Monday, September 17, 2007

Philippians 1 - Thanking God for Godly Friends.

Note: I touched on this subject in a recent post, and I've been intending to write a more complete article since. Reading Rob McQueary's recent post touching on this subject inspired me to get my article finished, so here goes:

Philippians is one of my favorite books in the New Testament. I’ve often gotten a great deal of encouragement and much needed perspective after spending an hour or so studying it. I’ve frequently heard it said that Philippians is “The Joy Epistle”. I don’t want to denigrate that description, but I do think it’s a tad shallow. Although the themes of joy and thanksgiving are certainly present throughout this Pauline letter, there is so much more to it than that. For instance we find some deep theological truths concerning the Person of Jesus Christ explained throughout this Epistle – such as finding the theological basis for the Christological terms kenosis and hypostatic union. The humiliation of Christ is also discussed in detail in this short letter. Reading this Epistle and studying these great truths is certainly exciting, and one cannot walk away from this book without a deeper appreciation for our Savior and a deeper commitment to living a life of holiness while shrouded in righteous humility. With all that being said, I’m going to write thanksgiving as it relates to our interpersonal relationships.

I think it’s necessary to discuss the background of this book prior to the main point of the article. In Acts 16 Paul receives a vision. He discerns that this vision is a direct call from God to take the Gospel message to the Macedonians. Paul and his companions immediately set sail and come first to the Roman settlement of Philippi – one of the chiefest Macedonian cities. The birth of the first Christian church to be established in Philippi begins to take shape when Paul and company go down to the river to find a place to pray on the Sabbath day. Paul always sought out the Jews first and this meant finding a synagogue on the Sabbath. In the absence of a Jewish synagogue within the city limits, there was generally one near water (for ceremonial purification rituals). Paul and his co-laborers headed down to the river (presumably) to find a Jewish synagogue. What they find instead is a group of women gathered who were apparently worshippers of God, so they began to share the Gospel with them. One of these women – Lydia – after hearing what Paul had to say, becomes a Christian and is baptized along with her entire house. It seems to be in her home that this fledgling church begins to meet.

Through a set of circumstances involving an exorcism performed by Paul (by the way, exorcisms in the Scripture seem to be pretty straightforward and quick affairs), he and Silas end up being arrested. After their mock trial, they are severely beaten. There’s no doubt that the man (or men) who were administering the stripes were very skilled in keeping their victims alive while inflicting as much pain as possible. After the beating, Paul and Silas are tossed into the prison and placed in stocks. Many commentators state that the stocks most commonly used were not mere “ankle bracelets”, but involved the entire body being placed in such an uncomfortable position that sleep would have been difficult even without the added discomfort of a bloody, raw, and beaten body.

Unable to sleep, Paul and Silas begin singing hymns to God. The unfolding scene with the earthquake and the presence of mind of the Apostle to restrain the prisoners from escaping is magnificent, and the entire story builds to this great crescendo when the prison guard cries out in verse 30, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” The simple answer given is “Believe in the Lord Jesus”.

This series of events leads to the establishment of this little work in the Macedonian city of Philippi. Some years later, Paul writes his friends in Philippi to thank them for their faithfulness to the ministry. This epistle to the Philippians is being written from prison, which makes the central themes throughout the book even more poignant. Paul’s thankfulness for and love to the Philippian Christians is manifest through the entire letter. He seems to have a desperate desire to see them again and even proclaims that his death will be delayed so that he can help them progress in their faith and joy.

There are a number of things that always strike me as remarkable when I read this short epistle…one of those things is the fact that Paul seems to look on his entire experience surrounding his initial contacts with these dear people of God as something for which to be thankful. This, of course, would include the severe beating and imprisonment that he endured during that initial visit.

Paul knew the source of true joy – the kind of joy that remains steadfast in spite of any outside forces and circumstances – was to be found only in Christ Jesus. As he begins to express this in his letter, he can’t help but to thank the Philippians for their friendship and faithfulness. The root of this thankfulness is simple….these people were Christians, which made them family; these people were partners in Paul’s ministry, which made them co-laborers; and these people were striving to grow more in Christ, which would make every interaction with them more and more precious.

I have a handful of people whom I consider to be my dearest friends. Some of them I’ve only known for a couple of years, while some of them have been friends for nearly two decades; some of them I see and speak to on a regular basis, while my visits with others of them are not nearly often enough. Regardless, these dear friends bring me a great deal of joy with every meeting. Every time I think about them or speak to them, I can thank my God for allowing that relationship to be in my life.

It’s a special thing to find a good, likeminded friend, I think. When you’ve found such a friend, you’ve likely found somebody who is as close (or often closer) than family. When reading this first chapter of Philippians and attempting to grasp what the aged Apostle is feeling, I think I understand his thankfulness for these brothers and sisters in Macedonia. When the Lord has blessed us with good friends who are striving to grow in their faith and to know God better, how can we think on them without erupting into thanksgiving to our Lord for the benefits of friendship? I thank the Lord regularly for the few close friends He’s given me. I am thankful that He’s saved them and seen to it that their paths crossed mine. May the Lord help each of us to be the kind of friends for which our friends can be thankful!

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