A Life that Counts, part 1 (Philippians 3:4-6)

I want my life to count for God.  Don’t you?  I don’t want to waste the life that God has entrusted to me, in any way.  You see, we can waste our lives by pursuing the wrong path.

You might have heard it said: “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

We can waste our lives by pursuing sin, but we can also waste our lives pursuing righteousness through self-effort.  In other words, you can waste your live as an irreligious, immoral person, or as a religious, moral person.  I know, that is a paradox.

God wants to raise up men and women in his church whose lives count for His glory.  In Philippians 3:4-11 Paul uses the word “count” 3x (in vv. 7-8).  In order for our lives to count, we have to choose what really counts.

Listen to what Paul says in Philippians 3:4-11.  (Remember, he has just said that genuine believers put no confidence in the flesh, in themselves)…

4 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: 5 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; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 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 9 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–10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

In this passage we have Paul’s radical re-evaluation of his life and what really counts.  Because Christ graciously “arrested” him on the road to Damascus, opening his spiritual eyes to see the surpassing value of Jesus Christ, he willingly trashes all those things he formerly counted on—his pedigree and his performance—so that he may gain Christ.

Paul regards his prior privileges and achievements as spiritual rubbish in comparison to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ, and being justified (v. 9), sanctified (v. 10), and glorified (v. 11) in him.

Here is the first step in pursuing a life that counts:

People whose lives count treasure Christ above everything else.

In verse 3 Paul had told us that those who are the “true circumcision” put “no confidence in the flesh.”  That is, they don’t depend upon themselves to produce righteousness and make themselves acceptable to God.

Again, realize that Judaizers had come to Philippi, Jewish men who had come to faith in Christ but because of their own background were teaching these Gentile believers that they, too, had to become circumcised, keep the Sabbath and follow the law in order to be “fully saved,” to enter into the Abrahamic blessings.

Paul’s first response (in v. 3) was to argue that this is not so, that one enters into the fullness of salvation through faith—glorying in Christ and what He has done, rather than through one’s own righteous acts like circumcision.

Then, in verse 4, Paul takes another tack, saying that if anyone could (hypothetically that is) put confidence in the flesh, he was candidate numero uno.

though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he hasreason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:

Paul engages in a little Greek trash talk here:  Calling them “dogs” and saying “whatever you’ve got, I’ve got more; whatever you can do, I can do better.”  “Bring me your best game, all you’ve got, and I’ll slam dunk you every time.”  “You can’t match me.  I challenge anyone and I’ll knock you out every time.”

Curiously, often those who promote the idea of having confidence in the flesh are the same ones who are the least qualified to have such confidence. This is because of the principle Paul explains in Colossians 2:23 – These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

What follows is the apostle’s unparalleled description of his human achievements before he met Christ, which has been called “one of the most remarkable personal confessions that the ancient world has bequeathed to us.”

As we know, this description of his fleshly accomplishments was really a masterful setup because Paul’s boasting in his achievements paved the way for his remarkable rejection of them.

We begin in verse 4 with Paul’s self-perception when he was still Saul of Tarsus: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more.”  For starters, Paul declared without any qualifications that his ground for personal boasting exceeded that of any person in Judaism!  In effect, he threw down the gauntlet, saying, “Top this if you can, you Judaizers.”

In verses 5-6 Paul chronicles seven qualities that put him at the “head of the class,” but then goes on to declare that they are “treasures of a wasted life.”

For the sake of the argument, Paul adopted the Judaizers’ attitude of confidence in the flesh.  He did this in order to show that his rejection of Jewish advantages was not because he lacked them.  Rather, he actually possessed them in superior measure.

When I preached on this passage several years ago I got seven trophies, statues that indicated that I had won something, that I was superior to others in some way.  As we look at this passage we see that Paul holds up these trophies that the Judaizers treasured (and they really were all good things).  At first, they are in the profit column, but then Paul puts them all in the “loss” column.  Early in life he had treasured them, now he dumps them in the trash.

Paul says, “I may not be an accountant, but I know what really counts.”

These seven trophies have to do with Paul’s inherited pedigree and his personal performance, things he could be (and had been) very proud of.

Paul first points out his family heritage“circumcised on the eighth day” (v. 5).

Notice that Paul speaks first of the key issue that the Judaizers were requiring of the Gentiles—to be circumcised.  He cuts to the chase and says that he has what it takes.

To be “circumcised on the eighth day” was in keeping with the stipulations of the Jewish law for every Jewish boy (Leviticus 12:3) and showed that Paul was “pure-bred.”  He was not adopted into the family, but had been a true part of the family from the beginning.

Paul had not received circumcision in his thirteenth year, as Ishmaelites did, nor later in life, as many Gentiles did who converted to Judaism (e.g., Acts 16:3).  Not even Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith, was circumcised the “eighth day,” but Paul was.

Paul was not a late convert to Judaism, but had been a Jew all his life.  He had come from a pious Jewish family, and had undoubtedly enjoyed encouragement in the “things of God” (religious training) from his parents all his life.

Second, Paul touted his social status as “of the people of Israel” (v. 5), or more exactly “of the race of Israel.”  This meant that in addition to not being a proselyte he couldn’t possibly be a child of proselytes.

Racially he was a pure-blooded Israelite.  Paul was a pure Jew by race and descent.

Israel and Israelite were inside terms by which Jews referred to their own nation.  Others might call them “Jews,” but only they called themselves “the children of Israel.”  Paul was a total insider.

Paul continues highlighting his social status by saying he was “of the tribe of Benjamin.”

The tribe of Benjamin was significant for several reasons:

  • Benjamin was the younger of the two sons born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel.  Benjamin was the only son born in the Promised Land (cf. Genesis 35:16-18).
  • The tribe of Benjamin always held the post of honor in the army, a fact that gave rise to the battle cry, “Behind you, O Benjamin!” (Judges 5:14; Hosea 5:8).
  • And the tribe of Benjamin was the only tribe to remain faithful to Judah and the house of David after the death of Solomon (cf. 1 Kings 12:21). The tribe of Benjamin went into exile with the tribe of Judah and returned from exile with Judah to resettle Jerusalem (cf. Nehemiah 11:7-9, 31-36). Benjamin remained at the core of spirituality.
  • King Saul, Israel’s first king, was a Benjaminite (cf. 1 Samuel 9:1, 2). And the Apostle Paul’s given name was Saul (cf. Acts 7:58; 13:9).
  • It was also the tribe that had the city of Jerusalem within its boundaries (Judges 1:21).

Thus Paul’s heritage radiated insider pride.

J. S. Howson notes:

“How little was it imagined that, as Benjamin was the youngest and most honoured of the Patriarchs, so this … child of Benjamin [Paul] should be associated with the twelve servants of the Messiah of God, the last and most illustrious of the Apostles!”

A fourth aspect of Paul’s inherited pedigree is that he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews.”  This likely means that Paul was brought up as a strict Jew and had pure-blood stock.  Henry Alford and John Eadie believed that Paul also meant that he was a pure-blooded Jew: that all of his ancestors were Jews.

Though Paul had been born outside the Holy Land in Tarsus, he was a “Hebrew,” and his parents were “Hebrews” before him.  “Hebrew of Hebrews” also indicates that he spoke Hebrew and Aramaic (cf. Acts 21:40; 22:2; 26:14).  Paul spoke Hebrew or Aramaic when so many Diaspora Jews knew only Greek, and he prayed and read the Scriptures in Hebrew (cf. Acts 6:1, 2).

Though Paul was born in Cilicia, his parents made sure that he had the best education in Jerusalem under the famous Rabbi Gamaliel (cf. Acts 26:4, 5; Galatians 1:14).  Paul was a private school insider.

It may be that Paul is also using “Hebrew of Hebrews” in similar fashion to “King of kings and Lord of lords,” indicating that Paul is the Hebrew par excellence, the highest of the Hebrews.

So these four expressions are advantages that Paul had received simply by the good fortune of his birth and upbringing, but there were also accomplishments he had achieved through sweat and hard work.

So we see that the apostle had impeccable credentials before he ever lifted a hand!  In effect, regarding prestige his upbringing was not unlike that of our New England blue bloods whose genealogies and education and position have been established facts for generations.

But Paul didn’t rest on his ancestry or name, as do so many of the privileged.  His track record was phenomenal, as we see in his trio of achievements.

Paul lists three things that were his by personal choice and conviction, all reasons why he might have confidence in the flesh more so than anyone else.

Paul first turns to the level of expertise he had achieved in the Torah.  “as to the law, a Pharisee.”

Now, we don’t think very highly of the Pharisee’s because they were consistently Jesus’ opponents throughout the Gospels and appeared to be persnickety, hard-hearted snobs.

However, in first century Israel, Pharisees were highly regarded.  These were the experts in the law, well respected for their knowledge of the Old Testament scriptures.  They were also very strict in obeying the Law.  The most ardent Pharisees scrupulously avoided even accidental violations of the Law and did more than they were commanded to do.  Most of the Jews regarded the Pharisees as being the very best Jews.

Pharisaism was a lay movement that had its beginnings when the Jews returned from exile.  The movement solidified during the Maccabean times, and by the first century the Pharisees were the most impressive and respected group in Israel.  According to Josephus they numbered about 6,000 —an elite denomination within Israel.

Pharisee means “separated one.” The Pharisees distanced themselves from unclean persons and ate only with observant Jews.

Paul’s ancestors were Pharisees, as he told the Sanhedrin (cf. Acts 23:6).  However, Paul’s Pharisaism was a matter of choice and deep conviction as he voluntarily bound himself to keep the hundreds of commandments of the oral law.

Paul, a son of Pharisees (Acts 23:6), and a disciple of the great Pharisee, Gamaliel (Acts 5:34; 22:3), chose to be a Pharisee himself and set himself to be the most earnest of the earnest observers of the Jewish Law (Gal 1:14).

“Pharisee’ for Paul was not a term of reproach, but a title of honor, a claim to ‘the highest degree of faithfulness and sincerity in the fulfilment [sic] of duty to God as prescribed by the divine Torah” (Beare).

But Paul was not only a Bible scholar and really good person, he was also zealous for his faith—“as for zeal, persecuting the church.”

As to religious commitment, Paul was no nominal person with mild interest and involvement or an ivory tower theologian with no connection to real life, but rather he was very zealous for his religion.  He was passionate, so passionate that he was involved in stamping out any other rival religion.

Christ followers posed the biggest threat to Judaism.  In the earliest phase it was made up entirely of Jews who had turned from Judaism to faith in Christ.

We see Paul (still Saul at this point), at the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7.  Then we read in Acts 8…

Acts 8:1 And Saul approved of his execution.  And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

Paul orchestrated a terror campaign against the church and had achieved a growing infamy as a Pharisaic terrorist.  He saw himself as a latter-day Phinehas in his zeal for the Law (cf. Numbers 25:6-8) and was highly esteemed by his people for his actions.

Most significantly, Jesus’ opening words to Paul on the Damascus Road mentioned Paul’s persecutions (cf. Acts 9:4, 5; 22:7, 8; 26:14, 15). “Why are you persecuting me, Saul?”

John Walvoord notes:

“The implication is that the Judaizers who were persecuting him were weaklings in comparison to what Paul had done when he persecuted the church.

Paul’s observation that the Jews of his day have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2) had been true of his own life before God confronted him on the road to Damascus.

Finally, Paul points to his superior moral lifestyle, “as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

When it came to keeping the law, you could never point a finger at Paul.  He was “blameless.”  “Ten commandments?  No sweat!”

Like the rich young ruler, Paul could claim he had kept all the commandments from his youth up—and really mean it.  Of course, Paul would later realize that that was a very superficial view of the law, that in reality it goes deeper to the heart where none of us can claim innocence.

What an amazing accomplishment and claim.  Paul was a spiritual athlete in a category by himself. What focus the man must have had — what confidence — what self-possession — what discipline — what an iron will!

No living soul could gainsay Paul’s fourfold insider credentials. No one could excel his threefold performance.  His seven-fold superiority put him in a class of his own.

Paul’s claim, “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more” was no empty boast.

Listen well, anyone who still wants to claim moral superiority or who puts confidence in the flesh to try to please God.  Listen to what this spiritual superman has to say.

You see, all of these were good things.

But what we have to realize is that it can be good things that actually keep us from God.  When we believe we are good enough, we don’t need a Savior or his salvation.  Paul would have to “lose his religion, to gain his salvation.”

Warren Wiersbe said it like this:

“Like most ‘religious’ people today, Paul had enough morality to keep him out of trouble, but not enough righteousness to get him into heaven!  It was not bad things that kept Paul away from Jesus—it was good things! He had to lose his ‘religion’ to find salvation.

All of the fleshly things in which he formerly placed his confidence he had looked upon as his “assets.” He now sees that they were really liabilities, so far as salvation is concerned.

This is a huge thing to realize.  Paul is saying it is quite possible to do ALL of these things, and to LOSE it all, to have “Wasted” written across your life.

You can come from a great family, grow up going to church, have long passages of the Bible memorized, be vigorously involved in church ministries, in missions, in evangelizing the lost, have a spotless record legally and morally, and still come up with a BIG FAT ZERO!

Paul had competed and won every race.  Yet his victories did not really satisfy his heart or bring peace to his soul.

If this doesn’t count, what does?  One thing and one thing only.  What counts is having Jesus Christ.  He is the only trophy, the only treasure, that really counts and having Him is what makes my life and your life count.

Genuine Christianity, part 3 (Philippians 3:3)

I don’t imagine that anyone sets out to become a legalist and yet a great many God-fearing, Scripture-loving, holiness-seeking people inevitably seem to end up there.  Again, I believe that legalism is engrained into our minds and hearts because in every other area of life we have to work hard to earn approval, grades, a paycheck, a relationship.  Grace is a foreign concept to most of us and we don’t know what to do with it.

Nick Batzig says this:

Legalism is, by definition, an attempt to add anything to the finished work of Christ.  It is to trust in anything other than Christ and His finished work for one’s standing before God.  The New Testament refutation of legalism is primarily a response to perversions of the doctrine of justification by faith alone.  The majority of the Savior’s opponents were those who believed that they were righteous in and of themselves, based on their zeal for and commitment to the law of God.  The Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes exemplified, by their words and deeds, doctrinal legalism in the days of Christ and the Apostles.  While they made occasional appeals to grace, they self-righteously truncated and twisted the Scriptural meaning of grace.  The Apostle Paul summed up the nature of Jewish legalism when he wrote: “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:3–4).

Understanding the relationship between the law and the gospel for our justification is paramount to learning how to avoid doctrinal legalism.  The Scriptures teach that we are justified by the Savior’s works—not our own.  The last Adam came to do all that the first Adam failed to do (Rom. 5:12–211 Cor. 15:47–49).  He was “born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4–5).  He came to be our representative in order to fulfill the legal demands of God’s covenant—namely, to render to God perfect, personal, and continual obedience on behalf of His people.  Jesus merited perfect righteousness for all those whom the Father had given Him.  We, through faith-union with Him, receive a righteous status by virtue of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.  In Christ, God provides what He demands.  The good works for which God has redeemed believers, that we might walk in them, do not in any way whatsoever play into our justification.  They are merely the necessary evidence that God has forgiven and accepted us in Christ.

However, doctrinal legalism can also creep into our minds through the back door of sanctification.  The Apostle Paul intimated as much in Galatians 3:1–4.  The members of the church in Galatia had allowed themselves to be deceived into believing that their standing before God ultimately depended on what they achieved in the flesh in the continuation of their Christian life.  It is possible for us to begin the Christian life by believing in Christ and His saving work alone and then fall into the trap of foolishly imagining that it is entirely up to us to finish what He has begun.  In sanctification, no less than in justification, the words of Jesus hold true: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Doctrinal legalism in sanctification is sometimes fueled by passionate preachers who emphasize Jesus’ teaching about the demands of Christian discipleship while divorcing them from or minimizing the Apostolic teaching on the nature of Christ’s saving work for sinners.  The renowned Reformed theologian Geerhardus Vos explained the nature of this subtle form of legalism when he wrote:

There prevails still a subtle form of legalism which would rob the Savior of his crown of glory, earned by the cross, and would make of him a second Moses, offering us the stones of the law instead of the life-bread of the Gospel . . . [legalism is] powerless to save.

And we can add, “powerless to sanctify,” as well.

Paul expresses in Philippians 3:1-3 how vigilant we must be against legalism.  There he said:

1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord.  To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. 2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh–

We’ve noted that Paul gives two commands, which were so necessary in this fight against legalism:  First, rejoice in the Lord, maintain your attention and affection in Jesus.  Secondly, look out for these people who promote legalism, because it will not be good for you, only harm.

Finally, in verse 3, Paul focuses on their true identity.

Whenever we struggle, it is always important to return to our identity in Christ, who we are in Christ.  Whether we are struggling spiritually, emotionally, psychologically and even physically and financially, it always helps us gain a more hopeful perspective by reminding ourselves who we are in Christ.

In verse 3 Paul identifies four characteristics of their identity that helps us in this battle against legalism.

Verse 1 is what we do—rejoice in the Lord.  Verse 2 is what we avoid—those who deny that Jesus is enough, and verse 3 is who we are.

3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—

First, in contrast to the Judaizers, Paul says that we are the “true circumcision.”

Now, I wouldn’t put that on a bumper stick, “I’m the true circumcision.”  I don’t think it would sell well.

But Paul wants them to know that both he, a circumcised Jew, and they, uncircumcised Gentiles, were the “true circumcision.”

The Old Testament prophets had long lamented the uncircumcised hearts of their people and called for spiritual circumcision (cf. Jeremiah 9:25).  Indeed, as Paul argued in Romans 4:9-12 Abraham was justified by faith long before he was circumcised.  Paul understood that those who have faith are the circumcised in heart.  So Paul included himself emphatically in his declaration, “For we are the [real] circumcision” (Philippians 3:3).

Thus Paul carried on his attack on the Judaizers with the “unequivocal assertion of the great spiritual reversal: Judaizers are the new Gentiles, while Christian believers have become true Jews” (Silva).

Paul was explicit: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:28, 29).

True circumcision is that of the heart and is a matter of faith and grace from beginning to end.

Circumcision of heart had been predicted in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 4:4; Ezekiel 44:7) and in the New Covenant (a heart of flesh for a heart of stone).  That new heart is critical both for eternal life and for sanctification here and now.

Then Paul identifies three ways that we express our “true circumcision,” or genuine Christianity.  Paul used three terms or phrases to describe the false teachers (v. 2). He used three others to characterize the true circumcision.  Stephen Davey puts it like this:  We are those who worship God first, brag about Jesus the most, and trust in ourselves the least.

3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—

We worship, we declare God’s worth and we do that empowered and directed by the Spirit of God.

Jesus told the woman at the well that the Father is seeking those who “worship in spirit and in truth.”  While there is no capitalization in John 4:24 and thus it could be speaking of our own spirits, that it comes from within, here Paul clearly says that this worship happens by means of the “Spirit of God.”

There is much that passes for worship these days, and much of it is extreme emotionalism.  Neither God nor I are against emotions, but it is vital that we submit everything to the Spirit of God and we are motivated by the Spirit.

Those who are in Christ are part of a new order. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The newness of the new creation is the product of creation power (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:4-6).  But the passing of the old and the coming of the new is also meant to call to mind the coming of the new covenant that Paul earlier described wherein we have been made “ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (3:6).

The evidence of the new covenant and circumcision of the heart is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (cf. Romans 8:8, 9).

And when God indwells us, he makes us worshipers.  His Spirit takes our part before his own throne and helps us with our weaknesses, empowering acceptable worship and prayer (cf. Romans 8:26, 27).  The objective of the Holy Spirit is to glorify the Son, so worship driven by the Spirit does not glorify self, or focus so much on ourselves, but glorifies and focuses on the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Worshiping by the Spirit of God also means that our worship is not limited to one place.  The Holy Spirit inhabited the temple in the Old Testament, but now each Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit and we can worship Christ everywhere and at any time.  All of life can be an act of worship.

Second, we glory in Christ Jesus.  Pointedly, we do not glory in ourselves.

In what do you glory?  What do you brag about?  What do you boast about?  Yourself, your own accomplishments, or Christ Jesus and what He had done for you?

These last two signs of true believers are opposing: If we glory in Christ, we aren’t trusting in ourselves.  If we trust in ourselves, then we glory in ourselves.  As Paul says in that amazing passage in Romans 3:

27 Then what becomes of our boasting?  It is excluded.  By what kind of law?  By a law of works?  No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Salvation by grace through faith redirects our boasting from ourselves to Jesus Christ.

In 1993 the (then) Houston Oilers were playing the Buffalo Bills in the playoffs.  Jim Kelly, quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, had been injured, so little known Frank Reich took his place.  Now, just a few weeks before Frank Reich had heard the gospel and had become a Christ follower.  On the way to the playoff game he was listening to some Christian music and heard the words:

In Christ alone I place my trust and find my glory in the power of the cross.  In ev’ry victory, let it be said of me: My source of strength, my source of hope, is Christ alone.

He had never heard it before and it amazed him, so he wrote it down on a piece of paper and stuck it into his pocket.  At the stadium for the game he put on his pads and went out to play the game.

The first half was a complete disaster.  They were playing at home, but the Oilers were embarrassing them and were up 35-3 at halftime.  It looked like a blowout.  Frank Reich was booed off the field.

While in the locker room he pulled out those words and read them again.

Some people say that that second half was the greatest comeback in NFL history.  Buffalo’s defense stepped up and the offense was in sync and they won 41-38,

Reporters scrambled to Frank Reich after the game and asked, “How did you do this?”  They were likely expecting clichés like, “Every game has two halves” or “It’s not over until it’s over…”  But instead Frank Reich reached into his pocket and read…

In Christ alone I place my trust and find my glory in the power of the cross.  In ev’ry victory, let it be said of me: My source of strength, my source of hope, is Christ alone.

Later Frank Reich attended seminary and is now pastoring.

Here was a man who boasted in Christ.  When the microphones were placed in front of him he didn’t boast about what he did, or even what his team did, but he boasted in Christ.

That is important when it comes to our salvation, especially, but it is also important in every accomplishment and achievement.

Jeremiah 9:23-24 warns us:

23 Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”

When the disciples were sent on an early mission of healing and casting out demons and preaching, in Luke 10, and they came back and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.”  In other words, you should have seen the crusades we held and the conversions we witnessed and the miracles we performed.  Lord it was really something amazing!

And Jesus used that moment as a significant teaching moment as he responded to them, no doubt with patient grace – “Men, don’t rejoice so much in all of that – if you really want something to truly rejoice over – rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.”

Don’t glory in what you did for me, but in what I have done for you.

Finally, Paul says, “who put no confidence in the flesh.”

Paul, more than anyone, had learned not to put confidence in his own flesh, in his own will-power.  Romans 7 is a clear testimony that we cannot trust ourselves.  We want one thing and do another time after time after time.

Genuine Christians are those who put 100% of their confidence in Jesus Christ and absolutely none in themselves.  Any variation, even 1,000th of a percent, would mean that we are not of the “true circumcision.”

The “flesh” in this case is not what inclines us to do evil (although it certainly can do that), but rather the energy within ourselves that inclines us to do good for our own benefit or our own glory.

We do not have “confidence” that anything we do to our bodies (circumcision), or anything we do with our bodies (good works, self-efforts), will make us acceptable to God: we realize that trusting in Jesus Christ is all that is necessary.  We have no confidence in what we are by nature to make us acceptable to God. We understand that we cannot save ourselves, and we acknowledge that God must save us.

You see, unbelievers can be very good people, full of good works, and still go to hell.  Of course, believers can be very good people, full of good works too.  But the difference is that true Christians are trusting wholly and only in Jesus Christ 100%.

Our joy is rooted in the truth of Christ’s totally sufficient, totally acceptable work in our behalf.

Our joy is lost whenever we hop back on that treadmill of performance, believing that God loves me only if I perform consistently well, or perfectly.

The joyful truth is that God forgives us and loves us and approves of us solely on the basis of what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross.  We just have to accept that by faith.

Keep your confidence fully in Jesus Christ.  You cannot rejoice in Him if you start to put your confidence in the flesh.

Only one “good work” takes you to heaven, the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Genuine Christianity, part 2 (Philippians 3:2)

Paul was ever vigilant against legalism.  Having been born a Jew and raised under the Mosaic law, he knew what it was like to live under the law and have to perform well in order for God to be pleased with him.  In Philippians 3:1-3 Paul is concerned for the “safety” of the Philippians, concerned that they would be tripped up by putting confidence in the flesh and thus lose their joy.

Rejoicing in the Lord (v. 1) and glorying in Jesus (v. 3) is what keeps us from snapping back into the familiar legalism that we all grow up with.  Matthew Henry put it this way when he wrote:

“The joy of the Lord is a divine armor against the assaults of our spiritual enemies and puts our mouth out of taste for those pleasures with which the tempter baits his hooks…the taste of joy in our mouths makes the tempter’s offerings seem bland by comparison.”

Thus, the true way to obedience comes through making Jesus our greatest treasure and greatest pleasure.

Listen again to Paul’s words in Philippians 3:1-3…

1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord.  To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. 2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh–

The positive command is to “rejoice in the Lord,” while the negative is “look out,” watch out for those who would cause you to revert to legalism.  To understand Paul’s strong warning against legalists in verse 2, let’s explore the historical background.

From the very beginning of the Christian age, the gospel came “to the Jew first” (see Acts 3:26; Romans 1:16), so that the first seven chapters of Acts deal only with Jewish believers or with Gentiles who were Jewish proselytes (Acts 2:10).  In Acts 8:5-25, the message went to the Samaritans, but this did not cause too much of an upheaval since the Samaritans were at least partly Jewish.

But when Peter went to the Gentiles in Acts 10, this created an uproar.  Peter was called on the carpet to explain his activities (Acts 11).  After all, the Gentiles in Acts 10 had become Christians without first becoming Jews, and this was a whole new thing for the church.  Peter explained that it was God who had directed him to preach to the Gentiles, the Holy Spirit had come upon the Gentiles just as he had upon the Jewish disciples in the upper room in Acts 2.  The matter seemed to be settled.

But not for long.  Paul was sent out by the Holy Spirit to minister especially to the Gentiles (Acts 13-3; 22:21).  Peter had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles in Acts 10, but Paul was called as an apostle to the Gentiles.  It did not take long for the strict Jewish believers to oppose Paul’s ministry and came to Antioch teaching that it was necessary for Gentiles to submit to Jewish rules, in particular circumcision, before they could be saved.  This was taken up at the council at Jerusalem in Acts 15.  The result of this council was an approval of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles and an acknowledgement that salvation was by grace, not by works.  Gentiles did not have to become Jewish proselytes to become Christians.  They did not have to be circumcised to be saved.

But the dissenters were not content.  Having failed in their opposition to Paul and the gospel of grace at Antioch and Jerusalem, they followed him wherever he went and tried to steal his converts and his churches.  Most scholars call this group of people “Judaizers.”  The epistle of Galatians was written primarily to combat this false teaching.

When Judaizers invaded the new church in Galatia, Paul pulled out his verbal flamethrower:

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8, 9; cf. 3:1-14).

A gospel of works is an anti-gospel because it is not good news at all!

This is not merely an ancient problem.  Even in our day we find that people naturally default to a legalistic mindset, believing that they have to contribute something to their salvation.

Several decades ago a survey of 7,000 Protestant youths from many denominations asked whether they agreed with the following statements: “The way to be accepted by God is to try sincerely to live a good life.” More than 60 percent agreed.

“God is satisfied if a person lives the best life he can.” Almost 70 percent agreed. (Reported by Paul Brand & Philip Yancey, Fearfully & Wonderfully Made [Zondervan], p. 108.)

Counterfeit Christianity is a strong danger for all of us because we’re all prone to pride and self-reliance.  We all want to take for ourselves at least some of the credit for our salvation.  Oh, we’ll be generous and grant that most of the credit goes to the Lord, but we still want to reserve a bit of the honor for ourselves.

People will say, “I was saved by my own free will,” which implies, “I was smart enough or good enough to make the right choice.”  But the Bible knocks our pride out from under us by clearly stating that our salvation does not depend on our will, but on God’s sovereign mercy (Rom. 9:16). Or, people will say, “Christ died for me because I was worthy.” But Scripture is clear that He died for us when we were unworthy sinners (Rom. 5:8).

It these Judaizers, those teachers who were encouraging the Philippian believers that Jesus wasn’t enough, that they needed “Jesus plus…” that Paul wrote:

2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.

Why does Paul speak in such strange, exaggerated, derogatory terms?

To show just how serious this issue was.  In Paul’s mind these were not people who were just mistaken or who wanted something positive for the Philippian believers.  They were vicious, evil and meant to harm them.

Paul actually makes use of alliteration to make it even easier to remember these description; all three titles, so to speak, because they all begin with the letter k – the Greek kappa –

  • beware of kunas,
  • beware of kakous ergatos
  • and beware of katatomen

But far more striking than their acoustical effects was that they were freighted with ironic sarcasm, as each of the three insults took a virtue that the Judaizers claimed for themselves and reversed it.  Paul impaled the Judaizers on their own vocabulary.

Three rapid-fire, blunt, and offensive terms for the enemies of grace.  And it isn’t that Paul is slinging mud or calling names – he’s gravely concerned about the safety of the Philippian church and knows that these false teachers are extremely dangerous.  They were not to take these Judaizers lightly.

And so Paul doesn’t mince words or beat around the bush.

Paul knows that returning to the legalistic practices of Judaism, while seemingly the “safe” practice, would actually endanger them and sabotage their joy in the Lord.

In rapid-fire succession Paul says, “watch out…watch out…watch out…”  These function like warning signs along a treacherous mountain road.  “Slow down, do not pass, watch for falling rocks.”

Similar commands for watchfulness are found in other passages, like Matthew 7:15:

15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

Also in Acts 20:28-31 Paul warned the Ephesian elders…

28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.

Wolves come disguised, so be especially vigilant.  Notice Paul warns them of attacks not only from outside the church, but even from within.

What should they be looking out for?  Basically, anything that adds to what Jesus Christ has already accomplished on the cross—fueling any sense of worthiness and self-glory.

Because Christ said, “It is finished,” in other words, “paid in full.”  He did absolutely everything necessary for our salvation so that all we have to do is to receive it by faith.  We have only to trust in Him, to rely totally upon Him as our only hope.

Other religions are spelled, “D-O,” you have to do something to be saved.  Christianity is spelled “D-O-N-E.”  Done.  Nothing else is necessary.  “Nothing in my hand in bring, simply to Thy cross I cling….helpless look to Thee for grace.”

There are three characteristics of these Judaizers.  It sounds like Paul is trash talking here, but he’s just emphasizing the extreme danger they were facing.

First, he calls these Judaizers “dogs.”  This was a derogatory term that Jews usually used for Gentiles, but here Paul is using it to talk about Jewish religious leaders!

And he doesn’t have in mind cute, gentle pets, but rather disease-ridden, destructive wild curs.  You see, Jews didn’t have pet dogs in those days.

Dogs were coyote-like scavengers who fed on roadkill, carrion, filth, and garbage — they were vivid images of the unclean.

They were first of all unclean, but secondly vicious.  Wild dogs generally attacked those who were weak and alone, reminding us of the importance of Christian community.

In the Old Testament, a dog came to represent all that was unclean and filthy (Exodus 22:3; 1 Kings 14:11); the term “dog” was used as a derogatory term for someone evil and dangerous.

Isaiah the prophet wrote that false prophets were greedy unsatisfied dogs (Isaiah 56:10).

You can go all the way to the end of the New Testament, in the very last chapter, the term dog appears as a general term for the unrepentant, obstinate, evil unbeliever unable to enter heaven (Revelation 22:15).

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile region, and this happened…

22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word.  And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith!  Be it done for you as you desire.”  And her daughter was healed instantly.

Jesus was using the Jewish language of the day, referring to Gentiles as dogs, but in an ironic twist Paul was calling the very ones who considered themselves to be clean, unclean dogs.

So Paul is taking a slur that the Jews used against the Gentiles and turning back against these false teachers.

Second, Paul calls these Judaizers “evil workers.”  Again, this turns things upon its head.  They promoted the idea that Jesus was great, but you really needed the “good works” of the law to be saved.

Paul is not saying that these people were committing evil sins, but that they do evil by turning the gospel of grace into a religion of works.

As one author puts it:  Paul calls them evil workers “not because they do what is morally wrong, nor because they act out of malice, but…because their reliance on ‘works’ is in the end harmful both to themselves and to others” (G. B. Caird)

Again, Paul uses irony to point out that although they might have thought of themselves as doing “good works” because they promoted obedience to the Mosaic law and thus would see themselves as gaining God’s approval, they were in fact doing “evil works” because it was all based upon their own fleshly efforts and gave no glory to Jesus Christ, thus it did in fact gain God’s condemnation as “evil works.”

Paul told the Galatian believers that the law is like a tutor – an educator – which leads us to understand our total inability to please God and our total need for salvation through Christ alone (Galatians 3:24-25).

So these false teachers were actually diminishing and outright denying the sufficient work of Christ – and elevating human piety and effort which only leads to more pride and more evil.

Paul expresses the truth that our salvation is based on God’s gracious act in our behalf and all we have to do is to trust it, in passages such as Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:3-5 and Titus 2:11-14.

John Calvin put it like this: “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.”

The kind of faith that saves always produces good works.  But we never rely upon our good works to satisfy God, rather we simply cling to His work for us through Jesus Christ on the cross.

By emphasizing their own works, instead of leading people to God, they were driving people away from God.

Here’s the thing:  If salvation is by works, how do we ever know if we’ve done enough?  The best we can do is to hope that we have.  And that’s why we are destitute of joy.  There is no peace and no joy when we believe we are justified by works.

Warren Wiersbe wrote of a woman who was arguing with her pastor about the matter of faith and works as both necessary for salvation.  She said to him, “I think that getting to heaven is like rowing a boat – one oar is faith and the other oar is works.  And if you use both, you’ll get to heaven.  If you use only one oar, you’ll only go around in circles.” The pastor replied, “There is one major problem with your illustration – nobody is going to heaven in a rowboat.”

Yes, we will do good works, we will be obedient, but not to gain God’s approval.  We do good and we are obedient because we already have God’s approval through Christ.

Beware of the dogs – they will spiritually harm you; Beware of the evil workers – they will spiritually mislead you.  One more – Paul writes in verse 2, beware of the false circumcision.

Literally, beware of the “mutilation.”  Paul plays upon the word for circumcision, but indicates how dangerous it is.  The word for circumcision is peritome, to “cut around,” while the word used here is katatome, “to cut off.”

Paul is using hyperbole here to show how something that was once a positive thing for the Jews under the Mosaic covenant, had now become a dangerous and destructive thing during the age of grace.  Instead of including someone in the covenant community, it would actually serve to cut them off from it.

This, of course, was the key issue for the Judaizers.  If they could get the Gentiles to submit to circumcision, then they would be in reality Jewish proselytes (and thus not genuine Christians).

Paul is warning them that circumcision will doing nothing to help them spiritually.  Instead, it would only hurt them.

Again, what Paul is trying to do is to keep the Philippians safe and to keep them rejoicing in the Lord and glorying in Christ, rather than glorying in themselves and depending upon the flesh as these Judaizers were encouraging.

We face the same pressures today.  Some churches are very legalistic, usually focusing on minutiae while ignoring more important issues, but all the while we focus on these do’s and don’ts we are losing our joy.

 

For a helpful chart showing the distinctions between law and gospel go here.  For a video explanation by American Gospel, see.

 

Genuine Christianity, part 1 (Philippians 3:1)

A wife asks her husband to make her some ice cream.  “OK,” he says, and turns to go into the kitchen.  “Are you sure you don’t want me to write that down?”  “No, I can remember.”  “Oh,” she asks, “can you put chocolate syrup on it?”  “Sure thing.”  “Do you want to write that down?”  “No, it’s only two things.  I can remember two things.”  “One more thing, she adds, “could you put some whipped cream on top of that…And are you SURE you don’t want me to write that down for you?”  A little perturbed, he says, “My memory is fine.  That’s ice cream with chocolate syrup and whipped cream.”

He goes into the kitchen.  She hears drawers open, the rattle of pots and pans, the sound of frying.  It’s taking some time.  After a while he comes in with a plate…an omelet and some hash browns.  She looks at the plate, looks up at him and says………“You forgot the toast.”

Forgetfulness, sometimes innocent, sometimes tragic.

When it comes to spiritual issues, forgetfulness needs to be remedied…and fast.  That’s why Paul starts off Philippians chapter 3 with these words…

1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. 2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—

There are some things that we need to be reminded of over and over and over again.  The primary thing we need to be reminded of is the false confidence we place in the flesh, or, in other words, legalism.

I think we default to legalism because our life is so immersed in the idea that we have to earn our way.  We are required to study to earn good grades, make ourselves popular to win friends, work hard to earn a living.  Everything in life involves working to earn something.

That makes grace foreign to us and causes us to regularly slip into the mindset that we have to perform in some way to be acceptable to God.

There are those, Paul is saying in these verses, who profess have true religion, but Paul is saying that true religion, or genuine Christianity, puts no confidence in our flesh to win God’s approval.

Paul wants them to have joy and be safe, both of which are in peril when we put confidence in the flesh.

Now, Paul begins this section with the word “finally,” which has occasioned a lot of humor at the expense of preachers, as, for example when the little boy whispered to his father, “What does the preacher mean when he says ‘finally’?” To which his father muttered, “Absolutely nothing, son.”  Paul, here, says, “finally” and then “rambles on” for two more chapters.

This word might be better translated as a transitional particle to introduce a fresh point in the progress of thought and could well be translated, “Well then, my brothers, rejoice” or “And so, my brothers, rejoice.”  This is a turning point in the epistle.

Paul is addressing believers, his “brothers,” and encouraging them to “rejoice in the Lord.”  Only true believers in Jesus Christ can “rejoice in the Lord” and be truly happy.

But that joy was in danger of being stolen from them…through legalism.

Notice that, like in Philippians 4:4, Paul commands them to “rejoice in the Lord.”  As a command it is something we can will ourselves to do.  I don’t know if we can will ourselves to be happy, but we can will ourselves to rejoice in the Lord.  We can make ourselves happy in the Lord—not in the circumstances of life, but in the Lord.

Many distinguish that happiness is dependent upon happenings, happenings in my favor.  Joy, however, is rooted more in unchanging truths, thus I can be joyful no matter what happens.  Our joy is rooted in Christ and the gospel through faith.

Notice the varying circumstances, indeed often negative circumstances, that we as Christians can go through, yet still maintain joy.  We find these words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:4-10…

4 but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; 7 by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.

What does it mean to “rejoice in the Lord?”  It means to experience Jesus as your deepest and most satisfying treasure and then enjoy all the good things He gives to you.  But even when those things are temporarily taken away, you can still rejoice in Jesus, who can never be taken away.  Jesus is primarily the object of our joy.

Rejoicing is the action that produces joy.  When we rejoice we verbalize—often to other people, to the Lord or just to ourselves—our joy in something—like a good book, an amazing movie or a mouth-watering meal.  It completes our joy by rejoicing in it AND it fuels our joy by rejoicing in it.

We rejoice in the Lord when we tell Him and others how much we treasure Him above all else.  True and lasting joy is found only in Him, all else is temporary and shallow.

Corrie Ten Boom once said, “We don’t know that Christ is all we want until He is all we have.”  In other words, sometimes it is through losing the possessions, or even loved ones, in this life that we come to seek and savor Jesus alone, and then we find that He really is enough.  He really is deeply satisfying.

Martha Snell Nicholson expresses it this way in her poem Treasures:

One by one He took them from me,
All the things I valued most,
Until I was empty-handed;
Every glittering toy was lost.

And I walked earth’s highways, grieving.
In my rags and poverty.
Till I heard His voice inviting,
“Lift your empty hands to Me!”

So I held my hands toward heaven,
And He filled them with a store
Of His own transcendent riches,
Till they could contain no more.

And at last I comprehended
With my stupid mind and dull,
That God COULD not pour His riches
Into hands already full!

Asaph expresses it like this after he had initially been envious of the wicked for their rich, lavish, healthy, care-free lives:

Psalm 73:25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

It glorifies God when we experience God as our desired portion so deeply, so sweetly, that other desires are as nothing in comparison.  Nothing else satisfies.

Now, the prophet Jeremiah warns us how easily it is for us to seek our joy outside of the Lord.  In Jeremiah 2:13 he warns…

13 for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

Two evils—forsaking God as our satisfaction, and seeking satisfaction elsewhere.  And here’s the sad thing, we are giving up the “fountain of living water” for the brackish, lukewarm, quickly disappearing water kept in “broken cisterns.”  It is unsatisfying and momentary compared to the deeply satisfying and continual satisfaction we could find in the Lord.

John Piper describes it in these words:

Evil is the Creator of the universe, who loved us enough to send his Son to die in our place, holding out infinite satisfaction in the fountain of living water — and we taste it and go, “Eh, don’t think so.”

And we start digging — digging and digging in the world.  “I will find it.  I will find it here, not there in God.”

And evil is: “No thank you,” or “No, I will find my way, and do my thing, and I will dig my wells, and my cisterns, and I will suck on this dirt till I’m dead.  And then I’ll go to hell, and I will hate you forever.  No regrets.”

And yet God is saying “I know what satisfies your soul.  I made your soul.  I know what it needs, and I’m it.”

And Jon Bloom reminds us how Jesus reversed this in his interactions with the woman who came to the well (the cistern) to find water, and ended up finding a deeper, long-lasting satisfaction in Jesus Christ.

He goes on to say…

The core evil of the original sin was believing the forbidden knowledge of good and evil would yield more satisfaction than God.  The core evil of ancient Israel was believing idols would yield more protection and prosperity than God.  The core evil in all our sins is believing some broken cistern will give us greater life and joy than God.

Which means the fight between good and evil in the human heart is a fountain-fight: Which fountain do we believe will really satisfy us — right now, in this moment of temptation?  The struggle to discern good from evil is a joy-struggle: Which well has the most real and longest-lasting joy in it? (https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-sin-will-never-quench)

Which is what the Fountain of living water holds out to us.  He offers us the deepest satisfaction, the sweetest refreshment, and life forever (John 4:15), and he offers to fully pay the wages of our sin, the appalling evil of our futile broken-cistern hewing (Romans 6:23).  And as with the man who found a treasure in a field or the merchant who found the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44–46), what he essentially requires of us is almost unbelievably wonderful: to forsake what will lead us only to misery and despair, and to choose the greatest joy.

Now verse 1 encourages us to rejoice in the Lord, but it also shows us that there is never a time in our Christian lives when (1) we don’t need to be reminded about the dangers of legalism and (2) we don’t need to be concerned about our safety, from legalism.

They would remain “safe” if they kept their joy in Jesus and remembered not to put their confidence in the flesh.

You see, our minds don’t stay focused on the truth.  Our flesh, the world and Satan and his demons keep us distracted and deceived more often than we realize.

Thus the importance on repetitive reminders, teaching the same basic gospel truths over and over again.  In fact, it is important that we realize that the gospel of grace—the forgiveness comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—is needed throughout our Christian lives.

Not just at the beginning, to encourage our faith and to enter into a saving relationship with Jesus.  I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I really appreciate (and need to be reminded myself) of what Tim Keller said in his article, The Centrality of the Gospel.  He writes:

We never “get beyond the gospel” in our Christian life to something more “advanced.”  The gospel is not the first “step” in a “stairway” of truths, rather, it is more like the “hub” in a “wheel” of truth.  The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s but the A-Z of Christianity.  The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make progress in the kingdom.

We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience, but the gospel is the way we grow (Gal. 3:1-3) and are renewed (Col. 1:6).  It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power through every barrier (Rom. 1:16-17).  It is very common in the church to think as follows.  “The gospel is for non-Christians.  One needs it to be saved.  But once saved, you grow through hard work and obedience.”  But Col. 1:6 shows that this is a mistake.  Both confession and “hard work” that is not arising from and “in line” with the gospel will not sanctify you-it will strangle you.  All our problems come from a failure to apply the gospel.  Thus when Paul left the Ephesians he committed them “to the word of his grace, which can build you up” (Acts 20:32).

The main problem, then, in the Christian life is that we have not thought out the deep implications of the gospel, we have not “used” the gospel in and on all parts of our life.  Richard Lovelace says that most people’s problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel-a failure to grasp and believe it through and through.  Luther says, “The truth of the Gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine. . . . Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.”  The gospel is not easily comprehended.  Paul says that the gospel only does its renewing work in us as we understand it in all its truth.  All of us, to some degree live around the truth of the gospel but do not “get” it.  So the key to continual and deeper spiritual renewal and revival is the continual re-discovery of the gospel.  A stage of renewal is always the discovery of a new implication or application of the gospel-seeing more of its truth.  This is true for either an individual or a church.

Paul wasn’t “troubled” to repeat these truths to them, and we shouldn’t be either.  We should value the gospel and make sure that our counseling, our preaching, our teaching, our evangelizing, indeed our own spiritual disciplines and living must be gospel-driven.

Like a loving father Paul is a faithful, patient instructor.  He knew that all might be lost if he reminded them of gospel truth 39 times, but not the 40th time.  It is the responsibility of every teacher to continually remind us of the supreme importance of the gospel and its application to every issue we face in life.

You might sometimes here the parental voice saying, “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times” as showing irritation.  That’s not the way Paul felt about it.  It was “no trouble” for him to repeat these things over and over and over again because he knew that it was key to keeping them safe from legalism.

We need to continually encourage one another to “rejoice in the Lord,” to rejoice in the gospel truth that He is an all-sufficient, all-supreme, all-satisfying Savior so that nothing else is our hope but Him.

John Newton, who gave us the wonderful hymn “Amazing Grace” continued to preach as long as he was able. When his eyesight began to fail, a servant stood behind him in the pulpit with a pointer to help him follow the words on his manuscript.

In one sermon Newton said the words “Jesus Christ is precious,” and then repeated them. His servant, thinking he was getting confused, whispered, “Go on, go on; you said that before.”  Newton, looking around, replied loudly, “John, I said that twice, and I’m going to say it again.”  And then he thundered, “Jesus Christ is precious!”

As he died at age eighty-two, he whispered to a friend, “My memory is nearly gone.  But I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.”

This is what we need to preach to ourselves, day after day, hour by hour, that we have an all-sufficient, all-supreme, all-satisfying Savior.

We are safe when we hold onto that truth, in danger when we forget it.

Examples of Self-Giving Service for the Joy of Faith, part 4 (Philippians 2:27-30)

Last week we looked at the amazing example of Epaphroditus, a young man who had risked his life completing the mission he was given—to bring a gift to Paul from the Philippian church.  He did that faithfully, despite the fact that he was very sick and almost died.

Paul pointed out how valuable Epaphroditus had been to him and also the Philippians, because he intended to send him back to them and wanted the Philippians to esteem him and welcome him with open arms.

When we left off last week we noted that Epaphroditus had been very ill, near to the point of death, and Paul tells them two things:  First, that all the while he was sick his mind was more upon the emotional distress they would be feeling rather than his own physical distress.

Second, Paul indicates how dependent they had been upon God for Epaphroditus’ revival.  Listen to these last few words of Philippians 2:

27 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. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.

We who have the benefits of modern medicine may easily read right past “but God had mercy on him.”  But in Paul’s day few people drew back from death’s door.  Many sick people eventually died.

This wasn’t a matter of the young man’s simply getting better but of God’s direct healing—“the sovereign merciful act of God himself” (O’Brien).  Even though we have the benefits of modern medicine (and should avail ourselves of it), it is still God who brings healing.  In this case, medicine wasn’t available.  Evidently Paul did not have the ability to heal everyone he wanted to be healthy, even his fellow workers.  Divine healing has always been subject to the will of God, and not something that someone can force whenever he or she wants (cf. 1 Tim. 5:23; 2 Tim. 4:20).

Only God could have done this.  And Paul lets them know that this was the case.  If God had effectively brought him back from “death’s door” then he must have a purpose for him.

Epaphroditus had been spared death by the merciful intervention of God himself.  And, as the apostle was quick to mention, the mercy extended further, to Paul himself — “and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow” (v. 27b).

Like Christ, Paul was “a man of sorrows” due to his calling (cf. Isaiah 53:3).  He was also a man who, amidst sorrows, experienced a fountain of joy, as we note from the sixteen instances of forms of the word joy in Philippians.

Among his present sorrows in Rome was the selfish rivalry of some Christian leaders.  How thankful he was that the sorrow of Epaphroditus’ death was not overlaid upon those sorrows. How grateful he was for the sovereign will of God and for divine mercy.  But what Paul wanted the Philippians to know was that when they received Epaphroditus back again, they were receiving a man who, as it were, was back from the dead.  So this was likewise a mercy to them.

For all these reasons — Paul’s esteem for Epaphroditus as a brother, a fellow worker, a fellow soldier, an apostle, and a messenger who desperately longed for home and was distressed at their distress and who almost died carrying out their assignment — because of all of this Paul says, “I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious” (v. 28).

When Epaphroditus arrived, the Philippians would be relieved to know he was safe, Epaphroditus would be relieved to be home, and Paul would be “less anxious” about him.  Nothing would please Paul more than a proper reunion.

Paul will urge the Philippians to regard Epaphroditus highly (“hold men like him in high regard”), and to welcome him back wholeheartedly (“with all joy”).  Perhaps Paul sensed that they would undervalue him.

Paul now urged, “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” (vv. 29, 30).

During the long separation between Paul and the Philippian church (and especially since his imprisonment in Rome), the Philippians had been unable to fully express their fellowship/partnership in Paul’s ministry — especially since they lacked a way to supply his needs.

He had daringly exposed himself to danger.  It was while he had labored for his absent Philippian brethren, to make up their deficiency in this sense (4:14-18; cf. 1 Cor. 16:17), that he had become dangerously ill.

Epaphroditus’ heroics enabled them to complete their gospel obligation to Paul.  He was the key link that did not fail in his mission.  They owed the young man big-time.

In effect, single-talented as Epaphroditus was, he was like Christ.  Paul makes this very clear in the Greek because the phrase that tells us that Epaphroditus “nearly died” in verse 30 is exactly the same as the phrase in 2:8, which describes Christ coming “to the point of death.”

Epaphroditus’ near death for Paul echoes Christ’s real death for us.  This young man had the mind of Christ.  He was not only willing to lay down his life for the sake of others, he almost did!

He clearly wasn’t thinking of himself and his own desires or needs.  His heart was focused on finishing his mission to Paul, of helping Paul on behalf of the Philippian church.  Thus, he made possible for the Philippian church to be partners with Paul in the gospel.  The Philippians, Epaphroditus and Paul would all be rewarded for their part in making the gospel known in Rome.

Thomas Constable has an interesting side note:

Aphrodite (Venus) was the goddess of gamblers. When a pagan Greek threw the dice he would cry out “epaphroditos!” meaning “favorite of Aphrodite.”  Epaphroditus’ name may have connections with this custom.  If so, Paul may have written that Epaphroditus “risked [gambled] his life” as a wordplay on his friend’s name.  Paul made a more obvious wordplay with Onesimus’ name, which means “useful” (cf. Phile. 10-11).

Epaphroditus gambled with his life and won because God was with him and had mercy on him.

David Guzik shows how Epaphroditus’ example influenced other risk-takers in the early church:

In the days of the Early Church there was an association of men and women who called themselves the gamblers, taken from this same ancient Greek word used in not regarding his life.  It was their aim to visit the prisoners and the sick, especially those who were ill with dangerous and infectious diseases.

Often, when a plague struck a city, the heathen threw the dead bodies into the streets and fled in terror.  But the gamblers buried the dead and helped the sick the best they could, and so risked their lives to show the love of Jesus.

Paul doesn’t chide Epaphroditus for taking a foolish risk, but exalts him because he had taken a faithful risk.  He was completing his mission.

Now, it is possible that Epaphroditus was sent not only to bring a gift to Paul, but also to be his attendant.  It may be that Epaphroditus fulfilled the first, but because of his sickness was unable to be of much help to Paul.  Perhaps the Philippians believed his mission had failed.

But Paul wants them to know that this was not the case.  Epaphroditus had proved himself very valuable to Paul and despite his extreme illness had accomplished his mission.  Why?  Because he had the mind of Christ, a selfless willingness to expend himself in every way to put others first and minister to them.

And Epaphroditus did this to fulfill what was lacking in the Philippians service to Paul.  We, likewise should have the heart that there is something lacking in our service until the job is done.  We should not be satisfied with good intentions or a half-done job.

And we should be willing, like Epaphroditus, to help others complete the job, even if it wasn’t our job to begin with.

That is why Paul is so proud of Epaphroditus.  In every way he showed himself to be a humble, others-centered man.

Epaphroditus represents a category of people who are to be honored.  If we have read Paul correctly, it is not only the up-front people, those with the more public gifts, who are to be honored but also those who regardless of their gifts live out the example of Christ.

By holding up Epaphroditus, Paul contradicted the Greco-Roman culture’s, and also our modern culture’s, rewarding those who seek prestige and position.

Markus Blockmuehl explains:

Once again, those who stake their ambition on the example of Christ in 2.6-11 will find themselves in conflict with the values and presuppositions of the secular path to power.  By saying that it is people like Epaphroditus whom the Philippians should hold in honour (entimous), Paul at once contradicts Graeco-Roman society’s pervasive culture of rewarding the upwardly mobile quest for prestige and public recognition (philotimia).  The Church instead will prize and value those who aspire to the mind of Christ.  (The Epistle to the Philippians , p. 17)

In other words, real honor should go not to those who seek honor, but to those who serve in humility, even behind the scenes, but who do so faithfully.

This ought to lay the ax to those of us who define success in the evangelical community as a kind of lordship: sitting in the honored seat, being the feted guest at luncheons, speaking to vast throngs, building monuments, naming buildings after ourselves, collecting honorary titles.

Over the course of chapter 2, Paul had taken great pains to get the Philippians outside themselves, beginning with the command in verses 3, 4:

“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Paul knows that for true partnership in the work of the gospel to exist, there must be unity among the workers. The key to achieving unity is for each believer to adopt the humble mind of Christ.

Paul had held up the supreme example of Christ in verses 5-11.  He had raised the example of his protégé Timothy in verses 19-24, as a man who looked out for others’ interests.  He had lifted up the layman Epaphroditus as an unforgettable example in verses 25-30.

But what about Paul himself?  As we would expect, we see that the great apostle practiced what he preached as he put the interests of others above his own in sending Timothy and Epaphroditus back to Philippi, leaving himself alone and unattended in Rome.

Was Paul thinking about himself during those dark days in Rome?  Hardly!  He was willing to sacrifice his own interests for the well-being of others.  Paul, the theologian, lived out every aspect of his theology in the most practical ways.

The magnitude of Paul’s humility and benevolence toward Epaphroditus can be seen by contrasting Paul’s words in our text to what someone of lesser stature might have made out of this same situation.

Let’s suppose Paul was a very insecure and threatened leader, who had to keep reminding others of his position, power and prestige, a petty fellow, who found it impossible to praise others.  What could this kind of man have done with the circumstances at hand?  Let me suggest one very fictional scenario:

“From Paul, the esteemed apostle of God’s choice, to all those under my charge in Philippi.  As you know, missionary work is very demanding, and only the strong of heart can endure under conditions such as I am presently experiencing.  Unfortunately, Epaphroditus is not a strong man physically.  His trip to Rome with your generous gift was too much for him, and he almost succumbed to his illness.  It was fortunate that I was able to nurse him back to good health.  Epaphroditus is not a strong fellow in spirit, as well as in body.  He simply could not hold up under the stress of the situation.  He became so homesick that he was of little help to me here, and so I have sent him home.  His return should serve as a warning to the faint of heart.…”

Rather, in our text (verse 29), Paul actually commands the saints at Philippi to give him a hero’s welcome home.  Paul encouraged Epaphroditus and prepared the way for a triumphant reunion with his friends, family, and fellow believers.

By multiplying the examples of Christ-minded, others-centered men Paul is encouraging the Philippians (and us) that we can be like them.  Oh, we might not want to think of ourselves as like Christ, or even Paul, maybe not even Timothy.  But Epaphroditus is normal, just like us in our weaknesses, yet still able to put others ahead of himself.

What about us?  We know that public ministry gifts must be used to glorify Christ in looking out for the interests of others.  We know that God sees all and will hold his leaders responsible.

But what about the quiet, perhaps single-talented Christians like Epaphroditus?  Will they get a pass?  No!  Rather, they should fear that if they bury their talent (thinking “it won’t matter”), God will certainly see and hold them accountable.

They should read what the master said to the lazy servant in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25:14-29.

14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance.  But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

So don’t hide your talent.  Even if you have only one ability to serve God with (and some may think they have none), use what God has given you to minister to others.  Ask him how to use the talents and abilities you have to minister to others.

Epaphroditus certainly wasn’t Paul or Timothy.  He was a “brother,” a “fellow worker,” a “fellow soldier,” a “messenger [apostle],” a “messenger” — that’s all!  He had the mind of Christ — that’s all!  He is honored today by both man and God — that’s all!

Examples of Self-Giving Service for the Joy of Faith, part 3 (Philippians 2:25-26)

During these last few months of coronavirus, I think we all have come to a deeper appreciation of the value of fellowship.  We genuinely miss one another.

As we have seen, fellowship in the Philippian church was not of the ice cream social variety but was rather the fellowship of people bound together by a great spiritual quest.

The Greek root word for fellowship occurs six times across the brief chapters of Philippians, rendered variously as “partnership” (twice), “partakers” (once), “participation” (once), and “share” (twice).

And each occurrence emphasizes a different aspect of the Philippians’ fellowship or participation with one another: 1:5 emphasizes “partnership in the gospel”; 1:7 describes the Philippians as “partakers . . . of grace”; 2:1 lists their “participation in the Spirit”; 3:10 records Paul’s desire to “share” in Christ’s sufferings; and 4:14, 15 employ the words “share” and “partnership” to stress fellowship in giving — “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” (4:14, 15). So fellowship involved participation in the gospel and grace and the Spirit and suffering and giving.

In 2:25-30 we learn that the Philippians had decided to express and confirm their fellowship with Paul by taking up an offering for him and dispatching an envoy to make the 800-mile trek to Rome and pay Paul’s prison expenses and minister to his needs. This was crucial because the Roman prison system didn’t provide for food, clothing, or medical care.

So young, strong, healthy, godly Epaphroditus was chosen and was entrusted with a considerable sum of money.  This meant that he was not traveling alone when he fell ill because Paul had established apostolic precedent in sending large gifts by group (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:16-22).

The most likely scenario, therefore, is that when Epaphroditus fell ill, one of his traveling companions (or an acquaintance passing the other way) returned to Philippi with the alarming news, while another, or others, stayed with Epaphroditus and nursed him along so that he finally made it to Rome, very much worse for the wear.  But ever-faithful Epaphroditus delivered the goods and set himself, as he was able, to caring for Paul as the Philippians’ surrogate.

However, it wasn’t long until Paul decided that the young man should return to Philippi for reasons that the apostle would later explain.

What is at once apparent from what Paul says here is that he was concerned that the Philippians give the young man a proper welcome.  It was very possible that the little church, preoccupied with surviving in Philippi’s obtrusive, oppressive, “little Rome” culture, coupled with their surprise at Epaphroditus’ early return and the fact that he didn’t remain with Paul as long as they expected, could have worked to make his “welcome” to be little more than a perfunctory acknowledgment of his return, without the church truly engaging him and hearing and valuing his story and expressing genuine appreciation, kinda like when our young soldiers returned from Vietnam.

A church (like a culture) that does not recognize the sacrifice of its own for the sake of the gospel makes a big mistake.  And the wise apostle simply would not let that happen.

Moreover, Epaphroditus’ selfless conduct was a living example of the mind of Christ in his serving the interests of others.  So in verses 25-28 Paul prepares the way for a proper homecoming upon Epaphroditus’ return to Philippi.

25 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 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. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.

Unlike Timothy, Epaphroditus was not very well known outside of Philippi.  Epaphroditus is mentioned only here in Scripture, but Paul makes certain that the Philippians (and we) recognize him and honor him for his example of selfless service.

Paul began with an unusually complimentary introductory fanfare.  There was no drum roll, but it was definitely “Here’s Epaphroditus!

Epaphroditus’ introductory resumé had five entries, three from Paul and two that referenced the Philippians.  Paul called him “my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier.”

In a world of imitations, “my brother” referred to the real thing — the theological reality that two who were truly brothers shared the same spiritual bloodline.  “My brother” resounded with affection, the love of believer for believer — “my dear brother.”

“Fellow worker” is intentionally elevating.  Jesus would say of the church in Ephesus, “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary” (Revelation 2:3), and this was singularly true of Epaphroditus.  He worked, but more, he was Paul’s “fellow worker,” the great apostle’s coworker.  Paul was the public, up-front apostle, and Epaphroditus was the behind-the-scenes servant.  Yet the two were equally coworkers — one in work and dignity.

Next, the image that “fellow soldier” evokes lifts Epaphroditus high.  Paul says elsewhere, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

This was the battle they were fighting.  It is a spiritual battle, but nonetheless a real battle.

The two fought shoulder-to-shoulder in Rome.  Perhaps Paul had in mind the trademark imperial soldiers’ battle ethic of standing side-by-side, dug in with shields locked solid, swords drawn.  The truth is, young Epaphroditus was a battle-tested warrior who had been wounded in combat and was being sent home for a rest.  This man was no weekend warrior.  He had proven himself with distinction.

Now, let’s apply this to our church life today:

These three titles for Epaphroditus serve also to tell us what the church is like:  It is a community (fellow-brother) that works together (fellow-worker) for a common cause—to advance the kingdom (fellow-soldier).

So the church is a community, a corporation and a cause.  Some people are more oriented towards one than the others and we have to learn how to approach people with different “hats” on.

Why is this so important to grasp?

If you are in community with someone, then you are a family.  If you are in a cause together, then you are an army.  If you are in a corporation together, then you are a business.  These three dimensions are vastly different from each other in more than just metaphor – they have different core values, different key persons, different ways of entrance and exit, and varying ways of payback.

Consider values.

In a community, the greatest values are, arguably, love, loyalty and mutual support.  In a cause, the greatest value is winning.  In a corporation, it is effectiveness.  Could there be some tension between love and winning, or love and effectiveness?

Or think about roles.

In a community, the roles fall into such things as father, mother, brother; in a cause, it would be general, lieutenant, or sergeant.  In a corporation, one thinks of a CEO, a president, or an employee.  You relate to someone as father in a vastly different way than you do as either general or CEO.  Approaching someone as an employee is not the same as approaching them as a brother.

And think of the tension between these three when it comes to key people or heroes.  In a community, the key people are often the ones the community rallies around, meaning the weakest.  Think of the way a family revolves around a newborn.  In a cause, the heroes are the ones who are the most committed.  In a corporation, the most honored are usually the most productive.

And perhaps most tricky of all, think of how you exit each of these dimensions.  In terms of leaving a community, well, you don’t.  You are part of a family, or family of origin, forever.  You can’t ever really leave.  When it comes to a cause, you have to desert or, if honorable, die in the effort.  In a corporation, you either quit, are fired or retire.

Starting to get dizzy with the complexities?

Sorry to pile it on … but we haven’t even arrived at the tough part.

Think about knowing which hat to wear.  Someone is not performing well at all, but you know that part of it is based on personal issues in their life.  Do you wear the corporate hat of performance or the community hat of concern?  In truth, it might be both.  They may need a word from you as their general to pick up their pace for the cause and also need a father-figure at a moment of weakness.

Paul knew the value of all three relationships and was able to partner with Epaphroditus in all three areas.  May we have the flexibility and grace to do that too!

[The above information about community, cause and corporation is from James Emery White, but I originally heard it from Jim Dethmer.]

Now let’s get back to the text of Philippians.

Beyond all that Epaphroditus meant to Paul, he had served the Philippians themselves in a twofold manner, as “your messenger and minister to my need” (v. 25b) —two titles of honor that rightfully belonged to the great Apostle Paul himself.

“Messenger” is literally “apostle.”  And though Paul did not use apostle here in the full technical sense of one who had seen the resurrection and had a special commission to preach the gospel (cf. Acts 1:21-23; Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 15:7), it was, nevertheless, a designation of intended dignity.

Likewise, “minister” is also a title of dignity that was evocative of priestly service as Epaphroditus ministered to Paul’s needs. Paul may have been thinking of Epaphroditus’ ministry to him as similar to a priest’s.  He presented the Philippians’ offering to Paul as a sacrifice (4:18).

Gerald Hawthorne says:

“Epaphroditus was their envoy to him, their way of telling him that they cared enough to send their very best …”

Paul is confirming that Epaphroditus had performed a very valued service to him, just as they meant to happen.

Here’s the picture: Epaphroditus was a layman whom we would never have heard of were it not for Paul’s brief reference here.  But he was not a “mere layman.”

Epaphroditus served in no public capacity. He did not shepherd a flock, as did Timothy.  He did not take the gospel to an unreached area.  He did not receive special revelation.  And he wrote nothing.

All he did was faithfully discharge his duty by delivering a bag of money to Paul and then by looking after him.

Yet he is called by Paul “brother . . . fellow worker . . . fellow soldier” and was identified to the Philippians as “apostle” and “minister.”

Paul’s makes no distinction between the ministry of Timothy and the ministry of Epaphroditus, as though one ministry is “first class ministry” and the other is “second class.”

They are very different men, with very different ministries, but they are both a vital and valuable part of the body of Christ.

We must understand that to serve in some unnoticed, unrecognized place in the body of Christ is as much the work of Christ as is public ministry.  Paul teaches the same thing in 1 Corinthians 12 in his exposition of giftedness.  Paul believed this implicitly, and so must we!

And, of course, we know that Jesus tells us that ministry done in secret is rewarded by God.  So don’t disparage yourself or others if your ministry is behind-the-scenes or in the background.

Epaphroditus was remarkable.  He held himself responsible to God by the same standard of faithfulness that Paul used for himself.  No wonder Paul singled the young man out as an example to the church in Philippi, where so many were looking out for themselves rather than others.  Epaphroditus had put on the mind of Christ, taking on the humble life of an unsung servant.  The Philippians needed to see the young man for the man he was and receive him as such.

As a further motivation to properly welcome Epaphroditus back, Paul mentions Epaphroditus’ homesickness: “For he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill” (v. 26).

This was not a case of simple longing for a warm bed and some Aegean cuisine.  It was a complex tension going on in Epaphroditus’ heart. Paul had used the same term in the introduction to this letter to describe his own personal longing for the Philippians “with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:8).

But what really distressed Epaphroditus was not the fact that he had been so ill, but the knowledge that news had gotten back to Philippi of how desperately sick he was.  He was distressed because he feared they were distressed.

This may be difficult to understand in this day of cell phones when while in England I can call a friend and have him answer on his cell as he walks out of a restaurant in France!  However, longtime missionary families understand Epaphroditus well and can tell you of quite different days when it took weeks to communicate.

How intensely Epaphroditus mentally suffered is seen in that the only other use of the Greek word here translated “distressed” is used to describe Jesus’ anguish in Gethsemane (cf. Mark 14:33).

The young man agonized as he imagined the prayers that were being offered for him by his brothers and sisters in the church.  Some of them, he knew, had lost sleep over his plight.  How he longed for them to know he was okay.

What a sympathetic, empathetic soul Epaphroditus was!  Again, the young man was like Christ in his lack of self-interest and focus upon others. “You Philippians, receive him properly.”

If that wasn’t enough to convince them to give him a good welcome, Paul adds, “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” (v. 27).

The gravity of Epaphroditus’ trauma was such that it suggests that his fellow travelers had given up hope that he would live.  Again the example of Christlike servanthood is repeated.  Just as Christ had died as a servant, just as Paul had faced death serving the gospel, so Epaphroditus had come near to death in Christ’s service.

So here again is a good example of Christ-mindedness.

Examples of Self-Giving Service for the Joy of Faith, part 2 (Philippians 2:19-24)

Throughout Paul’s letter to the Philippians he has been encouraging them to adopt the mindset and attitudes that would lead to unity.  It seems that some interpersonal conflict was in danger of spreading and causing strife within the Philippian church.

In chapter 2, after encouraging the Philippians to give up rivalry, conceit, griping and arguing, he puts forth several examples of men who “did it right,” men who were worthy of emulation.  First, Paul reminded them of how Jesus Himself had given up the true glory and rightful authority of being God in heaven, to take on a human nature in order to serve and sacrifice for us sinners.  Paul goes on in this chapter to indicate how he was doing the same for their behalf (2:16b-17) and finally he turns to the examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus.

Here is what he says about them:

19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. 20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. 23 I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, 24 and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also.

25 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 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. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.

Notice how they both served and sacrificed for the sake of others.  It is this other-centered, willingness-to-sacrifice attitude that Paul was confronting them with, urging them to follow these examples.

So Paul gave them a description of the submissive mind in the example of Jesus Christ (vv. 6-8), explained the dynamics of a submissive mind in his own experience (vv. 16b-17) and now introduces us to two more examples.  Warren Wiersbe points out that it was necessary for Paul to add these two examples, because he knew his readers might be prone to claim: “It’s impossible for us to follow such examples as Christ and Paul!  After all, Jesus is the very Son of God and Paul is a chosen apostle who has had great spiritual experiences.”

You might feel the same way.  Thus, Paul introduces them to the attitudes of two “ordinary saints” who were unspectacular and normal.  Just like us.

“He wanted us to know that the submissive mind is not a luxury enjoyed by a chosen few; it is a necessity for Christian joy, and an opportunity for all believers” (Warren Wiersbe).

Timothy (Philippians 2:19-24)

Apparently Timothy was a favorite of the Philippians, and Paul deems it necessary to explain to them why he had not already sent Timothy.

Paul probably met Timothy on his first missionary journey (Acts 14:6ff), at which time, perhaps, the young man was converted (1 Cor. 4:17).  Apparently, Timothy’s mother and grandmother had converted first (2 Tim. 1:3-5) and they had quite a positive influence on Timothy’s conversion and beginning discipleship (2 Tim. 3:14-17).

Timothy was the son of a Jewish mother and a Gentile father, but Paul always considered this young man his own “dearly beloved son” in the faith (2 Tim. 1:2).  When Paul returned to Derbe and Lystra while on his second missionary journey, he enlisted young Timothy as one of his fellow laborers (Acts 16:1-4).

Apparently Timothy took the place once held by John Mark, whom Paul had refused to take on this second missionary journey because of Mark’s previous abandonment to the cause (Acts 13:13; 15:36-41).

Paul begins with Timothy: “I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you” (v.19).

Remember, Paul is under arrest in Rome.  And as always with Paul, there is no presumption in his planning as he hopes “in the Lord Jesus” to send Timothy their way.

This is not a glib cliché.  This is the way Paul lived, as other outtakes from his letters make clear: “if the Lord wills” (1 Corinthians 4:19) and “if the Lord permits” (16:7) — Deo volenti.

It is Paul’s way of saying, “If it be the Lord’s will.”  It shows that he did not make decisions based simply on common sense or on what he thought was best, but he submitted everything to the Lord and His will.

When he mentions how Epaphroditus got well from his illness, he doesn’t say, “Thank goodness he got better!” but rather, “God had mercy on him, and not on him only, but also on me.”

When he instructs the church to welcome Epaphroditus, he tells them to “receive him in the Lord with all joy.”  Clearly, the Lord was the focal point, source and goal of all of Paul’s life and ministry.

Paul bows to God’s will, but at the same time he longs for Timothy to make that round-trip to Philippi and back to Rome because he felt sure that cheerful, heartening news would be coming from Philippi as the Philippians read his letter and took it to heart.

Paul deeply loved this little church, as he said in the introduction of this letter: “I hold you in my heart . . . how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” (cf. 1:7, 9).  As a result, Paul had hitched his emotions to the ups and downs of the church.

Certainly the apostle was a happy man, but his was not an unclouded happiness.  The ministry brought new joys, but with those joys there were also new sorrows.

As he had earlier written to the Corinthians, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” (2 Corinthians 11:28, 29).

Similarly, he wrote to the Thessalonians, “When I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain” (1 Thessalonians 3:5).

Paul’s heart rose and fell with his people.  His greatest pains were heart pains over his people.  But his greatest joys were heart palpitations over their advances.  Paul anticipated that news from the Philippians would do his heart good.

The reason Paul wanted to send Timothy is clear in verses 20-21:

20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.

Timothy’s heart for others was unique—there was “no one like him” in this way among the Roman believers and other compatriots of Paul.  Literally Paul said, “I have no one equal in soul.”  He was truly a “kindred spirit,” one whose heart beat like Paul’s—a heart that was truly tied to the welfare of others.

What Paul means, then, is that Timothy has the same love and concern for the Philippians as he himself does.  They are “equal-souled” in their concern for the welfare of the Philippians and the furtherance of the cause of Christ.

This seems an astonishing statement, but the rest of what Paul said will make it clear.  Paul’s assessment was that there was no one like Timothy “who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare” — that is, one who, when he arrived on the scene in Philippi, would give the active interest and practical care that Paul desired be shown—the kind of care he himself would give them if he were present with them.

The word translated “genuinely” here in v. 20, “genuinely concerned,” is the word gnesios.

The related adjective gnesios occurs four times.  It can refer to children born in wedlock, i.e., they are legitimate and “genuine” children.  It is also used to qualify teaching as being genuine or accurate, and love as pure and sincere (2 Cor 8:8).

Interestingly enough, it is used by Paul in 1 Tim 1:2 and Titus 1:4 to refer to Timothy and Titus as “true” sons (of the apostle) in the faith (cf. Phil 4:3).  Though the stress in Phil 2:20 is on the idea of sincerity, Hawthorne is probably correct to note that the root idea of “legitimate children” should not be overlooked.  Thus Timothy is genuinely interested in the Philippians because he is a genuine son of Paul, and thus “equal-souled.”

Timothy is genuinely concerned for others.

Ironically, the very self-centeredness that Paul had just warned the Philippians about in 2:4 (“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also the interests of others”) was part of everyday life in Rome —“They all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (v. 21).

It is said that when Henrietta Mears, one of the most effective American Christian educators of the twentieth century, would walk into a room, each person often had the feeling that she was saying to him or her, “Where have you been?  I’ve been looking all over for you.”

Miss Mears’s genuine concern for others marked and elevated a whole generation of remarkable leaders.

Timothy stood in stark contrast to others there in Rome, who “all seek after their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.”  This must be a general statement.  Paul had many fellow workers whose commitment to Jesus Christ was complete at this time, one of whom was Epaphroditus. Paul would commend him shortly (vv. 25-30).

More likely Paul had in mind those believers in Rome who were so engrossed in promoting them own ministries (Phil. 1:15-16) that they had no time for the real work of the Lord.  In contrast, Timothy served with Paul in the furtherance of the gospel (2:22). Christ and the gospel were at the center of Timothy’s life.

Like Timothy, we also live in an age of unprecedented self, of weightless souls consumed with their own gravity.  And today many Christians actually believe that it is “Christian” to pursue self-fulfillment as an ultimate goal in life.  It is often believed that salvation is all about me, rather than about God.

But Timothy’s example trumps such self-delusion. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.  God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions.  We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks, as the priest passed by the man who had fallen among thieves, perhaps — reading the Bible.  When we do that, we pass by the visible sign of the Cross raised [in] our path to show us that, not our way, but God’s way must be done.

It is a strange fact that Christians frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them.  They think they are doing God a service in this, but actually they are disdaining God’s “Crooked yet straight path.”  They do not want a life that is crossed and balked.  But it is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1954), p. 99)

The Philippians were well aware of Timothy’s worth, having observed him serving with Paul, and developing their own affection for him.  So Paul says…

22 But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel.

Warren Wiersbe notes:

“The submissive mind is not the product of an hour’s sermon, or a week’s seminar, or even a year’s service. The submissive mind grows in us as, like Timothy, we yield to the Lord and seek to serve others.”

Timothy had a track record of observable worth in the gospel ministry.  Paul did not add him to the team on his first missionary journey, but left him in Derbe and Lystra where he grew in his faith and got involved in ministry so that when Paul returned years later young Timothy was “well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium” (Acts 16:2).

Timothy had served as Paul’s envoy to Macedonia a decade earlier (cf. 1 Thessalonians 3:2; Acts 17:14; 18:5; 19:22), to Corinth on several occasions (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10), and also to Ephesus (cf. 1 Timothy 1:2ff.).

Hawthorne observes, “Timothy was a young man with exceptional potential for missionary statesmanship and church leadership.”

  • He is left behind in Berea to continue the work after Paul is forced to leave because of threats against his life (Acts 17:14).
  • During a time of persecution he is sent to Thessalonica to strengthen the believers in their faith (1 Thessalonians 3:1-3).
  • He is sent to Macedonia from Ephesus with a similar mission (Acts 19:22).
  • He is sent as Paul’s emissary to bring teaching and healing to the troubled church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 4:17-21).
  • He is apparently sent to Philippi and perhaps returns with a monetary gift from that church for Paul (Philippians 2:19; 4:15-16; Acts 18:5).
  • He is instructed how to appoint elders and deacons in the churches (1 Timothy 3).
  • He accompanies Paul on his last trip to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4).
  • He is at his side during his imprisonment.

So Paul is referring to more than 10 years of ministry side-by-side in the spreading of the gospel.

Harry Ironside noted:

“Youth is often exceedingly energetic, and impatient of restraint.  Age is inclined, perhaps, to be over-cautious and slow in coming to conclusions, and it often is a great difficulty for two, so wide apart in years as Paul and Timothy, to labor together happily.  But where the younger man manifests the spirit that was in Timothy, and the elder seeks only the glory of God and the blessing of His people, such fellowship in service becomes indeed blessed.” (51)

Furthermore, his devotion to the Apostle Paul was remark-able: “as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel” (v. 22b). Paul was Timothy’s spiritual father because Timothy, like so many others, had come to Christ under Paul’s ministry.

In vv. 23-24 Paul indicates that he would be sending Timothy to them as a gift, but that this meant a sacrifice on his part, again for their sakes.

23 I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, 24 and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also.

The Philippians had always been generous with Paul (see Philippians 4:14-16), and now Paul wishes to be generous with them.  His “gifts” to this church are Epaphroditus and Timothy.  Paul is here telling the Philippians that he is sending them the best gift that he has to give.

Paul’s gift of Timothy to the Philippians is at Paul’s expense.  How easy it would have been for Paul to ask Timothy to stay there with him, at his side, to minister to him.  Instead, Paul indicates an eagerness to send Timothy as soon as possible.

We must remember that Paul was being confined until the outcome of his trial was over.  Men like Timothy and Epaphroditus were Paul’s hands and feet.  They did for him what he could not do himself.  To send men like this away is something like a blind man loaning his Seeing Eye dog to a friend.

However, as much as they desired a visit from Paul or Timothy, Paul would be sending Epaphroditus back to them at this time.  They were not to think of Epaproditus as “second rate,” however, as Paul will explain in vv. 25-30.

On the contrary, Paul considered him his “brother,” “fellow-worker,” “fellow-soldier,” and “their apostle and servant” (2:25).  Indeed, they were to honor men like him because of his work in the gospel on their behalf which almost cost him his life (2:27-30).

Examples of Self-Giving Service for the Joy of Faith, part 1 (Philippians 2:16b-18)

Throughout Paul’s letter to the Philippians Paul has been encouraging them to pursue unity, and the primary attitude that fuels unity is self-abasing humility, which allows us to listen to and find common ground with others.  Early in chapter 2 Paul pointed to the ultimate example of humility in Jesus Christ, that although He really was fully divine, He cloaked Himself with humanity, became both a servant to others and a sacrifice for others.  That kind of attitude should percolate within the minds and hearts of every believer.

Having focused on Christ’s example, Paul exhorted the Philippians to “work out” their corporate salvation by not griping and arguing against one another.  He then ends this chapter by pointing out three other examples of self-abasing, self-giving men who were worthy of honor and imitation…Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus.

14 Do all things without grumbling or questioning, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. 19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. 20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. 23 I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me, 24 and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also. 25 I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 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. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, 30 for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.

Today we’re going to look at Paul’s example of humility, expressed in vv. 16-18.

Paul speaks of his ministry among them using three metaphors, ones that he uses often:

  1. Running a race
  2. Working a project
  3. Sacrificial worship

Paul’s ministry among the Philippians was first of all like “running” a race.  This is a metaphor that Paul uses of his own spiritual life, most particularly in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Philippians 3:12-14 and 2 Timothy 4:7, but it also a metaphor for his ministry among others (cf. also 2 Timothy 2:5).

Paul wanted to run the race in a way that he would win the prize, the crown, the imperishable stephanos, “in the day of Christ,” or at the judgment seat of Christ.  Winning requires agonizing training (1 Corinthians 9:25), straining towards the finish line (Philippians 2:14) and playing by all the rules (2 Timothy 2:5).

In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 the potential of winning is dependent primarily upon one’s own diligent efforts.  But here in Philippians the potential of winning is tied to whether others were running well.  It’s like a relay race which is won through the combined efforts of several.  Paul had run well, but he was passing the baton to the Philippians and wasn’t sure they were going to run well.

In 1 Corinthians 9:26 Paul says, “So I do not run aimlessly…”  He did not run recreationally, but with a clear purpose.  He wanted to win!  But what did a win look like as far as his ministry?  His goal is declared in such passages as Colossians 1:28, “to present everyone mature in Christ” and Galatians 4:19, “until Christ is formed in you.”

Paul’s aim for the Philippians and all his converts is that they would display greater and greater likeness to Jesus Christ.  For the Philippians that particularly meant living with humble, other-centered attitudes, as illustrated in the example of Jesus in vv. 5-8.

It would be possible for Paul to “run in vain,” not so much with regard to his own personal life, but with regard to the Philippians’ lack of imitation of Christ in this way.  If they persisted in conflict, entrenched in their own ways, allowing that conflict to divide them, then Paul feels like his race among them would have been for nothing, that all his efforts would have been ultimately useless.

The idea that his work might somehow end up to be in vain was a troublesome thought to him, as it would be to any serious pastor.

This is the true heart of a shepherd: to have few burdens for one’s self, but many for others; to not be content with one’s own relationship with God, but also longing to see others walking with the Lord.

Paul enriches this metaphor with one drawn from Isaiah.  In Isaiah 49:4 the Servant of the Lord expresses dismay that he appears to “have labored to no purpose,” to “have spent [his] strength in vain for nothing”; but he also expresses his confidence that his reward is in the Lord’s hands.  Later the prophet promises that in the final day, when God creates new heavens and a new earth, his people “will not toil in vain (Isa. 65:23).

This second metaphor of laboring may call to mind that we labor like a farmer, faithfully planting the seed of God’s Word into people’s hearts through preaching and teaching, hoping that it will be fruitful.

Jesus told His disciples that fruitfulness depended upon the condition of the soil, or the condition of a person’s heart.  Some hearts are hard and will not receive the Word of God; others are shallow and while they show initial excitement, eventually wither away under persecution; then there are those who could have borne fruit but their lives were so filled with cares and comforts of this world.  Only a few, Jesus said, would hear the Word and bear fruit in their lives.

Paul draws upon this imagery in Galatians 6 when he says…

7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. 9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

Sowing seeds and harvesting crops require a lot of hard work.  It is easy to get discouraged.  It is easy to grow weary of doing good and give up.  But God wants us to realize that although we may not reap today, we will eventually reap and we will only reap what we sow.  So we have to be careful what we sow.

It is also possible that the laboring metaphor came from Paul’s experience as a tent weaver.  In that context, hard work, resulting in being able to hand over a finished product, meant what we would call a “paycheck.”

Laboring in vain would be like putting all your effort into a superior or artistic product and having it rejected as badly woven.

Both metaphors stress not so much the honor and dignity of the apostolic calling, but rather the need to toil and take pains to reach full potential.  Paul was putting his heart and soul, his energy and endurance, into making sure they would fully work out their corporate salvation and be a loving, united congregation.

Was all of that in vain?

Paul had sown the seeds of gospel joy into the hearts of the Philippians.  Many of them had come to faith in Christ, but the full fruitfulness of the gospel—expressed in humility and others-centeredness—was in danger of not appearing and Paul felt that his labor might have been in vain.

Paul wanted to hear a “well done” with regard to his ministry among the Philippians when he stood before God’s tribunal.  So he is expressing his desire by reminding them just how much energy and hard labor he had poured into their growth.

The third image that Paul uses is the pouring out of a drink offering as a sacrifice to God.

17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

This may be a reference to his own death, which would turn out to be a few years later, but he did not know that at this time.  Or it could simply point out his sufferings.

Paul uses the exact phrase again in 2 Timothy 4:6, where he says, “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.”

It was possible that Paul’s trial would go against him and he would be executed.  But this did not rob Paul of his joy.  His death would be a willing sacrifice, a priestly ministry, on behalf of Christ and His church, and this would give him joy.

The grammar of I am being poured out is in the present tense.  With this Paul indicated either the possibility that his execution may be imminent, or that his sufferings for them were ongoing.

Here Paul compares his present life to the pouring out of a “drink offering” in Israel’s worship (cf. 2 Tim. 4:6; Num. 15:1-10; Num. 28:4-7).  After the priest offered a lamb, a ram, or a bull as a burnt offering, he poured wine beside the altar.

This was the last act in the sacrificial ceremony, all of which symbolized the dedication of the believer to God in worship.  The pouring out of the wine pictured the gradual ebbing away of Paul’s life, that had been a living sacrifice (cf. Rom. 12:1) to God since his conversion.

The ancient Greek word translated service is leutrogia.  It meant, “Service to God or His cause… any priestly action or sacred performance” (Muller).  Therefore, in this verse we have a sacrifice, a priest, and an accompanying libation that makes the sacrifice even more precious.

Since the sacrifice and service were connected with the faith of the Philippians, it is best to see Paul’s picture describing them as the “priests” and their faith as the “sacrifice,” to which Paul added (and thereby enriched) his martyrdom as a drink offering.

Gerald Hawthorne writes:

“To the degree that his sufferings are for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the church in general, and for the sake of the church at Philippi in particular, they act as a seal on whatever sacrificial service the Philippians may make, just as a libation completes the offering made to God.”

The purpose of all Paul did among them and all his sufferings was for their “faith.”  He wanted them to fully trust God and His promises so that they would fully experience the spiritual blessings and empowerments available to them.

Paul wasn’t suffering for himself.  He was suffering for their sake, to help their faith develop.

So Paul is expressing his confidence in the Philippians, that they would offer their bodies as living sacrifices through faith, and his sufferings would seal theirs.  He was also confident that whatever he (and they) suffered now, would result in greater reward in heaven.

Listen to Paul’s words to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 4:8-18

8 We are experiencing trouble on every side, but are not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are knocked down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our body. 11 For we who are alive are constantly being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal body. 12 As a result, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. 13 But since we have the same spirit of faith as that shown in what has been written, I believed; therefore I spoke,” we also believe, therefore we also speak. 14 We do so because we know that the one who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 For all these things are for your sake, so that the grace that is including more and more people may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God. 16 Therefore we do not despair, but even if our physical body is wearing away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. 17 For our momentary light suffering is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, 18 because we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:8-18, emphasis mine).

And that is what leads Paul to express his joy.  Literally he said, “I rejoice and co-rejoice with you all.”  Could his ministry among them be in vain?  Yes.  But Paul expresses an even greater confidence that the Philippians would respond to his exhortations to humility and unity and that ultimately his ministry would not have been in vain.

Notice that Paul said in verse 17, “I am glad and rejoice with you all.”  This means they were already rejoicing, at least somewhat.  Paul wants to encourage more.

John Piper notes:

What are they rejoicing in?  He just said, he “poured out” his life for their “faith.”  How does Paul think about the relationship of their faith and their joy?

Here is what he said in Philippians 1:25.  Though he is in prison, he expects there to be a season of life to minister to the Philippians, and he describes it like this: “Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith [literally: joy of faith].”  For Paul, joy and faith are inseparable.  When you have saving faith, you have tasted the joy that belongs to faith — the joy of faith.

The sacrifices and sufferings that Paul expresses in these three metaphors are marks of the submissive mind that was present in Christ’s example back in vv. 7-8 and it will be present in the examples of Timothy (vv. 21-22) and Epaphroditus (v. 30) as well.  Through these consistent examples of the same humble, other-centered, self-giving love Paul was encouraging the Philippians to adopt the same.

And God was working in the Philippians to give them the same desire and then the power to live that way in their relationships with each other.

So Paul invites them to join his double-dose of joy with a double-dip of their own: “Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me” (v. 18).

The Philippians would not “rejoice” over the prospect of Paul’s death, of course, but over the knowledge that they, as Paul, had offered themselves as acceptable sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1).  The apostle urged them not to sorrow over their own trials and his, but to rejoice as they worked out their own salvation, adopting his attitude toward their situation in life and believing in God’s present and future grace.

Paul has just said that his joy was the joy of being poured out for the sake of their faith — the joy of dying so that they could have the joy of faith.  And now Paul says, rejoice with me as I die for your joy of faith.

Piper again says:

Ten verses later, Paul is going to say that his precious friend Epaphroditus almost died for Paul.  And he said, “But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow” (Philippians 2:27).  Paul would have wept if Epaphroditus had died.  But he would not have stopped rejoicing in Epaphroditus’s joy in dying for Paul.  We know this because in 2 Corinthians 6:10, Paul says he is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

So there are three facets of the diamond of Christian joy in Philippians 2:17–18.  Let me name them in the order that they actually occur in life:

    1. The joy of faith (verse 17, at the end).
    2. The joy of pouring out your life for the sake of the joy of faith (verse 17, at the beginning).  There is no Christian mission without the surrender of safety.
    3. The rejoicing with those who joyfully die for the sake of other people’s joy (verse 18).

This threefold joy is an invincible force in global missions.

Conquering Complaining: From Whining to Shining, part 2 (Philippians 2:14-16a)

Philippians is an epistle which emphasizes joy.  One of the things that brought Paul great joy was his relationship with the Philippians.  However, at least some of the people in the church there were fighting.

Conflict is a very common problem in any relationship.  Whenever you get two people together, there is friction.  Add more people, and you get more conflict.  Every family is a testimony to that.

Paul, throughout this short epistle, directs the attention of the Philippian congregation to those mindsets and attitudes that lead to unity and thus “work out their common salvation.”  He takes great lengths to help them see the presence and value of humility in the life of Jesus, and then will later point out the same in himself, Timothy and Epaphroditus.  On the other hand, Paul also points out that the inner attitude of “grumbling” and its verbal cohort “arguing” will only lead to deeper conflicts.

In Philippians 2:14-18 Paul wrote:

14 Do all things without grumbling or questioning, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

Today we’re going to focus on verse 15.  All that Paul has been saying from v. 27 of chapter 1 has been leading up to verse 15.  It is the goal or purpose of living a life of humility and unity…

15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.

All that Paul has been commanding in this chapter (2:3-4, 12-14) all lead up to this one purpose—that (hina) they might become (genesthe) better people than they are—that they might grow up.

Whereas what was characterizing their lives was assertiveness (“rivalry,” eritheia, v. 3), conceit (kenodoxia, v. 3), grumbling and argumentativeness (v. 14), it was still possible for them to become “blameless,” “innocent” and “without blemish.”

How?  How is that possible?

Well, it is because they were “children of God.”  Yes, everything else around them was “crooked and twisted,” but that is not what formed them or secured their ultimate destiny.  Instead, God was working in them “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

As they cooperated with God’s work within them,  instead of being conformed to the “crooked and twisted generation” around them, they would be transformed into people whose lives were blameless, innocent and without blemish, shining as lights in a dark world.

That word “blameless” comes from the verb memphesthai, along with a negative prefixed to it, so it means to “stand above accusation or blame.”  The word could apply to standing before God or men.  It means that people have no grounds upon which to incriminate or criticize us.

That’s a pretty high standard.

The word “innocent” here comes from the verb kerannumi, along with the negative prefixed to it, meaning, “unnmixed.”  It was used to describe undiluted wine or unalloyed metal; in other words something that was pure through and through without impurities, or something that was simple rather than fragmented.

This word occurs only three times in New Testament.  In Matt 10:16 Jesus wants the disciples to be as wise as serpents and as “innocent” as doves.  In Romans 16:19 Paul says that he wants the Romans to be wise about what is good and “innocent” about what is evil.

Taken together, these two words would describe a person against whom no criticism or blame could stick.

Both of them call them away from the selfish behaviors of rivalry, conceit, grumbling and arguing.

If the Philippians continue to grumble and complain they will give occasion for outsiders to find fault with them and their gospel.

The “purity” that Paul has in mind in Philippians is broad and covers every area of their lives, but it specifically has in focus the need to refrain from in-fighting and divisive behavior.

Paul’s final descriptive phrase here is “faultless.”  This was a word used to describe the perfect sacrifice, that had nothing broken and no blemish.  Only such unblemished animals were used for sacrifice (cf. Hebrews 9:14; 1 Peter 1:19).  Thus, when “spotless” or “holy” (Romans 12:1), we can present ourselves as a “living sacrifice” to God.

The phrase “faultless children of God surrounded by a crooked and perverse people” (v. 15b) actually comes from Deuteronomy 32:5, but in that case it was Israel, the children of God, who were in fact “blemished” and “crooked and perverse.”

Paul meant that modern Christians should not be like rebellious Israel, who were constantly complaining and disputing with God during the wilderness sojourn.

In Deuteronomy 32:5, in the song of Moses, in referring to the grumbling and unbelief of the children of Israel in the wilderness, Moses says, “They have acted corruptly toward Him, they are not His children, because of their defect; but are a perverse and crooked generation.”

Paul turns that around and says that we are God’s children, living in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, and thus we must be careful not to grumble and dispute, as Israel did in the wilderness, because as God’s people we are supposed to shine forth in this dark world as lights, holding forth to people the word of life, the gospel of Christ.

Paul adds here that these things are to be true even in the difficult environment of living in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.

But how is this even possible?  All of us know we are far from blameless, pure and spotless.  All of us know how difficult it is to live above the pull of the world around us.

What chance do we, in this life at least, have of being blameless, pure and spotless?

The key is found in the words “children of God.”  Because we are born of God as His children, we will exhibit His character more and more throughout life, just like a young child begins to show the physical characteristics of its mother and father.

Through regeneration God gifts us with a new nature, a nature aligned with his.  1 John 3:9 says…

9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.

John is not saying that Christians never sin again, but that they don’t “make a practice of sinning.”  They keep short accounts with God.  Whenever we sin, we confess our sins and renew our repentance.

This new nature within us inclines us towards righteousness.  The old nature inclined us towards sin.  It was exceedingly hard to keep from sinning then.  But now we have a new nature and that new nature is inclined towards righteousness.  When Christ lives His perfectly righteous life through us, then we will be blameless, pure and spotless.

Notice that 1 John 3:9 emphasizes that the reason we don’t go on sinning is because “God’s seed abides in him” and “he has been born of God.”  Just like children take on the physical characteristics of their parents, so we will begin more and more to take on the spiritual and moral characteristics of our heavenly Father.

When we live in that new nature we will “shine as lights in the world,” in that “crooked and twisted generation.”  The concept here is not merely “light,” the shining luminescence which projects from a star, but the “lights” themselves, the heavenly bodies.

God isn’t calling us to give, or do, something that we are not equipped for.  Our very nature now is “light,” and He is merely calling us to live up to what we already are.

Jesus, who came as the Light of the World (John 8:12), told His disciples that they were the “light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).  We shine because Jesus, the light, lives in us.

Impure lives will shade, or hide, the light.  Paul wanted his readers to bear a strong witness, rather than having their light shaded by sin or uncleanness (cf. Matt. 5:15-16).

Back in Matthew 5 Jesus had said:

14 “You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

Light is our new nature, where once darkness reigned.

Paul may also have had Daniel 12:3 in mind…

3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

Thomas Constable relates:

I read about a woman who felt very much alone at her place of employment because she was the only Christian.  To make matters worse, she was often ridiculed for her faith and accused of being narrow-minded.  Finally, she became so discouraged that she considered quitting her job.  Before doing that, however, she sought the counsel of her pastor.  After listening to her complaints, the minister asked, “Where do people usually put lights?”

“In dark places,” she replied.  No sooner had the words passed her lips than she realized how her answer applied to her own life.  She quickly recognized that her place of work was indeed a “dark place” where “light” was vitally needed, so she decided to stay where she was and become a stronger influence for Christ.  It was not long before a number of her fellow employees—13 of them, in fact—came to know Christ as their Savior.

God has placed you in a dark place, in a crooked and twisted generation, where indecency, immorality and inhumanity rule the day, or the night.  The words crooked and twisted speak of being perverse and deformed, as we know this world to be.

But He has made you to be a light, to shine in the darkness.  When we live out what God is working in us, we will shine in a darkened world.

There are typically four ways that we can respond to the dark, twisted, perverted world around us:

  • We can isolate ourselves into little holy huddles and have very little contact with the world.
  • We can indulge ourselves in the world and become just like those around us.
  • We can incinerate lost people with our judgmental words and behaviors.
  • Or we can illuminate the darkness by shining with righteous lives and sharing God’s Word.

Have you ever seen the Northern lights?

It is a stunning display of beauty made from highly charged particles of energy in a cloud known as a solar wind.  As the solar wind interacts with the edge of the earth’s magnetic field, some particles collide with the gases of the ionosphere and begin to glow.

According to the Encarta Encyclopedia, “These particles then collide with gas molecules in the atmosphere, thereby exciting the molecules and causing them to emit electromagnetic radiation in the visible portion of the spectrum.”

In order to have a positive impact upon the culture around us and shine our light, we have to “collide” with citizens of the earth, bump into them and excite them about the truth.  As Joe Aldrich liked to say, “Evangelism is what spills over when you bump into someone.”

According to Isaiah 42:6-7 and 49:6, this is what ancient Israel was supposed to do, to be a light among the Gentiles so that God’s salvation might be brought “to the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:6).

But they failed in the task, becoming like the crooked and twisted peoples around them.

The Philippians, and now you and me, have inherited this vocation.  And we live up to it by living out of our new nature, rather than in indulging our old selfish nature.

Grumbling and arguing is not attractive.  Neither are being judgmental and uncaring about people whose behavior we don’t agree with.

1 Peter 2:12 says,

12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

Not only are we to work on our speech and our shining, but we are to work from the Scriptures.

Verse 16 says…

16 holding fast to the word of life,

The “word of life” is the objective truth.  While our subjective lives give some light, it is the Scriptures themselves that have the greater potential to open blinded eyes.

“Holding fast” translates a word that means hold your position or hold your gaze.  In 1 Timothy 4:16, it’s translated, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.”  In Acts 3:5, it’s translated, “He fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them.”  In Acts 19:22, it’s translated, “Paul himself stayed (held his place) in Asia for a while.”

So the idea is holding fast with your attention or with your person. Holding your gaze, or holding your position. So now back to Philippians 2:15: “you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.”  Holding your gaze on the word of life. Holding your position with the word of life.  Not leaving the word of life.  Staying with the word of life.  Fixing your mind on the word of life.  Giving yourself to the word of life.

We grow tired too quickly.  We grow weary in doing good.  We read God’s Word and truthfully sometimes we get nothing out of it.  But we have to stay with it.  We have to abide in truth.

Along with our nature as being lights, the Word of God provides light which in turn gives life.

The way you shine as lights in a dark culture is by holding fast to the word.  Hold your gaze on it.   Stay with it.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).  We’re not leaving your word.  We’re staying with you and your words.  We’re holding our position here.  We’re holding our attention on your word.  This is life.

We cannot shine in this dark world unless we hold fast to the truth of God’s word.  His word brings life in a dead world, a dead culture.

Don’t let go of the word of life.  You need it; a lost world needs it.

Conquering Complaining: From Whining to Shining, part 1 (Philippians 2:14)

Grumbling and complaining, isn’t that the order of the day?  We, who live in one of the greatest nations in history, gripe and complain at the slightest inconvenience.

Someone has said…

“Some people are always grumbling; if they had been born in the Garden of Eden, they would have found much to complain of.”

In fact, someone has said:

God created the world in six days.

On the seventh day, He rested.

On the eighth day, He started getting complaints.

There is a poem that starts like this…

I knew a man whose name was Horner
Who used to live in grumble corner;
Grumble corner in crosspatch town
And he never was seen without a frown.

He grumbled at this, and he grumbled at that,
He growled at the dog. He growled at the cat. [sounds like Dr. Seuss wrote this]
He grumbled at morning. He grumbled at night,
And to grumble and growl was his chief delight.

He grumbled so much at his wife that she
Began to grumble as well as he.
And all the children, wherever they went,
Reflected their parents’ discontent.

That’s one thing about grumbling, it spreads.  People have a ready ear for griping and love to pass it on.

Mary Bachelor was that kind of chronic complainer.  She was a minister’s daughter, and a housekeeper and helper to her brother, who also was a clergyman.  Day after day she unloaded her troubles on him.  One evening, as they were talking together, she finally realized what she was doing to him.  Turning to the window in remorse, she saw some tall poplar trees framing the setting sun and casting their shadows across the lawn.  I’m like those trees to my brother, she thought.  I’m always casting shadows.  Why don’t I bury my sorrows by leaving them with Jesus?  She went to her room and found relief in tears, after which she wrote these lines:

Go bury your sorrow, the world has its share;

Go bury it deeply, go hide it with care;

Go think of it calmly, when curtained by night;

Go tell it to Jesus, and all will be right.

That’s what we ought to do…give it to Jesus.

Grumbling is a common problem.  We all do it at times.  Some people do it incessantly.  Sometimes I think it is one of our favorite pastimes.  In fact, in some churches it is the most loved thing to do after the worship services.  There’s always something to complain about.

One of the passages I often read to my hospice patients is Psalm 103.  The first two verses state:

“Bless the Lord O my soul, let all that is within me bless His holy name.  Bless the Lord O my soul and forget not all his benefits.”  Then the last verse of that Psalm also says, “Bless the Lord O my soul.”

You will notice there that David is talking to himself.  He’s talking to his own soul and directing his soul what to do—to bless the Lord, to remember what good things God has done and thank Him.

Griping and complaining, they come quite naturally.  We don’t have to remind ourselves to do that.  But we do have to commonly challenge our souls to give thanks to God.

Well, Paul speaks to that issue in our study of the book of Philippians chapter 2.

14 Do all things without grumbling or questioning, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

First of all, in v. 14, Paul directs us to work on our speech.  Our speech reflects our heart.

Paul has just told them to “work out your salvation” and that is a corporate command.  He ended the previous section by saying that God works for “good pleasure,” both His and ours.  When God is continually working for our good, what logic is it to complain?

Paul commands us to “do all things without grumbling or questioning.” Which will be stated positively in verse 18, “rejoice and be glad.”

Now Paul’s mention of murmuring and questioning conjures up the pathetic grousing and whining of ancient Israel in the wilderness (cf. Exodus 16:12).  And his words are intentionally vivid.

The word “grumbling” is goggusmos, which is an onomatopoeic word that sounds like what it means.  This is a word that expresses displeasure either internally through murmuring or externally through whisperings to someone.

Although the word doesn’t occur regularly in the New Testament, it did occur very frequently in the Greek translation of the Hebrew narratives about Israel’s years of wandering in the desert.

This word was used in Acts 6:1, where it is translated with the word “complaint.”

1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.

Even the idyllic early church had its share of grumblings.

Of course, in that context, the complaints led to something positive being done.  I don’t think Paul is saying that any voice of dissent should be silenced.  There are times (and ways) to disagree and dialogue and ask questions.

I don’t think Paul is trying to stop the free exchange of ideas in love and a spirit of unity. He’s not so much against disagreement as disagreeableness.

It would seem to me that grumbling often begins with one (or just a few) malcontents, who gain a hearing, and whose grumbling multiplies.  This takes place until sufficient “support” has been generated, and then leadership is confronted.

An illustration of this may be seen in the New Testament when Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume.  In Mark’s Gospel (14:1-9), we are simply told that “they” murmured against her.  But in John 12:4-6, we are told that it was Judas who first raised the objection.

Putting all the details of the Gospel accounts together, we can see that Judas was the first grumbler, and that he soon had stirred up the others, so that they joined with him in his grumbling.  Grumbling is indeed contagious.

Again, what Paul is speaking to is the attitudes of the Philippians which are leading to disunity.  Jesus was an example of someone to subdued his selfish desires and gave himself for others, without a complaint.

Grumbling is not denying pain or difficulty or suffering or even disagreement, but grumbling is a mindset that focuses almost entirely on the negative.

Two characters in literature that seem to have a problem with grumbling are A. A. Milne’s Eeyore—who thought everything could go wrong and he could count on it.  He could cover the sun with clouds.  Remember his “it’s my birthday, but nobody noticed”?

Then there is C. S. Lewis’ Marshwiggle in his story, The Silver Chair.  When he sets out with the two children to rescue the lost prince, he says, “We can count on it.  We will get lost.  We will start to attack each other.  We will probably end up killing each other.  There is no way we can succeed in this venture anyway.”

Grumbling stays focused on the negative and isn’t willing to look at the positive.  It believes the bad news even when others are trying to open their eyes to good news.

When we look back at ancient Israel, we find that grumbling not only sabotaged their future (they died in the wilderness), but it tends to falsify the past.  Israel actually told themselves that they had had better days in Egypt!

The other word here, translated “questioning” in the English Standard Version, is dialogismos.  While we get the word “dialogue” from this word, in this context it means “disputings” or “arguings.”

The first of these words (“grumbling”) looks at the initial activity, and the second (“disputing”), what results from the first (cf. 1 Cor. 10:10; Phil. 2:2; 4:2).

While grumbling can be kept internal (to ourselves), disputations are definitely between two people.

Arguing happens when grumbling spills over into our conversations.  We first look at things negatively, then we want to argue about it with others.  In our misery we want others to comply to our complaints.

Max Lucado tells of a man who came home one day and immediately his wife started complaining which led to an intense argument.  Arriving at 6:30 in the evening, he spent an hour trying to make things right.  Nothing worked.  Finally, he said, “Let’s start over and pretend I’m just getting home.”  He stepped outside and when he opened the door, she said, “It’s 7:30 and you’re just now getting home!”

She found something new to gripe about.

When you have a heart that is focused on the negative, then it is easy to go on the attack.  Grumbling can often be detected by the pronouns we choose to use.  If you are saying, “he” or “she” or “they” more than “we” and us” you are probably a grumbler.

If you are using “you” statements more than “I” statements, then you are arguing.

Throughout this epistle Paul has been emphasizing humility, which puts others needs ahead of our own.  Notice in these passages how pride leads to arguing.

Proverbs 13:10 says “By insolence [pride] comes nothing but strife…

Galatians 5:26 warns us, “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another…”

If grumbling is discontent over not getting what we want; arguing is the attempt to get what we want.

Both are poison to community—to any relationship, the marriage relationship, churches.

Whenever two people get close enough, there will be friction, there will be conflict.  It is a given.  But if we operate from a position of believing the best in others, like 1 Corinthians 13:7 says) and a position of humility—putting others first, then we can deal with our needs and our differences in a more positive way.

Now the first word of verse 14 is “do all things” or “do everything.”  First, notice that the word “do” means that this is work; it will take effort.

Like I said earlier, we don’t have to work at grumbling and arguing, they come quite naturally.  We do have to make a conscious effort to live a life of trust and gratitude that produces better responses than grumbling and arguing.

And secondly, notice the word “all.”  The word order is literally, “all things do without” these two attitudes.  This inclusive word means there really is no place for grumbling and arguing in Christian community.  There are no situations in which grumblings and arguings are commendable.

So how do we stop griping and complaining?  How do we stop arguing with one another?

First, admit that complaining and arguing are sins.  They are not just “bad habits,” but a sin that needs to be put to death.  Oftentimes the most difficult part in learning how to change our complaining is to recognize it and admit it within ourselves.  It’s easy to see in others, but we are often blind to it in ourselves.

Second, accept personal responsibility for your tendency to complain and argue.

Third, work on the attitude of gratitude (1 Thess. 5:18).  Make it a habit of thanking God and others for what they have done and are doing for you.  Look for the positives.

Fourth, identity God’s hand of providence in your negative circumstances.  He is working all things for your good.  When you gripe and complain, you are saying challenging God’s wisdom, doubting God’s grace and forgetting God’s goodness to you.

Fifth, develop a habit of speaking positively, staying focused on the positive.  Just like complaining can be a bad habit, speaking positive, encouraging words can be a new habit.  Be kind and positive, even if you have to force yourself at first.

But what do we do in a circumstance where we have been truly wronged?  Here is where Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15 apply:

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

This passage assumes that someone has wronged you or hurt you in some way.

First, we are to keep it to ourselves.  We are not to murmur to others.

Second, we should approach the offender with an attitude of trying to find a positive solution.  We are not aiming to win, but to find a mutually agreeable solution, just like the early church did in Acts 6.

Galatians 6:2 tells us we should go with a meek and humble spirit.

Also, fourth, we should give the other person the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe we misinterpreted his or her words or actions.

Fifth, make sure you are quick to hear, meaning that you are willing to listen to their side as well.

Sixth, the next two verses in Matthew tell us not to give up on the other person.  If they don’t respond to your initial confrontation, then bring a witness and try again.

Paul’s prohibition against “complaining or arguing” should be interpreted primarily in light of the interpersonal conflicts that were going on at Philippi.  Paul knew that the unity of the church was a precious and fragile thing and we all have to work at it to keep it.  Christ prayed for it and the Spirit provides it, but we have to maintain it.

Unfortunately, the Philippians, like you and me, were doing those things that generated unfriendliness towards each other.  They were focusing on the negative in their situation and each other and they were more than willing to argue with each other.  These attitudes were stoking the flames of the tensions they already felt towards one another.

Critical, complaining spirits are the historic bane of the church from Philippi to Peoria, Illinois to Philadelphia.  They are found in every culture, like the nineteenth-century Scots who went to church to see if the gospel was preached.  Or today’s McChurch worshippers who leave their church to go down the street to find a church more to their liking.

If we are reading Paul correctly, “do[ing] all things without grumbling or disputing” is a watershed state of the soul.  Those who persist in such murmuring are not obedient to Christ and his gospel and are rejecting the divine call to “work out your own salvation” (v. 12).  They impede their own souls and the souls of their brothers and sisters in this matter.  They are undertows to the Body of Christ.  So if you are one of these people, understand that when you finally stand before your Savior, you will answer with shame.

Our unity is what makes the world sit up and take notice.  When they can see us loving one another despite our differences and forgiving sins committed against one another, it is by far the best example, the shining example, as Paul will say in verse 15, of Christ living in us.

Unfortunately, what the world usually takes notice of is our fighting.  And that grieves the heart of our Lord who prayed for, and died for, our unity.