READ : Philippians 1:9-11, 27
The word joy occurs 16 times in the four short chapters of Philippians. A life lived in Christ is a life of joy, and if you want to experience that, make it your aim to live a life worthy of him.
Stephen Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan ends with a moving scene. The title character, a soldier whose life was saved during the Normandy invasion, is visiting many years later the American military cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach. The former Private Ryan, now an old man, stands in front of the grave of his captain. It was the captain’s self-sacrifice in particular that rescued the private from death, and turning to one of his children, Ryan says with deep emotion, “I have spent my whole life trying to be worthy of that sacrifice.”
What motivates you to live the way you live? Is there anything higher than personal ambition or self-interest that inspires you? Do you do what you do merely out of a desire to please yourself, or to enjoy life more, or to get ahead of others? Perhaps your behavior is motivated more by fear ??” fear of failure, fear of punishment even. I want to suggest that there is a better way to live, a higher reason for our striving and our performing and our achieving. The greatest and best motive for living we can have is gratitude, gratitude to the one who has made our very lives possible.
A Life Worthy of the Gospel
In the opening chapter of his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul writes this simple exhortation: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). Whatever happens, whatever else you may do, Paul seems to be saying, just be sure of this, that the life you lead is worthy of the gospel. What a wonderful phrase that is ??” a life worthy of the gospel of Christ! It’s an even more wonderful ambition and goal! Paul has just written some of the New Testament’s most moving words near the end of Philippians 1. He’s been talking about his own prospects. He is in a Roman prison, with his case soon to come to trial before Caesar. Paul will either be found innocent of the charges against him (which were false) and he will be set free, or he will be found guilty, and be executed. But I can face either prospect with calm confidence, he says, because for me, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (v. 21).
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 actually was going to be freed in order to have the opportunity of visiting them again.
But that was only his opinion; he couldn’t be completely certain. Paul had 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 this final word of exhortation, a principle that’s good for any church or any Christian, at all times and in every circumstance. He tells them, and us, to live a life that is worthy of the gospel. Live in such a way that you are a credit to the message you believe. Let the results of the gospel within you and upon you justify the sacrifice that Christ made for you. Like a jeweler who obtains a diamond of surpassing worth and then pours the labor and skill of a lifetime into producing a setting worthy of the stone, so our lives ought to begin to match the measureless worth of the gospel of Christ.
The Worthy Life
The question is, what does such a life look like? What marks a life that is worthy of the gospel? In one sense, the answer to that question is short and sweet: the life worthy of the gospel of Christ is the Jesus’ life, the life that Jesus himself lived. But in another sense, the answer is rich and complex; in effect, the whole New Testament was written to help us see the contours and develop the characteristics of a worthy life.
Of all the features that combine to make a life that is worthy of the gospel, let me just choose three that Paul mentions here in Philippians chapter one. You know, Paul did a lot of praying for his churches, and in the letters that he wrote those churches he often told them just what he prayed for. Those apostolic requests make a very helpful catalogue of the characteristics of the worthy life.
In Philippians 1 Paul’s prayer for the believers goes like this.
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
At its heart, this apostolic prayer is a prayer for growth; first of all, growth in love ??” that “your love may abound more and more,” Paul says (v. 9). This request should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with biblical religion because that always seems to come down to love in the end. In fact, it comes down to love in the beginning, too. The apostle mentions this before anything else in his prayer because it’s the most important thing of all. Love matters most, love for God and love for others.
A lot of people seem to think that religion is first and foremost a matter of rituals and laws, that it’s all about keeping the rules and obeying the commandments. It isn’t. Genuine religion, which is our response to the grace and goodness of God, is all about having a heart for God. Seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, a great reformation of Judah’s religious life was carried out under King Hezekiah. The centerpiece of the reform was the cleansing and reconsecration of the Temple, followed by the reinstitution of the Passover celebration. But there was a problem. Not all the people were able to prepare themselves for the ceremony as prescribed in the Old Testament law. So the king prayed for them, “May the good Lord pardon everyone who sets his heart to seek God, the Lord . . . even though not according to the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness.” And, adds the biblical Chronicler, “the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people” (2 Chronicles 30:18-20). Setting your heart to seek God is what really matters; genuine love will make up for a multitude of defects and omissions. So the first thing to say about a life that is worthy of the gospel is that it will be a life passionate in loving God and compassionate in loving people. Without this, nothing else matters. As Paul would say to the Corinthians, without love, “I am nothing . . . I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
Next Paul prays that the Philippians’ love will be accompanied by wisdom: “that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment.” Christian love is not flabby and spineless; it isn’t a sort of warm fuzzy feeling that emanates outward and covers all people at all times no matter what they do. Christian love is love that is knowing and discerning, love that can recognize and “approve what is excellent” (v. 10), as Paul writes here, love that will refuse to accept what is less than the best for the ones it loves.
I was on a college campus just the other day and I noticed a sign placed in a dorm room window. The sign proclaimed that the highest goal of an education is tolerance. That is simply false. The highest goal of an education is wisdom, and wisdom includes both the ability to know and the desire to want all that is excellent. Wisdom leads us to approve, first for ourselves but also for all those whom we love, only what is best. Genuine love, love that is discerning, just won’t tolerate that which is harmful or wrong or false in the beloved. And this kind of love, this kind of wisdom, will lead to our being ??” in Paul’s phrase ??” “pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”
Here’s the final thing that Paul prays for in Philippians chapter 1. It is growth in holiness. Those who learn to approve and choose only the best will also learn what the visible result of a life lived for Christ is. They will be, in the apostle’s words, “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (v. 11). By “the fruit of righteousness” Paul means the crop of righteous actions that develops in our lives as we live for Christ from day to day and year to year, becoming increasingly like him in thought and speech and behavior. God wants us to grow in actual holiness of character and conduct.
So put these three things together ??” continual growth in love, and wisdom and righteousness ??” and you have what the apostle calls for: a life that is “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” The question is, are we motivated enough to pursue these things with all that we are and everything we’ve got? If we will keep the truth of the gospel always before us, perhaps we will be. So fix the cross in your heart daily. Let it fill your mind, let it occupy your thoughts. Let it be the thing you dwell upon. Choose the cross as your emblem, your personal badge; tattoo it on your soul. Make it your ambition to be able to say some day, “I have spent my whole life trying to be worthy of that sacrifice.”