Having set forth his life ambition to be more Christ-like, Paul does not hesitate to tell the Philippians to follow his example. He wants them to imitate him. Surely, he does not mean they should imitate every single area of his life, for he had just stated he is not sinlessly perfect. But in the matter of relentlessly pursuing after Christ-likeness, he does call on his readers to follow his own example.
Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body.
How strange in a letter filled with joy to find Paul weeping! Is he weeping over himself and his difficult situation? No, he is a man with a single mind and his circumstances do not discourage him. Is he weeping because of what some of the Roman Christians are doing to him? No, he has the submissive mind and will not permit people to rob him of his joy. These tears are not for himself at all; they are shed because of others. Because Paul has the spiritual mind, he is heartbroken over the way some professed Christians are living, people who “mind earthly things.”
Certainly, Paul is writing about professed Christians and not people outside the church. The Judaizers were the “enemies of the cross of Christ.” They were adding the Law of Moses to the work of redemption Christ had completed on the cross. Their obedience to the Old Testament laws (Col. 2:20–23) and their emphasis on circumcision amounted to glorying in the flesh, and for this they should have been ashamed (Gal. 6:12–15). These men were not spiritually minded; they were earthly minded. They were holding on to earthly rituals and beliefs, and were opposing the heavenly blessings the Christian has in Christ (Eph. 1:3; 2:6; Col. 3:1–3).
The word “spiritual” has suffered as much abuse as the word “fellowship.” Too many people think a “spiritual Christian” is mystical, dreamy, impractical, and distant. When he prays, he shifts his voice into a sepulchral tone and goes to great lengths to inform God of the things He already knows. This kind of insincere piety is a poor example of true spirituality. To be spiritually minded does not require one to be impractical and mystical. Quite the contrary, the spiritual mind makes the believer think more clearly and get things done more efficiently.
To be “spiritually minded” simply means to look at earth from heaven’s point of view: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Col. 3:2). D.L. Moody used to scold Christians for being “so heavenly minded they were no earthly good” and that exhortation still needs to be heeded. Christians have a dual citizenship—on earth and in heaven—and our citizenship in heaven ought to make us better people here on earth. The spiritually minded believer is not attracted by the “things” of this world. He makes his decisions on the basis of eternal values and not the passing fads of society. Lot chose the well-watered plain of Jordan because his values were worldly and ultimately he lost everything. Moses refused the pleasures and treasures of Egypt because he had something infinitely more wonderful to live for (Heb. 11:24–26). “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk. 8:36)
“Our citizenship is in heaven” (3:20). The Greek word translated “citizenship” is the word from which we get our English word “politics.” It has to do with one’s behavior as a citizen of a nation. Just as Philippi was a colony of Rome on foreign soil, so the church is a “colony of heaven” on earth. Paul is encouraging us to have the spiritual mind and he does this by pointing out five characteristics of the Christian whose citizenship is in heaven.
His Name is on Heaven’s Record
Citizenship is important. When you travel to another country, it is essential you have a passport that proves your citizenship. When a lost sinner trusts Christ and becomes a citizen of heaven, his name is written in “the Book of Life” (Phil. 4:3), and this is what determines his final entrance into the heavenly country (Rev. 20:15).
When you confess Christ on earth, He confesses your name in heaven (Matt. 10:32–33). You will enter glory on His merits and intercession alone. Your name is written down in heaven (Lk. 10:20) and it stands written forever.
He Speaks Heaven’s Language
Those who “mind earthly things” talk about earthly things. What comes out of the mouth reveals what is in the heart: “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him” (Matt. 12:34–37). The citizens of heaven understand spiritual things and enjoy discussing them and sharing them with one another.
On the contrary, the unsaved person does not understand the things of God’s Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14–16), so how can he talk about them intelligently? “They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 Jn. 4:5-6).
Speaking heaven’s language not only involves what we say, but the way we say it. The spiritually minded Christian does not go around quoting Bible verses all day! He is careful to speak in a manner that glorifies God: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Col. 4:6). No believer ought to ever say, “Now, take this with a grain of salt!” Put the salt into your speech! Salt prevents corruption. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29).
He Obeys Heaven’s Laws
The citizens of Philippi were governed by Roman law, not Greek law, even though they were located hundreds of miles away from Rome. In fact, it was this policy that put Paul into jail when he first visited Philippi (Acts 16:16–24). Paul himself used his Roman citizenship to guarantee his protection under Roman law (Acts 16:35–40; 21:33–40; 22:24–30).
Paul warns the Philippian believers against imitating the wrong kind of citizens: “Join together in following my example” (3:17). Paul was a follower of Christ, so his admonition is not egotistical! (1 Cor. 11:1) Paul knew himself to be an “alien” in this world, a “pilgrim and a stranger” (1 Pet. 2:11). His life was governed by heaven’s laws and this is what made him different. He was concerned about others, not himself. He was interested in giving, not getting. His motive was love (2 Cor. 5:14), not hatred. By faith, Paul obeyed the Word of God, knowing one day he would be rewarded. Men would oppose him and persecute him now, but in that final day of reckoning, he would be the winner (Let’s Win the Race).
Sad to say, there are those today, like the Judaizers in Paul’s day, who profess to be citizens of heaven, but whose lives do not show it. They may be zealous in their religious activities and even rigorous in their disciplines, but there is no evidence of the control of the Holy Spirit in their lives. All they do is energized by the flesh and they get all the glory. It is bad enough they are going astray, but they also lead other people astray. No wonder Paul wept over them!
He Is Loyal to Heaven’s Cause
The Cross of Jesus Christ is the theme of the Bible, the heart of the Gospel, and the chief source of praise in heaven (Rev. 5:8–10). The Cross is the proof of God’s love for sinners (Rom. 5:8) and hatred for sin. The Cross condemns what the world values. It judges mankind and pronounces the true verdict: Guilty!
In what sense were the Judaizers the “enemies of the Cross of Christ” (3:18)? For one thing, the Cross ended the Old Testament religion. When the veil of the temple was torn in two, God was announcing the way to Him was open through Christ (Heb. 10:19–25). When Jesus shouted, “It is finished!” He made the atoning sacrifice for our sins and ended the whole sacrificial system (Heb. 10:1–14). By His death and resurrection, Jesus accomplished a “spiritual circumcision” that made ritual circumcision unnecessary (Col. 2:10–13). Everything the Judaizers advocated had been eliminated by the death of Christ on the cross!
Furthermore, everything they lived for was condemned by the Cross. Jesus had broken down the wall that stood between Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:14–16), but they were rebuilding that wall! They were obeying “carnal ordinances” (Heb. 9:10), regulations that appealed to the flesh and were not directed by the Spirit. They were minding “earthly things.” But the true believer crucifies the flesh (Gal. 5:24). He also crucifies the world (Gal. 6:14). It is the Cross that is central in the life of the believer. He does not glory in men, religion, or his own achievements; he glories in the Cross of Christ (Gal. 6:14).
Paul weeps because he knows the future of these men: “whose end is destruction” (3:19). The word destruction carries with it the idea of waste and lostness. (It is translated “waste” in Mk. 14:4.) Judas is called “the son of perdition [destruction]” (Jn. 17:12). In contrast, the true child of God, whose citizenship is in heaven, has a bright future.
He is Looking for Heaven’s Lord
The Judaizers were living in the past tense, trying to get the Philippian believers to go back to Moses and the Law; but true Christians live in the future tense, anticipating the return of their Savior. As the accountant in Philippians 3:1–11, Paul discovered new values (Learning How to Count). As the athlete in Philippians 3:12–16, he displayed new vigor (Let’s Win the Race). Now, as the alien in 3:17-21, he experiences a new vision: “We look for the Savior!” It is this anticipation of the coming of Christ that motivates the believer with the spiritual mind.
There is tremendous energy in the present power of a future hope. Because Abraham looked for a city, he was content to live in a tent (Heb. 11:13–16). Because Moses looked for the rewards of heaven, he was willing to forsake the treasures of earth (Heb. 11:24–26). Because of the “joy that was set before Him” (Heb. 12:2), Jesus was willing to endure the cross. The fact that Jesus Christ is returning is a powerful motive for dedicated living and devoted service today. “All who have this hope in Him purify themselves, just as He is pure” (1 Jn. 2:28–3:3).
The citizen of heaven, living on earth, is never discouraged because he knows his Lord is one day going to return. He faithfully keeps on doing his job lest his Lord returns and finds him disobedient (Lk. 12:40–48). The spiritually minded believer does not live for the things of this world; he anticipates the blessings of the world to come. This does not mean he ignores or neglects his daily obligations; but it does mean what he does today is governed by what Christ will do in the future.
Paul also mentions the believer will receive a glorified body, like the body of Christ. Today, we live in a “body of humiliation” (translated “vile” or “lowly” in 3:21); but when we see Christ, we will receive a body of glory. It will happen in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye! (1 Cor. 15:42–53) At that moment, all the things of this world will be worthless to us—just as they ought to be, relatively, today! If we are living in the future tense, then we will be exercising the spiritual mind and living for the things that really matter.
Isn’t that our problem today? We do not arrange “things” in their proper order. Our values are twisted. Consequently, our vigor is wasted on useless activities and our vision is clouded, so that the return of Christ is not a real motivating power in our lives. Living in the future tense means letting Christ arrange the “things” in life according to the proper rank. It means living “with eternity’s values in view,” and daring to believe God’s promise that “whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 Jn. 2:17).
When Jesus returns, He will “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body” (3:21). All Christians will receive glorified bodies like His. No more will they have the limitations they now experience in their “lowly” bodies, which are humbled by disease and sin. Their resurrected bodies will be like Christ’s and their sanctification will be completed. What a marvelous day that will be for those who know Christ!
All of us want to be “winning Christians” and fulfill the purposes for which we have been saved. In this passage, we find there are five essentials for winning the race and one day receiving the reward that is promised. In Part 1, we saw the first two essentials. Now, we will look at the last three.
Forgetting what lies behind and straining toward what lies ahead.
The unsaved person is controlled by the past, but the Christian running the race looks toward the future. Imagine what would happen on the race course if the charioteers (or runners) started looking behind them! It is bad enough for a plowman to look back (Lk. 9:62), but for a charioteer to do so means a possible collision and serious injury.
We are accustomed to saying “past, present, future,” but we should view time as flowing from the future into the present and then into the past. The believer should be future-oriented, “forgetting what lies behind.” Keep in mind that in Bible terminology, “to forget” does not mean “to fail to remember.” Apart from senility, hypnosis, or a brain malfunction, no mature person can forget what has happened in the past. We may wish that we could erase certain bad memories, but we cannot. “To forget” in the Bible means “to no longer be influenced or affected by.” When God promises, “Their sins and iniquities I will remember no more” (Heb. 10:17), He is not suggesting He will conveniently have a bad memory! This is impossible with God. What God is saying is, “I will no longer hold their sins against them. Their sins can no longer affect their standing with Me or influence My attitude toward them.”
“Forgetting what lies behind” does not suggest an impossible feat of mental and psychological gymnastics by which we try to erase the sins and mistakes of the past (Consequences). It simply means we break the power of the past by living for the future. We cannot change the past, but we can change the meaning of the past. There were things in Paul’s past that could have been weights to hold him back (1 Tim. 1:12–17), but they became inspirations to speed him ahead. The events did not change, but his understanding of them changed.
A good example of this principle is Joseph (Gen. 45:1–15). When he met his brothers the second time and revealed himself to them, he held no grudge against them. They had mistreated him, but he saw the past from God’s point of view. As a result, he was unable to hold anything against his brothers. Joseph knew God had a plan for his life—a race for him to run—and in fulfilling that plan and looking ahead, he broke the power of the past.
Too many Christians are shackled by regrets of the past. They are trying to run the race by looking backward! No wonder they stumble and fall and get in the way of other Christians! Some Christian runners are being distracted by the successes of the past, not the failures; and this is just as bad. “The things which are behind” must be set aside and “the things which are before” must take their place.
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
“I press!” carries the idea of intense endeavor. The Greeks used it to describe a hunter eagerly pursuing his prey. A man does not become a winning athlete by listening to lectures, watching movies, reading books, or cheering at the games. He becomes a winning athlete by getting into the game and determining to win! The same zeal Paul employed when he persecuted the church (Phil. 3:6), he displayed in serving Christ. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Christians put as much determination into their spiritual life as they do their golfing, fishing, or watching TV?
There are two extremes to avoid here: (1) “I must do it all” and (2) “God must do it all!” The first describes the activist, the second the quietist, and both are heading for failure. “Let go and let God!” is a clever slogan, but it does not fully describe the process of Christian living. What quarterback would say to his team, “OK, men, just let go and let the coach do it all!” On the other hand, no quarterback would say, “Listen to me and forget what the coach says!” Both extremes are wrong.
The Christian runner with the spiritual mind realizes God must work in him if he is going to win the race (Phil. 2:12–13). “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). God works in us, so He might work through us. As we apply ourselves to the things of the spiritual life, God is able to mature and strengthen us for the race. “Train yourself to be godly!” (1 Tim. 4:7–8) Some Christians are so busy “dying to self” that they never come back to life again to run the race! Others are so sure they can make it on their own that they never stop to read the Word, pray, or ask for the power of the Lord.
Toward what goal is the runner pressing with such spiritual determination? “The prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:14). When he reaches the goal he will receive the reward! Again, Paul is not suggesting we attain heaven by our own efforts. He is simply saying just as the athlete is rewarded for his performance, so the faithful believer will be crowned when Jesus Christ returns. (See 1 Cor. 9:24–27 for a parallel.) The important thing is that we reach the goal He has established for us. No matter how successful we may be in the eyes of men, we cannot be rewarded unless we “take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of [us]” (Phil. 3:12).
All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.
It is not enough to run hard and win the race; the runner must also obey the rules. In the Greek games, the judges were very strict about this. Any infringement of the rules disqualified the athlete. He did not lose his citizenship (though he disgraced it), but he did lose his privilege to participate and win a prize. In these verses, Paul emphasizes the importance of the Christian remembering the “spiritual rules” laid down in the Word. No doubt the greatest need among God’s people is to live up to what they already have in Christ. Most live far below their exalted position in Christ. Paul’s plea to the Philippians was that they “live up to what they had already attained,” namely a righteous position in Christ.
One of the greatest athletes ever to come out of the United States was Jim Thorpe. At the 1912 Olympics at Stockholm, he won the pentathlon and the decathlon, and was undoubtedly the hero of the games. But the next year officials found that Thorpe had played semiprofessional baseball and therefore had forfeited his amateur standing. This meant he had to return his gold medals and his trophy, and his Olympic achievements were erased from the records. It was a high price to pay for breaking the rules. (Thorpe’s medals were reinstated in 1985 by the Olympic Committee.)
This is what Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 9:24–27. Any man who enters an athletic contest practices rigid self-control in training. If the athlete breaks training, he is disqualified; if he breaks the rules of the game, he is disqualified. “No athlete in the games is crowned, unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Tim. 2:5). The issue is not what he thinks or what the spectators think, but what the judges say. One day, each Christian will stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ (Rom. 14:10–12). The Greek word for “judgment seat” is bema, the very same word used to describe the place where the Olympic judges gave out the prizes! If we have disciplined ourselves to obey the rules, we will receive a prize.
Bible history is filled with people who began the race with great success, but failed at the end because they disregarded God’s rules. They did not lose their salvation, but they did lose their rewards (1 Cor. 3:15). It happened to Lot (Gen. 19), Samson (Jud. 16), Saul (1 Sam. 28; 31), and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5).
And it can happen to us! It is an exciting experience to run the race daily, “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 12:1–2). It will be even more exciting when we experience that “upward calling” and Jesus returns to take us to heaven! Then, we will stand before the bema to receive our rewards! It is this future prospect that motivated Paul, and it can also motivate us.
Most people read biographies to satisfy their curiosity about great people, hoping they will discover the “secret” that made them great. In Philippians 3, Paul is giving us his spiritual biography: his past (vv. 1–11), his present (vv. 12–16), and his future (vv. 17–21). We have already met Paul “the accountant” who discovered new values when he met Jesus Christ (Learning How to Count). In this section, we meet Paul “the athlete” with his spiritual vigor, pressing toward the finish line in the Christian race. In each of these experiences, Paul is exercising the spiritual mind; he is looking at things on earth from God’s point of view. As a result, he is not upset by things behind him, around him, or before him—things do not rob him of his joy!
The Greek verb “straining toward” in 3:13 literally means “stretching as in a race.” Theologians are not agreed as to the exact sport Paul is describing, whether the footrace or the chariot race. Either one will do, but my own preference is the chariot race. The Greek chariot, used in the Olympic Games and other events, was really a small platform with a wheel on each side. The driver had very little to hold on to as he raced around the course. He had to lean forward and strain every nerve and muscle to maintain balance and control the horses.
As children of God, we have the responsibility of “running the race” and achieving the goals God has set for us: “Work out your salvation … for it is God who works in you” (The Ins and Outs of Christian Living, Phil. 2:12–13). Each believer is on the track, each has a special lane in which to run, and each has a goal to achieve. If we reach the goal the way God has planned, then we receive a reward. If we fail, we lose the reward, but we do not lose our citizenship in heaven. (Read 1 Cor. 3:11–15 for the same idea, only using architecture as the symbol.)
All of us want to be “winning Christians” and fulfill the purposes for which we have been saved. In this passage, there are five essentials for winning the race and one day receiving the reward that is promised.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.
“Not that I have already obtained!” This is the statement of a great Christian who never permitted himself to be satisfied with his spiritual attainments. Obviously, Paul was satisfied with Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:10), but he was not satisfied with his Christian life. A sanctified dissatisfaction is the first essential to progress in the Christian race.
Harry came out of the manager’s office with a look on his face dismal enough to wilt the roses on the secretary’s desk.
“You didn’t get fired, did you?” she asked.
“No, it’s not that bad. But he sure did lay into me about my sales record. I can’t figure it out; for the past month, I’ve been bringing in plenty of orders. I thought he’d compliment me, but instead he told me to get with it.”
Later in the day, the secretary talked to her boss about Harry. The boss chuckled. “Harry is one of our best salesmen and I’d hate to lose him. But he has a tendency to rest on his laurels and be satisfied with his performance. If I didn’t get him mad at me once a month, he’d never produce!”
Many Christians are self-satisfied because they compare their “running” with that of other Christians, usually those who are not making much progress. Had Paul compared himself with others, he would have been tempted to be proud and perhaps to let up a bit. After all, there were not too many believers in Paul’s day who had experienced all that he had! But Paul did not compare himself with others; he compared himself with himself and with Jesus Christ! The dual use of the word “perfect” in 3:12 and 3:15 explains Paul’s thinking. He has not arrived yet at perfection (3:12), but he is “perfect” [mature] (3:15), and one mark of this maturity is the knowledge that he is not perfect! The mature Christian honestly evaluates himself and strives to do better.
Often, in the Bible, we are warned against a false estimate of our spiritual condition. The church at Sardis had “a name of being alive, but was dead” (Rev. 3:1). They had reputation without reality. The church at Laodicea boasted that it was rich, when in God’s sight it was “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17). In contrast to the Laodicean church, the believers at Smyrna thought they were poor when they were really rich! (Rev. 2:9) Samson thought he still had his old power, but in reality it had departed from him (Jud. 16:20).
Self-evaluation can be a dangerous thing because we can err in two directions: (1) making ourselves better than we really are, or (2) making ourselves worse than we really are. Paul had no illusions about himself; he still had to keep “pressing forward” in order to “lay hold of that for which Christ laid hold” of him. A divine dissatisfaction is essential for spiritual progress.
But one thing I do:
“One thing” is a phrase that is important to the Christian life. “One thing you lack,” said Jesus to the self-righteous rich young ruler (Mk. 10:21). “One thing is needed,” He explained to busy Martha when she criticized her sister (Lk. 10:42). “One thing I know!” exclaimed the man who had received his sight by the power of Christ (Jn. 9:25). “One thing I ask from the Lord” testified the psalmist (Ps. 27:4). Too many Christians are involved in too “many things,” when the secret of progress is to concentrate on “one thing.” It was this decision that was a turning point in D.L. Moody’s life. Before the tragedy of the Chicago fire in 1871, Moody was involved in Sunday School promotion, Y.M.C.A. work, evangelistic meetings, and many other activities; but after the fire, he determined to devote himself exclusively to evangelism. “This one thing I do!” became a reality to him. As a result, millions of people heard the Gospel.
The believer must devote himself to “running the Christian race.” No athlete succeeds by doing everything; he succeeds by specializing. There are those few athletes who seem proficient in many sports, but they are the exception. The winners are those who concentrate, who keep their eyes on the goal, and let nothing distract them. They are devoted entirely to their calling. Like Nehemiah the wall-building governor, they reply to the distracting invitations, “I am doing a great work and cannot come down!” (Neh. 6:3) “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways” (Jas. 1:8). Concentration is the secret of power. If a river is allowed to overflow its banks, the area around it becomes a swamp. But if that river is dammed and controlled, it becomes a source of power. It is wholly a matter of values and priorities, living for that which matters most.
In Part 2, we will look at three more essentials for winning the race and receiving the reward that is promised.
In Part 1, we saw the “things” Paul was living for before he knew Christ neither satisfied him nor gave him acceptance with God. He had to lose his “religion” to find salvation. He explains in this section there are only two kinds of righteousness—works righteousness and faith righteousness—and only faith righteousness is acceptable to God. Let’s take a closer look.
Faith Righteousness (Phil. 3:7–11)
When Paul met Jesus Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9), he trusted Him and became a child of God. It was an instantaneous miracle of the grace of God, the kind that still takes place today whenever sinners will admit their need and turn to the Savior by faith. When Paul met Christ, he realized how futile his good works were and how sinful his claims of righteousness were. A wonderful transaction took place. Paul lost some things, but he gained much more than he lost!
1. Paul’s losses (v. 7)
But whatever were gains to me, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.
He lost whatever was gain to him personally apart from God. Certainly, Paul had a great reputation as a scholar (Acts 26:24) and a religious leader. He was proud of his Jewish heritage and his religious achievements. All of these things were valuable to him; he could profit from them. He certainly had many friends who admired his zeal. But he measured these treasures against what Jesus Christ had to offer, and he realized all he held dear was really nothing but “rubbish” compared to what he had in Christ. His own earthly treasures brought glory to him personally, but they did not bring glory to God. They were gain to him only, and as such, were selfish.
This does not mean Paul discredited his rich heritage as an orthodox Jew. As you read his letters and follow his ministry in the Book of Acts, you see how he valued both his Jewish blood and his Roman citizenship. Becoming a Christian did not make him less a Jew. In fact, it made him a completed Jew, a true child of Abraham both spiritually and physically (Gal. 3:6–9). Nor did he lower his standards of morality because he saw the shallowness of pharisaical religion. He accepted the higher standard of living—conformity to Jesus Christ (Rom. 12:1–2). When a person becomes a Christian, God takes away the bad, but He also takes the good and makes it better.
2. Paul’s gains (vv. 8–11)
More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Again, we are reminded of Jim Elliot’s words: “He is no fool to give what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” This is what Paul experienced: he lost his religion and his reputation, but gained far more than he lost.
The knowledge of Christ (v. 8). This means much more than knowledge about Christ because Paul had that kind of historical information before he was saved. To “know Christ” means to have a personal relationship with Him through faith. It is this experience that Jesus mentions in John 17:3, “Now this is eternal life: that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” You and I know about many people, even people who lived centuries ago, but we know personally very few. “Christianity is Christ.” Salvation is knowing Him in a personal way.
The righteousness of Christ (v. 9). Righteousness was the great goal of Paul’s life when he was a Pharisee, but it was a self-righteousness, a works righteousness, that he never really could attain. But when Paul trusted Christ, he lost his own self-righteousness and gained the righteousness of Christ. The technical word for this transaction is imputation (Rom. 4:1–8). It means “to put to one’s account.” Paul looked at his own record and discovered he was spiritually bankrupt. He looked at Christ’s record and saw He was perfect. When Paul trusted Christ, he saw God put Christ’s righteousness to his own account! More than that, Paul discovered his sins had been put on Christ’s account on the cross (2 Cor. 5:21). God promised Paul that He would never write his sins against him anymore. What a fantastic experience of God’s grace!
Romans 9:30–10:13 is a parallel passage and we ought to read it carefully. What Paul says about the nation Israel was true in his own life before he was saved. It is true in the lives of many religious people today too; they refuse to abandon their own righteousness, so they might receive the free gift of the righteousness of Christ. Many religious people will not even admit they need any righteousness. Like Saul of Tarsus, they are measuring themselves by themselves, or by the standards of the Ten Commandments, and they fail to see the inwardness of sin. Paul had to give up his religion to receive righteousness, but he did not consider it a sacrifice.
The fellowship of Christ (vv. 10–11). When he became a Christian, it was not the end for Paul, but the beginning. His experience with Christ was so tremendous that it transformed his life and this experience continued in the years to follow. It was a personal experience as Paul walked with Christ, prayed, obeyed His will, and sought to glorify His name. When he was living under the Law, all Paul had was a set of rules. But now he had a Friend, a Master, a constant Companion! It was also a powerful experience as the resurrection power of Christ went to work in Paul’s life. “Christ lives in me!” (Gal. 2:20). Read Ephesians 1:15–23 and 3:13–21 for Paul’s estimate of the resurrection power of Christ and what it can do in your life today.
It was also a painful experience (“the fellowship of His sufferings”). Paul knew it was a privilege to suffer for Christ (Phil. 1:29–30). In fact, suffering had been a part of his experience from the very beginning (Acts 9:16). As we grow in our knowledge of Christ and our experience of His power, we come under the attack of the enemy. Paul had been a persecutor at one time, but he learned what it means to be persecuted. And it was worth it! For walking with Christ was also a practical experience (“becoming like Him in his death”). Paul lived for Christ because he died to self (Rom. 6); he took up his cross daily and followed Him. The result of this death was a spiritual resurrection (3:11) that caused Paul to walk “in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Paul summarizes this whole experience in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
Yes, Paul gained far more than he lost. In fact, the gains were so thrilling that Paul considered all other “things” nothing but rubbish in comparison! No wonder he had joy—his life did not depend on the cheap “things” of the world, but on the eternal values found in Christ. Paul had the “spiritual mind” and looked at the “things” of earth from heaven’s point of view. People who live for “things” are never really happy because they must constantly protect their treasures and worry lest they lose their value. Not so with the believer who has the spiritual mind; his treasures in Christ can never be stolen and they never lose their value.
Maybe now is a good time for you to become an accountant and evaluate in your life the “things” that matter most to you.
Circumstances and people can rob us of joy, but so can things; and it is this “thief” that Paul deals with in Philippians 3. It is easy for us to get wrapped up in “things,” not only the tangible things we can see, but also the intangibles; such as, reputation, fame, and achievement. Jesus warns us that our lives do not consist in the abundance of things we possess (Lk. 12:15). Quantity is no assurance of quality. Many people who have the things money can buy have lost the things money cannot buy. We can be snared by both tangibles and intangibles, and as a result lose our joy.
The key word in Philippians 3:1–11 is count (vv. 7–8). It means to evaluate and assess. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. Yet, few people sit down to weigh seriously the values that control their decisions and directions. Many people are slaves of “things” and as a result do not experience real Christian joy.
In Paul’s case, the “things” he was living for before he knew Christ seemed to be very commendable: a righteous life, obedience to the Law, and the defense of the religion of his fathers. But none of these things satisfied him or gave him acceptance with God.
Like most “religious” people today, Paul had enough morality to keep him out of trouble, but not enough righteousness to get him into heaven! It was not bad things that kept Paul away from Jesus—it was good things! He had to lose his “religion” to find salvation.
One day, Saul of Tarsus, the rabbi, met Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and on that day Saul’s values changed (Acts 9:1–31). When Saul (now Paul) opened his books to evaluate his wealth, he discovered that apart from Jesus Christ, everything he lived for was rubbish. He explains in this section there are only two kinds of righteousness (or spiritual wealth)—works righteousness and faith righteousness—and only faith righteousness is acceptable to God.
Works Righteousness (Phil. 3:1–6)
1. The exhortation (vv. 1–3)
Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things ‘again’ is no trouble to me and it is a safeguard for you. Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; for we are the ‘true’ circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.
Paul has warned the believers at Philippi before, but now he warns them again. To whom is he referring in this warning? Paul is referring to a group of false teachers called “Judaizers”. He uses three terms to describe them.
Dogs. The orthodox Jew would call the Gentile a “dog,” but here Paul calls orthodox Jews “dogs”! These Judaizers snapped at Paul’s heels and followed him from place to place “barking” their false doctrines. They were troublemakers and carriers of dangerous infection.
Evil workers. These men taught the sinner was saved by faith plus good works, especially the works of the Law. But Ephesians 2:8–10 and Titus 3:3–7 make it clear that nobody can be saved by doing good works, even religious works. A Christian’s good works are the result of his faith, not the basis for his salvation.
The false circumcision. The Judaizers taught circumcision was essential to salvation (Acts 15:1; Gal. 6:12–18), but Paul states circumcision of itself is only a mutilation! The true Christian has experienced a spiritual circumcision in Christ (Col. 2:11) and does not need any fleshly operations. Circumcision, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, tithing, or any other religious practice cannot save a person from his sins. Only faith in Jesus Christ can do that.
In contrast to these false Christians, Paul describes true Christians, the “true circumcision” (see Rom. 2:25–29 for a parallel).
He worships God in the Spirit. He does not depend on his own good works which are only of the flesh (Jn. 4:19–24).
He glories (boasts) in Jesus Christ. People who depend on religion are usually boasting about what they have done. The true Christian has nothing of which to boast (Eph. 2:8–10). His boast is only in Christ! In Luke 18:9–14, Jesus gives a parable that describes these two opposite attitudes.
He has no confidence in the flesh. The popular religious philosophy of today is, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” It was also popular in Paul’s day, but it is just as wrong today as it was then. By “the flesh,” Paul means “the old nature” that we received at birth. The Bible has nothing good to say about “flesh,” and yet most people depend entirely on what they themselves can do to please God. Flesh only corrupts God’s way on earth (Gen. 6:12). It profits nothing as far as spiritual life is concerned (Jn. 6:63). It has nothing good in it (Rom. 7:18). No wonder we should put no confidence in the flesh!
A lady was arguing with her pastor about this matter of faith and works. “I think that getting to heaven is like rowing a boat,” she said. “One oar is faith and the other is works. If you use both, you get there. If you use only one, you go around in circles.”
‘’There is only one thing wrong with your illustration,” replied the pastor. “Nobody is going to heaven in a rowboat!”
2. The example (vv. 4–6)
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, blameless.
Paul was not speaking from an ivory tower; he personally knew the futility of trying to attain salvation by means of good works. As a young student, he had sat at the feet of Gamaliel, the great rabbi (Acts 22:3). His career as a Jewish religious leader was a promising one (Gal. 1:13–14) and yet Paul gave it all up—to become a hated member of the “Christian sect” and a preacher of the Gospel! Actually, the Judaizers were compromising in order to avoid persecution (Gal. 6:12–13), while Paul was being true to Christ’s message of grace and as a result was suffering persecution. In this intensely autobiographical section, Paul examines his own life. He becomes an “auditor” who opens the books to see what wealth he has and he discovers that he is bankrupt!
At this point we might ask: “How could a sincere man like Saul of Tarsus (Paul) be so wrong?” The answer is: he was using the wrong measuring stick! Like the rich young ruler (Mk. 10:17–22) and the Pharisee in Christ’s parable (Lk. 18:10–14), Saul of Tarsus was looking at the outside and not the inside. He was comparing himself with standards set by men, not by God. As far as obeying outwardly the demands of the Law, he was a success, but he did not stop to consider the inward sins he was committing. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes it clear there are sinful attitudes and appetites as well as sinful actions (Matt. 5:21–48).
When he looked at himself or looked at others, Saul of Tarsus considered himself to be righteous. But one day he saw himself as compared with Jesus Christ! It was then that he changed his evaluations and values, and abandoned “works righteousness” for the righteousness of Jesus Christ. In Part 2, we will take a closer look at this “faith righteousness” in verses 7-11.
As we continue our study in Philippians, Paul is still discussing the submissive mind. He gives us a description of the submissive mind in the example of Jesus Christ (The Great Example, Phil. 2:1–11). He explains the dynamics of the submissive mind in his own experience (The Ins and Outs of Christian Living, Phil. 2:12–18). Now, he introduces us to two of his helpers in the ministry, Timothy and Epaphroditus. He knows that his readers will be prone to say, “It is impossible for us to follow such examples as Christ and Paul! After all, Jesus is the very Son of God and Paul is a chosen apostle who has had great spiritual experiences!” For this reason, Paul introduces us to two “ordinary saints,” men who were not apostles or spectacular miracle workers. He wants us to know the submissive mind is not a luxury enjoyed by a chosen few; it is a necessity for Christian joy and an opportunity for all believers.
Paul probably met Timothy on his first missionary journey (Acts 14:6), at which time, perhaps, the youth was converted (1 Cor. 4:17). Apparently, Timothy’s mother and grandmother had been converted first (2 Tim. 1:3–5). He was the son of a Jewish mother and Gentile father, but Paul always considered the young man his own “dearly beloved son” in the faith (2 Tim. 1:2). When Paul returned to Derbe and Lystra while on his second missionary journey, he enlisted young Timothy as one of his fellow laborers (Acts 16:1–4). In one sense, Timothy replaced John Mark, whom Paul had refused to take along on the journey because of Mark’s previous abandonment of the cause (Acts 13:13; 15:36–41).
In Timothy’s experience, we learn the submissive mind is not something that suddenly, automatically appears in the life of the believer. Timothy had to develop and cultivate the “mind of Christ.” It was not natural for him to be a servant; but, as he walked with the Lord and worked with Paul, he became the kind of servant that Paul could trust and God could bless. Notice the characteristics of this young man.
1. He had a servant’s mind (vv. 19–21)
But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, so that I also may be encouraged when I learn of your condition. For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus.
To begin with, Timothy naturally cared for people and was concerned about their needs. He was not interested in “winning friends and influencing people”; he was genuinely interested in their physical and spiritual welfare. Paul was concerned about the church at Philippi, and wanted to send someone to convey his concern and get the facts. There were certainly hundreds of Christians in Rome (Paul greets twenty-six of them by name in Rom. 16); yet not one of them was available to make the trip! “All seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus” (v. 21). In a very real sense, all of us live either in Philippians 1:21 or 2:21!
But Timothy had a natural concern for the welfare of others; he had a servant’s mind. It is too bad the believers in Rome were so engrossed in themselves and their own internal arguments (Phil. 1:15–16) that they had no time for the important work of the Lord. This is one of the tragedies of church problems; they divert time, energy, and concern away from the things that matter most. Timothy was not interested in promoting any party or supporting any divisive cause. He was interested only in the spiritual condition of God’s people and this concern was natural to him. How did this concern develop? The answer is in the next characteristic of this remarkable young man.
2. He had a servant’s training (v. 22)
But you know of his proven worth, that he served with me in the furtherance of the gospel like a child serving his father.
Paul did not add Timothy to his “team” the very day the boy was saved. Paul was too wise to make an error like that. He left him behind to become a part of the church fellowship in Derbe and Lystra, and it was in that fellowship that Timothy grew in spiritual matters and learned how to serve the Lord. When Paul returned to the area a few years later, he was happy to discover that young Timothy “was well spoken of by the brethren” (Acts 16:2). Years later, Paul would write to Timothy about the importance of permitting new converts to grow before thrusting them into important places of ministry (1 Tim. 3:6–7).
A popular local nightclub performer visited a pastor, and announced he had been saved and wanted to serve the Lord. “What should I do next?” he asked.
“Well, I’d suggest you unite with a good church and start growing,” the pastor replied. “Is your wife a Christian?”
“No, she isn’t,” the musician replied. “I hope to win her. But, do I have to wait? I mean, I’d like to do something for God right now.”
“No, you don’t have to wait to witness for the Lord,” explained the pastor. “Get busy in a church, and use your talents for Christ.”
“But you don’t know who I am!” the man protested. “I’m a big performer—everybody knows me. I want to start my own organization, make records, and appear before big crowds!”
“If you go too far too fast,” warned the pastor, “you may hurt yourself and your testimony. The place to start winning people is right at home. God will open up places of service for you as He sees you are ready. Meanwhile, study the Bible and give yourself a chance to grow.”
The man did not take the pastor’s counsel. Instead, he set up a big organization and started out on his own. His “success” lasted less than a year. Not only did he lose his testimony because he was not strong enough to carry the heavy burdens, but his constant traveling alienated him from his wife and family. He drifted into a “fringe group” and disappeared from public ministry, a broken and bankrupt man.
“His branches went out farther than his roots went deep,” the pastor said. “When that happens, you eventually topple.”
Paul did not make this mistake with Timothy. He gave him time to get his roots down and then he enlisted the young man to work with him on his missionary tours. He taught Timothy the Word and permitted him to watch the apostle in his ministry (2 Tim. 3:10–17). This was the way Jesus trained His disciples. He gave personal instruction balanced by on-the-job experience. Experience without teaching can lead to discouragement, and teaching without experience can lead to spiritual deadness. It takes both.
3. He had a servant’s reward (vv. 23–24)
Therefore, I hope to send him immediately, as soon as I see how things go with me; and I trust in the Lord that I myself also will be coming shortly.
Timothy knew the meaning of “sacrifice and service” (Phil. 2:17), but God rewarded him for his faithfulness. To begin with, Timothy had the joy of helping others. To be sure, there were hardships and difficulties, but there were also victories and blessings. Because Timothy was a “good and faithful servant,” faithful over a few things, God rewarded him with “many things,” and he entered into the joy of the submissive mind (Matt. 25:21). He had the joy of serving with the great Apostle Paul and assisting him in some of his most difficult assignments (1 Cor. 4:17). Timothy is mentioned at least twenty-four times in Paul’s letters.
But perhaps the greatest reward God gave to Timothy was to choose him to be Paul’s replacement when the great apostle was called home (2 Tim. 4:1–11). Paul himself wanted to go to Philippi, but God sent Timothy in his place. What an honor! Timothy was not only Paul’s son, and Paul’s servant, but he became Paul’s substitute! His name is held in high regard by Christians today, something that young Timothy never dreamed of when he was busy serving Christ.
The submissive mind is not the product of an hour’s sermon, or a week’s seminar, or even a year’s service. The submissive mind grows in us as, like Timothy, we yield to the Lord and seek to serve others.
Paul was a “Hebrew of the Hebrews”; Timothy was part Jew and part Gentile (Acts 16:1); and Epaphroditus was a full Gentile as far as we know. He was the member of the Philippian church who risked his health and life to carry their missionary offering to the apostle in Rome (Phil. 4:18). His name means “charming” and a charming Christian he is.
1. He was a balanced Christian (v. 25)
But I thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, companion in labor, and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger and minister to my need.
Paul could not say enough about this man—“My brother, companion in labor, and fellow-soldier.” These three descriptions parallel what Paul wrote about the Gospel in the first chapter of this letter:
- “My brother” — “the fellowship in the Gospel” (Phil. 1:5)
- “my companion in labor” — “the advance of the Gospel” (Phil. 1:12)
- “my fellow soldier” — “the faith of the Gospel” (Phil. 1:27)
Epaphroditus was a balanced Christian!
Balance is important in the Christian life. Some people emphasize “fellowship” so much that they forget the advance of the Gospel. Others are so involved in defending the “faith of the Gospel” that they neglect building fellowship with other believers. Epaphroditus did not fall into either of these traps. He was like Nehemiah, the man who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem with his sword in one hand and his trowel in the other (Neh. 4:17). You cannot build with a sword or battle with a trowel! It takes both to get the Lord’s work accomplished.
There was a group of believers who thought only of “fellowship.” They had little concern for reaching the lost or for defending the faith against its enemies. In front of their meeting place they hung a sign: JESUS ONLY. But the wind blew away some of the letters, and the sign read—US ONLY. It was a perfect description of a group of people who were not balanced Christians.
2. He was a burdened Christian (vv. 26–27, 30)
He was longing for you all and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. For indeed he was sick to the point of death, but God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, so that I would not have sorrow upon sorrow. He came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was deficient in your service to me.
Like Timothy, Epaphroditus was concerned about others. To begin with, he was concerned about Paul. When he heard in Philippi that Paul was a prisoner in Rome, he volunteered to make that long, dangerous trip to Rome to stand at Paul’s side and assist him. He carried the church’s love gift with him, protecting it with his own life.
Our churches today need men and women who are burdened for missions and for those in difficult places of Christian service. “The problem in our churches,” states one missionary leader “is that we have too many spectators and not enough participants.” Epaphroditus was not content simply to contribute to the offering. He gave himself to help carry the offering!
But this man was also burdened for his own home church. After arriving in Rome, he became very ill. In fact, he almost died. This delayed his return to Philippi and the people there became concerned about him. But Epaphroditus was not burdened about himself; he was burdened over the people in Philippi because they were worried about him! This man lived in Philippians 1:21, not 2:21. Like Timothy, he had a natural concern for others. The word “distressed” in 2:26 is the same description used of Christ in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:37). Like Christ, Epaphroditus knew the meaning of sacrifice and service (2:30), which are two of the marks of the submissive mind.
3. He was a blessed Christian (vv. 28–30)
Therefore I have sent him all the more eagerly so that when you see him again you may rejoice and I may be less concerned about you. Receive him then in the Lord with all joy, and hold men like him in high regard; because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was deficient in your service to me.
What a tragedy it would be to go through life and not be a blessing to anyone! Epaphroditus was a blessing to Paul. He stood with him in his prison experience and did not permit even his own sickness to hinder his service. What times he and Paul must have had together! But he was also a blessing to his own church. Paul admonishes the church to honor him because of his sacrifice and service. (Christ gets the glory, but there is nothing wrong with the servant receiving honor, 1 Thes. 5:12–13). There is no contradiction between Philippians 2:7 (“He emptied Himself”) and 2:29 (“hold men like him in high regard”). Christ “emptied Himself” in His gracious act of humiliation and God exalted Him. Epaphroditus sacrificed himself with no thought of reward and Paul encouraged the church to hold him in honor to the glory of God.
He was a blessing to Paul and to his own church, and he is also a blessing to us today! He proves to us that the joyful life is the life of sacrifice and service, that the submissive mind really does work. He and Timothy together encourage us to submit ourselves to the Lord, and to one another, in the Spirit of Christ. Christ is the Pattern we follow. Paul shows us the power (Phil. 4:12–19); and Timothy and Epaphroditus are the proof that this submissive mind really works.
Are you permitting the Spirit to reproduce “the mind of Christ” in you?
“Few things are harder to put up with,” wrote Mark Twain, “than the annoyance of a good example.” Perhaps the thing most annoying about a good example is its inability to accomplish the same achievements in our own lives. Admiration for a great person can inspire us, but it cannot enable us. Unless the person can enter into our own lives and share his skills, we cannot attain to his heights of accomplishment. It takes more than an example on the outside; it takes power on the inside.
In our previous study of Philippians, Paul has just presented Jesus Christ as our Great Example in the exercise of the submissive mind. We read it and agree with it, but how do we go about practicing it? How could any mortal man ever hope to achieve what Jesus Christ achieved? It seems almost presumptuous to even try! Here we are, trying to develop humility, and we are exercising pride by daring to imitate the Lord Jesus Christ!
The problem is really not that difficult. Paul is not asking us to reach for the stars, but is setting before us the divine pattern for the submissive mind and the divine power to accomplish what God has commanded. “It is God who is at work in you” (2:13). It is not by imitation, but by incarnation—“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). The Christian life is not a series of ups and downs. Rather, it is a process of “ins and outs.” God works in us, and we work out. We cultivate the submissive mind by responding to the divine provisions God makes available to us.
There Is a Purpose to Achieve (2:12–16)
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for ‘His’ good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.
“Work out your salvation” (2:12) does not suggest “work for your salvation.” To begin with, Paul is writing to people who are already “saints” (Phil. 1:1), which means they have trusted Christ and have been set apart for Him. The verb “work out” carries the meaning of “work to full completion,” such as working out a problem. In Paul’s day, it was also used for working a mine, that is, to get out of the mine all the valuable goods possible; or working a field to get the greatest harvest possible. The purpose God wants us to achieve is Christ-likeness, “to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). There are problems in life, but God will help us to “work them out.” Our lives have tremendous potential, like a mine or a field, and He wants to help us fulfill that potential.
Cindy did not seem very happy when she arrived home from college to spend the holiday with her family. Her parents noticed her unusual behavior, but were wise enough to wait until she was ready to share her problem with them. It happened after dinner.
“Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you and I’m afraid it’s going to hurt you.”
“Just tell us what’s on your heart,” her father said, “and we’ll understand. We want to pray with you about it—whatever it is.”
“Well, you know that all during high school, I talked about becoming a nurse, mainly because Mom is a nurse and I guess you expected me to follow in her footsteps. But I can’t go on. The Lord doesn’t want me to be a nurse!”
Her mother smiled and took Cindy’s hand. “Your father and I want God’s will for your life. If you do anything else, we’ll all be unhappy!”
Cindy had done the courageous thing; she had faced God’s will and decided she wanted to work out her own salvation—her own Christian life—and not what somebody else wanted her to do. One of the wonderful things about being a Christian is the knowledge that God has a plan for our lives (Eph. 2:10) and will help us to work it out for His glory. Our God is a God of infinite variety! No two flowers are the same and no two snowflakes are the same; why should two Christians be the same? All of us must be like Christ, but we must also be ourselves.
The phrase “work out your salvation” probably has reference particularly to the special problems in the church at Philippi, but the statement also applies to the individual Christian. We are not to be “cheap imitations” of other people, especially “great Christians.” We are to follow only what we see of Christ in their lives. “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Every “great saint” has feet of clay and ultimately may disappoint you, but Jesus Christ can never fail you.
In 2:14–15, Paul contrasts the life of the believer with the lives of those who live in the world. Unsaved people complain and find fault, but Christians rejoice. Society around us is “crooked and perverse,” but the Christian stands straight because he measures his life by God’s Word, the perfect standard. The world is dark, but Christians shine as bright lights. The world has nothing to offer, but the Christian holds out the Word of life, the message of salvation through faith in Christ. As we allow God to achieve His purpose in our lives, we become better witnesses in a world that desperately needs Christ. Apply these characteristics to Jesus and you will see He lived a perfect life in an imperfect world.
It is important to note His purpose is achieved “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (2:15). Paul does not admonish us to retreat from the world and go into a spiritual isolation ward. It is only as we are confronted with the needs and problems of real life that we can begin to become more like Christ. The Pharisees were so isolated and insulated from reality they developed an artificial kind of self-righteousness that was totally unlike the righteousness God wanted them to have. Consequently, the Pharisees forced a religion of fear and bondage on the people (Matt. 23), and they crucified Christ because He dared to oppose that kind of religion. It is not by leaving the world, but by ministering to it that we see God’s purpose fulfilled in our lives.
There Is a Power to Receive (2:13)
For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for ‘His’ good pleasure.
The principle Paul lays down is this: God must work in us before He can work through us. This principle is seen at work throughout the Bible in the lives of men like Moses, David, the Apostles, and others. God had a special purpose for each man to fulfill, and each man was unique and not an imitation of somebody else. For example, it took God forty years to bring Moses to the place where He could use him to lead the people of Israel. As Moses tended sheep during those forty years, God was working in him so that one day He might work through him. This is a very important truth: God is more interested in the workman than in the work. If the workman is what he ought to be the work will be what it ought to be.
Too many Christians obey God only because of pressure on the outside and not power on the inside. Paul warned the Philippians it was not his presence with them, but their desire to obey God and please Him that was the important thing (Phil. 1:27; 2:12). They could not build their lives on Paul because he might not be with them very long. It is sad to see the way some ministries in the church weaken or fall apart because of a change in leadership. We have a tendency to please men and to obey God only when others are watching. But when you surrender to the power of God within you, then obedience becomes a delight and not a battle.
The power that works in us is the power of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:16–17, 26; Acts 1:8; 1 Cor. 6:19–20). Our English word energy comes from the word translated “work” in 2:13. It is God’s divine energy at work in us and through us! The same Holy Spirit who empowered Christ when He was ministering on earth can empower us as well. But we must recognize the fact that the energy of the flesh (Rom. 7:5) and of the devil (Eph. 2:2; 2 Thes. 2:7) are also at work. Because of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, God’s divine energy is available to us (Eph. 1:18–23). The power is here, but how do we use it? What “tools” does God use, by His Spirit, to work in our lives? There are three tools God uses to work in the lives of His children.
1. The first tool is the Word of God. “We constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the Word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thes. 2:13). God’s divine energy is released in our lives through His inspired Word. The same Word that spoke the universe into being can release divine power in our lives! But we have a responsibility to appreciate the Word and not treat it the way we treat the words of men. The Word of God is unique: it is inspired, authoritative, and infallible. If we do not appreciate the Word, then God’s power cannot energize our lives.
But we must also appropriate the Word—receive it. This means much more than listening to it, or even reading and studying it. To “receive” God’s Word means to welcome it and make it a part of our inner being. God’s truth is to the spiritual man what food is to the physical man.
Finally, we must apply the Word; it works only in those “who believe.” When we trust God’s Word and act on it, then God’s power is released in our lives. God’s Word has the power of accomplishment in it and faith releases that power: “For nothing is impossible with God” (Lk. 1:37).
We see this truth operating in the life of Jesus. He commanded the crippled man to stretch out his hand, and the very command gave him the power to obey and be healed (Matt. 12:13). Jesus commanded Peter to walk to Him on water and the command enabled Peter to do so, as long as he exercised faith (Matt. 14:22–33). It is faith in God’s promises that releases God’s power. His commandments are His enablements. The Holy Spirit wrote down promises for us in the Word and He gives us the faith to lay hold of these promises. If we want God’s power working in us, we must spend time daily with the Word of God.
2. The second tool God uses to work in the lives of His children is prayer. “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3:20). The Holy Spirit is closely related to the practice of prayer in our lives (Rom. 8:26–27; Zech. 12:10). The Book of Acts makes it clear that prayer is a divinely ordained source of spiritual power (Acts 1:14; 4:23–31; 12:5, 12); the Word of God and prayer go together (Acts 6:4). Unless the Christian takes time for prayer, God cannot work in him and through him. In the Bible and in church history the people God used were people who prayed.
3. The third tool God uses is suffering. The Spirit of God works in a special way in the lives of those who suffer for the glory of Christ (1 Pet. 4:12–19). The “fiery trial” has a way of burning away the impurities and empowering the believer to serve Christ. Paul himself had experienced God’s power in the Philippian jail when he was beaten and thrust into the inner prison cell; for he was able to sing and praise God in spite of his suffering (Acts 16:19–33). His “fiery trial” also enabled him to forgive the jailer. It was not the earthquake that brought conviction to the man; the earthquake almost led him to suicide! It was Paul’s encouraging words: “Don’t do it! We’re all here!” This kind of love broke the man’s heart and he fell before Paul, asking how to be saved.
The Word of God, prayer, and suffering are the three “tools” God uses in our lives. Just as electricity must run through a conductor, so the Holy Spirit must work through the means God has provided. As the Christian reads the Word and prays, he becomes more like Christ; and the more he becomes like Christ the more the unsaved world opposes him. This daily “fellowship of His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10) drive the believer back to the Word and prayer, so that all three “tools” work together to provide the spiritual power he needs to glorify Christ.
If we are to have the submissive mind and the joy that goes with it, we must recognize there is a purpose to achieve (God’s plan for our lives), a power to receive (the Holy Spirit), and a promise to believe.
There Is a Promise to Believe (2:16–18)
Holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.
What is the promise here? Joy comes from submission. The world’s philosophy is joy comes from aggression: fight everybody to get what you want, and then you will get it and be happy. But the example of Jesus is proof enough the world’s philosophy is wrong. He never used a sword or any other weapon; yet He won the greatest battle in history—the battle against sin, death, and hell. He defeated hatred by manifesting love; He overcame lies with truth. Because He surrendered He was victorious! You and I must dare to believe His promise: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk. 14:11). “Blessed [happy] are the poor in spirit [humble], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).
There is a twofold joy that comes to the person who possesses and practices the submissive mind: a joy hereafter (2:16) and a joy here and now (2:17–18). In the day of Christ (Phil. 1:6, 10), God is going to reward those who have been faithful to Him. “The joy of the Lord” is going to be a part of their reward (Matt. 25:21). The faithful Christian will discover his sufferings on earth have been transformed into glory in heaven! He will see that his work was not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). It was this same kind of promise of future joy that helped our Savior in His sufferings on the cross (Heb. 12:1–2).
We do not have to wait for the return of Christ to start experiencing the joy of the submissive mind. That joy is a present reality (2:17–18), and it comes through sacrifice and service. It is remarkable that in these two verses, Paul uses the words joy and rejoice—and repeats them! Most people would associate sorrow with suffering, but Paul sees suffering and sacrifice as doorways to a deeper joy in Christ.
In 2:17, Paul is comparing his experience of sacrifice to that of the priest pouring out the drink offering (Num. 15:1–10). It was possible that Paul’s trial would go against him and he would be executed, but this did not rob Paul of his joy. His death would be a willing sacrifice, a priestly ministry, on behalf of Christ and His church; and this would give him joy. “Sacrifice and service” are marks of the submissive mind (Phil. 2:7–8, 21–22, 30), and the submissive mind experiences joy even in the midst of suffering.
It takes faith to exercise the submissive mind. We must believe God’s promises are true and they are going to work in our lives just as they worked in Paul’s life. God works in us through the Word, prayer, and suffering; and we work out in daily living and service. God fulfills His purposes in us as we receive and believe His Word. Life is not a series of disappointing “ups and downs.” Rather, it is a sequence of delightful “ins and outs.” God works in—we work out! The example comes from Christ, the energy comes from the Holy Spirit, and the result is—JOY!
Jesus illustrates the four characteristics of the person with the submissive mind. In Part 1, we saw the first two traits. Now, we will look at the last two virtues of the person with the submissive mind.
He Sacrifices (2:8)
Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Many people are willing to serve others if it does not cost them anything, but if there is a price to pay, they suddenly lose interest. Jesus “became obedient to death, even death on a cross.” His was not the death of a martyr, but the death of a Savior. He willingly laid down His life for the sins of the world.
Ministry that costs nothing accomplishes nothing. If there is to be any blessing, there must be some “bleeding.” At a religious festival in Brazil, a missionary was going from booth to booth, examining the goods. He saw a sign above one booth: “Cheap Crosses.” He thought to himself, “That’s what many Christians are looking for these days—cheap crosses. My Lord’s cross was not cheap. Why should mine be?”
The person with the submissive mind does not avoid sacrifice. He lives for the glory of God and the good of others; and if paying a price will honor Christ and help others, he is willing to do it. This was Paul’s attitude (Phil. 2:17), Timothy’s (Phil. 2:20), and also Epaphroditus’ (Phil. 2:30). Sacrifice and service go together if service is to be true Christian ministry.
A church council was planning the annual “Youth Sunday” program and one of the members suggested the teenagers serve as ushers, lead in prayer, and bring special music. One of the teens stood up and said, “Quite frankly, we’re tired of being asked to do little things. We’d like to do something difficult this year, and maybe keep it going all year long. The youth have talked and prayed about this, and we’d like to work with our trustees in remodeling that basement room so it can be used for a classroom. And we’d like to start visiting our elderly members each week and taking them recordings of the services. We’d also like to have a weekly witness on Sunday afternoons in the park.”
He sat down and the new youth pastor smiled to himself. He had privately challenged the teens to do something that would cost them—and they enthusiastically responded to the challenge. He knew that sacrifice is necessary if there is going to be true growth and ministry.
The test of the submissive mind is not just how much we are willing to take in terms of suffering, but how much we are willing to give in terms of sacrifice. One pastor complained that his men were changing the words of the hymn from “Take my life and let it be” to “Take my wife and let me be!” They were willing for others to make the sacrifices, but they were unwilling to sacrifice for others.
It is one of the paradoxes of the Christian life that the more we give, the more we receive; the more we sacrifice, the more God blesses. This is why the submissive mind leads to joy; it makes us more like Christ. This means sharing His joy as we also share in His sufferings. Of course, when love is the motive (2:1), sacrifice is never measured or mentioned. The person who constantly talks about his sacrifices does not have the submissive mind.
Is it costing you anything to be a Christian?
He Glorifies God (2:9–11)
For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This, of course, is the great goal of all that we do—to glorify God. Paul warns us against “selfishness and vainglory” in 2:3. The kind of rivalry that pits Christian against Christian and ministry against ministry is not spiritual, nor is it satisfying. It is vain, empty.
Jesus humbled Himself for others and God highly exalted Him; the result of this exaltation is glory to God. Our Lord’s exaltation began with His resurrection. The very last thing any human hands did to Jesus was bury His body. From that point on, it was God who worked. Men had done their worst to the Savior, but now God exalted Him and honored Him. Men gave Him names of ridicule and slander, but the Father gave Him a glorious name! Just as in His humiliation He was given the name “Jesus” (Matt. 1:21), so in His exaltation He was given the name “Lord” (2:11; Acts 2:32–36). He arose from the dead and then returned in victory to heaven, ascending to the Father’s throne.
His exaltation included sovereign authority over all creatures in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. One day all will bow to Him (Isa. 45:23) and confess He is Lord. Of course, it is possible for people to bow and confess today, and receive His gift of salvation (Rom. 10:9–10). To bow before Him now means salvation; to bow before Him at the judgment means condemnation.
The whole purpose of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation is the glory of God (2:11). As Jesus faced the cross the glory of the Father was paramount in His mind: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, so that the Son may glorify You” (Jn. 17:1). He has given this glory to us (Jn. 17:22) and one day we will share it with Him in heaven (Jn. 17:24; Rom. 8:28–30). The work of salvation is much greater and grander than simply the salvation of a lost soul, as wonderful as that is. The ultimate purpose of our salvation is the glory of God (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14).
The person with the submissive mind, as he lives for others, must expect sacrifice and service; but in the end, it is going to lead to glory: “Therefore, humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time” (1 Pet. 5:6). Joseph suffered and served for thirteen years; but then God exalted him and made him the second ruler of Egypt. David was anointed king when he was a youth. He experienced years of hardship and suffering, but at the right time, God exalted him as king of Israel.
The joy of the submissive mind comes not only from helping others, and sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings (Phil. 3:10), but primarily from the knowledge that we are glorifying God. We are letting our light shine through our good works and this glorifies the Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16). We may not see the glory today, but we will see it when Jesus comes and rewards His faithful servants.
People can rob us of our joy. Paul was facing his problems with people at Rome (Phil. 1:15–18) as well as with people in Philippi, and it was the latter who concerned him the most. When Epaphroditus brought a generous gift from the church in Philippi and good news of the church’s concern for Paul, he also brought the bad news of a possible division in the church family. Apparently, there was a double threat to the unity of the church: false teachers coming in from without (Phil. 3:1–3) and disagreeing members within (Phil. 4:1–3).
Paul knew what some church workers today do not know, that there is a difference between unity and uniformity. True spiritual unity comes from within; it is a matter of the heart. Uniformity is the result of pressure from without. This is why Paul opens this section appealing to the highest possible spiritual motives (2:1–4):
Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.
Since the believers at Philippi are “in Christ,” this ought to encourage them to work toward unity and love, not division and rivalry. In a gracious way, Paul is saying to the church, “Your disagreements reveal there is a spiritual problem in your fellowship. It isn’t going to be solved by rules or threats; it’s going to be solved when your hearts are right with Christ and with each other.” Paul wanted them to see the basic cause of their conflict was selfishness and the cause of selfishness is pride. There can be no joy in the life of the Christian who puts himself above others.
The secret of joy in spite of circumstances is the single mind. The secret of joy in spite of people is the submissive mind. The key verse is: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” (2:3). In Philippians 1, it is “Jesus first” and in Philippians 2 it is “others next.” Paul the soul winner in Philippians 1 becomes Paul the servant in Philippians 2.
It is important we understand what the Bible means by “humility.” The humble person is not one who thinks meanly of himself; he simply does not think of himself at all! (I think Andrew Murray said that). Humility is a grace that, when you know you have it, you have lost it. The truly humble person knows himself and accepts himself (Rom. 12:3). He yields himself to Christ to be a servant, to use what he is and has for the glory of God and the good of others. “Others” is the key idea in this chapter (2:3–4); the believer’s eyes are turned away from himself and focused on the needs of others.
The “submissive mind” does not mean that the believer is at the beck and call of everybody else or that he is a “religious doormat” for everybody to use! Some people try to purchase friends and maintain church unity by “giving in” to everybody else’s whims and wishes. This is not what Paul is suggesting at all. The Scripture puts it perfectly: “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). If we have the single mind of Philippians 1, then we will have no problem with the submissive mind of Philippians 2.
Paul gives us four examples of the submissive mind: Jesus Christ (2:1–11), Paul himself (Phil. 2:12–18), Timothy (Phil. 2:19–24), and Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25–30). Of course the greatest Example is Jesus and Paul begins with Him. Jesus illustrates the four characteristics of the person with the submissive mind.
He Thinks of Others, Not Himself (2:5–6)
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage.
The “mind” of Christ means the “attitude” Christ exhibited. Our attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. Jesus did not think of Himself; He thought of others. His outlook (or attitude) was that of unselfish concern for others. This is “the mind of Christ,” an attitude that says, “I cannot keep my privileges for myself, I must use them for others; and to do this, I will gladly lay them aside and pay whatever price is necessary.”
A reporter was interviewing a successful job counselor who had placed hundreds of workers in their vocations quite happily. When asked the secret of his success, the man replied: “If you want to find out what a worker is really like, don’t give him responsibilities—give him privileges. Most people can handle responsibilities if you pay them enough, but it takes a real leader to handle privileges. A leader will use his privileges to help others and build the organization; a lesser man will use privileges to promote himself.” Jesus used His heavenly privileges for the sake of others—for our sake.
It would be worthwhile to contrast Christ’s attitude with that of Lucifer (Isa. 14:12–15) and Adam (Gen. 3:1–7). Lucifer once was the highest of the angelic beings, close to the throne of God (Ezek. 28:11–19), but he desired to be on the throne of God! Lucifer said, “I will!” but Jesus said, “Thy will.” Lucifer was not satisfied to be a creature; he wanted to be the Creator! Jesus was the Creator, yet He willingly became man. Christ’s humility is a rebuke to Satan’s pride.
Lucifer was not satisfied to be a rebel himself; he invaded Eden and tempted man to be a rebel. Adam had all he needed; he was actually the “king” of God’s creation (“let them have dominion,” Gen. 1:26). But Satan said, “You will be like God!” Man deliberately grasped after something that was beyond his reach, and as a result plunged the whole human race into sin and death. Adam and Eve thought only of themselves; Jesus Christ thought of others.
We expect unsaved people to be selfish and grasping, but we do not expect this of Christians, who have experienced the love of Christ and the fellowship of the Spirit (2:1–2). More than twenty times in the New Testament, God instructs us how to live with “one another.” We are to prefer one another (Rom. 12:10), edify one another (1 Thes. 5:11), and bear each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). We should not judge one another (Rom. 14:13), but rather admonish one another (Rom. 15:14). Others is the key word in the vocabulary of the Christian who exercises the submissive mind.
He Serves (2:7)
He emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.
Thinking of “others” in an abstract sense only is insufficient; we must get down to the nitty-gritty of true service. A famous philosopher wrote glowing words about educating children, but abandoned his own. It was easy for him to love children in the abstract, but when it came down to practice, that was something else. Jesus thought of others and became a servant! Paul traces the steps in the humiliation of Christ: (1) He emptied Himself, laying aside the independent use of His own attributes as God; (2) He permanently became a human, in a sinless physical body; (3) He used that body to be a servant; (4) He took that body to the cross and willingly died.
What grace! From heaven to earth, from glory to shame, from Master to servant, from life to death on a cross! When Christ was born at Bethlehem, He entered into a permanent union with humanity from which there could be no escape. He willingly humbled Himself, so that He might lift us up! Jesus did not pretend to be a servant; He was not an actor playing a role. He actually was a servant! This was the true expression of His innermost nature. He was the God-Man, Deity and humanity united in one, and He came as a servant.
Have you noticed as you read the four Gospels that it is Jesus who serves others, not others who serve Jesus? He is at the beck and call of all kinds of people—fishermen, harlots, tax collectors, the sick, the sorrowing. “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). In the Upper Room, when His disciples apparently refused to serve (minister), Jesus arose, laid aside His outer garments, put on the long linen towel, and washed their feet! (John 13) He took the place of a menial slave! This was the submissive mind in action—no wonder Jesus experienced such joy!
In Part 2, we will look at two more characteristics of the person with the submissive mind.
The Christian life is not a playground; it is a battleground. We are children in the family, enjoying the fellowship of the Gospel (Phil. 1:1–11), and we are servants sharing in the advance of the Gospel (Phil. 1:12–26); but we are also soldiers defending the faith of the Gospel. The believer with the single mind can have the joy of the Holy Spirit even in the midst of battle.
“The faith of the Gospel” is that body of divine truth given to the church. Jude calls it “the faith which was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3). God committed or entrusted this spiritual treasure to Paul (1 Tim. 1:11) and he in turn committed it to others, like Timothy (1 Tim. 6:20), whose responsibility was to commit this truth to still others (2 Tim. 2:2). This is why the church must engage in a teaching ministry, so that each new generation of believers will know, appreciate, and use the great heritage of the faith.
Paul warns “in the latter times some will abandon the faith, and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). There is an enemy who is out to steal the treasure from God’s people. Paul had met the enemy in Philippi and he was now facing him in Rome. If Satan can only rob believers of their Christian faith, the doctrines that are distinctively theirs, then he can cripple and defeat the ministry of the Gospel. It is sad to hear people say, “I don’t care what you believe, just so long as you live right.” What we believe determines how we behave, and wrong belief ultimately means a wrong life. Each local church is but one generation short of potential extinction. No wonder Satan attacks our young people in particular, seeking to get them away from “the faith.”
How can a group of Christians fight this enemy? “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world” (2 Cor. 10:4). When Peter took up a sword in the Garden, Jesus rebuked him (Jn. 18:10–11). We use spiritual weapons—the Word of God and prayer (Eph. 6:11–18; Heb. 4:12); and we must depend on the Holy Spirit to give us the power we need. But a victorious army must fight together, and this is why Paul sends these admonitions to his friends at Philippi. He is explaining in these verses that there are three essentials for victory in the battle to protect “the faith.”
Do you know the old English word conversation means “walk” and not talk? The most important weapon against the enemy is not a stirring sermon or a powerful book; it is the consistent life of believers.
The verb Paul uses is related to our word politics. He is saying, “Behave the way citizens are supposed to behave.” We Christians are citizens of heaven and while we are on earth, we ought to behave like heaven’s citizens (he brings this concept up again in Phil. 3:20). It would be a very meaningful expression to the people in Philippi because Philippi was a Roman colony, and its citizens were actually Roman citizens, protected by Roman law. The church of Jesus Christ is a colony of heaven on earth! And we ought to behave like the citizens of heaven.
“Am I conducting myself in a manner worthy of the Gospel?” is a good question for us to ask ourselves regularly. We should “walk … worthy of the calling” we have in Christ (Eph. 4:1), which means to “live a life worthy of the Lord, so we may please Him in every way” (Col. 1:10). We do not behave in order to go to heaven, as though we could be saved by our good works; but we behave because our names are already written in heaven, and our citizenship is in heaven. It is worth remembering the world around us only knows the Gospel it sees in our lives.
“The Gospel” is the Good News Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again (1 Cor. 15:1–8). There is only one “Good News” of salvation; any other gospel is false (Gal. 1:6–10). The message of the Gospel is the Good News that sinners can become the children of God through faith in Jesus Christ, God’s Son (Jn. 3:16). To add anything to the Gospel is to deprive it of its power. We are not saved from our sins by faith in Christ plus something else; we are saved by faith in Christ alone.
“Our neighbors believe a false gospel,” a church member told his pastor. “Do you have some literature I can give them?”
The pastor opened his Bible to 2 Corinthians 3:2, “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone.” He said, “The best literature in the world is no substitute for your own life. Let them see Christ in your behavior and this will open up opportunities to share Christ’s Gospel with them.”
The greatest weapon against the devil is a godly life. And a local church that practices the truth, that “behaves what it believes,” is going to defeat the enemy. This is the first essential for victory in this battle.
Paul now changes the illustration from politics to athletics. The Greek word translated “striving together” gives us our English word “athletics.” Paul pictures the church as a team and he reminds them it is teamwork that wins victories.
Keep in mind there was division in the church at Philippi. For one thing, two women were not getting along with each other (Phil. 4:2). Apparently the members of the fellowship were taking sides, as is often the case, and the resulting division was hindering the work of the church. The enemy is always happy to see internal divisions in a local ministry. “Divide and conquer!” is his motto and too often he has his way. It is only as believers stand together that they can overcome the wicked one.
Jerry was disgusted and he decided to tell the basketball coach how he felt. “There’s no sense coming out for practice anymore,” he complained. “Mike is the team—you don’t need the rest of us.”
Coach Gardner knew the trouble. “Look, Jerry, just because Mike gets many of the chances to shoot doesn’t mean the rest of you guys aren’t needed. Somebody has to set things up at the basket, and that’s where you come in.”
Sometimes, a team has a “glory hog” who has to be in the spotlight and get all the praise. Usually, he makes it difficult for the rest of the team. They aren’t working equally together, but are working to make one person look good. It is this attitude that makes for defeat.
Sadly, we have some “glory hogs” in the church. John had to deal with a man named Diotrephes because the man “loved to have preeminence” (3 Jn. 9). Even the Apostles James and John asked to have special thrones (Matt. 20:20–28). The important word is together: standing firmly “together” in one spirit, striving “together” against the enemy, and doing it “together” with one mind and heart.
It is not difficult to expand this idea of the local church as a team of athletes. Each person has his assigned place and job, and if each one is doing his job, it helps all the others. Not everybody can be captain or quarterback! The team has to follow the rules and the Word of God is our “rule book.” There is one goal—to honor Christ and do His will. If we all work together, we can reach the goal, win the prize, and glorify the Lord. But as soon as any one of us starts disobeying the rules, breaking training (the Christian life does demand discipline), or looking for glory, the teamwork disappears, and division and competition take over.
In other words, Paul is reminding us again of the need for the single mind. There is joy in our lives, even as we battle the enemy, if we live for Christ and the Gospel and practice “Christian teamwork.” Of course, there are some people with whom we cannot cooperate (2 Cor. 6:14–18; Eph. 5:11); but there are many with whom we can—and should! We are citizens of heaven and therefore should walk consistently. We are members of the same “team” and should work cooperatively.
But there is a third essential for success as we face the enemy and that is confidence.
“Don’t be alarmed by your opponents!” In these verses, Paul gives us three encouragements that give us confidence in the battle.
1. These battles prove we are saved (1:29). We not only believe on Christ, but also suffer for Christ. Paul calls this “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10). For some reason, many new believers have the idea that trusting Christ means the end of their battles. In reality, it means the beginning of new battles. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).
2. The presence of conflict is a privilege; we suffer “for His sake.” In fact, Paul tells us this conflict is “granted” to us—it is a gift! If we were suffering for ourselves, it would be no privilege; but because we are suffering for and with Christ, it is a high and holy honor. After all, He suffered for us, and a willingness to suffer for Him is the very least we can do to show our love and gratitude.
3. Others are experiencing the same conflict (1:30). Satan wants us to think we are alone in the battle, that our difficulties are unique, but such is not the case. Paul reminded the Philippians that he was going through the same difficulties they were experiencing hundreds of miles from Rome! A change in geography is usually no solution to spiritual problems because human nature is the same wherever you go and the enemy is everywhere.
Actually, going through spiritual conflict is one way we have to grow in Christ. God gives us the strength we need to stand firm against the enemy, and this confidence is proof to him that he will lose and we are on the winning side (1:28). The Philippians had seen Paul go through conflict when he was with them (Acts 16:19) and they had witnessed his firmness in the Lord. Knowing my fellow believers are also sharing in the battle is an encouragement for me to keep going and to pray for them as I pray for myself.
As we face the enemy and depend on the Lord, He gives us all we need for the battle. When the enemy sees our God-given confidence, it makes him fear. The single mind enables us to have joy in the midst of battle because it produces in us consistency, cooperation, and confidence. We experience the joy of “spiritual teamwork” as we strive together for the faith of the Gospel.
God sometimes uses strange tools to help us pioneer the Gospel. In Paul’s case, there were three tools that helped him take the Gospel to the elite guards, Caesar’s special troops. In Part 1, we looked at the first tool: Paul’s chains. Now, we will consider the next two tools.
Paul’s Critics (1:15–19)
It is hard to believe that anyone would oppose Paul, but there were believers in Rome doing just that. The churches there were divided. Some preached Christ sincerely, wanting to see people saved. Others preached Christ insincerely, wanting to make the situation more difficult for Paul. The latter group was using the Gospel to further their own selfish purposes. Perhaps they belonged to the “legalistic” wing of the church that opposed Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles and his emphasis on the grace of God, as opposed to obedience to the Jewish Law. Envy and strife go together, just as love and unity go together.
Paul’s aim was to glorify Christ and get people to follow Him; his critics’ aim was to promote themselves and win a following of their own. Instead of asking, “Have you trusted Christ?” they asked, “Whose side are you on—ours or Paul’s?” Unfortunately, this kind of “religious politics” is still seen today. And the people who practice it need to realize they are only hurting themselves.
When you have the single mind, you look on your critics as another opportunity for the furtherance of the Gospel. Like a faithful soldier, Paul was “put here [appointed] for the defense of the Gospel” (1:16). He was able to rejoice, not in the selfishness of his critics, but in the fact that Christ was being preached! There was no envy in Paul’s heart. It mattered not that some were for him and some were against him. All that mattered was the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
It is a matter of historic record that the two great English evangelists, John Wesley and George Whitefield, disagreed on doctrinal matters. Both of them were very successful, preaching to thousands of people and seeing multitudes come to Christ. It is reported that somebody asked Wesley if he expected to see Whitefield in heaven and the evangelist replied, “No, I do not.”
“Then you do not think Whitefield is a converted man?”
“Of course he is a converted man!” Wesley said. “But I do not expect to see him in heaven—because he will be so close to the throne of God and I so far away that I will not be able to see him!” Though he differed with his brother in some matters, Wesley did not have any envy in his heart, nor did he seek to oppose Whitefield’s ministry.
Criticism is usually very hard to take, particularly when we are in difficult circumstances, as Paul was. How was the apostle able to rejoice even in the face of such diverse criticism? He possessed the single mind! Philippians 1:19 indicates that Paul expected his case to turn out victoriously (“to my deliverance”) because of the prayers of his friends and the supply of the Holy Spirit of God. Paul was not depending on his own dwindling resources; he was depending on the generous resources of God, ministered by the Holy Spirit.
Paul shared in the pioneer advance of the Gospel in Rome through his chains and his critics; but he had a third tool that he used.
Paul’s Crisis (1:20–26)
As we have seen because of Paul’s chains, Christ was known (1:13) and because of Paul’s critics, Christ was preached (1:18). But now, we see because of Paul’s crisis, Christ was magnified! (1:20). While it was possible Paul would be found a traitor to Rome and then executed, his preliminary trial had apparently gone in his favor. Although the final verdict was yet to come, Paul’s body was not his own and his only desire (because he had the “single mind”) was to magnify Christ in his body.
Does Christ need to be magnified? After all, how can a mere human being ever magnify the Son of God? Well, the stars are much bigger than the telescope, and yet the telescope magnifies them and brings them closer. The believer’s body is to be a telescope that brings Jesus Christ close to people. To the average person, Christ is a misty figure in history who lived centuries ago. But as the unsaved watch the believer go through a crisis, they can see Jesus magnified and brought so much closer. To the Christian with the single mind, Christ is with us here and now.
The telescope brings distant things closer and the microscope makes tiny things look big. To the unbeliever, Jesus is not very big. Other people and other things are far more important. But as the unbeliever watches the Christian go through a crisis experience, he ought to be able to see how big Jesus really is. The believer’s body is a “lens” that makes a “little Christ” look very big and a “distant Christ” come very close.
Paul was not afraid of life or death! Either way, he wanted to magnify Christ in his body. No wonder he had joy!
Paul confesses he is facing a difficult decision. To remain alive was necessary for the believers’ benefit in Philippi, but to depart and be with Christ was far better. Paul decided that Christ would have him remain, not only for the “advance of the Gospel” (1:12), but also for the “progress and joy in their faith” (1:25). He wanted them to make some “pioneer advance” into new areas of spiritual growth. (Paul also admonished Timothy, the young pastor, to be sure to pioneer new spiritual territory in his own life and ministry, 1 Tim. 4:15).
What a man Paul is! He is willing to postpone going to heaven in order to help Christians grow and he is willing to go to hell in order to win the lost to Christ! (Rom. 9:1–3)
Of course, death had no terrors for Paul. It simply meant “departing.” This word was used by the soldiers; it meant “to take down your tent and move on.” What a picture of Christian death! The “tent” we live in is taken down at death and the spirit goes home to be with Christ in heaven (2 Cor. 5:1–8).
Departure was also a political term; it described the setting free of a prisoner. God’s people are in bondage because of the limitations of the body and the temptations of the flesh, but death will free them. Or they will be freed at the return of Christ (Rom. 8:18–23) if that should come first.
Finally, departure was a word used by the farmers; it meant “to unyoke the oxen.” Paul had taken Christ’s yoke, which is an easy yoke to bear (Matt. 11:28–30), but how many burdens he carried in his ministry! (If you need your memory refreshed, read 2 Cor. 11:22–12:10.) To depart to be with Christ would mean laying aside the burdens, his earthly work completed.
No matter how you look at it, nothing can steal a man’s joy if he possesses the single mind! “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:21). What makes you come alive? The thing that excites us and “turns us on” is the thing that really is “life” to us. In Paul’s case, Christ was his life. Christ excited him and made his life worth living.
Philippians 1:21 becomes a valuable test of our lives: “For me, to live is__________ and to die is_________.” Fill in the blanks yourself.
- For me, to live is money and to die is to leave it all behind.
- For me, to live is fame and to die is to be forgotten.
- For me, to live is power and to die is to lose it all.
No, we must echo Paul’s convictions if we are going to have joy in spite of circumstances and if we are going to share in the advance of the Gospel: “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain!”
Paul wanted to go to Rome as a preacher, but instead he went as a prisoner! He could have written a long letter about that experience alone. Instead, he sums it all up as “the things which happened to me” (1:12). The record of these things is given in Acts 21:17–28:31 and it begins with Paul’s illegal arrest in the temple in Jerusalem.
To many, all of this would have looked like failure, but not to this man with a “single mind,” concerned with sharing Christ and the Gospel. Paul did not find his joy in ideal circumstances; he found his joy in winning others to Christ. And if his circumstances promoted the furtherance or advance of the Gospel, that was all that mattered! Instead of finding himself confined as a prisoner, Paul discovered his circumstances really opened up new areas of ministry.
God still wants His children to take the Gospel into new areas. He wants us to be pioneers and sometimes He arranges circumstances so that we can be nothing else but pioneers. In fact, that is how the Gospel originally came to Philippi! Paul had tried to enter other territory, but God had repeatedly shut the door (Acts 16:6–10). Paul wanted to take the message eastward into Asia, but God directed him to take it westward into Europe. What a difference it would have made in the history of mankind if Paul had been permitted to follow his plan instead of God’s!
God sometimes uses strange tools to help us pioneer the Gospel. In Paul’s case, there were three tools that helped him take the Gospel to the elite guards, Caesar’s special troops.
Paul’s Chains (1:12–14)
The same God who used Moses’ rod, Gideon’s pitchers, and David’s sling used Paul’s chains. Little did the Romans realize that the chains they affixed to his wrists would release Paul instead of bind him! Even as he wrote during a later imprisonment, “I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal, but God’s Word is not chained” (2 Tim. 2:9). He did not complain about his chains; instead he consecrated them to God and asked God to use them for the pioneer advance of the Gospel. And God answered his prayers.
To begin with, these chains gave Paul contact with the lost. He was chained to a Roman soldier twenty-four hours a day! The shifts changed every six hours, which meant Paul could witness to at least four men each day! Imagine yourself as one of those soldiers, chained to a man who prayed “without ceasing,” who was constantly interviewing people about their spiritual condition, and who was repeatedly writing letters to Christians and churches throughout the empire! It was not long before some of these soldiers put their faith in Christ. Paul was able to get the Gospel to the elite guards, something he could not have done had he been a free man.
But the chains gave Paul contact with another group of people as well: the officials in Caesar’s court. He was in Rome as an official prisoner and his case was an important one. The Roman government was going to determine the official status of this new “Christian” sect. Was it merely another sect of the Jews? Or was it something new and possibly dangerous? Imagine how pleased Paul must have been knowing that the court officials were forced to study the doctrines of the Christian faith!
Sometimes God has to put “chains” on His people to get them to accomplish a “pioneer advance” that could never happen any other way. Young mothers may feel chained to the home as they care for their children, but God can use those “chains” to reach people with the message of salvation. Susannah Wesley was the mother of nineteen children, before the days of labor-saving devices and disposable diapers! Out of that large family came John and Charles Wesley, whose combined ministries shook the British Isles. At six weeks of age, Fanny Crosby was blinded, but even as a youngster, she determined not to be confined by the chains of darkness. In time, she became a mighty force for God through her hymns and Gospel songs.
The secret is this: when you have the single mind, you look on your circumstances as God-given opportunities for the furtherance of the Gospel; and you rejoice at what God is going to do instead of complaining about what God did not do.
Paul’s chains not only gave contact with the lost, but they also gave courage to the saved. Many of the believers in Rome took fresh courage when they saw Paul’s faith and determination (1:14). They were “much more bold to speak the word without fear.” That word speak does not mean “preach.” Rather, it means “everyday conversation.” No doubt many of the Romans were discussing Paul’s case because such legal matters were of primary concern to this nation of lawmakers. And the Christians in Rome who were sympathetic to Paul took advantage of this conversation to say a good word for Jesus Christ. Discouragement has a way of spreading, but so does encouragement! Because of Paul’s joyful attitude the believers in Rome took fresh courage and witnessed boldly for Christ.
While recovering in the hospital from a serious auto accident, Bob received a letter from a total stranger who seemed to know just what to say to make his day brighter. In fact, he received several letters from him and each one was better than the one before. When he was able to get around, Bob met him personally. He was amazed to discover that he was blind, a diabetic, handicapped because of a leg amputation, and that he lived with and cared for his elderly mother! If a man ever wore chains, this man did! But if a man ever was free to pioneer the Gospel, this man was! He was able to share Christ in high school assemblies, before service clubs, at the “Y,” and before professional people in meetings that would have been closed to an ordained minister. He had the single mind; he lived for Christ and the Gospel. Consequently, he shared the joy of furthering the Gospel.
Our chains may not be as dramatic or difficult, but there is no reason why God cannot use them in the same way.
In Part 2, we will look at two more tools Paul used to take the Gospel to the elite guards.
Paul describes true Christian fellowship in three ways. In Part 1, we looked at the first way: “I have you in my mind.” Today, we will consider the next two ways.
I have you in my heart (vv. 7–8). We move a bit deeper, for it is possible to have others in our minds without really having them in our hearts (many people today would confess, “I have you on my nerves!”). Paul’s sincere love for his friends was something that could not be disguised or hidden.
Christian love is “the tie that binds.” Love is the evidence of salvation: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another” (1 Jn. 3:14). It is the “spiritual lubrication” that keeps the machinery of life running smoothly. Have you noticed how often Paul uses the phrase “you all” as he writes? There are at least nine instances in this letter. He does not want to leave anyone out!
How did Paul evidence his love for them? For one thing, he was suffering on their behalf. His bonds were proof of his love. He was “the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles” (Eph. 3:1). Because of Paul’s trial, Christianity was going to get a fair hearing before the officials of Rome. Paul’s love was not something he merely talked about; it was something he practiced. He considered his difficult circumstances an opportunity for defending and confirming the Gospel, and this would help his brethren everywhere.
But how can Christians learn to practice this kind of love? “I get along better with my unsaved neighbors than I do my saved relatives!” a man confided to his pastor. “Maybe it takes a diamond to cut a diamond, but I’ve just about had it!”
Christian love is not something we work up; it is something that God does in us and through us. Paul longed for his friends “with the affection [love] of Jesus Christ” (1:8). It was not Paul’s love channeled through Christ; it was Christ’s love channeled through Paul: “God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us” (Rom. 5:5). When we permit God to perform His “good work” in us, then we grow in our love for one another.
How can we tell if we are truly bound in love to other Christians? For one thing, we are concerned about them. The believers at Philippi were concerned about Paul and sent Epaphroditus to minister to him. Paul was also greatly concerned about his friends at Philippi, especially when Epaphroditus became ill and could not return right away (Phil. 2:25–28). “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech, but with actions and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:18).
Another evidence of Christian love is a willingness to forgive one another: “Above all, love each other deeply because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8).
“Tell us some of the blunders your wife has made,” a radio host asked a contestant.
“I can’t remember any,” the man replied.
“Oh, surely you can remember something!” the announcer said.
“No, I really can’t,” said the contestant. “I love my wife very much and I just don’t remember things like that.” 1 Corinthians 13:5 says, “love keeps no record of wrongs.”
Christians who practice love always experience joy; both come as a result of the presence of the Holy Spirit. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy…” (Gal. 5:22).
I have you in my prayers (vv.9–11). Paul found joy in bringing the friends at Philippi before the throne of grace in prayer. This is a prayer for maturity and Paul begins with love. After all, if our Christian love is what it ought to be everything else should follow. He prays that they might experience abounding love and discerning love.
Christian love is not blind! The heart and mind work together, so that we have discerning love and loving discernment. Paul wants his friends to grow in discernment, in being able to “distinguish the things that differ.” He is praying that they would be able, in the midst of competing issues and concerns, to see what is truly important and deserving of priority, and they would be able to make wise spiritual decisions.
Paul will soon find it necessary to warn them about the ever-present danger of false teachers (Phil 3:2, 18–19). They would make themselves easy prey for such teachers if, in the interest of being loving, they were uncritically to accept everything these teachers were presenting.
We should be keenly aware of this danger. How often the church today has refused to stand against doctrinal error because someone argued that we must be loving! Sadly, in cases like this, love was misunderstood to mean being agreeable and tolerant. No one believed more firmly in love than Paul and yet he did not hesitate to rebuke a fellow apostle for compromising the truth (Gal. 2:11–21). Paul did this because he understood that love and truth are not enemies. The most loving thing we can do is stand for the truth in a loving way.
The ability to distinguish is a mark of maturity. When a baby learns to speak, he or she may call every four-legged animal a “bow-wow.” But then the child discovers that there are cats, dogs, cows, and other four-legged creatures. To a little child, one automobile is just like another, but not to a car-crazy teenager. He can spot the differences between models faster than his parents can even name the cars! One of the sure marks of maturity is discerning love.
Paul also prays that they might have mature Christian service. He wants them filled and fruitful (1:11). He is not interested simply in “church activities,” but in the kind of spiritual fruit that is produced when we are in fellowship with Christ. “Abide [remain] in Me as I also abide in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in Me” (Jn. 15:4). Too many Christians try to “produce results” in their own efforts instead of abiding in Christ and allowing His life to produce the fruit.
What is the “fruit” God wants to see from our lives? Certainly He wants the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22–23), Christian character that glorifies God. Paul compares winning lost souls to Christ to bearing fruit (Rom. 1:13) and he also names “holiness” as a spiritual fruit (Rom. 6:22). He exhorts us to be “fruitful in every good work” (Col. 1:10) and the writer of Hebrews says our praise is the “fruit of the lips” (Heb. 13:15).
The fruit tree does not make a great deal of noise when it produces its crop; it merely allows the life within to work in a natural way and fruit is the result. As Paul reflected on the fruits of righteousness, he undoubtedly called to mind the words Jesus spoke to His disciples on the night before his crucifixion: “I am the Vine; you are the branches. If you abide in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from Me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5).
The difference between spiritual fruit and human “religious activity” is this: fruit brings glory to Jesus, not man. Whenever we do anything in our own strength, we have a tendency to boast about it. True spiritual fruit is so beautiful and wonderful that no man can claim credit for it; the glory must go to God alone.
This, then, is true Christian fellowship—a having-in-common that is much deeper than mere friendship. “I have you in my mind … I have you in my heart … I have you in my prayers.” This is the kind of fellowship that produces joy and it is the single mind that produces this kind of fellowship! When we have the single mind, we will not complain about circumstances because we know that difficult circumstances will result in the strengthening of the fellowship of the Gospel.
“What a golf game! Man, did we have great fellowship!”
“The fellowship at the retreat was just terrific!”
That word “fellowship” seems to mean many things to many different people. Like a worn coin, it’s losing its true impression, so we had better take some steps to rescue it. After all, a good Bible word like fellowship needs to stay in circulation as long as possible.
True Christian fellowship is much deeper than sharing coffee and pie, or even enjoying a golf game together. Too often what we think is “fellowship” is really only acquaintanceship or friendship. Christian fellowship is much more than having a name on a church roll or being present at a meeting. For it is possible to be close to people physically and miles away from them spiritually.
The word fellowship simply means “to have in common.” We have a tendency to use the word very loosely these days. Any gathering of Christians in which there is a feeling of happiness and camaraderie is called fellowship. We have almost made the word synonymous with good food and a few laughs. But that, of course, makes Christian fellowship no different from what unbelievers often enjoy.
We cannot have fellowship with someone unless we have something in common; and for Christian fellowship, this means the possessing of eternal life within the heart. Unless a person has trusted Christ as his Savior, he knows nothing of “the fellowship of the Gospel.”
Paul’s fellowship with the Philippians was more than merely enjoying each other’s company. It was a partnership. People who by nature had nothing in common found a common life in Christ. Think again of Paul’s ministry in Philippi. Lydia the slave girl and the jailer had nothing in common until they come to Christ (Acts 16). The gospel of Christ made them partakers of the same life and partners in the same cause. One of the sources of Christian joy is the fellowship believers have in Jesus Christ. Paul was in Rome and his friends were miles away in Philippi, but their spiritual fellowship was real and satisfying. In Philippians 1:1–11, he describes true Christian fellowship in three ways.
I have you in my mind (1:3–6). Paul’s relationship with the church at Philippi was a good one and the tone of his letter to them expresses the warmth of his love and the depth of their fellowship in the gospel. Paul could not think of the Philippians without giving thanks to God for their fellowship. Isn’t it remarkable that Paul is thinking of others and not of himself? As he awaits his trial in Rome, Paul’s mind goes back to the believers in Philippi and every recollection he has brings him joy. Read Acts 16 and you will discover some things happened to Paul at Philippi that would have produced sorrow in most people. He was illegally arrested and beaten, was placed in the stocks, and was humiliated before the people. But even those memories brought joy to Paul because it was through his suffering that the jailer found Christ! Paul recalled Lydia and her household, the poor slave girl who had been demon-possessed, and the other dear Christians at Philippi; and each recollection was a source of joy. (It is worth asking, “Am I the kind of Christian who brings joy to my pastor’s mind when he thinks of me?”)
As the apostle gave thanks for their participation in the work of the gospel, he wrote, “He [God] who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6). Paul was very good at slipping little nuggets of breathtakingly glorious truth into the portions of his letters. This verse is one of those nuggets and tells us:
1. Salvation is God’s work. The Philippians did not begin the work of salvation in themselves only to have God come along and add a little to it. It was entirely His work. God provided the way of salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ, and He even enabled the Philippians to receive that salvation.
2. Salvation is a good work. Salvation lifts the sinner from eternal condemnation and ruin and makes that person part of God’s family, and a partaker of God’s eternal glory. Who would dare say this is not a good thing?
3. Salvation is a sure work. God does not begin it and then abandon it somewhere along the way. He does not pull His people from the flames of destruction only to allow them to slip back and be consumed. God completes the work of salvation. We know what it is to plan a work and undertake a work only to see it fail. But it is not so with God. We must not picture God the Father looking over the redeemed multitude in eternity and saying, “I did fairly well. Eighty per cent of the saved finally made it home.” God will not have to say such a thing because all His people will make it home. Not one will be missing! The faithful God will faithfully complete His work!
We will not go astray if we apply these verses to the work of salvation and Christian living. We are not saved by our good works (Eph. 2:8–9). Salvation is the good work God does in us when we trust His Son. This work will continue until we see Christ and then the work will be fulfilled: “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2).
It was a source of joy to Paul to know God was still working in the lives of his fellow-believers at Philippi. After all, this is the real basis for joyful Christian fellowship, to have God at work in our lives day by day.
“There seems to be friction in our home,” a concerned wife said to a marriage counselor. “I really don’t know what the trouble is.”
“Friction is caused by one of two things,” said the counselor and to illustrate he picked up two blocks of wood from his desk. “If one block is moving and one is standing still, there’s friction. Or, if both are moving, but in opposite directions there’s friction. Now, which is it?”
“I’ve been going backward in my Christian life and Frank has really been growing,” the wife admitted. “What I need is to get back to fellowship with the Lord.”
In Part 2, we will look at two more ways Paul describes true Christian fellowship.
Part 1 is here. Now, I will wrap up by pointing out three ways where all true Christians can and should get along.
First, we are united in truth. The fellowship of the saints is not based on some type of sentimental feeling or on what the world would describe as doing good deeds. Our fellowship, that thing which initially and most substantially unites us, is the truth about Jesus Christ, not just believing it is true, but having trusting in Jesus and having His Spirit live within us. This is the foundation of our unity, the truth about Jesus, which we have believed, and His Spirit living within us, who is in the process of transforming us into the image of Christ.
There are many superficial things which divide us, man-made things which have no eternal significance. But the foundational thing which unites all Christians, regardless of their age, race, color, language, or social standing is that we all believe the same truth about Jesus; the truth revealed to us in the pages of Scripture, that He is the preexistent immortal God incarnate, born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, died a vicarious death, rose from the dead, and is coming again to judge the living and the dead. He is the one and only Savior of the world and there is no salvation except through His blood.
Second, we are united in the love of Jesus. There are numerous passages throughout the Scriptures, which command us to love one another, not merely in word, but in deed. We are to love one another reverently and with a pure heart (having the right emotions and right motives): “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring Word of God” (1 Pet. 1:22-23).
When we hold the same truth, then we are all bound to the same commandment Jesus gave us in John 13:34-35 where He says: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this will all people know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This love is not only a commandment Jesus has given us; it is the essential identifying mark of an authentic believer. The person who does not have this love for his brother is not a true Christian: “This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister” (1 Jn. 3:10). If we are really and truly in love with Jesus, that love will inevitably flow over into our relationships with one another. We will love one another and it will be evident to those around us.
Third, we are united in the work of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 3:9 tells us that we are God’s co-laborers. We are to join together to further the Kingdom of God. Cooperation in God’s kingdom is working with people who share our faith, our values, and our worldview.
What do your relationships look like? Who are you close to and how are they influencing you? Are they drawing you closer to Jesus or pulling you further away? Are they encouraging you in the work of the Kingdom or pulling you towards the things of this world?
Have you ever wondered, “How should Christians work together to accomplish the work of the Kingdom of God? Why do there have to be so many things which divide us? Why can’t we all just get along?” For the purpose of our study, we are not going to delve into discussions of denominational structure or church governance, but rather we are going to look at what the Bible has to say about those things which unify or divide us, both in our personal relationships and our Kingdom endeavors. These truths apply to our lives, not only as a church, but as individual Christians.
Why can’t all people claiming to be Christians be joined together for the advancement of the Kingdom? When looked at on the surface, it would seem this is a valid question. After all, don’t we all love Jesus? Don’t we all want to do His will on this earth? Aren’t we all His children? Why can’t we all just get along?
Perhaps more than any other day since the first couple of centuries of Christianity, we are living in a day of religious pluralism; a day when the most highly touted virtue is tolerance. Tolerance and acceptance are the mottos of the day. These fit hand in hand with the philosophy of the day, postmodernism, which sees all truth claims as being equal. So, when we, as New Testament Christians, because of deep doctrinal differences, refuse to join forces with others who also call themselves Christians, we come off as being intolerant, narrow minded, and elitist. They mock and scorn us, calling us fundamentalists and extremists.
There are those within nearly every church, who in their spiritually adolescent naiveté, question why we cannot simply join hands with anyone who calls themselves a Christian. But, for all their sincerity, they fail to recognize we are bound, not by what seems right to us, not by what the world would dictate as being tolerant, but we are bound by Scripture itself. We are bound by the Word of God.
The Scripture has a lot to say about unity; about with whom we are to associate. But it also has a great deal to say about who we should avoid, about with whom we should intentionally disassociate ourselves.
There are basically two realms in which we are called to be circumspect, vigilant, and cautious about our relationships. One is in the area of personal relationships and the other is in the area of our religious practice. Interestingly enough the two have a way of influencing one another.
Beginning back in the Book of Exodus and throughout the Old Testament, God is clear that His people should not corrupt themselves by allowing themselves to be in fellowship with the pagans around them. As God is making a covenant with the Israelites, He warns them against being in fellowship with the nations who occupied the Promised Land: “Be careful not to make a treaty with the inhabitants of the land that you are going to enter; otherwise, they will become a snare among you. Instead, you must tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, and chop down their Asherah poles. You are to never bow down to another god because the Lord, being jealous by nature, is a jealous God. Do not make a treaty with the inhabitants of the land, or else when they prostitute themselves with their gods and sacrifice to their gods, they will invite you, and you will eat of their sacrifice. Then you will take some of their daughters [as brides] for your sons. Their daughters will prostitute themselves with their gods and cause your sons to prostitute themselves with their gods” (Ex. 34:12-16).
God has always warned His people to keep themselves from being in intimate fellowship with those who are not believers. Invariably, when we are too close to the wrong people, they have a tendency to draw us away from the Lord. Psalm 1:1 tells us, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers.” Proverbs 4:14-15 instructs us saying, “Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way.”
Go through the Old Testament and you will find that the Israelites were consistently disobedient at this point and the compromise God warned would occur should they be in fellowship with the nations around them was the very thing which led them into sin. There’s no greater example of this than Solomon himself, whose foreign wives caused him to compromise his walk with God and brought the practice of idol worship back into the land.
The New Testament carries this thought forward, warning us against being in league with the lost who surround us. 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Do not be deceived: bad company corrupts good character.” 2 Corinthians 6:14 says, “Do not be yoked [mismatched] together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” This speaks to who we are in business with, it speaks to who we marry; it speaks to every intimate relationship in our lives. Young people, before you start dating someone, one of the first conversations you have should be about what that other person believes about Jesus. If they don’t believe in Jesus like you do, if they don’t hold to a sound doctrine about who He is, don’t date them. The Bible does not advocate “missionary dating.” You say, “But Pastor that’s rather radical, don’t you think?” Actually, it’s not only radical, it’s also Scriptural. Don’t be unequally yoked.
The Scripture does not tell us we cannot befriend lost people or be acquainted with them, rather it tells us that our intimate relationships should not be with anyone unless they are committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and to His truth revealed in Scripture. In 1 Corinthians 5:9-11, Paul writes to the church at Corinth about this issue. If there was ever a church which faced this issue, it was the church at Corinth. He says, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister [believer], but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” In 1 Timothy 6, Paul says: “If anyone teaches other doctrine and does not agree with the sound teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the teaching that promotes godliness, they are conceited, understanding nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind…”
Again, in 2 John 9-11, Scripture clearly directs us not to be in fellowship with those who claim to be Christians, but do not hold to sound doctrine: “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.” The clear teaching here is that we are not to be in fellowship, much less join in Kingdom endeavors with those who do not hold to sound doctrine.
This is the very reason doctrine is important. Some people call themselves Christians, but they don’t mean what we mean (or better yet, what the Bible means). Some people do not believe Jesus is the Christ, the only begotten Son of God. Some people do not believe Jesus shed His blood to atone for the sins of the world. Some people do not believe Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, but rather Jesus is a way, a truth, and a way of life.
I ask you, would you want to belong to a church that embraced such heresy? As Christians we cannot join in Kingdom activities with those who do not believe the truth about Jesus. What would we do together? How could we evangelize together when they don’t believe the basic doctrines of the Christian faith (i.e. the atoning work of Jesus Christ)? How could we build churches with those who don’t see the Kingdom of God as we do? Who would we reach and what would we preach if Jesus were merely one of many ways?
This is why we can’t all get along. Fundamental views of truth and falsehood separate us. Foundational differences over the nature of Scripture, the person of Christ, the nature of salvation, the eternal destiny of man, and the end of the ages will forever be the line of distinction between those of us who hold to biblical truth and those who are willing to compromise with the spirit of the age. While the world may call us rigid; while they may accuse us of intolerance and of being narrow minded; our concern should always lie with what Jesus tells us, not with what others say about us.
Maybe what we need in religious circles today is not more union, but some wise and courageous division. The reason we can’t all get along is because we weren’t meant to. Jesus Himself said this in Matthew 10:34 when He said, “Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” We are the light of the world and were not meant to be mixed with darkness. That does not give us a license to be malicious for Jesus or to have a holier than thou attitude; we are still called to speak the truth in love, but at the same time we must be prudent in our relationships, both personal and ecclesiastical.
But we need to bring balance to this truth about division: “There is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing” (Ecc. 3:5).
In Part 2 of this article, we will consider three broad areas where we as Christians are to be united.
Every true Christian wants to have a winning witness, a testimony that demonstrates Jesus makes a difference in their life. They want the world around them to see Jesus in them. But unfortunately, that is not always the case. All too frequently the image the world has of Christians is one of hypocrisy and compromise.
I have found many people today who profess to be Christians are living lives that are not significantly different from the world around them. I have read survey after survey, which demonstrates evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general. Divorce is more common among born again Christians than in the general American population. Noted Christian apologist Josh McDowell has pointed out sexual promiscuity of evangelical youth is only a little less outrageous than that of their non-evangelical peers.
As much as I would love to discredit these observations, I cannot. If my experience as a pastor has taught me anything, it has taught me this is true. You and I don’t have to look outside the church to find adultery, spousal abuse, crooked business practices, gossip, jealously, and strife. Sadly, all of these things are often found among God’s people. And it is so obvious that you don’t have to be on the inside to notice it. The world around us has become keenly aware of the inconsistencies in our witness.
You might say, “We’ll that’s fine and good pastor, but we’re not the only religion which has hypocrites, all religions have people who profess one thing and practice another.” And while you would be right, I would point out we are the only religion that has the truth. We are the only ones who serve a risen Savior who has the power to transform our lives, to enable us to overcome the world.
If the world around us does not see a difference in our lives, how are they to know that Jesus is real? If we don’t live a different life, a transformed life, what hope do they have that they can be delivered from sin, set free from its power and transformed into a newness of life? Is it any wonder that many people say Christians are the biggest reason they don’t want to accept Christ? Did Jesus know this would happen within His church? Interesting and prophetically, Jesus addresses this very issue in today’s text. Look with me at Matthew 7:24-29:
Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’ When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at His teaching, because He taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.
As we have discussed previously, every good sermon is geared towards application. It is not enough we should merely know truth; truth must be put into practice if it is to be beneficial to us. Remembering that we have not been given Scripture simply to make us smart, but primarily to instruct us in godliness, Jesus sums up His great sermon by calling us to action; by telling us the reason He has taught us is so that we might be obedient. He says hearing without doing is foolish and wisdom dictates we will practice what He has preached. There are three things we find in these verses that demand our attention.
1. Our reception to Jesus’ message
The focus here is on what we have heard Jesus say. There are a variety of things people want to attribute to Jesus, but as we look back over this sermon what have we heard Jesus say?
We have heard Him teach on how we are to live as Christians. The beatitudes show us we must become humble, or poor in spirit, we must mourn over our sin, meekly accepting God’s view of us as sinners in need of a Savior, we must hunger and thirst after righteousness and find that only Jesus can satisfy our hunger and thirst. Then, we will be filled, transformed by the renewing of our hearts and minds.
Jesus has taught us to let our light shine before men, so that they will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. We have heard Jesus say that it is not keeping the law externally, but rather what goes on in our hearts that He sees. Sin is not something we merely do externally, but something that begins internally, in the realm of our thoughts and desires.
We have heard Jesus say our words matter and if we are His disciples, we will live our lives ever cognizant of the reality that God knows our hearts and sees our every action. We will be loving, forgiving, compassionate, faithful, trusting; and we will make His righteousness and kingdom the priority of our lives. This is what we have heard Jesus say.
There are many, however, who do not take what Jesus says seriously. They are like those in the parable of the seeds and the sower, who hear the Word but soon forget what they have heard; who allow other things, material things or temporal things, to drown out the words of our Lord.
Contrary to what many think of our Lord’s teaching, His message has not been one of lofty, warm fuzzy platitudes, but a serious call to discipleship; a message which calls us to abandon our selves and submit our wills, our hearts, and our lives to His Lordship. It is a solemn call to devout and committed discipleship that will separate us from the world around us. Make no mistake about it; this is what we have heard Jesus say. The call here is for a positive response, which brings us to our second observation.
2. Our response to His message
Throughout Scripture, we are commanded not merely to hear, but to obey. James 1:22-25 says, “Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the Word, but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” Notice, the emphasis is not on knowing, but on responding positively.
We know a lot more than we practice. Like those who are ever learning, but are never able to come to the knowledge of truth, there are many professing Christians who are ever learning, but because the knowledge of truth comes by applying the truth to their lives, they have never really come to understand it on a practical or experiential level.
It never ceases to amaze me how many of the Christians I read about in third world countries, who are fortunate to own a Bible, much less any other religious material, who are far more committed in their discipleship than western Christians who have vast libraries of biblical material at their disposal. The issue here is not on what we know, but on how we respond to or act on what we know.
Jesus says there are two responses to His message: (1) to hear and obey; (2) to hear and disobey. There is no middle ground; either we hear and obey, or we hear and disobey. Jesus makes it absolutely clear. Knowing is not sufficient, giving mental ascent to His message, in and of itself will not do, even being a church member is not going to get us to heaven. If we are really His disciples and if we really follow Him, we will do what He has said. That is the line of separation, the difference between those who authentically are His disciples and those who merely claim to be.
Those who hear and obey are likened to the wise man who builds his house upon the rock. When the rain falls, wind blows, and flood comes, his house stands. But those who hear and for whatever reason fail to obey, their lives will not stand. The rain, wind, and flood will destroy them.
The foundation of our lives is truth. This is the truth we find in the Word of God. The building blocks of our life are to be found in obedience to His Word. When our lives are transformed by His power, when the indwelling of His Holy Spirit forever changes our hearts, our actions will consequently change as well.
Those who hear and obey are building with solid rock. Those who hear and disobey are building with sand. The quality of the material with which we build our lives will always be tested and will ultimately be tested on judgment day when the books are opened and the truth of our lives are examined before all of creation.
Jesus is telling us here that the authenticity of our discipleship will be readily evident in how we respond to what He has told us. If we do not love our neighbors as ourselves, if we do not forgive as we have been forgiven, if we are hypercritical and judgmental, if we hold anger and resentment in our hearts, if we do not love as we have been loved, in spite of what we profess, irrespective of what we might claim, we are not His disciples. His disciples practice what He has preached.
They are not practicing what He preaches in order to become His disciples, but rather they are practicing what He preaches because they have been transformed; they love Him and have been enabled through His power to keep His commandments. Salvation is not through works, but is evidenced by our works.
Jesus is clearly calling for a positive response to His message. He is calling us to hear and to obey. He is asking us to take a long hard look at our lives to see where we are spiritually. Jesus is summing up His sermon by asking us to examine our lives, to see if we are building our lives on the solid rock of His truth or on the sinking sands of false philosophies. He does this because there are results or consequences to our choices. That’s the final thing I want you to note from this text. Jesus is calling us to a serious time of self-examination because the results of our response to His message are eternal.
Look again at what our Lord says in verses 24-27.
Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.
The results are clear. There is a stark contrast between those who hear and obey, and those who hear and disobey. Those who hear and obey have eternal life; nothing can take it from them. Their lives are built on the solid rock. Those who hear and disobey are building their houses on sand. Whatever they have built will not stand the test of time.
In the world in which you and I live, everyone is building something. Some are building lives that will last; they are walking in obedience to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. They are in constant fellowship with Him, sensitive to His Spirit’s voice, listening carefully, leaning not on their own understanding, but in all their ways acknowledging Him. Their lives are being built with solid, indestructible materials.
But others are building their lives with things that cannot last. Their houses may look similar, externally they may be similar in appearance to those built of rock, but structurally they are different. They are built upon a shoddy foundation, upon the ever changing sands of human efforts and self will.
There is a mournful danger in every age that men will hear Christ’s servants preach and will themselves read in His written Word, and stop at that, without doing anything about what they read or hear. Jesus is asking each of us, “Are you doing what I have said?”
To what degree are you and I obeying the teachings of our Lord, and to what degree are we making excuses for our disobedience? Upon what are you building your life today? Are you building your life on the solid rock of God’s Word? Are the building materials of your life made of acts of obedience? Will what you are building stand the test of time?
Or, perhaps you know, deep within your heart that there is a difference between what you profess and what you possess – that when all things are revealed, you will be found out to be a fraud. Perhaps you are reading these words and deep within your heart you know that you are not walking in obedience to what Jesus has said. Others may think you are a fine upstanding Christian, it’s not really that difficult to fool others. It is, however, impossible to fool God.
Right now, God is calling you to Himself. He is calling you to become a true disciple, an authentic follower of His. He is calling you to commit yourself to Him and to His kingdom.
Maybe you’ve never given your heart and life to Jesus and for the very first time, you want to confess Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you want to know forgiveness of sins and the peace that only He can give you. Or, perhaps there are some areas of your life where you know you are not walking the talk, not living the Christian life others think you live.
This is a time of decision, a time to do business with God. This is the hour, this is the day; the time for you to change your eternal destiny is now. Today, you can choose to hear and obey. If you need to give your heart and life to Jesus, I want you to do that.
Perhaps you have accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, but you need to be obedient and follow Him in some course of action He has been calling you to do. Perhaps you’re reading these words and the Spirit of God has convicted you, showing you there is a discrepancy between what you say and what you do. And He is leading you to say that you will recommit yourself to become the disciple Jesus has called you to be, to follow Him wherever He leads, to do whatever He says, to hold nothing back, but to follow Him with total abandon, to surrender everything you are and have to Him, to walk in perfect obedience.
This is a time for each of us to examine our own walk with God to see whether or not we have a winning witness or a waning witness: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Cor. 13:5).
My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of My Father’s hand (John 10:27-29).
Election is, without a doubt, one of the most difficult doctrines for us to comprehend. Simply put, election means everyone who comes to faith in Christ does so because God, in His grace and mercy, chose them to be saved. Election to salvation is an act of grace, rooted in the purpose of God. Election starts with God, not man. Election is rooted in grace, not works. It is unmerited and undeserved.
While there is no question this is what the Bible teaches, there are many questions as to what it really means. At the heart of the difficulty with this doctrine is the tension between God’s election and the free will of man. Libraries of books have been written on this subject and no one has ever been able to sufficiently settle the myriad of questions surrounding the tension. Those of the Reformed view would say it is the tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.
Now, a word is in order about what exactly I mean by the term “reformed.” I am speaking of what is commonly known as Calvinism. I have found it difficult to identify a universal definition of Calvinism because everyone I have met who claims to be a Calvinist wants to define exactly what they mean by that. So for the sake of our discussion, we will simply overview the basics.
Calvinism stems from the teachings of the great reformer, John Calvin, who lived between 1509 and 1564. Calvin emphasized the sovereignty of God, the sinfulness of man, and the necessity of grace for salvation, all which are foundational to my theology and many other Bible-believing Christians as well. Some years after he died, his followers systemized his theology and went beyond what Calvin himself taught. This system is classified with the now famous acronym T-U-L-I-P.
The “T” in Tulip stands for “Total Depravity.”Man can do nothing to save himself, not even exercise faith. Faith is a work. Since the fall, man is born with a natural bent toward sin. Every part of him has been infected with this disease of sin, so he cannot save himself, nor can he seek God without the prompting of the Holy Spirit through His grace. The Bible clearly teaches we cannot come to God on our own. It takes God drawing us to Himself: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (Jn. 6:44).
The “U” in Tulip stands for “Unconditional Election.”God alone initiates salvation; it is not based upon man’s exercise of faith. God, in His grace and mercy, unconditioned on anything else, by His own sovereign desire, chose some for salvation and left others to suffer the full consequences of their sins: “For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight” (Eph. 1:4).We did not influence God’s decision to save us; He saves us according to His plan.
The tension here arises from the Scriptures which say no one is saved apart from God’s plan, yet anyone who repents and trusts Jesus Christ will be saved. Which is it? The Bible teaches both: God chooses us and we must choose God. It teaches God will hold us responsible for our decision to choose or reject Jesus, and yet it also says we cannot come to Him unless He enables us. It says God has His elect and it also says He is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. This is one of the great tensions in Scripture.
I have found many Christians are preoccupied by the doctrine of election and how it affects salvation. Friends, we don’t know who is elect and who is not. All we know is we have a responsibility before God to go out into the world and share the gospel with everyone we can to become a member of the family of God. God does the electing. He chose us to do the evangelizing. The emphasis for us should be on “doing.”
The “L” in Tulip stands for “Limited Atonement.” This can be a confusing phrase, so some prefer the term “particular redemption.”Not everyone will be saved. The benefit of the work of Christ is limited only to those who trust Him. Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, but the only ones to benefit from His atonement are those who receive, by their personal faith in Christ, the free gift of salvation offered to them: “I am not praying for the world, but for those You have given Me, for they are Yours” (Jn. 17:9).
The “I” in Tulip stands for “Irresistible Grace” (or some prefer the term “effectual calling”).Those God has chosen to be saved, He will make willing to come. They do not want to resist. Those who are predestined to be saved will ultimately be saved. The elect will not be forced to be saved against their will, but will come to Christ of their own choosing because God’s grace is irresistible. His call on their life will be effective: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose… and those He predestined, He also called; those He called, He also justified; those He justified, He also glorified” (Rom. 8:28-30).
The “P” in Tulip stands for “Perseverance of the Saints.” Those whom God saves He saves eternally; they cannot lose their salvation: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). This is referred to as eternal security or once saved always saved, but this doctrine is often misunderstood. The perseverance of the saints is not a license to sin and live however we want; rather, if we are truly saved we will display actions which give evidence to the fact we have truly been saved.
All true believers will endure in faith to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but will preserve to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; but they will be kept by the power of God through faith to salvation.
Election is the gracious purpose of God, by which He calls, regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free will of man. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness. It is unchangeable; therefore, it excludes boasting and promotes humility. Salvation begins and ends with God. It is by His grace and mercy. Man can have nothing to do with it.
Here are three practical ways to put this truth in practice:
1. Recognize salvation is from God alone and we must rely on His grace to be saved. He chooses us and we also choose Him.
2. Resist the temptation of trying to know what we simply cannot know (Deut 29:29).
3. Rest in the assurance that because God saves, we cannot un-save ourselves. We cannot be saved by grace and kept by works. It is simply not compatible with the plan of God.
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
What difference does it make? It makes all the difference in the world; not only in this world, but in the world to come. Unlike the pagans of old, we are not left to our own imagination as to what God is like, what He demands from us, and who He is. Graciously and lovingly, in keeping with His character, God has revealed Himself to us. He wants us to know Him, love Him, be in fellowship with Him, serve Him, and bring Him glory through our lives.
Knowing God gives us purpose. It adds reason and rational to our lives. It tells us there is a God in heaven, seated on His throne, and not only does He care for us, but He created us for a purpose. Think of how hopeless the man or woman is who has no God in whom to trust. Consider the emptiness and vanity of life lived without knowledge of the God of the Bible. Knowing God assures us that to everything there is a season and a time, to every purpose under heaven. Life is no accident. We didn’t merely evolve. God made us. Wondrously and gloriously have we been made. Not in the image of an ape, but in the image of God Himself.
While there remains a certain mystery to God, that is, there is much about Him we do not understand; there is much about Him we can and do know. He is a person and we can know Him personally. We may not be able to know Him fully, but we can know Him truly. Indeed, we can know Him for who He is.
God’s sovereignty assures us there is nothing too hard for Him. He is always in control. Nothing is too difficult for Him. He can do anything He desires, and Scripture tells us when we pray, He hears and answers our prayers. That ought to charge your batteries this morning! The God of the entire universe, the one for whom nothing is impossible and everything in creation is held accountable, has given you and I permission to come and make our requests before His throne. Not only does He hear us, but He has promised to answer our prayers!
God’s holiness assures us He is neither capricious nor malicious, but is pure and good. He cannot be corrupted. He cannot be bribed, nor can He be persuaded to go against His nature. God’s holiness tells us He is not like us, but that as His Spirit works in our lives, we can become more and more like Him.
God’s eternal nature assures us He is infinitely different than we are. Unlike the gods of the pagans who were carved in stone and had to be awakened and cared for, our God is self sustaining and needs nothing from us. It is we who are needy and because He is without beginning or end, because He is everlasting, the Alpha and the Omega, He can meet our every need. The fact He is infinite assures us there is life beyond this earth. When Jesus promised He would go and prepare a place for us, we can take Him at His word. Knowing our God is without beginning or end, that He knows all things, can do all things, and is always everywhere at all times should bring great comfort to our souls.
God’s omnipresence assures us He can keep His word to never leave us nor forsake us. Our God is not limited to time and space. He cannot be confined to some image or statue. He is not a prisoner to some temple we build for Him. He is everywhere, at all times forever. There is no place we can escape Him and there is no place where He is not already there before we arrive.
God’s omniscience assures us He has everything under control. Nothing will ever take Him by surprise, nothing will ever catch Him off guard, no circumstance we encounter in life, regardless of how difficult or sudden it may be, will ever find our Lord unaware or unprepared. He who created all things knows all things and has made provisions for us before we ever need them. This is what Jesus says of His Father in the Sermon on the Mount. He knows what we need before we even ask!
God’s righteousness gives us knowledge that someday all wrongs will be made right, that while injustice may reign on this earth, He will be the final judge. All things will be set right and every man will give an account. We can live with this world, knowing that it is but for a while. God’s righteousness tells us He will punish sin, not just the sin of others, but our sin as well. It tells us we must make things right with Him.
God’s mercy gives us insight into His patience and willingness to wait for us. While He has every right to punish us, instead He chooses to pursue us, to call us to Himself. Withholding His wrath, in His Mercy, He extends His goodness and grace to us.
God’s love for us assures us He is always looking out for our best. Nowhere was this more clearly seen than on Calvary’s cross: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). While God is just, He is also loving; so much so that He gave of Himself to pay the just penalty for our sin. He extended His love towards us in that while we were yet sinners in rebellion against Him, He sent Jesus to die for us. This is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s love.
I pity the soul who has no God like ours in whom to trust. I pity the self-sufficient man who scoffs at our religion, calling it a crutch for simple minded weaklings. There will come a day when those who refuse to submit to the Lord will wish they had. There will come a day when their strength fails them and their flesh gives way to the ravages of time. That is why we who know Him must tell all who will hear of the one true and living God who offers forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who will receive.
As you contemplate the majesty and wonder of our God the obvious question is not, “What do you know about Him?” But rather, “Do you know Him?” Have you ever come to a point in your life where you’ve placed your trust for forgiveness of sins and eternal life in Jesus Christ? If not, what would keep you from doing so right now?
Our theology about God is rooted and grounded solely in Scripture. All we can ever know about God is what He has chosen to disclose to us. What, then, does God reveal to us about Himself? Here are 10 things God tells us in Scripture.
1. He is the only true God. The Scripture is clear, there is only one true and living God: “I am the Lord, there is no other; there is no God but Me” (Isa. 45:5). As Christians, we are monotheistic, that is, we believe there is only one God. Polytheism believes in many gods. Pantheism believes god is in everything and everything is god. Atheism says there is no God, but biblical theism says there is only one God and there is no other god beside Him. Our God is unique. The Bible tells us He is a person. He is intelligent, knowable, and has a personal will.
2. God is Sovereign. He is omnipotent (all powerful) and able to do all His holy will. He tells us in Jeremiah 32:27 that there is nothing too hard for Him. God’s sovereignty speaks to His rule or reign over all things. It would not be fair to say God can do anything because His sovereignty is consistent with His holiness and all His other attributes: therefore, God cannot lie, He cannot sin, He cannot deny Himself, He cannot be tempted with evil, and He cannot cease to exist. Simply put, God’s sovereignty means He is able to bring His will to pass however He wills. While God’s freedom speaks to the fact that there are no external constraints on His decisions, His sovereignty speaks to the fact that by His own power He can do whatever He pleases: “Our God is in heaven; He does whatever pleases Him” (Ps. 115:3).
3. God is Holy. The word holy is often used in Scripture to speak about the Christian being separated from sin and separated to God. But when Scripture uses the word holy to describe God, it is speaking not only of His righteousness and perfection, but of the reality that He is separate and different from us. This word speaks to His transcendence or the fact that He is infinitely exalted above all of creation. Isaiah 6:3 tells us of the angels around the throne, “They were calling to one another: ‘holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory.”
4. God is Infinite.He is eternal. He has neither beginning nor end; He has always been and will always be. Time and space do not limit God as they limit us. God is not subject to the special laws of time and space, which confine us. He is timeless: “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day” (2 Pet. 3:8). He can act within time or outside of its limitations. Truly, this is incomprehensible to us. As limited, finite beings, who ourselves are confined by time and space, it is difficult for us to even conceive of this aspect of God, but Scripture tells us He is eternal.
5. God is Omnipresent.There is no place He is not. He is everywhere at all times. There is no place where we can escape the presence of God (Ps. 139:7-10). Furthermore, He is in no way diminished by His being in all places at all times. He is present everywhere in all His fullness. This too is difficult for us to understand, so we must say with the Psalmist, “This extraordinary knowledge is beyond me. It is lofty; I am unable to reach it.” Suffice it to say that God is all places at all times and there is never a place where He is not.
6. God is Omniscient. He knows all things, past, present and future, the possible as well as the actual. There is nothing which escapes His knowledge or understanding: “Before a word is on my tongue, You know all about it, Lord” (Ps. 139:4). Even the thoughts of our hearts are known to Him. From the beginning, He knows the end and from the end, He knows the beginning. His knowledge is simultaneous as opposed to successive. That is, He knows all things at all times. He is never learning or in the process of learning, as Open Theists would have us think. God has always known all things and always will.
7. God is Unchanging. The technical term is “Immutable.” When we speak of the Immutability of God, we are talking about the fact that He is not capable or susceptible of change, either by increase or by decrease, by development or by self-evolution. He is unchangeable, invariable, and permanent. God does not change: “I the Lord do not change (Mal. 3:6). Not only does God not change, but His moral principles do not change. He is who He has always been and will always be who He is. “You remain the same and Your years will never end” (Heb. 1:12).
8. God is Righteous. He is the standard by which fairness and justice are measured. God’s righteousness means He always acts in accordance with what is right and is Himself the final standard of what is right: “His works are perfect and all His ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is He” (Deut. 32:4). What a wonderful thing to know that God is righteous and just! We know that someday, every wrong will be made right and everyone of us will stand before Him and give account. Although we may be surrounded by injustice on this earth, in the end, justice will prevail because our God is the personification of what is right and just.
9. God is Merciful. While God is just, He is also gracious and merciful. This speaks to God’s patience and His longsuffering with His fallen creations: “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (Ps. 103:8). Mercy speaks to God withholding punishment that we do deserve, while grace speaks to His giving us good things we do not deserve. God is indeed merciful.
10. God is Love. This means God is about the business of giving Himself to others: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:45 that God’s love is for all of His creation, as He causes the sun to shine and rain to fall on the just and the unjust. God loves all of His creation, and does so with a selfless and sacrificial kind of love. Volumes have been written on the love of God. While many try to explain it, God is always about the business of inviting us to experience it. Throughout Scripture, we see the evidence of God’s love, ultimately fulfilled in the giving of His Son Jesus to pay the penalty of our sins.
Perhaps as you’ve been reading this article, you’ve thought about other things you would like to learn about God. Things like His wisdom, His goodness, His self-sufficiency, or His glory. Maybe you’ve thought about His beauty, His peace, or His faithfulness. All of these things are topics about which books have been written. We’ve only scratched the surface.
In Part 3 of this article, we will consider what impact these truths have on our lives.
If I were to ask you if you believed in God, I am confident almost all of you would respond in the affirmative. But if I were to follow that question up by asking you to describe God to me, to give me a list of His attributes or to speak to me about the essential qualities of His nature, the answers would not be as forthcoming. While most people claim to believe in God, they are not really sure who He is, what He is like, and how we can know these things about Him with certainty.
As I sat down to write this message, it occurred to me the task before me was next to impossible. How do I say all I need to say about God? I cannot. So this is a disclaimer upfront. I can neither be exhaustive nor comprehensive in my treatment of this topic. Our purpose today is not to learn all there is to know about God, that would be impossible. Rather, my hope is to stir your heart and whet your appetite for more, so you will continue to study and learn more of these truths on your own.
First, let’s consider who God is not. While most people claim to believe in God, it is clear they do not believe in the God revealed in Scripture. The question, then, should not be: “Do you believe in God?” The question should be: “In what god do you believe?” You see, when different people talk about God, they are not all speaking of the same person. Many well intentioned Christians are simply ignorant of this truth. For example, when the topic of Islam is raised, you will hear people say something like, “Well, we all worship the same God, don’t we?” The answer is unequivocally no. The God of Scripture is not Allah, worshiped by the Muslims. Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God. To say we do just because we use the same generic name for God is like saying all references to the name “Mike” must refer to the same person.
The same is true of all the other gods worshiped by other religions. The God of the Bible is not the god of the Mormons; He is not the god of the Jehovah’s Witnesses; He is not the god of the New Agers; and the list could go on. While many people believe in a god, they do not all believe in the God who is revealed in Scripture.
If we look just a little below the surface we can see who God is depends on who you ask. How, then, do we know who our God is and on what authority can we claim to found our beliefs?
This brings us to our second consideration.
Who is God and how can we know Him? Our theology about God is rooted and grounded solely in Scripture. We believe there is one and only one living and true God. He is an intelligent, spiritual, and personal Being. He is the Creator, Redeemer, Preserver, and Ruler of the universe. He is infinite in Holiness and all other perfections. He is all powerful and all knowing. To Him, we owe the highest love, reverence, and obedience. The eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.This is a summation of our theology of God. Fundamental to our faith is the understanding that God has revealed Himself to us in Scripture.
This is an important truth we need to be clear of. If we are not clear about where we get our knowledge of God, then whatever knowledge we have of Him will be suspect. The Scripture is the only certain word we have about God and it tells us that we are made in His image. This is important because when many people think about God, they try to think of Him in human terms. They try to think of Him in sentimental ways or understand Him through the lens of their personal experience, always trying to envision Him within the confines of how they would understand another human. But instead of understanding God within the confines of human personhood, we need to recognize that we are a finite and fallen replica of His infinite, divine, and perfect person. We are created in His image. He is the Creator; we are the creature. All we can ever know about God is what He has chosen to disclose to us in Scripture.
What, then, does God reveal to us about Himself?
In Part 2 of this article, we will look at 10 things God tells us about Himself in Scripture.
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves (Matthew 7:15).
Jesus warned us that “false christs and false prophets” would come and would attempt to deceive even God’s elect (Mt. 24:23-27; 2 Pet. 3:3; Jd. 17-18). The best way to guard ourselves against falsehood and false teachers is to know the truth. To spot a counterfeit, we need to study the real thing. Any believer who “correctly handles the Word of Truth” (2 Tim. 2:15) and who makes a careful study of the Bible can identify false doctrine. There are three specific questions to ask of any teacher to determine the accuracy of his or her teaching:
What does this teacher say about Jesus? Beware of anyone who denies Jesus is equal with God, who downplays Jesus’ sacrificial death, or who rejects Jesus’ humanity: “Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son” (1 Jn. 2:22).
Does this teacher preach the gospel? The gospel is the good news concerning Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1-4). As nice as they may sound, the statements “God wants you to be wealthy, God wants to heal you of all disease, and what you speak is what you create” are not the message of the gospel. Paul warns in Gal. 1:7, “Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.”
False teachers are often people-pleasers (Gal. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:1-4). They preach more to please the ear than to profit the heart. But no one, not even a great preacher, has the right to change the message God gave us: “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned” (Gal. 1:9). False teachers strive more to win over men to their opinions, than to better their souls. They busy themselves most about men’s heads: “Then the Lord said to me, ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I have not sent them or appointed them or spoken to them. They are prophesying to you false visions, divinations, idolatries, and the delusions of their own minds” (Jer. 14:14).
Does this teacher exhibit character qualities that glorify the Lord? Referring to false teachers, Jude 11 says, “Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; they have rushed for profit into Balaam’s error; they have been destroyed in Korah’s rebellion.” A false teacher can be known by his pride (Cain’s rejection of God’s plan), greed (Balaam’s prophesying for money), and rebellion (Korah’s promotion of himself over Moses). Jesus said to beware of such people and we would know them by their fruits (Mt. 7:15-20).
It is often difficult to spot a false teacher. Satan masquerades as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14) and his ministers masquerade as servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:15). Only by being thoroughly familiar with the truth will we be able to recognize a counterfeit. For further study about false teachers, review those books of the Bible that were written specifically to combat false teaching within the church: Galatians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, and Jude.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17-21).
In this day of constant lawsuits and incessant demands for legal rights, Paul’s command sounds almost impossible, but these verses summarize the core of Christian living. If we love someone the way Christ loves us, we will be willing to forgive. If we have experienced God’s grace, we will want to pass it on to others.
This command relates primarily to believers’ relationships with unbelievers. The Old Testament principle of justice was “eye for eye” (Ex. 21:24), but we are told, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil… live at peace with everyone.” Recognizing that limits exist, however, Paul includes the words, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you” (v. 18). Harmony with others may not always be achievable, but believers should not be responsible for that lack of peace (Matt. 5:9).
Paul exhorts us not to take revenge after we are misused. Rather, we should leave room for God’s wrath. God has promised to avenge His people: “It is Mine to avenge, I will repay” (Deut. 32:35; Heb. 10:30). David’s refusal to kill Saul on two occasions when it seemed God had delivered Saul into David’s hands is a classic biblical example of this principle.
When someone hurts us deeply, instead of giving him what he deserves, Paul says to forgive him.In light of God’s promise to execute vengeance, we are to feed our enemy and quench his thirst—in short, respond to his evil with Christian love.By giving our enemy a drink, we are not excusing his misdeeds; rather, we are recognizing him, forgiving him, and loving him in spite of his sins—just as Christ does for us.
Grace is undeserved favor. Even if our enemy never repents, forgiving him will free us of a heavy load of anger, resentment, and bitterness.Jesus wants us to pray for those who hurt us (Mt. 5:44). By returning evil with good, we are acting as Christ did to us and trusting God to be the final judge.
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“When Jesus had finished saying these things the crowds were amazed at His teaching because He taught as one who had authority and not as their teachers of the law” (Mt. 7:28-29).
The crowds of people following Jesus were amazed at His teaching, for He taught as a Spokesman from God—not as the teachers of His time who were simply reflecting the authority of the Law. Jesus had just demonstrated the inadequacies of the Pharisees’ religious system. The righteousness they knew was not sufficient for entering His kingdom.
Like the Jewish rabbis, Jesus was gathering His own group of disciples and was training them. We are reminded of His words to Simon and Andrew in Mark 1: “Follow Me.” It was a simple phrase, yet one loaded with meaning. When Jesus called the twelve disciples (and many others who followed Him during His earthly ministry), His command demanded a response. In His call to discipleship, Jesus challenged the disciples to three things.
First, Jesus challenged the disciples to live with Him. The call “Follow Me” had a very real physical application. Jesus did not say these words and then walk away never to be seen by the disciples again. He expected them to leave what they were doing in order to physically walk after Him.
For three years after this call the twelve disciples lived with Jesus. They travelled to many different places with Him, seeking food and shelter in a host of ways. They saw Jesus in the morning when He got up and at night when He laid down. They watched Him pray, heal, preach, and teach. They observed Jesus in His dealings with difficult people. Through all of their experiences with Him, they learned that Jesus’ lifestyle was radically different from the one they had learned from birth. They were challenged to live a new life.
Second, Jesus challenged the disciples to learn how to live as His disciples. This new life did not come easily to them. They were naturally brash, selfish, and uncaring. Jesus had to teach them to be gentle, giving, and compassionate. On many occasions, He took the disciples aside in order to instruct them. When He told parables, He would explain the meaning to them after the crowds had departed. The disciples were often as “deaf” as the crowds when it came to understanding parables. Jesus asked questions of them, taught them, admonished them, prodded them to take steps of faith, nurtured them, and loved them.
Theirs was a special relationship that went much deeper than the one Jesus had with the crowds that followed Him for two reasons: First, Jesus had committed Himself to the disciples in every way. He made Himself accessible to them and confided in them. He had great expectations for them and occasionally showed frustration with them. You might recall the time the disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee with Jesus asleep in the boat when a great storm came. Jesus chided them for their lack of faith. Jesus had committed Himself to His disciples, so He had great expectations of them.
Second, theirs was a unique relationship because the disciples were committed to Jesus in return. They had a growing love for Christ, and a desire to be obedient and loyal in everything. At times, they struggled with their faith, sin, and weaknesses, but they wanted to be faithful. They loved Jesus and were willing to give up everything (eventually most of them even gave up their lives) for this Man from Galilee.
Third, Jesus challenged the disciples to prepare others to hear the Good News. One of the marks of good students is they are able to do what the teacher has instructed them to do—even when the teacher is not present. Knowing this, Christ trained His disciples by encouraging them to take steps of faith on their own.
As the disciples travelled with Jesus, they spent most of their time observing their Master at work. Then, when they were ready, Jesus sent them out two-by-two to prepare towns for His coming. The disciples preached as they had seen Jesus preach. They sought faithful God-fearing people in the towns as Jesus had done. They healed the sick and comforted the bereaved as Jesus did. They learned what ministry was all about by spending time with Jesus and imitating their Master.
In what ways is our disciple-making like that of Jesus? In what ways is it different?
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw Him, they worshipped Him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matt. 28:16–20).
Imagine you are one of the eleven disciples who met Jesus on the mountain. Three years ago, you received the call to follow Christ and you left your family, friends, and livelihood to do so. You have been fascinated by this Man who can heal the sick, raise the dead, and preach with an authority that draws multitudes to hear Him. You have lived with Him, trying desperately to understand this Man who is so different from everyone you have known before. You were present on the night He was taken by the mob to His crucifixion and you ran. Three days later, while you were still in hiding, you heard He had risen, and you were terrified and relieved at the same time. You have seen Him a number of times since His resurrection and now as you meet Him on the mountain, you realize He is preparing you for yet another good-by.
In these last words of Jesus—which you will reflect on many times in the coming days—you receive your final instructions or formal “commissioning.” There is no mistake about it that Jesus is giving you a command that is to be followed. As His disciple, you are to respond in obedience.
But what is He telling you?
There is one thing Jesus says that is crystal clear. It is His command to “go and make disciples of all nations.” As His disciple, you know very well what He means.
The Early Church and Discipleship
The original disciples learned how to think and act based on their relationship with the master disciple-maker: Jesus. They in turn began to duplicate His kind of ministry after Jesus went back to heaven.
In the book of Acts much can be discovered about the history of the church. Following Christ’s ascension into heaven, the promised Holy Spirit manifests in power at Pentecost, and the disciples start carrying the Good News to all people.
It was an exciting time for the church, a period of rapid growth in spite of tremendous persecution. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 brought three thousand new believers into the church in one day! These new believers combined with other disciples to worship in the temple each day. Their lives were so different that they were viewed favorably by others and the church grew rapidly.
From the beginning the church met together in larger groups for corporate worship, but small groups also had a place in the life of the church. The apostles not only taught large groups, but they also went from house to house, visiting small groups in homes as they taught and made disciples (Acts 5:42). People met together in homes to break bread together and to encourage each other to live out their faith in ever greater obedience. There were home prayer meetings like the one held while Peter was in prison (Acts 12:12) and Paul’s letters speak of “house churches” (Rom 16:5).
Whether house churches were independent groups of believers or were part of larger churches is uncertain. It is likely, however, that small house fellowships were the building blocks of the church in each city or region. The early disciples met in groups small enough to fit into normal homes.
The church needed the “house church” for its survival. There were periods of intense persecution for the first few centuries after Christ, so the early church was often not able to meet openly, nor were they allowed to purchase large buildings for gathering. They relied on the more protective environment of the home to nurture and protect the gospel in the lives of believers. Miraculously, the church was able to multiply without large buildings, mass meetings, and a plethora of “how to” books!
A fascinating aspect of discipleship is that Christians in the twentieth century are in the direct line that can be traced back twenty centuries to the original twelve disciples. In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul illustrates the process of making disciples: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” All disciples of Christ have been entrusted with the gospel message, which we are to continually invest in the lives of others. Rather than ending with us, the process must begin again with us, as with each new generation.
Learning to live as a child of God in our culture is a formidable challenge. Many people feel uncertain, others overwhelmed. While there are many people who can teach others how to flip pancakes or play sports, it is even more vital that there are people who can show others how to live the Christian life.
What do we mean when we talk about “disciples?” A disciple is a committed follower of Jesus who seeks to live a life marked by continued growth in understanding and obedience. How, then, can we continue the process of making disciples in this century? The following are three key principles for today’s disciple-makers to follow:
Disciples are made intentionally. Just as children don’t grow up without personal care, so discipleship will not occur without faithful Christians being intentional about it. The word discipleship is a catchphrase in the church today, often without meaning. As a result, some people think of discipleship when they think of Bible-study workbooks or adult Sunday school. What they forget is that the process of making disciples is a dynamic relationship between fellow Christians and their Lord, and it is marked by continued progress.
Making disciples must be intentional in order for small groups to take root and grow. You and I cannot pay “lip service” to disciple-making or look at it as one aspect of ministry. It must be the goal of all ministry. Our goal is that people will come to faith in Christ and then grow to maturity as His disciples.
Disciples are to be like Christ. Have you ever watched a group of people, perhaps children, who are devoted to a particular celebrity and dress, talk, and walk like the individual they idolize? It is only natural to emulate someone you respect and look up to. And since “disciple” means “imitator,” disciple-makers become models to those who are learning to follow Christ. We must be careful not to duplicate ourselves, though. It is very easy to cross the line from being respected to being idolized. Instead, our task is to help develop partners in discipleship. We must strive to be able to say (paraphrasing Paul), “We first imitated the Lord and then you learned from us how to imitate the Lord” (1 Thess 1:6).
It is often difficult, however, for modern Christians to picture themselves as disciples. We ask people if they are “Christians” instead of if they are “disciples,” as if a person could be a Christian without being a disciple. In the early church, followers of Christ were called disciples until someone in Antioch thought of the term Christian (Acts 11:26). There is nothing wrong with using the word Christian when it is properly understood because “Christian” means “little Christ” or “belonging to Christ.” A disciple imitating Christ does belong to Christ.
But who decides what it means to be like Christ? Is there anywhere to go for answers? Yes! We can go to the textbook for discipleship: the Bible.
One of the disciple-maker’s key tasks is to direct disciples to the Word of God. Growing disciples must spend time in God’s Word on a daily basis. If we want to make disciples the Bible can show what it means to be like Christ. The Bible is the only reliable source for knowledge on how to live an obedient and meaningful life. Luke wrote his Gospel “so you can know the certainty of the things which you were taught” (Lk. 1:4). John wrote “so you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (Jn. 20:31).
Disciples are made in relationship. From the beginning of our lives, we learn by watching others and then imitating them. Children learn to walk and talk (among other things) by watching others. As you think back over your life, you can no doubt think of many things you learned by watching, learning, and then imitating. This is how we learn to ride a bike, drive a car, and play an instrument. It is also how we learn to “act cool” in high school, move up the social ladder in adulthood, and age gracefully in older years. In short, we learn about life in community by watching others and then imitating them.
The Christian life is exactly the same. There is no example in the Bible of a lone ranger disciple. Even Paul, after his dramatic conversion and long stay in the desert, went to Jerusalem and associated himself with the apostles and later with the church at Antioch (Acts 9:26-30; 11:25-26). When he planted churches, he always travelled in the company of others. He had a team-relationship at different times with Barnabas, Silas, and Timothy. The relational, community-based model of disciple-making had been demonstrated by Jesus and the disciples, and it provided the necessary support for Paul and the early church in the turbulent period after Pentecost.
Since we learn best in relationship, we most effectively learn to be disciples that way. But disciples produced through loving community in churches today are too rare. The self-sufficient individualism of Western culture has seeped into the church and led to situations in which individuals are trying, often without notable success, to mature alone as disciples. Many resources—Christian books, videos, conferences—are available for these lone disciples to increase their knowledge about Jesus, but an accumulation of facts and ideas is only the beginning of Bible-based disciple-making.
It takes a community of fellow disciples who can help each other learn to live a life transformed by the Holy Spirit. The aspect of “growing in community” is such an important concept in this process of making disciples. Without a community in which we can learn, practice, fail, and eventually move out from as agents of change, we are left without a secure foundation. Without a foundation of community, it is difficult to grow in our walk with Christ.
Who has been the most important influence in your spiritual life to help you grow? What characterizes that person’s life?
“For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (Mt. 24:21-22)
Both Christians and non-Christians are interested in the future. Everybody has questions. Some of us are motivated by curiosity, others by fear and anxiety. For the most part, our questions will remain a mystery, but certain future events have been revealed in the Bible.
I would add a word of caution to anyone who attempts to study this topic. We cannot know everything about the future, but we can know certain things. In our attempts to discern what the Bible says about the future, we must be careful our conclusions come only from the truth of Scripture and not our own interpretations. Only God and His Word are infallible, not you or I.
To answer our questions about the Tribulation, it is important to look at God’s purpose for this world during that period of time: to pour out judgment on unbelieving peoples and nations (Isa. 26:21; 2 Thess. 2:12; Rev. 14:7; 15:4; 16). The Tribulation will be characterized by false christs; wars in which nations will rise up against each other on a global scale; unusual disturbances in nature including famines and earthquakes. The world will see terrible times of societal degeneration. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, and having a form of godliness but denying its power. Wickedness will increase, causing the love of most people to grow cold. The very nature of the Tribulation is that of wrath. It will be a time of “great distress” (Jer. 30:7). Things will get bad and then they will get worse. The suffering will be greater than anything the world has ever seen before. This is why Jesus points out how difficult the time will be for pregnant women and nursing mothers (Mt. 24:19).
When I think about the suffering in the world today, it is easy to understand why so many people think we are in the midst of the Tribulation now. While we can conclude a number of things about the Tribulation, it is important to realize our conclusions are tempered by where we stand – with Christ or without Him. If we are among those who have confessed Jesus as Lord and Savior the Bible affirms we will be raptured before the Tribulation and will not be present during that time. If we are believers, God will provide for us today and tomorrow. It is clear Jesus does not appoint the church to wrath, but to salvation. With that in mind, those who know Christ have nothing to fear. Whatever the future holds, God is in control.
However, the application of this Bible truth is far different for the unbeliever. A choice must be made by each of us in this life and this choice will determine our eternal destination (and if we will enter the Tribulation if it occurs while we are still living on earth). Those who have been made righteous by faith in Christ will have eternal life in heaven, but those who reject Christ will be sent to eternal punishment in hell (Mt. 25:46). God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but desires all men to turn from their ways so that they can live eternally with Him (Ezek. 33:11).
How can we avoid eternal wrath in Hell and receive eternal life in heaven? There is only one way—through faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible is clear on what determines our eternal destination—whether we have faith in Christ and trust Him to save us from our sins. Christ’s simple way is the only way and it alone leads to eternal life. Jesus said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).
“Nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Benjamin Franklin wrote those words in 1789. Of course, a wise man like Franklin knew many other things are also certain. The Christian knows there are many certainties. Of spiritual truth, Christians are not afraid to say, “We know!” In fact, the word know occurs thirty-nine times in John’s brief letter, eight times in this closing chapter.
Man has a deep desire for certainty and he will even dabble in the occult in his effort to find out something for sure. A businessman having dinner with his pastor said to him, “Do you see those offices across the street? In them sit some of the most influential business leaders in this town. Many of them used to come over here regularly to consult a fortune-teller. She isn’t here anymore, but a few years ago you could count up the millions of dollars in this room as men waited to consult her.”
The life that is real is built on the divine certainties that are found in Jesus Christ. The world may accuse the Christian of being proud and dogmatic, but this does not keep him from saying, “I know!” In these closing verses of John’s letter, we find five Christian certainties on which we can build our lives with confidence.
JESUS IS GOD (1 John 5:6–10)
In 1 John 5:1–5, emphasis is placed on trusting Jesus Christ. A person who trusts Christ is born of God and is able to overcome the world. To believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God is basic to Christian experience.
But how do we know Jesus is God? Some of His contemporaries called Him a liar and a deceiver (Matt. 27:63). Others have suggested He was a religious fanatic, a madman, or perhaps a Jewish patriot who was sincere, but sadly mistaken. The people to whom John was writing were exposed to a popular false teaching that Jesus was merely a man on whom “the Christ” had come when Jesus was baptized. On the cross, “the Christ” left Jesus and so He died like any other human being. John refutes this false teaching and tells us Jesus is God.
People often say, “I wish I could have faith!” But everybody lives by faith! All day long, people trust one another. They trust the doctor and the pharmacist; they trust the cook in the restaurant; they even trust the person driving in the other lane on the highway. If we can trust men, why can we not trust God? To not trust God is to make Him a liar!
Jesus is God: this is the first Christian certainty and it is foundational to everything else.
BELIEVERS HAVE ETERNAL LIFE (1 John 5:11–13)
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:13).
Eternal life is a gift; it is not something we earn (Jn. 10:27–29; Eph. 2:8–9). This gift is a Person—Jesus Christ. We receive eternal life not only from Christ, but in Christ. “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 Jn. 5:12).
This gift is received by faith. God has gone on record in His Word as offering eternal life to those who will believe on Jesus Christ. Millions of Christians have proved that God’s record is true. To not believe it is to make God a liar and if God is a liar, nothing is certain.
God wants His children to know they belong to Him. John was inspired by the Spirit to write his Gospel to assure us that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (Jn. 20:31). He wrote this epistle so we may be sure we are the children of God (1 Jn. 5:13).
It would be helpful at this point to review the characteristics of God’s children:
- “Everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him” (1 Jn. 2:29).
- “No one who is born of God practices sin” (1 Jn. 3:9).
- “We know we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren” (1 Jn. 3:14).
- “Let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” (1 Jn. 4:7).
- “Everyone born of God overcomes the world” (1 Jn. 5:4).
If you bear these “birthmarks,” you can say with confidence you are a child of God.
GOD ANSWERS PRAYER (1 John 5:14–15)
It is one thing to know Jesus is God and that we are God’s children, but what about the needs and problems of daily life? Jesus helped people when He was here on earth; does He still help them? Earthly fathers take care of their children; does the heavenly Father respond when His children call on Him?
Christians have confidence in prayer, just as they have confidence as they await the judgment (1 Jn. 2:28; 4:17). As we have seen the word confidence means “freedom of speech.” We can come to the Father freely and tell Him our needs.
Of course, there are conditions we must meet. First, we must have a heart that does not condemn us (1 Jn. 3:21–22). Unconfessed sin is a serious obstacle to answered prayer (Ps. 66:18). It is worth noting that differences between a Christian husband and his wife can hinder their prayers (1 Pet. 3:1–7). If there is anything between us and any other Christian, we must settle it (Matt. 5:23–25). Unless a believer is abiding in Christ, in love and obedience, his prayers will not be answered (Jn. 15:7).
Second, we must pray in God’s will. “Your will be done” (Matt. 6:10). Prayer is a mighty instrument, not for getting man’s will done in heaven, but for getting God’s will done on earth. Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance. It is laying hold of God’s willingness.
There are times when we can only pray, “Not my will, but Yours be done” because we simply do not know God’s will in a matter. But most of the time we can determine God’s will by reading the Word, listening to the Spirit (Rom. 8:26–27), and discerning the circumstances around us. Our very faith to ask God for something is often proof that He wants to give it (Heb. 11:1).
There are many promises in the Bible that we can claim in prayer. God has promised to supply our needs (Phil. 4:19)—not our greeds! If we are obeying His will and really need something, He will supply it in His way and in His time.
“But if it is God’s will for me to have a thing, then why should I pray about it?” Because prayer is the way God wants His children to get what they need. God not only ordains the end, but He also ordains the means to the end—prayer. The more you think about it the more wonderful this arrangement becomes. Prayer is really the thermometer of the spiritual life. God has ordained that I maintain a close walk with Him if I expect Him to meet my needs.
John does not write, “We might have the requests,” but, “We know we have the requests” (1 Jn. 5:15). The verb is present tense. We may not see the answer to a prayer immediately, but we have inner confidence that God has answered. This confidence, or faith, is “the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). It is God witnessing to us that He has heard and answered.
What breathing is to a physical man, prayer is to a spiritual man. If we do not pray, we will faint (“give up”) (Lk. 18:1). Prayer is not only the utterance of the lips; it is also the desire of the heart. “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes. 5:17) does not mean that a Christian is always saying an audible prayer. We are not heard for our many words (Matt. 6:7). No, “Pray without ceasing” suggests the attitude of the heart as well as the words of the lips. A Christian who has his heart fixed on Christ and is trying to glorify Him is praying constantly even when he is not conscious of it.
Charles Spurgeon, the famous preacher, was working hard on a message, but was unable to complete it. It grew late and his wife said, “Why don’t you go to bed. I’ll wake you up early and you can finish your sermon in the morning.”
Spurgeon dozed off and in his sleep began to preach the sermon that was giving him so much trouble! His wife wrote down what he said and the next morning gave her preacher-husband the notes.
“Why, that’s exactly what I wanted to say!” exclaimed the surprised preacher. The message had been in his heart; it had simply needed expression. So it is with prayer: if we are abiding in Christ the very desires of our heart are heard by God whether we voice them or not.
The pages of the Bible and the pages of history are filled with reports of answered prayer. Prayer is not spiritual self-hypnosis; we do not pray because it makes us feel better. We pray because God has commanded us to pray and because prayer is the God-appointed means for a believer to receive what God wants to give him. Prayer keeps a Christian in the will of God and living in the will of God keeps a Christian in the place of blessing and service. We are not beggars; we are children coming to a wealthy Father who loves to give His children what they need.
While He was God in the flesh, Jesus depended on prayer. He lived on earth, as we must, in dependence on the Father. He arose early in the morning to pray (Mk. 1:35), though He had been up late the night before healing the multitudes. He sometimes spent all night in prayer (Lk. 6:12). In the Garden of Gethsemane, He prayed with “fervent cries and tears” (Heb. 5:7). On the cross, He prayed three times. If the sinless Son of God needed to pray, how much more do we?
The most important thing about prayer is the will of God. We must take time to ascertain what God’s will is in a matter, especially searching in the Bible for promises or principles that apply to our situation. Once we know the will of God, we can pray with confidence and then wait for Him to reveal the answer.
CHRISTIANS DO NOT PRACTICE SIN (1 John 5:16–19)
“Anyone born of God does not practice sin” (1 Jn. 5:18). Occasional sins are not here in view, but habitual sins, the practice of sin. Since a believer has a new nature (“God’s seed,” 1 Jn. 3:9), he has new desires and appetites, and is not interested in sin.
A Christian faces three enemies, all of which want to lead him into sin: the devil, the world, and the flesh.
Our first enemy is the devil. The world “is under the control of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19), Satan—“the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:3–4) and “the prince of this world” (Jn. 14:30). He is the spirit who works in “the children of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). Satan has many devices for leading a believer into sin. He tells lies, as he did to Eve (Gen. 3; 2 Cor. 11:1–3), and when men believe his lies they turn away from and disobey God’s truth. Or, Satan may inflict physical suffering, as he did with Job and Paul (2 Cor. 12:7–9). In David’s case, Satan used pride as his weapon; he urged David to number the people and in this way defy God (1 Chron. 21). Satan is like a serpent who deceives (Rev. 12:9) and a lion who devours (1 Pet. 5:8–9). He is a formidable enemy.
Our second enemy is the world (1 Jn. 2:15, 17). It is easy for us to yield to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life! The atmosphere around us makes it hard for us to keep our minds pure and our hearts true to God.
Our third enemy is the flesh: the old nature we were born with and which is still with us. True, we have a new nature (the divine seed, 1 Jn. 3:9) within us, but we do not always yield to our new nature.
Then how does a believer keep from sinning? 1 John 5:18 gives the answer: Jesus Christ keeps the believer, so the enemy cannot get his hands on him. “He [Christ] who was born of God keeps the believer safe and the evil one cannot harm him.” Of course, it is true a Christian must keep himself in the love of God (Jude 21), but it is not true he must depend on himself to overcome Satan.
Peter’s experience with Satan helps us to understand this truth. “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Lk. 22:31–32). To begin with, Satan cannot touch any believer without God’s permission. Satan wanted to sift all the disciples and Jesus gave him permission. But Jesus prayed especially for Peter and His prayer was answered. Peter’s faith did not ultimately fail, even though his courage failed. Peter was restored and became a mighty and effective soul-winner.
Whenever Satan attacks us, we can be sure God gave him permission. And if God gave him permission, He will also give us power to overcome because God will never permit us to be tested above our strength (1 Cor. 10:13).
One of the characteristics of “spiritual young men” is their ability to overcome the evil one (1 Jn. 2:13–14). Their secret? “The Word of God abides in them.” Part of the armor of God is the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17) and this sword overcomes Satan.
When a believer sins, he can confess his sin and be forgiven (1 Jn. 1:9), but a believer dare not play with sin because sin is “lawlessness” (1 Jn. 3:4). A person who practices sin proves he belongs to Satan (1 Jn. 3:7–10).
God warns that sin can lead to physical death! While “all unrighteousness is sin,” some sin is worse than other sin. All sin is hateful to God and should be hateful to a believer, but some sin is punished with death. John tells us (1 Jn. 5:16–17) about the case of a brother (a believer) whose life was taken because of sin.
The Old Testament also mentions people who died because of their sin. Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron the priest, died because they deliberately disobeyed God (Lev. 10:1–7). Korah and his clan opposed God and died (Num. 16). Achan was stoned because he disobeyed Joshua’s orders from God at Jericho (Josh. 6–7). A man named Uzzah touched the ark and God killed him (2 Sam. 6).
“But those are Old Testament examples!” someone may argue. “John is writing to New Testament believers who live under grace!”
To whom much is given, much is required. A believer today has a far greater responsibility to obey God than did the Old Testament saints. We have a complete Bible, we have the full revelation of God’s grace, and we have the Holy Spirit living within us to help us obey God.
There are also cases in the New Testament of believers who lost their lives because they disobeyed God. Ananias and Sapphira lied to God about their offering and they both died (Acts 5:1–11). Some believers at Corinth died because of the way they had acted at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:30). 1 Corinthians 5:1–5 suggests a certain offender would have died had he not repented and confessed his sin (2 Cor. 2:6–8).
If a believer does not judge, confess, and forsake sin, God must chasten him. This process is described in Hebrews 12:1–13, which suggests a person who does not subject himself to the Father will not live (Heb. 12:9). In other words, first God “spanks” his rebellious children, and if they do not yield to His will, He may remove them from the world lest their disobedience lead others astray and bring further disgrace to His name.
“The sin unto death” is not some one specific sin. Rather, it is a kind of sin—it is the sort of sin that leads to death. With Nadab and Abihu, it was their presumption in taking the priest’s office and entering the holy of holies. In the case of Achan, it was covetousness. Ananias and Sapphira were guilty of hypocrisy and even lying to the Holy Spirit.
If a Christian sees a brother committing sin, he should pray for him (1 Jn. 5:16), asking that he confess his sin and return to fellowship with the Father. But if in his praying, he does not sense he is asking in God’s will (as instructed in 1 Jn. 5:14–15), then he should not pray for the brother. “So do not pray for this people, nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you” (Jer. 7:16).
James 5:14–20 somewhat parallels 1 John 5:16–17. James describes a believer who is sick, possibly because of his sin. He sends for the elders, who come to him and pray for him. The prayer of faith heals him and if he has sinned his sins are forgiven. “The prayer of faith” is prayer in the will of God, as described in 1 John 5:14–15. It is “praying in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20).
Christians do not deliberately practice sin. They have the divine nature within; Jesus Christ guards them, and they do not want God’s discipline.
THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS THE REAL LIFE (1 John 5:20–21)
Jesus Christ is the true God. We know Him who is true and we are in Him who is true. We have the real thing! “We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know Him who is true. And we are in Him who is true by being in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:20). Reality has been the theme throughout John’s letter and now we are reminded of it again.
John was probably writing to believers in the city of Ephesus, a city given over to the worship of idols. The temple of Diana, one of the wonders of the ancient world, was located in Ephesus, and the making and selling of idols was one of the chief occupations of the people there (Acts 19:21–41). Surrounded by idolatry, Christians there were under tremendous pressure to conform.
“We know there is no such thing as an idol in the world and there is no God but one” (1 Cor. 8:4). In other words, an idol has no real existence. The tragedy of idolatry is that a dead image can do a worshiper no good because it is not genuine. Hebrew writers in the Old Testament called idols “nothings, vain things, vapors, emptiness.” An idol is a lifeless, useless substitute for the real thing.
The Psalms contain caustic indictments of idolatry (Ps. 115:1–8; 135:15–18). To human vision, an idol looks real—eyes, ears, mouth, nose, hands, feet—but these are useless imitations of the real thing. The eyes are blind, the ears are deaf, the mouth is silent, the hands and feet are paralyzed. But the real tragedy is that “those who make them will become like them, and so will all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:8). We become like the god we worship!
This is the secret of the life that is real. Since we have met the true God, through His Son Jesus Christ, we are in contact with reality. Our fellowship is with a God who is genuine. As we have seen the word “real” means “the original as opposed to a copy” and “the authentic as opposed to an imitation.” Jesus Christ is the true Light (Jn. 1:9), true Bread (Jn. 6:32), true Vine (Jn. 15:1), and Truth itself (Jn. 14:6). He is the Original; everything else is a copy. He is authentic; everything else is only an imitation.
Christians live in an atmosphere of reality. Most unsaved people live in an atmosphere of pretense and sham. Christians have been given spiritual discernment to know the true from the false, but the unsaved do not have this understanding. Christians do not simply choose between good and bad; they choose between true and false. An idol represents that which is false and empty; and a person who lives for idols will himself become false and empty.
Few people today bow to idols of wood and metal. Nevertheless, other idols capture their attention and affection. Covetousness, for example, is idolatry (Col. 3:5). A man may worship his bankbook or his stock portfolio just as fervently as a so-called heathen worships his ugly idol. “Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only” (Matt. 4:10). The thing we serve is the thing we worship! Whatever controls our lives and “calls the signals” is our god.
This explains why God warns us against the sin of idolatry. Not only is it a violation of His commandment (Ex. 20:1–6), but it is a subtle way for Satan to take control of us. When “things” take God’s place in our lives, we are guilty of idolatry. This means we are living for the unreal instead of for the real.
To a man of the world the Christian life is unreal and the worldly life is real. This is because a man of the world lives by what he sees and feels (things) and not by what God says in His Word. An idol is a temporal thing, Jesus Christ is eternal God. “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).
Like Moses, a Christian “endures because he saw Him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27). Faith is “the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Noah had never seen a flood, yet by faith he “saw” it coming and did what God told him to do. Abraham “saw” a heavenly city and country by faith, and was willing to forsake his own earthly home to follow God. All of the great heroes of faith named in Hebrews 11 accomplished what they did because they “saw the invisible” by faith. In other words, they were in contact with reality.
The world boasts of its enlightenment, but a Christian walks in the real light because God is light. The world talks about love, but it knows nothing of the real love which a Christian experiences because “God is love.” The world displays its wisdom and learning, but a Christian lives in truth because “the Spirit is truth.” God is light, love, and truth; and these together make a life that is real.
“But it makes no difference what a man believes so long as he is sincere!” This popular excuse hardly needs refutation. Does it make any difference what the pharmacist believes, or the surgeon, or the chemist? It makes all the difference in the world!
A Christian has “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thes. 1:9). Idols are dead, but Christ is the living God. Idols are false, but Christ is the true God. This is the secret of the life that is real!
So John’s admonition, “Keep yourselves from idols,” can be paraphrased, “Watch out for the imitation and the artificial! Be real!”
The prospective bridegroom was extremely nervous as he and his fiancée were discussing their wedding plans with their pastor. “I’d like to see a copy of the wedding vows,” the young man said and the pastor handed him the service. He read it carefully, handed it back, and said, “That won’t do! There’s nothing written in there about her obeying me!”
His fiancée smiled, took his hand, and said, “Honey, the word obey doesn’t have to be written in a book. It’s already written in love in my heart.”
This is the truth in view in this portion of 1 John. Up to this point the emphasis has been on Christians loving one another, but now we turn to a deeper—and more important—topic: a believer’s love for the Father. We cannot love our neighbor or our brother unless we love our heavenly Father. We must first love God with all our hearts; then we can love our neighbor as ourselves.
The key word in this section is perfect. God wants to perfect in us His love for us and our love for Him. The word perfect carries the idea of maturity and completeness. A believer is not only to grow in grace and knowledge (2 Pet. 3:18), but he is also to grow in his love for the Father. He does this in response to the Father’s love for him.
How much does God love us? Enough to send His Son to die for us (Jn. 3:16). He loves His children in the same way as He loves Christ (Jn. 17:23). And Jesus tells us the Father wants the love with which He loved the Son to be in His children (Jn. 17:26). In other words, the Christian life is to be a daily experience of growing in the love of God. It involves a Christian’s coming to know his heavenly Father in a much deeper way as he grows in love.
It is easy to fragment the Christian life and become preoccupied with individual pieces instead of the total picture. One group may emphasize “holiness” and urge its members to get victory over sin. Another may stress witnessing or “separation from the world.” But each of these emphases is really a by-product of something else: a believer’s growing love for the Father. Mature Christian love is the great universal need among God’s people. How can a believer know his love for the Father is being perfected? 1 John 4:17–5:5 gives four evidences.
CONFIDENCE (1 John 4:17–19)
Two brand-new words come into John’s vocabulary here: fear and torment. And this is written to believers! It is possible that Christians can actually live in fear and torment. Unfortunately, many professed believers experience both fear and torment day after day. And the reason is because they are not growing in the love of God!
The word boldness can mean “confidence” or “freedom of speech.” It does not mean brazenness or brashness. A believer who experiences perfecting love grows in his confidence toward God. He has a reverential fear of God, not a tormenting fear. He is a son who respects his Father, not a prisoner who cringes before a judge.
We have adopted the Greek word for fear into our English vocabulary: phobia. All sorts of phobias are listed in psychology books; for instance, acrophobia—“fear of heights” and hydrophobia—“fear of water.” John is writing about krisisphobia—“fear of judgment.” John has already mentioned this solemn truth in 1 John 2:28 and now he deals with it again.
If people are afraid, it is because of something in the past that haunts them, something in the present that upsets them, or something in the future that threatens them. Or it may be a combination of all three. A believer in Jesus Christ does not have to fear the past, present, or future because he has experienced the love of God and this love is being perfected in him day by day.
“People are destined to die once and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). A Christian does not fear future judgment because Christ has suffered his judgment for him on the cross. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). For a Christian, judgment is not future; it is past. His sins have been judged already at the cross and they will never be brought against him again. “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not be judged, but has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).
The secret of our boldness is, “In this world, we are like Jesus” (1 Jn. 4:17). Positionally, we are right now “as He is.” We are so closely identified with Christ as members of His body that our position in this world is like His exalted position in heaven. This means the Father deals with us as He deals with His own beloved Son.
How, then, can we ever be afraid? We do not have to be afraid of the future because our sins were judged in Christ when He died on the cross.
We do not have to be afraid of the past because “He [God] first loved us.” From the very outset, our relationship to God was one of love. It was not that we loved Him, but that He loved us (1 Jn. 4:10). “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through His life!” (Rom. 5:10). If God loved us when we were outside the family, disobeying Him, how much more does He love us now that we are His children!
We do not need to fear the present because “perfect love drives out fear” (1 Jn. 4:18). As we grow in the love of God, we cease to be fearful of what He will do.
Of course, there is a proper “fear of God,” but it is not the kind of fear that produces torment. “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by Him we cry, ‘Abba Father ” (Rom. 8:15). “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).
Fear is actually the beginning of torment. We torment ourselves as we contemplate what lies ahead. Many people suffer acutely when they contemplate a visit to the doctor. Think of how an unsaved person must suffer as he contemplates the day of judgment. But since a Christian has boldness in the day of judgment, he can have boldness as he faces life today, for there is no situation in life today that begins to compare with the terrible severity of the day of judgment.
God wants His children to live in an atmosphere of love and confidence, not fear and torment. We need not fear life or death, for we are being perfected in the love of God. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35, 37–39). Imagine! Nothing in all creation—present or future—can come between us and God’s love!
The perfecting of God’s love in our lives is usually a matter of several stages. When we were lost, we lived in fear and knew nothing of God’s love. After we trusted Christ, we found a perplexing mixture of both fear and love in our hearts. As we grew in fellowship with the Father, gradually the fear vanished and our hearts were controlled by His love alone. An immature Christian is tossed between fear and love; a mature Christian rests in God’s love.
A growing confidence in the presence of God is one of the first evidences that our love for God is maturing. But confidence never stands alone; it always leads to other moral results.
HONESTY (1 John 4:20–21)
Here it is for the seventh time: “Whoever claims…!” We have met this important phrase several times in John’s letter and each time we knew what was coming: a warning against pretending.
Fear and pretense usually go together. In fact, they were born together when the first man and woman sinned. No sooner did Adam and Eve sense their guilt than they tried to hide from God and cover their nakedness, but neither their coverings nor their excuses could shelter them from God’s all-seeing eye. Adam finally had to admit, “I heard You in the garden and I was afraid” (Gen. 3:10).
But when our hearts are confident toward God, there is no need for us to pretend either to God or to other people. A Christian who lacks confidence with God will also lack confidence with God’s people. Part of the torment fear generates is the constant worry, “How much do others really know about me?” But when we have confidence with God, this fear is gone and we can face both God and men without worry.
“How many members do you have in your church?” a visitor asked the pastor.
“Somewhere near a thousand,” the pastor replied.
“That certainly is a lot of people to try to please!” the visitor exclaimed.
“Let me assure you, my friend, I have never tried to please all my members, or even some of them,” the pastor said with a smile. “I aim to please one Person—the Lord Jesus Christ. If I am right with Him, then everything should be right between me and my people.”
An immature Christian who is not growing in his love for God may think he has to impress others with his “spirituality.” This mistake turns him into a liar! He is professing something he is not really practicing; he is playing a role instead of living a life.
Perhaps the best example of this sin is seen in the experience of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). They sold a piece of property and brought part of the money to the Lord, but gave the impression they were bringing all the money. The sin of this couple was not in taking money from God, for Peter made it clear that the disposal of the money was up to them (Acts 5:4). Their sin was hypocrisy. They were trying to make people think they were more generous and spiritual than they really were.
Pretending is one of the favorite activities of little children, but it is certainly not a mark of maturity in adults. Adults must know themselves and be themselves, fulfilling the purposes for which Christ saved them. Their lives must be marked by honesty.
Spiritual honesty brings peace and power to the person who practices it. He does not have to keep a record of the lies he has told and he is not using his energy to cover up. Since he lives in open honesty with the Father, he can live in honesty with other people. Love and truth go together. Because he knows God loves him and accepts him (even with all his faults), he is not trying to impress others. He loves God and therefore he loves his fellow Christians.
Jerry’s grades were far below his usual performance and, on top of that, his health seemed to be failing. His new roommate was concerned about him and finally persuaded him to talk to the campus psychologist.
“I can’t figure myself out,” Jerry admitted. “Last year I was sailing through school, but this year it is like fighting a war.”
“You’re not having trouble with your new roommate, are you?” the counselor asked.
Jerry did not reply right away and this gave the counselor a clue.
“Jerry, are you concentrating on living your life as a good student or on trying to impress your new roommate with your abilities?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s it,” Jerry answered with a sigh of relief. “I’ve worn myself out acting and haven’t had enough energy left for living.”
Confidence toward God and honesty with others are two marks of maturity that are bound to show up when our love for God is being perfected.
JOYFUL OBEDIENCE (1 John 5:1–3)
Not simply obedience—but joyful obedience! “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 Jn. 5:3).
Everything in creation—except man—obeys the will of God. “Lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do His bidding” (Ps. 148:8). In the Book of Jonah, you see the winds, waves, and even the fish obeying God’s commands, but the prophet persisted in disobeying. Even a plant and a little worm did what God commanded, but the prophet stubbornly wanted his own way.
Disobedience to God’s will is a tragedy—but so is reluctant, grudging obedience. God does not want us to disobey Him, but neither does He want us to obey out of fear or necessity. What Paul wrote about giving also applies to living: “not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7).
What is the secret of joyful obedience? It is to recognize obedience is a family matter. We are serving a loving Father and helping our brothers and sisters in Christ. We have been born of God, we love God, and we love God’s children. Therefore, we demonstrate this love by keeping His commandments.
A woman visited a newspaper editor’s office, hoping to sell him some poems she had written.
“What are your poems about?” the editor asked.
“They’re about love!” gushed the poetess.
The editor settled back in his chair and said, “Well, read me a poem. The world could certainly use a lot more love!”
The poem she read was filled with moons and Junes and other sticky sentiments, and it was more than the editor could take.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but you just don’t know what love is all about! It’s not moonlight and roses. It’s sitting up all night at a sickbed, or working extra hours so the kids can have new shoes. The world doesn’t need your brand of poetical love. It needs some good old-fashioned practical love.”
D.L. Moody often said, “Every Bible should be bound in shoe leather.” We show our love to God, not by empty words but by willing works. We are not slaves obeying a master; we are children obeying a Father. Our sin is a family affair.
One of the tests of maturing love is our personal attitude toward the Bible because in the Bible we find God’s will for our lives revealed. An unsaved man considers the Bible an impossible book, mainly because he does not understand its spiritual message (1 Cor. 2:14). An immature Christian considers the demands of the Bible to be burdensome. He is somewhat like a little child who is learning to obey, and who asks, “Why do I have to do that?” or “Wouldn’t it be better to do this?”
But a Christian who experiences God’s perfecting love finds himself enjoying the Word of God and truly loving it. He does not read the Bible as a textbook, but as a love letter.
The longest chapter in the Bible is Psalm 119 and its theme is the Word of God. Every verse but two (vv. 122, 132) mentions the Word of God in one form or another, as “law,” “precepts,” “commandments,” etc. But the interesting thing is that the psalmist loves the Word of God and enjoys telling us about it! “Oh, how I love your law!” (v. 97). He rejoices in the Law (vv. 14, 162) and delights in it (vv. 16, 24). It is honey to his taste (v. 103). In fact, he turns God’s Law into a song: “Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage” (v. 54).
Imagine turning statutes into songs. Suppose the local symphony presented a concert of the traffic code set to music! Most of us do not consider laws a source of joyful song, but this is the way the psalmist looked at God’s Law. Because he loved the Lord, he loved His Law. God’s commandments were not grievous and burdensome to him. Just as a loving son or daughter happily obeys his father’s command, so a Christian with perfecting love joyfully obeys God’s command.
At this point, we can review and understand the practical meaning of “maturing love” in our daily lives. As our love for the Father matures, we have confidence and are no longer afraid of His will. We also are honest toward others and lose our fear of being rejected. And we have a new attitude toward the Word of God: it is the expression of God’s love and we enjoy obeying it. Confidence toward God, honesty toward others, and joyful obedience are the marks of perfecting love and the ingredients that make up a happy Christian life.
We can see too how sin ruins all this. When we disobey God, we lose our confidence toward Him. If we do not immediately confess our sin and claim His forgiveness (1 Jn. 1:9), we must start pretending in order to cover up. Disobedience leads to dishonesty and both turn our hearts away from the Word of God. Instead of reading the Bible with joy to discover the Father’s will, we ignore the Word or perhaps read it in a routine way.
The burden of religion (man trying to please God in his own strength) is a grievous one (Matt. 23:4), but the yoke Christ puts on us is not burdensome at all (Matt. 11:28–30). Love lightens burdens. Jacob had to work for seven years to win the woman he loved, but the Bible tells us “they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her” (Gen. 29:20). Perfecting love produces joyful obedience.
VICTORY (1 John 5:4–5)
What does victory have to do with maturing love? Christians live in a real world and are surrounded with formidable obstacles. It is not easy to obey God. It is much easier to drift with the world, disobey Him, and “do your own thing.”
But the Christian is “born of God.” This means he has the divine nature within him and it is impossible for this divine nature to disobey God. “For everyone born of God overcomes the world” (1 Jn. 5:4). If the old nature is in control of us, we disobey God; but if the new nature is in control, we obey God. The world appeals to the old nature (1 Jn. 2:15–17) and tries to make God’s commandments seem burdensome.
Our victory is a result of faith and we grow in faith as we grow in love. The more you love someone the easier it is to trust him. The more our love for Christ is perfected the more our faith in Christ is perfected because faith and love mature together.
The word overcome is a favorite with John. He uses it in 1 John 2:13–14 with reference to overcoming the devil. He uses it seven times in the Book of Revelation to describe believers and the blessings they receive (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). He is not describing a special class of believers. Rather, he is using the word overcomer (“victorious”) as a name for the true Christian. Because we have been born of God, we are overcomers.
We are told that a soldier in the army of Alexander the Great was not acting bravely in battle. When he should have been pressing ahead, he was lingering behind. The great general approached him and asked, “What is your name, soldier?”
The man replied, “My name, sir, is Alexander.”
The general looked him straight in the eye and said firmly: “Soldier, get in there and fight—or change your name!”
What is our name? “Children of God—the born-again ones of God.” Alexander the Great wanted his name to be a symbol of courage; our name carries with it assurance of victory. To be born of God means to share God’s victory.
This is a victory of faith, but faith in what? Faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God! Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes Jesus is the Son of God (1 Jn. 5:5). It is not faith in ourselves, but faith in Christ that gives us the victory. “In the world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33).
Identification with Christ in His victory reminds us of the several times we have read “as He is” in John’s letter. “As He is, so are we in this world” (1 Jn. 4:17). We should walk in the light “as He is in the light” (1 Jn. 1:7). If we claim to abide in Him, then we should conduct ourselves as He conducted Himself (1 Jn. 2:6). His children are to be, on earth, what He is in heaven. It is only necessary for us to claim this wonderful position by faith—and to act on it.
When Jesus Christ died, we died with Him. Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20). When Christ was buried, we were buried with Him. When He arose, we arose with Him. “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4).
When Christ ascended to heaven, we ascended with Him and are now seated with Him in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6). When Christ returns, we will share His exaltation. “When Christ, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4).
All these verses describe our spiritual position in Christ. When we claim this position by faith, we share His victory. When God raised Jesus from the dead, He “seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named … and He put all things in subjection under His feet” (Eph. 1:20–22). This means that, positionally, each child of God is privileged to sit far above all his enemies!
Where a man sits determines how much authority he may exercise. The man who sits in the general manager’s chair has a restricted sphere of authority; the man who sits in the vice president’s chair exercises more control. But the man behind the desk marked president exercises the most authority. No matter where he may be in the factory or office, he is respected and obeyed because of where he sits. His power is determined by his position, not by his personal appearance or the way he feels.
So with a child of God: his authority is determined by his position in Christ. When he trusted Christ, he was identified with Him by the Holy Spirit and made a member of His body (1 Cor. 12:12–13). His old life has been buried and he has been raised to a new life of glory. In Christ, he is sitting on the very throne of the universe!
A Civil War veteran used to wander from place to place, begging a bed and bite to eat and always talking about his friend, “Mr. Lincoln.” Because of his injuries, he was unable to hold a steady job, but as long as he could keep going, he would chat about his beloved President.
“You say you knew Mr. Lincoln,” a skeptical bystander retorted one day. “I’m not so sure you did. Prove it!”
The old man replied, “Why, sure, I can prove it. In fact, I have a piece of paper here that Mr. Lincoln himself signed and gave to me.” From his old wallet the man took out a much-folded piece of paper and showed it to the man.
“I’m not much for reading, but I know that’s Mr. Lincoln’s signature. Do you know what you have here?” he asked. “You have a generous federal pension authorized by President Lincoln. You don’t have to walk around like a poor beggar! Mr. Lincoln has made you rich!”
To paraphrase what John wrote: “You Christians do not have to walk around defeated because Jesus Christ has made you victors! He has defeated every enemy and you share His victory. Now, by faith, claim His victory!”
The key, of course, is faith, but this has always been God’s key to victory. The great men and women named in Hebrews 11 all won their victories “by faith.” They simply took God at His word and acted on it, and He honored their faith and gave them victory. Faith is not simply saying what God says is true. True faith is acting on what God says because it is true. Someone has said that faith is not so much believing in spite of evidence, but obeying in spite of consequence.
Victorious faith is the result of maturing love. The better we come to know and love Jesus Christ the easier it is to trust Him with the needs and battles of life. It is important that this maturing love become a regular and practical thing in our daily lives.
How does a believer go about experiencing this kind of love and the blessings that flow from it? To begin with, this kind of love must be cultivated. It is not the result of a hit-or-miss friendship! A previous study pointed out that a believer slips back into the world by stages:
- Friendship with the world (Jas. 4:4)
- Polluted by the world (Jas. 1:27)
- Loving the world (1 Jn. 2:15–17)
- Conformed to the world (Rom. 12:2)
In a similar way, our relationship to Jesus grows by stages:
First, we must cultivate friendship with Christ. Abraham was “God’s friend” (Jas. 2:23) because he separated himself from the world and did what God told him. His life was not perfect, but when he sinned, he confessed and went right back to walking with God.
Second, this friendship will begin to influence our lives. As we read the Word, pray, and fellowship with God’s people, Christian graces will start to show up in us. Our thoughts will be cleaner, our conversation more meaningful, and our desires more wholesome. But we will not be suddenly and totally changed; it will be a gradual process.
Third, our friendship with Christ and our becoming like Him will lead to a deeper love for Christ. On the human level, friendship often leads to love. On the divine level, friendship with Christ must to lead to love. “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19). The Word of God reveals His love to us, and the indwelling Spirit of God makes this love more and more real to us. This love is worked out in our lives in daily obedience. Christian love is not a passing emotion; it is a permanent devotion, a deep desire to please Christ and to do His will.
Finally, the more we know Him the better we love Him, and the better we love Him the more we become like Him—“conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). Of course, we will not be completely conformed to Christ until we see Him (1 Jn. 3:1–3), but we begin the process now.
What an exciting way to live! As God’s love is perfected in us, we have confidence toward Him and do not live in fear. Because fear is cast out, we can be honest and open; there is no need to pretend and our obedience to His commands is born out of love, not terror. We discover His commandments are not burdensome. Finally, living in this atmosphere of love, honesty, and joyful obedience, we are able to face the world with victorious faith and to overcome instead of being overcome.
The place to begin is not in some daring, dramatic experience. The place to begin is in the quiet, personal place of prayer. Peter wanted to give his life for Jesus, but when he was asked to pray, Peter went to sleep (Lk. 22:31–33, 39–46). A believer who spends time reading the Word, meditating on it, and worshiping Christ in prayer and praise will experience this perfecting love. When it begins, he will know it—and others will know it. His life will be marked by confidence, honesty, joyful obedience, and victory!
For the third time in John’s first letter, we are considering the subject of love! This does not mean John has run out of ideas and has to repeat himself. It means the Holy Spirit, who inspired John, presents the subject once more, from a deeper point of view.
In our current section (1 Jn. 4:1–16), we discover why love is such an important part of the life that is real. Love is part of the very being and nature of God. If we are united to God through faith in Christ, we share His nature. Since His nature is love, love is the test of the reality of our spiritual life.
A person who knows God and has been born of God will respond to God’s nature. As a compass naturally points north, a believer will naturally practice love because love is the nature of God. This love will not be a forced response; it will be a natural response. A believer’s love for the brethren will be proof of his sonship and fellowship because “God is love.” Three times, in this section, John encourages us to love one another (1 Jn. 4:7, 11–12). He supports these admonitions by giving us three foundational facts about God.
1. WHAT GOD IS: “GOD IS LOVE” (1 John 4:7–8)
This is the third of three expressions in John’s writings that help us understand the nature of God: “God is spirit” (Jn. 4:24); “God is light” (1 Jn. 1:5); and “God is love.” Of course, none of these are a complete revelation of God and it is wrong to separate them.
God is spirit. This refers to His essence; He is not flesh and blood. To be sure, Jesus Christ now has a glorified body in heaven and one day we will have bodies like His body. But being by nature spirit, God is not limited by time and space the way His creatures are.
God is light. This refers to His holy nature. In the Bible, light is a symbol of holiness and darkness is a symbol of sin (Jn. 3:18–21; 1 Jn. 1:5–10). God cannot sin because He is holy. Because we have been born into His family, we have received His holy nature (1 Pet. 1:14–16; 2 Pet. 1:4).
God is love. This does not mean “love is God.” And the fact two people “love each other” does not mean their love is necessarily holy. It has accurately been said that “love does not define God, but God defines love.” God is love and God is light; therefore, His love is a holy love and His holiness is expressed in love. All God does expresses all God is. Even His judgments are measured out in love and mercy (Lam. 3:22–23).
Much that is called “love” in modern society bears no resemblance or relationship to the holy, spiritual love of God. Yet, we see banners saying “God is love!” displayed at many festivals, particularly where young people are “doing their own thing”—as if one could dignify immorality by calling it “love.”
Christian love is a special kind of love. Love that is born out of the very essence of God must be spiritual and holy because “God is spirit” and “God is light.” This true love is “poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5).
Love, therefore, is a valid test of true Christian faith. Since God is love and we have claimed a personal relationship with God, we must of necessity reveal His love in how we live. A child of God has been “born of God” and shares God’s divine nature. “God is love” and Christians ought to love one another. The logic is undeniable!
Not only have we been “born of God,” but we also “know God.” In the Bible, the word know has a much deeper meaning than simply intellectual acquaintance or understanding. For example, the verb know is used to describe the intimate union of husband and wife (Gen. 4:1). To know God means to be in a deep relationship to Him—to share His life and enjoy His love. This knowing is not simply a matter of understanding facts; it is a matter of perceiving truth (1 Jn. 2:3–5).
Certainly many unsaved people love their families and even sacrifice for them. And no doubt many of these same people have some kind of intellectual understanding of God. What, then, do they lack? They lack a personal experience of God. To paraphrase 1 John 4:8, “The person who does not have this divine kind of love has never entered into a personal, experiential knowledge of God. What he knows is in his head, but it has never gotten into his heart.”
What God is determines what we ought to be. “In this world, we are like Jesus” (1 Jn. 4:17). The fact Christians love one another is evidence of their fellowship with God and their sonship from God, and it is also evidence they know God. Their experience with God is not simply a once-for-all crisis; it is a daily experience of getting to know Him better and better. True theology (the study of God) is not a dry, impractical course in doctrine—it is an exciting day-by-day experience that makes us Christlike!
A large quantity of radioactive material was stolen from a hospital. When the hospital administrator notified the police, he said: “Please warn the thief he is carrying death with him and the radioactive material cannot be successfully hidden. As long as he has it in his possession, it is affecting him disastrously!”
A person who claims he knows God and is in union with Him must be personally affected by this relationship. A Christian ought to become what God is and “God is love.” To argue otherwise is to prove one does not really know God!
2. WHAT GOD DID: “HE SENT HIS SON” (1 John 4:9–11)
Since God is love, He must communicate—not only in words, but in deeds. True love is never static or inactive. God reveals His love to mankind in many ways. He has geared all of creation to meeting men’s needs. Until man’s sin brought creation under bondage, man had on earth a perfect home in which to love and serve God.
God’s love was revealed in the way He dealt with the nation of Israel. “The Lord did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you … that He brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery” (Deut. 7:7–8).
The greatest expression of God’s love is in the death of His Son. “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
The word manifested means “to come out in the open, to be made public.” It is the opposite of “to hide, to make secret.” Under the Old Covenant, God was hidden behind the shadows of ritual and ceremony (Heb. 10:1); but in Jesus Christ “the life was manifested” (1 Jn. 1:2). “Anyone who has seen Me,” said Jesus “has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9).
Why was Jesus Christ manifested? “He was manifested to take away our sins” (1 Jn. 3:5). “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 Jn. 3:8). Where did Jesus take away our sins and destroy (render inoperative) the works of the devil? At the cross! God manifested His love at the cross when He gave His Son as a sacrifice for our sins.
This is the only place in the epistle where Jesus is called God’s only-begotten Son. The title is used in John’s Gospel (Jn. 1:14, 3:16). It means “unique, the only one of its kind.” The fact God sent His Son into the world is one evidence of the deity of Jesus Christ. Babies are not sent into the world from some other place; they are born into the world. As the perfect Man, Jesus was born into the world, but as the eternal Son, He was sent into the world.
But the sending of Christ into the world and His death on the cross were not prompted by man’s love for God. They were prompted by His love for man. The world’s attitude toward God is anything but love!
Two purposes are given for Christ’s death on the cross: that we might live through Him (1 Jn. 4:9) and that He might be the propitiation for our sins (1 Jn. 4:10). His death was not an accident; it was an appointment. He did not die as a weak martyr, but as a mighty Conqueror.
Jesus Christ died so we might live “through Him” (1 Jn. 4:9), “for Him” (2 Cor. 5:15), and “with Him” (1 Thes. 5:9–10). A sinner’s desperate need is for life because he is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). It is something of a paradox that Christ had to die so we may live! We can never probe the mystery of His death, but this we know: He died for us (Gal. 2:20).
The death of Christ is described as a “propitiation.” John has used this word before (1 Jn. 2:2), so there is no need to study it in detail again. We should remember propitiation does not mean we must do something to appease God or to placate His anger. Propitiation is something God does to make it possible for us to be forgiven.
“God is light,” and therefore He must uphold His holy Law. “God is love,” and therefore He wants to forgive and save sinners. How, then, can God forgive sinners and still be consistent with His holy nature? The answer is the cross. There, Jesus Christ bore the punishment for sin and met the just demands of the holy Law. But there also, God reveals His love and makes it possible for men to be saved by faith.
It is important to note the emphasis is on the death of Christ, not on His birth. The fact Jesus was “made flesh” (Jn. 1:14) is certainly an evidence of God’s grace and love, but the fact He was “made sin” (2 Cor. 5:21) is underscored for us. The example of Christ, teachings of Christ, and whole earthly life of Christ find their true meaning and fulfillment in the cross.
For the second time, believers are exhorted to “love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11). This exhortation is a commandment to be obeyed (1 Jn. 4:7) and its basis is the nature of God. “God is love and we know God; therefore, we should love one another.” But the exhortation to love one another is presented as a privilege as well as a responsibility: “If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11). We are not saved by loving Christ; we are saved by believing on Christ (Jn. 3:16). But after we realize what He did for us on the cross, our normal response ought to be to love Him and love one another.
It is important Christians make progress in their understanding of love. To love one another simply out of a sense of duty is good, but to love out of appreciation (rather than obligation) is even better.
This may be one reason why Jesus established the Lord’s Supper, the Communion service. When we break the bread and share the cup, we remember His death. Few men, if any, want their deaths remembered! In fact, we remember the life of a loved one and try to forget the sadness of his death. Not so with Christ. He commands us to remember His death: “Do this in remembrance of Me!”
We should remember our Lord’s death in a spiritual way, not merely sentimentally. Someone has defined sentiment as “feeling without responsibility.” It is easy to experience solemn emotions at a church service and yet go out to live the same defeated life. True spiritual experience involves the whole man. The mind must understand spiritual truth; the heart must love and appreciate it; and the will must act on it. The deeper we go into the meaning of the Cross the greater will be our love for Christ and the greater our active concern for one another.
We have discovered what God is and what God has done; but a third foundational fact takes us even deeper into the meaning and implications of Christian love.
3. WHAT GOD IS DOING: “GOD IS ABIDING IN US” (1 John 4:12–16)
At this point, it would be good for us to review what John has been saying about the basic truth that “God is love.” This truth is revealed to us in the Word, but it was also revealed on the cross, where Christ died for us. “God is love” is not simply a doctrine in the Bible; it is an eternal fact clearly demonstrated at Calvary. God has said something to us and God has done something for us. But all this is preparation for the third great fact: God does something in us! We are not merely students reading a book or spectators watching a deeply moving event. We are participants in the great drama of God’s love!
In order to save money, a college drama class purchased only a few scripts of a play and cut them up into the separate parts. The director gave each player his individual part in order and then started to rehearse the play. But nothing went right. After an hour of missed cues and mangled sequences the cast gave up.
At that point, the director sat all the actors on the stage and said: “Look, I’m going to read the entire play to you, so don’t any of you say a word.” He read the entire script aloud and when he was finished one of the actors said:
“So that’s what it was all about!” Once they understood the entire story, they were able to fit their parts together and have a successful rehearsal.
When you read 1 John 4:12–16, you feel like saying, “So that’s what it’s all about!” Because here we discover what God had in mind when He devised His great plan of salvation.
To begin with, God’s desire is to live in us. He is not satisfied simply to tell us He loves us or even show us He loves us.
It is interesting to trace God’s dwelling places as recorded in the Bible. In the beginning, God had fellowship with man in a personal, direct way (Gen. 3:8), but sin broke that fellowship. It was necessary for God to shed the blood of animals to cover the sins of Adam and Eve so they might come back into His fellowship.
However, by the time of the events recorded in Exodus, a change had taken place: God did not simply walk with men: He lived or dwelt with them. God’s commandment to Israel was, “Have them make a sanctuary for Me and I will dwell among them.” (Ex. 25:8). The first of those sanctuaries was the tabernacle. When Moses dedicated it the glory of God came down and moved into the tent (Ex. 40:33–35). God dwelt in the camp; He did not dwell in the bodies of the individual Israelites.
Unfortunately, the nation sinned and God’s glory departed (1 Sam. 4:21). But God used Samuel and David to restore the nation; and Solomon built God a magnificent temple. When the temple was dedicated, once again the glory of God came to dwell in the land (1 Kings 8:1–11).
Then, history repeated itself: Israel disobeyed God and was taken into captivity. The gorgeous temple was destroyed. One of the prophets of the captivity, Ezekiel, saw the glory of God depart from it (Ezek. 8:4, 9:3, 10:4, 11:22–23).
Did the glory ever return? Yes—in the Person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ! “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling (“tabernacle”) among us” (Jn. 1:14). The glory of God dwelt on earth in the body of Jesus Christ for His body was the temple of God (Jn. 2:18–22). But wicked men nailed His body to a cross. They crucified “the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8). All this was part of God’s thrilling plan: Christ arose from the dead, returned to heaven, and sent His Holy Spirit to dwell in men.
The glory of God now lives in the bodies of God’s children. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19). The glory of God departed from the tabernacle and temple when Israel disobeyed God, but Jesus has promised the Spirit will abide in us forever (Jn. 14:16).
With this background, we can better understand what 1 John 4:12–16 is saying to us. God is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17) and no man can see Him in His essence. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). By taking on Himself a human body, Jesus was able to reveal God to us. But Jesus is no longer here on earth.
How, then, does God reveal Himself to the world? He reveals Himself through the lives of His children. Men cannot see God, but they can see us. If we abide in Christ, we will love one another and our love for one another will reveal God’s love to a needy world. God’s love will be experienced in us and then will be expressed through us.
That important little word abide (or dwell) is used six times in 1 John 4:12–16. It refers to our personal fellowship with Jesus Christ. To abide in Christ means to remain in spiritual oneness with Him, so that no sin comes between us. Because we are “born of God,” we have union with Christ; but it is only as we trust Him and obey His commandments that we have fellowship with Him. In a similar way, just as a faithful husband and wife “abide in love” though they may be separated by miles, so a believer abides in God’s love. This abiding is made possible by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 Jn. 4:13).
Imagine the wonder and privilege of having God abide in you! The Old Testament Israelite would look with wonder at the tabernacle or temple because the presence of God was in that building. No man would dare to enter the holy of holies, where God was enthroned in glory! But we have God’s Spirit living in us! We abide in this love and we experience the abiding of God in us. “Anyone who loves Me will obey My teaching. My Father will love them, and We will come to them and make Our home with them” (Jn. 14:23).
God’s love is proclaimed in the Word and proved at the cross. But here we have something deeper: God’s love is perfected in the believer. Fantastic as it may seem, God’s love is not made perfect in angels, but in sinners saved by His grace. We Christians are now the tabernacles and temples in which God dwells. He reveals His love through us.
Dr. Campbell Morgan, famous British preacher, had five sons, all of whom became ministers of the Gospel. One day a visitor in their home dared to ask a personal question: “Which of you six is the best preacher?”
Their united answer was, “Mother!”
Of course, she had never preached a formal sermon in a church, but her life was a constant sermon on the love of God.
The life of a Christian who abides in God’s love is a potent witness for God in the world. Men cannot see God, but they can see His love moving us to deeds of helpfulness and kindness. The world will not believe God loves sinners until they see His love at work in His children’s lives.
A female Salvation Army worker found a derelict woman alone on the street and invited her to come into the chapel for help, but the woman refused to move. The worker assured her: “We love you and want to help you. God loves you. Jesus died for you.” But the woman did not budge. As if on divine impulse the Army worker leaned over and kissed the woman on the cheek, taking her into her arms. The woman began to sob and like a child was led into the chapel, where she ultimately trusted Christ.
“You told me God loved me,” she said later, “but it wasn’t until you showed me God loved me that I wanted to be saved.”
Jesus did not simply preach the love of God; He proved it by giving His life on the cross. He expects His followers to do likewise. If we abide in Christ, we will abide in His love. If we abide in His love, we must share this love with others. Whenever we share this love, it is proof in our own hearts that we are abiding in Christ. There is no separation between a Christian’s inner life and his outer life.
Abiding in God’s love produces two wonderful spiritual benefits in the life of a believer: he grows in knowledge and he grows in faith (1 Jn. 4:16). The more we love God the more we understand the love of God. And the more we understand His love the easier it is for us to trust Him. After all, when you know someone intimately and love him sincerely, you have no problem putting your confidence in him.
A man standing in the greeting card section of a store was having trouble picking out a card. The clerk asked if she could help and he replied: “Well, it’s our fortieth wedding anniversary, but I can’t find a card that says what I want to say. You know, forty years ago it wouldn’t have been any problem picking out a card because back then I thought I knew what love was. But we love each other so much more today. I just can’t find a card that says it!”
This is a growing Christian’s experience with God. As he abides in Christ and spends time in fellowship with Him, he comes to love God more and more. He also grows in his love for other Christians, for the lost, and even for his enemies. As he shares the Father’s love with others, he experiences more of the Father’s love himself. He understands the Father’s love better and better.
“God is love,” then, is not simply a profound biblical statement. It is the basis for a believer’s relationship with God and with his fellowman. Because God is love, we can love. His love is not past history; it is present reality. “Love one another” begins as a commandment (1 Jn. 4:7), then it becomes a privilege (1 Jn. 4:11).
But it is more than a commandment or a privilege. It is also the thrilling consequence and evidence of our abiding in Christ (1 Jn. 4:12). Loving one another is not something we simply ought to do; it is something we want to do. Some practical applications grow out of this basic truth:
First, the better we know God’s love the easier it will be to live as a Christian. Bible knowledge alone does not take the place of personal experience of God’s love. In fact, it can be a dangerous substitute if we are not careful.
Helen came home from a youth retreat greatly enthused over what she had learned. “We had some terrific sessions on how to have personal devotions,” she told her sister Joyce. “I plan to have my devotions every single day.”
A week later, while Joyce was running the vacuum cleaner, she heard Helen screaming, “Do you have to make all that noise? Don’t you know I’m trying to have my devotions?” And the verbal explosion was followed by the slamming of a door.
Helen still had to learn that personal devotions are not an end in themselves. If they do not help us love God and love one another, they are accomplishing little. The Bible is a revelation of God’s love and the better we understand His love the easier it should be for us to obey Him and love others.
A second application is unless we love the lost, our verbal witness to them will be useless. The Gospel message is a message of love. This love was both declared and demonstrated by Jesus Christ. The only way we can effectively win others is to declare the Gospel and demonstrate it in how we live. Too much “witnessing” today is a mere mouthing of words. People need an expression of love.
One reason why God permits the world to hate Christians is so that Christians may return love for the world’s hatred. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me… But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:11, 44).
“Pastor, the Bible tells us to love our neighbors, but I doubt that anybody could love my neighbors,” Mrs. Barton said at the close of a Sunday School lesson. “I’ve tried to be nice to them, but it just doesn’t work.”
“Perhaps ‘being nice to them’ isn’t the real answer,” the pastor explained. “You know, it’s possible to be nice to people with the wrong motive.”
“You mean as though you’re trying to buy them off?”
“Something like that. I think you and I had better pray God will give you a true spiritual love for your neighbors. If you love them in a Christian way, you will not be able to do them any damage,” the pastor pointed out.
It took some weeks, but Mrs. Barton grew in her love for her neighbors; and she also found herself growing in her own spiritual life. “My neighbors haven’t changed a whole lot,” she told the prayer group, “but my attitude toward them has really changed. I used to do things for them to try to win their approval. But now I do things for Jesus’ sake because He died for them—and it makes all the difference in the world!”
In this paragraph of John’s letter, he has taken us to the very foundation of Christian love. But he still has more to teach us. In the next section, he deals with our own personal love for God and how God perfects that love in us. These two aspects of Christian love cannot be separated from one another: if we love God, we will love one another; and if we love one another, we will grow in our love for God. Both statements are true because “God is love!”
The Apostle John’s first letter has been compared to a spiral staircase because he keeps returning to the same three topics: love, obedience, and truth. Each time we return to a topic, we look at it from a different point of view and are taken more deeply into it.
We have already learned about our love for other believers—“the brethren” (1 Jn. 2:7–11). A believer who is “walking in the light” will evidence that fact by loving the brethren. In our present section (1 Jn. 3:11–24) the emphasis is on his relationship with other believers.
Christians love one another because they have all been born of God, which makes them all brothers and sisters in Christ. Obedience and love are both evidences of sonship and brotherhood. We have been reminded a true child of God practices righteousness (1 Jn. 3:1–10) and now we will look into the matter of love for the brethren (1 Jn. 3:11–24). This truth is first stated in the negative—“Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister” (1 Jn. 3:10).
A striking difference should be noted between the earlier and present treatment of love for the brethren. In the section on fellowship (1 Jn. 2:7–11), we are told loving the brethren is a matter of light and darkness. If we do not love one another, we cannot walk in the light, no matter how loud our profession. But in this section (1 Jn. 3:11–24) on brotherhood the epistle probes much deeper. We are told loving the brethren is a matter of life and death: “Anyone who does not love remains in death” (1 Jn. 3:14).
When it comes to this matter of love, there are four possible “levels of relationship,” so to speak, on which a person may live: murder (1 Jn. 3:11–12), hatred (1 Jn. 3:13–15), indifference (1 Jn. 3:16–17), and Christian compassion (1 Jn. 3:18–24). The first two are not Christian at all, the third is less than Christian, and only the last is compatible with true Christian love.
1. MURDER (3:11–12)
Murder, of course, is the lowest level on which one may live in relationship to someone else. It is the level on which Satan himself exists. The devil was a murderer from the beginning of his fallen career (Jn. 8:44), but Christians know, from the beginning of their experience, they are to “love one another.” John emphasizes origins: “from the beginning…” If our spiritual experience originates with the Father, we must love one another. But if it originates with Satan, we will hate one another. “As for you, see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father” (1 Jn. 2:24).
Cain is an example of a life of hatred; we find the record in Gen. 4:1–16. It is important to note that Cain and Abel, being brothers, had the same parents and they both brought sacrifices to God. Cain is not presented as an atheist; he is presented as a worshiper. And this is the point: children of the devil masquerade as true believers. They attend religious gatherings, as Cain did. They may even bring offerings. But these actions in themselves are not valid proof a man is born of God. The real test is his love for the brethren—and here Cain failed.
Every man has a “spiritual lineage” as well as a physical and Cain’s “spiritual father” was the devil. This does not mean, of course, that Satan literally fathered Cain. Rather, it means Cain’s attitudes and actions originated with Satan. Cain was a murderer and a liar like Satan (Jn. 8:44). He murdered his brother and lied about it. “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9).
The difference between Cain’s offering and Abel’s offering was faith (Heb. 11:4). Faith is always based on the revelation God has given (Rom. 10:17). It is clear God had given definite instructions concerning how He was to be worshiped. Cain rejected God’s Word and decided to worship in his own way. This shows his relationship to Satan for Satan is always interested in turning people away from the revealed will of God. The devil’s first deception, “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1) was the beginning of trouble for Cain’s parents and for all mankind since.
We are not told by what outward sign the Lord accepted Abel’s sacrifice and rejected Cain’s. It may be that He sent fire from heaven to consume Abel’s sacrifice of an animal and its blood. But we are told the results: Abel went away from the altar with God’s witness of acceptance in his heart, but Cain went away angry and disappointed (Gen. 4:4–6). God warned Cain that sin was crouching at the door like a dangerous beast (Gen. 4:7), but promised if Cain would obey God, he, like Abel, would enjoy peace.
Instead of heeding God’s warning, Cain listened to Satan’s voice and plotted to kill his brother. His envy had turned to anger and hatred. He knew that he was evil and his brother was righteous. Rather than repent, as God commanded him to do, he decided to destroy his brother.
Cain’s attitude represents the attitude of the present world system (1 Jn. 3:13). The world hates Christ (Jn. 15:18–25) for the same reason Cain hated Abel: Christ shows the world’s sin and reveals its true nature. When the world, like Cain, comes face-to-face with reality and truth, it can make only one of two decisions: repent and change, or destroy the one who is exposing it.
Satan is the “prince of this world” (Jn. 14:30), and he controls it through murder and lies. How horrible to live on the same level as Satan!
A hunter took refuge in a cave during a rainstorm. After he had dried out a bit, he decided to investigate his temporary home and turned on his flashlight. Imagine his surprise when he discovered he was sharing the cave with an assortment of spiders, lizards, and snakes! His exit was a fast one.
If the unsaved world could only see, it would realize it is living on the low level of murder and lies, surrounded by that old serpent Satan and all his demonic armies. Like Cain, the people of the world try to cover up their true nature with religious rites; but they lack faith in God’s Word. People who continue to live on this level will eventually be cast into outer darkness with Satan to suffer apart from God forever.
2. HATRED (3:13–15)
At this point, you are probably thinking, “But I have never murdered anyone!” And to this statement, God replies, “Yes, but remember hatred is the same as murder” (1 Jn. 3:15; Matt. 5:22). The only difference between level 1 and level 2 is the outward act of taking life. The inward intent is the same.
A visitor at the zoo was chatting with the keeper of the lion house. “I have a cat at home,” said the visitor, “and your lions act just like my cat. Look at them sleeping so peacefully! It seems a shame you have to put those beautiful creatures behind bars.”
“My friend,” the keeper laughed, “these may look like your cat, but their disposition is radically different. There’s murder in their hearts. You’d better be glad the bars are there.”
The only reason some people have never actually murdered anyone is because of the “bars” that have been put up: the fear of arrest and shame, the penalties of the law, and the possibility of death. But we are going to be judged by “the law that gives freedom” (Jas. 2:12). The question is not so much, “What did you do?” but, “What did you want to do? What would you have done if you had been at liberty to do as you pleased?” This is why Jesus equates hatred with murder (Matt. 5:21–26) and lust with adultery (Matt. 5:27–30).
This does not mean, of course, that hatred in the heart does the same amount of damage or involves the same degree of guilt as actual murder. Your neighbor would rather you hate him than kill him! But in God’s sight hatred is the moral equivalent of murder and if left unbridled it leads to murder. A Christian has passed from death to life (Jn. 5:24) and the proof of this is he loves the brethren. When he belonged to the world system, he hated God’s people; but now that he belongs to God, he loves them.
These verses (1 Jn. 3:14–15), like those that deal with habitual sin in a believer (1 Jn. 1:5–2:6), concern a settled habit of life: a believer is in the practice of loving the brethren, even though on occasion he may be angry with a brother (Matt. 5:22–24). Occasional incidents of anger do not nullify the principle. If anything, they prove it true. A believer who is out of fellowship with his fellow Christians is a miserable person! His feelings make clear to him something is wrong.
Notice another fact: we are not told murderers cannot be saved. The Apostle Paul himself took a hand in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:57–60) and admitted his vote helped to put innocent people to death (Acts 26:9–11; 1 Tim. 1:12–15). But in His grace, God saved Paul.
The issue here is not whether a murderer can become a Christian, but whether a man can continue being a murderer and still be a Christian. The answer is no. “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 Jn. 3:15). The murderer did not once have eternal life and then lose it; he never had eternal life at all.
The fact you have never actually murdered anyone should not make you proud or complacent. Have you ever harbored hatred in your heart? Hatred does the hater far more damage than it does anyone else (Matt. 5:21–26). Hatred that is not confessed and forsaken actually puts a man into a spiritual and emotional prison! (Matt. 5:25)
The antidote for hatred is love. “Hateful and hating one another” is the normal experience of an unsaved person (Tit. 3:3). But when a hateful heart opens to Jesus Christ, it becomes a loving heart. Instead of wanting to “murder” others through hatred, he or she wants to love them and share with them the message of eternal life.
Evangelist John Wesley was stopped one night by a man who robbed the preacher of all his money. Wesley said to the man, “If the day should come that you desire to leave this evil way and live for God, remember that ‘the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin.”
Some years later, Wesley was stopped by a man after a church service. “Do you remember me?” the man asked. “I robbed you one night and you told me that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin. I have trusted Christ and He has changed my life.”
3. INDIFFERENCE (3:16–17)
The test of Christian love is not simply failure to do evil to others. Love also involves doing them good. Christian love is both positive and negative. “Stop doing wrong; learn to do right” (Isa. 1:16–17).
Cain is our example of false love; Christ is the example of true Christian love. Jesus gave His life for us so we may experience truth. Every Christian knows John 3:16, but how many of us pay much attention to 1 John 3:16? It is wonderful to experience the blessing of John 3:16; but it is even more wonderful to share that experience by obeying 1 John 3:16: “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
Christian love involves sacrifice and service. Christ did not simply talk about His love; He died to prove it (Rom. 5:6–10). Jesus was not killed as a martyr; He willingly laid down His life (Jn. 10:11–18; 15:13). “Self-preservation” is the first law of physical life, but “self-sacrifice” is the first law of spiritual life. But God does not ask us to lay down our lives. He simply asks us to help a brother in need.
John wisely turns from “the brethren” (1 Jn. 3:16) to the singular, “his brother” (1 Jn. 3:17). It is easy for us to talk about “loving the brethren” and to neglect to help a single other believer. Christian love is personal and active. This is what Jesus had in mind in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25–37). A lawyer wanted to talk about an abstract subject: “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus focused attention on one man in need and changed the question to, “To whom can I be a neighbor?”
Two friends were attending a conference on evangelism. During one of the sessions, Larry missed Pete. At lunch, when he saw Pete, he said, “I missed you at the 10:00 session. It was really terrific! Where were you?”
“I was in the lobby talking to a bellhop about Christ. I led him to the Lord,” said Pete.
There is nothing wrong with attending conferences, but it is easy to forget the individual and his needs while discussing generalities. The test of Christian love is not in loud professions about loving the whole church, but in quietly helping a brother who is in need. If we do not even help a brother, it is not likely we would “lay down our lives” for “the brethren.”
A man does not have to murder in order to sin; hatred is murder in his heart. But a man need not even hate his brother to be guilty of sin. All he has to do is ignore him or be indifferent toward his needs. A believer who has material goods and can relieve his brother’s needs ought to do it. To “close the door of his heart” on his brother is a kind of murder!
If I am going to help my brother, I must meet three conditions: (1) I must have the means necessary to meet his need; (2) I must know the need exists; (3) I must be loving enough to want to share. A believer who is too poor to help or who is ignorant of his brother’s need is not condemned. But a believer who hardens his heart against his needy brother is condemned. One reason Christians should work is so that they may be able “to share with him in need” (Eph. 4:28).
In these days of multiplied social agencies, it is easy for Christians to forget their obligations. “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Gal. 6:10). This “doing good” need not be in terms of money or material supplies. It may include personal service and the giving of oneself to others. There are many individuals in our churches who lack love and would welcome friendship.
If we want to experience and enjoy the love of God in our own hearts, we must love others, even to the point of sacrifice. Being indifferent to a brother’s needs means robbing ourselves of what we need even more: the love of God in our hearts. It is a matter of love or death!
4. CHRISTIAN LOVE (3:18–24)
True Christian love means loving in deed and in truth. The opposite of “in deed” is “in word,” and the opposite of “in truth” is “in tongue.” James 2:15–16 gives an example of love “in word”: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”
To love “in word” means simply to talk about a need, but to love “in deed” means to do something about meeting it. You may think because you have discussed a need or even prayed about it that you have done your duty, but love involves more than words—it calls for sacrificial deeds.
To love “in tongue” is the opposite of to love “in truth.” It means to love insincerely. To love “in truth” means to love a person genuinely, from the heart and not just from the tongue. People are attracted by genuine love, but repelled by the artificial variety. One reason why sinners were attracted to Jesus (Lk. 15:1–2) was because they were sure He loved them sincerely.
“But does it not cost a great deal for us to exercise this kind of love?” Yes, it does. It cost Jesus His life. But the wonderful benefits that will come to you as by-products of this love more than compensate for any sacrifice you make. The principle, “Give and it will be given to you” (Lk. 6:38) applies to love as well as to money. John names three wonderful blessings that will come to a believer who practices Christian love.
The first blessing is assurance (vv. 19–20). A believer’s relationship with others affects His relationship with God. A man who is not right with his brother should go settle the matter before he offers his sacrifice on the altar (Matt. 5:23–24). A Christian who practices love grows in his understanding of God’s truth and enjoys a heart filled with confidence before God.
A “condemning heart” is one that robs a believer of peace. An “accusing conscience” is another way to describe it. Sometimes the heart accuses us wrongly because it “is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). The answer is, “God knows the heart!” More than one Christian has accused himself falsely or been harder on himself than necessary, but God will never make such a mistake. A Christian who walks in love has a heart open to God (“God is love”) and knows God never judges wrongly.
John may have remembered two incidents from Jesus’ life on earth that illustrate this important principle. When Jesus visited Bethany, He stayed at the home of Mary and Martha (Lk. 10:38–42). Martha was busy preparing the meal, but Mary sat at His feet and listened to Him teach. Martha criticized both Mary and Jesus, but Jesus knew Mary’s heart and defended her.
The Apostle Peter wept bitterly after he had denied his Lord, and no doubt he was filled with remorse and repentance for his sin. Jesus knew Peter had repented and after His resurrection the Lord sent a special message (Mk. 16:7) to Peter that must have assured the hot-headed fisherman he was forgiven. Peter’s heart may have condemned him because he knew he had denied the Lord three times, but God was greater than his heart. Jesus, knowing all things, gave Peter just the assurance he needed.
Be careful lest the devil accuse you and rob you of your confidence (Rev. 12:10). Once you confess your sin and it is forgiven, you need not allow it to accuse you anymore. Peter was able to face the Jews and say, “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14) because his own sin of denying Christ had been taken care of, and was forgiven and forgotten.
No Christian should treat sin lightly, but no Christian should be harder on himself than God is. There is a morbid kind of self-examination and self-condemnation that is not spiritual. If you are practicing genuine love for the brethren, your heart must be right before God, for the Holy Spirit would not “pour out” His love in you if there were habitual sin in your heart. When you grieve the Spirit, you “turn off” the supply of God’s love (Eph. 4:30–5:2).
The second blessing is answered prayer (vv. 21–22). Love for the brethren produces confidence toward God and confidence toward God gives you boldness in asking for what you need. This does not mean you earn answers to prayer by loving the brethren. Rather, it means your love for the brethren proves you are living in the will of God and God can answer your prayer. “We receive from Him anything we ask because we keep His commands and do what pleases Him” (1 Jn. 3:22). Love is the fulfilling of God’s Law (Rom. 13:8–10); therefore, when you love the brethren, you are obeying His commandments and He is able to answer your requests. A believer’s relationship to the brethren cannot be divorced from his prayer life. If husbands and wives are not obeying God’s Word, for example, their prayers will be hindered (1 Pet. 3:7).
An evangelist preached about the Christian home. After the meeting a father approached him. “I’ve been praying for a wayward son for years,” said the father, “and God has not answered my prayers.”
The evangelist read Psalm 66:18—“If I cherished sin in my heart the Lord would not have listened.”
“Be honest with yourself and the Lord,” he said. “Is there anything between you and another Christian that needs to be settled?”
The father hesitated and then said, “Yes, I’m afraid there is. I’ve harbored resentment in my heart against another man in this church.”
“Then go make it right,” counseled the evangelist and he prayed with the man. Before the campaign was over the father saw his wayward son come back to the Lord.
These verses do not, of course, give us all the conditions for answered prayer, but they emphasize the importance of obedience. One great secret of answered prayer is obedience and the secret of obedience is love. “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (Jn. 14:15). “If you abide (remain) in Me and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you… If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love” (Jn. 15:7, 10).
It is possible, of course, to keep God’s commandments in a spirit of fear or servitude rather than in a spirit of love. This was the sin of the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk. 15:24–32). A believer should keep His Father’s commandments because this pleases Him. A Christian who lives to please God will discover that God finds ways to please His child. “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4). When our delight is in the love of God, our desires will be in the will of God.
The third blessing is abiding (vv. 23–24). When a scribe asked Jesus to name the greatest commandment, He replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind… And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:34–40). Faith toward God and love toward man sum up a Christian’s obligations (1 Jn. 3:23). Christianity is “faith that expresses itself through love” (Gal. 5:6).
Faith toward God and love toward men are two sides of the same coin. It is easy to emphasize faith—correct doctrine—and to neglect love. On the other hand, some say doctrine is not important and love is our main responsibility. Both doctrine and love are important. When a person is justified by faith the love of God is poured out in his heart (Rom. 5:1–5).
“Abiding in Christ” is a key experience for a believer who wants to have confidence toward God and enjoy answers to prayer. Jesus, in His message to the disciples in the Upper Room (Jn. 15:1–14), illustrated “abiding.” He compared His followers to the branches of a vine. So long as the branch draws its strength from the vine, it produces fruit. But if it separates itself from the vine, it withers and dies.
Jesus was not talking about salvation; He was talking about fruit-bearing. The instant a sinner trusts Christ, he enters into union with Christ; but maintaining fellowship is a moment-by-moment responsibility. Abiding depends on our obeying His Word and keeping clean (Jn. 15:3, 10).
As we have seen, when a believer walks in love, he finds it easy to obey God and therefore he maintains a close fellowship with God. “Anyone who loves Me will obey My teaching. My Father will love them, and We will come to them and make Our home with them” (Jn. 14:23).
The Holy Spirit is mentioned by name in 1 John for the first time in 3:24. The Holy One is the abiding Spirit (1 Jn. 3:24; 4:13). When a believer obeys God and loves his brethren the indwelling Holy Spirit gives him peace and confidence. The Holy Spirit abides with him forever (Jn. 14:16), but when the Spirit is grieved, He withdraws His blessings.
The Holy Spirit is also the attesting Spirit (1 Jn. 4:1–6), giving witness to those who are truly God’s children. When a believer is abiding in Christ the Spirit guides him and warns him of false spirits that would lead him astray.
Each member of the Triune Godhead is involved in the “love life” of a believer. God the Father commands us to love one another; God the Son gave His life on the cross, the supreme example of love. God the Holy Spirit lives within us to provide the love we need (Rom. 5:5). To abide in love is to abide in God and to abide in God is to abide in love. Christian love is not something we “work up” when we need it. Christian love is “poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” and this is your constant experience as you abide in Christ.
As we have seen, there are four levels on which a person may live. He may choose the lowest level—Satan’s level—and practice murder. Murderers “have their part in the fiery lake of burning sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8).
Or, a person may choose the next level—hatred. But hatred, in God’s sight, is the same as murder. A man who lives with hatred is slowly killing himself, not the other person! Psychiatrists warn that malice and hatred cause all kinds of physical and emotional problems.
The third level—indifference—is far better than the first two because the first two are not Christian at all. A man who has constant hatred in his heart or who habitually murders proves he has never been born of God. But it is possible to be a Christian and be indifferent to the needs of others.
A man who murders belongs to the devil, like Cain. A man who hates belongs to the world (1 Jn. 3:13), which is under Satan’s control. But a Christian who is indifferent is out of fellowship with God and is living for the flesh, which serves Satan’s purposes.
The only happy, holy way to live is on the highest level, the level of Christian love. This is the life of joy and liberty, the life of answered prayer. It assures you confidence and courage in spite of the difficulties of life.
A psychologist studied children to determine what affect love and neglect had on them. The survey proved children who were neglected and unloved were much slower in their development; some of them even died. In a physical sense, love is the very atmosphere of life and growth.
But it is even more so in the spiritual sense. In fact, it is a matter of love or death!