Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"TO ADVANCE THE GOSPEL, PAUL SENDS AN AMBASSADOR TO PHILIPPI."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
So Paul hoped to send Timothy to Philippi shortly. Of what value is that tidbit of information to us today? Not only that: Paul adds in vs 24 that hoped to go to Philippi himself. How does that help us? Neither Paul nor Timothy could go at the drop of a hat, so Paul sent Epaphroditus firstÖ.
Admittedly, we can understand that Paul telling the Philippians his plans is the stuff of real life, and is part and parcel of real letter writing. But why would the Holy Spirit include this information in the Bible He left for us? How is this profitable for our salvation?
Weíve entered a new year. So many of us are still enjoying the holiday period, but we recognize that soon church life will get back into high gear. Consistory meetings, Bible study clubs, catechism instruction, home visits: soon it all starts again. And itís precisely as we stand on the threshold of these activities, brothers and sisters, that Paulís decision in our text is so instructive for us. For with his decision to send Timothy to Philippi Paul puts into practical application the glorious gospel of Christmas heís written about in the earlier part of chap 2.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
TO ADVANCE THE GOSPEL, PAUL SENDS AN AMBASSADOR TO PHILIPPI.
1. Why Paul sends an ambassador.
Why did Paul decide to send somebody to Philippi? To answer the question, we need to review briefly what Paul had written in this letter so far.
The apostle Paul, we recall, was in prison for the sake of the gospel. Prison life in Paulís days differed from prison life today inasmuch as the prison system did not supply prisoners with sufficient food and clothing. The church in Philippi had supported the apostle in his ministry over the years (1:5), and Ėtrue to form- also gave practical help to Paul in prison; presumably by giving a gift of food or clothing (4:10). Epaphroditus, a brother from the congregation of Philippi, delivered the gift to Paul. From this brother Paul also learned the latest about the circumstances of the congregation, and those circumstances gave Paul reason for much gratitude. As Paul says in 1:3: "I thank my God upon every remembrance of you."
Yet the good news Paul heard about the church in Philippi did not mean that this church had reached the goal of perfection. Though Paul thanked his God upon every remembrance of the Philippians (1:3), he straightaway added in vs 4 that he "always in every prayer of mine [makes] request for you all." His continuing request to God is this, "that your love may abound still more and moreÖ" (1:9). The point: yes, there was genuine love for the Lord and for each other, but that love had to grow, it was not yet mature.
The immaturity of that love came out in their conduct towards one another. Yes, they were all brethren together, but No, they did not sufficiently demonstrate to each other the love that ought to characterize children of God. Paul wrote in 2:3 that "nothing [was] to be done through selfish ambition or conceit," and Paul wrote that because the brethren in Philippi were doing things "through selfish ambition or conceit." Paul added that each was to "esteem others better than himself," and he wrote that because in Philippi were true believers who were yet so immature in their faith that they esteemed themselves better than the next person in the pew.
It was in the face of that selfishness that the apostle had laid before the Philippians the example of the Lord Jesus Christ. Chap 2:6: though Jesus Christ from eternity had been in the form of God, He had not insisted upon keeping the privileges that belonged to Godhead. Instead, He had emptied Himself, became a man (Christmas), even a slave, and so went to the cross for the benefit of the unworthy. That example, Paul says, must characterize all Christians everywhere; Christians of Philippi and Christians of Kelmscott, Christians of bygone ages and Christians of todayís modern world are Ėlike Christ did- to look out not only for oneís own interests, but also for the interests of others (2:4).
This was the material to which we listened on Christmas Day. And we recall: the apostle worked out in detail what this self-emptying on Christís part really was and what Christís example means for the Christians of Philippi. Now the question is this: is what Paul wrote in that section to which we listened on Christmas Day Ė1:27-2:18- is what Paul wrote there clear enough, sufficient to prompt the growth Paul wanted amongst the Philippians? If I may ask the question differently: is the preaching by itself sufficient to make the child of God grow in maturity in the Lordís service? Or to put the question differently again: could Paul after he wrote 1:27-2:18 consider that he has fulfilled his duties towards the Philippians, he has told them how they ought to act towards each other, and now Paul can leave the rest to the Lord?
The answer, congregation, turns out to be No. Indeed, that is why Paul intends to send Timothy to Philippi. Yes, the apostle has set the Philippian Christians straight in relation to their selfishness, and told them to empty themselves for each other as Christ did for them. But Paul doesnít leave it at that. The Holy Spirit works faith through the preaching, and causes growth in the Lordís service through the preaching too; we hope, the Lord willing, to hear more about that this afternoon with Lordís Day 25. But the apostle is very aware that the preaching by itself is not sufficient. People also need to see the example of what this Christian life looks like in practice, looks like in the nuts and bolts of peopleís daily lives. That is why in the Old Testament the Lord did more than organize the preaching of the gospel in the sacrifices of the tabernacle; He also scattered Levites throughout the towns of Israel who could explain the gospel to the people, yes, could model the gospel in the way they lived. Notice: these Levites had to live amongst the people, had to breathe the air of daily life, had to speak and live the gospel in the dirt and dust of real life. The people needed not just the preaching coming to them from a distance, from the rarified air of the temple divorced from the trials and tribulations of raising children and tending a garden and paying bills; the people needed to hear the gospel from the mouths of their equals, needed to see the gospel lived out in the lives of people they could relate to.
Paul himself, though, is in prison. Heís not free to travel to Philippi and show in deeds what it concretely means to follow the example of Christ and empty yourself for the benefit of the neighbor. Yes, he looks forward to coming (vs 24) and so give that personal illustration of what heís preaching, but meanwhile he canít come. That is why he says in our text that he hopes, if the Lord provides the opening, to send Timothy to Philippi.
Here, brothers and sisters, we touch on the work of office-bearers, specifically in relation to home visits. If youíll flip back with me a minute to Eph 4, you will notice that the apostle urges the same sense of unity in that chapter as in Phil 2 Ė vs 3. In the context of unity-amongst-brethren he speaks about the gifts the Lord gave to His people, His church. Vs 11: "And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers" Ėfor what purpose?- "for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." Point? Office-bearers are given to encourage the saints to minister to each other, that is, not to be busy with self but to be busy with whatís good for the other. And whatís the purpose in turn of ministering to each other? Vs 13: "till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be childrenÖ." That is: office-bearers are to labor amongst the believers so that these saints reach maturity of faith.
The Philippians love the Lord, and they show their gratitude for Godís grace to them by supporting Paul liberally in his work in spreading the gospel. But theyíre not mature in the Lord, their love needs to grow, and thatís why Paul lays before them the example of Christ Himself together with the instruction to follow this example. But he doesnít leave it at that; he resolves to send Timothy to them so that Timothy can minister to their needs, specifically can model for them in concrete terms what the Christian life should really look like.
That same principle extends into today as well. By the grace of the Lord the gospel is preached Sunday by Sunday so that faith be worked in our hearts and we grow in the Lord. But the Lord Himself considers that more is needed than simply the preaching. For He has given office-bearers to this congregation. These office-bearers Ėand it includes both the elders and the deacons- are to "equip the saints for the work of ministry", to encourage the congregation to "look out not only for [oneís] own interests, but also for the interests of others." That means in practice: the elders and deacons need to enter the homes of the congregation members, understand the circumstances of the home, and there, in that context, apply the preaching to the situation of the home.
The point needs to be clear to the minds of us all. Office-bearers do not visit for the sake of own health. Rather, office-bearers come into the homes of the congregation members as ambassadors of Christ, come because of Christís care for the members of His flock. From heaven on high the ascended Christ causes the gospel of salvation Ėincluding His self-emptying at Christmas and on Good Friday- to be proclaimed in the pulpits of the world. But He doesnít desert the congregation members when they leave the rather protected environment of church for the dust and dirt of real life at home or at work. The ascended Christ sends His elders and His deacons, each according to the specific mandate received, to follow the congregation members into the nuts and bolts of real life, and there speak with them about the gospel they hear in the preaching and draw out the implications of that gospel for the practical lives of these sinners-for-whom-He-died. Thatís the reason why congregation members are to receive their elders and deacons eagerly, and speak with them openly.
I need to draw the point out. Office-bearers indicate they want to visit you. Exactly because Christ sends them do we need to be keen to receive them Ė and not put them off because itís not convenient, or weíd rather not meet them at all. Nor should it happen that when they come part of the family is elsewhere. Similarly, exactly because they come as Christís ambassadors do we need to make it our business to be open with the brothers. Christ knows well what weíre struggling with, and thatís why He sends office-bearers to our address. By us not wanting to be open weíre not hurting the elders and deacons (though our caginess will certainly annoy them!), but weíre hurting Christ in His wish to help us Ė and therefore weíre hurting ourselves also. No, brothers and sisters, be open with the office-bearers, give them insight into your situation, and so allow them to draw out for your benefit the implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ in your life. And you, brothers elders and deacons: keep to yourselves what the congregation members tell you in confidence!
Paul intends to send Timothy to Philippi. Paul fully expects that Timothy will receive full cooperation from the congregation, so that Timothy in turn can send back positive news to Paul. Thatís the last part of vs 19: Paul wants to be encouraged when he hears about how things are in Philippi, specifically, how the Philippian Christians are applying in their own lives the gospel of Christís self-emptying. So it is for every preacher of the gospel. To hear from elders and deacons that the congregation is growing in the Lordís service, is working with the gospel in the specifics of their own home and work situation: there is no greater encouragement for a preacher. Thatís also why it remains a pleasure for me to live and work in the midst of this congregation; the elders and deacons do notice that growth, that working with the gospel in the midst of the flock. To God be all praise!
I come to our second point:
2. Which ambassador Paul sends.
Itís not without reason that Paul intends to send Timothy. Paul explains his choice in vs 20: "For I have no one like-minded, who will sincerely care for your state." After all, vs 21: "all seek their own, not the things which are of Christ Jesus."
Paulís choice of words here is revealing. "Like-minded," Paul writes. To whom? To Paul himself? No, congregation, Paul has just been writing about the mindset of Christ, how Christ emptied Himself for the benefit of others. And Timothy, says Paul, is "like-minded". That is: here is a brother whose service of the Lord and the congregation is not characterized by self-interest. Rather, here is a brother whose service of the Lord and the congregation is characterized by the same self-emptying Christ displayed when He Ėthough true God from eternity- did not insist on the privileges that belong to Godhead but readily laid them all aside in order to serve.
On this point, Timothy was rare, unique. There are other Christians around Paul, people like Luke, Silas, and so many others. Devote men, certainly, in the service of the Lord, and of great assistance to Paul too. But, says Paul of them in vs 21, "they all seek their own, not the things which are of Christ Jesus." One may think here of Paulís teamwork with Barnabas on Paulís first missionary journey. A godly man Barnabas undoubtedly was, but his insistence on taking Mark with them on further missionary journeys led to such contention that the two could no longer cooperate (Acts 15:36ff). Must one speak here of a spiritual immaturity, an insistence on oneís own way? However that may be, here is an example of the brokenness that remains even among office-bearers, so that office-bearers too end up seeking their own instead of the things of Jesus Christ.
But on this point Timothy was different, more mature. His attitude and his actions reflected the attitude and actions of Christ. Thatís why Timothy was the man Paul chose to send to the Philippians. These Philippians have to work with the gospel of Christ, have to learn to live this gospel in the dirt and dust of real life. Since he himself canít come, Paul can find no better model from his own ranks than Timothy; this man can exemplify for the Philippians in real life what Christís self-emptying means in concrete terms for all Christians.
We for our part, congregation, can understand that Timothy can certainly be a blessing for the congregation in Philippi. To hear the gospel is one thing, and so very encouraging; to see the gospel lived out in real life is stimulating, and provides the concrete example to follow.
So it is also with office-bearers today. In His care for those for whom He died, the Head of the Church sends office-bearers into the homes, and would have these office-bearers speak with Godís people about the implications of the gospel in the specific circumstances of that home. But since example means so very much in communicating the exact color of gospel living, it is the will of the Lord that office-bearers, more than anyone else, have the mind of Christ Ė as Timothy did. The preacher of the gospel, the elders and the deacons must all model in their personal and private lives the manner of living that belongs to Christianity. Then yes, no Christian may do things from selfish ambition or conceit, and every Christian in lowliness of mind is to esteem others better than himself (2:3). But this is specifically true of office-bearers! The Holy Spirit put it this way in 1 Peter 5 in His instruction to elders:
"Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flockÖ" (vss 2f).
In his letter to Timothy Paul gives this instruction: "Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity" (1 Tim 4:12). To Titus: "exhort the young men to be sober-minded, in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works" (2:7). It is for this reason that the apostle told the elders of Ephesus to "take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseersÖ" (Acts 20:28). Notice: Paul tells the elders first to "take heed to yourselves". For if office-bearers neglect to have the mind of Christ, fail to empty themselves in order to serve the other by word and deed, they do not build up the congregation but in fact undermine the congregationís growth in the Lord.
So, fellow brothers office-bearers in this church Ėand I speak to myself as much as I speak to you- as we stand on the threshold of a new year of work in shepherding the flock of Jesus Christ in Kelmscott, it is incumbent upon us to look first at ourselves. Specifically, do we in our attitude and actions model to the congregation the conduct that befits those who belong to Jesus Christ? Does the congregation see in us the self-emptying, the service-to-another that Christ illustrated when He set out to save us from our sins? We understand: to be effective in our task as office-bearers this year we need to model this gospel day by day! And so, for the sake of the congregation, we also need to sharpen each other in this manner of living, ever cultivating in each other the self-emptying to seeks to build another up.
Then itís true: not everybody is a Timothy, not every office-bearer either, according to vs 21. But that we all seek to be like-minded to Jesus Christ is distinctly the obligation for every Christian. And thatís why, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, each Christian constantly strives to be renewed more and more after Godís imageÖ (Lordís Day 44).
I come to our last point:
3. How Paul bridges the delay.
The Philippians need a model as Timothy, and need him right away. The difficulty is that Timothy canít go at once. Our text: "I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly." Paul explains the delay in vs 23: "as soon as I see how it goes with me." Timothy evidently has some role to play in Paulís coming trial, and so canít go yet.
So what does Paul do: acquiesce to that situation, and let the Philippian congregation swim on its own for a while? Not so, brothers and sisters, elders and deacons. If Christ Jesus had no regard for self, if Christ Jesus emptied Himself, became a slave to serve and save the lost, Godís people are to do the same. So, for the benefit of the Philippians, the apostle sends back to Philippi the very man who ministers to his personal needs on behalf of the Philippians! The Roman prison system, I mentioned earlier, did not supply prisoners with adequate food and clothing, and so the Philippians sent a gift to Paul to take away some of the discomforts of his imprisonment. They sent that gift with Epaphroditus, and Epaphroditus was to stay with Paul to supply on behalf of the Philippians whatever other needs Paul might have. Thatís exactly what Epaphroditus was doing, and thatís why Paul could describe him in vs 25 as "my brother, fellow worker, and fell soldier" as well as "your messenger and the one who ministered to my need."
But this man who played such a central role in supporting Paul in his physical needs (and other needs too, no doubt) is precisely the man whom Paul sends to Philippi! In other words: Paul fills the delay (for he canít send Timothy straightaway) by sending the very man who works closest to Paul in supplying his needs! You see the point: for the sake of the Philippians Paul empties himself! So Paul himself becomes a role model to the Philippians of the mindset that ought to characterize each Christian Ė that mind of Christ.
And what sort of man was this Epaphroditus? So intent was he in serving Paul ĖChristís preacher to the Gentiles- that he insisted on finishing the journey from Philippi to Paulís prison with the gift he was bearing even though he was mortally ill (vs 27). That is: his eye was not on himself and his own health, but on Christ, and therefore on how he could serve Christís anointed preacher. Vs 30: "for the work of Christ he came close to death, not regarding his life, to supply what was lacking in your service toward me." Therein Epaphroditus again set an example for all the Philippians to follow, and so was a fitting stand-in to encourage the Philippians in the interim of Timothyís delay.
What we have? Timothy, Paul, Epaphroditus: all three labor in Christís kingdom without regard to self. Important to them is not their own skin, their own reputation, their own comfort in life, or even their own holiday; important to all three was Christ, furthering the kingdom of Christ, modeling in their conduct the attitude of Christ. This, brothers office-bearers, is the mindset the Lord requires of each of us. The season begins for us to do our work in the congregation again. "Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself." In consistory work and in home visits, "let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interest of others" Ė and so model to the congregation what Christ did and what attitude each child of God must embrace in the nuts and bolts of daily living.
And: as God has highly exalted the Jesus who emptied Himself, and given Him a name above every name, so those office-bearers too who serve as Christ served, will receive on the day of Christ "the crown of glory that does not fade away" (1 Peter 5:4).
And, congregation, thatís true not just for office-bearers. All who model the gospel of Christ in their daily conduct, all who make themselves last in the eyes of men, will be first in the eyes of God. Amen.