Monthly Archives: October 2014

Philippians 4:1-9

“Beauty is truth, and truth beauty.

That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

 

This couplet ended John Keats’ famous poem “Ode On A Grecian Urn,” and stands as a stark reminder that not all things that are “good” are “true”—often, they are “beautiful.” The truth of beauty is a truth often overlooked by evangelicals, whose theology fell under the insidious influence of pragmatism in the early 20th century. But the inability or unwillingness to enjoy this life we’ve been given and to love the beauty that we find in it is to fail to agree with God’s own assessment of His creation—that it was “good” (Ge 1.31).

 

1Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brothers, my joy and crown, stand firm in the same way, brothers!

 

2I urge Euodia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3And I say to you, true partner, to help them, for they have struggled in the gospel ministry side by side with me and Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say: rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be known to all men; the Lord is near. 6Do not be anxious in anything, but in all things, in prayer and petitions with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think on these things. 9And what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do these things; and the God of peace will be with you.

 

Paul urges Eudoia and Syntyche to “think” or “agree” (φρονειν) in the Lord, implying that there has been discord beyond a simple disagreement. They are women, and apparently are fellow-workers in the gospel. Paul then addresses a singular individual—“true partner”—but does not name him. It is exceedingly rare for Paul to address a single individual in a community letter such as this, and much speculation has arisen as to the identity of the person. Gordon Fee offers a compelling case that the individual may well be Luke, but ultimately the identity of the “true partner” is highly speculative at best. Next, he reminds the Philippians that they are to not be anxious about anything—in contradistinction to “anxious” behavior, they are to be totally reliant upon God with their prayers and petitions that are given with thanksgiving (4.6). Moreover, if they will abandon their anxiety and trust in God, they will find rest—the “peace of God” which is beyond human understanding (4.7). In a final word of encouragement in this pericope, Paul tells the Philippians to focus their conscious thought life on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy. That Christians should think on what it true, honorable, just, pure, and commendable seems perfectly obvious. But Paul urges his audience to think on things that are “lovely” (προσφιλη), for one thing. The notion of “lovely” does not have to do with the more well-known Christian morality, but seems vaguely Hellenistic. Says Fee: “Thus, he appears to be dipping into the language of Hellenistic moralism, in his case tempered by Jewish wisdom, to encourage the Philippians that even though they are presently ‘citizens of heaven,’ living out the life of the future as they await its consummation, they do not altogether abandon the world in which they used to, and still do, live. As believers in Christ they will embrace the best of that world as well, as long as it is understood in light of the cross.” Fee may be overstating the boundaries between Hellenism and Christian theology—after all, that which is “lovely” need not be non-Christian”—but he is nonetheless on to something: Paul is urging the Philippian Christians here to appreciate beauty and art—to embrace life in this world and the beauty that goes with it as they live for Christ. He also encourages them to be “excellent” (ἀρετη), which is also not normally associated with standard evangelicalism. Paul wants the Philippians to bring their “A” game to the gospel and to church life, and he wants them to have an appreciation of excellence as a virtue.

 

The thought life is, indeed, the battlefield of the enemy. We are, like the Philippians, given to discord and disagreement, but are capable of rectifying conflict and loving one another in word and deed. This begins with our thought lives, and Paul’s advice to the Philippians is eerily relevant today. We should be thinking about things that are true—but this does not mean to only read nonfiction, as has been the standard evangelical response. Rather, in light of Paul’s exhortation to also think on what is “lovely,” we should develop an appreciation of both. As John Keats said, “truth is beauty, and beauty truth…that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” There need not be a dichotomy between the truth of God and the beauty of art; after all, God is the master Artist and loves both. It is also a fairly revolutionary thought in evangelicalism to be preoccupied with “excellence.” If we were required to bring the same level of excellence to our church lives that we bring to our day jobs, our churches would be in fantastic shape indeed. We have instead decided that excellence is the pastor’s job; relaxation in the pew is ours. This is the opposite of Paul’s advice.

 

The Christian, in Paul’s view, is not one given to stress, because he relies on God. He’s one who sees the beauty of truth and the truth of beauty. He’s one who is in a rejoicing mood—one of thanksgiving and prayer. We should bring our definition of Christian in line with Paul’s: his version of Christianity seems more enjoyable than ours. In light of this, enjoy your life today. It’s a gift. Start reading a novel by Faulkner or Dickens or Heller. Read a play by Shakespeare. Listen to Mozart or Bach or Duke Ellington or Hendrix. To not be able to appreciate beauty is to fail to truly love God’s creation. Let your thought life be preoccupied not only with truth but beauty as well—and stress-free, since your trust is in your Provider.

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Philippians 3:17-21

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

 

Paul reminds the Philippians to walk according to the example he has set for them. This is always an “iffy” proposition for preachers (“ya’ll just live according to my sterling example”), but Paul finesses it. To want them to walk according to the example he has set for them is simple discipleship. H’s not suggesting that he’s the holiest man alive; he’s simply showing (rather than just telling) the Philippians how the Christian walk is walked. Anyone who walks after a different model is just serving their own appetites—they are true citizens of the world, and have no place in heaven. Those who walk after Paul’s example—and show others how to do it as well—will wait in heaven until Jesus Christ the Savior has transformed their bodies to be like His.

 

Some more doctrine here: those who die in Christ go straight to heaven. They are in the presence of Jesus Christ, and they await that resurrection of the dead in which their bodies will be changed. Their ultimate home will be the earth that they inherit, but they wait momentarily for God’s own timing.   In the meantime, here on earth, they follow a model of Christian walk while also modeling it for others. They are engaged in constant discipleship, and do not live according to their own appetites, but according to the discipleship model that they have been given.

 

Are you living like a citizen of heaven today? If those who chase after the filling of their own appetites are the enemies of the cross, it stands to reason that Christians are those who walk after self-control. Today, I will live and walk as a citizen of heaven. I will have self-control, and I will live my life as though there are other Christians who are watching to learn how.

Philippians 3:1-16

I was raised in a decent Southern home, and I was taught that there were “bad” words and “good” words. You didn’t use the bad words, many of which had to do with bodily function. It would have been the height of cultural shock to hear a preacher of the gospel use one of those “bad” words. As I grew into maturity, I began to realize that the concept of “bad” and “good” words was entirely a social and linguistic construct, as opposed to a fixed spiritual notion. But mythologies die hard, and I don’t mind confessing that I was a little shocked when I read Paul’s letter to the Philippians in the original Greek and found an expletive (σκυβαλα) that he deliberately employed to illustrate the difference between his own righteousness and that of Christ’s.

 

1Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you.Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.But 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, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10 that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.12 Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; 16 however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained.

 

 

Paul exhorts the Philippians to beware of the “dogs” (3.2), which is his pejorative for “Judaizers,” the Jewish Christians who felt it necessary to compel obedience to the Mosaic Law as a prerequisite for faith in Christ. He reminds the Philippians that the true circumcision is faith in Christ Jesus as the Son of God—not a physical ritual. He is more qualified than any to make such a bold claim of “spiritual” versus “physical” circumcision, since he is about as Jewish as one can get (3.4-6). He points to his training[1], and then tells the Philippians that he counts all of it as loss for the sake of Christ. Compared to the eternal life that he gained in Christ, all of his education, training, and high cultural honors were, to him, σκυβαλα. The NASB translates this “rubbish,” and this is erring on the side of politeness. The Greek σκυβαλα is actually slang for “excrement.” Paul is claiming that anything about him worth honoring is excrement compared with the righteousness that comes from God. This lines up with what he had told the Romans—that all of our righteous works are as filthy rags (an actual citation from Isaiah 64.6). He associates “knowing” Christ with eternal life and the resurrection from the dead (3.11), and he notes that as long as he is living and breathing, he isn’t there yet. He’s got work to do, and his prize lies ahead. He is speaking to a church that is healthy and mature, and reminding them that there is still work to do. Now is not the time to sit and rest; that time lies ahead.

 

Paul is an interesting case study in motivation and determination. What drives him is God’s divine rescue of him from sin. He is clearly motivated to carry out God’s call on his life because he is overwhelmed by God’s mercy in his life. He considers the higher calling of Jesus Christ to be of far more value than anything he could ever obtain here on earth. This re-ordering of his priorities and motives has the effect of making his focus singular and sharp—evangelism and pastoral ministry to the church. I read this passage and immediately wonder how I match up in terms of motivation. It is with regret that I have to confess that I don’t always see my life this way, as I should. Sometimes I need to re-read this passage and see Paul’s strong language about how he sees his own track record of righteousness—σκυβαλα. I feel like I’ve “come a long way” since meeting Christ, but the truth of the matter is that if there is anything about me worth honoring, it came as a gift from Him. Everything else is excrement. I am incapable of righteousness apart from His grace. When I remember this, it has the effect of sharpening my focus. My experience, my talents, my ordination, my education—σκυβαλα. The only righteousness I have was given to me, and I exist at this very moment to shine the Light of the world into the world and help lead His flock to maturity. There is nothing else, at least on this side of eternity.

 

If you live on this side of eternity long enough, it’s difficult to not see much of this stuff as important. It’s important to have some money. It’s important to have a car that runs. It’s important to have something saved for retirement. It’s important to have cultural credibility so that people will listen to the message that I have. It’s important to be honored rather than shamed.

 

But is it really?

 

These things are just shadows. They are here today, and when the sun shifts just a little—they are gone. What remains is the fact that Christ gave a gift of righteousness to me, a reprobate. What matters is that He literally spared my life so that I might bring His gospel to others. What matters is the gift of time that I have from Him in which to carry out that mission.

 

Everything else is σκυβαλα.

[1] Though it is common to think of Paul as extremely educated, you’ll note that his academic background centers primarily on Jewish religious studies. He was very educated in the Law and the Prophets, but not as much in rhetoric—which would have been a Gentile course of study. This difference can be seen in his writing, which is frequently littered with sentence construction and clarity issues—as opposed, for example, to the author of Hebrews, someone who had clearly had rhetoric training and knew how to construct a classical argument.

Philippians 2:19-30

During weddings, there is usually a lot of talk about how God made man and woman to become “one flesh.” But during separations and divorces, there is only talk about individual feelings, priorities, and transgressions. The reason that the separations and divorces happen in the first place is because the two individuals felt it important to “maintain their identities” instead of becoming “one flesh” as God intended. When a husband back-burners his own interests and elevates the interests of his wife—and the wife does the same for the husband—over time they stop being two individuals and start becoming one flesh. This concept is godly—and it doesn’t only apply to marriage. It seems especially pertinent to the state of the local church.

 

19I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy quickly to you, so that I also may be encouraged knowing things about you. 20For I have no one else sharing the same feelings who will genuinely care about your welfare. 21For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22But you know his character, that he served with me in the gospel, as a child his father. 23Therefore I hope to send him immediately, once I see how things go with me. 24For I am confident in the Lord that I myself will be coming shortly. 25But I considered it necessary to send you Epaphroditus the brother and my fellow-worker and fellow-soldier, who is also your messenger and servant of my need. 26For he longs for you all and was distressed, because you had heard that he was sick. 27 For indeed he was sick to the point of death, but God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, so that I would not have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 Therefore I have sent him all the more eagerly so that when you see him again you may rejoice and I may be less concerned about you. 29 Receive him then in the Lord with all joy, and hold men like him in high regard; 30 because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was deficient in your service to me.

 

In keeping with his theme of unity and its prerequisite—humility—Paul mentions two fellow-workers in the gospel in this pericope. He mentions Timothy, who had served as a faithful witness of Christ and helper to Paul for over ten years (George W. Murray, “Paul’s Corporate Witness in Philippians,” Bibliotheca Sacra 155:619 [July-September 1998]:316-260). He had matured in the faith and was becoming a fine pastor in his own right. His job in this context, apparently, had been to report the Philippians’ welfare to Paul. Paul reminds the Philippians that they know Timothy and can trust his character. Another servant is Epaphroditus, who is the Philippians’ messenger to Paul. He had previously carried the Philippians’ gift to Paul while he was in prison. What is most interesting about this section is that Paul has moved from the abstract (“be humble and unified”) to the specific (“like Timothy and Epaphroditus”).

 

Thank God for Timothy’s and Epaphrodituses in our churches today! People who are humble enough to subjugate their own interests for the interests of others are rare but necessary. If churches were majority-populated by such characters, our influence in our culture would be unstoppable. For over a decade, Timothy put his own leadership direction on hold to humbly serve Paul. Epaphroditus carried the epistle to the church, and did so at grave risk to his personal physical health. The need to serve one another in the church is a prerequisite for the unity that God requires of us. Just as a husband and wife can’t be “one flesh” without back-burnering their individual interests in the greater good of their collective one, neither can a church truly be a church until its members back-burner their own interests in order to look to the interests of the other members.

 

How can we do that? Truly, your pastor can tell you. Whatever church you attend, I can guarantee you that your pastor is overwhelmed with the function of the church. He shouldn’t be. He should have a church full of people who row the boat in the direction that he is navigating. If you want to be a Timothy or an Epaphroditus, drop your pastor an email and ask him what you can do to look to the interests of the church. Find out what he needs by finding out what the church needs. Perhaps you’re very good with computers, or looking after children. Maybe you’ve got a great riding lawnmower or some plumbing expertise. It could be that you can teach a Sunday School class or sing or play an instrument or run the sound board. You could volunteer to be on the team of people who visit the sick or the new visitors. Volunteering a small amount of time to do things such as this is the modern equivalent of what Timothy and Epaphroditus were doing. You are looking to the interests of others in the church, and this strengthens the church’s outreach ministry to the community. When we serve the church selflessly, the church becomes unified. And a unified church is a church that outsiders feel invited to.

 

So it all starts with your humility. Are you humble enough to serve your church yet?

 

Philippians 2:12-18

I probably wasted several years in my childhood and teenage phase trying to discern what “God’s will for my life” was. I was under the impression that God’s will for my life was a specific plan that was just for me. It never dawned on me that God’s will for my life was to be part of His will for the Church’s life. I was ignorant of that knowledge, despite the fact that it shows up in scripture with great regularity. I was pretty sure I was “working out my salvation with fear and trembling” like I was supposed to. It never occurred to me that if I allowed God to work in me by way of my serving others in the church, He would cause my will and His will to coincide with one another. Countless other Christians have bought this individualistic myth, despite the fact that the definition of “God’s will for your life” is right there in front of us in the book of Philippians.

 

12So, my brothers, just as you always obey, not only in my presence only but now even more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God Who is accomplishing in you to will and to work for His good pleasure. 14Do all things without grumbling or arguing, 15so that you may prove yourselves to be pure and innocent, children of God without fault in the middle of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, 16holding firmly to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I might boast [have reason to glory], because I did not run or work in vain. 17But if I am poured out like a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad, and rejoice with you all. 18And in the same way also you should be glad and rejoice with me.

 

Paul points out to the Philippians that it is actually God Who is at work in them, motivating and equipping them to both will (θελειν) and work (ἐνεργειν) for His pleasure. If they are truly committed to their transformed status as Christians, and their status as the Body of Christ (the Church), then their desires will coincide with God’s. This is Paul’s way of teaching the lesson of “praying in Jesus’ name” of which Jesus spoke in John 14. And when the Philippians’ desires coincide with God’s, they will be able to be lights to a crooked and perverse world—a world that is directly backwards, morally, from what it was designed to be. They will be able to maintain this status as lights in the world by holding firmly to the word of life. This turn of events, Paul explains, will make him very proud of them indeed. In the day of Christ, he will be able to point to the Philippians and say, “look at these folks, at how they remained committed to the gospel and to one another while they were in the world.” This, after all, is what his entire ministry was about. It is for this purpose that his existence is dedicated: their cultivation, edification, and ministry. This is the sense in which he is “poured out like a drink offering” (2.17). He has given himself to them, and as a result he rejoices with them in their moments of victory.

 

Can a church be this committed to one another in this day and age? Is it possible to have a group of people who see themselves as “poured out like a drink offering” for one another? Can they, as a group, love and serve one another so much that their church seems like a bright light shining in darkness in the world around them? Such a church would surely be desiring and accomplishing God’s own will. The Philippian church didn’t have a choice: they lived in a totalitarian society with few churches. To believe was to mark yourself with a death sentence; to grow spiritually was to ignore that sentence and boldly be the light to the world by loving and serving one another. If the Philippians had had a choice to ignore Paul’s teachings and change churches a few blocks away, they might never have grown into the spiritual powerhouse that they were. If their pastor had known that he had to speak softly and nicely to them in order to keep them from leaving, he might never have challenged them to move from Point A to Point B. Being an American church—the kind to which you and I belong—brings its own dangers, it seems. The first danger is ignorance: there will be some Christian somewhere who reads “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (2.12) and takes that to mean “just worry about your own individual walk with Christ and you’re done.” He will have failed to contextualize that sentence fragment with the rest of this passage—indeed, in the rest of the Philippian letter—and therefore will miss the important lesson that the Philippian church was “working out its collective salvation”—finding the will of God for its existence—by being committed to the desires of God. The second danger to the American church will be apathy. In a free market environment, the customer is always right, and church members are nothing if not customers any more. Why worry about the “will” and “work” of God when you can simply go to get your ego stroked? Going to church to “get” a blessing or “get” a word or “get” something else is the opposite of the will and work of God. The Philippians were going to church to GIVE something—to one another—and as a result they were an effective church. Paul reminds them that it is God working in them to bring their collective will and mission together to coincide with His own.

 

Are we lights to the world, or members of a club? Are we an example to a backwards and perverse generation, like the Philippians, or are we in the midst of a stultifying lethargy? Are we committed to His truth and each other’s best interests? Or are we basically just squeezing church in where our time slot will afford it—and hoping that everyone notices that we were so magnanimous to do so? Ignorance, apathy and lethargy are the hallmarks of the postmodern church. We can get a sizable start on becoming more Philippian by simply making up our minds to serve one another in love. Much of their victorious status that brings Paul so much joy is predicated on his earlier imperative to be committed to the interests of one another (Ph 2.4). If we are serving one another in love, we are fulfilling God’s will. Then it is He Who is working in us to will and to work for His pleasure. And that’s when we can be a light to the world—when we’re a church and not a club.

 

So it all comes back to service. Are you serving people in your church? Are you using your gifts for their edification? Are you committed to their interests ahead of yours? Stop sitting around and waiting for an audible voice to thunder “God’s will” from heaven. He’s already told you His will: serve one another in love. When you do that, the rest will start falling into place. You will accomplish nothing for God apart from service to one another. Once you are doing that, He is at work in you to make you a light to the world.

Philippians 2:1-11

Most of us live our lives as though there is a good stretch of horizon in front of us—we focus on this day that we have, and the to-do list in front of us. We don’t stop to think of how short it really is, and how unexpected its end might well be. If we somehow caught sight of that perspective, would it change our priorities? You bet it would. It would have the ultimate effect of diminishing the significance of the Self and elevating the importance of the Other.

 

1If, then, there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any comfort of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if there is any affection and compassion, 2complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, united in spirit, thinking as one [intent on one purpose], 3not according to selfish ambition, nor conceit, but in humility considering one another of more value than yourselves. 4Each of you should not be concerned merely with yourselves, but with the interests of others. 5Have this attitude in yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus, 6Who though He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to grasp, 7but emptying Himself, He took the form of a servant, becoming the likeness of man, and being found in the form of man [by sharing in human nature] 8humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9Therefore God exalted Him to the highest position, and gave Him the name above all names, 10so that at the name of Jesus, every knee may bow—in the heavenly world and on the earth and under the earth—11and every tongue may confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 

Paul gives the Philippian church an imperative: to complete his joy by being of the same mind with one another. Rather than a divided church, they should be working together, united in spirit, thinking with a singularity of intent (2.2). The church was not be populated with people who were motivated by ambition or conceit, but humility—populated with people who considered others’ interests to be of more importance than their own. This, after all, was the attitude that Jesus had; it should be the Philippians’, as well. Jesus attitude had even more to be commended, since He was fully God—and yet still took the form of a human servant and obeyed His Father to the point of enduring the most shameful death imaginable to the first century mind. This is why He has been exalted—because of His humility and what it accomplished. Paul juxtaposes this humility with the glory that points to the greatness of God: at some point, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. This is the basic confessional component of the faith, and Jesus’ purpose to glorify God results in this. All of those in heaven in Christ’s presence, as well as those still on the earth, and those unbelieving dead awaiting resurrection and judgment will yet make this confession, though many when it is too late. The Greek construction here lends itself to a slightly different construction: a subjunctive mood: that at the name of Jesus, every knee MAY bow…and every tongue MAY confess” (2.10-11). The popular hymn has helped to codify the idea—at least throughout evangelicalism—that everyone WILL make this confession. But an alternate meaning is that all of Christ’s humility and ministry was done in the hope that all men would willingly make this confession. In either case, Paul’s big point in this passage is that Christ’s humility was an example for the Philippians. He is the example to the Philippians: look to others’ interests ahead of your own, Paul says, just like He did.

 

Ours is a culture dominated by pride. People react in vicious violence if they are “disrespected.” Many believe that apologizing is a sign of weakness. We are trained from our earliest consciousness to look to our own interests, because no one else is going to do it for us. This shows up in our church cultures, as well: an inability to volunteer to help the church’s ministries because you “don’t have time” is a prime example. If there’s one thing you DO have at this moment, it is time. When you DON’T have any more time left, that will feel very differently, trust me. But while you DO have time, how much of it is spent looking to your own interests? How much of it is spent looking to the interests of others? Paul’s lesson here is that Jesus—the very Son of God—wasn’t exactly looking to His own interests when He took on the form of a man and endured the shameful death of a criminal. It was more important to Him that all men have eternal life than that His deity get “respected.” Can we say that about ourselves? Can we be that motivated by the desire to shine the Light of the world into others’ darkness that we back-burner our own interests? We should be. Paul’s imperative to the church that wants to continue growing into maturity is for the individuals therein to develop a priority of looking out for one another rather than themselves. Jesus’ example is unimpeachable.

 

Life is short. Spend it in the service of others. After all, He did.

Philippians 1: 27-30

The San Antonio church where I found Christ was also the church that stood with me in my time of darkest crisis: my battle with cancer. Something happened during that strange chapter of 2005 in that church; for a time, we were no longer a collection of individuals doing our own thing but coming together on Sundays to hear our pastor preach. Rather, we began to stand together in prayer and earnest hope for a singular purpose—my healing. The entire episode demonstrated to the world that we were one body, and that we were struggling together, side-by-side. The faith of the gospel was advanced by this episode. Nothing brings the church together like adversity and suffering, and nothing so focuses its efforts on living in this world for the greater advancement of the gospel.

 

27Only live [live as citizens] worthily of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I will hear about you, you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind struggling side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28in no way frightened by opponents—which is evidence of destruction for them, but for you salvation, and that from God. 29For to you it has been granted for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30having the same struggle which you saw in me, and now hear [to be] in me.

 

Paul has given the Philippians his unique perspective about his imprisonment—that whatever happens to him happens for the greater advancement of the gospel—and now he reminds them that theirs is the same reality. He gives them the imperative to “live worthily of the gospel of Christ” (1.27), and there’s a lot packed into that imperative. The verb is πολιτευεσθε, which means “to live as citizens.” If there is one thing evangelicalism needs, it’s a “theology of culture,” in which we can rebuke this tendency to separate ourselves from the culture in which we live—which is the opposite of the mandate of the gospel. Paul instructs the Philippians to live in the world as citizens. Do all the things that a citizen would do: engage in the rights and responsibilities that come with being citizens. Live in the world, but don’t be of it. He tells them to live as citizens in a manner that is worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that there will be outward evidence of Whose they are. They are to be of one spirit and one mind as a church, and Paul articulates his chief desire for them: that they be of one mind in a titanic struggle, side by side with one another, facing the challenges ahead. He doesn’t want them to be afraid of opponents, but to remember that part of God’s plan for them is to suffer as Paul is doing, and to remember that He is their Savior.

 

Many of us in the West are short-circuited by Paul’s insistence to the Philippians that “it has been granted to you for the sake of Christ not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (1.29). We see “suffering” differently than in other parts of the world. We think of foreign missionaries as “suffering,” but not ourselves. But what goes up must come down, and as sure as I’m sitting here typing this, American Christians need to start preparing themselves for the suffering that is ahead. If we are to be effective Christians, we will attract powerful enemies. Our children and their generation should be raised to understand that they may have to give their lives for the gospel. It is little wonder that the Church in America is so lethargic and ineffective; their only crisis is existential. If they face persecution from without, they would either dissolve or band together and work side-by-side in a new effectiveness that would strengthen the Church. As long as you’re on this side of eternity, you will suffer. And as long as you live for Christ, the notion of “suffering” has been granted to you. When we live for the gospel and not ourselves, our lives have purpose and meaning. We live as citizens in this world, knowing that we are citizens of a better one. We engage our culture for the greater advancement of the gospel, rather than start our own sub-culture in a little Christian corner somewhere.

 

Often, the Church needs adversity to band together as one mind and spirit. They need a struggle in order to discover their unity. And if there is not an external threat to the security of the Church, they must face the existential crisis. That’s the place where we are in the American church right now: if the local church is to band together with one spirit and one mind and work side-by-side with one another, our opponent is then our own apathy and lethargy. And since a body at rest tends to stay at rest, any attempt to stir it could well be met with opposition. But we are not to fear our opponents (our collective lethargy), but rather live and struggle side-by-side for the greater advancement of the gospel. God has given us this moment, and the one ahead (if we get another) may not be so comfortable. Let’s find unity where we can by shaking ourselves from our own lethargy and apathy and engaging our culture. Find the place in your church where your pastor needs you to serve. Find the oar that belongs to you in the lifeboat in which you’re riding (the church) and start rowing as one unit. Someone in your church is suffering right now—medically, physically, maritally, emotionally—gather around them and struggle side-by-side. Let their crisis be your crisis. Then you will be of one mind and one spirit. Living as citizens in this world while we do this is how the gospel is advanced. Never forget that your suffering takes that gospel to places it could never otherwise go—especially when you stand side-by-side.