We come to the end of St. Paul’s extended thank-you note to the church in Philippi. Although the Apostle has used the occasion of acknowledging their gift to offer encouragement and counsel—encouraging them to unity and warning them against false teachers—he closes the letter by letting them know how much their gift has meant to him. By our standards, he seems to struggle to get to this place. One of the most famous sayings in the letter, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” is said to make it clear that he did not really need their help. However, he says even this to provide an example of complete reliance on God, not to dismiss their gift as unimportant or unappreciated.
We are reminded in the way Paul says “thank you” of his singular commitment not to ask churches for financial support for himself in carrying out his mission. For him, this was a personal choice, not a matter of general principle. In fact, in his correspondence with Timothy he urged that effective elders “be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” (1 Tim. 5:17) However, the Apostle Paul made a personal decision to “offer the Gospel without charge.” (1 Cor. 9:18) Consequently, he supported himself in his missionary work by his trade of “tent-making.” Paul did this as part of a personal commitment to keep his integrity above reproach and make it clear that he was not preaching Christ for any personal gain. It may have been a decision that went back to his dramatic conversion from a persecutor of Christ to a confessor of the faith. People were naturally suspicious of his motives so he went out of his way to establish his credibility and credentials as an Apostle called by God.
When we remember Paul’s personal commitment to guard his integrity, his language about not needing the help of the church is put in proper perspective. However, he leaves them in no doubt about how grateful he is for their gift and how it has blessed him. “I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied.” (4:18) The word that he uses for “fully satisfied” is literally “filled up” or “fulfilled.” This has a very contemporary sounding ring to it. There are many in our society who are on a quest for “fulfillment.” This is not an evil in itself, since God has created us with longings and desires. Evil enters in, though, when we seek fulfillment in selfish, self-centered ways or in objects of desire or sources that do not satisfy. Paul assures the Philippians that, just as some of his deep needs were fulfilled by their gift, God will fulfill “every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (4:19)
As we bring this series of messages on “in Christ” to a close, we meet here the Apostle’s last striking use of the phrase. It is not the last use in the letter, for in vs. 21 he tells them to greet every saint in Christ Jesus. This use, however, we met at the outset when in 1:1 he addresses “all the saints in Christ Jesus. The expression in 4:19, however, connects in Christ Jesus with the fulfilling of needs, which is a connection that the Apostle has saved to the end, to encourage the saints, who out of their own tenuous circumstances have shown great generosity toward him.
This particular instance is somewhat ambiguous. Up to this point, in Christ has consistently referred to our spiritual union with Christ—to our being in Christ. That is a possible interpretation here, in which case the sense would be that the satisfaction of our needs comes to us in our union with Christ. Now, whether that is the precise force of Paul’s words here, that will always be true. Our union with Christ can never be taken out of the picture! However, it is my own conviction that in this instance, in Christ Jesus is most properly connected with God’s riches in glory. I would argue this on the basis of Paul’s teaching about the exalted Savior. For example, in Colossians 1:19, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell...” Or, even more specifically, Colossians 2:3, speaking of Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” We could go a little farther afield to 1 Corinthians 3:22-23, “...all (things) belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.” I would contend that, on the basis of Paul’s reference to God satisfying needs in Christ, the focus shifts somewhat to the relationship between the Father and the Son, rather than to our relationship to Christ.
All of God’s riches have been entrusted to Christ. Those riches are now in him. Jesus himself made this clear in the discourse to the disciples concerning the gift of the Spirit in John 16:14-15. “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” Thus, when St. Paul speaks of God satisfying our needs according to his glorious wealth, it is absolutely certain that all of this treasure has been poured into and entrusted to Christ the Son. God’s riches are found in him. Thus, I would insist that we appreciate how Paul is pointing to Christ as our mediator. Christ is in union with the Father. By faith and baptism we are in union with Christ, and through him, with the Father. Of course, I may be mistaken in arguing that in Christ Jesus in 4:19 refers most precisely to God’s glorious riches. The expression is grammatically ambiguous. However, making it clear that God (the Father) is the one who satisfies us in Christ Jesus compels us to see that we cannot fully appreciate our union with Christ apart from the union of the Father and the Son. The great impact of this should be a stronger assurance that our needs will most certainly be satisfied!
I conclude with a more general word about “satisfaction of needs.” The psychologist Abraham Maslow has deeply influenced our culture with his theory about the hierarchy of human needs. Much of what he says about the importance of meeting basic human needs is instructive and helpful. The danger in his theory, though, is that he associates the extent to which our needs are met with being “fully” human. He identifies higher order needs—like leisure to enjoy the arts—with being more “fully” human. However, our most basic human need, and what makes us most fully human, is to be in union and communion with God. This is what we were created for. Thus, in a broken world where untold millions live in the deprivation of daily necessities—to say nothing of theaters and concert halls! — the prospect of union and communion with God preserves the grace of being fully human for all peoples. That so many live in dehumanizing circumstances is unjust and has to be a priority concern of the church. Likewise, those of us who have the means of satisfying so many of our “felt” needs must remember the Apostle’s admonition to Timothy, “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” (1 Tim. 6:8) Or the wisdom of the Psalmist, “Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked.” (Ps. 37:16)
Paul’s thank-you to the Philippians points us to what brought him the greatest satisfaction, namely that these Christians had discovered the grace of giving and that it would be noted to their “credit” in the eyes of God. May the same satisfying grace abound in us! Amen.