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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

Lesson 11: Supreme Humility (Philippians 2:5-8)

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We live in a day when Bible doctrine is commonly despised, even among God’s people. I’ve heard people say, “We want life, not doctrine,” as if the two were in opposition to each other. A young woman once told me that the wonderful thing about her experience-oriented church was that they didn’t have any doctrines; they just had Jesus! The term “air-head” was not yet in existence, or it might have popped into my mind on that occasion. Christian people proclaim that doctrine is divisive and that what we need is unity. Often that unity is built on a common experience that people have had, supposedly through the Holy Spirit, even though these people often hold to seriously erroneous doctrine. We tend to think of theology as impractical, academic stuff that seminary students and professors like to debate. But it doesn’t have anything to do with how we live.

But when we buy into this anti-intellectual approach to the Christian life, we are forgetting that the Apostle Paul did not write his profound doctrinal sections of Scripture to theologians. He wrote Romans, Galatians, and the other great theological portions of his letters, including our text, which is one of the most profound Christological portions of Scripture, to common people--business people, working people, soldiers, housewives, and even slaves--to help them live their daily lives in a manner pleasing to God.

It is significant that Paul is not using our text to combat some heresy or theological error. He is writing about a most practical subject--how Christians can get along with one another. It applies to how we relate to one another in the church, but also in our homes. As we saw last week, at the heart of our relational problems is self. To live in harmony, we must learn to die to self and humbly live for others for Jesus’ sake. To illustrate this point, Paul sets before us the person of our Lord Jesus Christ as the example of supreme humility. Solid theological understanding about Jesus Christ is the foundation for how we can get along with one another. Paul is saying that ...

To promote harmonious relationships, we must grow in the humility Jesus modeled in His incarnation and death.

Since the early 1970’s there have been dozens of books and hundreds of articles written from a supposedly Christian perspective that tell us how to build our self-esteem, our mate’s self-esteem, and our children’s self-esteem. We have been assured by the supposed “experts” on human behavior that low self-esteem is at the root of all our emotional and relational problems. I’m sad to confess that for many years I was influenced by this teaching and even taught it myself. But I came to realize that there is not a single verse in the entire Bible that tells us that we need to build our self-esteem. There are many verses that tell us we need to lower our view of ourselves and grow in humility (the biblical word for humility means “lowliness of mind”). How many recent books or articles have you read on how to lower your self-esteem and grow in humility? Yet that is what Paul is clearly teaching here. His teaching is built on the great doctrinal truths of the incarnation and death of Jesus Christ.

1. To grow in humility, we must understand the incarnation and death of Jesus Christ.

Although many volumes have been written on these verses, the basic thought is quite simple and clear: That Jesus Christ voluntarily left the highest position in the universe and went to the very lowest position on earth in order to rescue from God’s judgment people who did not in any way deserve it. There can be no greater example of lowering oneself than what Jesus did on our behalf. If your heart is cold toward the things of God, think on who Jesus is and on what He did in leaving the splendor and purity of heaven and coming to this wicked world to be made sin on your behalf. It should fill our hearts with love and devotion and make us realize that no personal sacrifice we make, no humiliation we go through, can ever match what our glorious Savior did for us!

A. To grow in humility, we must understand Christ’s incarnation, that the eternal Son of God left His glory to take on human flesh.

When Paul states that Jesus existed in the form of God (1:6), he is referring to His preexistence before He was born of the virgin Mary. Jesus is not a created being, but rather is the second person of the triune God. As John opens his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being” (John 1:1-3). A few verses later John explains further, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Or, as Jesus said to the Jews who challenged His claims, “Before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58).

When Paul states that Jesus existed in “the form of God,” “form” refers to that which is intrinsic and essential to the being of God, that is, to God’s attributes (J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians [Zondervan], pp. 132-133). Thus Paul is saying that Jesus in His preexistence shared the essential attributes of deity. He is God! Before He came to this earth, Jesus dwelled in the indescribable glory and perfection of heaven, one with the Father and the Spirit, in the blessedness of the divine being. But He willingly left that glory to come to earth!

The next phrase has been variously translated and interpreted. The King James Version reads that He “thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” The NASB translates, He “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.” John Calvin explains the sense: “There would have been no wrong done though he had shewn himself to be equal with God” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], on Philippians 2:6, p. 55).

Lightfoot, following the early Greek fathers, gives the sense as, “Be humble as Christ was humble: He, though existing before the worlds in the form of God, did not treat His equality with God as a prize, a treasure to be greedily clutched and ostentatiously displayed: on the contrary He resigned the glories of heaven.” He goes on to observe, “For how could it be a sign of humility in our Lord not to assert His equality with God, if He were not divine? How could such a claim be considered otherwise than arrogant and blasphemous, if He were only a man?” (pp. 134, 137).

Paul goes on to say that Jesus “emptied Himself” (NIV = “made Himself nothing”). Clearly, God cannot cease to be God, and so Jesus did not, as some have asserted, give up any of His divine attributes. He limited the independent use of certain attributes and prerogatives while on this earth. And, His preincarnate glory was veiled (John 17:5), except for the brief time on the Mount of Transfiguration, and perhaps when the soldiers in the garden fell backwards after a flash of His glory (John 18:6). Paul explains the main sense of how Christ emptied Himself in the rest of verse 7 and in verse 8: by taking the form of a servant and being obedient to death on the cross.

When Paul says that Jesus took on the form of a bond-servant (2:7), he means that He voluntarily adopted the very nature of a servant. He did not cease to be God in any sense, but added to His divine nature a true human nature. Jesus’ human nature was exactly like ours, except that it was joined to a divine nature (not mixed or blended); and, it was without sin, although His body was subject to the results of the fall, such as weariness, aging, and death. When Paul says that Christ was “found in appearance as a man” (2:8), he means that if you had looked at Jesus, you would not have thought, “There is a superman or a god,” but rather, “There is a normal-looking man.” He was born into a family as a baby, grew to maturity as we all do, and in every other observable way was completely human.

Thus the orthodox statement concerning the person of Christ is that He is undiminished deity and perfect humanity united without confusion in one person forever. To deny either the full and perfect deity of our Lord or His complete humanity is to veer into serious heresy. So what Paul is showing is that the Lord Jesus went from the highest place in the universe, as eternal God, to take on human existence, and that, not as a king or powerful warrior, but as a lowly servant. But, He went even lower:

B. To grow in humility, we must understand Christ’s death, which was the most shameful death imaginable.

It would have been amazing enough for the eternal God to come to this earth as a mighty king. It was even more amazing that He came as a humble servant. But it’s almost beyond comprehension that He would even go lower and die. And, even more staggering, His death was not a noble death, but a horrible, ignoble death of a common criminal. For the Jew, whoever was hanged on a tree was accursed of God (Deut. 21:23). For Gentiles, death by crucifixion was the lowest, most despicable form of death imaginable. Roman citizens were exempt from crucifixion. The Roman poet, Cicero, said, “Far be the very name of a cross, not only from the body, but even from the thought, the eyes, the ears of Roman citizens” (cited by R. P. Martin, Philippians [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 103).

So, Paul is saying that Jesus went from the height of heights to the depth of depths. We will never begin to know what glory He gave up or what humiliation He suffered on our behalf until we are with Him in glory. But, to grow in humility, we must think about the staggering implications of what it meant for the holy, glorious, eternal Son of God to take on human flesh; and, not the flesh of a king, but of a servant; and, stooping even lower, He willingly and obediently went to the cross for our sins.

2. To grow in humility, we must allow the truth of Christ’s incarnation and death to affect the way we act toward one another.

In our day humility is hardly ever emphasized as a Christian virtue that we must pursue. In fact, we extol the opposite, self-love, as a healthy quality that we need to work on! I began to see how far off I was on the self-esteem issue by reading John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. In Calvin’s Institutes (ed. by John McNeill [Westminster] II:II:11), he mentions how Chrysostom, the church father, viewed humility as the foundation of Christianity; and how Augustine said that the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always are humility. Calvin rightly argues that due to the fall, self-love is innate in all humans. He says that we are quick to listen with applause to anyone who extols human nature in favorable terms. Even those who take a more modest attitude and give God credit for some things, he says, “so divide the credit that the chief basis for boasting and confidence remains in themselves” (II:I:2).

Edwards, in his “A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:294-303) points out that there is a false and inadequate sort of humility which professing, but unconverted, people can have. But, he argues that anyone who is truly converted will display what he calls “evangelical humiliation.” Listen to his words:

Evangelical humiliation is a sense that a Christian has of his own utter insufficiency, despicableness, and odiousness, with an answerable frame of heart....

The essence of evangelical humiliation consists in such humility as becomes a creature in itself exceeding sinful, under a dispensation of grace; consisting in a mean [= worthy of little regard] esteem of himself, as in himself nothing, and altogether contemptible and odious; attended with a mortification of a disposition to exalt himself, and a free renunciation of his own glory.

This is a great and most essential thing in true religion. The whole frame of the gospel, every thing appertaining to the new covenant, and all God’s dispensations towards fallen man, are calculated to bring to pass this effect. They that are destitute of this, have no true religion, whatever profession they may make, and how high soever their religious affections may be;...” (p. 294).

When I first read this about four or five years ago, the first thing it did was make me question my own salvation. The second thing it did was draw a line in the sand and confront me with the question, “Which side are you on? The side of Scripture (and Edwards heaps up verses to prove his case) or on the side of modern psychologized Christianity?” I realized that both cannot be truly Christian. I had to repent of my former errors.

Granted, then, that we must pursue humility, what does it look like? Christ’s humility teaches us several aspects of true humility:

(1) True humility is a proper attitude toward self that results in proper actions toward others. “Have this attitude in yourselves ....” Jesus Christ could rightly have thought, “I’m the eternal God. I’m not about to become a human being, let alone be a servant, let alone die!” I’m glad He didn’t think like that!

Who are we? According to Scripture, we are rebellious sinners at heart, who have gone our own way and despised the God who created us. But, by His undeserved favor, we have become His children through faith in Christ. By grace, He has forgiven all our sins and has made us members of Christ’s body. He has entrusted spiritual gifts to us to use for His kingdom and glory (not our own kingdom and glory!). As a result, we have the great privilege of serving others for Jesus’ sake.

(2) True humility means renouncing self for the sake of others. Jesus had to renounce any self-will when He came to earth and went to the cross. In the garden, He prayed, “Not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Of course, He had no sinful will to renounce, whereas we fight it every day. But humility means dying to self daily so that we can do God’s will.

(3) True humility means lowering myself to lift others up. That’s what Jesus supremely did in giving up the splendor of His glory in heaven to hang naked on the shameful cross for our sins. It would be impossible for us to go to that extreme. But we do need to lower our view of ourselves so that we can serve others. If you ever find yourself saying, “That task is beneath me,” you’d better check your pride.

(4) True humility yields any rights for the sake of serving others. Did Jesus have a right not to come to this earth in the humble way He did? Of course He did! Did He have a right not to go to the cross? Of course! But, He yielded all His rights and became a bond-servant for our salvation. A bond-servant was the extreme bottom of the ladder when it came to rights, because he had none. He didn’t have a right to his own time. He didn’t even have a right to his own life.

This doesn’t mean that we become the slaves of everyone else’s whims or desires. Jesus was obedient to the Father, not to what others thought He should do. Even so, we become enslaved to do what God wants us to do. Jesus told the disciples that when a slave comes in after a day of working in the field, his master doesn’t serve the slave dinner. The slave has to fix dinner and serve the master, and only then is he free to eat. Jesus concluded by saying, “So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done’” (Luke 17:10). The only right I have is the right to hell. Any privileges I enjoy are by God’s undeserved favor.

(5) True humility serves others in obedience to God, even at great personal cost. The cross was painful beyond description for Jesus, not just because of the physical pain, but because He who was totally without sin endured the wrath of God by becoming sin for us (2 Cor. 5:20). Any personal cost we have to bear in serving Christ is nothing by way of comparison, even if it means laying down our lives. As Isaac Watts put it, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all” (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”).


If you’re experiencing friction in your relationships, whether at home or anywhere, chances are you need to grow in humility. C. S. Lewis saw this. He wrote,

... Pride ... has been the chief cause of misery in every nation and every family since the world began.... Pride always means enmity--it is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God.

In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that--and, therefore, know yourself as nothing in comparison--you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you (Mere Christianity [Macmillan], pp. 110-111).

Calvin sums up the practical application of our text: “Since, then, the Son of God descended from so great a height, how unreasonable that we, who are nothing, should be lifted up with pride!” (Calvin’s Commentaries, p. 55). But, the fact is, we must fight pride all our lives. In 1985, a Spanish bullfighter made a tragic mistake. He thrust his sword a final time into the bull, which then collapsed. Thinking that the bull was dead, the bullfighter turned to the crowd to acknowledge the applause. But the bull was not dead. It rose and lunged at the back of the unsuspecting matador, piercing his heart with its horn.

Pride is like that. Just when we think we’ve conquered it and we turn to accept the congratulations of the crowd, pride stabs us in the back. It won’t be dead before we are. Fight it by focusing on what the Savior did for you by leaving the glory of heaven and coming to die for your sins. Have that same mind in you which was in Christ Jesus: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (2:3, 4). That’s the way toward harmony in our church and in our homes.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is proper theology essential for proper conduct?
  2. Those who teach self-esteem say that they’re not promoting pride, but only a proper self-concept. Are they?
  3. How can a proud person grow in humility? What steps should he take?
  4. How does a humble person keep from becoming a doormat?

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: Christology, Fathers, Fellowship, Marriage, Mothers, Pastors, Spiritual Life

Lesson 12: Every Knee Shall Bow (Philippians 2:9-11)

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Suppose you had been out of the country during the recent NBA play-offs between Houston and Orlando. You had not heard that Houston swept it in four games. You had asked me to videotape the series so that you could watch the games after you returned. When you got back, I proposed that we place a $100 bet on the series. Would you take me up on it? Only if you wanted to give me $100! Why? Because the outcome is not in any doubt. Betting against a game where the outcome is certain would be utterly foolish.

And yet millions of people bet their eternal destiny against an outcome that God has declared absolutely certain. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead and is ascended to the right hand of God the Father where He awaits all of His enemies to be made His footstool (Ps. 110:1). God’s Word assures us that every knee will bow to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord. And yet people go on betting their eternal destiny against this sure word from God, living as their own lords and saviors, as if God’s Word were uncertain or not true. In our text, the apostle Paul assures us that ...

Because Jesus humbled Himself through the cross, God has exalted Him above all, so that all will submit to Jesus as Lord.

I want to set forth what this text of Scripture teaches; deal with some potential objections to that teaching; and, offer some applications.

The Teaching:

1. The crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus is now at the place of supremacy over all creation (2:9).

“Therefore” takes us back to verse 8: Because Jesus was willing to humble Himself and be obedient to death on the cross, God highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name above every name. As we saw last week, Jesus willingly left the height of heights, laid aside His glory that He had with the Father from before the foundation of the world, and took on the form of a lowly servant, adding genuine humanity to His eternal deity. His deity was not diminished or laid aside, but rather was veiled during His earthly ministry, like an eclipse of the sun. But verse 9 tells us that after that time of veiling, God restored Him to that place of supremacy (John 17:5). “Highly exalted” is a word that occurs only here in the New Testament, and may be translated “super-exalted.” Thus Jesus went from the height of heights to the depth of depths and back again to the height of heights.

Jesus did not exalt Himself (although He could have), but the Father exalted Him, thus putting His stamp of approval on Jesus’ death as the satisfaction of the penalty for our sins. As Peter proclaimed to the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 5:30, 31): “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.” The exaltation of Jesus proves that He defeated Satan, who could not keep Jesus in the grave (Col. 2:13-15).

Men did not exalt Jesus. They cast insults and abuse at Him. They jeered and spit upon Him and called Him names. But the Father gave Jesus the name above all names, the name “Lord,” which is equivalent to the Old Testament name of God, Yahweh, a name so sacred that the Hebrews would not even pronounce it. When they were reading the Scripture and came to Yahweh, they would read, “Adonai,” which means “Lord.” “Jesus is Lord” means “Jesus is Yahweh,” eternal God.

That this is Paul’s meaning becomes obvious when you compare Philippians 2:9 with Isaiah 45:22, 23: “Turn to Me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by Myself, the word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back, that to Me every knee will bow, every tongue swear allegiance.” To whom? To God! Citing these verses, Paul says that every knee will bow to Jesus. Jesus is God, Yahweh, Lord!

Peter affirmed the same truth on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:33-36): “Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear. For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.”’ Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ--this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Thus any teaching, such as that of the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, which diminishes or denies the full deity of Jesus Christ, goes against the clear apostolic witness to Jesus. The Jesus who humbled Himself to the death on a cross has been raised up, ascended into heaven, and placed at the right hand of God the Father, in the place of supremacy over all creation.

2. Every creature will bow before the exalted Lord Jesus Christ (2:10).

To emphasize the universality of Christ’s exaltation and lordship, Paul adds, “of those in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth.” Every created being will submit to Jesus Christ. In heaven, the angels will bow willingly before Jesus. The angels are awesome creatures of great power and glory. The mighty angel Gabriel, who brought visions from God to the prophet Daniel, struck such fear into Daniel that he fell on his face (Dan. 8:17). On another occasion when Daniel saw the angel, he grew pale and lost all his strength. When the angel’s hand touched Daniel, it set him trembling on his hands and knees and rendered him speechless (Dan. 10:8, 10, 15). But the mighty Gabriel bows before the Lord Jesus Christ.

On earth, those who have tasted His sovereign grace will bow willingly before Jesus. Others, including many of the mightiest, most powerful men who have ever lived--great kings, wealthy tycoons, evil drug lords--will bow against their wills, but they will bow. Under the earth, Satan and all his powerful demonic forces will bow before the Lord Jesus Christ. These demons have been granted tremendous power. The Book of Job shows how Satan can move wicked people to commit slaughter, he can cause a powerful wind to knock down a house, and he can inflict a man with illness (Job 1:15, 19; 2:7). Certain demons apparently have territorial power over entire nations (Dan. 10:13). But they all will bow before the Lord Jesus Christ.

Years ago the well-known missionary, Don Richardson, spoke at our church in California. Over lunch after church, he shared an interesting theory he has about hell. He said that often hell is pictured as the demons and the damned blaspheming and cursing God. But, Don said, God isn’t going to allow that to go on throughout eternity. Rather, those in hell will forever acknowledge the lordship of Jesus.

He explained by using the analogy of the threshold of pain. Some people can endure only a small amount of pain before they will submit to anyone torturing them. Others can endure much more pain before they are broken. As a boy, you may have wrestled with a bigger boy who got you in a painful hold and increased your pain until you would agree to do or say what he wanted. If he let up on the pain, you would defy him and say, “I’m not going to do it.” So, he would increase your pain until you said, “Okay, I’ll do what you want!”

Don speculates that in hell, God is going to inflict on every person or demon the amount of pain necessary to bring that being into submission, where under duress he cries out, “Jesus is Lord.” If God were to lessen the pain, the person would defy God. So God increases the pain to the point where they submit and then holds them at that level throughout eternity. I don’t know that you can prove his theory from Scripture, but it does make sense. However God does it, there isn’t a rebellious creature on earth or in hell who will not acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord. It will be a forced confession, but every knee shall bow before Jesus.

3. Every tongue will confess the lordship of Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father (2:12).

I’ve just alluded to this fact. But also we need to understand that to honor Jesus is to honor the Father, because Jesus is God. As Jesus told His Jewish critics, “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, in order that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him” (John 5:23, 24). Because Jesus and the Father are one, to glorify Jesus is to glorify the Father. God’s glory is the aim of His eternal purpose in Christ. If people will not willingly give glory to God in this life, they will do so against their will throughout eternity.

That’s the teaching: Because Jesus humbled Himself through the cross, God has exalted Him far above all, so that all will submit to Jesus as Lord, to the glory of God the Father. This teaching raises some questions or objections. Perhaps there are more, but I can think of two:

Objections to the Teaching:

1. If Jesus is exalted as Lord, why does He allow evil and suffering? Why doesn’t He squash all rebellion now?

Of course, this is the age-old problem of evil that theologians and philosophers have wrestled with. We can’t ultimately answer the question, “Why did God allow evil and sin in the first place?” except to say, “It was a part of His inscrutable plan and it results in greater glory to God than any other plan.” To attribute evil to the fact that God gave freedom of choice to the angels and later to human beings does not really solve the problem, because obviously God knew the sinful choices that would be made. He even ordained the cross before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4; Rev. 13:8). And yet the Bible clearly affirms that God is not responsible for sin and that He is apart from all sin (1 John 1:5).

The Bible is equally clear that the current reign of Satan as god of this world and the abundance of evil in no way disproves the absolute lordship of Jesus Christ. The Book of Revelation makes it clear that evil will abound and seemingly be winning the war right up to the end. Saints will be martyred (Rev. 6:9-11), wicked Babylon will be prospering (Rev. 17 & 18) right up to the end. And then, “in one day, in one hour” (Rev. 18:8, 10, 17, 19) God’s judgment will destroy her. That final book of the Bible shows that the fact that evil abounds does not in any way thwart the plans of God or the triumph of Christ.

The Bible is also clear that any delay of God’s judgment is only because of His great patience, in not wanting any to perish, but to bring all of His elect to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9). The final salvation of God’s elect and condemnation of the wicked will demonstrate God’s perfect justice and bring glory to Him (see 2 Thess. 1:6-10).

So, the Bible acknowledges the presence of evil, but also clearly affirms that it in no way disproves the lordship of Jesus, who in God’s perfect timing, will suppress all evil and reign in absolute triumph. That leads to the second question or objection:

2. How can we be sure that Jesus will ultimately triumph, especially when we see evil winning in our day?

As I pointed out, Scripture is clear that evil will seemingly be winning right up to the final hour. Then God’s axe will fall. But, how can we know that those prophecies about the future will come true?

Look at the many prophecies that were fulfilled in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Peter mentions how the Old Testament prophets sought to know what time or manner “the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow” (1 Pet. 1:11). The risen Jesus told the men on the Emmaus road, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then, “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:25-27).

Not only do we have the witness of the Old Testament prophets who spoke of Christ’s sufferings and glory, but also the witness of the many apostles, men of integrity, who saw the risen Lord Jesus, who saw Him ascend into heaven and heard the witness of the angels to His promised second coming (Acts 1:11). Those witnesses went out and gave their very lives based upon what they had seen and heard. We can trust their witness.

So we can know that even though it seems as if evil is winning, Jesus is risen and He is Lord. His kingdom will be established and every knee in heaven, on earth, and under the earth will bow before Jesus as sovereign Lord.

Application of the Teaching:

1. The exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ is an encouragement to humility.

This is Paul’s primary application in the context. If Jesus is the exalted Lord, we’ve got to dethrone self. We are to follow our Lord in His example of laying aside His rights and taking the form of a servant. Because He humbled Himself, God highly exalted Him. Jesus taught, “For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 14:11). It would be wrong to think that Jesus was motivated to go to the cross by the thought of being exalted afterwards. He went to the cross out of love and obedience to the Father and love for you and me. But being exalted was His reward. Our motivation to humble ourselves should be love for God and others, because of His great love for us. But, if we humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand, He will exalt us at the proper time (1 Pet. 5:6).

2. The exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ is an encouragement in trials.

Jesus endured the cross, and the Father strengthened Him and gave Him grace for that awful ordeal. The cross, the resurrection and subsequent exaltation of Jesus shows that God can transform the most grotesque of human sins against us into the greatest of divine triumphs. Any suffering or tragedy we face can redound to the glory of God.

The great British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, knew this encouragement from Christ’s exaltation. When he was only 22, his popularity had spread throughout London. Thousands were flocking to hear him preach. To accommodate the crowds, his church rented the Surrey Gardens Music Hall, which seated at least 10,000. The opening service there was Sunday, October 19, 1856. Word spread and when they opened the building, people crowded in, taking every seat, packing the aisles and stairways, while thousands more stood outside, hoping to hear through the open windows. When Spurgeon arrived and saw the crowd, he was almost overwhelmed. The service began, and everything seemed to be going well.

But just after Spurgeon began to pray, the place was thrown into confusion. Some in a gallery shouted, “Fire!” Another on the ground floor shouted, “The balconies are falling!” A third voice cried, “The whole place is collapsing!” People panicked and began rushing for the exits, but there was no room. Some fell through the balcony railings to the floor below. As some rushed out the doors, the crowd outside saw it as their opportunity to get a seat and began rushing in. Spurgeon tried to calm everyone, but before it was over, seven people had been crushed to death, and 28 others had been severely wounded. The whole thing had been orchestrated by enemies who were jealous of Spurgeon’s popularity and wanted cause to bring him down.

Spurgeon himself was devastated by what had happened, so much so that a man who knew him well reported that 25 years later, when the event came up, Spurgeon was overcome with emotion. His critics used the event to bring all sorts of slander against the young preacher. Spurgeon withdrew for over a week, unable to preach or do anything. But as he walked in a friend’s garden, our text flashed into his mind: “Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.” As he meditated on the exalted Christ, he found strength, and when he returned to the pulpit, he spoke on these verses. Let them comfort you in a time of tragedy.

3. The exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ is an encouragement to evangelism.

The fact that every knee shall bow before Jesus as Lord, either willingly in this life, or forcibly at the judgment, should impel us to warn others to flee the wrath to come. The ultimate lordship of Jesus is the culmination of what God is doing in history, and we have a part in the work of His kingdom. Lost people need to see the serious consequences if they continue in rebellion. They need to repent of their sins, trust in Christ as Savior, and yield to Him as Lord.

4. The exaltation of the Lord Jesus Christ is an encouragement to salvation.

If you have not bowed before Jesus as your Lord and Savior, do not delay! Today is the day of salvation; tomorrow you may have to face Him as Judge! Believing in Christ as your Savior and Lord requires that you humble yourself, because you must let go of the proud notion that you can save yourself. Your good works are not good enough. Only Christ can save. Let go of any thoughts that you’re good enough for the holy God. Turn from your sin and flee to Jesus.

“Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by Myself, the word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back, that to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance. They will say, ‘Only in the Lord are righteousness and strength.’ Men will come to Him, and all who were angry at Him shall be put to shame. In the Lord all the offspring of Israel will be justified, and will glory” (Isa. 45:22-25).

The outcome is certain. The question is, On which side are you?

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we minister to a believer who has gone through some tragedy and asks, “Where was God when this happened?”
  2. If Jesus is highly exalted over all, why is there so much evil in this world?
  3. Jesus said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ but do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). Can a professing, but disobedient, Christian have assurance of salvation?
  4. Why is it impossible to separate belief in Christ as Savior from submission to Him as Lord?

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: Christology, Evangelism, Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

Lesson 13: Working Out Our Salvation (Philippians 2:12-13)

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Christians have often been confused over the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility in the matters of salvation and sanctification. Some have emphasized God’s sovereignty in salvation to the exclusion of human responsibility. For example, when William Carey planned to go to India as a missionary, he was told by one minister, “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.” Others have stressed human responsibility to the exclusion of divine sovereignty. These folks lay a guilt trip on you by saying, “If you don’t witness to your neighbor, his blood will cry out to God against you on judgment day!” They put all the emphasis for salvation on us.

On the matter of sanctification, or growth in salvation, some teach that we are to be passive: “Let go and let God.” If you struggle or strive against sin, they say you’re operating in the flesh, because the Christian life is an effortless experience of “not I, but Christ.” Others stress obedience and effort to the exclusion of God’s power, so that people end up trying to live the Christian life in their own strength.

Where’s the biblical balance? I contend that the Bible teaches both/and, not either/or. God is absolutely sovereign and yet we are responsible, both in salvation and in sanctification. If the scale is tilted, it is in the direction of God’s sovereignty, since He initiates, sustains, and brings the whole plan to completion. But, even so, we have a responsibility in the process. The apostle Paul brings out both emphases in our text, which teaches that ...

We must work out the practical implications of our salvation because God Himself is working in our midst.

To understand this text, we must take note of the context and of several facts brought out by the Greek text. In the flow of thought, these verses introduce the conclusion of an appeal for unity that began in 1:27 and runs through 2:18. “So then” (2:12) in Greek indicates a conclusion from what precedes. Also, all of the words used here are plurals in Greek. Paul is not telling individual Christians to individually work out their personal salvation, as is often taught. Rather, he is appealing to the church, based on the example of humility seen in Jesus Christ, to work out the practical implications of their salvation in their relationships with one another. Because God Himself is at work in their midst as a church, they need to lay aside personal rights and humbly serve one another, putting others ahead of self. In so doing, they will stand out as lights in this dark, selfish world (2:15).

So Paul is especially concerned about these dear people (“my beloved”) working out the relational implications of their salvation, with a view to their corporate testimony to the lost. If we talk about salvation but can’t get along with one another, either in the church or in our homes, the world laughs off our message. But when the world sees Christians laying aside selfishness and regarding one another as more important than self (2:3), they will be more inclined to listen to the gospel. That’s Paul’s main message here, that we need to work out the practical implications of our salvation, because God Himself is working in our midst. There are four important things about salvation that we need to understand from this text:

1. We must possess salvation before we can work it out.

“Salvation” is a theological word we sometimes toss around without thinking much about its implications. It’s a radical word because it points to a situation where someone is in dire straits. The American pilot who was recently shot down in Bosnia needed to be saved, because he could not get out of his predicament by himself. The Marines who rescued him saved his life. A person who is drowning needs a savior, because he is about to perish. Someone who is mortally ill needs a doctor or some medicine to save them, or else they will die.

The Bible tells us that the condition of every human being outside of Jesus Christ is that we are perishing, under God’s wrath and condemnation. Unless we are saved, we will go into eternity bearing the penalty for our sins, which means eternal separation from God and punishment in the lake of fire. Unless we see our desperate condition, we will not call out to God to save us from our sins. Jesus described His mission as “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). So we will not understand “salvation” if we think it just means that Jesus can give you a happier life. It refers to God’s rescuing us from Satan’s domain of darkness and transferring us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13, 14).

Paul was not writing to people who lacked salvation, telling them that they needed to work in order to obtain it. Rather, he was writing to people in whom God had begun the good work of salvation (1:6), telling them to work out the practical implications of the salvation they already possessed. The Bible is clear that we can never work for salvation, to earn or merit it, since it is the free gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9). Good works can never gain heaven for anyone, because no amount of good works can ever eradicate our sin, and God’s holiness and justice demand that the penalty for sin be paid. If anyone could earn heaven by good works, he would boast in himself, which God will not allow. We are not saved by our good works, and not even by our faith. We are saved by Jesus Christ. Faith is simply the hand that receives the life ring of salvation that He throws to us.

I can’t emphasize this point too strongly, because by far the most prevalent error people make about salvation is to think that God will accept them because of their good works. The world operates on the merit system. Every religion in the world, except biblical Christianity, is built on that system: If you’re good enough, you’ll earn salvation. I’ve sometimes been amazed at how deeply this is ingrained in us. I’ve had people sit under my preaching when I have labored to make it clear that we are not saved by any works that we have done. But then they’ve told me that the reason they think God will accept them into heaven is because they’ve tried hard to be good and to love others.

Because the point is so crucial, let me be blunt: If you think that you’re going to heaven because you’re a pretty good person, you are not going to heaven! The only ones going to heaven are those who have recognized that they were lost and who called out to God to save them through the blood of His Son Jesus.

Once we possess salvation, then it’s necessary to work it out in its practical, everyday implications. Paul here mentions how the Philippians had always obeyed, not only when Paul was present; but now, in his absence, he was sure they would also obey, not just him, but God. If their obedience had just been to please Paul, it would not have been evidence of a genuine work of God in their hearts. Those truly saved by God want to please and obey Him in all respects. Since God looks on the heart, we need to learn how to please Him each day with our thoughts as well as with our words and deeds.

Once we possess salvation, we must learn to hold in tension two seemingly contradictory truths that the Bible clearly affirms: that salvation, from start to finish, is God’s work; but, also, that at the same time, salvation requires diligent effort on our part.

2. Salvation, from start to finish, is God’s work.

The reason the Philippians needed to work out their own salvation was that it was God who was at work among them, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. That sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? But the Bible puts both together.

We’re not saved because we choose God; we’re saved because God willed to save us. He begins the good work in us (1:6). John 1:12-13 says, “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” James 1:18 says, “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we might be, as it were, the first fruits among His creatures.” Jesus said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit” (John 15:16).

One of the most prevalent errors in Christendom today is the idea that lost people can choose God by their own free will. The fallen human will is bound by sin. Jesus said plainly, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). “No one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:65). “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Luke 10:22). Left to ourselves, we all choose to go our own way. Salvation depends on God’s choosing us and irresistibly drawing us by His grace according to His good pleasure.

God not only wills our salvation; He works it. Salvation is not through any human effort. It comes from the mighty power of God imparting spiritual life to those who were dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1-5), resulting in a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). Not only in its inception, but throughout the whole process, God must be the energizing power of the Christian life (our English word “energy” comes from the Greek word translated “work” in 2:13). Jesus said, “... apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We cannot live the Christian life in our own strength or effort, but must walk each day in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Salvation, from start to finish, is God’s work.

“If that’s true,” you say, “then let’s kick back and not sweat it. If God wants to do it, He will do it without our effort.” Not so:

3. Although salvation is God’s work, it requires diligent effort on our part.

Maybe this sounds like double-talk, but it is clearly what God’s Word declares. We are dead in our sins, in bondage to sin, unable to escape. Yet God calls on us to be saved and He commands us to call others to salvation. As Peter “solemnly testified and kept on exhorting” his hearers on the Day of Pentecost, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” (Acts 2:40).

You say, “How can you exhort someone to be saved when he can’t be saved by his own will or effort?” Perhaps an illustration from the ministry of Jesus will help. On one occasion, Jesus encountered a man in the synagogue who had a withered hand. Apparently he had nerve damage which made it impossible for him to move or use his hand. Jesus commanded that man to stretch forth his hand (Matt. 12:13). Humanly, that was an impossible command. But Jesus told him to do it and when the man obeyed, his hand was restored. On another occasion Jesus told a man who had not been able to walk for 38 years to get up, take up his pallet, and walk (John 5:8). The man did it!

In both cases, the Lord called those men to do something they could not do in their own strength. He imparted to them the supernatural power required to fulfill His command. But they still had to do it. If they had said, “I can’t do it,” they would not have been healed. God worked mightily, but they had to work, too.

Hear me carefully on this, because I could easily be misunderstood: There is a sense in which receiving God’s salvation requires diligent effort on your part. If you sit back and say, “Well, I’m not sure whether I’m one of the elect, and there isn’t much I can do about it anyway,” you’ll be lost! Complacency about your soul is deadly! You must have a desperate concern for your eternal well-being that moves you, in the words of 2 Peter 1:10, to “be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you.” Jesus talked about men taking the kingdom of God by force (Matt. 11:12; Luke 16:16). He urged His hearers, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:24). If you are uncertain about your standing before God, do not give rest to your soul until you know that God has saved you.

There’s a good illustration of this truth in the Old Testament. Six cities were designated as cities of refuge, where a man who had accidentally killed another man could flee so that a relative of the dead man could not avenge his death. If you were guilty of such an act, you wouldn’t sit around, hoping that the avenger would not get you. You wouldn’t have complacently shrugged your shoulders and said, “I can’t do anything about saving myself.” You would have taken off on the run for the nearest city of refuge, knowing that if you didn’t make it inside, you would be killed. The avenger is in hot pursuit, and you’re exhausted. But you don’t stop until you’re safe inside the gates of that city.

Those cities are a picture of salvation in Jesus our Refuge. God’s wrath will surely come upon you for your crimes. If you die outside of Christ, you will have to pay with your life. But, God has provided a place of refuge. So there is an urgency, if you have not done so, for you to flee to Christ, who alone is our Refuge against sin and hell. In that sense, coming to salvation requires our diligent effort.

Continuance or growth in salvation also requires our effort. There is a popular teaching, known as the Keswick teaching (it was popularized at some Bible conferences held in Keswick, England), that we are not to exert any effort in the Christian life, that any striving proves that we are operating in the flesh, not in the Spirit. It is built on verses like Galatians 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.” That’s a blessed truth which we all must learn to apply!

But there are also many verses in the New Testament which show that even the Spirit-filled life requires that I must strive against sin (Heb. 12:4); I must fight the good fight of faith (2 Tim. 4:7; Eph. 6:10-18); I must run the race so as to win (1 Cor. 9:24); I must be active in cleansing myself from defilement of flesh and spirit and perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1). As our text says, because God is at work, I must work out my salvation. Doing it “with fear and trembling” implies both a reverent fear of God and an awareness of my own weakness and propensity toward sin that leads me to judge myself.

So the point is, even though God sovereignly wills and works all things after the counsel of His will, at the same time each of us is responsible to exert effort to work out the implications of our salvation each day. Yes, we must rely on the Holy Spirit and His power, not on our flesh. But, yes again, we must work. As Paul says (1 Cor. 15:10), he labored more than all of the other apostles; then he adds, “yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” So we can’t excuse our laziness or lack of obedience by saying, “God didn’t move me to do it!” We must work with God.

We’ve seen that we must possess salvation to be able to work it out; and that while salvation is completely God’s work, yet we must work out our salvation in dependence on God.

4. Salvation always has practical relational implications.

This is the main point of Paul’s appeal here, that if we are truly saved by God’s working in us, then we are under obligation to work out relational differences by following Christ’s example of self-denying love. Just as Jesus laid aside His rights, just as He did not live for Himself and His own pleasure, just as He put others ahead of Himself, even to the point of death on the cross, so we must learn to die daily to self and live for others for Jesus’ sake. If you claim to be saved, but you persist in selfishness, in refusing to yield your rights, in demanding your own way, whether at home or in the church, your life isn’t backing up your claim. If the living God (“God” is emphatic in the Greek of 2:13) truly is at work in our midst, we must work out relational differences in a spirit of Christ-like humility and love.

As Americans, I think we sometimes put too much emphasis on the individual aspect of salvation and not enough emphasis on the corporate side of it. Of course, salvation is intensely individual; if you’re not saved individually, you’re not saved. But being saved individually of necessity affects how you relate to others. As I said, all the words in verses 12 & 13 are plurals. You can’t live the Christian life in isolation. You’ve got to work out your individual salvation in your relationships with other Christians, both in your family and in the church. And, I might add, it is work! It’s a lifetime process, and it isn’t automatic. But as we work through such problems or differences, we learn more of Christ. We grow in humility and servanthood.

I also add, the reason we work out our salvation in terms of good relationships isn’t primarily so we’ll be happy, but rather for God’s good pleasure, that is, to please God, whose pleasure is that His people love one another. As we work out our salvation in loving relationships, lost people will see the difference God makes in our daily lives and so be drawn to Him.


John Wesley and George Whitefield were both used of God to bring thousands of people to faith in Christ in the 18th century. They were good friends although they differed greatly on the matter of God’s sovereignty versus man’s responsibility in salvation. Wesley put such an emphasis on human responsibility that he was unsure of his own salvation on his deathbed, after a life of preaching the gospel. Whitefield, on the other hand, was a firm believer in God’s sovereignty in salvation.

A man who was trying to find a juicy bit of gossip once asked Whitefield if he thought he would see John Wesley in heaven. Whitefield replied, “No.” “Do you mean that you do not believe that John Wesley is converted and thus won’t be in heaven?” the man asked, hoping to procure his bit of gossip. “You asked me if I would see John Wesley in heaven,” Whitefield replied. “I do not believe I will, because John Wesley will be so close to the throne of God and I will be so far away, that I will not get a glimpse of him.”

George Whitefield was applying what Paul is here teaching. If, by God’s grace, we have been saved--if it is none other than God who is at work among us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure--then, we must then be diligent to work out the practical implications of that salvation in our relationships with one another in obedience to God.

How are your relationships at home? With other Christians? If God has saved you, you’ve got to follow the example of the Lord Jesus Christ, who laid aside His rights and went to the cross on our behalf. Work out your salvation by dying to self and loving others for Jesus’ sake.

Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss: One of our main problems in evangelism is trying to get people saved who don’t even know that they’re lost.
  2. What are some of the practical dangers if we camp too hard on either God’s sovereignty or human responsibility in salvation?
  3. How can we know when to “let go and let God” or when we need to exert more effort on a matter?
  4. How can we hold to essential truth without sacrificing love? Is all division among professing Christians wrong?

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: Character of God, Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

Lesson 14: Grumble, Grumble--Not! (Philippians 2:14-18)

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Complaining is probably one of the sins most tolerated by Christians. We tolerate it and perhaps don’t even think of it as sin because we’re all so prone to do it. I remember when God began convicting me of my grumbling spirit. I was in seminary in Dallas, where it is hot and humid. My apartment did not have air conditioning and there was no shower, only a bathtub. We had a rubber showerhead hooked to the tub faucet, so you could take a sit-down shower. On a hot and humid day I was taking my sit-down shower and I was grumbling to myself about the inconvenience of it and about how hot this crummy apartment was. This was during the Vietnam war, and it suddenly hit me: I could be over there in that sweltering jungle, getting shot at, in conditions a lot worse than my Dallas apartment! I had to confess my grumbling spirit to the Lord and give thanks to Him for the blessings of a sit-down shower.

After telling the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, because it was none other than God who was at work in their midst, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (2:12-13), Paul goes from preaching to meddling: He applies it specifically by telling them (and us) to do all things without grumbling and disputing. In the context, he is especially exhorting us against grumbling and disputing against one another in the church, because he has been urging us to adopt the humble, self-sacrificing, servant ways of the Lord Jesus. But to grumble against any person or any circumstance is really to grumble against the sovereign God who wills and works all things in our lives (2:13). So Paul’s exhortation means that we have to confront our grumbling and griping as sin. I still struggle with the problem, as most of us do!

I wish Paul had been a bit more realistic and down-to-earth. He could have said, “Try to do most things without grumbling or disputing.” That’s realistic, isn’t it? I can give it a try. But all things? In fact, the word translated “all things” is emphatic in the Greek text. Paul isn’t going to let us off the hook! And, his reason for this commandment concerns our individual and corporate testimony before the world (2:15, 16). Paul’s own example (2:17) shows that not only are we not to grumble and dispute, but positively, we are to be marked by joy, even in the midst of difficult trials. So he is saying,

Our testimony as children of God requires that we be marked, not by grumbling and disputing, but by joy, even in trials.

To explain and apply Paul’s words, I want to consider 4 things:

1. Our testimony of Christ should be uppermost in our thinking so as to affect all our attitudes and behavior.

What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. What does it mean to glorify God? To make Him look good, as He truly is. To glorify God means that when people look at our lives as Christians, they should extol and exalt our God whom they see shining through us. So as children of God our testimony--what our lives communicate about our Savior--should be uppermost in our thinking so that our attitudes, our behavior, and our words bring glory to God.

Paul here refers to Christians as “children of God.” A specific Old Testament passage is behind Paul’s words. In Deuteronomy 32:5, in the song of Moses, in referring to the grumbling and unbelief of the children of Israel in the wilderness, Moses says, “They have acted corruptly toward Him, they are not His children, because of their defect; but are a perverse and crooked generation.” Paul turns that around and says that we are God’s children, living in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, and thus we must be careful not to grumble and dispute, as Israel did in the wilderness, because as God’s people we are supposed to shine forth in this dark world as lights, holding forth to people the word of life, the gospel of Christ.

Children reflect on their parents, don’t they? Of course all children are selfish, rebellious sinners by nature. They all are immature and express themselves in inappropriate ways. They all grumble at times. No child is sinless. But, even so, children will take on the behaviors, attitudes, and words of their parents. I worked with the Boys Brigade program when Daniel was younger. A boy came to that program whose parents went to a liberal church where the gospel was not preached. This boy had the habit of taking the Lord’s name in vain as a word of exclamation. I took him aside once and explained to him that God’s name is holy and that we shouldn’t use it carelessly, as he was. Then the dad came one evening, and I immediately saw where the boy learned to take the Lord’s name in vain!

Children’s attitudes reflect on the parents. If a child is sullen, unhappy, and always complaining about life, it doesn’t speak well of the parents. It may be that the parents are truly loving, caring, people who provide well for their kids. But the child’s bad attitude makes people think poorly of the parents, no matter how good of parents they really are.

That’s the point we have to keep in mind as children of the Heavenly Father. He is perfect in all His ways. But, let’s face it: Sometimes His ways lead us into the wilderness, where there are hardships. When you read Exodus, you see how God delivered Israel from Egypt in a powerful way. He sent the plagues, then He led Israel to the edge of the Red Sea and brought Pharaoh’s army on their heels. He miraculously parted the sea so that Israel could march through on dry ground, and then brought the sea back on top of the Egyptian army.

Then, after this mighty demonstration of God’s power and of His care for His chosen people, we read next that they came to a place, three days journey into the wilderness, where there was no water (Exod. 15:22). Coming right on the heels of their mighty victory, and just after the Song of Moses celebrating that victory (Exod. 15:1-18), when you read about their lack of water, you think, “So what? God who just parted the sea can provide water.” But instead we read, “The people grumbled at Moses” (Exod. 15:24). Then we read how they grumbled because there was no food (16:2), so the Lord provided manna. Then they grumbled because there was no meat, so the Lord provided quails (16:8-13). Then they ran out of water again, and grumbled again, and the Lord again provided water (17:3).

But, in their grumbling against Moses and disputing with him (17:2), they were really grumbling and disputing against the Lord (16:8). It was a bad testimony to the nations around them, that the God who had provided a mighty deliverance for Israel would not also provide for their basic needs. It reflected badly on His love, His care, and His power to provide. The pagan nations around them, who were looking for a pretext to justify their rebellion against the living God, would scoff at God when they heard the grumbling and complaining of His people.

That’s Paul’s point in our text. We live in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation that refuses to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It’s a world marked by grumbling and complaining. In the original temptation, Satan got Eve to doubt the goodness of God, and ever since he seeks to do the same. People won’t trust in a God whose goodness is in question. So here are God’s people, delivered from bondage to sin by God’s mighty salvation through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. They have seen His power. Then they get into a wilderness situation, a trial where they run out of some basic resource and don’t have a clue where it’s going to come from.

What do they do? Do they grumble and dispute with God: “How could You do this to me when I’ve faithfully followed You?” Or, filled with joy in the Lord, do they shine forth as lights in the darkness? The testimony of Christ is at stake, especially when you’re going through a difficult trial.

Paul says that three things should mark children of God (especially in trials): We should be blameless, innocent, and above reproach. Blameless has the nuance of moral integrity as seen by others. It points to our outwardly observable behavior, including our attitudes. Nothing in our lives should give an occasion for scandal, where unbelievers can look at how we live and say, “I thought he was a Christian! How can he be a Christian and live like that?” A great example of a blameless man is Daniel, who lived in Babylon and served in that pagan government. When his enemies wanted to find some charge against him to bring him down, because they were jealous of his position, they finally concluded, “We shall not find any ground of accusation against this Daniel unless we find it against him with regard to the law of his God” (Dan. 6:5). Daniel lived with integrity.

Also, we are to be innocent. This word focuses on inward moral integrity, which is the proper root of outwardly blameless behavior. It focuses on what we are in our thought life before God. It’s possible to put on a good front at church, but to be leading a double life. You can be an upright man at church, but be filled with lustful thoughts, always checking out the women. You can be a nice, smiling man at church, but be an angry tyrant with your family. All sin starts in our thoughts or mind (Mark 7:20-23). Thus we have to judge our sinful thoughts and take every thought captive to the obedience of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 10:5) so that we will be not only blameless, but innocent.

Then we also must be above reproach. It’s a summary of the other two and means, without blemish. It’s an interesting Greek word, amoma. In Greek, the letter “a” negates something. So the word means, the opposite of moma. “Momus” was a carping Greek god who did nothing himself and found fault with everybody and everything. So those who gripe and find fault came to be called “Moma.” But Paul says that the children of God are not to be fault-finders and gripers. We are to be without the blemish of complaining because we want this crooked and perverse generation to know that our Heavenly Father is a good, loving, and caring God. Our testimony of Christ should be uppermost in our minds so that we glorify Him by how we live.

2. Our testimony of Christ is tarnished by grumbling and disputing.

As I said, in the context Paul especially means grumbling and disputing against one another. But all grumbling and disputing is really against God who is sovereign over all our circumstances. “Grumbling” is used repeatedly of Israel in the wilderness, both in their complaining about Moses, as well as about their circumstances. Moses wasn’t a perfect leader; no human leader is. But God had appointed him. So God said that their grumbling was against Him (Exod. 16:8). When we grumble, whether about a church leader we don’t like or about some trial we’re going through, we’re really saying, “God, you’re not doing a very good job of directing my life. Why am I out here in this wilderness? Why don’t we have any water? Why did you appoint this man to lead us into this mess?” We’re wrongly questioning God.

“Disputing” can either mean inward questioning or outward dissension (1 Tim. 2:8). Paul’s command not to dispute does not stifle honest discussion of differences on matters of doctrine or practice. Nor does it mean that it is wrong to question church leaders about problem areas. But it does confront our attitude in how we raise questions or disagreements. To dispute means to challenge in a selfish rather than submissive spirit. It means to assert your authority in an attempt to resist God and the leaders He has appointed, so that you don’t have to submit to His Word. Satan was disputing when he said to Eve, “Indeed, has God said, ...? You shall not surely die!” (Gen. 3:1, 4). As Matthew Henry put it, “God’s commands were given to be obeyed, not to be disputed” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary, on Phil. 2:15, [Revell], p. 734).

The most appropriate example of grumbling and disputing I have ever experienced was when I was in the military. They think something’s wrong if you’re not complaining! Everyone gripes about the food, about the regulations, about the commanding officer, about the no-good guys in your company who don’t carry their share of the work. If you don’t complain, but do your work cheerfully as unto the Lord, you stick out like a sore thumb, or, in Paul’s words, you shine as lights in the world.

We’ve seen that our testimony should be uppermost in our thinking so that it affects all our attitudes and behavior, to bring glory to our Heavenly Father. Grumbling and disputing tarnish that testimony. Thirdly,

3. Our testimony of Christ shines forth when we are filled with joy even in the midst of trials.

“Lights” means luminaries, things that shine. When do stars shine the brightest? When the night is the darkest. They shine, but not as brightly, when the moon is full. The stars shine during the day, but we can’t see them because the light of the sun blocks them out. But on a dark night, they shine the brightest.

When can you bear the most effective witness for Jesus Christ? When you’re in the darkest place! It may be a place of personal trial, where you radiate with God’s joy in spite of your situation. Maybe you’re in a dark situation at work or school, surrounded by crooked and perverse people. If you do all things without grumbling or disputing, but rather are blameless, innocent, and above reproach, filled with joy in the Lord, you’re going to shine! Many people will never read the Bible, but they do read you.

As Paul wrote, he was in a dark place, in prison, facing possible execution from the pagan Nero. Christian preachers in Rome were slandering him out of envy and strife. But Paul says that if his life is poured out as a drink offering on the altar, if it was upon the sacrifice and service of the Philippians’ faith, he rejoiced and shared that joy with them. And he urges them to rejoice in their trials and to share that joy with him (2:17, 18).

Our lives shine as we put off grumbling and disputing and live in joy, especially during trials. But, also, we have a message we hold forth: “the word of life” (2:16). The gospel--that Christ died for our sins, that He arose victorious over sin and death, that He offers a full pardon from the wages of sin to all who will receive it by faith--that good news is the power of God to salvation for all who believe. The gospel is not just a set of propositions or doctrines to subscribe to, although it involves certain non-negotiable doctrines. The gospel brings the very life of God to those who are dead in their transgressions and sins (Eph. 2:1-10). Those apart from Christ are not pretty good people who just need a little help to solve some of their problems. According to Scripture, they are spiritually dead, separated from the life of God. But when we hold forth to them the word of life, God can use it to raise them from the dead, to give them eternal life.

Thus our testimony is built on our life in Christ, a life free from grumbling and disputing, a life filled with the joy of Christ and the salvation He has given us, even in trials. But our testimony also involves the verbal witness of telling people the word of the gospel that imparts new life to all who believe. Every Christian should have this two-fold witness: a life of joy, which often opens the door to the second part, the message or word of life. Paul’s witness in Philippi illustrates what he is teaching here. He had been unjustly beaten and thrown into prison and locked in the stocks. He had good cause to complain, but instead he and Silas sang hymns of praise to God. God sent an earthquake to open the jail. The jailer was prevented from taking his own life and asked, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul shared the gospel message with him and his family. That’s how we should bear witness of the Savior.

“But,” you say, “how can I have joy when things aren’t going well? My life is filled with problems. I’ve prayed, but the problems seem to get worse, not better. I live and work with difficult people. How can I have God’s joy in such trials?”

4. Our testimony of Christ can reflect joy even in trials if we live in view of Christ’s coming.

Paul could joyfully let his life be poured out as a drink offering because his focus was on “the day of Christ” when he would be rewarded because he did not run or labor in vain (2:16). The very words, “run” and “labor” point to the difficulty of serving Jesus Christ. It’s no Sunday School picnic! The imagery of being lights in the world also points to the difficulty of ministry, because lights give off light by being expended themselves. The candle is burned up by giving off light. Every servant of Christ has to die to self in obedience to Christ, as Grant preached last week. You may ask, “Why do that? Why endure hardship, why have people malign you, why wear yourself out serving Christ?” Because the day of Christ is coming, when He will render His rewards to every person. If people are there in heaven on that day, rescued from hell, gathered before the throne of Christ to sing His praises for all eternity because of your witness, don’t you think that you will say, “Any suffering I went through for the sake of the gospel was worth it”?

Living in the light of the day of Christ means that we must daily submit ourselves in every situation to a sovereign God. He is working all things after the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). At present, He is allowing evil to go on. Living in this evil world, we often will suffer for the sake of righteousness. But we believe that He is sovereign, that His plan for the ages will be fulfilled, that Christ will return in power and glory to reign on His throne. So we can submit joyfully, without grumbling or disputing, to whatever He brings into our lives, knowing that He is in charge, and that His plan will not be thwarted.


A little old lady walked into a department store one day and was surprised when a band began to play and an executive pinned an orchid on her dress and handed her a crisp $100 bill. She was the store’s millionth customer. Television cameras were focused on her and reporters began interviewing her. “Tell me,” one asked, “just what did you come here for today?”

The lady hesitated for a minute and then sheepishly answered, “I was on my way to the Complaint Department.” How embarrassing!

But I wonder, if there had been a secret video camera recording your life this past week, how much grumbling would have been captured on film? Maybe you even came to church like that lady went to the department store, ready to air your complaints or to give someone a piece of your mind. But God meets you at the door and pins His Word on you: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, a child of God above reproach in the midst of this crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine forth as a light in the world.” Grumble, grumble--NOT!

Discussion Questions

  1. The psalmists sometimes complained to the Lord. Is this okay? How does it fit in with Paul’s command in Phil. 2:14?
  2. If you’re in a bad situation (work, home, etc.) is it wrong to complain to those in charge? To complain to a friend?
  3. If a Christian’s life isn’t what it should be, should he give verbal witness of Christ? How “perfect” must we be to bear witness?
  4. Why is affirming the sovereignty of God in all things so important in learning to live with joy rather than with grumbling?

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, Suffering, Trials, Persecution