Teaching series from Philippians

Joy and Christ-Centered Relationships

Philippians 1:1-8

Teaching t12666


This morning we begin a study of Philippians.  Let’s dive right in (read 1:1,2).  This is a letter from Paul (a key leader in the early Christian movement) to the Christians in Philippi (MAP).  Paul started this church 10 years earlier (see Acts 16), and has maintained an ongoing relationship with them.  They have recently sent Paul a money gift that helps him carry on his ministry to Christians and seekers.  This letter is a “thank you” note and much more, as we will see.

This letter is known as the “joy letter.”  Paul uses the noun (“joy”) 5 times and the verb (“rejoice”) 8 times, and the entire letter exudes an attitude of joy.  We would expect that Paul must be vacationing on some Greek island, playing great golf every day, etc.  But no!  He is imprisoned in Rome, chained to Roman guards and awaiting trial and possible execution for a crime he didn’t commit!  Paul’s joy is very different from American happiness.

“Happiness” derives from the word “happen” or “happenstance,” and refers to the pleasant feelings that come from favorable circumstances.  I usually feel happy on vacation because I am where I want to be, with the people I like being with, doing what I like to do.  There is nothing wrong with this – happiness is a blessing from God.  But since happiness is dependent on favorable circumstances, it is extremely fragile.  And those who build their lives around it get caught in a futile attempt to control their circumstances or a continual search for better circumstances.  Pursuing it is therefore not a wise goal for your life.

“Joy,” as it is used it this letter, is not just a feeling, although it involves your feelings.  It is related to peace and hope – deep-seated sense of well-being that God grants us as we trust in Him (read Rom. 15:13).  Therefore, it is independent of your circumstances, and you can have it even when you are unhappy (2 Cor. 6:10a).

So as we study this letter, let’s keep an eye out for keys to joy.  The next paragraph introduces us to one of these keys (read 1:3-8).

Joy & Christ-centered relationships

Notice the connection between Paul’s joy (1:4) and his relationship with the Philippians (1:3,7,8).  His Christ-centered relationship with them is a reason for his joy (read 4:1a).

Paul would not have been surprised at the findings of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.[1]  It has studied 724 men over the past 75 years – by far the longest study of its kind.  The men came from widely different backgrounds (Harvard students; inner-city poor).  The study has interviewed them every 2 years (personal information; family members; medical tests & records).  They are seeking to identify factors that correlate with happiness (defined more like “joy” above).  The fourth director of the study, Robert Waldinger, summarized their findings this way: “Wealth, fame and career success do not correlate with true happiness . . . Good relationships keep us happier and healthier – period.”  Having many social connections (vs. isolation), warm and affectionate relationships (vs. alienation; bitterness), and securely-attached relationships (vs. moving on) were the key relational factors that predict significantly greater happiness.  Waldinger says that Americans want to be happy as much as anyone, but they look for it in the wrong places (i.e. wealth, fame and career success), and they want quick-fixes for their unhappiness.  Does this sound familiar?  Harvard could have saved a lot of money by studying Philippians!

Christians have a unique resource for building relationships that contribute to joy.  Paul calls it “the affection of Christ” (1:8) or “the affection that comes from Christ.”  When you receive Christ, you gain access to His deep love for you, and His love can flow out through you to others (quote and explain Jn. 7:37).  As we continue to receive His love and give His love to others, we experience deepening joy (quote Jn. 15:10-12).

Let’s take a closer look at what characterized Paul’s Christ-centered relationship with the Philippians that resulted in joy.  I see three features in this passage (more to come), that apply to all of our key relationships with other Christians (e.g., spouse; children; home church members; people we’re discipling, etc.) . . .

Partnering in sharing Christ’s love with others

Re-read 1:3-5.  His joy is connected to (“in view of”) their “participation in the gospel from the first day until now.”  “Participation” is koinonia, which means “to share in common” or “to be in partnership.”  Re-read 1:7 – “partakers” is sugkoinonos, which means “joint partners.”  Ever since the Philippians received Christ they have partnered with Paul in spreading the good news about God’s grace to other people.  They did this by sharing Christ with people in Philippi, and by contributing financially to Paul’s church-planting ministry.  This ten-year joint partnership gave Paul great joy!

It’s not rocket science that serving a greater cause together is a key ingredient of relational bonding that leads to joy (“BAND OF BROTHERS”).  Conversely, ingrown relationships, relationships that focus primarily on enjoying one another eventually sour and implode.  But when a key part of our relationship is being a team to serve others (family, friends, church, community), this brings an added dimension that we were designed to have and enjoy.

What is true in general (above) is true especially of Christ-centered friendships.  When we have a consumer attitude about Christian fellowship (“Am I getting my needs met?  Is this meeting my expectations?”), we will inevitably be disappointed and wrongly conclude that we need to “move on” (church-shopping).  But when we relate as team-members to give Christ’s love to others (e.g., build others up at meetings; reach out to non-Christian friends; pray for others; serve practically together; etc.), God’s Spirit fills us – and one of His fruits is joy (Gal. 5:22).  Over time, this joy deepens as we accumulate a backlog of experiences of serving together, seeing God work through us to impact others for Christ, and (sometimes) seeing people respond to Him.

Do you make serving others a priority in your key Christian relationships?  If you have unsatisfying relationships, this omission is likely a key reason.  How much joy do you want?

Believing in God’s commitment to transform our lives

Re-read 1:4,6 (NLT).  Paul’s joy is also connected to his confidence in God’s commitment to transform their lives into increasing Christ-likeness.  This is “the good work” in 1:6, and Paul will describe it in more detail in 1:9-11 (NEXT WEEK).

God begins this good work when we receive Christ.  At that moment, God permanently unites us with Christ, so that we receive both His righteous standing before God and His Spirit.

God continues this good work throughout our Christian lives.  His Spirit constantly imparts both the motivation and power to please God (2:13) and transform our characters (Gal. 5:22,23).  We can block God’s transformation, but we cannot stop Him from initiating it.  This is why there is always hope for the rest of our lives, no matter how big our problems are or how much we have messed up.

God will complete this good work when Christ returns.  The moment we see Him, we will be transformed to be fully like Him in character and body (Col. 3:4; 1 Jn. 3:2).

So a key to Christian relationships that result in joy is focusing on and believing in God’s commitment to grow our friends.  We don’t naively “believe in them” because they (like we) are deeply broken and sinful; we believe in the God who is at work in them (CHILCOTE TO BEV).  We don’t take responsibility to change them; we cooperate with the God who takes responsibility to change them (and us).  When we have this focus, we can be realistic and yet hopeful – and therefore patient and persistent with one another over the long haul.  Such relationships often ripen into mutual joy.

 “Paul had learned the discipline of looking at people through the lens of God’s grace . . . (For many Christians) the dominant approach to life (is) that . . . ‘people are bad.’  And because of that they see bad in people.  That’s not the biblical lifestyle.  The biblical lifestyle is that where sin abounds, grace super-abounds.  If you are . . . thrilled by grace, you recognize (His) grace (at work) in another person.  And this recognizing of grace in others is one of the keys to joy in our lives.”[2]

Do you cultivate this focus in your relationships – or do you focus on their flaws and short-comings and disappointments?  Do you pray for them along these lines (first affirming this and then thanking God for evidence of it) – or do you mainly angst and complain about them to God?  Do you remind them of this promise, recount evidence of it in them, counter their discouragement with this – or do you tolerate or agree with their-self-negativity?

Expressing appreciation to God & the other person

Paul begins by telling the Philippians how often he thanks God for them (1:3), and he ends by telling them that God knows the affection he has for them (1:8).  Imagine how it affected the Philippians to hear Paul say: “You are an important – and positive – part of my relationship with God!”  Talking to God about them in this way gave Paul joy (1:4), and telling them that he talked to God about them this way gave him more joy!

Paul begins all but two of his letters this way (Galatians & 2 Corinthians).  He isn’t engaging in flattery in order to manipulate the recipients.  He isn’t being Pollyanna, because he is willing to address problems and challenge.  He does this because it is true – he really has found evidence of God’s work in their lives, he really has thanked God for this evidence, and he so completes the circle by telling them about the evidence for which he thanks God.

Here is a powerful habit that helps to build healthy Christ-centered friendships and leads to increasing joy.  This is not complicated; you don’t need to be a relational Ninja to do this.  You can express your appreciation directly and simply (“I appreciate the way you . . .”).  You can tell them, like Paul does, that you thank God for them.  You can express appreciation to God as you pray with them.  You can “gossip” your appreciation to others. 

What hinders us from practicing this and modeling it others?  Do any of these answers sound familiar?

“I didn’t know this.”  Well, you are ignorant no longer – God has enlightened you!

“I don’t see anything I appreciate.”  Is it possible that you take the relationship for granted?  How about thinking about this and asking God to help you see? 

“He already knows that I appreciate him.”  How does he know?  How long ago did you tell him?  How often do you tell him?  Does God take this position with you?

“It feels awkward to express this.”  Does that make it fake?  Sincerity matters more to God than naturalness!  As you practice this, it will become more natural and enjoyable.”

“I don’t want her to expect this from me.”  Isn’t that issue between her and God?  Isn’t this issue between you and God?

“This sounds like work.”  It is – Christ-centered friendships involve intentionality and practice.  But it is good work, if you can get it!


SUMMARIZE: Don’t specialize!  These are like the legs of a stool – each is necessary if you want to sit on it.  Which leg is the Holy Spirit showing you needs attention?  What step is He asking you to take to do this?  He will empower you, bless others, and increase your joy as you do this!


[1] For a summary, see Robert Waldinger: “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness” on TED.com.

[2] Ajith Fernando, The Fullness of Christ (London: Keswick Ministries, 2007), pp. 88,89.