Upside-Down Living, part 1 (Philippians 2:5-6a)

This morning we’re going to be looking at a passage of Scripture that many consider to be one of the most beautiful in all of the New Testament and was thought to be an early Christian hymn.

Although this passage has deep theological content, let’s remember that Paul is using it primarily as an illustration for the practical instructions he had given the Philippians in vv. 3-4:

3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

So Paul points to several people that the Philippians were familiar with that illustrated these very attitudes and habits—first Jesus in vv. 5-11, then Paul in vv. 17-18, then Timothy in vv. 19-24 and finally Epaphroditus in vv. 25-30.

Several commentators and pastors also find a close relationship between this passage and the passage in John 13 where Jesus washed His disciples’ feet.

  John 13:13-17     Philippians 2:6-11
1. Jesus rises from the table and lays aside (tithesi) his outer garments (ta himatia) (v. 4)   1. He emptied himself (ekenosen heauton). Moffatt translates it, “He laid it (his divine nature) aside.” (v. 7)
2. Jesus takes a towel and wraps it about himself (dieksosen heauton), puts water in a basin and begins to wash his disciples’ feet (a menial task often assigned to slaves; 1 Sam. 25:41; cf. Mark 1:7; Acts 13:25l St-B 2.557) (v. 5)   2. “…taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of human beings.  And being found in human form he humbled himself (etapeinosen heauton, v. 7)
3. When Jesus finished, he once again takes his outer garments and puts them on (elaben ta himata), and again sits down at the table (apepesen) from which he got up (v. 12).   3. Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name (v. 9).
4. Finally Jesus says: “You address me as teacher and Lord (kurios) and rightly so, for that is what I am” (v. 13).   4. …that every tongue might openly confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (kurios, v. 11).

(Gerald Hawthorne, “Philippians” in Word Biblical Commentary, p. 78)

Remember that a big part of why Paul was writing this letter to the Philippian believers was to help them deal with an interpersonal conflict that had arisen and was in danger of spreading (4:2-3) among them and dividing them.

One of the problems Paul had identified in vv. 3-4 that disrupts and ultimately can destroy community within a church, an office or a family, is the problem of “vain glory” (kenodoxia), or “thinking more highly of oneself” without good reason.

But whereas Paul counsels against us having “vain glory” he shows us in this passage today how Jesus emptied himself of his very real and deserved glory, humbling himself to serve us and even sacrifice himself for our good.

That is the example they were to follow.

There is an interesting verse in Psalm 18:35b where David says of Yahweh, “You stooped down to make me great.”  That is quite an amazing verse for the Old Testament, or even for the whole Bible for that matter.

The highly exalted God stoops down to make such a worm as I great!  That is quite astounding.  But that is exactly what Paul pictures here as he presents the example of Jesus Christ and encourages us to follow.

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Again, many think that this was an early Christian hymn, that it was sung in their worship services.  In Latin it is called the Carmen Christi.  Whether or not it was actually sung, Paul crafts it as a concise theological statement about the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus Christ.

In this passage we see Jesus Christ taking several steps down from his exalted glory in heaven, being incarnated as a human, becoming a servant and eventually dying in disgrace and shame, and agony, on the cross, as separated from that previous glory as one can be.

But then, in a couple of weeks, we will get to His reward, when He is exalted and proclaimed for the exalted King He is.

Moises Silva’s outline in his commentary on Philippians discerns the structure of the hymn and helps us see the main points of the passage.

who in the FORM of God existing in likeness of men BECOMING
not an advantage considered his being equal with God and in appearance being found as man
but nothing he made himself he humbled himself
the FORM of a servant adopting BECOMING obedient to death

Here is his line-by-line explanation:

In this arrangement, the first stanza begins and ends with the noun form (morphe), whereas the second stanza begins and ends with the participle ‘having become’ (genomenos).  This feature can easily be interpreted as [an] inclusio . . . and may suggest that indeed these lines begin and end discrete units.

Moreover, each line of the first stanza finds some parallelism in the corresponding line of the second stanza.  In both stanzas the first line contains a participle, and the participle rules a prepositional phrase.

The contrast between God and man in that [first] line is repeated in the second line. The third line of each stanza describes Christ’s voluntary act (‘he emptied himself/humbled himself’).

Finally, both stanzas puts us in touch with the original structure of the hymn, it is certainly suggestive and may have a bearing on exegesis. (Moises Silva, Philippians [BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005], 99)

The usefulness of this structure is evident in how it helps us see the contrast between God and man, the two main action verbs, and the act of becoming human and dying on the cross in the place of men.

Theologically, this structure coheres with the two main movements of Christ’s life—his incarnation and crucifixion.  Likewise, it stresses the two natures of Christ—he is both God and man, and in his humanity his human form has hidden his divine form without replacing it, reducing it, or rejecting it.

Last, Jesus’ primary actions of making himself nothing (i.e., emptying himself) and humbling himself relate in time to his incarnation and crucifixion.  Yet, neither action is separated from the other.  Christ’s humiliation on the cross came about because of his kenosis, and his incarnation also involved a significant step of humility.

All in all, Silva’s structure helps clarify our exegesis and theology in this key passage for biblical Christology.

So here in Philippians 2:5 we see Paul tying this passage back to his previous exhortations to unity.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,

This word phroneo refers to the disposition of the mind or heart towards something.  It speaks of perspective, a way of thinking and says that our way of thinking should be like Jesus’ way of thinking.

Paul is saying that what we think about, our attitude, is very important.  Instead of having a mind that imitates the world, we should aim for a mind that imitates Christ.

What was Jesus’ perspective on life?  We see it here in this upside-down mentality, this “downward mobility” that is so foreign to our own thinking about life.

First, of all, we see that Jesus Christ began “in very nature God.”  His eternal, pre-incarnate nature was full divinity.

who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,

In asking what Jesus Christ was like prior to the incarnation, Paul expresses it with the noun morphe (translated “form,” or “very nature” in the NIV) and the participle huparcho, which expresses the continuing existence of something, in this case the “form of God” in Jesus.

Jesus thus “existed,” or “continued to exist” during all the ages before the Incarnation “in the form of God.”

Now, the word morphe is defined of the “essential character of something.”  That which it is in its very nature.

Another word which Paul will use later, in v. 8 is schema (“found in appearance as a man”).  The difference between morphe and schema is that morphe speaks of the essential form that never changes; while schema speaks of the outward form which changes over time.

Thus, my morphe is that I am a man; but my schema has changed throughout the years from baby, to child, to pre-teen, to teenager, to adult (although some would debate I’ve gotten that far!).

Thus, what Paul is saying in verse 6 is that he has always existed in the unchangeable essence of being God.  He has always existed as God.

This is expressed in a variety of verses:

John 1:1-3 and verse 14 says…

1 In the beginning was the Word [we know from v. 14 that the Word is Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

So Jesus “was in the beginning,” and the tense of the verb means he “already was in the beginning.”  He was “with God” and most importantly this verse says that Jesus “was God.”  Again, the tense of the verb means that He didn’t become God, He always was God.

Now Jehovah witnesses will say, “But there is no article in front of the word God at the end of verse 1, so that means Jesus was ‘a god,’ a lesser god, a created god.”

While it is true that there is no article in front of the final word “God” in verse 1, this doesn’t mean that John was indicating that Jesus was any lesser deity.  After all, “everything that was made” was made by Him, according to verse 3.

A Greek grammarian by the name of Colwell said that an “anarthrous predicate noun is only indefinite if the context dictates.”  That’s just a fancy way to shut the mouths of those who argue that Jesus was less than God.

The reality is, if John had put an article in front of “God” it would have created a worse misunderstanding, for then it would mean that God was only “the Word.”  In reality, what John is doing here is not pointing so much to Jesus as God, but Jesus as divine, having the same nature as God.  It amounts to the same thing.

God, in this verse, is the Father, except in the final part of the verse when “God” stands for the nature or essence of who the Word has always been—totally, irrevocably divine.  Fully God.

Colossians 1:15-17, is another potential Christ hymn.

15 He is the image [the outward visible manifestation] of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation [in position, not time.  Remember, He created all things that were created.]. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

I really like Colossians 2:9

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,

That was Jesus’ exalted position.  He was, and still is, God very God.  Fully God.  He is not part God, or partially God.  The “whole fullness of deity” dwells in Him.  Richard Trench, commenting on this word “deity,” says…

Paul is declaring that in the Son there dwells all the fullness of absolute Godhead; they were no mere rays of divine glory which gilded Him, lighting up his person for a season and with a splendour not his own; but He was, and is, absolute and perfect God; and the Apostle “uses theotes to express this essential and personal Godhead of the Son;…4

Kenneth Wuest adds

One could translate, “For in Him corporeally there is permanently at home all the fulness of the Godhead.” That is, in our Lord Jesus in His incarnation and in the permanent possession of His human body now glorified, there resides by nature and permanently the fullness of the Godhead. The word “Godhead” is from our second word theotes. The word expresses Godhead in the absolute sense. It is not merely divine attributes that are in mind now, but the possession of the essence of deity in an absolute sense.

The simplest way to put it…is that Jesus is God in the flesh.

That is Christ in His glory.  In His essence He is fully God, deserving of worship and service.

But now the humiliation of Christ, in particular the incarnation and crucifixion, are depicted theologically in these steps downward.

And we will pick back up with the second part of verse 6 next week.

A Formula for True Unity, part 2 (Philippians 2:2-4)

Last week we began looking at Paul’s encouragement to unity found in the opening verses of Philippians 2.  We found that Paul reminded them of all they had experienced through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in being united to Christ.  These experienced realities will form the basis for Paul’s commands in vv. 2-4…

1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

You’ve heard the old ditty, I’m sure:

To live above, with saints we love, oh that will be glory.

But to live below, with saints we know, now that’s another story!

Unity is a precious commodity and we must pursue it.  Paul had explained all that God has done for them to be unified.

So the second step in maintaining unity in the body of Christ is to identify the end in mind.

Verse 2 describes what unity looks like.

Stephen Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, says that the #1 habit of an effective leader or person is that they begin with the end in mind.  So Paul, after having given the Philippians four motivations, now presents a picture to their mind—a picture of a preferred and shared future.

So what is our goal?  What are the marks of true unity?

First, we are to have the “same mind.”  Literally, to “think the same.”  This same phrase is used in Romans 12:16; 15:5; 2 Corinthians 13:11 and Philippians 4:2.

I don’t think that Paul is pleading here for uniformity of thinking, as if everyone has to have the same opinion, but rather for an inward disposition of mind that strives to find common ground.

It is not easy to think alike.  We have to put our own agendas aside and be willing to listen to one another and identify common ground, rather than focus on what divides us.

It’s hard to think alike.  Consider how many different denominations there are, many of which have formed because they emphasized a difference rather than common ground.

One researcher found 70 different groups just within the Baptist family!

Nor, is Paul indicating that we must sacrifice the gospel to get along with others.  As we saw in 1:27, we must stand firm for the faith of the gospel.

We are all different.  We have different opinions, different experiences, different backgrounds, different personalities.  Yet, with all that, God wants us to have the “same mind.”

The key is that we are all seeking to have the “mind of Christ.”  We are pursuing a Word-saturated, God-dominated way of thinking that allows us to look at the bigger picture, value the more important truths, seek common ground, and even be willing to yield (as we will see in 4:3).

As believers grow in their understanding of Scripture, they share a common way of approaching problems.  The world offers all sorts of conflict resolution techniques to help people work through differences, but they’re all built on self.  They teach you how to get what you’re after.  But God’s way is to teach us to deny self as we seek to please God and love others.  If two people have this same mind, there is a basis for working through conflicts.

The second picture of unity that Paul asks them to strive for is to pursue “the same love.”

Now what does that mean?

Well, it could be taken in two ways.  First, he could mean that we are to love everyone with the “same measure of love.”  In other words, play no favorites, take no sides.  Certainly this would eliminate factions and a party spirit.

But another way Paul could mean it is that we have the same love that Jesus had when He sacrificed Himself for the good of sinners (1 John 3:16).

Obviously, love is a major factor in keeping unity.  When we begin to devalue people and champion our own causes, we run the danger of breaking unity.

Several years ago I was listening to a series of CD’s by Pastor Dee Duke about prayer.  At one point he discussed the importance of unity, I believe in connection with corporate prayer.  He said that in a dairy community the farmers would milk their cows on Sunday morning and then clean up as best they could and come to church.  Invariably, they would bring some of the stink of the farm with them.  Of course, they were used to it and didn’t smell it anymore.

However, when a new person came into the church, they immediately noticed, “Something doesn’t smell right here.”

He said that disunity is the same.  We might get used to it and sweep it under the rug, but newcomers can sense that “something’s not right here.”  They can sense disunity.

“The same love” is a love that yields its rights for the sake of others.  Christians must have that love in mind in every encounter with one another.

Jesus said that we should be known for our love to one another, not our positions on moral issues, being anti-this or against that.

Third, Paul pictures our goal as “being one in spirit and purpose.”  “Being one” is literally “souls together” souls knit, “soul brothers.”  And our souls are linked together by “spirit” and “purpose.”

Although we exist separately in body, we are linked together “in spirit.”  We have a common spiritual bond.  United to Christ we are united to one another.

We are also “one…in purpose.”  Our ultimate goal is the same.  Whatever may distinguish us, we are intent upon one goal overall and that is to “glory God and enjoy Him forever.”  That is the goal of all creation, the charter of the church and it should be our personal ambition as well.

Now, as defined here in Philippians, the ultimate goal or purpose is to “advance the gospel,” whatever advances the gospel, that is what Paul was concerned about.

That is why he didn’t get his undies in a bunch when people were preaching the gospel but downing Paul.  He didn’t care if they attacked him, as long as they were preaching the gospel.

If we could start from an “it’s not about me” attitude, that would eliminate a lot of conflict, wouldn’t it?

Paul wants us to achieve that tremendous synergy and productivity that happens when a church is of one mind, the same love, linked together in spirit and intent on one purpose.

By the way, Paul encourages them to manifest this type of unity to “complete my joy.”  I believe that not only Paul’s joy, but Christ’s joy, is full when we live together in unity.

The third way to pursue unity is to employ some very practical strategies.  We find these in verses 3 and 4.

Just in case Paul’s motivations and manifestations of unity in vv. 1-2 were somewhat unclear or ambiguous, Paul gets very practical and very specific here.

3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

What Paul has shared so far has been rich, but if that is all we had we might be left scratching our heads at how to possibly turn those motivations and manifestations of unity into reality.  Thankfully Paul wrote vv. 3-4.

But…verses 3 and 4 are such a challenge!  This is a high standard to reach for!

“Do nothing, absolutely nothing” for the purpose of pursuing selfish goals or ego promoting plans.  “Nothing!”  Not a hint, not a whiff of self.

The primary enemy of unity is self—demanding that others see it my way or pursue my way.

How many conflicts between husbands and wives, between bosses and their employees, between siblings, and yes, between church members…is started because of big egos and self-driven motives?

The word “rivalry” was used back in chapter 1, verse 17 and describes a party spirit that wanted to get its own way, even at the expense of community.

A politician, for example, tries to build a following for himself by building himself up and, if need be, by putting his opponents down.

In Galatians 5:20 it is a deed of the flesh, “disputes.”  Many churches suffer because some of the leaders view their position as a way of promoting self.  Some husbands misuse their authority in marriage in the same way.  But, Christians are not to do ANYTHING from this self-seeking motive.

“Conceit” comes from a very picturesque Greek word meaning an “empty opinion.”  A person who has kenodoxia is a person with strong opinions that are, in fact, erroneous.  And, of course, they are more than willing to fight to prove they are right!

Kent Hughes remarks:

Conventional wisdom has it that you can’t get anywhere without it [conceit, that is]. And there is some truth in that.  But it is an abomination in the church.

You might advance in the world with conceit, but it will ruin relationships.

This conceit is what motivated the disciples to want to be first, to sit at Christ’s right hand in glory, thus to receive glory themselves.

But Christ taught that…

But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43b-45)

A third negative practice is found in verse 4, where Paul identifies a selfish preoccupation with one’s own personal (or those in one’s group, hekastoi) interests without regard for others.  This selfish mindset is contrary to the very nature of God (1 Cor. 13:5; 1 John 4:7-8).

Unity cannot co-exist where the primary value is placed on individualism (my rights and ideas) or partisanship (our rights and ideas) in opposition to others.

So Paul gives them a positive alternative, countering “rivalry,” “conceit” and looking out for one’s own interests, with “humbly consider others better than yourselves.

The lowliness that was utterly despised by the Greeks and makes such little sense today has become the highest virtue for the child of God. Markus Bockmuehl writes:

“Instead of pursuing their own prestige, that strangely addictive and debasing cocktail of vanity and public opinion, the Philippians are called to humility (tapeinophrosune), the ‘lowliness of heart’ which agrees to treat and think of others preferentially. . . . The biblical view of humility is precisely not feigned or groveling, nor a sanctimonious or pathetic lack of self-esteem, but rather a mark of moral strength and integrity. It involves an unadorned acknowledgement of one’s own creaturely inadequacies, and entrusting one’s fortunes to God rather than to one’s own abilities or resources” (Markus Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians, Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: A & C Black Limited, 1998), p. 110-111)

If we wonder how a person of superior abilities can regard others as more significant than himself or herself, the answer is to use those abilities for self-assessment by the light of the Scriptures and, in particular, to compare ourselves with Christ (who humbled himself as great as He is).

Then take to heart the words of the surpassing genius and Christian Blaise Pascal, who concluded after much thought, “what amazes me most is to see that everyone is not amazed at his weakness” (quoted in Marvin R. O’Connell, Blaise Pascal: Reasons of the Heart [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997] p. xii).

In the words of St. Chrysostom, “There is nothing so foreign to a Christian as arrogance” (quoted in Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians, p. 114).  When we actually see ourselves for what we are, our conceit and vainglory will recede, and we will begin to count others more significant than ourselves.

We will honor others above ourselves, putting them and their interests ahead of our own.

I remember coming across this idea while we were trying to start a multi-cultural church in Little Rock.  At one time we had a young African-American man named Carl coming to our church.  Carl seemed to have a chip on his shoulder about race issues because he had been treated with prejudice while growing up in Little Rock.  Although he had become a Christian, he still struggled with insecurities and inadequacies.  He argued with me that he wanted to be treated as an equal.

I didn’t think of it at that moment, but later it came to me that in reality, genuine reconciliation between the races will not occur, and neither will real unity, until we began treating one another—not as equals, but as “more important” than us, as “better than” ourselves.  In other words, like Paul says in Romans 12, we need to “outdo one another in honor.”

One practical way we can do this is by being willing to shut our mouths and listen, really listen, to someone else stating their opinion, rather than being argumentative.

Humility is the quality that allows us to do this.  Humility is the ability to see ourselves as we really are (cf. Romans 12:3).  We are not to think too highly of ourselves, neither are we to think too lowly of ourselves, rather we are to think rightly about ourselves.

That takes a Bible-saturated mind, one that looks at life and ourselves from God’s perspective.

In comparison with God, we are exceedingly wicked and also exceedingly small and weak and totally dependent.

In comparison to others, we have a combination of strengths and weaknesses.  Humility is both admitting my weaknesses and offering my strengths to help you (not to dominate you).

If I am humble I will recognize first that I need you (because I have limitations) and second that you have real strengths that I need.  I can value you.  Then I can humbly offer you my strengths to help you.

According to C. S. Lewis, humility is nothing thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less.  In other words, we rarely think about ourselves and instead focus upon others and how we can love them and meet their needs.

Someone asked the great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones this very question. His answer:

A friend was asking me the other day, “How can I be humble?” He felt there was pride in him, and he wanted to know how to get rid of it. He seemed to think that I had some patent remedy and could tell him, “Do this, that, and the other and you will be humble.” I said, “I have no method or technique. I can’t tell you to get down on your knees and believe in prayer because I know you will soon be proud of that. There’s only one way to be humble, and that is to look into the face of Jesus Christ; you cannot be anything else when you see him.” That is the only way. Humility is not something you can create within yourself; rather, you look at him, you realize who he is and what he has done, and you are humbled (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Living Waters, [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009], p. 710).

That is exactly what Paul does next.  He says, “Look at Jesus, look at His willingness to lay aside His glory and die for us; realize who he is and what he has done, and you will be humbled.”

Or, as Robert Murray McCheyne reminds us…

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Jer. 17:9.  Learn much of the Lord Jesus.  For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.  He is altogether lovely.  Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinners, even the chief!  Live much in the smiles of God.  Bask in his beams.  Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love, and repose in his almighty arms. . . . (Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne, Edinburgh 1894, p. 293).

A Formula for True Unity, part 1 (Philippians 2:1)

Welcome back to our study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  In this section today we continue the primary reason for which Paul is writing this letter—to encourage the Philippians to pursue unity and harmony.  That theme was begun in the last four verses of Philippians 1.  When we see the word “therefore” at the beginning of chapter 2, verse 1, we understand that this chapter is built upon the foundation of what Paul said back in chapter 1.

The difference is this:  Whereas 1:27-30 identifies the danger to Christian community to be enemies from the outside; 2:1-4 indicates that there is another danger to Christianity community, and this one is on the inside.  In fact, Paul indicates that the greatest enemy to Christian community and unity is all the way inside us—our very own hearts.

As Pogo observed, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  The source of quarrels and conflicts is our own desires (James 4:1-3).  The cause of divorce, according to Jesus, is our own hardness of heart (Matt. 19:8).  And, before you say, “Yes, my ex-mate really did have a hard heart,” Jesus says, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:5).  Alexander Maclaren put it, “To live to self is the real root of every sin as it is of all loveless life” (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], 14:252).  If we want harmonious relationships, each of us must confront self, put self to death, and live to build up others.

You might remember the Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy demanded that Linus change TV channels so she could watch what she wanted to watch.  He retorted, “What makes you think that you can just walk right in here and get what you want?”  Lucy said, “These five fingers.  Individually they are nothing, but when I curl them together like THIS [and she shows him her fist] into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold.”  Sheepishly, Linus says, “Well, what channel do you want?”  Then he turned, looked at his hand and said to his fingers, “Why can’t you guys get organized like that?”

We must work as a team, right?

That is what Paul was saying back in 1:27-30 that he wanted them to be “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”  The emphasis on unity was begun there.  Now Paul will expand upon it.

If you read the book of Acts, you can see the power of unity, where time and time again you read “one heart, one accord, one voice” and “one mind” and when that happened there would be a spurt of growth and the gospel would be advanced.  Whenever they encountered an obstacle—whether persecution from without or some grumbling within—they would work together towards “one mind” and there would be another spurt of growth.

On the other hand, there can be nothing more discouraging that disunity and church conflict.  When criticism and grumbling abound, it saps our morale and stops our momentum, it sours our love and stains our testimony.  Satan would rather stop the church through internal strife than external opposition.

Leslie Flynn in his book with the dubious title Great Church Fights quotes a story from a Welsh newspaper about a church that was looking for a new pastor.

Yesterday the two opposition groups both sent ministers to the pulpit. Both spoke simultaneously, each trying to shout above the other. Both called for hymns, and the congregation sang two — each side trying to drown out the other. Then the groups began shouting at each other. Bibles were raised in anger. The Sunday morning service turned into a bedlam.

Through it all, the two preachers continued to outshout each other with their sermons. Eventually a deacon called a policeman. Two came in and began shouting for the congregation to be quiet. They advised the 40 persons in the church to return home. The rivals filed out, still arguing. Last night one of the group called a “let’s-be-friends” meeting. It broke up in argument.

The newspaper article was headlined, “Hallelujah! Two Jacks in One Pulpit.”

Many of us have been affected by church conflict.  Some people have been so deeply hurt that they have vowed never to step foot in a church again.  I hope and pray that you will find healing because now, more than ever, we all need a Christian family.

Before we get into Philippians 2, let’s affirm three important facts about unity that reflect God’s heart for us:

First, unity means a great deal to the Father and to Jesus Christ.  In John 17:20-23, Jesus prays to the Father…

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

The Trinity itself expresses a perfect unity, with each member of the Trinity fulfilling their role, but with the intent of glorifying, celebrating, loving and enjoying each other.  There is no selfishness or jockeying for position in the Trinity.

And Jesus asks that we “may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.”  Why this emphasis on the importance of unity?  That unity is needed “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  Disunity destroys our witness to the world and stymies Christ’s mission to save.  Jesus wants us to “become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

It is through unity that we experience the same love that exists between the Father and the Son!

Earlier, Jesus had told his disciples that unity is a key part of our witness to the world.  In John 13:34-35, Jesus said,

34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Although the word “unity” does not occur here, Jesus is telling them to love one another just as Jesus loved them.  That kind of love produces unity.  Jesus’ kind of love is totally unselfish and un-self-promoting.  It results in unity and that unity would reveal to the world that they really were disciples of Jesus.

Thirdly, God has already done everything needed for us to have unity.  So, if you are united to Christ through faith in the gospel, you are united with the body of Christ.  So, in Ephesians 4, Paul tells the Ephesians not to attain to unity, but to maintain that unity.  Look at vv. 1-3…

1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

This unity is already in place, because we are united with Jesus by faith and enjoy the life and benefits of the Trinity.  But we are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit” and Paul tells us that the fundamental attitudes that help us do that are “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”  So be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Back in Philippians 2, Paul gives us a formula for unity.  So what is our formula for unity?

First, start with the proper motivation (2:1)

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,

What do you think Paul means here?

Well, first we have to understand that Paul introduces the four clauses with the Greek preposition ei (“if” in English) containing two nouns in each one, but not verbs at all.  That is what makes these verses somewhat difficult to interpret.

The first interpretive issue relates to the use of the world “if,” which makes it almost sound like these motivational factors are all “iffy,” up in the air, undetermined.

Greek conditional sentences are made up of a protasis and an apodosis, what we call the “If” clause and the “then” clause.

The Greek language had four ways to express conditional ideas.  The first class conditional sentences affirmed the positive.  They express the idea, “If (and it is so, or and it is true_)…” and could often be translated “since.:  “If the sun rises, we will work.”

The second class conditional sentence affirms the negative.  If expresses “If (and it is not so, or could not be so).  “If you are Superman, then jump off this building and fly.”  The Greek would indicate that you are not Superman.  Any arguments there?

The third class conditional sentence is what we are most familiar with—it leaves the outcome up in the air.  “If it stops raining, we’ll go fishing.”  Maybe it will and we will or maybe it won’t and we won’t.”

The fourth class conditional sentence is rarely used in the New Testament.  It expresses a more probable condition, though not quite as certain as the first class conditional sentence.

OK, so what does this have to do with our passage?  Well, it means that, since Paul is using the first class conditional sentence, then he is not leaving any of these attitudes as mere possibilities, but rather certain realities.

Perhaps this can best be seen as a conversation:

  1. Paul: “Is there any encouragement in Christ?” The Philippians: “Yes.”
  2. Paul: “Is there any comfort from love?” The Philippians: “Yes.”
  3. Paul: “Is there any participation in the Spirit?” The Philippians: “Yes.”
  4. Paul: “Is there any affection?” The Philippians: “Yes.”
  5. Paul: “Is there any sympathy?” The Philippians: “Yes.”

Paul is building his case for the command in verse 2.

There IS encouragement from being united to Christ; there IS comfort from His love, there IS fellowship with the Spirit. There IS tenderness and compassion.  So these are not just intellectual possibilities, but experiential realities.  If you are a believer, YOU HAVE experienced these things.

So, by identifying what each of these attitudes or motivations are, they provide us with the first piece of our formula for unity—four great motivations for unity.

Right motivations are important in the Christian faith, for right motivations provide a certain power that allows us to successfully and consistently obey God’s commands.

Is there “encouragement in Christ”?  There certainly is.  All of us who are “in Christ” have His encouragements.  That word can mean encouragement or exhortations—cheerleading and challenge.

So what Paul is likely referring to here are the promises and word of encouragement that Jesus had shared with His disciples that help us now.

David Guzik notes:

Luke 2:25 says that one of the titles for Jesus as the Messiah is the Consolation of Israel.  Paul could say in 2 Corinthians 1:5For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.  In 2 Thessalonians 2:16, Paul says that God has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace.  Of course there is consolation in Christ!

We are encouraged simply be being “in Christ,” but we are also encouraged by all the promises and challenges He gave to us in the Gospels.

What sets us apart as Christians in times of conflict is that we can depend upon receiving encouragement from God, either directly or through the Word.

“Any comfort from love” is the next clause, and it speaks of the reality that we receive comfort from being loved.  Most of the time we have conflicts with others because of insecurities we feel—whether we feel we’re being attacked, or whether we feel like something precious to us will be lost, or whether we feel like we are not being heard.

But the fact is, we are loved, and greatly loved, by God and Jesus Christ.

Since we’ve received this love and been comforted by it, we need to love and comfort others.  We don’t have to be concerned about ourselves when we feel such love and comfort.

What is unclear here is whether Paul is speaking about God’s love for the Philippians or Paul’s own love for them.  Either way, they should experience that love and that should give them confidence to risk, rather than insecurity which chooses to keep things for ourselves.

Because God, or Paul, loved them, they could bring comfort to others rather than compete with others.

In Romans 5:5 Paul tells us that one of the benefits of being justified by faith is that

God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

The idea here is that God’s love has flooded into our hearts.  Not just a trickle, but an overwhelming food.  This is an experiential love, the kind of love that Paul prayed that the Ephesians would “get” when he prays that they…

18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

When we are overwhelmed with love from God, them we can love others.  When we are comforted by God, then we can comfort others.

The idea behind this word for “comfort” in the New Testament is always more than soothing sympathy.  It has the idea of strengthening, of helping, of making strong.  Even the Latin “comfort” has the idea of fortifying or strengthening one’s spirit.

“Any participation in the Spirit” hearkens back to Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:2 in the words “unity of the Spirit.”  The Greek behind “participation” is koinonia, which we often translate “fellowship.”  Our fellowship, our community, is created by the Spirit.

God took the initiative to create fellowship with us, to overcome the rift caused by sin, and placed us into a body which unites Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.  We are all part of one body now, so we should maintain that unity.

This fellowship in the Spirit came when, as Paul explained, “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body —Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). And now it rests as the lingering, final word of the sublime Trinitarian benediction that we repeatedly invoke: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14). This is the enduring reality of our lives — fellowship in the Spirit.

The final motivations are “any affection and sympathy” refers to what we have received through Christ.  His great affection and sympathy were expressed to us through the cross.  He entered our pain and suffering because of His great love and His desire to sympathize with us.

The writer of Hebrews says…

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Jesus died on the cross, not only to fully pay the penalty for our sins (that is great affection) but also to sympathize with our weaknesses, pains and sufferings.

Paul is so emotionally compelling here.  He has taken the Philippians back to the graced memories of the supernatural work of Christ in their souls at salvation.  They all had experienced encouragement and comfort in Christ.  They remembered the consolation of Christ’s love when they became his.  They, through Christ, had found fellowship in the Spirit.  And the compassion and sympathy of Christ had not only graced their souls but had flowed from them to others.

When Bad Gets Worse (Habakkuk 3:16-19), a sermon preached on March 29, 2020

Maybe you saw the title to my sermon and thought, “Why is he being a Debbie Downer, we need some hope and encouragement.”

Well, our faith and hope are really nothing if it cannot stand up under the pressure of our current situation, with all its dangers and fears and confusion.

So I DO want to offer you hope and encouragement, but by facing the realities of life.

Tragedy is hard to understand, hard to explain, and hard on our faith.  Some people lay the blame at the feet of God and become bitter and cynical toward Him.  They may ask for an explanation, but get silence.  They ask for understanding, and are baffled.

It takes faith—a deep, robust faith–to trust God when unexplained tragedies are happening.

Perhaps the greatest expression of undaunted faith ever penned came from the Old Testament spokesman, Habakkuk.  Most prophets spoke to the people for God.  Habakkuk spoke to God for the people.

He lived in times that were hard on faith.  He saw the righteous suffering and the wicked prospering.  He asked God the two questions we often ask: “Why?” and “How long?”

Why are these things happening?  How long will it be before things will change for the better?

Aren’t those the questions we are asking today, in light of the coronavirus?

God revealed to Habakkuk that the Babylonians, the epitome of everything Habakkuk (and God for that matter) detested, would become God’s instrument of judgment on Judah.  Habakkuk did not understand.  He could not explain it.

For a time, evil would win over righteousness, and hatred would win out over love, and bad things would happen to good people.

God’s hand would not move.  His face would not be seen.

Yet throughout this time of punishment, God reminded Habakkuk of correct living: “The righteous will live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4).  “The righteous will live by his faith.”

Turn to the book of Habakkuk.  Habakkuk is one of the Minor Prophets, tucked in there between Nahum and Zephaniah.  Habakkuk was a prophet to the southern kingdom, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

The Northern ten tribes had already been taken into captivity by Sennacharib in 722 B.C. because of their idolatry, immorality and injustice.  And Judah hadn’t learned a thing.  They were following in the footsteps of their brothers.

So God revealed to Habakkuk that his country was about to be invaded, pillaged and ransacked. Habakkuk and his people would lose everything that they had built up over the years, everything they had worked for. It would all be gone.

In this book we can trace Habakkuk’s own personal journey from a place of questioning, doubt and confusion at the beginning of the book to a place of faith, hope and confidence by the end of the book.  And I hope that you and I will take that same journey this morning.

As J. Vernon McGee says, Habakkuk “begins with a question mark and closes with an exclamation point.”

The key verse of the whole book is found in Habakkuk 2:4 “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Three different writers of the New Testament realized that this quality was central to the life of a Christian. Each focus on a different part of the life.

  • Romans – The JUST shall live by faith.
  • James — The just SHALL LIVE by faith.
  • Hebrews – The just shall live by FAITH.

Habakkuk realized that though he did not understand God’s ways or timing, he could not doubt God’s wisdom, love, or reliability.  Then Habakkuk wrote his great affirmation of faith.

In this closing passage Habakkuk makes one of the strongest statements of faith you will find in all of Scripture.  It makes a fitting climax to the book and a strong encouragement to us today.

16 I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. 17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.

That last verse, along with the first verse of chapter 3 and the presence of “selah” after verses 3, 9 and 13 indicate that this was a song intended to be sung with a triumphal tone.

If Habakkuk were speaking today, he would say, “Though my health is endangered, though my retirement accounts are all but wiped out, though I can’t see my friends or finish my senior year, though my daughter is pregnant out of wedlock, yet I will rejoice in the LORD.”

Habakkuk shares with us three things that he did, even when he was facing the worst calamity of his lifetime.  Let’s look at these closing verses together and see what we can learn for the strengthening of our own faith.

  1. Wait patiently for God even when you are afraid (v. 16)

In verse 16 Habakkuk reveals his initial reaction to the bad news.  He said…

16 I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me.

Essentially here Habakkuk recognizes that he was receiving a “no” to his prayers for his people.  Yet his faith-filled response is to wait upon God to fulfill His long-range promises for Israel.

You see, God had just told Habakkuk about the coming invasion by the Babylonians.  God had described to him the arrogance, violence and extreme cruelty of these invaders in chilling detail.

Of course, God had also told him about the great and awesome judgments he would bring upon Babylon and indeed upon all the nations of the earth that refuse to submit to God.

He may have seen all of this in a vision.

So initially, having heard of the horrible judgments to come, he is overcome by fear.  It hits him both emotionally and physically.  When Habakkuk says “my body trembles,” he uses a word which describes violent earthquakes.  He is shaken, falling apart.

His lips “quiver” and he is unable to form the words to express his dread.  He is in such shock that his feet are unable to move (something that will be changed in v. 19!)

Maybe the same thing has happened to you when you first hear news of some tragedy that hits close to home.  You are overcome by dread and sorrow and you feel drained physically.

Habakkuk was not just dealing with the possibility of an attack on his country that would wipe out everything, but with the certainty that it would happen.

You remember the first line of Dicken’s The Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”?  Well, this was the worst of times, and the worst of times.  It was the worst news you could possibly get.

It is quite possible that Habakkuk was still alive when the devastation of Jerusalem happened.  We do know that Jeremiah was, and expressed this devastation in the book of Lamentations.  Listen to these words…

Lamentations 2:1-6

1 How the Lord in his anger has set the daughter of Zion under a cloud! He has cast down from heaven to earth the splendor of Israel; he has not remembered his footstool in the day of his anger. 2 The Lord has swallowed up without mercy all the habitations of Jacob; in his wrath he has broken down the strongholds of the daughter of Judah; he has brought down to the ground in dishonor the kingdom and its rulers. 3 He has cut down in fierce anger all the might of Israel; he has withdrawn from them his right hand in the face of the enemy; he has burned like a flaming fire in Jacob, consuming all around. 4 He has bent his bow like an enemy, with his right hand set like a foe; and he has killed all who were delightful in our eyes in the tent of the daughter of Zion; he has poured out his fury like fire. 5 The Lord has become like an enemy; he has swallowed up Israel; he has swallowed up all its palaces; he has laid in ruins its strongholds, and he has multiplied in the daughter of Judah mourning and lamentation. 6 He has laid waste his booth like a garden, laid in ruins his meeting place;


20 Look, O LORD, and see! With whom have you dealt thus? Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? 21 In the dust of the streets lie the young and the old; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; you have killed them in the day of your anger, slaughtering without pity. 22 You summoned as if to a festival day my terrors on every side, and on the day of the anger of the LORD no one escaped or survived; those whom I held and raised my enemy destroyed.

Even if Habbakuk didn’t experience this first-hand, he had seen it in a vision—starvation of young and old, cannibalism of children, the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the apparent end of his country.

How do you exercise faith in God during the worst of times?

Habakkuk says to wait patiently for God, even when you are afraid.  Did you notice the second half of verse 16?

Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us.

There is no hoping that the invasion will be stopped and tragedy won’t strike.  But God had promised that He would eventually judge the Babylonians for their sin and would ultimately deliver His people.

That wouldn’t happen in Habakkuk’s lifetime, but he believed it.

This is the way some promises are.  They don’t always get fulfilled immediately, or in the next few months, in fact, sometimes not until after we die.

Are we willing to trust God that far?

The phrase “wait patiently” comes from the Hebrew word meaning “to rest, or to settle down and remain.”  It is what David expressed in Psalm 62:1 when he says, “my soul finds rest in God.”

Instead of allowing his heart to continue to be shaken by fear and anxiety, he chose to settle his heart on God’s promises.

Yes, a terrible reality was about to happen, but an even greater reality was coming too!

Last week we looked at the peace that God can give us when we turn our anxieties over to Him:

Philippians 4:6-7 says: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

Rest in God and in His promises.  That is where peace comes from.

Here is the second thing you can do

  1. Choose to rejoice in God even when everything else goes wrong (vv. 17-18)

17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

Here Habakkuk is depicting a series of escalating problems.  We could summarize these verses:  “I’ve lost everything, but I will still rejoice in God.”

Israel was an agricultural society.  What these verses describe is not merely utter financial ruin, but the impossibility of continued survival.  It spells famine and death.  It spells hopeless doom.

Now, agriculture would be divided into permanent crops, annual crops and livestock.  Notice that all three are obliterated here.

Figs, grapes and olives—permanent crops—they’re gone!

Annual crops like wheat and barley, the source of most of their calories—gone!

Their livestock—all dead.

The first scenario is:

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines,

Here Habakkuk is saying that not only is there nothing today, but the future has nothing either.

There were not only no figs on the tree, but no blossoms as well.  The blossoms on the fig tree and grapes starting to form on the vine refer to things that might benefit us in the future.  But there is no hope for the future!

Not only is today terrible, but tomorrow just gets worse!

Today stinks and tomorrow doesn’t look any better!

There are no visible signs that tomorrow will hold any promise.

Sometimes, don’t we just want a sign that things will get better?

David, in Psalm 86:17, asks, “Show me a sign of your favor…”

We all crave something that will give us hope that tomorrow will be better.  Habakkuk saw none.

Our problem is that we live in a quick fix society.  We want to relieve the pain right away so we go looking for a band aid when surgery is what is needed.  God alone can satisfy our hearts when everything in this world is taken away.

The second scenario is presented like this: “the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food…”

This refers to those things you are trusting right now.  They symbolize your present means.  But in this scenario what you are trusting has let you down.

The olive crop fails.  The fields produce no fruit.  All there is, is disappointment.

You’ve worked hard, blood, sweat and tears.  You’ve done everything humanly possible, but it all comes to nothing.

You get laid off after years of faithful service to the company.  You lose your job and have no current source of income.  Or, you invest all your money in a “sure deal” and the market goes bust.  You put years into a relationship with another person and it all falls apart.

Now, we will talk next week about a simple prayer that Jesus taught His disciples how to pray: “Give us today our daily bread.”  God understands our needs and wants us to depend upon Him to meet all our physical needs.

The third scenario is this: though “the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls.”

You know, the Bible is so honest.  It reminds us over and over again of the reality that we live in a fallen, sin-cursed world.  Bad things will happen to good people.

The sheep and cattle refer to those things you are trusting from the past.  This symbolizes your reserves, your savings account.

How many of you have watched your retirement slip away?  I refuse to even look!

In this scenario you have no reserves to fall back on.  Your credit cards are maxed and there is no money in the bank.  Your physical strength is tapped, you are emotionally empty and spiritually drained.

It’s easy to trust God when the fig tree is budding and grapes are on the vines, when the olive crop succeeds and the fields are productive, when sheep and cattle keep reproducing.  But are you really trusting God at those times?  Or are you just trusting in the things you have and would potentially have?

This is exactly the question Satan asked about Job.  “Does Job trust you because he really believe in you, or because you have blessed him so much?”

But Job showed his true colors when God removed the blessing and Job continued to trust, saying “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

So do you just trust God when He gives, or do you trust Him when He takes away as well?

Here’s another way of putting that question:  Which would make you feel more financially secure—having a million dollars in the bank or having a God who promises to meet your daily needs?

Be honest.  If you answer having a million dollars, then you are not really trusting God.

And you are not really more secure, are you?

So what do you do when everything, and I mean everything, that you have been counting on is taken away from you?  What do you do when all you have been depending upon is gone and there is no prospect of recovery?

Habakkuk says, “Trust in God no matter what.”

Habakkuk says, “Even if everything is taken away from me…18 yet, yet, YET I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

The pronoun is emphatic, “Nevertheless I will rejoice in the Lord.”  It is a strong assertion of faith.

Friday night Becky and I watched I Still Believe, the story of Jeremy Camp and his wife Melissa, who had an aggressive cancer that took her life four months into their marriage.  During her sickness they prayed, and got thousands of people to pray, for her healing.  A couple of times she appeared to be healed, but then cancer would return with a vengeance.

In the wake of her death Jeremy Camp had a crisis of faith.  He struggled with what he believed and wondered how God could let him down like this.

Yet a note from his now-deceased wife reminded him that God was good even in this.

Likewise Randy Alcorn, researching If God Is Good, I interviewed Scott and Janet Willis.

An unskilled truck driver who obtained his license through bribery allowed a large object to drop onto a Milwaukee freeway in front of their van.  Their gas tank exploded, killing six of their children.

Scott Willis said,

The depth of our pain is indescribable.  However, the Bible expresses our feelings that we sorrow, but not as those without hope.  What gives us our firm foundation for hope are the words of God found in Scripture…. Ben, Joe, Sam, Hank, Elizabeth and Peter are all with Jesus Christ.  We know where they are.  Our strength rests in God’s Word.

Now the Willis family’s story is exactly the kind that atheists feature as overwhelming evidence for God’s nonexistence.  Yet, when I interviewed this couple fourteen years after the tragic event, Janet said, “Today I have a far greater understanding of the goodness of God than I did before the accident.”  This might have taken my breath away, had I not already heard it from others who’ve also endured unspeakable suffering.

At the end of our two-hour conversation, Scott Willis said, “I have a stronger view of God’s sovereignty than ever before.”

Scott and Janet did not say that the accident itself strengthened their view of God’s sovereignty.  Indeed, Scott’s overwhelming sense of loss initially prompted suicidal thoughts.  Rather, their faith grew as they threw themselves upon God for grace to live each day.  “I turned to God for strength,” Janet said, “because I had no strength.”  She went to the Bible with a hunger for God’s presence, and he met her.  “I learned about Him.  He made sense when nothing else made sense.  If it weren’t for the Lord, I would have lost my sanity.”

I asked Scott and Janet, “What would you say to those who reject the Christian faith because they say no plan of God—nothing at all—could possibly be worth the suffering of your children, and your suffering over all these years?”

“Eternity is a long time,” Janet replied.  “It will be worth it.  Our children’s suffering was brief, and they have the eternal joy of being with God.  We and their grandparents have suffered since.  But our suffering has been small compared to our children’s joy.  Fourteen years is a short time compared to eternity.  We’ll be with them there, forever.”

French philosopher La Rochefoucauld may have best captured the difference between lost faith and the deepened faith of those like Scott and Janet Willis and Vaneetha Rendall Risner: “A great storm puts out a little fire, but it feeds a strong one.”

“Nevertheless I will rejoice in the Lord.”  I sincerely hope that you and I can say that, or come to have, that depth of faith.

Notice one more thing.  Habakkuk’s fear in v. 16 has now given way to faith in v. 18.  Fear is normal, we will all experience it–but it is something we can move through.  David expressed fear; so did Paul.  The key is to move through fear into faith.

Note here three reactions Habakkuk avoids:

(a)    He does NOT lash out at God in anger: He does not say, “God, you have no right to destroy your people! You are a faithless God!”

(b)   He does NOT pretend that the evil won’t happen. He doesn’t withdraw into a fantasy world, saying, “That’s too terrible to think about. I will close my eyes and think of something else. I’ll sit in front of the TV so I won’t have to think about it.”

(c)    And, note carefully, he does not even say, “Despite all this, I will endure!  I will keep a stiff upper lip and stick it out!  I will still wait for the Lord!  I will remain faithful!”

These are NOT the right ways to deal with our fears.

Habakkuk determined (notice the “I will”s) to rejoice in God despite visible circumstances, even if he did not see any visible signs of God’s presence or favor.

F.F. Bruce writes: “It is right and proper to voice appreciation of God’s goodness when he bestows all that is necessary for life, health and prosperity.  But when these things are lacking, to rejoice in God for his own sake is evidence of pure faith.”

You know, even when we don’t feel like it, we can will ourselves to rejoice in God and take our joy in Him.  We can remind ourselves that He made us to find our deepest joy in Him and is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied with Him.

This is a real mark of maturity in Habakkuk’s life.  Earlier in the book, Habakkuk had complained about God using a wicked nation to bring judgment on Judah.  He wants God to do his will; he wants to manipulate God.

But here he is allowing God to be God, and rejoices in Him.

Now, let me just say something here about joy.  The way you get to joy is by rejoicing, by verbalizing your delight in God—Who He is and what He has done for you so far, and His promises of what He will do for you.

You can’t just screw up the emotion of joy, or the attitude of joy.  You get to joy by rejoicing.

I’ve told my congregation at Grace that there are three words in the Greek New Testament that share the same root (char).  Grace is charis, joy is chara and I give thanks is eucharisteo.

And that helps us understand how to get to joy—by giving thanks for the graces God has given us.

Nothing has changed on the outside—Jerusalem would still be destroyed.

But Habakkuk has changed on the inside.

The only joy in the universe that cannot be taken from you is your joy in Jesus Christ.

When all else disappears, find your joy in the only thing that never fails…in God Himself.

Why? Because He is “the God of your salvation.”  He will save; He will deliver.

In His time and in His way, He will deliver you.

When Jesus is not our greatest joy, then we will not view loss correctly.  We will not view our suffering correctly unless Jesus is our greatest delight.

How do you exercise faith during the worst of times? Choose to rejoice in God even when everything in life goes wrong.

And that leads to a third believing approach to take…

  1. Find strength in God to scale the heights even when you are down (v. 19)

Look at verse 19

19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.

Habakkuk had learned to find his strength in God, not in his own resources or ability.  This is another mark of spiritual maturity—refusing to place our confidence in ourselves.

Remember how Habakkuk said that initially, the tragic news of Jerusalem’s destruction had caused rottenness to enter his bones and his legs tremble beneath him? (v. 16)

Like Paul, Habakkuk was learning that in his weakness he could be strong in the Lord.

What does Habakkuk mean when he says, “he makes my feet like the deer’s”?

Most likely he is referring to what we would call a “bighorn sheep.”  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one at a National Park or on the Nature Channel, but these sheep are very sure footed and seem to be able to climb the highest rocks and run easily over mountain ridges.

Why are bighorn sheep able to do this?  Because of their feet – their tough, cloven hooves. These hooves aren’t hurt by sharp rocks, but are able to grip even small outcrops.  God designed their feet for climbing.  They don’t slip.  They don’t fall.

Note that the point is not the power of the sheep, but the design of the sheep’s foot.  Habakkuk uses the word for the female deer, not the male, to make this point.  The female deer, too, is able to climb to the highest heights, to run over rocky fields, because of the God-given design of her special feet.  These deer are steady and surefooted, uninhibited and unafraid, full of freedom and confidence as she scales the heights.

So Habakkuk rejoices that his feet are made like deer’s feet, like the feet of bighorn sheep – designed by God to travel over even the most difficult ground.

And what does Habakkuk mean by “treading on high places”?

We use the phrase “walking on high places” to refer to recreational rock climbing.  Most of us are quite amazed and wouldn’t be caught dead trying to climb a rock face.

But in that culture “high places” connotes a difficult, challenging place.  A place one would not want to go unless it is absolutely necessary.  You might climb to a high place to gain defensible ground in a battle, but you only go there if you can’t avoid it.  So “high places” here means a difficult, challenging place.

And yet Habakkuk says that God “makes me tread on my high places.”

The idea of the Hebrew verb is that God causes me to walk in difficult places that I normally would rather not go.

He strengthens me to go places or do things I wouldn’t normally be able to do.

Obviously, this means that I only do this by the strength He gives.

So let’s just notice what Habakkuk is saying.  There are some places that I would rather not go, places that are fearsome, yet God can especially equip me to go there, to a new place, a higher place.

Do you want to move on to the higher place in your life?

It may be that God needs to strip your life of the things you love and depend upon so that He is your only joy and delight.

It may be that God needs to take you places you would rather not go, but He will lead you and strengthen you if you let him.

The just shall live by faith.

Habakkuk is not talking about a pleasant afternoon of rock climbing.  He dreads what God has in store for him, he knows the path is very challenging, very dangerous.  In that sense, God is leading him to a place he does not want to go.

Yet God is his strength, and Habakkuk is confident that God will enable him to do what he could never do on his own.

And that is why he is joyful!  God led him to this very spot.  And though there is pain and difficulty here, he knows that God will either rescue him from the danger or allow him to die.  But even death is controlled by God, and only will come about if God so directs.

There is an old devotional book called Hind’s Feet in High Places by Hannah Hurnard.  Some of you may have read it.  It is an allegory like Pilgrim’s Progress.

It tells the story of a girl named Much-Afraid and her own journey from doubt to faith.  Her story begins as she leaves the Valley of Fear.  It is all she has ever known, but in faith she embarks on a new journey.  Her path is marked by much sorrow and suffering along the way, but through it all she learns to depend on God and to find her strength in him alone.  And as she learns to trust God no matter what, he leads her to the higher places of fellowship with him that she has always longed for.

Faith believes that…

  • God is too wise to make a mistake.
  • God is too kind to be cruel.
  • God is always in control.
  • God always knows the best and the best timing.

When we try to impose our timetable on God, we get into trouble.

For example, a man found a cocoon on a tree in his yard.  He was intrigued by it and decided to watch it change.  One day, he saw a tiny butterfly inside the delicate covering and he watched it struggling, trying its best to break out of its captivity.  Finally, the man became so frustrated that he decided to use a razor blade to make a tiny slit in the side of the cocoon, in order to free the struggling butterfly.  Soon afterward, the butterfly was free, but it could not fly and finally died prematurely.

There are times of trials, when we want to short circuit the maturation process.  We want to “bug out” or “beg off”, while God wants to prepare us for a great work or a new phase of life.  Like the butterfly, it is in struggles that we obtain strength.

So when you can’t trace his hand, trust His heart.

Too many Christians have a God of the good times.  They serve God and love him and praise him when all is going well.  But what will you do when hard times come? If all you have is a God of the good times, you don’t have the God of the Bible.  Your god is too small.

Sometimes the fig tree does not bud.

Sometimes there are no grapes on the vine.

Sometimes the olive crop fails.

Sometimes the fields produce no food.

Sometimes there are no sheep in the pen.

Sometimes there are no cattle in the stalls.

What do you do then? You can get angry with God or you can give up on God altogether.

Or you can choose to rejoice that you have God and in Him, everything you need.

Are you willing to trust God, no matter what?

We too can rejoice in our trials, have surefooted confidence in God, and live on the heights of His sovereignty.

Martin Rinkhart was a Lutheran pastor in Eilenburg, Germany from 1617 to 1649.  During thirty of those thirty-two years the Thirty Years War was raging all over central Europe, with Germany receiving the worst of it.

This war has been called one of the most brutal and devastating wars in all history.  Before the war, Germany had a population of 16 million.  After the war, the population was 6 million.  Ten million of 16 million Germans died in those 30 years.

If they did not die as soldiers in battle, they were as civilians hacked to death by invading armies, or, they died in famines caused by war’s the ongoing disruption of farming, or, they died by the disease that spread among fleeing refugees crowded into the towns.

Eilenburg, where Martin Rinkhart was the pastor, was a small city, but it had a wall around it, so many people fled there for safety from the armies.  Too many people and very little food led to ongoing hunger and starvation.  People would be seen in the streets fighting over a dead cat or crow.

Overcrowding led to disease, and then to plagues.  A high percentage of people died, only to be replaced by more refugees streaming in; and then many of them died.

One of the town’s pastors fled, two other pastors died, so Rinkhart was the only pastor left in Eilenburg.  At times, he was doing 50-60 funerals a day– 5,000 in all before the war ended, including that of his own wife.

Twice, he saved the city from even worse destruction by risking his life to go out and negotiate with the threatening army outside the city walls.

Finally the war ended, and one year later an exhausted Martin Rinkhart died at the age of 63.

In the midst of that war, around 1636, Martin Rinkhart wrote what has been called “the greatest hymn of thanksgiving ever written.”  He wrote these words…

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

One commentator, O. Palmer Robertson, calls these last three verses (3:17–19) “the most beautiful spirit of submission found anywhere in Scripture” (The Christ of the Prophets, 260).  He embraces the coming exile and its utter destruction and famine.  Because his trust is renewed in God, he can face the worst temporal pains and losses, knowing that God will rescue him eternally in the end.

He began disoriented and devastated, fearful and faithless.  And he took it to God, and God in his mercy showed himself to Habakkuk.  Now, Habakkuk walks in faith and patience, and perhaps most amazingly: joy. “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”  Joy!  Not begrudging submission, but delighting submission.

On this side of the cross, how much more than Habakkuk can we say in our most trying of times — without minimizing the agony or repressing the pain — “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”




Not from Around Here, part 2 (Philippians 1:28-30)

Last week we focused on what most commentators call the heart of the letter to the Philippians.  Here in Philippians 1:27 Paul gives his first command…

27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Paul was calling them to live “worthy of the gospel of Christ.”  It doesn’t mean we have to “live up” to it or repay Christ for dying for us, but simply that we are to live our lives in sync with the gospel and strive “for the faith of the gospel.”

The context in which Paul was writing is that the Philippians were facing opponents.  We know from other passages that those in Macedonia were facing “a severe test of affliction . . . extreme poverty” (2 Corinthians 8:2), “in much affliction” (1 Thessalonians 1:6), “your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring” (2 Thessalonians 1:4).

Paul wanted them to stand firm by uniting themselves in spirit and mind and fighting side by side.  As we’ve already noticed, unity is a primary theme of this letter.

They were being attacked by their opponents.  Nero-madness was just beginning.  Christians were being forced to bow down to Nero, or else.  Claiming Jesus as Lord was sedition against the empire.

Paul encourages them to “not [be] frightened in anything” by these opponents.  This is the negative counterpart to the more positive “striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” as a way to stand firm—by striving, not being frightened.

Fear, when others attack us, is quite natural.  The word “frightened” or “alarmed” is a word used of startled horses about to bolt.  It describes a panic reaction.  Don’t panic, advises Paul. Keep your head. You’re a citizen of Heaven. God is in control. Don’t be intimidated.  You are to stand firm instead of falling away.

You know many athletes put on a brave front, and even trash talk, but the proof is in their abilities.  The stakes at Philippi, however, were much higher than any game.

Unlike the bravado and posturing at the onset of an athletic event, this will be “a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” (v. 28b).  This doesn’t mean that their adversaries would recognize their own doom, though they might have a dim awareness of it, but that it is nevertheless a sign of their destruction, their judgment.  Of course, believers see it all, including their own salvation. D.A. Carson explains:

Your change in character, your united stand in defense of the gospel, your ability to withstand with meekness and without fear the opposition that you must endure, constitutes a sign.  That sign speaks volumes, both to the outside world and the Christian community.  It is a sign of judgment against the world that is mounting the opposition; it is a sign of assurance that these believers really are the people of God and will be saved on the last day.

When opponents do their worst, and we’re still standing for Christ, that is “a clear sign,” a prophetic warning, that God is with us.  For example, when the Empress Eudoxia, in the fourth century, threatened John Chrysostom with banishment, he told her, “You cannot banish me, for this world is my Father’s house.”  “But I will kill you,” she said.  “No, you cannot, for my life is hidden with Christ in God.”  “Then I will take away your treasures.”  “No, you cannot, for my treasure is in heaven, and my heart is there.”  “But I will drive you away from your friends, and you will have no one left.”  “No, you cannot, for I have a friend in heaven from whom you cannot separate me.  I defy you, for there is nothing you can do to harm me.”

John Chrysostom’s courage made him a clear sign of the weakness of her power and of the power of his weakness.  The tactics of this world are weak, though they appear powerful.  The truth of the gospel is strong, though it appears weak.  Jesus is Lord.  He just is.  And the world is stuck with him, because they can’t impeach him, and he isn’t going to resign.

But how is our generation going to see his glory?  Through our courage.

Jesus spoke of opponents in the Olivet discourse in Luke’s gospel, urging his disciples not to worry about how they might defend themselves when Jerusalem is overrun by an army, referring ultimately to events preceding the second coming. They will be given words, Jesus says, which none of their adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.

Paul also used the term to refer to those who opposed him and his message, including those who were violent in their opposition. In 1 Corinthians 16:9 he says that his work was not yet completed in Ephesus because there was a great door (cf. “door” in Acts 14:27; 2 Cor 2;12; Col 4:13) of opportunity open for him there.

These opponents seem to be Jewish antagonists who often dogged Paul’s steps and caused trouble in the churches he founded.

Paul’s discussion in 3:2-3 seem to indicate that indeed Jews were involved, in one way or another. He refers to Christians as the “true circumcision” which seems to indicate that his opponents were of Jewish origin, though he regards them as the “false circumcision.”  Also, when he says that he “puts no confidence in the flesh,” this makes more sense if Jews who do put confidence in the flesh were behind at least some of the problems in Philippi.

However, Fee suggests that the persecutors were the Romans themselves, noting Paul’s emphasis on Christ as “lord” and “savior,” claims that would raise the ire of loyal Romans.

The proofs that the Philippians’ courageous stand was a sign of their salvation were the twin facts that they were graced with salvation and with suffering: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (v. 29).

John Piper reminds us…

God graciously gives suffering and faith to his people so that they might enjoy making much of Christ to their adversaries through fearless faith and humble love.

The verb “granted” can be literally rendered “graced” because it means “to give freely or graciously as a favor.”  And the passive voice means that the twin gifts are from God.

By the way, there are two Greek words for “give,” the word didomi and the word charizomai.

You can didomi a punch in the nose.  You can give somebody a punch in the nose. You cannot charizomai a person a punch in the nose.  This is love.  This is all grace, all good, all kindness, all undeserving, all blessing.

God graciously gives you faith to believe.  It is a gift.  I think that is what Ephesians 2:8-9 are saying as well, that faith is graciously given to us—that the Holy Spirit according to the sovereign will of God regenerates our spirit so that our spiritual ears can hear the gospel and our spiritual eyes can see the beauty and supremacy and superiority of Jesus Christ and move toward trusting His work in our behalf.

The gracious gift of believing in Christ is a magnificent blessing. It is the grand evidence that God looks on you with favor. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12, 13).

But notice that God also graciously gives us suffering.  Suffering is a gracious gift from God, a result of His undeserved kindness to us!

But with this there is also another magnificent boon, as Karl Barth explains: “The grace of being permitted to believe in Christ is surpassed by the grace of being permitted to suffer for him, of being permitted to walk the way of Christ with Christ himself to the perfection of fellowship with him” (Karl Barth, Epistle to the Philippians , trans. James W. Leitch (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 49).  The fellowship of Christ’s sufferings moves the believer beyond the role of beneficiary of Christ’s death to a sharer in his sufferings (cf. Colossians 1:24).

Note here that the verb is in the passive voice, referring to God’s activity and that it is past tense (aorist in Greek).  Thus the “granting” of the suffering occurred at the time they believed. Therefore, God has a plan for the life of his children worked out from the very beginning of our salvation. Obviously the Lord has a plan for us from before all eternity (Eph 1:4), but Paul’s specific focus here is from the time of our initial conversion/belief forward.

The pleasure of God in persecution is a startling concept, but a biblical one.

John Piper goes on…

Surely, Paul wants us to feel the tension in that.  He graciously, mercifully, lovingly gives this wonderful gift, not only of faith.  The accent falls on suffering.  Free gift, here it is.  I love you.  It has been granted to you for the sake of Christ, for the glory of Christ, for magnifying Christ, that you should not only believe but also suffer.  That’s a gift.  So, two gifts.  Now think with me:  How did those two gifts produce the sign of fearlessness in particular?

In order to create a sign, a big bright unmistakable, irrefutable sign of fearlessness, what do you need?  You need something to be afraid of, and you need faith so that you won’t be afraid of it…

To say I want to erect a sign of fearlessness means I’m putting enemies in your face, and I’m giving you faith.  The two gifts of verse 29 create the sign of verse 27–28.  That’s what the ground clause is for.

So we suffer.  From Satan’s side, suffering comes to us as a way of tempting us towards sin, as a stumbling stone.  From God’s viewpoint, suffering comes to us as a way of proving and improving our faith, as a stepping stone.

This attitude wasn’t Paul’s alone because we read in Acts that after the apostles had been beaten in the presence of the council of Israel, “they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).

So we should reject the fear of suffering and receive the favor of suffering.  That is a completely different mindset!

This generation of professing Christians seeks to run from shame as far and as fast as possible, as if it were a pure, unmixed evil! The apostles’ generation rejoiced that they had been considered worthy to receive the divine favor of suffering shame for the matchless name of the Lord Jesus Christ. May God grant that we see the glory that they saw—that we would be so satisfied by Christ that we would count it a privilege to meet the world’s shame if it means that we can put His glory on display.

Years after being flogged that day, Peter would write, “To the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing,” and, “if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but to glorify God in this name” (1 Peter 4:13, 16).

We note too that “the believing” and “the suffering” were granted on behalf of Christ (to huper christou).  What Paul is saying is that just as Christ suffered at the hands of sinful men in order to procure their salvation (cf. 2:6-11), so also the Philippians now have an opportunity to suffer for their Lord.  A disciple is not above his master.  It is not that the Philippians are suffering simply because they are allied with the name of Christ.  It is much more intimate than that idea will allow (cf. Phil 3:10-11).  They are suffering for the one whom they now love and for the one whom they are waiting to return from heaven (3:20).

Here, as a further word of encouragement and motivation to live as citizens “worthy of the gospel,” Paul indicated that the Philippians share in the same sufferings with him — “engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (v. 30).  They and Paul together made up the heroic fellowship of the gospel (cf. 1:5), which meant that they shared in the same “conflict” ( agôn ) with Pa’ul.  Their conflict, whether in Philippi or Rome, was one.  What they saw Paul endure in Philippi (and what they themselves were enduring in Philippi) along with what they heard he was enduring in Rome was all part of the apostolic agôn.

Paul’s point was that he and the Philippians were all recipients of grace as they had been given the gifts of salvation and suffering.  Their mutual agôn (from which we get “agony”) was a testimony to the grace of God.  Listen to John Calvin’s passionate application:

Oh, if this conviction were fixed in our minds, that persecutions are to be reckoned among God’s benefits, what progress would be made in the doctrine of godliness!  And yet, what is more certain than that it is the highest honour of the Divine grace, that we suffer for His name either reproach, or imprisonment, or miseries, or tortures, or even death, for in that case He decorates us with His insignia.  But more will be found who will order God and His gifts to be gone, rather than embrace the cross readily when it is offered to them.  Woe, then, to our stupidity! (John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, Calvin’s Commentaries, trans. T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), p. 243) .

The understanding that suffering and salvation are both gifts of grace is essential to discipleship and perseverance.

Faith and persecution are often a package gift; when the flame of faith shines in a dark place, the darkness will try to douse that faith and snuff it out.  God writes a persecution story for his church so that mankind will be pointed back to the greatest story: the death and resurrection of Christ.  Persecution is a parable that puts the death and resurrection of Christ on display again and again and again and again.  Persecutors try to kill the faith of believers like they tried to kill Jesus, but faith rises just like Jesus did.  When persecutors try everything in their power to kill faith, but faith refuses to die, resurrection power is on display.  Opponents should fear, because they are actually fighting God, and they will lose.

God’s power preserves our faith.  He who began the good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of Christ (Phil. 1:6), and nothing in all creation will be able to separate believers from his almighty grip of grace.

See, suffering for Christ’s sake provides us a wonderful opportunity to put the worth and sufficiency of Christ on display.  It gives us an opportunity to magnify Him by being more satisfied in Him than by all that this world can offer and by all that death can take.

To illustrate, the third verse of that great hymn, On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand, says, “His oath, His covenant, His blood / support me in the whelming flood. / When all around my soul gives way, / He then is all my hope and stay.”

Commenting on that line, John Piper writes, “If we hold fast to Him ‘when all around our soul gives way,’ then we show that He is more to be desired than all we have lost” (Desiring God, 266).  And magnifying Christ—showing that He is more to be desired than all that we could lose—is the very thing that we were created to do (Isa 43:7; Phil 1:20–21).  If we understand this, it’s clear to see that it’s a divine gift to suffer on behalf of Christ.  It is a gracious gift of unmerited favor to be given the privilege of being prisms to reflect the glory and sufficiency of Jesus to the world.

Another great hymn says, “Heav’nly peace, divinest comfort / Here by faith in Him to dwell / For I know whate’er befall me / Jesus doeth all things well.”  Where do heavenly peace and divine comfort come from?  From the knowledge that whatever happens, Jesus the sovereign Lord is doing it, and He doeth all things well.

So when suffering comes—and it’s coming, if it’s not already here—don’t try to save God from His sovereignty, and in the same breath steal your heavenly peace and divinest comfort. Instead, count that suffering as a gracious gift, direct from the loving hand of your Father, of the opportunity to magnify the worth of Christ in your response to it. Then, you would suffer in a manner worthy of the Gospel.

Not from Around Here, part 1(Philippians 1:27)

Those of us who grew up here in the south may not be aware of our southern drawl.  Back in college mine was still quite pronounced, as words like Bible were (properly) pronounced “biiiible.”  It was quite obvious, when we would travel up north, that I was “not from around here.”  I didn’t quite fit in.

Paul expressed this very idea, although on a deeper and more significant level, to the Philippians, where he said…

27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Compare this to Philippians 3:20 where Paul says “But our citizenship is in heaven…”

Verse 27 starts out with a command…

“Only let your manner of life as citizens be worthy of the gospel of Christ.”  The Greek verb is politeuesthai , which shares its root with the cognate noun polis or “city” as well as with another noun, politeuma , which is translated “citizenship” in 3:20 (“But our citizenship is in heaven”).  So here in verse 27 it means “live as citizens.”

Paul is telling the Philippians that, in the words of Jesus, we are “in the world, but not of the world.”  We are citizens, but we are citizens of another land, a heavenly kingdom…and we are to live like it.

Philippi prided itself on being a Roman colony, offering the honor and privilege of Roman citizenship.  A colony was a body of people living in new territory but retaining ties to a parent state.  As a Roman colony, they were to reflect and expand the values and culture of Rome.

Remember, Philippi was a Roman colony, and the people there took pride in their Roman citizenship. They lived in accordance with Roman customs. Even though they were about 800 miles from Rome, they were not under any regional authority, but answered directly to Rome, governed by Roman laws. They were a Roman outpost. These colonists lived differently than the barbarians surrounding them because they were citizens of a different country.

But Paul tells the Philippians that they have a different citizenship.  They belong to a different kingdom.

Paul reminds the congregation that they should look to Christ, not Caesar, for their model of behavior, since their primary allegiance is to God and his kingdom.

Gordon Fee adds, “As Philippi was a colony of Rome in Macedonia, so the church was a ‘colony of heaven’ in Philippi, whose members were to live as its citizens in Philippi” (Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 162).

Paul could not have more carefully chosen and crafted his words to impress and encourage his Philippian brothers and sisters as they struggled in that self-consciously prideful, elitist little Roman colony that was so preoccupied with the coveted citizenship of Rome. Here Paul challenges his beloved Philippians with a “counter-citizenship whose capital and seat of power are not earthly but heavenly, whose guarantor is not Nero but Christ” (Markus Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians , Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: A & C Black Limited, 1998), p. 98).

The town of Philippi was enjoying the personal patronage and benefactions of Lord (Kyrios) Caesar, but the Philippians were subjects of the one who alone is Kyrios and to whom every knee (including “Lord” Nero’s) will bow. (Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians , p. 157)

The evidence of living well as citizens of Heaven is a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Paul’s emphasis on worthiness can be heard in the original’s word order: “Only worthy of the gospel of Christ live as citizens.”

The phrase “worthy of the gospel” requires some explanation.  “Worthy” signifies something that fits with the weight and worth of its standard of reference.  Paul elsewhere speaks of living worthy of the Christian “calling” (Eph. 4:1), of “the Lord” (Col. 1:10), or of “God” (1 Thess. 2:12).

In this passage, the standard of reference or measuring rod is the gospel.  In this sense, the closest parallel is Galatians 2:14 and its reference to “conduct” that is or is not “in step with the truth of the gospel.”  The gospel is the “gold standard” for the Christian life, and as such its worth and weight govern the Christian life.  The gospel becomes the shared story that unites all Christians and provides a reference point for all of their thinking and living. D. A. Carson says it well: “Conduct worthy of the gospel is above all conduct that promotes the gospel” (Carson, Basics for Believers, 55).

For Paul, the gospel was primary.  He rejoiced in their partnership in the gospel (1:4, 5) and that it was preached, even from not-entirely-altruistic motives (1:14-15).  Paul’s heart was for gospel progress, no matter the cost to himself.

The gospel is the indicative, it tells us what Christ has done for us.  That is followed by the imperative, be His colony and live out His values, in Philippi, in Mena, wherever you live.

The first implication of this text is that sanctification is the necessary fruit of justification. The one who has been justified by grace through faith in Christ alone—the one who has been declared righteous in his position before God—will grow and progress with respect to practical righteousness in his life.

But the second implication of this text (as with many other NT texts) is that the indicative must precede the imperative—justification must precede sanctification.  Paul doesn’t just jump into practical application, or a 12-step program.  Rather, our right behavior flows out of being graciously saved by Jesus Christ.

The Scottish Puritan Henry Scougal, in his book, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, articulated this reality very well. He wrote,

“The love which a pious man bears to God and goodness is not so much by virtue of a command enjoining him so to do, as by a new nature instructing and prompting him to do it; nor doth he pay his devotions as an unavoidable tribute, only to appease the Divine justice, or quiet his clamorous conscience; but those religious exercises are the proper emanations of the Divine life, the natural employments of the new-born soul.” (38–39)

You see, if the Divine life has been sown within you by the Spirit’s regeneration of your heart, the fight for obedience is simply acting in line with your new nature. So when Paul commands us to live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel, he is showing us that our efforts in sanctification are fueled by Gospel grace.

There is a wonderful little rhyme that masterfully captures the beauty of divine grace in sanctification. We’re unsure of the author but it’s often attributed to John Bunyan:

‘Run, John, run!’ the Law demands,
But gives me neither feet nor hands.
Far better news the Gospel brings,
For it bids me fly, and gives me wings!”

Now, as Kent Hughes reminds us:

This gospel-first ethic was what Paul enjoined of the Philippians.  There had never ever been a congenial environment for the gospel in Philippi.  The little Roman polis declared war on Paul and his converts from day one when the Roman lictors beat him and Silas (cf. Acts 16:22).

The battle was cosmic.  Those believers, as citizens of Heaven and subjects of the Lord of lords, were engaged in mortal combat.  And their weapons were the good news — the preaching of Christ — and lives that proved “worthy of the gospel.”

Now, the language of these verses indicates that we are to live our lives as if we are in a battle—standing firm, striving side by side, not frightened, suffering, engaged in conflict.

For far too long the American church has acted like life is a playground instead of a battleground.  God has not saved us so that we can live comfortably, happily, and self-centeredly in suburbia.  He has conscripted us into His army.  We have a mission given to us by our Commander-in-Chief, to take the message of His salvation and Lordship into enemy territory, to win captives from the forces of darkness.

As in every war, our mission requires us to be combat ready and to struggle to win.  If we forget our mission and get caught up with our own comfort, we will be quick to desert the cause when the enemy attacks.

These verses are calling the Philippians, and you and me, to recognize that we are part of another kingdom, with loyalties and allegiances to another king, and that is going to put us at odds with this world.

Many commentators believe that verse 27 is the theme verse of this epistle, expressing the idea that we are to live our lives worthy of the gospel.  The rest of the epistle spells this idea out.

This verse is the thesis statement of the entire letter; it is the first imperative of the letter, and all subsequent imperatives serve to flesh out what it means to behave as citizens worthy of the gospel.  The adverb “only” adds a note of sharp singularity so that the command is even more of a focal point.

This is the message that Paul has been working toward and will support throughout the remainder of this letter.

This little phrase is the very heart of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul’s preeminent concern in his letter to the church of Philippi is that they would bring the practice of their lives into conformity with the position they enjoy as sharers in the Gospel of Christ.

When we determine to be loyal to Christ as King and the good news of His victory over sin and death, it will bring us into conflict with the world around us.

Paul wanted to be confident that they would stand firm and strive together…

so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,

The reality is, we will have troubles in this world; the world will hate us because of our love for Christ.  Jesus said in John 15

18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.

And in John 16:33 Jesus tells us

In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Kent Hughes explains the cultural context:

The Philippians’ commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord was a threat to the civic-minded patriotic Romans who ran Philippi.  The Philippians’ allegiance to another “Lord” than Caesar bordered on treason as it challenged the political establishment.  At times Christians were tarred with the (amazing to us!) opprobrium “atheist” because their loyalty to Christ challenged the divinity of Caesar.

The Roman citizens of Philippi, who customarily honored the emperor at every public gathering, pressured the church to conform.  Christians were a political embarrassment with their Kyrios Jesus.  And more, Christians who had the temerity to declare with Paul that their citizenship was in Heaven (cf. 3:20) were thought to be “un-Roman” and thus enemies to public order.

Because of this there was widespread persecution in Philippi and throughout the other churches of Macedonia, about whom we have these sound bites: “a severe test of affliction . . . extreme poverty” (2 Corinthians 8:2), “in much affliction” (1 Thessalonians 1:6), “your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring” (2 Thessalonians 1:4).  Heavenly citizenship worthy of the gospel was costly and demanding.

1:27b–28 Paul follows the command of verse 27a with a purpose clause signified in the ESV by “so that” (hina). The previous command serves as a defining purpose for any situation in which the Philippian believers find themselves. Regardless of whether Paul comes to see them or remains absent, this command to behave as worthy citizens will not change.

Our responsibility is to “stand firm.”  Actually, “standing firm” is a in a purpose clause, defining why we are to live our lives as citizens worthy of the gospel.  We are in a war.  We have to stand our ground, like Paul told the Ephesians, Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Eph. 6:13).

The opposite of standing is “falling away,” which is why Jesus told his disciples about the opposition they would be facing (John 16:1).  Like a good soldier, we are to hold our ground at all costs.

We are to do this “in one spirit, with one mind.”  These two phrases modify both the action of standing and the action of striving side by side later in verse 27.  Likely they are both referring to the deep sense of community they had experienced together (although Gordon Fee makes a strong case for “spirit” as Holy Spirit).  We stand and strive best when we do it alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ.  The reality is, we need each other.

We stand in God’s strength, yes; but we also need to stand arm in arm with our fellow believers.

“Striving side by side” is the teamwork vocabulary of athletes or soldiers.  It is a participle defining how we stand firm.  We cannot stand firm without our brothers.

It is at the heart of winning teams.  Stephen Ambrose in his book Comrades , which includes the story of Lewis and Clark, describes this as the secret of their epic accomplishments: “What Lewis and Clark had done, first of all, was to demonstrate that there is nothing that men cannot do if they get themselves together and act as a team” (Stephen E. Ambrose, Comrades (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), pp. 105, 106) .

A bad example was the U.S. Olympic basketball team in the 2004 Olympics.  There were plenty of individual stars, but they did not play together as a team.

The importance of working together is also illustrated in nature.

“One of the largest, strongest horses in the world is the Belgian draft horse. Competitions are held to see which horse can pull the most and one Belgian can pull 8,000 pounds.  The weird thing is if you put two Belgian horses in the harness who are strangers to each other, together they can pull 20,000 – 24,000 pounds.  Two can pull not twice as much as one but three times as much as one. This example represents the power of synergy.  However, if the two horses are raised and trained together they learn to pull and think as one.  The trained, and therefore unified, pair can pull 30,000 – 32,000 pounds, almost four times as much as a single horse” (

Notice that it is not just the fact of being yoked together that makes the difference, but when they are “raised and trained together they learn to pull and think as one.”

Paul will continue to emphasize this “same mindedness” into Philippians 2, where he says…

2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

The imagery of striving side by side calls to mind Roman soldiers marching forward in lock-step for the advancement of the empire.  Teamwork makes us powerful.

The only other place in the NT where the rare verb “strive side by side” occurs is Philippians 4:3, where Paul’s coworkers have labored side by side in the gospel. They are striving for the progress of the gospel, expressed as faith originating with or produced by the gospel.

So, live worthy of the gospel so that you can stand firm for the gospel, by locking arms with your brothers and sisters in Christ, fighting against the enemy and not each other.

Peace in a Time of Panic (Phil. 4:4-8), a sermon preached on March 22, 2020

This morning I would like to address what has been foremost in our minds over the past few weeks, what has flooded TV news and our inboxes, and what is causing rising panic in our hearts…the coronavirus.

I want this morning to help us come to the Word of God to find Peace in a Time of Panic.  As followers of Jesus Christ–the Master of the Universe–we can choose faith over fear and peace over panic, and be lights in this world.

We live in unprecedented times.  Places that are normally teeming with people, like Times Square and the Mall in Washington, D. C., are eerily empty.  My email inbox has literally exploded with articles about the coronavirus—from information, to how to lead, to how it to talk to your children about the coronavirus, to how to go online with church worship services.

So much information thrown at me that one blog was entitled “This email is NOT about the coronavirus.”

Restaurants, libraries and theaters are closed.  Supermarket shelves are cleared out.  Many church last Sunday was via webcast—and likely will be for several weeks.  All of us have had our lives significantly interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

For many, what stands out boldly in pandemic is the letters P-A-N-I-C, panic.  Fears and anxieties abound not only because of the rapid spread of this invisible disease and the possibilities of fatalities, but also the economic impact.

At the time of this writing, the COVID-19 Virus has been labeled a “pandemic”, businesses are suspending operations or working remotely, churches are scrambling to figure out how to hold gatherings, America is essentially closed.

The word “unprecedented” is being used a lot.  New words, like “social distancing,” have crept into our vocabulary

Uncertainty is at an all-time high.

Many stabilizing forces in our world feel unstable.

As parents you’ve had to tell your children about how to handle this virus.  Seniors have likely have spent their last days with their classmates at school.

Anxiety is a thief.

It steals our sense of safety and turns our mind into a battlefield. Suddenly, we are questioning if we will be able to make ends meet, or if we will have enough food if things get really bad.

It steals our peace. A little cough is no longer just a little cough but feels life-threatening.

It steals the moment from us. We sit with our kiddos, trying to engage, but it’s hard to when our thoughts have drifted into the worse scenarios.

It whispers threats about our parents and grandparents into our minds as we try to sleep at night.

It’s a thief.  It robs us of hope in the future and strength for today.

Corrie ten Boom, along with other faithful from among the nations, led courageously in the face of the Nazi fascism—a different form of deadly virus. And she reminds us, “Worry doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrows, it empties today of its strength.”

The most unsettling part about the COVID-19 is that this is uncharted territory and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.

No one does.

No one, except God.

When we look to the Lord we will be reminded that our anxiety doesn’t know it all. But He does.

He knows exactly how this all goes.

When we think about how He both goes before us into the unknown, and then takes our hand and walks beside us through it, we can breathe a little easier.

I certainly don’t intend to make light of what is happening, and I do believe we all need to take precautions, but as believers in Jesus Christ we do not need to fear.  We do not need to be anxious.  Although things have changed almost overnight, there are some things that have not changed:

First, God is still on the throne.  He has not abdicated His throne; He is not absent from His throne.  And He is sitting on His throne.  He is not pacing back and forth, wringing his hands, mumbling, “What’s going to happen next?  What am I going to do now?”

No, our God is still in complete control of all that is happening.

No infected molecule can enter your lungs, or your three-year-old’s lungs, unless sent by the hand of a heavenly Father. The Heidelberg Catechism defines God’s providence as, “The almighty and ever-present power of God by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.” That truth is like an asthmatic’s inhaler to our soul–it calms us down, allows us to breathe again. (Dane Ortlund)

Second, we know that God is still “working all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).  Now, that verse isn’t saying that everything that happens to us is good, but rather than God is able to make it all work out together for a good ending.

We saw in our study of Philippians last week, how Paul was caught between two good things—living on so he could still minister to the Philippian church, or dying, which he saw as “better by far” and as “gain.”

Romans 8:31-32 tell us that God is “for us.”  Although things might happen which we perceive as being against us, God is for us.  And He has proven that by already having done the hardest thing—not sparing His Son Jesus, but giving Him up for our sakes.  And if God has already done the hardest thing, we can be sure He will do for us whatever else we need.

Third, we know that God is still with us.  He promised that he would “never leave us and never forsake us.” So we can know that whatever we may go through, He is right there beside us—loving us and ministering to us.

Whether we go through the fire or through the flood (Isaiah 43:2-3) or even through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4), we can know that He is right there beside us.

Do you remember the situation where the disciples were out in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and a storm came up while Jesus just slept on?  They were in panic mode; Jesus was at peace.

Jesus calmed the storm, but before He did He asked, “Why are you afraid?”

Apparently they weren’t afraid that God couldn’t save from from a storm, but they feared that He might not be able to save them through it.  When we find ourselves in the midst of storms we cannot control we need to remember that Jesus is right there with us and He is powerful enough to calm any storm.

Fourth, we know that He cares for us.  If you are stuck in your home by yourself, you might feel like no one cares.  But God does and He asks us to unload our burdens onto His shoulders.  Peter tells us “Cast all your anxiety upon Him for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

In times of turmoil, in seasons of distress, Jesus is more feelingly with his people than ever.  Hebrews tells us that Jesus experienced all the horror of this world that we do, minus sin (Hebrews 4:15).  So apparently he knows—he himself knows—way down deep, what it feels like for life to close in on you and for your world to go into meltdown.  We can go to him.  We can sit with him.  His arm is around us—stronger than ever—right now.  His tears are larger than ours.

And if you are an older person stuck in your home and you are anxious about getting out to get groceries or supplies, let me know.  My number is 479-234-1206.  That’s 479-234-1206.  We have a card that we could give you and that would help us to serve you.  Again, that’s 479-234-1206.

Finally, our God is able.  Our God is all-powerful.  He can handle this.  He’s “got this.”

How big is your god?

  • Can your god heal disease? Jesus can (Matthew 9:20-22).
  • Can your god raise the dead? Jesus can (Matthew 9:18-19, 23-25; John 11:1-44).
  • Can your god forgive sin? Jesus can (Mark 2:1-12).
  • Can your god allow disabilities in people? God can (Exodus 4:11)
  • Can your god use those disabilities to bring him glory and accomplish his purpose? God can (John 9:1-3).
  • Can your god provide for your needs? God can (Genesis 22:1-14).
  • Is your god big enough to use difficulties to bring him glory? God can (Romans 8:28).
  • Is your god big enough to use trials and challenges to help you grow to maturity? God can (James 1:2-12),
  • Can your god give you peace when everyone around you is consumed with worry? God can (Philippians 4:6-7).
  • Can your god give you hope when you are feeling depressed? God can (Psalms 42 & 43).
  • Can your god guarantee you a home in heaven? Jesus can (John 3:16; 14:1-6).
  • Can your god control the weather, manage the environment, and provide for the animals? God can (Job 38-41).
  • Can your god help you be content with your limitations? God can (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).

How people respond to a tragedy like the tornado that recently devastated Nashville, TN, or a pandemic like the COVID-19 virus reveals the size of their god. Some panic and cower in fear. Others throw their hands up in despair. Still others search for someone to blame.

People of faith and followers of Jesus act with prudence and wisdom but do not give into fear. They are confident that God is in control. He has a plan and a purpose and he will use all things to help accomplish his plan and purpose.

It is times like these that true believers will rise to the surface and be shining examples of neighbor love and hope.

Dane Ortlund recently said

Times of public panic force us to align our professed belief with our actual belief. We all say we believe God is sovereign and he is taking care of us. But we reveal our true trust when the world goes into meltdown. What’s really our heart’s deepest loyalty? The answer is forced to the surface in times of public alarm, such as we’re wading into now.

So this coronavirus hasn’t changed everything and it gives us opportunities to express our faith and deepen our faith and also to love our neighbors.

For Christians, this is the moment Jesus calls upon our light — his light — to shine before men. Are we going to respond primarily thinking about ourselves and the logistics of how we can livestream church or manage online school? Or are we going to lift our heads and step into God’s calling to love and serve those around us who are scared, displaced and in need?

As in any other natural disaster, when schools, businesses and entire industries are closing or facing drastic disruption, when people are worried about how they will provide for their family, when society is beginning to see panicky behavior, this is the time for the body of Christ to be a voice of faith instead of fear — and a source of practical help.

Two millennia ago, during another set of pandemics, the church did the same.  In A.D. 165 and 251, two great plagues swept the Roman Empire.  Where pagans tried to avoid all contact with the sick, Christians put themselves at risk in order to succor those sick and dying, caring for those who had always treated them with contempt.  But with the love of Christ in their hearts, how could they not step forward when so many were hurting and in need?

Many paid the ultimate price.  But as Rodney Stark concluded in his 1996 book “The Rise of Christianity,” this visible love so overwhelmed the reigning philosophies of the day — it so showed Jesus ­— that it was one of the most important factors behind the explosion of our faith to every corner of the empire and beyond.

We hope and pray that this pandemic will never come close to the scale of those plagues, which killed millions.  But the fear today is real.  Let the Body of Christ be and show the perfect love that casts out fear.

You see, anxiety and compassion don’t play well together.

Have you ever noticed that we try to rid ourselves of anxiety by trying not to be anxious?

Fighting anxiety creates more anxiety. The best you can do is answer anxiety.

Focusing on anxiety validates anxiety. But if you ignore anxiety, people will think you don’t care.

Compassion answers anxiety.

Anxiety and compassion don’t play well together. Anxiety wants to protect itself. Compassion wants to serve others.

Anxiety makes you small and self-concerned. Compassion makes you big and expresses your best self.

Use anxiety to awaken compassion.

Commit to take care of each other.

Respond to anxious people with your best answer and a commitment to care. You might need to say, “At this time we don’t know. But I know we’re committed to take care of each other.” (“But” creates a powerful contrast.)

Show up to take care of someone.

Ask yourself, “How will I take care of the people I meet today?” Ask the care-question on your way to the office. Before making a call, ask the care-question.

Our hope rests not in fully stocked shelves and ample disinfectant, but in the saving blood of Christ, who gave his life so that one day all disease and pestilence will vanish from the earth (Rev. 21:4).  As the headlines scroll across our screens, and anxiety mounts in our chests, let his love for us, rather than fear for ourselves, spur us to action.

Remember to wash your hands.  Remember to stay home when you’re sick.  And most of all, remember to do all this not out of panic, but out of love for your neighbor—the 80-year-old in the third pew, the nonagenarian in the choir, the transplant recipient at work—because Christ loved us first.

You know the correct way to wash your hands is to wash them for 20 seconds, scrubbing them thoroughly with soap.  You can sing “Happy birthday” twice (and maybe add “and many more”), or you can use that time to pray for other people.

So turn with me this morning to Philippians 4, where Paul gives us some insights into how to deal with our worries and anxieties.

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

We are natural worriers, but times like these stoke the flames of our anxieties.  Some of us worry more than others.  Did you know that a recent study (prior to COVID-19) showed that kids ages 7-12 have an average of just 7.6 worries a day!

You’re probably thinking: “I wish I could go back to that.”

Five hundred years ago, Michel de Montaigne said: “My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened.”

And studies have shown that 85 percent of what we worry about never happens.

Lo and behold, it turns out that 85 percent of what subjects worried about never happened, and with the 15 percent that did happen, 79 percent of subjects discovered either they could handle the difficulty better than expected, or the difficulty taught them a lesson worth learning. This means that 97 percent of what you worry over is not much more than a fearful mind punishing you with exaggerations and misperceptions.

A bassoon player came up to his conductor, famed Arturo Toscanini, and nervously said he could not reach the high E flat.  Toscanini just smiled and replied, “Don’t worry.  There is no E flat in your music tonight.”

Maybe you’ve seen the cartoon where the husband says to his wife, “99% of what you worry about never happens!”  And she responds, “She, it works!”

Many of our worries are like that…unfounded and unnecessary.

Yet, we worry.

For several years a woman had been having trouble getting to sleep at night because she feared burglars and imagined them in her home.  One night her husband heard a noise in the house, so he went downstairs to investigate.  When he got there, he did find a burglar!  “Good evening,” said the man of the house, “I am so pleased to meet you.  Come upstairs and meet my wife.  She has been waiting 10 years to meet you.”

We know that worrying isn’t good for us.  It can lead to all kinds of physical and emotional difficulties.

That’s why Proverbs 12:25 says, “An anxious heart weighs a man down…”  Worry weighs us down and wears us out.

Proverbs 14:30 adds, “A heart a peace gives life to the body…”

I’m quoting Arthur Somers Rouche, who pointed out: “Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind.  If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.”

Now, there are things that are under our control, and we should take responsibility for those things.  But worry is assuming a responsibility that God never intended you to have.  Worries most often focus on things that are outside of our control and therefore they are not our responsibilities, but belong to God.

Anxiety is the unproductive concern about something you can’t do anything about that hasn’t happened, and might not happen.

Jesus talked about worry, too.  And he had reasons to be anxious in the Garden, but he did exactly what Paul recommends—pray about it.

Jesus told us that worry doesn’t do a thing for us and it shows that we are really unbelievers, like the pagans who have no heavenly father.  “Worry is an indication that we think God cannot look after us” (Oswald Chambers).

Phil Keaggy put to music the words of Elizabeth Cheney

Said the robin to the sparrow,
I would really like to know
Why these anxious human beings
Rush about and worry so.
Said the sparrow to the robin,
Friend, I think that it must be
That they have no Heavenly Father
Such as cares for you and me.

Max Lucado, in his book Anxious for Nothing points out four principles for dealing with anxiety and worry in vv. 4-8.

  • Celebrate God’s goodness—“rejoice in the Lord always”
  • Ask God for help—“let your requests be made known to God”
  • Leave your concerns with him—through giving thanks
  • Then meditate on good things, as contained in verse 8.

You might not be able to rejoice in your circumstances.  But you can rejoice in the Lord.  Of course, it’s hard to rejoice in Him if you don’t know Him very well.  One of the requirements for not worrying is that you have to know God—like we said earlier—that He is in control, He’s working all things together for God, He hasn’t left us, He’s always for us and He is all-powerful.

If we are fully persuaded that God is these things, we can rejoice in Him even if our circumstances are dire.

Anxiety focuses upon our circumstances and as long as we’re focused on the circumstances, we will feel anxious.

Remember how Paul and Silas did this?  What were they doing at midnight, having been severely beaten and thrown into jail?  They were singing!  They were focusing their attention upon God and His goodness and greatness, and as a result they were praising God and rejoicing in Him and not focused on their sad circumstances.

Of take Asaph, in Psalm 73.  At first he is troubled by the ease and affluence of the wicked, but then he comes into the temple and meditates, and he comes to find that God really was enough for Him, and the anxieties disappeared.

Psalm 37 is another passage that directly contrasts rejoicing in God with fretting over our circumstances.  Listen to David’s words…

1 Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! 2 For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. 3 Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. 4 Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. 5 Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. 6 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. 7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!

And in the book of Habakkuk, where Habakkuk is struggling over the seeming injustice of wicked Babylon being used by God to discipline disobedient, idolatrous Israel, ultimate comes to this same conclusion—that joy replaces anxiety.  Listen to his words…

16 I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. 17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.

Some of you are anxious right now.  Jobs are being lost, job opportunities are drying up.  What you depended upon and were looking forward to is no longer there.

What are you going to do?  “Yet I will rejoice in the LORD…”

You can choose anxiety, or you can choose joy.  The key is to choose the place of the focus of your attention…and affection.  Is it on this world?  Or is it upon Jesus Christ?

Secondly, Paul tells us to ask God for help.  In verse 6 Paul says to stop being anxious, but rather turn your anxieties over to God.

Paul could have been anxious.  He was not writing from a Mediterranean resort where he was relaxing and enjoying life.  He was in prison awaiting whether his life would be spared or taken.

The Philippians had their own circumstances causing them worry.

Now, trying to keep an emotion like worry from happening is like trying to keep a dozen beach balls under water—they just keep popping up.  It’s like play “Whack-a-Mole.”

Paul gives us a way to defeat worry—turn your worries into prayers.  Consistently and repeatedly turn it over to God.

Worry focuses on the problems, prayer focuses upon God’s promises.

So get out your “to do list” for this week.  Under the “worry” column put the word, “nothing.”  Under the “things to pray about” column put the word, “everything.”

We pray because we do believe that God is in control, working everything for our good, with us and for us and supremely capable of handling anything we put into His almighty hands.

In 480 B.C. the outnamed army of Sparta’s King Leonidas held off the Persian troops of Xerxes by fighting them one at a time as they came through a narrow mountain pass.

Commenting on this strategy, C. H. Spurgeon said, “Suppose Leonidas and his handful of men had gone out into the wide-open plain and attacked the Persians—why, they would have died at once, even though they might have fought like lions.”

Spurgeon continued by saying that Christians stand in the narrow pass of today.  If they choose to battle every difficulty at once [or save them up for an extended prayer time] they’re sure to suffer defeat.  But if they trust God and take their troubles one by one, they will find that their strength is sufficient.

Pray to God because he is real, and the act of prayer puts Jesus in the picture.

Supplicate him because he is the source of peace in your situation.

Offer thanksgiving because he is good and has already given you much.

Make a request because he is powerful and he is the one who is sovereign over your situation.

Helen Roseveare, a medical missionary to Africa who passed away in 2016, told this story of making specific requests to God.

One night, in Central Africa, I had worked hard to help a mother in the labor ward; but in spite of all that we could do, she died leaving us with a tiny, premature baby and a crying, two-year-old daughter.

We would have difficulty keeping the baby alive.  We had no incubator.  We had no electricity to run an incubator, and no special feeding facilities.  Although we lived on the equator, nights were often chilly with treacherous drafts.

A student-midwife went for the box we had for such babies and for the cotton wool that the baby would be wrapped in.  Another went to stoke up the fire and fill a hot water bottle.

She came back shortly, in distress, to tell me that in filling the bottle, it had burst.  Rubber perishes easily in tropical climates. “…and it is our last hot water bottle!” she exclaimed.

As in the West, it is no good crying over spilled milk; so, in Central Africa it might be considered no good crying over a burst water bottle.  They do not grow on trees, and there are no drugstores down forest pathways.

All right,” I said, “Put the baby as near the fire as you safely can; sleep between the baby and the door to keep it free from drafts.  Your job is to keep the baby warm.”

The following noon, as I did most days, I went to have prayers with many of the orphanage children who chose to gather with me.  I gave the youngsters various suggestions of things to pray about and told them about the tiny baby.

I explained our problem about keeping the baby warm enough, mentioning the hot water bottle.  The baby could so easily die if it got chilled.  I also told them about the two-year-old sister, crying because her mother had died.

During the prayer time, one ten-year-old girl, Ruth, prayed with the usual blunt consciousness of our African children. “Please, God,” she prayed, “send us a water bottle.  It’ll be no good tomorrow, God, the baby’ll be dead; so, please send it this afternoon.”

While I gasped inwardly at the audacity of the prayer, she added by way of corollary, ” …And while You are about it, would You please send a dolly for the little girl so she’ll know You really love her?”

As often with children’s prayers, I was put on the spot.  Could I honestly say, “Amen?” I just did not believe that God could do this.

Oh, yes, I know that He can do everything:  The Bible says so, but there are limits, aren’t there?

The only way God could answer this particular prayer would be by sending a parcel from the homeland.

I had been in Africa for almost four years at that time, and I had never, ever received a parcel from home.  Anyway, if anyone did send a parcel, who would put in a hot water bottle?  I lived on the equator!

Halfway through the afternoon, while I was teaching in the nurses’ training school, a message was sent that there was a car at my front door. By the time that I reached home, the car had gone, but there, on the veranda, was a large twenty-two pound parcel!

I felt tears pricking my eyes. I could not open the parcel alone; so, I sent for the orphanage children.  Together we pulled off the string, carefully undoing each knot.  We folded the paper, taking care not to tear it unduly.

Excitement was mounting.  Some thirty or forty pairs of eyes were focused on the large cardboard box.

From the top, I lifted out brightly colored, knitted jerseys.  Eyes sparkled as I gave them out.

Then, there were the knitted bandages for the leprosy patients, and the children began to look a little bored.

Next, came a box of mixed raisins and sultanas – – that would make a nice batch of buns for the weekend.

As I put my hand in again, I felt the…could it really be?  I grasped it, and pulled it out. Yes, “A brand-new rubber, hot water bottle!”

I cried. I had not asked God to send it; I had not truly believed that He could.

Ruth was in the front row of the children.  She rushed forward, crying out, “If God has sent the bottle, He must have sent the dolly, too!”

Rummaging down to the bottom of the box, she pulled out the small, beautifully dressed dolly.

Her eyes shone: She had never doubted!  Looking up at me, she asked, “Can I go over with you, Mummy, and give this dolly to that little girl, so she’ll know that Jesus really loves her?”

That parcel had been on the way for five whole months, packed up by my former Sunday School class, whose leader had heard and obeyed God’s prompting to send a hot water bottle, even to the equator.  One of the girls had put in a dolly for an African child — five months earlier in answer to the believing prayer of a ten-year-old to bring it “That afternoon!”

The same God who answered Ruth’s audacious prayers is the God you present your requests to.  He can show the same goodness and power to you as well.

The third thing we can do is to give our requests to God “with thanksgiving.”

Thanksgiving is the mark that we’ve moved from fear to faith.  We have put our request in God’s hands and we are now thanking Him that He will act in our behalf in goodness and love.

We make requests because we believe that God is powerful and in control; we thank Him because we believe He is good and kind.

When we get to the place where our prayers are littered with thanksgivings, it is a sign of victory over anxiety.

Verse 7 tells us that when we do these things—rejoice in the Lord, hand our troubles to Him and rejoice in His goodness, then peace floods our souls.

Peace is tranquility, calmness, a sense of centered well-being.  These are the goals of Zen gurus, yogis, day spas, and meditation retreats.  But here Paul promises that if you repent of anxiety rather than excuse it, and if you focus on gratitude to God, and ask God for his involvement: you will experience true peace.

The Greek word for peace is irene.  It means peace of mind, tranquility arising from reconciliation with God and a sense of a divine favor.  The Old Testament equivalent is Shalom.

It is the type of serenity that characterizes God himself, for He is the “God of peace.”  He isn’t fretting about what’s going on in our world today.

This isn’t an artificial ‘ignorance is bliss’ type of peace.  It’s the peace that comes from God—it is supernatural.  And it is a gift from God.  It is real.  You merely need to ask for it.

And this is a surpassing peace, one that goes beyond our imaginations.  It is far superior to any peace our world promises (John 14:27).

Pastor Steve Cole explains the importance of thanksgiving when he says…

Thanksgiving in a time of trials reflects three things: (1) Remembrance of God’s supply in the past.  You think back over His faithfulness to you up to this point and realize that His mercies have sustained you.  He has been with you in every trial.  He has never abandoned or forsaken His children, even if we face persecution or death for His sake.

(2) Submission to God’s sovereignty in the present.  To thank God in the very midst of a crisis or trial is to say, “Lord, I don’t understand, but I submit to Your sovereign purpose in this situation. I trust that You know what You’re doing and will work it together for good.”  We are not just to thank God when we feel like it, but also when we don’t feel like it (1 Thess. 5:18).

(3) Trust in God’s sufficiency for the future.  A thankful heart rests upon the all-sufficient God, knowing that even though we don’t see how He is going to do it, He will meet our every need as we cast ourselves on Him.

Finally, we choose to focus on good things-things that are true and honorable and pure and good and praiseworthy.

What you choose to dwell upon affects your moods and emotions.  You have a choice.

Notice that Paul says we should “dwell” on these things.  We should turn our attention to these things and focus on them instead of the negative things we so often worry about.

So I invite you today to turn your peace into panic.  Whatever are the specific fears, worries and anxieties that are eating away at you right now, rejoice in God, turn them over to Him, thank Him for His goodness and kindness and focus on positive things.


Before signing off, let me just say that if you need things to do with your children or you need ideas for family devotions.  Just let me know.

Also, I’ve created a Facebook Group for Age and Phase and we will have a video for 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds this coming week.  I will let you mothers know about that and if anyone else is interested please text me at 479-234-1206.


The Joy of the Double Win, part 2 (Philippians 1:22-26)

Philippians is an epistle of joy.  Although joy is not the dominant theme, it is certainly a prominent one.  Throughout the epistle Paul commands joy and models joy.  He was able to rejoice in his chains, because through them the gospel was being more broadly and more boldly preached.  He was able to rejoice in his critics, for even through them Christ was being preached.  And now he is able to rejoice in his crisis, because He is so focused on living for Christ that whether he lived or died, Christ would be glorified.

Paul was not afraid of life or death!  Either way, he wanted to magnify Christ in his body.  No wonder he had joy!

That joy came from being so totally Christ focused and so totally focused on others.  Life revolved totally around Jesus Christ.

When American chess player Bobby Fisher defeated Russian Boris Spasky of the Soviet Union to become the World Champion Chess player, some reporters asked him, “What does chess mean to you?”

Fisher hesitated for a full sixty seconds, then replied, “Everything!”

That’s what Christ meant to Paul.  After his conversion, Christ became his entire life.

Now, we read in vv. 22-26, having just expressed “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain”…

22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

Paul here admits that he was facing a dilemma.  On the one hand, life is Christ; on the other, death is gain.  On the one hand, living means fruitful labor; but on the other hand, death is “better by far” because it means he would be in Christ’s very presence.

But, living seems to be more necessary for their sake.

In this dilemma both choices are worthy and Paul admits he had difficulty choosing between the two.  He feels literally “hemmed in on both sides” (sunechomai).

We might ask ourselves, why did Paul seem to entertain the very real possibility of his execution in vv. 20b-23, but then appear convinced (cf. v. 25) that he would remain alive and continue his ministry with them?

The answer seems to lie in a theme that runs throughout this epistle:  Paul is seeking to model for the Philippians the joy that comes by putting “the interests of others” ahead of (or above) one’s “own interests” (cf. 2:4).

Although Paul’s greater preference would be to “depart and be with Christ” he is willing to lay aside his personal preference (no matter how tempting and how good it might be) for the sake of their “progress and joy in the faith” (v. 25).  Like Christ in Philippians 2:6-8; Timothy in 2:20-21 and Epaphroditus in 2:30, Paul has put the interests of others ahead of his own and the interests of the gospel ahead of all.

Wiersbe notes:

What a man Paul was!  He was willing to postpone going to heaven in order to help Christians grow, and he was willing to go to hell in order to win the lost to Christ! (Romans 9:1-3)

So Paul puts his own life, and death, in second place and chooses instead to meet the needs of the Philippians.  Shame on us for being so self-centered that we split churches over whether to place the new piano on the right or left side of the sanctuary!

Let’s notice two things about death that Paul adds here.  He has already told us that “death is gain” for those who center their lives around Christ.

Here Paul indicates that once a believer dies, they are immediately “with Christ.”  Paul emphasizes this again in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 when he says that

6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Now, we are “away from the Lord,” but through death our spirit leaves our body and goes “home with the Lord.”

Jesus told the thief who believed in him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

These verses would lead us to believe that our soul-spirit, the immaterial part of humanity, leaves the body at the time of death and while the body is buried here on earth, the soul-spirit goes to be with Christ at home with the Lord in paradise.

And the fact that Paul goes on to say that this is “better by far” and his current ability to fellowship with God, it argues against the Seventh Day Adventist doctrine of soul-sleep, the idea “the soul is simply inert and resides in the memory of God” (, Matt Slick)

In addition when we look at the account of The Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, we clearly see Jesus using the imagery of consciousness after death.   If soul sleep is true, what was Jesus doing relating the account of two individuals who were both conscious after their death?

In Revelation  6:10 we see the account of people being conscious after death and asking God, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”   This is before the resurrection.  Here gain we have another account of consciousness after physical death.

Therefore, the doctrine of soul sleep is incorrect.   The soul continues on after death in a conscious state.   The wicked face the judgment of God, and the Christians will dwell in His presence.

The essence of eternal life is to be “with Christ” forever, growing in our knowledge of Him and enjoying Him in uninterrupted fellowship.  Jesus has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us and will come to take us to be where He is (John 14:2-3).

I love the words of Thomas Godwin who said about the sentiment of Jesus expressed in the words of John 14:3…

“It’s as if he had said, the truth is I cannot live without you and I will never rest ‘til I have you where I am that we may never part again.  Heaven shall not hold me, or my father’s company, if I have not you with me.  My heart is so set on you.”

I seems highly unlikely that Jesus would go to all that trouble just to bring an unconscious soul to heaven.

Death is gain because death gives us more of Christ.  The essence of worship is experiencing Christ as gain. Or in other words: it is savoring Christ, treasuring Christ, being satisfied with Christ.

The other fact about death recorded here is that Paul believed “to depart and be with Christ is better by far.”

This idea of “departing,” found here and again in 2 Cor. 5:1-8 is analuseo, a word that pictures an army striking camp or a ship being loosed from its moorings so it can sail away.  That is a picture of death, a journey to another place.

Does heaven seem “better by far” to you?  This earth seems pretty good.  There is much we can enjoy in this life.  But we need to take seriously that all the joy and beauty and sweetness that we experience in this life is but a thimble in the ocean of heaven’s “better by far.”

Heaven is not just “better,” but “better by far.”  It’s actually a construction which could literally be translated, like toddlers say it “more better,” and Paul precedes that with a word meaning “very much.”  It just expresses that whatever we could imagine as better, the reality of heaven is even “very much more better.”  There are no bounds to the proper excessiveness of heaven.

It’s like David says in Psalm 16:11

11 You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

We experience joy and pleasure in this life.  In fact, some of us could point to lives that overflowed with joy and pleasure.  Nevertheless, our joy in this life is never quite full.  We always come up a little empty, a little short of “full joy.”  Our experiences never quite match our expectations.

Likewise, our joys in this life are not constant, not “forevermore.”  In general they are short-lived.  Our joys are punctuated with aggravations and irritations and sadnesses and disappointments.

But in heaven, we will have complete joy continually, we will have full joy forever.  That is “better by far.”

So it is quite easy to see why Paul’s “desire” was to die and enter eternal bliss with Christ.  But he tempered that desire with the reality that the Philippians still needed him here, on this earth, for a while.

Paul brings the “better by far” back down to earth with the words “much more necessary.”  I don’t think the necessity in any way outdid the superiorities of heaven, but they weighed on Paul’s conscience and he knew he must stay.

So against his own personal desires, putting their needs ahead of his own pleasures, he chose what was necessary “for you” and puts their concerns ahead of his own.  But realize, even though he was giving up his preference for the gain of death and the “better by far” of being with Christ, he was still living Christ.  And as long as he did so, death would be even more gain.

Paul was concerned, and was staying behind, for two things: “your progress and joy in the faith.”  Paul was concerned about their faith, which may have been challenged by his imprisonment.  He wanted them to experience progress in their faith, to keep growing, and to experience joy in the faith.

This is the purpose of leadership in a local church.  Our aim is to produce progress and joy in the faith.  This is why it shouldn’t be a struggle for a congregation to submit to their leaders, because their leaders are working for their good—for their progress and joy in the faith.

So John Piper notes:

It drastically changes the prospect of submitting to a leader when you know he isn’t pursuing his own private good, but genuinely seeking what is best for you, what will give you your deepest and more enduring joy.  “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy” (Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:24).

You who are skeptical of leaders in general, what if you knew that “those who are over you in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 5:12) were not in it to stroke their ego, or garner private privilege, or assert their will to control others, but actively were laying aside their rights and comforts to self-sacrificially take initiative and expend energy in working for your joy?

And you who are leaders in the church or in the home or in the marketplace, what if those under your care were convinced — deeply convinced — that your place of authority was not for self-aggrandizement or self-promotion, but that you were working for their joy?  That your joy in leadership was not a selfish joy, but a satisfaction you were finding in the joy of those whom you lead?

Leaders taste the greatest joy when they truly look out for the interests of others — when they do everything in their power to bring about the thriving and flourishing of those in their care.  They know the delight of the apostle who says, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).  They can say, “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming?  Is it not you?  For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20).

When undershepherds in the church show themselves to be workers for the true joy of their flocks, they walk in the steps of the Great Shepherd — the great Worker for your joy — the one who tells us to pray “that your joy may be full” (John 16:24), and speaks to us “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11; also John 17:13).

Christian leadership exists for the joy of the church.  Such a vision changes everything, first for pastors and then for their people.

Two significant things stand out in this phrase that helps us capture the essence of spiritual formation in our lives.

First, we need to be constantly seeking “progress” in our faith.  If we don’t give attention to moving our faith forward, we won’t just sit still, we will actually begin to drift backward.  Our culture works overtime to bend you and shape you to conform to the world culture.  If you are not being spiritually formed by Christ, you are being deformed by Satan.

Second, a key element in our growth is our joy.  We will always do what we enjoy doing.  We will either pursue pleasure or avoid pain.  In other to make progress in our faith, we must find joy in it.

Without joy our discipline becomes drudgery.  With joy disciplines turns to delights.  For Paul, joy was an indispensable element in the Christian life.  That’s why he mentions it so often in his interactions with the churches.

What makes you “come alive”?  For some it is shopping.  Not me.  My interest and passion and energy is sparked by other things.

What makes you “come alive?”

Philippians 1:21 becomes a valuable test for our lives.  Try to fill in this blank: “For me to live is ___________.”  How would you fill in that blank?  What really gets you revved up?  Not angry, but interested?

“For me to live is money and to die is to leave it all behind.”

“For me to live is fame and to die is to be forgotten.

“For me to live is power and to die is to lose it all.”

No, we need to echo Paul’s convictions if we are going to live a life of joy in spite of circumstances and experience an eternity of great gain.  Give your live to what really matters.

“For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

The Joy of the Double Win, part 1 (Philippians 1:18b-21)

“Because of Paul’s chains, Christ was made known (Phil. 1:13), and because of Paul’s critics, Christ was preached (Phil. 1:18).  But because of Paul’s crisis, Christ was magnified (Phil. 1:20)” begins Warren Wiersbe for this next section of the book of Philippians.  Next to the “Christ hymn” in Philippians 2:6-11, it is one of the high points of Scripture.

Paul was in prison, unsure whether he would live or die.  But what mattered most to Paul was whether Christ would be magnified.

In the last part of Philippians 1:18, Paul turns his attention from the present to the future.  He says, “Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.”  Although Paul was not totally confident about whether his future would result in his release or his execution, he seems to have a growing confidence that he would be released and minister to them again in the future.

So let’s read that passage…

Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

I’m going to divide this passage into two sections:

  1. Paul can rejoice because Christ will be exalted in life or in death (1:18b-21)
  2. Paul can rejoice because the Philippians will be helped if he remains (1:22-26)

Notice that in either case Paul’s ability to rejoice arose because he did not focus upon himself, but on Christ and on others—even in the face of dire and possibly deadly circumstances.

What is your life focus?  Is it on yourself—your acclaim, your comfort, your possessions, your peace, your safety, your convenience?

The famous way that Paul expressed this perspective is found in verse 21: “For to me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”

What a wonderful perspective!  What a liberating perspective!  It was a double win!  Whether Paul lived or died, it was all for Christ and therefore even death would be gain.

Is Christ your life focus?  Will death be gain for you?

Notice that Paul says at the end of verse 18, “I will rejoice,” which has the idea “I will continue to rejoice” and then verse 19 gives the grounds of his rejoicing…

19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance,

Paul didn’t know for sure whether he would be released or executed.  Although his preliminary trial had gone favorably, the final verdict was yet to come.  You see, unlike our court system where an unfavorable verdict can be appealed to a higher court, Caesar was the final verdict.  Whatever he said, that was it.

And you might remember that the Caesar at the time was none other than that maniac—Nero!

Yet, in the very midst of all that might lend itself to uncertainty, Paul had definite assurance of his deliverance.  Somehow, he “knows…this will turn out for my deliverance.”  Paul uses the word for “knows” that speaks of the “knowledge of intuition or satisfied conviction.”

Because the words “will turn out for my deliverance” is an exact quote from the LXX text of Job 13:16, it is quite possible that Paul’s confidence was based on God impressing these words of Job on his heart.  Knowing that God had ultimately delivered Job, Paul was confident he would be delivered.

Now, although the word “deliverance” here is soteria, the word often translated “salvation,” it is clear that it is not justification that is in view, but physical deliverance.  Remember that the context determines the meaning.

Maybe, Paul uses this word to express the idea that he believed he would be vindicated (justified in the eyes of the court) and therefore released.

And on a deeper level, Paul knew that whether he lived or died, he would stand vindicated (with no condemnation) before the court of God.

Paul had prayed that the Philippians would stand “pure and blameless on the day of Christ” in v. 10 and now he is saying that the Philippians’ prayers for him would result in a “successful” stand—a vindication—before the judgment seat of Christ.

Paul wasn’t questioning at all whether he would end up in glory, nor is he expressing the idea that his ultimate salvation rested in the prayers of the saints.  Rather, his concern is that Christ be magnified in his life so that he would receive reward in heaven.  Paul was very careful to “beat my body and make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified from the prize” (1 Cor. 9:27).

So Paul is rejoicing in this confidence he has, which has come “through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.”

Also interesting in verse 19 is the connection between the prayers of the Philippians and the supply of the Spirit to Paul.

Again, Paul isn’t calling into question the basic reality that every Christian has the Holy Spirit dwelling in them (cf. Rom. 8:9).  However, he also uses language like the Spirit being “given” to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 4:8), being “supplied” to the Galatians (Gal. 3:5) and tells the Ephesians they needed to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18).

As Frank Thielman writes:

“All believers have the Spirit all the time, but they sometimes experience the Spirit’s presence in greater power and abundance than at other times.”

Peter was “filled with the Holy Spirit” when he stood before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:8); the Jerusalem believers were “filled with the Holy Spirit” and spoke the word boldly (Acts 4:31).  Stephen was “full of the Holy Spirit” prior to his martyrdom (Acts 7:55).  In all these cases, the people received an abundant measure of the Holy Spirit prior to a time of special testing or ministry, allowing them to stand firm and testify to the gospel.

And this is exactly what Paul wanted—that through their prayers for him he needed and wanted an unusual measure of the Holy Spirit that would allow him to have boldness to testify to Christ in front of crazy Nero!

Paul didn’t want this extra measure of the Holy Spirit so that he could experience some higher emotional plane, or even so he could enjoy his giftedness.  He especially wasn’t looking for more of the Spirit to give him health and wealth.  Rather, he hopes that the Spirit’s abundant presence in his life would lead him to bear courageous and clear testimony to the gospel, so that whether he is spared or executed “Christ will be exalted” (v. 20).

Jesus had promised this to his disciples.  He told them that when that stood before a court, the Holy Spirit would give them the words they needed to speak just the right words at just the right moment (Mark 13:11; Matthew 10:29; Luke 12:12).

Then, in vv. 20-21, Paul again states his confidence: “I will in no way be ashamed….Christ will be exalted” and again he gives a reason, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Again, Paul can maintain a joyful attitude in very difficult and uncertain circumstances because whether he lived or died, he was centering his life around Christ and Christ would be exalted.  Joy exists when self is denied.

The words “eager expectation and hope” at the beginning of v. 20 express Paul forward stance.  The two words match each other.  “Eager expectation” is from the Greek word apokaradokia, which has the idea of turning the head away from something to look in another direction.  And that other direction is the future, expressed by the word “hope,” which, in the Bible, always means a “confident expectation.”

So Paul has this intense expectation that he would “not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body.”

He believed that he would survive.  But why was Paul so eager for this?  It is not because he could not bear with the suffering, or even that he feared dying.  Rather, his court appearance might demonstrate that he was innocent of all charges and therefore prove that the gospel was not a subversive element in the Roman empire.  His hope was that his personal vindication might clear the way for the declaration of the gospel.

What Paul is saying here is that: “Even if his appearance before a Roman tribunal results in condemnation and death at the hands of an executioner, Paul contends that he will not have been put to shame by his enemies and that the Lord will be exalted.  His physical circumstances were out of his hands, and it may look perhaps to some as if they are out of God’s as well, but the apostle knows that despite appearances God is still sovereign over the affairs of his life and that God will see him safely through to ultimate, eternal vindication” (Frank Thielman, p. 77).

Paul’s greatest desire is that Christ would be honored, or exalted.  The word here as the idea of making something great.

But Christ is already supremely great, so great that He couldn’t be any greater.  So, what does this mean?  How do we magnify something already so great?  Or, to put it another way, “How do we glorify God?”

John Piper describes it with this illustration:

We are not called to be microscopes, but telescopes.  Christians are not called to be con-men who magnify their product out of all proportion to reality, when they know the competitor’s product is far superior.  There is nothing and nobody superior to God.  And so the calling of those who love God is to make his greatness begin to look as great as it really is.

You see, a microscope takes something that is, in reality, quite small, but makes it look larger.  On the other hand, a telescope focuses on something exceedingly large, but far away, and makes it more clearly visible to the human eye.

Like the NASA photographs reveal the greatness and beauty and majesty of far away galaxies hidden from the naked eye, so we make the already immensely glorious, all beautiful, majestic Christ visible through our preaching and through our lives.

So, when we glorify God through our thoughts, words and deeds we do not add to his glory, but make his glory visible to others.

The reason Paul could be so confident in his ultimate deliverance and future opportunity to magnify Christ is that “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”

Paul was not afraid of death and didn’t need to grasp onto life.  His life was bound up with Christ.  Nothing else was important.  Later, in chapter 3, Paul will tell us that he considered everything else rubbish in order to gain Christ and his greatest desire in life was to know Him.

When you “live to” Someone, you center your life around that person.  Your allegiance, affections, attention and energies are all directed towards that one person.

Notice that Paul starts this verse with the words “to me.”  In other words, this is Paul’s personal perspective of what makes life worth living.  It is his settled conviction.  It is ours?

What is your life mission statement?  What do you want to accomplish in life?  Ask yourself, “When all is said and done, will I be proud of what I spent my life on?”

See if you can figure out who made these causes their life’s ambition:

  • “end slavery and preserve our nation” (Abraham Lincoln)
  • “lead our nation out of the Great Depression” (FDR)
  • “eradicate racism in our land once for all” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)
  • “to show mercy and compassion to the poor” (Mother Teresa)

And this one should be easy:

  • “to seek and save the lost” (Jesus)

But what was Paul’s life mission statement:

  • “I want to know Christ”

You see, simple statements like these gave these people single-minded focus and great determination and as a result they accomplished great things.

You can’t easily derail a person with a focused and significant cause.

Imagine if we had a church filled with people who had a laser-like focus to know and follow Jesus Christ!

What is “life” to you?  What does it mean to “really live”?  Sad to say, for most of us it is not Christ.

Even most of those who name Christ as their Savior don’t make Christ the center focus of their lives.  Too many other things, and many of them good things, crowd into the center of our lives and demand our attention and drain our affection.

What did it mean for Paul to have Christ as his life?  It meant that he focused every moment—every moment—on living for Christ’s glory, on doing whatever he could to help others see the greatness of God.

Gerald Hawthorne describes it as:

“Life is summed up in Christ.  Life is filled up with, occupied with Christ, in the sense that everything Paul does—trusts, loves, hopes, obeys, preaches, follows, and so on—is inspired by Christ and is done for Christ.” (Hawthorne, p. 45)

Commentator John Eadie, in his commentary on Philippians, says…

—the preaching of Christ the business of my life
—the presence of Christ the cheer of my life
—the image of Christ the crown of my life
—the Spirit of Christ the life of my life
—the love of Christ the power of my life
—the will of Christ the law of my life
—and the glory of Christ the end of my life.

Christ was the absorbing element of his life. If he travelled, it was on Christ’s errand; if he suffered, it was in Christ’s service. When he spoke, his theme was Christ; and when he wrote, Christ filled his letters…

And here’s the great lesson—when Christ is our life, death is gain.  It is gain, real gain.

So, if our life is much about Christ, there will be much gain; little about Christ, little gain.

And if Christ is not in your life at all, death is not gain but rather horrible, tragic loss.

Notice that Paul is attacking one of our cultural icons:  Life is good and death is to be avoided at all costs.  Our society’s goal is the postponement of death as long as possible.

The Greek pagan viewed death as release from earthly troubles but no more.  Paul saw death not only as a continuing of his relationship with Christ (vs. w3), but genuine gain.  Knowing Christ causes us to look beyond the grave.

Paul sees both life and death as vehicles through which he can enjoy Christ.  Greater than life is Christ.  Greater than death is Christ.

Death won’t be nearly as much gain for us as it could be if we don’t make Christ our life-focus here and now, and from this day forward.

On the flip side, it is when we begin to take seriously the idea that eternity could be great grain for us if we would just make Christ the center of our lives now.

“…It is tempting for believers to live as if there were nothing beyond the grave.  This can only cause us to clutch our material possessions more tightly for the security they can give and keep us from risking our lives in the service of God” (Frank Thielman, p. 89)


Two extended quotations on Philippians 1:21

Since Paul was in prison awaiting trial, he had to face the fact that it was quite uncertain whether he would live or die; and to him it made no difference.

“Living,” he says, in his great phrase, “is Christ to me.”  For Paul, Christ had been the beginning of life, for on that day on the Damascus road it was as if he had begun life all over again. Christ had been the continuing of life; there had never been a day when Paul had not lived in his presence, and in the frightening moments Christ had been there to bid him be of good cheer (Acts 18:9-10).  Christ was the end of life, for it was towards his eternal presence that life ever led.  Christ was the inspiration of life; he was the dynamic of life.  To Paul, Christ had given the task of life, for it was he who had made him an apostle and sent him out as the evangelist of the Gentiles.  To him Christ had given the strength for life, for it was Christ’s all-sufficient grace that was made perfect in Paul’s weakness.  For him Christ was the reward of life, for to Paul the only worthwhile reward was closer fellowship with his Lord.  If Christ were to be taken out of life, for Paul there would be nothing left.

“For me,” said Paul, “death is gain”.  Death was entrance into Christ’s nearer presence.  There are passages in which Paul seems to regard death as a sleep, from which all men at some future general resurrection shall be wakened (1 Corinthians 16:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:14 and 16); but at the moment when its breath was on him Paul thought of death not as a falling asleep but as an immediate entry into the presence of his Lord.  If we believe in Jesus Christ, death for us is union and reunion, union with him and reunion with those whom we have loved and lost awhile.

The result was that Paul was swayed between two desires. “I am caught,” he says, “between two desires.”  As the Revised Standard Version has it: “I am hard pressed between the two.”

–William Barclay

My father’s favorite verse throughout most of his life was Romans 8:28, but toward the end of his life he claimed Philippians 1:21, “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” When we live much for Christ, we have much gain. When we live little for Christ, we have little gain. When we live not for Christ at all, we have no gain, but loss. Listen to the words of John Eadie:

“Christ, says the Apostle, shall be magnified in my body by life, ‘for to me to live is Christ.’ Christ and life were one and the same thing to him.

Might not the sentiment be thus expanded? For me to live is Christ:

—the preaching of Christ the business of my life
—the presence of Christ the cheer of my life
—the image of Christ the crown of my life
—the Spirit of Christ the life of my life
—the love of Christ the power of my life
—the will of Christ the law of my life
—and the glory of Christ the end of my life.

Christ was the absorbing element of his life. If he travelled, it was on Christ’s errand; if he suffered, it was in Christ’s service. When he spoke, his theme was Christ; and when he wrote, Christ filled his letters…

And when did the Apostle utter this sentiment? It was not as he rose from the earth, dazzled into blindness by the Redeemer’s glory, and the words of the first commission were ringing in his ears.

It was not in Damascus, while, as the scales fell from his sight, he recognized the Lord’s goodness and power, and his baptism proclaimed his formal admission to the church.

Nor was it in Arabia, where supernatural wisdom so fully unfolded to him the facts and truths which he was uniformly to proclaim. It sprang not from any momentary elation as at Cyprus, where he confounded the sorcerer, and converted the Roman proconsul.

No, the resolution was written at Rome in bonds, and after years of unparalleled toil and suffering. His past career had been signalized by stripes, imprisonment, deaths, shipwreck, and unnumbered perils, but he did not regret them.

He had been ‘in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness,’ but his ardour was unchilled; and let him only be freed, and his life prolonged, and his motto still would be—’For me to live is Christ.’

It did not repent the venerable confessor now, when he was old, infirm, and a prisoner, with a terrible doom suspended over him, that he had done so much, travelled so much, spoken so much, and suffered so much for Christ.

Nor was the statement like a suspicious vow in a scene of danger, which is too often wrung from cowardice, and held up as a bribe to the Great Preserver, but forgotten when the crisis passes, and he who made it laughs at his own timidity.

No. It was no new course the Apostle proposed—it was only a continuation of those previous habits which his bondage had for a season interrupted. Could there be increase to a zeal that had never flagged, or could those labours be multiplied which had filled every moment and called out every energy?

In fine, the saying was no idle boast, like that of Peter at the Last Supper—the flash of a sudden enthusiasm so soon to be drowned in tears. For the apostle had the warrant of a long career to justify his assertion, and who can doubt that he would have verified it, and nobly shown that still, as hitherto, for him to live was Christ?

He sighed not under the burden, as if age needed repose; or sank into self-complacency, as if he had done enough, for the Lord’s commission was still upon him, and the wants of the world were so numerous and pressing, as to claim his last word, and urge his last step.

It was such an one as Paul the aged, and now also a prisoner of Jesus Christ, who placed on record the memorable clause, inscribed also on his heart—’for me to live is Christ.’”

–John Eadie, A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians (ed. W. Young; Second Edition.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1884), 51–51-52.

May you and I live much for Christ today. May He be our life, our joy, our treasure and greatest pleasure.


Making the Best Out of the Worst, part 2 (Philippians 1:15-18)

Philippians has been called the epistle of joy.  Joy is certainly a dominant theme of this book and reflect Paul’s own attitude as well.  He is writing this epistle from a Roman prison.  Including his imprisonment in Caesarea, Paul has now spent close to four years in prison.  For a man who had spent much of the previous decade moving from city to city preaching the gospel and planting churches, this would have seemed to have stymied Paul’s ministry.

But in this section of Philippians 1 we find that instead his imprisonment had only served to advance the gospel.  It was claiming new ground.  Two things were causing Paul problems.  First was his chains, which would seem to limit him, but instead had only given him greater opportunity and had emboldened others to share the gospel as well.  This was an external, physical trial that God was using for good.

In vv. 15-18 we read of the second trouble that Paul faced—competition from other preachers.  But what again might seem a loss was proving to be gain, as they, too, were sharing the gospel.  This internal, emotional trial God was also using for good.

And the reason Paul could rejoice is that he placed greater value on the spread of the gospel than his own comfort and convenience.  In vv. 15-18 of Philippians 1 we read…

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.

All was not well in the Roman church despite the fact that the vast majority had the courage to speak the word.  There were actually two groups of preachers in the church who proclaimed Christ but from different motives: “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will” (v. 15).

Apparently there were some who were preaching “out of rivalry” with Paul, thinking that their gain meant his loss, their success meant his failure.

The identity of those here who preach Christ from envy and rivalry is difficult to determine. They are clearly antagonistic to Paul, and thus one could imagine they are the same “Judaizing” people mentioned in ch. 3. But it is hard to see how Paul could rejoice in the proclamation of something (namely, a return to the old covenant) which he saw as a betrayal of the good news (see esp. the letter to the Galatians). It seems more likely that these were other Christians who preached a generally sound gospel but were personally at odds with Paul. (ESV Study Bible)

Paul contrasts between two groups here:  Both groups were preaching Christ, but Paul’s friends were doing it with “good will,” “out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.”  The others were doing it “out of envy and rivalry,” “not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.”

One might wonder why Paul even brought this up.  I can think of two reasons.  First, Paul acknowledges that there are people like this who exist within Christian circles—people who desire to build a kingdom to themselves.  Second, I believe that Paul wanted to model how to move beyond the hurt and rejection in ministry to a deeper joy.  After all, they were “preaching Christ.”

Sometimes, we pastors can get envious of our more gifted brothers who have larger followings.  Whether through giftedness or opportunity they seem to prosper more than we do.  But as long as they “preach Christ” we should rejoice.

Envy is an insidious poison in our hearts.  Envy is annoyance at the success of others so much so that we want to deprive them of it rather than gain it ourselves.

Paul had come to Rome with a long list of ministerial successes to his credit. Notwithstanding his unimpressive appearance, the gifts Paul possessed were immense, unique apostolic endowments.  He had taken the gospel to Asia Minor and on into Europe, fighting Judaizers and heretics all the way — and had won.  When Paul arrived in Rome, the focus of the church turned naturally to the apostle, and some of the leadership turned green with envy and began a contentious gospel rivalry.

On the other hand, the majority preached Christ “from good will.”  And Paul explains of them, “The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel” (v. 16).  They understood that Paul was under orders issued by God and that his captivity was part of his defense of the gospel.  So those in the majority were motivated to preach Christ by their love for God and their love for his apostle.

John Claypool said in his 1979 Yale Lecture on Preaching that even while in seminary he experienced jealous jockeying for position and that his experience in the parish ministry had not been much different.  He writes:

I can still recall going to state and national conventions in our denomination and coming home feeling drained and unclean, because most of the conversation in the hotel rooms and the halls was characterized either by envy of those who were doing well or scarcely concealed delight for those who were doing poorly.  For did that not mean that someone was about to fall, and thus create an opening higher up the ladder? (John R. Claypool, The Preaching Event (Waco, TX: Word, 1980), p. 68)

But whatever these preachers were saying about Paul, he was most more concerned with what they were saying about Christ, and in that case they were “preaching Christ.”  Paul was thus more concerned about the content of their preaching than their method of preaching.

What we must focus on is not our brothers’ successes or failures, but whether the gospel is being preached and whether the church is life giving.  If so, then we need to rejoice in their success and be glad that they are here.

We’re not sure all they were saying to try to cause Paul harm.  Perhaps they were casting doubt on his apostolic credentials, or saying that his sufferings meant his message was insufficient, or possibly that his sufferings meant their was sin in his life.  Maybe they were disappointed that Paul was advocating his own release, believing that it was more spiritual to die as a martyr.  Whatever it was, it was focused on Paul.

Yet, Jesus Christ was preached as well, and in that Paul rejoiced.

At the end of the day, after all their efforts to oppose Paul, they only succeeded in doing the thing that was most important to his heart and that his friends were also doing—preaching Christ and seeing people saved.

Joy, it’s a matter of perspective.

Our perspective in life is directly related to what we think about.  Your brain is like a bank.  What you put into it determines what you will be able to draw out of it.

Do you remember the old computer term GIGO—garbage in, garbage out.  That meant that you couldn’t expect good results from poor coding.

So what do you put into your mind, your brain bank?  Paul will counsel the Philippians later  “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).

If you plant the truths of God’s Word in your heart, those truths will guide your thinking, which is especially helpful when your world is crumbling around you, when all outside “data” seems to tell you that God isn’t good, isn’t wise and isn’t on your side.

What is the orientation of your thinking?  If our orientation is primarily about ourselves, then we will naturally get unhappy and angry when things don’t turn out our way.  But if our orientation is towards God and the gospel and about eternal things, then we can maintain our joy because we know that God can brings gains out of chains and advances out of adversity.

Again, the key to making the best out of the worst is to focus on how even our worst circumstances could be advancing the kingdom of God.

Because Christ was being preached, Paul said, “I rejoice.”  He had learned not to get sidetracked by the small stuff.  Even though Paul was in chains, the gospel was not.  Even though some meant to hurt Paul, he was still rejoicing.

The Apostle Paul had ample reason to feel down.  He was the missionary general of the early church, a type A personality if there ever was one.  Confinement was tough on his activist soul.  He knew the gospel as did no other.  He was the preeminent theologian of the apostolic church.  He had more knowledge in his little finger than his detractors had in their combined IQs.  He had the right stuff.  He could take a beating like no one else.  No one could gainsay his experience.  But Paul refused to have a pity party.  There was no “Why me?” from Paul.

Rather, Paul voiced an astonishing attitude: “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (v. 18).

Paul was so gospel-intoxicated, so centered on getting the good news of Christ out to the lost in Rome, that his feelings and aspirations were subsumed and subject to the gospel.

Don Carson writes:

Paul’s example is impressive and clear: Put the advance of the gospel at the center of your aspirations.  Our own comfort, our bruised feelings, our reputations, our misunderstood motives — all of these are insignificant in comparison with the advance and splendor of the gospel.  As Christians, we are called upon to put the advance of the gospel at the very center of our aspirations.

What are your aspirations?  To make money?  To get married?  To travel? To see your grandchildren grow up?  To find a new job?  To retire early?  None of these is inadmissible; none is to be despised.  The question is whether these aspirations become so devouring that the Christian’s central aspiration is squeezed to the periphery or choked out of existence entirely (D. A. Carson, Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), p. 25, 26).

It’s like John Piper said in his address to the Passion 2000 students entitled, “You Have Only One Life, Don’t Waste It.”  In that address he pled with these young people to chose to make a difference with their lives.  He said…

You don’t have to know a lot of things for your life to make a lasting difference in the world.  But you do have to know the few great things that matter, and then be willing to live for them and die for them.  The people that make a durable difference in the world are not the people who have mastered many things, but who have been mastered by a few great things.

If you want your life to count, if you want the ripple effect of the pebbles you drop to become waves that reach the ends of the earth and roll on for centuries and into eternity, you don’t have to have a high IQ or a high EQ.  You don’t have to have good looks or riches.  You don’t have to come from a fine family or a fine school.  You just have to know a few great, majestic, unchanging, obvious, simple, glorious things, and be set on fire by them.

But I know that not everybody in this crowd wants their life to make a difference.  There are hundreds of you — you don’t care whether you make a lasting difference for something great, you just want people to like you.  If people would just like you, you’d be satisfied.  Or if you could just have a good job with a good wife and a couple good kids and a nice car and long weekends and a few good friends, a fun retirement, and quick and easy death and no hell — if you could have that, you’d be satisfied even without God.

That is a tragedy in the making.

Three weeks ago, we got word at our church that Ruby Eliason and Laura Edwards had both been killed in Cameroon.  Ruby was over eighty.  Single all her life, she poured it out for one great thing: to make Jesus Christ known among the unreached, the poor, and the sick.  Laura was a widow, a medical doctor, pushing eighty years old, and serving at Ruby’s side in Cameroon.

The brakes give way, over the cliff they go, and they’re gone — killed instantly.

And I asked my people: was that a tragedy?  Two lives, driven by one great vision, spent in unheralded service to the perishing poor for the glory of Jesus Christ — two decades after almost all their American counterparts have retired to throw their lives away on trifles in Florida or New Mexico.  No.  That is not a tragedy.  That is a glory.

I tell you what a tragedy is.  I’ll read to you from Reader’s Digest what a tragedy is. “Bob and Penny . . . took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51.  Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their thirty foot trawler, playing softball and collecting shells.”

That’s a tragedy.  And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream.  And I get forty minutes to plead with you: don’t buy it.  With all my heart I plead with you: don’t buy that dream.  The American Dream: a nice house, a nice car, a nice job, a nice family, a nice retirement, collecting shells as the last chapter before you stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account of what you did: “Here it is Lord — my shell collection!  And I’ve got a nice swing, and look at my boat!”

Don’t waste your life; don’t waste it.

The reason Paul was the apostle of joy is that he gave his life to the things that mattered.  He didn’t let petty people or hurtful people steal his joy, as long as Christ was being preached.

He didn’t waste his life on the things that really won’t matter in eternity.

Paul was concerned about the gospel, about defending the gospel.  As long as Christ was preached and the gospel being proclaimed, he would rejoice.

One other thing, notice the connection between those who love Paul and their knowledge of the fact that he was defending the gospel.  He had prayed that their love would be a smart, discerning love back in vv. 9-11 and here is an example of the fact that they did have a discerning love.

Paul had been “put here” for the defense of the gospel.  Why this word?  Maybe he had in mind the words of Jesus to his apostles in Luke 21:

12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness.

Far from being threatened to remain silent, far from being cowed into silence, Paul saw his imprisonment as the very opportunity he had to defend the gospel.  Not himself, but the gospel.

So what was Paul trying to do in this portion of Philippians?

First, he was trying to encourage them by his own example of how to focus his perspective in time of hardship.  He will get back to this in vv. 27-30.

Second, he wanted the Philippians to know that God works not merely in spite of but through our troubles.  God is able to work ALL THINGS, both good AND bad, towards a good ending.

Finally, Paul wanted to remind them that they must connect their joy to the right things—neither personal conveniences or public approval—but on the advancement of God’s glory through the gospel.

So, how do you make the best out of the worst?  By choosing to focus your mind on the advancement of God’s glory rather than your own convenience and comfort, your own applause or approval ratings.  Then you will rejoice and have great joy.