Recent months have found me studying Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi (known in our Bibles’ table of contents as “Philippians”). And it has been nothing short of pure delight.
As Matt Chandler has noted, this letter is filled with “coffee cup” verses… “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:21), “but our citizenship is in heaven and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (3:20), and here’s one we all know, “For I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (4:13).
As I have moved from paragraph to paragraph I have found ample cause for my heart to be stirred by our Savior and my spirit inspired to follow Him more faithfully.
And then I came to Paul’s travel itinerary he gives in 2:19-30. To be honest, when I finally arrived at this section I knew there would be truth my soul needed, but by and large I figured it would lack the kind of excitement I had encountered in the letter’s previous portions.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself deeply moved (nearly to tears) by what I encountered here. There is a lot I could say about this passage, but I will limit myself to a couple of observations related to God’s mercy and sovereign care over us. Before I do that though, I need to set a few things up.
In the latter part of this paragraph (vv. 25-30) Paul is telling the Philippians that he has sent Epaphroditus back to them. He was dispatched from Philippi to bring Paul needed supplies while the apostle was imprisoned in Rome (as well as to help take care of him). And while en route, Epaphroditus comes down with a life threatening illness (which in the first century spelled certain death).
But instead of calling the trip off, Epaphroditus risked his life and continued to make his way to Rome. The Philippians had received word that he became sick, but had no further update than that. So long story short, Paul wanted to send him back to Philippi ASAP so that they could be relieved to see that he made a full recovery.
While in the middle of telling them all of this, Paul includes a brief, but powerful, statement that is related to the our heavenly Father’s tender mercy toward us. In 2:27 he writes, “Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, in order that I may not have sorrow upon sorrow.”
I want you to notice the small little phrase I underlined and emboldened. In Greek these three words are expressed with the word “hina”. “Hina” was a word used when an author wanted to describe the result of some action (such as, He hit the ball so hard, that it went over the fence.) or to give the purpose for which the subject performed some action (such as, I went to the store in order that I might buy some bread.).
In this case, the subject is God and the action He performed was having mercy on Epaphroditus, and ultimately, Paul. And then we read the purpose for which God did this, “That I may not have sorrow upon sorrow.” It is here that we see the continued tender mercy with which God deals with His children. God, in His wisdom, spared Epaphroditus to keep Paul from a debilitating sorrow. The Father knew what Paul needed.
Now what I’ve just said warrants immediate qualification. In no way do I mean to lay down a hard-and-fast rule that God always moves to spare us from all possible sorrow. Every person reading this post has likely lost someone which resulted in tremendous heartbreak, and that does not mean that God was ignoring us during those times.
Instead, what Paul has just written here must be held in tension with truths found in other parts of the letter which also tell us that even when we are not spared these kinds of sorrows, God is still actively caring for us. For example, after exhorting the Philippians not to fear those who oppose them, he says in 1:29 “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him.” The ultimate Agent who granted to them this suffering is the same One who granted to them their faith in Christ, God Himself. And the word “granted” is from the same root as “grace”, which is defined in the New Testament as a gift freely and graciously given (and undeserved by the recipients). So what we see here is that even the suffering we encounter is a gift from our heavenly Father (even if it doesn’t immediately feel like one).
In fact, later on in 3:10, Paul writes that sharing in the sufferings of Christ is one of the chief means by which we may know Christ more intimately. My guess is that we all desire to know Christ better, but if left to our own decision, none of us would choose one of the best ways to do so, sharing in His sufferings.
It must also be remembered that Paul penned all these words while imprisoned in Rome and within the next few years would also be a victim in Nero’s ruthless slaughter of hundreds (and possibly thousands) of Christians.
So the point I’m driving at is simply this: when you are spared some tragedy is owing purely to the tender mercy of your heavenly Father. He loves you and cares for you! And when He does allow trial, sufferings, and hardship it is ultimately for your spiritual good. The Father withholds no good thing from His children (Psalm 84:11). So in all things, let us thank our heavenly Father for the kind way in which He handles us.