The Lord’s Day Morning
May 6, 2007
“I Thank God for You”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Philippians, chapter one, verses three to five. We began our study of Philippians last week. We noted some of the great themes in this book. For instance, we said that already (beginning with verse 6) Paul is emphasizing the sovereignty of God in salvation. We said that in chapter two, you have that beautiful emphasis on the humility and exaltation of Jesus Christ. We also mentioned some of the memorable passages in the book of Philippians:
“He who began a good work in you will complete it in the day of Christ Jesus…. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain…. Our citizenship is in heaven…. Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice….The peace of God that passes all comprehension will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me….”
And more. Over and over, you’ll have your memory reminded of truths that you’ve known since you were a young Christian, all from this great book.
We said that the book of Philippians shows us a man with vibrant faith in difficult circumstances radiating a contagious joy–and how we need that ourselves in our own time. This is a book that beckons us to that fight for joy, no matter what our situation is right now. We said that this book commends to us our sovereign Savior’s holy humility, especially in the Christ hymn in Philippians 2, and it not only says that by that means did Christ redeem us, but it says that we’re to follow in the train of Christ’s example. And so this book calls us to grow in humility.
We said that this book displays a saint on whom the world has lost its grip. That’s one reason we sang A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, because we said you can almost hear the Apostle Paul singing, “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also…” as he says, “I count all things loss for the sake of Christ,” in Philippians 3.
We said that this letter displays for us believers under the crushing load of life in the darkest moments of their experience, even the valley of the shadow of death, comprehending an incomprehensible peace. So it invites us not only to long to know Christ and Him crucified, but to know that peace which passes all understanding, even in the most difficult trials of life. And so such a time as this is a good time for this book in the life of our congregation.
We said that this was a letter of love, and joy, and truth. It’s a letter of love in the sense that Paul’s love for the Philippians is unmixed in his expression of it in this book. When he’s writing to the Corinthians, you know that he loves them…but he wants to give them a good shaking for the way they’re acting! And it comes through, doesn’t it? And he loves the Galatians when he’s writing them, but he wants to give them a good shaking for the things that they’ve dared to go off and believe instead of the pure gospel that he had proclaimed to them in the first place. But this letter seems like it’s written to his “sweetheart” congregation. He had only been there for a short period of time, but he has utter devotion to and love for this congregation. It shows through in the letter, doesn’t it?
It’s a letter of joy. The Apostle Paul is in prison, but it’s filled with joy. Twenty times or more in this short two and a half page letter does he use words expressing or exhorting the Philippians to joy (and that flows right out of what Luke tells you in Acts 16, by the way). Just remember, for instance, what Paul did after being beaten and then released from prison. Just remember what he does when he goes into the house of Lydia, and you’ll be reminded that the continuation of the exhortation to joy and encouragement that you see in this book is simply flowing out of what Luke has already recorded for you in Acts 16, which we heard on Sunday night as Derek has been preaching through that great book.
And of course it’s a letter of truth. It contains Paul’s most profound explanation of the humiliation and exaltation of Christ. It’s unparalleled in Paul’s writings in terms of his depiction of the humiliation and exaltation of our Lord, and so even in this small letter — a letter of joy and love and encouragement — you find this profound expression of truth about Jesus Christ.
Now last Lord’s Day as we began this book we spent just a few minutes looking at the salutation, just the opening words of greeting, and one member of the congregation wrote to me during the week and said, “You know, you could have parked on the very first word of this letter – Paul. And you could have taken a whole sermon just to think about the glory of what it is. That this is Paul… not Saul, but Paul writing to this congregation.”
And indeed, even the greetings that Paul gives in verses 1 and 2 are rich. We looked at the sender, or the senders; we looked at how Paul and Timothy describe themselves as bond-slaves of Christ Jesus. Paul may have been imprisoned by Caesar, but Caesar was not his Lord. The Lord Jesus was his Lord, and he was only there because the Lord Jesus wanted him there.
And we said last week that if we started looking at our lives that way, just watch out! Just watch out! It’s a life-transforming way of looking at life, believing that firmly in God’s sovereign providence over everything in life. The Apostle Paul was the last man in the world who wanted to be caged up under house arrest or in a prison, and yet here he was accepting that, knowing that he was not, in the final analysis, the bond-slave of Caesar or the prisoner of Caesar, but he was the servant, the permanent servant, of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.
And so we looked at the senders. We looked at the recipients, the Philippians themselves, including Paul’s greetings to those who were leaders in the congregation — the elders and the deacons who were there to lead and to serve that congregation. And we looked at the content of the greeting itself, and the beautiful benediction that is contained in it, in which Paul pronounces grace and peace, calling attention to the sovereign mercy of God that saves them from their sins and the total well-being that flows from the sovereign mercy of God in the lives of all those who rest and trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel.
That leads us right into the body of the letter, and we’re going to start looking at it today. Now, we could look at verses 3-6 together, because it’s all one thought. In verses 5 and 6, the Apostle Paul is basically telling you what are the foremost reasons in his heart and mind that begin to well up in him…these thoughts of thanksgiving and rejoicing when he thinks about the Philippians. But we’re going to look at verses 3-5 today and come back to verse 6 next week because it’s so rich, and we’ll camp on it and spend some time in that great verse.
So we’re going to look at verses 3-5 today, and as we do so I’d like you to look for three things. As you look at verse 3, notice Paul’s thankful heart, because I think Paul’s thankful heart has something to teach us. Then as you look at verse 4, look at Paul’s joyful prayer, because again, Paul’s joyful prayer has something to teach us. And then as you look at verse 5, look for Paul’s gospel focus, because here he’s going to tell you what it is that he has in view especially that makes him so thankful and joyful when he thinks about the Philippians. So we’re going to look at Paul’s thankful heart in verse 3, his joyful prayer in verse 4, and his gospel focus in verse 5. Look for those things as we read God’s word. But before we do, let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word. Open our eyes to behold the beauty of Your grace in the life of the Apostle Paul and this congregation, for You have displayed the beauty of saving grace in him and them for us. Lord, help us not just to be bystanders who are admiring this beauty, but make us to be partakers of the beauty of this grace ourselves. We would have Your grace so richly indwell us that we become thankful, joyful, gospel people. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of the living God:
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, inerrant and authoritative word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
It’s not surprising, is it, that when you move into the body of this letter you immediately are confronted with thanksgiving and joy. It’s really not surprising, in light of the overview that we did last week and in light of the fact that we noted the Apostle Paul is filled with joy throughout this letter, that the very first note that is sounded in the body of this letter is joy and thanksgiving. In particular, Paul telling the Philippians of the great thanksgiving that he has in his heart to God for them, at the joy that he experiences even when he’s praying for them, and specifically at the sheer delight that floods his heart when he thinks about their unity, their fellowship, their cooperation, their participation with him in the gospel. And I want to look at those three things with you very briefly today.
I. Paul’s thankful heart.
First, look at verse 3, where we see Paul’s thankful heart. He says, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you.” In other words, Paul is saying that when he recalls the love of the Philippians, when he recalls the support of the Philippians, when he remembers the Philippians, it leads him to thanksgiving to God. Every time he thinks of them, he thanks God for them. The Apostle Paul had a special relationship with this congregation. He seems to be on the same wavelength with this congregation, and so his fellowship with them is especially sweet; and so when he thinks about them, when he thinks about the work of the gospel in them, when he thinks about their participation with him in the work of the gospel elsewhere, it leads him immediately to thanksgiving to God. For Paul, blessings received from God lead to thanksgiving to God.
And I want to ask you a question. Is that the way it is for you? Do God’s blessings to you, especially gospel blessings, lead you immediately and instinctively to thanksgiving to God? Or are we a thankless people?
The Apostle Paul is modeling for us an attitude of thanksgiving and an act of thanksgiving. Every blessing that comes to him he does not take for granted. He does not feel entitled to receive that blessing. He does not approach that blessing as if he deserved it and ‘Sure, the Lord did that for me. That’s His job.’ No, for Paul those blessings overflow in thanksgiving, and I want to say to you, my friends, that that kind of thanksgiving needs to characterize our prayer and our life attitude. Is our practice in prayer to spend much time in thanksgiving? If it is not, let me ask you a question. What does that say about us? If our prayer is dominated by the rehearsal of needs and requests to God–as appropriate as it is to express our heartfelt needs and requests to God–if our prayer is dominated by the requests, and if thanksgiving is a small or non-existent portion of our prayers, what does that say about us? Well, it may say that we have not adequately spent time reflecting on the greatness of God’s blessings to us, and thus we’re not thankful for them; or, it may say — worse – that we are not thankful people, but that we are entitled people.
I told the folks in the early service today that one of our members who is about to be a day school teacher here at First Presbyterian Church, starting in the year to come, was working in an orphanage last summer in Africa, and much to her delight when she got there, there were some hymnals that had been donated to that African orphanage by First Presbyterian Church/Jackson. And these poverty-stricken children who had (in terms of worldly goods) nothing, were excited like you had told them that you were going to take them to the State Fair or to Disneyworld, when they heard that they were going to be able to get up early in the morning and come and sing out of those hymnals …probably not the same response that some of you have to the privilege of singing out of our hymnals. But here are these African children with nothing, who were delighted like a holiday had been called, in order to sing out of these hymnals that had been donated to them. And she simply commented on the fact that how glorious it was to be able to be with and minister to children who were so thankful for this relatively small gift, when in the United States she so often has ministered to children who have so much, but they are not thankful for it. They feel entitled to it. They are even bored by the many gifts and blessings which have been given to them. They have an attitude of “been there, done that….bor-ing!”
And my friends, sometimes that’s our attitude. We are complacent. We feel entitled to the gifts that God has given to us, and consequently we are not thankful people and we are not giving thanks to God. And here the Apostle Paul is spurred on by the work of God’s grace in the Philippians to do what? Immediately turn around and give praise to God.
What was happening in the Philippians’ lives is not ultimately due to Paul’s strategies or even to Paul’s efforts. It was ultimately due to the grace of God, and so God is deserving of the praise for it, and Paul turns immediately around and gives thanks to God. Is that the way it is for you? Is that the way it is for us? Are we thankful in our prayers and in our heart attitude? Or do we feel entitled? Or are we ungrateful for the greatness of God’s gospel mercies to us? Paul’s thankful heart, I think, urges us on to be thankful in prayer and in our life attitude.
II. Paul’s joyful prayer.
There’s a second thing I want you to see in verse 4…not only Paul’s thankful heart, but Paul’s joyful prayer. Look again at verse 3 and verse 4. Paul says, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you.”
It was easy for Paul to think about the Philippians and to thank God for them. He had a special connection with this congregation, and it was easy for him to think about them and immediately thank God. And he goes on to say in verse 4, “…always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all.” So it was easy for Paul to think of the Philippians and then to pray for them, but not only that: Paul characterizes his prayers for them as joyful; that the work of prayer that he engaged in on their behalf was sheer delight to him. It was a joy to pray for the Philippians!
Now, I think there are a couple of things that we learn out of that. One thing is that we ourselves ought to be thankful and joyful in our prayers for others, but this second thing is really what I want to speak on, and that is this: Do we make it easy for others to be thankful and joyful in their prayers for us, in the way that it was easy for Paul to be thankful and joyful in his prayers for the [Philippians?] Are we making it easy for one another to think of us and to thank God, and to be joyful when they get down on their knees to labor in prayer, to do business with God in prayer on our behalf? Do we make it easy for them to do so?
I have some friends that God has given me in this life that I so learn from and am nourished by in my company with them that very often I catch myself reflecting on how much I get from them when I am with them, and how little relatively I give to them when we are together. And that sometimes prompts me to think, “You know, since I’m going to be with So-and-so today, and I’m so often blessed by what this person says, and I learn something from it, or where this person’s heart is…what this person is thinking about and investing himself in…or, I’m so blessed by what this person is doing, and learning about that from this person…that I’d better get something ready to take with me to try and bless this person, because I’m getting the better end of this deal, and my friend is getting the short end of the stick! I mean, just the very way that they are makes it easy for me to remember them and thank God for them, and it makes it easy for me to be joyful when I’m praying for them because I know what a blessing they are to me, and it’s not difficult for me to imagine what a blessing they are to other people. So it makes it fun for me to pray! It makes it a delight for me to pray for them! It makes it easy for me to thank God for them.
Well, let me ask you the question: Are you that kind of a person, who makes it easy for others to thank God for you and be joyful in you in their prayers? I think that ought to be an aim, an aspiration on the part of us individually and collectively as a congregation, that we would be the kind of people who would be so encouraging, so gospel-focused, so grace-filled, so mutually supportive that our brothers and sisters find it joyful and delightful to engage in prayer for us with thanksgiving. And the Apostle Paul’s joyful prayer for the Philippians reminds me of that.
III. Paul’s gospel focus.
But there’s a third thing I want you to see as well, and you see it in Paul’s gospel focus in verse 5. Paul begins in verse 5 to tell you two specific things which cause him to give thanksgiving for the Philippians. (He’s going to tell you the second thing in verse 6.) The first thing, he tells you here in verse 5. We’ll come back to verse 6 next week. But here’s what he says: “…Always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all (verse 5), in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.” Some of your translations say “in view of your fellowship in the gospel”, and that’s a perfectly good translation. It’s the same word, koinonia, that we use for fellowship elsewhere in the New Testament, translated into English.
The Apostle Paul is saying it’s especially the fellowship, the shared life which he enjoyed with the Philippians, the participation [or the mutual cooperation and involvement] that he and the Philippians had in the work of the gospel that made Paul joyful and thankful and happy when he thought of them.
Turn back in your Bibles to Acts 16 and scan that passage that we’ve recently heard proclaimed on Sunday evenings, and just remind yourself of the kind of people who were in the Philippian congregation and the kind of context in which God saved them. First of all, you have this vision–and I’ve always thought it interesting that God gives Paul this vision of a man calling him over to Macedonia, and when he shows up in Philippi, who are there at the riverside? All women! That’s the core group. That was the core group for the church in Philippi, and what a core group it was! There’s Lydia, the accomplished business woman, but pagan as the day is long. And what does Luke especially want to emphasize to you? That the Lord opened her heart to believe.
What is Luke emphasizing? The sovereign grace of God breaking through into this very accomplished and competent (but pagan and lost) business woman and saving her, drawing her effectually to Jesus Christ so that she rests and trusts alone in Him for salvation. And so Luke wants to emphasize that God was at work.
And then what’s the next thing that happens? Well, there’s this slave girl. And she’s got a spirit of divination. You can ask her questions, and she can tell you stuff! And she’s bugging the Apostle Paul, and at one point he finally says, “Get out of her!” and goes on. I wonder if she’s in this congregation. I don’t know, but I wonder.
And there there’s this Philippian jailer. After Paul has been badly treated and has been jailed and is waiting for who knows what from the local officials, there’s this extraordinary event, and Paul has every opportunity to walk away from the jail free; and the Philippian jailer is getting ready to kill himself, and suddenly there’s the Apostle Paul sharing the gospel with him, and suddenly there’s the Philippian jailer (just like Lydia)…. He and his family are coming, and they’re part of this congregation. And in each of these stories, in each of these particular cases, notice how the sovereign power of God is emphasized. And the Apostle Paul seems to be saying to the Philippians, ‘You know, you guys get me. You understand me. You understand when I tell you that I was a Christian-hating Pharisee bent on wiping Christianity off of the face of the earth, on the way to Damascus, and Jesus met me and saved me…you guys get that! You understand that, because the sovereign grace of God was displayed in your conversions in the same way. And we understand one another.’
Isn’t it a beautiful thing? Here’s the Apostle Paul, the Hebrew of Hebrews, the son of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee, educated as best as a Pharisee could have been educated, a Jew of Jews, faithful to the whole of the law, saying, “You know, you Macedonian pagan Gentile Philippians-now-Christians, you get me! You understand me. We have a fellowship in the gospel. You understand the sovereign grace of God because it happened in your lives.’
Have you ever been in a room and there are people there who because of certain, sometimes traumatic, shared experiences…and they just understand one another, and they know how to talk to one another? And they can understand one another sometimes without even saying a word, and you’re kind of there thinking ‘I don’t have a clue what it is that these people know and understand about one another.’ We have some former prisoners of war in our congregation, and when I’m in a room with them and they’re talking with one another, I realize I don’t have a clue what those men went through, but they understand instinctively and without a word what one another went through on behalf of our country. And because of that, there is a certain bond and mutual fellowship and understanding that I can’t even enter into. There are dozens of other illustrations of this. You may be in a room, and there are in that room godly women who have lost children at very young ages. By God’s grace they’ve been brought through that trial, but they understand things about one another and what they’ve experienced and what they’ve lost that I have no clue about. And we could go on and on. Oftentimes those experiences do what? They created a bond of fellowship, where there’s a mutual understanding…where sometimes you don’t even have to say things, you just understand them.
And the Apostle Paul is saying, ‘You know, Philippians, it’s like that with me and you. We have a fellowship in the gospel.’ And the beautiful thing about that is this is Paul the Jew saying this to Gentile Philippians! They are, from a human and natural standpoint, nothing like him! And he’s saying, ‘You get me, and I get you. I know what is going on in your hearts. We have a fellowship in the gospel of grace because we have both experienced the grace of the gospel.’
And this is so important for us to understand, because this fellowship that the Apostle Paul has with the Philippians is not based on having natural background affinity. You know, we’re in Mississippi, and a lot of us, especially those of you who are natives of Mississippi, have lots of natural background affinity. There are things that you just know from experience and share, because you’re from here. We joke about the fact that if you’re at a party somewhere in Mississippi and there are fifty people in the house, within fifteen or twenty minutes ninety percent of you will be related to one another somehow! And if you’re not blood cousins, you’re going to find out that you grew up with somebody in elementary that one another knew, or you grew up in high school with someone that one another knew, or you were in college or in the same fraternity — though you were at different institutions — or you were in the same sorority. And there are all these natural affinities, and all of these things combine to create what the world calls community: a whole set of shared experiences that bond you together and help you understand how another person looks at things.
But it’s not that kind of community, not that kind of fellowship that the Apostle Paul is talking about experiencing with the Philippians. He is talking about a gospel fellowship.
You see, from the standpoint of natural affinity, the Apostle Paul had none of that with the Philippians. They didn’t go to the same high school. They couldn’t have even eaten at the same table with one another! They were Gentiles; he was a Jew. They didn’t go to the same university. They didn’t go to the same church. Why, they were worshiping a polytheistic pantheon of Roman and Greek gods, and he was worshiping the God of Israel in a synagogue! They had, from a standpoint of natural affinity, nothing in common, but they had this: the gospel. They had this: grace. They had this: the Lord Jesus Christ. And the Apostle Paul is saying, ‘It gives me joy to think of the fellowship in the gospel that we share together.’
It’s a fellowship of faith. They believed on the same Lord Jesus Christ. They believed on the same Bible. They believed on the same gospel message and it knit them together over against the world around them. He was a Jewish believer; they were Gentile believers, but they believed in the same common Lord, the same gospel, the same Book, over and against their non-believing Jewish and their non-believing Gentile contemporaries. Whatever affinities they may have had with them, they were close to one another because of that common faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
They had in common a love for one another. You know, the Apostle Paul will say to the Corinthians that these Macedonian believers were poorer than the Corinthians. The Corinthian church was better off financially than these Macedonian Christians. But do you know who Paul uses as an example for Christian giving? Not the Corinthians. The Macedonians. He says, ‘You know what? Out of their own need, out of their own lack, out of their own poverty, they generously gave to me for the work of the gospel.’ So that Paul will point to the Corinthians, who have more, and say, ‘You know how you need to give? You need to give like those Philippians who have less.’ And over and over throughout Paul’s ministry, he’s receiving support — tangible support and encouragement — from the Philippian Christians.
And he senses a fellowship, and even though they lack, they are giving even in their lack because they’re so committed to the same thing that the Apostle Paul is committed to: the glory of Jesus Christ and the spread of the gospel. And so they have a fellowship in, they have a mutual participation in, the gospel. They both want the same thing. The Apostle Paul wants to see every knee bow and every tongue confess Jesus Christ as Lord, and these Philippians want to see the earth as full of the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ as the waters cover the sea, and so they are ready to give even when they don’t have it to give, so that the Apostle Paul can share the gospel. And so when Paul thinks about them, he thinks about that fellowship that they have in the gospel, and in the spread of the gospel.
And here’s what I want to say to you, my friends. Is that the kind of fellowship we have here at First Presbyterian Church? Is that our kind of fellowship? We have a lot of those qualities of natural affinity that create natural fellowship, but do we have supernatural fellowship? Do we have gospel fellowship? Is our gospel fellowship and the things that knit us together uniquely as believers more significant for us than those things that naturally knit us together? Is the fact that we share in common Christ, the gospel, faith in Him, the grace which God has shown by Him to us, the work of the gospel–are those the things that are at our deepest inner core and give us the sense that I’m your brother and you’re my brother? I’m your sister and you’re my sister, and we’re all in this together? Is that the thing that knits us together? Is it a gospel fellowship?
Well, here’s what I want to say. It ought to be one of our aims as a congregation to cultivate that kind of a deliberately gospel fellowship. If our fellowship is primarily based on the fact of these common affinities–we grew up in the same state or in the same town, we went to the same schools, we have a common set of friends, we’re in a particular line of work–if those things are the fundamental things that unite us, then what is interesting is that the edges of our congregation will be walls, and anybody that cannot join in those natural affinities will not be a part of us. But if our union, if our communion, if our fellowship, is in those things which are related to the gospel, then the edges of our fellowship will be porous, and even people who are not like us–they’re not from our socio-economic class, they’re not from our racial background, they’re not from our hometown, they’re not a part of the same set of friends and business colleagues that we normally work with, but they do trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, they will very easily become a part of the gospel fellowship because the thing that fundamentally unites us is not those natural affinities, but the gospel affinities.
Should we not be aiming as a congregation to cultivate a fellowship that is deliberately centered on Christ, on grace, and on the gospel? And if we do so, will that not lead to our congregation more and more looking like the amazing diversity that is the body of Christ?
And here the Apostle Paul shows us a thankful heart, and a joyful prayer, and a gospel focus. And in so doing, he calls us to a life attitude and a heart for thankful prayer. He calls us to joy and rejoicing in one another, and being the kind of people that make it easy for our brothers and sisters to rejoice in us. And he calls us to cultivate a deliberately gospel-oriented fellowship.
Heavenly Father, what a treasure You have given to us in the grace of Christ in the gospel. Grant that we would understand it in all its ramifications and know true gospel fellowship. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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