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.

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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.

To Live Is Christ | Philippians 1:21

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

Philippians 1:21 (ESV)

 

Having studied verse 21 in its context, I am still compelled to wade further into the waters of this profound sentence. I’m calling this two week study an excursus because we are veering off the consecutive path through Philippians to perform a more detailed examination of this verse. To think of it another way, if our main study is like traveling down the interstate, then this excursus is exiting the highway in order to explore a town.

But why does Philippians 1:21 deserve an extended two-part excursus from our main study? As we studied previously, Paul explained in the following verses the meaning of verse 21. To live is Christ meant fruitful labor, and to die is gain because death means being with Christ. What more needs to be mined out? I believe that Paul’s explanation of verse 21 in verses 22-23 is like taking a bucket of water from a well. Verse 21 captures the heart of how the gospel transformed Paul’s outlook on life and death; therefore, it also strikes at the heart of the apostle’s overall theology. So to me, the well of Philippians 1:21 is simply too deep not to explore in more detail.

I should also note, before we begin our study, that one of the most beautiful qualities of this verse is its simplicity. We read these words and have an immediate grasp on what Paul is communicating. However, much like defining concepts like love, our innate understanding is quite difficult to capture in words. My hope with these two studies then is to express the felt truth of this text in words. By God’s grace, I desire to say what we know to be true but may not know how to express.

THE DOCTRINE OF THE TEXT

As we focus upon the first phrase of verses 21, to live is Christ, we must begin by explicitly stating what the doctrine (or the teaching) of this phrase is. What does Paul mean by claiming the act of being alive is Christ?

Jesus is life. Or we might say, life itself belongs to Christ. True life, therefore, is only found in Him. For Paul, life and Christ were inseparably linked together. Without Christ, living is really a perpetual death. There is no life apart from Jesus.

Yet we should also take note of the actual syntax. Although saying “Life is Christ, and death is gain” does capture the essence of Paul’s thought, his usage of verbs instead of subjects is highly significant. For most of us, the concept of life is quite abstract and difficult to fully understand. We find it easy, therefore, to say some things are of critical importance to our life, while actually giving them very little time and attention. A lifetime is simply too big to fully grasp, so we tend to view it through unrealistic lenses. A life, however, is lived through the act of living, breathing, walking, thinking, and doing each and every day until the day that we do them no longer. Life is a conglomeration of various verbs that together create the act of living. For many, being alive may be passive, mere existence and nothing more. For Paul (and for us), life must be active. We must not be content with simply being alive; we must live while we are still alive because the act of living is by, through, and for Christ.

This is, I believe, a (brief) summary of the doctrine to live is Christ.

ARGUMENTS FOR THE DOCTRINE

Part of the beauty of this phrase is that it is not isolated from the rest of Scripture. While to live is Christ may only be explicitly stated here in Philippians, God’s Word whole-heartedly supports Paul’s manifesto. We shall, therefore, take a few moments to explore how other passages of Scripture also argue that to live is Christ.

Christ the Creator

Let us first look at Christ role in the creation of the universe. Hebrews 1:1-2 tell us explicitly about Jesus’ involvement with the act of creation: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” Jesus, therefore, was the means by which the Father brought all things into existence.

Colossians 1:16 affirms this as well: “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” Note how Paul emphasizes all things. Everything that exists was created by Christ, through Christ, and for Christ, both spiritual and physical, visible and invisible. No throne, ruler, or authority is higher than Christ because He created all rulers, thrones, and authorities.

But how exactly did the Father create the world through Jesus?

John 1:1-3 gives us some idea: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” As John makes clear in verse 14, Jesus is the Word of God, who being God, also “became flesh and dwelt among us.” John sets up the beginning of his Gospel in a direct parallel with the beginning of Genesis. He does this to emphasize that when God created the heavens and the earth in the beginning, Jesus was there as coequal with the Father and the agent of all creation.

Calling Jesus the Word is not coincidental either. Beginning in verse 3 of Genesis 1, God speaks creation into the existence. He commands light to exist, and it does. God made the world with the words of His mouth. He made the world with His Word, the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ.

All of this is fundamental to our understanding of the phrase to live is Christ since nothing would live without the Father giving life through Jesus. Because all of reality was formed, shaped, and created by Christ, life itself also comes from Christ. Without His creative involvement, life is not possible. He, not the Big Bang, is the catalyst of all things. Without Christ, there is no life.

And yet Christ did not simply create the cosmos; He also sustains it. Hebrews 1:3 states this: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” The word uphold gives the imagery of Christ carrying the entire universe in order to keep it from falling. He, therefore, is the glue which holds all things together. Without the active upholding work of Christ, the universe would fall into disrepair. Our very existence is not only owed to Christ, but our continued existence is owed to Him as well. Life is not possible without Christ, both in its inception and continuation.

All of this is merely to emphasize the title that Peter gave to Jesus: “the Author of life” (Acts 3:15). The very act of being alive comes as a gracious gift directly from the hand of Jesus Christ our Lord. Love Him or hate Him, this fact remains steadfast. If you are currently breathing, Jesus deserves your praise. Take a moment, therefore, to simply close your eyes, feel your lungs inhale and exhale, and give thanks to Christ for giving you life.

Christ the Redeemer

Yet Jesus not only the agent of creation and our physical life, He is also the means by which we are recreated and given a new spiritual life. Such a re-creation is necessary because of sin’s present dominion in the world beginning in Genesis 3. Before Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they were given free reign over the whole earth to live forever and fulfill their commission of cultivating the earth and bearing offspring. This eternal existence was cut short, however, by the first humans’ rejection of God’s law by eating the only forbidden fruit. Just as God promised beforehand, death entered into the world alongside sin. Death, therefore, has been both a physical and spiritual reality ever since. Physically, death removes us from this material existence (although we do believe in the physical and glorified resurrection of our bodies, but we will address that in our study of to die is gain). Spiritual death means to be separated from the blessings and favor of God, living under His wrath and curses instead.

In Ephesians 2:1-3, Paul writes, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked… carrying out the desires of the body, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” This is a crucial distinction. While we will all one day die a physical death, each of us is born spiritually dead. Our sin alienates us from God, and so we all need to be reconciled to God before our spiritual death plays out for all of eternity in hell. Many people are presently alive (physically) by the common grace of God, who are not actually alive. They are dead men walking. Their lungs still take in oxygen and their heart still circulates blood throughout their bodies, but they are alienated from the Author of life. They are children of wrath who, when they do die physically, will find themselves in the eternal throes of God’s wrath.

Thankfully, the Author of life did not leave us to live out this inevitable existence. Paul continues in Ephesians 2:4-5: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” The solution to our spiritual death in sin is being made alive by God with Christ.

How does this happen?

How does God save us from our sins and bring us from perpetual death to life?

Through Christ.

Just as Christ was the agent of creation, so He is also the agent of re-creation, the salvation of God’s people from their sins. Christ did this by taking our place, both in life and death. In life, Jesus walked in sinless perfection, obeying without fault all of God’s commands, which you may recognize as how we were created to live. In death, Jesus took the wrath of God for our sins upon Himself. In His resurrection, Jesus now sits at the right hand of the Father offering forgiveness of sins to those who follow after Him as His disciples.

Therefore, by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we are now able to truly live here in this life because we have been reunited to the Author of life, while also longing and waiting for the day when we will receive glorified physical bodies that are without sin. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4).

All of this is to show that to live must be Christ. Both physically and spiritually, eternally and temporally, life is only found in Christ.

APPLICATION

Now that we’ve seen, briefly, how the rest of Scripture supports Paul’s claim that to live is Christ, let us discuss specifically how this doctrine applies to us directly.

You belong to Christ.

For the first application, we must understand that if living really is Christ, then everything that we do must be for Christ. As the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of our lives, we belong to Him. The purpose, meaning, and goal of life is Christ because without Christ, there is no life.

Unfortunately, it can often be quite easy for Christians to affirm the truth of this statement without actually meditating through its impact and ramifications on our daily life. We can lift up Galatians 2:20 as our banner: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” But do we truly live our lives exclusively for Christ? Have we crucified our life in order for Christ to live in us?

To help us think through this, let us purposefully consider the realms of life that belong to Christ, if He is living in us.

First, belonging to Christ means that our possessions are for Christ. The lie of materialism is that we will find satisfaction in a multitude of possessions, but while Jesus never forbids possessions entirely, He does call us to submit them to His will and kingdom. Christ alone is our satisfaction, so we must understand that everything we have is His to give and take away. Christ’s eternality juxtaposed against the transient nature of material possessions also makes this the most practical understanding. Even the people we love are only here in our life for a time, Christ is the only lasting security. We must, therefore, submit everything we have to Him.

Second, belonging to Christ means that our actions are for Christ. If being saved by Christ means Him living in us, then each and every action that we take should be for the glory and praise of Christ. We should never do anything without first considering whether or not Christ would do the same.

Third, belonging to Christ means that our words are for Christ. Jesus does not merely own our possessions and actions; He also lays claim to our words. “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). Whether our words honor or dishonor Christ is our test for how careless our words might be.

Fourth, belonging to Christ means that our thoughts are for Christ. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul confesses, “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3). In order to maintain a sincere and pure devotion to Christ, our thoughts must be set upon Him. Thoughts, therefore, are not morally neutral agents. Sin does not become sin when it becomes a word or deed; thinking upon sin is also sin. “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6).

Finally, belonging to Christ means that our wants and desires are for Christ. “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Belonging to Christ must not be behavioral shift only; Jesus cuts to the very heart of our thoughts and intentions, reforming even our wants and desires so that the reflect the heart of Christ.

Take note of my intent: there is not one sphere, realm, or aspect of our lives that does not belong to Christ, from our innermost desires to our external possessions. As Lord, Jesus claims it all.

You are an ambassador of Christ.    

The second application flows directly from the first: we are ambassadors for Christ. Paul states this explicitly to the Corinthians: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

But what does it mean to be an ambassador for Christ?

We are His earthly representatives. We are His Bride, united to Him under the New Covenant, and we are His Body, displaying Christ physically to the world around us. We are the continuation of His earthly ministry, calling all people to repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. As the Father sent Christ, so He sent us (John 20:21).

As ambassadors, we must, therefore, display Christ with every realm of our lives. The world is meant to see Jesus in us. Our possessions, actions, words, thoughts, and desires must all be for the glory and exaltation of Christ.

But remember, this is not a metaphorical statement. We are called to literally live for Christ, to surrender everything to His control. Two problems typically arise here. First, if you do not desire this to be true, a sincere and honest evaluation whether you are truly following Christ or not is necessary. Second, if you think this to be an easy thing, you do not understand what is being demanded.

If you do not desire to give over your possessions, actions, words, thoughts, and desires over to Christ, it is quite likely that you do not yet know Him. Of course, we know that no Christian in this life will every fully live for Christ. In fact, we would each be tremendously ashamed if we were able to know how little we actually live for Him. The point is not of perfect obedience but of desire. Do you want to live for Christ? If you do not, then you likely do not know Christ.

And if living entirely for Christ sounds like an easy task, you do not grasp the weightiness of this command. We are utterly incapable of surrendering over all our self-motivations to Christ. We cannot live this way. Until we grasp our own inability, we will never be able to take refuge in the Holy Spirit’s working through us. “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). Attempting to follow Christ in our own strength is doomed to fail. We can only do so by the Spirit.

OBJECTIONS & ANSWERS

We have now observed the doctrine to live is Christ, witnessed its support from the rest of Scripture, and discussed how it directly applies to us. We will now answer a few objections to this doctrine.

Christ is not the exclusive path to eternal life.    

Religious pluralists will take issue with the claim that Christ alone is life. They would vehemently argue that just as all roads lead to Rome, all religions lead to God. For the Muslim, then, to live is Allah, and for the Hindu, to live may be Krishna. These are taken as completely valid answers, while it is supreme arrogance and intolerance to claim that Christ alone offers life.

To believe such a statement as a Christian is to make a mockery of the cross. The crucifixion of Christ boldly declares that nothing but the substitutional death of God Himself could atone for the consequences of our sin. To say that there are other roads to salvation belittles the sheer wonder and love of God dying for His own rebellious creation. We must either accept Jesus as exclusively offering life and salvation, or we must forsake Him entirely. He cannot, however, coexist within a pantheon of other gods that also offer life.

My ____ is my life. 

Perhaps a more practical, if not unconscious, objection to Jesus alone being life is that something else is defines one’s life. My ____ is my life, and we can fill in the blank with a vast number of different options. My family is my life. My friends are my life. My career is my life. My status is my life. My music is my life. My books are my life. My happiness is my life. My experiences are my life. My wealth is my life.

Each of these gifts and blessings from God. He gives them for our enjoyment and pleasure because He wants us to delight in the world that He created. The problem is that we often elevate the gifts above the Giver. While they are good to have, they are not eternal and, therefore, cannot truly satisfy us. Given enough time, they will each eventually fail us. God, however, cannot fail us. Augustine describes this trading of the Giver for His gifts as being like a hungry man who keeps licking a painting of bread instead of asking a baker for a loaf.

My life is mine.

The final objection that we will answer is that my life is my own. This is a blatant rejection of our belonging to Christ, and therefore, it is also a rejection of the gospel. Jesus warned His disciples of this danger in Matthew 16:24-26:

The Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

We think that by withholding our life from Christ that we can keep it for ourselves, yet Jesus promises that this only guarantees us losing it. Denying ourselves and giving our entire life to Christ goes against every grain of our flesh’s impulse, but the hands of Christ are the only true security for our life. We love to maintain our illusion of control, thinking that we have a handle on our own lives, yet we cannot determine or control a fatal accident or terminal illness. Such events remind us how little control we actually possess. Our life is much safer in the loving, gracious, and providential hands of Christ.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR OBEDIENCE  

Now that we have studied the doctrine at hand, how Scripture argues its truth, how it applies to us directly, and answered a few objections to it, we will conclude by addressing how we are to walk in obedience to this teaching of Scripture. Let us remember, even as we lay out these actions to take, that true obedience can only be achieved through the empowering of the Spirit. We can do nothing, not even coming to Christ, apart from the working of the Holy Spirit. May we, therefore, pray for His strength to walk in obedience, that for us living would be Christ.

Come to Christ.   

The first and most important act of obedience to this doctrine is to come to Christ. Typically, this command is associated with the act of conversion, the calling of someone who is apart from Christ to call upon His name and be saved. While that is certainly the case, followers of Christ must also constantly return to Him as well. Jesus came to call all people to repent and believe the gospel (Mark 1:15). Repentance is the turning away from and renouncing of sin, and believing the gospel means placing our confidence in the truth that we who were once objects of God’s wrath are now His children by the blood of Christ. These are two actions that everyone must take. For the non-Christian, come to Christ, repent of your sin, and believe the good news that Jesus died to save you from your sin. And for the Christian, come to Christ yet again, repent of the sin that you continue to commit, and reaffirm your faith in the good news that Jesus has rescued from all your sins. The simple, yet difficult to accept, truth is that none of us perfectly live for Christ, and this failure to do so is sin. These is, therefore, no one who does not need to come to Christ to repent and believe the gospel.

Labor for the Lord.    

Our second act of obedience is to labor in this life for the Lord. Recall that Paul went on to say in verse 22 that continuing to live in the flesh meant fruitful labor. The apostle understood that because his life belonged to Christ, his life must also be one of labor for Christ. As long as he had breath in his lungs, he would continue to be an ambassador for Christ in every realm of his life.

But what does this labor look like on a practical level? It means working as though we are working for Christ (Colossians 3:23) and proclaiming the gospel whenever a door is opened to do so (Colossians 4:3). Laboring for Christ means being missional and intentional where you are and in everything that you are doing, no matter how boring or inconsequential it might seem.

This is also an interesting answer to one of the primary laments of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. Recall that he repeatedly moaned against the toil at which we toil under the sun, honestly questioning if any gain could come from such labor. Paul now answers that he has found a purpose for toiling away under the sun. His toil and labor in this life are for Christ, and in them is great gain because Christ’s work will always yield fruit. After all, the LORD makes this promise about the proclamation of His Word: “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish what which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11).

CLOSING THOUGHTS

To quote the band, Anberlin: “There’s more to living than being alive.” This is far too true. Too many people are alive in the sense that their bodies are still functioning, but they are not actually living because they do not know Christ who is Himself life.

Take a time, therefore, a reflect on the truth of the doctrine that we have studied, honestly answering the following questions:

Is Christ your life?

Do you define living around the person and work of Jesus Christ?

In what ways is your life reflecting that you belong to Christ and are His ambassador?

May we, therefore, with each breath of life, declare alongside Paul that to live is Christ.

Advancing the Gospel | Philippians 1:12-18

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

Philippians 1:12-18 (ESV)

 

So far, Paul has opened his letter by thanking God for their partnership in the gospel. As partakers with him of the grace of Christ, Paul expressed his affections for them and his confidence that Christ would continue to preserve them in the faith. Finally, Paul concluded his greeting with a prayer for their love to abound more and more.

The apostle now shifts topics by addressing the fruits of his imprisonment. Learning that Paul was imprisoned could easily have shaken the faith of the Philippians, yet Paul desires the opposite. He assures them that, by God’s providence, his confinement was actually advancing the gospel by making Christ known to the imperial guard and encouraging other Christians to be bold in speaking the Word.

THE ADVANCE OF THE GOSPEL // VERSES 12-14

Paul now begins to describe to the Philippians his present circumstances, which of course was being in prison. Paul’s imprisonment must have been quite a trying time for the early church. After all, Paul was the most prominent missionary of the first generation of believers. His contributions to Christianity have been said to only be second to Christ; however, we must be wary of elevating Paul’s importance too high. As Paul clearly understood, he was simply a servant of Christ. He was merely a living offering and testament to the magnificent graces our Lord. Christianity was not built upon Paul, but upon the Savior that he preached! And with such a great Savior, how could the gospel ever cease its advance!  Thus, for the sake of Christ’s glory, Paul reassures the believers that the gospel continued to advance in the midst of Paul’s present circumstances.

Indeed, the advancement of the gospel is Paul’s primary desire. As we remember, although Paul once persecuted the Body of Christ, Jesus revealed Himself as the risen Lord to Paul and making him an apostle alongside the eleven remaining disciples. Thus, he who ravaged the church (Acts 8:3) was given marvelous grace in Christ. The gospel, therefore, was not an intellectual concept for Paul; instead, it was the very “power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). The apostle was more than willing to live or die for this message of good news, and its advancement was his highest priority. O’ that we might also have such desires! Too often are we like one who “is driven and tossed by the wind… a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6, 8). At times, the gospel is our most precious treasure, while at other times, we elevate our will as more important than the will of God. May God make us more like Paul so that every desire we have is secondary to our desire to see the gospel advance.

In fact, Paul’s hope in his imprisonment is rooted in its service to the gospel’s advancement. While the word “served” is not present in the Greek (the NASB’s phrasing, “my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel” is more literal), the idea is still doctrinally sound. God, in His providence, takes our trials, tribulations, and sufferings and uses them as servants for the advancement of the gospel.

Such providential workings of God can be seen clearly in the life of Joseph, who experienced slavery in Egypt in order that he would rise to second-in-command and save Egypt and his own family from a severe famine. He confessed God’s providence to his brothers after Jacob’s death: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). Belief in God’s providence means placing our confidence in God’s promise that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Martin Luther believed suffering’s key role in God’s providence to be an essential truth not just for daily life but also for the studying of Scripture. John Piper quotes Luther as giving his three rules for studying theology:

“I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself… here you will find the three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout Psalm [119] and runs thus: Oratio, meditation, tentatio (prayer, meditation, tribulation)… [These rules] teach you not only to know and understand, but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s Word is: it is wisdom supreme.” (21 Servants, 86)

God providentially brings good out of suffering. We can rest in the comfort of that truth, so long as we remember what “good” God is doing. For Luther, God used his sufferings to give him deeper comfort in the Word of God. For Joseph, God used his sufferings to rescue many from famine, including his brother Judah from whose lineage Jesus would come. For Ruth and Esther, God also used their sufferings to preserve Jesus’ ancestry. For Paul, God used his imprisonment to advance the gospel.

God, therefore, promises to use our suffering for good, but if our idea of good does not align with God’s idea of good, then how can we hope to be comforted? If our heart is set on things other than the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), we will often be sorely disappointed as God advances His own kingdom rather than ours. Yet if our heart is in heaven with God, who is our treasure (Matthew 6:21), we can then find great comfort that God would use us as instruments for the advancing of His kingdom.

To many, this may sound petty, as if God is merely using our trials and sufferings for His own gain. However, what better use could there be of our sufferings? What higher good could be brought from our tribulations? What greater purpose might be gleaned from our hardships? If we recall that suffering comes as a result of sin’s entrance into the world via the Fall, we would behold this for the grace that it is. Our rebellion, both of Adam and Eve and us today, rightfully earns our trials within this broken world. In fact, we do not deserve how peaceful and ordered the world presently is. We deserve to feel the effects of our cosmic treason against the Creator, both directly and indirectly. The miracle, however, is that God would, first, save us from our sins at the cost of His own blood and, second, would thereafter ensure that all of our hardships and sufferings serve the greatest goal imaginable, God’s glory.

If we indeed love God and His purpose, we can trust that He is working out everything for His good, and in that, we will rejoice.

Verse 12 presents the thesis of our text, that Paul’s imprisonment is advancing the gospel. Within verses 13-14, Paul provides two examples of how this is occurring: first, the whole imperial guard is now aware that his imprisonment is for Christ and second, many of the brothers have been further emboldened to preach without fear.

The Whole Praetorium

Paul’s first example of how the gospel is advancing through his imprisonment is that the whole imperial guard now knows that he is imprisoned for Christ. Who are the imperial guard, and why are they a big deal?

The word here for imperial guard is praitorion, which could refer to a ruler’s palace or to the Roman Emperor’s private soldiers, the Praetorian Guard. If Paul wrote this letter from anywhere other than Rome (such as Caesarea, which is the second most common thought), he would obviously then be referencing the local governor’s palace. However, if Paul is writing from Rome, he would then be speaking of the Praetorian Guard. The Praetorians were originally used to protect prominent Roman generals, but Augustus, the first emperor, transformed them into his personal bodyguards. Within a few decades, the Praetorians became a dominant political force in Roman, assassinating Emperor Caligula and inaugurating Claudius only fifteen or so years before Paul wrote this letter. They would continue such patterns until they were disbanded by Constantine in 312 AD. Furthermore, the prefect of the guard would often act as second-in-command to the emperor. Fee offers insight on why Paul’s message reaching these soldiers would give him such pleasure:

One should not miss Paul’s obvious delight in this mild “triumph” regarding his arrest, the same kind one senses at the end of the letter when he sends greetings from “all the saints, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household” (4:22). While this might be interpreted as a kind of “one-upmanship,” Paul’s concern would be to encourage the Philippians in their own current suffering, resulting in part from their lack of loyalty to the emperor. To the world—and especially to the citizens of a Roman colony—Caesar may be “lord”; but to Paul and to the believers in Philippi, only Jesus is Lord (2:11), and his lordship over Caesar is already making itself felt through the penetration of the gospel into the heart of Roman political life. (114)

Greater Boldness

The second effect of Paul’s imprisonment is that it emboldened other Christians to speak the Word without fear. Obviously, the Roman officials and Jewish authorities were hoping for the exact opposite results, that Paul’s imprisonment would discourage other Christians from spreading the gospel. Unfortunately for Christianity’s opponents, history reveals time and time again the truth of Tertullian’s words: “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (Apology, L). Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel, warned the Sanhedrin of this very problem in Acts 5. He recalls two examples of leaders whose revolutionary movements dissipated after their deaths, and he advised that if Jesus was merely a man, His followers would disband as well. Yet Jesus’ disciples only became bolder after His death (because of His resurrection), and the church continued to spread even as the apostles were each imprisoned and martyred. Just as Gamaliel feared, Christianity was not formed around a cult of personality but around the divinity of Christ. The church continued to survive the sufferings and deaths of its leaders because Jesus ultimately is the builder of His church, which He guides by His Word and empowers by the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, the imprisonment of Paul only emboldened the Christians in Rome. His life displayed what Jesus promised would happen: “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles” (Matthew 10:17-18). Yet throughout his sufferings, Paul repeatedly modeled the power of God in enabling him to bear through such torments. In other words, Paul’s joy throughout his trials was evidence to the believers watching him that eternal life in Christ is worth facing the greatest horrors of this world.

In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, the church of Smyrna notes that this is the blessed witness of all the martyrs:

…when they were so torn with scourges, that the frame of their bodies, even to the very inward veins and arteries, was laid open, still patiently endured, while even those that stood pitied and bewailed them. But they reached such a pitch of magnanimity, that not one of them let a sigh or a groan escape them; thus proving to us all that those holy martyrs of Christ, at the very time when they suffered such torments, were absent from the body, or rather, that the Lord then stood by them, and communed with them. (II)

God’s grace in preserving our brothers and sisters through suffering also serves as a reminder to us that His grace will also preserve us when our time comes. May we, therefore, become emboldened to speak the Word without fear whenever we see the Lord standing beside and communing with those who are suffering.

PREACHING CHRIST // VERSES 15-18

These three verses expound upon the effect of Paul’s imprisonment in verse 14. Unfortunately, even though Paul’s sufferings did embolden the other believers to proclaim Christ, not everyone did so from pure motives. Paul explains that some were preaching Christ from love and good will, knowing that Paul’s trial is really all about defending the gospel. Yet there were others who proclaimed Christ from envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition.

That last group can be quite puzzling, especially since proclaiming Christ meant placing a target on one’s back for persecution. We may, therefore, be tempted to wonder what made them envious of Paul’s imprisonment and how they were preaching Christ from selfish ambition. The answer, unfortunately, provides us a further glimpse of the human heart’s depravity.

These verses are the only details we have of why Christ was being preached insincerely. Paul is obviously not placing these people in the same grouping as the Philippians’ opponents (1:28). Since we are left to our own deductions, I would assume that these people had a pharisaical mindset. Just as religious hypocrites would look gloomy and disfigure their faces to get attention while fasting (Matthew 6:16), so this group is probably attempting to appear bolder and more spiritual than Paul. In other words, they may have been jealous of the attention Paul was getting in prison. In essence, this group seems willing to embrace the suffering that might arise from proclaiming Christ, not for God’s glory, but for the elevation of their own name.

If this sounds a bit difficult to believe, simply consider those who sought martyrdom in the early church. While many Christians in the Roman Empire lived in near constant fear of the next wave of persecution, some Christians actually looked to be martyred. Some desired martyrdom because they viewed it as a guaranteed way of entering heaven, which more resembles the Islamic doctrine of jihad than the assurance of salvation in Christ. Others faced martyrdom with the hope of being remembered for their bravery and holiness. Such a mentality is probably why the Polycarp (the martyr mentioned above) was praised by his church for not seeking martyrdom but also not fleeing either.

But does such selfish ambition make these people false teachers?

Technically yes, but certainly not in the ordinary sense. Typically, false teachers are thought of proclaiming false doctrine. Since Paul rejoices that Christ is still proclaimed, their teaching must be orthodox. The problem lies in their hearts, not their words. They are declaring biblical truth, yet they are still false teachers in the sense that their teaching comes from false motives. They may be proclaiming the supremacy of Christ, but they are seeking their own glory in doing so.

We must carefully guard against such a subtle and secret sin.

As a preacher of the Word, this reminds me that I can preach truth for others and still lose my own soul. I can get the technical details of the gospel correct while citing beautiful quotes from godly men throughout history, but if I do so out of selfish ambition, then I don’t truly understand the gospel nor the glory of God. As Thomas Boston laments, “There are many that know the doctrine of the gospel, the history of the gospel, that are mere strangers to the secrets of the gospel.”

But we who labor in preaching and teaching are not the only ones warned. The people to whom Paul refers were likely ordinary Christians, who were proclaiming Christ to whomever they encountered. Acts 8:4 shows us that following the martyrdom of Stephen, many Christians fled Jerusalem and “those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” Justo Gonzalez writes that these everyday Christians were also responsible for the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire:

The missionary task itself was undertaken, not by Paul and others whose names are known—Barnabas, Mark, et al.—but also by countless and nameless Christians who went from place to place taking with them their faith and their witness. Some of these, like Paul, traveled as missionaries, impelled by their faith. But mostly these nameless Christians were merchants, slaves, and others who traveled for various reasons, but whose travel provided the opportunity for the expansion of the Christian message. (35)

Most Christians will never proclaim Christ in a sermon from a pulpit, but each of us is called to preach Christ to the dying world around us, to our friends, family, and neighbors. Evangelism, therefore, like the preaching of a sermon, can be done technically correct, while arising from impure motives. This sharing may even yield fruit, but such fruit comes from the grace of God and is not necessarily indicative of our motivations. We certainly can do good works from a sinful heart. Let us regularly examine ourselves then, that we will repent of doing anything for God out of pretense.

And yet another great indictment lies upon many of us today. Such a warning to preach Christ from truth rather than pretense may ring hollow for us because we fail to proclaim Christ at all. The primary cause of this failure is lack of understanding of and/or meditation upon the gospel. If we truly believe that eternal life is only found in Christ and apart from Him is only eternal death, then the good news that Jesus rescues sinners from the eternal consequences of sin is the greatest message imaginable. The gospel proclaims that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13), but no one can call without first believing. And no one can believe without first hearing. And no one can hear unless someone first preaches the gospel to them (Romans 10:14). To understand the gospel means also understanding that others need the gospel. We should all, therefore, cry out with Paul: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16)! Repent of silence and proclaim Christ with all boldness.

In spite of some preaching Christ from selfish ambition and because of his passion for the gospel, Paul still rejoices in the proclamation of Christ. This returns us to Paul’s original hope and desire for the advancement of the gospel. The gospel advances wherever Christ is preached. In fact, the gospel cannot progress without the proclamation of Christ. The gospel is good news, and news must be delivered in words, whether spoken or written. Paul, therefore, rejoices in the proclamation of Christ (even when done in pretense) because the gospel is advancing. And if the gospel advances, so too does the glory of God.

May we rejoice as well in the glory of God through the progress of the gospel and the proclamation of Christ.

Guardians of Unity

After discussing the responsibilities and qualifications of elders, we now move on to the second office within the church: deacons. The ideas and traditions behind the roles and responsibilities of deacons are vast, diverse, and unfortunately often unbiblical. Much of this comes from the Bible’s implicit, rather than explicit, teaching on deacons; even so, the Scriptures remain clear about the deacons’ responsibilities.

COMMON, HISTORIC, BUT UNBIBLICAL BELIEFS

Before diving into the text, I think it would be helpful to briefly examine three of the most popular, yet unbiblical, roles of deacons both today and throughout church history. Like most things in life, these views on the deaconate lean toward extremes. Two of them diminish the office, while the third exalts it above the biblical presentation. We must fight extremes and walk down the narrow path to which the LORD has called us. We do an injustice to deacons and the entire church when we deviate from our biblical model.

Deacons: Elders in Training

This first false view of deacons is, to my knowledge, not as common today as it was during the early centuries of the church. Alexander Strauch gives a great history of this view in the endnotes of The New Testament Deacon. He says that “For over a thousand years the Roman Catholic Church relegated the position of deacon to an apprenticeship to the priesthood. The deaconate was an ordained position in the clerical hierarchy, but it was only a transitional step to the higher order of priesthood. Its significance was largely ceremonial” (160). Deacons, therefore, were often considered little more than elders in training. The great defender of Christ’s divinity, Athanasius, is one such example.

Deacons: Pastoral Assistants

Another prevalent view throughout history, that is still popular in some circles today, is the idea of deacons being assistants to the elders. This idea goes all the way back to Hippolytus, who wrote in the early 200s, “In the ordination of a deacon, the bishop alone shall lay on hands, because he is not being ordained to the priesthood, but to the service of the bishop, to do what is ordered by him. For he does not share in the counsel of the presbyterate but administers and informs the bishop of what is fitting” (13). Within this function, deacons both fell in authority and grew in it. In some places, the deacons were seen as almost more authoritative than even the elders because the deacons essentially functioned as their representatives. But in other places, the deacons were used for little more than serving the bread and wine during the Lord’s Supper.

Deacons: Ruling Executives

This appears to be the most prevalent view of deacons in the present day. Most often this is expressed in deacons who perform a mix of the functions between elders and deacons, both exercising oversight and serving. Unfortunately, there are also cases where “deacons have assumed the role of being supervisors of the staff and pastor” (Platt, 60-61). Platt’s assessment is that “this is not biblical” (61). Strauch agrees, “In many churches, deacons act more like corporation executives than ministering servants. In direct contradiction to the explicit teaching of the New Testament and the very meaning of the name deacon, which is “servant” (diakonos), deacons have been made the governing officials of the church” (9).

These roles are not biblical and, therefore, do not ultimately benefit the church. Having now glanced at incorrect views, let us dive into the Scripture that we might observe the correct view.

CHOOSING THE FIRST SEVEN DEACONS // ACTS 6:1-6

In studying these verses, we will first do an exegetical walk-through in order to get the overall message and intent of the passage. Then we will step back and create a biblical portrait of the responsibilities of deacons from what we see presented in these verses.

In verse 1, we find the setting of the scene for our text. In these days references back to everything that has been occurring in Acts thus far. These includes the receiving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (2:1-4), the salvation of three thousand people (2:41), public healings (3:1-10), persecution (4:1-22), signs and wonders that led to multitudes coming to the faith (5:12-17), and even more persecution (5:17-42). Indeed the disciples were increasing in number and doing so quite rapidly.

But with this rapid and supernatural growth also came conflict. Hellenistic Jews (that is, Jews that spoke Greek instead of Hebrew) began to complain that the Hebrews’ widows were being favored in the distribution of food, while their widows were being neglected. Thus, a crack begins to form in the newfound community, a crack that if not dealt with would destroy the early church’s unity. Unfortunately, this pattern is still true today. Most church conflicts and divisions are rarely doctrinal; they are ministerial and practical. We fail to serve people as they are meant to be served, and division is the result. How then are the apostles going to resolve the problem and keep the church united?

Verse 2 reveals the apostles’ plan. They gather together the full number of disciples, meaning every believer in Jesus as Christ was gathered to hear the plan of the Twelve. They begin by guarding their main responsibility: the preaching of the Word. Of course, overseeing the food distribution would not have kept them from preaching entirely, but it would have severely cut into their time to preach. Therefore, they knew from Jesus the danger of neglecting what is best in order to do what is good.

Verse 3 begins their solution to the problem. They tell the church to choose seven men to be appointed to this duty. There are many thoughts to point out in this verse.

First, the word duty is elsewhere used in the New Testament to mean a need or a necessity. The apostles, therefore, are not denying the necessity of having a food distribution plan. They just know that they cannot give their time to doing that work.

Second, they tell the church to pick seven men to meet this need. Because these men are the first deacons, we can conclude that deacons should be both chosen and approved by the congregation. Elders, on the other hand, were chosen by apostles and other elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5) and then approved by the congregation.

Third, the men must be of good repute and full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will return to these two qualifications next week.

Verse 4 reestablishes the apostles’ priorities: prayer and the ministry of the Word. Just to reiterate, their commitment to these two tasks was not a belittlement of the food distribution ministry. The apostles simply understood the responsibilities given to them. Wiersbe sums up this thought well:

The Apostles studied the situation and concluded that they were to blame: they were so busy serving tables that they were neglecting prayer and the ministry of the Word of God. They had created their own problem because they were trying to do too much. Even today, some pastors are so busy with secondary tasks that they fail to spend adequate time in study and in prayer. This creates a “spiritual deficiency” in the church that makes it easy for problems to develop. (429)

Verses 5-6 tells us the seven men who were appointed to lead the food distribution needs of the church. Little is known about most of these men, but Acts 7 describes Stephen’s arrest, only recorded sermon, and martyrdom. Acts 8 also describes the missionary activities of Philip. They are chosen by the congregation, set before the apostles, prayed over, and laid hands upon, thus commissioning them into the ministry. The authoritative appointing was necessary because these seven men could not meet the needs alone. They were commissioned to lead and organize the distribution ministry, not simply do the work themselves.

Beyond the exploits of Stephen and Philip, we also know that these men came to be called the Seven in a similar manner to the apostles being called the Twelve (21:8). This is significant language because within this text we have the prototype for the two offices of the church. In Acts 6, the church had yet to spread beyond the walls of Jerusalem; therefore, the apostles acted as elders of the fledgling congregation. As the church spread from city to city, it became clear that the apostles could not directly lead every congregation, so they created the office of elders to continue the shepherding work of prayer and the ministry of the Word (14:23). Therefore, in a sense, elders are the successors to the apostles in responsibility but not authority. Today, the authority of the church comes from the Scriptures, which were written by the apostles, but the responsibility of the apostles to shepherd the church was transferred to elders even in their day. This transition is seen in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. In the meeting to decide whether Gentile Christians needed to be circumcised, we are told that “the apostles and elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (15:6). Furthermore, both Peter and John, although apostles, call themselves elders within their letters (1 Peter 5:1; 2 John 1:1; 3 John 1:1).

Since the apostles here are acting as the prototype for church elders, it also stands to reason that the Seven are the prototype for deacons. A few theologians (though I have not found many) argue that these men cannot be considered deacons because the title of deacon is not used. Yet the duty given to these men of serving tables is the verb form of deacon (diakoneo). Therefore, most theologians agree that these seven men were the first deacons appointed in the church.

THE BIBLICAL PORTRAIT

Since we have now walk-through the passage of Scripture before us and we know the historical appointing of the first deacons, let us now take a step back to ask the question: What are deacons responsible for the church? We know that elders are responsible for exercising oversight of the church, primarily through prayer and the ministry of the Word. But what about the deacons? What functions are they biblically supposed to play in the church? Below are insights that we can glean from our passage of study.

Deacons are servants.

This one should go without saying because the term deacon means servant. But clarification is required. Another word commonly translated as servant is doulos, which Paul is fond of calling himself at the beginning of his letters. Doulos, however, might better be translated as slave because it referred to servants who were the property of another person. Diakonos, on the other hand, is a servant for hire. Jesus’ statement that He came not to be served but to serve uses the verb of deacon (Mark 10:45). In John 12:26, Jesus uses the same word as both a noun and verb to describe following Him: “If any man serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” Jesus, therefore, came to deacon us, and now calls to be His deacons by following Him. All Christian, then, are deacons in a general sense, but what about those in the office of deacon.

In general, the deacons are examples and leaders in serving to the congregation. They are appointed to lead and meet the physical needs of the church, allowing elders to focus on spiritual needs. Alexander Strauch fittingly calls deacons “ministers of mercy.” Elders are called to ensure that sound doctrine is fed to the church, while deacons are called to ensure that church members do not go hungry for lack of food. Strauch has this to say about the importance of deacons as servants:

The laying on of hands, along with the early appearance of this account in Acts, indicates the significance and necessity of the Seven’s task. Some people might find it hard to believe that appointing men to care for poor widows and handle money would require the laying on of the apostles’ hands. Those who don’t understand why the apostles took this matter so seriously don’t understand how important the care of the poor is in God’s eyes. (40)

Deacons are ministers.

Minister is a common title for pastors. In fact, when doing my taxes, I find much “ministerial” language being used. While the title is not incorrect since elders are ministers of the Word, minister as an official title is better placed upon deacons, especially since the word is often translated as minister.

From these verses, we see that deacons are given leadership authority within the church. However, unlike elders, deacons have ministry-specific authority, not church-wide authority. Deacons are church officers, but they are not elders. Therefore, they should not function as elders. They must function as deacons, ministers who are tasked with areas of focus and responsibility. Gregg Allison provides a small list of these areas of ministry:

Practically speaking, deacons and deaconesses engage in men’s ministries, women’s ministries, youth ministries, children’s ministries, worship ministries, evangelism and missions, bereavement ministries, seniors ministries, singles ministries, sports ministries, fine arts ministries, mercy ministries (e.g., food, clothing, tutoring, medical aid), and the like. Because these ministries flow out of the office of deacon, those who serve in that office as deacons and deaconesses must possess and exercise the requisite authority to carry out their ministries. (247)

This authority to lead and organize ministries also makes deacons key disciple-makers within the church. As noted earlier, the seven original deacons could not meet the needs of the food distribution ministry alone. By necessity, they must have led others to serve the widows and orphans of the church. Likewise, deacons need not, and should not, fulfill their responsibilities alone; rather, they should train and disciple others to do the work as well. The work of discipleship is for every Christian, but elders and deacons as leaders must lead in discipleship. 1 Peter 4:10-11 tells us that we should use our varied gifts to the glory of God, speaking the oracles of God and serving by God’s strength. Elders are charged to disciple how to speak the oracles of God, and deacons are charged to disciple how to serve “by the strength that God supplies.”

Deacons are guardians of church unity.

This is an overlooked aspect of the deaconate, but the preservation of church unity was the very reason that these first seven deacons were chosen. Physical need led to cracks in the church’s unity, and the deacons were appointed to mend those needs. Anyabwile says that “Deacons were the early church’s “shock absorbers.” They absorbed complaints and concerns, resolved them in godliness, and so preserved the unity and witness of the saints” (21). Just as elders are guardians of the church’s doctrine, deacons are guardians of the church’s unity, which Paul describes as a primary characteristic of being the church (Ephesians 4).

What are the responsibilities and functions of deacons then?

Deacons are servants, modeling for the entire congregation how we all should serve one another.

Deacons are ministers, leading and guiding certain ministries within the church and discipling others in the process.

Deacons are also guardians of church unity, cutting off potential divisions at the source.

THE FRUIT OF BIBLICAL POLITY // ACTS 6:7

To close, we return to the final verse of our text, which reveals the outcome of the situation: God’s Word continued to increase, the disciples multiplied, and even the Jewish priests began to follow Christ. These descriptions are the opposite of the initial problem. An argument had threatened the foundation of the church, but the apostles’ Spirit-led structuring of the church resolved the disagreement. That is the fruit of biblical polity, a church structure where elders and deacons lead and serve together. While deacons may not be directly responsible for the ministry of the Word, their service to the congregation’s physical needs sowed the ground for the Word to flourish. Their lives display the Word proclaimed by the elders.

May God give us grace to obey the Scriptures, that the Word of God would continue to increase and the number of our disciples be multiplied!

Praying Like Paul | Philippians 1:9-11

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:9–11 (ESV)

So far we’ve studied Paul’s opening words to the Philippians, considering how he praised God for their partnership in the gospel, how he was confident that God would keep them rooted in the gospel until the end, and how he yearned for the Philippians with the affections of Christ.

We now conclude this introductory paragraph with Paul’s prayer for his brothers and sisters at Philippi. The central request of the prayer is that their love would continue to flourish, as they also grow in knowledge, discernment, and are filled with righteousness. In short, Paul prayed for spiritual growth that would bear fruit in every aspect of their lives.

Tony Merida and Francis Chan make this important observation about Paul’s prayer here:

The details of this prayer serve as a table of contents or a preview of coming attractions for the rest of the letter. “Love” is addressed in a number of places in the letter (e.g., 1:16; 2:1-4; 4:1). Paul later speaks of being pure and blameless (2:14-15), of fruitfulness and righteousness (1:22; 3:6-9), about power through Christ (3:10), of the coming day of Christ (3:20), and of the glory of God (2:11). Further, the prayer for insight and discernment probably alludes to the need to handle the conflict mentioned in chapter 4 in an appropriately loving way. The request to approve the things that are superior may relate to his instruction in Philippians 3:8 to gain “the surpassing value of knowing Christ.” (36-37)

ABOUNDING LOVE // VERSE 9

The central theme of Paul’s prayer for the Philippians is found here: that your love may abound more and more. Every other phrase and clause within these verses builds upon this one idea. If Paul’s central aim is that the Philippians’ love might continue to grow, then the first question that we must consider before continuing onward is: what is love?

Even though love is universally felt and almost constantly referenced, love is notoriously difficult to define. As Tozer said, “We do not know, and we may never know, what love is, but we can know how it manifests itself, and that is enough for us here” (170). But how does love manifest itself?

Love is often referred to as an emotion, but it must also be understood as an action. Love is partly what we feel, but it is also what we do. Love is both an affection and an exercise. This dual nature of love can be witnessed in our present text. In verse 8, Paul described his affection for the Philippians, and in verses 10-11, his prayer is that their love would be manifested in good works. Paul’s prayer is that both the affections and good works of love would abound more and more. To this end, he prayed for the Philippians’ love to flourish.

Of course, Jesus is the greatest example of such boundless love. The Gospels give us many glimpses at the affections of Christ. While speaking to the rich, young ruler, we are told that Jesus loved him (Mark 10:21). As Jesus preached to the crowds, He had compassion on them because they were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). And perhaps the most famous example is Jesus’ weeping at the death of Lazarus (John 11:35).

But Jesus did not merely feel the affection of love; He also displayed love. His love for the rich, young ruler manifested in His revealing the ruler’s idolatry of wealth. His love for the crowds manifested in His teaching them (Mark 6:34). His love for Lazarus manifested in His raising him back to life.

Yet all of these examples are dwarfed by the cross. Christ told His disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12-14).

On the cross, Jesus displayed the epitome of this love by laying down His life for us, even while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). Jesus calls us His friends and reveals the greatest form of love by dying on our behalf, even though we are continuous rebels against God. In Romans 5:7, Paul admits that someone might be willing to die for a good person. But we are not good people, and Jesus still chose to die for us. Our marvel at the cross, in many ways, directly correlates to the depth of our understanding of our sinfulness. In his eye-opening article, The Utter Horror of the Smallest Sins, Tim Challies explains the deepness of our depravity as evidenced by our “little” sins:

Our sinfulness is expressed not only in our desire to break God’s greatest rules but in our willingness to break even his smallest ones. And this is the utter horror of the smallest sins. They prove our hearts are so desperately wicked that there’s no area of life in which we won’t express our rebellion against God.

The indescribable love of God displayed on the cross comes to us in the midst of this blatant rebellion against Him.

Yet in these verses from John 15, Jesus also commands us to love one another. In fact, He goes so far as to claim that our friendship with Him is evidenced by our love for each other. The very heart of the Christian faith, therefore, revolves around love. God so loved that He died to save us (John 3:16), and we respond by loving God and each other (Matthew 22:36-40). Because love is so central to the faith, we cannot grow into maturity without growing in love. To abound more and more in love is to further and further walk in imitation of Christ (Ephesians 5:1-2).

With Knowledge & Discernment

Yet, as previously noted, love is more than simply an emotion; thus, Paul fittingly provides qualifying phrase onto his prayer: with knowledge and all discernment. The apostle wanted the Philippians’ love to affect the mind as well as the heart. For some, the pairing of love and knowledge may seem slightly odd. Remember, however, what kind of love and affection Paul expressed for the Philippians in verse 8: the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is the same love and affection that Paul is now praying for the Philippians here. But in order to love with the affections of Christ, we must first understand who Jesus is and how He loves. Therefore, knowledge is the key to loving properly. Without a proper knowledge of Christ, we cannot be certain that our love is actually imitating Him. Love without knowledge is like a car without a road. The knowledge of Christ forms the pathways by which the Spirit enables us to love like Christ. Love must always, therefore, be an exercise of both the heart and mind.

The concept of discernment is so tied to the first phrase of verse 10 that would be best to discuss them together.

DISCERNING & PURE // VERSES 10-11

In verse 9, we observed Paul’s prayer for abounding love in the Philippians, as well as his qualification that their love be jointly connected to knowledge and discernment. In verses 10-11, Paul declares what he prays will be the outcomes (or the fruits) of their abounding, knowledgeable, and discerning love.

Approve What Is Excellent

The first outcome for which Paul prays is that you may approve what is excellent. Approving what is excellent is the fruit of discernment. If knowledge is the possession of information, discernment is the ability to form wise decisions with said knowledge. Discernment, therefore, can be understood in two broad categories: being able to discern what is good from what is evil and being able to discern what is better or best from what is good. When Paul prays for the Philippians to approve what is excellent, both of these kinds of discernment can be easily applied.

The discernment of the Holy Spirit is needed to know whether or not an action that is not inherently sinful might be sinful for you. Drinking alcohol is one of the classic examples of this. The Bible clearly makes no prohibition on alcohol in general, only on drunkenness. Yet there are many factors that may lead a Christian to see drinking alcohol as going against their conscience, whether it is a familial history of alcoholism, past experiences, or simply personal conviction against drinking. Areas of personal conviction, such as this, require the ability to discern whether we are acting in faith: “for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

This form of discernment may also apply to our ability to discern sound doctrine from false doctrine. John Chrysostom believed this to be Paul’s primary usage here: “He prays that they will not receive any corrupted doctrine under the pretense of love” (ACCS, 221). Such a tendency is no less present today than in days of Paul or Chrysostom. Especially over the issue of homosexuality, we have witnessed a multitude of churches abandon the clear teachings of Scripture on the pretense of love. Because doctrine shapes our understanding of who God is, we can never claim to adopt love at the expense of proper doctrine. Our love must be filtered through the lens of knowledge and discernment, approving what is excellent and disapproving what is corrupted.

Our ability to discern between what is good and what is better or best can be witnessed in Jesus. In Mark 1:35-39, Jesus is told by His disciples that everyone in Capernaum was looking for him, but Jesus replied that He needed to continue preaching in the other towns of Galilee. His healings were good, but they were only intended to authenticate His preaching, which was better. We must fervently pray for this kind of discernment as well, lest be like Martha, choosing temporal, lesser things over eternal, necessary things.

Pure, Blameless, & Filled

Yet approving what is excellent is only one piece of the puzzle. Because the temptation of sin is great, we can all too easily relate with Ovid’s confession: “I see the better and approve it, but I do not cease to follow the worse” (VII.20-21). Aware of this, Paul also prays for a second outcome to flow from their abounding love: purity, blamelessness, and being filled with the fruit of righteousness. In other words, Paul does not merely want us to choose what is right but to also do what is right. Each of these phrases here strike at the same core idea of living in a godly manner.

The fruit of righteousness could easily be linked with fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Each of these virtues reflect the attributes, nature, and character of God; therefore, we live godly lives by embodying (or living out) these fruits. The righteous, or godly, life is a life lived in imitation of God, fulfilling our duty of being the bearers of His image. Paul rightfully then prays for a life filled with these fruits of righteousness.

The words Paul uses for purity and blamelessness here, however, are not his usual choices. Purity normally denotes the idea of untainted or without corruption. The purity of gold and other precious metals is measured by how free they are of other elements. Purity here, however, conveys the idea of being tested and judged genuine or, we might say, sincere. Paul has in mind someone who is not two-faced or acting out of ulterior motives. Gordon Fee comments on Paul’s word choice of blameless as follows: “Likewise, aproskopos is not Paul’s regular word for the idea of “blameless.” Ordinarily, as in 2:15 and 3:6, he uses a form of amemptos, a word denoting behavior that is without observable fault. But aproskopos has to do with being “blameless” in the sense of “not offending” or not causing someone else to stumble” (102). These word choices only further emphasize the communal aspect of verses 3-11. Our being filled with the fruit of righteousness is not simply an individual matter. We must make decisions in love, with knowledge and discernment, righteously avoiding ulterior motives and doing our best not to be a stumbling block for our brothers and sisters in Christ.

But also notice that Paul grounds this purity, blamelessness, and righteousness in a destination: the day of Christ. As in verse 6 the apostle expressed his confidence that God would complete the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel at the day of Jesus Christ, he now urges them to continue living godly lives in light of that Day. As we briefly discussed in our first study (and will continue to discuss in more depth), we are generally not in danger of being too heavenly-minded but of being to earthly-minded. Many fear that fixing our eyes on eternity will cause us to be absent from the present, yet the opposite is often true. Greater desires for heaven tend to create godlier lives on earth. Like Abraham or Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, we are each “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Without our destination before our eyes, we risk living our entire lives as aimless. This is poignantly displayed in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Alice’s question to the Cheshire Cat: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat. ‘I don’t much care where–’ said Alice. ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat” (57). The coming of the Day of Christ orients both where and how we walk through this life. Everything we do must be done in the light of eternity.

To the Glory & Praise of God

Finally, Paul concludes his prayer with two clauses: that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Why does the apostle end by emphasizing that our righteousness, discernment, knowledge, and love must come through Christ and to the glory and praise of God? I believe it is because each of these virtues can be falsified and counterfeited.

Let’s examine righteousness first. Most people may think that righteousness always equals godliness; therefore, if someone is living a moral life, they must also be living a life approved by God. This belief is often a core tenant of nominal Christianity in the West, which is sometimes called moralistic, therapeutic deism. In this religion, morality and Christianity are nearly synonymous terms. Paul, however, did not promote this theology. In 2 Timothy 3:5, Paul warns his disciple to avoid those who have “the appearance of godliness, but” deny its power. Morality is not the same as godliness. Godliness certainly intersects morality, but ultimately, godliness is rooted in God, while morality can be rooted in anything. Most often, however, morality flows from self. We do good deeds in order to feel better about ourselves or to look better in the sight of others. These motivations may produce morality, but they cannot produce godliness. Thus, a righteousness that does not come through Jesus to the glory and praise of God is not true, biblical righteousness.

Likewise, love can be very easily counterfeited when God taken out of the equation. This is important to understand because I would argue that no biblical virtue is more imitated by culture than love. Songs repeatedly tell us that love is the highest virtue. Movements continually declare that spreading love is their ultimate goal. Indeed, love is often exalted to the status of divine. But this supreme exaltation of love is quite different from the biblical exaltation of love (1 Corinthians 13) because they derive from different sources.

Biblically, we are told that love comes from God because God is love (1 John 4:8), which is one of the most butchered phrase in all the Bible. This does not mean that God is exclusively love or that God is the same as love. Instead, it means that one of God’s chief characteristics and attributes is love. God defines love, and He perfectly embodies love because all love emanates from Him. All love is, therefore, to the praise and glory of God because true love can only come through Him.

Contrast this with the source of the worldly idea of love, which is most often self. Cultural love is defined by self, since there is no greater source of appeal. Because of this, elevating love as supreme is really a sly way of making the self supreme. If love is ultimate and I define love, what does that make me?

Let me emphasize that I am not denying the sincerity of this kind of love’s affections and actions. They may indeed be genuine and even sacrificial, but if the source is bad, then everything is corrupted. If God, being love, was represented as a person, then our display of biblical love would be like a portrait of Him, His image, but the worldly counterfeit would be a caricature of God. Neither a portrait nor a caricature is the object, but a portrait faithfully portrays the subject, while a caricature is a falsification. Even worldly love displays something of God’s character, but the image is ultimately twisted. The Source cannot be corrupted, but the image can. If our love does not flow from God as its acknowledged source, we will very likely display a broken and distorted image of His endless and steadfast love. Our love, therefore, must flow through Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Only then is will it truly be love.

A FINAL WORD ON PRAYER

Now that we’ve walked through Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, I want to take a few steps back in order to address the topic of prayer. Particularly, I would like to ask this question: Do you pray like this for your brothers and sisters in Christ?

Indeed, since the Philippians were likely undergoing persecution in some form or fashion, we might have expected Paul to pray for their endurance in Christ. Or because there were arguments and rivalries in the Philippian church, Paul could have prayed for their unity in Christ as His Body. Yet Paul prays for their love to abound more and more. This is a prayer of fundamental importance because it cuts to the heart of the Christian faith. If love is how we grow in maturity, then by praying for a deepening of love he also prays for growth in every way.

Of course, this isn’t to say that praying for other things is unimportant. Currently, my father-in-law is battling Stage-4 gastric cancer. We long for prayers for his strength and for his healing; however, the state of his soul is more important than the state of his un-resurrected body. Even if the LORD is gracious enough to heal his body, he will still see God face-to-face within a few decades. Praying that he would love the LORD with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength and love his neighbor as himself is far more critical than praying for his physical ailments. And the same is true of us.

Throughout Paul’s letters, we see that the apostle consistently prayed prayers like this one. Ephesians 3:14-19 is one of my favorites:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Could not our lack of love for one another stem from our failure to pray like this? Will you, therefore, pray like Paul? Will you pray that the love of God would, by the Spirit, flow through ourselves and our brothers and sisters?

And may we do this continually. Paul prayed for it to abound more and more because the love of God has no limit. We must fight to never grow stagnant in our love, for there is always room for us to love more and more in light of the One who has loved us endlessly.