Fellowship in the Gospel

Fellowship in the Gospel

In his 2010 article, “America: Land of Loners?” Daniel Akst makes several helpful points to encourage people to build deeper friendships. How many “close social contacts” do you think the average American has? The answer is four, but only two of those are “friends only.”

Akst points out four barriers that typically prevent us from forming and maintaining friendships:

Time – we create busyness so we can feel important and mask our lack of meaningful relationships,

Place – we choose career and location over established relationships,

Divorce – divides more than the couple,

Self-sufficiency – it is reverenced.

He also argues for several advantages of friendship:

It can moderate behavior…friends help us establish and maintain norms,

It can prolong your life,

Lonely people have a harder time concentrating, are more likely to divorce, and get into more conflicts with neighbors and coworkers.

Philippians is one of the most important sources for understanding what Christian friendship should look like. Christian fellowship is about forming the kinds of bonds that increase our enjoyment of this life and strengthen our resolve for the life to come.

Philippians is not about after worship “fellowship”, you know when we grab coffee and snacks after the worship service in the “Fellowship Hall”. That might be a good starting point, but it is not sufficient to establish the kind of relationships that build godly communities. 

Isolation and loneliness are bad for our spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being. If friendships are so good for us, why are we so bad at developing and maintaining them?

Read Philippians 1:1-2

Writing From  Prison  (1a)

First, notice that Paul doesn’t refer to himself as an apostle. Philippians and Thessalonians are the only New Testament letters where he doesn’t mention his apostolic authority. Why? Because neither location challenged his position. They respected his role in the church.

Instead, Paul refers to himself and Timothy as “servants of Christ Jesus.” The term speaks of their utter commitment to Christ. They are completely at their master’s disposal. They are also committed to serving the church. Servant-leadership does not imply soft leadership, but it is self-sacrificial.

We also know that Paul was writing from prison (1:7, 13, 14). The outcome of his trial could lead to death or acquittal (1:19-20; 2:17). It seems most likely to have been his first imprisonment in Rome since he is more confident of his release than his final letter to Timothy (2 Tim 4:6-8). 

This is the context. It is important to keep in mind as we repeatedly hear Paul’s references to joy. We need to know that he is not simply spouting shallow platitudes. His encouragement come from a place that is firmly grounded and established through decades of hardship—hardship he was still in the midst of enduring. Paul had overcome his circumstances in order to rejoice in God’s blessings.

In his sermon on this verse, Martyn Lloyd-Jones connects Paul’s imprisonment to all of us:

“Sooner or later in life we all meet untoward circumstances, and find ourselves in some sort of prison. It may be a sick bed, or a hospital; it may be an accident; it may be grief or sorrow. Something puts us there: we are in that prison and we cannot avoid it. The important thing for us is to know, before we get there, the secret of how to overcome it, how to have this joy in the Lord in spite of our circumstances, how to rise above them all; how to conquer and be supreme over them. We need to know this if only for our own peace and joy.”

Many of you feel like 2020 was a prison. Unfortunately, you doubt there will be any improvement in 2021. We may be looking at several challenging years ahead. But, Paul wants to teach us the secret of overcoming your trials with the deep seated joy and peace that only God can provide.

One of the reasons we struggle to have genuine friends is the same reason we struggle in our suffering, namely, because we focus on ourselves and our own circumstances more than the needs of others. In Philippians, Paul models self-sacrificial service of others…from prison!

Your circumstances do not exempt you from this implication. You are not Paul or Timothy, but you experience prisons of your own. Oftentimes, God has placed you in that season precisely for the purpose of using you for more powerful service.

The motivation for this service is the example of Christ (Phil 2:5-11). Because we are united to him we will inevitably feel compelled to love like him. In fact, it is proper to see ourselves as the vessel through which Christ is continuing to love and serve others. We are not empty and lifeless, but our strength is supplied from God.

We become servants of Christ because he became a servant for us. Christ laid down his life in order to provide salvation. Along with redemption comes the inward work of the Holy Spirit who transforms our selfishness into selflessness.

Serving and humility are essential aspects of a meaningful friendship. Think about that for a minute. Why would that be? In our pride we “save face”. We don’t want to be vulnerable. In a close friendship we let our guard down. We are free to be ourselves. We aren’t afraid of them misunderstanding or taking advantage of us.

› It is important to keep in mind the context from which Paul is writing, but we also need to learn about the context of his recipients. For that we turn to our second point…

Writing to the  Philippians  (1:1b) 

Paul refers to them as “saints”. Despite Catholic practice of canonizing superior religiously devout individuals, the New Testament repeatedly refers to allChristians as saints. What makes someone a saint is not a particular kind of holiness, but it is the fact that they are “in Christ.” 

A saint is literally someone who has been set apart. God has set them apart in his Son. This is one of Paul’s chief phrases. “In Christ” occurs more than any other combination of words. Understanding our union with Christ is critical for maintaining a accurate perspective of salvation.

Paul also mentions the “overseers and deacons.” The term “overseer” is used interchangeably with “elder” (Acts 20Titus 1:5). The term “deacon” literally means to serve at table (cf. Acts 6:1-7). Why are they singled out? Paul recognizes their service and ensures that they are paying careful attention. They have an added responsibility to care for the congregation. 

Paul brought the gospel to the Philippians during his second missionary journey (Acts 16).

• By the time a band of four missionary brothers arrived at Philippi it was already an historic city. Named after Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, who annexed the region to mine it for precious metals. Rome conquered Macedonia in 167 B.C. and divided the region under various administrations. 

• Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke (16:8-10 “they” to “we”) came to the Roman colony of Philippi after walking 12 miles from the port in Neapolis. They went there in order to spread the gospel.

• Their journey to Philippi began as an unexpected call when their original plan to go to Asia was “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” (16:6). Typically, Paul went to the synagogue as soon as he entered a town. He was often invited to speak, whereupon he would use his opportunity to proclaim Christ (Acts 9:2213:51414:1). But apparently, there were not enough Jewish men to establish a synagogue in Philippi. 

• They saw a group of women who had gone to the river to pray (Acts 16:13). Lydia’s heart is opened to receive the gospel and after she and her household were baptized, she invited the group of missionaries into her home.

• Then we read of a demon-possessed slave girl who followed the missionary band around shouting “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” (v.17). This went on for several days and obviously carried a mocking tone that annoyed Paul. We can safely assume that this girl joined the church after she was healed.

• The owners of the slave girl were furious and they had Paul and Silas stripped, beaten, and thrown into prison. While in prison, Paul and Silas led the other prisoners in a hymn sing. An earthquake opened all the prison doors, so that the jailer was about to take his own life. Instead, the Spirit convicted the heart of the Philippian jailer and he was converted (Acts 16:30-31). Upon believing, he and his household were baptized that same night!

This was the beginning of the Philippian church. Lydia’s family, some other women who prayed with her by the river,  a healed slave girl, and the jailer’s family.

Paul returned to visit and encourage the Philippians on at least two more occasions (Acts 20:1-62 Cor 2:13). He loved this community and they reciprocated their affection for him (Phil 1:3-84:10-19). The letter bears witness to their mutual appreciation for one another. Of course, they had their issues, and Paul is not afraid to address them, but his tone is full of affection for these beloved saints.

We naturally gravitate to people just like us. We like to be around people who act and think like we do. But as God builds his church here in Fresno, we find ourselves belonging to a community of people with diverse backgrounds. 

The unity of the Christian community would look like an anomaly on paper. Apart from Christ, we often have very little in common. That distinctiveness bolsters our unity. 

Wherever we discover disparities, we ought to marvel at the God who brought us together. Diversity magnifies what unites us. When people say “what in the world do they have in common?” The appropriate response is, “Christ!”

Ferguson, “The Christian lives in two different orders of reality at the same time. We belong to Christ. As Paul will later say, ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (3:20), not here on earth. Yet for the moment we live in a sinful environment, ‘at Philippi’, or London or Atlanta. Here we are called to live as alien residents.”

We live with our feet planted on earth while our hearts are pointed toward heaven. And frankly, that’s not an easy predicament to find ourselves in. We desperately need one another to navigate are way through this present age. 

So much meaning is packed into this opening verse. Paul’s friendship with Timothy and their partnership with the church is based upon their calling as servants of Christ. Their commitment to follow the Lord’s leading brought them to Philippi more than a decade prior. All of the correspondence they have enjoyed in person and through the words of companions bubbles up to the surface of their minds as they hear these opening words. They enjoy a rich history in their gospel partnership.

Building a strong community can feel like an impossibility because we overemphasize our present challenges and under-emphasize our rich history.Don’t forget all you have been through together. Address your present challenges after appreciating your heritage.

You will not overcome family conflicts simply by analyzing the present condition. If you tell your wife “Actually, that’s not what happened…” without reflecting on the big picture you are liable to make mountains our of molehills.

Analysis needs to occur within the context of covenant reminders. “I love you! I’m for you. We will get through this. We’ve been through so much together.” All of this requires a number of things (i.e., commitment—Phil 1, humility—Phil 2, awareness—Phil 3, mindset—Phil 4).

Gratitude places us in the proper angle from which we can view conflict. When we lack gratitude for our history with one another we grow indifferent about each others needs. A community filled with indifference toward one another will not be capable of outlasting even light persecution from the world.

However, rehearsing the chronology of your relationship will not magically resolve the tension or indifference. The process must ultimately remind us of all that God has done in and through us. It points us to the central figure of every God-honoring relationship. We begin to see that he who began a good work in us will bring it to completion (Phil. 1:6)!

I pray the Lord continues to knit our hearts together into a loving community. As we center our lives around Christ our union with him will manifest itself in sacrificial service to one another.


1. Writing from  Prison  (1a)

2. Writing to the  Philippians  (1b)

3. Writing with a  Purpose  (2)

The themes of gospel and community find their beginning in a much larger story that traces the history of God’s covenant community. To build a community, is to create a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Unfortunately, our personal stories are oftentimes assumed or unknown. Many of us come to church in the middle of our own story and we are reluctant to share it because we think no one wants to hear it. Friendships begin with the discovery of one another’s story.

Believers experience genuine fellowship because they are united to Christ and mutually committed to his gospel.

First, that implies that we have a true understanding of the gospel. We know the gospel is the “good news” about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the good news of the gospel that counters the bad news of our sinfulness. We were not born as saints, but sinners. We are not born “in Christ” but separated from him. Yet, while we were enemies, Christ died for us.

Ephesians 2:8 ESV

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,

Second, the body of Christ is centered upon the gospel, and because of that, our relationships will deepen as we learn about the work of Christ in one another’s lives. We ought to delight to share our testimony of God’s redeeming work knowing that God gets the glory for building such a diverse community of saints!