Finding Joy in Hard Places
I guess right off the bat, I need to apologize to regular listeners for announcing that we are going to examining the book of Colossians today. That’s next week. On my calendar, Colossians is scheduled for today, but we missed a week so we’re off schedule. Oops. Colossians and ‘The God Particle’ are NEXT week. Today, we’re going to survey Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
This letter is the most upbeat examination of hard topics anywhere in the Bible. Paul starts off addressing the fact that he’s in prison, then he moves on to false teachers. There are actually people preaching the Gospel with the intent of causing more problems for Paul.
In Chapter 2 he does an amazing job of transitioning to the doctrine of the Incarnation, aka the deity and humanity of Christ, which was coming under attack during the second half of the first century. We’re going to come back to that in just a few minutes.
Chapter 3 is Paul’s takedown of a group of legalists nicknamed, the Judaizers. They are focused on gentiles accepting the law of Moses including the act of circumcision. Paul, if you will pardon the obvious pun, eviscerates their argument about circumcision by using his own life as an example. Even in this hard, to the point chapter, Paul is able to make a positive point about how following Christ is worth every perceived sacrifice you can mention.
He finishes this little book in chapter 4 by asking two squabbling ladies to work it out, then he encourages the Church to find joy in every circumstance, then praises them for their generosity and challenges them to continue to be so.
It’s really an amazing letter. It is one of the most personal letters Paul wrote, at least that he wrote to a whole Church. While the Ephesian Church is one Paul had a deep relationship with, this Philippian one is deeply personal. You can almost feel Paul’s rapport dripping off every paragraph.
When you consider that it appears Paul didn’t get to spend a great deal of time in Philippi, and much of it was spent in conflict or in jail, the joyful nature of the letter becomes even more evident.
You can read all about the beginnings of the Church in Philippi over in Acts 16. Paul is on his second mission trip and is trying to go back to Asia Minor, but doors keep closing. Finally, while he’s on the coast, he has a vision of a man calling him over to Macedonia to preach the Good News in Europe.
Philippi is called an important city in Macedonia, and it certainly is prominent compared to the towns in Galatia, but is Hicksville compared to Corinth or Ephesus. Philippi’s big claim to fame is that it’s a military outpost. As such, there is a great deal of activity with soldiers coming and going. And there is a huge amount of trade. When I think of Philippi, I can’t help but think about Limestone, Maine where Brittan and I used to live. When Loring airforce base was active, it was a bustling town of several thousand and influenced nearby Caribou, as well. Since closure, the population and economy dwindled away. That’s kind of the history of Philippi. During Paul’s visit, it is a hive of activity.
Paul’s first foray into evangelism was with a group of women gathered by the river to pray. These are not secularists like he will encounter in Athens, rather these are devout God fearers who are gathered together to seek Him.
One of these ladies is Lydia, a successful business woman who traded in expensive fabrics. She believes the Gospel and is baptized right away. A short time later, she plays host to Paul and the evangelistic team.
From this positive beginning, things turn sour for Paul as he attracts the attention of a demon possessed fortune teller who follows him around trying to profit off the Apostle’s coattails. After several days of frustration, Paul gets angry and casts out the demon.
One would think that’s the kind of act that would see great results for the kingdom, but in reality, this becomes a case of no good deed goes unpunished. You see, this young lady brought in a tidy income for her owners and they suddenly find themselves without their cash cow, so they had Paul and Silas thrown in prison.
It is while in the local jail, that God produces another remarkable miracle. At about midnight, while Paul and Silas are praying and singing, the jail becomes the epicenter of a serious earthquake. The jail collapses and all the cells are thrown wide open. The jailer, assuming a jailbreak, does not want to face execution, so he prepares to fall on his own sword, but Paul stops him by assuring the soldier that all the prisoners are present and accounted for.
In his gratitude, the jailer falls on his knees and cries out, What must I do to be saved. I know it’s popular to think he’s repenting of his sins right there, but I think he’s more focused on his earthly life. Paul, however, takes that opportunity to present Christ to him and the darnedest thing happens.
Here is, 0 dark 30 and the jailer takes Paul home, washes their wounds and they all have a big baptismal service as the whole household responds to Jesus. After their baptism, they all have a hearty breakfast.
What an incredible story. Paul leaves town, probably the next day, but you can bet, the effects of his short visit lived on a long time.
We don’t read of any subsequent visits to Philippi, but whatever happened during those exciting days, made a deep impact on Paul and the new Christians and bonded them for life.
Later, while Paul is in prison again, this time courtesy of Nero in Rome, the Philippians send him a care package, which prompts Paul to write this amazing letter.
Sometime in the future, we’ll spend some time digging into the various subjects in Philippians, but today I just want to spend a few minutes in Chapter 2, because something Paul writes about Jesus is incredibly profound and, I believe is easily overlooked if we don’t park and look closely at it.
I’m going to read verses 4 – 11. If you are in a place to get out your Bible and follow along, I encourage you to do so. If not, please go back later and read it again. It’s powerful.
Php 2:4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Php 2:5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
Php 2:6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
Php 2:7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
Php 2:8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Php 2:9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
Php 2:10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
Php 2:11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Verse 6 says that Jesus was in very form God. He is Spirit. Form has to do with shape and substance. Before he is a baby growing in Mary’s womb, Jesus is spirit.
Verse 6 then has one of the most striking and sometimes controversial statements in, though He was in form, God, he didn’t count equality with God something to be grasped. Weird. Many people have read that and said it means Jesus isn’t God. See, we often think of ‘grasp’ as something to reach for, but this word means grasped as in, ‘to hold on to’. It is best read, ‘did not see equality with God something to be clung to. Wow, that’s beyond profound.
Go on, But emptied himself. That is an incredible statement. He divested himself of all those ‘Spirit’ qualities and exchanges things like omnipresence to be limited to the dimensions of time and space by becoming a man. In verse 7 he takes the form of a servand and is born in the likeness of man. The one who was the Word, the medium by which all the universe was created, becomes and ordinary, flesh and blood human. He is not a humanoid like Clark Kent, but in reality superman, Jesus has emptied himself of his superpowers and is totally man.
Paul continues by describing Jesus’ crucifixion and God’s exaltation of Him back to Heaven and giving Him His old authority back. One day, every knee will bow, in heaven, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the father.
BTW, the use of Lord is clearly a reference to Jesus as God, like in John 8.
The heart pounding truth in all this, is that when Jesus divested himself and took on flesh, in some sense he limited himself for all eternity. There is no mention of Him going back to His old ‘form’. Jesus, exalted and praised, loves us so much that he has nail scars for ever.
Do you get that? No wonder it’s the ‘Greatest story ever told’. It’s the greatest sacrifice ever made.
And here’s the kicker. The context of that doctrine, is back in verses 4 and 5 when Paul says, Let each of you look not to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.
Paul is saying that we should be willing to give up literally everything in our service to others, Just like Jesus gave up everything in His service for others. Are you there yet? Me neither, and it certainly sets the bar high, but there’s the target. Let’s go for it.
Next week we really are in Colossians, I promise. Until then; be blessed. And be a blessing.