Paul is in prison. The Philippians have written a letter and sent a young missionary, Epaphroditus, to help him, but he became ill and had to go home. When Paul sent Epaphroditus back to the Philippians, he sent this letter with him. One concern Paul has is paving the way for this young man back in his home church. Also, Paul has heard rumors about problems in the Philippian church (he addresses them in chapter 4—there's conflict between two or three people). A third concern is their concern for him. They fear for what's going to happen to the Christian movement because of Paul's imprisonment. (It turns out to be a fatal imprisonment—Paul doesn't get out of that prison in Rome.) They are profoundly worried, and I think that's the deepest reason for the letter. Paul wants to assure them that he'll be all right and that the gospel is all right—it will withstand the trial. The gospel is not fragile.
Paul opens with a prayer in every letter except the Galatian letter. (In that letter, he's so angry with the crises at Galatia that he skips his prayer). It's useful to notice the prayers of Paul because what he prays for in the beginning he talks about in the letter. Maybe you have had this experience when you were in college and went home for Christmas break. You are sitting down for dinner and your mom says, "Let's pray. Lord, thanks for bringing Mary back this vacation. I hope we have a wonderful time. I hope she studies really hard during this time and does well in her school work and earns a lot of money." From that prayer you know that there will be conversations on those subjects!
This is true of Paul, too. Notice the three elements in the prayer. First, he wants them to know that God's work in their lives is continuing and will be completed: "He who began a good work in you will complete it at the day of Jesus Christ." This is a reminder that God is making an "event" in their lives. The Greek word for "work" is ergon. Modern physics uses the word "erg" as a unit of work—an event that happens. The God who began this event will complete it. Then he prays that they'll grow in love and the fruits of righteousness. It's a prayer for piety, that they'll grow in their Christian lives. That's another prayer that's in every one of Paul's letters.
Christian teammates use discernment
I find the third thing intriguing in light of the context—what's happening in the Roman world and to the Philippians. He's praying they will think clearly: "It is my prayer that your love will abound more and more with knowledge." He uses two interesting Greek words here that we translate "knowledge" and "discernment." Epiginosko is the word ginosko, "to know," intensified; you could translate it, "with all deep knowledge." Aisthese, "discernment," is an intriguing word. It refers to common or ordinary knowledge. Paul is praying, " … that you will have deep knowledge, that you will know the deepest truths, and that you will have ordinary knowledge."
Every year my alma mater, Princeton Seminary, honors somebody from a previous class. Four or five years ago, they honored a pastor from Seoul, Korea, the pastor of probably the largest Presbyterian church in the world, with some 40,000 members. During an interview, the pastor was asked, "How do you elect elders for a church of that size?" The room was filled with Presbyterian pastors, and we all have elders in session. "Well," he said, "we give an examination for prospective elders." The interviewer pressed him. "What do you examine them on?" "We examine them on four great topics. We examine them on Bible, theology, and church history." Everybody was nodding in agreement up to then. When he came to his fourth point, the audience roared: "And we also examine them on common sense."
I wish every church examined their elders and pastors on those four, especially the last! We certainly don't need hysterical Christians running around everywhere, do we? We don't need people putting out fires in the midst of a flood. We need people with common sense. At the heart of Paul's prayer, then, is a desire for deep knowledge but also discernment. This deep knowledge everybody wants. In fact, the Gnostics made a heresy out of that. That's why Paul prays this same prayer for the Colossians, who were really hit with Gnosticism. People were making a fetish out of deep knowledge. Paul prays for God to give them deep knowledge, epiginosko, but also aisthese—common sense, ordinary common sense.
Christian teammates trust the Holy Spirit
Paul sneaks into this passage a wonderful, short teaching about the Holy Spirit. It comes in verse 19: "Yes, I shall rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, this will turn out for my deliverance. …" Did you know that the common word for help in the Greek is sullambano? Lambano means "to lift," sun means "with"; thus, "to lift with." That's the word he uses in chapter 4 when he says, "Help those women." That's not the word used here. Here is a word used only one other place in the New Testament, in Ephesians. This strange word is epichoregas. It's an intensified form of choregea, the root word for the English words "chorus" and "chorale." In Ephesians, the RSV translates it as "being knit together." Paul is saying, "I shall rejoice; for I know that through your prayers and the 'choreography' of the Holy Spirit, this will work out for my deliverance."
Here you have the biblical doctrine of divine appointment. I believe in divine appointments. I have three grown kids, and I prayed for them as they were growing up. You can't pray, "Lord, make my kids good." You can't do it because then God has to break his own rules and take away their freedom. But you can pray this: "Lord, bring good people into their lives. Give them some divine appointments, Lord." That doesn't tamper with their freedom. It just prays that God would bring into their lives those who would walk alongside them. That's epichoregas. Paul says, "I'm grateful that God has choreographed you into my life. And through your prayers and the choreography of the Holy Spirit, it's going to work out for my deliverance."
Christian teammates strive side by side
In typical Pauline fashion, he talks about some implications for the Philippians: "Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear that you stand firm in one spirit with one mind, striving side by side for the faith of the gospel." Behind the phrase, "manner of life," is the Greek word politeusthe—that's where we get the word political. The Jerusalem Bible translates it, "civic life." The phrase means, "Let your public life be worthy of the gospel." Axios is the Greek word for "worthy." In classical Greek, it's the word for "equilibrium" or "balance" or "congruence"—"Let your life be congruent with the gospel." That's why I decided to entitle my commentary on Philippians "Integrity," because that's what he's after here.
What would it mean to have my life be worthy? Notice he doesn't say, "Let your life be perfect," instead he says, "Let your life be congruent with the gospel." That means that I know two things about myself because of the gospel: I know I'm a sinner, and I also know God's grace. Knowing I'm a sinner makes me realistic, and knowing about the good news of Christ's love gives me hope. I love Francis Schaeffer's definition of a Christian: "A Christian is someone who has bowed twice." I've bowed once in humble admission that I'm a sinner, and I've bowed secondly in gratitude to God for his love in Jesus Christ.
Paul also says he wants the Philippians to be "striving side by side for the faith of the gospel." This phrase, "striving side by side," is an athletic image. In fact, the Greek word here is a two-part word: sun, "with," and athleo, "compete"-"to compete side by side." We get the word athletic from this word. Paul wants them to be fellow competitors, to be teammates. In other words, you not only have to know how to carry the ball but also how to block for somebody else who's carrying the ball.
Paul also tells them not to be frightened by their opponents. In the Book of Philippians, we find most of the Greek words for fear. Later we'll see the word trauma. We've seen the word phobeo already, the garden variety word for "fear." We get the word "phobia" from that word. But here we find a word that appears no where else in the New Testament. It's the word pturo. We get our word terror from this word. In classical Greek, pturo is used exclusively with reference to animals-like a horse being spooked by something. So the best translation of the word would be "startled." Paul is not saying, "I don't want you to be afraid of anything." We should be afraid of a rattlesnake when we're going down the trail in Grand Canyon. But we shouldn't jump over the cliff when we see a rattlesnake. He's talking about not panicking when you see something dangerous, like Nero, or the Roman world oppressing Christians.
Instead, you need to be an unflappable Christian. In other words, don't panic. Being under the gospel protects you from panicking because the gospel makes you realistic. Perfectionists have a terrible time raising children because they frequently punish a child for being a child. Imagine punishing a child for spilling milk. Why, that's just being a child. But realism helps you be unflappable-what do you expect from a child? Noticing your teammates also helps you to become unflappable. Knowing that I've got a teammate, a back-up, helps me realize I'm not in this alone. That's why Paul says, "Be under the gospel with integrity, and stand side by side with your teammates, and don't panic."
Christian teammates defer to one another
In the second chapter, Paul maintains his teammate theme. "Complete my joy by being of the same mind …" the Greek word here for "mind" is phroneo. In modern medicine they speak of "phrenetic"-it has to do with the intellectual part of the brain. The phrase "of the same mind" could be translated, "of the same perspective or outlook on life." Paul continues, "Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourself. Let each of you look not only to your own interests but also the interests of others." He's talking about what it means to be teammates. Teammates have certain marks. When those certain marks are present, then there is strength in that team. First, there is a unity of perspective. He says when the teammates have the same mind, the same outlook, the same vision, something good happens. The mark of great renewal movements, what gives them their strength, is that shared vision. There is something you want to see happen, and you're working together at it. Second, there is the ability to see the interests of my teammates over and against what he calls "conceit." The Greek word for "conceit" is kenodoxia, "empty glory": keno means "empty," doxia is "glory." Instead of having the empty glory that focuses on the self, look to the interests of others. A truly great athlete is not only able to do his or her own event well but is also willing to be a team player, who cares about setting up a shot for another. Instead of having "empty glory," he or she has the ability to focus on others.
Then comes this problematic sentence: "Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourself." The problem here is the translation of a Greek saying. When you have a saying or a cliché, it is difficult to translate that cliché into another language. Imagine, for instance, before the Rose Bowl, a headline in one of the Oregon newspapers saying, "Ducks Smell Roses." It's a sports cliché with all kinds of hidden signals and meanings. In order to translate that saying into Chinese or Arabic or any language, you need a whole paragraph: "There's a football team in Oregon whose mascot is ducks, and the team hopes very much to go to a contest that will be held on the second of January in Pasadena, California, which is a nationally televised football game that millions of people will watch. It's called the Rose Bowl. So, 'Ducks Smell Roses' really means that."
We have the same problem in the Philippian letter. Paul uses a first-century saying that every first-century Greek reader would understand. The key is the word, "better." The phrase really means, "Defer to others and give them a better place." It doesn't mean that you should treat yourself as a worm, as a person with no value, who sees others as more valuable and more important. Suppose you were with your family on your way to a picnic and realized on the way that you were out of film. You drive up to the front of Safeway and you dash into the store. You find the film, and you pick it up. Now the big decision is, what line to get in because loved ones are waiting out in the car. One thing you know is not to go to the eight-items-only line. That line is already going all around the whole store. And even though it says, NO CHECKS, there's always somebody in that line who wants to cash a check. No, you're smarter if you go into one of the ordinary lines. But the ordinary lines have got all these people with huge carts. So you go into an ordinary line where there's a person just finishing checking out and another with a huge cart. They're the only person in that line because everybody sees this gigantic cart loaded with groceries. You go stand behind that person and look kind of hurt. If you're fortunate, the person will look at you and say, "You have only film? It's all you've got?" "That's all," you reply. Then they'll say, "Oh, heck. Go ahead. Get in line. You've got only one thing. Go ahead."
I want to ask you a question about the person that told you to go on ahead: Did she feel good or bad about herself? When you're able to put someone else in front of you in line, that is a sign that you're filled with grace, not with anger, not with bitterness, not with smallness. A team player doesn't have empty glory—that hollow, empty fascination with one's self and one's rights. You are able to scope others' rights and needs, and able to put others in front of you in line. You'll never be on a team if you can't do that, and neither will you ever make a real difference in the world.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Earl Palmer is a writer and speaker for Earl Palmer Ministries, and author of Mastering the New Testament: 1, 2, 3 John and Revelation (W Publishing Group).