Giving: The Ultimate Spiritual Barometer – Philippians 4:10-23

The letter to Philippians is indeed a thank you note. In our passage today we read of Paul’s appreciation for the kindness of the church in Philippi to care for his needs to the extent of sacrificially giving for him.

There is a certain amount of awkwardness in being a recipient of the voluntary and gracious gifts of others, while also being the fellow who is in a responsible position to be the teaching and instructional person on that very subject. I know this. I have lived this. Most pastors struggle to some extent with preaching and teaching on giving, because it smacks of having a rebound effect toward one’s own benefit.

To tell the truth, I don’t actually hate preaching on giving. Since I have not done it at TSF in one-have of forever, it is actually the designated topic for June 1st. Sure, I’d rather preach on the theology of Romans or the fabulous teachings of the letter to the Hebrews. But I have honestly come to the biblically clear position that when I am telling people to give away as much as they possibly can for God, I am telling them to do the very best thing that will bless them. So, I have come to conclude – why should I be embarrassed about or beat myself up for telling people to do the very thing that is going to be the most helpful for them?

Paul tells the Philippians that he is rejoicing greatly because of the gift that they had sent to him. And the first and most natural thought when reading that is to think, “Well, of course he’s happy to receive a pile of money; who wouldn’t be?”

So Paul makes it clear immediately that it is not all about how this will impact his life with some sort of ability to live at ease. For Paul had truly learned to be content with any circumstance of life upon the entire spectrum of having more than enough, to even the extent of living with insufficient resources to even meet his daily needs. His life contentment was unconnected to his circumstances in this matter, even as his circumstances in prison had “turned out for the best” because it gave him a new and unique opportunity to preach the gospel.

He rejoiced because this matter of generous giving had become a pattern for the Philippians. On one previous occasion, they were the only church to support him in a certain endeavor. They had regularly given toward his ministry work on other occasions. This spoke well of them.

And Paul rejoiced for them because it demonstrated their heart and depth of faith. It was a sort of spiritual barometer. They had a concern for spiritual things that transcended their own physical needs. And by being generous, they were displaying a strong and genuine faith and trust in God. And for Paul, this underlying reality gave him far more joy than anything he gained or benefitted from them.

Paul could have this confidence and joy for them because he was convinced of a timeless spiritual reality – that one cannot “out-give” God. He says, “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.”  By the world’s standards it is financial craziness to just determine to give away 10-20% of your total income. But as I have always said, “God is able to do more with 80-90% of what we possess than we are able to do with hanging onto 100% of it.”

So… give it all away!

Next Series

This ends our brief Philippians devotional series. I don’t even need to tell you to do anything special to be ready for our next series over the summer on the book of Psalms – “God’s Playlist.” You are already signed up! The actual series begins on June 8th.

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The Appropriately Calibrated Mind – Philippians 4:4-9

It is really difficult to be from New Jersey! No, not just because there is this false notion that it is the armpit of America (because where I was from was totally gorgeous, as is much of the state people never see), nor because you are immediately teased about your non-existent accent. (OK, let me address that before I go on … now I’m riled up! Nobody from the Garden State says “New Joys-sey” – maybe folks from Brooklyn do, but not people from New “Jur-zee” – the proper pronunciation, as are all consonants and vowels from the vocalization of the people of this state!)

No, the reason it is difficult is because the in-your-face, say-anything-to-anyone culture causes you to grow up with the most creative zingers and one-liners to take down anyone in any verbal debate. Therefore, as a Christian from this place, it is difficult to apply today’s passage …

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Gentleness? Peacefulness? Nobility? Loveliness? Really? Oh boy. But what about assertiveness? What about my rights?

Actually, I had several great examples of this passage in my own family – in the form of my father, grandfather, and older brothers-in-law. My dad really embodied this passage. Though he would make a stand for truth and justice when the moment demanded it, his root personality and demeanor could be described by these verses. Among his favorite sayings were, “Just because someone treated me wrong doesn’t mean I should do the same to them,” and “If you don’t have anything good to say about someone, then don’t say anything at all.”  And then when one of the rest of us more creative talkers in the family would speak ill of someone, he’d simply say, “Hmm, that’s odd, he always spoke well of you!”

However, on the women’s side, the creative ability to rant and “take someone out with a verbal hit” worthy of a NJ crime family was a skill I found too easy to emulate. Though on the bottom line these women were committed to the biblical message of God’s truth, they found the gentleness and high-minded nobility of this passage difficult to apply.

They were not, and are not, the only Christians with this challenge. The older I get and the longer I do this “job” that I’ve done, I am amazed at the things too many Christians and church people will say to one another. It is almost as if the view is that, well, we’re all family and have to forgive each other, so I’m going to say what I really think or display what I really feel.

Paul encourages the Philippians to do some more “measuring up” – to state it in the terms of our current series.

He first tells them to essentially calibrate their joy. Note, this is not the same as happiness or pleasure in every circumstance. But it is a calibration of the attitude of the mind to come to a position that, in Christ, there is every reason to have a foundation of joy – knowing we belong to the Lord and our entire lives are in his hands.

A way to experience joy is to be gentle and caring towards all people … to have this attitude as a sort of core descriptor of your life.

Yet it remains a challenge to not fret and worry over circumstances. The mind is again calibrated by bringing all of this to the Lord in prayer. Since it is the very best thing that can be done, and if a person has done everything in terms of appropriate responsibility with a pressing situation, great peace can be found by leaving it with the Lord in prayer. Let God handle it, and with that in mind, an attitude of peace can prevail within.

Having emptied the mind of the concern by giving it to God in prayer, the mind can now be re-calibrated by thinking upon a list of items of great merit. The natural proclivity of the mind is to be negative – to think the worst of a situation or person. But by thinking the best and by genuinely desiring such an outcome in the lives of others, this leads us to be people like Christ – people who “jump in” to the lives of others or serve actively within the church family, rather than “jump out” by critically removing oneself to an aloof position or even another church where there are just better people.

It is a principle of life – when you look to find the people, situations, circumstances or places where you are best served by others, you are always going to be disappointed in a world of sinners and pre-glorified saints; but when you look to use the current situation, circumstance, or place to serve other people, the result is your own joy and peaceful pleasure that you have been a servant of Christ.

This sort of measuring up by re-calibrating the mind is enough to even make a native of New Jersey a gentle and joyful servant. The trick is to yield to the truth when the flesh is so very creative! And there may be some Maryland and Tri-State regional people who might benefit from this as well, as I’ve honestly met quite a few people who could by nature survive well in New Jersey … just sayin.’

Measuring Up Your Problems and Issues of Dispute – Philippians 4:1-3

Closing Appeal for Steadfastness and Unity

4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

There is nothing more annoyingly distracting and irritating when you are a leader of something than to have mission-critical people within your organization at personal odds. This has been one of the great difficulties and challenges of my life as a leader in almost every endeavor within which I’ve become involved.

Earlier in this series I told you about a season of political leadership. A reason I dropped that involvement was due to certain frustrations I experienced in trying to be a conciliatory mediator between two factions. I tried to bring together two spokesmen of the varied viewpoints, and each told me they had no ground of commonality to even enter a dialogue with the other. Relative to the opposing Party, they actually had much in common; but their only focus was upon what they held as differences.

I have coached on a number of levels in youth and high school sports. There were times where I would have to get two warring parties or individuals together and get them to understand that their teammate was not their enemy. It wasn’t only with teenage girls, but it was sometimes the worst with them. It was not uncommon for a couple of girls to have an attitude toward one another over one of a host of mostly inconsequential things, and before long, each had a posse of followers that split the team into obvious factions. It could be seen even in the stretching time before practice – where the groups would be on opposite sides of the practice area in their own huddles. Before we could beat other teams, we had to get unified and beat the internal division that was so destructive.

A local church is much the same. Varied factions, tastes, and opinions are inevitable in any group of people – even those mutually redeemed by Jesus Christ. And such is destructive to the team.

Remember that the chapter divisions that we have in our Bible are not part of the original text. Philippians was simply a letter from beginning to end. And remember also that just before today’s passage in 4:1-3, Paul said in 3:13-14, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

Hey – Is it just me as a running coach who sees in that passage where Paul is picturing a race with a reward at the end for finishing well and winning?  I know, I know … you all think I see running in everything. But consider our first verse today where Paul says that the Philippians are his “joy and crown.”  The word for “crown” is stephanos = the award given the victor in a race or contest. From that previous context, Paul is encouraging the Philippians to live in a way that copies the pattern of life that he and others had set before them – a life that was focused upon God and truth in the midst of a turbulent world and with the internal distractions of false teachers.

The Philippians needed to “stand firm.”  There were waves and currents seeking to sway their feet and movement into wrong directions. They were pressed hard from an antagonistic secular Roman world around them. And there were false teachers promoting error that sought to lead the church away into wrongful teachings and emphases. Hey, that sounds like our world! Actually, these problems of anti-Christian hostility and errant, self-absorbed false teachers are seen in every age and time. Don’t be swayed – stand firm with one mind.

And as if the people of the world and the false teachers were not / are not enough trouble, there is the internal issue of really fine people who start bickering with one another. In Philippi, where women were a part of the founding of the church and its subsequent leadership, two of them had some sort of well-known community squabble. And probably like my running team’s girls, each likely had their own posse in tow.

Paul takes the unusual route of calling them out by name! Imagine being there in the church gathering when this letter was being read. One can imagine each of them thinking to themselves about how their opponent and her friends had better be listening to what Paul had to say! And then, as the letter takes the final turn toward home, THEIR NAMES ARE READ OUT LOUD!

OK – catch something here that is not generally understood. These women – named Eudoia and Snythche – had their names singled out, not because they were a couple of high-maintenance drama queens. No, it was because they were outstanding people who had “contended” with Paul in some significant way in the work of the gospel. These were really, really fine women of character and value. And now, for some reason, they were not agreeing together on an issue unnamed … well, that was a set-up for disastrous results. Not only did it divide the church, it could bring shame and embarrassment upon it from those who looked in from the unbelieving world.

A nameless, but well-known individual was supposed to help these women get past this problem. The best guess is that this was Luke – who was known to have spent time in Philippi and who would fit Paul’s words here. All of these people, along with some fellow named Clement and a host of others, were dearly esteemed co-workers with Paul in the gospel ministry. They were valuable.

All of us who share the ministry of the gospel in the context of serving Christ in the local church need to get past issues that distract and divide. There is simply no time for it! Fix it! Move on! Drop your demands and expectations of your preferences being fulfilled. Get to work! There is no time for this foolishness on the church team.

Our theme in this series is “measuring up.”  Do that with your preference issue that divides you from another person. Measure that issue against the importance of the work of the gospel message in and through the church to the surrounding community. What is more important – the progress and health of that work, or you getting your preference fulfilled? Yep, you’ll have to give up something … so … measure that against what Christ gave up to make you a part of the church family.

How big is your issue now? You know the answer to that. Be of one mind. Stand firm – together. Under this roof. In this house.

Between Two Thieves (Part 2) (Philippians 3:12-21)

What you worship you become.

About a year ago my nephew became enamored—as three-year-olds do—with an app on his mom’s iPhone.  The app functioned as something of a moving storybook, complete with narration.  It even taught him some new words.  But there was one word in particular that seemed a bit out-of-place in his vocabulary: stawk.  Stawk?  Yes; stawk.  It’s a bird, silly.  It’s usually the bird that brings new babies to their home.  Oh…stork.  See, the app my nephew had been enjoying was manufactured across the pond, and the British accent had rubbed off on him.

If that can happen with something as simple as an accent, think of what happens with the things we worship?  And let’s also be clear: everybody worships something.  This was even the point made by David Foster Wallace—a mathematician and author who spoke at Kenyon College’s graduation in 2005:

“Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. …Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

Keep in mind, Wallace is hardly a Christian.  But you understand his point, don’t you?  It’s actually not that different from Augustine’s notion of sin: that sin is loving something else higher than God.  The problem—both for my nephew and for us—is that what we worship actually shapes us, whether we want it to or not.

HOPE SEEKING UNDERSTANDING

In yesterday’s post, we looked at Tertullian’s idea of there being “two thieves” of the gospel.  We looked at the way the religious thief replaces the gospel with self-righteousness; today we’ll look at how the un-religious thief replaces the gospel with self-absorption.

But notice, first, what Paul says about his own life.  After pointing out the superiority of knowing Christ,  he observes that this doesn’t actually mean that he himself is superior:

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining 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 those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.  16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.  (Philippians 3:12-16)

Much of Christianity is about goal-setting; it’s about hope.  Very often I meet people who say things like, “I tried Christianity; it didn’t work for me,” or perhaps: “I went to church for a while, but it didn’t meet my needs.”  Maybe you’ve said similar things yourself.  But notice the words “work” and “needs” are paired with words like “for me” and “my.”  It’s just another form of self-absorption.

Paul’s attitude is radically different.  For Paul, Christianity isn’t about having it all together.  Christianity is a lifestyle of transformation.  Want to be mature?  says Paul, Then persevere.  If faith is a journey, then nothing will derail our progress like stopping along the freeway.  It’d be like stopping at a roadside diner and calling it a family vacation.  Better things lie ahead—it just takes patience in getting there.

THE NON-RELIGIOUS THIEF

We now turn to the non-religious thief.  Paul starts by inviting his readers to learn from his own life—a life that stands in contrast to those who oppose the gospel through self-interest:

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. (Philippians 3:17-21)

Do you hear the list of descriptors Paul uses?  We can even list them:

  • Enemies of the cross (v. 18)
  • Their end is their destruction (v. 19)
  • Their god is their belly (v. 19)
  • Their glory is their shame (v. 19)
  • Minds set on earthly things (v. 19)

These verses frame the portrait of someone who worships self instead of God.  As we saw through Wallace’s graduation speech, you don’t even have to believe in God to believe that this kind of attitude is caustic—to yourself and to other relationships.

But wait.  Aren’t some decisions personal?  Society makes progress, after all.  We don’t need to regress to a list of rigid, religiously-motivated restrictions.  What I do in the privacy of my own home—or bedroom—is my own business.  As long as I’m not hurting anyone, what does it matter?

The answer, of course, is found in verse 21: “our citizenship is in heaven.”  For Christians, identity isn’t found in behavior but through relationship.  And yet, this relationship provokes us to alter our behavior.  Why?  Because Christianity teaches us that this world is not all there is.  Therefore there is a higher goal than merely promoting freedom.  There is a higher goal than merely not offending or hurting anyone. So to be an “enemy of the cross” might be little more than a dogged insistence on living life on your own terms.  That’s not citizenship in heaven—that’s being tied to the city of man.

RAZOR’S EDGE

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that there are many ways for Christianity to fall—but only one way for it to remain upright.  If I can blend metaphors here, there are many variations of these two “thieves” of the gospel.  It may be tempting to see the gospel as some sort of “middle ground,” a balance struck between extremes.  But that’s not the case at all.  No; the gospel is a different road altogether—a road that leads God’s people on a new exodus away from the tyranny of self.  It’s about abandoning self-absorption and self-righteousness—nay, all self-interest and pursuing a radical life of self-sacrifice.  It’s why C.S. Lewis writes that “the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next…It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither” (Mere Christianity, p. 134).

The more we live as citizens of heaven, the more our “accents”—our lifestyles, our stories—will come to be shaped by God’s kingdom rather than our own empires.  Follow self-interest and you’ll never find happiness.  Follow Christ and you’ll find everything you never knew you wanted.

Between Two Thieves (Part 1) (Philippians 3:7-11)

If you take even a casual glance at church history, you’ll see the name Tertullian crop up quite a bit.  Living in the second century, Tertullian gave us much our Christian vocabulary (words like Trinity, for example).  But Tertullian also wrote that there are two “thieves” of the gospel.  Just as Jesus was crucified between two thieves, so too can we find the gospel wedged between two equal and opposite extremes.  We might call the first thief the “religious thief,” because it replaces the gospel with an idol of self-righteousness.  We might call the second thief the “non-religious thief,” because it replaces the gospel with an idol of self-absorption.

We’ll unpack these further as we go, but for now you almost certainly notice what both hold in common: they both focus on self, albeit in different ways.  Do you remember how Augustine defined sin?  The human heart, he said, is a pyramid.  Joy will never be found unless God is at its apex.  Sin is loving anything more than God—and few things are more caustic than self-interest.

So when we examine Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we see him turn his attention to the two “thieves,” the two things that distract us from the gospel.   Today, we turn our attention to the first of these: the religious thief.

HOLY CRAP

Paul had already given his readers a glimpse of his impressive resume (3:1-6).  No one could claim to be more religious than Paul.  But what does Paul think of all this?

7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ  9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–  10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)

Compared to Christ, what else is there?  I actually hate English Bibles here, because they sugar-coat the force of what Paul is saying.  Verse 8 says “rubbish,” or if you have an older translation, they might go as far as to say “dung.”  But if you read it in Paul’s original Greek, the word is skubala.  Skubala?  According to Daniel Wallace—arguably the world’s leading expert on Greek grammar—the word is (in his words) “roughly equivalent to the English ‘crap, s**t.’”

This is one of those that’s in the Bible?!?!? kinds of moments.  And yes; it is.

Why so harsh?  Why so coarse and vulgar?  It’s simple, really.  Paul is saying that focusing on religious performance is little more than (ahem) “holy crap.”  It’s worthless.  No one ever made it to heaven on “Christian values.”  Again, we have to distinguish between things that are wise, from things that are necessary.  Christian values aren’t bad—in fact, because they reflect God’s character, they can shape our lives in radical ways.  But Christian values never saved anyone.

When Matt Chandler—a pastor in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex—was diagnosed with cancer, it gave him a new perspective on the Law.  The Law, he said, is like the MRI machine.  An MRI machine can help diagnose you, can help expose your innermost flaws.  But the MRI machine will never cure you.  And that’s what the Law does, Chandler explains.  When we read the Law—God’s standards revealed to His people—we recognize that we are deeply flawed people.  But the Law can never cure us, and the more we try to cure through obedience, the deeper we sink into our own flaws.  It’s hopeless—unless someone could fulfill the Law for us.

ALIEN RIGHTEOUSNESS

In the sixteenth century, a young monk lay awake tormented by a singular thought: What if I’m not good enough for God?  What if I die without having confessed all my sins?  Maybe you’ve been haunted by a similar question.  The young monk was awakened by the book of Romans—another of Paul’s letters.  In those pages this young monk found the answer he’d been looking for.  Grace wasn’t a reward for religious service, he discovered.  Grace was a free gift of God based solely on God’s love poured out through Jesus.

The young monk’s name was Martin Luther, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Luther would later make a distinction between what he called “active” and “passive” righteousness.  Active righteousness is what comes through the religious thief.  Active righteousness is trying to earn it on my own.  Active righteousness means convincing myself that the (ahem) skubala of my self-righteousness is a fine perfume (hint: it’s not).  Active righteousness will always produce profound psychological, social, and spiritual damage.

I love sushi.  So one night on Netflix I watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which focuses on the career of a world-renowned sushi chef—a man so famous people wait for months for a reservation at his restaurant.  Jiro was deeply dedicated to his craft, so much so that film critic Roger Ebert looked at him with a sense of pity:

“… I found myself drawn into the mystery of this man. Are there any unrealized wishes in his life? Secret diversions? Regrets? If you find an occupation you love and spend your entire life working at it, is that enough?…Half an hour of [preparation] was good enough to win three Michelin stars. You realize the tragedy of Jiro Ono’s life is that there are not, and will never be, four stars.”

Active righteousness produces this same level of perfectionism—and this same level of regret.  Am I good enough?  Am I at least better than that person?   And the list goes on.

That’s why we need to focus on Christ’s passive righteousness.  Luther also called this an “alien” righteousness.  Why?  Because Christ’s righteousness is not unique to me; it comes from outside myself.  Let’s read what Paul said about this again:

“…not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–  10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:9b-11)

The gospel isn’t about self-righteousness.  It’s not about “self” at all.  If anything, it’s about the transformed self—a new identity in Christ, and the hope of resurrection from the dead.

“Religion says ‘do this,’ and it is never done,” writes Luther.  “The gospel says ‘believe in this’ and it is already done.”

“Lay your deadly doing down,

Down at Jesus’ feet.

Stand in him and him alone,

Gloriously complete.

It is finished; it is finished.

What more can I ever do?”

(James Proctor, “It is Finished,” 19th Century)

 

The enemies of the gospel (Philippians 3:1-6)

They say that you should be cautious about saving a drowning man.  When a person is drowning, their survival instincts take over.  If you don’t hand them a flotation device, they’ll attempt to climb on top of you, pushing you under to give themselves a breath of oxygen.

Such behavior is excusable at the local pool.

Such behavior is inexcusable at the local church.

It’s human nature to want to be on top.  The whole of life becomes a giant quest for superiority—even in church.  In “Choruses from the Rock,” the poet T.S. Eliot asks:

“Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?…They constantly try to escape from the darkness outside and within, by dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”

In a very real sense, that’s what “religion” boils down to: a “system so perfect no one will need to be good.”  I grew up in the land of evangelical subculture.  Christianity—at least to my mind—became reduced to a list of things to avoid, like R-rated movies, heavy metal music, and the science teacher.  Most of us can probably create a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” that defined our faith at one time or another.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m sure there are some for whom such lists are wise. 

But there is no one for whom such lists are necessary. 

The problem comes when we begin to think of our wise habits as necessary—and impose them on other people.  Can you believe that the Johnsons send their kids to “that” school?  I heard that the Millers like to watch “that” TV show—with their kids!  Someone told me that some of our pastors don’t listen to Christian radio.  And the list goes on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.  And, you’ll notice, gossip becomes the currency of the comparison game.  We can judge one another’s religious habits and—like the drowning man—push one another down in a way that builds ourselves up.

And you know what?  That’s selfish.  That’s stupid.  And, Paul says, it’s the opposite of the gospel.

JOY REPLACES FEAR

In Philippians 3, Paul’s letter changes course:

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.  (Philippians 3:1)

The word “finally” sounds strange—as if Paul’s winding down to his conclusion.  But if you glance at the text, you’ll notice we’re only about halfway through.  What’s Paul saying?  If chapter 2 laid out the theological framework—that is, Christ’s example—then now Paul turns to further explain how that framework operates in the gritty reality of the Church.

“Rejoice,” he says.  Joy, once again, takes center stage in Paul’s letter.  And notice that he says that such a command “is safe for you.”  What’s going on, exactly?  It’s simple.  Paul knows full well that there will always be false teachers lurking in the shadows, waiting to insist on some form of religious ritual as the way to God.  And if you live your life in the shackles of duty, then you live your life in fear.  Am I doing enough for God?  Did I remember to pray for forgiveness for what I said yesterday?  If I live in this frame of mind, my natural tendency is to feel disqualified—as if I’ve let God down in some way.

Paul says No, no, no.  You can’t live your life in fear.  Pursue Christ.  Pursue Godly character.  But never assume that such pursuits earn God’s favor.  Instead, they are a response to God’s already lavish goodness—which is also our source of great joy. 

ENEMIES OF THE GOSPEL

Now Paul can turn his attention to the actual false teachers:

2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.  3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh–  4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also.  (Philippians 3:2-4a)

One of the problems of Paul’s letters is we don’t always know the full story.  It’s very much like listening to someone else’s phone conversation: we hear the things they say, but since we can’t hear the person on the other line, we’re often lost for context.  The same thing seems to be happening here.  Who were these “dogs,” these “evildoers?”  It’s really not that clear.  The context seems to indicate that Paul is dealing with people who insist that only way to really worship God is through strict obedience to the Law—of which circumcision was a key symbol.  If you’ve been in church for a while, you might know that something similar happened to the Galatian church.

In other words, these were the religious moralists of Paul’s day.  And Paul would never allow such false teachings to supersede the overflowing joy of the gospel.  That’s why “dogs” is such an insult.  Dogs weren’t housepets in Paul’s day; they were unclean, wild animals.  So what is Paul saying?  Maybe you guys aren’t as squeaky-clean as you thought you were…

THE PAST DOES NOT DEFINE THE FUTURE

Paul plays their game—at least temporarily.  He says Wanna play the “religious” card?  I call:

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:  5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;  6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:4b-6)

This is basically Paul’s resume.  Let’s pull it apart a little:

  • “Circumcised on the eighth day:” The “eighth day” refers to Paul’s strict conformity to the law (cf. Ge 17:12; Lev 12:3; see also Lk 1:59; 2:21). But in context, it also means that Paul received circumcision before any of the false teachers did.
  • “Of the people of Israel:” Circumcision might lead to religious inclusion (at least in the mind of Paul’s opponents), but Paul was biologically Jewish – shouldn’t this be an even greater reason for superiority?
  • “Of the tribe of Benjamin:” Benjamin was the favored tribe: “beloved of the Lord” (Dt. 33:12).
  • “A Hebrew of Hebrews:” This term might easily be seen as a summation of all the other titles.  A friend of mine paraphrases it (a bit crassly) as “the Jewiest of the Jews.”  The term is simply meant to exaggerate his qualifications.
  • “In regard to the Law, a Pharisee:” Paul uses similar descriptions in Acts 23:6-9; Acts 26:5 and Gal 1:14.  The description means that Paul had devoted himself to the teachings of the law.
  • “As for zeal, persecuting the church:” No one had persecuted the church as much as Paul—certainly not these two-bit false teachers in Philippi.
  • “As to the righteousness in the Law, blameless:” Paul is saying is that he has an unblemished record of keeping the traditions such as circumcision, Sabbath, etc.  Basically Paul is saying that he got the perfect attendance award in Vacation Bible School growing up and he memorized more verses than anyone else in youth group.

In other words, no one can really measure up to Paul’s impressive resume.  Which is good, because Paul says That’s not the point.  Instead he says that there is “no confidence in the flesh.”

Our past does not define our future—not even our religious past.  Instead, Christ’s past accomplishment–an act none of us deserved or could even ask for–defines who we are at present, and through whose Spirit leads us to a greater future.

The gospel destroys our tendency to feel superior over our accomplishments—or inferior over our failures and struggles.  We are sinners, through and through—but we are also redeemed sinners, who live a life of gradual transformation.  Take your eyes off of God’s grace, and you have only your small pile of accomplishments to rule and reign over.  Place your eyes on God’s grace, and you find a source of overflowing joy.

Epaphroditus: A Charming Fellow Indeed! – Philippians 2:25-30 Epaphroditus: A Charming Fellow Indeed! – Philippians 2:25-30

Why couldn’t I have a name like Epaphroditus? Now that is a cool name! What did I get stuck with? Yes – Randy! What a stupid name! It even sounds wussy. And beyond that, I can’t even use the name in a place like England. If you don’t know why that is, I ain’t telling you in a church blog! But if you do know what it means in British slang, you’ll understand why I was embarrassed to find out (too late) from some (not so helpful or timely) British Christians that perhaps using my middle name “Alan” might be more appropriate … all of this after I went up to some old ladies in London and introduced myself by saying, “Hello, I’m Randy.” To which they replied in full accent, “You don’t say!”

Epaphroditus was a common name in the ancient Greco-Roman world, and its meaning was to be “charming” or “lovely.” And that is what Epaphroditus was for Paul – a great fellow to have around who could be counted upon in any circumstance.

When the Philippians found out that Paul was in prison, they sent this prince charming to carry the funds to help Paul, and then to also stay there and provide personal assistance in this time of need. And now, Paul was sending him back to them in Philippi, and sending with him this letter of thanks, greeting, and exhortation.

So, I’ve already gone Greek on you once today with talking about the meaning of his name, and now I’m going to do it twice more!

While Epaphroditus was with Paul, he became terribly ill – to the point of almost dying. The Philippians had heard about this, and in turn Paul had heard back from them that they were really worried about their emissary. All of this worry really deeply bothered Mr. Charming. Here he was supposed to be the guy taking care of the poor Apostle Paul in prison, and then he gets so sick himself that he almost dies and creates a bigger problem of anxiety for everyone. All of this, it says in verse 26 “distressed” him. This is the same word that is used in the New Testament of the agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.

So Paul is writing to the Philippians to assure them of the great value he derived from the ministrations of Epaphroditus. It is a sort of reference letter to cover for him and to answer any possible criticisms that their representative had failed in his task. To the contrary – here was a guy who Paul said should be given the highest respect and honor, because he had not only done the job at hand, he had risked his very life in doing so.

Here is the third Greek word for you out of this passage – it is the one that is translated “co-worker” in verse 25. It is the word from which we derive the English word “synergy.” It is a combination of “work” and “together.”  That was the relationship Paul and Epaphroditus had – a synergy in ministry and working together.

Over the years I have enjoyed this relationship particularly with certain people. From this Tri-State community I would especially mention Beth Ostoich – a great co-worker in the gospel, who knew what I was thinking with even just a glance. In New Jersey, I so much enjoyed one particular staff member, who is now a pastor in Colorado. We served together through a very difficult church situation and thereby built a life-long friendship and partnership.

In the local church, we are in a cosmic struggle of kingdoms warring against one another. We are co-combatants and servants together of the King of Kings. Serving others in and through the church is the greatest work we can do. We should all be deeply involved, and in the intensity of it we should be gaining significant relationships with one another. We need you; you need us. Jump in. Be an Epaphroditus.

25 But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. 26 For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. 28 Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. 29 So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him,30 because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.

Ain’t Nobody Like This Guy! (Philippians 2:19-24)

Imagine what it must have been like to travel with the Apostle Paul. At first thought, most people would probably think that was pretty exciting—with all the miracles and people coming to know Christ and churches being started. That is true.

But there was another side to being associated with this bold fellow. Everywhere he went he would create a stir and negative reactions. There were riots and beatings, and all sorts of high-pressured life-threatening situations. With Paul, you would be a cultural stranger in most places, identified with a radical message that was offensively odious to your own ethnic roots and politically dissident within the prevailing secular culture.

Being identified with Paul was a dangerous thing. But Timothy and Epaphroditus (tomorrow’s topic) were not afraid of this whatsoever. They were identified with the Apostle not only when he was getting into a conflict, but also when he was in jail. These men came to see him and to tend to his needs. (In 2 Timothy, Paul mentions the name of some people who abandoned him.)

Paul writes in verse 20 today one of the most amazing things he ever says. Speaking of Timothy he states that, “I have no one else like him…”  That is quite a resume enhancement and high-level reference.

We are able to glean from a couple of other New Testament passages that Timothy’s personality was much at the other end of the scale from Paul. Whereas the Apostle was a bold “type A” aggressive fellow, we get a biographical picture of Timothy as a more gentle, timid, and receding personality. Yet he travelled in public circles with the polarizing preacher dude; he showed up daily at the jail to be with Paul.

Why did he push past the gentle soul of his inner self to be this way? Because as Paul says, Timothy had a genuine concern for other people. He was motivated by serving Christ in serving other people. He was by conviction a person who looked away from himself. He was illustrative of what I believe we all should be – “preference deference” people.

A person who defers the fulfillment of their own preferences is a person who understands the reality of a larger and more important picture of God’s work taking place all around them. They want to be a part of what HE is doing, recognizing their personal fulfillment in life will come from that rather than the pursuit of their own preferences.

After 35 years of this pastoring thing and seeing people come and go in churches, I’ve always been most impressed with people who choose to come and stay in a church because they see it as a place they can best serve God and other people with their gifts and skills. And I’ve likewise always been saddened by the people who leave because they continue in a lifelong point-to-point search for the community of faith that best serves their needs and preferences.

Fulfillment and God’s pleasure is to be found in the application of Christlikeness in serving other people. Disappointment and disillusionment will be experienced by folks who seek to find fulfillment in what other sinners do or don’t provide for them.

So why not strive to be a Timothy, and by so doing you will be modeling your life after a person commended in God’s Word for modeling his life after the others-oriented serving pattern of Jesus Christ.

19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you. 20 I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. 21 For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.23 I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me. 24 And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon.

It’s not that Difficult to be a Shining Star – Philippians 2:12-18

The most physically demanding job I’ve ever done in my life was one that I did for several years while attending Dallas Theological Seminary. I worked for the United Parcel Service (UPS) in their major southwest hub in Dallas.

During the interviewing process for advertized jobs in overnight shifts, a supervisor pulled me aside. He told me that they had a “twilight shift” – generally from around 6:00-10:00 in the evening. They did not advertise this, because everyone would want it rather than doing midnight duty.

But since I was a couple years older than most applicants, along with being a grad school student who did well on some sort of memorization test they gave us, I was offered a job on the Twilight Shift Secondary Sort Aisle. It involved memorizing hundreds of zip codes, quickly picking up packages sliding toward you at breakneck speeds, and just as quickly sorting them onto one of seven different belts and slides carrying packages all over a huge, huge trucking terminal. The boxes next went to another sorter, who made a final decision as to which of three or four trucks they would be loaded into.

This was Dallas – in Texas, where it gets very hot… the place of which General Philip Sheridan said before the Civil War while stationed there with the army, “If I owned both Texas and Hell, I would rent out the former and live in the latter!”

It was a common attitude of workers to be cranky and irritable. The heat was dreadful, as the sort aisle was high up in the terminal near the ceiling. The supervisors were constantly nearby. Every day your speed and accuracy was tested and charted.

There was one young fellow who worked there, being a student at a relatively unknown and small Christian college. He knew the Lord and loved God with all his heart. This guy was never a bad attitude. He often literally sang worship songs the whole time he was loading a truck. He was the first person to help out anyone else when things backed up. He never complained about anything.

One night toward the end of the shift, I was sent to help him finish a truck loading, and I used the opportunity to commend him for his constantly cheerful attitude. He told me that he did in fact not really like the job, but he was determined that he would do all he could to work hard and serve others like he was serving God in the flesh. He was a shining star for Christ in a place that was rather dark.

Bosses and managers don’t like grumblers or complainers … neither does a coach, nor does a parent. And you can add God to that list also!

As the Apostle Paul addressed the Philippians about some of the attitudinal situations that were creating strife in the church in that city, he tells them to be serious about the execution of their faith and to do things without grumbling and arguing. Doing this would make them a “star” – for they would stand out like a bright dot of light in the dark night sky.

The natural proclivity for mankind is to be self focused and to easily be personally annoyed – expressing that with complaints and wrangling with others. To be different from that tendency would cause them to particularly shine in an exemplary way, being also in accord with God’s Word. And that is a timeless truth that extends to our day.

As you read the passage, recall that Paul is writing this letter to them while he was a prisoner. He could not be with them, and he appeals to them from his precarious position. Paul was uncertain if he would be released; and though he had an underlying tone of optimism, it was not certain. So we see him thinking even in terms of his legacy with them – hoping his efforts were indeed fruitful among these Philippians. He desired to be pleased that they were obedient and moving forward in their faith.

Grumbling, arguing, and otherwise participating in discord in the church family is really such a waste of time and energy. There is so much work to be done. And we all need to check ourselves regularly in this regard, to be sure we are not losing focus on what is most important. But we can be pleased also in the knowledge that it is God who works in us as we yield to him – not only to fulfill his purposes for us, but to also build in us an increasing desire to do so.shining-stars

So, go be a “shining star.” It is actually not that difficult.

12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain. 17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.

The Way to the Top is through the Bottom (Philippians 2:1-11)

During the time I was involved in the political process for a few years, I never talked about it publically at church. I even did a sermon during that time on the topic of the place of a Christian in civil government and politics, and I was really proud of making it through that message without ever uttering the words “Democrat” or “Republican.”

Through a variety of circumstances and open doors that I believe to this day God shoved me through, I was for a time the chairman of the local Republican Party. Though it was an elected position, the events putting me into that role were much more within the category “it found me; I didn’t find it!”

There were aspects of it I really liked, such as strategizing, vision casting, and working with some local people of high character, yet I found many other elements of it to be rather odious. Higher levels of Party participation introduced me to some extraordinarily fine and genuine people, but also some of the most troubled individuals I’ve ever encountered. Those who were running for positions of authority and leadership within the Party were too often overly-engaged in the process of continual self promotion rather than given to the hard work of advancing actual principles and values in practical ways. The process of promotion (for the purpose of gaining position) became the end of the game, rather than actually winning the game in the public arena of ideas and leadership.

But that is the way of the people of this world – to seek to achieve rank and place. Jesus told his disciples to not be like this. When the disciples were jockeying for position on the right and left hand of the Lord, it says in Mark 10 that Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

And so when Paul wrote today’s passage to the Philippians, he was on the very solid ground of not only remembering the words of Christ to be the most lowly servant, but to also point to the work of Christ in doing just that – submitting to the ignominy of the cross.

Verses 6-11 are among the most famous of theological teachings in the New Testament. They teach clearly that Jesus was 100% God, that he voluntarily submitted himself to the humiliation of leaving the glories of heaven to become fully man (though without sin or loss of divine substance), and that he willingly submitted himself to the worst death imaginable for the sins of everyone else.

6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant,     being made in human likeness.

8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

But what is often forgotten is that these verses were not written primarily to teach Christology (the doctrine of Christ), but to give an illustration of the primary point Paul was discussing – that of having an attitude of humility in service to other people in the family of faith. Paul led into this theological section (that may have been an early hymn) by saying …

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

So this sets up a very expansive degree to which we should be willing to go to give up our own self-serving proclivities in order to serve other people. And why should we not be willing to do so in light of all that we mutually possess?  That is how our chapter today began – by rehearsing the unity we have with one another in Christ, the treasure of the indwelling Spirit, and hearts governed by the tenderness and compassion we have first received …

2:1  Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Valuing others above self – the most difficult task to do, yet the most rewarding task when done. If the people of a church would ever do this, there would be no squabbling or bickering … no pushing and shoving and debating about what personal taste or opinion on any subject should prevail. There would only be Christ-like service.

Let’s just do it!