Introduction

Having first addressed the Philippians (vv.1-2), Paul follows with a greeting (vv.3-11). This greeting follows a typical Hellenistic pattern, with seven facets beginning with thanksgiving.[1] Here Paul expressed his compassionate disposition towards the Philippians, in a revelation of affection that remains the ground work for what follows. All nine verses come under the verb “thank” and may be summed up thus: “I thank my God,” (v.1a). This verb is active, which means Paul intentionally committed it. While the Apostle certainly had great cause for thankfulness, it yet remains that he practices it deliberately.

This deliberate thanksgiving is emphasized by what reasons Paul had to be unthankful for the Philippians. Though he loved the church dearly, they had a fair share of problems. First, the Philippians were given to anxiety. Rather than resting in the providence of God, they were beside themselves worried about Paul and a financial gift they sent with a messenger who almost died en route to Rome. Second, the Philippians were disunified. The pressure of anxiety and Roman persecution had begun to strain relationships within their local church. Some may have even considered leaving. Third, the Philippians were flirting with heresy. The Judaizers were at work in Greece and the Philippians seem to have been tempted by their teachings. Paul’s hatred for the Judaizer heresy is evident in his harsh words to the Galatians. Under these three considerations, it is clear that Paul had cause to be unthankful for the Philippians – yet he chose to be thankful.

Our Need for This Lesson

The Spirit may teach us about our own need for thankfulness through Paul’s example. In this passage we find four facets of Paul’s thanksgiving: its consistency (v.3b), its object (vv.5-6), its affection (vv.7-8), its intercession (vv.4, 9-11). Have we certain persons whom we have neglected to be thankful for? Are there brethren which, in the course of our self-centeredness, have been forgotten or abused by our absent minds? Let Scripture be now as a gong bashed in the night, to awake us from forgetfulness and into the early morning of gratitude. Let us learn from Paul’s greeting of thankfulness, how we should all be a church of thanksgiving.

For we all have need of a lesson in gratitude. First, we have neglected Christians who do us well. Sinners take for granted God’s blessings. We forget that every time we draw breath, we suck in mercy.[2] Not only have we the mercy of life, but also the grace of dear comrades to run the course of life beside. Who have we taken for granted? Who have we looked over in our church? Whose service and kindness have we presumed upon this week? What friend have we exploited for personal gain? Too often we stomp about considering how we ought to be honored, all the while our feet tread upon dear brothers and sisters who can’t be heard over our selfish thoughts. We have neglected Christians whom do us well, and for this we have need of a lesson in gratitude.

Secondly, we have forsaken Christians who irritate us. It is a curious matter how two Christians may treat each other honorably yet be irritable to one another. We are sinners through and through, “saints” only by the work of God. Until that work is completed, it stands to reason that there will be friction among the people of God. However, appetites never justify indulgence. Though it is natural for us to be “put off” by certain personalities and people in our local church, it is yet a dreadfully evil thing for us to act on these dispositions and forsake our brethren. Too often the gathering of Christ’s bride is filled with a poignant haze, as a tire smells after a summer drive. “I can’t believe she smacks her gum.” “I can smell his feet three rows back!” “I hate it when we sing new songs in church.” Count it on us to bring disgust where Christ has brought love, to become nauseated at those for whom Christ became sin! We are easily offended creatures, forsaking Christians who irritate us, and for this we have need of a lesson in gratitude.

Thirdly, we have resented Christians who wrong us. Some of the deepest wounds you will ever experience will come from people who claim to be Christians. Some are false: cultural Christians who want the blessings of Christ without the cross of Christ. Yet not all spears are thrown by our enemies – some indeed are cast by our friends. No one in our local church has been rid of sin once and for all. So, sometimes our resentment for a fellow believer seems justified. O, if only we would pause, in our anger and vexation, to consider what rights we actually have to such exasperation! Have you not wronged others too? Is your memory so short that you cannot recall the offense you have made against God? No one has ever wronged you as greatly as you have wronged God – and look, He has forgiven you! Have you not also considered what harm bitterness does to yourself? Bitterness is a cup of sweet poison. The sip is satisfying, but the digestion is terminal. We have wrongly resented Christians who wrong us, and for this we have need of a lesson in gratitude.

Bitterness is a cup of sweet poison. The sip is satisfying, but the digestion is terminal.

Four Steps to Gratitude

Having seen the utility of this passage, let us now examine its content. Here we find the four facets of Paul’s thanksgiving, which will provide us four steps to practicing gratitude.

Habitual Thanksgiving

Paul first describes his thanksgiving as consistent. He thanks God “at every thought of you,” (v.3b). Most translations read, “in all my remembrance of you.”[3] Paul means that every time the Philippians come to mind, he thanks God for them. Paul has developed a habit of thankfulness. This articulates the consistency, not the frequency, of Paul’s thanksgiving. When the Philippians come to mind, he does not ignore them, or grumble over their anxiety, or fume over their disunity. Paul has decided to thank God for these Christians. He prefers the habit of thanksgiving.

This is our first step for practicing gratitude in the church: resolve to thank God for them at every mention. We must resolve to not brush aside our brethren when the Spirit brings them to mind – nor shall we sneer at their oddities or dwell in bitterness on how they have harmed us. No, let us fix our chin towards a discipline of thanksgiving. This requires no affection, ambition, or disposition towards our fellow Christians, only that we would make ourselves serious about the task of gratitude. Deciding this is something we all can do, it is only a matter of volition. So, I implore you today: choose to thank God for your fellow believer. Circumstance, behavior, emotions, intentions aside. Let today be your day of repentance from slothfulness, arrogance, bitterness of mind. Take this first stride towards gratitude by choosing to thank God for them.

Verse 4 is a parenthetical remark regarding prayer. Paul continues this thought in verses 9-11, so we shall pull verse 4 down to that section and move-forward into verse 5.

Objective Thanksgiving

Paul secondly describes his thanksgiving as objective. He thanks God “over your participation with the gospel… that He Who began in you a good work will carry it out,” (vv.5-6). Paul has something tangible in mind as he thanks God for the Philippians. First of all, he sees the Philippians’ ministry (v.5). The church in Philippi began with the conversion of Lydia, who offered her home to Paul in assistance of his ministry (Acts 16:14-15). In the years that followed, the Philippian church had likewise supported Paul, even at great distances. Paul has seen this participation in the gospel ministry and is thankful for it. Second of all, he sees evidence of God’s grace (v.6). Paul knows how hard the Philippians have worked, but he understands that a greater work undergirds their own: God’s “good work” of salvation in them. God will not only continue this labor, but will complete it one day. He shall not be dissuaded from the task nor shall He fall behind schedule. Paul sees evidence of this sovereign grace in the Philippians and he thanks God for it.

This is our second step in practicing gratitude: find something in them to be thankful for. We may model Paul and first of all look for an earthly deed (v.5). Find something good that they have done. On a moonless night we may complain for want of light, yet an honest search would quickly reveal myriads of dancing stars. Do not likewise grow slothful in the search. Commit to find something worthwhile among their works. There is some deed to be found – now go and find it! We may second of all look for a heavenly grace (v.6). Have they professed faith in Christ publicly? Is there some semblance of spiritual fruit in their life? Praise God for these graces. Is not the image of God a heavenly grace? While not a salvific mercy, the Imago Dei is still a grace because it is by nature a self-revelation of God. All men are made in God’s image and thus in all men we may find a heavenly grace to thank God for.

All men are made in God’s image and thus in all men we may find a heavenly grace to thank God for.

Affectionate Thanksgiving

Paul thirdly describes his thanksgiving as affectionate. His thankfulness is justified because he holds the Philippians “with [his] heart,” (v.7). Paul has a great love for this church, as they have been his “partners of grace” through many trials. Specifically, Paul is considering his “imprisonment” in Rome, where he has been defending and propagating the gospel (v.7). In Paul’s mind, the Philippians have been his “partners” in the imprisonment, through their tangible support. For these associates in the gospel ministry, Paul has developed a deep affection. A deeper affection is evident in verse 8: “the deep love of Christ Jesus.” “Deep love” would be literally translated as “bowels.” Paul has ministerial affections residing in his heart (v.7), but more radical salvific affections residing in the bowels of Christ (v.8). As Paul and the Philippians are conformed to the image of Christ, they begin to resemble Him in deed and affection.

Paul’s deep love for the Philippians models for us a third step in practicing gratitude: stir your affections for them. Now this may prove frustrating for some. “How do I make myself care for someone? How does one control his emotions?” For this we must follow the Apostle’s example very closely. In order to stir your affections for them, first of all, may common labors be considered. As Paul recalled their partnership in gospel ministry, so too may we recall partnerships in ministry which we have had with those we must be thankful for. If nothing tangible comes to mind, then lean upon the common covenant you both have made to worship and serve Christ in the local church. Second of all, may common salvation be considered. For as many as are in Christ Jesus, in those bosoms do the bowels of Christ yearn (v.8). It is a matter of obedience, not preference, that we become like our Lord and Savior. Would you refuse His affections? Would you cast a dim eye upon those brethren whom He has cast his compassionate, unabating gaze? Think upon the benefits of salvation, and moreover how both of you enjoy them together. Let the affections of Christ be yours gladly.

Intercessory Thanksgiving

Paul fourthly describes his thanksgiving as intercessory. As he begins to describe his gratitude, the Apostle delves into an expression of this gratitude: “I thank my God… always offering prayer with joy,” (vv.3-4). It is a joyful thing for Paul to pray for the Philippians, because he is so thankful for them. The content of his prayer (vv.9-11) is a petition for the fruit and root of salvation. Paul prays that knowledge would cause their love to overflow (v.9), that this overflowing love would lead to holy ambitions (v.10a), and that these holy ambitions would lead to perseverance (v.10b). These are visible, salvific blessings – but he also prayers for invisible, salvific blessings. Paul pleads that this fruit would be rooted in divine purposes: Christ the vine as their great source, the glory of God as the great aim.

This is our final step in practicing gratitude: intercede for them. How can I forget my sister when I am praying for her? No one can talk and drink water at the same time. Similarly, it is impossible to pray for someone while funneling bitterness into your heart. Let us be about the business of intercession. First of all, pray that God’s grace would bear fruit in their life (vv.9-10). Plead they would know truth and how to apply it in wisdom. Plead such knowledge would cause their love to grow until it is busting at the seams. Plead this love would awake in them holy ambitions: energy for godliness. Plead these holy ambitions would result in their perseverance, that they would stand before Christ and hear, “Well done.” The spirit of antichrist is with the gossipers, who know well what to pray for yet never bruise their knees in intercession. Second of all, pray that God’s grace would take root in their life (v.11). Plead they would be as fruit upon the vine Christ. Pray God would glorify Himself in them. Intercede for your fellow saint, I beseech you! Become a great diplomat for your brother before the throne of God – make his case as you would your own. His weakness is yours, if you are to be about the business of learning gratitude.

The spirit of antichrist is with the gossipers, who know well what to pray for yet never bruise their knees in intercession.

Four Resolutions

Let our churches be known for their thanksgiving. This practice is fundamentally the habit of praising God – for to thank someone is to credit them with the object of gratitude. If we refuse God thankfulness, by neglecting, forsaking, or resenting our fellow believers, then we refuse Him his due glory. Paul is concerned thus as he begins this letter, as he bookends (v.3a, 13b) and fills (v.6, 8) this passage with God’s sovereign grace. Our Lord is the craftsman of this world, certainly of our local church. May we not seek to rob Him of such due praise.

Therefore, let us be determined to learn this lesson on gratitude, which may be summarized in four resolutions. For those Christians, my fellow believers in Christ, whom I have neglected, forsaken, or resented, let these four resolutions be manifest in my life.

  • Resolved: to thank God for them at every mention.
  • Resolved: to find something in them to be thankful for, an earthly deed or heavenly grace.
  • Resolved: to stir my affections for them, considering common labors and salvation.
  • Resolved: to pray for them, that God’s grace would take root and bear fruit in their life.

Prayer

Father God,

You are holy above all things, and eternally glorious. You have given us so many blessings – for this we are thankful. May the lesson of gratitude, modelled by your servant Paul, be made concrete in our lives. Teach us to be thankful. Make us proud of your work, that we would be compelled to be a unified church. Keep us from neglecting, forsaking, and resenting each other. May Christ return swiftly, to make us one forever. Amen.


[1]O’Brien, 54-55.

[2]Quote from Thomas Watson.

[3]This reading is from NASB and ESV. KJV is similar. NIV and NRSV more clearly communicate the meaning.

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