“I am certain that God, who began the good work in you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ returns” Phil 1:6
These words are a surefire encouragement when we feel we are slipping, losing traction on ‘our’ big life plan, when we fear we’ll never fulfil ‘our’ dreams. These words can put our focus back on letting God be in charge; God who prepared great things in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10) and has sure plans to prosper us (Jeremiah 29:11).
These words are from a section of the Bible called Philippians, a letter Paul wrote to the believers at Philippi, in another part of the Roman empire.
So are we supposed to just take the writer’s word for it? As with any advice, a lot depends on who is dishing it out.
It sounds good, for example, to hear that we should never lose hope, but work on keeping our hearts free from bitterness and be ready for our destiny. But if it were Nelson Mandela who said it, standing in front of me with those smiling, brown eyes, it would carry some weight.
So who wrote this letter? It’s from Paul and his co-worker Timothy. They were followers of Jesus since just after the time of Jesus being on earth. With Paul, you feel like his past is never far from his mind, but in a good way. Paul had radically met God, and since that day he was powered by the knowledge that God can turn anyone’s life into beauty. That was what he called the good news. He was fuelled by the knowledge that God had transformed him from who he was to the person he was born to be. And even though he was an amazingly effective witness and leader in the church, he was humble, because he knew what he had been like before he allowed Jesus to lead the way.
Take a look earlier in the Bible at the book of Acts, chapter 27, verses 4 to 11. Here Paul dramatically summarises what he was like in the past. A self-appointed policeman of religious correctness, he killed Christians. Then one day he met Jesus. If you couldn’t stop yourself reading on beyond verse 11, you will have already read what happened next. On the road to Damascus, Jesus (whom Paul thought was dead) not only gave Paul the extraordinary news that he knew about the persecutions, but that Jesus was taking it personally.
At this point, if Paul had had time to reflect, he might have thought that he was in big trouble. Instead of being an instrument of religious justice, he is accused of murdering the innocent. I imagine him thinking, Since when does Jesus still speak directly to people even though he’s not alive? He must be alive. Since when does God speak to people today? He says I’m persecuting him! Have I been persecuting God? Whoa…
What does Jesus do next? He appoints Paul, there and then, as his servant and witness, and promises to set him up for success. Then, as you can see from the unputdownable pages of Acts chapter 9, God puts divine appointments in Paul’s diary in Damascus, so that Paul has a protected introduction to the disciples.
In a very short space of time, Paul becomes a key witness for Jesus, instead of for the prosecution, and will spend the rest of his life introducing people to Jesus and gathering them into churches over a very wide area. His consistent message is that God has boundless grace enough to overcome anything we have been or have done, because he saw how God treated him. It’s the humility of knowing how God ‘can do something so amazing with something so little!’ – as Kris Vallotton said recently, who himself was transformed from what he would say was a mess into what I would say is a powerful speaker and teacher, full of humour and grace, and full of life.
Paul was imprisoned several times because, amongst other things, his gospel is sometimes bad for business, when it’s bad business. Paul is even writing this letter to Philippi from prison. Yet this book of Philippians is known for its joyfulness and thankfulness. It’s a heartfelt outpouring from a man who knows God personally as one who does not do half measures, but brought him from a violent life to a life-giving, beautiful one: from holding the coats while the Jewish leaders stoned Stephen and made him the church’s first martyr, (Acts chapter 7) to one who would sacrifice his own safety time and again in order to get the good news spread far and wide.
As I read it, the verse ends in focusing not so much on how the world will end, but on the promise that if it hasn’t ended yet, there’s still hope because God is always at work. The one who carries the master-builder’s plan for our lives is God. When we start to think it’s us, we have the weight of the whole edifice on our shoulders. It’s a much more restful thing to be in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you hope and a future” (Jeremiah 29:11).
In that famous wedding-friendly passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, 1 Corinthians chapter 13 verse 7, Paul reminds us that love always hopes. We are each God’s Work-in-Progress, and God IS love, so we have every reason to hope.