Philippians 4:10-23 - The Providence of God and the Family of Faith A Study of Philippians 4:10-23
At the heart of the Christian understanding of 'the providence of God' lies this simple fact: God provides. While this is a known reality to many Christians today, not least those in the non-Western world who often face grievous deprivation day by day, it was particularly real to a believer who found himself in custody in the first-century world.
In order to understand something of Paul's appreciation of the providence of God, I intend to focus attention on the closing part of his letter to the Philippians. The section in question, Philippians 4:10-23, concludes a letter in which Paul's warm relationship with his brothers and sisters in the Lord is the context for development of themes such as rejoicing and following a true pattern, all in the interest of attaining unity. Though the letter is full of rich theology which has many implications for Christology and other doctrines, Ben Witherington accurately summarizes the letter's very practical themes when he calls his little commentary Friendship and Finances in Philippi, and it is these very practical themes, and especially their relationship to one another, which we shall see are so important in Paul's recognition of the providence of God.
The backdrop to our passage is the financial gift which has been sent by the Philippian Christians, via Epaphroditus, to the imprisoned Paul. This has been alluded to on three previous occasions in the course of the letter (1:4-5; 2:17; 2:30), yet it is only in these closing lines that Paul addresses the issue at any length.
The first point for us to recognise is that Paul rejoiced in the gift from the Philippians. Paul uses exuberant language to describe his delight at receiving the gift ('I rejoiced greatly in the Lord'), but this only reflects the deliberate attitude of joyfulness which is characteristic of the letter as a whole. It is important to notice, however, that Paul's rejoicing is primarily in response to friendship, not the finances.
It is intriguing, however, that this relationship appears, at first sight, to have been interrupted since Paul says that 'finally' the concern of the Philippians has been 'revived', but this perception is corrected by the phrase 'in which concerns you did indeed concern (yourselves)'. Thus, to Paul, it is more valuable to have the ongoing relationship of love, commitment and prayer with the Philippians than it is to have the tangible expression of that relationship. The absence of the latter does not negate the presence of the former.
In fact, this is the first of two qualifications Paul makes to his commendation of the Philippians for their gift.
The words 'but you had no opportunity' are very important to our subject. They recognise that the Philippians were prevented from taking action which would outwardly manifest the ongoing concern they had for Paul in his captivity. That the Philippians had been afforded 'no opportunity' to demonstrate their concern for Paul is not to be regarded as simply an unfortunate accident of chance, but as the outworking of the providence of the sovereign God. It is for this reason that Paul can rejoice 'in the Lord' when that state of affairs comes at last to an end. Thus providence must be understood in negative terms as well as positive. It may well be that the providence of God denies opportunities, as well as opening them up.
Paul's enthusiasm for this gift could be misread as desperation and so he includes a second qualification to the effect that he has learned to be content in every circumstance and so, while the financial gift is very welcome (especially as a token of true friendship), it is not regarded by Paul as indispensible. That is to say, he recognises the providence of God in every situation and looks to Him to give the required strength.
Having received this token of affection and fellowship from the Philippian Christians, and having indicated his response to it, Paul now wishes to reassure them of his concern for them, and the manner in which he does so is very significant. Paul writes, 'My God will supply all your needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus'. In other words, Paul commends his Christian brothers and sisters to the providence of God.
This appears to set up an imbalance in the equation. Paul has had his needs met by the kindness of the Philippian Christians, but he promises that their needs will be met by God himself. Such imbalance is purely superficial; in actual fact Paul understands the providence of God to be worked out through the agency of His people in both situations. That is, the gift given by the Philippians is to be attributed ultimately to the benevolent activity of God directed towards Paul, and the promised provision of the Philippians' needs will be worked out through the agency of God's people (or at least, people who God moves to fulfil his purposes). Yes, the Philippians gave, but it was the Lord's gift; yes, the Lord will provide, but it is through His people that He will accomplish the provision.
In all the circumstances that may befall believers, there are two elements which remain constant: the sovereign providence of God and the relationship between the family of faith. In difficult circumstances, such as faced Paul, it may be that God's providence leads to a situation in which those who desire to help practically are unable to do so for, perhaps, a variety of reasons. In such times, those who look on must maintain two things. Firstly, they must maintain a firm commitment of love and friendship to the person or persons in distress, expressing that relationship via whatever means are available. Secondly, they must maintain a firm confidence in the sovereign ability of the Lord to meet the needs of those who are in need. If he has made it impossible for these particular people to help then he will motivate others to supply what is necessary.
On the other side of the situation, those who face such difficult experiences must learn (if Paul had to, who is exempt from this process?) to recognise God's sovereign activity and find refuge in Him. Here, relationships with other believers may well be what sustains a believer in distress and maintains his or her confidence in and dependence on God.
Where it is possible to help a brother or sister in need, the believer must understand that the providence of God is not some mysterious force which operates independently of God's people, and must therefore act as the agent of God's providence by demonstrating compassion and practical care in whatever ways are appropriate.