From time to time I have wondered about the personal life of the apostle Paul. What was he like when he wasn’t out preaching, defending the faith, or sitting in prison? We know very little, but every here and there in one of the letters he says something that sheds a bit of light on the man we’d like to know. One of these is the passing reference to Timothy, who travelled with him as he went through Asia peaching the gospel. Timothy was the son of a mixed marriage; his father a Greek and his mother Jewish (Acts 16:1-3). But what stands out in the letter we are examining (Philippians) is Paul’s reference to Timothy’s integrity as a companion in spreading the gospel. Paul tells the believers in Philippi that he has “no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare” (Phil. 2:20), or as the NET puts it, “will readily demonstrate his deep concern for you, ”or again in the NJB, “cares as sincerely for your well-being.”
It is clear from the letter why Timothy was such a helpful partner in the ministry – his love of fellow believers was authentic and it led him to take whatever action was appropriate. In the following verse Paul writes that there is no one else he can send because “all the others care only for themselves and not for what matters to Christ” (NLT). Timothy alone is like a son working with his father in the gospel (vv. 21-22).
As for Paul, he had been an outstanding young cleric in the Jewish faith. We know that when the religious authorities needed someone to take the action necessary to stop the growth of the Christian movement, Paul was the one they chose. It would take a strong and determined man to go out to the towns in Israel, find believers and do whatever was necessary to dissuade them from this new religion. While Paul was that kind of man, it didn’t rule out a tender relationship to a fellow worker like Timothy.
Paul displays strength of commitment to a religious cause coupled with a tender regard for a young colleague. I don’t know for sure but I suspect Paul was not the easiest person to get along with. Strong characters tend not to adjust sympathetically to the foibles of another. Yet in spite of the strong temperament he inherited, Paul recognized and deeply appreciated the conscientious commitment of a fellow worker. Here is the challenge. Regardless of who you may be due to qualities inherited from birth and adjusted by life up to adulthood, there is still the need to accept the other, recognize their worth, and work humbly with them in the task assigned by God.
The apostle Paul used the metaphor as a major tool in his desire to present truth in a way that would be easy to understand and hard to forget. Believers are “stars” shinning in a society that is “warped and crooked,” while he, the apostle, is being “poured out like a drink offering” on the “sacrifice” of their faithful service (Philippians 2:15-17). One writer refers to Paul as the “master of the mixed metaphor.” In any case, he uses the metaphor of a sacrificial offering to picture his life as being poured out as a libation over the offering of the life and service of the believers at Philippi. What it lacks in specificity it gains in its power to communicate. The metaphor is built on the ancient ritual of sacrifice. The truth being set forth is that what the church is doing in giving themselves without reserve to the cause of the gospel is joined with Paul’s willing acceptance of death if necessary; the joint effort becomes a sacrificial offering to God. Granted, the metaphor would be more effective in a society where literal sacrifice was customary, but even for us in a decidedly different culture, it is still a powerful way to share the truth.
The point I would emphasize is that for the believer, living is best accomplished by dying. To the church at Rome, Paul writes that they have “died to sin” (6:2), that they have been “buried with him” (6:4) so that now that they are dead they are “set free from sin” (6:7). Earlier in Philippians we heard Paul declare, “For me to die is gain” (1:21). The way to live is to die, so Paul urges his readers, “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1). I admit this sounds strange in our day when the culture tells us that to live is to get the most out of it. Seek success; live up to your potential; be positive. But Jesus says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Absolutely counter-cultural. I know that the New Testament teaching on how best to live is at odds with today’s cultural norms but that’s what we would expect. They crucified Jesus and that describes the ongoing response of secularism to his message. There is little use in trying to make the gospel palatable to those who insist that life is no more than an opportunity to get the most for oneself. Any opposition must be eliminated.
Back to our text. Paul closes this section of his letter telling his readers that by living in a sacrificial way, “They too will be glad and rejoice with him” (vs. 18). The Christian faith teaches that the way up is down. It runs opposite to all that the world would have us believe. The ultimate test for us is whether we believe God or the advice of men. It’s that simple. For the true believer it isn’t really a decision – you die in order to live. And that is not something for the future but for every day of the time period we used to call life.
In the last column on Philippians we commented on Paul’s words about shining like stars in the sky above a dark world of sin. We didn’t say at that time that the sentence continues into the following verse (2:16). Christians in Philippi were to shine like stars “by holding on to the word of life.” Shining, apparently, is the result of a firm allegiance to the Word of God. It is the “word of life. ”I’d like to look at that phrase from several different viewpoints.
In the first place, the bible is the Word about life. It tells the story of creation, the beginning of everything that is. Genesis opens with the statement, “In the beginning God.” He was there when what we now call time and space began. Before that, God alone existed. Then came what we call the beginning in which he created all that is, and he did it ex nihilo, that is, out of nothing. At the end of the “week” he created human life. From the beginning to the end scripture is the story about life – what it is and how it came to be. The DNA came into existence because God chose that it would. He is the sovereign creator of life – that which in some complimentary way mirrors his image.
Scripture is also the Word that gives life. In its pages we read the magnificent account of God’s redemptive love, his supreme act of giving his Son that we by faith might be forgiven and enriched with life from above. Just recently we read a hymn of the early church in which Christ entered his own creation by becoming one of us and humbled himself by dying on a cross for our salvation. Throughout the centuries repentant sinners have knelt before him and received the gift of eternal life. The Word that prepared the Philippian believers, and all who follow their example, to shine as bright stars over the darkness of unbelief is the Word that gives life.
And finally, scripture is the living Word. Christ speaks through it. The unique thing about the bible is that it allows God to speak today through words that were penned long ago. You cannot sincerely read, “For God so loved the world that he gave . . .” without hearing the voice of God himself. Scripture is alive for all those who approach it with an openness to hear from another sphere.
So the way to make a difference in this world, to shine, is to hold securely to this Word that explains the origin of life, that gives life to those who accept it, and that is “alive and active; sharper than any double-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12).
Following the magnificent hymn on the humility of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11) Paul exhorts the believers in Philippi to “work out” their own salvation with fear and trembling (vs. 12). That always confused me because I was taught that salvation was a gift of God that asked nothing but that I believe. Didn’t the great reformers of the church teach that justification was sola fide, by faith alone? But here Paul tells us to “work [it] out.” I now know that the answer to the conundrum is that by “to work out,” Paul means, “to put into action.” It is one thing to know the truth but something quite different to put it into action.
Until truth takes action it remains little more than something to discuss. I may “believe” that there is a fire in the kitchen but that “belief” is meaningless until it moves me to get up and call 911. In the biblical world, “faith” becomes faith when it becomes a conviction, that is, it moves a person to take the necessary action. What Paul is telling the Philippian church is that they are to “work out,” that is, “put into action,” what they believe. And the example they are to follow is Jesus who put heaven aside and became one of us. They are to “humble” themselves as Jesus did. They are to carry out their Christian commitment “with fear and trembling,” that is, in reverence toward God.
Most of us want our profession of faith to be authentic. How many times have we said something like, “I really tried but I blew it again.” We do our best to work it out just like Paul told the Philippians. The desire to carry out in life what we understand to be the will of God for us is itself a gift of God. He is the one who stirs up in us the longing for a more productive and holy life. Unfortunately the harder we try the more we fail. It doesn’t seem to be working out.
But here comes the good news; in addition to the desire God also supplies “the power to do what pleases him” (NLT). God never intended us to live the Christian life in our own strength. Spiritual life calls for the presence and activity of the Spirit. We can’t expect to do what only God’s Spirit, working in and through us, can do. Why is this so hard to understand? The answer is that until the believer finds himself in heaven his old nature continues its battle to be in charge Thank God that He enables us to do what he calls on us to do. Enough of our miserable attempts to fulfill spiritual goals by human effort. No wonder we call it salvation, because it saves us – saves us from ourselves, from our innate and self-centered desire to prove to God that we can handle things on our own.
We have come now to one of the finest passages in scripture setting forth the redemptive ministry of Jesus Christ. It reflects an early hymn of the church that eloquently portrays the divine condescension of Christ in his incarnation and death as the example par excellence of selfless living. The best way to appreciate the passage is to read it in poetic form, reflecting on it fuller meaning.
“Your attitude toward others should be like that of Christ Jesus.
Although he was by nature God,
he didn’t regard that equality with God as something to be maintained at any cost,
but set it aside by becoming a human being, a servant.
So it was as one of us that he walked the lowly road of humility.
His obedience to God led him all the way to death, even death on a cross.
And that’s why God
raised him to the place of highest honor and
bestowed on him a name far above any other
So that someday
every knee in heaven and earth will bow before him and
every tongue will openly declare that
Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
“Translation from Dear Friends, This is Paul”
The history of the human race is, in a sense, reflected in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. As Christ, the eternal Son existed from the “beginning” in a close and glorious fellowship with the Father, so also did man begin his earthly pilgrimage in Eden, basking in the rich experience of fellowship with the Creator as they walked and talked in the Garden. In the incarnation Christ left heaven, came to earth and became one of us. Our transition, however, was not joyful but sad in that we were expelled from the Garden because of Adam’s (read “our”) sin. Christ paid the ransom on Calvary’s cross and made it possible for us to return to a new and living relationship with the Father. As Christ ascended to heaven so may we by faith return to where we began and enjoy forever the indescribably joy that God had always intended for his creation.
Interesting, is not, that this is also the general theme of most every novel: There is a problem that develops, a hero that comes onto the scene, and a solution to the problem that restores normalcy.
Have you ever wished for a single all-inclusive rule for Christian living? If you simply allowed that to control your conduct you would fulfill everything expected of you as a child of God? Well, I have good news for you. Years ago God had the apostle Paul provide the answer to a little church in the town of Philippi. Here’s what he said: “Don’t do anything out of selfish concern or the desire to impress but in all humility value the interests of the other as greater than your own” (Phil. 2:3-4). There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if all of us who name the name of Christ would live each day guided by that tenet, we would as a people, experience what heaven itself will be like.
The ultimate example of that kind of living is the incarnate life of the eternal Son of God. He decided to put the welfare of the rebellious human race ahead of his own. And the following verses in the chapter describe his great redemptive act of leaving the glories of heaven to become a man who would die a horrible death on a cross for the sins of those he created (vv. 6-11). That is how Jesus lived; how should we?
Humility is a word that is often misunderstood. For some, it describes a submissive, self-loathing wimp who is frightened by everything in life and cringes in the corner while others take care of him. Well, that’s an overstatement, but I think you know the Casper Milquetoast sort of bearing it describes. But humility is a strong word. It is a quality of those who are safe enough to put personal concerns aside and lend their effort to the needs of others. It has been described many times in the literature of the Western world, probably the best by C.S. Lewis who wrote, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” I believe that humility is an act of the will in which a person intentionally decides to turn his attention to the concerns of the next person he meets or think of.” It is a near total disregard for personal advancement. Self-concern has been set aside permanently so as to allow time and strength for helping others.
One might say, “But that’s a denial of life!” Right. Didn’t Jesus say, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23)? I think that to “deny” oneself means to deny oneself and to “take up his cross” means to die to self-absorption. To the response, “But that’s like death,” one can say, “No, the Christian life is possible only by that kind of death.” Again, wasn’t it the same Paul who said in chapter one of this same letter, “For me to die is gain” (1:21)? So, let’s cheer up and ”die.” Christ did, and then he set the pattern by rising to a new and glorious life.