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Give and Take (Phil. 4:10-20)

Introduction

As I was preparing for this lesson, I read these comments by Steve Zeisler’s on Philippians 4:10-23:

“The imprisoned apostle had been sent a gift of money, and he was thoughtfully writing a thank-you note in return. How many of the thank-you notes sent by you after Christmas turned out like the letter to the Philippians? Paul, the great letter writer, sat down to write a thank-you note to his friends and ended up with one of the most beloved documents in letter-writing history. This man knew how to write letters!”90

I was not at all surprised by Zeisler’s words. When I turned to my commentaries, I was taken aback by Gordon Fee’s introductory words on the same passage:

“So how would you feel? Your financially strapped college group has scraped together a considerable amount of cash in order to help a former member do humanitarian missionary work in Central Africa. After some time you receive word back—a long letter in fact—which goes on and on about how the group might better serve the Lord on its own campus, but nary a word about the gift. And then at the end, with a kind of ‘by the way,’ the gift is mentioned; but even so more time is spent on how little the gift was really needed than on thanksgiving itself. You would have a right to be a bit miffed. Both our secular and spiritual cultures expect something better of friends, and no one likes an ingrate. Which is exactly how many feel about Paul at this point in the letter.

Carrying our own feelings about our ‘missionary friend’ back into Paul’s letter to the Philippians, however, is its own form of cultural gaffe, a clear reflection that we cannot really imagine a culture in which such things might be done differently. But different they were indeed; and we know this because many of the philosophers wrote treatises on friendship and on the benefits of friendship that were a part of their cultural presuppositions. It turns out in fact that the placement of Paul’s gratitude for their gift at the end, his avoidance of the word meaning ‘thank you’ and the way he wrestles with reciprocity (the ‘giving and receiving’ [v. 15] of benefits) are all perfectly explainable on the grounds of Greco-Roman friendship, which is presupposed at every point in this letter, and now especially in this passage.”91

Convinced that Gordon Fee’s commentary on Philippians92 is the best of the bunch, I was disappointed by his comments on our text. I have to disagree with him here. Somehow Fee expects the reader to be upset with Paul for not showing more gratitude. I am somewhat distressed that Fee would expect me to be offended, but I am even more distressed by Fee’s solution. He says that the key to rightly understanding this text is not to be found in our Bible, but elsewhere. We can only understand Paul’s meaning here if we are familiar with the writings of the philosophers and literature of that day. Fee assures us that when we come to understand “Greco-Roman friendship” from extra-biblical sources, then we will understand what our Bible says to us in our text. Understanding our text properly, then, does not come about through a careful study of the Scriptures, but by a study of secular writings.93

Please do not misunderstand what I am trying to say. I believe that there is value in learning the language and the culture of the ancients. I believe that secular literature and scholarship may offer some helpful insights into biblical times and biblical texts. But I am absolutely convinced that the biblical author’s meaning can be discerned from the Scriptures alone. I refuse to accept any suggestion that the Christian is dependent upon secular scholarship or extra-biblical materials in order to make sense of God’s Word. It does not take a scholar to understand, interpret, and apply the Word of God. It was written to average saints, who through the enablement of the Holy Spirit are able to grasp the meaning and the message of God’s Word.

6 Now we do speak wisdom among the mature, but not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are perishing. 7 Instead we speak the wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, that God determined before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But just as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him.” 10 God has revealed these to us by the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who among men knows the things of a man except the man’s spirit within him? So too, no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things that are freely given to us by God. 13 And we speak about these things, not with words taught us by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. 14 The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The one who is spiritual discerns all things, yet he himself is understood by no one. 16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to advise him?” But we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:6-16, emphasis mine).

We would do well to remember the context of these words. Paul has rebuked the Corinthians for their schisms and division. Some of this is based upon their pride in some recent arrivals in the church. These were very smooth and persuasive folks whose style was easy to take and whose message had the appearance of wisdom. They left behind the “simplistic” preaching of Paul and the apostles, for something that went beyond “Christ crucified.” Paul informs these saints that the desire for a more sophisticated message is really worldly. He reminded them how few of the world’s “wise” were among their ranks, and he contrasted the wisdom of God with the wisdom of men. The gospel was the wisdom of God, but it was not a sealed book, to be known only by the intellectuals. It is a message that the wise of this world cannot understand apart the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Every Christian has this illumination, and is thus qualified to understand the things of God, the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18–2:16).

18 Children, it is the last hour, and just as you heard that Antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have appeared. We know from this that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us, because if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But they went out from us to demonstrate that all of them do not belong to us. 20 Nevertheless you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know. 21 I have not written to you that you do not know the truth, but that you do know it, and that no lie is of the truth. 22 Who is the liar but the person who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This one is the Antichrist: the person who denies the Father and the Son. 23 Everyone who denies the Son does not have the Father either. The person who confesses the Son has the Father also (1 John 2:18-23).

John certainly agrees with Paul, as we can see from his words in 1 John 2. Like Paul, John warns the saints about false teachers who will come their way. They will claim to hold to the same gospel as the apostles, but they will also suggest that it is only the experts, like themselves, that could explain and really open up the Scriptures to the mere laity. These “knowers” and their “secret knowledge” (this came to be known as gnosticism) could only be revealed by teachers such as themselves. Here, John is not denying the valuable role gifted teachers play in the life of the church; he is rejecting the claim of certain false teachers to have superior knowledge, which only they can communicate to the rest of the church. John reminds his readers that they have the Holy Spirit, and that they are not dependent upon the “experts” to tell them what the Bible teaches. They can find out for themselves.

I really don’t believe that Gordon Fee means what he appears to say, but one could certainly infer it from his words cited above. I believe the key to our text is found in the Scriptures. I believe that the reason we have so much trouble accepting Paul’s words is not because we fail to understand the ancient culture of Philippi or the Greeks, but because we fail to understand our own. I don’t think we fully grasp that Paul’s words may disappoint us—or even irritate us—because our culture (along with much of our Christian culture) has a wrong view of giving and of receiving. If we are shocked by Paul’s response, it is because we are not used to this kind of response, though we should be if we were living consistently with Paul’s theology and practice.

There are many other texts of Scripture that deal with Christian giving. Our text has some good things to say about giving and receiving. But in my opinion one of the unique contributions of our text is its teaching on our response to our own personal “needs” and to the gracious gifts we receive from others. Here is a text that tells us how we should receive gifts from others. In particular, I would suggest for your consideration that this text approaches the whole matter of giving and receiving from the perspective of humility. That may sound strange to you, but I would ask your indulgence so that I may have the opportunity to explain myself more fully as we make our way through this great text.

There is yet another reason why a correct understanding of this passage is so important to us. Our text contains two of the most popular promises in all of the New Testament:

I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).94

And my God will supply all that you need according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19).

I would like to suggest that most of those who refer to and rely upon these promises give almost no attention to the context in which they are found. I’m not so sure that these promises would be as popular as they are if people understood what Paul meant when he wrote them. If I have sparked your interest and curiosity, that was my intent. Let us now “plow on” to see what these promises mean.

The Philippians Gift and Paul’s Joy
(4:10)

I have great joy in the Lord because now at last you have again expressed your concern95 for me (now I know you were concerned before but had no opportunity to do anything).

Paul’s words here are in response to the gift that the Philippians had sent by Epaphroditus. It is very easy for us to think of this gift in contemporary terms and fail to realize the magnitude of this gift. Consider the following observations concerning this gift, based upon our text and other passages of Scripture.

First, it would appear that Paul did not make his needs known to the Philippians. Paul strongly stresses in this letter that he is not seeking to solicit a gift from these very generous saints. If he was reluctant to “make his needs known” after receiving their gift, I would assume that he did not make his needs known in a way that would prompt the gift in the first place. If he can now say that he didn’t really need their gift, then why would he have ever asked for it? Paul was not making it easy for them to give; his purposeful silence made it more difficult.

Second, if Paul kept his needs to himself, then the Philippians must have had to work at keeping up with Paul’s circumstances, so that they could discern when sending a gift was appropriate. I believe that the Philippians found out about Paul’s needs on their own, apart from any prompting by the apostle, whether directly or indirectly. It seems to me that in this instance, the Philippians cared enough to think through Paul’s circumstances, and logically concluded that he did have a need.

Let me attempt to illustrate this with a biblical example that seems quite clear. In Acts 11:27-30, we read that Agabus came down to Antioch from Jerusalem announcing, “there was to be a famine all over the world” (11:28). So far as I can tell from Luke’s account, there was no command given to the saints in Antioch to take up a collection and to send it to the needy saints in Judea. The Antiochian saints were able to “add 2 and 2 and get 4.” First, the Holy Spirit had chosen to reveal a future event to them. Surely this was for some purpose. If there was going to be a famine, then there would also be a need for food and money. If this famine was to be “all over the world” (verse 28) then Judea would be affected as well. If Judea was going to suffer from the famine, then the saints in Judea would suffer. These Judean saints were brothers and sisters in the Lord. More than that, the gospel had originated in Judea. And so the saints in Antioch purposed to send a gift to their needy brethren. The saints at Antioch reasoned out the need, and what they should do about it.

I am inclined to think that a similar process prompted the Philippians to send their gift to Paul. The Philippians cared about Paul. From the very beginning, the Philippians welcomed Paul into their hearts and homes. When he left them, they continued to keep up with his ministry and to send funds when they sensed a need. For a good while Paul had been able to support himself, and so there was no need to send money. Now, word must have reached Philippi that Paul had been arrested and charged with treason, and that he had appealed to Caesar. They knew that he was incarcerated in Rome, awaiting trial. They knew that while Paul normally “made tents” to support himself (Acts 18:3), this would not be possible so long as he was in prison. Here was a need that they could meet, which would allow them to express, once again, their love for him and their partnership in the gospel.

Third, sending a gift to Paul was not an easy thing for the Philippians to do. It was one thing to discern Paul’s need and to decide to meet it; it was quite another to actually accomplish this task. There was the initial problem of raising the money to send to Paul. The Philippians were a very generous group of saints, but they were apparently quite poor (see 2 Corinthians 8:1-5). Besides, this church was committed to meeting other needs as well. Remember that some time earlier this church had sacrificially given to the needy in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8-9). Even after raising the money, getting it to Paul proved to be a challenge. They could not just “drop a check in the mail;” they had to send their gift by a messenger—Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus was not just the bearer of a gift; he was a gift as well. The journey from Philippi to Rome was no easy trip. It was approximately 700 miles from Philippi to Rome as the crow flies. It was a long and dangerous journey, by both land and sea.96 We know that it was not an easy trip because it nearly cost Epaphroditus his life (Philippians 2:25-30).

Fourth, this gift was sent during a period of persecution. From the closing verses of Philippians 1, we know that the Philippians themselves were beginning to suffer persecution for their faith (1:29-30). In difficult times, one is inclined to “set money aside for a rainy day,” rather than to give it away to others. Furthermore, Paul was accused of treason against Rome. To associate themselves with Paul was to run the risk of being viewed as Paul’s accomplices. To support Paul could be interpreted as supporting the “revolution” he was charged of promoting:

32 But remember the former days when you endured a harsh conflict of suffering after you were enlightened. 33 At times you were publicly exposed to abuse and afflictions, and at other times you came to share with others who were treated in that way. 34 For in fact you shared the sufferings of those in prison, and you accepted the confiscation of your belongings with joy, because you knew that you certainly had a better and lasting possession (Hebrews 10:32-34).

Gladly, the Philippians expressed their association (in biblical terms, their “fellowship”) with Paul and with the gospel. This gift that Paul had received, to which he is now referring, was no small thing. The Philippians were sensitive to Paul’s circumstances and to his needs. They were aware of the risks and of the difficulty of getting their gift to him. Nevertheless, they cared enough to minister to Paul in this way.

When I was a student in my first year of seminary, my wife bore our second child. At the time, we did not have the money to pay the remainder of the hospital bill that was due upon checkout. The day that my wife Jeannette and our daughter Joanna were to check out of the hospital, a check arrived from Burley Bible Church, the little country church we had attended in Washington State before coming to Dallas. The check was for the amount we lacked, almost to the dollar. To this day, we have no idea how they knew of our need, or how the amount of their gift was determined. I have to tell you that there was great rejoicing that day, as we received this gracious provision from the Lord!

The gift that the Philippians had sent to Paul caused the apostle to rejoice, too, but for a different reason. He rejoiced because he knew what the gift meant. There was a deep, caring relationship between this church and Paul, as he has already indicated (see Philippians 1:7-8). There had been other gifts, but these were in the somewhat distant past. And now, after the passing of some length of time, another gift was sent, another token of their love and concern.

Paul was afraid that he might be misunderstood when he mentioned that considerable time had lapsed between their earlier gifts and this most recent gift. He did not wish to convey the false impression that he felt it had been too long since the Philippians had last sent him a gift. That was not it at all. The time that had passed without a gift was due to the fact that Paul was not in need. This was undoubtedly because Paul usually worked with his own hands to provide for his personal needs as well as the needs of others (see Acts 20:33-35; 1 Corinthians 9:4-18; 1 Thessalonians 2:9). Once the Philippians became aware of Paul’s circumstances, they promptly responded with yet another gift. Paul was grateful, more for the fact that they cared than for the money that he received.

    Paul’s Joy and His Intentions Clarified
    (4:11-13)

11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content in any circumstance. 12 I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing. 13 I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.

I know that there are some of you who have children in college. Can you imagine getting a letter from your child, with a check enclosed, that went something like this:

Dear Mom and Dad,

I know that you’ve spent a lot of money putting me through college. This semester, I’ve taken some steps to economize, and so I’m sending you $500 that I won’t need this year. My expenses should be even lower next year.

If this isn’t beyond comprehension, what if you got a letter from a Christian organization that went something like this:

Dear Supporter,

In order to be better stewards of the funds God has provided, we did an efficiency study and found several areas of waste and inefficiency. We learned that my salary was too high, and so we’ve reduced it to half. We’ve also cut some staff. As a result, we recommend that you consider giving some of your contribution to another worthy ministry.

Actually, I have seen something like this in the past. Several years ago I made use of the “On-Line Bible” program. It is a kind of shareware program that is very well done and is very helpful for Bible study. In the early version that I used, a message would pop up on the screen when I booted up the program that went something like this: “This program has been written with the hope that it will help you in your study of God’s Word. If you find this program helpful, we would suggest that you make a contribution to the Christian ministry of your choosing. Be generous!” What a delight! What a shock!

In some ways, this is what Paul seems to be saying. He is graciously turning our attention from his needs. It is not, however, because Paul is rude and insensitive, or because he fails to appreciate the gift that has been given. Paul has some very good reasons for his response, as we shall soon see.

Verse 11 can be understood in more than one way. While I greatly appreciate what J. B. Phillips has done in his paraphrase of the New Testament, I don’t agree with his rendering of verse 11.

Nor do I mean that I have been in actual need (Phillips).

Other translations convey the same idea:

Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to get along happily whether I have much or little (New Living Translation, emphasis mine).

I do not say this because I have lacked anything; I have learnt to manage with whatever I have (New Jerusalem Bible, emphasis mine).

Fortunately, the NET Bible leaves the door open for understanding Paul’s words in a different way:

I am not saying this because I am in need.

As you can see, the NET Bible leaves the matter open as to whether or not Paul really did have a need. The New Living Translation seems to go much too far. It not only states that Paul is not presently in need; it has Paul claiming that he never has experienced a need. This flies in the face of other biblical texts:

11 To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, brutally treated and without a roof over our heads. 12 We do hard work, toiling with our own hands. When we are verbally abused, we respond with a blessing, when persecuted, we endure, 13 when people lie about us, we answer in a friendly manner. We are the world’s dirt and scum, even now (1 Corinthians 4:11-13, emphasis mine).

26 I have been on journeys many times; in dangers from rivers, in dangers from robbers, in dangers from my own countrymen, in dangers from Gentiles, in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers, 27 in hard work and toil, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing (2 Corinthians 11:26-27, emphasis mine).

Years ago I was teaching a Bible study in our home. A friend arrived, and I took his coat to hang it up. I happened to make some remark to the effect that it was a very nice coat and looked like it would be warm in the winter. When my friend left, he walked away without putting on his coat. I grabbed the coat and went after him. “Larry, wait, you forgot your coat,” I said. “That’s not my coat; its yours,” he said, and walked into the night.

Have you ever had a relative or a friend who was so generous that you had to be careful about what you said to them? You have to be careful that you don’t inadvertently convey some need, because you know that they will try to meet that need. That is the way Paul feels about the Philippians. Years of experience convinced him of their generosity. The mere hint of a need was all these saints needed to begin taking up a collection. Paul is apprehensive that his words may be interpreted as a subtle request for another gift. He has such strong convictions against soliciting funds for his personal needs that he goes out of his way to avoid any hint of solicitation. Verses 11-13 are a kind of parenthesis in which Paul makes it very clear that he is content in circumstances where he may have unmet needs. Even in legitimate instances of need, Paul did not want to solicit gifts from his fellow saints.

It is one thing for Paul to say, in effect, “I really don’t have any needs, and that is why I am saying these things.” It is quite another for Paul to say, “I really didn’t intend to mention my needs, because I did not want you to feel obligated to give yet another gift.” I believe that Paul is saying the latter. And so I read the NET Bible in this way: “I am not saying this because I am in need (though this may be true, but I am reluctant to share my needs, as aware of your generosity as I am).”

I believe that my understanding of Paul’s meaning is fully justified by his explanation in verses 11b-13. Paul refuses to solicit funds for himself because he has learned to be content in his circumstances, whatever they might be. Some people seem to assume that whenever there is a need, that “need” should be made known and met by others. Missionary prayer letters come to mind here. For those in ministry, it is viewed as sufficient justification for “sharing our needs with our constituency.” Perhaps it is, for some people and in some cases. I would suggest, however, that it was not sufficient justification for Paul. I am inclined to say it was not ever considered sufficient justification by Paul.97

Is this not what Paul is saying here in verses 11-13? As I read these verses, Paul’s meaning is plain. He is not sharing his circumstances in order to solicit further funds. In chapter 1, Paul shares his circumstances to comfort and to encourage the Philippians in their circumstances, not to generate funds. Paul tells us that he does not share these things to solicit funds, so that his circumstances can be changed. He believes that his circumstances are God’s will for him. Thus, he is content and can rejoice in them. He makes his needs known to God (4:6), and he is at peace about the answer God gives (4:7). If, apart from solicitation, God provides a feast, Paul gladly accepts that. If God does not provide the feast, then Paul gladly accepts hunger. The same is true for clothing and shelter.

This contentment does not come naturally; it comes supernaturally, in answer to our prayers (4:6-7). We learn contentment in circumstances that are less than ideal. We learn to be content with hunger by experiencing hunger (as our Lord did in His temptation in the wilderness—Matthew 4:1-11). We learn contentment with abundance by experiencing abundance, without being caught up with the desire for more (see Luke 12:15-21; 1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19). Paul has learned to be content in both plenty and in poverty. This is why he is so insistent that he is not disclosing his circumstances in order to solicit funds. He has learned to rejoice in the lean times and does not feel compelled to change his circumstances. He leaves that to God.

I should reiterate that Paul was not the kind of man who sits back and does nothing, waiting for God to provide while he does nothing. Paul was a man who was truly “willing to work,” and he did so often. When a gift arrived that gave him the freedom to spend all of his time and energy preaching and teaching, he gladly did so (see Acts 18:1-5). But very often Paul worked at tent making, thereby providing for himself and for others (Acts 20:33-35). When Paul was “in need,” it was not because he was unwilling to work; it was because he was unwilling to solicit funds.

Now I’m sure that I am beginning to make a lot of folks nervous. Am I saying that everyone should live as Paul did, and that it is always wrong to “make your needs known” to those who could help? No. I am saying that keeping silent about his needs was Paul’s personal conviction. We see this very clearly explained in 1 Corinthians 9. But Paul makes it very clear in that text that being supported in one’s ministry is a biblical right, a right that he has chosen to set aside for the sake of the gospel.

There was a good reason why Paul and Barnabas chose to live as they did: so far as I can tell, both men were single:

1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? 2 If I am not an apostle to others, at least I am to you, for you are the confirming sign of my apostleship in the Lord. 3 This is my defense to those who examine me. 4 Do we not have the right to financial support? 5 Do we not have the right to the company of a believing wife, like the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? 6 Or do only Barnabas and I lack the right not to work? (1 Corinthians 9:1-6, emphasis mine)

25 With regard to the question about people who have never married, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my opinion as one shown mercy by the Lord to be trustworthy. 26 Because of the impending crisis I think it best for you to remain as you are. 27 The one bound to a wife should not seek divorce. The one released from a wife should not seek marriage. 28 But if you marry, you have not sinned. And if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face difficult circumstances, and I am trying to spare you. 29 And I say this, brothers and sisters: the time is short. So then those who have wives should be as those who have none, 30 those with tears like those not weeping, those who rejoice like those not rejoicing, those who buy like those without possessions, 31 those who use the world as though they were not using it to the full. For the present shape of this world is passing away. 32 And I want you to be free from concern. The unmarried man is concerned about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is concerned about the things of the world, how to please his wife, 34 and he is divided. An unmarried woman and virgin is concerned about the things of the Lord, to be holy both in body and spirit. But the married woman is concerned about the things of the world, how to please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your benefit, not to place a limitation on you, but so that without distraction you may give notable and constant service to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:25-35).

Many have wondered how Paul could discourage anyone from getting married, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 7. After all, isn’t marriage a gift from God? Isn’t marriage a wonderful blessing? Yes, marriage is a blessing, and a wonderful gift from God. But it also necessitates a commitment that can be a distraction to one’s calling and ministry. Paul would never have been willing to put his wife and children through the kinds of suffering, danger, and deprivation he himself gladly endured for the sake of the gospel. Would he take a wife and child along with him on his dangerous journeys (see 1 Corinthians 4:11-13; 2 Corinthians 11:23-27)? Would he place his wife in the same kinds of situations that he endured? I think not, because as a husband and father he would be obligated to protect and provide for his family. And so Paul’s decision not to marry facilitated his willingness to endure suffering deprivation for the sake of the gospel.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that everyone in Christian ministry is obligated to adopt Paul’s personal convictions or his lifestyle. But having said this, I would also suggest that we should not assume that every perceived “need” is a wrong that needs to be made right by sharing that need with others, and expecting them to provide what we think we need. This mindset has become a “given” in Christian circles. It is true of those who are in ministry. I see very few men coming out of seminary who are willing to “roll up their sleeves” and work in a secular job because they assume that others should support them in their ministry. And yet some of the most effective servants of Christ are those who are “tent makers,” those who support themselves in ministry. I am trying to say that while each of us has an obligation to share all good things with those who teach us (Galatians 6:6), those of us who do teach should not demand that we be supported financially.

This is not just a problem with those who have prepared themselves for full-time ministry. There are a considerable number of Christians who refuse to accept the fact that they should have unmet needs. They demand that God deliver them from any “need” or “adversity.” They expect and demand healing when they are sick. Some even demand that God delay death, until they are ready for it. (Most have to admit that God wants them to die, someday, but just not this year.) I am saying that every Christian ought to be willing to cheerfully accept some unmet need as God’s will for them. It may be the unmet need of marriage, or a full-time ministry,98 or a “fulfilling” and good-paying job.

I have a friend who spoke at a convention in Nevada some years ago. When he returned, he told me that they had an auto show there and that he saw some really nice conversion vans. “Why didn’t you buy one?” I asked, knowing that he could certainly have afforded it. His response was filled with insight: “Every man needs to have something he wants, and that he chooses not to buy.” In other words, we should not indulge ourselves with everything we want, even if we could afford to do so. We need to learn self-restraint.

Those of us who are Christians living in America are a very self-indulgent lot. We not only expect God to provide our “needs” (as we define them), we demand that God supply our “wants.” This was a very serious problem in the church at Corinth. These saints were a very self-indulgent bunch. They indulged themselves at the Lord’s Supper, not willing to wait for their poorer brethren to arrive (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). They sought to indulge themselves at the meeting of the church by flaunting their gifts and knowledge (1 Corinthians 12-14). They would cause a weaker brother to stumble (1 Corinthians 8) by participating in pagan idol worship, just so that they could eat the sacrificial meal, at the table of demons (1 Corinthians 9:24—10:33). The assumption among many Christians in Corinth was that if God created our bodies with certain needs, then it was their right, indeed, their duty, to fulfill all those needs (see 1 Corinthians 6:12-20).

What we need to understand is that discipleship is about denying our “needs,” not indulging them:

23 Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (Luke 9:23-24).

24 Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. 25 Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. 27 Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

Doing without things we think we need is beneficial to us. It teaches us to deny ourselves and to discipline our bodies. It provides us with the opportunity to learn and to demonstrate contentment in circumstances that would cause others to complain and grumble. Unmet needs are often a test of our faith and obedience. God uses unmet needs to call our attention to deeper, spiritual, needs so that we will learn to rely upon God for all our needs, material and otherwise.

Satan sought to create an “unmet need” in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve’s greatest need was to trust and obey God, but they chose to disobey God in order to meet their perceived need of the knowledge that came from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the wilderness, God allowed the Israelites to be in need, so that their hearts would be tested, and so that they could learn to trust God and obey Him”

1 You must keep carefully the entire commandment I am giving you today so that you might live, multiply, and go in and occupy the land that the LORD promised to your ancestors. 2 Remember the whole way by which he has brought you these 40 years through the desert so that he might, by humbling you, test to see whether deep within you would keep his commandments or not. 2 So he humbled you by making you hungry and feeding you with unfamiliar manna so that you might understand that mankind cannot live by food only but also by everything that comes from the LORD’s mouth. 4 Your clothing did not wear out nor did your feet swell all these 40 years. 5 Be keenly aware that just as a human being disciplines his child, the LORD your God disciplines you. 6 Thus, you must keep his commandments, that is, walk according to his ways and revere him. 7 For the LORD your God is bringing you to a good land, a land of brooks, springs, and fountains flowing forth in valleys and hills, 8 a land of wheat, barley, vines, fig-trees, and pomegranates, one of olive trees and honey, 9 a land where you may eat food aplenty and find no lack of anything, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. 10 You will eat and drink and bless the LORD your God because of the good land he will have given you. 11 Be very careful lest you forget the LORD your God, not keeping his commandments, ordinances, and statutes that I am giving you today, 12 and lest when you eat to your satisfaction, build and occupy good houses, 13 your cattle and flocks increase, you have plenty of silver and gold, and you have abundance of everything, 14 you feel self-important and forget the LORD your God who brought you from the land of Egypt, the place of slaves, 15 and brought you through the great, fearful desert of flaming serpents and scorpions, a thirsty place of no water, bringing forth for you water from flintrock, and 16 feeding you manna from the desert which your ancestors never knew so that he might prove you and eventually bring good to you; 17 lest you say, “My own ability has gotten me this wealth.” 18 You must remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives ability to get wealth; if you do this he will confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, even as he has to this day. 19 Now it will come about that if you at all forget the LORD your God and run after other gods, worshiping and prostrating before them, I testify to you today that you will be utterly destroyed. 20 Just like the nations the LORD is about to decimate from your sight, so he will do to you because you would pay no attention to him (Deuteronomy 8:1-20, emphasis mine).

The Lord brought the Israelites out of Egypt and into the desert, where there would be no food or water. This was to humble them, to test them, and to teach them to trust in their God who had delivered them, and who had promised to bring them into the land of Canaan. This time of need was to prepare them for the times of plenty that lay ahead. God humbled His people with poverty, knowing that in their prosperity they would become proud and self-sufficient, turning away from their God. Being in need was God’s intended circumstances for Israel. It served the beneficial purpose of humbling God’s people and causing them to look only to Him. It prepared them for the times of prosperity that were to come. We know all too well that the Israelites did not learn contentment, because they frequently complained and grumbled, threatened to forsake their leaders, and return to Egypt.

Our Lord’s temptation is closely related to the needs of the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings:

1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After he fasted forty days and forty nights he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:1-4, emphasis mine).

Our Lord’s 40 days of deprivation in the wilderness was surely intended to parallel the 40 years of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness. Where they were tested and failed, our Lord was tempted by Satan and was triumphant. Satan’s first temptation focused on our Lord’s “need” for food. His assumption was that it was inconceivable for the Son of God to have an unmet need. If He was the Son of God (as Satan assumed that Jesus was), then let Him prove it by commanding stones to be turned into bread. It all seemed harmless enough, but at its core it was exceedingly evil. Life is not a matter of what you eat (though death was—here is a lesson Adam and Eve learned); it is a matter of one’s dependence upon God and their obedience to His Word. In His response to Satan, our Lord quotes from Deuteronomy 8, which states that man does not live by bread alone, but by obedience to the Word of God, every word.

Satan implied that “doing without” was inconsistent with being the Son of God. He questioned or ignored the fact that the Spirit of God had led our Lord into the wilderness, and that our Lord’s hunger was also God’s will. It was a test. Satan maintained that if Jesus were the Messiah He would end His hunger by using His power to transform stones into bread. The truth was that Jesus was to prove He was the true Messiah by trusting God with His life and obeying God’s Word no matter what the outcome might be. It was Satan who maintained that unmet needs are evil; it was our Lord who insisted that when God leads us into circumstances where we must do without, we must trust Him, rather than to meet our unmet needs.

There is one last illustration of the principle that God may bring unmet needs into our life for a higher purpose. This comes from the life of Paul, as he describes it in 2 Corinthians 12:

1 It is necessary to go on boasting. Though it is not profitable, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know that this man (whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows) 4 was caught up into paradise and heard things too sacred to be put into words, things that a person is not permitted to speak. 5 On behalf of such an individual I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except about my weaknesses. 6 For even if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I would be telling the truth; but I refrain from this so that no one may regard me beyond what he sees in me or what he hears from me, 7 even because of the extraordinary character of the revelations. Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me—so that I would not become arrogant. 8 I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. 10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).

Paul had been given the glorious privilege of peering through the curtain of time and previewing some of what heaven holds for the saint. This kind of experience could puff one up and make him proud, and so God graciously sent Paul a “thorn in the flesh” (from the hand of Satan), to humble him. Paul prayed three times for this thorn (whatever it might have been—nobody really knows) to be removed, and God denied Paul’s request. He prayed, but God answered, “No.” Paul had peace in this, because he saw the higher purpose. It was first to humble him; it was also to strengthen him. Since God delights to manifest His strength through our weaknesses, this “thorn” became a means by which God would strengthen Paul, and so he was content with the adversities and unmet needs of his life, knowing that God was using them for his (Paul’s) good, and His glory.

Why is it, then, that some Christians seek to convince us that any unmet need in our life is the result of our lack of faith? Why is it that they seek to assure us that we need not have any unmet needs? Why do they think that they are different from the Israelites of old, or from our Lord, or from Paul? I believe it is because they fail to see the good and gracious hand of God in our trials and tribulations, in our unmet needs. Paul was content with his unmet needs, once he had made his requests known to God in prayer and it was clear that God had said, “No.” Our unmet needs humble us, and they test our faith and obedience to God. This is why Paul did not wish the Philippians to think that he was asking them for money. Paul was not seeking to change his circumstances, but to rejoice in them, and in so doing to encourage the Philippians to have this same outlook in the midst of their adversities.

Do you now see why I said that the promise of Philippians 4:13 might look different to us when we viewed it in the light of its context? Paul is not saying here that whatever we want to do, we can be assured God will most certainly accomplish it for us. When Paul says that he “can do all things through the one who strengthens him,” he is saying that he can endure doing without when it is for the sake of Christ, and it will result in the strengthening of his faith. We want to claim God’s strength and power to do the things we wish. Most often we wish to lay hold of God’s power to indulge ourselves. Paul says that God gives us the ability to do without some things we think are needs.

The Gift, The Giver, and God
(4:14-20)

14 Nevertheless, you did well to share with me in my trouble. 15 And as you Philippians know, at the beginning of my gospel ministry, when I left Macedonia, no one shared with me in this matter of giving and receiving except you alone. 16 For even in Thessalonica on more than one occasion you sent something for my need. 17 It is not that I am seeking a gift. Rather, I seek the credit that abounds to your account. 18 For I have received all things, and I have plenty. I have all I need because I received from Epaphroditus your gifts—a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, very pleasing to God. 19 And my God will supply all that you need according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. 20 May glory be given to God our Father forever and ever. Amen.

Paul found great joy when Epaphroditus came to him, bearing the gift from the Philippian church. His joy was not due to the size of the gift, which is never mentioned, nor even in the fact that this gift supplied his needs. Paul did not rejoice because of what was sent, but because of why it was sent. He recognized this gift as a token of the love and concern of his brethren in Philippi (verse 10). Having bent over backwards to avoid soliciting any further contribution, Paul is now emphatic in saying that he would have been content, even if the Philippians had not sent a gift and his needs had not been met (verses 11-13).

Paul must be aware of the possibility of another misinterpretation of his words. He so stressed that he would have been content without receiving their gift that some of the Philippians might have concluded that he did not really appreciate the gift they sent and the sacrifice that it involved on their part. And so in verse 14, Paul continues with his response to the Philippians gift, beginning with the word “nevertheless.” This informs the reader that Paul is now going to look at this gift from another perspective. Merely from the standpoint of human need, Paul could have gotten by without their gift. He may have suffered without it, but he was willing and able to make that sacrifice, and to be content in his need. But Paul is not shaming the saints at Philippi for sending their gift. Instead, he conveys a commendation.

Paul gives several reasons for his commendation of the Philippians’ generosity. The first reason is that they identified with Paul in his trouble (verse 14). Strong’s concordance informs us that in the King James Version this word (rendered “affliction” in the KJV) occurs 45 times in the New Testament. It is rendered “tribulation” 21 times, “affliction” 17 times, “trouble” 3 times, and “anguish,” “persecution,” and “burdened” once each. The point of all this is that Paul is not saying, “You have done well to share with me in my financial need.” He is saying, rather, “You have done well to share with me in my persecution for the cause of the gospel.” Once again, it is not the money itself, but what the gift signifies that is important to Paul.

The second reason for Paul’s commendation of the Philippians is that they began to share with him at the very outset of his ministry to them (verse 15). We can recall from Acts 16 that when Lydia came to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, she immediately insisted that Paul and his companions accept her hospitality (Acts 16:15). The jailor, too, sat Paul and Silas down to a meal after he came to faith (Acts 16:34). But the example Paul chose was the Philippians sharing with him in his missionary endeavors. It was one thing for the Philippians to meet Paul’s needs while he was with them; it was quite another for them to send him money after he had left them, to preach the gospel elsewhere. Their sharing with Paul began immediately after he left Philippi.

Third, the Philippians’ sharing with Paul in his gospel ministry not only started immediately, it endured (verses 15-16). It is a good thing for the Philippians to have shared with Paul soon after he departed from them. But it is quite another for them to persist in their giving, over a sustained period of time. Paul says that they sent a gift to him “more than once” while he was in Thessalonica (where he was also persecuted for his preaching of the gospel—see Acts 17:1-9). The final gift, which Paul is now acknowledging, apparently came after a considerable lapse in giving. Paul explains this lapse in verse 10. There was a lengthy period in which Paul was able to provide for himself, and thus, there was no need of a gift. Now, with his imprisonment, there was a need, and the church that had proven itself ready and eager to give earlier in his ministry had done so once again. Over the long haul, this Philippian church had proved itself to be exceptionally generous.

Fourth, the Philippians are commended because their sharing financially (and otherwise) with Paul was unique among the churches (verse 15). I am especially focusing attention to those three words in verse 15, “except you alone.” Various attempts have been made to explain the meaning of these words. I am inclined to that meaning which is most simple and literal. I believe that the Philippian church stood alone in its kind of generosity in relation to Paul and to his ministry. This would mean, of course, that other churches did not give toward Paul’s needs in the preaching of the gospel. Other churches did contribute to the needy saints in Judea, but not to Paul’s “support” as one preaching the gospel. We may find this very difficult to accept because of the way modern missionaries are supported. Missionaries usually go on “deputation” to raise their support before leaving for the mission field. When a certain level of support is raised, they pack up and head out for the field. We can hardly imagine Paul, the missionary, not being broadly supported, but I think this is exactly what he is saying. While the contemporary system for sending out missionaries may not be wrong, it is certainly a great deal different from the way missionaries were sent out by the early church (compare Acts 13:1-3). The Philippians most certainly are an extraordinary church, as is evident in their giving to Paul.

If the Philippians are unique in the matter of giving, Paul is unique in the matter of receiving. For the second time in this paragraph (verses 10-20), Paul insists that he is not seeking to solicit another gift (see verses 11, 17). He is not flattering the Philippians, with the hope that this will encourage them to give again. He is exemplifying humility. He is seeking their best interest, rather than his own. He knows that when they give to God’s work with the right motivation, they are “laying up treasure in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-21). Paul rejoices in their gift because he knows that the profit will be theirs. Their giving is to their benefit, and for their blessing, and so Paul rejoices in the gift for what it means for them, more than what it means to him. It really is better to give than to receive!

Paul’s needs have been more than met; he “has received all things and has plenty” (verse 18). Have you ever been to someone’s house and had a very full meal, only to have the hostess come by with a plate full of meat and potatoes, or another dessert? You have probably said something like this: “I can’t eat another bite; I’m stuffed.” In financial terms, that is what Paul is saying. “No more! I have all the money I need, in fact more than enough.”

The gift that Paul received from the hands of Epaphroditus is now described in spiritual, Old Testament terms. It is described in Old Testament sacrificial terms. It is “a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, very pleasing to God” (verse 18). This way of viewing gifts is not new. We find the same kind of language in the Book of Hebrews: “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, acknowledging his name. 16 And do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for God is pleased with such sacrifices” (Hebrews 13:15-16).

This gift to Paul is really a sacrifice made to God Himself, and as such it is a pleasing sacrifice to God. Are some folks troubled by the fact that Paul does not make more of this gift? What more can one make of it than this? Paul avoids any focus upon himself and on his appreciation of the gift for the gift’s sake. In giving to Paul they had given to God, and it is pleasing Him that is most important. Surely Paul has made this very clear. Paul has not made less of their gift than he should; he has made more of it than most would have done. You will remember that Paul wrote about the falsely religious in chapter 3. He said that they “were enemies of the cross of Christ,” that “their god is their belly,” and that they “think about earthly things” (3:18-19). Isn’t Paul doing just the opposite here when he responds as he does to their gift? Of course he is!

Verse 19 is a wonderful source of assurance and contentment: “And my God will supply all that you need according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” Some read this verse as a kind of blank check. They suppose that it tells them that God is infinitely rich, and that He will give them whatever they ask. This is not exactly the message that Paul is seeking to convey. Let’s step back from this verse and look more carefully at what it says.

First, let us remember the context of the verse. The context of the verse is Paul’s response to the gift that the Philippians had sent by Epaphroditus. Paul has been playing down his needs and emphasizing his contentment, even though he is in somewhat dire circumstances. Note, too, that Paul is the one in need, and yet he is assuring the Philippians that God will supply their needs.

Second, let us take note of the infinite resources of God. There is no question as to God’s ability to provide for our needs. God is infinitely rich. No request is ever denied on the basis of “insufficient funds.” God will supply our need according to the riches of His glory. It has often been pointed out that it is a vastly different thing to say that God will supply our need out of the riches of His glory.

Third, let us take note of the intent of God’s provision. God supplies “according to the riches of his glory.” In verse 20, we read, “May glory be given to God our Father forever and ever. Amen.” I take it, then, that God’s glory is the source and the goal of His gracious provision for the saints. I am reminded of Paul’s words in Romans 11:36: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever! Amen.”

It is according to the riches of His glory that God provides, and it is ultimately to His glory. The point is that the glory of God is at the core of all that God does. It should also be at the core of all that we do, and of all that we ask: “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

If our requests are not consistent with His glory, then we should not assume that God is going to answer our prayers:

1 Where do the conflicts and where do the quarrels among you come from? Is it not from this, from your passions that battle inside you? 2 You desire and you do not have; you murder and envy and you cannot obtain; you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask; 3 you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, so you can spend it on your passions (James 4:1-3).

Fourth, let us consider the implications of this statement. God is infinitely able to meet our needs, and He has promised to provide all our needs. If we pray for God to provide something that we think we need, and He chooses not to provide it, must we not conclude that it was not really a need after all? How often we confuse our “wants” and our “needs.” How easy it is to expect God to indulge our fleshly desires (see James 4:1-3 above). If God has promised to meet all our needs and does not provide something we have asked for, then we should recognize that what we wanted was not what God knew that we needed. Many are those who would question God’s promise, His goodness, His ability to provide, or their own faith, when their requests have not been met. What should really be questioned is the accuracy of our perception of need.

Fifth, let us remember those to whom Paul is speaking. Most of us would like the promise of verse 19 to be universal, but we need to remember to whom this assurance was given. Paul is writing to the Philippians, the most generous church in the New Testament world. These are saints who have given to meet Paul’s needs as well as the needs of others, and at great personal sacrifice. Through Paul, God assured these saints that He would provide for all their needs. It would seem to me that in this context Paul is assuring those who sacrificially give that God will continue to provide for them so that they might continue to give. In other words, God promises to provide the things we need in order to be generous toward others. This is not a “blank check” for those who would indulge themselves; it is a promise to those who wish to minister to others. This is what Paul told the Corinthians:

6 Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed; 9 as it is written, "He scattered abroad, he gave to the poor, his righteousness endures forever." 10 Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness; 11 you will be enriched in everything for all liberality, which through us is producing thanksgiving to God (2 Corinthians 9:6-11, emphasis mine).

I think that we can also conclude that when God does not provide the means for us to give, we should take this as an indication that God does not intend for us to meet the need. I believe that Paul makes this clear to the Corinthians as well:

10 So here is my opinion on this matter: it is to your advantage, since you made a good start last year both in your giving and your desire to give, 11 to finish what you started, so that just as you wanted to do it eagerly, you can also complete it according to your means. 12 For if the eagerness is present, the gift itself is acceptable according to whatever one has, not according to what he does not have (2 Corinthians 8:10-12, emphasis mine).

In the Old Testament, God promised to prosper His people. This was not so that they could “build bigger barns” (see Luke 12:13-21), it was so that they would have the means to minister to those in need. I believe that this principle holds true for saints today as well. God promises to provide for our needs as we seek to sacrificially serve others. The promise of verse 19 is a marvelous one, but only for those who are humble servants, who place the needs of others above their own.

Verse 20 concludes the body of Paul’s letter to the Philippians with a benediction that focuses our attention where it should be, on praising God to His glory. This is man’s highest good and his highest goal—to praise and glorify God.

Paul’s Concluding Words of Greeting
(4:21-23)

21 Give greetings to all the saints in Christ Jesus. The brothers with me here send greetings. 22 All the saints greet you, especially those from Caesar’s household. 23 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Paul closes the letter in a way that we would expect for a writer in that day. He sends personal greetings to the saints in Philippi as well as greetings from the believers there in Rome. The word that most catches my attention in verses 21 and 22 is the word “all.” Paul greets all the saints, not some of them. There may be division in the church at Philippi, but Paul refuses to accommodate it. He greets all the saints. And all the saints in Rome send their greetings. Once again, no division is tolerated. The unity that Paul challenged the Philippians to restore and preserve is the unity that Paul himself practiced.

What a delight it is to read the words of verse 22: “All the saints greet you, especially those from Caesar’s household.” I don’t know who all would be included in this statement, but I would assume that Paul was primarily referring to those who were servants of Caesar. They would most likely be those servants of Caesar who came in contact with Paul as he awaited trial. And so we see how God reached into the very inner circles of Caesar’s domain, and thus fulfilled a prophecy made at the time of Paul’s conversion:

13 But Ananias replied, “Lord, I have heard from many people about this man, how much harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem, 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to imprison all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, because this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:13-16, emphasis mine).

No matter where Paul went he had Christ in his heart and the gospel on his lips. I would assume that “those of Caesar’s household” were those who had come to faith through the witness of the Apostle Paul. Paul was in chains, but the gospel was not. The gospel message was reaching even the household of Caesar, and bringing some out of darkness into light. What a blessing Paul’s chains were to those who came to faith through his confinement.

Paul’s final words are a benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” That is what Paul’s message was about. That is what this epistle is about. It is what Paul’s life and ministry was about, the grace of God. The grace of God not only saved us, it also calms and sustains our spirits, even in times of adversity. What a beautiful word—grace. And what a marvelous book the Epistle to the Philippians is, which explains to us how grace should be experienced through joy.

Conclusion

My first thought was that this text would be a good one to point out to unbelievers. How many times have you heard someone say, “Christians are just after your money.”? If you were to listen to many tele-evangelists or radio preachers, you would have to agree that much time is spent asking folks for money. Paul’s approach was so vastly different:

32 And now I entrust you to God and to the message of his grace. This message is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have desired no one’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine provided for my needs and the needs of those who were with me. 35 By all these things, I have shown you that by working in this way we must help the weak, and remember the words of the Lord Jesus that he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:32-35).

14 In the same way the Lord commanded those proclaiming the gospel to receive their living by the gospel. 15 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing these things so that something will be done for me. In fact, it would be better for me to die than—no one will deprive me of my reason for boasting! 16 For if I preach the gospel, I have no reason for boasting because I am compelled to do this. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward. But if unwillingly, I am entrusted with a responsibility. 18 What then is my reward? That when I preach the gospel I may do it for free, and so not make full use of my rights in the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:14-18).

Paul did not use his apostolic authority or his preaching ministry as a means for making money. He accepted gifts from folks like the Philippians but his preference was to work hard with his own hands, enabling him to provide for himself and others. While he had the right to be supported as a preacher of the gospel, Paul’s desire and privilege was to preach the gospel free of charge.

I fear that some people in Christian ministry (or who wish to be) feel that their ministry is not very significant unless they are “supported full-time” in their ministry. Now I am not arguing that it is wrong to be supported in your ministry; I am saying that whether you are paid for your ministry or not is not the measure of the significance of that ministry. If being paid full-time is the benchmark for a significant ministry, then Paul’s ministry was not significant. I tip my hat, as we all should, to those who are engaged in tent-making ministries, like the Apostle Paul, and many others.

According to our Lord, money is not to be a priority, and it is not something about which we should worry:

19 “Do not accumulate for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But accumulate for yourself treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If then your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eye is diseased, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. 25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than food and more to the body than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the sky: they do not sow, or reap, or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you more valuable than they are? 27 And which of you by worrying can add even one hour to his life? 28 Why do you worry about clothing? Think about how the flowers of the field grow; they do not work or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these! 30 And if this is how God clothes the wild grass, which is here today and tomorrow is tossed into the fire to heat the oven, won’t he clothe you even more, you people of little faith? 31 So then, don’t worry saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For the unconverted pursue these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But above all pursue his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 So then, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:19-34).

How we deal with money is important. Money is a little thing, but it is also a test of our stewardship. If we are faithful in the matter of money, our Lord says, we will be given greater responsibilities:

10 “The one who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and the one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you haven’t been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches? 12 And if you haven’t been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:10-13).

Paul’s words necessitate a great deal of thinking and evaluation, for his view of money and of being supported in ministry is vastly different from what we see and hear about today, especially in Christian circles. Let me close by raising some things to think about.

  • Every perceived “need” is not necessarily a “need” in God’s eyes.
  • God does not promise to meet every “need,” as judged by us.
  • Every need is not necessarily the occasion for “making our needs known.”
  • Every need is not necessarily the occasion for us to give, or to meet that need.
  • God sometimes does not provide for our need, but provides the grace to do without.
  • We should be very careful not to appeal to the wrong motivation, in order to stimulate others to give. Paul’s motivation was to promote the gospel and glorify God.
  • Paul made every effort to avoid soliciting funds for his own personal needs.
  • Paul truly believed it is better to give than to receive, not because he received the gift, but because the givers received the blessing of God.
  • Paul practiced what he preached. No one was more generous than he.

90 Steve Zeisler, “Rags, Riches, And Relationships,” The ninth message in a series on the Book of Philippians (4:10-23), January 31, 1982. C. 1996 by Discovery Publishing, a ministry of Peninsula Bible Church. (http://www.pbc.org/dp/zeisler/3734.html).

91 Gordon D. Fee, Philippians The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press, 1999), pp. 181-182.

92 Actually Gordon Fee has two commentaries on Philippians. This one was the IVP commentary.

93 To his credit, Fee contrasts the secular philosophies of the ancients and those of Paul: “To be sure, the outward expression and inner result between him and the Stoics appear much the same; but in fact Paul and Seneca are a thousand leagues apart. The Stoic’s (and Cynic’s) sufficiency come from within; Paul’s comes from without, from his being a man in Christ, on whom he is totally dependent and thus not independent at all in the Stoic sense.” Fee, Philippians (IVP), p. 185.

94 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.

95 There is a great deal of difference between “worry” (which Paul condemns) and “concern” (which Paul commends). Worry focuses on things that we can do nothing about; concern looks and waits for the opportunity to do something to help the situation.

96 See 2 Corinthians 11:25-26.

97 Let it be clear at this point that I am speaking of Paul’s personal needs, and not the needs of others.

98 And if not a full-time ministry, at least a “significant ministry.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this.

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