The other day I got talking to the hairdresser about the purpose of life. And, knowing what I do, she said, ‘I suppose you think it’s all about living for God.’ So I said, ‘Yes. What would you say?’ And with brutal honesty she said, ‘I live for the weekend, to get drunk – when I can forget for a bit how pointless life is.’ And she would speak for how a lot of people feel – even if they don’t deal with it the way she does. Because the atmosphere in our culture is being set by people who believe there is no purpose to life. As one writer says:
‘Political correctness denies that any belief is really true or any reality really real. And as a result, people have no purpose and their behaviour is driven instead by two things: the search for pleasure and the avoidance of pain.’
Is that our culture, or what? And the question God’s Word is going to disturb us with tonight is: Are we who profess to be Christian any different in purpose from those around us? So would you turn in the Bible to Philippians chapter 4? We’re in chapter 1 in a series, but I want us to see a key verse for unlocking the message of the whole book. It’s chapter 4 and v9, where the apostle Paul says:
Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. (4.9)
Ie, ‘Model yourselves on me.’ And that explains why, in Philippians, Paul says so much about himself and what he’s going through and how he’s reacting – because he’s modelling how to make Christ your ultimate purpose.
So with that key in our hands, let’s turn back to chapter 1. We saw last time that Paul was writing from prison: Jewish opponents of the gospel had cleverly accused him of being an enemy of the Roman ‘State’, so he was now awaiting trial and his life was at stake. And last week we saw his attitude looking back on those events. Look down to chapter 1, v12, for a reminder:
12Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. 13As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. (vv12-13)
And that window onto Paul shows that one of his big purposes was to make Jesus known to others. So that whereas our energies might have gone on wanting to change bad circumstances, Paul saw even bad circumstances as just a new opportunity to make Jesus known. That’s what mattered to him; that’s what ‘made him tick’. That was his attitude looking back. This week we see his attitude looking forward. So,
Firstly, PAUL WANTED TO HONOUR JESUS, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO HIM – AND WE SHOULD WANT THE SAME (vv18-20)
Look down to v18, half-way through:
18…Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. 20I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. (vv18b-20)
So there’s another window onto Paul’s purpose: it was ‘so that... Christ will be exalted in my body’ – ie, honoured in the eyes of everyone watching me. And that’s our purpose, too, if we call Jesus ‘Lord and Saviour’. So, I know of a guy called Dave – who’s spent years of Christian ministry among students. And a student once said to him, ‘Look, I don’t come from a Christian background, but I was brought up to live a good life and I can’t see that you Christians live any better. So apart from the beliefs that you keep going on about, what have you got that I haven’t?’ To which Dave said, ‘Watch me.’ And this student said, ‘What do you mean?’ And Dave said, ‘Watch me. Come and move in with me for a month. Watch what I do when I’m on my own. Watch how I use my time, how I treat people, what my values are. Read my mail. Check my website history. Shadow me. And at the end of the month, you tell me if there’s any difference.’ Now that student didn’t take Dave up on the offer of moving in. But he did get to know him, and ultimately came to faith through him. But the point is: could you say what Dave said? Do you live to honour Jesus in such a way that your life can stand that kind of scrutiny? Because that’s what Paul wanted to do – and so should we.
And Paul wanted to do that whatever happened to him. That’s the point of the end of v20:
so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. (v20)
Ie, ‘Whether I walk free from this trial; or get a death-sentence.’ Now people argue about whether Paul was expecting to live or die. So at the end of v20 he sounds uncertain. But, say some people, back in v19 he sounds certain he’ll walk free. Look at v19:
19for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance... (v19)
Now earlier this year, we looked at the Old Testament (OT) book of Job in Home Groups. And although I wasn’t expecting you to spot it, the end of v19 is actually a quote from Job 13 – where Job says:
‘Indeed, this will turn out for my deliverance.’ (Job 13.16)
Now remember what happened to Job. He lived a thoroughly God-honouring life, but was then hit by tragedy – so that people around him, who believed that bad things only happen to bad people as punishment, began to say, ‘Well, Job can’t have lived such a God-honouring life after all. God must be punishing him for hidden sins that we knew nothing about.’ And throughout the book, Job protests his integrity – and that the way things turn out will prove him right – ie, vindicate him. And that’s what Job meant when he said
‘Indeed, this will turn out for my deliverance.’ (Job 13.16)
He means deliverance from his integrity being doubted or denied. And, since he’s quoting Job, I take it that’s what Paul means in v19 when he says:
what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance... (v19)
He doesn’t mean deliverance from prison or death. He means deliverance from his integrity being doubted or denied. He means he expects God to vindicate him. And he knows that could happen in one of two ways. It could happen by him walking free from prison, with the false accusations against him and the gospel completely quashed – ie, with his integrity vindicated by the Roman court. But equally, it could happen by him being sentenced to death and by God enabling him to die without denying the faith – ie, with his integrity vindicated by the way he died. Because nothing points to integrity like someone being willing to die rather than deny what they believe.
In fact, that thought is what helped someone called Charles Colson to faith. Colson was one of US President Richard Nixon’s right hand men. He was caught up in the Watergate scandal, tried and sent to prison. And in the midst of all that, he came to faith in Christ. And he later wrote,
It was the behaviour of my former colleagues in government that convinced me of the integrity of the New Testament (NT) writers, because every one of my colleagues lied and changed their stories (even at one another’s expense) in the vain attempt to avoid prison. Whereas men like the apostle Paul didn’t once change their story in the face not just of prison, but of death.’ (Born Again, Charles Colson)
So Paul wanted to honour Jesus whatever happened to him. And the more specific lesson is that Jesus is often most honoured when the ‘whatever’ is difficulty, suffering or even dying. I guess some of us may be thinking, ‘It’s all very well talking about honouring Jesus – but how can I, when my life is so full of difficulties, problems, ill health, disability, tragedy, the mounting issues of old age (whatever it is for you)?’ And Paul would say: it’s precisely in those difficulties that we can often most honour Jesus – just by remaining faithful. So look at v19 again:
19... I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. [And knowing that the Lord never puts us in circumstances without giving us the strength to deal with them, he can say, v20:] 20I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. (vv19-20)
Often we pray for difficult circumstances to change, don’t we? And that’s not wrong. But it’s not the only thing we should pray (for ourselves or one another) – or the first thing. Because we don’t know that it is God’s will to change the circumstances. But we do know that it’s his will that believers honour Jesus whatever happens to them.
So the Christian writer Don Carson tells of how he prayed for a woman called June Fordham. She’d grown up in difficult circumstances, gone off the rails, but then came to faith in Jesus. She became a nurse, but within just a few years, got inoperable cancer. And Don Carson writes about how he prayed for her with another minister:
She wrote to me from her hospital bed... full of bitterness, fear, self-pity, anger. What, then, should we pray? Should we pray, ‘Lord, bless her?’ Sometimes that’s the only prayer we can honestly pray; we don’t know enough to pray more. Or should we pray, ‘Lord, take her home to be with you?’ Or, ‘Lord, heal her!’? We had no doubts that the Lord could heal her, but neither of us was convinced that he was going to... So we prayed for wisdom and turned to Scripture. We remembered the many promises... that God will keep his own people. And we prayed that he would honour his Word... in her case.
That was Monday night. On Thursday I received a letter from her written on Tuesday. She said she had awakened with joy and found herself singing hymns; that she had come to find... deep rest in the Lord’s perfect will; and that she was looking forward to going to be with him if that was what he wanted. Her letter was full of deep love for, and faith in, the Lord Jesus. She died just a few weeks later, but not before she had exercised a remarkable influence in that hospital. (Jesus and his friends, Don Carson)
That’s the first thing: Paul wanted to honour Jesus, whatever happened to him – and we should want the same.
Second, PAUL PUT THE INTERESTS OF JESUS ABOVE HIS PERSONAL PREFERENCE – AND WE SHOULD DO THE SAME (vv21-26)
This is verses 21 to 26. But before you can get the point of those verses, you have to understand how Paul sees both life and death. So, v21:
21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (v21)
So how does he see life? Life ‘is Christ’. It’s all about Christ – all about honouring him and making him known in everything you do, in every circumstance you find yourself. That doesn’t mean talking about the Lord all the time – that’s not possible – and, often, not wise. But it does mean making it known you’re a Christian, looking for opportunities to talk about Christ (or to invite people to events where others can do the talking on your behalf), and living in such a way that, like that guy Dave, if someone said, ‘You Christians are really no different,’ you could say, ‘Watch me.’
That’s how Paul sees life. How does he see death? Well, v21 again:
‘to die is... gain.’ (v21)
Which our culture could never say. Our culture basically has a schizophrenic attitude to death, doesn’t it? On the one hand, it says, ‘Give me anything but death, any treatment that will delay death – even if it diminishes my quality of remaining life.’ So, eg, in his very old age, Groucho Marx was once asked what it was like to be ninety. And he said, ‘Better than the alternative.’ But on the other hand, our culture sees death as a relief – from pain and pointlessness – so that people comfort themselves in the face of death by saying, ‘Well, it was a mercy.’ But that of course depends on where the dead person is now.
The one thing our culture can never say is that death is gain – that the dead person hasn’t just lost pain or pointlessness, but has gained the best existence you can ever have. But that’s what a person saved by Christ can say. So Paul says in v23:
I desire to be depart [ie, die] and be with Christ, which is better by far. (v23)
Do we believe that?
My last boss, Mark Ashton, died last year in his early sixties. And he wrote a booklet called On my way to heaven which exemplifies this attitude to death. He writes:
I [went] into hospital to have a gallbladder removed. But... the surgeon found cancer... that was past surgical solution or radiotherapy. The oncologist estimated that I might have six to nine months to live. I said to the surgeon when he broke the news that what he’d just told me was, for a Christian, not bad news but good; it was not the end of the story but the beginning. (And I saw an imaginary speech bubble appear above his head saying, ‘This man is in total denial!’) (On my way to heaven, Mark Ashton)
But it’s what he says about the reactions of Christians that’s most challenging:
The resurrection plays a smaller part in contemporary gospel proclamation [than it did in the NT] – which may explain why, with a good few fellow-Christians... I’ve seen similar unspoken speech bubbles like the one... over the surgeon’s head... They find it hard to believe that the resurrection to eternal life is a prospect to be welcomed and, like the pagan world, they assume Christians should dread death and seek to extend life at all costs. (On my way to heaven, Mark Ashton)
Now of course he’s not denying the difficulty of the process of dying, or the sadness of parting and of those left behind. But death is gain if you are trusting in Christ.
And once you understand how Paul sees both life and death, you can get the point of these verses – which is that he puts the interests of Jesus above his personal preference. Look at v21 again:
21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me [of making Christ known and then building up those who come to faith]. Yet what shall I choose? [Just imagining for a moment that it’s his choice, rather than God’s.] I do not know! 23I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far [that’s his personal preference]; 24but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25Convinced of this, I know that I will remain [actually, that would be better translated ‘I expect to remain’ – he’s not making a prediction; he’s saying what he thinks is most likely], and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. (vv21-26)
So he’s saying, ‘My preference is to be out of here and with Christ in heaven. But your needs are more important than my preferences, so I’m expecting to stay around and keep investing in you, spiritually.’ And that’s putting the interests of Jesus above your personal preference.
So I was talking to someone the other day who said, ‘I wasn’t planning to go along to Christianity Explored this year – I’m over-busy as it is, really. But I went because a friend said they’d like to go but wouldn’t go on their own.’ That’s putting the interests of Jesus above your personal preference. And so is: getting to your Home Group or small group or the Summer Series over the coming weeks even when you don’t feel like it or feel you need it – because you’re committed to encouraging the others, you realise others need you to be there. And so is: giving up a week of your holiday that could have been rest and relaxation to do our Holiday Club or a Christian camp. And so is: giving money to gospel ministry in a way that actually impacts your standard of living or choices or savings.
Paul put the interests of Jesus above his personal preference – and we should do the same.
Third, PAUL STOOD FIRM FOR JESUS IN THE FACE OF OPPOSITION – AND WE SHOULD DO THE SAME (vv27-30)
Look down to v27:
27Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (v27)
Ie, ‘You live how I’ve been telling you I live – for the honour and interests of Jesus.’ Read on:
Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel 28without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. (vv27-28)
So Paul assumes that our witness to Jesus will always meet with some degree of opposition. In fact he says that’s part of being a Christian – look on to v29:
29For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have. (vv29-30)
So let’s not come away from this passage thinking that, if we do live the best, Christ-honouring lives we can, then our witness to others is just going to be one, long, triumphant breeze. It isn’t – because the gospel in three words is: ‘Jesus is Lord.’ And when you explain that to people, and that he should be in charge of their lives, it’s a challenge to their moral independence – which is likely to get a negative reaction. Equally, when you take a moral stand on the basis that Jesus is Lord, it is, similarly, an implicit challenge to people – and likely to get the same negative reaction. And as v28 says, we can easily end up ‘being frightened’; literally ‘intimidated’ into silence or conformity. But Paul says, v27, ‘Stand firm and contend’ – don’t change your ground; don’t just say or do nothing – because Jesus really is Lord: he really did live, die and rise again. He really is there. So you’re not just expressing your personal opinion – you’re standing on the truth – however much people around you may want to shout it down. And in v28 Paul talks about the effect of us standing like that:
28without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. (v28)
Now that sounds harsh. But remember: Paul was being persecuted to the point of death, and the Philippians were facing serious persecution, too. And in that situation, it’s not wrong to remind yourself that God will ultimately bring about justice. So v28 is saying: if we stand firm for Jesus now despite opposition, it’s a sign to anyone with eyes to see of who’s ultimately on the right and wrong side. I mentioned Mark Ashton earlier. He came to faith having been totally against what his Christian friends stood for. And he once said to me, ‘I used to wipe the floor with them in arguments. [And he was a formidable arguer!] But they’d always get up and stand on exactly the same ground again – Jesus and the Bible.’ And he said, ‘That made no sense to me, because as a non-Christian I knew that rule no.1 is that if you’re beaten in an argument, change your ground so you can win.’ But he said, ‘They never once change their ground – and it convicted me deeply that whereas I was just playing games, they’d found truth – that they were right and I was wrong.’ Which is v28 exactly.
So, to sum up:
• Paul wanted to honour Jesus, whatever happened to him.
• He put the interests of Jesus above his personal preference.
• And he stood firm for Jesus in the face of opposition.
And the message of this passage is that on all three counts we should do the same.
Basics for believers, Don Carson, IVP – the best thing you’ll find on Philippians: short, readable and highly applied.
On my way to heaven, Mark Ashton, 10Publishing – reflections on facing death with Christ