Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 5, 2021
Philippians 1:3-11 Commentary
Jesus’ friends would do well to take at least some of our Advent cues from children. This is, after all, a season of waiting. However, children especially sometimes struggle to wait patiently during Advent. In fact, some of them have an almost laser-focus on that which they await.
Adults may share some of children’s impatience for the arrival of our celebrations of Christ’s first coming. Yet when we’re honest with God and ourselves, we don’t naturally feel impatient to celebrate Christ’s second coming. While Jesus’ friends may feel at least a bit impatient for our celebrations of Christ’s first advent to arrive — if not also be completed — fewer of us are eager for the arrival of Jesus’ second Advent.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s text continues the RCL’s Year C Advent emphasis on Christ’s second coming. In verse 6, after all, it refers to the “day of Christ Jesus,” one of the apostles’ code phrases for Christ’s return. Since we discussed both Advent loving and waiting at fairly great length in last week’s Epistolary commentary on 1 Thessalonians 3, I’d like to focus on Philippians 1:6’s description of Paul and Silas’ confidence that “he who began a good work in you will carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” N.T. Wright, after all, suggests that verse is a theme for the whole letter to the Philippians.
When our sons were growing up, they learned Joel Hemphill’s song: “He’s still working on me,/ To make me what I need to be./ It took him just a week to make the moon and stars,/ The sun and the earth and Jupiter and Mars./ How loving and patient He must be,/ ‘Cause He’s still workin’ on me” (Lyrics copyright, Universal Music Publishing Group).
Paul and Timothy express similar confidence in the way God’s “still working on” the Philippians. They, in fact, include a similar expression in this week’s RCL Epistolary Lesson that’s part of a letter they fill with thanksgiving to God for their brothers and sisters in Christ in Philippi. So those who proclaim this text might ponder the link between the apostles’ thanksgiving to God and their confidence in God’s ongoing work in God’s beloved people.
In verse 6 Paul and Timothy express their “confidence” in God’s both ongoing and ultimately finishing work in Philippi’s Christians. They fully trust that the God who has begun such an amazing work in them will also “carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” It’s a picture of complete certainty in God’s ongoing, as well as ultimately finishing work.
However, those who proclaim this text might stop to marvel at the apostles’ confidence. While Paul had, after all, planted the Philippian church, as Timothy and he write the letter to its members he’s perhaps under house arrest in Rome. So the apostle can’t be present to help guide the Philippians in their growth in their friendship with Jesus Christ.
Such a circumstance might leave some church planters fearful about what will happen to the church they’ve started. However, Paul is completely confident that the Philippian church won’t just stay faithful to the Lord, but will also grow to “completion” in that faithfulness.
Yet the apostles’ confidence isn’t based in who Paul was, what he’d done in Philippi or the quality of the Christians there. Their certainty rests, instead, on “he who began a good work” in Philippi’s Christians. While the apostles don’t identify this “he,” they almost certainly mean us to understand that it’s the Lord of heaven and earth who began (and will complete) that good work.
Paul and Silas insist that it’s Lord rather than they who “began” a “good work” (ergon agathon) in the Philippian Christians. Yet they don’t make it entirely clear to just what that “good work” refers. Scholars, in fact, vary in their interpretation of it. However, nearly all basically agree that Paul and Timothy are emphasizing God’s role in lighting the fuse of valuable work in, for and through Philippi’s Christians.
And what a good work and cause for thanksgiving it was for Paul and Timothy! In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson alone, they mention God’s creation of the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel with them (5), and Philippi’s Christians’ abounding love (9). In the rest of their letter, they go on to mention the joy they experience because God has empowered Philippi’s Christians to share in the apostles’ “troubles” (4:14) and give gifts in support of them (4:15-18).
Yet the apostles also imply that the wolves that are the enemies of God, the gospel, the apostles, and Christians are “howling” at the Philippian Christians’ “doors.” While God has certainly begun a great work in them, trouble lurks in and around them. It’s not just that their church planter is likely far from his beloved Philippians. It also seems that that God’s enemies who are Judaizers (3:1-4) are pressuring the Philippians to put their confidence in their good works rather than God’s amazing grace.
What’s more, the gospel’s enemies that are hedonists are also pressuring Philippi’s Christians to completely ignore God’s law as a guide for thankful living. So while God has begun a good work in the Philippian church, much threatens to kill that work before it can reach Christian maturity.
Yet while so much threatens the good work God is doing in and through Philippi’s Christians, the apostles trust that God won’t let anyone or anything kill it. They believe with all their hearts that God will bring that good work to completion “until the day of Jesus Christ.” Here Paul and Timothy express what Fred Craddock calls “characteristic symmetry: The one who started the work of grace in Philippi will not abandon it in a state of incompleteness” (Philippians, John Knox Press, 17).
Verse 6 contains a somewhat strange phrase: achri hemeras Christou (NIV: “until the day of Jesus Christ”). The Greek preposition achri is particularly mysterious. It’s sometimes translated “as far as,” as well as, in Philippians 1:6c, “until.” One translator even renders its English equivalent as “by.”
Yet almost all English translations suggest that the apostles are in verse 6 referring to the good work God has begun in Philippi’s Christians’ durability. They insist that God’s work isn’t just good; it’s also lasting. What God has begun in the course of measured time will, by God’s grace, last until time is swallowed up by Christ’s second coming.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might consider the apostles’ confidence in God’s good and enduring work’s impact on human patience. It is, after all, easy for God’s children to become impatient with both the quality of Jesus’ friends’ obedience and the pace at which it’s improving.
That may be particularly true of Christians’ impatience with fellow Christians’ obedience. It can be hard to see the goodness of God’s work in them. It may be even more difficult to see how that goodness is expanding, how others’ Christlikeness is improving.
This, notes J.M. Boice, sometimes leads to the kinds of divisions among and between Christians that all too often plague the Church. God’s dearly beloved people sometimes separate ourselves from each other because we believe others are being less “good” than we are. Or we assume that other Christians’ doctrine is false. We easily forget that God is both graciously patient and fully determined to complete faith and obedience in us, as well as those whose faith and obedience we sometimes deem too flawed to be redeemable.
Verse 6 also summons God’s dearly beloved children to a kind of holy patience with each other. God hasn’t just graciously begun a good work in our siblings in Christ. The apostles maintain that God also promises to bring that good work to complete maturity and keep it mature until Jesus Christ returns.
Yet Philippians 1:6 also summons Christians to a kind of holy patience with ourselves. While God has begun a good work in us, we don’t always see much growth in our own imitation of Christ. Christians easily become impatient with ourselves as we wait for God to not only complete, but even grow our holiness. The apostles remind us that the God who began a good work in us will bring it to full maturity by the time that Jesus Christ returns.
Finally, Philippians 1’s proclaimers might explore the apostles’ emphasis on patience as a summons to be patient with God. We don’t, after all, always recognize how God is completing the good work God began in our brothers and sisters in Christ. We beg God to hurry up with that good work. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson invites Christians to be patient with the God who not only began a good work in God’s people, but will also bring it to complete maturity by the time Jesus returns.
Ruth was the most accomplished person I’ve ever known. She served an undersecretary of the U.S. Army. She developed an American policy that was designed to protect the United States against the worst effects of an oil embargo. Ruth also “had the ear” of several American presidents.
Yet while Ruth’s parents had been deeply devout Christians, Ruth for most of her life had no time for Christianity. She was confident that her goodness and ability would serve as a hedge against any anger God might feel toward her. For most of her life, Ruth politely but firmly rejected God’s claims on her life and person.
However, deeply Christian people like Mentey, Margaret, Hilda, and others “stuck with” Ruth. They kept loving her with both their words and actions. They repeatedly spoke to Ruth about God’s loving care for her. Those friends of Jesus saw hints of the good work God had begun in her. They persistently prayed that the God who’d begun a good work in Ruth at her baptism would bring them to completion.
By God’s amazing grace, Ruth eventually accepted God’s gracious claims on her. She received God’s grace with her faith in Jesus Christ and professed that faith in our church … at the age of 70!! I imagine that her friends’ celebrations of God’s good work in Ruth were surpassed only by the heavenly angels’.
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