Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way 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. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
(Philippians 1:1-11 ESV)
Some of you may remember the Back to the Future trilogy done in the mid-1980s that starred Michael J. Fox. One of the conceits of the movie was that November 5, 1955 was somehow a date on which all of history hung. While we all know things like that (and the end date of the Mayan Calendar, for example) have no basis in fact, the Lord has consistently led me back to Paul’s Letter to the Philippians ever since I memorized it back in the mid-1970s. This one letter contains more of the flat-out joy of ministering the gospel than any other piece of Scripture I know. Anyone who seriously wants to understand both the challenges and the blessings of ministry will want to read and re-read Philippians.
One way to look at this beautifully compact piece of writing is as narrative, because it contains the story of the partnership between Paul and a church, between a church and her servant leaders, between an Elder and his right-hand man, and most important, between God and his Son. The whole begins and ends with service – the doing of the Gospel, and is wrapped up and adorned with joy – the sheer pleasure of knowing Christ and being known by him.
The first eleven verses are a sort of prolog to the letter, though not nearly as well defined as, say, the prolog to the Gospel of John. Some have said this is Paul praying for the church. I think this is Paul overflowing with embarrassing gratitude. And that brings us to the first point: before you will ever experience what this letter is talking about, you have to first decide you’re going to be a servant. The letter begins, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus…” That is how they saw themselves, and that was the foundation of everything they did.
The letter is addressed “to the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.” I can’t defend it from the text at hand, but as we go on you will soon enough see that one of the qualities necessary for being a saint (someone set apart for Jesus) is that they are a servant. I’m not talking about salvation here. We may not think it is fair, but there are a lot of people we will meet in heaven who were never servants in this life, and that, to their loss. They will have missed out on the blessing of choosing to live as Christ did. Even though they apprehended Christ’s offer of eternal life, they will have missed out on much of the real life we can enjoy here. Mostly, what they will have missed out on is grace and peace. Even though it was all around them; even though God was showering it out on their lives, God’s offer of grace and peace goes un-experienced because it is found in the life of service.
The opening paragraph, as I said, is one long gush of thanksgiving. Paul is thankful as he remembers these people, thankful for the joyful prayer remembering them leads him to, thankful they are and always have been partners with him in the Gospel. He’s thankful that God always finishes what he begins, thankful for the way he feels about them, thankful that they have drunk deeply of grace. He is thankful, not so much for his imprisonment, but that the privilege of it is the defense of the gospel. Paul is thankful that his heart tugs at him with Jesus’ love when he thinks of them. He’s thankful he can pray that their love will overflow in all ways, both in knowing and in doing. And he’s thankful that all of this is going to be used by God to lead them to know and to approve what is excellent.
Would you like someone somewhere to say that of you? Then commit yourself to a life of service to Christ. I can’t guarantee you that anyone will write all that on your tombstone some day, but I can tell you what is in this one paragraph is the outline of a life well-lived. Moreoever, it is the outline of a life well-loved.