God Finishes What He Starts
April 3, 2005 | Brian Bill
Years ago I went to a meeting for parents of high school juniors to learn more about how to navigate through the maze of the coming college chaos. One of the presenters mentioned the trifecta of GPA, class rank, and ACT scores as determining factors for getting accepted into college. I was sitting next to my daughter Emily and she leaned over to me and said, “Dad, how did you get into college?” The next night I was explaining to Beth what we learned at the meeting and I told her about Emily’s comment. My sweet wife smiled and said, “That’s a question that stumps all of us.”
Actually, the better question is this, “How did I graduate from college?” I got off to a bad start when I decided to take Italian. I hadn’t done very well with Spanish in High School so I decided on a “do-over” and took a brand new language in college. That was my first mistake. I realized I was in trouble when the professor told us that after the first day of class he would not speak any more English. Everything would be in Italian from that point on. I languished with this language, getting a “D” for the semester. The next semester I had a TA (Teaching Assistant) who wouldn’t speak English either (what’s up with that?). But then something very exciting happened. The TA’s at Madison went on strike! That meant I didn’t have to go to class. We were supposed to keep up with our work but I didn’t crack a book for weeks. When the strike was over, I went back to class and ended up with an “Incomplete” for a grade. The next semester I actually got an “F.”
I felt like a failure, and wanted to bail on college. I hung in there, eventually getting saved and then after four years at the University of Wisconsin, transferred to Moody Bible Institute, where my grades were much better (that’s probably because they didn’t offer Italian). Those feelings of failure, however, stayed with me for a long time, and came back to the surface when we were missionaries in Mexico, and I couldn’t learn Spanish.
Have you ever felt like a failure and just wanted to quit? Ever been so down that you didn’t think you’d ever be up again? This morning we’re beginning a brand new sermon series from the Book of Philippians that will help each of us journey towards joy even when we’re pummeled by pain and fraught with failure. This letter to the Philippians has been called one of the Apostle Paul’s most personal letters and is perhaps the most quoted in the entire Bible. Here are some favorites from Philippians:
1:6 – “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
1:21 – “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
2:3 – “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”
2:10-11 – “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
3:7 – “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”
3:13 – “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.”
4:6-7 – “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
4:13 – “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”
4:19 – “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
As with any text, it’s very important to study the context so we avoid the mistake of misinterpreting something according to our own understanding so that it meets our needs. That’s why it’s important to study sections of Scripture verse-by-verse.
Background to the Book
Whenever we study a book of the Bible, it’s very helpful to begin with some background. This will enable us to understand the circumstances under which it was written so we can make application to our own lives. First of all, the name Philippians comes from a city named Philippi in what is now Europe. Philippi was a Roman colony, which means I would struggle speaking Italian there! By the way, Ephesians was written to believers in Ephesus and Colossians to the church in Colassae. Second, this is a letter that is intended to be read in its entirety. I encourage you to read this journal of joy at least once a week for the next three months. Third, the Apostle Paul is in prison in Rome when he penned these words, and his thoughts are filled with thankfulness for the generosity and partnership of the Philippian believers.
God brought Paul to Philippi in a very fascinating way. The Apostle was headed in one direction but God had plans for him somewhere else. To read about this in greater detail, see the sermon entitled, “Personalizing God’s Purposes” from the “Faith Factor” sermon series (www.pontiacbible.org). God closed a couple doors and then opened another one. Please turn in your Bibles to Acts 16:9-10: “During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
Paul and his team traveled from Troas to Neapolis, and then met a woman named Lydia, who was a successful businesswoman. She was the first convert to Christ in Europe and became an anchor in the assembly at Philippi. She was then baptized and opened her home for ministry (see verse 15). By the way, our next Baptism service will be held on May 1st. Call the church office to get on the growing list of those ready to take the plunge. We have 16 so far!
After Lydia and other members of her household were saved, Paul and his companions met a young slave girl who was involved in fortune-telling. Paul recognized that she was in bondage to the devil so he cast an evil spirit out of her. This created such an uproar, especially among her owners, who realized that they were not going to make any more money from her, that Paul and Silas were arrested and thrown in jail. Verse 25 tells us that about midnight, while Paul and Silas were singing hymns, an earthquake shook the prison and opened the doors. The jailer starts to freak out and asks the question we all need to ask at some point in our lives: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” He’s given the answer in verse 31: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Like Lydia, his household comes to faith and they too, follow the Lord in believer’s baptism. I love verse 34: “He was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God – he and his whole family.”
In verse 40 were read that Paul and Silas went to Lydia’s house again, where they met with the “brothers and encouraged them.” This was the Philippian church in its embryonic stage. This young church was made up of a religious woman, a rejected girl, and a regular guy. Actually, whenever believers gather in a home for instruction, ministry, prayer, adoration, caring and evangelism, they are the church. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the same socio-economic bracket, if they’re single or married, or if they have the same ethnic background. They have everything in common because they have Christ in common. Paul and Silas then leave, with some commentators suggesting that Luke stayed in Philippi where he discipled and trained the believers. Paul visited this church again some time later and now is writing a very personal and warm letter to them, one decade later.
With that as a brief background, let’s take a look at Philippians 1:1-6: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” One of the best ways to not feel like failures is to see ourselves as God does. Thankfully, God grades differently than we do, for He focuses more on who we are, and less on how we perform. This passage teaches us five truths about who we are.
1. We are servants and saints (1a).
A little girl went fishing one time with her daddy. After a period of time she threw down her fishing pole and started to walk away. The father turned to her and asked, “What’s the matter, honey?” To which she replied, “Nothing, except I can’t seem to get waited on.” We all want to be waited on, don’t we?
It’s very interesting in verse 1 that Paul does not identify himself as an apostle, or as the guy who started the church. He directs attention away from Himself and puts it on Christ Jesus. He calls himself and his companion Timothy “servants.” This word literally means, “Slave” and refers to “one bound to another” and signifies to be in “bondage.” This has an Old Testament allusion to it. When a slave had the opportunity to be released and he refused by voluntarily submitting himself to his Master, he was called a “bond slave.” Exodus 21:5-6: “But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.” Notice that this man is motivated by love for His master and that he is making a life-long commitment to be the Master’s slave.
Friend, if you are a believer, you are a servant of the Savior because He has bought you with His own blood. You and I belong to Him and therefore we must serve Him for the rest of our lives. We are not volunteers who can come and go and choose our own agenda; we are slaves who are called to serve with unflinching loyalty and uncompromising obedience.
You and I are servants and we’re also saints. We see this in verse 1: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus.” Some of us are uncomfortable with this title because we’ve been taught that a “saint” is someone who has lived an exemplary life, performed some miracles and been canonized by the church and is worthy of veneration. Actually, the Bible teaches that every born again Christian is a saint. That means that if your name is Martha, you are really “Saint Martha.” If your name is Sam, you can ask people to start calling you “Saint Sam.” That doesn’t sound quite right does it? But it’s true. If you’re a believer in Christ, you are a saint. The word literally means, “One who is set apart.”
Since we are saints, we should put our position into practice by acting in holy ways
When Ananias was told to reach out to Saul after he was converted, he replied in Acts 9:13: “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.” Paul also addressed the Corinthian Christians with the title of saints, even though they didn’t always act like it in 2 Corinthians 1:1: “To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia.” Believers are saints not because of their behavior but because they are “in Christ Jesus.” One commentator put it this way: “Holy people are unholy people who nevertheless…have been singled out, claimed, and requisitioned by God for his control, for his use, for himself who is holy.” Since we are saints, we should put our position into practice by acting in holy ways.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are servants and we are saints. That leads to a second point.
2. We are positioned at a place (1b).
Notice the last part of verse 1: “…at Philippi….” This was a real letter written to real people living in a real place. God had a message that He wanted communicated to the church at Philippi. God’s plan has always been for the church to be plugged in to a specific place as headquarters for ministry. We are one of the churches in the community of Pontiac, in the county of Livingston, in the country of America, so that we can impact the continents of the world. We’ll read more about this later in the book but the Philippians had a mission in their community and a vision for the world. Bringing this closer to home, this means that you are in your neighborhood for a redemptive reason and your position at work serves as a platform for you to be salt and light.
Notice that we are “together with the overseers and deacons.” We are meant to minister in tandem with those who are called to lead the church. The word “overseer” is another word for Elder. This shows that the church organized itself relatively quickly by appointing Elders and Deacons.
I can think of two applications from this. First, we need to bloom where we’re planted. God has each of us here right now for such a time as this. Whether you want to be in this community is irrelevant. You are here and God has holy purposes for you. That’s what Mordecai said to Queen Esther, when she was starting to cave: “And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Second, if God moves you to another geographical area at some point, that’s OK too, because He will reveal His purposes for you in that place. As we learned in our last series, God is Jehovah Shammah – He is there, He is here and He is everywhere.
As servants and saints we are positioned for a purpose at a specific place. The next point describes how we got where we are.
3. We have been granted grace and peace (2).
Grace is getting God’s blessing when we deserve God’s blast
Take a look at verse 2: “Grace and peace to you…” Grace is the typical Greek greeting and Peace is the Hebrew hello. Paul is masterful here, taking common terms from the audience of his readers and infusing them with rich meaning. Grace is God’s undeserved favor demonstrated when Jesus Christ died for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). We do not deserve His love but He gives it anyway. Grace is getting God’s blessing when we deserve God’s blast. Peace is the result of the bridge that Jesus has made between us and God. We are now reconciled with Him. Peace primarily signifies wholeness. Notice that both grace and truth come from “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Most of us don’t get what grace is all about. I talked to someone just recently who told me that when she comes to church she just feels “so unworthy” and therefore doesn’t want to come back. The shame and guilt is almost unbearable for her. Friend, if that describes you this morning, let these words soak in: God wants to give you grace and the peace that flows from His favor. You don’t have to live with guilt and shame any longer. Grace guts your guilt and peace pulverizes your shame. Remember, we are all unworthy, but we are not worthless. There’s a big difference between the two.
4. We can have joy because of Jesus (3-4).
In verse 3 we see that Paul is filled with thankfulness “every time” he remembers the Philippian faithful. We should follow this same pattern. When you think of someone you know, give thanks to God for their uniqueness, for how grace and peace have impacted their lives, for how they are living out their purpose in a specific place and for how they are serving as saints. I see you rolling your eyes because this is hard to pray. Why is that? It’s because we’re so used to pointing out people’s problems and even celebrating their shortcomings. Instead, let’s follow Paul’s example by thanking God every time we remember a brother or sister in Christ.
Notice in verse 4 how Paul prays: “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.” In all his prayers, he prays for all of them always. The word always is in the present tense, meaning he continually prays for them. And there’s something that seasons his intercession. It’s joy. Many commentators suggest that joy is the theme of Philippians since it is used fourteen different times in four short chapters. While that’s certainly a repeated theme throughout the book, and it is used in Philippians more than in any other letter, I’d like to suggest that Paul’s most prominent thought was not joy, but rather Jesus, for His name is used seventeen times in the first chapter alone. This is really Paul’s secret. Because he was so focused on Jesus and wanted to know Him more and more, he was able to experience joy in the midst of a dirty and depressing prison. To be filled with the Redeemer is to be filled with rejoicing.
Joy is different than happiness, for happiness is often tied to circumstances. When things go well, we are happy; when they tank, we go in the tank. Joy comes not from circumstances but from the Savior.
That leads to the fifth area on God’s report card.
5. We are partners in process (5-6).
With Paul joy is the fruit of knowing the person of Jesus and is also linked to the progress of the gospel. When the Apostle hears of God’s Word going forth with power, He breaks out into rejoicing. Look at verse 5: “because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” The word “partnership” is the word that is often translated “fellowship.” For most of us fellowship means eating donuts, I mean cookies, in the Fellowship Hall and talking about sports or other activities we’re interested in.
One pastor perceptively points out: “The word ‘fellowship’ originally had commercial overtones. If two men bought a boat and started a fishing business, they were said to be in koinonia –a formal business partnership. They shared a common vision and invested together to make that vision become a reality. True Christian fellowship means sharing the same vision of getting the gospel to the world, and then investing personally to make it happen…when Paul thanks God for the ‘fellowship’ of the Philippians, he is thanking God that from the very first day of their conversion, they rolled up their sleeves and got involved in the advance of the gospel. True fellowship means putting the gospel first as the controlling motive of your life and then doing whatever it takes to spread the life-changing message to the ends of the earth” (From “Joyful Living in a Grumpy World” by Ray Pritchard).
When Paul was with them, they partnered together physically. When Paul left, they partnered financially with him. According to Philippians 4:16, they gave to Paul “again and again” when he was in Thessalonica, which was the next town he visited after leaving Philippi. This church has always been a giving congregation.
We are partners and we’re also in process. If you haven’t memorized verse 6 yet, I strongly encourage you to do so: “Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” The word “confident” means to be “fully persuaded and completely convinced.” Paul had no doubts that God always finishes what He starts. Specifically, this involves three aspects:
- God commences His work in us. The theological word for this is justification. We must remember that God takes the initiative in starting His work in us. Salvation always begins with God. We might believe, but even that is possible only as the Lord enables us. We see this in Lydia’s conversion. According to Acts 16:14, “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.” As we learned last week, most of us have bailed on God. When we run from Him, God redeems us. Romans 3:11 says that “no one seeks God.” Friend, if God did not begin His work in you, you would never come to Him. Ephesians 1:4 teaches that we have been chosen before the creation of the world and Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
- God continues His work in us. The term for this is sanctification. God is making us progressively more holy, more conformed to the image of His Son. He is at work even when we can’t see Him and often uses tough times to build our character and fortify our faith. Romans 5:3-4: “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because se know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
- God will complete His work in us. The word for this is glorification. Theologians refer to this stage as the “perseverance of the saints.” Actually, it’s better to call it the “perseverance of the Savior,” for He will complete His work, even if we mess up. On the day of Christ Jesus, which means when you stand before Him face-to-face, you will have the ultimate “extreme makeover.” You will be fully finished and completely conformed to His image as Romans 8:30 makes clear: “And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”
God always finishes what He starts. If you are saved, you are set apart and you are secure. When you feel like you’ve failed too often and wonder if God has let you go, remember the words of Jesus in John 10:28-29: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”
You and I are partners in process. There are at least two applications of this truth. First, cut others some slack. They are in process just like you are. If they are saved, God is continuing to work, and one day His work will be fully finished. Second, cut yourself some slack. I’m still making the same mistakes in our marriage and dealing with the same dysfunctions that have plagued me for over four decades. Guess what? So are you. But take heart. God is at work. And what He has commenced, He will continue, and one day He will complete.
Let me summarize. When God looks at you, He doesn’t see a failure and He won’t leave you incomplete. He wants us to savor our favor with Him.
- We are servants and saints.
- We are positioned at a place.
- We have been granted grace and peace.
- We can have joy because of Jesus.
- We are partners in process.
One day Billy and Ruth Graham were driving through a long stretch of road construction. They had numerous slowdowns, detours, and stops along the way. Finally they reached the end of all that difficulty, and smooth pavement stretched out before them. Then a sign caught Ruth’s attention: “End of construction. Thanks for your patience.” She turned to Billy and told him that that phrase would be a fitting inscription for her tombstone someday.
That’s a good reminder. While we’re alive, we’re under construction. When we die, we will be complete. In the meantime, let’s be patient with each other and with ourselves.
I was not a good finisher. It took me 7 years to get my undergraduate degree. But God always finishes what He begins. You and I are incomplete right now, because we are under construction, but God will continue His work and complete what He has commenced. You can count on it.
As we celebrate communion, let’s remember that Jesus has finished His work. In a prayer to His Father, Jesus said in John 17:4: “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.”