How do you read a book? That may to be a very pedantic question; but in fact, it formed the title of one of the greatest books I ever read. In fact, I was so influenced by this particular book that I mandated it to be part of my son's high school curriculum before he went off to college. The book? How to Read a Book1 by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. The authors encourage one first to hold the book. Look at the endorsements and the publisher summary on the rear of the book. Read the first sentence. Review the table of contents. Skim through the book, understanding (hopefully) the force of the argument or theme of the book.
How do you read a book of the Bible? I believe you do so by approaching that particular book in a very similar way, but with something infinitely more important—with the great questions: "What is the mind of the Holy Spirit saying in this book about Jesus Christ? What is Jesus Christ saying to me?"
So, with that in mind, we come to the book of joy which opens up the life of joy, the epistle of St. Paul to the Christians at Philippi, that is, the Book of Philippians.
Let's examine the overview of the book: 42 years before the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Roman Empire colonized the city named after Philip II, the great king-warrior in Macedonia who had founded the city in 356 B.C. Philippi became a Roman colony after the murder of Caesar Augustus to avenge his death, and Romans were encouraged to go there and occupy it. It became a Roman special-status city; as such, it was exempt from other taxes. It was a place with plenty of money and a safe haven for the wealthy. Philippi was a Roman colony, and it developed much accumulated wealth and prestige.
The apostle Paul founded the church at Philippi on his second missionary journey. In fact, it was his first church plant in Europe. Moreover, its first convert was a woman named Lydia, a merchant woman of the upper middle class of the Roman colony. The rest of the history of Western civilization rests with the working of the Holy Spirit in that woman, who received Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. Thus, Philippi always would be special for Paul as the first congregation of any pastor is special to him.
Paul's influence and experiences went deeper than the conversion of Lydia. Remember the Philippian jailer? Remember how Paul and Silas were thrown into prison and God rescued and delivered then? Remember how the Philippian jailer cried out, "What must I do to be saved?" Remember how not only was the Philippian jailer converted, but Paul baptized all the members of his household? Yes, Philippi was very special to Paul. The Philippians also seem to have used their wealth and unity to help other churches. In a real way, Paul's letter to the Philippians is a missionary letter from their beloved pastor to encourage them. "This Apostle of the Heart Set Free" uses the word joy or rejoicing more than a dozen times to communicate the central theme of his letter: that there is joy in the Christian life—no matter what.
The message of this book is all the more poignant because the writer of this book, Paul the apostle, was most likely in jail in Rome, under house arrest in the home of Caesar. Though he may not have been considered an escape risk, we know the Praetorian Guard—the elite of Caesar's household army (who incidentally played an important part in the conquest of Philippi)—guarded this man of God.
Also, there were unseen guardians around this man, for angels empowered Paul, strengthening him to communicate the joy of God to these Philippian readers and through the power of the Holy Spirit to us today.
Though the apostle Paul communicates joy out of his own life—as well as in the lives of Timothy and Epaphroditus, models of Christian joy and servanthood—it is very clear the tenderloin of this book (the highest model of old and the epistle to the Philippians) was the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, in the second chapter of Paul's letter, he points to the Lord Jesus Christ and says, "Let this mind be in you" that was in Him. He points to a mind of humility in the life of service, reflecting the unfettered, untouchable joy that emanates from our relationship with God in Christ.
The hero of Paul's letter is not Paul or anyone other than the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a letter in which the apostle Paul encourages Christians to be joyful in every circumstance by keeping their focus on Jesus Christ, the Giver of joy.
What does Christ say to you today in this letter?
If you examine the letter, following Mortimer Adler's methodology, there's an introduction, a very familiar salutation, a thanksgiving and a prayer for the recipients, recognition of their work and some personal reflections on his well-being; then Paul launches into the body of the letter itself. There we find the references to Christ in the call to take all suffering and all difficulty in all trials and to identify them with Jesus Christ and His suffering and His cross so we also may identify with Him in anticipation of His resurrection.
The apostle concludes his letter as he often does, with final thoughts, greetings and an appeal to reconciliation between two women in this otherwise very unified congregation. He sends greetings from Christians in the household of Caesar. Rome thought it had a prisoner, but the prison had turned into a sanctuary. The conspirators in Jerusalem thought they had produced a prisoner in the realm, but they instead produced a preacher in the empire; and he proclaimed the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ.
The Message of the Book
We will examine this book, seeking not only the message of the Holy Spirit within the context of the letter, but also applying those messages to our lives. Today, we will do so with the first seven verses in this life of joy, and we will learn there is a life of joy in the fellowship of believers.
This is the message of the Lord Jesus for some you personally, for what we read in this passage is for some of you who are feeling isolated. There are some of you who are feeling removed from others. Some of you are very much surrounded by family and friends; perhaps you live in a great urban area such as New York City, Boston or Los Angeles, yet you could just as well be living on an island by yourself as far as how you feel. God has a message for you: The joy of fellowship is available to you.
There is the joy of fellowship in serving others.
In the first verse, the apostle Paul gives a familiar introduction, yet do not let familiarity breed contempt for there is a clear message in the opening verses:
"Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons. Grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
The passage reveals that the apostle Paul did not do ministry alone. He did ministry with others—in this case, as in many other cases, with his young apprentice, Timothy.
One of the great joys of living is giving away what you have received to another. The concept of apprenticeship in our lives has all but disappeared. However, it should be a norm in the Christian life. I should be searching for apprentices, and younger men and women should be searching for mothers and fathers in the faith as mentors.
Not only that, we should be doing ministry together. That is the life of fellowship of joy in the church; that we are not isolated but in communion with a common mission in the common goal.
There is the fellowship of joy in your identity as a believer.
You'll notice Paul identifies himself with Timothy as servants. The Greek word is doulos. It is the word for slaves, or bond slaves, the lowest of the lowest of the household order of slaves. It is the ruling motif for the pattern of service in the church. Christians are to serve as slaves, never exalting themselves and their positions, but using their positions to lift up others, whether they are pastors, bishops, Sunday School teachers or simply fellow believers serving their own families.
Yes, there is most certainly dignity in our lives as believers and in our roles as pastors, chief servants of the church. The writer to the Hebrews reminded the congregation that it should obey those who have been appointed as authority figures. This passage does not negate that honor is due to those who lead and shepherd the church of Jesus Christ. However, it does point to the fact that the chief and primary identification and self-identification of Christian leadership—a word that is not in the Bible—is servanthood. Paul and Timothy were servants of the church; and thus, they were servants to the Philippian church. That means that everything that comes after is for their good and in order to promote and advance their well-being in Christ and in the world.
There is a joy in the fellowship in your role within the church.
Their fellowship is further enhanced as he speaks about the overseers and deacons. Paul uses the Greek word episcipos. It has been translated as bishops or overseers; the word diaconos has been translated as deacons or ministers, but what is so very clear in Paul's teaching is that for him there is an order of overseers and deacons or servants to complete the ministry of equipping the saints.
There is an order that teaches, governs and oversees, that provides shepherding for the flock. There are those who provide assistance to them, particularly as we examine Scripture in the way of physical ministry needs. So Paul has a fellowship of joy with his mentor in his identity within the body of Christ as a servant and through the role relationships of shepherds within the flock.
Christian, do you see yourself in this way? Do you see yourself ministering together with others? Do you see yourself with the primary identification as a servant to the rest of the body of Christ and the world? Do you see yourself in a relationship of love with those who were appointed over you and your life?
For some of you who are listening, you are lacking the life of joy because you are lacking in a life of fellowship within the local body of believers. It is in that God-ordained local assembly where you will find others to minister alongside you, to cultivate your identity as a slave to Christ unto all of the church. It is there where you will find yourself in relationship to your pastors and your leaders who are servants to you for Christ's sake.
In all of this, we will learn in this letter to the Philippians that such a fellowship of service is modeled on the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Indeed, the life of fellowship in the church is modeled on the very reality of the Trinity of Almighty God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, forever in a relationship of fellowship and love and in relationship with each other. One God, three Persons, equal in power, serving the divine plan in their own way, yet in perfect unity.
So we've seen a bit of Philippians today. I hope we have seen enough of it to draw you back to see more. Joy is overflowing in this book. It was Paul's gift to the Philippians as it is the Holy Spirit's gift to you.
Not too long ago, my wife and I caught a live streaming event from the Reagan lectures at the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College.2 I was particularly interested in the lectures that night because the main speaker was the Rev. John Boyles, the pastor to President Reagan during his two terms. I learned that night that President and Mrs. Reagan transferred their membership from Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Hollywood to the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. He did this because of his lifelong conviction, instilled into his soul by God through his mother, Nellie, to be connected and involved in the fellowship of local believers.
It would have been very easy for the president of the United States to say, "My membership is back in Hollywood; once I'm finished with this gig here, I will return to my home church." Yet that is not the testimony we heard from Rev. John Bowles. President and Mrs. Reagan became actively involved members until he felt that his own involvement in public worship was a nuisance to others and a distraction from the worship of Jesus. The pastor and other pastors then would go to the White House to conduct worship there. Still, Ronald Reagan believed in the fellowship of the local assembly of believers, and that brought him great joy.
On his first Christmas address to the nation, he wanted to speak of the divinity of Jesus Christ and to be able to bring that message especially to people behind the Iron Curtain who could be listening through the Voice of America. In fact, he did so that night. The next day, The Washington Post printed his Christmas address, but apparently and intentionally left out the first opening paragraphs—those with the paragraphs which spoke of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, who miraculously had come into the world.
Rev. Boyles was upset that The Washington Post expunged what he felt was the president's obvious intent to get the message of the gospel out to the world; so he wrote a letter to The Washington Post, and his letter was published in…the church newsletter. He was surprised when he received a handwritten letter from the president of the United States, one of his parishioners, thanking him for standing up for him. He had learned about what Rev. John Bowles had done because the president of the United States not only read the great newspapers of our cities and the cities of the world, but took the time each week to read his own home church's newsletter.
When he wrote his pastor, he thanked him for his stand. He also said words to this effect: "Pastor, I hope I never will let you down or the church. I hope I never bring any embarrassment on you, the church or our Savior as I do this job."
Many people who knew Ronald Reagan characterized him as joyful. When he finished his term as president in the people's house, he returned to his home in Bel Air, California. You know what happened: He transferred his membership back to his home church. He believed in a local assembly of believers, and it would be a minister from that assembly who would conduct the services of the funeral of the 40th president of the United States of America. His joy came, in great part, not only from his fellowship with his bride, Nancy, but from his fellowship with the Bride of Christ, the church.
How important is the fellowship of other believers to you? Could it be that there is a lack of joy because there is a lack of fellowship?
God invites you to the first and the greatest fellowship of all: fellowship with Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. You can enjoy that fellowship; you can receive that joy—joy that will never go away—by receiving Him as your Lord and Savior this very day and declaring, "Lord, I am Your bondservant."
Then you, too, will know the joy of fellowship with others and the joy of fellowship with God.
1 Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book (Simon and Schuster, 1940).
2 See "The Seventh Annual Ronald Reagan Lectures," hosted by Dr. Paul Kengor with the Rev. John Boyles (Grove City College, The Center for Vision and Values), accessed Feb. 13, 2013.