As citizens in the United States prepare to celebrate the giving of thanks, I note a biblical passage in which the Apostle Paul gave thanks for a group of disciples of Jesus, “the saints in Christ Jesus who [were] in Philippi.” Four key words stood out to me as focused on Paul’s summary of his prayers for the church in Philippi: Partnership (sharing), love, grace, and knowledge.
Paul gave thanks in his prayer for these disciples because they shared in his ministry. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians while in prison. Despite the incarceration of the one who first taught Christ’s message in their city, the disciples had not discarded their faith in Christ or his messenger. They continued to function as his partners in the spreading of the gospel, as they had since they first heard it themselves.
Love bound them to Paul. He prays that their love may increase, attended by knowledge and insight as to how to act that flows from that love. He writes, “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11). Throughout his letter to them, Paul will emphasize the importance of unity that is based on faith in Jesus who “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross “(Philippians 2:6-8). The reason for appeals to unity may become apparent in chapter four, where disagreement between two women in the church warrants the mediating attention of leaders there and the imprisoned apostle. Paul prays that love may increase among the Philippian Christians.
Their partnership with Paul (sharing, fellowship) exists because they and he have received the grace of God. That grace, remarkably, is displayed in both his imprisonment and their common “defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Philippians 2:7). They share not only the pleasurable fruits of his ministry, but also the potential painful consequences of faithfulness in a society that does not share the same values.
Increased love, Paul prays, will lead to increased knowledge and increased comprehension of how to act as a follower of Jesus. This knowledge will produce a “harvest of righteousness” that will glorify God through Jesus Christ. Dissension among believers negates the message that has been preached about a Messiah who broke down walls. Knowledge restores unity because it focuses attention on Jesus, who showed how to live. Paul will write in chapter 2: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
Paul mentored these Christians from a distant prison. He reminded them of his love for them and that they, as he, had received the grace of God. He advised them to imitate the humility of Christ and to increase in love. He emphasized the partnership they had with him, a partnership they shared through their mutual confirmation and defense of the gospel. That confirmation was threatened by disunity among believers. Paul calls them and us to living lives that follow the example of Jesus and, as a result, glorify God.
God of grace and glory, Forgive our pride; remind us as we read your Word of how Christ gave up all to show us how to serve you. May we serve with faithful love; may our actions cause others to glorify you. Help us to remember that we serve as partners with faithful disciples who have gone before and with other Christians today. We do not walk alone. Thank you for your love and grace. In Jesus’ name, Amen.