The Joy of Lasting Friendships

It’s interesting, when we get to this time of the year and we’re singing primarily songs that talk about the birth of Christ, when I come up to preach it’s almost like I want to turn to Luke and read the Christmas story, the birth of Christ, but I think an important thing for us to see and understand is that every message is about Christ. So this morning, although we are not going to talk about the coming of Christ, looking at those passages, we are going to be talking about some of the results of the fact that He has come. When we talk about Christian living, how we relate to one another, and how we live in this world, we do so from a certain perspective, which is that Christ has come, He has come into our lives, He has saved us, and He has given us this life we can live that is so different, dramatically different than anything we can have without Him. So this is a Christmas message. It’s not about the birth of Christ, but it is about Christ and what He’s done for us.

14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. 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. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. 18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Philippians 4:14-20)

I have titled this message, “The Joy of Lasting Friendships.” You may say, “That’s not what’s in the bulletin.” Well, it changes all the time, every time I think about it a little differently. “Friendships That Are Christ-Centered” you could say, or “Friendships We Only Have Because of Christ.” There is something special about friendships that last. The problem is most don’t. That’s most of our experience. A multi-year, or even decades-long friendship can end abruptly due to one small disagreement. It is a sad thing to watch and even sadder to be a part of. A change in beliefs, a geographical move, a change of jobs, a grievous sin, a hurt, a misunderstanding, a change in financial condition, a change in life direction, all of these things can bring a once believed never ending friendship to an end. One word spoken in anger can sometimes be enough to bring an end to friendship. Even a look given at just the right or wrong time. A multi-year friendship can vanish, can be gone in a matter of seconds. What may have taken years to establish may end in mere moments. I’m saying the ongoing friendships can go away quickly, even if hurt and pain may linger much longer. We are a fickle people, and we can be that way even with our friendships.

For the Christian, it is God’s grace that enables us to have strong and lasting relationships with each other. It really is God’s grace when that happens. I know we all may think, “Well, who wouldn’t want to be my friend?” You or I may be puzzled that others don’t want to be close to us! But the reality is that each one of us, even though we may be saved, redeemed as a child of God, and even though God is working really hard in us to make us more like Christ, we are still sinners. And in our sin we can be very selfish, we can be self-centered, we can be demanding and petty. And so when I enter into a friendship with any of you, unfortunately, I’m going to bring my sin with me, and you bring your sin with you, and our sin may clash or even dramatically collide at times. Ever experience that? And things then, if we allow it, can get ugly very quickly. It ought not be this way for the believer, but unfortunately it is way too often.

You know how it works. Someone gets hurt, feels betrayed or unloved, and to avoid more hurt, more betrayal, more pain, we step away, or they step away. It ends, or maybe even if it does not end, it becomes rather cold or indifferent. We then step out to once again go searching for a friend of our choosing, just the one we want, the perfect friend who is really most likely one that only exists in our imaginations. Let me state the obvious: there is no perfect friend, nor do you or I bring perfection into any friendship.

What we really need to grab hold of is that friendships are not to be all about us. Relationships are not to be all about me or you. Friendships, even like marriage, are not to be all about what someone can do for me or for you. God didn’t create people to just serve us. Yes, friends can help one another and they should, but no one is meant to be our savior or our mini-messiah. God didn’t create anyone just to serve or please me, or to please you.

There is way more to friendship than what we may think, biblically speaking. And if we are willing to enter into a friendship then we should be fully aware that in it, our goal ought to be to love that person while not demanding love in return, to help that person even when they have failed to help us, to reach out to him or her when it may not be reciprocal. In other words, our duty and joy ought to be to love, and not to be demanders of love from others.

Friends ought to want to do what is best for the other person. I like to think of it this way. As a friend to another we ought to be very active. That is, actively giving to our friend. Giving love, kindness, meeting needs or desires when we can, showing concern and care. We can be active friends, always giving in these ways to others. What we don’t need to be is a passive friend, simply sitting back expecting others to give to us. That’s when we get in trouble.

When Jesus spoke of serving others in a way that was pleasing to Him, He explained that when we are reaching out to others in need it is as if we are doing that to Christ Jesus Himself.

35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ (Matthew 25:35-36)

Do you remember the response of the confused listeners?

37 Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40)

That is a lot of activity, a lot of reaching out, actively loving others, giving.

A friend loves at all times and a brother is born for adversity (Proverbs 17:17)

A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than an brother. (Proverbs 18:24)

Each of these verses should reflect our view of friendship. That is, how we ought to be friends to other people. These illustrate for us the kind of friends we should be. The wrong focus then for us is, “This is what you must be to me.” One way is giving to another, the other way is demanding from another. One way has the other person’s best interests and their good in mind, the other has our own lusts, desires, and passions in first place, demanding from other people. One is reaching out to others in love, the other is trying to satisfy our own longings by using other people. We have Christ already in whom we can find contentment. We have Christ who is meant to fulfill our needs. We have Him so we are free to live for others.

What we see in Philippians 4:15-19 is Christian friendship put on display. We get to see how friendship really works. How people can really live with a focus on others’ good and even rejoice in what God is doing, even if their own lives seem really hard. We see giving here, we see sacrifice, we see demonstrations of Christ-likeness among brothers and sisters in Christ. What we don’t see, what is absent from these verses is selfish ambition, demands, or greed. Those attitudes seem absent among these long-term Christian brothers and sisters.

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. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. 18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:15-19)

Here is what we have, here are examples we can follow. In verse 15 and 16 we sort of get the facts regarding the timing of events between Paul and the Philippian church. In verse 15, when Paul left Macedonia for a missionary journey, we see that the church in Philippi partnered with him. Philippi was in the eastern part of Macedonia, so when he left Macedonia he was leaving them. This time period which he is going back to here was about ten years prior. They, Paul and the Philippian church, have some history together of at least ten years. He takes them back to the beginning, back to the time when he left them to reach out to people in other places with the gospel message. They didn’t part because of some controversy, selfish ambition, something that had gone wrong, or some kind of disagreement. They parted because of a joint love for Christ and the spread of the gospel message. The church couldn’t go with him, but they partnered with him with their gifts and support. Humanly speaking, they made it possible for him to go and spread the gospel. God provided for Paul, and the way He provided was through a faithful church. So Paul went on his way, and they encouraged him with their gifts as he did.

They were with Paul in ministry from this time, they were partners in gospel ministry. He goes on to say then in verse 16 that even while in Thessalonica they helped him out once and again. They didn’t just help out once, but they remained partners with him. This for the Philippians was not a one time send off but a continuing work. They stayed involved in his work with their gifts.

This friendship was based on something really important, it’s based on gospel ministry and a love for Christ. That is a key truth here, it’s what our friendships ought to be based on. A love for Christ and the work of our Lord. It was a friendship based on love. You may ask, “Where do you see that?” Well, let’s go on. Let’s go on to see what is at the heart of the friendship, the partnership.

Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. (Philippians 4:17)

Here is where we move from simply the facts of this partnership and friendship to some of the feelings and attitudes associated with it. Paul had to rely on gifts for his survival. If he was to continue in full-time ministry and missionary work, someone had to support him. He did work making tents for awhile, but he mostly was supported by others. So he understood that God graciously provided for him in his work through the hands of other people. And yet he says, “not that I seek the gift.” Paul apparently knew nothing about modern day fundraising techniques! He was not a good fundraiser. I’m glad he survived, and that God’s a big God and could take care of that. He wasn’t really seeking support, but the gifts came, God provided for him, even though he didn’t seek them. And though he did not seek the gift or support, there was something he did seek. What was it? “I seek the fruit that increases to your credit.”

It is as if Paul is saying, “I love the gift not because it enriches me, but because it enriches you, as the giver!” Yes Paul will benefit temporarily from the gift, but he knows that they will benefit way more. Jesus said…

19 Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

This is a benefit of long-term Christian friendships. That is, you get to see God’s work in other people’s lives. You see God’s work in other people’s lives through friendships. Paul was seeing this, watching this, and joyfully so. The Philippian church, they were laying up treasures in heaven by helping Paul, and that really excited Paul. Remember what Paul said in Philippians 1:3-6?

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. 6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:3-6)

He is giving testimony here and stating his expectations, which is that what God has begun in you he will complete. And this is what Paul is seeing played out in these gifts: the continued work of Christ in them! That they would part with their worldly goods for an investment in eternity. This was exciting for him because he knew that this is how Christianity is supposed to work. Sacrificing for others, and it was happening right before Paul’s eyes through the gifts that were given!

Is this how we relate to each other as friends? I mean, do we simply want what we want, or long to get what we can get from each other, or do we rejoice in evidences we see of God’s work in our friends’ lives, of God’s grace in each other’s lives? Because that should really greatly overshadow our wants or desires.

One commentator, Gordon Fee, put it this way: “here is the certain evidence that his ultimate concern is for them — far more than for his own material needs. Their gift, which serves his “physical health,” serves more significantly as evidence of their “spiritual health.” What else would one “seek,” one wonders, in a relationship such as theirs, which is predicated altogether on their mutual belonging to Christ?”

Yes Paul’s physical needs, but this gift was giving evidence of their spiritual health. This is a way of thinking about ourselves and others who are God’s children. When is the last time someone served you in Christ? A meal brought to your house, a word of encouragement, a prayer, a visit to the hospital where you were, a phone call, a delivery done for you, helping with your children, giving you financial assistance. Think of how others have served you. Was your first thought something about yourself and only about the assistance you received, or was it also a rejoicing to see someone doing the work of the Lord, serving Christ, evidence of God’s work in them? We need to get past thinking someone has rescued us, and move to thinking, “Yes! God is working in them, praise God for that!” Be thankful for provision, sure, but more thankful for the spiritual work taking place in the friends around us.

I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. (Philippians 4:18)

Pretty radical statements here. It’s like he’s gotten everything. You would think Paul had won the lottery or something! In reality he probably got a fruit basket, a little bit of food and some used clothes. I don’t know, but he is pretty pumped about it and says he has everything he needs! This of course from the one who said, “I have learned to be content in all things.”

He speaks of the gifts with words that speak of Old Testament sacrifices. “A fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” Again his focus is on the Philippian church having given to God in sacrifice. This would be like how Paul spoke in Romans 12:1, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” This is what the Philippian church was doing, and it so happened that in doing that it was helpful for Paul in the process.

Again, this is a different way of thinking. It takes pressure off of thoughts like, “Will my friend be nice to me, comfort me, give me what I want, think highly of me, prefer me over others, stick with me when times are tough, will my friend be all that I want my friend to be in my life?” We can put that away and replace it with, “How can I encourage my friend, encourage my friend in their walk with God? In what ways do I see God’s miraculous work in his or her life? Praise God for what He is doing in my friend’s life!” Paul did not have perfect friends, only Jesus would be that, but in their imperfection he could draw attention to God’s obvious work in them.

Surrounding ourselves with Christian friends gives us greater opportunity to see God’s hand at work. But there is more! And you have to love verse 19.

And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19)

Paul has given testimony of God’s gracious provision. He and the Philippian church have some history together. The Philippian church, the church people have been involved enough with Paul over a few years and have seen him face a variety of situations and trials, the ones we read about in the New Testament and even more. That is how it is with lasting friendships, right? You get to see all the ups, the downs, the trials. All of the trials are not on the same plane, they are not all equal, they don’t stay static throughout life. We face big trials, medium trials, smallish trials, and our friends do the same in their lives. The severity of trials vary greatly.

Paul has been up and down when it comes to trials and their severity. In addition, financially he was not what we would call “financially free.” This was before Dave Ramsey came along. He didn’t follow that plan very well. If there had been such a thing as a 401K back then, I’m pretty sure Paul’s would have been empty. I’m sure he didn’t have a savings account. Very few assets, probably just the clothes on his back. Never the steady income we might enjoy.

He had faced it all, that is why he confessed, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.“ (Philippians 4:11-12)

And so as Paul’s friends and partners the Philippian church have witnessed all these ups and downs in Paul’s life. “How is he going to get out of this one?” was probably a common question among them. They had seen him brought low and abound. They had seen him hungry and having plenty, in abundance and need. They may not have faced all those situations themselves, but through Paul they understood what he had faced. And through all of that Paul had come through. The physical pain and emotional pain, God had taken him through all of that. God had been faithful. There may have been times when it seemed it was too much, but God continued to provide.

Paul had a story, and it was lived out in view of the Philippians. And Paul is saying, “Yes, brothers, look and see: God is faithful, He has provided, I’m okay, I’m doing well despite the hardships. Look at our God and His provision in my life.” I think that’s what Paul is saying to the Philippian church. “Look what God has done!” And it’s as if he turns to them and says, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

This is one of the beauties of Christian friendships. That is, seeing God’s hand at work in others and being assured by faith that He is loving to His children, to us, and carries us through all things.

God is gracious to give us friends. Many who will be lasting friends. Friends who share the same love for Christ and for gospel ministry. And even those that we can observe and we can witness God’s work in them and be awed by that. And those too that we can watch as they are upheld by God in hard times. We can be encouraged and amazed at the strength and might of God who carries people through what seems impossible situations. All of this bears witness to our loving God who sustains us, who gives to us what we need to move on with Him. What a blessing! What a gracious God we serve!

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. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. 18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:15-19)