The Communion of the Saints (Philippians 4:20-23)

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According to Ephesians 4:1-6, believers are in union with Christ and thus in communion one another as well. The union and communion that exists between the saints of God is a reality because of the answered prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.

(John 17:20-23)

We share as believers in the life of Jesus Christ. He is the Vine and we are the branches. As we abide in Him His life flows through us, and this results in Christlike fruit (John 15). We share in the life of Christ and thus we share much in common. It is for this reason that the early believers in Jerusalem lived in such close community, as recorded in the second chapter of Acts.

And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

(Acts 2:42-47)

The church in Philippi in the first century needed to be reminded that they were one in Christ and thus in unity with one another. From the initial verses of the first chapter, Paul has emphasised the theme of unity, as he often exhorts the Philippians to strive together for unity in the faith. In the second chapter he charged them to have lowliness of mind, to be likeminded, and to have in them the mind of Christ. As the letter unfolds, it becomes clear that there was some strife between two women in the assembly—Euodias and Syntyche—and apparently church members were taking sides in the disagreement.

As he draws the epistle to a close, Paul greets “every saint in Christ Jesus.” In other words, he sent greeting to those on Euodias’ side and those on Syntyche’s side. The believers that were with Paul likewise greeted the body as a whole. In fact, “all the saints” sent greeting to this church, particularly those “that are of Caesar’s household.” (We will examine this particular phrase below.) And the apostle concludes with these words: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” (Some modern translations of the Bible read, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” I prefer “with you all,” but even if “with your spirit” is correct, we should note that it is with their collective spirit.) And so, as Michael Bentley notes, “as Paul ends this lovely letter he comes full circle and emphasizes once again the oneness of God’s people.”

As we consider these concluding verses of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I want to briefly consider seven things that are shared in the communion of the saints.

We Serve the Same God

Paul writes, in v. 19, “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” Notice that Paul’s God would supply their need. In other words, Paul’s God was also their God. As if to emphasise this point, he now writes, “Now unto God and our Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (v. 20).

I recently read the story of a man who was hijacked. The hijackers drove around with him for three hours, and he was completely uncertain of his fate. Scared to death, he reports that he kept uttering “the Our Father.” Whilst many use the Lord’s Prayer in an empty way, “the Our Father” is actually a great designation for it. The Lord’s Prayer emphasises the plural nature and unity of the church. Jesus did not say, “My Father, which art in heaven” but, “Our Father, which art in heaven.” It is not, “Give me this day my daily bread” but, “Give us this day our daily bread.” We do not ask, “Forgive me my trespasses” but, “Forgive us our trespasses.” Throughout the prayer plural pronouns are used, for the whole Body serves the same God.

We should also note that, if we will continue to faithfully serve the same God, there must be theological unity in the church. We must be unified in that of which Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

None of us has arrived. There are things that I have learned about God that others in the church have yet to learn by experience. And there are doubtless things that fellow church members have learned by experience that I have yet to learn. But our unity is strengthened as we corporately learn more about God, and then we collectively serve Him in a greater way.

We Are Supplied by the Same God

The second lesson that we learn from these verses is that we are supplied by the same God. Again, Paul speaks of the God who “shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” as “our Father” (vv. 19-20). In fact, many commentators would deal with vv. 19-20 in the same section, and begin a new section in v. 21. In other words, it is as if Paul is saying, “My God will provide for you in every way (v. 19). What a wonderful God (v. 20)!” Whether we place v. 20 as the close of a section (vv. 4-19) or at the beginning of a new section (vv. 20-23), one thing is clear: Paul is urging us to unite in praise for the God who supplies our every need.

If we understand that we are supplied by the same God, we will unite in our dependence upon Him, and we will unite in sharing our provision with others. Someone in our church was recently telling me about some financial need that he had, and I quickly assured him that he would not be in that need alone. As members of the Body of Christ, we stand together, and if God gives me more than I need it is probably in order for me to give to someone else in need (Ephesians 4:28).

We Share the Same Goal

Doxologies are commonplace in Paul’s writings (Romans 11:22-26; Romans 16:25-26; Ephesians 3:20; 1 Timothy 1:17; cf. Jude 24-25), because he was so amazed by God. And v. 20 is, in essence, another one of his doxologies: “Now unto God and our Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” And in the midst of the doxology, Paul states the shared goal of every believer in Christ: God’s glory.

The word “doxology” literally means “a word about glory.” And the goal of every believer is, in the words of the Reformers, soli Deo gloria (“to God alone be the glory”). One of our church’s missionaries has a sign that reads Soli Deo Gloria. The first time I visited him (when he began coming to our church), I noticed it over his front door. When he later moved to another house in South Africa, it was immediately placed over his front door. In both locations that he has been as a missionary, the sign has found its way to the front entrance of his home. He understands that, whatever his location, his goal is the glory of God alone.

Every believer has the same assignment. Our Spirit-driven goal is to bring praise to our Father for all eternity. The word “Amen” is derived from a Hebrew word which means “to stand firm.” As believers, we are to stand firm and corporately proclaim, “So be it! To God alone be the glory!” As William Hendriksen stated, “The ardent yearning of the apostle’s heart is that all God’s redeemed children will do their utmost to give unending praise unto their God—forever.” The church is indeed called to sing the praises of God; we must be united in speaking weighty words for His glory.

David Wells, who has written several books dealing with the theological confusion of the church at large, speaks of “the weightlessness of God” that pervades today’s church. The Greek word for “glory” literally speaks of “weightiness,” and Wells correctly noted that God is not glorious, not weighty, in the eyes of many in the church today. God does not hold much weight in the life of the professing church anymore. I love the congregational singing in our church. I thrill to hear voices join together to sing the praises of God. I enjoy testimony time, hearing church members testify to the grace of God in their lives.

We must be united in giving weight to God. Doctrine is essential for proper doxology, and thus we must be united in biblical theology. If we are, then we will be united in breathing out a biblical doxology to our great God.

We Are Set Apart to the Same Glory

Paul writes, “Salute every saint in Christ Jesus. The brethren which are with me greet you. All the saints salute you, chiefly they that are of Caesar’s household” (vv. 21-22). The key word on which I want to focus here is “saint.”

Recently, the Roman Catholic Church began making petitions to canonise Mother Therese as a saint. Biblically, however, saints are not canonised by the church, but redeemed by God. John MacArthur explains: “According to the New Testament, a saint is not an ecclesiastical relic crystallized in a stained glass window, immortalized in a statue, or canonized by Rome. A saint is anyone who has come to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

MacArthur is correct. A saint, biblically speaking, is the same as a believer. “Saints” was Paul’s favourite description of believers in Christ. The word literally means “a holy one,” and refers to one who has been set apart for a holy purpose. Thus, all believers—regardless for how long or short they have been saved—are saints, set apart for the holy purpose of God.

Believers in Christ are one in purpose, for each one of us is called to a life of holiness. Our purpose is to know Christ and to be like Him. The church is not a preaching centre; our goal is not simply to fill Christians’ minds with theology. Though theology is important, it is practical, and it must translated into real world holy living. We must learn doctrine and theology, but we must do so in order to better live out our lives as saints.

When I was a child, my father taught me that I should always guard my name, and never be ashamed of it. Believers are called saints, and that is a name that we must guard. If we understand our purpose, which is to grow in Christlikeness, then we will experience biblical unity around the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Thus, when we are confronted by others because of our sin, and are held accountable to holy living, we will not be angry. We will certainly be grieved, but we will stand together as saints, and walk together for God’s glory. We must embrace what we are named.

We’ve Been Sent the Same Greetings

This may sound simplistic, but it is in fact greatly significant that Paul, and the saints with him, sent greeting to all the saints in Philippi. “The brethren which are with me greet you [plural]. All the saints salute you [plural] … The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all [plural]” (vv. 21-23).

Greetings are here being sent by one group of believers to another group of believers. The word “salute” means “to enfold in the arms.” It carries the idea of being highly favoured and loved. Every saint, whether bond or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile, received the same greeting from fellow saints. And the reason that all the saints received the same greeting, and the reason all saints today receive the same embrace from fellow believers, is because of the greeting that we have received from God.

When God sent Gabriel to Mary, He sent him with a specific greeting: “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28). Paul used the same word translated “highly favoured” in Luke 1:28 to describe believers, when he spoke of believers being “accepted” in the beloved (Ephesians 1:6). Thus, all believers are highly favoured by God. And that is the only reason that there is a communion of the saints.

This is important to realise for it emphasises the fact that anyone can be saved. Paul, a Jew, was writing to a church comprising, largely, Gentiles. He wrote to men and women, servants and masters, but all of them were highly favoured by God. Unbelievers are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) and, just as in the biological realm, no one is more dead than another. Dead is dead, and it takes the same power of God to raise to life the morally upright citizen as it does to raise the murderer in prison. I have prayed my entire ministry at BBC for the salvation of husbands of some church members, and in some cases there is still no sign of life in them. But I am encouraged that no one is more dead than anyone else, and God can certainly raise even the seemingly most hardened of sinners.

We’ve Been Saved by the Same Gospel

Paul sends greeting to Philippi from “all the saints,” but especially from “they that are of Caesar’s household” (v. 22). J. B. Lightfoot has noted that “Caesar’s household” does not speak of the emperor’s immediate family, but of officials in his government. He has noted the names of at least twelve believers mentioned in the closing chapters of Romans whose names can be found in ancient Roman governmental inscriptions. Even some of Caesar’s closest servants had come under the sound of the gospel. Indeed, anyone can be saved anywhere (cf. 1:12-13).

No one is beyond the saving grace of God, and all believers, regardless of their vocation in life, can serve God faithfully. Even those in wicked Nero’s regime could faithfully serve God in communion with the saints.

I personally find the mention of believers in “Caesar’s household” a great encouragement. Sometimes, the lives of many in our government can be downright depressing, but all hope is not lost. Realistically, it would take nothing more than two generations to change a nation. If Christian parents would be serious about raising their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, it is not too much to imagine that, in two generations time, our governments could be filled with believers.

Indeed, believers can serve anywhere. We all have different vocations, and each vocation has its unique temptations. But each of us shines our light in a dark place, and though we are not always physically together, we indeed celebrate the fact that we shine our light together into a dark world.

We Are Sustained by the Same Grace

Paul closes his epistle to the Philippians with words that are somewhat familiar to those who have read his letters: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (v. 23). He does not pray God’s grace only upon the really strong Christians, or only upon those with minute doctrinal knowledge, or upon those who have been saved for many years; no, he prays God’s grace upon all the believers to whom he is writing.

We are all sustained by the same grace, and that grace is connected to the Lord Jesus Christ. In four chapters, Paul has mentioned the name of Christ more per capita than any other New Testament book. In four chapters, he has mentioned joy more per capita than in any other New Testament book. In four chapters, he has mentioned gospel more per capita than in any other New Testament book. He could write about joy in the gospel of Christ because he understood something about the sustaining grace of Jesus Christ.

This congregation was struggling a little with unity, but Homer Kent summarised it well: “The realization of this benediction would increase the harmony of the congregation by causing the spirit of each believer to cherish the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and by bringing a joyous peace among them, fulfilling the apostle’s opening wish (1:2).” “In this verse,” says Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “he sums up everything he has been saying in this epistle.”

A missionary in another part of the country recently commented to me that our church has gone through some tough times in the years that he has known about it. And yet he wisely noted that it was obvious that God allowed us to undergo difficulties in order to strengthen us. All churches undergo difficulties—some more than others—but those trials always serve the same purpose: to strengthen us, by the grace of Christ, in our perseverance.

The Philippians had experienced some trials—persecution, false teaching, internal divisions, concern over the apostle himself—but in all of this the sustaining grace of God brought them safely through. We share much in common as believers in Christ, but the central thing that ties it all together is “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” which we experience through his gospel.

At the end of his commentary on the book of Philippians, Lloyd-Jones wrote these words, which speaks as much to the world and church of our day as it did to his.

My beloved friends, we live in an uncertain world, an uncertain life; no one knows what is going to happen to any one of us. There are an almost infinite number of possibilities. Can we end our consideration of this mighty epistle on a grander note than this? Whatever may happen in life or in death; whatever may take place in any conceivable situation or circumstance, whatever may be your lot, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ will be sufficient, it will holy you, it will sustain you, it will even enable you to rejoice in tribulation, it will strengthen you, establish you, holy you, keep you, answer your every need and take you through. Ultimately it will present you faultless, perfect, in glory in the presence of God. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. AMEN.”