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Lesson 1: The Path To Joy (Acts 16:6-40)

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Newsweek (3/6/95, p. 10) recently reported that a number of Los Angeles area Protestant churches are turning their pews into comedy clubs, inviting stand-up comics to come in and tell clean jokes. Why are they doing this? Because regular nightclub comics have become too raunchy. There is a picture of a comedian with a cross in the background with the caption, “Yucks at Bel Air Presbyterian.”

It’s a sad day when the church of Jesus Christ turns into a comedy club, trying to entertain its members with silly jokes. I would suggest that what God’s people need is not more superficial laughter, but genuine joy in the Lord. Jesus promised fullness of joy to His followers (John 15:11; 16:24). The second fruit of the Spirit (after love) is joy (Gal. 5:22). Of all people on this earth, Christians should be marked by deep, abiding joy.

By joy, the Bible does not mean going around with a continuous grin on your face. Nor does it mean denying grief or sorrow in times of trial. But it does mean an inner state of contentment and thankfulness toward God for His abundant grace and goodness toward us in Christ. Godly joy is marked by hope in the promises of God concerning our salvation and future with Him. It is a solid, steady-flowing stream that is not diminished by difficult circumstances, because its focus is not on circumstances or self, but on God and His purpose.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians overflows with the theme of joy. He mentions joy, rejoicing, or gladness at least 19 times in these four short chapters, and that in spite of his circumstances which seemed to militate against having joy. In our studies, we will discover the path to true, lasting joy that comes from God.


To understand the epistle to the Philippians, we need to know about the background of the church in that city, which we discover in Acts 16:6-40. On Paul’s second missionary journey, he and Silas were traveling through Asia Minor (modern Turkey) when they came to the town of Lystra. The fact that they went to Lystra shows Paul’s courage, because on his first missionary journey, in Lystra he had been stoned and dragged out of the city as dead (Acts 14:19). But God miraculously raised him up and he left behind there a small church, among whom was a young man named Timothy. By Paul’s second journey, Timothy had established himself as a faithful disciple, and so Paul invited him to accompany them on their mission.

So the three men, Paul, Silas, and Timothy, traveled toward the northwest. For reasons we are not told, the Holy Spirit forbade them from speaking the word in the western part of Asia Minor, so they sought to go to Bithynia, an area on the north of Asia Minor, on the southern shore of the Black Sea. But again, for unknown reasons, “the spirit of Jesus did not permit them” (Acts 16:7). When they arrived in Troas, on the far northwest coast of Asia Minor, Paul had a vision that directly affects you and me: He saw a man of Macedonia appealing to him to come there and help them. And so the gospel came to Philippi and other cities of that region. The reason that vision affects you and me is that in turning west, the gospel spread into Europe and from there eventually came across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. If Paul had instead turned back toward Asia, who knows whether the gospel would ever have moved in our direction as it did.

Before leaving Troas, Paul, Silas, and Timothy were joined by a fourth man, a Gentile physician named Luke (the author of Luke and Acts; we know this because in Acts, Luke shifts from “they” to “we” at Acts 16:8, 10, 11). We can also surmise that Paul left Luke behind to pastor the fledgling church at Philippi, because the narrative shifts back to “they” in 17:1 and remains that way until Paul sails from Philippi with Luke in 20:5, 6, about seven years later.

The city of Philippi, founded by Alexander the Great’s father, Philip of Macedon, in 356 B.C., was located about ten miles inland from the port city of Neapolis in a region that was a gateway between Europe and Asia. Its population reflected its location, being a mixture from east and west. Philippi was proud to be a Roman colony, which meant that the citizens enjoyed the protection of Roman law, they were exempt from paying tribute, and they were free from the provincial governor, answerable only to Rome. Veterans of the Roman army were often given property there.

So about A.D. 50, Paul and his companions came to this city in response to his vision. In spite of the broad mixture of the population, there were not many Jews in Philippi. We surmise this because to start a Jewish synagogue required ten men; but Philippi lacked a synagogue. After a few days, Paul and his companions went to the riverside, where a small group of Jewish women met for prayer. As Paul spoke about Jesus as the Messiah, the Lord opened the heart of a woman named Lydia to respond in faith. She was a businesswoman from Thyatira in Asia Minor who sold purple fabrics. She was probably a widow. She and all her household (any children and relatives, plus servants) believed and were baptized. She apparently had a large enough house to accommodate the four evangelists, who stayed there. Later, the church seemed to meet there (16:40).

As always happens when the gospel begins to take root, the enemy becomes active in opposition. In this case, it was a demon-possessed slave-girl who brought her owners much income through her ability to tell fortunes. As with the demons in the gospel accounts who recognized and shouted out Jesus’ identity, this demon recognized Paul and his companions and cried out, “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation” (16:17). This went on for many days, but finally Paul grew annoyed and cast the demon out of the girl. Luke doesn’t tell us whether she was converted, but I’m inclined to think she was.

Whenever the preaching of the gospel deprives greedy sinners of their money, there will be trouble! These unscrupulous slave-owners who lost their source of income dragged Paul and Silas before the authorities, had them beaten and thrown into jail, where their feet were fastened into the stocks. Perhaps only Paul and Silas were apprehended because Timothy was half-Gentile, and Luke was Gentile. The charges against Paul and Silas included the fact that they were Jews, and as such they were painted as being anti-Roman (16:20, 21). It was about this same time that the Roman emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome. Anti-semitism would have been strong in this colony that prided itself on Roman citizenship.

Where was God in all this? Remember, the Lord had seemingly led these men to Philippi in a distinct way. Had He forgotten them? Had Paul missed the signals? No, as the timely, powerful earthquake showed, God was still in charge! The earthquake led to the dramatic conversion of the jailer and his household. So when Paul left town, he left behind Luke and a small, but powerfully converted young church.

By the way, Paul’s insistence that the local magistrates personally come and apologize was not a case of asserting his rights for his own sake. He did it to protect the church. If he had quietly been let out of jail and left town, the church would have been ridiculed as being started by some Jewish rabble-rouser. But when news of the magistrates’ mistake spread, it gave credibility to the church, because the word spread that it was founded by a Roman citizen.

The setting for the writing of Philippians was about 10-12 years later. During those years, Paul had re-visited Philippi at least twice. He probably wrote Second Corinthians and Galatians from there on one of those visits. But now Paul was in prison in Rome, not in a dungeon, but in his own rented quarters, yet chained constantly to a Roman guard. He was not able to work at making tents, and so was in a tight spot financially. The Philippians heard of Paul’s situation and sent a gift in care of one of their faithful members, Epaphroditus. He stayed on with Paul for a while, helping in his ministry in Rome. But he became sick to the point of death. News of his condition had reached Philippi, and they were concerned about their brother. But God had mercy and restored Epaphroditus to health. The Philippians were also concerned about Paul’s impending trial.

On his part, Paul was concerned about some friction in the flock at Philippi, and also about how the church was bearing up under some persecution from the outside. He was also concerned about the pervasive, insidious teaching of the Judaizers, men who dogged Paul’s steps and taught that in addition to faith in Christ, a person must be circumcised and follow the ceremonial laws of Moses to be saved.

So Paul wrote Philippians to inform them of his situation; to tell them of Epaphroditus’ recovery and to insure a warm welcome for him on his return; to encourage the church by expressing his thanks for them and their gift to him; to encourage them to stand firm under persecution; to exhort them to unity; to warn them about the legalistic Judaizers; and, to encourage them to joy in the Lord in all circumstances. It is one of Paul’s most personal letters, oozing with his love in the Lord for these people.

With that background sketch, let me draw a few lessons from the account in Acts 16 of the founding of the church in Philippi and relate these lessons to the letter of Philippians. The main lesson Acts 16 presents, which also permeates Philippians, is:

The path to joy is the path of obedience to the Great Commission.

“The Great Commission” is Christ’s final charge to His followers to make disciples of all nations (peoples), teaching them to observe all that He commanded (Matt. 28:19-20). This is much more extensive than simply evangelizing all peoples, although that is the core of the commission. Making disciples who obey all that Christ commanded includes the whole task of the local church in shepherding Christ’s flock. Thus all Christians, whether gifted in evangelism and missions or in serving and showing mercy, have a vital role to fulfill in obedience to the Great Commission. Four lessons from Acts 16:

1. There is joy in obedience to God’s sovereign call to proclaim the gospel.

God is sovereign in the task of evangelism. He devised the plan of salvation and sovereignly chose certain individuals to salvation before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). He sovereignly sent Jesus Christ as Savior at the appropriate time (Gal. 4:4-5). He sovereignly directs His chosen servants, forbidding them from going to certain locations and revealing to them that they should go to other locations to proclaim His good news (Acts 16:6-10). When those servants obediently go and proclaim the gospel, as many as have been appointed to eternal life believe (Acts 13:48; 18:10), while others oppose the messengers and are hardened in their unbelief (Acts 13:50; 18:12-17).

You may be thinking, “Well, if God is sovereign in the process of evangelism, then we don’t need to worry about it. He will save whomever He wishes to save apart from what we may do.” But Scripture is clear that part of God’s sovereign plan is for His servants to be obedient to His call to proclaim the gospel. Thus in Paul’s vision, he saw the man from Macedonia appealing to him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). God has chosen to use His people to help lost people learn the way of salvation. Lost people today need our help in finding Christ.

When we go in obedience to Christ’s commandment, whether it is to talk with a lost neighbor or to a stranger we happen to meet here in town, or to cross cultural or national borders to take the good news to people such as the Durango Aztecs, we experience great joy as God is pleased to save some from their sins and place them in His eternal kingdom. As you read Philippians, you see Paul’s joy overflowing; and the reason he was filled with joy is that he had been obedient to God’s call to proclaim the gospel there, and they had responded (Phil. 1:3-5). Even in his present circumstances, being imprisoned, the gospel was going forth, which caused Paul to rejoice (Phil. 1:12, 18).

Over the past few months I have been ministering to an elderly couple who have come to this church for many years, George and Mary Cramer. Mary is quite frail, and may be facing the end of her life on this earth soon. But they are both filled with God’s joy and peace in this time of trial. For years, their focus in life has been to let people know about our Savior. Every time they leave their house, they pray that God will use them to tell someone about Christ. They carry a supply of “Our Daily Bread” booklets to give to people.

Over the years, they’ve seen college students who worked at Burger King come to know Christ. Mary would sit on the bench outside Safeway and talk to whoever sat down beside her while George shopped. Although she is in the hospital and very weak, they view this as an opportunity to tell people there about the Lord. George called me earlier in the week because he feared that his usual order of 125 copies of “Our Daily Bread” had been lost on the mail truck that burned. So he wanted me to bring him as many copies as I could so they could keep up their witness. You will have great joy if you follow their example in obeying God’s sovereign call to proclaim the gospel.

2. There is joy in the difficult circumstances that we encounter in proclaiming the gospel.

Somehow we have developed the false idea that if we obey God we will be exempt from trials. I often hear people going through suffering lament, “I was trying to please God and then this happened!” The clear question is, “Why didn’t God protect me?” But such an idea is never taught in the Bible. Read the Book of Acts and see how God’s obedient messengers suffered as they proclaimed the gospel.

Paul had joy in disappointing circumstances. In his vision, he saw a Macedonian man. When he got to Philippi, all he started with was a small group of women who had gathered to pray. How can you start a church with just a few women? Where were the men? But Paul faithfully spoke to them, God opened their hearts, and the church began.

In Philippians 1:15-18, Paul mentions the disappointment of those who proclaimed Christ from selfish ambition, rather than from love, trying to cause Paul distress in his imprisonment. But he still had joy in that situation, knowing that the gospel was being proclaimed.

Paul also had joy even in persecution. In Acts 16, with their backs oozing blood and their feet in the stocks, Paul and Silas sang hymns of praise to God (16:25)! In Philippians 1:12-14, Paul rejoiced even in his imprisonment, since he was seeing the gospel spread among the praetorian guard. The reason he could rejoice in such difficulties was that he believed in a sovereign God who is at all times in control, working all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). As the earthquake in Philippi showed, God was indeed in control, even though the situation immediately preceding the earthquake would have seemed that He was not.

3. There is joy in the conversion of lost sinners in response to the gospel.

When the Philippian jailer and all in his household believed, they all “rejoiced greatly” (Acts 16:34), just as Paul rejoiced in his remembrance of how God had powerfully saved the Philippians (Phil. 1:3-8). Whenever people are genuinely saved, there is demonstrable evidence in their changed lives. Lydia and her household members who believed were baptized and then showed hospitality to Paul and his companions (Acts 16:14, 15). If the slave girl was converted, you can be sure that she abandoned her occult practices and joined with the other Christians in following the Lord. The jailer was delivered from suicide, washed the wounds of Paul and Silas, was baptized, and joyfully showed them hospitality (16:31-34). The gospel is the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). It brings great joy to see sinners who were living for self transformed into saints who now live to exalt Jesus Christ.

4. There is joy in the power of the gospel to unite in Christ people of diverse backgrounds.

Think of the beginning nucleus of the Philippian church: An Asian businesswoman; a slave-girl who had been into the occult (assuming she got saved); and, a career Roman military man (the Philippian jailer). Surely, God has a sense of humor! Where could you find a less homogeneous group to start a church? Church growth experts today say that you need to target a homogeneous group, such as upwardly mobile, college-educated career people. That’s human wisdom, based on marketing techniques. God’s way is to save and bring together the most unlikely people. When friction develops (as surely it will), He then teaches them to learn the humility of Christ, who laid aside His privileges and went to the cross for our sakes (Phil. 2:1-11). What a joy it is to see people from every background working through their conflicts and “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil.


These are some of the lessons we’ll be learning as we work through this great portion of Scripture. But, what about you? Do you know the joy that comes from being reconciled to God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? You can know it this very hour! If you know Christ as your Savior, do you know the joy that comes from obeying His Great Commission? Can you, with Paul, say that your aim is that “Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20)? If you’ve gotten caught up with living for self, you can re-focus your life around the call of Christ to make disciples of all peoples. You’ll find yourself on the path of joy!

Discussion Questions

  1. Does biblical joy mean suppressing feelings of grief or sadness? How can we know God’s joy in the midst of suffering?
  2. Why doesn’t God protect from all hardships those who serve Him?
  3. Is the Great Commission binding on all Christians, or just on those called to “full-time” ministry?
  4. Is it wrong for the church to divide into culturally compatible groups? Why/why not?

Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

Lesson 2: The Foundation For Joy (Philippians 1:1-2)

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If you want to build something of lasting value, you need to make sure that your foundation is solid. You could have an architect draw the most creative plans for a spacious dwelling. Order the finest construction materials available. Hire the most skilled craftsmen to build your home. Install the latest appliances and electronic systems throughout the house. Decorate it with the finest furniture. But if it’s all resting on a faulty foundation, you’re wasting your money.

It’s the same spiritually. You can be a member of a church. You can even serve in that church. Outwardly, you can look like a good Christian by doing all the right things. But genuine Christianity is a matter of the heart before the God who knows our every hidden motive and thought. The joy He offers is not outward, superficial happiness based on good circumstances. It’s a deep, abiding contentment that is restricted to those who are, to use Paul’s frequent phrase, “in Christ Jesus.” To be in Christ is to be in a vital, organic, indissoluble union with Him through faith. In this brief introduction (which we might be prone to skip) to this book that develops the theme of God’s joy, the apostle gives us the solid foundation for that joy:

The foundation for joy is to be a slave of Christ and a saint in Christ in the fellowship of a local church by God’s grace.

1. The foundation for joy is to be a slave of Christ.

“Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus.” Timothy did not write this letter with Paul, as seen by the fact that Paul consistently refers to himself in the first person and to Timothy in the third person. But Timothy may have been Paul’s secretary, taking down his words as he spoke. Timothy had been with Paul, Silas, and Luke in the founding of the church in Philippi, some ten years earlier. Paul hoped to send Timothy from Rome to Philippi soon (2:19), so he wanted to give his backing to Timothy’s ministry. So he included him in his opening greeting. This greeting, by the way, follows the common pattern of that day, in which the sender identifies himself, then states to whom he is writing, then sends a cordial wish such as “grace” (charis), a take-off on the Greek greeting (charein), or “peace,” the common Hebrew greeting (shalom).

Immediately Paul identifies himself and Timothy as “bond-servants of Christ Jesus.” It’s the same word the demon-possessed servant-girl used to identify Paul and his companions when they first visited Philippi: “These men are bond-servants of the most high God” (Acts 16:17). The word means a slave and has its roots in Israel’s servitude to Egypt. When Paul refers to himself as the slave of Christ Jesus, the emphasis is on “the subordinate, obligatory and responsible nature of his service in his exclusive relation to his Lord” (R. Tuente, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. by Colin Brown, [Zondervan], 3:596).

So Paul identifies himself and Timothy right from the outset in the manner that all Christians must view themselves: “Do you not know that ... you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). To be a Christian is to be a slave, not to your own lusts, but to the Lord Jesus Christ. The foundation for knowing the abiding joy of the Lord is to recognize and submit to Jesus as your owner and Master, who has the right to command how and where you should live, how you should spend your time and money, and even how you should think. Your entire life must be focused on pleasing Him and doing His will as His slave.

James Boice points out (Philippians, An Expositional Commentary [Zondervan], p. 21) that in antiquity there were three ways a person could become a slave: by conquest; by birth; or, because of debt. He goes on to observe that we all are slaves of sin by the same three causes. Sin has conquered us, so that we are not free to do what we know is right. We are sinners by birth, being born with a nature that is hostile toward God and oriented toward pleasing self. We are sinners by debt, having run up an unpayable debt toward God who states that the wages of our sin is death.

But--and this is crucial--many people are not even aware of their condition as slaves to sin. Having been born in sin, living all their lives to gratify the selfish desires of their corrupt nature, and being unaware of the huge, unpayable debt they have run up before the holy God, they’re like the Jews who argued with Jesus that they had never been enslaved to anyone (John 8:33). But Jesus replied, “Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.... If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:34, 36). Only Jesus Christ, by His substitutionary death, can set us free from bondage to sin. But He only does it when we recognize our need and call out to Him for deliverance. Then, having been freed from sin through faith in Christ, we become enslaved to God and begin to grow in holiness (Rom. 6:22).

You may not like the idea of being enslaved to anyone. But the fact is, you are enslaved to someone or something. As Bob Dylan sang, “You gotta serve somebody.” Either you are enslaved to sin or you’re enslaved to Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:16). But, while sin is a terrible master, because it destroys and leads to death, Jesus is a kind, gracious, and loving Master. Serving Him leads to eternal life.

So the question you need to ask yourself is, “Whom am I serving?” Slaves’ lives were consumed with serving their masters. A slave didn’t clock in at 8 in the morning, put in his eight hours, and clock out for the night. He was the property of his master. He didn’t have a life of his own. He was on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, always ready to do what his master commanded, even if it was unpleasant or inconvenient. In Paul’s case, his Master’s will when he wrote Philippians was that he be in chains in prison in Rome. He could have chafed under that, complaining, “Is this any way to treat a faithful apostle?” But instead, Paul was content because he was in total submission as the slave of Christ Jesus.

Many people call themselves Christians, but the truth is, they live every day for themselves. They do not yield themselves each morning and say, “Master, I’m your slave. I’ll do your bidding at work, at home, or at play.” The starting place for experiencing God’s joy is to yield yourself daily as a slave to Jesus as your Master; and to view yourself as being on duty for Him, listening for His voice, quick to obey His commands.

2. The foundation for joy is to be a saint in Christ.

Paul writes “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi.” Maybe you’re thinking, “There must have been a few outstanding Christians there who had already earned the reputation of being saints.” The idea that sainthood is the state of a few exemplary believers comes to us from the Catholic Church, but it is contrary to the New Testament usage, which applies the word to every true Christian. Paul writes to the saints in Rome, Ephesus, and even Corinth, referring to the whole church.

The word literally is “holy ones.” The basic meaning of “holy” is to be set apart, especially, to be set apart unto God. It looks at the standing of every believer before God by virtue of the fact that when a person believes in Christ’s sacrifice for his sin, God forgives all his sin and sets that person apart unto Himself. We are set apart from this evil world; we are set apart from serving ourselves; we belong to God, set apart by Him to do His will.

The late, well-known Bible teacher, Harry Ironside, in the days before airplane travel, used to spend many hours traveling by train. On one such trip, a four-day ride from the west to Chicago, he found himself in the company of a group of nuns. They liked him for his kind manner and for his interesting insights on the Bible. One day, Dr. Ironside began a discussion by asking the nuns if any of them had ever seen a saint. None of them had. He then asked if they would like to see a saint. They all said, yes, they would like to see one. Then Ironside surprised them greatly by saying, “I am a saint; I am Saint Harry.” He took them to verses in the Bible, such as this one, to show that every Christian is a saint. (Told by Boice, p. 24.)

You may laugh at the idea of Saint Harry or Saint whatever-your-name-is. But it’s an important New Testament truth that you view yourself as Saint whoever-you-are! As a saint, a person set apart unto God, you are not to withdraw into a monastery, or to withdraw from our culture, as the Amish folks do. You are to live in the culture, but to live distinctly from the culture, as one set apart unto God. Just as it would be odd for a wealthy man to live homeless on the streets, or it would be strange for an adult to spend great amounts of time playing as a child, because such behavior is opposed to their true identity, so it should be odd for a Christian, a saint, to live in the same manner as those who are not set apart unto God. Your attitudes, your values, your speech, your selfless focus, your humility, your love, your commitment to truth, should mark you as a saint in Christ Jesus.

Did you note the centrality and significance of Jesus Christ to the apostle Paul? He uses the name of Christ three times in these opening two verses, and 18 times in the first chapter. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote (The Life of Joy [Baker], p. 31),

Paul has no gospel apart from Jesus Christ. The gospel is not some vague general offer, nor is it a mere exhortation to people to live a good life; rather it tells of the things that have happened in Christ, because without Christ there is no salvation. And if Christ is not essential to your position, then according to Paul you are not a Christian. You may be very good, you may even be religious, but you cannot be a Christian. If Christ is not absolutely the core and centre, it is not Christianity, whatever else it may be.

To be “in Christ” means that all that is true of Christ is true of you. When Christ died to sin, you died. When He was raised, you were raised to newness of life in Him. Is He presently enthroned at the right hand of the Father, over all rule and authority? Then you are there in Him (Eph. 1:20-23). Just as the branch is organically connected to the vine and draws its life from it, so we are in Christ (John 15:1-6). We are to abide or live in Christ by keeping His commandments (John 15:10). After teaching this truth, Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (John 15:11). To be a saint in Christ Jesus is foundational for true joy.

3. The foundation for joy is to be in the fellowship of a local church.

Paul writes “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons.” Being a Christian is an individual matter, in that you must personally trust in Christ as your Savior. But it is also a corporate matter, because you become a member, not only of Christ, but also of His body, the church. The church worldwide consists spiritually of all who have trusted Christ, but it gathers locally in congregations organized under the godly leadership of overseers and deacons. If you are not vitally connected to a local fellowship of Christians, you are lacking a crucial part of the foundation for joy in the Lord, because you are isolated from those who can stimulate you to love and good deeds, who can encourage you to godly living as the day of the Lord draws near (Heb. 10:24-25).

Relationships among believers can be a source of great joy, but, frankly, they can also be a source of great pain. As one wag put it, “To dwell above with the saints we love, O that will be glory; but, to dwell below with the saints we know, that’s a different story!” If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, I can predict with 100 percent accuracy that you have been hurt by fellow believers. Getting hurt, of course, makes you want to draw back from the church for fear of it happening again. But if you do that, you rob yourself of joy, because God doesn’t call us to live in isolation, but in relation with other saints.

Remember, there were only two kinds of people in Philippi (or Flagstaff): the saints and the “non-saints.” While it can be painful to relate to the saints, it’s really tough to be cut off from the saints, surrounded by people who don’t care about the things of God. There were tensions in the flock in Philippi, and Paul subtly begins to address those tensions even in this opening greeting with the little word “all” (“to all the saints”). He repeats the phrase “you all” in 1:4, 7 (twice), 8, and 25. In a gentle way he seems to be saying, “What I write, I write to all who are in Christ. What I pray, I pray for you all. What I think and feel, I think and feel towards all, because you all share in God’s grace with me. You all must progress in God’s joy together.”

In the local church, God has ordained for leaders to have oversight and to serve. Two types of church officers are mentioned: overseers (“bishops”); and, deacons (the Greek word means “servants”). We don’t know for sure why Paul singles them out, but perhaps it was because the gift he had received had been sent from the church through the overseers and deacons. Or, perhaps Paul wanted to call attention to their office so that the church would submit to their role in resolving the squabbles that were threatening their unity (Heb. 13:17; 1 Thess. 5:12-13).

Overseers are the same as elders (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5, 7). “Overseer” looks at the work, to watch over God’s flock; “elder” looks at the man, that he must be a man of spiritual maturity. The qualifications for this office are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, and are primarily godly character and the ability to exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict. The primary task that the overseer/elder does is to shepherd God’s flock, which involves protecting the flock from danger, leading by example, and feeding the flock from God’s Word (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-4). Some elders are to devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and are thus worthy of financial support. Others concentrate more on oversight and administration (“rule well,” 1 Tim. 5:17-18), and may also work in outside jobs.

The office of deacon arose in the early church because the apostles were being drawn away from their primary ministry of prayer and the Word into administering the distribution of food to the poor among the church (Acts 6:1-6). Thus the ministry of deacons is to serve the body in practical and administrative ways that free up the elders for the work of shepherding, teaching, and prayer. The qualifications for deacons are just as high as for elders, namely, that they must be men of godly character (Acts 6:3; 1 Tim. 3:8-13). But the point is, you won’t know God’s joy unless you are part of a local fellowship, under the oversight of godly men who shepherd and serve the flock under Christ.

Thus, God’s joy is based on being a slave of Christ and a saint in Christ, in fellowship with the church of Christ. Finally,

4. The foundation for joy is to be the recipient of God’s grace and peace in Christ.

“Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2). As mentioned, this was a standard greeting, but it is far more than just a greeting. Perhaps Paul combined the Greek and Hebrew greetings to show that in Christ there is no distinction between Gentile or Jew. We are all one in Christ. This greeting also shows that God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (His deity is implicit in the equal association of Him with the Father) are the source of both grace and peace.

Grace is, quite simply, God’s unmerited favor, shown to those who deserve His judgment. If you earn it, it’s not grace, but a wage that is due. God’s grace is extended to the ungodly who know it, not to those who think they’re deserving (Rom. 4:4-5). God’s grace is the only way to be reconciled to God. If you think you deserve a place in God’s kingdom because you’re a pretty good person, you don’t understand and have not laid hold of God’s grace. If you think things are right between you and God because you do good things for others and try to live a clean life, you have not grasped God’s grace; you are, in fact, alienated from God. God resists the proud (those who think they’re deserving), but He gives grace to the humble (James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). The only way to receive God’s unmerited favor is to see yourself rightly as an undeserving sinner and call out for His grace. If you don’t know grace, you don’t know God!

Peace is the result of experiencing God’s grace. The order is important: You cannot know God’s peace without first appropriating His grace. Where God’s grace is lacking, peace will also be in short supply. Peace points to the inner well-being that comes from being reconciled to God through what He provided in Christ. Both grace and peace operate first vertically, but also horizontally. If you know God’s grace and peace, you will become a gracious, peaceable person toward others. You will show grace to them because God’s grace is real in your life. You will seek peace with them because God’s peace floods your heart, and He commands you to live at peace with others, as much as it depends on you (Rom. 12:18).


If you’re lacking God’s joy, I encourage you to examine your foundation. Are you a slave of Christ Jesus, in total submission to Him, seeking at all times to please Him by doing His will? If you’re living for self, you’ll lack God’s joy. Do you see yourself as a saint in Christ Jesus, set apart from this evil world unto Christ, living in union with Him? If you blend in with the world, you’ll lack God’s joy. Are you linked in fellowship with the church of Christ Jesus, serving together in the great cause of Christ? If you are isolated from the church, you will lack God’s joy.

Have you received and do you live daily in the grace of Christ Jesus? Does the thought of God’s unmerited favor, shown to you, cause you at times to well up in gratitude and love toward God? Because of His grace, does His peace flood into your soul, even in the midst of trials? If so, you’re laying a solid foundation for lasting joy in the Lord. “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). Amen!

Discussion Questions

  1. Is there such a thing as knowing Christ as Savior, but not as Master? Can a Christian be a slave of sin (Rom. 6:16-22)?
  2. Why is it crucial to view yourself as a saint? What if you aren’t perfect? Are you still a saint?
  3. Why is being connected to a local church not optional for the Christian?
  4. Some say, “Christ died for you because you’re worthy.” Why is this totally contrary to God’s Word?

Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Fellowship, Grace, Sanctification

Lesson 3: Confident About Salvation (Philippians 1:3-6)

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One of the most important questions for every person to answer is, “How can I be confident that I am truly saved?” And, some follow-up questions are just as crucial, “If I am truly saved, can I know for sure that I will not lose my salvation?” “What about our loved ones? Can we know if they are truly saved and if they will persevere?”

These are crucial questions because they concern matters of our own and our loved ones’ eternal destinies. If we are truly saved, but lack assurance, we will live in constant anxiety about the state of our souls. On the other hand, if we or our loved ones think we are saved when we are not truly saved, we will be in for the most rude awakening when we someday stand before the Lord only to hear Him say, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23). So we must be careful not to rest on false assurance, or to give it to others. But, if we can obtain true assurance from God about our salvation, then we need it.

Our text gives us some answers to these questions. It is not all that is written on this topic, of course. The entire epistle of First John was written so that those who had believed in Christ could know that they had eternal life (1 John 5:13). John gives a number of tests which we can both apply to ourselves and also to others, to make sure that we are in the faith. But Philippians 1:3-6 is an important text. James Boice calls verse 6 one of the three greatest verses in the Bible that teaches the perseverance of the saints, “the doctrine that no one whom God has brought to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ will ever be lost,” the other two texts being Romans 8:38, 39 and John 10:27, 28 (Philippians, An Expositional Commentary [Zondervan], p. 40).

It is tempting to develop these verses along the theme of joy (as I did the first two messages on Philippians), because Paul begins by mentioning his joy as he prayed with thanksgiving for these believers. It’s certainly remarkable that Paul’s focus was not on himself. He was in prison in Rome facing possible execution; fellow Christian leaders were preaching against Paul out of envy and strife (Phil. 1:15); but he was filled with joy because his focus was on God and His faithfulness and on what God was doing with the Philippian church.

If you are feeling down, a prescription for joy is to fix your thoughts on God’s faithfulness. If He has used you in the past to lead someone to Christ or to minister to a fellow believer, think about them and pray for their continued growth. In other words, get your focus off of self and onto God and others and you’ll be flooded with God’s joy.

But to return to the other theme, of how we can be confident about our own or others’ salvation, the apostle teaches us that ...

If there is evidence that God has begun the work of salvation in us, we can be confident that He will complete it.


My view on this subject will probably be different than the views many of you have heard or believe. Some teach that a person can be truly saved, but if he turns away from Christ, he can lose his salvation. This view is called Arminianism, and also was promoted by John Wesley. I believe this view is in error. Others teach that if a person professes faith in Christ, he is saved and, thus, eternally secure. One of the first things to share with this person is assurance of salvation. Even if he later falls away and goes back into the world, with no evidence of salvation in his life, this view teaches that he will be in heaven someday because, “Once saved, always saved.” I believe that this view is incomplete and thus in error.

I believe that Scripture teaches that salvation is entirely the work of God, not of man. The God who is powerful to save is also powerful to keep the ones He saves. At the same time, the enemy is deceitful to counterfeit the work of God. Thus some, like the seed sown on the rocky ground and on the thorny ground, seem at first to be saved. But time proves that they were not truly saved, because they do not persevere by bearing fruit unto eternal life. Thus we must be careful to distinguish in ourselves and in others the true saving grace of God from the counterfeit work of the devil. If there is evidence that God has truly begun His work of salvation in us, then we can be confident that He will complete what He has begun. Let’s develop this further:

1. God begins the work of salvation.

“He who began a good work in you” refers to God and the work of salvation which He began in the hearts of the Philippians. We have seen (in Acts 16) how the households of Lydia and the Philippian jailer responded to the gospel, and perhaps also the demon-possessed slave girl. It is the preaching of the good news that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3, 4) that is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

We also saw in our first study that God is decidedly the author of salvation. He elected us to salvation in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). He sent the Savior at the proper time. He ordained that Christ must die for our sins as the only acceptable substitute (John 1:29; Acts 2:23). He prohibited Paul and his companions from going into certain areas to preach and instead directed them to Philippi (Acts 16:6-10). When they obeyed God’s leading and preached the gospel to Lydia, “the Lord opened her heart to respond” (Acts 16:14). As Jesus Himself stated plainly, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him”; “... no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:44, 65). “Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9).

We also need to understand that the gospel message is not, “If you’ve got some problems in your life and you’d like to have a happier life, trust in Jesus. He will give you an abundant life.” We often hear variations of this theme presented as the gospel, but they miss the heart of the matter, which is of far greater consequence than enjoying a happy life here on earth. The true gospel confronts our fundamental problem, namely, our alienation from a holy God due to our sin and rebellion. If we die in this condition, we will be eternally separated from God, under His just wrath in hell. But God, who is rich in mercy, provided His substitutionary Lamb to make atonement for our sin, so that all who trust in Him are saved from God’s judgment.

When that good news is proclaimed, the Holy Spirit bears witness to the objective truth of it in the hearts of those whom the Father is drawing to Himself. Apart from any human merit, God supernaturally imparts to that person an abiding change of nature through regeneration (the new birth). He grants them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 2:25) and faith to believe it (Phil. 1:29). Thus salvation is not at all from man, but rather is “by grace through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8, 9; see Titus 3:4-7; John 1:12-13).

It is important to affirm the true nature of the gospel and of salvation, because if we mistakenly think that salvation depends upon us, or upon a human decision, then that decision could be reversed or rescinded. The Arminian error is that God has given us a free will, so we can decide by ourselves either to choose God or reject Him. But Scripture is abundantly clear that the human will is not free, except to continue in sin and rebellion against God (Rom. 3:10-18; 8:7-8; Eph. 2:1-5). Even John Wesley sang his brother, Charles’, great hymn which says, “Long my imprisoned spirit lay Fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke--the dungeon flamed with light! My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”

If you want to read a powerful refutation of the idea of “free will,” read Martin Luther’s, The Bondage of the Will (translated by J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnson [Revell]). For over 300 pages, Luther relentlessly devastates the view that salvation depends on our “free will.” He argues that if it depended on such a thing, we could never have assurance that we are right with God. He admits to his own misery in believing that for years before his conversion (pp. 313-314). Then he states (p. 314),

But now that God has taken my salvation out of the control of my own will, and put it under the control of His, and promised to save me, not according to my working or running, but according to His own grace and mercy, I have the comfortable certainty that He is faithful and will not lie to me, and that He is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can break Him or pluck me from Him. “No one,” He says, “shall pluck them out of my hand, because my Father which gave them me is greater than all” (John 10:28-29). Thus it is that, if not all, yet some, indeed many, are saved; whereas, by the power of “free-will” none at all could be saved, but every one of us would perish.

Please understand, a person is not saved apart from faith in Christ. But Scripture clearly teaches that when a person believes in Christ, that faith is not the product of his “free will,” but rather comes from God who powerfully works faith in us. Salvation is totally from God.

2. God’s salvation is always accompanied by evidence.

The “good work” which God begins works its way out as a believer grows to maturity and is progressively conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29). In other words, salvation is always accompanied and followed by sanctification, or growth in holiness. As Jonathan Edwards argued in his profound work, “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections” (in The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:236), “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” He means that “love and the pursuit of holiness is the enduring mark of the true Christian” (Jonathan Edwards, A New Biography [Banner of Truth], by Iain Murray, p. 259).

The evidence in the Philippian believers to which Paul calls attention was their “participation in the gospel from the first day until now” (1:5). “Participation” is the word “fellowship” (Greek, koinonia), which means “sharing together in.” The Philippians had shared with Paul in the gospel, first by believing it and being saved, then by devoting themselves to it and all that it entails. Like all who are truly saved, they were not just occasional dabblers in religion; rather, they were vitally joined together with the apostle in the great cause of Jesus Christ, so that he could rightly refer to them as fellow-sharers, participants, in the gospel. While there is far more evidence that could be compiled from the rest of the New Testament, I want to point out four lines of evidence of salvation contained in these verses.

A. Salvation is always accompanied by the evidence of fellowship with God.

To fellowship in the gospel is to fellowship with God Himself, who gave us the gospel. Christianity is not just believing a set of doctrines, as essential as doctrinal truth is. It is coming to know the living and true God, and that through His Son Jesus Christ. As Jesus prayed, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). Or, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9).

Thus if a person is genuinely saved, he enters into a personal relationship with the personal God. Relationships involve a progressive knowledge of the other person. We grow to know God as He has revealed Himself in His Word. A relationship involves time spent together, sharing our deepest thoughts, fears, and hopes with this God who knows us thoroughly. A relationship implies that we are interested in the things that concern the other person. Even so, an evidence of salvation is that a person becomes interested in the things of God as revealed in His Word. When a true Christian is around other Christians, he delights to talk about God and His Word. If there is no interest in the things of God and no evidence of personal fellowship with God, it is doubtful if a person is truly saved.

B. Salvation is always accompanied by the evidence of fellowship with God’s people.

By entering the fellowship of the gospel, the Philippians had entered into fellowship with Paul, Timothy, Silas, and Luke who brought the gospel to them. Paul shares his deep feelings of love for these people. His remembrance of them brought tears of joy to his eyes and a longing to his heart. There is nothing humanly to explain this bond of love between this Asian who was formerly a Jewish zealot and these mostly Gentile Europeans who were formerly worldly pagans. One evidence of salvation is that it brings us into genuine fellowship with the people of God, no matter how different our backgrounds.

I believe this is a powerful proof of the reality of the gospel. All of us who know Christ have had the experience of meeting someone we’ve never met before, and discovering that this person also knows Christ. In just a matter of minutes, even though the person was a total stranger, the fact that we both know the Lord draws us together into a bond of fellowship that often seems closer than you feel toward some family members who do not know Christ. One of the glories of the church is that people who otherwise would have nothing in common--people like Lydia, the businesswoman; the formerly demonic slave-girl; and, the career military man (the jailer)--suddenly become “partakers of grace” (1:7) together and join together in the great cause of the gospel (1:27).

C. Salvation is always accompanied by the evidence of a new focus and endeavor: the gospel.

The Philippians, from day one, joined with Paul in the fellowship of the gospel. Rather than living for self and pleasure, as they formerly did, they now lived to serve Jesus Christ, even in the face of opposition (1:27-30). This was also the experience of the early church in Jerusalem, as we read in Acts 8:4, “Those who had been scattered [by persecution] went about spreading the good news of the word” (lit.). That’s not referring to so-called preachers only, but to all the believers. If your life has been transformed through the gospel, so that you have experienced the forgiveness of your sins by God’s grace and you have been raised from spiritual death to life by God’s power, then with the early apostles you must say, “We cannot stop speaking what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).

God doesn’t save anyone so that they can live a happy, self-centered life. When He saves you, you become a minister (servant) of the gospel. We have different spiritual gifts and we have different ways and situations in which to exercise those gifts. But there is simply no such thing as a saved person who is not supposed to be serving the Lord and His gospel in some capacity. You view all of life through the lens of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:23).

One way (not the only way) that the Philippians had fellowshiped with Paul in the gospel was by frequently sending him financial support (4:15-16). It’s safe to say that if the gospel has not touched your money, it has not touched your heart, because your heart is bound up with your treasure (Matt. 6:21). So a powerful evidence of the new birth is when, quietly and without public notice (Matt. 6:1-4), out of a desire to please God, you begin giving generously to support the work of the gospel.

D. Salvation is always accompanied by the evidence of living in light of the Lord’s coming.

Paul says that God will perfect His good work “until the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6), that great day when He comes back in power and glory. We shall see Him and shall be like Him (1 John 3:2). We will give an account to Him of our management of what He has entrusted to us. Every true child of God will hear those joyous words, “Well done, good and faithful slave; ... enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21, 23). The Lord will then reveal “the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God” (1 Cor. 4:5). If you often think of the Lord’s coming and our meeting Him in the air, it’s a powerful evidence that He has begun the work of salvation in your heart.

3. God completes the work of salvation.

What God begins, He finishes. If salvation is, even in part, the work of man, there is the chance that it won’t be finished. But if God has begun it, and we see evidences of it, then we can be confident, whether in ourselves or in others, that He “will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” As Paul states later in this letter, it is a process in which we never arrive in this life, and so we must press on toward maturity (3:12-14). Perfection in these evidences is not going to happen until we’re with the Lord.

The fact that God does it does not imply that we are passive. God is at work, but we work with Him. We must work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (2:12, 13). But our assurance and confidence is never in ourselves or in our working, but only in God and in the evidences we see of His faithful working in and through us. If there is evidence that God has begun the work of salvation in us, we can be confident that He will complete it as we continue to participate in the gospel.


A message like this may have the effect of shaking the assurance of salvation that some of you formerly had. If that assurance was a false assurance because there is no evidence that God has truly begun His good work in you, then it needs to be shaken. Or, if your assurance was based on your decision to follow Christ (rather than on His sovereign, unmerited grace), or if it was based on what you have done for God through your good deeds (rather than on what God has done for you in the death of His Son), it needs to be shaken. You need to abandon your pride and call out to God for His saving grace.

But if you can see how God sovereignly, graciously has called you to Himself, and you see the evidence of His working through your fellowship in the gospel, then you can be confident that He who began the good work in you will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.

Discussion Questions

  1. What Scriptures counter the common notion that people have the “free will” to choose God? (Try Rom. 9:16; James 1:18.)
  2. In light of the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:3-9, 18-23), is it wise to share “assurance of salvation” with someone who just professed faith in Christ? Why/why not?
  3. Can a Christian who has turned away from the Lord have assurance of salvation? Should we share it with him?
  4. Some argue, “If salvation requires evidence, then it is not by faith alone.” Why is this fallacious?

Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Sanctification, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 4: True Christian Fellowship (Philippians 1:3-8)

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A family went to the movies. On the way in, the young man of the family stopped at the refreshment stand to pick up some popcorn. By the time he got into the theater, the lights were already dim and he couldn’t find his family. He paced up and down the aisles in near darkness, peering down each row. Finally, in desperation, he stopped and asked out loud, “Does anyone here recognize me?”

Even though it’s well-lit, there may be people who come into this church and feel like that young man--lost, isolated, disconnected from everyone. Deep down, they are silently crying out, “Does anyone here recognize me?” They’re longing for true Christian fellowship.

While the local church ought to be the place where you can find genuine fellowship in Christ, all too often it is lacking. On vacation a couple of years ago, our family visited a small church in Colorado. It should have been obvious to the regular attenders that we were new. And yet, even though we arrived before the service began and stood around for quite a while after it was over, no one came up to talk with us. That doesn’t incline you toward going back a second time.

The local church is not supposed to be like a theater, where you file in, find a seat next to folks that you don’t have any relationship with, watch the performance, and file out. Part of our problem is that we’ve come to think of the church as the building you go to for church services. That idea is foreign to the New Testament, which clearly presents the church as God’s people, a living body knit together by their union with Christ, the head. Coupled with the church as a building fallacy is the equally unbiblical notion that the pastor and perhaps a few committed volunteers run the church. The rest of the folks just come, sit, listen, and go home.

But the Bible is clear that every member is a minister of Christ, with a vital function to fulfill. If everyone here who knows Christ as Savior viewed himself or herself as a minister, here to serve Christ by reaching out in love to others, no one could walk into our services and feel like no one recognized him.

As you read our text, it is obvious that Paul had a relationship of close fellowship with this church. It wasn’t what often goes by the label “fellowship” in American Christianity, the superficial chatting about sports or the weather over coffee and donuts. Even though they were miles apart, Paul’s heart was tied up with these people, and their hearts were with him. There was no natural explanation for this closeness between this Asian Jew who was now in prison in Rome and these European people who themselves were no homogeneous group. What knit them together was true Christian fellowship.

True Christian fellowship means sharing together in the things of God.

There are five strands of true fellowship in these verses:

1. True fellowship means praying for one another (1:3, 4).

Though Paul was confined and could not be with the Philippians, his chains could not prevent him from thinking about them and praying for them. His remembrance of them filled him with thanksgiving and joy, as he thought about how God was truly at work among them. And those thoughts turned into frequent prayers on their behalf.

Our remembrance of other believers should not stop with warm feelings. Our remembrance should be turned God-ward, into heartfelt prayers for one another. I personally struggle with going over prayer lists, because I always think, “Lord, You can read my list. You know these needs.” It always seems kind of mechanical and meaningless to me. The lists can be helpful, to bring to mind people I otherwise would forget. But I find it easier to pray for people as God brings them to my mind during the day. Turn your remembrances into prayer.

In Ephesians 6:18 we’re told to “pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints.” In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 we’re told to “pray without ceasing.” Romans 12:12 tells us to “be devoted to prayer.” These verses do not mean that we are to quit our jobs and spend all day every day in prayer. The word translated “without ceasing” was used of a hacking cough. Someone with a hacking cough is always coming back to it after brief intervals. Thus, prayer is to be a frequent, common conversation between us and the Lord, and the subject of our prayers should often be other Christians and their walk with God (we’ll look next week at the content of Paul’s prayer in Phil. 1:9-11.)

Sometimes you may wonder, “Why do I need to pray? God already knows everything, and He’s going to accomplish His sovereign will anyway. So what’s the point of praying?” But the prayers of the saints are part of God’s method for accomplishing His sovereign will. And He uses prayer to change the heart of the one doing the praying, as well as to work in the hearts of others. As you bring your requests before God, your motives are exposed. You quickly realize that you can’t honestly bring certain requests before God, because your thoughts about a brother or sister aren’t pleasing to Him! If you’re inclined to pray the imprecatory psalms against someone, God will convict you and ask, “Is that really what you want Me to do to this brother or sister in Christ?”

If you’re having trouble with another believer, even if it’s your mate or a family member, pray often for that person. It’s hard to stay angry at someone you’re praying for daily! James Boice states, “I think that ninety percent of all the divisions between true believers in this world would disappear entirely if Christians would learn to pray specifically and constantly for one another” (Philippians, An Expositional Commentary [Zondervan], p. 49).

2. True fellowship means serving God together (1:5, 7).

We’ve already seen how, from day one, the Philippians joined Paul in the cause of the gospel. They were active in serving the Lord. The concept of being a church member who just attends a church service once a week would have been completely foreign to them, and rightly so. It should be foreign to us! Christ never saves anyone so that they can just add church attendance to their list of weekly things to do. Nor does He save anyone so that they can live happier lives that are just as self-centered as they were before. Every believer is saved to serve God.

Americans have adopted a change in focus, in which they view the church like consumers who are shopping for a place that will meet their needs. So they try out this church and that church, and finally settle on one that seems to offer the services they’re interested in. But if they have an unpleasant experience or if they hear of another church that seems to offer better programs, they change to it, much like they change department stores if another one better suits their fancy.

Sadly, a lot of churches cater to this mentality. Articles and books tell pastors how to market their churches to the “Baby Boomers.” They warn that if we don’t learn what the Baby Boomers want and re-design the church to give it to them, we’ll lose them. Nervous pastors see the people going down the street to the church that offers a full-service program, and they get busy trying to design new programs to help their church compete in the marketplace.

I intend some time to write an article on why we’re not a “full-service” church. The point of the church is decidedly not to meet the needs of folks who decide to give them their business! The church is a fellowship of those who serve Jesus because He bought them with His blood. That service sometimes includes being persecuted. Paul mentions how the Philippians were partners with him in his imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel (1:7). He tells them, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (1:29) [it’s a gift!]. Can you picture the Philippian church taking out an ad in the local paper to market the church: “Come, join our church! You’ll love suffering with us! We have the best persecution program in town!”

When I was in the Coast Guard, I never had to serve in combat. But you who did can identify with this aspect of true Christian fellowship. Even though you probably served with pagans, fighting together against the enemy in life or death situations knit you together with those men. If you have a reunion of your company, seeing those men brings back memories of how you risked your lives for one another and for the cause.

The Christian church is engaged in mortal combat for the souls of men and women. The truth of the gospel is under attack, not only from outside the camp, but also from within. Thus it needs to be defended. There are many today who say that we should never be negative, that we should only emphasize loving one another. Those who dare to confront serious heresies get labeled as divisive and unloving. But Paul spent a good deal of time in his letters defending the gospel, often against false teachers in the church. So did John, Peter, and Jude. So must we, if we want to be faithful to Christ.

The gospel also needs to be confirmed. Defense focuses on the negative task of confronting error; confirmation focuses on the positive task of setting forth the truth of the gospel and its implications for how we should live. The gospel is confirmed through the church when our lives show the fruit of godliness (see 1 Cor. 1:6). Even though it is more positively focused, the confirmation of the gospel is also a battleground. The enemy hates it when God’s truth is set forth in a clear, practical manner, because Christians start dealing with their sin and living holy lives. And so it draws fire and creates controversy.

The point is, every Christian has a role to fulfill by serving in Christ’s army. The Lord saved you to serve, and serving Him isn’t always easy or free from strife and conflict. But it knits us together in fellowship when we join in serving Him. True fellowship means praying and serving Christ together.

3. True fellowship means trusting in God’s sovereign working in one another (1:6).

In our last study we saw from this verse how salvation is God’s doing from start to finish. But let’s look at verse 6 from the angle of fellowship. It means that I can trust God to work in the lives of my brothers and sisters. God began their salvation; He will finish the job. Fellowship often breaks down because I see that another Christian isn’t exactly where I’m at on some issue, whether it’s how to interpret some doctrine or how to live on some issue. I’m threatened by Christians who are different than I am, and so I take it on as my task to change that person so he will be like me. He senses my rejection of him or my attempts to change him, and draws back. Fellowship is hindered.

Verse 6 means that I’m not responsible to change others. I am responsible to minister God’s love and truth to others in a sensitive manner. If a brother is clearly wrong about a major truth or in sin or immature in the way he’s living, I am responsible to come alongside and do all I can to help him change and grow. If it’s a serious heresy or sin that he’s involved in, I may eventually need to separate from him. But at the same time, I can trust that it’s God’s job to change that brother. If God has truly saved him, God will finish the job. So I can relax, accept him where he’s at with the Lord, encourage him in areas of weakness, but also learn from him in areas where I need to grow. But I’m not the Holy Spirit, and it only serves to break fellowship when I take that role on myself. This applies also to husbands and wives and to parents and teenagers! You can and must trust God to change your mate, your kids, or your parents.

4. True fellowship means partaking together of God’s grace (1:7).

Paul saw the Philippians as “partakers of grace” with him. Just as Paul, the persecutor of the church, had found God’s undeserved favor at the cross, so had the Philippians. So have we all who have met Christ. Every true member of the church is a partaker of God’s grace. The more I grow in Christ, the more I sense how much grace I needed to get saved and how much grace I need daily to go on with Christ. And the more I should view my fellow saints as fellow sinners who need not only grace from God, but also grace from me, as we labor together for Christ.

Viewing ourselves and other Christians as fellow-partakers of God’s grace humbles us and puts us all on the same level. Paul could have viewed himself as God’s greatest apostle to the Gentiles, and the Philippians as his converts. “Just think where you’d be at today if I hadn’t come and given the gospel to you. And don’t forget how much I suffered in the process!” It’s interesting to trace chronologically how Paul referred to himself in three of his letters. In 1 Corinthians 15:9 he said that he was the least of the apostles. Later, in Ephesians 3:8, he said that he was the least of all saints. Finally, in 1 Timothy 1:15 he called himself the chief of sinners.

I’ve been around some Christians whose company, quite frankly, was difficult to enjoy. It’s easy to become judgmental and impatient, where you think, “Why is this person so hard to be around?” And fellowship is strained. I had a secretary in my church in California who was that way. She tended to be abrasive and insensitive to people. One day I asked her to tell me how she met the Lord. She told me of a terrible childhood in which her father had abused and then abandoned her. Her succession of stepfathers had been equally abusive. She finally ran off with her boyfriend to escape this horrible home life, and only later had met Christ. Hearing her story changed my attitude toward her. I realized that she was a partaker of God’s grace with me.

Of course, grace doesn’t mean that we tolerate sin and shrug off sloppy living. We sometimes need to confront; we need to help one another face and overcome faults. But if we remember that we’re all partakers of God’s undeserved favor, we’ll give one another more room to grow. We’ll be more patient and forbearing with one another. True Christian fellowship is a sharing together in God’s abundant grace.

Thus true fellowship means praying and serving together; it means trusting in God’s faithfulness and grace.

5. True fellowship means heartfelt affection for one another (1:8).

Paul calls God as his witness of his longing and affection for the Philippian believers, not because they would be prone to doubt him, but because he felt it so deeply. “Affection” is the word for bowels or the inner vital organs. It emphasizes the emotional aspect of Paul’s love for these people who were so dear to him. There was a popular Bible teacher a few years ago who used to say that agape love is a “mental attitude,” not an emotion. I’m afraid that he and his followers often reflected his teaching, being some of the coldest people I ever care to meet. But the Apostle Paul was unashamedly emotional in his love for God’s people. He told the Thessalonians that he had cared for them as tenderly as a nursing mother. Then he said, “Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8).

Sin divides us from those who are different from us racially, culturally, or in other ways. But the love of Christ unites us, not just intellectually, but with heartfelt love. Such love isn’t manipulative, trying to use the other person for our own advantage. It truly seeks God’s best for the other person, even at personal inconvenience or sacrifice.

Now, here’s the hard question (if you’re honest, you wrestle with it at times): How can I develop heartfelt love for a Christian whom I find it hard to be around? Well, let’s be honest, it’s not easy! All of the factors of fellowship I’ve mentioned go into the solution: Pray diligently for the person; work with him in the gospel; trust God to do His work of sanctification in him; ask him to share his testimony or background, and recognize that you both are partakers of God’s grace.

But there’s another factor mentioned in verse 8: Love him or her with the affection of Christ Jesus. J. B. Lightfoot paraphrases, “Did I speak of having you in my own heart? I should rather have said that in the heart of Christ Jesus I long for you.” Then Lightfoot comments, “A powerful metaphor describing perfect union. The believer has no yearnings apart from his Lord; his pulse beats with the pulse of Christ; his heart throbs with the heart of Christ” (Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians [Zondervan], p. 85). Jesus Christ loved that difficult brother or sister enough to go to the cross for him or her. He can love them through me. As I obey by judging my sinful thoughts toward the person and by acting in love, the feelings of love will almost invariably follow. But even if they don’t, I need to obey!


I read about a man named Mohammed who lives in a North African country that is almost totally Muslim. He sent away for some literature he heard about on a radio broadcast and received in the mail a Gospel of Matthew and a Gospel of John. Through studying them he came to faith in Christ.

But there are no churches in his country. Mohammed longed for a Christian brother to fellowship and pray with. He prayed diligently for four years, wondering if he would ever have the joy of meeting another Christian. Then one day he received a letter from a British Christian he had never met, who was following up with those who had requested gospel literature. The man told Mohammed that he would be in his area and asked if they could meet. Mohammed was so excited that his prayer was finally going to be answered that he couldn’t sleep for three nights before the scheduled meeting. When they met, Mohammed’s first experience of Christian fellowship was more wonderful than he could have imagined. (Story in Operation Mobilization’s “Indeed,” April/May, 1994.)

Some of us take Christian fellowship for granted, don’t we? What a great privilege it is to be able to share together in the things of God! If you just attend church, but aren’t connected with other Christians during the week, you need to get plugged in with the fellowship! And we all need to see ourselves a servants of Christ with a responsibility to reach out in true Christian fellowship to our brothers and sisters and, especially, to new people, even to those who may be different than we are. We don’t want anyone to come here and ask, “Does anyone here recognize me?”

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we do a better job of including and incorporating new people in our fellowship?
  2. How has the consumer mentality affected the church? Should the church see itself as being in the business of “meeting needs?”
  3. How does the concept that every Christian is a minister affect the fellowship of a local body?
  4. How can you develop heartfelt affection for a brother or sister you just can’t stand being around?

Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church), Fellowship, Grace, Prayer, Spiritual Life

Lesson 5: Discerning Love (Philippians 1:9-11)

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We all must avoid two extremes in the Christian life if we wish to grow to maturity. On the one hand are those who are prone to live by subjective feelings, devoid of doctrine. They love to sing over and over, “Oh, How I Love Jesus” and other such songs, with hands lifted up, swaying with the music. They think that doctrine is divisive, that what we need is life, by which they mean a subjective feeling that comes over them when they “get in the spirit.”

They also say that we don’t need to emphasize truth, but rather, love. They’re fond of saying, “Jesus didn’t say the world will know that we are His disciples by our doctrine, but by our love.” So they emphasize unity with anyone who names the name of Christ, no matter how erroneous their doctrine. They call for accepting all professing Christians, no matter what they believe or how they live. Such feeling-oriented Christians are not living in line with Scripture. They are imbalanced and will get into great trouble.

The other extreme we need to avoid is the precise opposite. These people emphasize knowledge and correct doctrine, but in practice they deny biblical love. They redefine love so narrowly that they can excuse their harsh attitudes toward those who disagree with them on some fine point of doctrine. They avoid confronting the coldness of their hearts toward God and His people by congratulating themselves on being “correct” doctrinally. In other words, they’re all head, but no heart.

The Bible, however, presents a fine balance between head and heart. Biblical Christianity means loving God and others fervently, from the heart; but also, such love is in line with God’s truth as revealed in His Word. Love for God or others that is not based on truth is just deluded emotionalism. But truth devoid of love leads to arrogance.

As I’ve mentioned before, my spiritual heroes are men who combine these two qualities: a fervent heart for God coupled with solid, biblical theology. John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones were all men of this caliber. Their lives were dedicated to knowing and expounding God’s Word of truth, but never in a cold, academic manner. They studied God’s truth so that they and others would grow into a deeper love for God and others.

Of course, the Lord Jesus combined perfectly this balance between love and truth. In the very chapter in which He prayed that His followers would be unified, He also prayed that they may be sanctified by God’s Word of truth (John 17:17, 21). The Apostle Paul also was a man marked by both love and truth. His prayer for the Philippian church, which was experiencing some friction between some of its members, is marked by a fine balance. He prays that they would abound in love; but, he adds that such love is inextricably bound up with real knowledge and all discernment. He is teaching us that:

Christians must grow in discerning love so that their godly lives give glory to God.

Paul’s prayer shows us not only how we should be living, but also how we should be praying for other Christians. So often our prayers are devoid of solid or thoughtful content: “God bless the missionaries. God be with Aunt Suzy. God help Brother Bob.” But Paul’s prayers always reflect profound doctrine. They were never based just on feelings, but are always rich in theology as well.

Before we examine the content of this prayer, notice one other factor that gives needed balance to our Christian lives. In verse 6, Paul expressed his confidence that God, who began a good work in the Philippians, would complete the job. Those who are out of balance take such words and conclude, “Fine, then we don’t need to do anything. God started it; God will complete it; we can sit back and watch Him do it apart from any effort on our part.”

But Paul, who knew that it was God who started the work and God who would finish it, was still actively involved in the process of getting that work done! He prayed fervently for these people. He exhorted them and taught them. A proper belief in the sovereignty of God never leads to stoic passivity, but rather to diligent, fervent labor. And it never leads to prayerlessness. Rather, understanding God’s sovereignty should move us to pray, since God uses prayer to accomplish His sovereign purpose. Let’s examine Paul’s prayer:

1. Biblical love for God and others is the supreme virtue of the Christian life.

You may have assumed that Paul’s prayer is directed toward love of the brethren, but please notice that he does not state the object of love. Of course, love for God and love for others can’t be separated. As John puts it, “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.... And this is the commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also” (1 John 4:16, 21). Love is not optional for the believer. It is bound up with the very essence of being a Christian. As John again puts it, “We know that we have passed out of death in life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). Jesus summed up the Law with the two commandments, to love God and to love our neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40). If you are not growing in love for God and others, you’re not growing.

But, what is biblical love? The word “love” conjures up warm, fuzzy, sentimental feelings of being nice all the time to everyone. But we must define love by Scripture, not by our cultural notions. Biblical love is never in opposition to truth, but rather is based on and is in line with truth. Biblical love is a caring, self-sacrificing commitment that seeks the highest good of the one loved. In our text, Paul says that ...

A. Biblical love is bound up with knowledge and discernment.

We think of love as being undiscriminating. Discrimination and love seem like opposites. But Paul prays that the Philippians would grow in discerning love. Love is not blind. It does not close its eyes to reality. It is not a feeling devoid of content. Biblical love is related to true knowledge and it operates with careful discernment.

“True knowledge” is a single Greek word (epignosis) that refers to intensive or deep spiritual knowledge. The Greek scholar, J. B. Lightfoot, says that this word “is used especially of the knowledge of God and of Christ, as being the perfection of knowledge” (St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon [Zondervan], p. 138. See Eph. 1:17; 4:13). Since God cannot be known except as He has revealed Himself, such true knowledge of God can only be obtained through His Word. Since God Himself is love, to grow in the true knowledge of God is to grow to understand what true love is.

This true knowledge of God as revealed in His Word is essential if you want to grow in love. We can’t know love by looking at our culture. We can only know what love looks like by studying the character of God, especially as revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ, God in human flesh. Was Jesus always syrupy and sweet with people? Read Matthew 23, where He lays into the Pharisees! Notice how He sometimes confronts the disciples. Yet He is the epitome of love!

I’ve occasionally received criticism that I am lacking in love because I confront sin. A former elder’s wife in California told me that I should get out of the pastorate because I was too much like Paul and not enough like Jesus! When I asked for clarification of that comment, she explained that Jesus was always nice and loving, but Paul was not like that! I’m not sure which translation she was reading! I don’t deny that I need to grow in love. But confronting sin is not an evidence of a lack of love! Biblical love is based on the true knowledge of God.

Also, biblical love is bound up with discernment. This Greek noun occurs only here in the New Testament, but a related verb occurs in Hebrews 5:14: “But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” Since biblical love is both holy and based on truth, we cannot love properly if we lack discernment.

John MacArthur’s recent book, Reckless Faith [Crossway Books], is a plea for discernment among American Christians, many of whom have abandoned this crucial quality. He shows how we have become anti-intellectual, trusting in feelings (as seen in the charismatic movement) or in tradition (as seen in the recent Catholic-Protestant rapprochement) and have thrown Scripture and sound reason to the wind. He defines discernment as “the ability to understand, interpret, and apply truth skillfully. Discernment is a cognitive act. Therefore no one who spurns right doctrine or sound reason can be truly discerning” (p. xv). Commenting on our text, he states,

Those who think of faith as the abandonment of reason cannot be truly discerning. Irrationality and discernment are polar opposites. When Paul prayed that the Philippians’ love would “abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment” (Phil. 1:9, emphasis added), he was affirming the rationality of true faith. He also meant to suggest that knowledge and discernment necessarily go hand in hand with genuine spiritual growth.

Biblical faith, therefore, is rational. It is reasonable. It is intelligent. It makes good sense. And spiritual truth is meant to be rationally contemplated, examined logically, studied, analyzed, and employed as the only reliable basis for making wise judgments. That process is precisely what Scripture calls discernment (pp. xv, xvi).

The mood today is that if you are critical of anyone’s doctrine or personal life, no matter how unbiblical it may be, you are not loving and you are arrogant to judge this person. Jesus’ words, “Judge not, lest you be judged” (Matt. 7:1) are wrenched out of context and misapplied. If people would just keep reading, Jesus goes on to say, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6). How can you determine if someone is a dog or swine if you don’t make discerning judgments? A few verses later He warns us to beware of false prophets who come as wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15). It takes a discerning sheep to see that this isn’t a fellow-sheep whom we need to embrace, but a ravenous wolf we need to avoid!

Thus biblical love cannot be divorced from the true knowledge of God and from the discernment between truth and error and right and wrong that comes from a careful knowledge of Scripture.

B. Biblical love is a quality in which we must continually grow.

The Philippians were a loving people, as evidenced in their relationship with Paul. But he prayed that their love would abound still more and more. No one can say that they have arrived at perfect love for God and others.

This means that biblical love is something we need to work at constantly. Did you give any thought to it this week? Husbands, are you working at loving your wife? Wives, are you working at loving your husband? Parents, are you working at loving your kids? Kids, are you working at loving your parents? Singles, are you working at loving your roommate? It’s a lifelong process.

One place to start is to study the many biblical references of the word “love.” Jot down on a card and memorize Paul’s great description of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7: “Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

At the heart of biblical love is self-sacrifice. Christ loved us and gave Himself for us (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:25; John 3:16). So many sincere Christians have been sucked into the popular false teaching that we must build our own and our children’s self-esteem. But this is diametrically opposed to Paul’s prayer, that we may abound in biblical love, because self-sacrifice and self-esteem (or self-love) are opposites.

Don’t misunderstand! To say that we should not build our children’s self-esteem is not to say that we should be unloving toward them. In fact, we should esteem our children and others more highly than we do ourselves (Phil. 2:3-4). We should encourage them and give them proper affirmation, which is a part of biblical love. But the goal of such behavior is not to build their self-esteem, but rather to model Christ and encourage our kids to be like Him. If our children see us denying self to please our Lord, they will want to follow and serve Him by laying down their lives out of love for Him and for others. If our focus is to help our kids build their self-esteem, we’re encouraging the inborn selfishness that dominates every fallen human heart.

Thus the heart of Paul’s prayer is for us to grow in the supreme virtue of discerning love.

2. Biblical love results in godly living that gives glory to God.

Verses 10 & 11 are the result of verse 9 (“so that”). There are five aspects of godly living mentioned here:

A. Godly living involves proper priorities.

“... that you may approve the things that are excellent, ...” The NIV translates, “to discern what is best.” Moffatt paraphrases, “Enabling you to have a sense of what is vital.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones comments, “The difficulty in life is to know on what we ought to concentrate. The whole art of life, I sometimes think, is the art of knowing what to leave out, what to ignore, what to put on one side. How prone we are to dissipate our energies and to waste our time by forgetting what is vital and giving ourselves to second and third rate issues” (The Life of Joy [Baker], p. 54).

What is vital is that you focus your life on loving God and others based on true knowledge and discernment. If that is at the center of your life, everything else will fall into its proper place.

B. Godly living involves integrity.

“... in order to be sincere and blameless ....” These words do not imply perfection, which no one, including Paul, attains in this life (Phil. 3:13). Rather, the words mean to live with integrity. To be sincere means to be pure, unmixed, without hypocrisy. To be blameless means to walk without stumbling. Paul used the word “blameless” to describe his own conscience before God and men (Acts 24:16). Since God looks on the heart, to be sincere and blameless means to live openly before God, judging sin on the thought level. It means that you don’t live a double life, putting on a good front around the church folks, but living another way when you’re alone or with your family.

C. Godly living involves living in light of Christ’s coming.

“... for the day of Christ; ...” The Christian who is growing in discerning love is living in light of Christ’s soon coming, when we all must stand before Him. If you’re living for personal happiness or fulfillment in this life, you will live for self and will not live in love for God and others. But if you realize that today you could be face to face with Christ, it motivates you to godly living, to self-sacrificing love.

D. Godly living involves bearing fruit through Jesus Christ.

“... having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, ...” The instant we trust in Christ as Savior, God imputes His righteousness to our account, so that we have right standing with Him. But the Christian life is a process of growing in righteous character and deeds. As the word “fruit” implies, this is a process, not something instantaneous. The word picture also implies that it is the life of Christ working in and through us that produces the fruit (John 15:1-6). As we grow in the true knowledge of God and in discernment through His Word, the fruit of the Spirit, whose first characteristic is love, is produced in us. We will become “zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14). The final result will be:

E. Godly living results in glory and praise to God.

“... to the glory and praise of God.” As we abound in discerning love, which leads to godly character and good deeds, God will be exalted in and through us, so that both we and others will praise Him for His grace and power. The ultimate goal of the Christian life is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. He is glorified (made to look good as He truly is) when His people abound in discerning love.


Moffatt translates 1 Corinthians 14:1, “Make love your aim.” Is your love for God and others abounding “still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment”? Is your growing love leading to godliness through proper priorities, integrity, living in light of Christ’s coming, and bearing the fruit of righteousness, so that your life results in glory and praise to God? Let’s all apply Paul’s prayer first to ourselves, and then let’s pray it for one another. If we grow in love rooted in true knowledge and discernment, we will avoid the winds of false doctrine that are blowing so many off course in our day.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why must love be rooted in truth? What happens when it’s not? Why must truth be coupled with love?
  2. Can we have true Christian unity at the expense of truth (John 17:14-21; Eph. 4:3-6, 13)?
  3. Why is it essential to determine what love is from Scripture rather than from our cultural ideas of love?
  4. How can we know if we love God (John 14:21, 23; 1 John 5:3)?
  5. How can we know if we love others properly (1 Cor. 13:4-7; 1 John 3:16-18; 4:7-21)?

Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Glory, Love

Lesson 6: Happiness: Through Circumstances Or Christ? (Philippians 1:12-18)

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Everyone wants happiness, but most people seek it in the wrong way. They assume that happiness comes through good circumstances, so they set out to improve their circumstances. If they’re single, they seek a spouse and a happy marriage. If they’re married, but unhappy, they get a divorce and look for someone else who can make them happier. If they’re married and childless, they seek to have children. If they’re married with children who are giving them problems, they don’t know what to do (since murder is not legal)! If they’re poor, they seek to get rich. If they’re rich, they discover that money doesn’t give them what they’re looking for. One wag said, “They say it’s better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable. But couldn’t something be worked out, such as being moderately wealthy and just a little moody?” (Reader’s Digest, 9/82.)

Jesus explained how we can find lasting happiness, but in so doing He stood the world’s way on its head: Lose your life for His sake and the gospel’s and you’ll find it. He said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s shall save it” (Mark 8:34, 35). He made the same point in the Sermon on the Mount, where He contrasted the pagans, who eagerly seek after the material comforts of life, with believers, who are to “seek first His kingdom and righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33).

The Apostle Paul was a man who proved Jesus’ words in the crucible of life. In our text, we find Paul in circumstances in which we could not fault him for being unhappy. Think of who he was--God’s chief apostle to the Gentiles. He was well-educated, experienced, influential. He had founded churches all over the Roman Empire. He had been used of God to pen much of our New Testament. He had endured much persecution and hardship in his labors for the Lord. By now he was over 60, at a time in life when a man looks forward to enjoying the fruits of his lifelong labors. Many American pastors by this time are looking forward to a relaxed schedule, a little more golf. If you’re as successful in ministry as Paul was, you could expect to live off your book sales and speak at a lot of conferences and retreats.

But where was Paul? Instead of being out on the links or speaking under the pines at a retreat center, he was in prison in Rome, awaiting a trial that could result in his execution. He was not in the strictest confinement, in a dungeon (as he later was). He was in his own rented quarters, and his friends were allowed to visit him (Acts 28:30, 31). But he was chained to a Roman guard 24 hours of every day. He had already spent two years being confined in Caesarea without any crime on his part. He had suffered a shipwreck and near death on his trip to Rome. Not only that, but he was being unfairly criticized by a number of jealous pastors in Rome, who probably were saying things like, “If Paul had God’s blessing in his life, do you think he would be in prison?” They were promoting their ministries at Paul’s expense.

Paul’s circumstances were enough to make any man unhappy, and yet we find him abounding with joy (1:18). What was his secret? How could Paul be filled with joy in these dismal circumstances? The answer is, he had put into practice the words of Jesus, that the way to find true life is to lose your life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel.

True happiness comes by proclaiming Christ in every situation.

Now maybe you’re thinking, “That’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t apply to me. I’m not called to be an evangelist or preacher or missionary. I’m a simple layman. I try to earn a decent living and raise my family. But I’m not called to proclaim Christ as Paul was.” But I contend that Jesus’ words apply not only to the Apostle Paul, but to every Christian in every stratum of life. Whether you are a construction worker, a business executive, a housewife, a student, or whatever you do, your objective should be to lose your life for the sake of Christ and the gospel. In so doing, you will find the key to true life and happiness, no matter what trials or hardships you face. There are two steps toward applying Jesus’ words to your life, as Paul did:

1. Say no to the self-life.

“Deny yourself and take up your cross” (Mark 8:34). “Lose [your] life for [Jesus’] sake and the gospel’s” (Mark 8:35). Or, as Paul explains it (Gal. 2:20), “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.” In Romans 8:12, 13 Paul put it this way: “So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh [the old self], to live according to the flesh--for if you are living according to the flesh, you are about to die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

The Christian life is decidedly not a life lived for self, for personal fulfillment, for doing what we think will bring us pleasure and happiness. That is the way toward death! The Christian life is a life of daily, constant submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ in which, by the indwelling Holy Spirit, we say no to selfish desires and yes to the will of God. It means that we learn to submit every thought, desire, decision, attitude, action, and relationship to the question, “Does this please God?”

In our text, what is striking is Paul’s almost total disregard of himself. The Philippians were rightly concerned about Paul’s situation. They had sent Ephaphroditus to find out how Paul was doing. Was he suffering terribly in prison? Would he be acquitted and set free? Yet, as James Boice puts it, “In one deft sentence Paul shifts the legitimate interest of the Philippians from himself to the great undeterred purposes of God in history” (Philippians: An Expositional Commentary [Zondervan], p. 60). With Paul the main question was not, “What is happening to me?” but rather, “What is happening to the gospel?” His focus was not on self, but on Christ and the gospel.

It’s amazing that Paul does not speak a word of complaint about his situation. He’s not asking, “Why is this happening to me? I’ve served God faithfully all these years! I’ve always sought to do His will. Why this?” The modern approach would be to urge Paul to get in touch with his feelings: “How do you feel about the way God is treating you? Go ahead and be honest. Get out your anger and rage. God can take it! Tell Him how you feel!” If Paul answered, “I’m rejoicing and I’m determined to keep on rejoicing” (1:18) he would be accused of being in denial!

He would also be accused of being “in denial” about his feelings toward his critics! “How do you feel about the Christian leaders who are criticizing you, Paul? Don’t you feel hurt, wounded? Don’t you want to lash out at them?” “If they’re preaching Christ, I rejoice that the gospel is going forth.”

Who were these critics? Some commentators say that they were the Judaizers, those Jewish legalists who dogged Paul’s steps, seeking to bring his converts under the Jewish law, especially circumcision, for salvation. Paul warns against this sect in Philippian 3. But these men Paul speaks of in 1:15a, 17 (the KJV reverses verses 16 & 17, but the strong weight of evidence is for the order in the NASB) could not have been the Judaizers, for several reasons.

These critics preached Christ (1:15a, 17), but the Judaizers preached another gospel, which is not a gospel (Gal. 1:6-9; 5:11). Paul rejoices in the message these critics were preaching (their message was true, even though their motives were wrong), but he wishes the Judaizers to be accursed because of their heresy (Gal. 1:8-9). Paul calls these men brethren, but he calls the Judaizers “false brethren” (Gal. 2:4). So these critics were apparently Christian pastors in Rome whose doctrine was correct, but whose hearts were wrong. They were jealous of Paul and selfishly ambitious to promote their own ministries. But, at least the message they preached was the true gospel. Paul would never rejoice at the preaching of false doctrine concerning something as crucial as the gospel.

I have found over the years that the most stinging criticism comes from fellow believers, not from the world. You expect the world to be hostile, but you also expect Christians to be on your side. Yet I have encountered the most hostility from those in the church, not from those outside. The Greek word translated “selfish ambition” was used of politicians building a personal following. Many in the church play politics to build a following. But it’s not the way of self-denial and living for Christ.

So Paul was not complaining to God, and he shrugged off the criticism of these jealous preachers, because he was denying self. Also, as we’ll see in our text for next week (1:20, 21), Paul didn’t even have a concern for whether he lived or died! If he got acquitted and lived, that would mean more useful service for Christ. If he got executed, he would be with Christ, which is better. But, he didn’t consider his life of any account as dear to himself (Acts 20:24). Paul had said “no” to his self-life.

Lest you think that Paul was some sort of super-Christian, with a level of dedication that very few attain, I remind you that Jesus’ words about denying yourself and taking up your cross apply to every person who wants to follow Him (Mark 8:34). Discipleship isn’t an option for those who feel called to a life of hardship, who like a challenge. Discipleship is the only option for those who believe in Jesus. The only path for the true Christian is that of learning daily to say no to selfish desires and yes to the lordship of Jesus. The first step to happiness is to say no to the self-life.

2. Say yes to the gospel as first in your life.

Paul told the Corinthians, “I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it” (1 Cor. 9:23). The progress of the gospel must be our goal (note, “gospel” in 1:5, 7, 12, 16, 27 [twice]). If the progress of our happiness (comfort, success, etc.) is our goal, we will miss true happiness. With Paul, the progress of the gospel should be our main concern. Seek first to fulfill your own needs, and you’ll come up empty. “Seek first the kingdom of God,” and you will find that God meets your needs.

A. Saying yes to the gospel as first requires understanding and believing the gospel.

I’m amazed at how many people who attend evangelical churches cannot begin to explain the basics of the gospel to another person. It makes me wonder if they even understand, let alone believe in, the gospel. The gospel is not, “If you’re having some problems in your life, invite Jesus into your heart and He will help you work out your problems.” Nor is the gospel, “If you’d like a happier life, try Jesus.” That kind of approach trivializes the gospel by missing the key problem the gospel addresses.

The main problem every person faces is that his sin has alienated him from a holy God and that he is under God’s wrath or judgment. If he dies in this condition, he will spend eternity in hell, under the just condemnation of God. The good news (“gospel”) is that God has not left us in this terrible situation. Nor does He expect us to earn our way back to Him, which no one can do, because it requires perfect righteousness. Rather, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

Jesus Christ, the sinless Son of God, met the requirement of God’s Law in His perfect obedience to the Father. He went to the cross as the Lamb of God, to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). God did not leave Jesus in the tomb, but raised Him bodily from the dead, victorious over sin, death, and hell. God offers to every person a full pardon from sin and total reconciliation to Himself based on what Christ did on the cross. The only way to receive this deliverance from God’s judgment is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31; Eph. 2:8, 9).

To believe the gospel is not merely to give intellectual assent to the facts of the gospel. To believe the gospel means to commit your life, both now and for eternity, to the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior from sin. You can say that you believe that an airplane will carry you from Phoenix to Los Angeles, but you don’t truly believe it until you get on board. Only then is your faith effective in transporting you from Phoenix to L.A. You can give mental assent to the truth of the gospel, but it is not effective in transferring you from Satan’s domain of darkness to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom you have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13, 14) until you fully commit yourself by faith to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Thus saving faith necessarily includes repentance (turning) from sin. It means entrusting yourself to Jesus as Savior and Lord. Saving faith is a commitment of all of myself of which I’m aware to all of Jesus whom I know. From that point, I grow in awareness of my own selfishness and sin, which I relinquish to Christ’s lordship; and I grow in my awareness of the person and work of Christ, to which I yield. But there is no such thing as believing in Jesus as my Savior, and then living the rest of my life to please myself. We must understand and believe that the gospel is absolutely free, but it rightly demands total commitment.

B. Saying yes to the gospel as first requires proclaiming the gospel through your walk and words in every situation.

Here was Paul, under arrest, chained to Roman guards. Most of us would have thought, “What a restriction for proclaiming Christ!” But Paul thought, “What an opportunity! I’ve got a captive audience!” Every four hours or so the guard changed. They thought Paul was their captive, but Paul saw them as his captives!

These were rough, worldly Roman soldiers, used to guarding tough, accused criminals. Imagine the difference they saw in this prisoner! For one thing, his attitude was different. He never complained! He never bad-mouthed the system. Instead, he was always singing, praying, and praising God. All sorts of interesting people came to visit him, some from the far corners of the empire. They heard him dictate letters to churches, answering their questions with wisdom. They heard him talk about God and how God wants us to live. They heard him pray specific, heartfelt, personal prayers to a God who was very alive.

Besides, this prisoner took an interest in the guards as persons. He asked about their families, their backgrounds, and their thoughts about various issues. He prayed for their needs. And he told them how they could know the living God and have their sins forgiven through faith in His risen Son. Some of these rough soldiers began getting saved, and they talked to other guards. Word spread beyond the Praetorian guard even to the members of Caesar’s household, some of whom believed (Phil. 4:22).

Paul’s proclamation of Christ through his attitude and words in this difficult situation not only resulted in witness to these lost soldiers, but it also encouraged many of the Roman Christians. Previously, they had lacked the courage to bear witness of Christ for fear of being laughed at or persecuted. But when they saw the power of the gospel for salvation to these soldiers, and even to those in Caesar’s household, they took courage and began to talk fearlessly to others about God’s Word (1:14).

Our walk (especially, our attitude) always has an effect, not only on the lost, but also on the Lord’s people. If we’re cheerfully trusting in the loving sovereignty of God in the midst of trials, as Paul did, we proclaim the reality of faith in Christ both to the lost and to the saved. Lost people will want to know why we’re different, why we don’t complain like everyone else. The Lord’s people who are discouraged will see our faith in God in the midst of trials and be encouraged to trust Him and bear witness for Him.

Many years ago I was praying for more of God’s power in my life. I had in mind things like speaking in tongues, the power to see God do miraculous healings, and that sort of thing. In my Bible reading I came across Colossians 1:10-12, where Paul prayed (verse 10) that his readers would walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, pleasing Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God. Then I read in verses 11 & 12, “strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all miracles, signs, and wonders”? Wait a minute! That’s not what it says! “For the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”

I thought, “The only time you need steadfastness and patience is when you’re going through trials, not when you’re instantly, miraculously delivered.” God is saying that His mighty power is manifested by our having a thankful, joyous attitude in the midst of trials, not by being miraculously delivered from them.


Some of you, like Paul, are in situations you never planned to be in. He planned to go to Rome, but not in chains! Maybe you’re in a confining situation where you feel bound by chains. It may be a difficult marriage which you didn’t plan on. Maybe you’re chained to a house full of kids. It may be a family problem. It could be a boring or a difficult job or the lack of a job. It could be a personal problem over which you have no control--a health problem or a situation that you’ve been thrust into with no choice on your part.

What should you do? Make your chains a channel for proclaiming Christ. How? First, say no to the self life, to seeking your own way, your own happiness, your own will. Say no to a grumbling, complaining spirit. Second, say yes to the gospel as first in your life; by understanding and believing it; and, by proclaiming Jesus Christ in every situation by your cheerful attitude of trust in Him and, as He gives opportunity, by your words of witness. You’ll find that by so losing your life for the sake of Christ and the gospel, you’ll find true happiness both for time and for eternity.

Discussion Questions

  1. Does denying self mean that we can never do things we enjoy in life? What does it mean?
  2. How can Christians break free from the pursuit of circumstantial happiness? Is it wrong to seek to improve our circumstances?
  3. Why is the message, “If you’ve got problems, come to Christ” inadequate as the gospel? What is the core issue of the gospel?
  4. How does “putting the gospel first” fit in with a job, family, etc.? Can every Christian seek first God’s kingdom? How?

Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Evangelism, Spiritual Life

Lesson 7: What Are You Living For? (Philippians 1:19-26)

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A young man came to W. E. Gladstone when he was Prime Minister of England and said, “Mr. Gladstone, I would appreciate your giving me a few minutes in which I might lay before you my plans for the future. I would like to study law.” “Yes,” said the great statesman, “and what then?”

“Then, sir, I would like to gain entrance to the Bar of England.” “Yes, young man, and what then?”

“Then, sir, I hope to have a place in Parliament, in the House of Lords.” “Yes, young man, what then?” pressed Gladstone.

“Then I hope to do great things for Britain.” “Yes, young man, and what then?”

“Then, sir, I hope to retire and take life easy.” “Yes, young man, and what then?” he tenaciously asked.

“Well, then, Mr. Gladstone, I suppose I will die.” “Yes, young man, and what then?” The young man hesitated and then said, “I never thought any further than that, sir.”

Looking at the young man sternly and steadily, Gladstone said, “Young man, you are a fool. Go home and think life through!” (Told by Leonard Griffith, This is Living [Abingdon Press], pp. 48, 49.)

What are you living for? Your answer to that question will determine the direction of your life. If your purpose is wrong, your direction will be wrong. If your purpose is vague or fuzzy, your direction will be fuzzy. If you don’t know your purpose, you’ll just be swept along by the currents of our age, doing what seems to bring you happiness. It is crucial that you be clear and correct in answering the question, “What are you living for?” As the story of the young man and Mr. Gladstone illustrates, the correct answer to that question must include some thought about the fact of death and what lies beyond. It must also include consideration of the uncertainty of life, so that whenever death may come, it doesn’t thwart your purpose.

The Apostle Paul was clear and focused on his purpose. I believe that the purpose for which he lived is the only purpose that takes eternity into account, so that whether we live a long life or whether it is cut short, that purpose will be fulfilled. In short, Paul’s purpose is, “For to me, to live is Christ” (1:21).

As Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out (The Life of Joy [Baker], pp. 85, 86), that sentence is not only a statement of the apostle’s true experience, but also it is a standard of judgment which confronts us with the most thorough test of our Christian faith we will ever encounter. Every person who professes Christ as Savior must grapple with the question, “Can I honestly say, ‘For me, to live is Christ’?” If I can say, “Yes,” then I have also answered that fundamental question, “What about death and what lies beyond?” It will be gain for me.

If for me, to live is Christ, then for me to die will be gain.

Paul’s purpose statement means,

1. Every Christian should aim at being able to say truthfully, “For me, to live is Christ.”

Can you truthfully say that? Can I? We need to be honest in examining our lives before the Lord. To bring this purpose into focus, we need to answer two questions: What does it mean to “live Christ”? and, How do we “live Christ”?

What does it mean to “live christ”?

A. To “live Christ” means to live in union with Christ, so that He becomes my all in all.

The concept of being “in Christ” was vital to Paul’s understanding of what it means to be a Christian. He addresses this letter “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi” (1:1). The instant a person truly believes in Jesus Christ as Savior, he is joined organically in a living, real union with Christ the Head as a member of His body, the church. To be “in Christ” means that all that is true of Christ is true of the believer. As Paul writes (Rom. 6:10, 11), “For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” The believer is in union with Christ.

While that is our true standing before God, we must grow in our experience of the reality of that standing, so that in our daily lives, we live in fellowship with Christ, communing with Him and depending on Him for everything. It means growing to know Christ intimately (Phil. 3:10). It means growing to love Christ with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30). It means submitting all of my thoughts, emotions, words, and deeds to the lordship of Christ, so that I seek to please Him in all respects (Col. 1:10). It means growing to experience Christ as my “all in all” (Eph. 1:23; Col. 3:11). Every aspect of life must be centered around the Lord Jesus Christ. The glorious person of Christ, and nothing less, is the Christian life.

Of course, our experience of “living Christ” is a process that is never fully realized in this life. As Paul says (Phil. 3:12), “Not that I have already obtained it, or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” Even the most godly Christians have times when Christ seems distant and the soul is dull and sluggish. In this life we never reach a point where we are not tempted by sin, where we do not have to battle the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life (1 John 2:16). But, each of us who are truly children of God will have as our focus to live in an experiential way the fact of our union with Christ, so that He becomes our all in all.

In 1991 I was struggling with the issue of how psychology and Christianity fit together (if at all). I previously believed that the best insights of psychology could be integrated with Christianity (“all truth is God’s truth”). In my devotional reading, I came across the chapter, “Christ is All,” in J. C. Ryle’s classic, Holiness [James Clarke & Co.]. Ryle hammers from every direction the practical truth that Christ is all for the believer, both in salvation and in sanctification.

As I read that chapter, it came into focus for me that one of the main problems with psychology (even the “Christian version”) is that it undermines the all-sufficiency of Christ for the believer. It is saying that Christ is not enough to meet the needs of our soul, that we must add worldly wisdom. About the same time, John MacArthur’s book, Our Sufficiency in Christ [Word] came out, and it clinched the point for me. Christ really is all we need. We must grow to know experientially what it means to “live Christ.”

B. To “live Christ” means to exalt Christ through everything we do.

“... that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (1:20). This is just another way of stating the great goal of the Christian life, which is to glorify God by everything we are and do. To glorify God, in common language, means to make God look good, as He truly is.

We may think, “Christ is the Almighty God, Creator of the universe. How can I possibly exalt or glorify Him?” Think of Him as being a distant star. It may be more brilliant than our own sun, but to the human eye, it is just a dim speck in the night sky. To many in this world, Christ is that way. He is the very splendor of God, brighter than a million suns. But the world doesn’t see Him that way. The believer is to be a telescope to bring the truth about Christ into view for the unbeliever. Through us, and especially through how we handle trials, Christ is magnified to a skeptical, unbelieving world.

In view of Paul’s circumstances, it is remarkable that his main focus was not on getting released from prison, but rather on exalting Christ. Whether he lived or died wasn’t the issue; all that mattered to Paul was that he exalted Christ. In verse 19, he says, “I know that this [situation] will turn out for my deliverance.” The word “deliverance” is, literally, “salvation.” Some interpret this to mean that Paul was hopeful of being released from prison. But verse 20 precludes this view, because Paul acknowledges that he may well be executed.

Paul’s words in verse 19 are verbatim from the Greek Old Testament of Job 13:16. In that context, Job was on trial by his “friends,” and he wanted to be “saved” from being found to be a hypocrite, that is, he wanted to be vindicated. In the same way, Paul is saying that as the Philippians prayed for him and as God’s Spirit enabled him, he would be delivered from denying Christ and disgracing the gospel at his trial before Caesar. Thus he would be vindicated in the ultimate court, before God, by exalting Christ, even through martyrdom if need be. The only cause for shame to Paul would be not to hear “well done” from Christ when he stood before Him.

Verse 26 does not mean that the Philippians would exalt Paul. It should read, “So that your reason for boasting [or, exulting] may abound in Christ Jesus in connection with me through my coming to you.” Paul means that if their prayers are answered by Paul being released so that he can be with them, they will boast in Christ, not in Paul.

Note (1:20) that the way we exalt Christ is through our bodies. This is a comprehensive and practical concept. It means that we may either exalt Christ or bring shame to His name by our attitudes, our words, and our behavior. How do you use your eyes? A lustful glance at a woman or even at a sexy picture does not exalt Christ. How do you use your ears? Do you listen to music that defiles you or music that exalts Christ? Do you listen to gossip or slander? How do you use your tongue? Your hands? Your feet? Your countenance? Do you use your body in purity or for sensuality? What about your personal appearance? Do you dress to be seductive or to attract attention to yourself? Or, do you exalt Christ? To “live Christ” means to exalt Him through everything we do.

C. To “live Christ” means to die to selfish desires in order to live to serve others for Jesus’ sake.

Paul’s desire was to check out. He really wanted to depart and be with Christ. But, he also realized that the Philippians and others needed his ministry. So he was willing to deny his desires for the sake of serving others for Christ’s sake. Of course, the final decision as to whether Paul lived or died rested with the Lord. But Paul was willing to live on in fruitful service if that’s what the Lord wanted for him to do. Paul’s focus suggests two applications:

First, if you’re not denying self in order to serve Christ, you are not “living Christ”; you’re living for self. Many people today have the notion that Christ is there to serve me, rather than that I am to serve Christ. They think the church is here to meet their needs, and if it doesn’t they drop out of church or try to find one that better meets their needs. We need to get back to the biblical truth, that we have been saved to serve Christ. If everyone who attends this church had this mind-set, we’d have a waiting list to teach Sunday School! What a radical thought!

Second, Christians should challenge the American notion of retirement. The idea that when you finally reach a point where you don’t have to work, you’re free to live for self and pleasure is contrary to Scripture. Any time the Lord gives us we are to manage for Him, seeking first His kingdom and righteousness. As long as He gives us health and strength, we should ask, “How can I serve Him?” Being freed from a job should mean that you’re free to spend more time furthering the Lord’s work. Give your time to the church or to a mission. Consider going to a foreign country to help out in the cause of Christ. Charles Simeon, a British preacher of the past century, worked long and hard for Christ. Late in life he said, “I cannot but run with all my might, for I am close to the goal” (cited by H. C. G. Moule, Philippian Studies [CLC], p. 75).

Thus, to “live Christ” means to live in union with Him, so that He is my all in all; to exalt Him in all I do; and, to die to self so as to serve Him.

How do we “live christ”?

I trust that the question has been answered for the most part by the answer to the first question. We “live Christ” by daily fellowship with Him, by seeking to exalt Him, by dying to self in order to serve Him. But also,

A. We “live Christ” by making that our constant aim.

Paul clearly was determined to “live Christ” as his sole aim. He expresses it elsewhere in slightly differing terms, but with the same idea: “I do all things for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:23); “whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:7); “... one thing I do: ... I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13, 14). Christ was Paul’s constant aim.

As Christians, we need honestly to evaluate our lives in light of this aim. It’s easy to fall into living for good things, but not for the best. God graciously blesses us with our families, friends, homes, possessions, work, leisure enjoyments. But if we’re not careful, these good things become the things for which we’re living. Even those of us in vocational ministry can begin living for our ministries. We need to keep asking ourselves, “What if this thing (person, activity) were taken from me?” Certainly, it would be difficult if, like Job, I lost my children, my health, and my possessions. But if I’m truly living for Christ, I will be able to come through any tragedy without despair, because He can’t be taken from me. So I must constantly evaluate my life by asking, “Is Christ at the center? Is He my all in all?”

B. We live Christ” through prayer and the provision of the Holy Spirit.

Paul was a man of prayer, but he also freely solicited the prayers of others for him (1:19). We tend to think of Paul as being naturally bold, but he often asked for prayer that he would be bold in his witness, because he knew that he was weak (see Eph. 1:19, 20; Col. 4:3, 4; 2 Thess. 3:1, 2). To “live Christ” we need much prayer!

But also, Paul needed “the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (1:19). The Christian life is impossible to live in the power of the flesh. We must walk by the Spirit every day, depending on Him for His strength. Why does Paul here say, “the Spirit of Jesus Christ”? He may mean, the Spirit who was given to us by Christ. Or, he may be describing the Spirit in this way because Jesus, in facing His trial and execution, bore faithful witness by relying on the Spirit. Paul was facing possible execution and wanted to be a faithful witness. This same Spirit is available to us so that we can “live Christ” in every situation, no matter how difficult. Living Christ must be our aim.

2. If we have sought to “live Christ,” then to die will be gain.

Next week I’ll deal more with the subject of how death will be gain for the believer. For now I’ll make just a few comments. Note that for Paul, to go on living or to die is not a choice between the lesser of two evils. Paul didn’t view life as a difficult trial to be endured, with death being a difficult thing as well, but at least a release. Rather, he viewed life as a progressive joy with Christ and death as even greater joy, because he would see Christ face to face and be with Him for eternity.

So a Christian has the best of both worlds! Even if we suffer now, we have Christ to strengthen, sustain, comfort, and encourage us. If Christ is real to our soul, what more could we want? And, the instant we die we are present with the Lord for all eternity, freed from all sin and pain and death! Sure, it is sad for those left behind. We miss our loved ones who have gone to be with Christ. But we have God’s promise, that if “Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:14-17). If we have sought to “live Christ,” then dying will be gain because we’ll be with Him! We can’t lose!


In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” The Cat replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” “I don’t much care where--” says Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” says the Cat. “You’re sure to get somewhere--if you only walk long enough.”

Where do you want to get to? If you want to get to heaven, then you need to consider the question, “What am I living for?” Complete the sentence: “For me, to live is _____.” What? Money? Success? Happiness? Pleasure? Fun? Good times? Family? Self? If your answer is any of the above, then to die will be a terrible loss, not a gain. But if, with Paul, you can honestly say as you evaluate your life, “For me, to live is Christ,” then you can also say with all the confidence of God’s Word behind you, “to die is gain!”

Discussion Questions

  1. Honestly complete the sentence: For me, to live is _________?
  2. Is it overly simplistic to say, “Christ is all we need for our emotional and psychological wholeness”?
  3. What are some of the implications of “exalting Christ” through our bodies?
  4. Agree/disagree: If you aren’t serving Christ, you’re living for self?

Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Spiritual Life

Lesson 8: A Christian Perspective On Death (Philippians 1:19-26)

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In our last study, I covered these verses with the emphasis on the great truth of the theme verse, “For to me, to live is Christ.” This week I want to deal with the second half of the verse, “to die is gain.” If I were to ask what word you associate with the word “death,” and if you were not familiar with Philippians 1:21, I venture to say that the word “gain” would not come to mind. We think of death as a terrible loss, not a gain. Sometimes, if the person was suffering a great deal, we say that death was merciful, since it released them from their pain. But normally, we view death as tragic and we go to great effort and expense to hang on to life for as long as possible.

Also, we tend to avoid thinking or talking about death unless it is absolutely necessary. When author William Saroyan was within days of his own death from cancer in 1981, he issued this statement to the Associated Press: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?” No doubt he was speaking with his tongue in cheek, but he brought out what we all tend to think, that “somehow an exception will be made in my case.” Since it is unpleasant to contemplate, we put off thinking about it until it seems inescapable.

But, as has often been stated, a person is not ready to live unless he is ready to die. To live properly, we must live purposefully, and always in view of both the certainty of death and the uncertainty of when it will occur. Many of the great Christians of the past thought often about death. Martin Luther said, “Even in the best of health we should have death always before our eyes [so that] we will not expect to remain on this earth forever, but will have one foot in the air, so to speak” (source unknown). Jonathan Edwards, as a young man, wrote down 70 resolutions which he read weekly to help keep his life focused. Number 9 was, “Resolved, to think much, on all occasions, of my dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], vol. 1, “Memoirs,” p. xx). The Puritan preacher, Richard Baxter, who lived with chronic bodily illness, said, “I preach as though I ne’er should preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”

I submit that you cannot live the Christian life properly unless you understand the Christian perspective on death. Our views of death must be based on the truthfulness of God’s revelation to us in His Word, not on the speculations of people devoid of God’s Word.

As I developed last week, the apostle Paul was clear on his purpose: “For to me, to live is Christ.” That is the only purpose that adequately takes into account the reality of death and the fact that it could occur at any moment. And, the person who can truly say, “For me, to live is Christ,” can also confidently say, “to die is gain.”

For the Christian, to die is gain.

But, what does this mean? We first must consider what ...

“To die is gain” does not mean:

1. “To die is gain” does not mean that a Christian should desire death because he hates life.

Paul did not hate life. To the contrary, he was filled with joy, even though his circumstances were difficult (1:18). He viewed life as sweet fellowship with Christ and the joy of serving Christ. So he was not viewing life as tough and death as escape or relief. Sometimes when life is difficult, or when a person suffers from a chronic, painful disease, he longs for relief and may be tempted even to take his own life. Sometimes even godly men get into such a state of depression that they would rather die than live. Moses (Num. 11:15), Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), Jeremiah (Jer. 20:14-18), and Jonah (Jon. 4:3, 8) all hit low points where they asked God to take their lives.

But suicide is never God’s will for anyone. It does not exalt Christ, as Paul here wants his death to do. It is always a selfish act, done in disregard of those left behind to grieve. It usurps the sovereignty of God who has a fruitful purpose for every believer’s life. Thus it would be grossly wrong to interpret Paul’s words as a warrant for suicide.

Christians should love life and view it as an opportunity to serve the Lord thankfully. It is not wrong to seek to extend our lives through proper medical procedures when we face a life-threatening illness. Because of modern medicine, there are difficult decisions that we may have to face for ourselves or with loved ones. It’s not always clear where to draw the line. As a general rule, if a medical procedure will not restore a person to life, but only prolongs the process of dying, then it probably should not be used. But as Christians, our motive for wanting to extend life should be so that we can further serve the Lord, not just so that we can enjoy ourselves.

But, the point is, God wants us to live life to the fullest, to serve Him joyfully as long as we have life. Paul was not suicidal or morbid. But he was expendable. He is saying here, that if God were to call him to heaven, that suited him just fine, because he knew he would be with the Lord.

2. “To die is gain” does not mean that a Christian should not grieve over the death of loved ones.

Until Christ returns, death is still our enemy that robs us of the presence of our loved ones. Scripture doesn’t condemn grieving; in fact, it tells us to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Jesus wept with Mary and Martha at Lazarus’ tomb, even though He knew He was about to raise him from the dead (John 11:35). As Christians, we do not grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13), but we still do grieve.

It is not unspiritual to grieve or weep at the death of a loved one. In two places in Scripture (that I know of) people were forbidden to grieve. When Aaron’s sons disobediently offered “strange fire” on the altar, and the Lord struck them dead, Moses told Aaron and his surviving sons not to grieve for them, but to allow the rest of the people to grieve (Lev. 10:1-7). Apparently their grief would have given the impression that Aaron and his other sons were on the side of the sons who died, over against the Lord. The other occasion where grief was forbidden was when God suddenly took Ezekiel’s wife. God told Ezekiel he could groan silently, but he was not to shed tears or grieve outwardly, as a sign of the impending judgment on Judah (Ezek. 24:15-24). But clearly, this was an exceptional situation. The norm is for Christians to grieve, and it is not a sign of weakness.

Thus when Paul says that “to die is gain,” he does not mean that Christians should desire death because they hate life; nor, that we should not grieve over the death of loved ones.

“To die is gain” does mean:

1. “To die is gain” means that a Christian should view death as a means of exalting Christ.

Whether he lived or died, Paul’s aim was to exalt Christ (1:20). If, by his faithful witness in dying, Paul could bear witness to the hope of the gospel, then he was ready to go. The time of death, for the believer, should be a time of bearing witness to the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christians should “die well.”

During the last four years of the reign of Bloody Mary in England (1555-1558), at least 288 people were burned at the stake because they refused to give up their Protestant beliefs and confess Mary’s Catholicism. These faithful martyrs viewed their deaths as a means of exalting Christ. The first to die was a godly pastor named John Rogers. He had not been allowed to see his family while he was held in prison. On the way to his execution, his wife and ten children stood by the road. He was hardly allowed to stop and say farewell. As he marched to the stake, he calmly repeated Psalm 51. The French ambassador who witnessed the execution wrote that Rogers went to death as if he was walking to his wedding (J. C. Ryle, Light from Old Times [Evangelical Press], p. 23). In a sense, he was!

The second martyr, Bishop John Hooper, was entreated with many tears by a friend whom he had led to Christ, to recant and thus spare his life. The friend urged him to remember that “life was sweet and death was bitter.” Hooper replied, “Eternal life is more sweet, and eternal death is more bitter” (p. 25).

The third Reformer to die, Rowland Taylor, was sent from London to the town where he had been pastor, to be burned in front of his former church members. When he got within two miles of the town, the sheriff asked him how he felt. He replied, “God be praised, Master Sheriff, never better. For now I am almost at home. I lack but just two stiles to go over, and I am even at my Father’s house.” As his church members lined the streets and greeted him with tears and lamentations, he repeatedly said, “I have preached to you God’s Word and truth, and am come this day to seal it with my blood” (p. 27).

The fourth martyr, Bishop Robert Farrar, told a friend before his execution that if he saw him once stir in the fire from the pain of his burning, he need not believe the doctrines he had taught. By God’s strength, he stood in the flames holding out his hands until they were burned to stumps, until a bystander in mercy struck him on the head to put an end to his sufferings (p. 29).

The fifth to die was John Bradford, age 35. At the stake, after kissing it, he held his hands toward heaven and cried, “O England, England, repent thee of they sins! Beware of idolatry; beware of false Antichrists! Take heed they do not deceive you!” Then he turned to a young man about to be executed with him and said, “Be of good comfort, brother; for we shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night.”

I won’t tell you of all 288, although I could tell of many others whose courage and witness exalted Christ in their deaths. But let me tell you of one other, the ninth, Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. His story was different in that he stood firm through his trial and in prison for a long while. But, in the final month of his life, his courage failed. Under intense pressure, he signed a paper renouncing the doctrines of the Reformation and embracing Catholicism. But, his persecutors hated him so much that they made the mistake of resolving to burn him in spite of his recanting. But what they didn’t know was that while he awaited execution, he repented of what he had done.

On March 21, 1556, he was brought to St. Mary’s Church, like Samson before the Philistines, to make sport of him. I’m sorry to say that a man named Cole preached the sermon, and then Cranmer was invited to declare his Catholic faith. To the utter shock of his Catholic captors, he boldly renounced Catholicism, declared the Pope to be Antichrist, and rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation. In a frenzy, his enemies hurried him out of the church and to the stake. As the flames curled around him, he steadily held into the fire his right hand that had sinned by signing the recantation, and said, “This unworthy right hand.” He held his left hand up toward heaven as he died (pp. 35-38).

We may not have to die a painful martyr’s death, but we should view our death as a time to exalt the Savior, both by our attitudes and our words. Then, to die will be gain.

2. “To die is gain” means that a Christian’s death leads to the return on his investment.

“To die is gain.” Paul had counted everything else as loss for the sake of Christ (3:7), and had invested his entire life in the goal of knowing and serving Christ. Death would usher him into the Lord’s presence where he would hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter the joy of your Master.” In light of the reality of Christ’s victory over death through His resurrection, Paul wrote (1 Cor. 15:58), “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” Death brings you to eternal rewards!

Toil for the things of this earth which will perish is in vain, because you won’t take any of it with you. An unbeliever’s life, even the life of a powerful, wealthy unbeliever, is like the wake of an ocean liner--impressive for the moment, but quickly gone. As a wall plaque we had near our front door when I was a child said, “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” Death opens the door for us to receive the promised, rich returns on all that we have invested for Christ.

3. “To die is gain” means that a Christian’s death frees him from earthly labors, trials, and temptations.

Paul had worked hard and suffered much for the cause of Christ. His body had endured one stoning, numerous beatings, several imprisonments, three shipwrecks, frequent dangers, many sleepless nights, often in hunger and thirst, in cold and exposure, plus the many concerns he bore for the work (2 Cor. 11:23-29). I don’t doubt but what he was tired and was ready for the Lord to say, “Come on home to your rest.”

Paul calls death “to depart” (1:23). The word was used of soldiers taking down their tents to move on. Paul says that at death our tent (our body) is taken down, while our spirit goes to be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:1-8). Sailors used the word to describe a ship being loosed from its moorings to set sail. At death the believer sets sail from this world, but safely arrives at heaven’s shore. It was also a political word, describing the freeing of a prisoner. This body holds us prisoner to various temptations and weaknesses, but death sets us free (Rom. 7 & 8). The word was also used by farmers, meaning to unyoke the oxen when their work was over. Death means laying down the burdens and concerns of our labors for Christ here, and to join Him in that place where there will be no death, no mourning, no crying, and no pain (Rev. 21:4). (The above word study adapted from Warren Wiersbe, Be Joyful [Victor Books], pp. 38, 39.)

Robert Moffatt, pioneer missionary to Africa in the last century, said, “We’ll have all eternity to celebrate our victories, but only one short hour before sunset to win them.” We should work hard for Christ now, but to die will be gain because our work will be over and we shall be like Jesus, because we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2).

4. “To die is gain” means that at death, a Christian goes immediately to be with Christ.

Paul says that when he departs, he will “be with Christ,” which is “very much better” (1:23). In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul teaches that to be absent from the body is “to be at home with the Lord.” This comforting truth shows that four commonly held ideas about death are in error because they contradict Scripture:

(1) The doctrine of “soul sleep” is in error. Some, notably the Seventh Day Adventists, teach that at death the soul sleeps while the body is in the grave until the future resurrection when Christ returns. They base this on the numerous places where the Bible refers to death as sleep. But Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, plus Paul’s clear statement that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, show soul sleep to be wrong.

(2) The doctrine of annihilation is in error. Some believe that at death, we just cease to exist, like animals. This view is usually held by those who reject Scripture. But I have met professing Christians who think that we die and that’s it; there’s nothing after death. But Paul says, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).

(3) The doctrine of reincarnation is in error. One out of four Americans believe in some form of reincarnation, that the soul keeps being recycled, either in a better form of life if you’ve been good, or in a worse form as punishment for evil. But, Scripture plainly teaches, “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27).

(4) The doctrine of purgatory is in error. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that purgatory is a place of “purifying fire” where “the souls of those who died in the charity of God and truly repentant but who had not made satisfaction with adequate penance for their sins and omissions are cleansed after death with punishments designed to purge away their debt” (from Vatican II, cited by Dave Hunt, A Woman Rides the Beast [Harvest House], pp. 475-476). The church never defines what “adequate penance” is. Further, the church pronounces anathema (eternal condemnation) on anyone who denies this doctrine (The Council of Trent, cited by Hunt, p. 474).

The only support for purgatory comes from the apocryphal 2 Maccabees 12:46. The doctrine was invented by Pope Gregory the Great in 593, but it was not accepted as official Catholic dogma for nearly 850 years, in 1439 (Hunt, p. 477). It clearly contradicts the Scriptural teaching on the finished work of Christ, on the sufficiency of His atonement for sins, and salvation by grace through faith alone. It makes salvation depend on our works (indulgences) or suffering. It renders any assurance of salvation impossible.

Paul says, “To depart and be with Christ” is “very much better.” The only way he can say that is if his soul goes immediately into Christ’s presence, where he will be accepted on the basis of Jesus’ shed blood and righteousness. Remember, “very much better” does not mean “better than life at its worst,” but, “better than life at its joyous best” (based on, H. C. G. Moule, Philippian Studies [CLC], p. 78). The great joy of heaven is to be with Christ.


During the Boxer Rebellion in China a century ago, a missionary came as near to death as anyone could and live to tell about it. He felt the sword of the Chinese executioner on his neck before it was lifted for the final blow, when the executioner changed his mind and let him go. The missionary told a friend that his first emotion was disappointment that he would not see the Savior that day. Fanny Crosby, the prolific hymn writer, became blind as a young infant. She said later in life that she would choose blindness over sight, because the first face she would ever see would be that of her Savior.

For the Christian, “to die is gain.” Can you say truthfully, “For me, to die is gain”? If not, you may need to go back one step and ask, “Is it true that for me, to live is Christ?”

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you answer an advocate of euthanasia who appealed to Paul’s seeming “death is better” perspective?
  2. Is it possible for a Christian to grieve too much? How can we know if our grief is “normal” or if it goes too far?
  3. If it’s better to be with Christ in heaven, is it wrong to seek medical treatment for serious illnesses? Why/why not?
  4. Which essential biblical truths are contradicted by the Catholic doctrine of purgatory?

Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Spiritual Life

Lesson 9: The Christian Mission and How To Fulfill It (Philippians 1:27-30)

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Imagine that we are correspondents sent out to a dangerous battle zone. We expect to see battle-weary soldiers in combat fatigues, dirt on their faces, living in the most difficult conditions, carrying their weapons at all times. But, instead, at the battlefront we’re surprised to find the soldiers dressed in civilian clothes, playing volleyball and ping pong, lying around swimming pools, sipping cold drinks, with no weapons anywhere in sight. If such an army was defending our country from a hostile enemy, we’d have good reason to be alarmed!

The problem is, that army has forgotten its mission. It thinks that its mission centers around its own comfort and having a good time. Having forgotten its mission, it would easily fall to a hostile enemy. If that enemy attacked, the members of the army might try to desert, claiming, “I didn’t sign up for this! I signed up for all the benefits, but I had no idea I might get shot at!”

I believe the American church is a lot like the army I’ve just described. We have promoted the Christian life for all its benefits: “Come to Christ and He will give you peace and happiness. He will help you overcome your problems. He will give you a happy marriage and family. He will give you an abundant life.” So the recruits sign up, thinking about sitting poolside and enjoying the good life with Jesus. Then, the bullets start ricocheting. Bombs start dropping, shrapnel is flying everywhere. People are getting hurt and dying. And these laid-back recruits turn and run, thinking, “I didn’t sign up for this!”

The Bible is clear that the Christian life is not a playground, but a battleground. God has not saved us so that we can live comfortably, happily, and self-centeredly in suburbia. He has conscript-ed us into His army. We have a mission given to us by our Commander-in-Chief, to take the message of His salvation and Lordship into enemy territory, to win captives from the forces of darkness. As in every war, our mission requires combat and struggle. If we forget our mission and get caught up with our own comfort, we will be quick to desert the cause when the enemy attacks.

We must both focus on and fulfill the Christian mission.

Paul describes the Christian cause in such combat terms in Philippians 1:27-30. There is a sense in which it would be easier to preach these verses to the church in China or Iran, where believers are threatened with daily persecution. They’re quite aware of the cost of being a Christian. They’re ready, if need be, to lay down their lives for the sake of the gospel. But few of us American Christians have ever had to endure severe persecution for our faith. We think of Christianity as something that increases the well-being of our daily lives. We focus on the benefits that come from being Christians. But, the danger is, in focusing on our own well-being, we forget our mission. If we forget our mission, there is no way we will fulfill it. And, we become an easy target for the powers of darkness.

1. We must focus on the Christian mission: to proclaim the faith of the gospel.

We’ve already seen that the gospel was the central focus of Paul’s life. In 1 Corinthians 9:23 he says that he does “all things for the sake of the gospel.” In Philippians 1, he uses the word “gospel” six times: verses 5, 7, 12, 16, 27 (twice). He alludes to it in other language several more times: “to speak the word of God” (1:14); “preaching Christ” (1:15); “proclaim Christ” (1:17); “Christ is proclaimed” (1:18); “Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted” (1:20); “to live is Christ” (1:21). Paul’s focus should be the Philippians’ focus, and ours: He charges them to stand firm and strive together “for the faith of the gospel.”

To understand this mission, we must be clear on what Paul means by “the faith of the gospel.” By “the faith,” he means the Christian faith, which points to the content of the gospel, that is, certain core doctrines which are essential to the gospel. Without these essential truths, the gospel is no longer the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 15:3, 4, Paul states the content of the gospel (see 15:1), “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

This brief statement contains a wealth of essential truth. It tells us who Christ is, namely, the Christ revealed in the Scriptures. It is clear from the over 300 prophecies concerning Jesus in the Old Testament that He is both eternal God, who alone can atone for sin; and, fully human, capable of human death, and thus an acceptable substitute for our sin. Paul’s statement tells us the central truth about the work of Christ, that He died for our sins, as our substitute. Anyone who denies the essential nature of the substitutionary work of Christ is denying the gospel.

Paul’s gospel also affirms the fallen condition of the human race, that we are sinners in need of a Savior. Anyone who teaches the basic goodness of human nature is denying the gospel, because good people don’t need a Savior. They just need a good example and a little encouragement to improve themselves. If we don’t need a Savior, then Jesus died for no reason. The gospel also affirms the historical, bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. As Paul goes on in that same chapter to state, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:7). The resurrection is proof that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36), and that in His death Jesus triumphed over sin, death, and hell. The gospel comes to us by grace through faith apart from any human merit or works (Eph. 2:8, 9).

In other words, “the faith of the gospel” involves certain core truths which must not be compromised. Since these truths are so essential, the enemy is always trying to get us to fudge on them in some way. But, to fulfill the Christian mission we must stand firmly for the faith of the gospel.

But, also, to fulfill our mission we need to get our focus back on the mission itself, namely, to strive together for the faith of the gospel. American Christianity has become too self-focused. We’ve turned inward--to analyze our feelings, to “recover” from childhood abuses and “codependency,” to fixate on having a more enriching marriage, to raise children with healthy self-esteem, etc. In other words, we’re caught up with self-fulfillment and feeling good instead of with the mission our Lord gave us, to take the gospel to every people group.

I’m not denying the need to help hurting people deal with problems or to help get fractured families back together. Wounded people need some healing before they go out to the front lines. But it seems to me that we’ve shifted our focus onto ourselves to such a degree that, instead of viewing ourselves as God’s army, the American church has come to see itself as a branch of the self-help movement. We need to keep the goal in view, that hurting people need healing so that they can be deployed into the battle of reaching lost people with the gospel. Thus, in order to fulfill our mission, first we must focus on it. The church is here to proclaim the faith of the gospel. Then,

2. We fulfill the Christian mission by walking consistently, working cooperatively, and warring confidently.

A. We fulfill the Christian mission by walking consistently as citizens of another country.

“Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27a). The Greek word translated “conduct yourselves” is literally, “live as citizens.” It was a word that meant a lot to the Philippians. Remember, Philippi was a Roman colony, and the people there took pride in their Roman citizenship. They lived in accordance with Roman customs. Even though they were about 800 miles from Rome, they were not under any regional authority, but answered directly to Rome, governed by Roman laws. They were a Roman outpost. These colonists lived differently than the barbarians surrounding them because they were citizens of a different country.

Paul is saying that Christians, no matter where we live geographically, must view ourselves as citizens of another country, namely, of heaven. Thus we should live differently than those around us who are citizens of this earth. Our lives must be worthy of the gospel of Christ. We seek to please our heavenly “emperor” and to live by His laws as revealed in His Word. We seek to conform our character to Christ. Though we are also citizens of this world, as the Philippian Christians were, we should be distinct because our primary citizenship is in heaven.

If you’ve ever visited or lived in a foreign country, you can identify with what Paul is saying. When you’re there, you may eat some of their unique kinds of food. You may observe some of their customs, so as not to be needlessly offensive to them. When we visited the Orient, I learned that the way Americans pick their teeth is offensive to the people there, so we adopted the Chinese way of picking our teeth during the trip. But, unless your purpose is to be a missionary who completely blends in with their customs and ways, you probably will stand out as distinct. You’re simply different than they are, so you’re going to stand out.

As Christians, we want to blend in with the world in matters that do not violate any biblical principles, for the sake of not offending people and of opening the door for the gospel (1 Cor. 9:20-23). But, even so, our heavenly citizenship should mark us as distinct. We live for a different purpose. Instead of living for the things of this world, we live for the kingdom of God. We should be marked by different morals. We should display different character qualities, the fruit of the Spirit. Instead of living for self, as the world does, we live for Jesus Christ. As Paul puts it elsewhere (2 Cor. 5:20), we are ambassadors for Christ, representing His heavenly kingdom here on earth.

It’s a sad thing when the church blends in with the world in matters where we should be distinct, and is distinct in matters where we should blend in. Polls show that there is no difference between the evangelical population and the rest of the country in the TV shows we watch or in the amount of time we spend watching them. That’s terrible! There’s not much difference between the church and the world in the rate of adultery or divorce. If we belong to Christ, it should make a difference in how we treat one another in our homes. There should be a difference in our business practices. Yet often I hear how a person got cheated in business by a professing Christian.

Yet, in matters where we should blend in, we go out of our way to look different. If the world’s women are wearing makeup, Christian women don’t use any. If the world’s women stop using makeup, Christian women gob it on. In seminary, we got a lecture from a veteran pastor on how, as men of the cloth, we should adorn the gospel by always wearing a dark suit when we go out in public. We should always look ministerial. Once a fellow pastor told me at a pastor’s luncheon that I didn’t look like a pastor. I thanked him for the compliment! Why do we have to look weird to be Christians? We are supposed to be distinct, but we don’t need to be weird!

So the first thing, if we want to fulfill our mission as Christians, is to walk consistently as citizens of heaven.

B. We fulfill the Christian mission by working cooperatively as contestants on the same team.

“... standing firm in one spirit, with one soul [lit.] striving together for the faith of the gospel” (1:27b). The Greek word translated “striving together” is sunathleo, from which we get our word “athletics.” The prefix, sun, means “with” or “together.” The picture is of an athletic team, working in cooperation and coordination toward a common goal. That goal, as we have seen, is “the faith of the gospel.”

As Americans, we’re prone toward competition and toward individualism. It affects us more than we sometimes realize. The test for me, as a pastor, is when I hear that the attendance is soaring at another church, while attendance at my church is not. I may need to stop and ask why my church isn’t growing. But, I should rejoice if people are coming to Christ at the other church and if the other pastor is preaching God’s Word, because we’re all on the same team. But so often our tendency is to be competitive and jealous.

I read in a recent Wycliffe publication (“In Other Words,” May/June, 1995) a story of a Bible translator in Brazil who was trying to paddle his canoe up river along with a group of natives in their canoes, but he just couldn’t keep up. Finally, one of the natives, whose legs were disabled from a serious injury, but whose arms were strong, came back and told Steve, the missionary, to hang on to his canoe and he would paddle for both of them. When they caught up with the rest of the group, the others encouraged the missionary to paddle his own canoe, and offered pointers on what he was doing wrong. He would try for a while, and when he fell behind, one of them would tow him again.

Then, just before they got to the final bend in the river, while they were still out of view of the waiting crowd, two men came alongside Steve and pushed his canoe to the front so that he was the first to land. They had gone to get thatch for their huts, and they shouted out, “We have the thatch! Steve paddled his own canoe!” Those words expressed their philosophy, “Together we have done it.” That should be our Christian attitude, of working together as teammates in the great cause of Christ. A united team can win. A team divided against itself, with the teammates bickering or fighting over the glory, will lose.

But a word of caution: There is a strong movement in our day to break down every doctrinal difference between professing Christians and to proclaim our unity in Christ. If this means uniting in gospel efforts with those who truly know Christ and hold firmly to the essential truths of the gospel, that’s fine. We should not separate from brothers in Christ over minor doctrinal differences. But, we dare not join forces for evangelism or fellowship with those who deny essential Christian doctrine, or we simply confuse the truth of the gospel.

Some people wonder why I do not promote the “unity” services that are held here in town each year. The reason is that I’m not comfortable proclaiming my “unity” with men who deny essential biblical truth, nor do I wish to proclaim my “unity” with the Roman Catholic Church, as if it were just a different flavor of Christianity. This is not to say that there are not some true Christians in these churches. It is to say that the churches themselves are denying essential biblical truth, and it is wrong to do anything to imply to the world that we are no different than they are. Our cooperation must be limited to those who stand firm for the faith of the gospel.

Thus we fulfill our mission of proclaiming the faith of the gospel by walking consistently and working cooperatively.

C. We fulfill the Christian mission by warring confidently as combatants in the same army.

“... in no way alarmed by your opponents--” (1:28a). We should not create enemies because we are abrasive or cantankerous people. But, if by your life and words you oppose sin and challenge the illicit ways of the world, especially, the sinful ways people in the world make money, you will have enemies. We don’t know for sure who the Philippians’ enemies were--perhaps the city magistrates who opposed Paul; perhaps the Judaizers. But they had enemies, and so will we if we stand for righteousness.

For some reason, Christians are often surprised when people don’t like them. The word “alarmed” was used of a startled horse rearing in fright. But Paul says, “Don’t be alarmed, because our side is going to win.” The same God who granted faith to you has also given you another gift: suffering! Twice Paul emphasizes that we suffer “for Christ’s sake” (1:29). If Christ, the Son of God suffered, and if Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles suffered, then we’re in good company if we suffer for the sake of the gospel. Someday soon God will save us and will condemn those who persecute His church. Stand confidently for the Lord and rest in Him.

I have never experienced anything close to the persecution Paul went through. But a few years ago, I was being attacked and falsely accused by some people. I was tending toward discouragement until I read Jesus’ words, “Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and cast insults at you, and spurn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets.... Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for in the same way their fathers used to treat the false prophets” (Luke 6:22, 23, 26).


When I was in boot camp in the Coast Guard, a recruit showed up who was the laughingstock of the entire base. He came to boot camp with his fishing pole and water skis, because the recruiter had explained to him that the base was on an island where you could do those things. That poor guy had been sold a phony bill of goods! They took every personal possession away from us, including our combs. They took every privilege from us. We couldn’t watch TV or read the newspaper, except for the front page which they posted on the bulletin board. We were in harsh, difficult conditions. Why? Because they wanted to shape us into a tough, combat-ready unit.

When you trusted Christ, you didn’t join a country club. You got drafted into God’s army! Your mission is to proclaim the faith of the gospel. You fulfill that mission by walking consistently as a citizen of heaven; by working cooperatively with your fellow teammates; and, by warring confidently with your fellow soldiers. Are you facing hardship or criticism or ridicule because you’re a Christian? Remember, it’s for the sake of Christ who someday soon will triumph over all His enemies and reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And, if you endure, you will also reign with Him (2 Tim. 2:12).

Discussion Questions

  1. Agree/disagree: American Christians have lost sight of the mission.
  2. How do we know where to draw lines of division over doctrine? Which truths are essential?
  3. Where is the balance between focusing on our mission versus dealing with personal emotional problems?
  4. Should we cooperate with religious groups (Mormons, Catholics, etc.) on common causes such as pro-life or anti-pornography?

Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Evangelism, Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

Lesson 10: Harmonious Relationships (Philippians 2:1-4)

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An ad in the Lawrence, Kansas, Journal-World, purported: “We will oil your sewing machine and adjust the tension in your home for only $1.” (In Reader’s Digest [5/85], p. 190.) Who cares if they oil the sewing machine--if only someone could adjust the tension in our homes, I’ll bet we’d all gladly pay $100!

We all crave harmonious relationships, but they seem to be a rare commodity. We enter marriage with high hopes for harmony: “This adorable creature I’m marrying is so easy to get along with! We’re in love, so we won’t have any serious problems!” But then a few months into reality, I discover that she’s not quite as adorable as I had thought! In fact, she’s got a few problems that I need to help her work on. One of her main problems is that she doesn’t see things my way! As I seek to help her with her problems, I discover that she has another problem, namely, that she is stubborn and won’t change.

We want harmonious relationships with our children, and yet the alienation between parents and their teenagers is proverbial. We want harmony in our church, but those people at church are so unloving! “Why, do you know what so-and-so said to me? I don’t know who she thinks she is! After all the times I’ve helped her, and then she acts like that toward me! See if I ever do anything for her again!”

I’m glad that the Bible was written to real people with real problems. It doesn’t paper over their problems and offer superficial answers. The church at Philippi was a good church, but it wasn’t perfect. None is. If its first three converts were any gauge, it was a motley crew that gathered for worship in Philippi: a sophisticated, wealthy businesswoman; a career Roman military man; and, a former slave girl who had been into the occult. It was a built-in formula for conflict, and some tensions were surfacing among the members (4:2). So Paul gently urges them to work through their differences and he gives some principles for har-monious relationships that apply both to the church and to the home.

But, I’ll warn you: It’s a painful, difficult cure! Like chemotherapy, you may wonder at times if the cure is worth it. But it’s the only cure and if you don’t take it, the disease will ultimately cause great suffering and result in death. Briefly stated, the principle is:

The key to harmonious relationships is to put self to death and to regard others more highly than myself for Jesus’ sake.


As Pogo observed, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The source of quarrels and conflicts is self (James 4:1-3). The cause of divorce, according to Jesus, is hardness of heart (Matt. 19:8). And, before you say, “Yes, my ex-mate really did have a hard heart,” Jesus says, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:5). Alexander Maclaren put it, “To live to self is the real root of every sin as it is of all loveless life” (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], 14:252). If we want harmonious relationships, each of us must confront self, put self to death, and live to build up others. In any conflict, I need to examine self from four directions:

1. In any conflict, I need to look to my own relationship with Christ: Am I motivated by His great love (2:1)?

The only force powerful enough to motivate us to crucify self (and it is a lifelong process) is the great love of God in Christ. So Paul begins his plea for unity with an appeal to think about their experience of the love of Christ. The word “if” which begins each clause is not, in the original text, a word of doubt or uncertainty. Rather, it can be translated “since.” To paraphrase,

Therefore, in light of our mission to proclaim Christ, if you have ever received encouragement at a time of need because of your union with Christ, and I know you have; if Christ’s love has ever given you comfort in trials, as I know it has; if you’ve known that common bond with God and others that comes from the Holy Spirit--in fact, we’ve known that bond together; if you’ve ever felt deep down inside the tender concern Christ has for you, as every Christian has; then, top off my joy by working through any conflicts until you come out at the place of true oneness of heart.

There are four facets of Paul’s appeal here:

(1) Encouragement in Christ--This is the Greek word paraklesis, a compound word meaning “one called alongside to help.” Jesus used it as a name for the Holy Spirit (John 14:16). Sometimes it has the meaning of exhortation, at other times encouragement. I think the context favors encouragement. Relational conflicts can be a source of great discouragement. Sometimes we feel as if we’ve tried everything, but nothing seems to work. At such times, our union with Jesus Christ, His all-sufficiency, and His promise never to leave us or forsake us, are a source of tremendous hope. Even if the other person is not responsive to my attempts at reconciliation, I can rely on Christ for the strength I need to live in a Christ-like way in the situation. The encouragement Christ gives motivates me to live to please Him.

(2) Consolation of love in Christ--”Consolation” is used of comforting someone in grief. When a relationship is strained, you often feel grief, a sense of loss. When you lean upon Jesus, He gives you comfort through His love. Since He loved me when I was rebellious and not deserving, I can extend that same love to others, even if they aren’t deserving. When someone sins against God, He doesn’t cut them off. Instead, He ups the intensity of His love by going after that person, as the good shepherd went after the one lost sheep. Even so, my love shouldn’t depend on the other person’s response; it depends on the comforting love of Christ for me. I need to allow His love to flow through me to the one who has offended me.

(3) Fellowship of the Spirit--The Holy Spirit indwells every believer and draws us into fellowship with God and with all who love God. The instant you believe in Christ, the Holy Spirit baptizes you into the one body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). This fellowship of the Spirit is always two-way: toward God and toward other Christians. In fact, John says that if we claim to love God, but do not love our brothers and sisters in Christ, we’re lying (1 John 4:20). In any conflict with a fellow Christian, I must rely on the indwelling Spirit to be the “oil” to lubricate the friction so that I can love and get along with the other person.

(4) Affection and compassion in Christ--”Affection” is translated “bowels” in the King James Bible. It and “compassion” both point to the emotional element in God’s love. Jesus looked on the multitude and “felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and downcast like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). Thank God that He didn’t look at me and say, “Stupid sheep! It serves you right to be suffering, because you’re such a sinner!” Thank God He had compassion on me! And now, having received His compassion and tender mercies, I must show the same to other sinners, even if they don’t deserve it.

We should view every relational conflict or problem as an opportunity to learn more of Christ. Did someone treat me in an offensive manner? Jesus was treated offensively, but He still loved. Did they run roughshod over my feelings? Jesus knew that kind of treatment. Did my friends desert me at my time of need? The disciples deserted Jesus at His trial and crucifixion. Did a close associate betray me? Jesus was betrayed by Judas. Maybe you feel mistreated, unloved, or betrayed by a family member or fellow Christian. Draw near to Jesus and enter into His heart of love for you, even though you put Him on the cross. In any relational conflict, I must first look to my relationship with Christ and ask, “Am I motivated by His great love?”

2. In any conflict, I must look to my attitude: Am I seeking unity or am I seeking my own way (2:2)?

The word “mind” is actually a verb that can be translated, “that you think the same thing.” It occurs again at the end of the verse, “that you think the one.” Ten out of 26 New Testament uses of this verb, which has the nuance of “attitude,” are in Philippians. There is a direct correlation between attitude and joy (the other dominant theme of this letter)! Paul’s joy would be filled to the brim, not if he got out of prison, but if he heard that the Philippians were minded toward love and harmony.

There is also a correlation between attitude and harmonious relationships. We sometimes err by thinking that good relationships happen by accident. We see a happy couple or a family where everyone seems to get along and we think, “They’re sure lucky!” Or, a couple is having conflict and they think, “Maybe we ought to just find someone more compatible.” But harmonious relationships aren’t a matter of luck or natural compatibility. They are built on a mind-set that works at seeking unity. There are four facets of this attitude:

(1) The same mind--literally, “that you think the same thing.” Obviously, Paul doesn’t mean that we all must see every matter exactly the same. Nor does he mean that we’re supposed to set aside essential truth for the sake of unity. As we saw in 1:27, we must stand firm for the faith of the gospel. Rather, he means that we must have our minds geared toward Christian love so that we seek the highest good of one another; and, that we must be growing to experience what we possess--the mind of Christ, revealed to us in His Word (1 Cor. 2:16). As believers grow in their understanding of Scripture, they share a common way of approaching problems. The world offers all sorts of conflict resolution techniques to help people work through differences, but they’re all built on self. They teach you how to get what you’re after. But God’s way is to teach us to deny self as we seek to please God and love others. If two people have this same mind, there is a basis for working through conflicts.

(2) The same love--The love of Christ, revealed in His incarnation and in His death, as Paul goes on to illustrate (2:5-8). It is a love that yields its rights for the sake of others. Christians must have that love in mind in every relationship.

(3) United in spirit--literally, “one in soul.” True unity is not organizational or outward; it is a matter of the heart. This is not automatic or a matter of luck. I must deliberately set my mind on being one with those who truly know Christ, even if I don’t particularly like them or agree with them on everything.

(4) Intent on one purpose--literally, “being minded on the one thing,” which is the faith of the gospel (1:27). The corporate witness of the body of Christ rides on our outwardly visible love. If I am minded toward the gospel, I will also be minded toward getting along with fellow Christians, and especially with those in my own family. So in any conflict, I must ask myself, “Is my focus on happiness and pleasing myself, or is my focus on exalting Christ?” If both parties are intent on exalting Christ by honoring His Word of truth and by living for each other’s highest good, there is a solid basis for resolving conflict.

Thus, in any conflict, I must first look to my relationship with Christ: Am I motivated by His love? Then, I look to my attitude: Am I oriented toward love or toward my own way?

3. In any conflict, I must look to my view of myself: Am I being selfish and conceited or humble (2:3)?

The world’s way for resolving conflicts is to teach you to stand up for your rights, to be assertive, to negotiate for what you want, to have proper self-esteem, etc. Some of these techniques work by balancing one person’s needs against the other’s so that a working harmony can be achieved. Christian psychologists have imported this stuff wholesale into the church. But the problem is, the world’s ways do not deal with the root problem, which is pride or self.

Several studies done over the past few years show that the American public consistently defines their ultimate goals in terms of self-fulfillment. They view marriage, work, and even the church, as ways toward personal fulfillment. It’s not surprising that the general public is self-seeking. But David Wells did a survey of American seminary students that revealed that they “are oriented toward self-fulfillment, self-expression, and personal freedom to a degree that often exceeds” that of the general population. In his 1993 survey, “40.2% of the respondents affirmed that ‘realizing my full potential as a human being is just as important as putting others before myself.’” Wells goes on to observe, “Had Christ held this belief, for example, it would have ended all prospects of the incarnation” (God in the Wasteland [Eerdmans], p. 201).

In contrast to these worldly ways, Paul says that Christians must “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit” (2:3). Selfishness means to have a party spirit, or to campaign for office. A politician tries to build a following for himself by building himself up and, if need be, by putting his opponents down. It’s the same word Paul used in 1:17 of those who were preaching out of “selfish ambition.” In Galatians 5:20 it is a deed of the flesh, “disputes.” Many churches suffer because some of the leaders view their position as a way of promoting self. Some husbands misuse their authority in marriage in the same way. But, Christians are not to do anything from this self-seeking motive.

Empty conceit is literally, “vain glory,” to be puffed up with a sense of our own importance, to think that we’re really great. A. B. Bruce, in his classic The Training of the Twelve (Kregel, p. 180) observed, “The whole aim of Satanic policy is to get self-interest recognized as the chief end of man.” In the garden, Satan’s appeal to Eve was to build her self-esteem by getting her to think she could be like God. All this self-esteem teaching that has flooded the church is not from Scripture, but from Satan. It does not help you to have harmonious relationships; it is directly opposed to harmonious relationships because it feeds pride.

Thus, we are not to act from selfishness or empty conceit. Instead, with humility of mind, we are to regard others as more important than ourselves. “Humility of mind” is literally, lowliness of mind. Our problem is not that we think too lowly of ourselves, but that we regard ourselves too highly. Even the person who goes around dumping on himself is too self-focused. He needs to get his thoughts off himself and onto the needs of others. The non-Christian philosopher, Allan Bloom, saw this when he wrote, “Everyone loves himself most but wants others to love him more than they love themselves” (The Closing of the American Mind [Simon and Schuster], p. 118).

Maybe you’re wondering how we can practically apply verse 3. You think, “I study my Bible and try to obey it. But the person I have conflict with doesn’t know the Bible or live by it. How can I honestly regard him as better than myself? Am I supposed to see myself as a doormat?”

First, we all need to recognize that all that we are and have is due to God’s grace (1 Cor. 4:7). I deserved hell; He has shown me mercy. If I am intelligent, it is a gift from God to be used for His glory, not mine. If I have money, even if I earned it by hard work, I am not to boast in it, but to use it as God’s steward. If I am not enslaved to various sins, it’s not due to me, but to God’s grace. I must use my gifts to help others, not to boast.

Also, I need to recognize the awful depravity of my own heart apart from God’s grace. If you’re not growing to see your own sinfulness more and more, you’re not growing. Apart from God’s grace, I could be a murderer or be enslaved to sexual sin. Rather than condemn another person for his sin, I need to deal with the log in my eye; then I can come alongside and help the other person with his sin (Matt. 7:5; Gal. 6:1).

Just as I need God’s grace, so does the other person. Maybe his problem isn’t one I struggle with. But, I have problems he doesn’t struggle with. Rather than proudly looking down on my brother, as one sinner to another I need to show him God’s grace and help him toward victory in Christ. And, not thinking too highly of myself (the tendency) but truthfully, I also need to recognize the other’s unique giftedness (Rom. 12:3-8). Thus, in any conflict, I must lower my view of myself and esteem others.

4. In any conflict, I must look to my view of others: Am I putting their interests above my own (2:4)?

Why is it that when the other guy in front of me in the express check out lane has five items over the limit and writes a check instead of paying with cash, he’s inconsiderate, but when I do it, it’s because I’m in a hurry and have a good reason? When my wife is late getting ready, it’s because she didn’t plan her time well, but when I’m late it’s because of circumstances beyond my control. When my kids lose something, it’s because they’re irresponsible, but when I lose something, it was because I had a lot on my mind.

We’re so selfish that we’re like fish in the water who don’t know they’re wet! I read of a new husband who went up to a ticket counter and only bought one ticket. When his new bride pointed it out, he made a quick comeback by saying, “You’re right, dear, I’d forgotten myself completely!” Yeah, right!

Paul does not mean that we are never to say no to the demands others place on us. Jesus sometimes said no to the needs of the crowds so that He could spend time alone with the Father (Mark 1:35-39). At times, He drew away with the twelve so that He could train them (Matt. 15:21; 16:13; 17:1). We all have responsibilities that demand our time (Gal. 6:5). So Paul does not mean that we let others walk all over us.

But he does mean that we need to think about the other person and his needs and interests rather than just think about things from our own perspective. It’s the golden rule principle--how would I feel if I were him? How would I want to be treated? That’s how I need to treat the other person. Consider others, not just yourself.


A secular psychologist did a study in which he asked his subjects to list ten people he knew best and to label them as happy or not happy. Then they were to go through the list again and label each one as selfish or not selfish, using the following definition of selfishness: “A stable tendency to devote one’s time and resources to one’s own interests and welfare--an unwillingness to inconvenience one’s self for others.” The results showed that all of the people labeled happy were also labeled unselfish. He wrote that those “whose activities are devoted to bringing themselves happiness ... are far less likely to be happy than those whose efforts are devoted to making others happy” (emphasis in original, cited by Martin & Deidre Bobgan, How to Counsel from Scripture [Moody Press], p. 123).

The key to harmonious relationships is not to esteem self, assert self, or stand up for self. It is, rather, to put self to death and to regard others more highly than myself for Jesus’ sake. If we would apply this to our homes and church, we would experience much more harmony and much less conflict. It’s a painful cure; but it’s the only cure given by God’s Word of truth.

Discussion Questions

  1. If my mate is living for self and I deny self, won’t I get taken advantage of? Doesn’t this only work if both parties do it?
  2. How do I apply verse 2 with someone who is doctrinally wrong or who is not seeking to live by Scripture?
  3. When does “holding to right doctrine” become a matter of pride? How can we seek to be doctrinally correct, yet be humble?
  4. How do we know when to say “no” to the demands of others without being selfish?

Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Home, Ecclesiology (The Church), Fellowship, Spiritual Life