I’ve had a slow leak in a tire on my truck for a few weeks, but I haven’t had time to do anything about it. A guest speaker this Sunday meant that after my men’s group this morning, there were actually a few hours unaccounted. So I went to the tire shop. While waiting, I read through the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Lord willing, we’ll finish the Old Testament book of Numbers in our evening service in a few weeks (we started in July of 2013), and I’ve been considering where to go next. I’ve preached or taught through all of Paul’s letters – except Philippians. So I read through it with Sunday nights in mind.
It’s a popular letter. I know people who’ve memorized it. I’ve had more than a few people tell me it’s their favorite of the New Testament books. In this letter Paul has some pretty challenging things to say. Challenging, that is, to a self-centered, self-exalting, self-esteem, self-self pop-Christianity (and its songs heavy on the words “I,” “me,” and “my”). There’s a church marquee in town that says, “God believes in you.” Paul (and the entirety of the Bible, for that matter) is deadly to that utterly non-scriptural humanistic bilge. Philippians is one of his so-called “prison epistles,” and the wisdom of a life so centered on Christ that it ends up in chains is worth listening to more than the inspirational “life coaches” of today.
- He doesn’t pray for release from his chains, but rejoices that the Gospel has spread because of his imprisonment: “Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear” (Philippians 1:12-14). The Gospel is more important than his freedom or comfort!
- Losing everything in this life (including this life) is gain compared to being with Christ; continuing in this life is utterly selfless, to be spent on the spiritual growth of the saints: “...with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake” (1:20-24). He’ll speak more of true gain later in the letter, as well: “...whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for Whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ” (3:7,8).
- “...to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me” (1:29,30). It’s been “granted.” Thanks! This reminds me of the leaders of the early Church, who, after having been flogged, went away “rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). Before they kept on preaching Christ. Or of Paul’s incredible statement that is an ironic echo and overturning of the prosperity gospel: “...all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you” (1 Corinthians 3:21,22). “All things”? Wow! Wait. “Death”? Umm...do I have to accept that part of “all things,” Lord?
- “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5). The attitude of Jesus is then described in the great hymn of 2:6-11 as a total emptying of personal rights and a total obedience to God’s will even to death, to gain not self-centered reward but the glory of the Father (yes, a long run-on sentence, but totally justified)! How can we read this and “church shop,” or form cliques in congregations, or argue over carpet color, or flock to teachers that make us feel good about ourselves and our life-choices? That’s not at all what we find in the Christ we’re called to imitate.
- “Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life” (2:14-16). Our attitudes and treatment of each other is part of our witness – all based solidly on the Word alone, not our preferences or opinions or comforts.
- This next one has challenged me throughout my few 21 years of ministry. Whenever I start to feel sorry for myself or burned out or tired, I hear the apostle say this: “...even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all” (2:17). “Poured out.” Not dripping or a thin trickle or a reasonable percentage. All of it. He’ll say it again in his last letter (2 Timothy 4:6). Lord, forgive me. Soon after, in describing Epaphroditus, we’re told this good minister “came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was deficient in [the Philippians’] service to me” (2:30).
- The man imprisoned says to the free Church, “rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (4:4). And, “be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (4:6). And, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need” (4:11,12).
- Having read all of that, how can we so brazenly misuse the one sentence in the letter (what I like to call a “coffee-cup verse”)? “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (4:13). Paul’s “all things” and my selfish ambitions are pretty far apart.
My fears, self-obsession, craving for approval and popularity and praise, and all the ugly things in me cower before such Spirit-inspired truth. We need this letter, Church. I need this letter. Having worked in a tire shop, I was becoming impatient with how long the fellow in the bay was taking with a simple leak. I wasn’t in a prison cell. Or even a little uncomfortable. Or late for anything else.
Paul’s prayer at the beginning of the letter is a worthy one: “...this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:9,10). A Christ-centered, continually growing love based on biblical knowledge and discernment; it is the exact opposite of the self-actualizing humanistic false-christianity so popular today!
Yes, I think our Bible study for our Sunday night prayer meeting will be in Philippians for a while.