One of the most beautiful elements in the Pauline Epistles is the intimate relation which evidently existed between the Apostle and his converts. This is especially the case in the Epistle to the Philippians, for in no other writing is there such a full revelation of the heart of St. Paul and of his love to those with whom he was united in Christ. As, therefore, he knew them so intimately, so he prayed for them, the prayer revealing at once their need, and his conviction as to essential things. Prayer is always strong in proportion to our acquaintance with the spiritual life of others, and feeble so far as we are ignorant of their needs.
1. THE DEFINITE REQUEST.
Let us mark the opening words: "this I keep on asking" (Greek). There was one thing for which he asked continually, and this seemed to him to sum up everything in their life.
(1) He prayed for love; "your love." As they already possessed life, he wished it to be expressed in love. The Epistle is full of this subject. No writing is so truly characterised by the love of St. Paul for his converts, or of his converts for St. Paul (see ch. iv.14-18). Let us again remind ourselves that love in the New Testament is something definite, tangible, strong, practical, intense. It is more than sentiment, though of course it includes that; it is more than emotion, though undoubtedly it includes that; it is more than desire, though obviously it includes that. Love is the outgoing of the entire nature in self-sacrificing service. It is the sympathy of the heart and the devotion of the life to its object. As such it is the supreme proof of the reality of our Christian profession. "If ye love Me, ye will keep My commandments" (John xiv.15, R.V.). "Lovest thou Me ... feed My sheep" (John xxi.16). "Seeing ye have purified your souls ... love one another from the heart unfeignedly" (1 Pet. i.22, R.V.). It was with no cynicism, but with a wonderful astonishment, that the heathen used to say, "See how these Christians love one another." When therefore the Apostle prayed for love he was asking that the Philippian Christians might possess and manifest the very finest, truest, most powerful, and most attractive proof of their Christian life.
(2) He prayed for abounding love; "that your love may abound." Not only some, but abundant love; not a little, but much. Love to be real must be kept full, intense, overflowing; it calls for continual reinforcement, replenishing, and the abundance of love is the measure and proof of the possession of abundant life.
(3) He prayed for increasing love; "that your love may abound yet more and more." Expression is piled upon expression in order to emphasise the importance of love and its progress. Love is intended to grow and not to remain stationary. Just as life makes progress, so must its result similarly develop in love. The motto for the Christian is "more and more." This is why there is so much in the New Testament about growth, for just as it is with natural life so it must be with spiritual. Constant increase, development, progress, extension, expansion must mark it at every step.
(4) He prayed for discerning love; "that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment" (R.V.). The two words "knowledge" and "discernment" are particularly noteworthy. One expresses the principle, the other the application. Again we observe this word "knowledge" as a characteristic expression of the Apostle in these prison-epistles. "Full knowledge" (Greek) is one of the marks of a growing Christian life, and is proved by spiritual perception, spiritual feeling, spiritual discernment. There is a world of difference between intellectual ability and spiritual insight. Many people are clever, but not spiritual, while many people are often truly spiritual without being possessed of much intellectual capacity. Much is said in Scripture about sight in regard to things spiritual. "Except a man be born again, he cannot see" (John iii.3). "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matt. v.8). There are many people in our congregations of average intellect, and perhaps with mental powers decidedly below the average, who are nevertheless full of profound spiritual wisdom because love to Christ has given them keenness of vision and depth of insight.
2. THE IMMEDIATE PURPOSE.
This constant progress and abundance of love was intended for a very practical purpose; "so that ye may approve the things that are excellent" (ver.10, R.V.). The discernment already mentioned was intended for spiritual discrimination. They were to be enabled to distinguish, to prove, and thereby to approve. As Lightfoot points out, "love imparts a sensitiveness of touch, a keen edge to the discriminating faculty in things moral and spiritual." In things spiritual at least love is not blind, but keen-sighted. It is endowed with a spiritual discernment which is able to distinguish not only between good and bad, but between good and better, between better and best, and between best and excellent. The words, "approve the things that are excellent," occur also in Rom. ii.18, and the meaning seems to be first that they were to "distinguish the things that differ," and then as a result they were to "approve the things that transcend." This spiritual discernment is particularly needful to-day, as the Christian soul is surrounded by so many views and voices. Much that appears on the surface to be attractive and charming contains within it the elements of spiritual danger and disaster, and it is only by spiritual discernment which comes from abounding and increasing love to Christ that the soul is safeguarded against evil and led to approve and follow the things that are superior. It is a vivid picture that the prophet gives of the Messiah when he describes Him as endowed by the Spirit of God and made of "quick scent in the fear of the Lord" (Isa. xi.3, Hebrew). It is this "quick scent" that by the same Spirit the Lord Jesus Christ bestows upon those who love Him with all the heart.
3. THE PERMANENT RESULT.
Every Christian grace is intended for practical and permanent effect in character. Our lives are not to be intermittent, but continuous in their expression of grace and blessing, and all that the Apostle has been praying for and desiring on behalf of his Philippian Christians was intended to develop and express in them the solid and permanent realities of Christian character.
(1) Sincerity; "that ye may be sincere" (ver.10). This has to do with motives. The word is thought to mean "tested in the sunlight." Our lives are to be manifestly true, genuine, sincere, "transparent." "Motive makes the man," and from time to time it is essential that we should allow ourselves to be tested and judged in the sunlight of our perfect fellowship with Christ, just as St. Peter, when asked by his Master, said, "Lord, Thou knowest all things." Sincerity is one of the essential features of the true Christian life. The believer, if he is to do the will of God and commend the Gospel to others, must have no doubtful arriere pensee but a life lived moment by moment in the perfect brightness of the presence of perfect holiness.
(2) Consistency; "void of offence" (ver.10, R.V.). This has to do with conduct. Not only are we to be inwardly true, but outwardly sure. Our lives must not hinder others, or put a stumbling-block in their way. Just as the Master said, "Blessed is he whosoever is not put to stumble by Me," so must it be with every follower of Christ. Our lives are to be stepping-stones, not stumbling-blocks.
(3) Character; "being filled with the fruits of righteousness." This has to do with our permanent life both within and without, though the emphasis is on being rather than on doing. Character is the highest point and peak of the Christian life, for just as fruit is the outcome of the life of a tree, so character is the fruit of Christian living, and is the best proof of its existence. The Apostle's word suggests that we are to be "permanently filled" (Greek) with the fruits of righteousness, those things that are right, straight, true, correct, upright, without any deflection on either side. The Lord Who is our Righteousness works in us the fruits of righteousness by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
4. THE ULTIMATE OBJECT.
The Apostle looks forward "unto the day of Christ" (ver.10, R.V.), and then speaks of the Christian life being lived "unto the glory and praise of God" (ver.11). Everything is to tend towards the manifestation of the splendour of God in human life whereby others will be led to acknowledge and praise Him (Matt. v.16). And this will reach its culminating point in the "day of Christ," that time when Christian people will stand before their Master and receive the reward of their life and service rendered to Him (ch. i.6, ii.16). This was the Apostle's constant thought, and towards this he strained every nerve (ch. iii.11-21). It expresses the highest ideal of Christian living, for day by day we are to live with this wonderful thought of "the glory and praise of God," and day by day we are to look forward to the coming of Christ as that day in which our life will find its fullest realisation, its complete satisfaction, and its unending joy. And all this reminds us of the essential simplicity of life, for there is nothing complex, or involved, or mysterious, or difficult in a life lived day by day to the praise of God and in the light of the coming of our Master.
As we review this prayer we may feel perfectly sure that the Apostle meant it to be answered, and indeed, he himself gives us the hint of how this may come to pass when he tells us that the fruits of righteousness are "through Jesus Christ." This is only another way of expressing what he has already shown, his confidence that the possession of the Christian life is the guarantee of its complete realisation and full perfection by the indwelling presence and work of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself (ch. i.6). Let us therefore take heart of grace as we contemplate this prayer and the other prayers of the Apostle. We must not be depressed, or disheartened, or discouraged, as we ponder the marvellous details and contemplate the stupendous heights of the Christian life as depicted by St. Paul's wonderful spiritual insight. On the contrary, we must remind ourselves that he would not have prayed these prayers unless he had been certain that God would answer them, and they will assuredly be answered as we set ourselves resolutely, humbly, lovingly, trustfully to fulfil the required conditions, "through Jesus Christ our Lord."