Studies in Philippians
AMONG the most precious privileges which come to us with the reception of God's unspeakable gift, is that of giving, of participating in the service of heralding the evangel by supporting the efforts made to spread the knowledge of God. In this, the Philippians as a whole are our example, for they seem to have excelled all others in their contributions to the evangel from the beginning to the very end of Paul's career. Therefore a whole section is set aside for this subject both at the commencement and at the conclusion of the epistle. Let us seek to enter the delightful atmosphere which pervades it and lifts it heaven high above the plane on which this matter is usually found in the churches of today.
God loves a gleeful giver. Giving grudgingly or of compulsion is of no real advantage to anyone, and an abomination to God, as though He were in need, and wished to exploit His creatures instead of contrariwise to lavish His abundance upon them (2 Cor. 9:7,8). It is the motive that counts. In some lands, there is a regular church tax, and payment is compulsory. Let no one imagine that much of this will be reckoned as given to the evangel. In other lands, all sorts of expedients are used to lure the cash out of the pockets of reluctant members. What a falling off there would be if only those whose hearts were stirred by God's grace should be allowed to contribute to His work! But the real value would not be less.
Paul did solicit contributions from the saints, yet not for himself, but rather for the poor among his own people in Judea, according to his agreement with James, Cephas, and John, when their fields of service were separated (Gal.2:10). This was on a much lower plane, however, and fits only in that intermediate administration when the nations accepted the spiritual riches which belonged to Israel, and sought to pay for them by sending material aid (Rom.15:27). They were in the position of debtors at the time and were under obligation to the nation of God's choice. So will the nations be in the next eon, and even in the last, when their kings bring their glory into the new Jerusalem (Rev.21:24). This is not the motive which moved the Philippians to make their contributions to Paul.
It is not at all likely that Paul received enough to keep body and spirit together for his service to the saints. He had a trade at which he worked when he could. At Corinth, he was employed in tentmaking along with Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:3). Although, in answering the Macedonian call, he had found much response to the evangel in that province, not one of the ecclesias sent him help after he left them except the Philippians. More than that, there were times when he was in actual need (Phil.4:16). The last years of his life as a prisoner relieved him of the burden of self-support, yet here it is that the gift of the Philippians fits in. Taking his career as a whole, Paul, perhaps the most deserving of all God's slaves, did not receive even a slave's rations for his service to the saints.
But he did not complain. Rather he exulted that he had preached the evangel to the large Corinthian ecclesia gratuitously. Note the words he uses. He despoiled other ecclesias, getting rations for dispensing to them. He was actually in want in Corinth, but he did not become an encumbrance to them, but received help from Macedonia. He always endeavored to keep from becoming a burden (2 Cor.11:7-9).
Not that he did not know his rights in the matter. Strangely enough, he has to defend himself to these very Corinthians, who did so little for him when he was among them. Listen to his expostulation: "Have we no right at all to eat and drink? Have we no right at all to be leading about a sister as a wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or have I and Barnabas only no right not to be working? Who is warring with his own rations? Is anyone planting a vineyard and not eating of its fruit" (1 Cor.9:4-7)? Possibly no man ever deserved as high wages as Paul. It seems that the Circumcision apostles, notwithstanding the poverty amongst their following, were well cared for. Paul sowed a most marvelous crop of spiritual seed among the nations, and, in justice, he should have harvested a tremendous crop of worldly wealth. But how much nobler was his course, as he himself said: "We do not use this right, but we are forgoing all, lest we may be giving any hindrance to the evangel of Christ" (1 Cor.9:12).
With such an experience back of him, no wonder that Paul had a very soft spot in his heart for the Philippians, whose practical sympathy came from the depths of their heart and never needed any prompting on his part. The material donations were transformed into the fragrant incense which delights the heart of God as well as provides for the needs of His unselfish slave.
With this before us, we can better appreciate the opening and closing strains of the Philippian epistle. Paul begins: "I am thanking my God at every remembrance of you, always, in every petition of mine for you all, making the petition with joy, for your contribution to the evangel from the first day until now... (Phil.1:3-5). The very first time that he preached the evangel in Philippi, Lydia generously urged him to come into her house and remain (Acts 16:15). He seems to have stayed there until he left, as he returned there, after coming out of the jail, before leaving the city (Acts 16:40). Soon afterward he was in Thessalonica, and it seems that they sent several times during his sojourn there. No doubt they were responsible for the contributions sent from Macedonia to Corinth. And this is crowned by their latest donation, sent to his prison in Rome, by the hand of Epaphroditus.
It is this persistent continuance which gave the aged slave the confidence that they would not fail in the future, that "He Who undertakes a good work in you will be performing it until the day of Jesus Christ" (1:6). Let us not dilute this statement into a mere promise that God will save everyone whom He calls. That is true and precious, but it applies to all. This is a rarer grace, which is, alas, not found in every ecclesia. In fact, we do not read of it in connection with any other, and we know that it was lacking in some. It may be that the Philippians could not send him much at a time, but they did continue to send what they could, and this recurrent token of their affection for him and their desire to have a share in his service led to the conviction that they had become "incorrigible" givers. May we emulate their example!
No one can blame Paul for being partial to the Philippians, in view of their attitude toward him. When he was free and went about confirming and defending the evangel they had him in their heart, and were given grace to do their part in supporting his hands. And, now that he is in bonds, they did not reason that his bread and water are sure, being supplied by the state, but they sent their "apostle and minister," that is, they commissioned Epaphroditus to go to Rome with supplies to use in ministering to Paul. Being now aged, his life could no doubt be made much easier. This seems to have especially touched his heart. In a sense, he was laid aside and had not the same claim on their aid as when he was actively going about and heralding the evangel. But they remained true to him, so that he longed for them all in the compassions of Christ Jesus.
As a result of this interchange of loving service, Paul is led to pray for the Philippians (1:9-11), that the love which has led them to care so faithfully for him and his service may be superabounding still more and more in realization and all sensibility, for them to be testing what things are really of consequence, "in order that they may be sincere and no stumbling block in the day of Christ, having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which is through Jesus Christ, for the glory and laud of God" (1:9-11). Here we have a hint of what is on Paul's heart in writing the epistle. They have been giving to him, and now he desires that they, in turn, receive all that is theirs, in the latest and highest revelation, which he has just made public, and of which they have doubtless read in the so-called epistle to the Ephesians.
As in his marvelous opening prayer in Ephesians, he prays that they may be granted the realization of the new treasures of grace (Eph.1:17)—the very same word which expresses his desire for the Philippians. In reality, the word embraces even more than this, and might be rendered appreciation. This is all that is needed to make a saint happy. This is more than enough to repay us for all that we may do to forward the evangel or contribute to the support of its heralds. Paul could not repay his friends in material goods, but in spiritual wealth, he had unutterably more than was needed to recompense even the model Philippian ecclesia.
But how can he convey it to them? Merely to write it out for them is not enough. Ephesians has now been before the saints for centuries, with very little realization or appreciation of the grandeur of its grace. The Philippians had doubtless heard it only recently. To them, it would be new. For them, it would involve a spirit of wisdom and revelation quite beyond the average. Yet this is the field in which alone their love can unfold still further, and so the Lord's slave prays that this gift may be theirs as well.
Yet he does not develop the thought as in Ephesians, but, in harmony with the trend of the epistle, he adds the word sensibility. He would trace the truth further, in its operation through their faculties. He is concerned with the conduct which should characterize it. He would have them live it out in their lives. The new revelation brings with it a flood of apparent problems which will confuse their feet if they are not able to fully realize its import. Many practices which hitherto have seemed vital now fall away. To let go that which belongs to the past and grasp that which lies before, such is the crisis which confronted them at this time.
THINGS OF CONSEQUENCE
Christendom is chiefly occupied with the husks of divine truth and knows but little of the kernel. This is because it has failed to realize the latest revelation. Hence it fails to function accordingly, and is occupied with things which are no longer of any consequence. Indeed, there are hardly any, even among intelligent believers, who realize that there is any such thing as a crowning revelation in Ephesians which clears away all the enigmas of the fragmentary unfoldings which went before, and which brings the saint to maturity. As a consequence, there is but little real sincerity. Almost everything is partly sham. And the path of both saint and sinner is strewn with stumbling blocks which will cause much loss in the day of Christ, when the conduct of the saints is tested by fire.
The word "consequence" is a difficult one to translate concordantly into English, and it may be that in this passage, it carries with it the ideas suggested by its elements, THRU-CARRY. In Hebrews 10:14 a word with the same elements is rendered "to a finality." That is, things of consequence are those which are not merely the scaffolding of truth, which will be removed at last, but the final forms, which are permanent. Israel had mostly shadows. We now have the substance. The process of divine revelation deals much with the flesh. The end is found in spirit.
As this epistle itself points out the things which are of no consequence, we need not linger over the thought. Paul especially deals with the prerogatives of the Jew in flesh, and is glad to forfeit them all, and deems them refuse in order to gain Christ, which is of the greatest consequence. Hitherto the saints were concerned with terrestrial things; now it is of the most vital importance that we recognize our celestial citizenship. Now it is necessary that Paul be taken as a model for our walk. Otherwise, we will be sure to do the inconsequential things which, alas, are not lacking in dire results.
THE FRUIT OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
Righteousness should bear fruit. It may be that the particular righteousness here in view is the conduct of the Philippians in contributing to Paul's support and the evangel. That was just. Some may reason that the glad tidings are free, that grace demands no payment for the benefits it brings. That is true. But is it right to drink of a fountain and not even tell others about it? In the last analysis, the Philippians had done no more than their duty in contributing to the evangel. But the fact that it was not done as a duty, but was the spontaneous outgrowth of the new life they had received, gives it a precious character not possessed by righteousness alone. It produced satisfaction and pleasure such as we experience when tasting of luscious fruit. It is delicious.
And this brings us to the most excellent and final fruit of all. It will be for the glory and laud of God. Briefly summed up, the prayer of Paul expresses his desire that these saints, whose love for him and the evangel has been practically expressed by many a gracious gift, may lead to their appreciation of God's greatest and latest revelation of His grace in giving the nations an equal place in the celestial honors of Christ's body. But, beyond this, he especially wishes that they may walk in accord with this final unfolding, and thus bring to God the glory and the applause which is the object and end of all things.
THE PARALLEL PASSAGE
As this phase of the joint participation in the evangel the contribution of the Philippians to its support is taken up again in the corresponding section, near the end of the epistle (see the framework), we will skip all in between and consider what Paul writes there as well (4:14-20). Here he changes the formula "a good work" to "do ideally." Our versions have practically blotted out the fine distinction between the good and the ideal. In fact, the Authorized Version almost always renders both by "good," though sometimes by "well," as in this case. But here we have a deed which is more than merely good. It perfectly fits the circumstances, and is eminently acceptable and appropriate not only in the eyes of Paul, but of God.
I take it that there is a correspondence between their gift to Paul, and the grace which he has for them. He speaks of superabounding, of being filled full, of being paid in full, and it is very probable that he, as a Roman prisoner, was not in actual need, as had been the case before. It would seem that this gift was a material counterpart of the lavish grace then being dispensed to the nations, hence an acceptable and ideal contribution at this particular crisis. It was good for them to relieve the physical needs of the apostle during his itinerant ministry. It is ideal that he is overwhelmed with good things at the time when he has opened the floodgate of blessing for the nations.
Paul had not always been so satiated with good things. Yet was not this in spiritual accord with his ministry? He had been distributing the crumbs which fell from Israel's board, and there was not so very much left for the nations so long as the chosen nation was the channel of blessing. Now that God goes to the nations directly, Paul's physical surroundings change to accord with it. This, of course, is no excuse for the ecclesias of Macedonia or Corinth, who would have allowed him to hunger if Philippi had not come to the rescue. Undoubtedly their excellent conduct in this matter, humanly speaking, entitled them to receive the supreme epistle on the subject of conduct, and enabled them to live according to a standard which is the highest presented to mortal man.
FRUIT, NOT GIFTS
In these days of systematized budgets, and envelope systems, and all sorts of schemes to finance the work of the church (we will not say of the Lord), we have forgotten the great difference between gifts to support the work and fruit which pleases God. We want quantity, not quality. We reason that the unbeliever's money will buy just as many Bibles as the believer's. Not so thought our Lord. The widow's mite in His sight was more than a whole chest full of common coin. This is the point in Philippians. That Paul should be supplied is only a secondary side of the matter. That they should have given expression to their hearts, without any prompting or coercion, but simply as the outflow of their appreciation and love, makes their gift acceptable to God and is entered to their account, to meet them again in the day when all will receive awards for the good done in the body.
A FRAGRANT ODOR
This is the quality which pleases God in our efforts to work for Him. Not great doings, but gracious deeds rise to perfume His presence. Not mere service but sacrifice ascends to Him. Not the high achievements of a mastermind and an indomitable will, but the humble attempts of a submissive and grateful heart are pleasing in His presence. Some may be too rich, or too great or too strong to procure a proper perfume for our God, but no one is too poor or too small or too weak to find a fragrant odor in which He can delight.
On the occasion of the collection for the saints in Judea, Paul, speaking of the saints in Macedonia, says that "the corresponding depth of their poverty superabounds to the riches of their generosity." And again, "according to ability...and beyond their ability, of their own accord, with much entreaty beseeching of us the grace and fellowship in a service for the saints..." (2 Cor.8:2-5). This seems to show that the church chosen to be our example in acceptable giving was a very poor one. How happy would it make their hearts to hear the words of Paul as he assures them: "Now my God shall be filling your every need in accord with His riches in glory in Christ Jesus" (4:19). God will not be out-done in giving. With all His riches in glory in Christ Jesus He is able to repay a thousand fold every generous impulse of the lowliest saint.
The epistle proper closes much as it began, with an ascription of praise to our God and Father, closely related to the subject of giving. In this eon we can expect but little public response to the gracious gifts of our God. But in the eons to come His gifts will receive more appreciation, and His glory will no longer be hid. And the most potent means of displaying to the whole creation, in the heavens as well as upon the earth, the excellent graciousness of His gifts, and the love which is their source, will be the story of that secret by which He fills the heights of heaven with the lowest dregs of earth.
A. E. Knoch
This publication may be reproduced for personal use
(all other rights reserved by copyright holder).