loved, so he rebuked sharply as they needed, so the Philippian church he also loved, but their actions were worthy of praise.

He continues in v.4, “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.”  There are so many alls in here.  In all his prayers, for all of them, he always prays with joy.  The Philippians brought great joy to Paul, so every time he prayed for them, it brought him joy.  Let’s see why, in v.5, “because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.”  The word partnership there might not mean much to us at first glance, but if you look up the definition of the original word it says this: [partnership] “is used of the intimate bond of fellowship which unites Christians.”  There is an intimate bond of fellowship that unites all Christians, all around the world, and sometimes to a greater degree if you are within the same church body.  Of course, there is almost an instant recognition of brother and sister when you learn they are a Christian, like when you meet someone at school or at work.  Sometimes you want to get together and discuss the Word, or pray together. 

There’s an even stronger degree of fellowship, I feel, when you meet someone from UBF (because I am in UBF).  When Mary and I visited a house church in Pittsburgh, we were welcomed to their home and worship service like family.  We had only met that day, but it was like we knew each other for years.  They picked up a student from campus, and then picked us up from our hotel to worship in their home.  The dad played a ukulele for praise, the kids sang a hymn and read the passage, we heard the message, then ate lunch together.  Mary went shopping with the mom and daughters, and I stayed around to play tag football with the dad and sons, after that they took us on a quick sightseeing tour and then dropped us off at the airport.  Paul knew this church intimately, and they supported him time and time again throughout all the years he had known them.  For more than 10 years to this date, they were still fellowshipping with him, sending him money, clothes, people, anything to help him preach the gospel.  They were a constant source of encouragement to Paul, and therefore a constant source of joy to him.  We remember all of the students, shepherds and missionaries that have come and gone over the years – may they be a source of joy to us as we remember them, and may we also be a source of joy to one another because of our partnership in the gospel.

Paul’s joy for them led to a joyful hope and a beautiful truth – look at v.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.”  Paul had confidence in this fact – he was absolutely convinced and trusted that this would happen.  If you believe in the gospel, if you have faith in Jesus Christ, have repented of your sins and confessed with your mouth the belief in your heart that Jesus is Lord, the good work has begun in you.  Eph 2:3-5 says, “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.  Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.  But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.”  Paul did not say he who completed a good work in you, but he who began a good work in you, will carry it on to completion. 

You have been set apart for God, as Paul’s greeting says in v.1, “To all God’s holy people.”  You were called to be holy, to be sanctified and made perfect, but you are a work in progress.  Let this be of comfort to you, that the best is yet to come, and God is not finished with you.  Nor will he abandon what he started.  Unlike us, or me, who have given up on so many projects over my life, God completes everything he starts.  Look at the earth, look at the universe.  Is there anything left half done?  Read the book of Genesis – the light, the water, the land, plants, animals and the human race, God saw all that he has made, and it was very good.  When you have been saved, you can never be lost.  Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”  You may face trials.  You may suffer for a time, but if you are in Christ, this is not a punishment, it is a refinement.  Jesus is King, He is Lord, and He is in control, trust in Him, even if the world falls apart, he holds you tight in his hand.

These are not empty words and promises, but Paul is truly convinced and confident that God will complete his good work in believers.  In v.7, he says, “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.”  When Paul says “It is right,” he is justifying what he said to give further assurance to the church.  He has them in his heart, meaning, he loves them – and you can see why: whether he is in prison, or out preaching the gospel, they supported him.  When he suffered, they suffered with him.  We will see later that they were also undergoing persecution at this time, yet they still sent gifts and Epaphroditus to him in Rome.  Paul also mentions in Ch. 4 that when he left Macedonia, no other church except for the Philippian church shared in the matter of giving and receiving.  Paul was very sure of this: that by participating in Christ’s sufferings, we will know the power of his resurrection.  The grace Paul received from God, this assurance of salvation, he could confidently say belonged also to the Philippians.  And because they were so willing to give themselves for the cause of the gospel together with Paul, there was a special place in his heart for them.  When you struggle against something with another person, a special bond gets created. 

But his love was deeper than just a human affection.  He loved them as Christ loved him, and as Christ loved them.  Look at v.8 “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.”  We studied 2 weeks ago 1 John 4:12 “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”  He loved them with the same love Jesus had for them.  This is also a reason for our confidence and joy – that Jesus loves us.  This word “affection” refers to the gut, and that’s a metaphor for how deep this love, kindness and compassion goes.  It’s a love that is felt from the heart deep down into the gut.  This is the love that God has for us, that he sent his one and only Son into the world to save us.  Luke 1:78-79 says, “because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”  God of course is a holy and absolutely just God, and demands perfect justice, at the same time, he is a God of tender mercy toward us, and has compassion on lost sinners.  When God sent Jonah to preach to Ninevah, a pagan city, to repent, and they did so, Jonah became angry, but God said to him, “Should I not have concern for the great city of Ninevah, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left – and also many animals? (Jnh 4:11)”  God has concern for all of humanity, he shows no favorites, not wanting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9).  This love that Paul had, was not a love that came from within himself, but from Christ, the kind of love that gives of oneself to another; an unselfish love to even our enemies.  When you realize how much Christ loves you, that he gave himself for you on the cross while you were yet a sinner, you will find joy, and love others the same way, through Christ.

We have seen all the reasons how Paul could pray with joy.  In this last part of the passage we will see the contents of Paul’s prayer.  We can see specifically what he prayed for.  If you ever were curious how you can pray, or what kind of things you can pray for, this prayer gives an example.  Look at v.9: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.”  Wow, hadn’t they already shown such great love, and immense love to Paul by giving sacrificially without interruption?  Paul is not saying they haven’t given enough at all, he says he received from them more than enough.  It’s actually not about their giving at all, but their receiving which will overflow – and the thing that they receive is love.  The love that is in their hearts doesn’t just stop there, but abounds more and more.  It overflows from the heart outwards.  It is like a budding flower in full bloom, and getting fuller and fuller, but there is no limit.  That is the amazing and wondrous thing about God’s love – there is no limit, and it can grow more and more.

When you think of love growing, what do you imagine?  Do you imagine a heart getting bigger and bigger?  Or a pink cloud growing bigger and bigger?  These things are very abstract, but actually Paul tells us that the capacity for love increases by knowledge and depth of insight.  It sounds counter intuitive, that you can increase your capacity to love by knowledge – but what this tells us here is that God’s love is not a blind love.  It’s not a love you cannot know or understand.  Rather, God’s love is an intelligent love, it is a love based on reason, and facts, and that is a love you can truly trust, because it is a love you can know.  It is not a love based solely on emotion, which can change on a whim.  It is a love based on the mind, which then activates the emotion.  It is not a love with the heart only, but a love with the mind and the heart.  The late Ravi Zacharias, the great Christian apologist of our time, said, “What I believe in my heart must make sense in my mind.”  I remember, though I cannot find it anymore, another statement that said, “Reaching the heart through the mind.”

Verse 10-11 tells us what kind of knowledge we should acquire, and the effects of it – they read, “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 of God”  It is a knowledge that enables us to discern and distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, lawful and unlawful.  What knowledge could possibly equip us to do such a thing?  It is the knowledge of God, found in the Holy Scriptures, the Bible that we study daily and weekly.  Jesus said in John 17:3, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”  John 17:17 “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.”  Paul tells Timothy in 2 Tim 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  Even the early church in Acts had “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)” 

There’s an old Christian song based on Ps 119:105 that begins with “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”  Through God’s word I am reminded of God’s longsuffering and patient love, and my sin is exposed.  But I am comforted by his grace.  By His Word I can love God more, because I see and I know and I understand, not perfectly, but more and more what God has done for me in Jesus Christ.  By His word I am reminded that I ought to love others just as God loved me.  And so the effect is a life not perfectly righteous, but growing more and more in righteousness day by day.  And when the Holy Spirit makes you fruitful, he doesn’t just make a couple of apples pop up on a couple of random branches.  No, v.11 says you will be filled with the fruit of righteousness.  And all of this for this one end, for this one purpose: the glory of God.  When God is glorified, we can rejoice.

God has given us so many reasons to glorify him.  God our Father has begun a good work in us, and will carry it out to completion.  Jesus loved us with such an affection he laid down his life for us.  And the Holy Spirit cleanses us, guides us, and produces in us the fruit of righteousness.  What is there not to give God thanks for?  What is there not to glorify God?  And in addition to all of this, he gives us one another, to help one another, encourage one another, and to love one another.  A recent COVID-19 tracking study taken by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that this year, 2020, Americans are the unhappiest they have been in 50 years. Stress and loneliness were among the top reasons, and this was before the death of George Floyd and the recent protests and conversations about race and police brutality.  But in the gospel we have the answer.  Remember Paul wrote this letter from prison, he was awaiting trial to testify before Caesar.  The Philippian church was being persecuted at the same time.  But Paul wrote this letter exuding with joy.  How come?  Because of the fellowship of believers and the love of Christ.  So let us, as a community of believers, love one another, help one another, encourage one another for the sake of God’s glory, especially in these times.  Paul mentions the day of Christ twice, and until then, we might be tried and tested.  It may be in our lifetime, it may not, but trust that God will complete his good work in you.  Trust in God in all circumstances, and in the end you will receive the reward.  Reach out to the lonely, listen to the distressed, and pray for one another.  Meditate on God’s love, that your love may abound and overflow even beyond our church, in partnership of the sharing of the gospel, that God may be glorified.  Although we are separated physically, we are always united in fellowship and in Christ.  Remember me, and I will remember you.  Better yet, as the Psalmist wrote in Psalm 106:4-5, may we all say “Remember me, Lord, when you show favor to your people, come to my aid when you save them, that I may enjoy the prosperity of your chosen ones, that I may share in the joy of your nation and join your inheritance in giving praise.”  May the unity we have in this fellowship, and our unity in Christ give us the reason to give thanks to God and pray with joy.

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