Joyful Thanksgiving for Gospel Partners

3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:3-5)

The apostle Paul writes a letter to the Philippian church that begins more like a letter from a man who has circumstantially arrived than like one who by all outside appearances has hit rock bottom. I mean, he writes as if he was enjoying a nice vacation at an all-inclusive resort or something. Like, “Life is good, everything is going my way, joy has overtaken me,” or something. Or like he was just in a season of life where he was content, settled, enjoying the fruits of his labor, good things happening, a time when one could say, “All is well!” But this is not the case as he wrote this letter. He was not at a vacation resort, this was not a comfortable season of life, all was not exactly well. In fact, from the perspective of the world, this man, Paul, has no real reason to speak of things like joy and thankfulness as he pens this letter.

I want us to think about Paul’s life at the time that he wrote this letter because it is significant for us to understand what he faced, what he was up against when he wrote this letter. What was he facing? He was facing severe persecution, facing possible execution. He was under house arrest, chained to a Roman soldier. He was alienated from the work he had been doing, while many on the outside were preaching just to make his life harder, as if it needed to be harder. 

Paul was in a hard place. His life was not what we would call easy. His freedom had been taken from him. He was a ward of Rome. He could not choose with whom he would speak. He was in a dire place. Life was just hard. And in that sense, some of you today can empathize with where Paul was, not that you are in prison, not physically in prison, but you are nevertheless suffering in your world. Relationships strained, or even falling apart, money running out, comforts being replaced by hardship, too much work on your list, caught in the middle of warring parties, confused over your future, unrest in your mind, life that is not consistent with your goals, pain in your body, loneliness, emotional devastation. Some of us can relate to Paul at least in some ways. 

If you or I were where he is, if you or I are facing hurt, what might our letter sound like? Or let me ask it this way: when we feel this way, how do we communicate with our family and friends? What goes on in our hearts, in our heads when faced with extreme pressures? I ask because whatever is going on in our hearts, it will eventually come out. Here is how Jesus says it:

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45)

What happens in our hearts, in our inner man, works itself out in our speech, attitudes, and actions. Pressure in our lives brings to light what is in our hearts. Some ask, “Why so much pressure in my life, why the difficulties, why the trials, the struggles, the inner pain? Why?” Perhaps so that we may better understand what is really in our hearts!

When Paul is pressured, we get to see what comes out. I’m glad we get to see this. I hope what we see will be encouraging to us all because we can see in his life what the power of God looks like in one’s life who is submitted to Him, even while under severe pressure. These are Paul’s circumstances when he writes:

3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:3-5)

There are three attitudes we can take from this, take to heart:
1. Thankfulness to God for others
2. Joyful prayer for others
3. The priority of the gospel over personal plight

First, notice how thankful Paul was for his Christian brothers and sisters who were in this church in Philippi. He says, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you.”

When Paul was suffering, as he wrote this letter, instead of focusing on his suffering – no freedom, bad food, cold cell, heavy chains, the loss of companionship, tattered clothes, possible death – when Paul faced these things he refused to focus on them and instead did what? He turned from that and began to thank God! He began to thank God for the church people. He remembered those dear church people who were now forever a part of his life, even in this time of separation, forever in his heart. And as he thought about them, he thanked the One who tied their lives together. “Thank you Lord for relationships that have begun on this earth and that will span eternity. Thank you for those people. They are not in my presence, but they are in my heart, they are in my mind.”

One of the greatest ways to battle depression or oppression is to practice going to God with prayers of thanksgiving. In hurt, in pain, in loneliness, or even in pending death, we can recall the many blessings of God which outweigh that pain, we can bow before the throne of God in thanksgiving, and many times it will be being thankful for people through whom God has blessed us in life.

But here is the thing, too. Paul does not just thank his friends, no, Paul thanks the God who gave him his friends. His thanksgiving is directed to God. Ultimately he is remembering God. This reminds me of Psalm 42. Psalm 42 is a classic Psalm about a man who is suffering with what we might call today “depression.” This guy was really down on his circumstances. He says, “My tears have been my food day and night”. That sounds really bad! He is so down that he cannot eat, his only food is his tears that will not go away. He says, “your breakers and waves have gone over me”. This man was drowning in his sorrow, the seas were crushing him, it felt like, crushing him under their weight. What is the solution to this, to his troubles?

5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation 6 and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. (Psalm 42:5-6)

Notice his focus turn away from his circumstances and to God. Hope in God, “for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” And then, get this, “My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you”. Do you see the change there? He is crying continually, unable to eat, he is likening his trials to drowning in sorrow, a crushing feeling, and he says, “therefore I remember you.” “My hope is in God!” Do you see the change? 

Paul does something similar. He refuses to be crushed, he refuses to drown in his adversity, he will not stay in a place of tears, forsaking comfort, but he will and he does turn to God in thanksgiving, and in his case thanksgiving for the people God has put in his life. Real people that God has used to minister to him, to encourage him, to labor next to him. “Thank you God for them, what a blessing, what a blessing.”

There is an alternative, that is to focus on circumstances that may be really hard, and to focus on them in a way as if God does not exist. If God does not exist then Paul has no hope, what he is experiencing is all there is, he is without hope of a good God who is looking out for Him and has an eternal home for him. We may function, we do function at times, as if God does not exist, as if this is all there is, as if chaos has set in, as if there is no all-powerful God taking care of us even in our pain.

Paul would not go there. He functioned according to his stated beliefs, and he could therefore, even now say, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you.” Are you down, really down, maybe in a really bad way? Record all what He has done for you, all that He has promised to do for you, think of those people that God has brought to you for your good, remember what awaits you. Remember the temporary nature of your trials and the permanence of God’s faithfulness to you. 

Secondly, Paul speaks of joy in his prayer life as he remembers his friends. Joy and imprisonment don’t seem to naturally go together. But Paul says, “always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy”

I have heard preachers and teachers talk about Paul as having a prison ministry, not by choice, but by his circumstances. He was a faithful minister of the gospel, and if he is in prison then, well, there you go, a prison ministry. But his ministry in prison was not just preaching the gospel to prison guards, he did that of course, but he apparently also had quite a prayer ministry too. He couldn’t be with the church people, but he could certainly pray for them, and that is what he did. That is what he did with joy! He delighted in the privilege of intercessory prayer, making his prayer time for them a joy-filled occasion. A joy not based on his great circumstances, not a joy based on personal justice, not a joy based on good times with prison personnel or extravagant comforts, but a joy, a joy that abides within him because of not only his position with Christ, but a determined focus on that position.

The word for prayer here has a basic meaning of a request, a request of God. His difficulties in life, his prison stay and all that would be wrapped up in that, uncertainty, alienation from his friends, all of that, or I should say none of that, would keep him from praying for other people with joy.

There is nothing quite like focused prayer for other people’s needs to take our minds off of ourselves. Next time you are troubled by life’s difficulties, try this: try praying with thanksgiving for others whom God has placed in your life, and make requests for them in prayer – for them, for their needs, for their spiritual growth, for their focus on Christ – glory in a God who cares for His peoples’ needs, who loves them, and see if joy returns when for a while it may have not been present, or at least not in the forefront of your mind.

Paul says in 2:4, “do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interest of others.” We will see, and we are seeing in this book, an emphasis of looking away from ourselves and looking through the lens of Scripture toward others’ needs. Paul does not just talk about this, he does this.

A passion that I have, and that the other leaders in our church share with me, is that every member of our church is serving in some way within this body. There are some challenges to that, I know. Some of you want to serve, and yet you may be struggling with that for a variety of reasons. Maybe you don’t feel gifted to serve, maybe you can’t figure out where you fit in, perhaps you are dealing with a season in life of physical pain, or family obligations that, for now, seem totally consuming. You want to serve, but you are struggling to serve. 

If you find yourself in this place, then let me encourage you to consider serving the way Paul did from prison. Consider serving your brothers and sisters in Christ through consistent, God-honoring, sacrificial prayer. Maybe you can’t come to the church building to teach or clean or go out evangelizing with friends, but what about right where you are, what about prayer? A prayer list goes out every week, updates often come throughout the week by email. Have you thought about serving the body through prayer? I need your prayer and my guess is most people here would say they need you to pray for them in some way. Prayer is communing with God, acknowledging His presence, His power, His sovereignty, His ability to care for us and others. Paul knew that and so, with joy, he prayed. With joy! Paul lived with a joyful attitude as he prayed for others. 

Lastly – and I love this, not because I do this all the time, but because I want to – Paul embraced the priority of the gospel over personal plight. We don’t want to miss this one! Paul embraced the priority of the gospel over personal plight. “always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.”

What was it that Paul was excited about in his prayers for the saints? Their participation in the gospel from the first day until now. The word here translated participation is from the Greek word “koinonia,” which is often translated as “fellowship,” meaning that of sharing something in common. He was pumped because there were these people, these Philippians who were on the outside, not physically with him, but a part of the church with whom he shared a passion for the gospel, they were on the same team, they had the same goals, they were going in the same direction, so to speak. What united them was the gospel of Jesus Christ, their shared passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

It is like he is saying, “You are with me! And I am with you! In this most important highest priority matter of gospel ministry.” And they were united in every way. Financially, the Philippians had provided for Paul, 

15 And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. 16 Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. (Philippians 4:15-16)

That kind of participation took place. But even more there was a spiritual tie, a spiritual oneness in Christ’s work that transcended Paul’s focus on his current state in prison and in need. So much so that later he could say, and I am paraphrasing, “This imprisonment is good, it is good, because the gospel is getting out to people who would not hear otherwise.”

12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. (Philippians 1:12-14)

Hard times? Okay, if it advances the gospel. Difficulties? Okay, if it advances the gospel. Poverty? Okay, if it advances the gospel. A move to a foreign land? Okay, if that works to advance the gospel. Loss of position or respect in the eyes of some? Okay, if that works to advance the gospel. And for Paul, imprisonment? Okay, for the sake of the gospel. How about Christ? Scourging, loneliness, crucifixion, death, facing the wrath of His Father? Okay, yes, okay for the sake of the gospel!

Paul would not allow personal plight to take over his world, to take over his mind. He remained focused on God and God’s work, so that he could, with joy, thank God as he remembered his fellow servants and this joint advancement, participation in the gospel.

Think about this: we are sitting in a room full of people this morning, surrounded by people who are serious about gospel ministry. Telling people about Christ, encouraging others in Christ, working through their own sanctification, getting trained to be a more effective Christian in the world, teachers, counselors, and so on. I wonder if we are aware of the ways that people sitting around us are involved, are participating as a partner in the gospel. I say this because it is a joy to hear what is going on as a joint effort in gospel ministry. Gospel sharing opportunities taken in a doctor’s office with the staff. Gospel counseling with families in need. Sharing of Christ with those facing addictions, caring for children so parents can learn biblical counseling, young men planning for foreign missions. The young and older laboring to get to camp to share the love of Christ with hurting families. Preparations to give an orphan a Christian home. 

All of these things just within this body. Can we, do we, say with Paul, rejoice as Paul did saying, “I am making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now”? I am joyful, exceedingly joyful, that the gospel is getting out, and it is in part through you! And we can say that with great joy, even if our own troubles do not go away. There is still a place for rejoicing, because God is at work through His people! Oh, that we could maintain a godward focus, a godward perspective, trusting God in all things, in all ways!

First, thankfulness to God for others, secondly, joyful prayer for others, thirdly, embracing the priority of the gospel over personal plight. That we can say in unison together, no matter our place right now with troubles:

3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:3-5)