From the moment we are born, we depend on the care of others. We would not survive without them. But then we grow up in a culture that prizes stories of individual heroes. We are taught to tie our self-worth to personal accolades. And if we achieve those accolades, we may forget the many and sometimes invisible ways others have helped us get there. That story, after all, would be a long and complicated one to tell, if we knew how to tell it at all. It’s simpler to notice and celebrate individual talent and fortitude.
But here’s the question: do we also tell the story of Scripture that way?
If I asked you to name your top five “biblical heroes,” could you rattle off a list? Would the apostle Paul be on it?
And if he were, how do you think he’d react to being on such a list?
That, of course, is an unanswerable question. But I think one thing is certain: there would be no humblebragging acceptance speech in which he thanked all the “little people.” With Paul, there are no little people.
Only a big God.
. . .
Paul was a man of prayer. He prayed regularly for the Christian movement that was burgeoning among the Gentiles; he prayed especially for the churches he helped found. I imagine he prayed for people by name, envisioning their faces as he did so. And when it came to the Philippians in particular, he prayed with joy.
Why? Because he reveled in their partnership.
Here are his words, as rendered by the Common English Bible:
I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel. God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. (Phil 1:3-8, emphasis added)
The word translated twice as “partners” is actually not one word in Greek, but two related words. The first is koinonia, which is typically translated as “fellowship.” Unfortunately, in the church, the word “fellowship” has been overused and abused; its meaning has degraded to something akin to “enjoying each other’s company” or even “having fun.” At root, it means to share something in common, or even to participate in a common endeavor.
Paul says that the Philippians have been his “partners” from day one. Think about the story we have in Acts 16, of Paul’s first visit to Philippi. We don’t know how long Paul and his companions stayed before moving on. But Acts 16:40 tells us that after being freed from prison, Paul and Silas went to Lydia’s house to encourage the “brothers and sisters” there before leaving town. Who knows how many people that was? But it’s a good guess that the church had grown beyond Lydia’s household, beyond the household of the jailer — and that the Philippians themselves were part of that growth.
A couple of sentences later, when Paul calls them his “partners in God’s grace,” the word is no longer koinonia, but an intensified version of it, sugkoinonos. The word takes the same idea of partnership, and adds the prefix sun-, which as we’ve seen means “with” or “together.” “With-partners”? “Together-partners”? Paul has already called them partners; we might say that here, he’s calling them Partners with a capital P. They’re not just helping his ministry. They are in the ministry together.
What kind of partners are they? And why does this bring Paul joy? Is it just that he knows he’s not alone, even in his imprisonment? Partly. But as we’ll see in the next post, it’s much more than that.
Much, much more.