‘I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now’ (Philippians 1:3-5).
Although togetherness in Christ is implicit from the outset of the letter to the Philippians, the word ‘fellowship’ does not occur until 1:5. We have seen in previous articles that believers are united both in Christ and in the church. Now Paul unveils a further dimension of togetherness – ‘fellowship in the gospel’. What a wonderful expression this is!
Francis Thompson (1859–1907) wrote of those who are blind to the kingdom of God,
‘Tis ye, tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
Equally, fellowship in the gospel is a ‘many-spendoured’ thing. As Paul describes it here in Philippians 1, it has at least nine elements: thankfulness, prayerfulness, endurance, confidence, affection, grace, defence and proclamation, knowledge and fruitfulness.
Consider them with me – but remember that though there are many ‘spendours’ there is but one ‘thing’, namely, togetherness in the gospel. Its many aspects are not disconnected features but different facets of a single jewel.
Thankful to God
‘I thank my God upon every remembrance of you’, writes the Apostle. In the bleakness of his prison cell his heart warms as he thinks of his friends in distant Philippi. He remembers the joy of their conversion to Christ, the way they welcomed him into their homes, their hunger for the word of life.
Every believer should be thankful for his or her church family. Whether we think of them individually or corporately, our thoughts should issue in gratitude to God.
Those who are strong in the Lord will excite our admiration and imitation. Those who are weak will evoke understanding and sympathy. Those who are young in the faith will call forth tenderness and patience. Those who are advanced in years will engender support and respect. But whoever they are, we should thank God daily for the privilege of knowing them in Christ.
Is this how we regard our brethren in Christ? Or do we complain to God about their faults and weaknesses? Many feel that their churches are cold and unsupportive. But perhaps the problem lies in our own perception – our ingratitude to God for the blessings of togetherness in Christ.
But Paul doesn’t just remember, he also prays: ‘always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy’ (v.4). Prayer is a reflex action whenever these people come to the Apostle’s mind. Does this happen when we think about our fellow believers?
When, for whatever reason, they enter our conscious thoughts, do our brethren in Christ invoke prayer and joy? Do we spontaneously bear them up before the Lord, rejoicing in God’s grace in them and our fellowship with them in the gospel? If we do, our minds will be filled with happiness as we recall that they are chosen of God and precious in his sight. If we fail to do so, we forfeit both contentment and joy.
Paul is thankful also for their enduring fellowship. His togetherness with the Philippians did not cease when he left their city, nor had time and distance dulled the sense of oneness. Their common bond in Christ – ‘from the first day until now’ (v. 5) – was far too strong to be interrupted by the mere circumstances of time and place.
For each of us the past is populated with encounters and relationships with fellow Christians that were precious at the time. Do we do our best to keep these memories alive by active prayer and thankfulness? Do we diligently remember those who labour on distant mission fields? Togetherness in the gospel spans the years and encompasses the earth.
The aphorism ‘out of sight; out of mind’ will find no place in the sentiments of those who fellowship in the gospel.
Paul’s gratitude to God produces confidence – he is ‘confident … that he who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ’. The apostle is thankful that Christian togetherness is for ever! Have you ever thought about that? You will spend eternity with that brother you dislike and that sister who has caused you grief. Assuming they are truly God’s children, God’s good work in them is ongoing and will one day be complete – to the praise of the glory of his grace – regardless of their faults and frailties.
But given those frailties, how can Paul be so sure? Because his confidence is in God, not man. Although he strives to ‘present every man perfect [complete] in Christ Jesus’ (Colossians 1:28), Paul recognises that it is God, not man, who works in his children ‘both to will and to do of his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2:13, AV).
If we share this confidence we shall take a long view of the imperfections of our fellow believers. As we fellowship with them in the gospel, we shall learn patience and the grace of forgiveness and forbearance.
The Apostle traces his confidence concerning the Philippians back to his love for them: ‘just as it is right for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart … for God is my witness, how greatly I long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ’ (vv. 7-8).
His reasoning seems to be this: God has given me a love for these people just because, like me, they are his children. My affection for them is not natural but supernatural – the result of togetherness as beneficiaries and fellow workers in the gospel. The fact that I love them is evidence that God is graciously at work in their hearts and lives.
There can be no question that God implants in every believing heart a love for those who are in Christ: ‘we know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren’ (1 John 3:14). But the converse is also true – the affection we have for the brethren is evidence of their state of grace, not just our own! It is appropriate, therefore, that we should be confident concerning their present state and future destiny as fellow-heirs of Christ’s kingdom.
Paul’s conclusions are summed up in the single statement, ‘you all are partakers with me of grace’ (v.7). Here lies the communion of saints, the ultimate cause of their togetherness and mutual love.
In Scripture ‘grace’ is a divine attribute. It means God’s propensity to give and also, by derivation, that which is freely given by God to undeserving sinners. ‘By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves – it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast’ (Ephesians 2:8). Believers are drawn together by this gospel grace.
People naturally gravitate towards their own kind. This is the root of all tribalism, nationalism and racism. But the tendency is not without redeeming features, and one such case is the commonality of those who have experienced the grace of God.
Notice how Paul emphasises the inclusiveness of grace: ‘you are all … with me …’ Grace is, at one and the same time, the great leveller and the great unifier. Being saved and sustained by grace alone, none can boast above another. Being partakers together of grace, all share the same commonwealth of faith, the same hope of glory.
Grace allows neither distinction nor separation, for all alike were poor and have been made rich by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 8:9).
The next article will consider the remaining aspects of ‘togetherness in the gospel’.