Who are we?

In this blog, there will be a variety of material: thoughts on Bible books, book reviews, historical characters, aspects of Scottish church history and other things.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Areas of common interest (Philippians 2:1-4)

Within society there are various ways in which people unite together. There are political parties, sports clubs, hobby groups. It is possible for Christians to be members of these various bodies, although the reason for membership involves more than their Christianity. What is basic to all such groups is a common interest. The common interest of the church is Jesus Christ, and this common interest overrides all differences, be they distinctions of class, age, gender, or interests.

Here Paul mentions four ways of common interest by which Christian progress can be developed. Of course, he is not suggesting that the Philippians select which of the four they are good at and focus on it. Instead he is detailing four aspects of Christian living that should be present at all times in the life of the members of a church.

The first means is encouragement in ChristChristian encouragement occurs when we share the blessings that we have received from God. Sharing is evidence of brotherly concern and interest. Paul, who had invested so much in the Philippians, wanted to receive encouragement from them as they made further progress in the faith.

The second blessing that Paul mentions is comfort arising from love. He does not say that he is referring to either God’s love or the love of his readers, so probably he is referring to both. The church in Philippi had already expressed love for Paul by sending him a gift. Yet that gift could not be used to cover up that there was a serious problem in the church, which was lack of unity. No matter how much Eoudia and Syntyche put into the collection plate, it could not remove their lack of love to one another.

The third means was participation in the Spirit. Every Christian shares in the Spirit (Rom. 8:9). The Spirit performs many activities within a believer and a church. He mortifies their sins, he witnesses to their salvation, and he strengthens their prayers. Yet Paul is aware that it is possible to grieve the Spirit by sinning and hindering the unity they should have.

The fourth means is any affection and sympathy. Paul is referring to graces that reveal fellow-feeling between believers. Obviously, he is not doubting that they have shown such feelings towards him in the past. Elsewhere in this letter he mentions their concern for him that had been expressed in practical ways more than once. Yet he is saying that unity among themselves was more important than sacrifice on behalf of him, and he would rather that they were united. They same degree of affection and sympathy that they had shown to him should also be shown to one another. It is often the case that a church can find it easy to help those at a distance and at the same time be disagreeing with those that are nearby.

Hopefully the Philippians felt the powerful effect of these appeals of Paul. These four blessings are reminders to us why we should have brotherly love in the church. Seen against them, the appearance of disunity is shown to be the ugly sin that it is.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Suffering for the faith (Philippians 1:27-30)

Paul warns the Philippians that they may face problems, although if the reason for the troubles is their unity then they are not to fear what difficulties they may have.

What happens when the world meets a united church that is prepared to suffer for Christ? Paul tells us in verse 28: ‘This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.’ The apostle says that the persecutors will become aware of their future punishment and that the believers will receive assurance from God about their own salvation. Perhaps the Christians in Philippi had misread adverse providences and had concluded that God was against them. Paul points out to them that it is otherwise.

Sometimes those who persecute believers will be affected by the united perseverance of the Christians. They will see their resolve and conclude that there is a supernatural strength among these believers. The Philippians had their own example of the effect of right response to suffering in the conversion of the Philippian jailor who had witnessed the example of Paul and Silas. That cruel man had shown spiteful cruelty to Paul and Silas when they were imprisoned by the authorities. He observed their harmony and delight in God, and his observation of their behaviour led him to conclude that they knew how he could be saved from judgement. When believers are united to one another in a clear and public way, God uses their witness to convict their persecutors of their sins.

Regarding the other consequence of the assurance of believers being increased, we can accept this more easily because we are familiar with the assurance that many believers have had when they suffered for the faith. Church history abounds with the stories of multitudes of saints who were enabled to testify to Christ in the midst of terrible and cruel sufferings. Supernatural help was supplied from heaven in order to enable their faithful witness. Yet the key to their witness was often their unity and harmony with other believers.

An increase of assurance could occur as the Philippian believers observed the grace in their lives as they responded in a Christ-like manner to the opposition. They would deduce that God had indeed changed them. So they would be aware of the presence of God with them as they persevered in their service for him.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

The priority of unity (Philippians 1:27-30)

A detail that Paul stresses here about living worthy of the gospel of Christ is that it requires unity. Twice, he speaks of unity: they are to stand firm in one spirit and they are to strive side by side with one mind. The reference to ‘spirit’ may be to the Holy Spirit, although some commentators argue that it refers to the human spirit because of the parallelism to the human mind in the next clause. In any case, the Holy Spirit is at work within believers in order to bring about unity.

The call to unity is illustrated in the images that the apostle uses. First, he charges his readers to stand firm, which is a military metaphor. He has in mind a group of soldiers engaged in a battle and resisting the enemy. They resist by not moving their ground. As long as they stand together they will be secure. Second, he also says that they strive side by side, which seems to be an athletic metaphor, perhaps taken from the Greek games in which teams of gladiators fought each other.

There are obvious lessons from this call to unity. First, worthy living cannot be done in isolation. A Christian cannot maintain this lifestyle by becoming a monk or its Protestant equivalent. Some people imagine that if they spend all their time by themselves they will be unpolluted and somehow live a worthy life. They will not achieve a worthy life by separating themselves from others of the Lord’s people.

Second, worthy living is not achieved by division. If we take Paul’s word pictures, what would happen if the group of soldiers started to fight each other or if the team did not work for each other? They would fail to achieve the purpose of their existence; even worse, they would be to blame for not achieving it. Worthy living for the gospel is only attained and maintained by living together as citizens of heaven.

The illustrations also give other insights regarding living worthy of the gospel of Christ. I suppose the imagery of the soldiers standing firm depicts the necessity of defending the gospel when it is attacked. The imagery of the athletes as they try to win the game may illustrate the necessity of adopting our tactics for winning from the details of the gospel. In any case, it is evident that what is central to unity is the content of the gospel. By gospel, Paul means the doctrines of the Bible. He does not mean the lowest common denominator possible – that is not the unity described here.

This unity is not merely an outward conformity. When Paul says that they should strive with one mind, he is referring to their inner attitudes. He does not only mean their intellectual commitment to unity, he also includes their emotional commitment and their volitional commitment. Each person in the Philippian church needed to have this inner commitment of love to one another in order for there to be true unity.  Paul refers to such an attitude in Romans 15:5-6: ‘May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus,  that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.’  

Sadly, it is common to find people adhering around a set of beliefs and yet to have little love for one another. When such a situation happens, even although they may be able to sign the same doctrinal statement, they are not engaging in true unity. In true unity, there is a strong emotional bond of love between all the members of the church.

This is what it means to live a life worthy of the gospel. There is a rejection of isolationism and divisiveness, there is a commitment to the truth of the gospel, and there is a desire to serve with and for one another because there is the bond of love between them.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Paul’s decision to stay (Philippians 1:22-26)

Despite his strong desire for heaven, Paul chose to remain in order to help the Philippians. Yet it is important to note that he was not choosing a life of ease or uselessness in God’s service. He intended to work hard – ‘labour’ is the way he describes it. Ahead of him was hard spiritual work, travelling again to spread the gospel and strengthen the churches. This choice was made by faith because he writes that he expected his work to be fruitful, which is probably a reference to the development of grace in the lives of his readers.

People often regard Paul as being an ivory-towered theologian, out of touch with the common person (whoever he or she is). His decision here gives the lie to such an absurd allegation. The strength of his love for these Philippians was such that he was prepared to stay out of heaven in order to help them grow in grace.

Paul also expected the Philippians to see the grace of God in his life. When they would see him and experience what Christ did for him and in him, and then through him for them, they would praise Jesus for using his devoted servant Paul. Although we do not have the apostle’s gifts or experiences, we can imitate him in this regard by being channels in whom and through whom the Lord will work. Then others will see his fruit and praise him for his grace.

How did Paul know which option to choose? First of all, he had a submissive heart to what God wanted him to do; he was willing for either option to take place. Second, he had a supplicating heart, one that he describes in Philippians 4:6: ‘do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.’ This was followed by a serene heart: ‘And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’ (4:7). 

These three aspects have to be present in every decision that we make, not only in those decisions that can be classified as major ones. Although Paul wanted to go to heaven, he would have sensed the Lord’s will was for him to remain. And when his heart agreed to do so, he would have had a strong sense of inner peace which comes to those who are walking in the will of God.  

Friday, 27 December 2013

Paul’s desire (Philippians 1:22-26)

Paul uses a beautiful picture to illustrate what death means for him. His death will be a departure, like a ship leaving harbour for another destination. He is not expecting a rough journey, instead he is anticipating a calm sail towards the heavenly harbour. (Of course, his voyage would not last long, a fraction of a second.) Further, when he left his earthly location, he would never return to it.

Paul uses a very strong term to describe his desire. For him, heaven is better than enjoying spiritual success on earth because it means that he will be with Christ. There are many suggestions that can be made as to why his heavenly experience would be better.

For example, heaven will be better because there will be no sin there. Paul was very much aware of indwelling sin as well as the sins of others. Its absence from heaven makes heaven very attractive.

Also, heaven will be better because there will be no suffering there. Paul was currently suffering for the faith as he was under arrest for being a Christian. He also had acute physical problems and weakness. His body had been through the mill for many years. Paul knew that all kinds of suffering are absent from heaven. There is not a hospital in heaven because it is not needed.

Further, in heaven there will be no separation. Sadly, even in his prison experience he had known separation from some of the Christian preachers in Rome whom he mentions earlier in the chapter.

These three reasons – the absence of sin, suffering and separation – as well as others are causes why heaven will be better than earth. Yet they are not the reason Paul gives as to why Heaven will be better. The reason that he gives is that he will be with Christ. At least, his words indicate that he will enjoy the companionship of Christ. They also teach that heaven is a conscious experience.

Heaven would be better, death would be gain, because of Christ. Heaven is a development of what Paul had known on earth. There, Jesus will not only be his eternal Companion, he will also be the goal of Paul’s heavenly experience as he aims to discover more and more about the attributes, attitudes, and aims of Jesus. And as he progresses in these wonderful discoveries, Paul will find that Jesus continues to empower him throughout the endless ages.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Paul’s devotion (Philippians 1:21)

Paul here summarises his outlook in these well-known words, ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’ The first clause in the sentence describes Paul’s devotion, and in writing it Paul was indicating what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. This is not the only occasion in this letter where Paul states his devotion to Jesus; for example, he says in 3:10 that his ambition is to know Christ (he is writing these words having been a disciple for over thirty years). Each disciple of Jesus can and should say, ‘For me to live is Christ.’

One deduction that we can make from Paul's words is that every disciple should live for Christ. Every person in the world lives for something or somebody. Some live for their work, others for their hobbies, others for their homes. (Perhaps we could write the clause out when we are alone: for me to live is _____.) Many of these interests are legitimate for Christians as long as they do not come before Christ. Living for Christ is the expression of our service for him, of our submission to him as our Lord and Master.

Further, we can deduce from Paul's words that every disciple will live with Christ. As they go about their activities for Jesus in obedience to him, they discover his presence with them. This is what Jesus promised in the Great Commission; he said he would be with his disciples wherever he would send them. His presence gives them comfort and companionship.

In addition, we can say that every disciple will live by Christ. He enables each of them to perform their acts for him. His strength is given to each of his people in order for them to live for him. Paul had known the help of Jesus on many occasions. Christ had assured Paul this would be the case when he was told by Jesus, ‘My strength is made perfect in your weakness.’

These are three reasons why a Christian is Christ-focussed. Obviously, his dedication is a response of love to the Saviour who died as his Substitute on the cross. Yet here is the crucial difference between Jesus and all other leaders who inspire people to build on their ideals. Jesus is the only One who is currently with and permanently helping all his followers. No other religion can claim this, no political philosophy can assert it. Jesus is unique.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Four blessings from the Messiah

In Isaiah 9:1-5, there is a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah and the benefits he would bring to us after he came. He would provide recovery of light, growth, great joy through liberation from bondage and the experience of peace. 

First, he will give recovery of light; that is knowledge. The situation in which the people were was one of darkness, spiritual darkness, because of their sins. They lived in realm where the Sun of Righteousness did not shine. What they needed was to see the Light of the World who would reveal to them what God was like. And that is what Jesus did and does.

The second blessing is that of growth: ‘You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy.’ This was said initially to a people going into captivity, whose numbers were going to decrease. Of course, the prophet is using the limits of geographical Israel to illustrate this consequence of the coming of Jesus. He is saying that in the land that was about to be depopulated, there would yet be a population explosion. This is what Jesus has given, is giving and will give to his church.

The third blessing is that of joy through deliverance from slavery: ‘they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil.’ The people that Isaiah preached about had gone to a place where there was no joy; instead they were in captivity. Here we have a vivid picture of the ones who Jesus came to rescue, those who were in captivity to sin and subsequent punishment. They would receive from him the joy of forgiveness and the assurance of being in heaven eventually in order to enjoy total freedom.

The fourth blessing is that of peace, described in 9:5 by the removal of enemy power: ‘For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.’ Those conquering armies who seemed so powerful to the inhabitants of Galilee picture the spiritual enemies we face. When Jesus came, he defeated the spiritual powers that opposed his people and can now give unto them great peace. This is what he has been doing for almost twenty centuries and will continue to do so.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Determined ambition (Philippians 1:20)

Paul here states his ambition, which is to boldly testify to Jesus Christ. Probably he has in mind the day when he will appear before the Emperor to hear the verdict, which would be either freedom or execution. (He may be referring to not being ashamed of Jesus the next time a new member of the Praetorian guard appears beside him.) Paul does not say that it is his eager expectation and hope that he will be released, although he later indicates in this chapter that he would yet come and see his friends in Philippi.

What did Paul expect? He expected that Christ would be honoured by his courageous response no matter if he was set free or condemned to die. Is this mere optimism? No, because Paul says that this has been his consistent experience whenever he was in a difficult situation.

How could a frail, old man accomplish this? It was not by his own resolve, although we know he had plenty strength of conviction before he was converted. He knew he could fulfil this ambition because the Holy Spirit would enable him to do so. Perhaps he recalled the words of Jesus to his apostles in Mark 13:11: ‘And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.’

In any case, Paul is challenging us regarding our ambitions. His words come down to two options: either Jesus is promoted by what happens to us or we are promoted by it. Strangely, if we take the first option we will get both in the long term; if we take the second option, we will get neither in the long term. Let’s follow the apostle’s example and live for Jesus in every situation.

Monday, 23 December 2013

The help of the Spirit (Philippians 1:19)

Paul expected the Philippians to pray for him. The answer to their prayer is summarised as ‘the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ’. It is not clear if the word ‘supply’ refers to the Spirit himself or to what he supplies. Probably both options are included.

Behind the meaning of the word ‘supply’ is the idea of a wealthy person meeting the expenses of a group of people: for example, a person could provide freely all that choir members would require such as training, practice facilities, and accommodation. The Holy Spirit is infinitely wealthy and is able to meet all our needs, wherever we are. Whatever Paul’s spiritual needs would be at any given time would be met by the Spirit. If he needed a sense of assurance or a feeling of joy, he would receive them from the Spirit.

In particular, the Spirit functions as the Spirit of Jesus Christ, which indicates that he will provide for us the things that belong to Jesus Christ. In the Upper Room, on that last evening when he was arrested, Jesus had taught his disciples many aspects of the work of the Holy Spirit. For example, Jesus had instructed them about the way the Spirit would deal with the world: ‘And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged’ (John 16:8-11).

The Saviour also promised them that the Spirit ‘will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you’ (John 16:14).  Already in this chapter, Paul has mentioned how he possessed the affections of Christ and how spiritual fruits of righteousness come from Jesus Christ. These blessings had come from Jesus to Paul through the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

The best request we can make for ourselves and for one another is to ask the Lord to send the Spirit of Christ to our empty hearts and fill them with the blessings of Christ.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Value of prayer by others (Philippians 1:19)

What is the secret of Paul’s Christ-dominated attitude? He reveals the source in verse 19: ‘I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.’ When he asks the Philippians for their prayers, he is not devising a new feature in his support base. Rather he is stating that what preserved him in the past would continue to keep him in the future. Paul was dependent on the prayers of other Christians and on the Holy Spirit.

Paul was facing a crisis. His trial has taken place and he is now awaiting the verdict. Yet he bases his hopes of deliverance not on the arguments he made in court but on the prayers of his friends. He was confident that their prayers, under God’s hand, would influence the decision of the emperor regarding the sentence.

Paul was a firm believer in the sovereignty of God. Yet he was not a fatalist. He recognised that God used specific means in bringing about his purposes, and one of these means is intercessory prayer. We must never assume that a blessing will come without prayer.  

Paul had also tasted success in the gospel even although he was physically curtailed by his chains. Yet he knew that the success could only continue if prayer was maintained. He wanted the prayers of the Philippians more than anything else they could do for him. Perhaps his mind wandered over some of these hardened soldiers who had been converted, and he recalled what prayer had achieved.

Paul also knew the power of the Scriptures to give comfort. In verse 19 he quotes from the Septuagint version of Job 13:16: ‘He also shall be my salvation: for an hypocrite shall not come before him.’ It looks as if Paul had been meditating on Job’s difficult circumstances in which some of the Lord’s people, these miserable counsellors, had maligned him in a manner similar to how some preachers in Rome had attacked Paul. The Scriptures assured him that his circumstances were the same as the people of God in all ages.

Yet although Paul knew the sovereignty of God in his life, was tasting ongoing success in the spread of the gospel, and was experiencing the comfort of the Scriptures, he still needed the intercessory prayers of the Philippian church, as well as the prayers of others.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Dealing with adversity (Philippians 1:12-14)

Paul mentions two spiritual benefits that have been experienced because of his imprisonment. First, he informs his readers that the gospel has advanced in the sense that the guards who were keeping him were informed of the reason for his confinement. They realised that he was there because of the sake of Christ. This information shows the power of the gospel to make progress in the most surprising circumstances.  Second, his courage in his situation had strengthened other believers, probably Christians living in Rome, to become bold witnesses. They saw the reality of the faith in Paul’s outlook. These are two outcomes of successful evangelism and striking edification are ones that we should want for others from any troubles that we go through.

It is remarkable how little concern Paul has for himself. He does not ask, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Instead he wants to discover how he can continue to serve Jesus in this difficult situation. Yet what was achieved was very remarkable because it is known that the Praetorian Guard could number nine thousand soldiers. Through his testimony to the individuals who took turn to guard him, the message of the gospel was conveyed to all the soldiers. He does not mean that each of the Guard took turns on duty; rather he means that those who did guard him told their fellow soldiers about the unusual prisoner that they had watched.

As the Christians in Rome observed the profound effects of Paul’s testimony, they were stimulated to bold service themselves. They saw a middle-aged man experiencing great blessing. Not only was he middle-aged, he was physically weak and probably had poor eyesight. Paul was not the kind of person who immediately impresses people by his aura. Yet as they saw the influence of his brave witness, they too took courage and boldly communicated the gospel.

Here is an example of the devil defeating himself. No doubt he imagined that the arrest and trial of the leading Christian in the church would cause depression and confusion among the other Christians. It is likely that this would have happened if Paul had succumbed to the pressure. But he did not. Instead he experienced another fulfilment of the Lord’s promise that his strength is perfected in our weakness.

We can imagine the delight with which the church in Philippi would have listened to the words of Paul. As they gathered together in that far-off city, they were the recipients of news from the palace in Rome. What they were being told was not the latest success in battle by a Roman army or the newest political venture of the government. Instead they were hearing about the victories of King Jesus as he liberated hardened individuals from the slavery of sin. It was not only soldiers that were delivered from their sins; Paul tells us in chapter 4 that there were now saints in Caesar’s household. As we listen in to his account, surely we must marvel at the amazing grace of God who can take a seemingly hopeless antagonistic situation and turn it into a victory of grace.