Prayer for Excellence

Series: Side By Side: Gospel Partnership in Philippians

Sermon by David Strain on May 25, 2014

Philippians 1:3-18

Download Audio

Now let me invite you to take your copies of God’s Word in your hands, and turn with me to the letter to the letter of the Philippians, please, chapter one. If you’re using one of the church Bible’s, you’ll find that on page nine hundred and eighty.  Our attention will be on the words of verses 9-11.  We’re going to read some of the context.  We’ll read from verse 3 down to verse 18.  Before we do that let me invite you to bow your heads as we go to God together in prayer.  Let us all pray.

The apostle Paul was carried along by the Holy Spirit as he penned these words.  These are Your God-breathed Scriptures now before us, our Father.  Would You help us to hear them with reverence?  Would You help us to bow before them as they instruct us, to repent where we are wrong, to be comforted where we mourn, to be enabled to believe in face of all the doubts and temptations to despair that the world hurls at us?  Work by Your Word in the power of Your Spirit, now, we pray, that all glory and honor might be Yours.  In Jesus name, Amen. 

Philippians chapter 1. We are reading from verse 3. This is the inerrant Word of Almighty God. 

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always and in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this: that He that began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.   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.  For God is my witness how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.  And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment so that you may approve what is excellent, and so 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.  I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard, and to all the rest, that my imprisonment is for Christ.  And most of the brother, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the Word without fear.  Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.  The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.  The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely, but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.  What then?  Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”

Amen. And we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy and sufficient Word.  May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

Turn your attention with me, please, as I say, to verses 9-11, and to the apostle Paul’s prayer for the Philippians.  Let me invite you, in the week ahead, to use this prayer—to take Paul’s prayer—and pray it for yourself.  Go line by line, clause by clause.  Pray that for your own life, for your family, for the church, for the ministry of the Word, for this congregation, and see how the Lord will use the truth here to begin to shape you and change how you pray, how you think, how you serve among God’s people.

A Prayer for Excellence: The Building Blocks of Progression in the Christian Life

Let’s turn our attention, then, to verses 9-11.  This prayer is really is rather like a great edifice, a building the apostle Paul is constructing.  Each component of it is a load bearing brick.  These are not a string of petitions thrown together, willy-nilly, without reference to one another.  Rather, each component of this prayer is essential and builds upon the one prior to it.  Take a look at it with me.  He prays, first of all, that their “love would about more and more with knowledge and all discernment.”  That’s not the target of his prayer, that’s the first building block.  He wants their love to “abound more and more with all knowledge and discernment”.  Then the next building block, built upon it, tells us the target of Paul’s prayer.  Here’s why this is important, “That your love would abound…with knowledge and all discernment,” verse 10, “so that you may approve what is excellent.”  This is a prayer for Christian excellence.  That Christians would love excellent things, and pursue excellence in their lives. 

But why, we might ask, would the pursuit of Christian excellence be so very important?  What kind of excellence do you have in mind, Paul?  And there comes the next, and final, building block in this great edifice of prayer that the apostle is constructing.  The result of approving the excellent things, we learn, will be—look at the text—that the Philippians, “may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness, and all to the glory and praise of God.” That is the final component, the pinnacle and apex of this great building of prayer that he’s been construction—the glory and praise of God.  So you see this prayer that is carefully put together, each component interlinking with every other, and it may well have the shape that it does because, actually, that is how the Christian life functions.  There are important building blocks that must come in sequence that need to be in place, one building upon the next, upon the next, in order that we may grow.  And so Paul, in this prayer, is not simply teaching us how to pray—to use arguments to build, with logic and the way that we pray—but he’s also teaching us what Christian living ought to look like.  He’s showing us the fabric and the structure and the contours of a growing, maturing, Christian life.  So this is a master-class, not just in Christian prayer, but in Christian living. 

I. A Prayer for Growing Love

Let’s take a look at this prayer together, then, and the first thing Paul prays for, as we’ve seen already in verse 9, is for growing love.  He’s praying that, “your love may abound more and more in knowledge and all discernment.”  It’s a prayer for growing Christian love.  Don’t miss, however, that easily overlooked little phrase, “more and more”.  What a wonderfully encouraging phrase it is because it tells us that although the Philippians have made progress—they have been born again, God has worked the new birth in their lives, He’s producing love for God and love for His people within them, there is love, they do love—and yet there’s room for growth.  There’s still room for more and more.  They do love God, they do love His people, but they can still make progress.  It’s an encouragement, isn’t it, to see Paul praying like this for the Philippians.  Perhaps it’s perhaps even more of an encouragement to know that this is how Paul thinks about himself.  The mighty apostle Paul, advanced in Christian maturity though he no doubt was at this point in his Christian life, in chapter 3, and verse 12, of the book of Philippians, he speaks about himself saying, “Not that I have already obtained this, or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus made me His own.  Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own.  But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  That’s Paul’s own attitude.  He doesn’t for a moment think that he has arrived, that he has made it, that he was holy enough, mature enough, loving enough, wise enough, godly enough.  He knows that whatever progress has been made, there’s still so much more to make.  Whatever advances he has enjoyed, there’s still so much more that lies ahead, so he presses on.  So that’s what he’s praying for us, for the Philippians, that in this area of Christian love we would press on and grow, recognizing that there’s no place in the Christian life for coasting.  You ever tempted to coast a little?  To sit back and rest on your laurels.  It’s been a hard season, perhaps, time to take it easy for a while.  Not at all, the apostle Paul urges the Philippians, and he urges us, an attitude and a disposition that is committed to pressing forward, to straining forward to what lies ahead to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also taken hold of us.  He wants growing Christian love.

Christian Love: Knowledge, Discernment, and Spiritual Maturity

But notice the way that he combines together two things that we typically, in our culture, separate—almost make mutually exclusive.  He brings together love with knowledge and discernment.  In our culture, very often, love is pure emotion, right? It’s mushy and sentimental and vapid, intoxicating, perhaps, overwhelming, even.  But it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what happens in your brain.  In fact, it’s often the opposite.  It’s illogical and irrational.  Well that’s not Christian love.  Paul says, “The love that I want to see growing in your Christian lives, the kind of love that will make you holy, as we’ll see, is a love that is constrained and directed and informed and shaped by knowledge and all discernment.”  He wants their love to be knowledgeable and discerning.  That word, knowledge, means more than just doctrinal knowledge—knowledge of data—it doesn’t mean less than that, but it does mean more.  What he has in mind is personal knowledge, intimate knowledge, that comes to us, certainly, in the gospel through the Scriptures.  But it is knowledge of Jesus, it is knowledge that is lived, it is knowledge that is enjoyed in the context of communion with the living God.  And discernment, well this is the first time, the only time actually in the New Testament this precise word is used.  A cognate term, a related word, is used in Hebrews 5, again in the context of maturity.  Hebrews 5:12-14, listen to this, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness since he is a child. Solid food is for the mature,” he says, and then he defines maturity like this, “Those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”  So when Paul says he’s praying that we would have love, guided by knowledge of Jesus Christ, coming through the Scriptures, and discernment, he’s really praying for Christian maturity.  He wants ethical wisdom,  mature, robust, that has been shaped and informed through a course of careful application of the knowledge of the gospel to every situation in our lives—day after day.  He’s praying that we would grow up, that our love would be grown-up love, knowledgeable love, discerning love that makes appropriate distinctions, that knows how far to go and when to hold back, and what to say and what not to say. 

Truth and Love

Some of us, perhaps, are inclined to intellectual abstraction.  We may be truth people.  We love doctrine, and precise distinctions.  Some of us, on the other hand, are far more relational.  Love is something that just overflows from us.  We’re all about relationships.  But understand the danger of love without truth and truth without love, and Paul’s great wisdom in bringing these two things together.  Truth without love produces coldness and ruthlessness and an impatience without other people’s sin—truth without love.  Love without truth, on the other hand, tends to sentimentality, and a kind of inclusivism that fails to make biblical distinctions between what is right and what is not, and to draw appropriate biblical boundaries.  And get this, this is important, both extremes cripple churches. Love without truth and truth without love.  Ruthless unyielding dogmatism is repellent: truth without love.  Sentimental inclusivism that tolerates anything, and never calls for repentance, is sub-Christian and destroys our witness: love without truth.  Both extremes cripple churches.  How we need the balance of Paul’s prayer. We need to love the Lord and love His people, though we must do so according to knowledge, with discernment, knowing what to do and how to do it—how to apply love—for the glory of God, and the honor of the name of Jesus Christ.  So the first thing Paul prays for is growing Christian love. 

II. The Goal of Growing Love: The Pursuit of Excellence

Then, secondly, notice the goal of that prayer, which is the pursuit of excellence. Verse 10, he prays all of this, “that their love would abound more and more in knowledge and all discernment so that,” they, “may approve what is excellent.” He wants us going hard after excellence.  He wants to fire our ambition for holy things.  The world and the church have two very different definition of excellence, don’t they?  Very often, in worldly terms the pursuit of excellence is putting ourselves and our own agendas at the center, and using and abusing and trampling on all and any who get in the way of our achieving our goals—that’s what it means to pursue excellence in the world’s terms.  But Christian excellence is excellence that arises from a love that abounds more and more in knowledge and all discernment.  That is to say, Christian excellence will always be a servant-hearted excellence.  The excellent things of the Christian life, of mature Christian discipleship, mirrors the servant-heartedness of the Lord Jesus Himself. 

The Pursuit of Biblical Excellence vs. The Pursuit of Worldly Excellence

And so we have different definitions—the world and the church—of what excellence really is. They say that Brits and Americans are two peoples separated by a common language.  One example: when I first visited the United States about fifteen years I was here, actually, in this church, for a wedding. And one night—we were hungry—we needed something quick.  So we got some fried chicken. We were in the South.  We were in Mississippi. Let’s get some chicken.  And so, we’re in the chicken place and I was asked if I wanted a biscuit with my chicken.  And I looked rather perplexed, I have to tell you.  But not wishing to offend, I sort of smiled and shrugged and said, “Sure.  Why not? I guess. Thank you.”  I didn’t want a biscuit, you understand.  I didn’t want to be rude, so I accepted the biscuit.  And by the time I got home I was now looking forward to my biscuit.  I opened the box, looking for my biscuit.  All I find is chicken and this sort of greasy scone thing.  I felt rather robbed.  And still, you can tell, I’m rather scarred by the whole experience.  About nine years later, I’ve come to live in the United States and in Mississippi, and I’ve discovered that although in Britain a biscuit is the same thing is a cookie, and ought ordinarily never to be eaten with chicken, in the United States a biscuit is something that goes rather well, as my expanding girth bears ample testimony.

My point is we use a common vocabulary, sort of, but we don’t always mean the same thing.  That’s how it is with the church and the world.  We may use the same vocabulary, but we don’t mean the same thing.  You ought to be ambitious.  But ambition in the heart of the Christian is ambition for likeness to Christ: ambition for the honor of his name, ambition for the salvation for the lost, ambition for the growth of the Kingdom, ambition for death to your sin, and conformity to the character of Christ—that’s what Paul is praying for.  He wants them to approve excellence, but the excellence he has in mind is not the excellence of the world, it is excellence defined by the character of the Savior Himself.

...Resulting in Holiness

So Paul prays for growing Christian love characterized by knowledge and discernment, all with a view to the pursuit of excellence.  But suppose for a moment you find that your heart is being changed by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, and you do have a growing appetite for those excellent things—both within your own life, and for those blessings that God gives that furthers our likeness to Jesus—the means of grace.  You love the Lord’s Day.  You love His people.  You love the preaching of the Word.  You come every time the doors are open.  You’re at prayer meeting. You’re at evening worship on the Sabbath Day.  You want everything you can to slay sin and cause graces to produce fruit in your life.  You’re pursuing excellence with everything you have.  Suppose that’s true of you.  What will be the result?  Paul says two things.  He says the results will be holiness, and glory and praise to God.  You see that in our text?  Holiness in your life, and glory and praise to God. Verse 10, he prays that they might, “approve what is excellent,” go hard after excellence, and so what? “And so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”

That word, “pure” is sometimes translated “sincere.”  Sincere comes from the Latin phrase sinecera. It was used in the marketplace in the ancient world.  Sometimes if you were purchasing pottery or china there would be cracks, and unscrupulous traders would use a hard, pearly wax so you couldn’t see them.  But if you held them up to the light the sunlight would shine through the cracks, and the blemish would be exposed.  And so to verify the authenticity of their wares, honest dealers would stamp them with the word sinecera—sincere, authentic, without blemish. Its integrity has been preserved.  There are no cracks in this vessel.  Paul is saying, “one day the blazing purity and righteousness of Christ will be seen.  He will split the skies and every eye will see Him.  He will shine brighter than the sun, and God will work in the lives of His children, sanctifying them, so that when that sunshine begins to blaze in its majesty on that great, final day, and the light of the Son of Man shines on you there will be no cracks.  But you will bear the word sinecera—sincere, authentic, real, holy.”  That’s what happens when you pursue the excellent things, as you love grows and is shaped and constrained by knowledge and discernment.

A Caution against an Elusive Holiness

Holiness, is the same thing, Paul says next, he says, “you will be filled with the fruit of righteousness,” is a synonym, another term for godliness.  There is a danger we need to be careful we avoid, however, that’s the danger of thinking that if you simply do the right things—you come to church, you go to the prayer meeting, you read good Christian literature, you study your Scriptures, you’re at the prayer meeting, you’re here evening and morning every Sabbath day—that those actions in themselves will automatically generate holiness.  They won’t.  Holiness is not simply the by-product of your diligent effort alone. Look at what Paul says, “Filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes,” how?  “Through Jesus Christ.”  If you’re pursuing all of these excellent things, but you’re not pursuing Jesus, then holiness will always elude you.  He is the Most Excellent thing that ought to capture the deepest ambitions of our souls.  He’s the One we are to want more than any other.  As you go hard after excellence, go hard after Him, and as you do, then the fruit of righteousness begins to fructify, and appear on the branches of your life.  So holiness is one of the great results of this pursuit of Christian excellence.

...Resulting in Glory and Praise to God.

But then the climactic result of growing Christian maturity and love will be, verse 11, “the glory and praise of God.”  Paul is saying, “God’s agenda in your life is to take the hovel that you once were—the ruin broken, and ravaged, and destitute because of sin—and so to renovate it that it becomes a palace in which He will dwell by His Spirit.  That all looking at the transformation that has taken place in your life can see what grace can do, and give the glory and praise to God.”  He is saying, “Growing Christian love, shaped by knowledge and discernment that makes you pursue excellent things, supremely pursuing Christ Himself, will so change you that all who see it say, ‘Isn’t Jesus Christ glorious?  Isn’t He worthy?  Isn’t He worthy of all praise and honor?  I want to know Him!’”  Would anyone looking at your life give glory and praise to God?  Would anyone looking at your life want to know the Savior you profess to follow?  So Paul is giving us a model prayer to pray that we might begin to be such people.  Pray it for yourself, and for your family, and for one another, and let us see if, as a result, we might not indeed begin to bear the fruit of righteousness, and generate a great song of praise to our Savior.  Amen.  Will you pray with me?

Our Father, we bless You that Jesus Christ is coming one day, and His light will shine and expose all who are not authentic and real as they claim to be Your servants.  But we bless You, too, that before that day comes, He is at work in every one of His children to make them sincere vessels, like Him: holy, pure, authentic.  How we long for that.  Help us to correct our ambitions by biblical truth, to long for the excellent things of the gospel of grace.  And as we do that, we pray for love that would abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment.  Make us holy people.  Change us so that others looking at us would give the glory to Jesus Christ.  For we ask this in His name.  Amen.

© First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.