Friday, January 09, 2004

Joy in Service (annotation)

Those who are following this series would do well to visit Anita H Van Ingen's posting of "Feed My Sheep." Here you will find an open and honest conversation between the Lord and one of His faithful bond-servants. As Paul wrote in Philippians "To live is Christ" i.e. doing His work on earth. "To die is gain." -- a time to finally rest from our labors. Christian character is marked by words such as: endurance, perseverance, standing firm, and overcoming. Such words have no meaning if we do not come to points like Anita describes and like her get to the other side and press on.

Philippians--Joy in Service

This is lesson 4 in a study of Philippians. To start at the beginning, click here.

Decisions, decisions, decisions:

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. 

Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:21-26)

"To live is Christ" Small wonder that Paul could rejoice when even his opponents preached the gospel. Serving his Lord was Paul's life.  Once can see in him the character of the bond-slave:

"Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, 'Come immediately and sit down to eat'? 

But will he not say to him, 'Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink'? 

He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, 'We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.'" (Luke 17:7-10)

"To die is gain." Paul has run his race is ready to see his Master. That is the great good that he desires.

But Paul is good at what he does. If he remains, there will be more who will come to believe in the Messiah. If he remains, there will be more lives corrected, encouraged and strengthened. His work is not finished, and so Paul knows that he will remain on earth.

Now that he knows not to write a farewell letter, Paul begins to instruct the Philippians concerning what it means to live the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ:

Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God. 

For 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. (Philippians 1:27-30)

"Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ." For reasons that I cannot fathom, except as it confirms Scripture, the good news of Jesus Christ is an offensive message. Over the decades of my life, I have seen secular forces come to power in the USA and press their agenda to remove the Christian message and culture. We have opponents and they are getting stronger all the time. Those forces and the Bible tell us that we have an offensive message. It was the same in Paul's day and his advice is to:

  • Standing firm -- We have to have a clear head about those who oppose us and stand firm in "one spirit" and "one mind" with a focus on the gospel message and enlarging the community of faith. For today this presents another love-knowledge-discernment issue. Do we strive to reclaim the Christian roots of the USA or do we rally around our message and keep slogging forward no matter how dangerous it gets? At what point to we recognize that we have never been citizens of any nation except the one that is coming?
  • That we have opponents is a signal that we are getting the message out and that we are a force in the world. It does not matter how we are slandered in the press, if we did not have an effective message, our opponents would leave us alone. That we have opponents is a positive sign and should be a great encouragement to us. When you find yourself fretting about the growing opposition, be careful not to be alarmed. Seek the strength from the Holy Spirit and pray for increased boldness.

"For to you it has been granted for Christ's save, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer..." Look at the growing opposition, remember that it is far worse in other parts of the world, and accept it as a gift. "For to you it has been granted ... to suffer." Paul sees it as a gift and so have generations of believers since his day. Jesus spoke of this:

Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. 

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:10-16)

Note that I have kept the salt and light verses in the context of persecution. Look at how Paul, in Philippians, has rejoiced that his imprisonment has meant a greater spread of the gospel. That is salt, that is light.

That opposition is mounting signals a coming time of greatness for the Church on earth. Let us by the Holy Spirit rise to the challenge.

No post on Monday.

Tuesday: Christianity with an Attitude.

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

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. ><>

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Philippians--Joy in Service

This is lesson 2 in a study of Philippians. To start at the beginning, click here.

Following his introduction, Paul praises the Philippian saints:

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. 

For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. 

For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 

And 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; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:6-11)

"He who began a good work in you will perfect it..." By faith we are saved. No man can stand before God with Torah (The Law of Moses)  in hand and make claim to God's blessings. However, the blood of Jesus the Messiah has confirmed and instituted a New Covenant that, according to Jeremiah, includes the writing of Torah on our hearts. True faith brings an expectation of change. Righteousness is not only imputed, it is manifested in the life of the believer. As Paul writes elsewhere:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Jesus Christ our Lord through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, (Romans 1:5)

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)

It is vital that we grow in the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22. Some might see this fruit as coming to us from the Holy Spirit--that the Holy Spirit loves me, gives me joy, peace, and so forth. It is fruit that we pluck and eat. This is not correct. It is rather that Holy Spirit grows this fruit in me for the benefit of others. Through Him I can have greater love for others, bring joy to others, be a peacemaker, show patience and kindness, be known as good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. These are qualities that mark a righteous man. These are the qualities that He who began a good work in us will perfect until the day of Christ Jesus. There is no law to govern these things. There is no law that tells me when I have loved enough, brought enough joy to world, or peace. I can always grow more.

"You are partakers of grace with me." The Philippians have been full partners with Paul in the spread of the gospel. That they have supported Paul in his imprisonment is especially telling. Perhaps, they could have thought, he is now out of commission. He is no longer spreading the gospel. His service to the Lord is cut short. We would do better to direct our funds to others now. They were committed to the work of God in the man no matter what paths the Lord took him.

There is a missionary couple that my wife and I have supported for 20 years. They began with Wycliffe Bible Translators in the 1950's and served him faithfully for over 40 years. They have now retired. My support now helps provide them a retirement income. It would be a mistake to abandon such faithful servants after so many years. In the past, I have continued to support others who have had to return from the field for family issues. They eventually returned, but during that interim time, they had no real ministry. But I had joined with them in their work. I was a partaker with them. I knew them personally and knew the caliber of their walk and faith. This is what the Philippians demonstrated to Paul. They said, "We are with you through the good times and the bad, because we know your heart." And Paul received strength and encouragement. It is no wonder that Paul writes, "I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus."

"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." Here is one of those lines that reads so easily, but unless we slow down, hear, and understand we will miss the point. Note these three terms: Love, Knowledge, and Discernment. Love is to abound in knowledge and discernment. How critical it is for us to have these in balance. Love is the goal, knowledge is the means, and discernment is the balance. What do I do if someone slaps me on the cheek? What do I do if someone slaps my wife on the cheek? When should I be generous to the poor? When do I insist that a poor man better himself? Is it right to lie to save a life--as Rahab the harlot did for the spies? There are difficult choices to make in life and we must discern the the loving path according to our knowledge of the Scripture and the unique character of the situation.

We like easy solutions based on rules. We like to say that there is absolute truth that stands against the moral relativism of our day--and there is. But perhaps a general rule must bend to accommodate a unique situation. Love, knowledge, and discernment. We need all three. Note what the writer to the first century Jewish believers had to say:

For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. (Hebrews 5:13-14)

When I first try to balance love, knowledge, and discernment, I and those I affect will have some good and some bad experiences. If I continue to practice, I will develop and sense for the correct action across a wide range of situations. That action will mean the betterment of another.

"The fruit of righteousness which comes through Christ Jesus." This sums up this little section of Paul's words. As we seek God's face and presence, as we ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit, as we walk by the Holy Spirit as we practice love based on knowledge and discernment, we will bear good fruit.

As we continue through Philippians, we will see more of these concepts developed.

Thursday: Perspectives

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

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Philippians--Joy in Service

One of these days, I am going to do a complete study on just the openings of Paul's letters. An earlier study on Philemon, showed how the very greeting of Paul to Philemon set the tone of the letter and underscored its argument. Now I come upon the letter of Paul to the saints in Philippi and I find the same thing, although not in quite so grand a scale. Paul begins:

Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:1-5)

It is Paul the bond-servant who is writing this letter. Paul is not writing as an Apostle; he will claim and use no apostolic authority in this letter. He is not writing as Paul the prisoner, because that would interfere with his message of rejoicing.

Then follows this curious phrase, "To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons." How often have you seen a greeting like this. One would expect, "To all the saints" or "To the overseers and deacons" or "To the overseers and deacons and to all the saints." So what is Paul trying to say with, "To all the saints ... including the overseers and deacons?" It might be that his message is one that church "leadership" might be inclined to ignore, and Paul wants the leadership to pay close attention. And so if you are reading these lessons and you are an elder or deacon or in some leadership capacity in your local congregation, this letter is especially for you. For it is you who must first model a life of joy, unity, and sacrificial leadership. Then you can help others do so as well. One of the lessons in Philippians is that Godly leadership is sacrificial from the top down.

Paul then writes, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Every one of Paul's letters contains this blessing of grace and peace. 

  • Grace: From the Greek CHARIS which seems to be related to the Greek word CHARISMA, which means gifts. Grace is that which provides everything we need to live a godly life. It is the means by which we develop the fruit of the Spirit. It is God's loving-kindness that flows from His covenantal dealings with us. When I read the word grace, I think of Lamentations 3:22-23 "The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness." I might also think of the Aaronic benediction, "The Lord bless you, and keep you; The Lord make His face shine on you, And be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance on you, And give you peace." (Numbers 6:24-26)
  • Peace: An inner confidence that the sovereign providence of God works all things for the good. It is the foundation by which we endure and persevere. Without peace, there can be no joy in the face of trial.

And so the blessing of grace and peace is all about wishing the best that the life of faith can offer. 

Next, as he does so often, Paul speaks of his prayers for the recipients of his letter. Paul sets the tone of what is to follow by two words. The first word is "joy." In 4 small chapters the words "joy" and "rejoice" occur 15 times, and often with great emphasis. The second word is "participation." It would seem as if the Philippians are strongly motivated by the spread of the good news. In fact, they freely and willingly support Paul's efforts.

Paul has yet to mention that he is a prisoner of Rome. That he can speak of grace, peace, and joy is remarkable considering the perils and ordeals that Paul has lived through. Earlier, he had written:

Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern? (2 Corinthians 11:22-29)

The above was written before his arrest in Jerusalem, a two year confinement, another shipwreck as he traveled to Rome, and his current imprisonment. That Paul can speak of grace, peace, and joy is both a measure of the man and our confidence that a life of faith in Jesus the Messiah can truly endure all things.

Wednesday: Paul's Praise for the Philippian Saints.

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

Monday, January 05, 2004

Scattered Thoughts on Christian Blogging

I listen to conservative talk radio and there is one comment that I have heard the hosts make over and over. This is that liberal talk radio cannot make it, because the host of a talk radio show must have ideas that can stand their ground. The suggestion is that current left-wing hosts would not be able to stand the onslaught of facts that would challenge their creeds. Now, I do not know the job of a talk show call screener, but it seems to me that a lot of uncomfortable questions could be screened away whether the show be conservative or liberal.

Within the realm of blogging no such filters exist. Theoretically, you are broadcasting your ideas for analysis and comment to an entire world. Sloppy or ill-conceived ideas will be either ignored or challenged and laid bare.

Of course, this is a good thing. Another good thing is that blogging opens the doors for seeking students to hear various ideas spoken by strong proponents. And if strong proponents of differing ideas write comments on each others blogs, the community at large can only benefit. This is providing that:

  • We constantly recognize the core beliefs and values that bind us.
  • Put another way, we recognize what is essential doctrine--worth dying for--and what is disputed doctrine among Christians
  • We promote and challenge ideas not people

What I am trying to say, but saying somewhat badly, is that blogging has the potential of broadening discourse and dialog among Christians and, from this, new and better formulations of ideas will emerge.

Here is wishing all of you a blessed 2004.

Tomorrow, I will begin a study of Philippians.