Thursday, January 08, 2004

Philippians--Joy in Service

This is lesson 3 in a study of Philippians. To start at the beginning, click here.

I had my first intellectual crisis of faith when I was perhaps 10 or 11 years old. I fretted over the question, "The Bible comes from so long ago, how can we possibly know that it is a true record?" This question did not come from school teachers or friends, it was a tough question coming from my own brain, and I worried in my bed night after night. Then I thought of the Christians killed in the early persecutions. Here were those very close to the beginnings of the New Testament and they chose death over denial. Their deaths settled a young troubled mind and gave it assurance that Christianity was true. Nobody dies for something they know to be false.

I think of this story when I read these words from Paul,

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)

We can infer so much from these few words.

  • Paul's imprisonment was spreading the gospel more effectively than if he had been free and preaching. This is, at first, hard to imagine. However, if Paul were free, there would be one evangelist. Because of his imprisonment, there were now many.
  • Who was a prisoner of whom? The praetorian guard that watched over Paul was subject to the preaching of the gospel; as was anyone else who stopped by. Paul's imprisonment had not ended his own preaching.
  • Paul's inner strength and joy in his circumstances increased the faith of the brethren.
  • Because they had seen the Lord sustain Paul, the brethren had more courage and spoke the word of God without fear.

This is quite remarkable. Some of you may have read Frank Hebert's Dune series. There is a recurring phrase in these works, "Fear is the mind killer." Paul would disagree. For him, "Fear is the faith killer." or perhaps "Faith is the fear killer." Paul has shown his contemporaries what is possible,  they have responded, and the gospel is spreading more than if Paul were free.

But nothing is perfect. We have all noted those who have the gospel in one hand and a pledge card in the other. It seems that it was no different in Paul's day:

Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. (Philippians 1:15-17)

"Envy and strife" Some of those preaching the gospel are Paul's competitors. I surmise that they hope, through his imprisonment, to advance their reputation in the Christian community. They seem to be glad that Paul is in prison. Have you ever seen territorial bickering among pastors? I have and it is not pretty. I have had a church leader ask me not to pray for another congregational plant, because he did not like the competition. The plant was just too close, and he was afraid it would limit the growth of his church.

On the other hand, the gospel is being preached,

What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, (Philippians 1:18)

This is the attitude of a man absorbed in the affairs and interests of others. I see a similar attitude in Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church in California. He once asked rhetorically, "How big should the ideal church be?" and answered, "Who do you want to leave out?" This, to me, is an example of love abounding in all knowledge and discernment. The quest for knowledge wants to know "How big?" Love and discernment would rather know the answer to "How do we reach more?" For Paul the big issue is not a preacher's motives, but what he preaches. If the preacher is proclaiming Christ, Paul is content, even if the preacher works against him. 

Paul finishes this section with,

for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. (Philippians 1:19-20)

Deliverance from what? If there are those who are preaching in a way that proclaims the gospel, but undermines Paul, then Paul's reputation is subject to loss. But he rejoices in the proclamation of the gospel. He trusts in the work of the Holy Spirit in him. He knows that others are praying. So he expects that his reputation will hold fast. Not caring what others say or think about you has an incredible insulating effect. It frees you to go about God's business and let Him worry about what others think. Paul had God's approval, the only purpose for man's approval was to be free to spread the gospel.

Paul writes of Christ being exalted in his body. The truth of the gospel and the sufficiency of Christ in all things spoke through the scars he bore. His back had 5 times 39 = 195 scars from the crack of whips, and more yet from the blows of rods. Hurling rocks have marked and disfigured his face. But to meet him is not to meet a man embittered by what others have done to him. Rather it is to meet a man who greets you with affection and joy. It is little wonder that those who guarded him came to faith. It is little wonder that his imprisonment emboldened others.

May we all discover the strength of Christ to bear all for His Name.

Friday: So what motivates you?

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>


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