The Greatest Commandment | Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.
You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV

 

The mission and purpose of God’s people, the church, is clearly given by Jesus in His Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Of the four commands given, making disciples is the primary. We go into the world for the purpose of making disciples. We baptize believers into the church in order to make disciples. We teach one another every command of Jesus so that disciples are made. Making disciples of Jesus, therefore, must be at the heart of everything we do as a church.

The book of Acts gives us a further glimpse at how the New Testament church sought to make disciples: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). They devoted themselves to the Scriptures, to prayer, and to community. It is my belief that a life molded by these values cannot help but obey the Great Commission. In our present text, we will observe particularly how a life saturated in God’s Word is essential to obeying the Great Commission.

Deuteronomy literally means “second law,” which is fitting because it is composed of the final sermons of Moses given to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land, and much of their content is reiterating the laws and commandments that God gave them forty years earlier. In the sixth chapter, we find our present text, which is one of the most important portions of Scripture. Called the Shema (the Hebrew word for hear), they essentially formed the doctrinal thesis of the Jewish religion, the central belief of their faith. Because of this, these verses were regularly prayed in both the morning and the evening and were often the final words upon the lips of dying Jews. Jesus, of course, affirms their importance by citing verse 5 as being the greatest commandment within the Bible. This text, therefore, is certainly worthy of our study and careful attention.

The general outline of the passage is: the central doctrine is presented in verse 4, the central command is given in verse 5, and proper application is given in verses 6-9.

THE LORD IS ONE // VERSE 4

Hear.

I am tempted to spend all our time with this one word, but alas, we shall not (today…). The importance of our text beginning with this word is multitude.

First, by being command to hear we must conclude that something is about to be said that is worth listening to. Something important is about to be communicated, so we would be wise to give our attention.

Second, we must remember who is commanding us to hear: Moses, the prophet of God, the vessel through whom God provided His holy law. Moses is such a dominating figure within the Old Testament that Jesus was prophesied to be a prophet like him (Deut. 18:18). This prophesy is the confirmed to apply to Jesus by how frequently their lives are paralleled. Both survived mass infanticide by an evil king, from which both found refuge in Egypt. Both were sent to rescue God’s people from slavery. Both issued the commands of God. And Moses is issuing those very commands here. He is speaking on God’s behalf, commanding us to pay careful attention to his words.

Third, because Moses is speaking the words given to him by God, we know that God not only communicates to us but actively entices us to listen to Him.

Fourth, God speaks this command to Israel, His people. God’s people should, of course, listen to their God.

This, then, begs the question: are you listening?

The reality of life is that we are hearing messages constantly. The entire field of business marketing is devoted to getting you to listen to a company’s message. People and devices are constantly vying for our attention, and we are largely influenced by the voices we are hearing. The Creator knows this, so He steps forward and demands our listening. As we will see, this God wants nothing less than to have our full attention. He requires it of His people. Why?

He is God. Two names are given here for the Creator of everything: the LORD and God. The LORD, in Hebrew, is God’s holy name, His personal name, while God is His divine title. Although we know that there is only one true God who formed the cosmos, people constantly worship other beings that they call gods. The LORD, therefore, is God’s proper name for clearly identifying the God of the Bible, which is why He specifies to Israel that He is their God.

This is intriguing because we might expect God to declare Israel as His people, as He often did. We would expect the Creator to brand them with His mark of ownership; however, He reverses the order. He calls Himself their God. He attaches Himself to them, not the other way around. I don’t think this observation is merely semantics for the sake of semantics; rather, this displays the kind of condescension that God shows repeatedly throughout the Scriptures. God does not treat us as nothing more than a pet or property. He doesn’t merely claim us as His own (even though that thought is no small wonder either!); He ties Himself onto us. Jesus is the most obvious example of this glorious condescension by literally becoming a human as we are human.

God, therefore, identifies Himself as being the God of Israel, but He also identifies Himself as being one. This means that God alone is God. Christianity is a monotheistic religion because we live in a monotheistic reality. There is only one Creator, and His name is the LORD. And He is our God. Other spiritual beings (i.e. demons) might establish false religions in which they are called gods, but they are not divine. The LORD is God, and there is no other.

Jews have rightfully identified this as being a cornerstone doctrinal statement, which specifies which God we serve. To affirm this declaration is to reject other views of God. For instance, we cannot properly believe that Allah, the god of Islam is the same as the God of the Bible because Allah is not the LORD. We serve the God whose name is the LORD, who attached Himself to the people of Israel, and who is uniquely God.

THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT // VERSE 5

Following such a necessary declaration of doctrine, Moses then provides us with what Jesus calls the Greatest Commandment: You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all you might. Each command is contained within this one. Even the second command, love your neighbor as yourself, will naturally be accomplished if we truly love God as we ought. Therefore, if the aim of our life is to obey God, the process has been simplified tremendously. Obey this one command, and everything else will be naturally obeyed. How then should we obey it?

Moses explicates three realms of obedience.

First, we must love God with all our heart. In Hebrew, this refers not only to feelings and emotions (as we think of the heart today) but also to the mind alongside its thoughts, desires, and will. When Jesus added the mind onto this list, He was not adding a new concept but making the idea more explicit.

Second, we must love God with all our soul. Again, the Hebrew’s conception of soul differentiates from what is common to today. We tend to imagine the soul as metaphysical, akin or even conjoined to consciousness. While the Hebrews did conceive of the soul as being alive (perhaps even the lifeforce of a person), they also viewed the physical body as part of being a soul.

Finally, we must love with all our might. The word used here is often translated as very or much. For instance, it is used when God declared creation very good in Genesis 1. When used as a noun, the word implies might, strength (as it is said in the Gospels), force, or we might add, fervor or zeal.

Together these categories encompass the entirety of a person.

So how then do we obey the command?

Here’s an idea. Grab a piece of paper and write those three realms of life side-by-side. At the end of each day, think back over how much you loved God within those categories and assign a percentage value to your effort. Now strive each day to increase those percentages until you are living each at 100%.

If the previous paragraph didn’t raise a few red flags, your heresy alarm system might need some maintenance. Such a goal-setting mindset misses the entire point of this command. After all, what is the command again? To love God. While true love often requires us to act without emotional backing, love itself is an affection. Love is not simply an action that can be accomplished; it is the prime motivator behind our actions. We spend time with our spouse because we love them. We watch television because we love it. Even actions we dislike, we do out of love. We work a job we hate because we love what it provides for us (at least more than the alternative of not having an income). Because love is a motivation, while it is easy enough to do loving things, it nearly impossible to force ourselves to love something or someone. Yes, we can certainly stir up the flames of love, but can we actually create love? Can I force myself to love something that I am truly apathetic towards? Without outside intervention, I don’t think we can. Our loves proceed from our being, and so what we love is a reflection of who we are.

This command, therefore, is not so much about what to do as it about what to be. In order to properly obey this command, your love of God must become your identity. You love God with your whole person. Every thought, emotion, desire, intent, word, action, breath, and heartbeat come from your love of God. That is what the word all means, after all. Nothing lies outside of your love for God. Loving God is woven into each fabric of your existence.

Of course this means that we can never hope of obeying. Even if, by some miracle, we managed to love God with our entire being for one whole day, we’ve still fundamentally disobeyed. Not loving God entirely yesterday ruins an entire lifetime. The command says all, and everything less than that is disobedience.

But, you interject, God will judge me by my effort, not the result; He knows that I tried. But have your really? Might could also be translated as effort, so did you actually make every effort every moment of every day to love God? I don’t think so.

But, you offer again, won’t God show me His mercy by relaxing such an unattainable standard? For God not to demand obedience as the command is written would be for Him to lie. To command one standard but accept a lower one is dishonesty, and God never lies (Titus 1:2).

All of this means that you can never do enough to obey this command. More than that. You, as a person, are not enough to obey this command. The problem is not just your actions; it is you as a person. You are utterly incapable of loving God as He commands and deserves.

And I’m in the same boat.

We all are.

No effort will ever be enough because we ourselves are not enough. We each stand before God, disobedient to His commandments and deserving His just judgment.

Yet for all the insufficiency that mars our love for God, His love for us is more than sufficient. The glorious news of the gospel is that God extended His boundless love toward us, even when we willfully refused to love Him. Although we could never fully obey this command, Jesus did. He lived a life of total love for God, never once failing to glorify the Father in all things. Such obedience is a battle to even comprehend for us. Yet He obeyed perfectly, and then He willingly submitted Himself to die in our place. His undeserved death then became the payment of the penalty for disobedience for all who believe in Christ. For those who are united with Christ, we are now presented before God as if we have completely obeyed this command. Our status before the Father by the blood of Christ is as if we truly have loved God with all our heart, soul, and might for every single moment of our lives. Jesus Christ is our only hope. Without His righteous being imputed onto us, we are each guilty of blatant and continual disobedience, earning us the fury of God’s wrath, but in Christ, we are now children of God.

SCRIPTURE AND DISCIPLESHIP // VERSES 6-9

Verse 4 gave us the key doctrine, and verse 5 was the key command. These final verses show us how to apply them into our lives. Verse 6 is the backbone for the remainder of the passage, while verses 7-9 explain what that verse looks like when lived out.

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. What words is Moses referring to? Of course, the immediate context is in reference to verse 5, but they also apply to the words of all of Deuteronomy and, then, to the rest of Scripture. But even if Moses only meant verse 5, we could not properly love God without keeping His entire Word upon our heart.

What then does it mean to keep the Greatest Commandment specifically and all of Scripture generally on your heart? As we said earlier, the heart in Hebrew entailed much more than just feelings and emotions; for them, the heart was always the center of thought and reason. Therefore, keeping God’s commandments on your heart is the same practice as meditating on God’s law, which the Psalms urge us to do. Because God is revealed through His Word, we must treasure the Word in order to properly love Him.

Verses 7-9 describe how to do this. First, Moses gives the command of discipling our children in the Word of the LORD. Notice how Moses describes the manner in which such teaching ought to be done: diligently. Just as the early church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, so Moses commanded the Israel’s to diligently teach their children God’s commands. Discipleship has always been God’s idea of expanding His kingdom in both Testaments.

While peer-to-peer or mentorship forms of discipleship are thankfully resurging today, we must never forget this ancient truth that, for parents, our children are our primary disciples. They must not be recipients of our secondhand efforts. They must be our first and most important ministries, second only to our spouse. While the community of the church can be lifesaving in childrearing, the God-given responsibility is upon the parents’ shoulders and no one else.

If that sounds intimidating, Moses continues in verse 7 to show how this is to be done. By stating two pairs of opposites (sitting-walking and lying down-rising), the prophet is emphasizing that all of life should be filled with discussion of the Scriptures. Tremendous benefit can be found in having a daily time of family prayer and Bible reading, but that is not enough. The goal is not simply to read the Bible at least once a day; the goal is the saturate life with it. That is how to disciple our children.

The great difficulty of saturating life with Scripture is that we tend to be very biblically illiterate. Living in the Bible Belt, this is especially tragic. Many people spend their entire lives attending church faithfully who still do not know the basic storyline of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. They may know the Sunday School stories (Noah, Jonah, Daniel, etc.), but they do not know which books of the Bible focus on the period of the Babylonian Exile. They do not know the basic purpose behind Paul’s letter to the Galatians or why Revelation isn’t as scary as it seems (for Christians, of course).

By God’s providence, the tide is changing, but much progress remains to be made. In order to discuss the Scriptures with our children and the people around us, we must first know them, and we can only know them by first consuming them. This is why Moses tells the Israelites to bind these words to their hands, place them on their forehead, and write them on their doorposts. While many Jews have (and still do) take these commands literally, the prophet is simply commanding them to be remembered. He essentially saying: do whatever you need to do to keep God’s Word in your mind and heart.

Of course, the added depth of meaning to having them on your hand, forehead, and doorposts is that they are visible to others. The significance here is that as we saturate ourselves in the Scriptures, we will be marked by them. They will brand us in such an obvious way that we might as well have them glued to our forehead. The Bible-saturated life is easy to recognize and impossible to hide.

If we don’t have to literally bind Deuteronomy 6:5 on our hands, how then do we dive deeper into Scripture? How can we place it constantly before our eyes?

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Read it for the story. One of the best ways to become more familiar with the Bible to read it, and particularly read it with the goal of first becoming familiar with the overall narrative. While the Old Testament can be quite intimidating, it’s story can be fully grasped by reading eleven books (Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Ezra, and Nehemiah), and the other twenty-eight books take place within the timeline of those. The New Testament typically isn’t as frightening, but if the complexities of the letters are an issue, try reading them an entire letter in one sitting (as their recipients would have read them), focusing on understanding the main idea. Reader’s Bibles can be a great asset in the endeavor to enjoy the story and message of the Bible. They remove chapters and verses so that it is easier to focus on the actual words. This also makes them ideal for a self-paced reading plan.
  2. Listen to it. I think audio Bibles are awesome. They might not be for everyone (I certainly go through seasons of use), but I’ve found them to be of great aid. While visibly reading the Bible is still ideal, listening is a valuable supplement (especially when remembering that most Christians throughout history only heard the Bible read on Sundays). Most Bible apps and websites have free audio to use, but my two favorite apps are Bible.is and Streetlights. Bible.is contains dramatized Bibles, which I’m a fan of, and Streetlights throws really great background music behind them.
  3. Pray it back to God. Reading the Bible is often be boring because we fail to properly interact with the Scriptures. Praying God’s Word back to Him is the easiest (and probably best) way of developing such an interaction. Plus, if the Bible is how God speaks to us and prayer is how we speak to God, this truly turns our reading time into a dialogue with God.
  4. Meditate on it. Meditation is hard because there are, at once, so many ideas of what it might look like as well as no ideas at all. So how should you meditate on Scripture? Having a time of silence to think through a portion of Scripture is one form; however, if you are like me, our distracted age has made maintaining internal trains of thought quite difficult. Journaling can remedy this problem. Follow a formula of questions (like from 2 Timothy 3:16) or simply ask a question about the text and attempt to answer it. Regardless of how it is done, think deeply about the text and keep thinking about it throughout the day.
  5. Choose a book to study in-depth. I know this is the polar opposite of the first suggestion but hear me out. First of all, I would not suggest this approach until you have at least read the entire Bible and have a basic understanding its whole. That said, every Christian should remember that Bible commentaries are not pastoral exclusives. Anyone can, and should, grab a biblically faithful commentary and have it aid you in a deeper study of God’s Word. Tim Challies (at Challies.com) and Keith Mathison (at Ligonier) both have lists of the best commentaries on each book of the Bible, which are invaluable resources. The Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary Series is easy to read and contain questions for reflection at the end of each chapter. Also listening to a sermon series or reading a book of sermons can be use in the same way.

The point of these suggestions is not a heap a new burden upon you but to give ideas for how to begin swimming in the sea of God’s Word. The more we see God in His Scriptures, the more we will love Him. And the more we love the LORD, the more we will saturate our lives with His Word. And the more our lives are saturated with His Word, the more naturally we will disciple those around us.

Brothers and sisters, it is a new year; take this season to renew your hunger for God’s Word.

Read the Scriptures.

Meditate on them.

Study them.

Pray them.

God is speaking.

Are you going to hear Him?

Are you listening?

 

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Let Your Words Be Few | Ecclesiastes 5:1-7

In almost every book or sermon to be found on Ecclesiastes, the emphasis of these verses is placed upon how we worship God, and while worship does form the bulk of the discourse here, the point of this passage is more interested in why we worship than how we worship. The Preacher is diving at the heart behind our worship of the LORD, and the result is rather like a piece of classical music. Two movements are at play here describing how to properly worship God, and each movement ends with a refrain that muses over the vanity of dreams and many words. The piece then closes with a thunderous crescendo that is meant to cast a new light upon everything that came before. Like any complex work of art, the goal is for us to meditate deeply upon what lies before us. Here, specifically, we should consider what the repeated refrain is teaching us about how to worship God and how the Preacher’s conclusion changes how we worship by reminding us why we worship.

Over the course of studying this passage, I’ve toss around various ideas about how to present it. Like many do with Ecclesiastes as a whole, I considered the wisdom of beginning with the ending, so that we might have the proper perspective over the whole text. Yet I cannot bring myself to do it. Such an approach may be more systematic in leaving no stone unturned, but it also loses some of the potency of the poetry. I’ve heard it said that art is like a frog: you can dissect it into its individual parts, but doing so will kill the frog. I pray then that God will guide our discourse as I endeavor to present the text in its poetic structure.

GUARDING YOUR STEPS // VERSES 1-7

We begin with the matter of how to worship God properly. Let us break the commands issued within these verses down to five imperatives: 1) guard your steps, 2) draw near to listen, 3) avoid the sacrifice of fools, 4) avoid rash and hasty words, and 5) pay your vow.

Guarding Your Steps (v. 1)

The first imperative is a warning for us to guard our steps when approaching God’s house. What does he mean by this? Throughout the Bible, walking is a metaphor for living. And it’s a fitting comparison. As the feet move so does the body. The Scriptures, therefore, repeatedly encourage us to walk down the path of righteousness and wisdom, while avoiding the way of wickedness and folly. Of course, Jesus capitalizes on this metaphor in the Sermon on the Mount by describing a narrow road and gate that lead to life and a broad road and gate that lead to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). The point then is that the steps you take (and where you take them) have much to say about the condition of your heart.

Solomon’s call for guarding your steps whenever you approach God is really a plea for you to consider the condition of your heart. Where have your feet been lately? What does that say about your walk with God and the condition of your heart? These are important questions to ask before approaching God. After all, God is mysteriously awe-striking and deserving of reverential fear. He is so much greater than us that we must always approach Him with the utmost reverence.

However, what does this mean for us under the New Covenant? Hebrews 4:16 tells us that we are to boldly approach God’s throne. Does that not contradict with this verse in Ecclesiastes? I believe that one of the greatest errors of modern Christianity is that we place little value on Old Testament thought. We tend to think that God used to be vengeful and angry, but now because of Jesus, He is loving and kind. We treat God as if He has changed personalities. But that is not the case! The God that we serve today is the same God that Solomon wrote about here. Instead of treating God like He is bipolar, we must understand that God is still worthy our highest reverence. He is still infinitely greater and more majestic than we can ever imagine. The only difference between us and Solomon is that because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice we can now come before God, as His children, without fear that He will reject us. We should still approach in reverence, but we also know now that we come before Him in the perfect righteousness of Christ.

Draw Near to Listen (v. 1)

Next, Solomon tells us that it is better to come to God for listening “than to offer the sacrifice of fools.” These two form a contrasting couplet, but let us focus first on the positive command. Listening is crucial whenever we draw near to God because listening involves yielding. As I listen to someone, I am surrendering over a portion of myself and my time in order to know them more. In this way, listening validates worth. By listening, I declare that you are worth my time and attention. My focus shifts off of myself and onto you. This explains then why speaking to someone who listens is truly life-giving.

But if humans who are made in God’s image are worth listening to, how much more God Himself? The point here is not that God does not care what you have to say to Him. Scripture repeatedly makes clear that the opposite is true. But we should deeply care about listening to what God is saying and make every effort to listen to Him.

Unfortunately, we often fail to listen to God’s voice. We are like the people to whom God sent Isaiah, who “keep on hearing, but do not understand” (Isaiah 6:9). God’s Word often goes in one ear and out the other without us having truly listened to any of it. Because of this propensity, God often prefaces His declarations with the word “hear.” By default, we are fools who like the sound of our own voices and who don’t care what God has to say. John Piper describes this heart well: “Many people are willing to be God-centered as long as they feel that God is man-centered” (6). We will delight in meeting with God so long as the meeting is centered around us.

But God is God, not us. We desperately need to hear His voice far more than He needs to hear ours. His ways are higher than our ways, and His plans are greater than our plans. Why would we not take advantage of listening to Him?

Of course, this listening is done primarily through God’s Word. As we read the Scriptures, God Himself speaks. Sadly, the rigidness of our private devotions can often hinder this joy. Too often, we can lock ourselves into a pattern of spending so many minutes reading Scripture and so many minutes in prayer. We do this in order to have a dialogue with God. But how many conversations actually work like that? That pattern is more like a debate than a dialogue. Real conversations have more natural flows in them. And we can interact with Scripture in the same way. Instead of rigidly dividing a time for reading Scripture and for prayer, why not mingle prayer into Bible reading? First, this makes our prayers naturally more biblical. Second, it provides a better environment for conversation to flow. Perhaps one day you have much on your heart, so two or three verses lead you into fifteen minutes of pouring your heart out to God. But the next day a different sort of heaviness is upon you, so you simply open the Word, praying, “God speak, and I will listen.” Both are beautiful forms of communion with God.

Avoid the Sacrifice of Fools (v. 1)

Next Solomon encourages us to avoid offering the sacrifice of fools, which are evil in the sight of God. What exactly is the sacrifice of a fool? I believe they are the kind of sacrifices described in Isaiah 1:12-17:

When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

Unlike the person who humbly comes before God to listen, the fool’s sacrifices to God are all about himself. He is trying to buy God’s favor with his sacrifices, which in the end becomes a form of self-improvement rather than worship. Mike Cosper captures this idea well:

Likewise, any approach to the Christian life that seeks self-improvement as the end goal will fail too. A life of prayer, fasting, and spiritual disciplines can easily be a life of empty religious effort if the goal isn’t communion with God. We don’t need self-improvement; we need to come home. (45)

Furthermore, I think that this kind of selfish sacrifice typically comes in one of two forms. First, fools can offer the sacrifice of good works with a wrong heart. The Christian is called to do everything to the glory of God, but often we can do good works for our own benefit. Sometimes we want to look good before others, while other times we just want to feel better about ourselves. Both are sinful motives. Second, fools can offer the sacrifice of right belief without good works. Such was the case with the recipients of the passage of Isaiah above. They knew all the religious actions to take, but they failed to do good to those around them. Their theology didn’t lead them in compassion for the world around them.

If you notice, both of these sacrifices fail to account for the whole of a person. One has the actions without the head and heart, while the other has the head without actions or the heart. Fools think that they can separate out our lives. They think that they can give God their lives without giving Him their heart. Or that they can give Him their head without giving Him their hands. But we are holistic creatures, who are called to love God with all our heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5). Everything we have is from God and must be for Him. This is why overeating doesn’t just bloat our stomachs it dulls our spirit. This is why few things are more spiritually healing than good food and good drink shared with good friends. Fools think that they can compartmentalize God, while the wise know that even our daily food and drink are for His glory and our good.

Religious devotion is a meaningless vanity without communion with God.

Avoid Rash and Hasty Words (v. 2)

This verse builds upon the concluding thought of verse 1. In our relationship with God, are we the ones that do all of the talking? Do we ever give God the opportunity to say anything to us? Solomon’s thought is very straightforward: God is bigger, smarter, wiser, and all around more awesome than you, so you should probably listen to what He has to say more than you tell Him what you think. It is my personal belief that we should all memorize these two verses because they are so counter to our nature. We want to be the ones doing all the talking. We want to be the ones that set the grounds in our relationship. But that’s all foolish. It’s foolish to come before God with many words. James 1:19 echoes this thought: Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” When you approach God, make it about God, not yourself. Be quick to listen to Him, and slow to share your opinion.

Of course, this does not mean that our prayers should be dishonest towards God. Praying dishonest prayers that we think God wants to hear is another sacrifice of fools. In doing so, we attempt to deceive God. But He is in heaven, and we are on earth. The cosmos is held together by His might, and He knows all things. Why then would we try to bring anything to Him other than our honesty? Indeed, letting our words be few is not permitting dishonesty; rather, it is calling us to slow down and understand the weight of speaking to God.

Refrain: The Business of Dreams and Many Words (vv. 3)

Obviously, these refrains are quite important since they are repeated twice, but they are quite difficult to interpret. What exactly does Solomon mean when by dreams? How are the vanity of dreams and many words connected to the rest of this passage? Barrick suggests that as vanities they are meaningless distractions in our life that keep us from true worship. Akin offers that since dreams during sleep after a hard day’s work, these are the works and words that we use to impress God. Moore thinks that words and dreams are cheap; God wants our hearts.

I think, similarly, that the dreams and words of a fool are centered upon himself. Chasing after the dreams in his head provides much business to attend to, but they are mere fantasies with no substance. Likewise, his many words might sound impressive at first, but they too are vanities. With the business of dreams and the fluff of many words, a fool becomes wise in his own eyes (Proverbs 12:15). He becomes fixated upon himself.

Pay Your Vow (vv. 4-6)

Have you ever attempted to barter with God? We say things like, “God, if you just let me find the one, I promise I will be happy and serve you with my whole heart” or “if you give me a million dollars, I promise to give half to my church!” These appear to be facetious examples, but are they not true to our character? We often have an “if you… then I will…” mentality. We make rash vows to God all the time. Our three-thousand-year-old philosopher tells us that this is not such a good idea. We make promises to God in haste, and should God actually give us what we want, we flake out in fulfilling our vows. Solomon says that this is foolish, and God “has no pleasure in fools.” We just discussed that God is far greater than ourselves and we should approach Him with fear, so it would make sense that we should keep any promises that we make to Him. He says plainly, “pay what you vow.” If there is anyone that you should avoid lying to, it’s God. In fact, Solomon says that it would be much better to just, like the previous verses say, keep your mouth shut before God than to make promises that you won’t keep. Jesus gives us this same message in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells us not to make any vows because we don’t know if we will be able to fulfill them. Instead, let our ‘yes’ be yes and our ‘no’ be no (Matthew 5:37). We are to be a people that fulfill our word.

We must be careful with the words that we say because an unfulfilled vow to God is sin. How true is this that our mouth tends to lead us into sin! The king of Israel also warns that God will not accept the excuse that we made the vow as a mistake and that there will be consequences for us lying to God. Next, Solomon issues the same warning as in verse 3. If there is one lesson to learn quickly when studying the Scripture, it is that God does not repeat Himself needlessly. Since this repetition is here, we must assume that we definitely need to take its words to heart. Here is the thought: words become meaningless when they don’t have actions to back them up. Stop presenting verbal fluff. Fear God. Worship Him with a lifestyle of reverence and intentional actions.

Refrain: The Vanity of Dreams and Many Words (v. 7)

Dreams and many words are vanity because we are terrible at judging what we truly need. We have all sorts of dreams and desires that we long to see fulfilled, but we rarely pause to consider how beneficial or damaging they might be. God, of course, does not yield to our desires, which causes many to question His goodness. How can a God who is all powerful and completely good withhold pleasure from me? Surely His goodness or omnipotence is lacking, right? Wrong. God is our Father who sees things far clearer than we can. Consider my one-year-old daughter, who just today saw her mom painting some shelves outside and decided that she also wanted to play with some paint. For most one-year-olds tasting forms a significant component of playing and our daughter is no different. In that moment, being a loving father meant withholding a desire from her. Forbidding her from eating the toxins in paint is an act of love that she doesn’t yet understand; therefore, she perceives that I am limiting her freedom.

The reality is that we need limits. We need boundaries. We need a heavenly Father who loves us enough slap our hand when we reach for things that can harm us or, more accurately, things that we use to hurt ourselves. Paint itself is not harmful when used properly, but the toxins within can kill if ingested. Likewise, wealth itself is not sinful, but when clutched by immature hands, it often is. Sex was designed by God to foster intimacy between a husband and a wife, but many use it to drag the decaying carcass of intimacy across the floor of self-gratification. Because of this, there are times when God giving us what we want is like handing a toddler a steak knife. In short, God’s refusal to fulfill your dreams may, in fact, be one of His greatest graces upon you.

FEARING GOD // VERSE 7

Thus far, we have addressed five commands regarding how we ought to worship, but now the Preacher will address why we should worship God in those ways. He does this by summarizing the commands above and pointing us to the fear of the LORD.

The Preacher concludes these verses with a marvelous conclusion, which ties together the whole of the text. In many ways, this is final phrase is foreshadowing how Ecclesiastes’ epilogue will enlighten the entire book as well.

If the root problem with in our worship is that we are too focused upon our own dreams and words, then fearing God is the alternative. In fact, the fear of God is the reasoning behind the five imperatives in verses 1-6. Because God is worth fearing, we guard our steps when we approach Him, we draw near to listen to Him, we avoid the sacrifices of fools, we avoid uttering rash and hasty words, and we pay whatever we vow to Him. Each of these can only be properly motivated by first possessing a fear of the LORD.

But why is the fear of the LORD necessary? Fearing God simply comes from understanding that God is God. To know God is to fear Him. He is holy. He is unique and in a class all unto Himself. It is only right and proper to have a healthy fear of Him, and only utter foolishness fails to do so. We fear God by simply acknowledging that He is God, and seeing God as God can only result in living a God-centered, not self-centered, life. The knowing and fearing God smashes self-aggrandizement into bits by pointing us to the magnitude of His glorious worth. All of our pretty words and lavish dreams are particles of dust compared to snow-capped mountains of His sovereign decrees.

But fearing God is not just proper; it is also practical. As humans, we were created to fear the awesome might of the LORD, so when we fail to fear God, other fears take root within the heart. Consider the rise of fear, anxiety, and depression within our society which coincides with the decline of those holding to the Christian faith. Fear of terrorism. Fear of disease. Fear of collapsed economies. Fear of isolation. Fear of people. The list can (and does) go on without end. We fear these things because we fail to fear God. After all, the fear of God is exclusive. We cannot have a proper view of God, while continuing to fear other things. Understanding God’s greatness and His love for us must cast all other fears aside. Why fear the uncertain future when the One who stands sovereign over time is our Father? Why fear death when it ushers us into eternal life with our Savior? Why fear the temporal opinion of others when God’s evaluation of us is eternal? There is an exclusivity to fearing God. By properly revering Him, we realize that all else pales in comparison.

The fear of God is as good as it is exclusive. The fear of Him “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28) is the same fear that enables us to say as in Psalm 118:6, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” The Christian’s cry against the fears and anxieties of the world is “If God is for us, who can be against us” (Romans 8:31)? Our heavenly Father desires our good, so we are most benefitted by shifting our focus from self and onto God. Our greatest happiness is only found through our trembling pursuit of God. He is the supreme Treasure but not all desire to look upon Him, as Owen warns:

Not all who desire to go to heaven are fit and ready for it. Some are not only unworthy of it and excluded from it because of unforgiven sin; they are not prepared for it. Should they be admitted, they would never enjoy it. All of us naturally regard ourselves as fit for eternal glory. But few of us have any idea of how unfit we really are, because we have had no experience of that glory of Christ which is in heaven. Men shall not be clothed with glory, as it were, whether they want to be or not. It is to be received only by faith. But fallen man is incapable of believing. Music cannot please a deaf man, nor can colours impress a blind man. A fish would not thank you for taking it out of the sea and putting it on dry land under the blazing sun! Neither would an unregenerate sinner welcome the thought of living for ever in the blazing glory of Christ. (p. 7-8)

Indeed, everyone will one day fear God, but there will be two distinct kinds of fear. Those who have not beheld the glory of Christ by faith will be cower before Him, while those who by faith have tasted and seen that the LORD is good will rejoice in awestruck wonder. Because God is God, He will be feared. Let us earnestly seek the second kind of fear. Let us tremble that the One who authored quantum mechanics, photosynthesis, and platypuses is the same God who died in humiliation on the cross to rescue us from our sin. Let us quake that Holy of Holies has become our Father by adopting us as sons and daughters.

Let There Be Light! | Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Genesis 1:1-5 ESV

 

We begin this season of Advent by going back to the very beginning, the creation of all things. In Genesis 1, we meet the Author of all existence, God the Creator. Because the miracle of the incarnation (the first advent of Jesus) is all about God becoming man, we must spend time gazing upon the holiness of God in order to grasp even a fraction of the significance of Christ’s birth.

Let’s be honest right from the start: these verses can be taught from an infinite number of angles. In fact, I’ve already preached through them once before. Our focus, therefore, will be far from exhaustive; instead, I desire to structure our study around three questions, from which we will derive points of application as well.

WHO IS GOD?

This question is easy to ignore, to bypass on our way to deeper discussions. However, God is not merely our subject; He is the very context of our discussion.

What exactly does this mean?

First, we see that God is the subject of this text. He is the only person performing actions here, and, as the rest of the Bible makes clear, He is the ultimate and primary protagonist of Scripture. People like Moses, Abraham, and David play crucial roles in the storyline of the Bible, but they remain secondary characters. God Himself is the hero of the Bible, no one else.

This, of course, should impact how we are meant to read the Bible. Scripture is not a self-help manual, a history book, nor many of the other ways people often think of it (although it does contain elements of those things). God’s Word is, rather, the revelation of Himself to us. The Bible primarily shows us God, which includes for what purpose He made us, how we rejected Him, and how He rescued us from our rebellion. Reading the Bible will certainly always apply to you, but it is not about you. It’s about God.

But God is not only the Bible’s main subject; He is also its context. Notice that in Genesis 1:1 God creates everything. The phrase the heavens and the earth is a merism (much like searching high and low for something) that means everything that exists. So if something exists, God made it. This means that God began the beginning but was never begun Himself. Side note: meditating in your bed on truths like this will probably give you that slightly dizzying sensation that kind of feels like looking out over the edge of a cliff. Existence itself is dependent upon God for its being. As people who exist, we are dependent upon God for continuing to be. The Apostle Paul rightly applies these words of a pagan poet to our relationship to the one true God: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is the context for both our study and the Bible’s story because we can only read these words from Him, by Him, and through Him.

Of course, all of this is just a more complicated way of saying that God is the Creator. He is the Author, not only of the Bible, but of soft-shelled crabs, trees, the color spectrum, and everything else. He stands outside of time as the One who eternally is, without both beginning and end. Beside Him stand no equals. He alone is supreme, holy. He is God, and there are no others. As Creator, He began creation, and He will ultimately judge all His creatures.

Consider the reality of what this means. You are not a god. You are a creature created by God. You, therefore, do not know what is best for your life or how to be fulfilled; God does. He designed you, so He knows how you are meant to live and function. And particularly if you are inclined to reject the claims of the Bible, consider what even the possibility of this God existing would mean. If there were even the slightest chance that this Creator is real, would it not be advantageous to investigate these matters further?

WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS?

On the first day of creation, God brings light into creation establishing day and night. Like almost everything else in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, these two concepts are a reoccurring theme throughout the Bible. The light and darkness here are literal, yet as they continue to be used, we begin to understand their symbolic significance. Allen Ross clarifies this point:

It is natural light, physical light; but its much more. The Bible shows again and again that light and darkness signify mutually exclusive realms, especially spiritual matters of good and evil. Through Scripture light is the realm of God and the righteous; darkness is the domain of the Evil One and death. Light represents that which is holy, pure, true, life-giving, and gladdening. (108)

It is no small thing that we are more at ease in the light. By light, we are able to see whatever is around us, surveying and understanding our environment. Because of this, light is also often symbolic for knowledge, while ignorance is represented by darkness.

Yet this first act of creation also provides a further glimpse at answering our first question. In 1 John 1:5, we learn that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” God brings light into the creation because He is light. His very presence chases away darkness, so it is only natural for Him to begin creation by forming light. As if to emphasize that light flows from Him, the creation of the sun, moon, and stars (objects that give light) does not occur until day four.

WHY WAS THERE DARKNESS IN GENESIS 1:2?

Our final question is certainly one of the most intriguing from the creation account. If God, who is light, makes light on the first day, why was there already darkness in verse 2? The attempted answers for what exactly is happening in verse 2 are multitude.

The gap theory is particularly popular, which posits that a large gap of time exists between verses 1 and 2. Satan’s rebellion in heaven occurred during this time period, and the ensuing heavenly battle left creation in the condition of verse 2.

Although the gap theory quite possibly might be the correct answer, I lean towards the idea that verse 2 describes the raw state of the world from when God began to create in verse 1. Indeed, verse 2 has a chaotic undertone, while the remainder of the chapter centers around God bringing order from chaos.

But why would God create the cosmos in a state of disorder and chaos just to put it into order over the span of one week? Of course, we know that God could have created everything in working order in an instant, no days of creation required. But He didn’t. He chose to create through a process, which can only mean that it is significant. It is not a stretch, therefore, to view God as creating the world disordered and primordial, so that He could shape it properly. In fact, this is God’s mode of operations throughout the rest of the Bible too (even from chapter one, He is revealing to us His character). Consider God’s promise to give Abraham the Promised Land, which was only fulfilled more than four hundred years later by his descendants under the leadership of Joshua. Or think of David’s long road to being king after being anointed by Samuel as a boy. Our own salvation is quite another process, as we struggle through the already-not-yet of both wrestling with and being freed from sin. We see this in nature as well (i.e. photosynthesis and the water cycle). The examples are endless because God works through processes.

This also explains why our obsession with instant gratification, deep down, feels so wrong. Sin corrupts our desires, making our wants prone to contradict God’s perfect design. We long to escape the systems that God designed, which is just a repackaging of the first sin.

But back to the original question: why was darkness present in verse 2? I believe it is to show that God is the dispeller of darkness. Here He forms light and establishes the division between darkness and light, but in our final sermon, we will see God dispel darkness completely. Creation begins with no light but ends with no darkness. This is the Creator’s plan. This is the good news.

Unfortunately, God’s dispelling of darkness is also a problem for us since Adam and Eve plunge the world into deeper chaos in Genesis 3. That chapter tells how our ancestors rejected God’s glorious design for creation. While God made them His stewards, exercising dominion over the earth, they wanted to be like God Himself. They attempted to usurp God’s throne, and because of that sin, we and all of creation have become corrupt and broken. We now follow the same pattern. We sin. We reject God’s design, choosing instead our own wants and desires. We elevate ourselves above the God who formed us from the dust and breathed life into our bones. This is folly defined, the rejecting of light in favor of the dark.

Fortunately, God would not leave us to grope about in the dark. He would come to rescue His people. During Advent, we celebrate the glorious coming of God in the person of Jesus Christ. By becoming human (while still retaining His divinity), Jesus walked the earth as the second Adam, the perfect human who (unlike Adam) rejected each opportunity to sin. He walked the earth, drawing some into His light, while others shrank away further into the dark. Then, at the end of His life, He willing submitted Himself over to death, suffering the righteous wrath of God in our place, and after rising from the dead, He freely grants us His righteousness.

This is the gospel, the good news and grand message of the Bible. This is the story that God has been telling from the beginning. Like the primordial chaos of creation’s beginning, God made us knowing that we would sin. Even before He said, “Let there be light”, the advent of Jesus was planned. This is His story, His process of creation and redemption, the revealing to His people His glory and splendor, His justice and wrath, His grace and mercy, His love and His compassion.

 

My God Will Supply Every Need of Yours | Philippians 4:14-23

Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Philippians 4:14-23 ESV

 

Now Paul turns his heart once again to the gift of the Philippians, saying that it was kind of them to share in his troubles. Even though Paul wants to be clear that it was Christ that enabled him to face his various tribulations, he wants the Philippians to understand that their gift was a joy upon joy. He further describes the previous help that these brothers and sisters had been to him while he was in Macedonia and Thessalonica. Christ alone is sufficient for every concern, but he was incredibly thankful to have such a generous and loving family around the world.

PARTNERING IN THE GOSPEL // VERSES 14-20

Having taken a detour in thought to describe his contentment in the Lord in verses 11-13, Paul now returns to commenting on the concern the Philippians showed him through their gift. Sent by the hands of Epaphroditus, we do not know what their gifts to the apostle were, although we can assume that they included a letter of encouragement to him. Whatever the gifts were (whether financial, literary, or something else), Paul makes it clear that the Philippians were partnering with Paul in his ministry. And since Paul’s primary ministry was to preach the gospel to those who had yet to hear of Jesus, we can look to these verses for a theological snapshot of why churches supporting missionaries is so crucial to the advancement of the gospel.

Verse 14 gives us our first principle: partnering in missions means sharing trouble. The sufferings of Paul are no secret. Few people can even fathom persevering through the trials that he faced. He lists a few of these tribulations in 2 Corinthians 11:24–28:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

Most of us would cease after facing even a fraction of what Paul experienced, yet he continued onward. This letter has revealed much of the apostle’s theological grounds for joy in the midst of such suffering; however, Paul also took joy in knowing that churches like the Philippians were ready to share with him in his trials. The word for share here derives from the same root word that Paul uses for partnership in verse 15 and in 1:5. He is describing the fellowship, community, or communion that followers of Christ share. Such partnership and community are marks of true Christians. It is fitting, therefore, that we would also share each other’s sufferings.

But how can long distance partnerships, like Paul and Philippians, really mean sharing in the missionary’s troubles? First, we must remember that sending Epaphroditus with their gifts was a sacrifice in and of itself. The journey from Philippi to Rome was around 800 miles, which was an especially significant voyage in the ancient world. Indeed, as we should recall, Epaphroditus nearly died taking their gifts to Paul (2:27). So the risk of sending someone to Paul was great; however, there was also danger in openly showing their support of Paul and his ministry. Remember that Paul was imprisoned because his proclamation of the gospel was thought to stir up public outrage. The Romans considered Paul an enemy of the state, a danger to the fragile peace of the ethnically-diverse patchwork that was the Roman Empire. And for a city as Romanized as Philippi, knowledge of such support could have intensified their already present persecution.

Finally, we must also remember that there is much spiritual comfort in knowing that brothers and sisters are praying for you. Even if the Philippians could not be sitting with Paul in prison, there was comfort in knowing that they were concerned and praying for him. Simply knowing that fellow Christians around the world were petitioning the Father for him and eagerly awaiting news from him must have strengthened his resolve to persevere.

Although I don’t pretend to know anything close to Paul’s trials or even those of career missionaries, I do recall the encouragement of support while spending two months in Venezuela. As humans, it is impossible not to have days of discouragement, yet the knowledge that I was serving on behalf of others that could not go often gave me strength to keep pressing forward. May we never forget how much it means to those who are on the frontlines of missions that we care about them and are praying for them. Doing so is a form of sharing in their troubles.

In verses 15-16, Paul recalls how the Philippians repeatedly helped to meet Paul’s needs throughout his journey in Macedonia and even to Thessalonica (which was nearly one hundred miles from Philippi). Notice how carefully Paul words things here. He does not say that the Philippians met all of his needs while he was traveling in their area; instead, he says that they helped to meet his needs. The apostle is careful not to place too great of a burden upon the Philippians since they certainly did not have the ability to meet his needs entirely, not while he was still in Macedonia and especially not while he was in Rome. God alone could meet Paul’s needs, yet the Philippians were used by the Lord to meet some of his needs.

Likewise, we must understand that in our support of missionaries today we are called to meet their needs, yet we cannot meet all their needs. Only the Father can give them the support that they need, yet it is our privilege to be one instrument through which he provides that very support for them. This keeps us from two common errors: pride and discouragement. We are kept from pride because we know that regardless of how great our support is it will never be entirely sufficient. But we are also kept from discouragement because we know that God is ultimately the one who is doing the work and meeting the needs. We, therefore, have the ability to do our part with joy, knowing that God is true supplier.

In verse 17, Paul reiterates his selfless mentality by stating that he seeks the fruitful increase of the Philippians’ account rather than their gift itself. Paul’s language here is undeniably financial. The ESV footnotes suggests another possible translation as being: I seek the profit that accrues to your account. Unmistakably, Paul views the Philippians’ giving as a financial investment, one that is accruing fruitful interest on their behalf. But how are we to understand this concept of heavenly investment?

Paul’s language is similar to Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 6:19-20 | Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.

Like Paul, Jesus is describing a kind of heavenly investment, storing our treasures in heaven rather than on earth. The wisdom is found in the security of our investment. On earth, savings can be lost. In a moment, people with great wealth have been reduced to poverty (as we learned in Ecclesiastes 5:13-17). Earthly funds are never entirely safe, but what can rob us of our heavenly treasure? Investing in the kingdom of God will never prove unsecure or unprofitable. It is, therefore, foolish not to store our treasures in heaven. By their support of Paul, the Philippians were doing just that. Their partnership in Paul’s ministry was an investment in God’s kingdom, in the advancement of the gospel. One day, when the gospel has spread through all the earth and Jesus has returned as King, the Philippians’ investment will be proven fruitful indeed. We likewise make such an investment whenever we support the spreading of the good news. Generous giving toward gospel efforts is an eternal investment for us.

In verse 18, Paul now returns to the significance of their gift. First, he assures them of his satisfaction with their gift. The word Paul uses for more at the beginning of the verse is actually the same word Paul used in verse 12 for abound; thus, tying this thought with that one. Indeed, we would expect prison of all places to have put Paul in a position of need, yet he writes to the Philippians that their gift has well supplied him, giving him plenty. In other words, he understands the tremendous grace God has given him through the generosity of the Philippian church.

But once again, his emphasis turns from himself back onto the Philippians as he calls their gift a fragrant offering to God. Having used financial language, Paul now uses the language of Old Testament sacrifices to describe their partnership with him. Like a sacrifice made on the altar of the Temple, so is the giving of the Philippians to meet the needs of Paul. It is an offering back to God from what he has generously provided for us. In the Old Testament, offerings were made to God in thanksgiving and recognition that He gives all that we have. Sacrificing an animal, therefore, was certainly a financial sacrifice, but it served as a physical reminder that all things ultimately belong to God. In this way, a sacrifice is a form of recognizing God as God. Thus, Paul informs the Philippians that the same event is occurring with their gift. Their giving was a sacrifice, money that could have been used to meet other needs, yet they still gave, knowing that God Himself is the Giver of all things. Their gift to Paul was ultimately not about Paul but about God. They sacrificed to the God of all things and to the work that He is doing here on earth.

In verse 19, Paul’s attention shifts yet again back to the benefit of the Philippians in their giving. This mighty verse is essentially the apostle’s expression of confidence that God will be faithful to pay his tab. Especially in the culture of the Roman Empire, reciprocal giving among friends was commonplace. Giving to a friend was done with the understanding that they were essentially indebted to you and would need to one day return the favor. Paul takes this customary mentality and flips it on its head, assuring the Philippians that God Himself would take care of Paul’s end.

It is worth making a side note that God has always been in the business of rearranging cultural norms and practices. Because we are made in God’s image, every culture will somewhat reflect God’s character; nevertheless, each reflection is broken by sin. Whenever the gospel penetrates a society, its culture must bow to the gospel, not the other way around. As with the reciprocal giving of friendship in the ancient world, God will often use the language of our culture to reach us, but He recircuits our customs, beliefs, and values for His glory. While giving with the understanding that the other person is indebted to you could lead to non-generous, selfish giving, Paul shifts their expectations by pointing them to God as the one who would give to them in return.

Now this verse can very easily be taken as support for property theology. After all, it does sound like Paul is saying that because the Philippians supported him, God will completely provide for the Philippians. They give, and God blesses. That’s how it works, right? Not exactly. We can never forget that this verse is in the context of the Philippians’ partnership with Paul in advancing the gospel. Paul is not saying that for every dollar that the Philippians gave to his ministry God would give them ten more. Instead, he is saying that as they continue to partner in the spreading of the gospel God would continue to give them the ability to do so. In other words, as they did the work of expanding God’s kingdom, God would be faithful to supply their every need.

Seeing verse 19 as following verses 14-18 is crucial to our mentality of giving. Too often, we either give less than we should or not at all because we are waiting for God to give us a greater ability to give. However, God expects us to give sacrificially, while trusting Him to provide. Indeed, as we support the work of His kingdom, God will be faithful to support us. John G. Paton wrote these words about his home church in Scotland’s support of his missionary work:

Nor did the dear old Church thus cripple herself; on the contrary, her zeal for Missions accompanied, if not caused, unwonted prosperity at home. New waves of liberality passed over the heart of her people. Debts that had burdened many of the Churches and Manses were swept away. Additional Congregations were organized. And in May, 1876, the Reformed Presbyterian Church entered into an honorable and independent Union with her larger, wealthier, and more progressive sister, the Free Church of Scotland. (21 Servants, 541)

This isn’t to say that we should give in order to be blessed by God; however, it is a promise that God will provide for His work. God desires for disciples to be made of all nations, and He will be faithful to fund that mission. We should not be surprised, then, that many of the healthiest churches are also the most mission-minded churches.

Unsurprisingly, all this talk about partnerships, giving, and being supplied causes Paul to erupt into a doxology of praise. Just as our supply from God only comes through His riches in Christ Jesus, so the apostle emphasizes again that God alone receives the glory for all things. Yes, we are called to do our part in accomplishing the Great Commission, but we are not entitled to any praise for our work because it is the Father who enables us to do it in the first place. In the spreading of the gospel, as in the gospel itself, the glory is to God alone.

FINAL GREETINGS // VERSES 21-23

Paul concludes his letter by exchanging greetings. He wishes for greetings to be sent from him and “all the saints” to each believer that is with them. While this is a common element for Christians to express toward one another, the real surprise is Paul’s inclusion of the saints in Caesar’s household. Our minds should recall Paul’s assurance in 1:13 that through his imprisonment even the Praetorian Guard had heard the gospel. Now, as if to comfort the Philippians even more, Paul subtly lets them know that even members of the Roman Emperor’s household believe in Christ. This is a powerful foretelling of the far-reaching pervasiveness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Although Paul would be beheaded by the order of the Emperor only a few years after writing this letter, Christianity would be the official religion of the Empire in about three centuries. Regardless of the present circumstances, both history and the Scriptures remind us that the Jesus’ kingdom always triumphs and will permanently triumph in the end.

In a letter as Christocentric as Philippians, it is only fitting for it to end by turning toward Jesus once again. Paul’s final prayer is for the grace of Jesus to be with them. This was the greatest prayer that Paul could give them because only by the unmerited grace of Christ, could they take hold of the joy presented in this letter. And two thousand years later, the same is still true for us.

By grace alone, we have hope of being completed at the day of Jesus Christ.

By grace alone, our love will continue to abound more and more.

By grace alone, our life is Christ.

By grace alone, our death is gain.

By grace alone, we behave as citizens worthy of the gospel.

By grace alone, we are unified in our minds and hearts toward each other.

By grace alone, we clothe ourselves with the humility of Christ, treating others as better than ourselves.

By grace alone, we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

By grace alone, we know Christ and the power of His resurrection.

By grace alone, we are citizens of heaven, awaiting the Savior who will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body.

By grace alone, we are content in every situation, being strengthened by Jesus Himself.

By grace alone, we partner in the advancing of the gospel into all nations.

By grace alone, we rejoice in the Lord always, no matter the circumstance or tribulation.

By grace alone, we count everything as vanity for the sake of Christ.

May we fall constantly and continuously upon the grace of Christ.

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?