We Are the Circumcision | Philippians 3:1-3

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—

Philippians 3:1-3 ESV

 

Now having commended the work of Timothy and Epaphroditus to the Philippians, Paul begins the next major discussion: the danger of legalism. One of the most influential heresies of the early church was the teaching of the Judaizers, who taught that Gentile Christians must conform to the Mosaic Law, particularly by being circumcised, in order to become a disciple of Christ. The Apostles rightfully condemned this teaching as adding human effort to the gospel of grace. Although the Judaizers’ insistence on circumcision may not be widespread today, the spirit of such legalism continues to stalk followers of Christ.

REJOICE // VERSE 1

Just as the previous chapter concluded with Paul urging the Philippians to find joy in how God was using Timothy and Epaphroditus, so chapter three begins with another call for joy in the Lord. The word finally here does not signify the conclusion of the letter (we are, after all, only beginning the second half); instead, it reveals that Paul is approaching the final matters of discussion within the letter. A few things must be noted of verse 1.

First, the second sentence of the verse appears (in the ESV, at least) to connect it directly to the previous one. However, Fee notes “that seems nearly impossible, since (1) ‘the same things’ is plural, not singular, which would be the natural expression if he intended to point to the preceding imperative, (2) this view disregards the asyndeton [referencing the lack of conjunctions in verse 2 which is unusual for Paul and therefore is likely a matter of emphasis], which is especially unusual if this were Paul’s intent, and (3) one can imagine any number of adjectives that might serve as reasons for him to repeat the imperative to rejoice, but ‘for your security’ is not one of them, whereas it fits perfectly with the warning and exhortation that follows. The view suggested here seems confirmed by the repetition of this idea in v. 18 (‘about whom I have told you many times before’)” (292-293).

Second, the command to rejoice in the Lord might, at first, seem disconnected from Paul’s assault on legalism within the following verses, yet the superior joy found only in Christ is a central foundation for the apostle’s argument here. The gain of Christ (v. 8) in the midst of losing all things is a reason joy. Glorying only in Christ and placing no confidence in our flesh (v. 3) is reason for joy. Knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection is a reason for joy (v. 10). Looking toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (v. 14) is a reason for joy. Our heavenly citizenship (v. 20) is a reason for joy. Our hope of having our lowly bodies gloriously transformed (v. 21) is a reason for joy. Thus, the entirety of this chapter presents the joyful truth of the gospel against the destruction, shame, and worldliness of legalism (v. 19). To rejoice in the Lord, therefore, is to understand and submit to the truths that follow.

MUTILATORS OF THE FLESH // VERSE 2

In verse 2, Paul begins his attack on legalism. Paul warns the Philippians to beware a certain group of Jewish Christians called the Judaizers. This group stepped into the limelight whenever Gentiles began to profess faith in Christ by speaking up and claiming that Gentiles must first become Jews (via circumcision) in order to become Christians. In fact, the main motivation behind the letter to the Galatians was combatting this very heresy. The argument that Paul gave in Galatians to show this movement as heretical was that by claiming circumcision is needed for salvation, they were saying that Jesus was not all-sufficient. Their formula was essentially Jesus + circumcision = salvation, but Paul said that salvation comes from Christ alone. Furthermore, the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 was formed to definitively answer the question of whether circumcision was necessary for Gentile Christians. Thus, having dealt with this issue on numerous occasions before, it is as if Paul sought to waste as little time dealing with it as possible. The result is three critical jabs at this heretical ideology that leave the Judaizers in a theological knockout.

First, Paul calls them dogs. The concept of dog did not bring such pleasant emotions in the ancient world as it does today. Yes, some people did keep dogs for pets, but for the most part, dogs were dangerous, disease carrying scavengers that ate whatever they could find on the streets. Thus, dogs were seen as one of the most unclean animals to the Jews, and to parallel such uncleanness, there was a rabbinical saying that called the Gentiles dogs. They compared the religious impurity of the Gentiles to the physical impurity of a dog. Paul, thus, reverses this notion and claims that their legalistic insistence on circumcision actually makes them unclean like a dog.

Second, he calls them evildoers. Devout Jews considered it the highest priority to uphold God’s Law. The Pharisees were a Jewish sect that took this to the next level by literally devoting their entire lives to studying and obeying the Torah. Thus, they would have considered themselves to be righteous keepers of the Law, but instead their mentality produced evil, law-breaking behavior. Instead of workers of righteousness, they became workers of iniquity.

The third statement on Paul’s list is actually a specific example of the second. Paul calls them mutilators of the flesh. This was another of Paul’s play on words because the words for mutilation and circumcision are near-rhymes in Greek (peritome, meaning “to cut around” versus katatome meaning “to cut to pieces”). Thus, he was saying that although they thought that circumcision would seal their favor with God, in reality they were only mutilating their flesh (which in the Torah would disqualify priests from service).

These severe warnings are especially interesting when we remember that the church of Philippi was predominately, if not entirely, composed of Gentiles. In fact, a faction of Judaizers may have yet to exist in Philippi itself. But even if this was the case, Paul was obviously still wary of this heresy’s influence. The lure of this teaching was twofold. First, the act of circumcision gave a physical work to place one’s confidence in. Second, being identified with the Judaism meant religious protection. Not long after conquering Judea, the Romans realized that the Jews could never be made to adopt the religious pluralism of the Empire. Prudence then led to the Jewish people receiving a religious exemption from worshiping the Roman gods and emperor. The followers of Jesus were not so fortunate. While Jesus Himself may have been a Jew, the two religions quickly parted ways. Plus, worshiping a someone crucified for treason didn’t present Christians in the best light either. Thus, physically identify with Judaism likely held a strong allure to the early Gentile believers.

Of Harsh Words

Obviously, the severity of Paul’s language reveals the seriousness of the threat of the Judaizers to Christianity. Perhaps it is worth considering for a moment the worth and danger of harsh using harsh language to describe theological realities. Given that our current society tends to value kindness over truth, the willingness of Scripture to speak strong and even offensive language in defense of truth is somewhat jarring. Indeed, many today view Jesus as the paragon of gentleness and soft-spoken words, overlooking (either through sheer ignorance or blatant rejection) Jesus’ rather frequent declaration of hypocrisy upon the Pharisees and other religious leaders. Likewise, Paul wrote the Galatians concerning the issue of circumcision, calling the Galatians foolish for believing the Judaizers (3:1) and wishing for the emasculation of the deceivers (5:15). For the sake of brevity, we must pass over the language of the Old Testament, like Amos calling wealthy women who oppressed the poor cows (Amos 4:1). Just as with its frank discussion of violence and sexual sin, the Bible is not ashamed to speak harshly in the midst of a sinful world. We must, therefore, meet the Bible as it is, refusing to pretend as though we have a moral superiority to the very Word of God.

Nevertheless, does the Bible endorse our usage of harsh language as well? Is it right for us to call heretical teachers dogs or similar descriptions? Since the Scriptures occasionally use harsh language, we can conclude that it is applicable during some situations. For instance, Paul will use a slightly uncouth word in verse 8 to describe his good works when compared to Christ. Similarly, Isaiah compares the value of our righteous deeds to a used menstrual rag. The usage of such words serves to emphasize our lack of value when compared to the Most High God. Sin and the depravity that it creates should not be sugarcoated.

Confrontations with false teachers who are leading brothers and sisters astray also seem to justify harsh words in some circumstances, as we see within this verse. As nearly each New Testament author warns against false teachers at some point, the danger of yielding to false doctrine is an ever-present threat upon Christ’s church, leading many of the narrow path. As such, the biblical authors’ words against false teachers are particularly brutal. Jesus said being drowned with a stone tied around your neck is a better option than leading others into sin (Matthew 18:6). Both Peter and Jude state that the gloom of utter darkness is reserved for them (2 Peter 2:17; Jude 13). John calls them antichrists (1 John 4:3). Purposeful deception of God’s people deserves strong and even harsh rebuke.

While there are, therefore, appropriate uses of harsh language, let us also consider the severity of such words. In fact, the very impact of such speech relies upon it being rarely invoked. By becoming commonplace, its legitimate use is stripped away. Let Christians who regularly use cuss words consider the wisdom of this thought. After all, many words of profanity have become vulgar (especially in the original meaning of both words: common or ordinary) by removing them from their genuine place of use. Habitually shouting “damn it” when injured or frustrated robs the word of its terrifying meaning: to eternally condemn to hell. Or flippantly saying “to hell with it all” both ignores and diminishes the reality to which the word hell points: never-ending torment under the wrath of God.

Perhaps we could attribute much of this the postmodernism that flows so silently through our veins. We fail to grasp the reality which words represent, so words gradually lose their meaning and significance. Only as we find ourselves flailing through an abstract world of gelatin do we begin to reach out for something concrete, struggling to formulate new words to capture the weightiness of existence. But these too shall pass, leaving us to escalate our verbiage ever further. The desensitization of the word may be a doom of the Fall. God’s words, after all, are the exact opposite. As God spoke, His words formed reality itself. Even at their best, our words can only represent the objects that God’s words brought into existence. His Word, therefore, is reality. As people who worship the embodied Word of God as revealed through the written Word of God, we are (literally) eternally bound to words and the realities they represent. As children of the God who speaks life into being, let us shudder at the thought of frivolous and careless words! As disciples of the One who upholds all things by the word of His power, let us strive to use our speech to accurately display His reality!

Although we could continue to dive into the implications of words and their meanings, allow me to attempt a conclusion to our discussion of Paul’s usage of harsh language here and its lessons for us. Two reactions to Paul’s language in verse 2 are likely (although with a variety of degrees). One will smile proudly at the boldness of the apostle, while the other will silently question whether such talk was really necessary. Both lean toward dangerous extremes. A failure to acknowledge the necessity of a harsh word is harmful but so is delighting in it. The wisdom of the Holy Spirit matured through saturation in the Word is the only solution. For example, may we rightfully feel the shame of Christians who refused to appropriately condemn Nazism, while also recalling that the often unwisely harsh language of the Martin Luther, the lion of the Reformation, was able to be used to validate the Nazis’ anti-Semitic regime.

TRUE CIRCUMCISION // VERSE 3

Notice Paul’s shifted wording in this verse: for we are the circumcision. The inclusive and exclusive implications of we cast aside any remaining doubt as to Paul’s view of the Judaizers. Their teaching was blatantly heretical, and, as such, they were not among the people of God. Also note that he is not saying that we have the proper circumcision but that we are the circumcision. This is the fundamental change that God promised to His people in Deuteronomy 30:6: “And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”

Why is this so significant?

To begin, we must understand that circumcision was always meant to be an outward sign of an inner work of God. In Romans 4, Paul specifically notes that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness before his circumcision, not after. Thus, circumcision was the outward symbol of Abraham’s circumcised heart before God by grace through faith.

Yet circumcision not only signified the inward working of God in the heart of the believer, it also represented becoming a member of God’s collective people. In the Old Testament, Israelite boys were circumcised on the eighth day to symbolize their incorporation into the holy nation of God. This rite is changed in the New Testament. The sign of circumcision that physically marked the Israelites is passed away. Jew and Gentile followers of Jesus are now collectively the true circumcision. Gentiles are grafted into Israel by the cutting away of sin from their heart rather than the removal of their foreskin. The church, God’s world-wide Israel, is now marked by another rite of incorporation: baptism. Presbyterians would argue that the symbol of baptism is a nearly identical replacement of circumcision, hence their insistence on baptizing infants. We, however, believe that the transfer is not one-to-one. Baptism, instead, is the New Testament fulfillment of circumcision’s Old Testament role, extended now to both male and female confessors of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Like circumcision, baptism is not a salvific work. Our sins are not cleansed by the waters of baptism; rather, they symbolize the sin-cleansing blood of Jesus upon us.

But if circumcision is no longer the mark of belonging to the people of God, how can we know that we are God’s children, that we are the circumcision? Paul provides us with three descriptions, a fitting antidote to the threefold condemnation in verse 2.

First, we who are the circumcision worship by the Spirit of God. Paul’s concept of worship here is likely different from the images that first spring into our minds. For many of us, we associate worship with singing praises to God together during corporate worship. Interestingly, that idea is probably more accurately linked to verse 1’s command to rejoice in the LORD, since the phrase is repeated through the Psalms (for example, Psalm 35:9, 64:10, 97:12, 104:34). Instead, Paul’s idea of worship here is linked to the sacrifices performed by the Levitical priesthood, which seems odd given his insistence against putting our confidence in rites and rituals. What then does mean by worshiping by the Spirit of God? Is there something specific that we must do to worship by the Spirit? The answer, in short, is no. And I believe that this is precisely Paul’s point. Those who worship by the Spirit of God are not relying upon rites and ceremonies to worship but upon the Holy Spirit. Their reliance is upon God Himself to initiate worship. This idea is found in Galatians, where Paul claims that it is the Spirit that enables us to cry out Abba Father (Gal. 4:6). As children of God, we claim that God is our Father and that He is our Father at all times. Thus, if He is our Father and if we can only call Him such via the Spirit, then all worship that comes from a Christian is done by means of the Spirit. For the believer, worship that is done outside of the Spirit is not worship at all, just as prayer done outside the Spirit is not prayer at all. Worshiping by the Spirit, therefore, is a life of worship. It is a presentation of our very lives as living sacrifices for God. We do not merely sacrifice a tenth of our income as sacrifice; we surrender ourselves to be used in whatever way He sees fit.

Second, the truly circumcised will glory in Christ Jesus. The deepest cry of a heart that has been saved and changed by Christ is to see Him glorified. The Judaizers, by relying upon their circumcision to justify them before God, glorified themselves. When we believe that by our actions we receive salvation, we rob Christ of the glory due Him. Salvation by grace through faith gives complete and total glory to Christ and Christ alone. Thus, the true believer’s life will be of constant glorification in Christ Jesus. Paul says as much himself in Romans 4:1-5:

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.

Finally, we put no confidence in the flesh. Humanly speaking, salvation is impossible. We, finite beings, have infinitely offended an infinite God and thereby deserved infinite punishment. When the finite has made and infinite error, how could the finite ever repair the infinite? To do so is beyond the ability of the finite. Thus, it is preposterous lunacy of placing confidence in our flesh (finite) to accomplish the process of salvation (an infinite task). Such is the failure of legalism. We may be able, from time to time, to assuage our own guilt via our good works, but they will never suffice to clear our account before God. Our plight is hopeless. We are utterly incapable of saving ourselves. It is as certain and unavoidable as our eventual death. Our confidence, therefore, can only be placed in that which is also infinite. This is the glory of Jesus’ sacrifice! Being infinite, Christ was able to pay the infinite price for us. Being very God of very God, the death of Christ upon the cross works the impossible for us by cleansing the infinite debt of our sin.

The heart cry of every Christian is the same as Paul’s words in Galatians 6:14: “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

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Of Timothy & Epaphroditus | Philippians 2:19-30

I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also.

I have thought it necessary to send you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.

Philippians 2:19-30 ESV

 

Within our present passage, Paul launches into another personal discourse between the Philippian church and himself. His message here revolves primarily around two men that both Paul and the Philippians knew well: Timothy and Epaphroditus. Even though verses 14-18 concluded the discourse Paul began in 1:27, the descriptions of Timothy and Epaphroditus before us serve as an epilogue of sorts, setting before us two examples of worthy men who are following after Christ and His example of service and humility.

OF TIMOTHY // VERSES 19-24

Paul begins by expressing his hope of sending Timothy to the Philippians soon. Contrast this language with verse 25’s usage of the past tense, and we can understand that Epaphroditus was sent back as the messenger carrying Paul’s letter to the Philippians and that Timothy would be sent to them at a later date, if possible. But why would Paul send Timothy to them since he has already responded to them with his letter? So that I too may be cheered by news of you. Just as the Philippians sent Epaphroditus in order (partly) to receive word from Paul, so the apostle would send Timothy to check on the Philippians. Particularly since divisive bickering seems to be present in Philippi, he likely wants Timothy to assure him that the message of the letter is being lived out.

Paul’s commendation of Timothy was probably unnecessary since Timothy was almost certainly with Paul and Silas during the founding of the Philippian church. Timothy was, however, still a relatively new believer while in Philippi, so perhaps Paul is assuring the Philippians that Timothy’s growth and maturity in the faith is significant.

Paul begins his commendation by saying that no one is like Timothy, who is genuinely concerned for the Philippians’ welfare, which he then clarifies further by saying that Timothy’s interests are those of Jesus Christ, not self. This, of course, is not Paul saying that Timothy is a greater servant than his other companions, such as Silas or Luke. Instead, Paul is describing Timothy’s particular concern for the Philippians. Notice the correlation between verse 20 and 21. Timothy’s genuine concern derives from seeking the interests of Christ rather than self. I place emphasis on the word seeking because Timothy did not simply have or possess the interests of Christ; rather, he sought them. Even though we have been justified by the cross of Christ and given a new heart through the Holy Spirit, we still do not naturally desire the things of the Lord; we must seek after them, longing to have the desires and loves of Christ. This is a foundational component of the process of sanctification. We seek to mold our interests to mirror the interests of Christ.

But how do we practically seek the interests of Christ? In a word, we turn our eyes toward the things of the kingdom. But what does seeking first the kingdom look like? It means sharing the gospel even when we are afraid to do so. It means speaking the truth in love even when it would be easier to remain quiet. It means bearing with one another patiently even when we would rather walk away. It means communing with God through meditation on the Word and prayer even when we would rather scroll through Facebook or binge on Netflix.

Next, Paul appeals to the Philippians’ prior experience with Timothy, confidently asserting his proven worth. Timothy, though a young man, is not someone that the apostle giving a chance to prove himself; rather, Timothy has already proven his worth. He has done so by being as a son to Paul in the ministry of the gospel. The implication seems to be that just as a son would often continue the craft or trade of his father, so Timothy has done with Paul. This was especially fitting since the apostle did not have biological children of his own. The parental love of Paul towards Timothy is no clearer than in the letter of 2 Timothy, which also happens to be the last of Paul’s letters before his execution. In verse 2, Paul calls Timothy his “beloved child,” and the remainder of the letter oozes with the love of a father writing his final letter to his son.

May the relationship between Paul and Timothy inspire us as well to disciple the next generation in the ministry. For parents, the discipleship mandate is clearly present within texts like Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Ephesians 6:4. Yet Paul’s love for Timothy clearly displays that a biological relationship is not necessary.

Finally, Paul states that he will send Timothy as soon as he found out how it would go with him. Thus, he was likely waiting for a fuller confirmation that he would eventually be released from prison himself. As such, he expresses once more his confidence that the Lord will allow him to visit Philippi upon his release.

OF EPAPHRODITUS // VERSES 25-30

But Timothy is not the only individual that Paul hoped to send to the Philippians. He also hoped to send Epaphroditus, but as noted already above, he speaks in the past tense of sending him, implying that it was Epaphroditus who delivered this letter to the Philippians. This is the only mention of this man in the New Testament. Another form of the name, Epaphras, is mentioned in Colossians and Philemon, but few believe that these two men were the same. Thus, the only information that we have regarding Epaphroditus is found within this letter.

Brother, Worker, Soldier, Messenger, Minister

Paul’s commendation of Epaphroditus is fivefold.

First, he was Paul’s brother. As a fellow child of God in Christ, Epaphroditus was family to Paul. The title of brother and sister within the church emphasizes the communion of the saints, that we are now all grafted into according to the gospel.

Second, he was a fellow worker. Epaphroditus labored alongside Paul on behalf of the Philippians. No one with a conscious would have the pride to call Paul’s life easy. His life was a constant outpouring to Jesus, and precious few had the strength to work alongside him. This man was one of the few. This should also remind us that the life of a Christian is one of work. Indeed we have an eternal rest in Christ that begins in this life, but the work of the kingdom must still be done.

Third, he is described as a fellow soldier. The New Testament often invokes the imagery of life being a constant war against our own sinful desires and against the Satan. Epaphroditus evidently played his part as a soldier for Christ, advancing the gospel and expanding the kingdom of heaven. This also harkens back to the conflict that all Christians are engaged in (1:30). We are often today too hesitant to describe Christians as soldiers for the cross of Christ. I would assume that the historical shame of the Crusades, Inquisition, and the like have some role in this. Instead of emphasizing that we wrestle not against flesh and blood, many have simply stopped wrestling altogether. The Christian life, however, must be soldierly. A life of discipline, peril, comradery, and watchfulness.

Also, note that Paul calls Epaphroditus his fellow worker and soldier, meaning that Paul himself is just another worker and soldier. Given the hugely significant role that Paul played in the development of the Christianity, it could be tempting to view him with a sort of saintly (in the Roman Catholic sense) status. The apostle himself, however, knew that he was the foremost (1 Timothy 1:15). If we are field laborers, God alone is the Lord of the harvest. If we are soldiers, He alone is our General. Even the greatest of Christians are still fellow workers and fellow soldiers for the cause of Christ.

Fourth and fifth, he was the Philippians’ messenger and minister to Paul. Epaphroditus bore the responsibility of carrying letters between Paul and the church in Philippi, but also he brought gifts and ministered to Paul, in place of the Philippians, while he was with him. Similarly, we are all called to be messengers of the gospel, bringing encouragement to our brothers and sisters in Christ and the hope of salvation to those who do not yet believe. And we are ministers of Christ, serving one another in the Lord.

He Nearly Died

Surely Epaphroditus is an unsung hero of the Bible, for only a true champion of the gospel could elicit such a depiction from Paul. While he served Paul well, Epaphroditus was longing to return to his people, so that he could encourage them after they had heard that he was ill. And the illness that beset Epaphroditus was not slight. He was near to the doors of death, but God was merciful to him. Paul claims that he was also thankful to God for Epaphroditus’ recovery, so that he would not have “sorrow upon sorrow.” It would be to Paul’s joy to send Epaphroditus back to his people, as it would be an encouragement to all of them.

Before continuing, we should make a couple remarks regarding the illness of Epaphroditus. First, why would Epaphroditus’ death have been a sorrow upon sorrow to Paul? After all, didn’t Paul believe that death is gain for the believer? The Scriptures never claim that death is not sorrowful. In fact, Paul wrote these words to the Thessalonians: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Take not that Paul did not forbid grieving in general; he simply forbade grieving without hope. Still, why grieve at all for someone whose death is gain? We do not grieve for Christians who die; we grieve for ourselves. Death is sorrowful because, for a moment, it separates us from one another. But we do not mourn for those who die in the Lord; indeed, we rejoice in the midst of sorrow that they are before the face of God.

Second, consider the fact that Paul apparently did not heal Epaphroditus. Even though God healed many people through Paul (Acts 19:11-12, 20:10-12, 28:8-9), Paul was obviously not able to simply speak a word of healing over Epaphroditus. Nor does Paul at all attribute the near-death of Epaphroditus to a lack of faith. Such faith healings that pronounce the ability to heal on command simply do not fall in line with accounts like these in Scripture. Throughout the Bible, miraculous healings were used to authenticate the Word of God; therefore, the miracles always revolved around the glory of God. Today’s faith healers glory in their giftings and preach that we deserve to be healed so long as we have enough faith. Healing, of any kind, is the work of God alone; He, therefore, must receive all the glory.

Honor Such Men

Paul concludes the chapter by encouraging the Philippians to rejoice in Epaphroditus when he returned to them. However, he did not want them simply to rejoice because he came back to them but because Epaphroditus was a man who nearly died for the work of Christ. Such men should be highly esteemed by the church.

In our previous study, we discussed the importance of daily dying when it comes to following Christ. Indeed, it can be dangerous to romanticize the extreme lifestyles to the neglect of an ordinary life that is lived for the will and glory of God. However, we cannot fall into the opposite ditch because there is still a place for honoring those who risk their lives for the work of the kingdom. Even though most of us will live relatively normal lives without much risk in sharing the gospel, billions of people around the world still need to hear the name of Jesus for the first time, and most of them live in places that are risky. Some are dangerous because of governments that are against Christianity, while others because of harsh environments. Regardless, most unreached people groups do not know the gospel because getting (not to mention speaking) to them requires great risk. Brothers and sisters, we will not all be called to go to the ends of the earth to bear that risk, but some must, for the sake of the gospel, being supported by and representing those who remain (as Epaphroditus was for the Philippians). Do not assume, however, that just because you have not been called to go so far that God will never do so. In fact, I think we would all do well to take up John Piper’s practice. Throughout his pastoral ministry, he would at least yearly ask the Lord if it was time for him and his family to go. Such a practice is wise because while we will not all go, we all must be willing to go. Will you, therefore, pray genuinely if it is time for you to risk your life proclaiming Christ to those who know Him not?

Shine as Lights in the World | Philippians 2:14-18

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

Philippians 2:14-18 ESV

 

To quickly recap our studies so far, Paul began the letter by writing a greeting to the Philippians in which he expressed his thanksgiving for them to God and prayed for their continued growth in the Lord. He then reassured them that God was already using his imprisonment for the expansion of the gospel and that He would continue to do so. Finally, he commanded them to behave as citizens worthy of the gospel by humbly serving one another (Jesus being the supreme example of this) and continuing to work out their own salvation, knowing that God provides the ability to obey.

If verses 12-13 were a general call to obedience, within these verses Paul gives a specific call to obey. Particularly, Paul commands us to do all things without grumbling or disputing but to instead live as children of God without blemish, which of course is really another way of telling us to be citizens worthy of the gospel. He then concludes that such a life will make the gospel visible to those without it, while also encouraging other believers in the faith.

WITHOUT GRUMBLING OR DISPUTING // VERSES 14-16

After appealing for us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, Paul now gives us a specific command: do all things without grumbling or disputing. Since this is the key command presented here, we must take sufficient time to understand why the apostle would specifically target grumbling and disputing, especially since, if we are honest with ourselves, those don’t sound incredibly serious.

What then is the big deal about grumbling and disputing? We first need to consider exactly what Paul means by these words. Grumbling, which is also often translated as murmuring, is the act of unhappily complaining of something underneath your breath, and it reveals a hidden reluctance, a discontentment. Peter commands us show hospitality without grumbling, since grumbling is not the earnest love that should mark a Christian (1 Peter 4:8-9). Disputing might also be translated as complaining or arguing. With this, Paul is not suggesting that questioning and arguing are always sins; however, discontented nitpicking or even contentious quarreling is sinful because it can easily cause divisions within the church, which, of course, is antithetical to being of the same mind and love. Both, thus, are rooted in a heart of discontentment.

Yet still, why does Paul warn us about these two things specifically? In many ways, this section of verses closes out the thought that verse 27 of chapter one began. He is desiring to bring the idea of being citizens worthy of the gospel to close (even though he will return to it again in chapter three), and grumbling and disputing run counter to the unified vision that Paul has been urging. Our previous discussion regarding the danger of false humility returns into play again. What is, after all, grumbling if not a reveal of false humility?

But Paul is also closing out this section with a series of subtle Old Testament concepts and references. This is a means of grounding the Philippians (a Gentile-majority church) in the overall salvation plan of God. He is reminding them that the Old Testament story is their story. In Christ, the people of God include Gentiles, and the patriarchs of Israel are now our fathers as well (1 Corinthians 10:1).

This is especially important today. Quite recently a megachurch pastor declared in a sermon that Christianity needs to be detached from the Old Testament. Such a thought is disastrous because detaching from the Old Testament would force us to also detach from the New, since it is the fulfillment (not the abolishment) of the Old. The New Testament writers frequently appealed to the Old Testament for their arguments, and Paul is obviously reflecting the Old Testament here in order to deepen the impact of his exhortations. He is filling these words with the historical weight of God’s chosen people, thereby reminding the Philippians that they are a part of the story now.

Of course, in order to feel the impact of these references and allusions, we must have a reasonable understanding of the Old Testament. Gordon Fee elaborates on this point:

We should further point out that such a use of the OT presupposes (a) that as in all the Pauline churches these early Gentile believers were thoroughly acquainted with their Bibles, (b) that they would recognize this application of the OT texts to Paul’s and their situations, and (c) that they would do so because of the basically oral nature of the culture, in which the constant hearing of the same “stories” would reinforce them deeply into their memories. To put it bluntly, we may rightly assume that these early Gentile believers knew the OT infinitely better than most Christians do today. (18)

With this in mind (and to return to our previous question), grumbling and complaining were significant sins throughout the desert wanderings of the Israelites. In Numbers 17:10, God commands Aaron’s budded staff to be kept in view of the Israelites “as a sign for the rebels, that you may make an end of their grumblings against me, lest they die.” Obviously, God considered grumbling and complaining about the one who saved them out of Egypt and was feeding them heavenly bread in the desert to be a serious offense. Thus, he is exhorting them not to follow after the example of the Israelites. Instead, the apostle wants them to be blameless and innocent. Paul’s desire for the Philippians to be blameless and innocent takes us back to his opening prayer for them to “be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (1:10).

Children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation is a description of who the Philippians are as believers, one which goes hand-in-hand with being citizens of heaven. The saving work of Christ adopts us as children of God and naturalizes us as citizens of God’s kingdom. But this phrase is also a reversal of Deuteronomy 32:5, in which Moses declared: “They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation.” When the Israelites grumbled against God in the desert, He declared them to be a crooked and twisted generation and denounced their status as His children. However, Paul pronounces the opposite upon the Philippians. They are children of God. They are without blemish, not blemished. They are in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, although not a part of it.

How is it, therefore, that the Philippians were succeeding where the Israelites failed? Through Christ, the Philippians were recipients of what was only a promise in the Old Testament. Through Ezekiel, God declared, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:26-27). Followers of Christ now have the indwelling Spirit, who enables us to call God our Father and to walk in obedience to Him. By the love of the Father, the atonement in Jesus, and the empowerment of the Spirit, we are children of God. This, of course, does not mean that the Old Testament saints were saved outside the saving work of Jesus. By no means! Just as we today look backward to the sacrifice of Christ, they looked forward.  Salvation still came only through Christ; however, the indwelling of the Spirit was not present, except for specific callings.

Paul now takes an evangelistic twist as he discusses how we are to interact with crooked and twisted generation around us. Among whom you shine as lights in the world is most likely an homage to Daniel 12:3: “And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” Notice the evangelistic nature of both Paul’s thought here and the verse from Daniel, yet there are differences. Daniel seems to be using shine as a reward (future tense) for being wise and turning many to righteousness. Shining is thus tied to the resurrection into eternal life described in Daniel 12:2. Paul, however, writes of the Philippians as shining (present tense) in the midst of the world and its crooked and twisted generation. This is fitting since Jesus states: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40). Yes, our hope is in our resurrection from the dead, but eternal life does not begin then. Recall Jesus’ answer to Martha after the death of her brother, Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25). Christ is Himself life everlasting, so those who are in Christ walk in eternal life now, even if we only see it in part. In the resurrection, we will receive glorified bodies, but we have already been spiritual raised from the dead in this life. The Christian, therefore, should be known by his or her spiritual resurrection that precedes our physical resurrection. The evidence of Jesus within us must be clear to the world. Our lifestyle of blameless and innocent lack of grumbling and disputing is a living display of the gospel to the world for the glory of God. Or as Jesus says it:

Matthew 5:14-16 | You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Given that holding fast to the word of life is elaborating upon the previous idea implies that this phrase is meant to be evangelistic as well. The Greek word here can mean both hold onto and hold forth (or to present). Thus, Paul is probably not commanding us to clutch the gospel to us as tightly as possible so that no one can take it from us. Rather, he is urging us to have the gospel in our arms at all time, ready to share it with any who might listen. Since the gospel is truly the word of eternal life, why are we not prepared constantly to share it? The sad reality is that most of us tend to be terrified of sharing the gospel because we rarely think of the gospel. We speak of the things that are most important to us. Our thoughts eventually become words. Perhaps if we followed the psalmist’s prescription of meditating on the Word day and night, we would be less frightened of holding out the word of life to the crooked and twisted generation around us.

Within the second half of verse 16, Paul presents his reasoning for the Philippians obedience to the previous phrases: so that at the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. To be honest, at first, this seems like a startlingly selfish reason. Wouldn’t it have been better if Paul had reminded them again of their completion at the day of Christ (1:6)? We must, however, keep in mind the deeply personal connection between Paul and the Philippians. Because of his great affection and longing for them, Paul also yearns for their continued faithfulness. The apostle’s joy, of course, was not tied to the Philippians; it was rooted in Christ alone. Yet if the Philippians fell away from the faith, it would have been a grievous wound upon him, and it would have meant that his efforts toward them were in vain. He desired their continued faith as an evidence and fruit of his work.

It is also worth noting that labor in vain is probably another Old Testament allusion. Isaiah 65:23 describes the new heavens and new earth in part as being where people “shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD, and their descendants with them.”

REJOICE // VERSES 17-18

The apostle concludes this section of text by calling the Philippians to be glad and rejoice with him. The command to rejoice is certainly one of the primary themes of the letter, but why is he telling them to rejoice here?

He first opens verse 17 with a conditional statement: even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith. A couple of remarks need to be made concerning this phrase. First, the imagery being used here is of the Levitical priest pouring out wine as a drink offering to the LORD; thus, it is not difficult imagine the wine being symbolic of blood. Indeed, our initial thought might be that Paul is referring to the possibility of his martyrdom, yet that does not seem to be the case. Recall that Paul was convinced that his imprisonment would not lead to death (1:25-26).

Second, since Paul probably isn’t referring to his potential martyrdom, it is more likely that he is speaking about his suffering in general for the sake of the gospel. Further evidence of this is Paul’s confidence that he would remain in the flesh for the Philippians’ “progress and joy in the faith” (1:25), while here is his poured on the sacrificial offering of their faith. He is, therefore, aiming that his manner of life, especially in the midst of his sufferings, would be a faithful example to the Philippians for the increase of their joy.

Third, if this is correct, Paul is poured out through living, not dying. As fearful as the prospect of dying might be, Paul understood that ultimately dying well was easier than living well. In death, he would find rest in Christ, but in life, he would continue to be the instrument of Christ’s work in others. Paul’s life was one constant drink offering before the LORD.

Let us take this to heart. The stories of the martyrs are both sorrowful and beautiful, but they are also easily romanticized. If we are not careful, we can treat the Christian life as one long wait for our big moment to prove our devotion to Christ in spite of the opposition. However, for the vast majority of Christians, that moment will never come. Instead, the regular moments that happen daily to every Christian knock at our door. Martyrdom is not the exclusive proof of devotion to Christ but rather each of us must take up our cross daily and actually be devoted to Jesus. Life must be an act of daily dying to self, a constant and living martyrdom. Do you want to prove your devotion to Christ? Read your Bible, even when you don’t feel like it. Pray, even when you don’t feel like it. Go to church, even when you don’t feel like it. Serve someone, even when you don’t feel like it. This is the life of death to which we are called. Death in life in order to find life in Christ.

Finally, Paul’s focus shifts to the Philippians at the end of verse 17: I am glad and rejoice with you all. Even in prison, suffering for the gospel, the apostle was glad and rejoiced with the Philippians upon the sacrificial offering of their faith. This seems to mean that Paul is rejoicing with them in the midst of their own suffering, which, as we should remember, is a gift of God alongside belief, and in 18 he calls them to rejoice with him in his suffering as well. To be clear, this is not Paul declaring his joy in the simple fact that the Philippians were suffering. Instead, he rejoiced in what God would produce in them through suffering, and he is inviting them to be similarly excited for what God is producing in him too. Likewise, we find joy and rejoice with others in suffering because we know that God will not fail to use it for His glory and our good.

Work Out Your Own Salvation | Philippians 2:12-13

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Philippians 2:12-13 ESV

 

So far, we have read Paul’s greeting to the Philippians, where he expressed his thanksgiving to God for them, as well as his affections and prayers for them. He then assured them that his imprisonment has served and will continue to serve the advancement of the gospel. Finally, he commanded them to behave as citizens worthy of the gospel by being united in one mind and humbly serving each other.

After having done his best to describe the absolute humility and glory of Jesus, Paul now launches into a new, yet connected, urging for the Philippians. He pleads for them, because of the servitude of Christ, to obey the commands of God just as they always have. The apostle concedes that they have walked diligently in obedience so far, yet he presses them to strive even further in his absence than they ever did in his presence.

WORK OUT YOUR OWN SALVATION // VERSE 12

The first aspect of this verse that we must notice is the word therefore, which reminds us that the truths displayed within these two verses are continuing the message, logic, and arguments of the previous sections. Specifically, recall Paul’s command in verse 27 of chapter one: to behave as a citizen worthy of the gospel by standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side in one mind, and being unafraid of opponents. He then continued by urging us to be united together in one mind and one love by humbling ourselves as Christ humbled Himself. Since we have this mind in Christ, who is our example and Savior, Paul now commands us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Furthermore, considering this context, it should not surprise us that the command is given in the plural. Just as they must be citizens of one mind, so also they must work out their salvation together.

Before addressing what it means to work out our salvation, consider the affectionate tone of Paul. As in chapter one he expressed his affection and longing for them, he now refers to them as his beloved. They are both dear and near to his heart. His exhortation of obedience toward them is an act of love toward them. Among those who shy away from all forms of authority, this is difficult to grasp; the Bible, however, emphasizes continually that commanding what is best for someone is an act of true love.

He then continues to commend their previous obedience, while also exhorting them toward further good works. Knowing that his death may be near, the apostle wishes to encourage them to obey beyond his presence, whether with them or in this life. He is simply reminding them that their obedience must flow from a love for Christ, not (primarily) a love for Paul.

Now let us address the exhortation directly: What does Paul mean by commanding us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling? First, we must understand that obedience and working out salvation are the same idea. As he begins the verse by commending their obedience and ends by exhorting the working out of their salvation, it should be clear that these concepts are one and the same. To obey is to work out one’s own salvation, and to work out one’s own salvation is to obey. Paul is, therefore, urging us to obey God in order to work out our own salvation.

Second, we should consider the nature of Paul’s wording. Work out is the ESV’s translation of katergazomai in Greek, which often means to perform, accomplish, achieve, or produce. In commanding us to work out of salvation, that is to obey, is Paul, therefore, commanding us to produce, achieve, or accomplish our own salvation? The short answer is no, not in the sense of earning salvation. But it should be followed up immediately with another question: Is Paul suggesting that obedience is necessary for salvation? To that question, we must answer yes. From answering these two questions, yet another also arises (which answering should guide us in the original question): How is obedience necessary for salvation without itself being how we earn salvation?

To answer this, we must define and distinguish the doctrines of justification and sanctification. Justification refers to the one-time, once-for-all work of Christ by which sin is forgiven and we are declared righteous before God. Justification for the Christian, therefore, is a past event that occurs by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Most commonly, the Bible uses legal language to describe justification (justification itself being a legal term), since by it our sin is pronounced forgiven and we are adopted as children of God.

Sanctification, however, is not a one-time event; instead, it is the continual process of being made holy. In fact, sanctify, sacred, and consecrate all stem from the same Latin word for holy. Holiness, of course, in the Christian life means being conformed to the image of Christ, walking in imitation of Him. Through sanctification, we continuously grow to be more and more like Jesus. Sanctification is, therefore, a lifelong and gradual process. It is only complete whenever Christ returns or calls us home.

While these two doctrines are inherently tied to one another, we must also recognize them as distinct. Francis Turretin describes the difference between these two doctrines as such: “Justification is concerned with the guilt of sin; sanctification with its pollution” (690). Being justified in Christ, condemnation no longer exists for the Christian, defeating the guilt of sin. Yet the pollution of sin must still be fought. The legal consequences might be erased forever, but the offenses themselves do not cease. In many ways, each individual salvation is a smaller scale of the Christ’s redemption of the cosmos. Our sin, after all, broke both ourselves and the natural order, making neither us nor the world as we should be. On the cross, the war for both individual and cosmic redemption was won. The cross was the decisive battle, yet the war continues still. Much like after the fall of Berlin during World War II, the Pacific Theater continued on, even though victory was guaranteed. Still, for the soldiers in the final stage of the war, the bullets and casualties were no less real. Similarly, the cross has sealed the final victory, yet the war must continue on for a time of God’s choosing. Sanctification is that continual war against our flesh and the kingdom of darkness.

Yet because the debt of sin is paid fully in justification, we can say with complete certainty that we are justified by faith alone. Only the work of Christ can make us right before God, whereas our righteous deeds are nothing more than filthy rags. Good works, therefore, give no merit to salvation. Yet because sanctification is our process of learning to obey God, our obedience through good works is a necessary aspect of salvation. In fact, we might say that our obedience is the evidence of our salvation, that sanctification is the evidence of justification. If we never work out our salvation by obeying Christ, then we have no reason to believe that we have been justified by Christ. Assurance that we have been justified and will be glorified only comes through presently being sanctified, through obedience.

Armed with a fuller understanding of the meaning and necessity of our obedience to Christ, we must now consider how to work out our salvation. As we have already stated, the short answer is to obey, but still we can ask what to obey and how to obey. First, working out our salvation means obeying the Scriptures. The more obvious answer might be that we obey God, but since, as Christians, we believe that the Bible is the only revealed and infallible Word of God, it is more necessary that we clarify our obedience to the Scriptures. Many people will claim to obey God while blatantly denying or subtly contradicting the commands of the Bible, but to disobey Scripture is to disobey God. Thus, when we ask what to obey, we turn our eyes squarely upon the Word of God.

Second, in order to obey the Scriptures, we must know the Scriptures. If working out our salvation means obedience to the Word, we must first and foremost read and understand the Bible. The process of sanctification will involve a multitude of ways to submit to God and follow after Him. We must learn to pray to Him. We must learn to love one another. We must learn to do all things to the glory of God. Yes and amen. But the baseline for obedience is reading and learning the Scriptures and the God who spoke them. Take up, therefore, and read the Bible. If you are frustrated in your battle against sin and even questioning the reality of your salvation, work out your salvation by diving into the Word.

This, of course, is not to belittle any of the other commands in the Bible that require obedience. Scripture reading takes precedence, however, because those commands remain hidden until we read them. For example, how can husbands learn to love their wives as Christ loved the church without reading the Bible to know how Christ has loved His church? Or consider prayer. How can we obey the commands to pray to God without also getting to know that God through His Word? Working out our salvation must go beyond reading Scripture; however, it cannot be done without knowing and learning the Word either.

Only one more crucial phrase remains to be explored before we continue onto the next verse: with fear and trembling. What does the apostle mean by this phrase? To begin, I do not think this means, at least primarily, to obey out of fear of losing our salvation. Certainly, there is plenty to be said for sober warnings against assuming that we are saved while the evidence of our lives proves the contrary. We should remain watchful and vigilant of our walk lest we find ourselves drifting onto the broad easy path, where at the end we might hear Christ say, “I never knew you.” Such thoughts must keep us alert and awake.

Since, however, Paul has already discussed the assurance of salvation (1:6), the fear of God appears to be more fitting here. Deuteronomy 10:12-13 reveals that fearing God and obeying Him work in tandem: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?” Fearing God, loving God, serving God, and obeying God are all symbiotic aspects of following after Him.

But why does Paul emphasize the fear of God instead of, say, the love of God? I think because the fear of God and our sanctification both directly flow from the holiness of God. We fear God because He is holy. He is far stranger, far greater, and far more dangerous than we ever give Him credit for. God is to be feared above all other beings, if for no other reason than for being the Maker of all other beings. Our sanctification is also based upon the holiness of God because it is the process by which we are made holy. Of course, not holy in the divine sense, but holy in the creaturely sense, meaning we being wholly devoted to purposes and uses of God. Also, since the road of sanctification is what Proverbs would call the path of wisdom, the fear of God is, therefore the beginning of sanctification.

We would also do well to remember that salvation is a serious affair. Our age is one of triviality. From staggering volume of mind-numbing entertainment to the get-a-new-one-instead-of-replace-it mentality, nearly everything around us pleads to keep things light-hearted and superficial. God, however, calls us toward the opposite. Christianity must be marked by a certain degree of solemnity.

FOR GOD WORKS IN YOU // VERSE 13

Now that we have read the command of obedience given to us in verse 12, we move on to the promise of supply in verse 13. The word for means that verse 13 is meant to be the root from which verse 12 grows and produces fruit. So what is that root? We are commanded to work out of salvation because God is working in us.

What does it mean that God works in us? The rest of the verse gives us a clue: He works in us so that we can both will and work for His good pleasure. First, Paul attributes our work and will to the work of God within us. The necessity of God’s work in order to work is easier to understand. Peter writes for us to act as stewards of God’s grace, so that whenever we serve, we serve “as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11). When the strength to work comes from God, He gets the glory for the work done because He is the supplier. Every good work falls under this category. We are each required to do good works; however, they have no merit to earn salvation since we can only achieve them by the strength that God supplies.

Yet God is not merely the supplier of strength for our actions but also of our intentions. Our work derives from the work of God in us, as does our will. The desire to obey is, therefore, also the gift of God. Since our will has been permanently marred by sin, our will runs counter to God’s will. Even when we do obey God’s laws, we most often obey out of selfish ambition or conceit. Through Ezekiel, God prophesies how through the work of Christ He would change the will of His people: “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:27). God would cause His people to obey His commandments by putting His Spirit within them. This indwelling Spirit is the great Comforter of the Christian life. By the Spirit, we are given confidence of our being made children of God, while also being the Agent by whom we cry to God as our Father (Romans 8:15-16). Both our will and work for God are enabled by God through His Spirit. Sanctification, therefore, is a work of the Spirit and is non-existent if the Spirit is not present.

Second, we must note that God’s good pleasure is the goal of His work within us and through us. God’s saving work is the result of His pure and gracious benevolence towards us. Without His gracious will to save us, we would not be saved. Nothing in us deserves the salvation that we repeatedly scorn, yet He rescues His rebellious people. Once again, Ezekiel parallels this passage well: “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came” (Ezekiel 36:22). God, therefore, acts for His own glory, holiness, and good pleasure. Our salvation is not primarily about us but about Him. We indeed are gloriously blessed beneficiaries of His loving-kindness, but our salvation is for the glory of God, not man. To this salvation, we cling.

All Christians have been justified, but the call of these verses is now work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Our obedience does not earn us salvation, but it is the evidence of it. Indeed, if verse 13 is the names God as the source of our obedience, then a consistent lack of obedience can only mean that God is not at work in that person. Our obedience is evidence, not the cause, of our salvation, and we are only able to do so because is at work within us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

So I Hated Life | Ecclesiastes 2

In chapter one, Ecclesiastes’ author, the Preacher (most likely Solomon), wrote us a poem about the vanity of everything under the sun. He observed the endless repetitions of the sun, wind, and seas and realized that we are same. Like the sea never fills, so our ears never hear enough. Like the sun continues to rise and set, our eyes continue to seek out input. So Solomon calls this life vanity. All of it is meaningless, and nothing more than a mere breath of air.

In chapter two, the Preacher begins to describe his investigation to find meaning and satisfaction under the sun. The first stop in his quest for joy is where many look as well: pleasure. Pleasure naturally makes us happy, so with vast wealth, Solomon thinks that surely he can buy lasting joy through endless pleasure. Alcohol, sex, music, work, and philanthropy, the king threw himself into his search for meaning under the sun. But vanity is all he finds, and ultimately, he concludes that enjoyment can only come from God Himself.

THE VANITY OF PLEASURE // VERSES 1-11

After Solomon concluded the first chapter by noting that wisdom alone did not give him any lasting meaning, here he decides to attempt achieve it by diving into wisdom’s converse: pure, uninhibited pleasure. This philosophical thought that Solomon is applying is called hedonism.  The argument of hedonism is that pleasure and happiness are the only intrinsic goods. The typical hedonist says to himself, “pleasure makes me happy; thus, it must be the supreme good.” Hedonism makes sense at first glance. Blaise Pascal states:

All men seek happiness. This is without question. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Solomon decides to apply all of his authority and wealth to pursuing pleasure to its fullest and to discover what is the end result. Thus, what we will see in the next several verses are Solomon’s various attempts at pursuing pleasurable things, but he presents us with a spoiler at the end of this first verse: none of it worked.

In verse 2, Solomon first tries laughter. Everyone loves a good laugh, and most would agree that there are few things in life that can compare to a hearty, belly laugh. We love laughter, and we love it when others laugh. That’s why half the videos on YouTube are of babies laughing. Laughter is good and good for you. Laughter releases endorphins, a natural feel-good drug that our bodies produce, which can increase blood flow and decrease stress. Laughter is good. Yet even with all the laughter that Solomon could find, it still left Solomon feeling empty. Laughter is good, but laughter is not God.

Next, in verse 3, Solomon’s quest through hedonism took him to what many still turn to today: alcohol. When laughter fails Solomon, he runs to the heart-break cure. Surely Solomon held nothing back. He bought the best wine, had the largest collection, threw the craziest parties, but none of it worked. It is also worth noting that he pairs his quest through drunkenness with laying “hold on folly.” His quest through pure foolishness reaches its peak in unadulterated drunkenness. In other words, if you want a firm grasp of foolishness, get drunk.

Solomon also throws a phrase in the middle of his account: “my heart still guided by wisdom.” How are we to interpret this? Isn’t Solomon saying to himself that he is actively pursuing the opposite of wisdom? I believe that we can take this verse to mean throughout all of Solomon’s pursuits of pleasure, Solomon remained in control. As far into folly as Solomon dived, there was always a little voice in the back of his head that reminded him why he was doing it all. As Chandler puts it:

I believe he means that he never forgot what he was doing. He never got so caught up in seeking pleasure that he forgot that his goal was, from the beginning, to see if there was really anything of value out there in the world. From day one, he never forgot that this was an experiment. (124)

When laughter and alcohol fail to bring Solomon fulfillment, he decides to build, to do great works (vv. 4-6). He decides to create great infrastructures and public parks, and when that utter folly fails him, Solomon turns to altruistic hedonism: deriving his pleasure by doing good for other through philanthropy. First, he tries his hand at real-estate. We are told in 1 Kings that Solomon’s palace took thirteen years to build (1 Kings 7:1). To put things in perspective, the temple that Solomon commissioned was built in seven (1 Kings 6:38). It took almost twice as long to build Solomon’s house as it did to build God’s, and we cannot attribute the difference to a lack of workers. Solomon literally had the best house that money could buy. Next, he tries gardening. However, Solomon’s idea of gardening was not of a quaint, retirement hobby of a garden. No, Solomon planted entire forests. Since gardening can be difficult in the desert, Solomon dug great aqueducts for watering his greenery. There are few things that are more pleasurable than relaxing in a beautiful garden, but this still would not satisfy.

So when creating things didn’t work, Solomon thought that perhaps life would no longer seem meaningless if he had plenty of servants. To this end, Solomon compiled a group of servants so large that they required enough food to feed 35,000 people (1 Kings 4:22-23). Not having to mow his own lawn, do his own dishes, or style himself, would surely lead to a satisfying life. However, just to be safe, Solomon creates his own zoo. We are told that Solomon received exotic animals as gifts from other royalty, such as peacocks (1 Kings 10:22). But he doesn’t stop there; he once again mentions his great wealth. 1 Kings tells us that Solomon was so incredibly rich that silver was worthless to him (1 Kings 10:21)! With his riches, Solomon indulges in music by having his favorite singers and musicians follow him around all day. As if all of that wasn’t enough, Solomon turns to sex. We are told that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines during his lifetime (1 Kings 10:21)! That is a harem of 1,000 women that were reserved only for Solomon’s sexual gratification. A lot of men today attempt to build a virtual harem of that size via pornography, but Solomon had the real thing. Surely if anyone could find their happiness in sex, Solomon would have. Yet all of it (the servants, the animals, the music, and the sex) proved to be lacking.

In verses 9-11, Solomon sums up his road down hedonism. First, he reminds us again that his great wealth and authority gave him the ability to have anything that his heart desired. Verse 10 is the etcetera to his list of pursuits. If you can think of it, Solomon tried it. He poured his heart and soul into pleasure, and he did it wisely, strategically. Solomon was determined to know if hedonism could work as a way of life, and so he surrounded himself with as much pleasure as he could possibly handle. Interestingly enough, he says that he achieved his goal. “My heart found pleasure in all my toil.” He searched, and he found. But what conclusion does he make? “All was vanity and a striving after wind.” He claims that the pleasure that he found was his reward. If he got the pleasure that he was seeking, then why does he call it a vanity? The reward of pleasure that Solomon found was the same as the reward that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 6 when discussing giving, praying, and fasting in order to be seen by others, a fleeting and temporal reward. It feels good for a moment, but it evaporates quickly, leaving behind the same void as before. Pleasure, in and of itself, could not ultimately satisfy Solomon. It cannot satisfy anyone.

And yet, we continue to try it. Peter Kreeft describes this effort:

If you are typically modern, your life is like a mansion with a terrifying hole right in the middle of the living-room floor. So you paper over the hole with a very busy wallpaper pattern to distract yourself. You find a rhinoceros in the middle of your house. The rhinoceros is wretchedness and death. How in the world can you hide a rhinoceros? Easy: cover it with a million mice. Multiple diversions. (169)

Most people consciously understand that hedonism is a futile path, but that cognitive knowledge doesn’t stop us from trying time and time again. Today, we are all Solomon. We don’t need to hire singers to entertain us because we have Spotify. We don’t need to have 300 concubines because we have porn. We don’t need to build grand palaces because we can earn every achievement on the latest video game. We don’t need servants because we have Amazon. Thanks to TVs and phones, the barrage of entertainment never stops. Many haven’t felt the weight of verse 11 simply because they never pause long enough to consider anything. In the stillness and quiet, we feel our beating hearts, become conscious of our lungs, and remember that we are creatures who will die. We remember that our lives are fleeting, a mere vanity. We like pleasure because it temporarily numbs us to our mortality. It helps us forget that we are but dust being held together by Christ. The terrifying conclusion to Solomon’s quest for pleasure is that he got it. He achieved everything he wanted, but it wasn’t enough. Eventually, the haunting of eternity came roaring back. Perhaps this is partly why we are such half-hearted creatures. We pursue things with reservation because deep down we know that they cannot satisfy.

THE VANITY OF THE WISE LIFE // VERSES 12-17

After the king’s pursuit of hedonism, he set his eyes to analyzing wisdom and folly. His conclusion is that, of course, wisdom is better than folly. He compares the two to light and darkness. No normal person would prefer to live out all of their days in complete darkness. Light is obviously and clearly better. We are creatures of sight, and regardless of the brightness of the light, no one would prefer complete darkness over light. Nevertheless, even though the difference between the two is clear, Solomon still finds himself haunted by the fact that the same end awaits both.

Solomon acknowledges that because God gave his wisdom to him, he was far wiser than anyone before him. So there must be some special reward for such wisdom, right? Yet Solomon died just like a foolish man dies. Despite his wealth, the great king died just the same as the poorest beggar on the streets. “Death is the great equalizer” (Stedman, 132). And the same is still true today. Go to a cemetery, study the graves, and tell me who were wise and who were fools. You cannot. The wise die and are buried just like the foolish. In the end, it does not matter what great things a person accomplishes because after death, he or she will not be able to enjoy them. After all, what is the point of being wise if it doesn’t change humanity’s ultimate problem: death?

Notice the Preacher’s admission in verse 17: all of this vanity made him hate life. How can this be true? How can a man of God hate the life that God has given him? First of all, I believe that this is a very godly hatred that is rising up in Solomon. Too often, Christians can hide under the mask of being blessed. A thought exists that following Jesus means that you need to be happy, so we put on a happy face and do our best. However, this is dishonest because there are plenty of things to hate. Zach Eswine says it like this:

We read the news. We bury our children. Murders, thefts, bribes, fists, weapons, sex, lies, and weather patterns are used to brutalize people. We watch the raping world. We hate that what God created good has become like a rusty-nailed playground no longer fit for kids at play and cutting the skin of those who try. We hate this. The wise cannot pretend that all is well. (87)

Of course, this is a godly hatred because it is a hatred that ultimately turns Solomon to God (vv. 24-26). We can contrast this with the destructive hatred of life in other godly men of the Bible. Elijah’s cry in cave for death was not a godly lament; it was self-pitying exhaustion. Jonah call for death came from his refusal to obey the will of God. Job’s plea for it all to end came from the fresh wound of unimaginable suffering. God reached out to each of these men with grace, but their hatred is different than Solomon’s. Our Preacher is not suicidal, just honest. He sees the brokenness of the world around him, and he can’t help hating it. “The wise cannot pretend that all is well.” Indeed, the gospel will never be truly beautiful to us until we understand just how messed up everything is.

THE VANITY OF WORK // VERSES 18-23

Still thinking about his death from the previous verses, Solomon says that he hated all of his work because after his death, it will be handed on to the next person. This is true for everything in life. We can work our entire lives and create a vast empire of our accomplishments, but we have no control of what the next person will do after we are dead. It has been several years since Steve Jobs died, but following his death, the world mourned. He created Apple, Inc. from the ground up. His ideas created some of the most significant leaps in technology, but despite the world’s mourning and his work, Apple is now in new hands. He no longer has any say in the company that he created. The Preacher calls this is vanity.

Solomon tells us that this thought makes his heart despair. The thought that someone will inherit all of his accomplishments, without the work that Solomon put into them, launches Solomon into a depression. Isn’t that interesting? Solomon sought pleasure, achieved pleasure, but now finds himself in depression (a.k.a. the opposite of a pleasurable state). In keeping with his theme of looking purely at earthly gain, the king of Israel says that he can find no point in working so hard. If there is no permanence in all of our toil, why should we bother? Years from now, we will not be remembered. I have no idea what my great, great, great grandfather’s name was, and we were probably only a few decades away from being able to meet face to face. So what hope do we have of being remembered hundreds or even thousands of years in the future? In terms of earthly gain, what point is there in the life that we live?

We also see that Solomon calls all of this “a great evil.” Over the course of the last several verses, Solomon has become increasingly bitter with life. Previously, he said that he hated life, and now he is filled with so much sorrow that even at “night his heart does not rest.” His hedonistic quest only gave him what he was trying his best to avoid: pain. And of course, as we read 1 Kings, we know that Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, divided Israel into two kingdoms because of his foolishness. The Preacher’s concern indeed came to pass.

THE GIFT OF ENJOYMENT // VERSES 24-26

These verses are the first example of Solomon’s major thesis coming into play. After he has described the futility of pursuing hedonism and of leaving behind all earthly possessions, Solomon informs his audience the only source of true enjoyment: God. Now, notice that Solomon is not concluding that pleasure is inherently evil. No! Instead, he pleads that the only way to find lasting pleasure is through God’s grace. That’s the entire point of this chapter. Solomon looks at mankind and says, “I know you think that after you get _____, you’ll be happy. After you earn (or make or win, etc.) _____, then you will be content. Life will be good. But believe me, I’ve tried it all. Everything that you could possibly insert into the blank, I’ve tested. And it doesn’t work. In the end, the only way that you will ever be satisfied in life is by enjoying what God has given you.” We think that when we have more we will be happy, but Solomon’s call is for us to be content with the gifts that God has given and enjoy them to the best of our ability to the glory of God.

David Gibson says that “this is the main message of Ecclesiastes in a nutshell: life in God’s world is gift, not gain” (37). What does he mean by this? Our Preacher keeps emphasizing that there is nothing to be gained from life under the sun. Toil does not ultimately profit us. Pleasure has no lasting benefit. There is nothing advantageous to be gained in this life. Enjoyment is still possible, however, because enjoyment is a gift rather than a gain. Joy is not something to wrestle for during our nine-to-five; it is a grace that comes only from the hand of God. Remember, of course, that temporary enjoyment is quite easy to achieve. Solomon both sought and found pleasure (v. 10). He found a fleeting enjoyment rooted in happiness, while eternal enjoyment rooted in joy passed through his fingers like the wind. He missed true enjoyment and found only the cheap imitation.

But why does Solomon conclude that “there is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.” If life here is worthy of being hated, why is enjoyment such a necessity (as we will see him continue to emphasize)? I believe it is the same reason for why Paul repeatedly tells us the rejoice in Philippians: knowing God gives us a hope that can only lead to joy. The apostle wrote Philippians from a prison cell, yet he proclaimed: “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:18-20). Paul rejoiced in prison because he knew Christ. His earthly possessions could be stripped away, but his joy would continue because Christ could not be taken away. Even his life could be taken but he knew of Someone greater than his life.

The answer to life under the sun’s inability to satisfy us with pleasure is not give up on enjoying life. God alone gives true enjoyment. He alone gives, as Lewis describes, the “kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes” (The Last Battle, 212). God does not give a frivolous and silly enjoyment that is here one minute and gone the next. His joy is deep, real, true, and permanent. The enjoyment that comes from Him makes the pleasures of this world look like plastic toy cake being compared to a royal wedding cake. Lasting and real delight can only come through the One who is eternally delightful. Therefore, we can either seek God and find endless enjoyment or seek pleasure and find weary exhaustion.

Indeed, attempting to enjoy anyone or anything other than the LORD is sin. It is misplaced affection. He is the only one truly worthy of worship and adoration. Even my love for my wife and daughter must flow from my love for God. Only by loving God supremely can we truly love anyone or anything else. Why is this? God Himself defines love. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). Real love can only be known by looking at Jesus’ act of propitiation for our sins. What is propagation? It means the act of satisfying the wrath of God. This wrath comes from our refusal to worship God. We worship things that are supreme and glorious, but God is the most supreme and most glorious. Therefore, worship given to anything else is a lie. It is blasphemy. We proclaim that God is not great. And from offending this eternal God, we earn an eternal punishment. But thanks be to God, Christ, the Eternal One, paid that eternal debt with His own blood, satisfying the justice and wrath of God. That is propitiation, and that is the love of God, a love that bleeds for those who openly and blatantly mock Him. If His love truly cleanses our sins and gives eternal life, how much more will He also give enjoyment in the here and now! Our problem is that we shun God’s gift of Himself, seeking instead lesser things. As Lewis says in The Weight of Glory:

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who want to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (26)

Solomon’s pursuit of joy was not too strong but too weak. When we chase lesser things, the reward is a lesser joy, a lesser pleasure, and a lesser fulfillment. God alone is big enough. God alone is great enough. God alone is glorious enough. God alone is loving enough. God alone is beautiful enough to provide lasting joy, meaning, pleasure, and satisfaction. Nothing else will do. Indeed, nothing else can do. Everything outside of Him is vanity and a striving after wind.

Unrestrained Moderation

In Book Four section 26 of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, he states:

You’ve seen that. Now look at this.

Don’t be disturbed. Uncomplicate yourself.

Someone has done wrong… to himself.

Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning.

Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present–thoughtfully, justly.

Unrestrained moderation.

Aurelius was, of course, the famous philosopher-emperor of the Roman Empire. He adhered to the philosophy of Stoicism, meaning (to butcher with over-simplification) that he held to a deterministic view of the world being governed by nature or by the logos.

As such, he repeatedly emphasized that we cannot change the people or circumstances around us, so why waste time worrying and trying to do so. Instead, we can only control ourselves; let us, therefore, do just that. From this reasoning, Stoics placed a tremendous weight upon the need for self-control and discipline.

As Christians, we can applaud (and even learn from) Stoicism’s thoughts on discipline and self-control, while Aurelius’ certainty that life will unfold as nature intended causes me to consider how much more I ought to trust the One who authored the laws of nature.

Christians will find many of Aurelius’ insights to be in line with wisdom, while disagreeing adamantly about others. He was, after all, not a Christian by any means.

Yet I could not help pausing at the phrasing of Aurelius’ thought above, “unrestrained moderation.” These seems to perfectly capture the aim of Stoic philosophy, and (because nearly everything believed has, at least, an element of truth to it), I think this also reflects well the Christian’s view of worldly, yet God-given, pleasures.

For us, the problem with pleasures is not about the pleasures themselves. Food and sex, for example, are natural gifts, designed by the Creator for our enjoyment. Food and sex only become sinful whenever we treat them as ultimate, whenever we abuse them. The reactionary tendency then becomes two extremes, either to forbid abused pleasures entirely (i.e. religious dietary restrictions or clerical celibacy) or to indulge ever more (trusting the grace of God to cover a multitude of our continuous sins or a simple denial that the body is of any importance whatsoever). Both of these responses are wicked, legalism and antinomianism alike.

The proper response for the Christian, who is no longer under the burden of the law in Christ, is certainly one of unrestrained moderation. We freely and gladly delight in the full array of flavors that God brought into existence for the benefit of our taste buds, but we will not be mastered by those delights. We rejoice in the marital bliss of intimacy between husband and wife, yet we guard and honor the marriage bed, refusing to let such a gift exceed its proper boundaries.

Or as Paul said to the Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 6:12 | “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.

In Christ, we are unrestrained to enjoy the gifts of God, but we do so in moderation, knowing how easily they might become gods instead.

To Die Is Gain | Philippians 1:21

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

Philippians 1:21 (ESV)

 

Having studied the immediate passage containing verse 21, we have embarked upon a two-part excursus into mining out the meanings of that verse’s two phrases. Thus, in our previous study, we attempted to explain and apply Paul’s idea that to live is Christ. I, to no degree, believe that we successfully explored the depths of that clause, but I do pray that I have provided a slight glimpse of how significant that thought truly is.

The same is true for our present study of the second clause, to die is gain. Whole books might be written about this truth, so we will not pretend to have seen all there is to see. Yet we will attempt to explore and map out some of this mighty notion.

THE DOCTRINE OF THE TEXT

We use the phrase “a matter of life and death” to describe something of near ultimate importance, which is fitting because all things come to us within the context of life or the cessation thereof. Every touch, smell, sound, sight, thought, emotion, and memory occur through the act of living. And since we are alive, living is all we have ever known. Life is hard, yes, and brutal and painful. But life is also present, real, comforting, and here. Despite the sufferings of life, it is still generally assumed to be better than the alternative.

“I’m sorry for your loss” is  an insight into our perception of death. Indeed, death is the great trauma of humanity. A lifetime of struggle, growth, labor, laughter, and tears all lost in a single moment, the silence of the heart, the undying pause of the lungs, and the collapse of the mind. The blackness, for which sleep sought to prepare us, envelops, and all is lost. Life dies.

Try as we might to feel differently about the shadow of mortality that looms overhead, we cannot help feeling the loss of death. For being the natural end of all things, few things feel quite as unnatural. Yet Paul’s view of dying is the exact opposite; in fact, he boldly declares that death is gain. By this he means that there is an advantage to be found in dying. Death is not a loss but, rather, a gain. Dying benefits the Christian.

ARGUMENTS FOR THE DOCTRINE

Such a bold and counterintuitive statement from Paul begs an explanation. If death feels so wrong, how then can it be gain? Although we might present a great number of reasons from the Scripture, we will limit ourselves to three.

By dying, we become free of pain & sin.

Given the profound suffering present in the world, the promise of escaping from the pain is a great promise indeed! Revelation 21:4 gives us this guarantee of God’s work in the world to come:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

Why is it so significant that pain will be wiped away?

Consider first the nature of pain. Although unpleasant, pain is vital, which I mean quite literally as being necessary for living. Pain, often blaringly, warns us of danger, that something is wrong. People with congenital insensitivity to pain (or CIP) are born unable to feel pain and rarely live through childhood since serious injuries or disease can easily go unnoticed. Pain is a much-needed gift for living in a world filled with dangers and disease. We need pain because the world is broken by sin. Therefore, the promise of living without pain (and its associates: death, mourning, and crying) is promise that the world will be fully repaired. Paul provides us an insight to this in Romans 8:19-23:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

The sin of Adam and Eve during the Fall marred creation itself, which is seen when God cursed the earth since it was under Adam’s dominion. Therefore, all of creation yearns to be renewed, remade, and resurrected along with us. As we received redeemed and glorified bodies, so will creation be repaired so that pain and death are no longer present. In other words, God’s act of redemption through Christ will not only renew us but the world as well. In our new and resurrected bodies and world, the words of 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 will be realized:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

Death and its harbinger, pain, will be removed from the order of creation for good. God will by His own blood on the cross restore and expand our paradise of communion with Him that we forsook in Eden. By dying, we leave this world behind to be with our Lord, where we will wait until He makes all things new. For the Christian, therefore, dying is gain because through it, the Lord rescues us from this life of pain, suffering, and death.

By dying, we enter rest. 

For some, it may sound strange that heaven, as we think of it, is not our final destination but rather a new earth with new bodies. This could lead us to question the restfulness of heaven. After all, if we are meant to long for the resurrection, would there still be a sense of restless longing even in heaven? Revelation 6:9-11 provides for us a glimpse at a kind of longing in martyrs who have died:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

Here in John’s vision, he beholds the slain martyrs crying out to God for His judgment and vengeance to fall upon the earth. Those who often prayed for the forgiveness of their enemies in life now pray for justice in death. There is, therefore, a form of restlessness in martyrs even though they are in heaven. Yet notice that they are told to rest a little longer until the last martyrs are also killed. Thus, we can infer that while there is a kind of anticipation for God to finish His work, heaven is still a place of rest. Indeed, later in Revelation 14:13-14, John hears these words proclaimed:

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”

Recall that Paul viewed living for Christ to be fruitful labor in this life, which is a joyous and privileged work, but it is still toil and labor. Dying is gain for Paul, in part, because it means resting from his labor. He was willing to stay longer in the flesh for the benefit of other believers, but after long ministry of suffering and nearly constant danger, Paul was longing to rest from his work.

By dying, we are with Christ.

Yet for all the beauties of living without pain and sin and entering into eternal rest, one reason stands above all others for claiming death as gain: when we die, we are united with Christ. This, of course, isn’t to say that Christians are not united to Christ at the moment when they repent and believe the gospel. We are indeed. Without the security of being in Christ, no Christian would be able to sustain their faith until the end. So we know that Christ is spiritually here with us, yet He is also away from us. The Spirit dwells within us and empowers us to be Christ’s representatives, but we still eagerly await His return. While Jesus walked the earth, His disciples did not fast because He was with them. Now we fast, longing for bridegroom to come and commence the wedding feast. In this life, we are with Christ, yet we long to be with Christ still. 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 says it like this:

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Here we walk by faith, not by sight, away from the Lord, but when we depart from this present body, we will be with the Lord, at home with Him. John Piper calls this a deep sense of at-homeness. C. S. Lewis calls it the desire for a far-off country:

In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter.

Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

We are all looking and waiting for the joy of which the greatest pleasures here on earth could only provide the slightest taste. We are each longing for Christ, our true home. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Though now we see with our hearts, one day we will see with our eyes “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

APPLICATION

Now that we’ve discussed why to die is gain; let us now make some direct application of the doctrine.

Our hope must transcend this life.

For the first application, I would emphasize that our hope in Christ must transcend this life. Paul himself makes this very point himself:

1 Corinthians 15:17-19 | And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul labors to explain that Christ’ resurrection cannot be separated from our resurrection, or vice versa. If we deny a future resurrection, then we deny Christ’s resurrection as well. If we deny Christ’s resurrection, then we have no hope of salvation and those who die perish. Our great hope hinges upon Christ’s resurrection as proof of our future resurrection. Without this future hope, we are to be pitied above all people. We cannot, therefore, claim Jesus as a great teacher of morals for living our best life now. Such a thought is antithetical to orthodox Christianity.

Hope in a greater life to come is a centerpiece of the Christian faith. This is critical also to our present doctrine. If there is no hope of a great life to come after death or even that we can achieve the perfect life here, then to die would not be gain. Gain can only come whenever more is available. The simple statement that death is gain for the Christian reveals that the life to come is always better than this present life. We must come to the realization that this life cannot offer us the joy and satisfaction that we seek in its entirety. We need more, and in Christ, we will enter in. Hope, therefore, in our eternal life with Christ.

The hope that death is gain must give us courage to live for Christ now.

As for the second application, we must also know that fixing our hope onto heaven does not mean living this life as a zombie. In fact, our hope that death is gain must give us the courage to live for Christ here and now. Recall that Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:6 that we are always of good courage, even as we walk by faith instead of sight. Knowing that death is gain ought to give us the courage that the fear of death might destroy. The apostles, for example, were willing to suffer torture and execution because they knew that departing to be with Christ was far better than this life. They were ready to lose their lives for the sake of Christ.

But it must also give us the courage to deny our sinful desires. We can only do this if we firmly believe that something better awaits us. Our battle with sin is truly a war of desires. We only sin because we want to sin. Therefore, we will only stop sinning whenever we want something else more. Knowing that the heavenly riches of Christ await us the in life to come enables us to desire that far-off country more than the lusts and lures of this world.

OBJECTIONS & ANSWERS

Now that we have observed the doctrine of to die is gain, argued why it is true, and applied it, we answer an objection that may arise.

Death is a grievous evil.

Having tied this study of Philippians to the back of studying Ecclesiastes, we might remember the Preacher’s view of death to be significantly less positive than that of Paul. In fact, in many ways, death casts a looming and ominous shroud over all of Ecclesiastes, haunting even the corners where it goes unmentioned. The Preacher treats death as a great enemy of humanity, a foe that will always have the last laugh.

In Ecclesiastes 5:16, Solomon calls death a grievous evil: “This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind?” The common expression of coming into and departing from the world naked derives from verse 15. The immediate context refers to a man who lost all his riches, failing to leave an inheritance for his son, but the truth, of course, is that no one takes their money with them in death. Death makes real gain nothing more than a vanity since we cannot live long enough to see the full fruits of our labors. A full or empty bank account means nothing to the dead. Naked we arrived, and naked we shall depart. This is a grievous evil, says the Preacher.

Is this a biblical contradiction?

How can Paul call dying gain, while Solomon calls it evil?

The answer is that they are both correct. Solomon is correct in calling death evil, and Paul is right to say that death leads to gain for the Christian. To understand this unlikely pairing, we must understand the nature of death. Ecclesiastes treats death like an enemy because it is. 1 Corinthians 15:26 promises that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Death is a consequence of humanities greatest plague: sin. Death seems unnatural because it is. Eternity is etched into our souls, so we feel the wrongness of life coming to an end. Cognitively, we understand that dying is inevitable, yet we live the majority of our lives as if we were immortal. Every death around us stings each and every time, as if deep down we hoped an exception might be just this once. But death is linked to sin, which means that death can only cease once sin is eradicated.

Yet Paul is also able to claim that death is gain for the Christian because Christ became flesh and blood “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14-15). Notice that Christ defeated the devil who wields death like a weapon and delivers us from the lifelong slavery of fearing death through death. Jesus, therefore, defeated His enemy through His enemy. By redeeming humanity through His death and resurrection, Jesus broke the power of death over us. Yes, we must still walk through our physical death, but now in Christ, our physical death is merely a transition into eternal life with Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ, therefore, boldly declares that our enemy is now also an instrument for our joy.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR OBEDIENCE  

Since we have now argued for the doctrine, applied the doctrine, and answered an objection to the doctrine, we shall conclude with a final call to obedience.

Hope in Christ.

First and foremost, if you desire the confidence of Paul in saying to die is gain, you must hope in Christ. Why do I say Christ instead of God? Almost everyone when faced with death hopes in God (or perhaps I should say a god). Especially if we argue that there is no such thing as pure atheism, everyone holds onto something for comfort as they prepare to breath their last or witness a loved one doing so. We love to take comfort that there is a “better place” out there, but the truth is that a mere belief in God is not sufficient. James poignantly reminds us that the demons believe in Him as well (James 2:19). Our hope must be set upon Christ as the only mediator between us and God. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are still dead in sin. But if we hope in Christ, we are then not only made alive with Him in this life but we enter into joy, peace, and rest with Him in the life to come.

Hope, therefore, in Christ as your only Savior in life and death.

Live for Christ.

Second, use your life as fruitful labor for Christ. To die is gain is often highlighted more frequently than to live is Christ, yet we cannot possess the hope of death being gain unless Christ is also our life. The two clauses cannot be separated from one another. Our rest with the Lord only comes on the heels of living a life of fruitful labor for Him.

I believe that the fear of death and love of the world in many Christians is directly correlated with being slothful toward the work of the Kingdom. Now please do not hear what I am not saying. The fear of dying will always be more or less present. I recall hearing in some episode of R. C. Sproul’s Renewing Your Mind that while he was not afraid of death, he was afraid of the act of dying. I appreciate such candid honesty from a strong man of the faith because I too tend to fear the means by which I will die. Of course, I rebuke this thought with the promise of God’s timely grace, but I imagine it to be a lifelong battle.

Dying is frightening prospect, and there is no avoiding that truth. However, if our lives were as poured out in the service of the Lord as Paul’s life, perhaps we might less frightened of it. Paul toiled so tirelessly for Christ that death was a welcome transition from this life of suffering to one of rest and peace. It is the diligent worker, after all, who sleeps deeply, not the sluggard, and what is sleep if not a daily preparation for death? Each night our bodies collapse into a virtual coma, as our heart and lungs function only enough to keep us alive. For hours we helplessly shut down our senses, trusting the Lord’s hand to protect us and awaken us with renewed strength. If each day is life in miniature, then sleep is a daily death, yielding in the morning to new life. A well-lived day provides a well-rested sleep, which thrusts us brightly into a new day of work.

Labor, therefore, for the Kingdom. Toil hard for Christ, knowing that sleep is coming bring rest from our labor along with it.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

No one wants to die, but for the Christian, dying is a means of great gain. By dying, we escape this world of pain and sin. By dying, we find eternal rest in the Lord. By dying, we enter eternal life at home with Christ. So long as we have breath, let us therefore hope in and live for our Lord.

Romans 14:7–9 | For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.