The book of Philippians opens with a lovely greeting and prayer for the church, as we see in so many of Paul’s other letters. But there is one word which this letter particularly emphasises. Joy. It is subtly seen in this greeting, not demanding much attention but, considering the overall thrust of Philippians, not to be overlooked. As per usual, Paul’s greeting is filled with many encouraging words making it difficult to notice if there’s any particular point. Here’s the opening…
I [Paul] thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your [church] partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he [God] who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me [Paul] to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me [Paul & church] of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I [Paul] yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my [Paul] prayer that your [church] love may abound more and more, with knowledge and discernment, so that you [church] may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, [church] filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
It’s a busy greeting, which well describes the busyness of church. Paul prays for the church with thanks and joy. The church is encouraged to grow in love. The church must be discerning and wise. Both Paul and the church are working and suffering for the gospel. Paul feels a deep affection and love for the church. Both Paul and the church need grace to face the trials that come with gospel work. Looking ahead they anticipate the day of Christ and so pursue their sanctification.
Reflecting on joy, John Piper writes, “One of the reasons I am the kind of Christian I am, with the theology that I have, is that I know the Bible requires of me things that I cannot myself immediately produce by my own power. I am fallen. I am sinful. And yet I know I should be feeling the emotions the Bible expects me to feel. I know myself guilty.”
The question is, how can we feel this joy? How can we pray with joy for a church so erratically engaged in ministry, meetings and, most volatile of all, people. We know we must pray, we know we must rejoice always. But how?
Here is the answer. It is that among all the happenings there is one most comforting assurance that we see in verse 6. It is God’s guaranteed work. “I am confident of this: That he who has begun a good work in you shall bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ”. As with all matters pertaining to joy, it is and can only be found in Christ.
Although Paul & the church are striving for the gospel, thank God that the assurance of that work is God himself. What is progressing and growing, what emotions of affection you feel in your heart, what strivings of bitterness and hardship you endure and what prayers of joy you cherish, they are all the work that is being brought to completion in Christ Jesus. It is the erratic activities of the church functioning within the assured work of the divine.
Joy is such a deep seated emotion, rooted in something far more certain than our own feeble hearts. It is found in the soul, activated by the Spirit, and initiated by Christ and his work. The work that Paul so delights in is that, in the church itself, he can see a work being done for the gospel. But this is not just a church work, it is a Christ work which will continue to progress until completion. That is how we can share in this joy.
But the question that naturally follows is, do we? When we see the church engage in gospel work, do we feel joy? Do we pray for the church always with joy? We can often become over-critical of church, trying to find the perfect blend of fellowship, discipleship and evangelism based on our own meter that we overlook what work Christ is doing. May we never fall into such blindness that we see church as a group of people who do things for Jesus, but always see that Christ is the primary doer making the church joyously worth praying for.