Thankful - No Matter What!

Reading: Philippians 1

One of the characteristics of human beings is that we forever make excuses for ourselves. I suppose Adam and Eve set the precedent when questioned by the Lord in the garden - "Lord, it was this woman you put here with me...", "Lord, it was the snake who tricked me..."

Sometimes, excuses really are reasons - and the listeners have to assess if this is the case. Somewhere between now and March 13 all of us have to make that assessment about the contenders for our national government. Where does responsibility lie for our economic problems and our serious unemployment? Is it just international forces beyond our control? We heard the comment on TV the other day that we should be remembering that 90% have jobs. I was not sure how that was meant to comfort us!

It is all reminiscent of the parent who commented, "I could be a good parent, if it weren't for the kids!" Perhaps you have felt that way yourself some time!

And we can look at our Christian life with a lot of "if only"s! It seems just so hard for us to be a good Christian because... we weren't brought up in the right family, didn't attend a lively church, had a set of tough circumstances to face, had a job with a lot of extra responsibilities, had a difficult marriage, had to face unemployment or military service... It has all added up to a life that has made it very difficult for us to believe, to pray, to read the Bible, to put it all into practice...

Paul's Situation

When Paul wrote to the Philippian Christians, he was in prison - in all probability in Rome. We recall that on his third missionary journey he returned to Jerusalem where he was attacked in the Temple by a Jewish mob, rescued by the Romans, then incarcerated at Caesarea for two years while the Roman authorities hoped for a bribe. He finally set off for Rome as a prisoner to have his case heard before the Emperor - a right he had as a Roman citizen. On the way they were shipwrecked on the island of Malta. Now he was living under house arrest in Rome - thankfully, people could come and see him.

Imagine the feelings of frustration. A sense of urgency, an important commission to fulfil, all this wasted time and all these restrictions. Add to all that the situation he describes in this chapter - there were some jealous and quarrelsome people who were preaching Christ from a spirit of selfish ambition, deliberately setting out to cause Paul distress while he was in prison. Would we do any better living the Christian life if we were to have Paul's circumstances?

So, in a very real sense, we learn from this letter of Paul's some important principles about the Christian life no matter what our circumstances may be.

Paul's Prayer

As Paul thinks of his Philippian friends, he has vivid memories of his association with them. That was the first place they visited after Paul's vision of the man from Macedonia, the first preaching of the gospel on European soil. The first converts were a group of women who met regularly for prayer. Later, as Paul and Silas were going to that place of prayer, they were followed by a slave-girl possessed of an evil spirit and screaming out, "These men are servants of the Most High God! They announce to you how you can be saved!" This went on for many days, until finally Paul ordered the spirit to come out of her. The healing had economic consequences for her owners and they had Paul and Silas arrested as Jewish troublemakers, severely whipped and locked in the inner cell. In the middle of the night they prayed and sang hymns to God! There was a great earthquake - the jailer was converted - the magistrates were embarrassed with the discovery that they were Roman citizens - they were asked to leave the city.

I thank God for you every time I think of you; and every time I pray for you all, I pray with joy because of the way you have helped me in the work of the gospel from the very first day until now. Their help in the work of the gospel" is literally their fellowship in the gospel. Fellowship is sharing together in something. They had shared together, first by faith in their common Lord, and then by their involvement in reaching out to others with this same gospel. A notable and recent example of this had been a gift sent to him in the hands of Epaphroditus , a gift to which Paul refers later in the letter. You have shared with me in this privilege that God has given me, both now that I am in prison and also while I was free to defend the gospel and establish it firmly.

But Paul is thankful, not just because of their identification with him in the gospel. He is thankful because he is confident that God will bring his work of grace in them to completion. The Christian life is not just making an initial response of faith to Jesus Christ - it is a life in which we are to mature and grow and change into the people God means us to be. It is the life of a lifetime!

So Paul expresses his thankful confidence in prayer for them - that your love will keep on growing more and more, together with true knowledge and judgment, so that you will be able to choose what is best. Then you will be free from all impurity and blame on the Day of Christ. Your lives will be filled with the truly good qualities which only Jesus Christ can produce, for the glory and praise of God.

This is very striking, when we think about it. More and more love together with knowledge and insight! An important combination of qualities! We reflect on Paul's great hymn of love in 1 Corinthians 13 - I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets... but if I have no love, I am nothing! Sometimes the church has been divided into two groups - the ones who despise knowledge and seek only an infilling of love and the ones for whom knowledge and insight are everything to the exclusion of love. But Paul's prayer is an all-encompassing one. In the NIV, this prayer reads, that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.

This love/knowledge/insight will enable them to choose what is best. Then their lives will be free from all impurity and blame and so filled with the truly good qualities which only Jesus Christ can produce. And the final result - the glory and praise of God.

To Live is Christ

Now that seems all fine in principle. But the big question is how it can be worked out in Paul's circumstances - and in mine! Paul, of course, had had his earlier experience in jail in Philippi. On that occasion, he had prayed and sang hymns - and been released. But this present business had gone on and on - first in Judaea and now in Rome.

But Paul is still thankful - I want you to know, my brothers, that the things that have happened to me have really helped the progress of the gospel. Memories of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers - it was really God who sent me ahead of you to save people's lives. Does that mean there had been a revival in the jail? He doesn't say so. But at the very least the whole palace guard and all the others here know that I am in prison because I am a servant of Christ.

And Paul's imprisonment has given most of the other Christians the confidence to preach the message boldly. Now that is really something! We would tend to assume that Paul's imprisonment would have sent the others into hiding! So Paul sees this reaction as great cause for thanks. And he is thankful that Christ is being preached- even though some of the preachers have the wrong motives!

Paul is thankful for their prayers for him - and for the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ - believing that, whether he lives or dies, Christ will be glorified.

In our own thinking and praying, we tend to limit what God can do with our circumstances. We tend to think that the only true answer to our praying is when our circumstances change for the better.

So what is Paul's secret? For what is life? To me, it is Christ. Death, then, will bring more. For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain! Christ is the source of his life, the centre of his life, the goal of his life. To die will mean to be with Christ forever, without the restrictions that this present life puts on us - and that is far better. But Paul believes that he will for the moment be spared to continue with them.

The secret of Paul's life - and of his attitude in very adverse circumstances - is Christ. The Christ who died on the cross for him, the Christ who is his Saviour, the Christ who shares his life with him, the Christ who is his Lord...

How to Live

The Philippian Christians themselves had suffered hardship for their faith. Notice v.29 - For you have been given the privilege of serving Christ, not only by believing in him, but also by suffering for him.

Whatever happens to Paul, it is important that their way of life is as the gospel of Christ requires - standing firm with one common purpose, with only one desire fighting together for the faith of the gospel.

So what about those reasons for "not being a good Christian"? How do they look in the light of all that Paul went through?

What is life? For me, it is Christ!

Think about your life in the light of what Christ has gone through on your behalf. He has loved you, given his all for you. Receive him as your Saviour and come alive. That is why he is the key to life! Now consciously allow him to be in the centre of your circumstances. Whatever they may be, never forget that he has promised to be with you always. He is your Lord, and he loves you and cares for you - no matter what may happen to you! In all circumstances, be thankful to him - you will be amazed at just how much there is to thank him for and at the joy that will well up in your being - no matter what!


(c) Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 14 February 1993
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, (c) American Bible Society, 1992.

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