There is a wonderful old prayer attributed to the 16th century sailor Sir Frances Drake. He prays that when God leads us to undertake any great piece of work, he will also remind us “that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same, until it be thoroughly finished, that yields the true glory.” Drake himself was certainly a “finisher” as well as a “beginner.” He was a legend in his own lifetime for his military accomplishments, & had sailed completely around the world. Once you have set off on a journey like that, there is no point in stopping half way.
The confidence Paul has throughout this letter is that God himself is a “finisher” as well as a “beginner.” The particular work which he has begun, & will finish, is the work of grace, through the gospel, in the hearts & lives of the Philippian Christians. Verse 6 sums it up, as a kind of motto or theme for the letter: the [God] who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
Philippi, in northern Greece, was the first place in Europe that heard the news that there was a new king, the crucified & risen Jesus of Nazareth. The story of Paul’s first visit there is told in Acts 16. This letter makes it clear that as Paul looked at all the churches he had founded, the people of Philippi were the ones who gave him the most joy. It is clear, he loved all of the churches of his founding; but this letter breathes a confident trust & enjoyment that we don’t always read elsewhere. Now, in prison – almost certainly in Ephesus, since he speaks of coming to see them again, & in his other imprisonments he had no intention of returning to Greece – the Philippian church has sent him a gift of money. One of the reason’s he is writing is to say a heartfelt “Thank you.”
When people were put in prison in Paul’s world, they were not normally given food by their captors; they had to rely on friends helping them. Since Paul probably couldn’t carry on his tent-making business in prison, he was completely dependent on support like this. The fact that people from a different country would raise money, & send one of their number on the dangerous journey to carry it to an imprisoned friend, speaks us volumes of the esteem & love in which they held Paul. People sometimes speak today as though Paul was an awkward, difficult, unpopular sort of person, but someone like that doesn’t normally find the kind of support reaching them – unsolicited – from friends far away.
In fact, this letter is all about “partnership” – one of the big, important words in Paul’s vocabulary. It is sometimes translated “fellowship,” but it clearly has a practical, even financial, implication which the word “fellowship” just doesn’t carry. In fact, though it develops particular Christian meanings, including the delight of sharing in worship, prayer, & mutual support & friendship which is what “fellowship” normally means today, in Paul’s world it was the normal word for a business partnership, in which all those involved would share in doing the work & in sharing the financial responsibilities. The Philippians, then, are sharing in the gospel & sharing in God’s grace. They are in the gospel business, the grace business, along with Paul, & their gift proves it.
This gives Paul added confidence when he prays for them, as he does constantly. He knows that when the gospel message of Jesus does its life-changing work in people’s hearts this isn’t just a flash-in-the-pan “religious experience” that might then fade away with the passing of time. If there is genuine faith in the risen Christ, genuine loyalty to him as Lord, this can only be because the living God has worked, through the gospel, within people’s hearts; & what God begins, he always finishes. Of course, this doesn’t mean there aren’t problems along the way; several of Paul’s other letters, particularly 1 Corinthians, grapple with problems. But Paul remains confident in the grace of God. Having begun the around-the-world journey of the work of salvation, God is going to complete it.
So in this confidence, Paul prays for the Philippian church; & as is so often the case, the opening of the letter looks ahead to what will come later by means of telling the recipients the content of his prayer for them. It has 3 elements.
First, (v. 9) he prays that their love will overflow more & more with knowledge & full insight. This is not, perhaps, how we often think of love. We think of it as having to do with emotion & affection, not with knowledge & wisdom. For Paul they are all bound up together: what we call the “heart” & what we call the “head” were not separated, as we have sometimes allowed them to be. If Christian love is to be the genuine article – true love for God & true love for one another – it is bound to work its way out in a knowledge & wisdom which is more than mere book-learning. This kind of knowledge is a deep insight into the way God’s world truly is, a knowledge open to everyone who is prepared to give themselves wholeheartedly in love to God through Jesus.
Second, he prays that this wise love will result in moral discernment – to help you determine what is best (v. 10). They lived, as we do, in a world where several moral issues were blurred & distorted, & it was often hard to see what was the right thing to do. Paul longs to see them grow in telling the difference between good & evil when so often they appear, at first glance, as simply shades of grey. That way, he says, they will approach the coming Day of the Lord, Jesus’ great day, pure & blameless, because God will be transforming their whole lives into a holiness that goes beyond even the ritual purity demanded of priests in the Temple (the words Paul uses for pure & blameless seem to carry that implication). This letter has quite a lot to say about the coming day; & the main thing to say is that Christians can look forward to that day with confidence & joy.
Finally, he prays that they may produce the harvest of righteousness – in other words, the fruit of right living (v. 11). The word for righteousness is another of Paul’s big words. It is often translated “right living,” though that is not always helpful. It sometimes means God’s own faithfulness, & sometimes the status of “membership in God’s family,” with all its privileges such as the forgiveness of sins, which is God’s gift to those who believe the gospel. Here it emphasizes the behavior which results from both God’s faithfulness & the status of being forgiven family members. The important thing to remember is that at every stage of the process – when people first hear the gospel, when they believe it, when they begin to live by it, & when they make progress in faith & love – nothing is done to the glory of the people concerned, as though they were able to pride fully advance their own cause. Everything is done, as Paul insists here, through Jesus Christ & for the glory & praise of God.
As usual, Paul’s prayer for the church is a prayer that you & I might wish to use for our own congregation. It is also a prayer that every Christian might use for himself or herself. And remember, as you use it: the reason you are praying it at all is that God has begun a good work in you all. And what God begins, He completes.