We are so happy to have the opportunity to study from a great letter in the New Testament like Philippians. This little letter is much loved by every Christian because of its emphasis upon joy and rejoicing. Some 16 times in this short book that emphasis is made. But I think it is interesting in view of that overall theme, there are two other themes that stand out in this letter. One of them has to do with the greatness of Christ, with who Jesus is. Each chapter of the letter has some wonderful or profound statement about Christ and what he means to all of us. In chapter 1, for example, Paul stresses that his only desire is, whether he lives or dies, that Christ might be magnified in his body. Chapter 2 has that great statement in it which says that the day will come when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Chapter 3 has Paul emphasizing that he wants to wants to gain Christ, no matter what else happens in his life. He wants to use his days, instead of looking backward, always pressing on to the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Chapter 4 has him saying that he has learned how to be content because he knows that he can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. All of those statements are crucial to our faith as Christians.
But there is something that grows out of that which is also crucial for Christian joy, and that is the deep longing, the urgent desire, for the furtherance of the gospel of Christ. Because Christ means so much in our lives and because we are joyful about what we have been given in the Lord, we would like to have other people know about the Christ that we worship and serve. The idea is that grace has been given to us in the Lord, and that by the grace of God, God himself may have the place in our lives which he deserves and of which he is worthy. And the thought is that because of the grace of God our lives can become what the Lord meant for them to be and what we all want them to be. Those thoughts cause us to stop and reflect on our role as Christians in this world.
If Jesus is to us who we say he is then we will be interested as Paul was in what can be done to the furtherance of the gospel or to advance the gospel of Christ, or for the progress of the gospel of Christ. Those terms appear several times in Philippians, and we would like to call your attention to these five passages from this letter this morning.
The first one says to us that we are to have our imagination so much set on the progress of the gospel that we will become partners in the furtherance of the gospel - that we will see ourselves as partners in the progress of the gospel. Look at verse 5 of chapter 1. Paul has been thanking God in his prayers for these people. He says, "Because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now." Look at verse 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." The gospel is the good news of what God has done for us in the death, the burial and the resurrection of Jesus. It includes facts about Jesus which we are to believe. It includes commands which we are to obey. And it includes promises which we are to embrace. These people to whom Paul writes, he says, are engaged in a partnership with him in the gospel. The word for partnership is the same word elsewhere translated as fellowship. We have fellowship which involves our enjoyment of each other. We have fellowship with each other because of Christ. But we are also to have fellowship in the service of Christ or in the gospel of Christ. That means that we want to understand that we are involved as partners in a great work, that we are to engage together in a great work.
There is an old story told about a time in England years ago when a great famine struck all of Eastern Europe. People barely were able to have enough food to get by and to survive. So they hoarded all their food. If anyone every got a food supply, he just kept it for himself. A stranger wandered into town one day and he promised that he would be able to make a delicious soup for everybody in town. He heated water in a caldron, and then he pulled out a velvet bag and took a stone out of that bag and proceeded to drop it in that water to cook it. He hinted to the curious crowd that gathered that it would taste much better if it had just a little bit of cabbage in with the stone. One person had a little bit of cabbage and brought it and put it in the soup. He said it would taste a little bit better if it had a few beans it in. And, of course, somebody happened to have a few beans. And then he said it would taste so much better if it had just a little bit of celery in it and named several items like that. And the stranger continued cooking his soup and the villagers offered other ingredients as he called for them, and they had them. They, of course, contributed in that way to the soup that was being made. When it was ready, they all were able to enjoy the delicious flavor of the soup which had been made. The villagers offered to pay that peddler a great deal of money for that stone he had, which he of course refused to sell. Long after the famine ended, they reminisced about the finest soup they had ever had, not realizing that the key to it was that they had pitched in for the common good of all. The thought that I am getting at here is that when it comes to the defense and the confirmation of the gospel, all of us either have a kind word that we can contribute or a caring deed that we can offer or something of ourselves that we can give or something of the knowledge that we have gained that we can share or in some way we can pitch in, as we would say, in order to further advance or progress the gospel of Jesus.
For example, Paul says in verse 5 that these people have been involved in this partnership from the first day until now, as he puts it. I think what he is talking about is the fact that he went to Philippi in Acts 16 after he has received this Macedonian call, "Come over and help us." He goes to Neapolis first, and then he goes to Philippi, and there on the Sabbath Day, out by the river at a place of prayer, he finds some women gathered to pray. And the Lord opened their heart to the gospel which he was preaching. One lady from Thyatira, who happened to be in town that day, was named Lydia. She was a businesswoman, a seller of precious purple goods. She and her household accepted the gospel and were baptized into Christ at that river at the place of prayer. And from that moment she insisted that Paul come to her house where she fed him, and in that way a partnership with the gospel started. When he writes this letter he is imprisoned at Rome, as Acts 28 says, and these good folks are still engaged in this partnership with him. We are to be partners in the gospel.
A second thing that stands out in this great letter is that we are to be interested enough in the furtherance of the gospel that we measure all the circumstances of our lives in terms of whether they advance the gospel. Look at verse 12. Paul has now been in prison because of the gospel. If you are familiar with the great story of Acts, you know something of all that he had gone through in order to be brought in the providence of God to Rome. It is an amazing story of storms and of small kindnesses and of survival and of belief in the Lord. Here he is. A lesser man might have been resentful or bitter or feeling sorry for himself about all of the unfair things which had happened to him. How could God have let this occur? How could other people who should have been his friends let this go on?
But Paul says in verse 12, "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 brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear." Paul is saying, "Now here is the way I look at the circumstances. It has turned out that everybody, even the soldiers who are having to guard me, can see that I am here for the gospel. That makes them curious about what it is I believe so strongly that I would be willing to be here for it. That makes them wonder what it is about the gospel that could cause me to be treated this unfairly. And outside of the imperial court, everybody else among my brethren sees that if Paul believes the gospel this strongly, then they will preach it more boldly also."
He was able to look at everything in light of how it would affect the gospel. What if we could think of all the circumstances of our lives in that way? What if what really mattered is whether the gospel would go forward - whether the cause of Christ would be advanced - whether the kingdom would be furthered so that more people might be able to give a hearing to the good news of Christ in life in Him?
A third passage in Philippians says that we are to be concerned enough about the progress of the gospel that we live our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel. Look at verses 27 and 28 of chapter 1. Paul says to his readers, "Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit with one mind, striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God." Look at the picture that he has in mind. To be living worthy of the gospel would be to approach life in such a way that is consistent with the gospel which we believe and which we are teaching and which we are confessing. Our lives are to have a consistency which suggest that we actually fully believe that Jesus is God's son, that he saves us from sin and for service to the great God of heaven.
Now this requires, according to what Paul says here, two things. First, it requires that people who believe the gospel stand firm in one spirit. The common spirit of Christians is to be one of confidence in Christ. When he says "not affrighted by the opponents or adversaries," he uses a word that referred to horses being scared and panicked all at once, and that is not the approach that we want to have. The same apostle who says later "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me," wants his fellow believers to look at life that way here.
And, he says that should cause us to strive side by side together. That is a beautiful term. It is made up of a word that means "together athletes." And what it is saying is that we compete together on the same team. All of you who are friends of mine know that I have followed the St. Louis Cardinals since the days of Harry Carey. That has been a long time. It is one of the things that I remember about my dad. Did you know that the Cardinals have as good a record as anybody in baseball right now? The other day I heard someone interviewed, "How can a team which was picked third in its division be doing so well? Their pitching was expected to be so good - their hitting - they had two places in the outfield they didn't know who would play there how can it be?" And the guy said they are playing as a team. They are athletes together. They strive side by side, in other words.
My friend Denny LeMaster, who preaches at Monett, has written about an experience he had at the holiday season at the end of this past year. He says that he went to his oldest daughter's Christmas program at school. They were gathered in the gymnasium and packed in the bleachers with all the other parents anticipating the program, and there was the band and the singers and the boomwhacker players. And he said he had to ask his daughter what boomwhackers were. They are plastic tubes and each with different lengths to provide an individual sound. And he said the boomwhacker band played a Christmas song and it was quite interesting: "I watched as they each would hit their plastic tubes in unison at just the right time. The song was about half over when I spotted him. A young man standing still, not doing anything. He wasn't hitting his plastic tube at all. He was just keeping time, tapping his foot, listening to the rest of the band. And then it happened. He struck that boomwhacker that he had once. That is it - just once in the whole song. But it was at the right time. And his note was crucial to the song, and without it the song wouldn't have been correct." Then he says this: "I began to focus on him. He only had the one note that he repeated three times throughout the entire song, and yet it was his note played at the right time that carried the song." Now think about this. "The church is made up of a lot of multi-talented people. You may feel at times that your contribution to the effort is too little to make a difference. And so the natural thing to do is to fade into the background and not to be noticed and to keep a low profile." All of you know that what he is saying happens to us. "I have to admit," he says, "that none of us in the church are trying to make a name for himself or herself and we are not competing for the spotlight. And that is alright. But it is the feeling of my contribution as meaningless that is dangerous. And you realize I am not just talking about contribution materially here. But from that vantage point we can see all kinds of reasons to quit." Then he says this, "Let me encourage you to take an active part even if you only play a small role. Your part is crucial to the church's function. We can learn a lesson from this young man who was so happy just to play his role."
The fourth passage that is here occurs over in chapter 2, verse 22. Paul brings up Timothy, his younger co-worker who had been with him at Philippi and whom he is planning to send from the prison where he is to Philippi to check on them again. He explains in verse 20, "For I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare, for they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy's proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel." The idea is that we are to be interested enough in the furtherance of the gospel to truly care about the progress of the Lord's cause and not our own. That is what Paul says.
It is interesting that earlier Paul had said to everybody in chapter 2:4, "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." We have to look to the interests of other people around now and to other people who will be around in the future. We have to look to those interests. Timothy was a man who could do that. He didn't just care about himself, but instead, Paul says, "Like a son with his father, he served with me in the gospel." In other words, not just that he did the work, but the spirit in which he did the work was so crucial.
I ran across in someone's church bulletin "The Great Commission" poem. It talks about whose interests we are serving. "Christ has no hands but our hands to do his work today; has no feet but our feet to lead men in his way; he has no tongues but our tongues to tell men how he died; he has no help but our help to bring him to his side. What if our hands are busy with work other than His? What if our feet are walking where only selfish interest is? What if our tongues are speaking only of business, politics, and fun? How can we hope to help Him, Jesus, God's only Son?" That is a question Timothy had answered, I think, in his own life.
And then the fifth thing that stands out here is that we have to be concerned enough about the progress of the gospel that we maintain harmony with each other. Over in chapter 4 at verse 2, 3, Paul says, "I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life."
If our names are in the book of life together, then in the interest of the progress of the gospel, we are to be of one mind. We are to agree with each other and be in harmony with each other. Apparently, these two dear Christian ladies mentioned in this verse had had some difficulty with that. So Paul urges all of his fellow workers to help these women. What he means by that is help them agree in the Lord. Don't say things that are going to cause people to have a harder time agreeing in the Lord. Say things that pull people together and that urge people on in living for the Lord. The reason is clear from chapter 2:14 and following: "Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world." A part of our shining is the word we hold forth. Part of it is the relationships that we are to have with each other. There are five ways in which we are to show our concern for the furtherance of the gospel. It is interesting that this great book ends with Paul expressing greetings from all the saints, he says, "especially those of Caesar's household." I wonder how there came to be saints in Caesar's household. They brought a fellow there as a prisoner for the sake of the gospel, and while he was there some of them got assigned to guard him. Others of the household servants were around him. And by his conduct and through the gospel that he taught them, these people were now saints with their names written in the book of life. That is the same reason why we must be concerned with the progress of the gospel.
Maybe you are a person today who believes with all your heart the good news that Jesus offered himself up for us and then has been raised up for us all, and that life is possible through him. Maybe you would like today to be baptized into Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins. Maybe you are someone with other needs that you need the help of brothers and sisters in Christ with. If that is the case in your life, won't you please let that be known this very morning while we stand and sing together?