Have you ever written or received a letter that was full of joy? In these days of email, social media and text messages we don’t often send and receive letters like we used to. But some things remain too important, too significant, to just be shared electronically. For example, you may have written or received a letter announcing an engagement, celebrating a child’s birth or sharing news about a new home or a new job. News of great joy, worth getting out a pen and ink for.
Over the next month at St. Michael’s we are going to be looking at another letter that is full of joy. A letter that was written with joy and would have been read with joy. The letter is the apostle Paul’s great letter to the Philippians. A letter written around 60AD and addressed “to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with their overseers and deacons” (v.1). A letter written, in other words, to the whole Church in the city of Philippi.
Philippi was a prosperous Roman colony, a cosmopolitan trading centre located in the province of Macedonia. Paul was writing to the Christians of that city to encourage and guide them in their faith. He wanted to help them remain faithful disciples of Jesus despite the trials and temptations of the world around them. And so he wrote an inspired letter that has helped Christians ever since, and can still help us in our walk with God today.
The book of Acts tells us that Paul had actually personally founded the church in Philippi some ten years earlier, during his second great missionary adventure. As their ‘founding father’, its no surprise that Paul expresses great love and concern for the Philippians in the opening paragraph of his letter. In verse 3 he says he constantly thanks God for them, in verse 7 he says he has them “in [his] heart”, and in verse 8 he says he “longs” for them “with the affection of Christ Jesus”. Its no surprise Paul has such strong feelings for a Church he knew so well.
But what is surprising is the joy that Paul shares in his letter. It’s surprising because Paul was in captivity when he wrote this letter. In verse 13 he tells us that he is currently “in chains” and under Roman guard. It seems that Paul was under house arrest when he wrote Philippians, awaiting trial in Rome for his faith in Christ. A Christian faith which Jews considered blasphemous and offensive, and which Romans viewed with suspicion and incomprehension. Why was Paul proclaiming Jesus as the rightful ruler of the world, and not Caesar? And why were Paul and his fellow Christians unwilling to worship to the pagan gods of the Roman Empire?
So why was Paul so content in such dire circumstances? What was his secret? As we look at our passage today I hope we can learn three secrets to Christian joy in the midst of adversity. Three reasons we can celebrate even when everything else in our life seems to be going downhill.
- Christians can be joyful…because our salvation is secure! (v.3-11)
Firstly, Paul is joyful because he knows God finishes what he’s started. He knows that every true Christian’s salvation is secure. Look with me at verses 4 and 5. Paul says there that “I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now, 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”.
Despite being in chains, Paul rejoices because he knows that his salvation – and the salvation of the Philippian Christians – is secure. He is totally confident that the God who has brought them to faith in Christ will finish the job. He will keep on making them all more and more like Christ. And on the day Christ returns, God will give them all new life in a glorious new creation. Paul knows that what God starts, he finishes. If we are truly Christians here this morning, God will make sure we will meet him one day in glory. However far off it may seem, we will one day be made pure and perfect, like Christ himself.
But how can we be certain we are Christians? How can anyone be sure that God has begun his good work in us? Paul’s words in verse 5 give us the answer. Paul knew that the Philippians professed faith in Christ with their lives as well as their lips. Paul knew that the Philippians’ faith in Jesus was genuine because of the lives they lived. Their love for one another and their love for Paul proved to him that they really had made Jesus the Lord of their lives. Verse 7 tells us that the Philippians had previously supported Paul in his missionary endeavours, and they had supported him when he was in chains. The Philippians “partnership” in ministry was adequate evidence to Paul that the Holy Spirit was at work in their lives, making them all more like Jesus.
The same is true today. If someone says they believe that Jesus died and rose again for them but shows no outward sign of being a disciple, then we may doubt whether their faith is sincere. Let me be clear – we don’t do good deeds to earn our salvation. It is all a free gift from God. But if we have received God’s gift it will begin to made a difference to our lives. Over time true faith in Christ will change our actions and our attitudes. The Holy Spirit will get to work on our hearts to change the way we spend our money, our time and our talents. It’s a change the apostle Paul had seen in the Philippians, and it’s a change we should look for in ourselves and in others.
Once God begins to change us to become like Christ, he won’t stop. What God starts, he finishes. A Christian’s salvation is secure, and that’s something to celebrate whatever our short-term circumstances may be.
- Christians can be joyful… because the Gospel is advancing! (v.12-18)
In verse 12 of our passage, Paul shares with us another reason for rejoicing. It seems that Paul’s imprisonment had given him an opportunity to share his Christian faith. So much so, that in verse 13 he writes “it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ”. More than that, it has encouraged other Christians in Rome to share their faith “more courageously and fearlessly”. So the Gospel message has ‘advanced’ through Paul’s imprisonment. Because of his chains, more ears have heard about the Lord Jesus and the good news he offers. Paul regards this as a cause for celebration, despite his personal hardship. As he writes in verse 18 “The important thing is that in every way…Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice”.
The same is true today. We Christians can be joyful whenever the Gospel is advancing. We can be encouraged and uplifted by the knowledge that all around this land, and all around the world, Christ is being preached and the Gospel is being heard.
Last week the world marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy and began their advance across occupied Europe. An advance that brought liberty and joy to millions. An advance worth remembering and celebrating.
As Christians we should take even more pleasure in the fact that the Gospel is advancing. We should rejoice that every day countless people are being liberated from sin and receiving God’s forgiveness and friendship forever. And let’s do everything we can to use our personal circumstances to advance the Gospel. Even if we are housebound or hospitalised, we can pray that people we know will hear the Gospel and come to Christ. Even when we are going through difficulties at work, at home or with our health, we can use it as an opportunity to tell people that our hope and trust is in Christ.
- Christians can be joyful… because death has been defeated! (v.19-26)
That brings us to our third and final lesson from our passage this morning. Paul wants every Christian to know that we can be joyful because death has been defeated.
As Paul wrote this letter he faced an uncertain future. He faced trial before Caesar and could be either condemned to death or acquitted. Yet Paul is untroubled by either option. In verse 22 he says that if he lives he will be able to continue his “fruitful labour” for the Lord. If he lives Paul will be able to continue his ministry with the Philippians and others.
But, astonishingly his strongest desire is to die! Look with me at verse 23, where Paul writes “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” Paul doesn’t have a death wish, a mental illness or a morbid fascination with his mortality. Rather, he has a firm faith that Jesus has defeated death and removed its sting. Like James Bond films in which 007 finds a bomb and deactivates it just in time, Jesus has deactivated death, rescuing every Christian from the fear of the grave.
As Christians we follow a risen Lord, a resurrected Saviour. And so for us, like for Paul, death is a gateway to greater life, not a one-way journey to the morgue. As Paul writes in verse 21, to die is to “gain” all, not to lose all. So whatever our circumstances, however bleak or uncertain our earthly future may seem, we can always rejoice that the best is yet to come.
Conclusion: Reasons to be cheerful, 1,2,3!
In July 1979, Ian Drury and the Blockheads released a pop song called “Reasons to be cheerful” – does anyone remember it?! Apparently it reached number 3 in the charts. In our passage from Philippians this morning, the apostle Paul has given us his own three reasons to cheerful. Three reasons why every Christian can remain joyful whatever our personal circumstances may be.
Writing from his prison cell, Paul reminds us we can be rejoice i) because our salvation is secure, ii) because the Gospel is advancing, and iii) because death has been defeated!