Thursday, January 31, 2008

Partnership in the gospel and Joy

Topic: Fridays in Philippians

1. Their partnership in the gospel gives Paul great joy in them.

What joy there is in “contending together” for the gospel! I’ve only tasted of this joy, but I long to eat of it to the full. I know that to really live is to live for Christ, which means living for his gospel. Slowly but surely the Spirit of God is graciously shaping this cold heart of mine to see my computer as a gospel computer, my home as a gospel home, my marriage as a gospel marriage, my job as a gospel job, my Bible as a gospel Bible. In the hands of the Holy Spirit these things become nothing more (and nothing less) than gospel tools, and I a gospel human.

Partnership goes together with the gospel—with the gospel of Jesus Christ at least. In other words, the good news of Christ is inextricably bound up with the matter of relationships. The apostle Paul does not break a sweat in trying to force these two things—gospel and partnership—to get along in the same sentence together. While the gospel is a communication and a partnership is more a communion, it is with a natural ease that Paul is able to associate the two together. Indeed, for Paul the great difficulty would not be getting the gospel and the concept of relationships to hold hands, but to build fences.

Paul always tailors his introductions to themes he will bring up later in the letter. Thus we should not be surprised that we are able to trace a thread of partnership through Philippians. As per the title of this post, whenever we catch a glimpse of this partnership theme, we'll keep a sharp eye open for sightings of joy along with it.

Joy in partnering by sharing

This theme is most obviously picked up near the end of the letter.

14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. 15 And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning <1> of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. (4:14-15, ESV)

The church in Philippi partnered with Paul in the gospel by supplying him a gift while he was in imprisonment. Together these Christians pooled their resources together to provide Paul with food and other necessities when he could not provide for himself. And what joy it brought to Paul to experience them sharing with him in this way!

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. (4.10)

So Paul, the recipient of the gift, received joy. According to our Lord's logic that "it is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20.35), we can therefore expect the givers of the gift to have received no less joy. Our expectations are confirmed in Paul's letter to the Corinthians:

8 We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia [which would include the Philippians], 2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, 4 begging <2> us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— 5 and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. (2 Corinthians 8:1-5)

This is the joy of partnering in the gospel by sharing, be it sharing our money, our time, our gifts, our skills, or our strength. And this is why Paul can say in 1:4-5, "I make all my prayers for you with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel."

Joy in partnering by suffering

There is another dimension to being partners in the gospel by sharing; there is partnering by suffering. This is what Paul expresses in 3.10 where he expresses his highest goal: "that I may know him [Christ]" which involves "[partnering] in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death." This is ultimate partnership in the gospel, for it is partnering with the very Author and Subject of the gospel in the very act by which this Author gave birth to the gospel in the first place—suffering.

No wonder Paul sees suffering for the gospel as a gift: "For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake" (Philippians 1:29, KJV). Grace to Paul is not only that God has given him the privilege of believing in Christ, but also suffering for Christ. Why? Because for Paul "to live is Christ and to die is gain" (1.21). Anything that brings him closer to Christ is something to see as grace.

But this verse (1.29) makes something else clear: Paul does not have the monopoly on this "grace": "For unto you it is given". God has given this gift of being able to suffer for Christ's sake to the Philippians too! They are "engaged in the same conflict that [they] saw [Paul] had and now hear that [he] still [has]" (1.30). So. Paul is intimately partnering with Christ in suffering, and the Philippians are intimately partnering with Christ by this intimate activity—suffering. Which means this: Paul and the Philippians are intimately partnering with each other! By suffering! And this gives all of them great joy:

17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. (2.17-18)

This is the joy of partnering in the gospel by suffering. And going back to 1.3-8, our passage under consideration, we can see why their partnership in the gospel brings Paul so much joy:

7 It is right for me to feel this way [joyful] 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. 8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. (1.7-8)


I think I'm now beginning to realize why what we in North America call Christian fellowship seems so distant at times from what the NT associates with fellowship. It's because it is. For the early church fellowship meant partnership. And that partnership was first and foremost between the individual Christian and God, both Father <3>, Son <4>, and Spirit <5>. Then, by necessity, this partnership extended itself to existing between individual Christian and individual Christian, and individual church and individual church. Theirs was a partnership in the thing that both they and God were most passionate about: the gospel, Christ's death and resurrection. By being most passionate about the gospel, they were freed from worshipping their possessions—what everyone else was passionate about. And thus they partnered in the gospel by sharing their possessions instead. Perhaps here lies the problem with our sometimes cold, cool and shallow fellowship: we have lost our passion for what matters most to God, and have regained the passion that matters most to the rest of the world. Maybe that's why no one asks us about our reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3.15). Maybe that's why we're always asking each other what fellowship is.

We are in fellowship with God, in his gospel, and thus we are in fellowship with every other believer who is in fellowship with God. And in this holy fellowship there is great joy. We let John and the Lord Jesus have the final word on the matter:

3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that [y]our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:3-4)

20 "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21)

<1> It's interesting to note two connections between this verse and 1.5. First there's the partnership connection, and second there's the idea of "the beginning" (4.15) or "first day" (1.5).
<2> This deserves a post all of its own. They were begging to give!
<3> See 1 John 1.3-4 quoted below.
<4> See 1 John 1.3-4 quoted below, and Philippians 3.10 quoted above.
<5> Paul can appeal to the Philippians' experienced "participation (same Greek word) in the Spirit" (2.1).


Joe Blackmon said...

I agree that a great source of Christian joy is working together for the gospel. I taught Vacation Bible School this past year and it was a ton of work. I would work a full time job and go in the evening to VBS with all the other adults. As tired as we all were, we were able to encourage one another as we served the Lord by teaching those children about His word.

I am really digging Fridays in Philippians. Keep at it.

MJK said...

It's great to hear that your personal experience corroborates the testimony of Paul. I was involved with a kid's outreach in the fall too, as well as a trip to Ukraine, both of which gave me a taste of the joy to be had in promoting the gospel with others.

Again, thanks for your encouragement Joe!