The Story Behind the Book of Philippians
Introduction: Warner Davis was a missionary kid who came to the States to enroll at Asbury University. He needed $200 for tuition. He went door to door, trying to sell cookware, but didn’t have much success. One morning, he prayed, “Lord, if you bless me financially this week, I promise I’ll give ten percent of my income to the church.” By Saturday, he had made $250, but he forgot about his promise. On Sunday morning the Lord reminded him and Warner quickly sat down and wrote a check for $10. Then he tore it up and wrote another for $15. Then the tore that up and wrote one for $25.
On that particular Sunday two visitors showed up. As they left, they handed Warner an envelope. It contained a personal gift for $25—the exact amount he had put in the offering plate. They explained they had long followed his father’s missionary work and they felt an impulse to show their appreciation by giving something to his son. That lesson stayed with Warner Davis all this life. Never again, he said, did he have to try three times to write a check to the Lord before he got the right amount. We can trace that lesson back to the Philippians.
Background: Whenever you study a book in the Bible, it’s helpful to find the facts surrounding it. Paul planted three important churches in Macedonia—in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. The church in Philippi met in the home of their first convert, Lydia, who was wealthy. She opened her home to the whole church. That set the tone for the church’s generosity.
Two entire chapters of 2 Corinthians are devoted to this. Look at 2 Corinthians 8:1-5:
8 And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. 5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.
On this occasion, Paul was collecting funds for the poverty-stricken church of Judea. The Macedonian churches understood the concept of giving to the Lord better than anyone else. God had given them the grace of giving. Paul collected this offering and took it to Jerusalem in Acts 21. But his presence there sparked a riot. He was sent to prison in Caesarea and then in Rome. When the Philippians heard this, they were alarmed and asked themselves, “What can we do? How can we help him?”
They took up yet another offering and one of the church members—Epaphroditus—said, “I’ll take it and stay with Paul and take care of him.” After prayers and goodbyes, Epaphroditus left Philippi for the trip to Rome, which would have taken over a month on the Ignatian Way. Once there, he tracked down Paul, gave him the money, and stayed with him. But Epaphroditus became deathly sick, and instead of taking care of Paul, Paul had to take care of him. When Epaphroditus recovered, Paul sent him back to Philippi with a letter of friendship and gratitude—our letter to the Philippians. Look at Philippians 2:25-30:
25 But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. 26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. 28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. 29 So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, 30 because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.
The Philippian Impact on History
What can we learn from this? Whatever happens, keep on giving. Stay generous. Support the expansion of the Kingdom of Christ around the world. In all of the New Testament, the church in Philippi and its fellow churches of Macedonia were the Bible’s prime examples of missionary giving. I can go so far as to say their example has impacted the generosity of the church through the ages, which has impacted the world economy in ways greater than we know.
Chuck Bentley is the head of Crown Financial Ministries. One day several years ago, he read in the Wall Street Journal about a Chinese economist named Zhao Xiao, which, Americanized is, Dr. Peter Zhao (prounced Zow). He was a rising star in the Communist party and the Chinese authorities asked him to determine why America had the strongest economy. They wanted to figure out the secret of America’s success and leverage it.
Dr. Zhao came up with one basic conclusion. American was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and that biblical basis provided a tireless work ethic, a sense of honesty, a suppression of corruption, a motivation for excellence, a creative spirit, and a deep belief in generosity. He said, “The strong U.S. economy is just on the surface. The backbone is the moral foundation.” Dr. Zhao wrote over 200 articles about this.
Later Chuck was at a financial conference where he met Dr. Zhao. The Chinese economist had become a personal follower of Jesus Christ. Chuck said:
Churches that teach God’s Word have an incalculable but profoundly positive impact on individuals and thus a nation’s economy.
Two things provide a snapshot of the health and future of a nation: the number of healthy Bible believing churches and the number of entrepreneurs that are free to pursue their dream. Dr. Zhao was right; China needs God. But not just China; every pastor needs to understand they are creating “good economic actors” with the values, the character and creative spirit that builds a personal economy, and in turn contributes to the collective economic health of a nation.
Let’s end by revisiting 2 Corinthians 8:1-5 and draw out three lessons.
First, ask God to give the grace of giving. Our desire to support the cause of Christ financially is the outworking of God’s grace in our lives. Verse 1 says: Now brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. He was speaking of their generous attitude. I’ve found—and this is after 70 years of working on it—whenever I receive a paycheck of some sort, my first thought is how I can use a proportion of it to support the Lord’s work. I love this feeling. It’s simply grace. Ask God to give you the grace of giving.
Second, give as God leads despite the circumstances. Verse 2: In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. Think of a spring in which the water rises to the surface by itself and wells up to overflowing. I have some little water fountains at home, and when I plug them in the pump begins to force the water up the pipes and tubes. Suddenly I see it at the top welling up and starting to run over the rocks or the saucers.
Well, what’s beneath the surface? It’s a three-fold pump: Severe trials; overflowing joy; extreme poverty.
Apparently some kind of opposition had befallen the churches in Macedonia, and it made them realize their temporary possessions were not as important as their eternal riches. In the midst of this God gave them joy. Though they were poor, the Lord provided something special for them to give. It welled up into rich generosity.
Third, offer the totality of your life—not just all you have, but all you are or ever hope to be—to the Lord. Verses 4 through 5: For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.
Give yourself first to the Lord! Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these other things will be added to you as well.
Conclusion: In your mind’s eye, travel to Lydia’s expansive house. Go through the gate and into the foyer. It’s a pleasant evening, so let’s meet in the courtyard. Chairs are set up. Here are servants with refreshments. Here’s someone to lead singing. Here’s someone to take up the offering. This is a generous, singing, worshipping church, founded by Paul, overseen by Luke, and growing by the day. The jailer and his family are present, and the servant girl has brought some friends. The crowd is growing.
This particular meeting is special. Epaphroditus, who has been gone most of a year, is back, sitting in the corner. He has come from Rome. He has come from Paul. If we’d have arrived a bit earlier we could have spoken to him before the service; but we did see him give the pastor a little parchment scroll, and we already suspect it’s a letter from Paul, which Epaphroditus had brought back with him.
Everyone sits in rapt attention to hear the news from their beloved friend and missionary. The pastor stands, unrolls it, and says: “Friends! We have news from Paul. I’ll just read it to you. He writes, ‘Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ, to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ….’”