READ : Philippians 1:27
Are you interested in learning how to live with real joy? Joy is found in living a Christ-centered life, and one of the best descriptions of that is found in a brief letter written almost 2,000 years ago.
This is the first in a short series of messages entitled “Life with Christ at the Center,” an overview of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The apostle wrote this brief letter while he was in prison, probably during the period of his confinement in Rome, which is described in the closing verses of the book of Acts.
The theme of this much-loved letter to the Christians in Philippi is the Christ-centered life, and its dominant tone is joy. The apostle strikes the keynote at the outset: “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy” (vv. 3-4). The word joy, in fact, occurs 15 more times in the four short chapters of Philippians. J.A. Bengel, the great 18th century German Bible scholar, said that the sum of the whole epistle is “I rejoice, you rejoice.” A life lived in Christ is a life of joy.
Paul rejoices, not only because of the good things he has personally received through Christ, but also because of his love for the Philippian Christians. He delights in the thought of the exciting blessings in which they, along with all who belong to Christ, will share. When Paul writes to his friends in Philippi his love spills joyously out onto the page just at the thought of them. But what triggers Paul’s joy even more is the thought of Christ Jesus himself. Even when writing from the harsh conditions of imprisonment, Paul can barely contain his delight at the thought of all that Christ offers to those who believe in him. And for almost 2000 years now, readers of the book of Philippians have been discovering this same infectious joy, which comes from faith in Christ.
THE RELIABILITY OF GOD
Paul’s first specific reason for rejoicing is just the fact of the Philippian believers themselves. He opens his letter by expressing his delight and thanks for them and for their faith. What made Paul happiest was that they not only believed the gospel and had become Christians, but that they eagerly joined Paul in spreading the good news of Christ to others (1:5). They were partners with him in the gospel enterprise.
Because of these signs of God’s transforming grace in their lives and the evidence that God’s Spirit was working within them, Paul was convinced that the Philippian Christians would all come to a glorious end. His confidence was based on the character of God on God’s reliability. It is said that the famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant used to go for a walk every day through the streets of Konigsberg, Prussia, where he lived. So punctual was the great man, so unvarying and regular in his habits, that the housewives of the city literally set their clocks by him when they saw him walking past. Now there is something admirable about people like that (though I don’t think I’d care to live with one!). You know what they’re going to be doing, and where and when. This provides a sense of stability, security and order. “Regular” people are dependable; you know you can count on them.
Well, it’s nice to work with dependable, reliable people, but what really matters is that we know a God who is reliable. We need a God we can depend on to save us, a God who will never give up on us or leave us or let us go. Many seem to think that God isn’t very dependable. “Where is God when I need him?” “I asked God for help but I didn’t get any.” “I prayed, but no one answered me. There was nobody there.” Have you ever heard statements like that? Perhaps you have even said or thought something similar yourself. Our painful experiences in life may cause us to wonder about God, but the testimony of scripture to the trustworthiness of his character is absolutely certain. God is utterly reliable. You can put your hope in him and be secure. If you entrust your life to him, he will never fail you or let you down. I can’t think of a better hope to hang onto when life gets scary.
This is how Paul expresses his certainty about God to the Philippians: he is confident “that the Lord who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ” (v. 6). You see, God isn’t a quitter. He will finish whatever he has begun. Someday – the day of Christ’s return in glory at the end of the world, to be specific – God’s saving, renewing work in each of us will be finished, and we will be complete, whole, perfect. Every flaw mended, every missing virtue supplied, every sickness healed, every weakness strengthened, every sorrow turned to gladness.
Now, all this will happen not so much because of our efforts or ability, but because of the faithfulness of God. Paul’s confidence in the outcome of each Christian’s life is based on the fact that salvation is primarily God’s work, not ours. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion,” says the apostle. He starts from the fact that the Philippians have received God’s grace, that “all of you share in God’s grace with me” (v. 7). And so from start to finish, salvation is the result of grace. It depends upon God, who acts in perfect freedom to bestow his redeeming love on those who do not deserve it and have not earned it. If it were up to us, no one would ever be saved in the end. My will blows hot and cold; my mind is always changing. I can hardly stay constant from one week to the next. I have trouble deciding what to order for dinner, let alone whether or not to believe in Christ. If I had to choose on my own, I would choose sin every time instead of him. But because salvation is fundamentally a matter of God’s decision, not mine, I can have confidence.
I don’t know about you, but that’s really good news for me. The first Philippian believer was Lydia, a businesswoman, whose conversion is described this way in the book of Acts: “The Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul” (16:14). God began the work of salvation in the Philippian Christians. He continues, maintains and advances it, and he will finish it, both for them and for us. So give thanks to him and be glad!
If you see evidences of God’s gracious work in your own life, if you look into your heart and find there faith in Jesus, if you have love for God, and you desire, however weakly, to know and serve him, then rejoice! All those impulses are from God. They are signs that he has begun his work of grace in you, and he will never let it fail. He will surely finish it, and you may rest confident in his complete reliability.
WHAT GOD REALLY WANTS
After rejoicing over them, Paul went on to pray for the Philippians. His prayer offers a glimpse of what God wants for every believer. Paul the pastor was led to pray for this church, but Paul the biblical writer was inspired by the Holy Spirit to record the substance of his prayer. In writing it down, he shows us what is in the mind of God for everyone who belongs to him. At its heart, this prayer is for growth, first growth in knowledge – that we “may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,” as Paul puts it. The purpose of this increasing knowledge or wisdom is to enable us to “discern what is best” (v. 10), that is, to recognize and choose the best thing in life as opposed to all the lesser things. There are so many “goods”; but there is only one “best” – and that, of course, is Jesus Christ. So what God really wants for us is to grow in knowledge, not merely knowledge in the sense of information about things, but knowledge in the sense of the wisdom that can discern what is truly most important in life. Paul’s prayer is that we learn to put first things first and second things second, and then to choose the very best for ourselves. That kind of wisdom isn’t based on I.Q. or grade point average. There are plenty of very smart people who don’t know what is best, and consequently give their lives over to trivial pursuits. By contrast, anyone who knows Christ and understands that the most important thing they can do is to live for him has the very best wisdom anyone can have.
The second thing Paul prays for is growth in holiness. Those who learn to choose the best will also learn what the visible result of a life lived for Christ is. They will be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (v. 11). By “the fruit of righteousness” Paul means the crop or harvest of righteous deeds that develops in our lives as we live for Christ from day to day and year for year, becoming increasingly like him in thought, speech, and behavior. God wants us to grow in actual holiness of character and conduct, so that we “may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ” (v. 10).
Finally, Paul prays for growth in love, which should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with biblical Christianity. It always seems to come down to love in the end. In fact, it comes down to love in the beginning. The apostle mentions this before anything else in his prayer: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more” (v. 9). Love matters most, love for others and especially love for God, which brings us right back to joy once more, since the essence of loving God is enjoying him beyond any and all other pleasures.
A LIFE WORTHY OF THE GOSPEL
Put those three things together – growth in wisdom, righteousness and love – and you have what the apostle calls for in the conclusion of Philippians 1: a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (v. 27). What a wonderful phrase that is! And an even more wonderful thing! Paul has just written some of the New Testament’s most moving words toward the end of Philippians 1. He’s been talking about his own future prospects. He is in prison, but he won’t remain a captive for very long because his case will soon come to trial before Caesar and be decided there. Paul will either be found innocent of the charges against him (which were false, by the way), in which case he will be set free, or he will be found guilty, and be executed. “I can face either prospect with calm confidence,” he says, “because for me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
But Paul isn’t thinking just of himself. Though death would mean for him the incomparable joy of life in the presence of the Lord in heaven, his acquittal and release would mean continued opportunity for ministry to the church, and that would benefit the Philippians, among others. Because of that, Paul believed that he was actually going to be freed and have the opportunity of visiting them again.
But that was only his opinion; he couldn’t be completely certain. Paul had enough experience in his life of the Lord opening and closing doors to refrain from making absolute predictions. So he wants to prepare the Philippians for either eventuality. To do that he gives a final word of exhortation which is good for any church or any Christian, at all times and in every circumstance. He tells them to live a worthy life. Live in such a way that you are a credit to the message of Christ. Like a jeweler who obtains a gem of surpassing worth and pours the labor and skill of a lifetime into producing a setting worthy of it, so our lives ought to begin to match the measureless worth of the gospel of Christ. If you are a Christian, God is doing incredible things for and in you. He is in the process of bringing you into a future of pure, unimaginable joy.
There is one thing you can do in response to him. You can work on making your life a fitting offering to Christ. It only seems right doesn’t it?