Philippians 1:1&2 “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Philippi is a European town in Macedonia where Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece now intersect. Paul had been constrained by God to go there with the good news of Jesus Christ, and gather into a church all who would receive his message. Over a decade later, their pastor is now in jail. The members cannot get over that fact or beyond it. It has given them great grief. They cannot see any rational for this incarceration. Let God open the prison doors and give Paul his freedom. The Lord had done that unforgettably when one of their own members had been a jailer and Paul was in the prison at Philippi. Why didn’t God do it again? This perplexity is continually there at the back of their minds and then, one day, a man with a deeply lined face comes into the church meeting. His name is Epaphroditus. He was a member of their church and had made the long journey to Rome months earlier to visit Paul. He has this very letter from the apostle which we have just read, which for the first time ever was going to be read to a congregation.
As the custom was at his time the letter commences with the name of the writer: ‘Paul’.
1. THE APOSTLE PAUL WAS THE AUTHOR OF THIS EPISTLE.
Paul was an extraordinary man. Three things stand out about him. Firstly that he was a thinker, a man with a penetrating mind, one of the great intellects of all human history. Of course, he knew the Hellenistic Greek world, its poets and traditions But, more important, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament. But most important of all, that there was very little that the Lord Jesus Christ said and did with which Paul was unfamiliar. Certainly the knowledge which this contemporary of Christ had of the Saviour was more wide-ranging than the knowledge which all the modernist scholars in the world today put together have. Secondly, there was Paul’s iron will. He had an invincible determination to serve God by taking the gospel to all men. So he could peacefully endure persecution confident it would only advance the kingdom of God. He was unbending in his commitment to the message God had given him, but amazingly accommodating on matters of people’s cultural traditions. Thirdly, and why through our lives we are continually drawn to this man, there is Paul’s marvellously loving heart. The Saviour who had forgiven him when he was a bigoted persecutor and made him one of his apostles had shed abroad his own love in Paul’s heart so that his life overflowed with lasting, humble gratitude. That was what William Guthrie famously referred to as “the expulsive power of a new affection.” This new love had come into Paul’s life and pushed out the old.
An acquaintance of mine once entered a park on cold February day and his eyes were drawn to a circle of twelve elm trees. Eleven of them were bare, but the twelfth was covered in dead leaves. He pointed this out to the park-keeper who he told him that that tree was dead, that it had been struck by lightning last summer. Live trees have a mechanism by which they shed their dead leaves in the fall, but dead trees cling to their dead leaves. So it is with the Christian. The new love that comes into us at regeneration begins to expel old attitudes. The dead leaves of fleshly enthusiasms are steadily shed.
Donald Grey Barnhouse recollected giving up some of his childish occupations. One day he was playing marbles with a group of small boys and some older boys came by. They looked at him and said, “Hey, kid, can you field a ball?” “Sure I can,” he replied with more enthusiasm than honesty. “Well,” they said, “we are short of a fielder. Get out there and see what you can do.” So Barnhouse went out and was ready to play his heart out to keep up with the older boys. When it was his turn to bat he was ready to swing until he burst, and run until he dropped, and do everything he could to keep up with these big boys. And when the game was over, and those big boys, with whom he now classed himself, walked down the street past the little fellows playing marbles, Barnhouse did not go back to marbles. He had graduated. He did not give up marbles, marbles gave him up. So a new love came to Saul of Tarsus giving him a totally new values and motives for living, and he shed his old affections. That is the expulsive power of a new affection.
So here is this extraordinary figure of the apostle Paul. Someone has claimed that Paul is probably the best known man of antiquity. As J. Gresham Machen acknowledged, “There are men whom one never comes to know. There are men with whom I have had contact day after day and year after year, and whom I have never come to know. There are other men into communion with whom I can come by the briefest intercourse. So it is with the apostle Paul. Without a touch of morbid introspection, without vanity, in the most natural and genuine way, he has allowed us a glimpse into his very inmost soul. He has revealed to us the depths of his life; he has revealed that which makes him great in the history of the world” (J.Gresham Machen, “What Is Christianity?”, Eerdmans, 1951, p.40). We know Paul and that knowledge is wonderfully life-transforming. How we all need to understand and apply to our lives more profoundly his teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ.
Dr Francis L. Patton once wrote, “The only hope of Christianity is in the rehabilitating of the Pauline theology. It is back, back, back to an incarnate Christ and the atoning blood, or it is on, on, on to atheism and despair.” There is no greater need in Wales today than that in a thousand pulpits across the Principality a thousand godly men should teach congregations the truths of God as recorded in all Paul’s letters. There can be no hope for the survival of our culture without that. Indeed without Paul’s gospel our civilisation will be unworthy to survive.
So how does he begin this letter to the Philippians? ‘Saint Paul to the Christians at Philippi?’ No! It is quite different: ‘Slave Paul to the saints at Philippi.’ He, like his companion Timothy, was a servant of Christ Jesus. The personal name ‘Jesus’ means either ‘he will certainly save’, or ‘Jehovah is salvation’ which is basically the same thing. It is preceded by the official designation ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ which means ‘Anointed’. To the anointed Jesus Paul has been appointed a servant. There is divine sovereignty here. God chooses and appoints men to his service. The Servant of the Lord in Isaiah’s letter is designated there as God’s elect. The Lord Jesus chose his apostles to follow him. “You did not choose me,” he told them, “but I have chosen you.” That selection was a gift of God’s grace. But there is human responsibility also in being one of God’s servants. Christ does not conscript men to work for him. He makes us willing to give up all our rights and serve him. The Greek word ‘doulos’ means ‘bondslave’ and such a person had no freedoms of his own. He had no property, time, possessions or family of which he could say to his master, “Back off! This is MINE!” All that he was, and all he had belonged to his master, and so it is with the servants of Jesus Christ. This is the life which the Christian has chosen: “From now on I am not my own. I am Christ’s property.”
There were Old Testament slaves, but each seven years their slavery had a termination, and then they were given the freedom to leave their masters and enjoy their liberty. But some of those who could choose freedom realised how tough it would be to maintain oneself in a rugged and cruel world. Their masters cared for them, and some slaves never wanted to leave their households. The Law provided a way for this chosen bondslavery to be maintained. The servant would be taken to the tabernacle where the priest would lead him to the doorpost and bore a hole in the lobe of his ear with an awl. From that time on he was the slave of his master. He was known as a bondslave. He could have been free, but he chose to remain as the slave of a loving master. Wherever he walked, his pierced ear proclaimed the character of his master. Francis Ridley Havergal puts her relationship with her Lord in one of her hymns thus:
I love, I love my Master,
I will not go out free,
For he is my Redeemer;
He paid the price for me.
I would not leave His service
It is so sweet and blest;
And in the weariest moments
He gives the truest rest.
That is what Paul is saying at the beginning of this letter: “I am writing these words to you not as a prisoner of Caesar but as someone whose God-given choice is to be a bondslave of Jesus Christ.” He has been given the honour of becoming a servant of Christ. He has chosen the life of utter submission to his Lord. Paul was in chains in Rome as he serves the Lord and so he could be at peace – ‘an ambassador in bonds.’ Joseph was in prison not because of anything that he had done wrong. He was where God determined him to be. As I speak these words Ian Stillman languishes in prison in India, not because of any crime that he has committed but as a bondslave of Jesus Christ. He is where his Master would have him be. The assurance that this is part of God’s plan keeps him and his loved ones peaceful, faithful, and obedient in maintaining God’s testimony about him, and also going through every lawful procedure for his freedom.
I have spoken too much of Paul and not enough of the One he served. Notice in the opening two verses of this letter that Jesus Christ is mentioned three times and God the Father once. How astonishing! Throughout his life the Lord Jesus said and did things which amazed and bewildered people, even his own disciples. They kept saying things like, “What’s this?” and “Who is this?” The Bible gives hundreds of answers to such questions. He is both the lamb of God and the shepherd. He is a suffering servant but also a lord. He is the son of Mary and the son of God. He is the Saviour who did not save himself, the defender of the weak who did not defend himself. He is the sinless one who died the death of the most criminally evil man. He is the living water who almost died of thirst. He is the king of creation whom godless squaddies nailed to a cross. He is the light of the world who was extinguished and put in the bushel of a sepulchre with a stone rolled over the entrance – only to blaze to light gloriously again. He is Lord and God of Paul, and of the church at Philippi, and of me too. That is New Covenant Christianity.
If we would understand this epistle, and if we would know God’s blessing on our lives, and if we would live useful lives in the church and in the world then there is only one way and that is in becoming a Christian, that is, in being true servants of the Lord Jesus Christ.
2. ALL THE RECIPIENTS WERE SAINTS.
This word ‘saint’ occurs almost fifty times in the New Testament. It is the most popular designation for a follower of Jesus Christ. Of course, men have narrowed down the reference of that term considerably. They use it for some kind of elite or a specially sanctified group within the Christian church. Men speak of ‘St. Michael’ or ‘St. David’ a form of speaking which the New Testament nowhere uses and would not condone. I think we ought to avoid that usage very studiously.
In the Roman church it is a reference to those dead members of the Roman church who have been canonised because of their alleged miracle-working powers. There is the case of the Albanian called Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu who was born in Macedonia in 1910 and died in 1997. She took on the name ‘Mother Teresa’ and the Vatican has told the world that she is being put on the fast track to becoming a saint. There are already claimants who declare that they have prayed to her soul for the healing of family members. A child has recovered and the parents have claimed that it must be through the power of the dead Agnes Bojaxhiu who has answered that prayer. Such a ‘miracle’, when the Roman church has officially announced it to be such (which is as inevitable as the sun rising tomorrow), upgrades the soul of Agnes so that she becomes a more than ordinary Christian. She becomes a ‘saint.’ Henceforward millions more will try praying to ‘Saint Teresa’ for better jobs, and finding husbands, and getting their loved ones healed. The same machinery is going to be adopted for the present pope after his days are over. He will be canonised through people claiming miracles have been done when they prayed to him, and he too will be pronounced a ‘saint’.
That mentality is not a New Testament concept. In the Bible every single Christian, no matter how humble or ordinary, is in the sight of God a saint. The whole fellowship of the Christian congregation in Philippi were saints, every one of them. This is the designation of every member of the church community. Even when there are manifest inconsistencies and serious backslidings, as, for example, in the church at Corinth, you will find that even there believers are referred to as ‘saints in Christ Jesus.’ So Paul is not addressing his words to a certain section of the more spiritual people in Philippi whom he acknowledges as ‘the saints’ in the church – those who have qualified for sainthood by being believers for many years, or those who have had special uplifting experiences of God – but they are all saints. Every mere Christian is before God a saint. Let the Roman church reform its ideas in the light of the Word of God.
That title ‘saint’ is given, first of all, because of the status or position of the child of God. He stands in a special relationship to God. He has been set apart, or consecrated to a holy use. God has made him his bondservant and so he is a saint. That goes right back to the Old Testament where the concept of holiness and the whole idea of sainthood was used of objects or subjects which had in themselves no moral character. For example, there was a holy land. That did not mean that the land had a moral character. It meant it was unique as an area to God with a special city which had a special building, furnishings and utensils, all of which were holy before God. They were not holy first of all because they had a character. They were holy because they had a status. They belonged to God. They were set aside for the Lord’s special use, and first and foremost that is always where a saint is in the New Testament. He is somebody who has been set aside, and called apart. He has been consecrated by grace to God for God’s own special use. A man of God is God’s possession. He does not belong to the world, or even to himself. He is no longer his own. He belongs to God to be used in the way the Lord himself thinks is most fitting and proper. So all believers are saints in the sense that they have been set aside by God for his own use.
That title ‘saint’ is given, secondly, because it does refer to a special kind of character. Every single professing believer in Philippi who has been set apart for God’s use, at the same time possesses a character quite different from the world. He is different not only in his functions but he is also different in his moral and spiritual bearing. He has been transformed by the indwelling Spirit, renewed and made into a new creation. God changes every single Christian in the depths of his being, and he beds and roots into his soul new aptitudes, insights and preoccupations. God causes the whole orientation of his life to be radically and irreversibly transformed.
That is why these Philippians are saints, because at a particular time the power of the Most High overshadowed them and they were never going to be the same again. Everything about them was made new. The grace of God touched them at every level of their lives and all the functions of their souls. Grace made them different people. Not education, nor culture, nor their DNA molecular structure, nor their own self-discipline, but as a result of the invincible power of the Creator God every single one of these saints in Philippi had been changed. This extraordinary experience which can only be explained in terms of a new birth from above had renewed them from the inside out and from the depths of the hearts up to their minds and to their whole way of life. Their experience was a total metamorphosis.
It was not that they became respectable when they became saints. Lydia the trader in purple was already intensely bourgeois before she met Paul. What had happened to her was revolutionary. She was given a completely new attitude to Jesus of Nazareth. She worshipped and loved him. “To me to live is Christ,” she could say. At conversion she had become a saint, and for the rest of her life she was working out the implications of that reality. She was going to become more and more saintly, growing more and more in her joy in Jesus Christ, in her sorrow for sin, her evangelistic earnestness, her mortification of remaining sin, her knowledge of the Scriptures, and so on. Of course she achieved this by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so was being transformed by the renewal of her mind. This congregation were an assembly of saints.
3. THEY WERE SAINTS AT PHILIPPI.
When we started our studies of this epistle, in the previous message, we examined how Paul and this group of men first came to Philippi, and then we looked at the first three converts in the community. We did this in part to impress upon you that this congregation were a real people whose faces and shapes and names were all very different. At Philippi was an ordinary fellowship where you and I would feel very much at home, though as yet they were less privileged than ourselves, possessing very little of the New Testament Scriptures, probably they did not yet have a single gospel. Then this letter to the Philippians, with some of the sublimest teaching in the New Testament, arrived and was read to ordinary men and women. The great passage in the second chapter concerning Christ Jesus being in the very nature God and not considering equality with God something to be grasped, was first read to people like a former slave girl who had been possessed by a spirit, and a jailer and his family. Some of these people had the most disadvantageous spiritual background. They were folk who had been saved off the streets of Philippi; and the grace of God had made them saints.
Saints at Philippi itself. In other words, when they became Christians Paul did not insist that they all got on a boat and they sailed off to live on a Greek island. They were not living their lives serving God in some sort of disaffiliation from their homes. They didn’t pack up and move to caves and mountain fastnesses in some remote commune. They lived to the glory of God in the town of Philippi. There was a place on this planet in the district of Macedonia where they had to remain and live as saints, unspotted from the world. Greece was a depraved and sensual civilisation but in such an environment they had to be saints. They had to live with members of their extended family who initially thought they had become fanatical. There were prejudices and misunderstandings to overcome. Lydia had to continue buying and selling dyes and cloth to support herself and her family. There was farming and industry and commerce and education was all around them in that town, and they were a part of it. They bore their responsibilities, and they exercised their functions in that society which they knew so well, but now looked at with a Christian mind.
At Philippi they were called to be holy to God and the light of that community. If they were living on an offshore island how could they illuminate Philippi? If they were all in a distant mountain valley there would be no light for the city of Philippi. They were called to be the salt of Philippi and one function of salt is to preserve, and resist putrefaction. There was plenty of decay in their city and God had made them the preservative. Salt gives savour to food; it seasons and overcomes the blandness of some dishes. That was their function in Philippi. At a Bible study a Chinese girl once said, “Salt makes you thirsty.” That is a very convicting word. They were called as saints to make the people of Philippi thirsty for Jesus Christ. So they had to live in their midst.
In the world we saints are to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow. We are acted upon by the world, but in turn we act upon the world, involved in its relationships, its problems and sorrows, and exposed to its pressures and pollutions. Yet this is the only place where we can be saints in the world. I am sure that there are times when we want to opt out of our own church, let alone out of our community, and live detached private lives, keeping being courteous, but living in disaffiliation from the world. But withdrawal is a betrayal of the greatest commandment of all, to love one another. Can we really say before God today that our failings and inconsistencies are due to our environment? Is it because we are at our own Philippi’s that we aren’t saints? Is it because we are at Aberystwyth that we’re not saints? Or do we stand before this tremendous possibility that we can be at Aberystwyth and be involved in this little town on a number of different levels and be saints here?
It is God’s calling for us to pursue our vocations as electricians, and plumbers, and taxi-drivers, and translators, and lecturers, and joiners, and housewives, and that as we are involved in our society there is this tremendous possibility of being saints. Not in the 18th century but in the 21st; not in a rural village but in a rationalist college town; not in a Bible school but in a university; not in a monastery but on our street. The believer is to be a saint at 9.30 on Monday morning in what he is doing in the appointed place. He is never to use his involvement as a pretext for unsaintliness. He is never to give way to the temptation of thinking that if only he could detach himself from the world then it would be much easier to be a saint. It is God’s will that at our Philippi day by day we live as saints, and then each Lord’s Day we come out of Philippi, that with Christ we come apart, we close the door, we meet with God and we rest a while and be refreshed. For Lydia it began with a group of women in a place of prayer by the side of a river. We have a quiet place like this each Sunday. Then we return to our own Philippi’s where the unbelief and blasphemy is, and the assassinations, and the suicide bombers, and there in that dark world we are called to be saints. There we shine as lights, and there we function as the salt, and we hold forth the word of life.
We relate to people as human beings. We are not ashamed at all of our Christian position. We don’t live our lives in separate compartments, half in the church and half at work with never the twain meeting. But we live to God here on the Lord’s Day and we relate to the Bible, and to singing to one another in hymns of praise, and we pray, so that here we are saints on Sundays, because if we are not saints here we shall never be saints. Then when we return to our families and places of business and education for the rest of the week, there we are saints too, living with the same obedience to God and love for our neighbours. The same saints in this holy place set apart to meet with God, and then also out in God’s creation.
That is not an easy vocation. Everyone in this congregation should have a copy of the history of the town of Aberystwyth called, “Born on a Perilous Rock.” It is a particularly accomplished story, and the most influential group of people in all its history have been evangelical Christians, whether Padarn in the Celtic church of the fourth century, or the leaders of the evangelical awakening of the 18th century or the Christian leaders of the 19th century including the first principal of the University, Thomas Charles Edwards. His promenade statue portrays him preaching with his Bible in his hand. The chapter on Aberystwyth printers is particularly interesting. The first presses were all set up by Christians to publish gospel books. The first important printer was a man named Samuel Williams who was a member in Tabernacle Calvinistic Methodist church. He published tracts and booklets but in order to stay in business he had to print other materials too. Initially when the strolling players came to the town and put on their dramas he published their play bills, but these people had such a bad reputation. They ran off in the night without paying their rental. He took the printed word very seriously and so he decided, to his own hurt, to stop printing any more advertisements for them, and this conviction was maintained after his death by his wife Esther who continued the work and also by their son Philip. These printers were saints living in Aberystwyth seeking to please their Master and also work in this community. Sometimes they had to make unpopular choices; there are times when saints have an uneasy conscience.
4. THEY WERE SAINTS IN CHRIST JESUS.
Saints in Philippi and saints in Christ Jesus! Here we see some polarity and a certain tension. What a paradox for these saints! In Philippi. In Christ Jesus. They are not allowed to choose the one or the other. When God called them to be his children then in one outstretched hand they were given their geographical location and in the other hand their spiritual location, and they are not permitted to refuse either. All the saints have to take them both by God’s enabling grace. That is the explanation of their saintliness. That is why they are different and that is how they can function at Philippi because they are also united to the Lord Jesus Christ. Some of you are saints, but you are visitors, you are not from Aberystwyth. Then some of you are from Aberystwyth but you are not saints. Yet the majority of you I believe are saints in Christ Jesus in Aberystwyth.
“How do I get united to Jesus Christ?” someone asks. You must get out of your sin and into Christ. There was a man whom Pastor Frank Joshua of Neath once caught red-handed in a shady deal. In self-defence the man said, “You know, I’m good at heart.” “No!” said Frank. That is just where you are not good; if you were good there you would be good all over.” That is true for all of us. Sin is in your heart, and your heart is in sin, and you need to come out of sin and be put in Christ. That is known when you have handed over your heart and life to him. You entrust that old sinful heart to Jesus. He will replace it with a new heart. Of course you do this by God’s grace, but you must do it.
Think of something of great value, like the deeds on your house, and many people have handed them over to a bank or a solicitor that they might keep them safe in a fireproof strong room. Or think of exchanging houses with someone from Canada for three months. You leave the country and you give your car and the keys of your house to someone else who sleeps in your bed and sits in your chairs. Or think of a missionary family in west Africa. They have an only son who is a teenager and he needs to be educated in this country. So they place their only son in the home of another family for a few years. What enables people to hand over items of such value in this way? How do they dare do it? They do it because they have reason to trust those to whom they give the person or object. What reasons might they have for such trust? Their knowledge and experience of those institutions or people. They know that they are trustworthy.
I have bought my cars for the last 25 years from Gwyn, and when a farmer didn’t see me coming and drove in my path I needed a new car. So I called Gwyn and asked him if he had a recent Nissan 1600 cc without high mileage. “Yes, I’ve got a Primera,” he said. “When can you bring it up?” “Saturday,” he told me. So the next Saturday night he and his wife turned up at the Manse. We talked about our churches and families and had a cup of tea, then I asked him the price and wrote him a cheque. Then he said to me, “Come and see it.” So he took me outside and showed me the car which I still have. I earned later on that he had told some friends, “Geoff Thomas paid me for a car without looking at it.” I never thought twice of doing that. I have known Gwyn for 25 years. I know his church. I have heard him pray in Prayer Meetings. I have seen him go through hard times with dignity looking to God without murmuring. I can trust Gwyn because I know Gwyn.
Without trust, and reasons to trust, and things to be handed over in trust, human life would be terrifying. Trust is something you have or don’t have. When you wake up in the early hours of the morning and look at the digital figures on your bedside clock-radio you know how accurate it is. It says 3.35 and it is 3.35. Your knowledge of that clock enables you to trust it. So you read the New Testament and you meet there this person of the Lord Jesus Christ, and as you learn about him you begin to trust what he is and what he says. As your friends speak of him, and his preachers tell you about him, you learn to trust in him more and more – this utterly uninventable Saviour. Many institutions and individuals you can’t trust, but when he says, “Come to me”, then you know you can trust Jesus, and you come. Coming is a movement of your heart and soul enabled by the Spirit of God. You hand over your soul, your very life to the Lord Christ. You keep back nothing. You hand him your brain – your mind – and you say, “Inform me of what I am to live for. Tell me what is the good life, and who is God, and what lies beyond the grave.” As he answers you, then you trust in him more and more, and you entrust yourself to him. That is the evidence that you have been joined to Jesus Christ, that is, that you are in Christ Jesus. Those who are in Christ Jesus trust in him. You can think of that in three ways:
You were in Christ Jesus on Golgotha, planted together with him, as that cross jolted down into its socket, in the likeness of his death. You were joined to the Lamb of God when he was taking away your sin. You stood in all the righteousness and the reconciling power of the death of Christ. You stand today in the whole merit and deservingness of the Lord Jesus, your sin having been completely dealt with by the sacrifice of God the Son in the estimation of a Holy God.
Then you were also in that death of Christ Jesus in your dying to what you used to be. The unbelieving unloving man you used to be no longer exists. He is dead. He cannot be found. Where and when was he put to death? On Golgotha the sentence of death was pronounced and effected upon him. The cross of Christ destroyed him so that he has ceased to be. The non-disciple is dead and gone. He cannot be found no matter where you search for him. Consider my familiar illustration of the old flame of Augustine calling out to him, “Augustine!” as he walked down the street. She did not know that he had been converted. In exasperation she shouted, “Augustine! It is I!” “But it is not I,” the saint called back as he kept going. The old Augustine had died in Christ on Calvary.
Then you were in Christ Jesus when he rose from the dead. That powerful resurrection raised you to new life. Out from your spiritual death you came too, a new person, loving and serving God. In Christ Jesus you were raised up and exalted as the one on whom the Father confers every spiritual blessing.
So, you, with every single Christian, have entrusted yourself to this dying rising exalted Christ Jesus. It means that you are in the righteousness of Christ, that there is no possibility of condemnation, any more than the possibility of further condemnation falling upon the exalted Christ. It means that you are in the newness of Christ, that that same power which defeated death and gave him life has been at work in you giving you life too. It means that you are in the great range of privileges that there are in Christ Jesus, because God has come to bless you as he has blessed his dear Son. So we are in his righteousness, and his newness and blessedness. We are in Philippi or in Aberystwyth, but we are in Christ Jesus too. We are saints in Christ Jesus and we are in the fallen world too.
5. THE FELLOWSHIP OF SAINTS HAD OVERSEERS AND DEACONS.
We mustn’t hurry across that phrase. It is saying something important about these people. These saints were not a bunch of freewheelers. God had put them in the structure of a New Testament church at the same time as he put them in Christ Jesus. They were all baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ. Every congregation is a manifestation of this body, as has been said, “every particular church is a complete church.” Those 3,000 from all the nations who were converted on the day of Pentecost were joined to a body, being baptized by acknowledged leaders, and henceforward, under those men’s leadership, continuing steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship and breaking of bread and prayers. They were not religious rolling stones. So Lydia and her household, the slave girl, the jailer and his family were all in this new, loving, holy and structured relationship, full members of the church, whether bond or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile.
One place there is, beneath the burial sod,
Where all mankind are equalised by death.
Another place there is, the church of God,
Where all are equal who’ve drawn Living Breath.
Christ the Life had become the hub of their lives and they were the spokes, and the nearer they got to the Lord so the nearer they were drawn to one another. They needed one another for encouragement and strengthening. They had different gifts. One would have been soon found explaining the gospel to the citizens of Philippi in a manner that others couldn’t, but another in his turn was exercised by the physical plight of people in the area. As these first Christians met together it became apparent that some had gifts for ministry and others had gifts for receiving such ministry, but there wasn’t one who lacked any gift.
Some were soon recognised as having gifts of leadership and were set apart as overseers or elders. They led and organised the church’s meetings and were zealous for its life and truth. They were responsible for the pulpit, the evangelism, and the saints continuing as saints. There were new people attending the meetings who had immature concepts of Jesus Christ. Some of them thought that he lived on Mount Olympus and was head of all the other gods there. They weren’t allowed to teach or have any involvement with the young people or in the Sunday School while there were muddled. There were those who were thinking that they could still continue to go along to worship at their favourite temples as well as being members of the church, and the overseers had to deal with that attitude. The jailer had questions about his duties to Caesar and they were not straightforward matters and the overseers tried to counsel him.
The deacons, on the other hand, were men who were conscious of the needs in the congregation and sought to organise a ministry to those needs. There was this slave girl discarded by her owners now that she was no longer telling fortunes. How could she survive on the hard streets of Philippi? Who would take care of her? There were converted temple prostitutes. They needed a lot of help. There were pregnant teenagers to be ‘adopted’ by older families in the church and the deacons tried to facilitate that. There is today baby-sitting, help in a crisis, visits to the shut-ins or bedridden, giving lifts in cars, shopping for those unable to visit the stores, practical help for invalids and other needs. Christian people need Christian people. That is how we are made by the God of grace.
The church is not a disorganised collection of people. That’s the haphazard crowd surrounding you in the supermarket, or in the Post Office, or sitting in the railway carriage. They meet there by chance for thirty minutes or an hour and then they go off and you don’t meet again. A congregation is not like that at all. Every week we all come together. The Spirit who puts each new Christian in Christ Jesus also grafts him into the body of Christ, and he gives each one gifts and functions to perform, like the two important gifts mentioned here of overseeing and serving. There was no Christian in Philippi who was not a member of the church. The whole idea was unthinkable. There was one single congregation in the city and every Christian in Philippi belonged to that church. They lived together according to the teaching of this letter as it was applied to them by overseers and deacons. “But those overseers and deacons were perfect men, weren’t they?” you ask. No! They were sinners like ourselves, but you had to give honour to them as imperfect people, as you honour your own father and mother who are fallen creatures redeemed by grace. If you disagreed with those officers you could not leave them and find another church in which to worship. There was no other congregation in Philippi.
Today there are plenty of religious cranks who belong to no congregation at all but will pass judgment on every other. I remember one such man walking outside our church one Sunday morning at 10.30 as a crowd of women students were walking up the steps into the building. He turned to me gesturing and shouting, “They are not wearing hats.” That was it. He did not see a crowd of eager young disciples with their Bibles wanting to know more about how they could know and serve God. He saw them as defiant hatless women. How could someone with his mighty knowledge of the Bible’s teaching become a member of our little church or any church in the town? In his eyes we were unworthy of his membership. He had become a loner – the Christian outsider. He was divorced from the family of faith. He had no contact with us at all. He did his own thing. He has probably found over the Internet a Christian in Timbuktu who believes just what he believes. They imagine that they are in fellowship on the web. There is probably someone reading this sermon on the website in Alice Springs, Australia, who imagines he would be very happy if he were only living the other side of the globe in Aberystwyth hearing me every Sunday. At last he could join a church, but in fact he might soon become very unhappy here as he discovers how we have to limp along together. Some such man, just after the First World War, who seems to have been in brief membership of many congregations in Neath in South Wales, also got disillusioned with Seth Joshua’s awakening ministry there, so he asked Seth for a transfer of membership. Pastor Joshua said to him, “My good friend, it’s not a transfer you need but a tourist ticket!”
The saints at Philippi were all in one church and they needed their leaders, and they loved them and worked with them. Paul obviously respects them by signaling them out in his greeting. He exhorts others elsewhere to respect them: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (I Tim. 5:17). When they had buried the body of John Pugh the founder of the Forward Movement in south Wales a hundred years ago, and the vast congregation had all moved away from the graveside one figure stayed there a long time by himself. A curious man came walking through the cemetery and saw the man and the mountain of flowers, and he said to the man, “Why the commotion? Was he a bishop?” “No,” the little man replied, “He was just a man who spoke to me about Jesus Christ and what the Saviour could do for me.” That’s the task of those whose work is preaching and teaching. In honouring them Paul honours his Saviour who gifted them and appointed them as elders and deacons. They represent this Christ, and answer to him. Their ultimate responsibility is to him.
6. DIVINE GRACE AND PEACE CAME TO THIS FELLOWSHIP OF SAINTS.
How could they live as servants of Jesus Christ, and saints, all within one congregation? Not by their wits but by that grace and peace that never stops coming to them from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (v.2), working in them both to will and to do of the Godhead’s good pleasure.
Is our congregation a reflection of that divine grace and peace? Does our life as a church accord with the glory of that? Is there in our life together those things that should be expected of those who are drinking from the waters of grace and peace that flow to us each day from the throne of God and the Lamb? Are they fruitful? Is there something heavenly about them? Is there majesty and purity and nobility that is in congruity with our status as saints and our privileges to be receiving grace upon grace and peace upon peace? You see the glory of it? Every believer in the fellowship as a humble child of God, united to a risen Saviour, strengthened by Pauline theology, a saint in Christ Jesus.
The citizens of Philippi could not see it. They half killed Paul and Silas. They counted them as the off-scouring of all things. They tried to explain everything about this new religion which had come to town in terms of brainwashing and fanaticism and personality weaknesses and oratory. But here were men and women in Philippi who were also in Christ. They were living extraordinary lives such as Greece had never seen before. Plato could not make people live like that. Pythagoras had totally failed and so had Desmosthenes and all the other classical writers, but Jesus sent his servants there to help the people of Greece and their lives were immediately transformed, and European lives haven’t stopped being changed. The only explanation is the grace and peace of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The grace of God is this, the redeeming power of God delivering men from sin, not merely showing men the way, or pleading with them to be upright characters. It is God himself homing in on this town of Philippi and making it absolutely certain that a business woman and her household, and a slave girl, and a jailor and his family can never be the same again. “They are gong to be saints,” God determines. So sinful unbelief no longer dominates those people’s lives and divine holiness steadily advances shaping and changing these people.
I am asking you if your lives are different from the world’s? Is there something in you which can only be explained by the fact that you who live in Aberystwyth also live in Christ Jesus? I am not talking about wonderful feelings you experience, satisfying as those may be, but what I am talking of is this, that ordinary men and women have been transformed by the grace of God and the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and I am asking if you are numbered amongst them. Like a river glorious it flows to favoured men and women day by day and their lives are not what they once were. Can we say that we are in Christ Jesus? We are saints in Aberystwyth. It seems quite laughable, but the irresistible grace and peace of Father and Son have achieved this in us.
12th May 2002 GEOFF THOMAS