Joy to the world

The family I grew up in didn’t have elaborate Christmas traditions. In the early years, we hauled out the artificial tree (first plastic, then aluminum) and ornaments; only later did we switch to a real tree, purchased from a lot. Our parents bought presents, usually modest ones, as the budget would allow. They sent and received Christmas cards. But it was all low-key, understated, nothing like the holiday extravaganzas that I know some families enjoy.

Still, it was generally a happy time of year, and one of anticipation. We were not a Christian family, so it wasn’t anticipation of a religious kind. It’s just that the season was unique, special, a little magical. To this day, the sight of colored lights on a tree can make me feel like a kid all over again.

Here on the blog, we come to the week before Christmas in the midst of an ongoing series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul declares right at the beginning of the letter that he regularly prays for the Philippians, and when he does so, he prays with joy. My hope in this post is to say something about Paul’s joy in a way that might help us to appreciate what it means to sing of joy at Christmas.

Paul was in chains for the gospel, possibly shackled to two Roman guards, one on either side. Hearing of his situation, the Philippians lovingly sent him a gift (not a Christmas gift, but a gift) to help provide for his needs. Grateful, Paul tells the Philippians:

I hold you in my heart, for all of you are my partners in God’s grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. (Phil 1:7, NRSVUE)

Interestingly, though, the New International Version translates Paul’s words a little differently:

I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. (Phil 1:7, NIV)

Do you hear the difference? The Greek is a little ambiguous, and the difference in translation isn’t trivial. In the NIV, it’s Paul alone who is defending and confirming the gospel; the New Revised Standard leaves open the possibility that the Philippians themselves are defending and confirming the gospel, and that this is evidence of their partnership (see the previous post) in grace.

Certainly, Paul is grateful for their support and their gift. Many of you reading this give your financial support to worthy causes and ministries, and simply put, these ministries wouldn’t survive without such generosity (think what would happen to the local church if everyone stopped giving!). Similarly, the Philippians and Thessalonians (collectively, “Macedonians”) tangibly supported Paul’s ministry: they gave sacrificially in a way that Paul elsewhere also calls “partnership” (2 Cor 8:1-4).

There should be no question, then, that their financial support is part of their partnership with Paul in grace. But I don’t want to give up on the idea that the Philippians were involved in the work of the gospel in other, more direct ways. Paul, after all, had Macedonians among his companions on his missionary travels; they even faced persecution with him (Acts 19:29). Similarly, Paul later urges the Philippians to live “in a manner worthy of the gospel” (Phil 1:27) despite opposition from their neighbors.

Paul prays for the Philippians with joy, grateful for their partnership (Phil 1:3-5). But his joy isn’t truly about receiving a gift, as he’ll make clear by the end of the letter. It’s about seeing God at work in their lives, about seeing the truth of the gospel confirmed repeatedly in how they live, whether through their generosity or courageous witness.

Many of us, as Christians, celebrate two Christmases. One is about our holiday traditions of exchanging presents, putting up decorations, and so on. These traditions are special to us. But the other is about celebrating the birth of a Savior. And in all honesty, it’s not always clear how the two Christmases are related. We live split lives, singing “Joy to the World” one moment, then losing what joy we had in the busyness of Christmas shopping, the stress of preparing for family gatherings, or the envy of others and their celebrations.

I’m not sure what Paul would have said about all this. But Paul’s joy and the joy of the world is not merely about the birth of a Savior; it’s about the presence of a people who have his Spirit living in them. If we celebrate what God has done, we must also celebrate what God is still doing. And as Paul will insist later in Philippians, what God is still doing is being done in and through those who follow this crucified and risen Savior.

So whatever we do this Christmas, let it be cause for joy in heaven.

Who knows? Paul may be watching.