It has been a while since I have been able to make a post on this blog. Last month I taught an intensive New Testament Survey class for Taylor University; hence, I was fully occupied with that good work. It takes some effort to think of multiple choice questions like the one above!
As we were working our way through Acts and the Paul’s letters, it occurred to me that the church at Philippi is probably the best example of a missionary supporting church in the New Testament. Within Paul’s letter to the Philippians, there are clear indications of how this church uniquely partnered with the Apostle Paul over a ten year period, beginning with Paul’s second missionary journey through his imprisonment in Rome. Specifically, by looking closely at this letter, we can discover three ways that the Philippians actively supported Paul’s missionary work. This partnership, however, was not a one-way street, for we will also see more than three ways Paul contributed to the Philippian church. So the examples of both the Apostle Paul and the Philippian church provide “best practices” for both missionary supporting churches and Christian workers to follow even today.
The Background of the Mission Partnership
During his second missionary journey (early 50s) Paul received a vision from God to extend his work into the providence of Macedonia in Europe (Acts 16). At Philippi, the chief city of that region, Paul established the first church. As time passed, local opposition arose and it became expedient for them to move on to other cities. Paul kept in contact with the church at Philippi, and the church kept in touch with Paul, even financially supporting his work at Thessalonica (Phil. 4:16). Paul would once again visit this area during his third Missionary Journey (Acts 20:1-3; 2 Corinthians 2:13) at which time the Macedonian churches gave generously to assist the poor in Jerusalem (Romans 15:26; 2 Corinthians 8-9). Paul personally took these offerings to Jerusalem (Acts 21). While there, Paul encountered opposition from the Jews, which led to his imprisonment at Caesarea for about two years. At this point, Paul appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:11-12) and was sent to Rome. The Philippian Church, learning of Paul’s imprisonment, sent Epaphroditus to Rome with a gift to provide for Paul’s needs (Philippians 4:10-20).
Throughout this ten year period the Philippian church was significantly involved in Paul’s missionary work. In the first chapter of Philippians, Paul recalls their “partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:5). In the last chapter of Philippians, Paul highlights the uniqueness of this partnership, “that at the first preaching of the gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone” (Phil. 4:15 NASB, emphasis mine). This is why I would say that the Church in Philippi was the best example of a missionary supporting church found in the New Testament – nothing like this is said about the church at Antioch, Jerusalem, Rome or any other. In fact the occasion that led Paul to write to the Philippian church was the generous gift brought to him in Rome by Epaphroditus. Thus, in a very real sense, Philippians is Paul’s “thank you letter” to his one-and-only supporting church.
Within this letter we learn more about the mission partnership between Paul and the Philippian church. It involved more than just money, and it was not merely a one-way street. In Philippians 4:15 Paul indicates the reciprocal nature of the partnership that he and the Philippian church enjoyed. “You yourselves also know, Philippians, that at the first preaching of the gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone” (Phil. 4:15 NASB, emphasis mine). Both Paul and the Philippians gave and received.
As we take a closer look at this partnership between Paul and the Philippian Church, we will see three ways the Philippians supported Paul’s missionary work. A future post will examine Paul’s contributions to this mission partnership.
The Example of the Philippians
In examining Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I discover three ways that the Philippians were involved in Paul’s ministry. The acrostic P.E.G. can help us remember these three key points: Pray. Encourage. Give. Let us take a closer look at the importance of each for a mission partnership.
Pray. In chapter one, as Paul updates the Church about his situation in Rome and his defense of the gospel, he is confident “that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers” (Phil 1:19). Paul assumes that the church was praying for him. Likely Paul has evidence to base this statement upon, either his own interactions with the church over the previous ten years would lead him to this conclusion or Epaphroditus told Paul of the praying people for him back at Philippi. Thus the first part of the mission partnership is based on prayer. Prayer for the front line worker is the best form of support. However there is more that a supporting church can do for a Christian worker.
Encourage. In chapter two we learn that those at Philippi sent Epaphroditus, as Paul says, ”to complete what was deficient in your service to me” (2:30 NASB). I would assume that Epaphroditus’ arrival was a great encouragement to Paul in his chains. Certainly Epaphroditus brought news from the church, of their love and concern for Paul, and personal greetings. As the proverb says, “Like cold water to a weary soul, so is good news from a distant land” (Prov. 25:25 NASB).
There is a growing awareness that front line workers need encouragement and care. Frontline work can be discouraging and difficult! While the trend today is to delegate missionary care to missionary sending organizations, supporting churches also have an important role. Supporting churches expect Christian workers to be in regular contact. In the same way, churches need to be in regular contact with workers. Visits, care packages, cards, telephone calls and correspondence are some of the ways to encourage and care for front line workers.
Give. In chapter four we learn that the church also sent a financial gift with Epaphroditus (4:10). This was not the first time the Philippians had financially supported Paul’s missionary work.
You yourselves also know, Philippians, that at the first preaching of the gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone; for even in Thessalonica you sent a gift more than once for my needs. (Philippians 4:15-16 NASB)
From Acts 17 we know that Paul went to Thessalonica after leaving Philippi. Here we learn that the Philippians sent several gifts to support Paul’s work. We also see that this was the only church to support Paul’s work. No wonder he was so thankful for this particular group of believers! (cf. Phil. 1:3-5).While one-time gifts are useful, a best practice for mission partnerships involves ongoing financial support.
“Not that I seek the gift itself, but I seek for the profit which increases to your account” (Phil 4:17 NASB). This passage reveals an important truth about giving. There is much more here than just a financial transaction between two parties. A third party, God, is involved. He is the “accountant” who gives the Philippian church “credit” in their heavenly account for supporting Paul. This reminds me of Jesus’ saying:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21 NASB)
Thus by supporting workers who spread abroad the Good News of God’s kingdom, we lay up treasures in heaven.
2 Corinthians 8-9 provides another relevant perspective on giving. There Paul boasts about the Macedonian churches’ generosity, the church at Philippi being included. He again highlights the divine party involved in giving, when he says, “they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God” (2 Cor. 8:5). Supporting front line workers is first a matter of people’s commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ, then secondly to the worker. Mission partnerships are built on relational commitments, first to the Lord, then to the worker. We may conclude that relationship precedes stewardship.
Thus, as we look at the mission partnership of the Philippian church with the Apostle Paul, we see that they prayed for him. They sent Epaphroditus to encourage him, and they financially supported him. I would consider these three essential practices for any missionary sending church. Of course, a Great Commission church is made up of Great Commission individuals. So these practices should characterize our individual lives too.
P.E.G. Pray. Encourage. Give. Three Practices of a Missionary Sending Church.
So then, what would be one way that you or your church could excel all the more in each of these vital areas of missionary support?
I would like to go into greater detail how each of these three general practices could and should be worked out. But I know that I cannot touch upon all that may be relevant for each reader. So I will leave the practical application to you, concluding here with Paul’s fitting words to Timothy: “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this. “ (2 Timothy 2:7 NIV)
Please share any insights you have!
My next posting will examine the example of the Apostle Paul, giving four TIPS for Christian workers.