Congregational Perseverance

adapted from PCC Prayer Meeting Exhortation on 21 Oct 2011

“Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ…” (Philippians 1:6).

Philippi was A Roman colony named after Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great. It was a fairly important city because it lay on the main road between the Eastern provinces of the empire and Rome.

Providentially, it was here at Philippi that the first Christian church in Europe was established. It was founded by the apostle Paul when he was diverted to visit Philippi through a vision of a Macedonian man beckoning him to go over to help them (Acts 16:6-10).

During his brief visit with Timothy and Silas, a few people were converted including Lydia and her household, the Philippian jailer and his household (Acts 16:14-34), and others (Acts 16:40). Paul returned on at least two other occasions to strengthen the believers there (Acts 20:1-6; 2 Cor 2:13).

Paul wrote this letter during on of his imprisonments. This is clear from his reference to his bonds (1:12-30). Most likely, this was during his first Roman Imprisonment whose beginning was recorded in Acts 28. If this correct, this letter would have been written round about AD 61.

What was the occasion of this letter? Well, when the saints at Philippi heard that Paul was in prison at Rome, they sent Epaphroditus to minister to him. Epaphroditus represented the Philippians to comfort Paul in his affliction. He also brought a generous gift from the church which Paul appreciated greatly (4:18). It was to thank the Philippians for their generosity and love that Paul wrote this letter to them. So we may say that this letter is in fact a thank you note.

And as with all thank you notes which are written with a grateful heart, the epistle to the Philippians rings with a note of joy and thanksgiving. This is probably the reason why this letter is known as an epistle of joy. And the letter does enjoin a joyful Christian walk. Paul emphasises the need for Christians to rejoice. Throughout the letter, he uses various Greek words to describe joy. In the Authorised translation, the words ‘joy’, ‘rejoice’ or ‘gladness’ occurs a total of 19 times, though in 3 instances, the words in the Greek has the idea of boasting or glorying (1:26, 2:16 & 3:3).

We may say that the theme of the letter is: “Living joyfully in Christ.” With such a theme, we can expect the letter to be replete with promises, and we are not disappointed. But for our purpose in this study, we want to consider the famous words of the apostle as he begins this letter:

Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ…

A promise will usually begin with the words, “I will” if God pronounces it Himself, or “God will” if it is spoken by a third party. However, there are also statements which are not promissory per se, which appears to be a promise when read because they inspire confidence and hope.

Philippians 1:6, is such an example. This verse carries an expression of deep confidence in the heart of the apostle. It is effectively a word of promise coming from the inspired pen of an apostle of Christ.

But what exactly is this promise about? Is this a promise about the church, or is it about the individual believer? Well, the vast majority of commentators understand this verse to be about God’s work in the soul of the believer, and therefore, this is a strong proof of the doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints. We do not, of course, deny the doctrine. It is firmly grounded in Scripture, in texts such as John 10:28-29, Jude 24, Romans 8:37-39 etc. And indeed, a very strong case can be made that Perseverance of the Saints, is at least included, even if it may not be wholly intended in the text (cf. Phil 2:12-16). Nevertheless, it appears to me that Paul has in mind not just God’s work in individually believers, but in the congregation as a whole.

Paul is telling the Philippians of how he thanks God for the church upon every remembrance of them, so these words are directed to the church as a whole. This is also confirmed by his use of the phrase “you all” in verses 5 and 7; as well as the reference to the “first day” (v. 5), which clearly has respect to the church rather than to the individuals.

So the promise implied in this verse is surely applicable immediately to the Philippian congregation. It is not, we must understand, a promise about the church universal visible. Rather, this is promise about a local church. Yes, it is originally about the church at Philippi. But if Paul can be confident about the church at Philippi, then he can be confident about any congregation share some of the salient characteristics of the congregation at Philippi.

What are some of these characteristics? Well, among other things, it must be centred on Christ, with properly ordained elders and deacons (1:1).  It must be founded by the providence of God, and be set for the confirmation, defense and furtherance of the Gospel (1:7, 12, 17). It must be founded upon the love and imitation of Christ (2:1-11) as well as a full dependence upon him for acceptance before God (3:1-11). It must have good works, buts good works must be done out of love and gratitude for Christ not out of any desire to win God’s favour.

If a congregation shares these characteristics with the church at Philippi, then they may also share the same confidence that the apostle Paul feel for the church at Philippi.

With this in mind, let us consider why the apostle was confident. He says:

Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ…

From these words, we can derive three reasons for his confidence, and three reasons why we can be confident. First, it is God who begun the work; secondly, God is continuing the work; and thirdly, God is already committed to finishing the work.


1. God Begun the Work

The first reason why we can have confidence is that it is God who began the work. In the case of the Church at Philippi, God sent a vision to Paul in the night. It was a vision of the Macedonian man saying unto him: “Come over into Macedonia, and help is” (Acts 16:9).

From then on, it was one remarkable conversion after another. First, it was Lydia, the seller of purple and her household. Then it was the damsel with an evil spirit amongst others. Then it was the Philippian Jailer and his household. And then many others were added through the witness of the original members.

Can we say the same of our congregation? I believe so. We may not have begun in exactly the same way, but did not the Lord begin the work in each of our hearts? We were dead in sin and trespasses. We were children of God’s wrath and enemies of his. But God by His Spirit changed our heart, opened our eyes, unstopped our ears and enabled us to hear the voice of our Shepherd, to see his glory and to believe Him to be our Saviour and Lord.

Then in the fullness of time, he started this congregation as a branch of the Lord Jesus Christ. He led us to confess the truth of the Gospel according the Westminster Confession of Faith. He joined us together by covenant. He led us to ordain elders and deacons whom Christ called and equipped for the work. 

It was God who began the work, for which reason, we can have confidence that He will not leave us nor forsake us.

But secondly, we can have confidence for…


2. God is Continuing the Work

Not only did God begin the work in Philippi, it is also God who continued the work. This is obvious from Paul’s word to the Philippians in chapter 2, verse 12—

12 Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.

The Philippians had to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. They must also work together as a church to deal with all the relationship problems facing them as well as the challenges related to defence, confirmation and furtherance of the Gospel. But it is God who is working in them both to will and to do according to his good pleasure.

So it is in our congregation. We must work hard individually and corporately. In addition to the work of the Gospel, there are problems within and without. We must deal with them. There are no two ways about it.

But it is God who is working in us to do the real work within us. We do not belong to this world. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 1:27). God is preparing us for heaven. What we are experiencing as a church with all its troubles and sorrows is part of our preparation for heaven!

Now, if it is God who is working in us to prepare us for life in heaven, then shall we not have the confidence that he will continue to do a good work in us? Shall we not cast away any sense of despair and despondency? Shall we not rejoice in the knowledge that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

But finally, shall we not have confidence for…


3. God is Committed to Finishing the Work

Paul may have doubts about many things in regard to the Philippian church. For example, he probably doubted whether the conflict between Syntyche and Euodias would ever be resolved in this life (cf. Phil 4:2).

But there was one thing he was confident and had no doubt about, namely that God who had begun a good work in the church would perform it unto the day of Jesus Christ.

The Lord Jesus has promised that God will never leave or forsake his saints. “My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand” (Jn 10:29).

The Lord Jesus has also promised that he will continue to build His church. He told Peter: “upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).

No doubt, it was on the basis of the promises and the clear evidence that it was the Lord who began the work at Philippi, that gave strong confidence that God will continue to work in their midst until the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I do not know where the church of Philippi  is today. Ancient Philippi is an archaeological site today. But the church is not made of dead stones. It is made of lively stones. The people may have lived and died, and moved, but I believe that if you search hard enough and dig deep enough it is possible to trace a living congregation in Asia Minor or Europe that has its genesis at least in part at Philippi.

Today we can have the same confidence. If we believe that God has begun the good work in us; if we believe he is still working in us; we can believe that he will preserve us unto the day of the Lord Jesus Christ!


Conclusion

It is easy to become discouraged when we look at the church. We see the hardness of heart and the lack of spiritual and numerical growth. We see the departures. We cannot help but feel a sense of discouragement and failure.

But beloved brethren and children, it is important for us to remember that this church did not come about by the will of men, but by the will of God. This is a church of Christ, not a church of the pastor or elders or of the founding members or of the continuing members.

Therefore, we can have the confidence that He who has begun the good work in us will perform it unto the day of the Lord Jesus Christ; only let us serve Him faithfully and joyfully in unity and love. Amen.