Text: Philippians 1:27-2:11
The book of Philippians has been a favorite of mine since my early days in high school. I have long cherished the words of Philippians 2:5-11 as some of my favorite in Scripture and as good words to live by. I am thrilled and honored to be asked to preach today and to share some of my thoughts regarding these words in Philippians and those just prior to them. Before we get to that, however, I would first like to give you some background to this wonderful letter from the apostle Paul.
The Philippian church is located in the city of Philippi in Macedonia or Greece. They were an official Roman colony (due to significant historical events) and the people of Philippi were proud and devoted Roman citizens; and, as with all Romans, the emperor was viewed as a divine being and worshiped. In fact, much like we sing the national anthem before public sporting events, the citizens of Philippi would shout “Ceasar is lord and savior” before public events. This became a big cultural issue for the Philippian church since their citizenship is in heaven – as Paul states in chapter 3:20 – and they are to profess devotion to Jesus as Savior and Lord.
It’s widely accepted that the apostle Paul wrote this relatively short letter to the church in Philippi, and quite simply, he adores this church. He begins the letter thanking them and telling them how he always prays with joy for them (1:3). Paul considers them his cherished partners in ministry (1:5,7-8). Paul loves these people. He longs for them with Christ-like affection, and hopes for the day when he can be with them again (1:26).
As a teenager who struggled with anxiety, one of the things that attracted me to this book was that it contains some form of the word “joy” 16 times in these four brief chapters! I find this astounding considering the fact that Paul is in jail and awaiting trial for his faith and life in Jesus! Not only that but he continues to praise God because the gospel is continuing to flourish and Christ will be exalted whether Paul lives or dies.
And so Paul lays out four reasons he is writing his beloved church: First, he seeks to thank them for the generous gift given to him through Epaphroditus and update them on his circumstances. Second, he urges them to stand strong together through persecution and to live joyfully through all circumstances. Third, he warns them of false teachers that are popping up, not necessarily in the Philippian church, but throughout the various churches he has planted. Finally, he takes the opportunity to call on two specific people in the Philippian church to reconcile their disagreements for the sake of the gospel.
So in the first 26 verses of chapter 1, Paul has been overflowing with love and praise for the Philippian church and at the same time rejoicing that God continues to work through him to spread the good news of Jesus even among his jailers. And then he says – “Only. (vs27)” And here the apostle takes on the role of teacher and encourager for the word “only” as one commentator said, should be interpreted as a verbal warning finger lifted up to focus their attention on what he is about to say. And what he is about to say he says to us as well “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…(vs. 27).”
Live worthy lives, friends, and do it as citizens of heaven. Paul uses a political verb to begin his lesson which could be translated as “live as citizens.” Conduct yourselves = “live as citizens” worthy of the gospel of Christ. Paul is using their pride as Roman citizens and (by extension) our pride as US citizens to remind us that our lives belong to Jesus and we are called to live lives worthy of the gospel of Christ! Essentially, Paul is telling us to live worthy lives in the United States as citizens of heaven.
In the rest of verse 27, Paul says he doesn’t know if he will ever see the Philippian church again but he wants to hear that they are living worthy lives by “standing firm in one spirit and with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.” He uses a military term here “stand firm” which means to “stay at your post.” Don’t be distracted. Don’t be afraid. Don’t desert your post but stand your ground as one – and then Paul throws in an athletic term “striving together” which means “to stand side by side. So we have as one commentator said “unless you remain firm as one, side by side, the church will collectively come to ruin.” We will become distracted by the world, disillusioned by sin, and live in fear. Paul is saying that we cannot live worthy lives and fight within ourselves. We cannot live worthy lives alone. We cannot stand firm separately.
We must stand firm and strive TOGETHER. TEAMWORK. We are called to one spirit and one mind. Unity – within the church – is the key to remaining steadfast against whatever physical, cultural, or spiritual challenges that may come our way. And I promise – they will come. We cannot live as citizens of heaven in this world alone and disconnected from each other. We cannot love our neighbors or enemies as we ought by ourselves! Are you getting the picture? Paul calls us to live worthy lives in the United States as one, side by side, as citizens of heaven.
When we do this Paul says an amazing thing will happen. When you are oppressed and stand firm together, you will find peace. Verse 28 says we will “in no way [be] alarmed by our opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God.” As the church, we are to strive together as one against the ways of this world and when we are mocked or ridiculed we are being mocked for the gospel of Christ. In the face of persecution, when we stand firm together, the church is a powerful witness to the peace of Christ. This peace is a gift from God and assures us of salvation while at the same time condemns our persecutors.
Paul speaks of this to the Philippian church because he has heard that not only are they partners together in the gospel but they are partners in suffering. In verse 29 we read “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30 experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.” It seems that, like Paul, the Philippian church was suffering for the sake of the gospel. We don’t know what it was they were suffering for, but I think their status as citizens of heaven put them in direct contrast to the proud Roman colony of Philippi. The worship of Caesar and living lives worthy of the gospel of Christ were not compatible and the church was beginning to suffer for it. Paul urges them to strive together, side by side, as one in order to continue living worthy lives through persecution and spends the first four verses of chapter 2 telling them and us what it takes to live together as one.
And so Paul continues in his letter to say “Therefore, if…”I want to stop right there. The word “therefore” suggests that these next words are connected to the previous ones and they should be taken in a corporate sense. Paul is speaking to all of us as the church – not to each of us as individuals (he’ll do that later). Also, the word “if” should be thought of as meaning “since.” And so, with that in mind, I will paraphrase the verses 1-4 as follows (in the local vernacular):
“Therefore since y’all have encouragement in Christ, since y’all have comfort in Christ’s love, since y’all have the fellowship of the Spirit, and since y’all have tenderness and compassion, then make my joy for y’all as complete as it can possibly can be…” (pause) These are the things that are to define the Philippian church. As a Christian community – Good Shepherd – this is who y’all are.
Good Shepherd, and any community of Christian faith, has so many blessings. They have Christ’s love and encouragement. We have the Holy Spirit to bind us together and maintain this common love and encouragement. The results of which are a community marked by tenderness and compassion just as Jesus our Lord was.
In vs 2 Paul continues and I paraphrase, “so bring my cup of joy for y’all to the brim by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” Paul is pleading for the unity of the church – for them to be one. Now, this doesn’t mean we agree on everything, but it means that we engage in friendly and civil discourse to sharpen our thoughts and opinions for that is part of what makes life interesting. The problem is that so often our discussions together can take an ugly turn and we try to score points on the other person in our debates and insisting on our own way.
So Paul warns us and gives us the remedy in verses 3-4, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” These verses are easy to understand, but so difficult to live out. I would like to emphasize the following “…with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.” Paul has turned a corner here and begins speaking to us as individuals. He’s telling us that in order for us to live worthy lives TOGETHER, we must, as individuals, be of humble mind and approach the other as more important. Humility, is so difficult and goes against our sinful nature; and, yet, it is the glue the Holy Spirit uses to hold the church together. We don’t know if Paul had a particular dispute in mind with the Philippians but we do know he gave similar advice to the Corinthian church.
In the Corinthian church there were members taking each other to the pagan courts to settle disputes. Addressing this issue In I Corinthians 6:7-8 we read “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.” Paul tells us that in order for unity within the church to be maintained it’s better to be wronged and cheated by another person in the church than to have unbelievers judging our issues. When we look to the public courts we are asking people with differing values to judge our disputes. Are you willing to yield to the interests of another brother or sister in the Lord? Am I willing to be cheated or wronged for the sake of the gospel of Christ?
Lisa and I have some friends back in Michigan who, a number of years ago, decided to build their dream house. It was going to be big and beautiful and in a neighborhood with even bigger homes and a golf course. They decided to use a builder who was a member of their church and, friends, it did not go well. I don’t know what all the issues were but by the end, our friends were very upset and felt cheated by this builder and fellow believer. They didn’t pursue anything in court, however, and they both still go to same church marked by Christ’s love and encouragement and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
In his book, The Message of Philippians, Alec Motyer says this: In order for the church to live a “worthy life,” it must strive together to stand firm against the forces that threaten, both from within and outside of it. In order to stand firm the church must maintain unity and that unity is dependent on each of us looking to the interests of each other above ourselves. We must defer to one another and listen to understand. We must settle our disputes together.
The church is like a family. There will be great times and there will be difficult times. But when disputes happen Paul tells us to remember that we are marked by encouragement and love in Christ, joined together by the Holy Spirit, full of tenderness and compassion and to remember that our same love is Jesus. Our purpose is to live worthy lives for the gospel of Jesus. To be of one mind in worshipping and serving only Jesus. Paul goes even farther and says we should be like Jesus. We read i verses 5-11 that our attitudes towards one another, should be like Jesus’ attitude:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus is the ultimate example of humility. The Son of God became the Son of Man. The holy and just God of creation entered that fallen creation as a baby whose first bed was a food trough for animals. We don’t know if Paul wrote these words or if he was quoting an early Christian hymn, but he uses these words to remind us that in humility Jesus didn’t cling to his rights or interests as God but emptied himself for us and our eternal interests, and paid the price of our sin through the most horrible death known at the time; and, therefore, GOD exalted him. Jesus was humble and he allowed God the Father to do the exalting so that one day, either willingly or unwillingly everyone will be humbled before Jesus and confess that He is LORD -to the glory of God the Father. Humility is the glue the Spirit uses to hold the church together; and, each of us as members of the church, are called to emulate our Savior in this way. We remain humble – to the glory of God – and let God do the exalting. Let God do it. Remain humble. God exalts.
Friends, that’s a tall order. In fact, it sounds impossible. And it is – except by the power of the Holy Spirit. [say it again] Apart from the Holy Spirit, humans yielding their interests to other people’s interests can’t happen. Unity among so many different minds and cultures and generations doesn’t happen in our own wisdom or ways of doing things. So what are we to do? Where do we begin? I would like to suggest things we can do individually and things we should do corporately – together – in order to strengthen our own church community so as one we can strive together for the sake of the gospel. Let’s call it “building our love muscles.”
First, as individuals, we must continue getting to know Jesus. He is our prime example of the humble life. We find his words to us in Scripture, and so we must continue getting to know, understand, and live out those words. Personal devotions and Bible studies are wonderful ways the Holy Spirit uses to develop this relationship. So, continue developing your relationship with Jesus.
Second, we need to pray for one another. During our devotions and as we live our days (exercising or shopping, etc) we need to be lifting one another up in prayer. For the person who is ill or recovering from surgery and even the person at church who simply irritates us. I want to suggest that praying for the irritating person to change their ways may not be the most humble of prayers. Perhaps a more Christ-like way of praying would be to ask the Lord’s help in viewing that person as one created in God’s image and is claimed by God as his child. We need to pray that the Holy Spirit will change our own hearts toward the people who irritate us.
We need to develop our relationship with Jesus, we need to pray for one another; and, third, we need to both admit our mistakes with one another, and forgive the person or people who’ve hurt us. I learned very early as a parent that I was going to make many mistakes. As a result, I have tried (and the Lord knows I haven’t always done this) to go to my kids and admit to them when I’ve made a mistake and seek their forgiveness. I think that’s healthy and necessary for relationships to grow; and, on the flipside of this, we need to forgive each other even if forgiveness has not been sought out. Romans 5:8 says that “…while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus didn’t sit on his heavenly throne waiting for us to turn from our rebellion. No. He gave up the throne, for a period, and ran to us so we could see grace in action and respond to that grace.
Those are some things we can do individually. Now, what can we do TOGETHER that will enable us to strive as one and build our “love muscles?” I think the book of Acts has some wonderful insight about this. In Acts: 1:14 we find the disciples gathered together in Jerusalem. Jesus had just ascended into heaven and told them to go to Jerusalem and wait for the power of the Holy Spirit. We are told that “…These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer…” The New Living Translation says “They all met together and were constantly united in prayer…”
Did you hear the words that echo our Philippians passage today? The disciples gathered together and were of one mind. They were united (of one mind) in prayer. I don’t think the disciples really had a clue as to what was going to happen and what it is was they were waiting for. I think they were scared to be sitting in a room in the city where Jesus was crucified not knowing if the authorities would be going after them next. But…they obeyed and were constantly united in prayer.
Friends, are we as a church, constantly united in prayer? Are we united in praying for the Holy Spirit to change in us so that we are able to heed the commands of our Savior to love our neighbors and baptize new believers? Are we, together, praying for the power of the Holy Spirit to come upon us and lead us? My thought is “no, not so much.” After all we’re Presbyterians. That’s something the Pentecostals do, right? WRONG! It’s something the Church does!
If the Church is the Body of Christ it seems that in order to be united in prayer we ALL have to pray together. It seems unwise that the foot is praying separately from the hands and the ears. If we are not united in prayer as one with the same vision/mission for our church, it seems like a crazy game of Twister develops. The feet go one way while the arms go another way and the right and left arm may not always agree either. Things don’t end up so well in this scenario because, eventually, you get tied up in knots, you look silly, you look for the prime spots for yourself, and then…you fall. Friends, I wonder. Are we really united in prayer?
The very beginnings of the Church devoted themselves to prayer in the same way Jesus was constantly united in prayer with the Father and the Spirit throughout his ministry. Ought not we to do the same? I can’t explain exactly what happens when we pray except to say that something powerful happens when God’s people are of one mind and spirit in prayer.
Dr. J. Edwin Orr was a scholar who researched the different spiritual revivals that have occurred throughout church history. In a speech to the first National Prayer Conference in Dallas in 1976, he opened with the following statement:
Dr A. T. Pierson once said, ‘There has never been a spiritual awakening in any country or locality that did not begin in united prayer.’ Let me recount what God has done through concerted, united, sustained prayer.
Not many people realize that in the wake of the American Revolution (following 1776-1781) there was a moral slump. Drunkenness became epidemic. Out of a population of five million, 300,000 were confirmed drunkards; they were burying fifteen thousand of them each year. Profanity was of the most shocking kind. For the first time in the history of the American settlement, women were afraid to go out at night for fear of assault. Bank robberies were a daily occurrence.
Dr. Orr went on to describe how membership in the churches was dwindling. New believers were rare. All denominations were declining. Private colleges such as Harvard and Princeton had few to any students who were believers and acts against Christianity on these campuses were common – student riots, the burning down of Nassau Hall at Princeton, students took a Bible from a Presbyterian church and burned it publicly. In fact, in the 1790’s the few college students who were Christians met in secret and kept their meeting minutes in code so no one would know.
How did this turn around? Dr. Orr explains that it was a concert of prayer that started in Scotland through Presbyterian minister John Erskine. He wrote a small book entitled Memorial pleading with the people of Scotland and elsewhere to pray for revival. Erskine sent the book to Jonathon Edwards in New England and, realizing their desperate situation, churches across the oceans met on the first Monday of the month praying to God for revival. The result is the Second Great Awakening. Out of this movement, says Dr. Orr, came the following: the abolition of slavery, popular education, Bible Societies, Sunday Schools, and many social benefits accompanying the evangelistic drive.
Acts 2:41 we read, “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
Acts 2:44 says, “And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common…” They were unified! It seems that Godly instruction from the apostles, fellowship together, breaking bread together, and prayer all went a long way to unifying the early church. The Holy Spirit showed up in a powerful way as thousands were added to their numbers.
Friends, to strengthen our “love muscles” we must take the time to exercise them. We need to pray together; and, it has become clear to me these past 6 weeks as I’ve thought and prayed over this message that making time to be together is also important. I think of Wednesday evening “sacred dinners” that we host at the beginning of the month. What a wonderful opportunity to break bread together, listen to one another, and pray for each other. In choir we not only rehearse together but we pray together and lift each other up in prayer and encouragement. On game nights we laugh together and have fun together. In Bible studies we learn together and pray together. At Bonclarken we do all of this – and spend time in God’s glorious creation as a bonus! Mission trips allow us to serve together and live together (briefly for which we can give thanks!). Friends, are we strengthening our “love muscles?” Are we doing these things with humility?
Why? Why is this necessary? Why must we do more together? Let’s go back to Philippians 1:27-30.
Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that…I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel… 29 For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30 experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.”
Paul echoed what Jesus taught. We will experience trials, difficulties, and perhaps persecution for the sake of Christ. We will need to be united in heart and united in purpose. We will need the Holy Spirit’s power to continually re-direct us to Jesus and his humble life. And so, TOGETHER, we must strive to make Jesus Christ our focus so when we encounter seasons of suffering, TOGETHER, we look to the humble Christ on the cross. At other times, in times of celebration and rejoicing, we remember – TOGETHER – that our exalted Christ reigns supreme. In any and all circumstances we remain like-minded: that Jesus is the source of our strength, Jesus is our source of love, He is our source of compassion, and our Lord is the greatest example of a life lived in humility.
Jesus must be and remain our vision. When you think you cannot forgive again – remember Jesus. When you think you cannot go through one more round of chemotherapy – remember Jesus. When you are wronged by another church member – remember Jesus. When you think you cannot be around “so and so” anymore – remember Jesus. When you are teased or mocked due to your faith – remember Jesus. Our Lord emptied himself of divine glory to walk this earth, to face temptation, to suffer scorn and ridicule and die – all to demonstrate God’s love for us – even though we didn’t deserve it. Through all circumstances, with eyes on Jesus and standing firm together as the church, constantly united in prayer, and with the power of the Holy Spirit, we can and will be a powerful witness to the life-changing power of Jesus – to the glory of God. Friends, this is a life worthy of the gospel of Christ. So let it be in us. Amen.