When we become a follower of Jesus Christ, we immediately come into God’s good graces and are destined to be blessed by a life full of joy and free of all hardship and pain...right? Unfortunately, while that’s a popular belief, it’s a major distortion of the gospel, which teaches that true followers of Christ are practically guaranteed to experience trials and tribulations in life! However, God has provided us with ways to live in a Christlike manner even during the most difficult times. Drawing on the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church of Philippi in the Book of Philippians, modern believers are able to discover just how they can shape their lives after a variety of godly role models, accepting divine control over their actions that leads to true peace and joy. Each week of this series focuses on a chapter of Philippians, emphasizing the importance of personal and communal living in a manner that glorifies God, even during hardships. Providing a historical context with the early church and the persecution the first Christ-followers suffered, this 4-week series shows how believers are intended to be ambassadors of the gospel within loss, pain, and suffering as much as success, generosity, and growth.
I’m very excited about this new series we begin today. We will look at Paul’s letter to the Philippians and discover a joyful community living together in times of testing.
We Start Week One: “Living As If God Is In Control” Key Scripture: Philippians, Chapter One
In these next four weeks, we will look at each one of the chapters in Paul’s letter. This letter shows us a community learning how to live together with one another—and in God’s presence—during difficult times. Throughout history, Paul’s letter to the Philippians has brought comfort and direction to God’s people all over the world.
And this is a great place to start, recognizing that God’s people will always face times of trials and testing. Whether it was the early church, which faced times of trial and testing during the Roman Empire, or whether it is the church today in places like China and Iran; wherever Christians are persecuted, God’s people will always be confronted with difficulties. Now, you may think, “Those places are centuries or continents away. What does this have to do with me?” But times of trial and testing do not only happen on the large social scale. They also happen on the individual and personal scale, to people like you and me. We should take note of this. Near the end of his ministry the Apostle Paul said, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12)
In part, Paul learned this lesson during his time in Philippi and years later when the Philippians came to his aid while he was in prison. That’s what the Book of Philippians helps us understand.
The Book of Acts (in chapter 16) records the roots of the church in Philippi. As you follow along in this sermon series, you can read about how God used Paul to start a brand-new work in this city that had never before heard the gospel. The Roman city of Philippi is a long way from Jerusalem, where Jesus walked, or Antioch, the city where Paul attended church.
In the first decades of this new Philippian church, they experienced both success and difficulties. Have you ever thought about that possibility? We can experience difficulties even during times of success. Some Christians might be tempted to think that the presence of difficulties means they are somehow living outside of the will of God. But that’s not necessarily true. Sometimes Christians can be right where God puts them, doing exactly what God has asked them to do and still face persecution, opposition, misunderstanding, and suspicion. This is true at a larger social level and also at an interpersonal level.
Acts 16 tells the story of how Paul and Silas found themselves in prison even as they shared the good news in the city of Philippi. Do you know what their response was after being thrown in jail? They sang! Even though they were in chains, they worshipped the Lord in the middle of their trouble and pain. Through miraculous circumstances, Paul and Silas were delivered from their imprisonment and even ended up baptizing the warden of the prison! We should keep this story from Acts in mind as we look at the letter to the Philippians, because it reminds us that we will go through trials. And this phrase is important: we will “go through” trials. Trials are made to be gone through: we will not remain in them. Trials are made to go through because our God is bigger than any trouble man can dream up.
Perhaps you are facing some sort of personal trial today. It could be at work, or in a relationship, or have something to do with your finances, or illness, or you may even be a person who has suffered violence for the sake of the gospel or for some other reason. Part of the good news is that even as we experience trials, we can have the confidence that we will pass through the trouble. God will not abandon us and leave us stuck in our difficulties. In fact, one type of Christian maturity is our ability to rejoice even when things are not going our way. We can rejoice merely in the fact that we are in the center of God’s will.
Even if the trouble is of our own making because we’ve acted foolishly, it’s still true: trials were made to go through—not to remain in! Even if your trial is the result of you own sinfulness, you can rest assured that you are at the center of His love. God doesn’t abandon people in trouble.
So the church in Philippi, which was born out of persecution, takes root in this Roman town hundreds of miles away from where Jesus lived, and ministered, and was resurrected. This tells us that the good news of the gospel can grow in any soil. The gospel is not a Jewish thing, or a Roman thing; it’s a God thing, offered to people all over the world!
Now, when we get to Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, 10 years have transpired since the account in Acts 16. Some things have definitely changed. The church in Philippi is prospering and healthy. They are not only a thriving community in their home city, they are a community that looks after the welfare of others, people far away who may be in some kind of need. And Paul is one of those other people! Because this much has not changed: Paul finds himself imprisoned again, this time in Rome. The Philippian church has sent a gift of money and a member of their church to help him, because prisoners had to provide for their own means even though they were in prison. And there, from his chains, Paul writes a letter to acknowledge their gift, to send back the brother they had sent to minister to his needs, and to teach them about the connection between Christian joy and suffering.
Paul is writing this letter from inside prison. He is encouraging those outside of prison! This letter is a model for how to live during tough times. Over the next four weeks we will see: We can learn how to live as if God is in control. We can learn how to live as servants. We can learn how to live a life of loss. And we can learn how to live a life of generous friendship.
Let’s look today at the first chapter of Philippians, and learn to live as if God is in control.
The first chapter starts with a salutation, why because it is a letter. It reads
1 Paul and Timothy, servants[a] of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul then tells them what his prayer for them is:
Paul’s Prayer for the Philippians
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. Next Paul talks about his circumstances:
Paul’s Present Circumstances
12 I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; 14 and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear. 15 Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. 16 These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; 17 the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. 18 What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. 20 It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. 25 Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, 26 so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. 27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. 29 For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30 since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
1. Prayer and Persecution Early on in chapter 1, Paul prays for his friends back in Philippi. Isn’t this truly amazing and wonderful? Someone far away, who is in difficult circumstances like prison, can still pray for others. Don’t be fooled: whatever difficulties or trials you face cannot keep you from thinking of others and praying for others! Paul continues his effective ministry even though his body is held captive. He prays for the people in Philippi, and he instructs the church in Philippi.
What does he pray? It’s there in verses 9-11, in chapter 1. He prays that the church in Philippi will be able to discern what is best for them, that they would be pure and blameless, and that they would be filled with the good fruit that is in keeping with a proper relationship with Jesus Christ.
2. God’s Priorities In chapter 1, after praying for the well-being of the people in Philippi, Paul sets to the task of teaching in verses 12 through 18. He wants us to learn how to live as if God is in control. We do this by taking God’s view of things and by taking on God’s priorities. Paul tells the Philippians that although there are people outside of prison who are trying to make life worse for Paul while inside prison, Paul is actually pleased with the way things are. It may seem crazy, but there were people who thought that by continuing to preach the gospel in public, and by making money from preaching the gospel, that the authorities would make life even more difficult for Paul. That means those people outside were preaching the gospel from false motives. You would think Paul would be upset, or at the very least critical. But he is not.
Paul says that his situation is turning out for the advancement of the gospel. We might say that Paul is “Gospel-Centric.” He rejoices that the good news is being preached whether from good motives or for ill motives. The gospel is more important than his reputation or his personal comfort. He understands his imprisonment is for the sake of the gospel and does not ask, “Why is this happening to me?” Instead he understands that God is in control.
Now, it’s easy to agree with a simple religious statement like “God is in control.” But the result of saying God is in control is that I am NOT in control. It’s actually liberating to realize that we are not in control. This is a joyful submission to the will of God. God is in control even beyond the nasty motives other people. This is how Paul viewed his circumstances. How do we view ours?
Sometimes we are surrounded by people who operate from ill motives or just plain old meanness. I think our natural reaction would be to cry out to God and ask Him to intervene. “God,” we might pray. “Stop these people from trying to harm me or trying to profit from religion.” But no! Paul simply rejoices that God’s priorities are being accomplished. How about us? Could we find joy in the middle of our difficulties or trials if we had the assurance that God’s priorities were happening? This is a call to a deeper maturity in Christ. It is a call to the kind of maturity that acknowledges the fact that our comfort and our safety are not the highest good in the earth. No. God’s kingdom is the highest priority, and Paul demonstrates that his priorities align with God’s priorities. When our priorities align with God’s priorities, the result is peace and joy. Whether we are in prison or free we can experience peace and joy. Whether relationships, or work, or finances are going well or are going poorly, we can find peace and joy when we align our priorities with God’s priorities. You see, Paul is not merely teaching the church in Philippi. He is also teaching us.
3. Trust God for the Outcome In verses 19 through 26, Paul says something very unusual and a little mysterious. He says that what has happened will turn out for his deliverance. In other words, Paul’s faith that God is in control is expressed in terms of outcomes, not events. The events did not look promising for Paul. But Paul looks beyond the events toward the outcome. And he concludes that the outcome will be glorious. Whether in his day or in ours, here are the verifiable facts: sorrow, sickness, and suffering are at large in the world. But God shows His glory by bringing outcomes that are greater than any sorrow, any sickness, or any suffering. For example, Tertullian, one of the early fathers of the church (who also lived during a time of persecution), said, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” Like Paul, Tertullian was able to look beyond the immediate events. He was filled with confidence that God would use even difficult events like the death of Christians to do something wonderful. This is part of the glory of God: in the middle of people’s weakness and wickedness, God is in the world working his wisdom for our good, and for the good of generations to come. Do we believe this?
In this first chapter of Philippians, Paul was not even concerned about his own personal outcome. He says, “I can die and be with Jesus or I can live, which will mean even more fruitful ministry later in my life.” Paul does not see his life is something to be preserved, but rather as something to be spent in the service of God’s kingdom. This is part of the teaching in this chapter. How do we look at our lives? Why should we be afraid of death? It would only mean that we would be with Jesus. Or if we live, our lives are then an opportunity to co-labor with God to bring blessings to others!
4. “Receive Suffering” Finally, in verses 27 through 30, the Bible teaches us we can learn how to live as if God is in control by receiving and suffering as something that is sometimes granted by God to the community of faith. Please hear me: no one should go looking for suffering. No one should bring harm to themselves or act foolishly or irresponsibly. Instead, we order our lives in the way God teaches us to. But if suffering comes as a result of our way of life, and if our way of life is pleasing to God, we should learn how to submit to the will of God even in suffering.
In these last verses, Paul teaches us that we go through whatever happens together. It's an expression not only of our individual confidence, but our confidence as one people. Nearly any pastor can tell you that churches grow stronger spiritually and bond during times of trouble. It is a community dynamic: the church comes together when things are tough. Paul actually says that the Philippians’ unified, a bold response to difficulties is a sign of the kingdom of God! Paul says something that we do not hear quoted very often: “For it has been granted to you not only to believe, to suffer for him.” The “you” in this verse is plural, not singular. Paul is saying, “You have seen me suffer while I was there with you in Philippi. Now I’m going through it again, and so are you!” The Philippians used Paul’s imprisonment as a chance for the community to express their love and support for him. This makes perfect sense to me. We see it time and again as the church responds to natural disasters, school shootings, terrorist attacks, or economic hardship. The church draws together during tough times!
Maybe we should ask ourselves, why wait until tough times to draw together? Why wait until tragedy strikes to show our love and care for those around us? Why wait until things are bad in order to show the love of God? We can be a church that lives in the community and demonstrates community right now, It doesn’t matter if it’s during moments of peace and prosperity or during hardships and pandemics.
This is the great lesson of Philippians chapter 1: individually—and as a community—we can demonstrate that God is in control by living as if God is in control. Our actions become the message. Our lives—individually and corporately—become the Good News. We can demonstrate to the watching world that we confidently believe God is in control. Amen
Next week we will look at Philippians chapter 2, where we will discover that in tough times we can learn how to live as servants.
‒ Pastor Pam