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.

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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.

God Will Finish His Work | Philippians 1:6-8

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.

Philippians 1:6-8 (ESV)

 

So far, we have seen Paul’s heart of thanks for his partnership with the Philippians in the spread of the gospel. He expressed this gratitude to God who worked through them, and he claimed to thank God for the Philippians every time he remembered them.

We now continue Paul’s opening remarks to his beloved brothers and sisters. In these three verses, Paul expresses his confidence that because of their strong display of faith God would ultimately complete the Philippians salvation at the day of Jesus Christ. He also emphasizes for them how strongly he yearns for all of them with the affections of Jesus Christ. Let us draw comfort and challenge from this text. May we grow in love for one another as we make ready for Christ’s return.

BLESSED ASSURANCE // VERSE 6

We now come to verse 6, which is one of Philippians’ most frequently cited verses. Dr. Thomas Constable gives us a glimpse as to why this verse is so popular:

This is one of the most comforting verses in the Bible for Christians. Our getting to heaven safely does not depend on us, on our ability to hold on and to persevere faithfully to the end of our lives. The Lord will see to it that we reach heaven safely in spite of our failures and shortcomings. Salvation is God’s work, not man’s (Jon. 2:9). As surely as He has already delivered us from the penalty of sin (Rom. 5:1), He will one day deliver us from the presence of sin (cf. Rom. 8:31-39). (13)

The doctrines and applications of this small sentence are tremendous, so we will eat the elephant piece by piece.

The first question that we must seek to answer is: what good work was begun in the Philippians? Of course, to answer this question, we must remember that our verse is directly tied to verses 3-5 from our previous study. In those three verses, Paul expressed his thanksgiving through prayer to God because of the Philippians partnership with him in the gospel. The present expression of Paul’s confidence in the completion of the Philippians salvation must be understood within this context, especially since Paul refers to their partnership as beginning from the first day until now (v. 5). The good work, therefore, that was begun in the Philippians is their partnership in the gospel.

The next question for understanding this verse must be: what does being brought to completion at the day of Jesus Christ mean? The opening expression of thanks in 1 Corinthians, which parallels Philippians to a great degree, provides a clearer understanding of what exactly is meant by the day of Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 1:4–9 | I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

What then is the day of Jesus Christ?

It is His revealing.

It is the day when “the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!” (2 Peter 3:12).

It is the day when Christ, who first came “to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28).

It is the final day of vengeance falling upon “those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 1:8), while granting relief to all who are afflict for the sake of Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:6).

In short, the day of Jesus Christ will either be our supreme joy and pleasure or our utter horror and terror.

The final preparatory question we need answered is: who is completing the good work? Paul claims confidence that he will complete the good work that he began in the Philippians, but to whom is Paul referring? The answer is found in verse 3. God, who was the recipient of Paul’s thanks for the Philippians, is now being proclaimed as one who will bring their partnership in the gospel to its completion as they stand before Christ.

God, therefore, is the one who began the good work of their partnership in the gospel in the Philippians, and God will also be the one who completes that work so that they will find joy and peace at the day of Jesus Christ. We now have the clarified mechanics for analyzing and applying the verse more fully.

Understanding this verse in context, enables us to avoid one of the most common errors when quoting our text since it is often cited as a general proclamation that God will complete the salvation process. It has, therefore, contributed to the overused adage, “Once saved, always saved.” Unfortunately, this thought, while deriving from biblical truth, is a severe over-simplification. Indeed, Paul is not speaking of the completion of our salvation as if it were a law of nature: if an apple falls from a tree, it hits the ground; if a person asks Jesus to forgive their sins, he or she will go to heaven when they die. Remember that the good work began in the Philippians is not exactly their moment of justification; rather, the good work is their partnership in the gospel that began at the moment of their justification. As we learned last week, God saved the Philippians and brought them into a fellowship centered upon the message of the gospel and a partnership dedicated to the mission of the gospel. This fellowship/partnership was what caused Paul to constantly thank God for them in joyful prayer because through the gospel, God brought them together in the gospel to the send them into the world for the gospel. It is this partnership that God will complete at the day of Jesus Christ.

Allow me to make clear what I am NOT saying. Salvation is not dependent upon being in community with other Christians. We are saved solely by the death and resurrection of Christ. Even baptism for all its importance, weight, and significance is not necessary for salvation. But like baptism, community is necessary for our assurance of salvation. God designed it to be so.

We can view this at work in church membership. Upon affirming someone as a church member, we declare our sincere belief that they are genuine follower of Jesus, while excommunicating a church member through discipline is a declaration that we can no longer affirm his or her salvation since there is no sign of repentance. Biblical community, therefore, builds the assurance that our salvation is genuine by affirming and safeguarding our faith.

On the converse, this is also why a decay in our walk with the LORD is almost always followed by a withdrawal from community. Just as going for a walk in the sun is both the best thing for someone experiencing depression and often the last thing they want to do, so being around other brothers and sisters is best thing for our sin-filled, joyless souls, while also being the last thing we want to do in those moments. We create all kinds of excuses for avoiding community. Exhaustion seems to be one of the most common ones today for avoiding corporate worship. After a heavy and draining week, the idea of going to church on Sunday is simply too much work, too much hassle. Tragically, this kind of thinking ignores both Jesus’ command to come to Him for rest (Matthew 11:28) and His promised presence among those who gather in His name (Matthew 18:20).

Going beyond the occasional withdrawal from community, what about Christians who blatantly refuse to participate in worship among other believers? Such people often appear to be entirely certain of their salvation when conversing with them. However, based upon texts such as this one, assurance of that kind can be deadly. Apart from community to encourage and correct us, we can easily form our own idea of who God is, either avoiding any Scriptures that contradict it or simply avoiding the Scriptures altogether. As I said before, a failure to participate in Christian community does not necessarily mean that he or she isn’t saved. It does, however, mean that they can have no biblical assurance of their salvation, and indeed, it certainly is an indication of a possible false conversion.

If this describes you, repent.

If you consider yourself to be a Christian, but you avoid being a part of Christ’s Bride and Body, the Church, then this is great evidence that you do not truly know Christ.

Repent of self-assurance, and join the partnership in the gospel.

Having now discussed what this verse is not teaching, let us take note of what it is saying. For all who are partnering together in the gospel, God both started that work and will finish it. Referenced here are all three stages of salvation. Our partnership in the gospel began, as noted last week, because God reconciled us both to Himself and to one another by the blood of the cross. We call this one-time work justification. Our sin is forgiven, and we are legally declared righteous before God. But from this comes the ongoing work of sanctification. In sanctification, we partner with one another in the gospel to kill our indwelling sin and to fulfill the Great Commission. All of this points toward the day when we will be glorified, when our salvation will be complete and we will no longer be capable of sin.

We know that justification and glorification are the works of God on our behalf, but what of sanctification? Once again, consider the verses that we will be studying within a few more weeks:

Philippians 2:12-13 |Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Are we called to do good works for God? Certainly. Do those good works require a willful contribution on our part? Absolutely! Yet even as we participate in our sanctification (which differs from justification and glorification because in them we are simply recipients), God alone gets the glory because our will and works are the result of Him working in us. Therefore, just as we trust God to forgive our sins and save us, we can also trust that He will ultimately save us from our sins because He is currently empowering us to overcome sin and walk in obedience day after day.

The good work of our partnership in the gospel, therefore, is an evidence of salvation, but it does not contribute to our salvation. Walking in obedience to God cannot cleanse previous sins, but it can indicate a heart that has been transformed by the LORD. The beginning, middle, and ending of Christian life is overseen by God; thus, He alone is our hope of heaven and all its joys, a hope that is our “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19). In this hope, we have a certainty, a surety along with Paul, that God will complete whatever work He begins.

Christian, are you trusting that God alone can bring you safely into His kingdom, or have you, perhaps subtly, begun to rely upon your own good works?

In what ways do you willingly embrace the safeguards of Christian community to provide assurance of your salvation?

AFFECTIONS OF GRACE // VERSES 7-8

After expressing his deep thanks for the Philippians and his confidence in their perseverance in the faith, Paul now expresses his affection for them. Notice the intimate expressions being used: I hold you in my heart and how I year for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. This “feeling” that Paul has for the Philippians is a key word that is found in nineteen verses in the New Testament, and seven of them are from Philippians. Gordon Fee lauds the NIV’s translation of as “feel” (which is true of the ESV as well) instead of the more common “mind” or “mindset” because it incorporates affections as well as thoughts (89). Thus, as we see Paul continue to urge us throughout the letter to conform our minds to Christ, this verse must be a reminder that doing so is no mere intellectual exercise. God desires our thoughts and affections.

But why is Paul so affectionate for the Philippians? He holds the Philippians in his heart, meaning he keeps his thoughts of them in the very core of who he is. They are in his heart because of their partaking of grace alongside him. Partakers here is another form of the word koinonia or partnership that Paul used in verse 5. He is, therefore, rooting his affection toward them, like his thanksgiving for them, in their gospel-formed community. Not only did they continue to do the work of defending and confirming the gospel in evangelism, preaching, and their daily lives; they also continued to minister to Paul during his imprisonment. Ancient prison systems were far from being as humane as they are today. Often, if a prisoner was not given supplies by family or friends, the prisoner would be left to die, making room for a new prisoner. Over the first couple of centuries in church history, this was often exploited during times of persecution as a form of luring Christians into the open. Officials would arrest and imprison one Christian and then arrest more whenever others came to support and encourage them. Ministering to someone prisoned for the gospel would be done in great seriousness. For these reasons, great was Paul’s affection for the Philippians.

I would now like to focus our attention on Paul’s yearning and affectionate feeling or mindset toward the Philippians, and why it is so important. In his book, You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith makes the argument that what want, desire, or yearn for is what you truly love. Such a thought may sound simple, but it has many weighty ramifications. For instance, he cites the idea’s presented in Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker, as an example. In the film, two men are being led by a third man to a place called the Room, where the desires of those who enter are made reality. Unfortunately, the Room grants desires of the heart, not of the mind. When the men arrive, they ultimately refuse to enter after learning of a man killed himself who entered the Room with the desire to bring his brother back to life but was given money instead. Why is it so significant that they didn’t enter the Room? As Smith explains:

What if they don’t want what they think? What if the desires they are conscious of—the one’s they’ve “chosen,” as it were—are not their innermost longings, their deepest wish? What if, in some sense, their deepest longings are humming under their consciousness unawares? What if, in effect, they are not who they think they are? (29)

To learn that we do not want what we think we want means learning that we are not who we think we are. Our wants, desires, and yearnings reveal our true loves. And Paul’s yearning for the Philippians reveals the truth of his love for them and for the God who saved them.

But how can we know that our affections are rooted in the gospel like Paul’s?

Or if we find ourselves with improper longings, how can we stir our affections toward God Himself and our brothers and sisters in the faith?

Smith argues that our affections are shaped by our habits, routines, and liturgies. He gives the example of how shopping in the mall can act as a sort of “cultural liturgy” that stirs up our love for consumerism. He then provides a few more examples:

We could repeat such “liturgical” readings of cultural practices for an entire array of everyday rituals. When you put on these liturgical lenses, you’ll see the stadium in a whole new way, as a temple nationalism and militarism. When you look at the university with liturgical eyes, you’ll start to realize that the “ideas” and “messages” of the university are often less significant than the rituals of frat parties and campus athletics. When we stop worrying about smartphones just in terms of content (what we’re looking at) and start to consider the rituals that tether us to them throughout the day, we’ll notice that the very form of the practice comes loaded with an egocentric vision that makes me the center of the universe. (46)

Our habits and routines act as religious programs that guide what our heart loves, which is why so much of the Christian life seeks to become a rhythm in our lives. In particular, the routines of private spiritual disciplines and corporate worship reshape our desires and loves toward the things of God.

We can see the fruit of private disciplines in last week’s text: Paul’s love for the Philippians is stirred and enlarged by his constant prayer of thanksgiving for the Philippians being made to God. Of course, like justification, we could argue that God alone must form a heart of affection within us, but prayer, like the other spiritual disciplines, is a tool of sanctification that God has graciously given to mold our hearts toward conformity with His.

This is also true of corporate worship. In many places today, weekly worship is attacked as being non-essential to the Christian walk. The argument is typically that faith is an individual matter, so as long as I read the Bible and pray, I can have a healthy relationship with Jesus all by myself. Right?

We could very easily simply refer back to verse 6 showing that true assurance of salvation can only come through partnering with other believers in the gospel, but let’s dismantle this mentality from another passage:

Hebrews 10:24–25 | And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

The author of Hebrews is commanding us to stir up each other into love and good works (quite like what God will one day complete in us). This selfless focus on others is the Christian mentality because it is Christ’s mentality (Philippians 2:5). Regularly meeting together for corporate worship must be our habit for continuing to encourage one another. Just as daily prayer fosters our love of God to whom we pray and for the people for whom we pray, so corporate worship guides our love for our fellow members of Christ’s Body.

The shift of focus upon self as the consumer of worship is one of the gravest evils of the seeker-sensitive movement. Now, don’t get me wrong. Worship should absolutely be done with excellence, and we should make every effort to call sinners to repentance and minimize any unintentional and distracting awkwardness. Yes, and amen! But weekly worship is not at all about what we want; rather, it is, first, about adoring God together and, second, about encouraging God’s saints.

Notice also how the author of Hebrews urges us to do this all the more as you see the Day drawing near. He is, of course, referring to the day of Jesus Christ. As we see the final judgment of all mankind approaching, let us not neglect meeting together to encourage one another to continue partnering the gospel. As we ingrain these habits of grace, we will continue to draw near to Christ and to each other, growing in sanctification and our certainty that God will finish His good work in us on the Day of Jesus Christ.

Can you relate to Paul’s yearning affection for the Philippians to your affection for fellow believers in your life?

How do spiritual disciplines and corporate worship grow our affections for God and His people?

What do your own daily and weekly habits and routines reveal about your yearnings and affections?

Partners in the Gospel | Philippians 1:3-5

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 

Philippians 1:3–5 (ESV)

 

Paul’s letter to the church of Philippi is quite unique from most of his other letters. In Philippians, Paul is not writing to correct rampant sin or false teaching, as with the Corinthian letters and Galatians. Nor is he writing primarily to teach major doctrines or even the basics of the faith, like his letters to the Romans and Thessalonians. Instead, Paul writes to Philippi (a church that he planted) in response to a gift that they sent to him through a man named Epaphraditus. Philippians then is part ‘thank you’ letter and part encouragement to distant friends. From what can be gathered in the letter itself, the Philippians appear to be quite doctrinally sound and growing in love, but Paul still encourages them to continue growing more and more into Christ, which will enable them to rejoice in Christ even in the midst of suffering and persecution.

Last week, we studied the greeting of Philippians, reintroducing ourselves to Paul and Timothy and learning about Philippi. Now we move into the body of Paul’s letter where he begins by expressing his thankfulness for the Philippians and their partnership with Paul in the gospel. We should learn much by the example of thanksgiving, prayer, and gospel partnerships found within these verses and the rest of the letter to come.

THANKS TO GOD // VERSES 3

Leaving the greeting, Paul begins the body of his letter by expressing his thankfulness for the Philippians. Notice that I said for the Philippians instead of to the Philippians. Since Paul is writing this letter in response to the Philippians sending him a gift via Epaphroditus (4:18), we might naturally assume that his thanksgiving would be rightfully directed toward them. Paul, however, has other plans. His thankfulness for the Philippians is given to God.

Why is this?

Why does Paul give God credit for the generous giving of the Philippians?

As we will soon see in verse 6 and later in verse 13 of chapter two, Paul understands that behind every act of love and obedience that we perform lies the grace, will, and power of God to enable those very works. Paul is also merely applying the words of Jesus from John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Without the powerful working of Christ in the Philippians, they could have done nothing.

We also see this in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Notice that two kinds of works exist here. First, there are works toward salvation, which cannot save. Second, there are good works for which we were created to walk in. Paul explicitly tells us that we cannot boast in any work toward our salvation since we can only be saved by grace through faith. Justification is a gift of God; therefore, all of our boasting can only be in Him. Since we contributed zero effort and ability, we get zero glory.

And while the good works that we do in our daily sanctification require effort and work on our part, the prohibition on boasting applies to these as well. Paul clarifies this working in 1 Corinthians 15:10, saying: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Paul’s hard work was only possible by the grace of God within him. All of our good works are performed by God’s gracious working in us. Paul knew that to be true of himself, and he knew it to be true of the Philippians. Rightly then was Paul thankful for the Philippians to God.

Do you find this line of thought fair? Do you agree that God deserves the thanksgiving for your good works? In expressing your thankfulness to other believers, do you give thanks to them or to God for them? The implications of this thought may prove quite awkward to act out at first, but is it not worth it to give God the glory that is due to Him?

JOYFUL PRAYER // VERSE 4

As Paul’s thought moves forward, he explains the avenue through which he expresses his thanksgiving to God for the Philippians: prayer. Notice how Paul connects his remembrance of the Philippians to his prayer for them. The apostle makes this connection to emphasize to the Philippians that he prayed for them as often as he remembered them. For Paul, prayer was not merely a routine to be completed in the morning and/or at night, nor was prayer a to-do item that earns us bonus points with God. Instead, prayer infiltrated his daily life. He likewise commands us to pray at all times (Ephesians 6:18) and without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). And because prayer so saturated his life, Paul gave a prayer of thanks to God each time he remembered the Philippians.

For many Christians, this kind of prayer may seem extreme or simply unachievable, but Paul will later in the letter urge the Philippians to imitate him and his example (3:17). This must be the type of life that we long to live: a life of constant communion with our God. If this sounds like a great burden, note that Paul made these prayers with joy. The apostle was able to pray without ceasing because he was not constantly battling against himself to pray. Prayer was for him a joy. He enjoyed and delighted in prayer.

Unfortunately, believers today often seem to want to find joy in prayer, but doing so is difficult because prayer to us is often more of a duty than a delight. We know we need to pray more, but the task can be incredibly daunting. Questions race through the mind. What is the best time to prayer? Where should I pray? Does posture matter in praying? What do I say? What happens if I say the wrong thing? Do I pray to the Father only, or can I pray to the Jesus and the Spirit as well? What’s the minimum time I should spend in prayer? Do I need to spend more time praying for others than I do myself? Soon they cease being questions, morphing instead into excuses.

How then should we pray?

And just as importantly, how do we learn to enjoy praying?

First, we must note that deliberate and private times of prayer are absolutely necessary for the Christian walk. While the Bible sets no strict time or time-limit for these times of prayer, it offers plenty of guides and content to help us shape these times. The most famous is, of course, the Lord’s Prayer, which is a wonderful, structured outline to pray through each day. Verses 9-11 also provide powerful direction for how we might pray. In fact, with a robust knowledge of the Scriptures, all of God’s Word may serve a guide for our times of focused and private prayer.

But, as have already suggested, prayer can and must leave the closet. In order to pray without ceasing, prayer must continue beyond times of focused, private prayer. We ought to pray these prayers whenever other believers come to mind (like Paul did with the Philippians), whenever we are stressed or anxious, whenever non-believing loved ones come to mind, or really anything else that can be brought to the LORD. Please don’t let this kind of praying intimidate you. They need not be long and lengthy. They can be as short and simple as, “Father, give me wisdom for making this decision” or “LORD, thank you for the fellowship within my community group.” This type of praying simply keeps dialogue with God throughout the day, acknowledging that He sees and controls everything and submitting ourselves to His will and kingdom again and again.

To use an imperfect analogy that nearly each of us can relate to: if prayer was a phone, established times of private prayer would be like phone calls and in-the-moment prayers would be like text messaging. In the same way that text-messaging cannot replace the depth of hearing one another’s voice, so in-the-moment prayers cannot replace deliberate times of prayer. But also just as texts can be sent in times when phone calls aren’t possible, so these quick prayers can be made in any circumstance.

But still none of this answer the question of how we can come to enjoy praying.

Unfortunately, there is no quick answer to this question. No multi-step program can increase our joy in communing with God; enjoyment of prayer can only come through knowing God more. And of course, we only come to know more of God through praying and reading the Scriptures. So we learn to enjoy praying by praying. Ultimately, when we begin both to practice and understand the beauty of having constant access to the Creator as our Father, we will also realize the joy of prayer. Little by little, we will come to have the same mentality of Thomas Brooks when he claims that “a man whose soul is conversant with God in a closet, in a hole, behind a door, or in a desert, a den, a dungeon, shall find more real pleasure, more choice delight, and more full content, than in the palace of a prince” (11).

What does your prayer life look like? Do you practice both private and constant prayer, and what does that look like? Do you enjoy praying? Is it a duty or a delight?

PARTNERSHIP IN THE GOSPEL // VERSE 5

In verse 5, however, Paul cites a more specified reason for rejoicing in his prayers for the Philippians: their partnership in the gospel. The Greek word that is translated partnership here is frequently translated as fellowship or community. This word has tremendous theological implications throughout the New Testament.

It refers to the close communion among God’s people, the community that Jesus is forming by His own blood.

It is the fellowship that united church in Jerusalem after Pentecost (Acts 2:42).

It is the fellowship that marks us a being children of God: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).

It is the same kind of communion that we now have with the Spirit (2:1).

It is the same participation that causes us to share in the sufferings of Christ that we might also be glorified with Him (3:10).

This partnership, fellowship, and community is, therefore, horizontal and vertical. It is our communion with Christ and with one another. It is the embodiment of the call to obey the Great Commandment, loving God and loving our neighbors.

But why exactly is this partnership so intrinsically rooted in the gospel?

Without a communion first with Christ, we cannot fully have community with each other. Why, you might ask? Being a community is hard work. In fact, because of sin’s dominance in the world, true community should be little more than a daydream. God designed us to need other people, but as we studied in Ecclesiastes 4, we repeatedly hurt and scar one another. Sin doesn’t just separate us from God; it also alienates us from our fellow humans. This, therefore, gives us another depth to the beauty of the gospel.

As we discussed in the previous text, the gospel (or good news) is that God forgives sins and makes us His children because of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Although our sin alienated us from God and made us hostile in mind toward Him, Jesus reconciled us to God, making peace by the blood of His cross. By His death and resurrection, Christ bore the complete wrath of God in our place, while also freely giving us His perfect righteousness and obedience. By the cross and the cross alone are we reconciled to God our Father and now have communion with Him by the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Such truth is enough to meditate on the goodness of God for all eternity.

However, the power of the gospel extends even beyond our relationship to God; it also repairs the damages of sin amongst each other. In the second chapter of Ephesians, Paul describes how the gospel destroys the “dividing wall of hostility” between the Jews and Gentiles (2:14). The strained relationship between these two groups is meant to essentially serve as an example of “if God can help these two, He can help everyone.” Or as Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Also in Colossians 3:11, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.”

Other than Paul (a Jew) and the Philippians (predominately Gentiles) being united in the gospel’s message, they were also united in its mission. For all believers, as with Paul and the Philippians, our partnership in the gospel is centered upon this mission: to spread the gospel to every nation. Such a mission unfolds from the reality that the gospel itself is a rescue mission. Jesus came to save us; now He sends us out to spread that message. Paul’s journey to plant churches was a literal mission to accomplish that goal. The establishment of a church in Philippi was a fruit of Paul’s mission. We are then told that the Philippians shared in Paul’s mission through some form of a gift (4:18). The gospel united them together in fellowship and then scattered them in partnership to spread the good news. These are the two essential and inseparable marks of Christian community.

On a church-wide level, how is a fellowship within our own congregation? Is it healthy or in need of growth? But how are we also partnering with other congregations (both near to us and abroad) to spread the gospel?

On a personal level, how are partners in the gospel? Which of your friends pray not just for your physical needs but for your walk with the LORD to deepen each day? Who is challenging you to be missional with your neighbors, your job, and your family?

Grace to You & Peace | Philippians 1:1-2

 

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:1–2 (ESV)

 

The letter of Philippians was written by the Apostle Paul to the Christians in the city of Philippi. Paul, traveling with Silas, Luke, and Timothy, planted the church in Philippi, and Acts 16 describes a few of the city’s first believers, like Lydia, the jailer, and their families. Paul was imprisoned, probably in Rome, at the time of writing his letter, which is a response to the Philippians sending Epaphraditus with a gift for Paul. The tone of Philippians, therefore, is quite different than many of Paul’s other letters. Here the apostle is not primarily writing to correct false teaching or rebuke rampant sin; instead, he is writing to further encourage the Philippians to continue growing in their faith. Even though the Philippians were apparently suffering some form of persecution (1:28) and Paul himself was imprisoned, his refrain throughout the epistle is a command to rejoice. No matter the external circumstances, Paul is confident that his readers will find joy and contentment in Christ.

We begin by studying the greeting of Paul’s letter. As was typical of ancient epistles, the author (Paul) is stated first, followed by the recipients (the Philippians), and then a greeting was given (grace and peace). Although these two verses may seem fairly simple and easily overlooked, they are filled with Christ-exalting truth, setting the tone for the remainder of the letter.

SERVANTS OF CHRIST // VERSE 1

Paul’s epistle to the Philippian church begins in the traditional style of an epistle: by stating the writer first. Since we are explicitly told which men this letter comes from, let us meet Paul and Timothy.

Who is Paul? 

The Apostle Paul casts an enormous shadow over the Christian faith, who arguably shaped Christianity more than anyone except for Jesus Himself. But who was Paul? Originally named Saul, the apostle provides a helpfully condensed version of his testimony in Acts 22, while speaking to the Jews in Jerusalem. Born in Tarsus, Saul was raised in Jerusalem where he became a Pharisee under the tutelage of Gamaliel, the most renowned Pharisee of his time. When Christianity began to expand after the events of Pentecost, Saul zealously persecuted the heretics, capturing and delivering over to death as many as he could find. But while traveling to Damascus, Jesus appeared to him as a bright light, asking why Saul was persecuting him. In Damascus, Saul’s sight was restored through the prayer of Ananias. From that time on, Paul was commissioned out as an apostle to the Gentiles, where he suffered greatly for proclaiming the gospel. Paul explains these trails as such:

2 Corinthians 11:24-28 | Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

These hardships primarily took place while Paul traveled about on his missionary journeys. Of course, life outside of his travels was not easy either. As is the case with the writing of Philippians, Paul spent many of his final years in prison before eventually being executed.

Who is Timothy?

Timothy was a young man that Paul found shortly in Lystra, which was before Paul would travel to Philippi for the first time. With a Jewish mother and a Greek father, Timothy was taught the Scriptures by his mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois (1 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 3:15). Timothy joined Paul, Silas, and Luke as they continued their journey, eventually planting the church in Philippi. Given that 2 Timothy is the last Pauline letter, written just prior to his execution, the intimate father-son relationship between Paul and Timothy can be greatly felt.

Some thought must be given to why Timothy is placed alongside Paul in this greeting. After all, Paul was an apostle who authored Scripture by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but Timothy was not. Is this verse, however, suggesting that Timothy is a coauthor of Philippians? The short answer is no. Throughout the letter, Paul repeatedly speaks of himself in the first person, and in chapter two, Paul speaks of Timothy in the third person. The letter, therefore, is clearly written by Paul. Timothy is likely included for two main reasons. First, Timothy was likely the scribe of this letter, physically writing the words that Paul spoke to him. Second, the Philippians already knew Timothy from their previous travels, and Paul was planning to send Timothy to them again as his representative (2:19, 23).

Slaves of Christ

Now that introductions have been made, let us turn our attention to how Paul and Timothy introduce themselves: servants of Christ Jesus. Servant, while not an incorrect translation, is certainly not the best. Servant often implies someone who is paid for their service, like a restaurant server, a butler, or a maid, but Paul is not calling himself that kind of servant. Instead, slave is a much more accurate translation because slave implies the ownership of another person, not simply the hiring of them. We rightfully wince at the very idea of slavery, especially considering the racial slavery from U. S. history. Slavery in the ancient world, although still more than capable of brutalities, did not come with such racial overtones. Slavery was often a valid option for working off a large debt or placing oneself under a wealthier household. A slave could also often purchase their freedom if they desired to do so. Ancient slavery, therefore, is not a direct parallel with our history of slavery. The basic idea, however, remains the same. A slave is the property of his or her master. To be a slave is to be owned by another. This concept is particularly difficult for an individualistic culture such as ours to comprehend. Personal autonomy flows through everything that we do. If are fish, it is our water. If we are birds, it is our air. The entire abortion industry flows from this line of understanding: “my body; my choice.” We are each, as Henley says in his poem Invictus, masters of our fate and captains of our soul. To be owned by another human being is, therefore, almost unfathomable. The mind can scarcely comprehend it.

Yet Paul happily calls Timothy and himself slaves of Christ. The implications of this are difficult to overstate. Paul did not view himself as being the master of his own fate or even his own body. His individual autonomy had been eclipsed by something far greater, Someone far greater. When we reconsider Paul’s testimony, this only continues to astound. Within one moment, Paul ceased persecuting Christ and instead became His slave. Can you imagine the radiance of Christ’s glory, a glory so beautiful that Paul’s life immediately reordered, a glory so marvelous that all his sufferings were a mere light, momentary affliction by comparison?

John Owen pleads for us to search diligently for this glory:

It is by beholding the glory of Christ by faith that we are spiritually edified and built up in this world, for as we behold his glory, the life and power of faith grow stronger and stronger. It is by faith that we grow to love Christ. So if we desire strong faith and powerful love, which give us rest, peace and satisfaction, we must seek them by diligently beholding the glory of Christ by faith. In this duty I desire to live and to die. On Christ’s glory I would fix all my thoughts and desires, and the more I see of the glory of Christ, the more the painted beauties of this world will wither in my eyes and I will be more and more crucified to this world. It will become to me like something dead and putrid, impossible for me to enjoy. (7)

Why is Jesus’ glory so worthy of our pursuit and servitude? Paul uses the word slave one other time in Philippians not to describe himself this time but to describe the humiliation of Christ. Philippians 2:6-11 remind us of Christ’s descent from heaven to become a man, a slave who would be obedient to the Father to the point of death on a cross. But though Jesus suffered humiliation on our behalf, His exaltation is now supreme and total.

Although Jesus became a slave for us, He is now the name above all names, and one day every knee will bend and every tongue confess that He is Lord. In other words, Christ became a slave to save us, so that we can now become slaves to His righteousness. For Him, we willingly lose our lives, knowing that we will find greater life in Him. But while submission to Christ is presently an option, one day that option will cease. Christ will, in the end, reign as Lord and Master over everything and everyone. Those, therefore, who do not willingly embrace the loving and gracious arms of Jesus as their Lord will still find their knees forced to bow to Him as Lord.

Do you submit to Christ as your Lord? Are you a slave of Christ? Are there any aspects of your life that you withhold from Jesus’ lordship?

SAINTS IN CHRIST // VERSE 1

Next, we shift our focus onto the recipients of Paul’s letter: the Philippians.

Who are the saints? 

The address is to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi. The first question that must be asked is: Who are the saints? The Roman Catholic usage of saint is likely to immediately spring to mind. In Catholicism, saints are Christians who displayed in their life an extraordinary amount of holiness and devotion to God. Saints are, in many ways, super-Christians. As you may have guessed already, Paul’s idea of sainthood is quite different. When Paul refers to all the saints of Philippi, he is not addressing his letter only to the best of the best. No, he is referring to all the Christians in Philippi. Throughout the New Testament, saint is synonymous with Christian. Why is this? First, we must understand what exactly being a saint means. In Greek, saint comes from the same root word of holy. In fact, in English, the words saint, sanctify, and sacred all come from the same idea of being holy or becoming holy. A saint then could be called one who is holy.

Now the question becomes: what is holiness? Holiness is best understood as an adjective that can only fully be used to describe God Himself. Because holiness refers to the uniqueness, otherness, or distinctiveness of something, God is the only being who perfectly embodies holiness. Everything else in creation is like something else, at least in the fact that they both have been created. God, however, is totally unique. Even we humans, who were created to be like God, can only dimly reflect His nature. In this sense, God alone is holy. Yet throughout the Scriptures, people and even objects are also deemed holy. How is this? When holiness is applied to people and objects, the meaning is not that they are utterly unique like God but instead that they are distinctively set apart for God. For God, holiness is a statement of His being. For us, holiness is a declaration of God’s ownership of us. To be holy is to be called out of commonality, ordinariness, vulgarity, and profanity into a life exclusively dedicated to God. Saints, therefore, are a people of God’s own possession who have been commission to be His instruments of working in the world (1 Peter 2:9). In other words, if you are a Christian, you are a saint.

At Philippi 

So the saints in Philippi are the same as the believers in Philippi, but notice two other descriptions that Paul gives of them: in Christ and at Philippi. We’ll address their physical location first. Philippi was a city in eastern Macedonia that was conquered and given its name by Philip II of Macedon (more commonly known as the father of Alexander the Great). Philippi later received recognition as being near the battle site of Brutus and Cassius (assassins of Julius Caesar) against Mark Antony and Octavian (friend and adopted son of Caesar, respectively). After the battle and more fully when he became Augustus Caesar, Octavian relieved some of his veteran soldiers for the purpose of colonizing the city. Philippi became highly Romanized and was even modeled on the city of Rome itself. It quickly became a crucial city of the Roman Empire due to its proximity to rich gold mines and its position on the Via Egnatia, which was the major road that Paul would have traveled upon from Philippi to Thessalonica. The founding of the church in Philippi can be read in Acts 16.

In Christ

But the saints of Philippi are not only located at that city, they are also in Christ. Being in Christ is a common concept throughout the New Testament, so we could turn to a multitude of Scriptures for gaining a fuller understanding. Colossians 1:19-22 provides a remarkably concise glance at the riches of our being in Christ:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.

What a glorious truth! In Christ, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and by Christ, God is reconciling all things to himself. The peace of this reconciliation occurs via the blood of Jesus on the cross.

But why do we need to be reconciled to God? We were alienated and hostile in mind. This is our great problem. Because of our continuous rebellion against God, we were separated from God, but not merely separated, we were also hostile to Him. Like Adam and Eve before us, our disobedience is nothing short of a proclamation of our own divinity. Sin, therefore, does not merely make us dirty to God. It cuts us off from Him and makes us haters of Him. Sin is not a light-hearted issue; it is evil itself. In Ephesians 2:1, Paul goes so far as to call us dead in our sins.

What then could save us from our alienation and hostility toward God? Christ, and Christ alone. He has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him. By the death of Christ, we are reconciled to God and made holy, blameless, and above reproach. Jesus does this by, first, taking the due wrath for our sins upon Himself, and then granting to us His righteousness as our own. The process, called propitiation, is how we are reconciled to God. Christ absorbed God’s wrath, while giving us His righteousness. But notice that all of this only takes place in his body of flesh. Our reconciliation with God can occur nowhere other than in Christ. Jesus is now our mediator, bridging the divide of alienation and reconciling the hostility between God and us. This is why Paul commands the Colossians later to consider themselves dead to themselves and alive to God in Christ: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (3:3-4).

What does it mean then to be in Christ? When we have died to our sin and our life is hidden in Christ, we are reconciled to God, standing before Him holy and blameless. Being in Christ, therefore, is the very essence of the gospel. There is no good news outside of Christ. In Him is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and there is no other. To be in Christ is life. To be outside of Him is death.

Dual Citizens

It should also be noted that the Philippians dual locations occur simultaneously. Their life may be hidden with Christ in God, but they are still physically present in Philippi. The same is true of us. We exist in a kind of intermediate state. We have been rescued from sin and now possess the full heavenly blessings of God, and yet we still live in non-glorified, sin-ruined bodies. We are not what we once were, but we are also not yet what we will be. We are in Christ. But we are also in this broken, fallen world. We cannot neglect either of these truths. We must live as new creations in Christ, while also continuing to live in our neighborhoods, cities, and towns. Our dual citizenship must ever be before us. Yet we must also note that the problems rarely come from us being transfixed with our heavenly status to the neglect of our present condition. John Piper expresses this thought well:

The problem with the church today is not that there are too many people who are passionately in love with heaven. Name three! The problem is not that professing Christians are retreating from the world, spending half their days reading Scripture and the other half singing about their pleasures in God all the while indifferent to the needs of the world. The problem is that professing Christians are spending ten minutes reading Scripture and then half their day making money and the other half enjoying and repairing what they spend it on.

It is not heavenly-mindedness that hinders love. It is worldly-mindedness that hinders love, even when it is disguised by a religious routine on the weekend. Where is the person whose heart is so passionately in love with the promised glory of heaven that he feels like an exile and a sojourner on the earth? Where is the person who has so tasted the beauty of the age to come that the diamonds of the world look like baubles, and the entertainment of the world is empty, and the moral causes of the world are too small because they have no view to eternity? Where is this person?

He is not in bondage to TV-watching or eating or sleeping or drinking or partying or fishing or sailing or putzing around. He is a free man in a foreign land. And his one question is this: How can I maximize my enjoyment of God for all eternity while I am an exile on this earth? And his answer is always the same: by doing the labors of love.
Only one thing satisfies the heart whose treasure is in heaven: doing the works of heaven. And heaven is a world of love! It is not the cords of heaven that bind the hands of love. It is the love of money and leisure and comfort and praise — these are the cords that bind the hands of love. And the power to sever these cords is Christian hope.” (Piper, 1986)

How often do you consider your being in Christ? Would you consider yourself heavenly-minded or worldly-minded? How might fixing our eyes on Christ enable us to be better citizens here and now?

With the overseers and deacons

We, of course, cannot continue into verse 2 without addressing the final phrase of verse 1: with the overseers and deacons. I will not spend much time here discussing these two offices, since I have already addressed them in detail through our series, Biblical Leadership. So here is the shorthand information. Overseers and deacons are the two offices of leadership in the church as defined in the Bible. Overseers, who are also called pastors and elders, are guardians of doctrine within the church, tasked primarily to shepherd the congregation through prayer and the ministry of the Word. Deacons are the church’s guardians of unity, who primarily minister to the physical needs of the congregation. Note that both offices are presented as being plural, which is consistent with the rest of the New Testament.

GRACE & PEACE FROM CHRIST // VERSE 2

Now understanding the letter’s author and recipients, Paul writes a common Christian greeting to the church of Philippi. The phrase grace and peace is as loaded with significance as in Christ is. In many ways, these two words represent the entire biblical message.

Peace

The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, is well-known, and even though the letter was written in Greek, Paul no doubt had this concept in mind. Shalom, however, means far more than just the absence of conflict or hardship; it also refers to being whole or complete. Thus, being at peace is to be fully satisfied and content, possessing the serenity of perfect security and completion. With God’s peace, there is no fear. No anxiety. No worry. No stress. No want. No lack. No envy, greed, or coveting. The peace of God is being fully satisfied in God.

Grace

Of course, this peace is only given to us through the other word: grace. Grace is best described alongside mercy. Mercy occurs whenever just punishment is withheld, and grace is the giving of blessing instead. In other words, mercy is about not receiving what we deserved, while grace is about being gifted what we do not deserve. As we described above, these two actions form God’s act of propitiation through the cross of Christ. By God’s mercy, the wrath for our sin is withheld from us and transferred to Christ. By God’s grace, Christ’s righteousness is placed upon us, enabling us to receiving the blessings of God, such as His peace.

God our Father

So by the grace of God, we have the peace of God. These come from the hand of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Not only is God’s wrath kept from us, but God becomes our Father. In Christ, we are able to speak to the Designer of centripetal force, wombats, and mangos as our Dad. If we find security in having connections to powerful people, how much more should we be at peace knowing that our Father upholds the universe by the word of His power!

The Lord Jesus Christ

And this relationship was purchased for us through the death of our Lord, our Master. To bring everything full circle, how can we not serve Christ as His slaves when He has died for us, showered us with His grace, and given us the peace of having God as our Father? Surely He has been proven to have our best interest at heart. We are far richer and far better off serving Christ than any other lord, even ourselves.

May we, therefore, be slaves of Christ who are in Christ by the peace and grace of Christ to the glory alone of Christ.

Depressing Joy: a thousand year search for meaning

Back in 2012, I taught through the books of Ecclesiastes and Philippians together, attempting to show how they both present that true joy is only found in Christ. Since I am now preaching through them again (finishing Ecclesiastes this Sunday), I’m sharing the essay that I wrote in 2012 to explain the connection between these two books.


The nature of joy should not be mysterious to us, yet it often is. C. S. Lewis claims, in the book Surprised by Joy, that pleasure, happiness, and joy share a commonality. This common trait, Lewis remarks, is that after one has experienced them he or she will spend the rest of their life searching for them again. However, though they share this link, joy is significantly different from pleasure or happiness. For instance, the alluring aspect of happiness and pleasure is that they are both enjoyable, yet that very enjoyment of happiness and pleasure is meant to be found within the context of joy. The word “enjoy” means, after all, to find joy in something. Thus, joy is the means by which and the purpose to which we are meant enjoy pleasure and happiness. We often seek happiness and pleasure themselves as sources of joy, but if we sought joy first, then we would already have the context for accepting pleasure and happiness. Joy should be given primacy. Happiness and pleasure could best be described as momentary glimpses of joy, whereas joy is a state of being that transcends throughout the emotional spectrum. Thus, we can be joyful and happy, but we can also be sorrowful and full of joy.

The lasting appeal of joy, I believe, derives from its interconnection with satisfaction. When we are joyful, we are satisfied. Or, it could better be said that when we are satisfied, we are joyful. As Moody notes, “if man is dying for want of bread, and you give him bread, is that going to make him gloomy?” Most, if not all, of our negative emotions can be traced to an outcome that deviated from our original desire. I will not enjoy a meal fully if it is Chinese food and my desire was for Mexican. When our desires are fulfilled, we find joy and satisfaction.

The implication of this thought is enormous because most people strongly desire to live a satisfied life. We often long, deep within our souls, for a joy that gives us true satisfaction and contentment, and we are best able to find that joy by seeing our desires fulfilled. However, if our greatest desire is to achieve joy and satisfaction, then such joy can only be found by finding… joy. And it is within this vague cycle of sought-out meaning that many throw away their search for joy. They become lost in the quest for satisfaction and, as a result, pursue one source of fleeting pleasure after another. Instead of finding lasting joy, they do their best to be satisfied with lesser things, with mere hints of the meaning and contentment that could be had.

This triviality is not lost on God nor on His chosen people throughout history. In fact, there two books within God’s Word that search out and answer how we might find a meaningful and satisfied life. The first of these is the book of Ecclesiastes. Written by Solomon, the king of Israel after succeeding his father David, Ecclesiastes is traditionally believed to be his dying thoughts. After living a life of unparalleled wealth, pleasure, and wisdom, Solomon wrote what many consider to be the most hopeless and depressing book of the Bible.

It is easily understood how one can arrive at such a conclusion. The bulk of Ecclesiastes is Solomon presenting various avenues of hope only to describe their shortcomings. However, the overarching vanity in life is not Solomon’s ultimate purpose for the book. Instead, Solomon hopes to reveal the Source of lasting joy and satisfaction, but he does this primarily by showing how other methods fail to offer such joy. In fact, the Israelite king repeatedly states that there is nothing better in life than to enjoy what you have been given by God.

Wait.

Surely the search for lasting joy cannot be that simple.

Are we meant to simply have joy?

Well, Solomon does give an answer for the Source of joy: God. The conclusion of Solomon’s life is that enjoyment, and thus joy, only comes from God. Nothing else gives such lasting satisfaction. Therefore, we must understand that Ecclesiastes is, at its core, about joy and the Giver of joy.

The second book is the widely hailed epistle of joy: Philippians. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians was written towards the end of his life as well. Over the course of his letter, Paul primarily urges the church in Philippi to rejoice (another word derived from joy), despite the church and Paul himself experiencing persecution. In fact, Philippians was written while Paul was imprisoned for declaring the gospel of Jesus. But even though Paul was sitting in prison awaiting his death, he wrote with supreme confidence that he had found the complete and total meaning of life: “to live is Christ.” Furthermore, Paul’s central focus upon Christ gives contentment and joy in any situation and grants him the ability to view death as gain. The joy of Christ delivers unparalleled joy and satisfaction, while stripping away the sting and fear of death.

Though Solomon and Paul were separated by roughly a thousand years, the central theme of both Ecclesiastes and Philippians remains eternally tied together. These two godly and wise men present to us a thousand year, Spirit-inspired look at humanity’s quest for meaning, satisfaction, and purpose in life. But even more importantly, they present the answer to that quest; therefore, over the next couple of posts, we will explore the connections and relations between these two beautiful, but challenging, books.

Two Roads

A belief that I hold is that there are two paths to hell. If eternal judgment is your desired destination, rest assured that you have at least two choices to take: the road of the “sinner” or the road of the “religious.”

You see, the only method of actually securing the eternal wrath of such a loving God is to follow your own prideful heart, to reject His grace and His Son. This is the only means of sealing one’s damnation because we know that anyone who turns from their sins and follows Christ shall be saved.

However,  though pride is the only means of earning a hellish afterlife, such a life plays out in two broad forms, both are methods of proclaiming your own glory instead of God’s. As one could probably guess, both of these views are discussed in Ecclesiastes and Philippians.

First, you can become a “sinner” and adamantly reject the inherent moral compass that God has placed within us. This way of life will almost always become some form of the philosophical thought known as hedonism. This is because, as stated above, pleasure gives us a sense of enjoyment, which we will often relentlessly pursue. When we are centered upon ourselves entirely and deny any real morality, we will seek our own happiness through various means.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon gives us the very epitome of this “sinner” approach to life. His hedonistic quest is listed in the second chapter and is basically a dream fulfilled to anyone. Is music enjoyable? Solomon hired his favorite singers and musicians to play personally for him, whenever he wanted. How about laughter? He had the best comedians around him at all times. Animals? He had the best farms and his own personal zoo. Money? Solomon made 666 talents of gold each year just for being king. That would be a salary of about $750,000,000 in today’s currency! With all of his possessions included, Solomon is widely considered to be the wealthiest person to ever live. How about sex? He had 700 wives and 300 concubines whose only job was to satisfy any fantasy that the king had. Most men today would have great difficulty building a virtual harem that large, let alone an actual harem! He ordered the building of one of the wonders of the ancient world, the temple in Jerusalem. His philanthropy was also unmatched. Surely all of those activities gave him pleasure!

And actually, it did.

But it was only a fleeting, momentary pleasure. Disillusioned by the inability to find lasting satisfaction in any of those avenues, Solomon gives himself over to despair in the very same chapter! Though he sought joy, the end result is nothing but depression.

Or we could choose to become “religious.”

This route is no less prideful than the “sinner’s” road, though it often appears to be so because of the false humility that likely follows. In many ways, this path is no less hedonistic than the “sinner.” While “sinner” ignores the moral laws and seeks pleasure outside of them, the “religious” accepts morality and hopes to find pleasure in being a good person. Following this route, our satisfaction becomes contingent upon our good works.

In Philippians, we find this other path toward damnation played out. In the third chapter, Paul gives us his religious credentials. Paul was born into one of the more prominent tribes among God’s chosen people. When it came to obeying the laws that God gave to the Israelites, Paul was a Pharisee. This group literally devoted their entire lives to obeying God’s Word, and Paul was quickly becoming one of the best. Another aspect of religiousness is passion, or zeal. Many today will argue that it does not matter what you believe so long as you believe with your whole heart and passion. Paul had unrivaled zeal, displayed in the fact that he killed those considered to be heretics. It is difficult to imagine a greater passion than the willingness to kill for your beliefs. And interestingly enough, Paul does not say that this failed to give him pleasure or satisfaction. In fact, this form of life can certainly lead to a fulfilled existence; however, the end result will not be even remotely pleasant. Jesus informs us that at the end of time many will stand before Him and confidently sight their resume as justification for their entrance into God’s presence. Shockingly, they will promptly be denied. Why? They will be sent away because all of their efforts were for their own pride and glory, not the glorification of Christ.

Nevertheless, Paul does not reiterate Jesus’ words. He does not even state that all of his best efforts were in vain. Instead, he is more concerned with what he has found to be the greatest source of pleasure and meaning, which consequently is the same conclusion that Solomon also arrives to at the end of the second chapter in Ecclesiastes. Solomon’s claim is that the ability to enjoy life is a gift from God, and Paul’s conclusion is that everything else pales in comparison to Jesus Christ. Solomon’s hedonism and Paul’s hedonistic legalism both spring from the sin called pride and its rebellion against God. Yet both also find their hope and true joy in God and the radiance of His glory Jesus Christ.

Finding Contentment

Yet even if hedonism and religious legalism are both truly dead ends, we are forced to ask once more why people pursue these ends.

Why do we relentlessly chase after the pleasures of hedonism to the degree of ignoring our God-given conscience?

Why practice the asceticism found within religious legalism so that precious little happiness and pleasure is left in life?

Both roads are meant to accomplish the same end: contentment. A satisfied, fulfilled, and purposeful life is the goal to which almost every philosophical outlook aims. Most of us seek to live a life that is full of meaning, a life that has not been wasted.

Solomon, with all of his divinely granted wisdom, was no exception. Ecclesiastes is the Israelite king’s reflection on all of the various quests that he explored to find this contentment, this meaning in life. Though he pursued many possible means toward that end, the thesis of Ecclesiastes is that he only found one path that leads to true meaning and satisfaction in life.

In the twelfth and thirteenth verses of chapter three, Solomon states simply that there is nothing better than for us to “take pleasure” in all of our toil. He would rephrase this idea later by saying that we would do well to accept our lot in life. Thus, we have to wonder if such is the extent of Solomon’s wisdom. The wisest man to ever live, at the end of his life, reaches one conclusion: to find contentment and satisfaction in life, be content and satisfied with life.

Is the answer to the question truly the content of the question itself? Fortunately, Solomon grants us more to guide us than the advice of simply being content. Instead, Solomon reveals to us the Source of contentment. He concludes the verses mentioned above with this tell-tale phrase: “this is God’s gift to man.” From whence can such contentment and purpose in life come? According to Solomon, it can only come from the hand of God, gift to humanity that He alone can give.

Paul’s letter to the Philippian church is not without its parallel in this matter.

Given the apostle’s circumstances, it would be difficult to imagine how he could find complete and total satisfaction with life. He was locked away in prison, knowing that he could be executed at any moment. And this is after most of his missionary journeys, which saw him shipwrecked, beaten, stoned, and flogged. Luke the physician likely stayed by Paul’s side primarily out of necessity. After such difficulties and sufferings, is it possible for Paul to write about having contentment and satisfaction? Amazingly, he does!

In verse eleven of chapter four, Paul declares that he has learned “to be content” in any situation. Even so, this claim will inspire nothing but envy within us unless Paul is able to disclose the Source of his contentment. The thirteenth verse of the same chapter is one of the most famous and quoted verses of the entire Bible, and it is there that the answer is found. It is through “him who strengthens” that Paul finds the ability to be satisfied within difficult circumstances. We understand from the context of the letter and chapter that the “him” is Christ.

Therefore, Paul is making the same claim that Solomon made 1000 years prior. They have both found the same conclusion to one of life’s greatest questions, and the answer is that only God can give us contentment and satisfaction with life.

The Pursuit of Joy

We have now arrived at the Source of a content life. We have discovered that God alone, through Christ, is able granted us the satisfaction that our souls desire. However, if we stop merely at the Source of our satisfaction, then I believe that we will miss an opportunity to see the glory and goodness of God at work.

You see, part of the glorious nature of God’s gift of contentment is the means by which it is given. God, being God, could easily have granted us a form of contentment that offered no level of pleasure. He could have simply given us the ability to be completely satisfied with our lot in life, while also being quite unhappy. Yet, this is not how He chose to operate. God Himself is the Source of our contentment, but joy is the vehicle, the mode, through which His gift is given. This thought gives heart to what was discussed at the beginning: joy leads to satisfaction, which we know now to be because God ordained it as such.

In bringing the ideas of joy, contentment, meaning, satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness full circle, we may once again turn toward Ecclesiastes’ and Philippians’ persistent mentioning of joy and its derivative words.

Solomon continually reinforces that the only means of lasting value is enjoying life via the free gift of God.  Paul pleads throughout for the Philippians to rejoice in Christ, even in the persecution that they were experiencing. Thus, over the span of a thousand years, Paul and Solomon both urge, through radically different writings and lives, that finding enjoyment and rejoicing in God are the only means to achieving lasting contentment and satisfaction in life, and enjoyment and rejoicing can only come from God Himself.

Therefore, God is the Source, the Receiver of the means, and the Objective that we hope to arrive upon. In short, joy, contentment, and meaning are only in God the Father through Jesus Christ. The circular quest for purpose has but one answer: the One who is, in and of Himself, the Beginning and the End. He is the summation of the very purpose of our lives.

Thus, we enjoy and rejoice because He is good and sufficient, and in Him, we are completely satisfied. It is this biblical line of thinking that inspired John Piper to form this condensed description of his theology: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. Being satisfied in Him necessitates enjoying and rejoicing in Him.

All of this is to say that the chief end of both Ecclesiastes and Philippians is that immeasurable joy can only be found in God, which will lead to a content and satisfied life, and a life that is completely joyful in Him will be supremely glorifying to Him.  Let us, therefore, glorify Christ Jesus along with Solomon and Paul, for His glory will also become our greatest joy.

What Is Biblical Inspiration?

All Scripture is breathed out by God…
2 Timothy 3:16 ESV

Before we address what Paul means by Scripture being breathed out by God, we must first identify what we mean by the word Scripture. At its simplest, the word scripture means a writing, some form of written document. The Apostle Paul is using it as a title for what many of us today call the Bible (which means book). The Word of God is also an appropriate title, and the Old Testament is fond of calling it the Law. So the Bible, Scripture, Word of God, and the Law are all titles for the same collection of ancient literature that we Christians value greatly.

You may also note that Paul refers to the Bible as Scripture (singular), but they are also called the Scriptures (plural) just as often. In fact, Jesus Himself tended to use the singular and plural pretty interchangeably. I think this is because the Bible is both a collection of books and one single book.

With sixty-six books, the Bible is a library, divided into two parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Containing thirty-nine books, the Old Testament is significantly larger than the New, and many considered to be much more difficult to read. However, the Old Testament’s story can be easily read in the following books: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Those eleven books form the overall narrative, from creation to the restoration of Jerusalem. Beyond that, the Old Testament can be divided into three categories: the Torah (Hebrew for Law), the Writings, and the Prophets. The Torah consists of the first five books of the Bible, authored by Moses. Psalms, Proverbs, and the other poetic books compose the Writings. The oracles of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Jonah, and others fill the largest section, the Prophets.

There is a four-hundred-year gap between the Old and New Testament. The New Testament opens with the four Gospels. These are each accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The presence of four books that tell the same story should point to the importance and centrality of their message.

Jesus is the focus of the entire Bible.

The Old Testament looked forward to Him, the Gospels proclaim Him, and the rest of the New Testament is a reflection upon what He did and will do.

But why do we need four Gospels?

We can think of the Gospels as being different portraits of Jesus. They all tell the same narrative but from a slightly different angle. Matthew paints Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, coming to establish the eternal kingdom of heaven on earth. Mark depicts Jesus as the suffering servant, coming in authority to lay down His life for others. Luke pictures Jesus as the Son of Man, who reaches out to the poor, sick, and outcast with healing, grace, and mercy. John portrays Jesus as the Son of God, the divine Word of God who eternally existed with God, as God, and has now come into humanity on a mission to redeem us.

Acts is the only other narrative work in the New Testament. It describes the growth of the church and how they, through the Holy Spirit, continue the ministry of Jesus as His body. Romans through Philemon are letters written by the apostle Paul to churches or individuals. Hebrews is a letter/sermon of unknown authorship that explains the Old Testament’s completion in Christ. James through Jude are letters named after their respective authors. Finally, Revelation is a book of prophesy concerning the end of everything. It contains many allusions to Genesis because it the completion and closing of all the Scriptures.

What Is Inspiration?

The most recent books of the Bible were written nearly two thousand years ago, while many Old Testament books were even written thousands of years before those. But even though the Scriptures were written by various authors over thousands of years in a plethora of genres, there is unifying thread that weaves them all into one book: their Source.

While men like Moses, Ezra, Paul, or John are considered biblical authors, Peter tells us that no “Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophesy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20-21) Notice the phrase carried along by the Holy Spirit. Moses may have physically written Genesis, but the Holy Spirit guided him to write what was needed.

This process of the Holy Spirit carrying along the biblical authors is called the inspiration of the Bible. The Scriptures were written by men but inspired by God, or as Paul says to Timothy, they are breathed out by God. A literal translation would be that all Scripture is God-breathed. The LORD breathed the Scriptures into existence, using the human authors as instruments.

This does not mean that God overrode the authors individual writing styles. Paul writes different than Moses, Peter, or John. But it does mean that there is unity to the whole because ultimately each book is written by God, which makes each book of the Bible feel similar to one another. Exodus and Romans could not be more different, and yet they have a similar gravitas, a paralleling significance. If we consider Clement’s letter to the Corinthians, the familiarity becomes more identifiable.

Clement was a pastor in Rome, who was born in 35 AD, placing him roughly in the generation below the apostles. Living in the time of Jesus’ disciples, Clement wrote a letter to the Corinthian church that may have been finished before the book of Revelation. Thus, you would expect this letter to have much the same feel as the New Testament letters, and yet though Clement’s letter is beneficial and worth reading, one can feel that the Old Testament books are more similar to the New Testament letters than Clement’s letter does. This is because for all of its value, Clement’s letter is not Scripture. God did not breathe it out, and it noticeably does not contain the same weight as the books of Scripture do.

The Bible is ultimately God’s book, His Word breathed out to humanity about Himself. The Scriptures reveal His will, character, and commands for us, and they teach us who He is. They are for our benefit. This means that they are very much the actual Word of God; thus, as we read the Bible, we are hearing God speak to us.

Our value for the Scriptures is enormous; however, they do not themselves grant us eternal life. Instead, the Bible reveals to us the God who holds eternal life. The Bible’s infinite value comes because it is our means of knowing God.

Before concluding this post, we need to pause and consider one more thing.

If Paul truly does mean that ALL Scripture is inspired by God, then we have the duty to submit ourselves to them regardless of whether we like what they say or not. By believing that every word of Scripture is breathed out by God, we can no longer ignore unpleasant parts of God’s Word. We must face all of it, together as a whole, letting God speak to us. If we do not give the Scriptures the right to contradict and correct us, we will never know the God that authored them. You simply cannot know God without all of Scripture.

I urge you, therefore, to trust the words of the One who also spoke galaxies into existence. Give His Word permission to alter your thinking. You will never regret it.