And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
I believe the Apostle Paul wrote the book of Philippians near the end of the two-year Roman imprisonment that Luke records in the book of Acts (Acts 28:30-31). Why near the end? Because Paul clearly anticipates a decision in his own case to be handed down soon (Philippians 1:19-26). He may die. He may be released. Either way, he says, he hopes for the glory of God. But he also seems confident that he will be released to minister further (Philippians 1:24-26). Thus, about 62 AD, not long before the beginning of Roman persecution of Christians in 64 AD and the severe trials that confronted the churches in the subsequent years, Paul wrote to the Philippians and told them of his prayer.
Paul’s prayer for the Philippian church (Philippians 1:9-11) is one of the most profound in the New Testament and a popular prayer for preachers and expositors. However, I am afraid it is also greatly misunderstood. For Paul is not offering a general prayer for holiness and spiritual growth — though we also can and should appropriate it in those terms! — but a very specific prayer in a very specific context: the context of “the day of Christ.”
Paul prays that the Philippian church would be “sincere and without offense till the day of Christ.” Is this a prayer for a real historical church? No one should doubt or deny. But it sounds — does it not? — like there is a day that they will soon face, a not-to-far-future day. The clear impression is that Paul is praying about something imminent, something on the immediate horizon. Is that possible? Could Paul have been thinking of an impending “day of Christ” that would soon confront the Philippian church — like the Roman persecution that began in 64 AD?
To answer this, we need to note that hints of a soon approaching day may be found in many of Paul’s epistles. For example:
The references in Philippians and Corinthians certainly seem to imply something on the horizon, but the epistle to the Thessalonians makes it unmistakably clear that Paul’s teaching about the coming of Christ prepared churches to expect something in their own day, so that it was important that they not be overtaken as by a thief in the night. They must not sleep — like the disciples in the Garden who were overcome by temptation. Some were even afraid that “day of Christ” might have already come!
Please note: however dull some of the Thessalonians might have been — and I am not saying any of them were dull! — it is hard to imagine that any of them could or would have imagined that history itself might have ceased while they just floated on!
No. They obviously had something different in mind. What could they and the Philippians have thought about “the day of Christ”?
Taking a wild guess: perhaps they were thinking about what the Christ Himself said?
Jesus’ sermon to the disciples on the Mount of Olives spoke of a day to come within one generation (Matthew 24:34), a day of judgement like no other day before or after. Even if heaven and earth would pass away, Jesus’ warning would stand (Matthew 24:35).
Could anyone in the early church ignore, forget, or not tremble at Jesus’ words?
Jesus said believers in Him would face a great tribulation:
Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved. (Matthew 24:9-13)
So, if you were the apostle Paul, how would you pray for a church that faced a dangerous future in which there will be physical persecution — which is bad enough — but even more, something far worse, “many false prophets”? False prophets lead people to everlasting damnation. Note also, Jesus said that in the false-prophet future, lawlessness would abound to the point that love would grow cold.
Suppose that you were a missionary pastor of a church that loved you and that you deeply cared for. How might you pray in the light of Jesus’ severe warning, worrying about persecution, betrayal, false prophets, and the danger of love growing cold?
You might pray as Paul did: that love would abound rather than growing cold, because love, like all the fruits of righteousness either grows or dies.
Considering the abundance of false prophets and false teaching, you might specify that love would grow within the realms of knowledge and discernment, so that the church would not be deceived by the many false prophets.
Before Paul had been arrested and sent to Rome, some years before he wrote his epistle to the Philippians, he had preached his last sermon to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:17-35), in which he warned them that “after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). Even worse, Paul warned: “Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:30). The Ephesian church would face the same kind of trials that Jesus warned about for all Christians of that age. The book of Revelation — written perhaps in AD 64[i] — shows us that the Ephesian church, though diligent to reject false apostles had failed in a more fundamental matter: they had lost their first love (Revelation 2:1-7). It is just what Jesus warned of, love going cold.
Before Paul wrote Philippians, he had already “seen” the danger that would come to the Ephesian church. How could he have seen it? Well, he was an apostle and prophet, so he had access to data files that are beyond us. But he also knew Jesus’ sermon and that its warnings were relevant for all the churches, including the Philippians. Therefore, Paul prayed that they would not grow cold, but grow in love, that they would not be deceived, but have knowledge and discernment in their love. And for this knowledge to be blessed of God so that they could bear fruit in righteousness for the glory of God.
[i] Peter Leithart estimates that Revelation was written “shortly before the outbreak of Neronian persecution, which began in AD 64 and lasted until Nero’s death in AD 68.” Revelation 1-11 (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2018), p. 40.
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