The Lord's Day Morning
May 20, 2007
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
I'd invite you to turn with me to Philippians, chapter one. We’re looking at verses 7-11 today, and these verses span two parts of this first chapter of this great letter. Really, if you look back to verse 3, from verse 3 to verse 8 the Apostle Paul is expressing his joy in, his thanksgiving to God for, his love for, the Philippians. Over and over in various ways, Paul with a thankful heart expresses gratitude to God for the Philippians, and he enumerates some of the reasons why he's so joyful about them, why he's rejoicing in, why he's thankful for the Philippians. And we're going to start reading today right in the middle of that series of expressions of thanksgiving, so it would be good for you to allow your eyes to run back all the way to verse 3, because the reason why Paul says what he says in verse 7 is actually found in the astounding thing that he says in verse 6. So when we pick up in verse 7 today and read 7 and 8, the reason that Paul is speaking the way he is is because of what he has just said in verse 6. So the first part of this passage, verses 7-8, continues and concludes the expression of thanksgiving that Paul has been making to God because of the Philippians. And again it reminds us of the reasons why he is thankful.
Then the second part of the passage we're going to read today is in verses 9-11. A number of you have already come to me and told me that this is one of your favorite prayers in all the Bible. Right you are! This is precisely a Pauline prayer. Remember when we were studying Ephesians how over and over we found that Paul sneaked prayers into the letter to the Ephesians? Half of the book was prayer in one form of another. Sometimes it was a prayer outline where Paul says these are the kinds of things that I'm praying for you. Sometimes it was a prayer report: This is what I have been praying for you. Sometimes it was a prayer request: Would you please pray for me about these things? But the book of Ephesians was filled with prayer. No surprise, then, that here again we're only half way into this chapter and we're already finding a prayer of Paul for the Philippians. Well, in verses 9-11, you’re going to see the specific petitions that Paul lifts up for these Philippian Christians.
It's actually a pretty simple prayer. You could probably outline it in two or three parts. We’re going to be a little bit more detailed in our outline of it so that we don't miss a drop as we go through it. Now let's look to God in prayer and ask for His help and blessing before we read His word.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. We recognize that around the world today there are many people that have never heard Your word read; they have never read Your word themselves in their own language; they do not own a Bible; and they do not have ready access to the hearing of the word of God. We, on the other hand, hear Your word read twice every Lord's Day, often in the middle of the week when we gather for Bible study and prayer, frequently in small group Bible studies, in women's Bible studies, reading the Scriptures at home with our children and families; and we confess, O God, that we have come to take this for granted. We do not realize what a precious gift it is from You to us for us to be able to hear the saving, living word of the one true God. So, Lord, as we hear Your word today, help us to realize the privilege, the blessing, that it is to receive Your word from Your own mouth; and by Your Spirit help us to understand it and believe it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you are all partakers of grace with me. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
In this great passage we have first an expression of Paul's thankfulness, and then we have a glorious example of Paul's prayers for God's people. And as we look at this expression of thankfulness in verses 7 and 8, and as we look at the detail of Paul's prayer in verses 9-11, I want us to understand a truth about the unity of the body of Christ, and I want us as we look at the prayer to think long and hard about what we desire to be, what we rejoice in as we look at one another, and what we ought to be praying for ourselves and for one another.
I. Paul's deep affection for the Philippians.
Well, let's begin then looking at verses 7 and 8, at Paul's expression of thankfulness to God. In verses 7 and 8, he is telling the Philippians how deeply he loves them. He is expressing his deep affection for the entire Philippian congregation, and so verse 7 and 8 give us a culmination to that section that runs from verse 3 all the way to verse 8, which is itself an expression of thankfulness and love. Allow your eyes to go back to verse 3, and follow the logic of Paul's expression of thanksgiving. He says:
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.”
And then listen closely to verse 6:
“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Now the Apostle Paul wants you to understand that he has just said something that is astounding. He's saying, ‘Philippians, I am absolutely confident that the work that God has started in you, He's going to finish.’ And the reason that the Apostle Paul is so confident of this is that he has already seen with his own eyes how the grace of God is transforming these Philippian Christians. When he has been in suffering, they have been right there with him. When he has been in need, even out of poverty they have given generously to the Apostle Paul. What he cares about, they care about. He wants to see the world trusting in Jesus Christ. They want to see that, too, and they have put their money where their mouths are in that regard, in supporting his missionary journeys.
They, together with Paul, understand experientially and personally the sovereign grace of God. He was on his way to persecute Christians when Jesus brought him to Himself, literally encountering him on the road to Damascus. The Philippian Christians, too, their core group understands the shocking, sovereign grace of God as Lydia's heart is opened by the Lord to believe and she embraces Jesus Christ, and she and her household are baptized. And then the Philippian jailer…again, right before he's about to kill himself, the Lord God brings to him the Apostle Paul, says a word to him, converts him, and brings him to saving faith in Jesus Christ. These Philippians understood experientially the sovereign grace of God, and they were united to the Apostle Paul in that. And so when Paul says in verse 7, “For it is only right for me to feel this way about you,” he is saying ‘I have every reason to have the confidence that I have in you, that God's good work will be completed, because I've already seen what God's grace is doing in your heart and life.
You see, the Philippians had been knit together with Paul in Paul's sufferings and in Paul's ministry, and so Paul speaks confidently because he has already seen the change that God's Holy Spirit has been working in their lives. In other words, the Apostle Paul is saying ‘I can speak so confidently of you because I have been an eye-witness of what the grace of God is already doing in you.’
But not only is the Apostle Paul rejoicing in what the grace of God is doing in the Philippians, in seeing what the grace of God is doing in the Philippians, it has done what? It has knit Paul's heart together with the Philippians. He loves them very deeply, and they clearly love him.
So here's what we learn from this, friends. Communion in the same grace and mission creates a band of brothers. Communion in the same grace and mission creates a band of brothers…or, if I could say this another way, gospel love and Christian affection grow in the soil of God's grace in gospel service. Let me unpack that for you for a minute.
Gospel love and Christian affection grow in the soil of grace and gospel service. The unity that Paul experiences with the Philippians — their mutual love for one another, their deep affection for one another — grows out of the soil of their common experience of God's sovereign grace and their common commitment to spreading the word of the gospel. In those things Paul has been able to perceive their heart, and they have been able to perceive Paul's heart. And what has it done? It's pulled them together.
You know, people are always talking today about ‘strategies for uniting the church.’ Well, you know what the Apostle Paul is saying: The unity of the church is based on our common experience of and embrace of the sovereign, saving grace of God in Jesus Christ, and the mission that grows out of that. Just as the Apostle Paul had been united in heart to the Philippians because they both had experienced God's sovereign grace and they were both committed to this service of the gospel, so also gospel love and Christian affection grow in every Christian congregation where the fundamental thing that holds us together is our conscious awareness of having received unmerited favor from the living God, divine saving grace in Jesus Christ, which has made us brothers and sisters and given us a common purpose and mission in life to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth and to glorify God in all of life. When those things unite us, true unity follows as night follows day.
And so we're learning here from the Apostle Paul, even as he comes to the conclusion of his expression of thankfulness, that communion in the same grace and mission creates a band of brothers and sisters, that gospel love and Christian affection grow up in a congregation which has the soil of grace and of gospel service.
II. Paul's prayer for the Philippians.
Well, that's the first thing we see in this passage. The second thing is this. Look at verses 9-11. There you see Paul's prayer, and if you look closely, this prayer has about three parts to it. It's a prayer first of all that they would grow in love. The prayer that they would grow in love is followed by a prayer that they would grow in knowledge, and that prayer for knowledge comes in various parts. It talks about knowledge, it talks about discernment, and it talks about choices — all based on true knowledge.
Then, the prayer segues into an expression of Paul's desire that the Philippians would live a godly life. So you have this first petition that they would grow in love, then knowledge, then a godly life. There are different legitimate ways that you could outline this prayer. Let me outline it for you in seven parts, just so you don't miss anything. But as we look at those seven parts, remember that they all relate to one of those three themes: love, true knowledge, and godliness.
And as you think about those seven parts, let me ask you already, before we even get to the final application of the message, to be asking yourself these three things: What ought I to be desiring myself because of what Paul prays here; what ought I to be rejoicing in, in my brothers and sisters in Christ, because of what Paul prays here; and what ought I to be praying for, for my brothers and sisters in Christ because of what Paul prays here? So just bear that in mind as we go through each of these points.
First of all, look at verse 9. The first part of Paul's prayer is simply this: “That your love may abound still more and more.” Paul is praying for abounding love in the Philippians. Now let's pause for a second and think about this. Paul has just made it emphatically known that this is a loving congregation that is easy for him to love, because they’re so loving. And yet the very first prayer for them is that they would — what? Abound all the more in love.
Now, if the Philippians needed Paul to pray for them that they would abound in love, and surely they've got to be one of Paul's top three most-loved congregations in the New Testament…they may not be No. 1, but they’re not far off the pace of No. 1…if they need a prayer to grow in love, then surely the rest of us do. And so Paul's prayer that they would abound in love is a prayer for the increase of Christian love, real love; not sentimentality, but real Christian love. “That your love may abound still more and more.”
Where there is a true knowledge of Christ, where there is an apprehension of the grace of God to us in Jesus Christ, there is always love. John will say (the Apostle John will say) that “we love because He first loved us.” And Jesus will repeatedly affirm to His disciples in His teaching that no man can say that he loves God who does not love his brother. And so love is a hallmark of the true knowledge of God, of the experience of His grace, of the experience of His love. If you have really known God's radical life-transforming love, you will manifest something of that love in your life in your relationships with others. And so the Apostle Paul's first prayer for the Philippians and for you and me would be that we abound in love.
Then secondly, if you look again at verse 9, he goes on to pray “that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge….” What kind of knowledge? Knowledge of the truth; knowledge of God.
Paul is concerned for the Philippians and for you and me to increase in true, practical, character-transforming, biblical knowledge of God. Isn't that refreshing how the Apostle Paul puts love and knowledge side by side, and he does not see them in competition or opposition to one another? In fact, the Apostle Paul will make it clear that there can be no love without this true knowledge, and there can be no true knowledge without love. Anyone who claims to have knowledge but does not manifest love does not have the knowledge. Anyone who claims to love but who does not do it in accordance with knowledge is not loving as a Christian. For the Apostle Paul, love and knowledge go together. Love increases true knowledge of God and results from true knowledge of God, and true knowledge of God is to accompany Christian love and produce it. And so he prays that they would grow in the knowledge of God.
And think of how the Apostle Paul groups that idea of truth and knowledge over and over in his ministry. Maybe you want to take a peek at I Timothy 1:3-5. In verse 5, Paul tells you what the whole focus of his teaching ministry is. He says (I Timothy 1:5):
“The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience,
and a sincere faith.”
Notice again how instruction and love–truth and love, knowledge and love–go together in the Christian life. Here's the Apostle Paul praying for abounding love and growing knowledge, and knowing that they go together.
This is so important for us. We come from a tradition of Christians that care much about truth, and rightly so. But the more we truly know the truth, the more we ought to manifest that truth in Christian love, so that our reputation ought to be those who care with deep conviction about truth and who love generously and lavishly because of that deep conviction about the truth. How countercultural would that be in our world today, where most people think that in order to love you can't believe that anything is true; if you really want to love, you've got to decide that there is no truth, or either that everything is true, no matter how ridiculous? And here's the Apostle Paul saying, no, gospel love is manifested precisely and only where true truth is embraced about God.
And then he goes on, notice again in verse 9, to pray for your discernment. It's not enough that you grow in the knowledge of the truth; you need to know how to wield that truth in good judgment and discernment, and so notice his words:
“That you would abound in love more and more in real knowledge and all discernment.”
Paul is praying for the Philippians and for you and me that we would cultivate good judgment and discretion.
How important is that? Have you ever known a parent with a really smart child, and that child is off in college, or perhaps getting ready to go off to graduate school, or launching into the marketplace, and that parent is concerned because that really well-educated, really gifted, really intelligent young person is making the goofiest choices you've ever seen in your life! And that parent is deeply concerned, because that parent doesn't want his or her child just to be smart; he wants that child to use discretion, good judgment, be wise in discernment. And that's exactly what the Apostle Paul is praying for the Philippians and you and me: not just that we would know stuff, but that we would have judgment and discretion and wisdom as we apply the truth which is ours.
Fourthly, if you look at verse 10, he goes on to say that knowledge, that discretion, is going to be manifested. How? It's going to be manifested in what you choose. He wants you to choose the excellent, so he's praying that we would abound in love, grow in knowledge, increase in discernment, and, fourth, choose the excellent.
Look at verse 10:
“So that you may approve the things that are excellent.”
In other words, he's saying if you know true truth, if you have the knowledge of God, if you have the gift of discernment, one of the things that that will lead to in your knowledge and discernment is choosing that which is excellent as opposed to that which is bad or that which is corrupt, choosing that which is eternal as opposed to that which is ephemeral and fleeting and temporal and passing. You’ll choose that which is excellent.
The Apostle Paul is wanting knowledge to form in us discernment that leads to right choices–choosing the excellent.
Now this in turn leads to behavior. Look again at verse 10:
“So that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ.”
The choices that you make for that which is excellent are to lead to what? Living which is characterized by sincerity and integrity, so that you would be sincere and blameless until the Day of Christ.
The Apostle Paul is talking about the cultivation of Christian sincerity and integrity in our behavior (sincerity meaning you are on the inside what you are on the outside). You are at home what you are in the world and vice versa, as opposed to being hypocritical… putting on a front for the world to see while inside you are at odds with what you present the world, or putting on a front for the world to see out there, but when you’re at home you’re entirely different.
One of the greatest compliments that I ever heard given to a godly minister was that he was at home what he was everywhere else; that there was no difference between the two persons; that it was a unity.
And that is what Paul is saying here. He's praying that there would be a moral unity in the life of the Philippians, that they would be outside what they are inside, that they would be at the home what they are in the world, that they would be sincere, and that they would walk with integrity. The world could look at them and say, not ‘you’re perfect,’ but there's something about that person that could not be explained simply naturally. There's evidence of a divine work of grace in that person. And the Apostle Paul had seen that in the Philippians, and so he prays that they would continue in sincerity and integrity.
Sixth, he goes on to pray that they would live in fruitful righteousness. Look again at verse 11:
“…having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through
Here Paul is praying for the production of fruit in the Christian life: that they would be fruitful Christians; that the result of the Spirit's work of grace in their heart would be that they would bear fruit–much fruit–for God, through Jesus Christ.
And then, seventh, he prays that they would live for God, that they would live to God, that they would live unto God, that they would live before God, that they would live for the glory of God. Listen to what he says at the end of verse 11:
“…to the glory and praise of God.”
So, seven things there. He prays that their love would abound, that their knowledge would grow, that their discernment would increase, that they would choose the excellent, that they would continue in sincerity and integrity, that they would live in fruitful righteousness, and that they would deliberately live for the glory of God.
Now. Let's go back to my three questions to you beforehand. What do we learn about what we ought to desire for ourselves from this prayer? What do we learn about what we ought to rejoice in in one another? And, what do we learn about how we ought to be praying for one another?
Well, It's pretty straightforward, isn't it? It ought to be our personal desire to be Christians like this — people who are growing in love, who are increasing in knowledge and discernment, who are choosing that which is excellent, who are living in sincerity and integrity, who are manifesting a fruitful righteousness, and who are living for the glory of God. As Paul prays this for the Philippians, our hearts ought to be saying, “Lord, I want to be like that. That's what I want to be like.”
Secondly, as we look at this prayer we ought to be saying to ourselves, “You know, what is it when I look at another person that I get excited about? What are the things that encourage me, interest me, as I look at another person. What are the things that catch my attention? Is it that person's success? Is it that person's social connections? Is it that person's wealth or possessions? Is it that person's background or family?” Or, as we look at one another, are the things that attract our attention and actually cause us to rejoice things like love, increasing in the knowledge of the truth, discernment, choosing that which is excellent, sincerity, integrity, fruitfulness in righteousness, and living for the glory of God?
The Apostle Paul is looking over the Philippians and he's seeing these characteristics in them, and what does it make him do? “Ye-e-es!!” is what he's saying! And he immediately praises God for it! He rejoices when he sees these kinds of grace-wrought moral characteristics in these Philippians because he knows that these things can only exist in them because God is at work. What does he say? Doesn't he say it point blank in verse 11? All these things come — how? — through Jesus Christ. Only Jesus can build a person like that.
But are these the things that we rejoice in? One of the ways that we can be an encouragement to one another is rejoicing in one another when these things are seen by us. Say, “Brother, I just want to tell you that your integrity is an encouragement to me. Brother, I want to tell you that your manifestation of love, Christian love, is an encouragement to me. Sister in Christ, your pursuit of truth and the true knowledge of God encourages me. It exhorts me to live the Christian life and it causes me to give praise to the living God, to rejoice in you and to praise Him for it.” We ought to be rejoicing in these things in one another.
And then finally, we need to be praying these things for one another. If Paul is praying these for the Philippians, surely we at First Presbyterian Church need to be praying this prayer for one another: that we would abound in love and grow in knowledge, and increase in discernment, and choose what is excellent, and continue in integrity and sincerity, and live in fruitful righteousness, and live for the glory of God. May God make it so.
Heavenly Father, this is our prayer. We pray with Paul that our love would abound more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that we would approve the things that are excellent and would live sincerely and would live with integrity until the Day of the coming of Jesus Christ, because You have filled us with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ for Your glory. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
[Congregation sings The Doxology]
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.