Partners in the Gospel
- Psalm 125
- Philippians 1:3-7; 4:10-20
Dear friends in the Lord,
Many stories are told of soldiers on the frontline who were encouraged by a letter, a card, or even a cake tin with just the crumbs of biscuits made in love left in it. It is a good thing for loved ones to let those on the frontline know they love them and are thinking of them. It lifts the spirits of the soldier far away from home to know he is not forgotten. A little word written on a card can make one go further.
In our series Doing Good we’ve now come to the teaching of the Scriptures about sacrificial giving for the sake of the Gospel. What the the Lord wants us to know is that not all of us can be on the frontline of Gospel work, but all of us must be partners in the work of the Gospel as we support those who are on the frontline.
Paul on the frontline
Our Lord called Paul to be a missionary to the Gentiles – they were the people who had not been Jews before they became Christians. On his second missionary journey Paul reached as far as the north-western border of modern-day Turkey, in Troas, he received a vision of a man of Macedonia begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” (Acts 16:9) Paul concluded that God was calling him to preach the Gospel in Greece – he thus became the first missionary of the Gospel of Christ in Europe.
When they reached Philippi they met Lydia, who at that stage probably heard about the Jewish faith. She was a dealer in purple cloth of Thyatira which renowned for its quality. She became the first Christian in Europe after the Lord had opened her heart to respond to the message and she and members of her household were baptised. It is possible that Lydia’s house then became a house church where other who heard the Gospel came to worship.
Paul and Silas got imprisoned in the jail of Philippi after Pail commanded an evil spirit which lived in a girl to go out of her (Acts 16:18). Her owners realised that they lost their income out of this fortune-telling girl and demanded that Paul and Silas be thrown in prison. We know of their prayers and hymn-singing in jail. God miraculously delivered them from jail through an earthquake. The jailer was at the point to take his life, but through the Gospel became a Christian and he and his whole house were baptised. It was with with great humiliation that the magistrates had, not only release Paul and Silas, but also escort them publicly our of prison. All of this led to a thriving congregation on European soil. Paul then continued with his missionary journey and went as far south as Athens and Corinth.
On his third missionary journey he once again called upon the christians in Philippi and encouraged them in their faith. The dark clouds for Paul began to gather on the horizon as he heard that the Jews plotted against him. He planned to go to Jerusalem and requested of all the congregations in Asia to raise some money for the impoverished Christians in Judea and Jerusalem.
This appeal was significant, because at that stage, there was still a fair separation between Jewish and Gentile Christians. It was probably easier for the Gentile Christians to think they should help the Jewish Christians, than it was for Jewish Christians to receive money from people with a non-Jewish background, because traditionally they never mixed.
At any rate, the Christians in Greece, which included the Philippians responded overwhelmingly. Paul writes about their generosity:
And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. (2 Corinthians 8:1–6, NIV)
They did not have much, they were not an exceptionally rich church, but they gave generously. And that brings us to their generosity towards Paul, the missionary on the frontline.
Partners in the Gospel
Paul was arrested in Jerusalem and was taken to Rome to defend himself. He was put in prison, and later in house arrest. But being imprisoned was no disaster for Paul. He says:
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. (Philippians 1:12–13, NIV)
What’s more, other preachers of the word were encouraged to continue proclaiming the Word (Philippians 1:14)
But all along, and this is the point, Paul’s ministry was their ministry. They could not be there on the frontline with Paul, but in word and deed they shared in his Gospel. How?
They provided for him
Let’s go to Philippians 4:10. Although they always had concern for the Gospel and Paul’s well-being, something hindered them so send things for his need. Then, something happened, and the Lord opened the door, and at that point they were ready to help.
In the meantime, Paul living from the hand of God, learned what it means to be content whatever the circumstances. He says, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether fell fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Phil 4:12) And then he says, and this verse is mostly quoted out of context by so may Christians as if it alway applies to all in all circumstances, as if God makes us supermen and women:
I can do all this through Him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13, NIV)
Clearly, this verse does not tell us we are like superman who can tackle all problems and prevail. This verse says that God gives ability to his people to look beyond the problem and see God’s providence through it.
Anyhow, the Philippians generously gave, even from their own desperate poverty. When they couldn’t do so, they planned to put things in place to help as soon as possible. Paul says they shared in his troubles. The Greek text says the “made connection” with his “suffering”. And they were the only church in Asia to do so. They sent aid over and over again when he suffered. Although he did not rely on them to do so, they gave him gifts – the sort of thing you give when you don’t expect something in return.
Why would they do that? Because Paul’s work was their work. Although they were not physically there with him, they felt obliged to help because he was doing what they are supposed to do. He worked with their hands, he walked with their feet, he spoke as if they were speaking.
This is the heart of Christian giving. We don’t support missionaries to tick the box of giving. We support them because they are out there using their skills and gifts for what we should be doing. The gifts of the Philippians to Paul were acts of worship to God who saved them, so He could save others. Listen to how Paul saw it:
I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. (Philippians 4:18, NIV)
Think of the jailer who wanted to kill himself, who then received mercy and received eternal life. He wanted everyone to know about it, and Paul became his mouthpiece. More than that, his support for Paul was an expression of his thanksgiving to God for his own salvation.
That’s what should drive us to support the work of the Gospel. It’s when we have peace in our hearts because of what Christ has done in our lives, that missionary work is a pleasure.
They sent Epaphroditus
It’s a difficult name. So I will just call him Mr E. We do no know much about this man, he was most probably an elder of the church in Philippi. He was probably an elder, a man with courage and compassion. With a bag over his shoulder containing the gifts of his congregation he set out to meet with Paul and personally encourage him on behalf of the church. His mission according to Philippians 2:25 was “to take care of Paul’s needs”.
He had to travel quite a distance, and would have taken him quite some time to get to Rome. We don’t know how he got there, maybe by ship where necessary, and otherwise on foot. To arrive in Rome and ask for Paul the Christian, was to expose himself as a friend of the man whom the Jews wanted to get rid of. The journey took its toll on Mr E. Not long after he arrived in Rome he fell ill and almost died. So ill he was that Paul writes:
Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. (Philippians 2:26–27, NIV)
How do we look at it? “He almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me.” (2:30) What a story of care! What an example of being partners in the Gospel! What an example of Christian love in action!
How many Mr E’s do we have today? To walk in the boots of those who are on the frontline, and to represent those who desired to do so, but they were not in the position to do so. I stand ashamed thinking of Mr E. Sometimes we put our hands in our pockets, get our wallets and cheque books out to give to the work of the Gospel. This is a good thing to do; but is our heart there where our donations go? Is our good deeds of care and support good enough to be counted as an aroma and acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. In the end we do not give to those on the frontline; we give to honour God.
I just want to go back to 2Corinthians 8. Listen to verse 5:
And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. (2 Corinthians 8:5, NIV)
That’s the secret of sacrificial giving: giving oneself to the Lord first. That, Paul says in Romans 12 is our reasonable worship. And I know that this church has been very generous to supporting missionaries and other christian workers over many decades; it’s true and good in the eyes of God. But Paul writes to the very same congregation who already poured themselves out as a sacrifice to the Lord:
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may 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 1:9–11, NIV)
In other words, what you have been doing in the past is good, but continue more and more, trusting God more and more. That makes our love in Christ abound, our knowledge of Him grows in depth and insight and when Jesus comes again we may stand before Him pure and blameless – not that we will be saved because of all the good works we did for those on the frontline, but because we, being saved, knew what it meant to be discerning: what is important, a new car or TV set, or the Gospel of Christ to those who perish in sin.
The result of their support
Paul gives them this assurance:
And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19, NIV)
This implies that things were not all that rosy for them when they support Paul. But God, the Creator of heaven and earth, who came down to us in Christ Jesus to show us grace and mercy, will “fully provide” “all” you “need” in “abundance” in Christ Jesus. His salvation was full, it lacks nothing; it was complete, we don’t add to it – not even good works! He gave it freely.
Romans 8:32 says:
He who did not spare his own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32, NIV)
It excludes the things we want; it includes everything we need; and we need to pray to understand the difference. Someone once said we may ask, as our Lord taught us to pray, for our daily bread; we, on the other hand are sometimes not satisfied before we are assured of next week’s hamburgers.
Good works pleasing to God is to live lives that are fragrant offerings and acceptable sacrifices. And once we know what it is to become partners in the Gospel and live as if it is us on the frontline, we will with Paul say: We can do everything through Him who gives us strength. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 30 March 2014