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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.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Some Reasons for Paul's Joy (Philippians 4:4)

While we could look elsewhere in Paul’s letters to discover some of the reasons for his joy in the Lord, we will confine ourselves to grounds of joy that he mentions in this letter to the Philippians.

The first source of joy for Paul was found in the power of prayer. In 1:3-4, he writes: ‘I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy.’ There is no doubt that one important aspect of Paul’s joyful intercession was the healthy spiritual state of his friends in Philippi. In addition, Paul rejoiced that he could pray to God with the desire that they would receive further spiritual blessings. He knew that the Lord could answer his many prayers in ways far above his understanding. Yet the fact remains that joy comes to those who pray to the Lord.

A second source of spiritual joy for Paul was the ongoing success of the gospel. He writes in 1:12-18: ‘But I want you to know, brethren, that the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel, so that it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ; and most of the brethren in the Lord, having become confident by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from goodwill: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defence of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.’ His joy at the success of the gospel brings a covering over two potential difficulties or barriers to Paul’s joy. One of these barriers was the particular providence of imprisonment he faced at the time. This trial had been overcome by the amazing effect of Paul’s witness to the soldiers who were guarding him – the gospel had reached the elite troops of the Emperor’s army. The other barrier was the division in the church in Rome, a division that was expressed through the preaching of the gospel. His opponents were orthodox preachers and believers. Yet because they preached the gospel, Paul rejoiced.

A third source of joy for Paul and his friends was found in the potential of knowing Jesus in an increasing manner. Paul alludes to this in Philippians 3:10ff. The fact of the matter is that every thing that Paul discovered about Jesus brought great joy into his heart. When he first met him and discovered that he was a suitable Saviour of sinners, Paul discovered a well of joy. Since then, he had known the power and ministry of Jesus in a wide variety of ways. He had experienced the shepherd care of Christ personally, he had climbed the heights to the third heaven, he had observed the hand of Jesus in bringing people into his kingdom, in the planting of churches, and in the sanctification of sinners. Even circumstances that appeared to deny the possibility of joy, such as when he received the thorn in the flesh, became doorways into experiencing the grace of Christ. Through the kindness of Jesus, Paul had been led into the joyous riches of the status of adoption, of belonging to the family of God. Paul had found that wherever Jesus was, there was great joy, and therefore he resolved to know as much about him as possible.

A fourth source of joy for Paul was the prospect of the glory to come (3:20-21). He knew that it was far better to die and go to be with Jesus. But he knew it would be better still when the resurrection day arrived, bringing with it the perfect world. As he looked at his worn and weary body, covered with the marks of his years of suffering for the faith, Paul rejoiced because he knew that his body would yet experience glorification. Connected to this joy in future transformation was his ongoing awareness that Jesus was in charge of human history, that he was Lord of all, and that the great resurrection day would be the occasion when the dignity of Jesus would be recognised by all.

A fifth source of joy for Paul was found in service in the church. He knew it from personal experience as he relates in 1:25-26. What joy it gave to Paul to observe the humble service of Timothy and Epaphroditus! How he looked forward to rejoicing over the effects of his friend (the yokefellow of 4:3) helping Euodia and Syntyche to be restored. Paul had discovered that service of Christ, no matter how apparently insignificant, brought great joy.

There are many other sources of Paul’s joy, and if you take a concordance you can look up the references. But I suppose the question comes to us, ‘Why don’t I have this joy?’ I would suggest that we will probably find the answer in these areas that we have focused on: our prayer life, our response to troubles, our pursuit of Jesus, our focus on the future glory, and the depth of our involvement in the life of the church. If we are deficient in these areas, we will not have the joy of the Lord. The remedy is straightforward: repent and begin appropriating those spiritual disciplines which, through the Lord’s grace and mercy, will give us abundant joy.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Rejoice always - what Paul is not expecting (Philippians 4:4)

Tomorrow we look at some of the reasons for permanent joy. Before we do, it is important that we realise what Paul is not demanding. First, Paul is not insisting that a Christian should always have a silly grin on his face. There will be many situations in life in which an inane grin would be completely inappropriate and no doubt Paul did not have a grin on his face when, for example, he had to discipline a fellow-believer because of sin. Yet he could have joy in such a situation because he was aware that chastisement would restore the sinning believer.

Second, Paul is not saying that it is easy for a person to snap out of a time of spiritual depression. Many believers suffer from this problem in various degrees. Yet often they are helped when their thoughts can be turned away from their preoccupation and focus on the Lord. We can see this change in outlook in many of the psalms. Sometimes, the psalmists are oppressed by their sins, at other times by their providences. In these psalms, the authors face up to their situations and assess them in light of God’s promises. Having done so, they usually experience joy instead of sadness although their circumstances had not changed. Often, the path to joy is a process.

Third, Paul is not saying that the presence of joy means the absence of sorrow. Even in this letter, Paul expressed his great sadness when he thought of those who were enemies of the cross of Christ (3:18). Whether his sadness was caused by the havoc they produced in the churches or was caused by the awful fate that awaited them in hell, the fact is that he was very burdened about them. In a Christian, sorrow and joy co-exist, as Jesus made clear in one of the Beatitudes when he said, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’

Fourth, Paul does not mean that the pursuit of joy should prevent us facing up to problems. Some people imagine that happiness in a church is only found in toleration, by turning a blind eye to wrong things that are taking place. Such a situation may make them happy, but they do not have the joy of the Lord. Even in this chapter, in which Paul lays such a great stress on joy, he has told Euodia and Syntyche to face up to their wrong attitudes. Earlier he had told the church to give no place to false teachers (3:1-3). The joy of the Lord is not found by refusing to face up to what is wrong.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Rejoice Always (Philippians 4:4)

In this section of his letter Paul instructs his readers in the church in Philippi about important areas of their spiritual lives in light of the fact that the King is coming. He had reminded them at the close of chapter 3 of this great future reality, that Jesus would return and change their humiliated bodies and make them like his glorious body. In a way similar to how a resident in Philippi would prepare for the coming of the Emperor, so the believers should prepare for the arrival of Jesus.

Perhaps preparation in the city would involve tidying up the streets and removing unsightly objects. The believers should also remove unsightly features and develop beautiful replacements. Paul has already mentioned one unsightly element (the disharmony between Euodia and Syntyche) which they had had to remove, both individually as far as the two ladies were concerned and corporately as far as the ones who were to help them. Unity was essential as preparation for the coming of the King.

No doubt, the prospect of the coming of the Emperor would have created a sense of anticipation in the minds of the people. It would be a privilege for them, and a cause of joy and happiness. Paul challenges his readers to rejoice as a means of preparing for the coming of the King. A person alone on a desert island surrounded by sharks would rejoice if he knew that rescue was on the way, if a communication had been delivered to him that a rescue ship would soon be there. Believers have received communication from heaven about the coming of Jesus, therefore whatever their situations they should rejoice.

Perhaps an expected response would be, ‘Is Paul not being unrealistic here, expecting people to be joyful in such a difficult life situation in which they were facing various troubles?’ Of course, if Paul was writing this letter from comfortable, trouble-free circumstances, the criticism would have some validity. But we know that Paul at the time of writing was imprisoned, waiting for the verdict from his court case. Yet in such conditions, Paul was full of joy. His demand that his readers have joy was an authentic one because he himself knew that this joy in the Lord could be experienced in all situations.

I suppose the word in Paul’s instruction that causes most difficulty is the word ‘always’. This is not the only occasion where Paul states this opinion. He writes in Ephesians 5:20: ‘giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ And in 1 Thessalonians 5:16, he exhorts, ‘Rejoice always.’ 

We all can imagine situations where great joy can be experienced: in our personal lives, there is joy at marriages, childbirths, friendships, success in careers; in our churches there is joy at conversions, at numerical growth, at restorations of backsliders, in times of fellowship. Yet we know that there are situations that can seem so dark that joy is impossible: marriage break-ups, deaths, bankruptcy, church divisions, backsliding. If the answer to the problem was in situations, then we would have difficulty understanding how it could be possible to have continual joy. 

In fact, the solution to the word ‘always’ is found in Paul’s statement, in his phrase ‘in the Lord’. When we reflect on what is included in this phrase, we realise that there are no situations in life that can prevent us from having comfort, rest and therefore joy from the Lord. If there was even one such situation that could prevent joy coming from God, it would indicate that there was a condition in which God’s grace could not be known, where the fruit of the Spirit could not be displayed and developed.

It is hard, as we focus on Paul’s demand here, not to recall the wonderful declaration of Habakkuk. When he saw the effect of the presence of the Lord, he says that his body trembled and his lips quivered. The prophet knew that there were tough times ahead because the Lord was going to punish Israel. Yet he states his attitude in 3:17-18: ‘Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labour of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls – yet I will rejoice in the Lord , I will joy in the God of my salvation.’ Whatever comes his way, Habakkuk is confident that ‘the Lord God is my strength; he will make my feet like deer’s feet, and he will make me walk on my high hills.’

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Happy Memories (Philippians 4:3)

As Paul thinks of his beloved friends in Philippi, he recalls the founding of the church there. This colony of heaven had begun through the activities of several characters, some of whom are mentioned by Luke in his account in Acts 16. Here Paul gives additional information regarding what took place, and mentions several individuals among whom were other women in addition to Lydia and the demon-possessed girl who are mentioned in Acts 16, and other men in addition to the Philippian jailor.

We can notice a couple of details that Paul says took place  at that time. First, although these men and women were new converts, Paul evidently made sure that they were involved in evangelism straightaway. He did not think that they should wait a few months before getting involved in Christian work. The lesson from this is that we should begin serving Christ as soon as possible.

Furthermore, it is evident that there was harmony in the small group in these early days. No doubt Paul, as he sat chained to his guard, enjoyed turning over in his mind what had taken place in Philippi. He thought of what Clement and his male colleagues had done; he could recall the activities and work of women such as Euodia and Syntyche. Perhaps he could picture them in his mind’s eye doing things together. Through the efforts of this team a church began in Philippi that had continued to support Paul in his work for almost a decade.

Paul describes their role and one of their privileges. Their role was that of being his fellow-workers, a title he had also given to Epaphroditus earlier in the letter. Although Paul was the leader, they were all workers in the same task of spreading and defending the gospel. By implication, he is saying that the task is not yet finished, that he in Rome and they in Philippi still need to continue working for the Master, Jesus Christ.

Their shared privileged was that their names were recorded in the book of life, an illustration taken from a city registry. The people of Philippi were regarded as citizens of Rome, which gave them great privileges and security. Yet it was far greater to be registered in Zion, the heavenly city, written there indelibly by God himself. Their names had been recorded when they believed in Jesus for salvation. And Jesus had told his original disciples that it was more important to have their names written down in heaven than to perform great spiritual achievements (Luke 10:20).

Monday, 27 January 2014

Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2)

Paul knew that the biggest danger in the next spiritual battle would not be the strength of the enemy but the weakness of the Christians. And there were glaring weaknesses in the church in Philippi. They may not have thought that these issues were weaknesses, instead they may have regarded them as issues that revealed their strengths. But for Paul, they were like gaps in a line of soldiers that would let the enemy through. But how does Paul the leader deal with the problems in the church? He makes two appeals: first, he appeals to two quarrelling ladies and then he appeals to a particular man.

In verse 2, Paul appeals to Euodia and Syntyche to cease their squabble. We can see that their quarrel has led them to being mentioned throughout church history as a bad example of Christian relationship. I wonder if they would have had their disagreement or allowed it to continue if they had known that subsequent generations of believers would know they had had their difference of opinion. Millions of believers have gone to heaven knowing that two of the residents of the Philippian church had a quarrel, but they have gone to heaven without knowing if the two ladies were ever united once more in heart while they were members in the church in Philippi.

Something similar can happen in every church. It is very rare for a disagreement between two believers to be kept quiet. Sooner or later it becomes public, normally through the disputants themselves. In the same way as the disagreement between Eoudia and Syntyche is public knowledge, others in an area know that local believers have fallen out. What they also need to hear is that those who were separated have come together again. 

Usually such disputes are caused by the devil, and the best way to defeat him is for those he tempted to sin to respond by confessing their faults one to another. When they do so, it is not a loss or a sign that the devil has won; instead it is a victory over him and a closing up of the ranks that let him in. By dealing with the problem they act like soldiers of Christ.

It is also important to realise that disagreements, even small disagreements, grieve the Holy Spirit. These disputes and quarrels can hinder the work of the Spirit. It is evident that Paul regarded the division as very serious because he begged each of the ladies to cease their action. We only implore a person when it is a serious issue.

Yet the solution to the difficulty was straightforward. 

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Happy Family (Philippians 4:1)

The first word of verse 1, ‘therefore,’ reminds us that what Paul writes here is connected to what he has said in the previous verses in which he reminded his readers in Philippi that they already belonged to the heavenly city, and were waiting for their King to come and bless them with glorified bodies. An earthly illustration would be the citizens of Philippi waiting for a visit from the Roman Emperor and expecting to receive from him a great favour. If they had known he was coming, they would have made preparations for his arrival. In chapter 4, Paul tells his readers how they should prepare for the arrival of the King, their Saviour Jesus Christ.

We cannot help but notice the strong contrast between how Paul regards the Philippian believers and how he regards the false teachers. Both descriptions are very graphic: the false teachers are enemies whose habits of life are limited to this world, whose destiny is destruction, and for whom the apostle weeps (3:18-19); the true believers are brothers whose habit of life is to adhere to a Christian lifestyle, whose destiny is heaven, and for whom the apostle yearns (4:1). His attitude towards these believers can only be described as rapturous. As he thinks of them, he can anticipate the glory that is yet to be theirs. Yet he also repeats here what he said of them already in the first chapter: he prayed for them with joy (1:4) and longed for them with the affection of Christ (1:8).

Paul sees his readers as a family with great expectations concerning its future. They are brothers (and sisters) from whom he has been separated for a while, but whom he is looking forward to meeting again in the Father’s house, in heaven. When they do meet in that future state, he informs them that there will be a real relationship between them and him: they will be his joy and his crown. On that great future day when Jesus returns, Paul will be rewarded by his Master for the service given in Philippi, and part of that reward will be sharing in the joy of Christ as he rejoices over his people gathered with him forever. Surely this challenges us to value highly all who belong to Jesus, but especially those who are known to us in this life. We should not assess them merely by what they are now, but we must also respect them for what they are going to be when Jesus glorifies them.

Yet we cannot limit Paul’s use of ‘joy and crown’ to the future. We can ask ourselves, ‘In what situations would a person joyfully wear a victor’s crown or winner’s garland?’ The answer is that an athlete would wear such a crown or wreath after he had successfully completed his race. Paul is saying that the believers in Philippi were the evidence that he had run a successful race there several years previously when he, with others, had founded the church in the city. 

Ever since then he had been delighted to tell others of his success in Philippi. Just as a successful athlete would show his victor’s wreath to others, so Paul spoke about his triumphs. Or as a victorious commander will wear medals on his uniform, so Paul displayed the evidence of his triumph over enemy forces. Yet instead of pointing to medals usually kept on a shelf, or to a fading wreath, he could direct people to consider the believers in Philippi as they stood fast in the Lord. They were his reward, even in this life.

Nevertheless Paul sounds like a general calling his troops together to withstand an enemy attack, either from the Judaizers or from the civil authorities. So he urges them to stand fast in the Lord as citizens of the heavenly metropolis. Although they were geographically away from the heavenly city, the distance was not a problem because they were, even in Philippi, in living union with Jesus, the Lord of the city. They were to live out in Philippi their union with him.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Heavenly Citizens (Philippians 3:20-21)

Paul reminds the church in Philippi that each of them belongs to the heavenly city of God. He uses a privilege that was given to the citizens of Philippi by the Roman Emperor as an illustration of the eminence of God’s people. The Roman Emperor decreed that the citizens of Philippi were also citizens of Rome and possessors of the same privileges as those who actually lived there. In a similar but far greater way, every Christian is a citizen of heaven even although those still on earth are not living in the city.

Although they were at a distance from the heavenly city, they still shared in its delights. I cannot say if the citizens of Philippi ever received anything from Rome, but I can say that the heavenly citizens on earth do get great blessings from heaven because they have a living link, the Holy Spirit, who conveys to them continually the delights of heaven. They taste of its joy, its peace, its atmosphere, and access to the Ruler of the city at all times.

The citizens of Philippi had also to be ready to defend the Roman Empire. Their privileges demanded fulfilment of responsibilities. They could not befriend the enemies of Rome. Similarly, believers have a duty to defend the cause of the heavenly city, and one way of doing so was by refusing the influence of the false teachers. To listen to such was an act of spiritual treason.

Paul then describes what is going to happen to believers when Jesus returns. He is going to change their humiliated body (humiliated by sin, disease and death) into a body of glory (powerful and beautiful). This will be a great change obviously, but it will also be a gracious change because we will not deserve it. The destiny of believers is that they going to be like Jesus Christ, fully conformed to his likeness. What that entails cannot be detailed, but altogether it signifies glorification.

Yet Paul says more than the wonderful fact that he was going to have a glorious future personally. In addition, he says that Jesus has the power to subdue all things to himself. Paul knew that on that great day when he would experience transformation, he would also see the whole intelligent universe confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. All his enemies, including those who are mentioned in this passage, will declare the sovereignty of Jesus. This is probably why he calls Jesus ‘Lord’ in this verse.

It is not surprising that the early Christians were eagerly waiting for the arrival of the Saviour. While they knew that they would go to heaven when they died, they wanted more. They longed for glory, not merely the environment of glory, but the personal experience of transformation. And they also knew that would be the time when the One they loved would be publicly acknowledged as the universal Lord.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Tears (Philippians 2:17-19)

We are not to think that Paul was being proud when he said that he was an example to follow. The reality is that each of us is an example: we are either an example to follow or an example to avoid. Every Christian should be an example to follow. They should not allow themselves to become bad examples. While they will never be perfect examples of grace in action, they should be credible examples of what Jesus has done in their lives.

Yet we should note Paul’s attitude towards the false teachers to whom he refers. He opposed them wholeheartedly and consistently, but his opposition was marked by tears. As he thought of them at the moment of writing his words, he was crying. Why was he weeping? One reason could be the havoc that they were causing in the church, bringing great problems and confusion by their wrong teaching. Another reason for his tears was their destiny – destruction. Paul could not think of the fate of his opponents without becoming distressed.

This response by Paul here reminds us of a prominent feature of his character, and that is that he was an emotional man. We are prone to think of Paul as an intellectual giant (and he was so) and as a strong-willed, determined person (and he was). Yet he was not a stoical, clinical person. His heart, his emotions were very strong, a fact that we can deduce from this letter itself by the number of times he refers to joy and rejoicing. And his emotions also showed themselves in another way, in his tears.

We can ask the question, Where did Paul learn to weep? Before his conversion, he was an intellectual man and a resolute man, but I don’t think he showed much compassion to those he was persecuting. Now he was a different man, and the reason for the change in his life was his knowledge of Christ. The thirty years that he spent developing a relationship with Jesus had turned him into a man of sorrows – he had become like his Master who had wept over the perishing city of Jerusalem.

There is a challenge to us here. We have heard of the incident when McCheyne asked Andrew Bonar what text he had preached on the previous Sabbath. On being told it was a text on hell, McCheyne asked him if he had preached it with tears. 

William Booth was the founder of the Salvation Army. One day, several of his officers asked him how they could save the lost. Booth wrote a very short reply, ‘Try tears.’ 

When Monica, the mother of the famous theologian Augustine, went to Ambrose to speak about her son for whom she had prayed with many tears. He replied, ‘The child of many tears can never perish.’ Whether that is the case or not, his words remind us of the efficacy of tears. 

And Paul’s words here may give us a clue to the secret of his spiritual success. Spending time with Christ makes a believer like his Master.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Response of Paul (Philippians 3:13-14)

How did Paul react to the hold Jesus had on him? Paul did not regard the grip of Jesus as a reason for inactivity. Instead, it caused him to dedicate himself to the role he was given by Jesus. He pressed on like an athlete struggling through the pain barrier in a race or like a hunter persisting in tracking down his prey. This terminology indicates that effort is required from Christians if they wish to please Christ.

Paul realised that if he was to press forward he could not look back. He had to forget the things that were behind. This would include his successes as well as his failures. What would we think of an athlete who, after jumping successfully over an obstacle in the race, spent the rest of the race looking backwards to that successful jump? We know what would happen. Because he would not be looking where he was going, he would go astray from the track. Similarly, if an athlete spent his time looking back to an obstacle at which he made a bad jump, he also would lose his way.

Paul had known many successes as a Christian: churches had been planted, sinners had been converted, books of the Bible had been written, he had been caught up to the third heaven on one occasion. It was fine for Paul to use them as motivations for the next hurdle, but not as excuses for not having present and future experiences of Christ’s love. Paul had known many blessings from Jesus, but he did not allow them to become hindrances to running for Jesus in the present. Paul forgot about them and pressed on.

Paul could have focused on a mistake or mistakes he had made in the past and imagined that he could never recover from these sins. He could have allowed his mind to go back to such events and recall the details and also imagine extra details of the failures. But since he had confessed them to God, he did not dwell on them. Instead he pressed on.

Paul could have focused on the hurts that he had received from others and brooded over them. He had received many such hurts in his life, but here he reveals his secret for dealing with them. He left it with God and forgot about them.

Why did Paul forget about these things, whether they were good or bad? He forgot about them because he knew that concentrating on them would have two negative effects. First, they would hinder him in the present and, second, they would takes his eyes of what lay ahead. As far as he was concerned, the future is more important than the past.

Paul looked forward to a very special day, and this future day cast its light on all that he did. He behaved the way every runner behaves in a race – he anticipated a prize. He wanted to hear the divine assessment, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ and receive from Christ the reward of the inheritance. Therefore Paul was determined that nothing in the past or the present would affect his future.

Paul does not mean that we should forget the mercies of God that we have received. Yet he is stressing that the true Christian outlook looks ahead to what will be received from Christ when he returns. If we keep looking to the past, that is where we will live spiritually and our outlook will become depressed. When we look to the future, all that we can see, as far as Christ is concerned, is bright and will give much encouragement. We don’t only follow Paul’s example, we also follow Christ’s example as we run ‘looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Heb. 12:2).

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Why did Jesus take hold of us (Philippians 3:14)?

We noted yesterday three answers to the question, When did Jesus take hold of Paul? What about the question, Why did Jesus take hold of Paul?

One answer to the question is that Jesus took hold of Paul on the Damascus Road because he had spent eternity wanting to meet him. Often we focus on the blessings that came to Paul around that time: forgiveness of sins, membership of God’s family, and many others. But do we think of how Jesus felt when he had Paul actually in his grip? We may get an idea of his feelings if we think of the parable of the lost sheep which the shepherd put on his shoulders when he found it. In a spiritual sense, Jesus put Paul on his shoulders and held him tightly, never letting him go. On the journey to the fold, Paul was aware of the singing of the Shepherd who was glad that he had found his sheep. There was great joy in the heart of Jesus as one more sinner was saved, a step nearer to the occasion when all his people will have been rescued from their sins.

A second answer to the question ‘why’ is that Jesus took hold of Paul because he had a particular task for Paul to perform. When Jesus sent Ananias to Paul when he was in Damascus after being blinded on the way there by Jesus, he told Ananias that Paul had a specific role in the development of the Christian church: ‘Go, for he is a chosen vessel of mine to bear my name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake’ (Acts 9:15-16). We can see some of the results of this divine hold on Paul in the accounts in the Book of Acts as well as references in the New Testament letters by him.

A third answer to the question ‘why’ is that Jesus took hold of Paul because he had a blessed destiny marked out for him in heaven. This destiny includes total perfection, not only sinlessness but also conformity to the holy image of Jesus himself. In ways that we cannot understand at present, this future destiny is connected to life in the new heavens and new earth, a life that will be marked by endless happiness and satisfaction.

No doubt there are other reasons as to why Jesus took hold of Paul. The three that we have thought about – the joy of Christ, the role designed by Christ, and life in the perfect world – also apply to every Christian. This is why Jesus has taken hold of each of them.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Grip of Jesus (Philippians 3:12)

Paul recognises that he is not yet perfect. We are reminded of the wise saying of John Newton: ‘I am not what I should, I am not what I will be, but I am not what I was.’ This is what Paul is saying here. The triumphs that he has known in the Christian life are the equivalent of jumping over the obstacles in a race. They are not a sign that he has arrived, only a sign that he is moving onwards. He has an ambition in mind to which he is devoting all his energy; he wants to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus laid hold of him.

When did Jesus lay hold of Paul? A first answer to this question is that Jesus took hold of Paul in the eternal covenant when the Father gave a people to his Son. There in the beginning-less eternity, this agreement was made in which the Son agreed to save the sinners that the Father gave him as a divine gift. The Son received them with a strong grip and has never let them go. Obviously, this is a hold by Jesus that we cannot understand, and it remains secret as far as anyone knowing who they were who were given to him.

When did Jesus lay hold of Paul? A second answer to this question is that Jesus laid hold of Paul on the Damascus Road. On that occasion, the hand of Jesus stopped Paul in his tracks. His hand did not tickle Paul, nor did it attempt to divert Paul into another path of pointless activity. Instead, the hand of Jesus stopped Paul from continuing in his race to a lost eternity. We can describe this hold as the hand of Jesus in providence. Unlike his grip in the eternal counsels, we can experience this firm taking-hold that Jesus does with his people. We can ask ourselves, Has the hand of Jesus stopped me from continuing in my path of sin? This grip can come suddenly, even when we are intent on sinning, as Paul himself discovered on the Damascus Road. The sense of being in the grip of Christ in this way is not pleasant because we discover that he knows about our sins (Paul also discovered this because Jesus told him about his persecution of Christians). Although it is not a pleasant grip, it is a good grip because it stops us in our sins.

When did Jesus take hold of Paul? A third answer to this question would be that at some stage in the next few days after his encounter on the Damascus Road Paul trusted in Jesus as the Saviour of his soul, his Saviour from his sins. At that moment when he trusted in Jesus, Paul felt the warm embrace of Jesus and realised that he was now held in the grip of a Saviour who would never let him go. This is a very wonderful grip to experience.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Paul's Priorities (Philippians 3:10-11)

Paul reveals his spiritual priorities in these verses, and in so doing reveals to us what it means to be Christ-centred. All of us have ambitions or goals and if we want to attain them we have to work out how to do so. Paul’s ambition is to know Christ and he says that it will involve two strategies: one is the power of his resurrection and the other is the fellowship of his sufferings. Again, with regard to our goals, we usually have a reason for them; Paul’s reason for knowing Christ is so that he ‘may attain to the resurrection of the dead’.

Often if we were to ask an onlooker for his opinion of Christianity, he will reply that it seems to be a series of regulations and may refer to the Ten Commandments or to the Sermon on the Mount. Or he may say that it seems to be a set of rituals and he may mention prayer, baptism, the Lord’s Supper and so on. Obviously, in a sense his observations are accurate, yet they still omit the most crucial aspect of true Christianity which is that it is a relationship with Jesus Christ. Without a relationship, the regulations and the rituals are pointless; with the relationship, they become meaningful expressions of the bond that a Christian has with Jesus Christ.

We know that the relationship began when Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus and became his follower a few days later when he was baptised by Ananias. Since Paul had until then been an enemy of Jesus’ cause, we can describe this new relationship between Jesus and Paul as a gracious one as far as Jesus was concerned and a grateful one as far as Paul was concerned. It was a gracious relationship because Paul had been forgiven his sins by Jesus and given a role in spreading his new Master’s kingdom, and it was a grateful relationship for Paul because of the same reasons.

Since that auspicious day three decades previously, Paul had discovered that the relationship was also a growing one. I once heard an illustration that helped me understand what Paul meant when he wrote that he still wanted to know Jesus. The speaker said that in 1492 Christopher Columbus discovered America, but then added that Americans are still discovering America in the sense of locating and using its various resources. Then he said, that on the Damascus Road, when he discovered Jesus for the first time, Paul had taken his first steps into a continent of never-ending wonder, and in the subsequent thirty years he had discovered some of the amazing riches found in Jesus Christ. 

Over these decades, Jesus had functioned as his prophet teaching him about the contents of salvation and what insights Paul was thus able to give to the church regarding the relationship believers have to the heavenly Father, regarding the work of the indwelling Spirit, regarding the future when Jesus returns, and many more. In fact, everything that Paul taught was linked to what he was taught by Jesus. Further Jesus had functioned as his priest, who interceded for him, who sympathised with him, who strengthened him for each day, who was his friend. And Jesus also functioned as his king, both overpowering the sins in Paul’s life and protecting him from many powerful foes. 

The fact is, every thing that Paul learned from and about Jesus Christ caused him to want to know more. As D. A. Carson writes: ‘And already, during our pilgrimage here, it is our delight as well as our duty to know Jesus Christ better and better.’

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Personal appreciation of Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:4-9)

Paul had been a Christian for thirty years when he wrote this letter. Since his conversion, Paul had been through a lot, indeed he refers to his sufferings, which had the potential for causing him to change his mind. But he had not, and he mentions two reasons for his ongoing appreciation of the One he called ‘Christ Jesus my Lord’.

The first reason was that Paul knew he would need Jesus on the Day of Judgement. Despite the fact that he had enjoyed a prominent role in the church, that he had become a writer of biblical books, that he had spread the gospel far and wide throughout the then-known world, Paul also knew that these post-conversion activities would prove as ineffective on the Day of Judgement as his pre-conversion activities. 

Paul realised that when he would stand at the Great White Throne and be judged, along with the rest of the world’s population, he would need Jesus Christ. Although he had become a saint, he remained a sinner in need of forgiveness. But he also knew that the Saviour he had met on the Damascus Road would be his Defender on that future Day.

The second reason why Paul still thought highly, indeed exclusively, of Jesus Christ was because he realised that, even after thirty years, he had only just begun the most wonderful relationship possible, of knowing Jesus Christ in an increasingly intimate and developing way. During these thirty years he had discovered the great power and wisdom of Christ. He had also discovered the great grace and love of Jesus through the many times he had been forgiven, through the various restorations he had enjoyed, through the mountain-top experiences he had known. And he realised that great as those had been, he was still like a person paddling on the shore with an entire ocean waiting to be explored. 

His experience so far of Jesus Christ made him conclude that he would never abandon his hope in Jesus. Therefore, he was prepared to regard everything that would hinder that relationship as nothing but dung (the word he uses means offal, the filth that wild dogs would eat. In making this description, Paul may be saying that the Judaizers, whom he has called dogs in 3:2, can only provide the equivalent of filthy food for people).

Paul now was completely Christ-centred. His life can be summarised as Jesus in the past taking care of his need of righteousness, Jesus in the present maintaining a wonderful relationship, and Jesus in the future befriending him on the Day of Judgement. Jesus meant everything to him. He was his Shepherd, his Friend, his Teacher, his Helper, his Master. Paul lived in order to please Christ. This was the principle that was behind his every decision, and it was the goal to which he aimed his life.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Jesus is valuable (Philippians 3:4-9)

Paul here assesses his own abilities against the qualifications of Jesus Christ. He uses the language of finance in verse 7 and takes a spiritual inventory. On one side of his sheet of paper, he lists all his personal credentials; on the other side he lists the credentials of Jesus Christ. Over his own attainments, he wrote the word ‘loss’, although at one time he had assumed that they would result in great gain. Just as a businessman realises that particular goods will not give him a profit and therefore decides to cease selling them, so Paul realised that the list of achievements of which he had been so confident were actually the main contributions to his spiritual bankruptcy.

On the other side of his sheet of paper, he wrote down the credentials of Jesus Christ. What would he have written to begin with? Probably he would have noted what he mentions in verse 9, the righteousness that he had received from God because he had believed in Jesus Christ. 

During the days following his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul had thought about Jesus, who he was and what he had done. When he met Jesus on that journey, Paul did not know who he had met. He recognised that he had met a divine person because he asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ (Acts 9:5). What a shock he must have sensed when his question received an answer: ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.’ Yet he also realised that he had to re-consider the claims of Jesus.

At the time of his conversion, Paul made a great discovery. Instead of having to work for his salvation, he discovered that he could receive salvation by faith. Faith can be looked at from different perspectives, but Paul at his conversion used it in two ways in particular. First, he exercised faith in the sense of depending on Christ, and, second, he exercised faith in the sense that he committed himself into the hands of Christ. 

As he thought about Jesus, Paul realised that Jesus, because he was also God, was fully capable of saving him from the penalty of his sins. Paul concluded that there was no reason why he, despite his great sins, even the sin of persecuting the people of God, should not trust in Jesus Christ. This was why he was able to conclude that all his religious pedigree was nothing but rubbish to be discarded and that Jesus was valuable.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Paul's Testimony (Philippians 3:4-9)

Paul lists several reasons for self-confidence. His reasons are twofold: those that he received from his parents and those that he attained for himself. He begins with his religious pedigree and it was an impressive one by the standards of the Jewish world of his day. By birth, he belonged to one of the royal tribes of Israel (Saul, the first king, belonged to the tribe of Benjamin); in addition his parents had ensured that they obeyed the requirements of the ceremonial law. As an adult, Paul was devoted to Judaism as was evidenced by belonging to the Pharisees, the most orthodox group within Judaism. There were other groups such as the Sadducees (who denied the supernatural) and the Essences (who lived in communities in the desert). His devotion to Judaism was also seen in his intense hatred of the Christian church and his determination to destroy it.

Paul’s assessment of his manner of life was that, as far as outward conformity to the ceremonial law of Israel was concerned, he was blameless. This does not mean that he regarded himself as sinless; after all, keeping the ceremonial law required him to offer sacrifices for his sins. Instead, it means that Paul regarded the ceremonial law as sufficient for dealing with his sins. He had no need of a Messiah who would have to make atonement for sins as a sacrifice.

Of course, we know that his religious pedigree was not sufficient as far as acceptance with God was concerned. Yet the fact that we know this about Paul does not mean that we cease to trust in our religious behaviour. We too can trust in our religious pedigree (our family’s connection to the gospel or our denominational heritage) or in our religious zeal (energetic in defending our denomination’s stance on a variety of issues) or in our outward conformity to religious demands (local church tradition).  Many can have the inward conviction that somehow these factors bring them closer to God. But they do not. They are valuable in many ways, but they cannot bring us to God. Not even an awareness of personal failings in itself will cause us to consider the claims of Jesus.

Yet, instead of trusting in his natural qualities and achievements, Paul turned away from them and discovered a relationship with Jesus Christ. The passing of the years since his initial discovery of Jesus had not changed his mind. As he wrote these words, he had been a follower of Jesus for about thirty years. Such a period is long enough for a person to know if he has made a mistake. Paul affirms that having Christ was all that mattered. Why could Paul make this strong affirmation? We will think about that tomorrow.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Features of true discipleship (Philippians 3:1-3)

Paul mentions three details that are always present when true discipleship is found: they are (a) service of God in the Spirit, (b) glory in Christ Jesus, and (c) no confidence in the flesh. Before we think about each of these details, we should note that Paul describes such worshippers as ‘the circumcision’. When he describes believers in this way, he means that they are in covenant with God.

Those who have such a commitment serve God in the Spirit. Paul is not limiting worship here to church services. Instead, what he means by worship is all of life. He is concerned with what we do on Mondays as well as on the Lord’s Days.  The Christian life should be one ongoing life of worship and service. In Romans 12:1-2, Paul describes Christian worship: ‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.’

The second feature of a true commitment is boasting in Jesus Christ. Such an attitude involves an understanding of who Jesus is and what he has done, is doing, and will do for his people. All that he does has been summarised for us in what we call the offices of Christ: a prophet to teach us; a priest to intercede for us and to exercise compassion on us; a king to rule over us and to defend us. There is much in these roles to cause us to boast in Jesus Christ.

The third feature of a true commitment is no confidence in the flesh. Paul proceeds to say why he could have had such confidence and he mentions aspects of his life from before his conversion (vv. 4-8) and after his conversion (vv. 11-13). Before conversion, he had status, racial privileges and earnest zeal; after conversion he had many spiritual attainments. But he did not build his hopes on them. 

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The importance of spiritual joy (Philippians 3:1)

When thinking about spiritual joy one aspect that we must consider is that the possession of it is at times very surprising. To begin with, although Paul was experiencing discomfort and opposition when he wrote this letter he does not regard his circumstances as a reason for not having joy. In effect, he is saying that it is possible to have spiritual joy in situations where one would not expect it. 

How is it possible for sinners to have joy in difficult circumstances? I suppose several reasons could be given, but I would mention two at present. First, they had joy in their adverse situations because they believed in the sovereignty of the heavenly Father. Second, they had joy because they were forgiven sinners. 

Of course, joy is one aspect of the fruit of the Spirit. As with the other graces, it is developed in our renewed characters by the indwelling Spirit. Therefore, it is important that we get rid off anything that hinders the work of the Spirit in our lives. And Paul goes on to mention one huge barrier to spiritual joy - legalism.

This threat came from those he calls ‘dogs, evil workers, mutilators of the flesh’. He was referring to a group of people called the Judaizers who regarded Paul as preaching an inadequate message. They were prepared to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but they also insisted that believers should keep the ceremonial law, particularly the rite of circumcision. In modern parlance, they were legalists who imagined that they could please God by their own religious efforts.

Sadly, legalism is still alive and well and lifting its ugly head in all kinds of places. It can appear even in true Christians. Think of your first response when you fall. I’m sure that sometimes your initial response is to do better the next time. Instead of confessing your fault, you resort to legalism and deprive yourselves for a time of the blessing of the joy that comes through repentance.

In whatever way legalism lifts its ugly head, it always becomes a barrier to spiritual joy in the Lord’s people. We should regard it as the enemy that it is. It deprives Christians of their joy and it makes them proud of their imagined attainments and critical of the way that others behave.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25-30)

The Bible is full of many unknown characters who did a lot for Christ in their day. Take, for example, Tychicus; in Acts 20:4 he accompanies Paul on his last journey to Jerusalem; he was with Paul in Rome during his first imprisonment and carried Paul’s letters to Ephesus (6:21) and to Colosse (4:7); later he went back to be with Paul (Titus 3:12) and he was with Paul during his second Roman imprisonment (2 Tim. 4:12). 

Or take Priscilla and Aquila: they helped Paul evangelise Corinth (Acts 18); then they moved to Ephesus where a church met in their house (1 Cor. 16:19); later they moved to Rome where again a church met in their house (Rom. 16:3-5). 

Paul valued these forgotten servants of Christ. He describes Tychicus as ‘a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow-servant in the Lord’ (Col. 4:7), and describes Priscilla and Aquila as those who ‘risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them’ (Rom. 16:4).

Paul founded the church in Philippi about the year 51, eleven years before he wrote this letter. At this time he is under house arrest in Rome, and although he was rejected by many of the local believers (1:15-18), his friends in Philippi had not forgotten him and had sent Epaphroditus to him with provisions (4:18). 

The journey was at least 500 miles long, if it included a sea crossing; it would be about 800 miles otherwise, a journey of six weeks. As a result of the journey Epaphroditus became ill, so ill that he nearly died. When Epaphroditus set out on his journey to find Paul he had no guarantee that he would be successful; he persevered in his task, even although it had resulted in severe ill-health. But now he had recovered and Paul was eager to send him back to his home church to be of benefit to them.

The name ‘Epaphroditus’ means ‘lovely’ or ‘amiable’; it is derived from the name of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. His name could indicate that his family were involved in that form of pagan worship and at least he of them had been saved by the grace of God. From then on, he had lived up to the meaning of his name because he developed a lovely character.

One of the striking features of Epaphroditus is that he is one of the many ordinary Christians who do extraordinary things and develop extraordinary characters. With regard to the other two examples mentioned in this chapter, we can respond by saying that Paul and Timothy were exceptionally gifted believers and therefore it is not surprising that they became so Christlike. But what can we say about Epaphroditus? There is no mention of any great gifts, nor does Paul say he was a leader in the church in Philippi. Instead he is an ordinary believer who was prepared to give himself sacrificially for the benefit of others.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Trusting in God (Philippians 2:19-24)

So far in our studies in the second chapter of Philippians, we have considered profound doctrines connected to the person and work of Christ and to the nature of sanctification. In the closing passages of the chapter, Paul brings to our attention two of his colleagues (Timothy and Epaphroditus) and at first glance the descriptions of them are so straightforward that we might be tempted to imagine that these biographical profiles do not contain important matters. Yet we only have to ask one question and we will see that the passages are very significant. The question is, ‘How did Timothy and Epaphroditus come to have these characteristics in their lives?’

In verses 19 and 23, Paul reveals his intention to send his colleague Timothy to Philippi once he finds out the decision of the Roman court concerning his appeal to Caesar. Yet he submits his intention to a higher Lord than the Roman Emperor when he prefixes it with the words, ‘But I trust in the Lord Jesus.’ This prefix reveals an important outlook of Paul’s life.

His words indicate that everything should be done in faith. In a sense, this is our side of each situation. We commit our plans to the Lord, looking for his overall blessing. Paul did not want to do anything, even in Christian work, that was not according to the will of Christ. Therefore we have to recognise the Lord’s sovereignty whenever we have any plans. 

Paul’s words are similar to those expressed by James when he writes: ‘Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” —  yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that”’ (Jas. 4:13-15).  The words of Paul are not the comment of a fatalist who suspects that somehow or other his plans will be hindered by events beyond his control. Rather they reveal a man who had a strong confidence in the sovereignty of the Lord Jesus and a sweet submission to his will.

Paul’s words are a reminder that the apostles did not have infallible guidance regarding every situation that they faced. In many circumstances, they found themselves having to wait for divine providence to unfold God’s will. But they knew that Jesus was at the helm, and therefore they were confident that he would guide and overrule as he saw best.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Listen to the appeal of their spiritual father (Philippians 2:17-18)

Paul has already mentioned several reasons why his readers should work out their salvation: the presence of God, the observance of the world, the responsibility of living like children of God, and the coming day of Christ. He now mentions one more – his own personal relationship to his readers.

Paul realised that he would be deprived of a source of rejoicing if his readers should be found wanting before the judgement seat of Christ. It was possible that their refusal to sort out their differences would cause him to have laboured in vain as far as these arguing individuals were concerned.

As Allbert Barnes pointed out, ‘This was one reason which the apostle urged, and which it was proper to urge, why they should let their light shine.  He had been the instrument of their conversion, he had founded their church, he was their spiritual father, and had shown the deepest interest in their welfare; and he now entreats them, as a means of promoting his highest joy, to be faithful and holy.  The exemplary piety and holy lives of the members of a church will be one of the sources of highest joy to a minister on the day of judgment; compare 3 John 1:4.’

Paul concludes this request for Christlikeness by a reference to the sacrificial systems. It was customary for a small thank offering to be offered alongside a larger offering of an animal. Paul wanted an aspect of his Christian life to involve thankfulness for the Philippians’ life of service. He desired to be thankful on the Day of Christ and thankful should he hear before then of their ongoing service for Christ.