Does Love Flourish in your Home Church?
Tertullian (@ 200 a.d.) was one of the greatest of the early church fathers and was actually the first man to use the word “Trinity” to describe the nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He lived and wrote at a time when opposition to Christianity and the Church was intensifying. Although Tertullian was an apologist, which is to say he devoted himself to defining and defending the Christian faith against its critics, he was quick to point out that it wasn’t any particular theological or philosophical argument that would ultimately persuade pagans of the truth about Jesus. Rather it was the seemingly inexplicable love that Christians had one for another that initially baffled and finally captivated non-Christians. In one memorable statement, Tertullian said this:
“It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See,’ they say, "[see] how they love one another, . . . How they are ready even to die for one another!’ No tragedy causes trouble in our brotherhood, [and] the family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you, create fraternal bonds among us. One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us [except] our wives. (Apology 39).
This really shouldn’t come as any surprise to us, given that it was Jesus who said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Neither should it come as any surprise to us that when Paul finally gets around to defining the content of his prayers for the Philippians he puts their love one for another at the center of it. In other words, it is in Philippians 1:9-11 that Paul unpacks in considerably more detail precisely what he had in mind when he said in 1:3-6 that he prayed for the Philippians. Here is the content of his intercession:
“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9-11).
When we actually read the prayers Paul himself prayed, they are of a decidedly different order from what we typically pray about. You hear nothing of money or prayers for increased respect or advancement in one’s career or the desire that one’s favorite sports team emerge victorious. Rather you hear things like we see here in Philippians 1, where Paul prays for an increase in love and knowledge and discernment and purity and righteousness and the glory of God.
In this and subsequent articles we’ll take note of several things about Paul’s prayer for the Philippians.
Here I only want to point out that Paul does not tell us whether this love is to be for God or for one another, probably because he intends both. One thing is certain: any professed love for God that does not find expression in a love for others is hypocrisy! In fact, it is simply impossible. In 1 John 5:1 we are told that “everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” So, if you don’t love other Christians you don’t love God, no matter how loudly you may insist that you do. You are deceived.
The author of Hebrews makes the same point. He says, “God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do” (Heb. 6:10). How does your love for the name of God display itself? By “serving the saints.”
Having said that, I’m persuaded that the primary expression of love that Paul has in mind and for which he prays is that which exists among Christians in the local church. Paul’s petition here is similar to the one we find in 1 Thessalonians 3:12 – “and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you.”
Love already exists and flourishes at Philippi. Paul does not question the sincerity of their affection for him or for one another. There is no implied rebuke in this prayer (Phil. 1:9-11), as if he’s subtly suggesting that they had failed to love in the first place. After all, he tells us in v. 4 that this prayer is offered in “joy”.
And let’s not forget that love was in evidence immediately upon the arrival of the gospel in Philippi. As soon as God opened Lydia’s heart to receive the gospel she opened her home to Paul and his companions. And no sooner had the Philippian jailer become a Christian than he attends to Paul’s wounds and brings him into his house. And no sooner had Paul and Silas departed from Philippi than the church there begins to support them financially.
But he wants to see it increase and deepen and intensify. We never love perfectly in this life. There are always flaws in our feelings for others and ways in which our generosity and sacrifice and service for them fall short.
As much as we might otherwise prefer, we can never reach a point in our relationship with one another where we feel satisfied and content and think that we’ve done enough. We can never rest on our laurels of love and say, “Well, I’ve just about exhausted what is possible in loving this person. They ought to be thankful for what I’ve done for them.” No. Love is never a static achievement for the Christian but always and ever a dynamic process of growth and expansion and improvement.
I’ve had people tell me they came to Bridgeway because of the worship or the children’s ministry or the missional focus and even a few because of the preaching. But I assure you, when non-Christians look upon us from the outside the one thing that will impress them is how we love one another. They couldn’t care less about the excellence of our Sunday services or the precision of our theological understanding. What will captivate their hearts and bring them back for more is the way we put aside petty personal preferences and selfish ambition and envy and competitiveness and love one another as God in Christ has loved us.