LESSONS FROM PHILIPPIANS
Readings: Philippians chs. 3 and 4
Our attainment to a place in the Kingdom of God rests upon two essentials: one, knowing the Truth, and two, living the Truth. Obviously one cannot live the Truth without knowing it, but on the other hand it is possible to know the Truth but fail to live it. It’s an easy phrase to use, living the Truth, but it’s a lifetime’s work to put it into practice. Each one of us possesses Adam’s sin-cursed nature. We have to learn how to discern the enemy within and how to prevent it from gaining the mastery. It’s not easy and if we were left to ourselves we certainly should not succeed.
Jeremiah expressed the truth when he exclaimed: “0 Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.”
Now when God calls a man to the Truth—we read in the Acts of the Apostles about the first convert of the brethren and sisters at Philippi, it happened to be a woman, and what does it say?—”the Lord opened her heart,” and she listened and received the things spoken, she embraced the Truth and became a sister of Christ. When that happened to us, God didn’t then leave us unarmed against the enemy, so to speak, defenceless. No, the man having been called, God provides him with guidance, instruction, warning and encouragement and we need all those things.
It is part of God’s protecting hand and care towards us that we have these epistles, these priceless letters of the apostle Paul to the brethren and sisters of the first century. They are not in the Bible by accident or just relics of a bygone day, they are there and preserved for your sake and my sake. Those members of the ecclesia at Philippi possessed the very same nature as you and I have. True, they spoke a different language and wore different clothes, and the circumstances of their lives were rather different, but they had one thing in common with us, they shared the very same hope. They believed in the promises to Abraham, the coming of Christ, the establishment of the Kingdom, the unity of God; they had been baptized into that. That was their hope. That was what sustained them.
That was the source, as it were, of their kindness to the apostle, how they ministered to his needs. It was the love of the Truth. But they all possessed the weaknesses of the flesh, and they all needed help, and God gave it to them. He gave them their wonderful guide, the apostle Paul. There was a man who was true, he was finn, he was upright, zealous, he loved the Truth, he loved his Master, he was ready to die for him. He never forgot that in the days of his ignorance he persecuted Christ’s brethren and sisters. What amends he made, gave his whole life.
He was their spiritual father, as it were, a nursing father to these dear brethren and sisters at Philippi. Now when he spoke and wrote to them he possessed an authority that none of us has today, none of us shares that authority, because his authority was a direct commission from Christ, and all his words were Spirit-guided. When he spoke he spoke the words of his beloved Master. It was a very close contact, in fact, when he wrote to the brethren at Corinth he required them to recognise and acknowledge that the things he wrote were the commandments of Christ, just as though Christ himself had written them down. That was Paul’s authority.
Now this morning we have just concluded reading this letter to the brethren and sisters at Philippi. I suppose all of us, especially those who have read it many, many times, feel it is one of the gems of the sacred Word. How the sincerity of Paul’s love for those brethren and sisters comes out. It was deep and it was touching. Look at the 8th verse of the 1st chapter. Here he is, as it were opening his letter to them at the start. He said: “God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.”
That word “bowels” is a metaphor. It’s used for the seat of the feelings. I suppose in our days it would be put something like this: “I long after you all in the tender affection of Christ Jesus.” There was that deep feeling he had for them. And what a generous tribute he paid to them in the opening of his letter. Why, if we received this morning such a letter directed to us from the apostle Paul lam sure it would touch us very much. What did he write? “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making request” not with sadness but “with joy.” He knew their faith, their love. “For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now.”
Isn’t it cheering when we hear of an ecclesia all knit together; they all love the Truth, they are working for the Truth. The ecclesia wasn’t perfect, but that was the mind of the majority there, and Paul loved them for it. Those words are words of encouragement—”I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.. . for your fellowship from the first day until now.” We can imagine this letter being read out to the brethren and sisters assembled. One of the elders appointed reads the letter. We can imagine the effect on every brother and sister. They would be listening intently. These are the words of the Spirit written by Paul: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.” If there was one in the audience who was not quite doing his part it would make him think and want to do better, to be worthy of that kindness and that remembrance on the part of the apostle. The effect would be to spur them on to greater efforts.
Encouragement does a great deal. It very often does far more than hammering on the desk, that appeal to the love of Christ. We all need a little encouragement sometimes. The young do, and so do the old. I remember some years ago receiving a letter of encouragement from two very young sisters when we were going through rather a difficult time. It was quite a surprise, and surprising how cheered one felt. It’s a great thing. Paul gave it liberally, encouragement.
So the letter proceeds: “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Work it out with fear and trembling. We turned up that expression. It has this thought behind it—self-distrust. It is the strong in faith who exhibit self-distrust because they place their whole reliance in life on the good hand of God. We read in the Proverbs a few days ago: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.” Distrust it. That is to say, if it is prompted by the flesh it is very unreliable. Put your trust in God with all your understanding.
Paul in another place wrote against over-self-confidence. He said:
“Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”
Well, Paul had been appointed to “feed the flock of God,” and in feeding them he also warned them of the very real perils. As we well know, the ecclesias in those days had been very much troubled by those persistent advocates of eircuncision for the Gentile believers. It wasn’t genuine. Paul said in another place that it was only to avoid persecution. ‘If we can get them circumcised the Jews won’t be too upset about what we are teaching’. But you can’t compromise the Truth in that way, and it was wrong anyway. Paul puts the truth of the matter. He says: “Beware of dogs.” He is very blunt. These were his dear brethren and sisters. He didn’t want to see them diverted off the path to life eternal. Don’t think that these advocates of circumcision were a rough sort of people. They were probably very educated, very gentlemanly in appearance, those sort of people that take in the simple. Paul describes them as dogs, evil workers. He says “Beware of the concision.” that is, the circumcision advocates. He describes them as “the enemies of the cross of Christ.” He pointed out to them that “we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.”
The work of those advocates was as damaging to the Truth in the first century; it was as damaging to the Truth then as the work of the partial inspirationists and the clean flesh people in these days, and so it is for all of us, each brother, each sister, young and old, not to leave the consideration of these things to a few older brethren. We have all got to be well-equipped in regard to the first principles, know the causes of the divisions of the past hundred years, because there are lessons attaching to them; maintain the integrity of the Truth, maintain our position of separation from those from whom we have had to separate on principles, matters of doctrine. We must preserve the integrity of the Scriptures.
Yet we can do all that and yet fail. Yes, and fail grievously as individuals. That seems strange. But we may not maintain the standard which God requires of us, that Christ expects of us. How so? Well, we said at the start that the two essentials are knowing the Truth and living the Truth. We may know accurately all the first principles and commandments; we may be determined and hold to our determination not to let the Truth be corrupted; and yet we may be failing in living the Truth.
This failure can start in quite small ways, all sorts of little ways, just a little at the start and then it gets wider. It’s like going down a road and you come to a fork; it’s a sharp fork and you don’t know which road to take. If you take the wrong one, although it seems very close to the right one, gradually after a mile or two it gets further and further away. That’s like error. It’s a little bit off the path at the start but it gets wider and wider and you will never get to the Kingdom. You’re on the wrong road.
We have one of those little beginnings which was checked by Paul. It’s a case in this letter; we have read about it this morning. Two sisters in the ecclesia had a difference, a personal disagreement. Those two sisters would have been absolutely astounded to know that their dispute would be recorded in the sacred canon of Scripture and would be known to brethren and sisters nineteen hundred years afterwards! But the very fact that it has been recorded indicates that it carries an urgent lesson for us today. Those two sisters were Euodias—we are told that the ‘s’ had slipped in by mistranslatio, it’s really Eudoia—and Syntyche. We will call it Euodias, sticking to our text.
Philippians 4.2. What does it say? “I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord.” Was it right that Paul should refer to two sisters openly by name In an ecciesial letter that was going to be read to all? Yes, it was. Why? Well, to start with, these were the words of the Spirit. When the Spirit does something there is no question about it. ThaL in itself is all-sufficient. But there is something else. This was evidently a disagreement known to the whole ecclesia, because they were two very active members in the ecclesia. Paul gives them that testimonial. They were two sisters of standing. But remember they were good sisters too.
These two sisters were not of one mind, they had had a disagreement. They had been fellow-labourers with Paul in the gospel and their names were written in heaven. We wonder why Paul put that little note in. He referred to certain ones, including these two sisters, “whose names are in the book of life.” One can’t think of any more powerful reminder of what we have been called to. Their names were written in heaven yet they were quarrelling on earth. What did Paul do? Let us read verse 3: “I intreat thee also, true yokefellow” (we are not told who this was, probably a brother of standing, a good brother of influence in that meeting) “help those women”—that’s these two, Euodias and Syntyche—”which laboured with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellow-labourers, whose names are in the book of life.”
Now you know the danger of a difference. If the differences are not quickly bridged over they can so easily degenerate, and what happens? It’s perhaps not even at the wish of those who have fallen out with each other, but sympathisers begin to gather, this one and that one. The thing becomes wider in the meeting. It upsets the meeting. The spiritual soil of the meetingbecomes soured, and in that soil the noxious roots of bitterness get a hold. Indeed, the whole ecelesia can be corrupted. This is not an exaggeration. The older ones know in their experience that those things have happened. A small matter is allowed to go on and on, it gathers a sort of impetus and then there is a meeting divided, over something that is not worthy of any sort of split or division.
One might say, Yes, but didn’t Paul and Barnabas have a difference? Yes, they did, they had a sharp difference as to whether Mark was a suitable brother to take with them on their second journey of preaching. Paul thought it not good to take Mark with them, who on the previous journey had left them. He went back from the work, he didn’t go forward. But there was no personal animosity here. It was an honest difference of opinion. Another important thing to note is this: neither did Paul put Mark’s case, so to speak, in one of the pigeonholes of his mind and say, “Well, that’s Mark, unreliable, I shall never use him any more.” That wasn’t Paul. In fact, when Paul was in prison he wrote very pathetic words really. You know what he said. “Only Luke is with me.” He said to Timothy: “Take Mark, and bring him with thee: for he is profitable to me for the ministry.” Now that’s the way. There wasjust a little difference at the time ,but Mark developed, he got stronger in the Truth and Paul used him. Just before he suffered that cruel death Paul wanted that young man to be with him: “He is profitable to me for the ministry.”
Well, this little lesson of Euodias and Syntyche is one which we should all take to heart. Sometimes two have a difference, and neither side will yield. What’s wrong? We read in the Proverbs only a day or two ago: “Only by pride cometh contention, but with the well- advised is wisdom.” There is a great depth in those words. A quarrel can easily be settled if the parties are reasonable but it continues indefinitely if neither is willing to admit that he is in the wrong. In the world we know that sort of thing is happening every day, but among the children of God it should not be so. So often at the root of it is pride. We have all got pride and we have got to keep it down. It is the flesh asserting itself.
But we feel sure those two sisters at Philippi would have listened to the beloved apostle Paul, especially as they sat and listened to the letter being read out, and as Paul pleaded the example of our dear Lord Jesus himself. Let us hear some of the words they heard. Chapter 2.1: “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”
Now these exhortations would not be here unless they were needed. Pride is one of the traits of the old man of the flesh, so hard to keep under completely. As we have seen, pride can lead to contention and obstinacy; but pride and love cannot dwell together. Whatever we do, whether it be in the public work of the Truth orin our dealings with each other, let it be from the one motive, the motive of love. No other motive is permitted by Christ. We see how Christ acted when he was among men, how gentle were his reproofs. He took into account the inexperience of his followers. He knew the weakness of the mortal frame. Why, at the very institution of this memorial feast, when, as it were, he was in the very shadow of the cross, when he needed comfort, he found the disciples were quarrelling. There was strife among them. What was it all about? Who of them should be accounted the greatest! Well, I suppose human nature would have thoroughly upbraided them and told them to pull themselves together. But what did Christ say? “He that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief as he that doth serve. For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? Is not he that sitteth at meat? But I am among you as he that serveth.” Such words from our dear Lord must have aroused feelings of shame that they had allowed themselves to be drawn into such a dispute.
Well, when we feel inclined to stand on our dignity, or our pride is injured, let us pull ourselves up quickly, otherwise we shall be out of step with our Master. He was affronted as we never have been affronted, he was scorned, jeered at, spat upon, ill-treated, yet he was the only Son of God, His beloved Son appointed to be the heir of the world.
And what did Paul write to those brethren and sisters at Philippi? He said: “He made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant” (a slave). “and was made in the likeness of men:
and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”
Now Paul, writing to his son in the faith Timothy, spoke of the special perils of the last days, that is, nowadays, the special perils facing us; and very first on the list he puts this: “Men shall be lovers of their own selves.” That is the very opposite of all that Christ has taught us. It’s the spirit of the world today, we know it, it’s the spirit of the old Adam. We have all got it and we have got to keep it under. A sister young in the Truth once said to the speaker: ‘Sometimes! like to please myself.’ It was a very natural thing to say,! suppose. But it was pointed out to her that Paul wrote: “Even Christ pleased not himself.” The sister was of the right material; she smiled and said:
‘There always seems to be a passage to put me right!’ That’s true, isn’t it. That passage was not intended just to put the sister right, it was intended to put us all right, young and old. In the context of Paul’s words it’s like a little prod to remind us of our duty. He was writing to the brethren at Rome when he said: “We that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us” (you see, Paul was including himself great man though he was) “let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification.” That’s it, build him up in the faith. “For even Christ pleased not himself, but as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me.”
Now this is the spirit of the words that Paul wrote to these brethren and sisters at Philippi. Life in the Truth is outward-looking. We have read: “Look not every man on his own things,” that is, his own personal interests, “but on the things of others.” Not in a prying, inquisitive sort of way, but quick to discern where help is needed, a word of sympathy, a bit of practical help, a prayer, or to cheer a soul up who wants encouragement and sympathy. You see, while we are all sheep of Christ’s flock, we can also be little shepherds and little shepherdesses to each other. It’s a cold, cold world outside. Let’s pray that Christ will soon come.
All around us we have people with no hope. Today tension, strain are the poor reward the world offers. Lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God, they find no true happiness, no quiet contentment. Why not? “Where there is no vision the people perish.” Let us then treasure the Truth, love it, work for it. The labour will be sweet and the reward will be true happiness. We shall be able to respond gladly to what Paul says in chapter 4.4: “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known to all men.” Moderation—the original word conveys the meaning of a yielding, a gentleness, the very opposite of stubbornness. Then he says: “The Lord is at hand,” That expression has an intensity today that it has never had before. Let us all gird up our loins.
But what does it also do for us? Doesn’t it release the tensions? We can relax. If we are worried about our job, takeovers, all those things, rising costs, perhaps health not good, always remember that we are all in the care of the Almighty and he has promised never to leave us. Everything is under control, What’s happening abroad? It’s all right. Whatever you read, it is the angels of God. It says “All things are for your sakes.” A tremendous truth that is.
Well, in closing these remarks, we all share the faith of these brethren and sisters at Philippi. We almost think we know them, don’t we. They are sleeping in the dust. Paul is sleeping in the dust. But what a strength we can draw from his confidence in the resurrection and the reward. His words ring in our ears: “We look for the Saviour. the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body, and fashion it like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself’.
So as we go forth with the armour and with the sword of the Spirit, we do so in cheerful hope; and we can do so strengthened with Paul’s sound words and encouragement, and with his closing benediction:
“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.”:—G. M. Clements