Saturday, April 14, 2018

Paul and the Advancement of the Gospel

In first century letter writing, the author always included near the beginning of the letter what is called the thanksgiving or the prayer section.  It is in this section of the letter that the purpose of the letter was found.  This is important to know when we read the epistles in the New Testament, for the authors of the New Testament were, in some ways, a product of their culture.

When Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he discussed much in this introduction portion of the letter.  This has caused scholars to debate what motivation was behind Paul’s letter to this church that he loved dearly.  The following are themes found in the thanksgiving/prayer section, as well as in the body of the letter: Christ and the gospel, the language of servanthood and ‘fellowship,’ the relational basis of this ‘fellowship’ (this section shows Paul’s deep love and affection for the Philippian Christians), Paul’s ‘chains’ (thus the motif of ‘suffering’), the future orientation of present life in Christ, and the need for love and fruitful living in the present.[1]

Here is the thanksgiving/prayer section, and I have underlined the language used that highlights all of these themes.

Philippians 1:3-11 3I thank my God every time I remember you. 4In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. 7It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me8God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus9And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, 11filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

It is easy to see why this is debated in the Christian community.  So what is the main point of Philippians?  Many scholars think joy.  Many think suffering.  Many think unity.  Some think it is a missionary thank you letter.  Others think it is a letter of encouragement.  All of these words/concepts are used much throughout the letter.  But Paul’s purpose in everything is to preach the gospel.  The gospel is the central focus of the letter; it puts all things into perspective.  It brings unity, we suffer for the advancement of the gospel, and we have joy because of the gospel.  And he is grateful for the Philippians because of their fellowship in advancing the gospel.

Paul’s first and foremost concern, at all times, is preaching Christ and advancing the gospel.  He stated in Romans 15:18-20, I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done— by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else's foundation."

So, does this describe our lives?  You and I need to ask ourselves: Do I spend more time talking about everything else in life than I do the gospel?  I’m guilty of this.  If my friends and family were asked, would they know that the gospel and its advancement is the most important thing in my life?  I have experienced joy as a result of the gospel, but if I am called to suffer for it, am I willing?  Is it important enough to me to endure hardship and trial for its advancement?  Later in the letter, Paul told the Philippians that they, too, would suffer for the gospel.  We are no exception today.

If we want to experience the joy of Christ, we have to be willing to suffer for His name.  But when we put our focus wholly on the advancement of the gospel, these other issues, which we sometimes emphasize more than we should, become secondary issues…because our focus is on Jesus, not on ourselves.

Kurt Smith

[1] Fee, Gordon D. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) 59.

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