Knowing Christ & His Resurrection | Philippians 3:10-11

that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:10-11 ESV

 

Having expressed his dependency upon the grace of God for righteousness, Paul now proceeds to detail the benefits of knowing and being found in Christ. We can roughly break these benefits into three sections: knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection, sharing His sufferings, and attaining the resurrection of the dead.

KNOWING CHRIST & THE POWER OF HIS RESURRECTION // VERSE 10

The first benefit of being saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection. In verse 8, we described briefly the importance of knowing Christ, which Paul considered surpassing more valuable than his own religious works. Here the apostle emphasizes that knowing Christ is a fruit of the gospel itself. Too many envision the good news as a kind of Get-Out-of-Hell-Free card. By saving us from our sins, Jesus grants us access to heaven. Period. End of story. The gospel, however, promises us so much more than a pleasant place to spend eternity; it promises us Jesus Christ. Failing to understand the majesty of such a promise can only mean that the gospel itself is not understood. Jesus is the both the means and the goal of the gospel. He rescued us, and He is our great reward.

Of course, a new Christian who first believes the gospel knows something of Christ but will be hungry to know more of Him. How does he or she do this? We grow in knowledge of Christ through reading and understanding the written Word of God. The Bible is the special revelation of God to humanity; therefore, we come to know Him through the Scriptures. But the need to grow in our knowledge of Christ is not just for new Christians. Because Jesus is the eternal God, we will never know Him fully. Finite minds simply cannot understand entirely that which is infinite. Thus, to suggest that we already sufficiently know Christ is, first, a statement of supreme arrogance and, second, actually reveals that we do not comprehend even the basic divinity of Christ. We shall spend all of eternity coming to understand more and more of our Savior, yet we will never reach the end. Tozer captures what must be the heart of each Christian with these words:

To have found God and still to pursue Him is the soul’s paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too easily satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart. St. Bernard stated this holy paradox in a musical quatrain that will be instantly understood by every worshiping soul:

We taste Thee, O Thou Living Bread
And long to feast upon Thee still:
We drink Thee, the Fountainhead,
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill. 

Does this describe you?

Are you pursuing God?

In Christ, the Father is revealed to us; therefore, our pursuit will not be in vain. God has commanded this of us: “You have said, ‘Seek my face’” (Psalm 27:8). May we answer with the psalmist: “My heart says to you, ‘Your face, LORD, do I seek’” (Psalm 27:8).

But the apostle does not stop at simply knowing Christ; instead, he also adds another phrase: and the power of his resurrection. Thus, being transformed by the gospel means knowing Christ and the power that raised Him from the dead. What then is the power of Christ’s resurrection? We should begin with the reminder that it is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the resurrection of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:17, Paul bluntly states: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” Without the resurrection of Jesus, Christianity comes undone. There is no hope for the life to come, for us to be saved from our sins, if Christ remained in the grave. The gospel itself depends upon the resurrection. What can be more powerful than that? What knowledge on earth can compare to knowing that God Himself died for the sins of His rebellious creatures and rose from the dead to display His power for all to see? No truth is greater than this.

But how can we know the power of Christ’s resurrection? Romans 8:11 provides us with a clue: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” The Holy Spirit of God dwells within each and every believer, granting to us spiritual life in Christ here and eternal life with Christ in the age to come. Each Christian knows the power of Christ’s resurrection because it is the very power which saved us from being dead in sin. To believe the gospel is to experience the power of the resurrection.

Finally, notice that knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection are entwined with one another. This is no accident on Paul’s part. Rather, Christ cannot be known apart from also knowing the power of His resurrection. To deny the reality of His rising is to deny Christ Himself. We are only able to know Him because of His victory of the grave on our behalf.

SHARING THE SUFFERINGS OF CHRIST // VERSE 10

The second benefit of salvation is sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Like verse 29 of chapter one, we might be tempted to slide past this verse without giving it too much thought; however, it is crucial for understanding Paul’s joy in the midst of suffering. To understand this, we must first understand Christ’s sufferings. The afflictions of Christ were so essential to His life that Isaiah gave Him this description: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (53:3). As the hymn declares, “Man of sorrows, what a name for the Son of God, who came ruined sinners to reclaim”! And although Christ’s life was one of rejection and sorrow, the very pinnacle is the cross. In fact, Paul made such a claim already by placing the crucifixion of Christ at the very depth of His humiliation for us (2:8). The sufferings of Christ upon the cross are so central to the life of Christ that we can rightly declare that Jesus came to earth to die. His atoning death was the reason behind the glorious miracle of the incarnation. As with the resurrection, we cannot overstate the vast importance of the sufferings of Christ via the cross.

But what then does Paul mean about sharing in Christ’s sufferings? After all, wasn’t the whole point of the cross for Jesus to suffer in our place? Paul is certainly not implying that we must somehow add to the sufferings of Christ with our own. The blood of Christ is entirely sufficient to save. Instead, he is describing how we must become imitators of Christ, especially in suffering. If Jesus was the Man of Sorrows and we are His disciples, will we not also be marked by suffering? Jesus warns us of this very thing: “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Mark 10:24-25). As followers of Christ, we can only expect to suffer like our Lord suffered. The writers of the New Testament remind us often of this fact.

1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 | And we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this.

1 Peter 4:12-13 | Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something stranger were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.

Christians are destined to suffer for Christ, and that should not be strange news to us. The disciple must be like his teacher. Christians must be like Christ.

Yet also pay attention to the particular wording here: and may share his sufferings. I cannot recall whether it was a book or a podcast where I was first introduced to this idea, but it is a crucial distinction to make: Paul, along with the early Christians, considered themselves to be suffering alongside Christ during their afflictions. Today, however, a strong tendency exists to take comfort that Christ suffers alongside us in our sorrows. Instead of being comforted that we are with Christ, we are comforted that Christ is with us. The difference is subtle, but this is not a splitting of hairs. One view gives us the honor of suffering alongside Christ, while the other essentially gives Christ the honor of suffering alongside us. Christ is the focus of the first, while we are the focus of the second. We are each called to suffer with Christ. And yes, Jesus promises to be with us until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20), but our joy in the midst of suffering is that we (like the apostles) are “counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).

The final phrase of verse 10 is an interesting one. As we suffer with Christ, we become like Him in His death. The NASB’s translation is more preferable: being conformed to His death. Just as form and conform are related words in English, so is the Greek word here related to the word used for form in verses 6-7 of chapter two. Just as Jesus took the form of a servant when dying for us upon the cross, so we are conformed to Him through our sufferings for the gospel. In this way, the life of the Christian is cruciform. We live in the shadow and shape of the cross, and it impacts every aspect and facets of our lives.

By the way, in case it has not become obvious yet, the letter of Philippians increasingly becomes the bane of Nominal Christianity. Cultural (or Nominal) Christianity has also been called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and it is nothing like what Paul has been describing here. These “Christians” give no concern to knowing Christ, only to escaping hell. They do not desire to be conformed to the death of Christ, only to live as comfortably as possible in this life and in the one to come. They are not driven by a love of God but by selfish motives. Cultural Christianity goes against everything that Paul is presenting before us.

ATTAINING THE RESURRECTION AT ALL COSTS // VERSE 11

The third and final benefit of being saved by the gospel is attaining the resurrection of the dead. First of all, we should remind ourselves what resurrection Paul is referring to here. Within the Christian faith, two resurrections must be believed in order to remain orthodox: the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. Having already discussed Jesus’ resurrection, the resurrection of the dead is the future resurrection of all mankind either to everlasting life or everlasting death. Thus, the common conception of us spending an eternity in heaven floating on clouds with harps and angel wings is not presented by the Bible. Instead, followers of Christ will be raised back to life in glorified bodies that are no longer capable of sin, and we will live forever with the Lord upon the New Earth. Heaven, therefore, is not a mystical dreamworld. It is the reality, and this life is the dream. We will live forever in the physical presence of Jesus Christ our Lord. Because being with Christ will be our great reward, we must understand that even our resurrection is about knowing Christ. And this, again, is why the resurrection of Jesus is so crucial. His raising from the dead is the pledge of our resurrection with Him to come.

The resurrection is, therefore, an essential doctrine of the faith, which helps to explain Paul’s language for attaining the resurrection by any means possible. But what exactly does that phrase mean? Should we be desperately looking for a means of attaining the resurrection? Was Paul not confident in the sacrifice of Christ to give him eternal life? No, and no. The apostle has just finished ranting against attempts to earn salvation through human effort, meaning that the resurrection is also a gift from God through faith in Christ. Instead, Paul is pointing to the intimate connection between attaining the resurrection and being conformed to the death of Christ. He is looking to the resurrection as His final goal, the finish line, and against such a magnificent promise, the present sufferings are a light momentary affliction. Once again, this isn’t saying that we are justified by our cruciform life, but the evidence of the gospel is the daily death of self as we come to know Christ more and more.

In short, those who will not die with Christ here will not live with Christ in the resurrection. But of course, I’m not talking about martyrs exclusively. Each day we are given the choice of living for our own glory or the glory of Christ, to yield to our desires or to die to self. If we have no willingness to pour out our lives for the sake of Christ, then we cannot hope in the being with Him for eternity. If we do not treasure Him above all things now, how can we expect to treasure Him in the life to come?

Brothers and sisters, attaining the resurrection of the dead must be our goal. Our eyes must be fixed upon spending our eternity in the presence of Christ. By doing so, we will live differently in this life. The sufferings of this world will be nothing but transient pains leading to our future glory. The temptations of this world will become mere trifles in comparison to our enjoyment in Christ. How often, therefore, do you think of our eternal rest with the Lord? John Owen gives this warning:

Why are men so stupid? They all want to go to heaven. Nobody wants to go to hell. Most, like Balaam, would ‘die the death of the righteous’ and have their ‘latter end like his’. Yet few make any effort to get right ideas of heaven, to see if the true heaven really would satisfy them and make them eternally happy. They are stupidly content with vague ideas of heaven or deceive themselves with their own ideas of heaven. But those who have been taught heavenly truths and who profess that their chief desires lie in these truths, yet who neglect to meditate on them, show that, whatever they claim to be, they are still earthly and carnal. (Spiritual-mindedness, 70)

Does that describe you?

Do you enjoy Christ here on earth? If not, you will find no enjoyment of Him in heaven.

Does your life here revolve around the crucified and risen Savior? If not, heaven will be entirely unpleasant for you since heaven is all about Christ.

But if knowing Christ is your greatest joy now, you will know Him by sight in the resurrection, which indeed is joy unspeakable and full of glory.

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Counting Everything as Vanity for the Sake of Christ | Philippians 3:4-9

Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—

Philippians 3:4-9 ESV

 

Thus far, Paul has expressed his affection and thanksgiving for the Philippians’ partnership in his ministry. He then addressed concerns regarding his imprisonment by reassuring them that God was actually using it to advance the gospel and that He would keep doing so. Paul also urged the Philippians to behave as citizens worthy of the gospel by being of the same mind and love, following Christ’s perfect example of humility.

In our last study, Paul began to address the danger of legalism, warning particularly against those who required Gentile Christians to be circumcised. Within our present text, Paul challenges anyone to produce a religious résumé greater than his own, while then emphasizing that he, like everyone else, is dependent upon grace alone through faith.

THE CREDENTIALS OF PAUL // VERSES 4-6

After soundly arguing against the principle of placing confidence in one’s flesh, Paul pulls out a plot twist by saying that he has more reason than anyone for putting confidence in his flesh. With the credentials that follow, we may be tempted to think of the apostle as boasting in his accomplishments; however, the exact opposite is true. He is merely sayings that if anyone could be confident in their good works it would have been him. But they were meaningless. Nothing but vanity. That’s the point. If Paul wasn’t qualified to earn his own salvation, no one is.

Verses 5-6 then act as Paul’s religious credentials of sorts. Studying it, we must admit that it is quite impressive.

Circumcised on the eighth day – It is important to note that Paul did not refute the Judaizers’ emphasis on circumcision because he did not want to go through the painful process. No, Paul was circumcised when he was only eight days old, as Jewish law commands. Thus, if circumcision was the means of justification, Paul already did it. He would only argue against something that he has already accomplished if he truly understood that it was not sufficient.

Of the people of Israel – It is clear throughout the Old Testament that the Jewish people were special. Yet they were special not because of anything that they had to offer but because God Himself chose them to be His chosen people. The Israelites were the people of God, set apart and made holy for divine purposes. Paul, therefore, was not an “unclean” Gentile, but a member of this holy nation.

Of the tribe of Benjamin – Aside from simply belonging to the Israelite people, Paul knew exactly from which tribe he came. The tribe of Benjamin was certainly one of the more prestigious of the twelve tribes.

Benjamin was the younger of the two sons born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Benjamin was the only son of Jacob who was born in the Promised Land. The tribe of Benjamin provided many noble warriors throughout Israel’s history (cf. Hos. 5:8). Israel’s first lawful king came from the tribe of Benjamin. Jerusalem and the temple stood within Benjamin’s territory. This tribe alone, beside Judah, remained loyal to David’s house when the monarchy divided in 931 B.C. The feast of Purim celebrated the salvation of the Jews by a Benjamite, Mordecai. After the Exile, Benjamin and Judah formed the core of the restoration community. Of course, this tribe’s history was not without its shame as well (e.g., Saul’s failures, the Gibeans’ atrocity that led to the civil war that almost wiped this tribe out, etc.). Nevertheless Paul could legitimately take pride in his Benjamite heritage. He came from one of the leading families in Israel. (Constable, 49)

A Hebrew of Hebrews – Though Paul was raised in a Hellenistic city, this did not prevent him from learning the fullness of his Jewish heritage. Yes, he knew and mastered the Greek language, which allowed him to scribe the letters that we have presently, but he was also a devout student of Hebrew, which even in their day was a less than popular language.

As to the law, a Pharisee – The Pharisaic sect was the all-star team of Judaism. They were the most educated men in Israel. Their theology was solid. Their commitment to keeping God’s Word was unparalleled. They had such a deep commitment to upholding the Law that they actually created their own laws (that were stricter) just so that they could avoid breaking God’s Law at all costs. Their numbers were always small and elusive. Paul had not only made the cut to be a Pharisee, but he was a disciple of Gamaliel, one of the greatest Pharisees ever to live.

As to zeal, a persecutor of the church – Zeal, or passionate fervor, for God and His Word was one of the most valued qualities of a devout Jewish person of God. Paul claims that his zeal for Judaism was so fierce that he killed those who ascribed to the “heretical” Christian sect. To be fair, it is difficult to imagine a greater form of passion than the willingness to kill for one’s beliefs.

As to righteousness under the law, blameless – I see this as Paul challenging his readers to find fault in him. He is certainly not claiming to be without sin; rather, according to all of the works and ideals of Judaism, Paul says he was blameless. He did everything required of him and more. Only a handful of people throughout history could match Paul’s religious dedication and practice.

Merida and Chan use these seven items as seven kinds of works that we often attempt to place our confidence in. Circumcision relates to our confidence in rituals. Being an Israelite and Benjamite correlate to our security in ethnicity and rank. A Hebrew of Hebrews and Pharisee can be seen as tradition and rule-keeping. Finally, a persecutor and blameless are linked to zeal and obedience to the law. Of course, none of these are bad things, but they are not sufficient to justify us before God. Which of these do you most associate with? What form does legalism take in your life?

Now with this religious résumé, Paul is using himself as an example to say that if anyone could be justified by their works, it would be him. If there was anyone that could find fulfillment in the works of their flesh, it would be Paul. In practice, a large portion of us will spend our entire lives attempting to do a fraction of what Paul did. However, verse 7 will show us his true opinion of all his efforts.

COUNTING ALL AS LOSS FOR THE SAKE OF CHRIST // VERSES 7-9

Ah! What a sweet but painfully difficult verse to read! Paul’s true heart about his works is made known: that he counts it all as loss in comparison to Christ. This man, who claimed to have been blameless in his religiousness, considers everything on that list in verses five and six to be nothing when placed in the light of Christ.

Notice what is portrayed here. Paul does not say that he failed to find fulfillment in his works. All of his moral accomplishments surely gave him a form of happiness and contentment, an assurance that he was living his life for the greater good.

And that is all true. Legalism does offer a form of satisfaction, a form of gratification that comes from living for a higher purpose. Yet in this sense, religion can become little more than altruistic hedonism. It is hedonistic because the ultimate goal is pleasure. It is altruistic because it derives that pleasure from doing good. Yet even though pleasure can be found in religious works, it is not lasting. It is not eternal. It cannot lead to a permanently satisfied life. It cannot result in joy.

Thus, it is this common thread of joy that comes back into play. The joy that Paul is not afraid to repeat over and over again to the Philippians can only be found via this verse. It is not a matter of what we do, but rather it is a matter of who Christ is. The joy of this letter is not found in work or religiousness. It is only found in the glory and the supremacy of Christ. Just as we saw in the previous chapter, one day everyone will acknowledge that Jesus is supreme, that He is Lord. Being supreme and being one with God puts Jesus as the Creator and Sustainer of the all that exists. This makes Jesus the supreme source of good. Thus, when God wants to give us the greatest good, He gives to us Himself. The glory of the resplendent Christ far outshines all else so that our greatest hopes and works become mere vanities by comparison.

Expounding upon his thought in verse seven, Paul then specifies that there is a surpassing worth in knowing Christ. This knowledge is so valuable that everything is counted as loss (no longer just his religious works) in comparison to it. Jesus is of greater value to Paul than all things put together. The apostle, therefore, joyfully counted everything as lost to him because Christ is far greater and more than enough for him. Especially with the “gain” and “loss” language, it is almost as though Paul is presenting this with the logic of mathematics. If Jesus is greater than everything, I can then have Jesus plus nothing else and still be better off than if I had everything except Jesus. This explains the joyfulness of the apostle in the midst of his numerous sufferings. His persecutors had absolutely zero ability to diminish his love of the gospel because he knew Christ.

Paul further draws a line of distinction between the knowing of Christ and everything else by saying that he counts them as “rubbish.” Unfortunately, rubbish does not capture the weight of Paul’s thought here. Consider Dr. Constable’s thoughts on the word:

The Greek word translated “rubbish” (skybalon) occurs only here in the New Testament. Its derivation is uncertain, but it appears to have referred to excrement, food gone bad, scraps left over after a meal, and refuse. In extrabiblical Greek it describes a half-eaten corpse and lumps of manure. Thus Paul meant that his former advantages (his standing, wealth, and position in the Jewish community) were not only worthless but strongly offensive and potentially dangerous. He put his most prized possessions in the garbage can. (Constable, 51)

Some have gone so far as to argue that Paul was using mild profanity here, and while I don’t think that is the case, it seems to be more impolite than we would often care to admit. Perhaps the best translation in present-day English is “crap” or “dog crap.” While crap is certainly not considered profanity, it is still quite crass. The apostle’s point, of course, is that everything in life is as valuable as a steaming pile of dog crap when compared to Jesus Christ. That’s not to say that things don’t have value. They do. But when placed beside Christ, there is absolutely no comparison.

The final phrase in verse eight leads into one long thought that runs through verse eleven. Built upon the surpassing worthy of knowing Christ, Paul claims that he suffered the loss of all things and counted them as rubbish “in order that” he may gain Christ and be found in Him. This is the glory of losing everything for the sake of Christ: we get Jesus! Christ, Himself, is the reward that makes losing everything completely worth it. Jesus is the great gain that the author of Ecclesiastes searched for under the sun. He is the answer to the vanity of life and placing our hope within our own righteousness under the law is like striving after wind.

Notice also Paul’s emphatic source of righteousness: from God, through faith, and in Christ. Obtaining righteousness through obedience to the law is a fool’s errand. It cannot be done. But this doesn’t diminish the purpose of God’s law because without each of God’s commandments, we would be blind to the depth of our error. Gazing into the God’s law exposes our depravity and helplessness, which, of course, makes the good news even more beautiful. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our righteousness now comes from God Himself through faith in Christ. God is the source. Jesus is the means. And faith is the mode. Our righteousness, therefore, a pure gift of God, leaving us with nothing to boast of before God.

Since Paul’s righteousness was only found by faith in Christ, the Author of life, his counting everything as loss makes complete sense, as does his joy in the midst of suffering. Can you also make such a claim? Has the great gain of knowing and being found in Christ eclipsed everything else in your life? Could you truly rejoice in Christ even if everything else was taken from you?

We Are the Circumcision | Philippians 3:1-3

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

Philippians 3:1-3 ESV

 

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

REJOICE // VERSE 1

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

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

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

MUTILATORS OF THE FLESH // VERSE 2

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

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

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

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

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

Of Harsh Words

Obviously, the severity of Paul’s language reveals the seriousness of the threat of the Judaizers to Christianity. Perhaps it is worth considering for a moment the worth and danger of using harsh language to describe theological realities.

Given that our current society tends to value kindness over truth (likely an overcorrection of the anything-goes nature of Internet conversations that are cloaked by anonymity), the willingness of Scripture to speak strong and even offensive language in defense of truth is somewhat jarring. Indeed, many today view Jesus as the paragon of gentleness and soft-spoken words, overlooking (either through sheer ignorance or blatant rejection) Jesus’ rather frequent declaration of hypocrisy upon the Pharisees and other religious leaders. Likewise, Paul wrote to the Galatians concerning the issue of circumcision, calling the Galatians foolish for believing the Judaizers (3:1) and wishing for the emasculation of the deceivers (5:15). For the sake of brevity, we must pass over the language of the Old Testament, such as Amos calling wealthy women who oppressed the poor “cows” (Amos 4:1). Just as with its frank discussion of violence and sexual sin, the Bible is not ashamed to speak harshly in the midst of a sinful world. We must, therefore, meet the Bible as it is, refusing to pretend as though we have a moral superiority to the very Word of God.

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

Confrontations with false teachers who are leading brothers and sisters astray also seem to justify harsh words in some circumstances, as we see within this verse. As nearly each New Testament author warns against false teachers at some point, the danger of yielding to false doctrine is an ever-present threat upon Christ’s church, leading many of the narrow path. As such, the biblical authors’ words against false teachers are particularly brutal. Jesus said being drowned with a stone tied around your neck is a better option than leading others into sin (Matthew 18:6). Both Peter and Jude state that the gloom of utter darkness is reserved for them (2 Peter 2:17; Jude 13). John calls them antichrists (1 John 4:3). Purposeful deception of God’s people deserves strong and even harsh rebuke. Although since such language is so strong, we must remember that it is reserved for false teachers, not misguided teachers. Apollos was not sternly rebuked for not failing to understand the full message of the gospel; instead, Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and taught him further.

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

Perhaps we could attribute much of this to the postmodernism that flows so silently through our veins. We fail to grasp the reality which words represent, so words gradually lose their meaning and significance. Only as we find ourselves flailing through an abstract world of gelatin do we begin to reach out for something concrete, struggling to formulate new words to capture the weightiness of existence. But these too shall pass, leaving us to escalate our verbiage ever further.

The desensitization of the word may, in fact, be a doom of the Fall, especially since God’s words are the exact opposite. As God spoke, His words formed reality itself. Even at their best, our words can only represent the objects that God’s words brought into existence. His Word, therefore, is reality. As people who worship the embodied Word of God as revealed through the written Word of God, we are (literally) eternally bound to words and the realities they represent. As children of the God who speaks life into being, let us shudder at the thought of frivolous and careless words! As disciples of the One who upholds all things by the word of His power, let us strive to use our speech to accurately display His reality!

Although we could continue to dive into the implications of words and their meanings, allow me to attempt a conclusion to our discussion of Paul’s usage of harsh language here and its lessons for us. Two reactions to Paul’s language in verse 2 are likely (although with a variety of degrees). One will smile proudly at the boldness of the apostle, while the other will silently question whether such talk was really necessary. Both lean toward dangerous extremes. A failure to acknowledge the necessity of a harsh word is harmful but so is delighting in it. The wisdom of the Holy Spirit matured through saturation in the Word is the only solution. For example, may we rightfully feel the shame of German Christians who refused to appropriately condemn Nazism, while also recalling that the often unwisely harsh language of Martin Luther, the lion of the Reformation, was able to be used 400 years later to validate the Nazis’ anti-Semitic regime.

TRUE CIRCUMCISION // VERSE 3

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

Why is this so significant?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, we put no confidence in the flesh. Humanly speaking, salvation is impossible. We, finite beings, have infinitely offended an infinite God and thereby deserved infinite punishment. When the finite has made an infinite error, how could the finite ever hope to repair the infinite? To do so is beyond the ability of the finite. Thus, it is a preposterous lunacy to place confidence in our flesh (finite) to accomplish the process of salvation (an infinite task).

Such is the failure of legalism.

We may be able, from time to time, to assuage our own guilt via our good works, but they will never suffice to clear our account before God. Our plight is hopeless. We are utterly incapable of saving ourselves. It is as certain and unavoidable as our eventual death. Our confidence, therefore, can only be placed in that which is also infinite. This is the glory of Jesus’ sacrifice! Being infinite, Christ was able to pay the infinite price for us. Being very God of very God, the death of Christ upon the cross works the impossible for us by cleansing the infinite debt of our sin.

The heart cry of every Christian, therefore, is the same as Paul’s words in Galatians 6:14:

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Of Timothy & Epaphroditus | Philippians 2:19-30

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

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

Philippians 2:19-30 ESV

 

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

OF TIMOTHY // VERSES 19-24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OF EPAPHRODITUS // VERSES 25-30

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

Brother, Worker, Soldier, Messenger, Minister

Paul’s commendation of Epaphroditus is fivefold.

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

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

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

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

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

He Nearly Died

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

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

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

Honor Such Men

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

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

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

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

Philippians 2:14-18 ESV

 

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

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

WITHOUT GRUMBLING OR DISPUTING // VERSES 14-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REJOICE // VERSES 17-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philippians 2:12-13 ESV

 

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

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

WORK OUT YOUR OWN SALVATION // VERSE 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOR GOD WORKS IN YOU // VERSE 13

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

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

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

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

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

To Die Is Gain | Philippians 1:21

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

Philippians 1:21 (ESV)

 

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

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

THE DOCTRINE OF THE TEXT

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

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

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

ARGUMENTS FOR THE DOCTRINE

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

By dying, we become free of pain & sin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By dying, we enter rest. 

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

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

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

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

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

By dying, we are with Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

APPLICATION

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

Our hope must transcend this life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OBJECTIONS & ANSWERS

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

Death is a grievous evil.

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

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

Is this a biblical contradiction?

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

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

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

INSTRUCTIONS FOR OBEDIENCE  

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

Hope in Christ.

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

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

Live for Christ.

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

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

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

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

CLOSING THOUGHTS

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

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