Today’s passage relates some of the ordinary, logistical details of St. Paul’s missionary life. In particular, he speaks of his plans to send various personnel to Philippi to strengthen and encourage the church. In particular he mentions Timothy, his own associate, along with Epaphroditus, a member of the Philippian church whom the church had sent to help Paul. While these verses are interesting from an historical perspective, they may appear to be less so from the vantage point of preaching. Still, we believe that the Holy Spirit deemed it important that this be preserved for us, so I will explore them in relationship to the broad topic of “church and mission.”
The central question to be answered when we read the accounts of the history of the apostolic church is, “To what extent are the actions and practices of the apostles meant to provide an enduring norm or pattern for the church through the ages?” After all, they lived in a particular place in a particular historical moment. We are confident that their approach to Christ’s mission was appropriate in its historical and cultural setting. But, the gospel is to go out to the ends of the earth—to people of every language and culture. Is it possible to distinguish between abiding principles and cultural expressions of those principles? We obviously have to answer that question so that we can learn how to most effectively apply enduring principles in different settings.
I do not wish to suggest that some culturally conditioned aspects of life are matters of indifference. The doctrine of election implies that God’s self-revelation is intrinsically bound up with culture and language in particular. God freely chose to make himself known to Abraham and his descendants, the children of Israel. They participated in a society that organized itself through covenant treaties. They spoke a particular Semitic language that organized their view of the world in a very specific way. It provided concepts that not all languages or people groups share. By electing Abraham’s descendants, God made himself known through a language best suited to his purposes of revelation.
To give one simple example: The Auca tribe in Ecuador had no cultural or social concept of friendship and no word in their language for “friend.” (Or, to put it differently, “friendship” is not a universal concept.) God chose to reveal himself, though, as the “friend” of Abraham. Jesus called his disciples “his friends.” If there is something in the character of our Creator and Redeemer that actually corresponds to the Hebrew concept of “friendship,” then language and culture are not indifferent. Hebrew proved a better vehicle for disclosing God’s character than the Auca language. That does not mean that Abraham’s people were more righteous or godly than the Auca. It is just the logic (and stumbling block!) of election.
Now, in the nature of the case, it could not be otherwise. Words only have meaning in a particular historical, cultural, social setting. There is not some meta-language or set of words that transcends all times and cultures. So, we have to reckon seriously with the implications of election. God chose to use the languages, cultures and history of the people of the biblical world to disclose his person and saving work.
Therefore, it was also God’s intent that the gospel would go into the world as a “translated” message. Now translation is possible, but never “perfect.” Translation can move people from different languages and cultures on to roughly “the same page,” but translation, as they say, is not “an exact science.” Taking the gospel to the ends of the earth, then, involves faith that the Holy Spirit will see to it that God’s revelation of his person and work in Jesus of Nazareth, made known in the pages of Holy Scripture, will find authentic expression rendered into other languages and cultural forms. That is why the whole biblical story is so important. It provides a “control” on translation. It makes it possible for the receptor culture to engage the biblical world in which biblical words find their meaning.
Now if this is true of the whole missionary enterprise, it will also be true in the details of the Bible’s historical narratives. We have to pay attention to the setting and, in the case of the practice of the apostles, ask ourselves whether or how they best “translate” into other times and places. The church is built “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” (Eph. 2:20) Their words are to be observed and their lives are to be imitated. How can we best do this in a setting far removed from their own?
Sometimes distinguishing principles from application in a historical context seems fairly easy. (Or, at least we are comfortable making those distinctions.) For example, the fact that the Jerusalem apostles chose seven men to oversee the distribution of food to widows (Acts 6), has not led to an insistence that all churches have seven deacons, or even any deacons. Instead, we appreciate that the apostles commended the principle of delegating authority in order focus on other priorities. Other practices can seem a bit trickier. Most Christians in North America are content to greet each other with a handshake. Christians in other parts of the world still greet each other with a holy kiss. Some Christian women wear head-coverings in worship. Others don’t. These are a few illustrations of the challenge of “translating” apostolic practices.
Realizing again that translation is not an “exact science,” I would like to suggest three things from our Philippians text that may at least point to sound wisdom from St. Paul, especially in the context of church and mission. I will not argue that all have the force of enduring commands to be followed. However, I want to suggest that they be weighed carefully by the church as she seeks to fulfill the Great Commission. For the most part, I am simply connecting our text to much of what the church already does.
Paul’s mention of sending Timothy in 2:19 reminds us of at least two aspects of mission work that Paul believed were essential. The first is the importance of missionaries being people who can “bridge” cultures. This is obviously related to what I discussed at length before. Mission work is “translation” work. It is finding meaningful points of entry into non-Christian people groups and appropriate ways to lead people to an understanding of the gospel. Timothy was ideally equipped to bridge the world of Jew and Gentile. His mother was a “believing Jew.” (Acts 16:1) He was at home in the biblical story. He knew the Scriptures “from infancy.” (2 Timothy 3:15) But, he was also at home in Greco-Roman culture. His father was a Greek. So Timothy was well-equipped linguistically and culturally to take the story of salvation made known to and through Israel and bring it to the Gentiles.
It would obviously be wrong, though, to insist that only bilingual and bi-cultural Christians serve as missionaries. We can urge, though, that missionaries be people who can learn to bridge cultures—whatever the cost and effort required may be. The EPC, for example, has made its missionary priority the reaching of peoples who have no access whatsoever to a Christian church or gospel community in their own language. We English-speaking North Americans may not be as ideally equipped as a bilingual, bi-cultural Timothy to reach them. But, sometimes Christians who are much closer to unreached people in language and culture—for whatever reasons—do not attempt to reach them. So, we send people who are prepared to spend years and years of preparation just to get to the point of being able to function in the language and culture of unreached peoples.
On the other hand, this can be “good news” for those of us who stay home, as it were, in North America. Most of us Christians are now bi-cultural. We are at home in the story of the Bible and the kingdom of God. Our citizenship is in heaven. But we are also at home in the world’s largest English-speaking mission field—secular North America. God has positioned us to build “bridges” to people for whom all our “God talk” is pretty much unintelligible. We are still a people “sent” into our world.
The second point of wisdom that we do well to take from Paul’s example is the importance of a missionary “team.” Jesus, of course, sent the apostles out two by two to preach the Kingdom. (Mark 6:7) Moreover, Paul was deeply committed to working as part of a team. On one occasion, he actually turned his back on an “open door” for ministry rather than pursue it without Titus. (2 Cor. 2:12) The advantages to this go beyond simply being better equipped for the potential hardships of mission work. Positively speaking, to go out as mission teams meant that the apostolic teams went as a gospel fellowship, embodying and demonstrating the life of the new community. Perhaps as the North American church comes to terms with the fact that it is no longer in a “Christian” nation, but situated in a the world’s largest English-speaking mission field, church planting “teams” may help transform the current paradigms of church leadership.
Finally, I call attention to the characteristic language of St. Paul that points to the hope of the missionary enterprise. Again turning to 2:19, “I hope in the Lord to send Timothy...” On to 2:24, “and I trust in the Lord that I will also come soon.” Paul’s hope and trust were in the Lord. When he says “in the Lord,” he is not simply saying, “Lord willing.” He is saying that all his hope, all his trust, is in Christ. Christ is everything to the apostle. Christ, to Paul, is the hope of the world. The gospel of Christ, to him, is the power of God unto salvation. (Romans 1:17) For all of the opposition, for all the hardships—even prison—Paul lives in hope, not despair or defeat. And his hope, his trust, is in the Lord. Who would even think of church and mission—of the gospel taking root among all nations and tribes and languages—without this trust that Jesus is the world’s one true Lord? Amen.