Partnership with Paul
Paul’s letter to the Philippians begins with an expression of confidence. Paul’s confidence is ultimately in God. It was God who had begun a good work in the Philippians (Phil 1:6); and it was God’s grace that they had been partakers of, along with Paul (Phil 1:7). But when Paul looked at the spiritual fruit produced by God in the Philippian church, one thing stood out: the Philippians had been partners in the gospel, together with Paul.
Now on one level, this partnership in the gospel with Paul was something peculiar to the Philippian church. We read about the beginning of that church in Acts 16, and it is a remarkable account. Three significant conversion stories are singled out in that chapter. The first is the conversion of Lydia and her household. Lydia was a wealthy woman, with a house in Philippi as well as one in Thyatira. She dealt in purple cloth, an expensive and fashionable commodity. She was a god-fearer, which probably means that she, though a Gentile, followed and perhaps even worshipped the God of Israel. She heard the gospel from Paul, was converted, and immediately began to support and house Paul and those travelling with him. At the end of Acts 16, we are told that all the Christians began to meet at Lydia’s house. She became a partner in the gospel, together with Paul.
The next miraculous conversion recorded for us is that of a demon-possessed slave girl. While Lydia was wealthy and fashionable, this girl was probably just the opposite. She was powerless and used. She was exploited and oppressed – physically, emotionally, financially, and, by the demon, spiritually. Hers was a hopeless life, and there can be little doubt that her background, education, and mode of thinking differed sharply from that sophisticated, cultured, and moral woman of the world, Lydia. And yet she, like Lydia, was rescued by God. The Lord miraculously freed her, using, once again, his servant Paul.
The third story we read in the founding of the Philippian church is that of the Philippian jailor. While the first two stories dealt with women (though very different women), the Philippian jailor was a man – a man with a family, probably a former soldier (most jailors of his type were), someone whose life and livelihood depended on being strong and tough in the service of his city. His conversion, however, is equally dramatic and miraculous. Paul and Silas were in his prison. When an earthquake struck, the prison was shaken to such an extent that the prisoners could have escaped. But Paul and Silas, in the darkest inner room of the prison, stayed, as did the others. When the Philippian jailor saw what had happened, he asked them – really begged them – to tell him how he could be saved. Their answer, of course, was to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. He and his family were transformed by the gospel; they became partners with Paul in his glorious gospel work.
If we examine each of these characters in Acts 16, we see surprising differences among them. The first two are women, the third is a man; one is wealthy, one of modest but sufficient means, one enslaved; one is a god-fearer, one of uncertain but probably conventional religious persuasion, another possessed by a demon. In nearly every human way, these three represent vastly differing backgrounds and perspectives. Yet all three are transformed by the gospel. All three hear the message from Paul and are transformed by God’s grace. Paul’s gospel is not just for one type of person; it is good news for all.
But of course these are particular situations. These are people who had met Paul personally and had been transformed by God through Paul’s words. We can understand how it might be said of these Philippian Christians that they had partnership in the gospel with Paul. But what about us? We have never met Paul ourselves, and our lives are far-removed from the lives of Lydia, the slave-girl, and the Philippian jailor.
It strikes me, however, that there is a way in which we today can also be partners in the gospel with Paul. We cannot actually support the mission and teaching of Paul himself, but we can support those who proclaim the biblical, Pauline gospel. We cannot stand side by side with Paul as he defends the doctrines of the faith, but we can stand for those same doctrines ourselves when they are under attack, as they often are, not least in our day. We cannot send a gift to the imprisoned Paul as the Philippian church did but we can use whatever God has given us to defend the gospel of grace and support the clear teaching of scripture.
To be sure, our partnership in the gospel with Paul will take shape in different ways than it did in the 1st century, since the man Paul is no longer with us. But the Pauline gospel is still in need of support, now as then. It is a gospel of glorious grace, revealed from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation. It is a gospel which transforms people as diverse as the three in Philippi mentioned in Acts 16. And it carries with it the promise of God of which Paul reminds his first Philippian readers in the first chapter of his letter, “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.”