Paul’s Prayer for the Believers: Part One
© C. O. Bishop 9/19/17 Cornell Estates 9/24/17
Philippians 1:3-8; Acts 16:12-40
These opening verses are further evidence of the tender love Paul felt for the believers at Philippi: He begins the epistle by spelling out his relationship with them, and their responsiveness to both himself and God, as evidenced by their voluntary, earnest involvement in Paul’s ministry, right from the beginning.
If you recall, from Acts 16:12-40, when Paul and his entourage had first entered Philippi, unlike many cities, there was apparently no synagogue there, as, instead of gathering at the local synagogue, with the Jews first, and sharing with them the news that the Messiah had come, he went outside the city walls with Silas and the others (Luke was with them by this point), because he had reason to believe that there was some sort of worship being carried on, down there by the river. This was evidently not an idolatrous worship but a group of people who believed in the God of Israel, mostly Jews, though at least some of them seem to have Gentile proselytes. There were a group of women there who met together for prayer. At least a few of them believed the Good News that Paul and Silas brought, and one of these, Lydia, was baptized, along with her family who evidently also believed. She begged them to stay in her home, as her guests, and they did so, while they expanded their ministry in Philippi.
The trouble started some time later, when a young demon-possessed woman followed them around, shouting that they (Paul and Silas) were servants of the Most High God, and were there to tell everyone a way of salvation. Paul finally decided that enough was enough, and he turned around and ordered the demon out of her. Ordinarily that would not have been a problem, perhaps, but the woman was a slave, and her owners had been making money off of her affliction, by selling her talents as a fortune-teller. It seems sad, but that was how they saw things. They were not one bit concerned about her welfare; only their profit margin…and Paul and Silas had just ruined it. So they dragged them in to the courts and accused them of spreading false doctrine and “anti-Roman” behavior.
Paul and Silas were savagely beaten, without benefit of trial, and left in the inner prison cell, bleeding, in stocks and manacles. But, at midnight they were praying, and singing psalms, and an earthquake occurred: a very odd earthquake—it shook everything, destroyed nothing, but made everyone’s manacles fall off. Very odd!
The jailer was ready to kill himself, thinking the prisoners had escaped, because he knew he would be tortured, but Paul called to him, saying, “Don’t hurt yourself! We are all here!” That whole experience convinced the jailer that the message they were preaching was worth hearing, and he asked what he had to do to be saved. They told him “Believe in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” So, he and his household believed the Gospel, and he took Paul and Silas into his home (probably attached to the jail), and washed their wounds, and treated them well. The next day, the magistrates, realizing that they had committed a serious error of judgement, in flogging un-convicted Roman citizens, apologized for their error, and begged them to leave town.
So, the small group of believers from the riverside gathering, and the Jailer’s family were the core group of believers that Paul left behind when he and his entourage left for Thessalonica, via Annapolis. That leaves me with the question: “Where did the elders and deacons come from?” Paul had only been there for a few weeks at most, as far as we can tell, and one does not ordain as an elder or deacon people who are novices in the faith (Paul says so…). So where did these leaders come from?
I have to assume that there were at least some Jews among the group of believers, as Paul always sought out the Jews first to offer them the Gospel of Christ (see Romans 1:16). If that is so, then it all makes sense: the Jewish men all had good training in the Scriptures, and, as it seems that some there were already believers, in the Old Testament sense, then they would make the “shift” to being quite mature Christian believers pretty rapidly. The Gentile believers would take some time to catch up, since they had no such training.
This explains why it was possible for Paul to preach in a town for just a few weeks, and leave behind a functioning New Testament Church that was complete with qualified elders and deacons, and fully equipped to continue as a church without “outside help”. The Church at Philippi was one of these examples. The Church at Thessalonica was another.
Paul quite reasonably might have felt a good deal of concern about these “baby Christians” he was leaving behind. He didn’t leave them after such a short time by choice: he did so for their safety, when riots began among the unbelievers. He left, but he actively prayed for them. So, how did he pray for them? We will examine this in two segments, the first being “thanksgiving.”
How Paul Prays for the Believers (1:3-8): Thanksgiving!
3 I thank my God upon every remembrance of you,
It is interesting to me, and a little intriguing, that Paul refers to God not simply as “God”, but as “my God”. Why the possessive article? We need to remember that these people were living in a land where polytheism was the norm. In fact, everywhere Paul went, he had to deal with idolaters of various stripes, some quite hostile to the Good News of Christ. These believers already knew the Lord, so perhaps Paul is only underscoring the fact that both his relationships with them and his relationship with the One God of the Bible, were personal, not theoretical or academic in nature.
Paul thinks of them a lot, and gives thanks every time he thinks of them. He felt this way even toward believers he had never met, as seen in Romans 1:8. But especially for the believers whom he knew personally (1st Corinthians 1:4, etc.), and, these at Philippi were especially dear to him, as he explains in the next few verses:
4 Always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy,
5 For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now;
It is heart-warming to see that the veteran missionary, Paul the Apostle, was genuinely thankful for the believers at Philippi. (v. 3, 4) I would think for a man with as vital and important a ministry as Paul had…(and he knew it; in spite of the rough service, he knew he was “the apostle to the Gentiles”—he says so in Romans 11:13)…it seems to me it would have been easy to become a little proud, and feel that everyone else should be grateful for him. But Paul had a truly humble spirit, which we can see over and over in the scriptures. He was grateful to God every time he thought of these believers, and joyfully prayed on their behalf, not just once in a while, or when he remembered to do so, or when he looked at his “prayer-list”. He says he prayed for them continually, and rejoiced every time he thought about them.
Thanksgiving for Fellowship
But why did Paul feel so grateful for them (v. 5)? The first thing he mentions is their “fellowship in the Gospel”. Now, we tend to think of fellowship as “standing around drinking coffee and eating finger food”, or maybe sitting around a table at a potluck, and talking about whatever we feel like discussing, from golf scores, to weather, to politics, to gossip…but that is not fellowship. The New Testament sees fellowship in a very functional light—fellowship means “having in common”—“partnership”.
In fact, the NASB translates this word “participation”. That works well, and it is accurate enough, but: as long as we can see that the word “fellowship” always means partnership, participation, etc., then I prefer the word fellowship, because it also implies “unity”. When I am in fellowship with God and other believers, I am in partnership with them and in unity with them. (No coffee or doughnuts required.) I could be in a “partnership” at a business level, with people for whom I had long since lost all respect, or whom I did not trust at all, anymore. The partnership would be real, and legally binding, but unity would be non-existent, and fellowship would be unthinkable as a word to describe our relationship.
The Philippian church had served as Paul’s fellow-workers in Christ, from the beginning. That’s the kind of thing to make any veteran missionary grateful. We fellowship in the person of Christ, when we talk of things that pertain to His glory, when we worship together, sing praises together, witness together, study together, and/or serve together, in sharing the Gospel with those around us. Even when we are apart, working at our assigned tasks, we are partners in the Gospel: we have in common the Love of Christ, and we are in unity regarding our priorities and worship. That’s real fellowship: the kind Paul is talking about, here. What would have to change in our churches to make this kind of fellowship a living reality? (There’s something to ponder….) And they had evidently born fruit, as we will see later. What kind of fruit?
Thanksgiving for Fruitfulness
Every faithful man or woman of God is hoping to bear fruit that will bring eternal glory for God. The Fruit of the Spirit is certainly one sort of fruit-bearing, and we will discuss that subject more fully, later on; but the other kind of fruit-bearing is found in spiritual reproduction: leading others to Christ and then raising them up as genuine disciples. There are few greater joys than that of seeing one’s children in the Lord walking with the Lord, and leading others to Him. Evidently that is what the Philippian believers had been doing; and it brought constant joy to Paul.
Thanksgiving for Future Fulfillment
6 Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:
Paul’s confidence, even in his absence, is that the Lord Jesus Himself would continue the work in their lives. This verse (Philippians 1:6) is frequently used as a verse to teach assurance of salvation…and it does teach that. But the primary teaching in this verse is that the Lord will continue His work in their lives, and continue to perfect it, or carry it to completion, until either they go home to be with Him, or He comes to get them.
In a broader context, it could be argued that since it says “until the day of Jesus Christ”, it could mean that the Lord will continue to complete the church until the rapture. That’s a possible understanding, and certainly true, but considering the rather personal tone of this book, it seems more likely that we are to gain confidence from this passage that God will not give up on us, personally, and that He will continue to patiently, individually, mold us into the likeness of Christ until the end. That is the way I take it, personally, and it is especially precious to me in that light, as I frequently have felt myself to be a failure, and have wanted to just give up.
I remember one particular time, driving home from work, in deep depression, and grieving over my inability to walk with the Lord in a stable manner, I said, “OK, then, I quit! I cannot do this!” This verse instantly came to mind, as God quietly assured me that He was not quitting. I confessed my lack of faith, thanked Him, and was strengthened to press on.
Thanksgiving for Shared Bonds
7 Even as it is meet for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart; inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel, ye all are partakers of my grace.
8 For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.
Paul feels extra confident about these particular saints, because he has seen how they have faithfully joined him in the work; not allowing themselves to be “put off” by his imprisonment, but taking full partnership in his ministry. He says, you were “partakers of my grace”—partners in Paul’s gift of apostleship. In light of this, He calls on God as his witness that he greatly longs after them, and specifically that this longing is fully in keeping with the heart of Christ—however Jesus feels toward his beloved flock, that’s how Paul is feeling toward them.
I wish I could consistently say that of myself. Unfortunately, I am all too human, and frequently forget that this is God’s beloved flock, and just grumble to myself about the behavioral problems of sheep in general, including myself. But what if we earnestly prayed for one another, and gave thanks regularly for the Grace of God in one another’s lives? Wouldn’t that tend to change our perspective? It is hard to grumble against someone for whom you are constantly in prayer. Thanksgiving is an important part of maintaining unity. This is something I want to see changed in my life as a believer.
Paul was genuinely thankful for the brethren. We need to be that way, too. How do I know?
God says it is His will for us!
Thanksgiving and the Will of God
1st Thessalonians 5:16-18 says,
16 Rejoice evermore.
17 Pray without ceasing.
18 In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus, concerning YOU!”
God has clearly stated that our giving thanks is part of His will for us. Over in Romans 1:21, it says that the people, when they knew God, did not glorify him as God, and they were not thankful. And what was the result? The scripture says that “their foolish hearts were darkened, and they became vain in their imaginations”: they succumbed to idolatry, turning their backs on the reality of God.
Gratitude toward God keeps our attention pointed toward Him. We need to move back toward thankfulness, gratitude, and the common courtesy of giving God his due honor. We need to honor him with our lives as the Creator and Master and Sustainer of all things. And, since He commands us to give thanks in ALL things, perhaps the very best move we can make regarding “difficult” people is to pray for them and give thanks.
In the meantime, let’s at least take Paul’s example, and pray for the brothers and sisters around us, giving thanks for them, and rejoicing that God has made His Grace known to them as well as to us. We can rejoice in the fellowship and partnership we can have with them in God’s work.
Next time, we will continue and see the things Paul specifically prayed for in the believers’ lives.
Lord Jesus, teach our hearts, and draw us along in your Love and Grace. Teach us a heart of gratitude for one another, and love for one another.