Good Congregational Practices (2)
While working as a missionary in Italy, one of the great joys we remember fondly were those times that a congregation would send us a “care package”. Sometimes the package would have food goods, sometimes it would have current magazines and books, and then sometimes it would have small toys. One of our favorite things was the original letters that second and third graders would often send. “Dear Sister Robison, I hope you like pizza in Italy. I really like it. Your friend, Sally.” “Dear Bro. Robison, do missionaries do anything besides teach people? I hope you are having fun!” Your pal, Randy. “Dear Bro. and Sis. Robison, what is the weather like in Italy? I'm Kate. We had 2 inches of rain yesterday. Gotta run. See you later.” Those little notes really brightened our day, and we appreciated the teachers who had worked with the children to provide them. We also felt that those notes needed a special answer. So, we'd go and buy postcards with photos of our city and our area, and we'd try to put our answers to their questions on a different postcard addressed to each child. We'd then mail all the postcards to the teacher of the class so that she could pass them out to each child, and then we hoped that the children might all share their cards with each other. We hoped that this also made our world and the Italian culture a little more real to these children as well. Isn't it wonderful that God's family, the church, is spread all over the globe and is made up of people from all kinds of cultures!
In previous lessons from Philippians, we learned some steps to enhancing unity, some ways to imitate Paul, and some realities of our Christian race. In our last lesson, we discovered six secrets to strengthening congregations in the first part of chapter four. In the last part of chapter four, we'll discover six more secrets to strengthening congregations.
First of all, the secret of contentment is learning to rely on Christ for our strength. Let's reread our text starting in v. 11: “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Paul is continuing to thank the Philippian congregation for the gift that they sent to him. He wants them to know that he did not feel he was in a terrible situation because he has learned to be content in whatever situation he found himself. Now remember, Paul is writing all these thoughts while being chained to a Roman soldier under house arrest! Paul must not have watched too much television. Isn’t it amazing how those commercials make us think that we need Product A, and Product B, and Product C in order to be successful, influential, and well liked? We often think that circumstances can determine our contentment: “If I had this watch, and $100,000, and this car, and another $100,000, and a boat, and another $100,000, and so on, then I’d be content!” Paul’s approach is different because Christ is at its center. When Paul says, “I know how to be abased”—that word “abased” is the same one that we find in 2:8 where it says that Jesus humbled Himself and became a man. Paul was saying, “Just like Jesus did, I can humble myself to live in lowly circumstances.” On the other had, Paul also knew that the source of abundance was Christ. So Paul is also saying, “In times when Jesus blesses me, I can satisfy myself to live in those blessed circumstances.” Someone has said, “Contentment is looking at a situation as it really is and going on in devoted service to God without letting that situation consume you” (Barnes). In whatever condition Paul found himself, he discovered God's will for that situation and made the best of it (Martin). But in addition to this approach, then notice that Paul reveals that the real source of his strength is Jesus: “I can have the strength to overcome all things [meaning all circumstances in this context] though the Messiah who empowers me!” The source of Paul’s power to overcome was Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God! What circumstances have impacted your life—the loss of a job, a crisis of faith, a vicious work cycle with a seemingly hopeless future, the death of a child or a mate—draw strength from our Master’s empowering touch on your shoulders! Thanks be to God that He gives us power daily to endure hardships and to conquer our circumstances! Christ was the secret of Paul’s serenity (Ibid.). The secret of contentment is learning to rely on Christ for our strength.
Secondly, the secret of kindness is sharing in one’s trouble by offering practical help. Let’s look again a verse 14: “Nevertheless you have done well that you shared in my distress. Now you Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only. For even in Thessalonica, you sent aid once and again for my necessities.” Paul praises the Philippian brethren for their genuine concern. They knew that Paul was in prison, so they sent a gift to lift his spirits. So Paul says that they did well to share in his troubles. Then he goes on to praise this church for their continuing generosity. This is not the first time that this congregation has helped Paul. No, they had helped Paul repeatedly by sending something to help him with his needs. In fact, Paul says that they are the only congregation that helped him out in this way. You see, the Philippian brethren were genuinely concerned about Paul and his welfare, and they showed their concern and kindness by offering some very practical help. One commentator said, “The bond of Christian affection between them showed itself in the practical expression of their gift.” Do we love our missionaries and have we been kind to them lately? You show that kindness through practical help. Have we written to or called them lately? Have we sent them something to help with their work? I’ll tell you, missionaries like getting books with sermon ideas, with good tips on how to build up a local congregation, and with good insights to understanding the culture in which they are working. This is their job and their livelihood. But missionaries also like news magazines, bulletins from the congregation, and e-mails that keep them posted on what’s happening in America and in the local church. As I mentioned earlier, missionaries even like those great notes that children write! Now if you really want to go all out, why not send some folks on our missions committee over to visit with those missionaries? You know, the old proverb that a picture is worth a 1000 words. Well, a visit to the mission field is worth a 1000 newsletters! There is nothing like getting to experience the culture, even for a brief time that the missionary is living in. When you visit, the missionary knows that you really do care because you sacrificed time, money, and your church family to be there! Yes, the secret of kindness is sharing in one’s troubles by offering practical help.
Thirdly, the secret of relationships is thankfulness. Let’s read again verse 17: “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that abounds to your account. Indeed, I have all and abound. I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you.” Paul disclaims that he has been covetous in seeking a gift (Martin). In fact, he focuses more on the givers than on the gift itself (Barnes). The word “fruit” has the meaning of “interest,” like that in a bank account (Martin). The Philippian brethren were laying up for themselves treasures in heaven, weren’t they? Their gift was very rewarding to Paul. What they gave would pay rich dividends in the service of the kingdom as well (Ibid.). Paul says that he was abounding or riding high with this gift! I am full could also be translated “I am paid in full” through your gift which Epaphroditus has brought (Harrell)! Epaphroditus was a personal blessing as well! The Gospel of grace that Paul preached has resulted in gracious assistance (Ibid.). So Paul is truly thankful for this gift and its bearer and the care and generosity that it has shown. This was Paul’s unusually way of saying, “Thank you, my dear Philippian brethren.” Someone has said, “Our favorite attitude should be gratitude.” Someone else has called gratitude the parent of all other virtues. Another has said that gratitude is the most exquisite form of courtesy. There’s a humorous little joke about the man who gave a woman his seat on the bus, and she fainted. When she revived, she thanked him, and then he fainted! The secret of relationships is thankfulness. You know, if Christians can’t be thankful and express their gratitude to others and to one another, then something is wrong with their Christianity. Some has stated that the two most powerful words in the English language are “Thank you.” The secret of relationships is thankfulness.
Fourthly, the secret of giving is that God will be pleased. Let’s look at v. 18: “I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God. And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus. Now to our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.” Paul switches from business language to temple language. Paul compares the gift to incense with a sweet smell. When we help someone who’s hurting, that is the perfume that God prefers (Barnes). The gift is compared then to an acceptable sacrifice with which God would be pleased. Our gifts not only promote Christ’s cause but they are an action in which God takes great pleasure. Isn’t this the secret of giving—knowing that God will be pleased by our offering and knowing that His name will be glorified? Paul then lets the Philippian brethren know God would not fail to meet their needs as they had not failed in meeting his needs (Martin). The Philippian brethren’s generous service would be rewarded, and God Himself would supply whatever was lacking through the abundance that He offers through Christ (Ibid.). Paul then gives the glory to God for all that he has, but notice also that he says “our Father” in verse 20, to include his beloved Philippian brethren. It is their blessing that Paul is seeking, and not his own (Harrell). An elder once observed, “From this we can learn that the only way we can truly keep is to invest in the Lord. Giving to Him we know that your money will never be lost, wasted, or misused. For where could our possessions be better off, in our hands, or in the hands of Him who gave us power to obtain it in the first place? No more meaningful epitaph was ever engraved than that which says, ‘What I kept, I lost; what I spent, I used; what I gave, I have’” (Layton). Let’s remember when we give a gift to help a missionary, or canned goods to help an orphanage, or bottled water to help in a disaster, we are sharing the perfume that God prefers and offering the acceptable sacrifice with which He will be pleased. And, as many a generous Christians have told me, “You can never out give God.” The secret of giving is that God will be pleased.
Fifthly, the secret of fellowship is seeing that all members are important. Look at verse 21: “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brethren who are with me greet you.” Paul wants everyone in the congregation at Philippi to be greeted. We know that the word “saints” is not referring to some especially holy person who has the recognition of a State religion. No, Paul uses the term to refer to those who are members in a local congregation. Paul wants every member in the Philippian church to receive a greeting. Nobody is to be excluded. And Paul's coworkers also send their brotherly greetings to the congregation in Philippi. Our Italian and Spanish brethren have a wonderful custom. Whenever a brother or sister comes into their place of worship, they must shake hands and give a holy kiss to everyone else in the building before they can sit down. And likewise, after the services, everyone is to be greeted before one departs. Yes, it’s a small thing, but it lets every person know that they are appreciated and significant. Yes, it does take some time to give all those greetings so you learn to come a little earlier and stay a little later. Remember the passage in 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul makes that beautiful analogy between the church and a body. I’m reading from verse 20: “But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.” Every person in the body is necessary. Every person in the body is indispensable. Every person in the body should be cared for. If we can have this kind of closeness, then our fellowship will flourish. “If we knew each other better, we would praise where we now blame. We would know each bears his burden, wears some cross of hidden shame. We would feel the heartaches bitter they so long have borne. If we knew each other better, we would praise instead of scorn. If we knew each other better, You and I and the rest, seeing down beneath the surface to the sorrows all unguessed. We would quit our cold complaining and a hand of trust extend. If we knew each other better, we would count each one a friend.” Let's extend our hands and our hearts to everyone. “Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians. 6:2). The secret of fellowship is seeing that all members are important.
Sixthly, the secrets of encouragement are a worldwide fellowship and Christ's grace. Let's read the last two verses: “All the saints greet you, but especially those who are of Caesar's household. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” The Gospel had penetrated to the highest positions in the empire if it had reached some who were in Nero's household (Coffman). Some of the Christians in Rome, perhaps even some of those listed in Romans 16, were sending their brotherly greetings to the brethren in Macedonia. Isn't it an encouragement to know that our fellowship is international, and there are brethren all over the world? The new hymn has it right: “May we bring a word of hope to the nations, a word of life to the peoples of the earth till the whole world knows there's salvation thru Your Name. May Your mercy flow thru us! May we sing a song of joy to the nations, a song of praise to the peoples of the earth till the whole world rings with the praises of Your Name. May Your song be sung thru us! May you song be sung thru us!” Christ redeems and unites people from every culture, nation, and tribe! Thanks to those on our missions committee for their reports which help us to see that the church extends beyond our borders! Paul then closes his letter to his “joy and crown” church with an emphasis on Christ's grace. Truly, Christ's amazing grace is an encouragement to us all! We are blessed beyond anything we can ever earn, and living in His grace means living in continual forgiveness and mercy (Barnes). If Christ's grace rules our spirit, we will be graceful in our judgments, graceful in our words about others, and graceful in our dealings with people around us (Ibid). Christ's grace begets gracious disciples! One brother has correctly observed: “Only Christ can live the Christian’s life. But He can live it in you! Man refuses to be totally dependent upon God. In this definition, we are all on grace” (Hodge). The secrets of encouragement are a worldwide fellowship and Christ's grace.
A man moved to Arizona and settled on a farm with his family. One night a fierce desert storm struck with rain, hail, and high wind. At daybreak, feeling sick and fearful of what he might find, the man went to survey the damage. The hail had beaten the garden into the ground, the wind had partially unroofed the house, the henhouse had been blown down, and dead chickens were scattered about. Destruction and devastation were everywhere. While standing dazed, evaluating the mess and wondering about the future, the man heard a stirring in the lumber pile that was the remains of the henhouse. A rooster was climbing through the debris, and he didn't stop climbing until he had mounted the highest board in the pile. That old rooster was dripping wet, and most of his feathers had blown away. But as the sun came over the eastern horizon, he flapped his bony wings and proudly crowed! Satan would like to destroy our congregation, but if we will practice the six secrets that we learned today, we can survive his storms: let's be content in the Lord, let's show kindness in the Lord, let's practice thankfulness in the Lord, let's be generous in the Lord, let's see all members as important in the Lord, and let's find encouragement in the Lord! Then, as the rooster who proudly faced the rising sun, we can proudly face our Lord when He returns again to take us to our eternal home! “And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus. Now to our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.”