To Die is Gain (Phil 1:18b-23)
Sermon Audio: To Die Is Gain (Phil 1:18b-23)
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- Death is a reality that every generation has faced, yet our society is profoundly uncomfortable talking about death. Why do you think that is? What has our society lost by ignoring this reality?
- "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What does this mean? How would you explain this quote to someone unfamiliar with Christianity? (see Mark 8:34-35)
- How can someone be ready to die?
- "The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life." - Ps 63:3. What good things in your life makes it difficult to believe that verse?
- How is death "gain" for the Christian?
- What are you looking forward to most in Heaven?
“Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one's head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.” So explains Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost. Wilde, a profligate man who lived a notorious life of wealth, fame, and debauchery faced death at the early age of 46. His last words while laid up in a hotel in France were, “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.” His sense of humor and courage displayed to the very end have long been a model of facing death with a brave face. But hear another perspective on death:
“Picture the universe as an infinite globe with [a] very thin crust on the outside. But…its thickness is a thickness of time. It's about seventy years thick in the best places. We are born on the surface of it and all our lives we are sinking through it. When we've got all the way through then we are what's called Dead: we've got into the dark part inside, the real globe…That's why it's so important to live as long as you can. All the good things are now--a thin little rind of what we call life, put on for show, and then--the real universe for ever and ever. To thicken the rind by one centimeter--to live one week, one day, one half-hour longer--that's the only thing that matters.”
This comes from the villain, Weston, in C.S. Lewis’ wonderful work of science-fiction, Perelandra. Which of these two is a more accurate perspective on death? There is something in this perspective here, the clawing, grasping desperation to extend one’s life even by a matter of minutes, that sounds crude—cowardly, even—to our ears. We admire courage in the face of death, a settled resolve to face death with peace and equanimity, but we dislike craven fear that would sacrifice others to save oneself.
We like Oscar Wildes, we don’t like Westons. Why? Perhaps we are unsettled by the wild-eyed individual grasping for a few more minutes of life because they remind us of the power of our own fears—fears we have tried our best to ignore. No one wants to think about death. We don’t talk about death. We use every possible opportunity to push our mortality from our mind—medicine, makeup, plastic surgery, etc. We like the image of a man peacefully welcoming death because it subtly telegraphs to us maybe it isn’t so bad after all, maybe I have nothing to be afraid of. But do we? Does Weston have a better apprehension of the facts than Wilde?
Wilde represents a naïve romanticism about death and Weston represents a bleak terror. In the book of Philippians we see the apostle Paul provide an alternative. Like Weston, Paul wants to continue to live, but unlike Weston views death as an increase in life; gain. And like Wilde, Paul faces death with courage and joy, but unlike Wilde Paul’s confidence does not rest on a vague hope, but on a specific confidence in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. – Phil 1:18b-23
Here is the aim of my sermon today: I want to examine Paul’s perspective on death. The main focus of this wider section of Philippians is on how Paul lives his life—for me to live is Christ. But it is not until we understand what Paul believed about death that we will grasp how he lived his life. In other words, until you know how to die, you will not know how to live.
The call that Jesus places on my life and on your life from the outset, the metaphor he wants us to frame the whole of the Christian life, is a metaphor of death. Jesus taught, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it,” (Mark 8:34-35).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And this is, in a sense, metaphorical—Jesus does not expect that the instance someone becomes His disciple they are to be literally executed. Of course, many Christians across church history and to this day literally give up their lives and die because they choose to follow Jesus. But for many of us, our decision to follow Christ does not immediately lead to our death. When Jesus taught that we must “bear our cross” he meant that we relinquish the illusion of control over our lives by submitting to Christ and experience the “death” that comes with that. And that may mean that following Jesus leads to putting my physical safety and comfort at risk out of obedience to Christ. But, in another sense, this spiritual dying is merely a dress rehearsal for what will one day come. One day death will come for us all. And we have a choice today—we can choose to die now in our Savior, or we can die then in our sins. And if we die now in Jesus then we can live a life like Paul where we will see “death” as gain. So let’s look at how Paul viewed death here in Philippians. Paul believes that death is an opportunity and death leads to reward.
Death As An Opportunity
Paul is confident that through the prayers of the Philippian church and the help of the Holy Spirit (“Spirit of Jesus Christ” here, but just means the Holy Spirit cf. Acts 16:7; Rom 8:9; Gal 4:6; 1 Pet 1:11) he will be delivered. Now, this could be from his imprisonment he is currently in (as vs. 25 might indicate) or it could be more broadly interpreted to mean that Paul is being delivered from sin or judgment (since the word for “deliverance” is the Greek word soteria, most commonly translated as “salvation”). Either way, Paul is confident that it is through the prayers of the Philippians in concert with the Holy Spirit that he will be delivered. So, in verses 3-11, Paul explained how he was praying for them, and now he is insisting that he likewise needs them to pray for him.
Vs. 20 tells us what Paul is confident in most: “…it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death,” (Phil 1:20). Paul states his confidence first negatively and then positively. Negatively, he is certain that he “will not be at all ashamed”—what does that mean? Consider what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied,” (1 Cor 15:17-19). If Jesus has not been raised from the dead, then we are still in our sins. The gospel states that when Jesus goes to the cross, He takes us and our sins with Him. And when He is killed us and our sins are killed as well. And when He is buried we, with our sins, are buried with Him. But when He resurrects from the dead? We resurrect with Him, but our sins remain behind us in the grave! But if there is no resurrection? Then we are still in our sins, our faith is pointless, and we of all people are to be pitied. We will have lived our life for a lie and will be ashamed.
But Paul is confident that he will not be ashamed! Why? Because Jesus really rose from the dead. Paul met Him. Saw Him with his eyes. The Christian faith is built on a historical reality, not subjective hopes and wishes. Friend, if you are not a Christian here today and are considering whether or not Christianity is worth it, I’d encourage you to take some time to study the historical basis of the resurrection. Don’t take my word for it, read a book like The Bedrock of Christianity by Justin Bass and attempt to refute it, attempt to come up with an alternative explanation of the history.
Because Paul is certain that Jesus rose from the dead, he is very confident that he will not be ashamed, but not only that, he is also confident that “with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death,” Phil 1:20. Next week we will examine how Paul lives his life more directly, but here we see that Paul’s entire understanding of how he uses his body, whether in life or death, is aimed at one goal: honoring Christ.
Friend, do you know that you can honor Christ in your death? Of course this immediately makes us think of courageous martyrs who, when given the choice of recanting their faith in Christ or perishing, choose death. This will eventually be Paul’s story. He will, in time, be put to death by Rome—as were all but one of the other apostles. As are the myriads of Christians today in closed countries.
But there is another way you can honor Christ in your death, and that is by dying in Him. The book of Revelation reminds us: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord,” (Rev 14:13). In our Scripture reading, Jesus warned His listeners that, “unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins,” (John 8:24). So, we have a choice today: we can die in our sins, or we can die in our Savior.
What does it mean to die in your sins? It means that you will go into the grave accountable and liable for our sins. Our sins are not only the things we have done in our life that we admit are wrong—which are themselves considerable—but are the things which God says is wrong. And friend, your conscience awareness of that is but a fraction of the whole. A small chink of light shines inward upon the dark waters of your soul; you have seen but a glimmer of the vast ocean of sin churning within. If we refuse Christ and His offer, then we will be handed over to be consumed with the whole of our sin, not just the part. We will be shut out into the eternal night, cast out from the presence of the God who is the source of light, shut out from the One who is the source of all joy, peace, and rest. We will stand before the holy God and answer why we spurned His Son.
This is why Oscar Wilde’s portrait of death as beautiful is a lie. Death is terrifying. To face death outside of Christ is not gentle, or peaceful, or restful—it is the deprivation of all those things. The hollowing out of life everything that is good, leaving behind only a crust of existence.
What does it mean to die in your Savior? It means that we put all our chips onto Jesus. It means that we trust Him and His work to pay the debt we owe, to be a colossal sponge by which the ocean of our sin is absorbed and taken away. It is trusting that in Jesus’ death our judgment day has already taken place, so that death is no longer the dark portal to judgment, but the bright gateway to life.
No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is power of Christ in me
Friend, are you ready to die? You can honor Jesus by dying in Him.
Death As Gain
Paul goes on, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” (Phil 1:21). For Paul, death isn’t merely an opportunity to give honor to Jesus—it is gain. Of course, from our vantage point, death is loss. Death is the extinguishing of earthly joys. But for Paul it is an increase in joy. Later he states, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better,” (Phil 1:22-23).
Here Paul picks up the truth of the psalmist: “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life,” (Ps 63:3). Life is full of a ridiculous amount of good things. The laughter of children, the joys of relationships, the satisfaction in completing a hard task, the pleasure of a good meal. We have a cornucopia of goodness in life—but to Paul, everything here is just a happy meal compared with the banquet awaiting him through death.
What makes death gain to Paul?
Of course, the Bible teaches that when a Christian days he is taken to a place sometimes referred to as Heaven in the Bible, but in the Bible this is actually a temporary holding place till the arrival of the New Creation. Of that place we are told:
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
- Rev 21:3-5
So death is the gateway through which all Christians must walk to inherit the glories of the New Creation. And that is gain. Heaven will not be an eternity spent floating on a cloud, but will be lived on a renewed earth, purged of sin. Our bodies will be glorified, our minds will be purified, we will be able to enjoy everything without being tempted to turn it into an idol. We will get to enjoy the blessings of relationships without worrying about what they think of us or being tempted to manipulate anyone.
Have you ever sat inside a car when the windshield is frost over and watched someone scrape the ice off? You can see fuzzy shapes and light through the frosted windshield, but you can’t see clearly. But as you see the ice scraped, line by line, your sight greatly sharpens. Friends, we now see truth, beauty, and goodness in the world around us like we are looking through a frosted glass. But one day, it will be scraped clean and what wonders shall await us! If the fuzzy images of joy and happiness and rest we experience now are so entrancing, what will it be like when we see? We are left only to tremble in joyful expectation.
But notice that Paul doesn’t say, “My desire is to depart and be in heaven, for that is far better.” Rather, he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” What makes heaven heaven?
It is better to be in any place with Christ than to be in heaven without him. All delicacies without Christ are but as a funeral banquet. Where the master of the feast is away, there is nothing but solemnness. What is all without Christ? I say the joys of heaven are not the joys of heaven without Christ; he is the very heaven of heaven.- Richard Sibbes
Notice what Revelation told us: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes,” Rev 21:4. Jesus will personally address your deepest wounds—He will embrace you. And we will feel all of twisted effects of sin, all our bitterness, all our malice, all our self-hatred, all our shame pour out of our hearts. We will be made new.
When you believe that, it will change how you view life. Death is gain.
God will have it so, for the comfort of Christians, that every day, they live, they may think, my best is behind, my best is to come, that every day they rise, they may think, I am nearer heaven one day than I was before, I am nearer death, and therefore nearer to Christ. . . . A Christian is a happy man in his life, but happier in his death, because he then goes to Christ; but happiest of all in heaven, for then he is with Christ. - Sibbes
The Advance of the Gospel (Phil 1:12-18)
Sermon Audio: The Advance of the Gospel (Phil 1:12-18)
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- Read Phil 1:12-18 together. What stood out to you from the sermon the most?
- As you read Phil 1:12-18, what are the hardships that Paul is facing here? What are the things that Paul is grateful for? If you were in Paul's shoes, what would your reaction be?
- "God has sovereignly ordained that His gospel will advance, that His church will be built, and the gates of Hell shall not overcome it." (See Romans 8:28 and Matthew 16:18). What does that truth have to do with Phil 1:12-18?
- How is Christian courage contagious? Can you think of an example of this that you have seen?
- Is there any area in your life where God is currently calling you to display courage?
- What had the opponents in Phil 1:15-17 misunderstood about the purpose of ministry/preaching?
- How was Paul able to rejoice in Phil 1:18? Read 1 Cor 4:3-4 and Gal 1:10.
Optimists are people who tend to look on the bright side, notice that the glass is half full, make lemonade when given lemons. They are positive and uplifting. Pessimists tend to be gloomy, noticing that the glass is half empty, always ready to poke holes in what looks like a good plan. The worst case scenario is always the most likely scenario; the thing we dread is likely going to happen; getting our hopes up only leads to being disappointed. Optimists and pessimists are polar opposites, Tigger and Eeyore; entirely different creatures with entirely different perspectives on life. (And, for some reason, almost always they wind up marrying each other).
No one likes being called an optimist or a pessimist. The terms imply that you don’t see reality rightly—you either are blind to the negative or positive aspects of life. Everything you say must be qualified with your dour or naïve perspective. Yes, but you’re an incurable optimist, or, you’re just saying that because you’re a pessimist. The implication of both of those sentences is: we cannot trust what you say to be an accurate rendering of reality. Christians, arguably, have good reason for being either optimists or pessimists. We believe in the doctrine of total depravity and original sin, thus seem to have good reason to have a fairly negative outlook on life, but we also believe in an overcoming Savior and a sovereign God who is returning to establish His kingdom in its fullness, so we have a pretty good reason to be optimistic.
Was Paul an optimist? At one point Paul explains: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed,” 2 Cor 4:8-9. Notice the duality in what he says. He acknowledges his great suffering, yet maintains that he is not abandoned to despair—it is neither optimism or pessimism per se. In fact, just one verse earlier he states, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us,” 2 Cor 4:7. The treasure there is the gospel, and he thinks of himself as a fragile jar of clay—easily broken. But the cracks only let the light of the treasure shine out more clearly. There are things that make Paul sad, yet he always finds reason to rejoice (2 Cor 6:10).
In our text today Paul is going to detail a set of circumstances that are incredibly frustrating and limiting, but will resound with Paul’s confidence that God is always on his side.
12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. – Phil 1:12-18
- Paul most certainly was not a pessimist. Is Paul an optimist?
o Paul is a man who believes in a sovereign God who especially uses what we wouldn’t expect to accomplish His good purposes.
§ For instance: our suffering/weakness
§ “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2 Cor 12:10
§ “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8:28
§ “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” – Matt 16:18
o God has sovereignly ordained that His gospel will advance, regardless of what man may do to stop it. This should make us very bold. This should make us humble.
“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.” – Phil 1:12-13
What has happened to Paul? We know from the end of the book of Acts that Paul was imprisoned in Rome because of his ministry, and this is likely where he is writing this letter (note: the “imperial” guard, a Roman “praetorian” guard; most likely found in Rome). His ministry had led him to face persecution often. In his farewell address to the elders at the church in Ephesus he explains to them:
“…the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God,” Acts 20:23-24
So, the Holy Spirit had specifically informed Paul that in whatever city he would be travelling to, there he would face persecution. Which is a pretty alarming reality. If you or I were travelling missionaries and were informed that the next city we intended to visit had hostiles present, intent on hurting us and throwing us in prison, my guess is that most of us would likely skip that city? Or if we were to go into that city and be promptly thrown in jail, we would likely consider that a dramatic set back. But Paul has a different set of goalposts than we do. He does not count his life of any value or precious at all. The only thing that matters to him is that he finishes his race, that he testifies to the gospel of the grace of God.
And Paul wants the Philippians to know that his imprisonment has actually served as a means of advancing the gospel because it has now became known “throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ,” (1:13). Paul is a travelling missionary, so one would think that preventing him from travelling would put an end to his missionary work, only it hasn’t. It has led to Paul spreading the gospel among his jailers, among the guards, spreading to “all the rest.” Remember: Paul is confident that there is a sovereign God who has willed that His gospel will advance, that His church will be built, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it, so Paul is just unyieldingly confident. And his confidence and boldness in the face of trials has a salutary effect on those around him:
“And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear,” Phil 1:14.
This is a counter-intuitive truth to consider: Paul is saying that the Christians around him who have observed his imprisonment, seen what it has cost Paul to be obedient to Christ, are now becoming more confident and less fearful to follow his example. That seems like the opposite of what should happen, right? That is the intended societal effect of imprisonment and punishments—it disincentivizes the rest of society from participating in that act. But, it leads the rest of the followers of Jesus around Paul to become more confident, more fearless. Examples of Christian courage are contagious.
Many of you know that recently Adam Diaz from Abide Church and myself gave a lecture to the faculty CBC regarding a Christian perspective on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Adam is also a professor at CBC, so he brought me in to give the lecture, and we together taught different sections of the lecture. While we said nothing in the lecture that was inflammatory and conducted ourselves throughout the lecture and the Q&A time with gentleness, the response from the faculty was fairly negative. To a smaller degree, some of the people in the Q&A time were rude to us, but more importantly both beforehand and afterwards there have been individuals who have responded by threatening lawsuits, by filing formal complaints with the college for allowing us to give the talk, filing formal complaints with accreditation board over the college, and other formal actions to make sure that nothing like this happens again. Adam, of course, is putting his job on the line by doing this. After the lecture and Q&A time, Adam and I were walking back to his office debriefing what happened. We were frankly discouraged at the reception and interaction with the faculty, but we felt a simultaneous hope that perhaps other Christians at the school would now feel emboldened to be more confident in sticking to their convictions, but also a fear that maybe those same Christians felt even more intimidated by seeing how we were treated for our modest push against the current culture.
But Paul gives us a helpful perspective: Christian courage is contagious. Note: I am not pretending to hold up what I did as a great act of courage. It was really Adam who was the courageous one of the two of us because he is legitimately putting his job in jeopardy. But still, when we compare that level of opposition compared with what Paul faced himself, what our brothers and sisters are facing today in closed countries like China and Afghanistan and Iran, it just doesn’t compare. But, what I am saying is that the path of the Christian life is a path where we should regularly expect resistance and difficulty. Paul later in Philippians is going to remind us that, “…it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,” (Phil 1:29). Jesus taught, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you,” (Matt 5:11-12).
It’s a feature of the Christian life, not a bug. And when other real Christians see someone model courage it awakens something inside of them that says, Yes, I should be willing to lay it down on the line like that. There will be plenty of false believers who, when push comes to shove, will choose their own security and comfort over Jesus. But those who have God’s Spirit dwelling in them will see and will be emboldened, will be less gripped by fear to declare God’s Word.
Friend, I wonder where Christ is calling you to be bold today? Perhaps in your workplace? Perhaps with your neighbor? Is there something that world is requiring you to buckle on that compromises the truth of the gospel? Maybe in your friend group there is a culture where it is normal to make racist or crude jokes and you know that if you take a stand against it, everyone will think you to be a spoil-sport, maybe even assume you think you’re better than them. Maybe you have been asked to sign a document at work that says that you will affirm and approve any and all sexual and gender identities in the workplace, and you know if you refuse to sign it at worst you could lose your job and at best you will be seen as a benighted fundamentalist who is motivated by hatred.
Maybe you are fearful to stand for Christ because you think that you will be less effective, less influential if you “out” yourself as a Christian at work, or maybe even put your job in jeopardy. Consider this: God has sovereignly ordained that His gospel will advance, His church will be built, and even when His path leads you into a place that you cannot understand, that you can’t see how it leads to more gospel-advancement, you can trust that God knows better than you do, so you stay the course.
Paul’s understanding that God’s sovereign purpose to advance the gospel doesn’t only make him bold and others bold, it paradoxically also makes him humble.
“Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice,” Phil 1:15-18.
There is a group of preachers laboring in the world alongside Paul—these are the people who have been emboldened by Paul’s model in vs. 14. But there is a mixture of motivations behind these preachers. Some are motivated by a sincere love of God and of Paul. They know that Paul was put in jail for defending the gospel, so they are going to carry the torch. Others, however, are motivated by “rivalry and envy.” They preach Christ out of “selfish ambition, not sincerely.” They actually are hoping to hurt Paul while he is in jail! How does that work? It could mean that these individuals are hoping that by spreading the gospel more, Paul’s punishment will become more severe—the guards will take it out on Paul in anger that the gospel is still being proclaimed. John Calvin in commenting on this passage says that he personally knows of men in his own time who do something like this—preaching the gospel only to afflict pious pastors. However, it seems more likely that these men, being motivated by “rivalry and envy…and selfish ambition” are more interested in growing their own platform at the expense of Paul. They have begun to think that ministry is a competition and now that Paul is in jail, now they have their shot to stand in the spotlight. And they are hoping, at least Paul assumes, that Paul knows he isn’t in the big times anymore, that he has been surpassed by these “super” preachers (cf. 2 Cor 11:5).
The work of a preacher can be a tempting environment for selfish ambition, for vanity, for conceit. Being put up on a platform and teaching others from a position of authority can be a strong drug that inebriates the preacher into thinking that he must be something special. But as soon as a preacher makes the proclamation of the gospel finally about his own image and vanity, then he necessarily views other preachers as adversaries. They are not co-laborers working alongside you for the same goal. They are the competition vying for the same pool of attention.
This is a mindset that Paul strongly rejects. Later, Paul will explain to the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves,” (Phil 2:3). There could not be anything more anti-gospel than using the gospel as a platform for yourself. In the gospel Jesus, the Son of God, becomes a servant, becomes a man, despite being the one Being in the universe worthy of all praise and glory and accolades. He goes from the heights of heaven, to the depths of the earth, and not only that, but then dies for the people who are sinning against Him. And then resurrects and ascends to the throne of Heaven so that now those who follow Him, sinners who have trusted in Him, can be with Him forever. When you really see that, how low Jesus was willing to go for you, how asinine do you have to be to then take that message and say, “Man, I can sure use this as a great platform for myself.”
But that is what these people were doing, these people that Paul had himself taught and labored with. But notice Paul’s response: “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice,” (Phil 1:18). Try to enter Paul’s experience as much as you can. You have sacrificed your whole life for this cause. You have been beaten, shipwrecked, imprisoned, starved, stoned, reviled, whipped, and abandoned—all to spread the gospel. And you have poured your heart and soul into teaching a group of men, and then once again been thrown into jail because you won’t stop preaching. But along comes a group of these guys who know think that you being thrown in jail is an opportunity for them to shine? Thinking that the preaching ministry is a kind of beauty pageant where they get to win the applause of others? Whispering to other people that you are on the outs, that they are the new hot commodity? How would you feel? What would you do? What does Paul do?
He rejoices. Paul is just glad that the gospel is being preached, even if the people preaching have impure motives. Of course, he condemns such motives (cf. Phil 2:3-4). But again, Paul has a different set of priorities. The gospel is going out, and that is all that matters to Paul.
Paul has somehow been able to so separate his own pride and ego and sense of self-importance from the equation, that even though these dopes are intentionally trying to hurt Paul, Paul doesn’t care. “What does it matter? All that matters is Jesus.” You can’t hurt Paul. Why? Because the gospel has sunk down into his heart. It no longer matters to Paul what other people think of him (cf. Gal 1:10), it doesn’t even matter what he thinks of himself--all that matters is what God thinks, “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. 4 For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me,” – 1 Cor 4:3-4
And in Christ, Paul knows exactly what God thinks of him. So who cares about these knuckleheads—God will sort them out. Tim Keller often says that there is nothing more relaxing than humility. What would your life look like if I could suck all of your anxiety about your ego and what other people thought of you out of it? Probably pretty relaxing.
But isn’t it amazing that God can even use preachers and churches with impure motives to still proclaim his gospel? The sovereign God has willed that the gospel will advance, the gates of Hell will not be able to stop it.
This should make us bold, should make us confident—but it also should make us deeply humble. It isn’t about us. The gospel doesn’t create naïve optimists or dour pessimists. It gives us humble confidence that our God wins.
The Love of God's People (Phil 1:1-11)
Sermon Audio: The Love of God's People (Phil 1:1-11)
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- Start by reading Phil 1:1-11 together.
- Why does Paul begin all of his letters with "grace and peace"?
- What was it about the Philippians that made Paul so grateful for them? What does it mean to have fellowship with one another? (see Acts 2:44-46)
- Is it possible for someone to have fellowship with Jesus and not have fellowship with other Christians?
- Look through Phil 1:1-11 and take note of how often Paul speaks words of encouragement and affection to the Philippians. Are you someone who is quick to give encouragement to those around you?
- What does Phil 1:6 mean and what does it have to do with our ability to give encouragement to each other?
Power is an unstable foundation to build a relationship on. Power, like authority, used wisely is a wonderful blessing from God. Power can get you many things in life, but raw power alone cannot get you a friend, it cannot get you what matters most. Power can get you enemies, it can get you allies, or sycophants, but not real relationships. Towards the end of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s life, he would require his top advisers from the politburo to daily come to his house to have dinner, watch movies, and converse with him till 5 or 6 in the morning because he would become terribly depressed when left alone. And they dutifully came, but not because they loved Stalin, but because they knew that if they did not they would immediately be put on Stalin’s extermination list as a potential conspirator. There were arguably few people who had power to compare with the likes of Stalin in the 20th century, yet when he had a fatal stroke, whether out of fear of repercussions from him if he recovered or an eagerness for his quick demise, after finding him collapsed on the floor, soaked in his own urine, his “friends” simply covered him with a rug and waited three days before calling a doctor. He died a few days later.
Our contemporary world is no different from the ancient world in its obsession with power. Ever since Cain killed Abel, mankind has assumed that an exercise of power, rather than love, was the best way forward.
It is something that men like Julius Caesar assumed when he thought that by exalting himself as the first emperor of Rome, ceasing power from the Senate, he would be beloved, only to find himself assassinated by his closest friends. And it is something that the assassins, Brutus and Cassius, misunderstood when they assumed that after killing Caesar they would then be beloved, only to find they were reviled. Devious power grabs and the use of overt force always leads to more brutality and similar repercussions.
Brutus and Cassius were hunted down by the Roman generals Marc Antony and Octavian, and on the battlefield outside a little Macedonian town of Philippi, Brutus and Cassius were defeated. Eventually Octavian turned on Antony and defeated him, and the wheels of man’s pursuit of power carried on. One hundred years later, a Jewish missionary arrived in that same town to preach a message that the King of the Jews, the one who had all power and strength, voluntarily set that power aside and became a servant, taught people to love their enemies and become servants like Him. He was willing to even die so that He could make His enemies His friends. And now anyone, even the Roman citizens of Philippi, could themselves become disciples of this Jewish Messiah and receive His friendship, His acceptance, His love. But if they did, they would then become like Him—they would prefer the needs of others over themselves; they would become servants, they would prioritize love of others over their own selfish gain. When Paul the missionary preached this message in Philippi, he was met with the same brutality of the world—he was beaten and thrown in jail. But when an opportunity for escape presented itself, he didn’t take it. Rather he remained and his faith led the very jailer who had kept him in prison to have faith in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ.
We are beginning a study of the book of Philippians, a book that has much to say about the upside-down kingdom of Jesus and the value of becoming a servant, of eschewing the normal patterns of the world, and emphasizing love and service over power and prominence. So let’s turn there now:
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. – Phil 1:1-11
You can read about Paul’s first visit with the Philippians in Acts 16 and the harrowing details of his preaching, persecution, and imprisonment there. Philippi was a city of about 10,000 people in Macedonia, but since the battle between Brutus, Cassius, Antony, and Octavian, it had formally become a colony of Rome and all its citizens were granted complete Roman citizenship, which exempted them from taxes and secured certain judicial rights (a right they were very proud of). The town had become a military outpost of Rome and lay right at a critical road that connected Rome to the Eastern section of its empire. There was a small Jewish population, but no synagogue, so the church in Philippi likely was comprised mostly of Gentiles who had converted to Christianity under Paul’s visit or shortly thereafter.
The letter opens with a greeting from both Paul and Timothy as, “servants of Christ Jesus.” Paul doesn’t use the title of “apostle” in his letter here, but simply refers to himself as a lowly “servant” or “slave” of Jesus. The letter is addressed to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons,” (Phil 1:1). The “saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi” just refers to the members of the church, while the “overseers and deacons” refers to the elders and deacons of the church. This shows us right away two things: (1) Paul cannot conceive of an identity for a Christian that is not bound up in their union with Christ, and (2) we see from the earliest evidence in the New Testament that Paul assumed each church had multiple elders/pastors in it—churches did not have one leader who presided over them, but a plurality of leaders. He writes to the “overseers” another term for an elder in a church (cf. Acts 20:17; 20:28).
In typical Pauline fashion, Paul opens with: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” (Phil 1:2). But Paul concludes his letter with 4:23, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” Paul opens all his letters with “grace to you” and concludes almost all of his letters with “grace be with you.” Why does he do that? I think that Paul opens each letter with the greeting “grace to you” and concludes with “grace be with you” because Paul understands that his letter itself is a word of grace (cf. Acts 20:32). So, when he says “grace to you” Paul understands that what he is about to write is itself a means of grace.
You’d be hard pressed to find a tighter summary of the gospel than "grace and peace." The fundamental message of the gospel is a message of grace and peace, not wrath and judgment, not self-love and acceptance, not improvement and technique. Just “grace and peace.”
What does grace mean in the Bible? Grace is a holistic term that describes God’s generous disposition to do you good despite you deserving the opposite. Grace excludes human merit or worthiness, it is just the overflow of God’s love and commitment to you. It acknowledges your sin, it acknowledges your failure, it doesn’t turn a blind eye to them or pretend they don’t exist—but God’s grace, in spite of your sins, is God’s love directed for your good.
What about peace? If grace is God’s generous and loving disposition towards sinners who deserve nothing but Hell—something that describes God to us—then peace is what grace creates in us. A man sentenced to the gallows may receive grace when his sentence is suddenly commuted by the king, but it is peace that is created inside the man who thought he was about to die. We were likewise under the sentence of death, but God’s grace has secured our pardon. Therefore, we have peace, peace with God.
Paul’s letters are messengers of grace and peace, proclaiming the startling news that God has extended undeserved grace so we have access to inexplicable peace.
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,” Phil 1:3-5.
Paul is thankful for the Philippians, really thankful. Every time he remembers the Philippians, he just stops and thanks God for them. And it makes him happy to do so; he makes his regular prayers for them with joy. Why? Because of their “partnership in the gospel” from day one, up to now. The word used for “partnership” there is the word κοινωνίᾳ, the word commonly used for the fellowship of Christians with one another. Paul thanks God for the Philippians fellowship, koinonia in the gospel.
I wonder what comes to your mind when you hear “fellowship”? Christians today usually use the word “fellowship” to refer to simply hanging out together, spending time with one another. And the term is not less than that, but much more.
In Acts 2:42, the followers of Jesus are said to be devoted to the “apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” but then just a few verses later we read, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts,” Acts 2:44-46. Their fellowship involved spending time together, but it also included a willingness to care for the needs of one another. There are several places in the New Testament that use the word koinonia in reference to financial gifts that churches have raised to help other churches that are currently struggling (see 2 Cor 8:3-5; 9:13; Rom 15:26; cf. Heb 13:16).
The fellowship, or partnership, that the Philippians have in the gospel has led them to not only have a share in Jesus, but causes them to want to share with others who have also had fellowship with Jesus. When we enjoy fellowship with Christ it makes us become committed to the fellowship of other believers in Christ. We see this clearly in verse 7, “It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel,” Phil 1:7.
The Philippians have drunk from the same well of God’s grace Paul has and it has caused them to stand by Paul’s side, even through opposition, even through suffering. It is easy to have lots of fair-weather friends stand by your side when you’re on top, when you’re winning. But it is a precious thing to have friends who will stand by your side when you lose, who will suffer with you, who will care for you when you are down and out. Prisoners in the ancient world didn’t have the state to provide them food or anything, so prisoners would only survive from the generosity of people caring for them. The Philippians cared for Paul as he was imprisoned for his ministry, even when no one else would, as we see later in his letter:
“Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again,” Phil 4:14-16.
This shows us that Christian fellowship is more than just an affection for one another or more than just the time we spend with each other—it is a willingness to take the burdens of each other and make them our own. This is why in our membership vows here the congregation stands and vows to care for the new members and open our lives, homes, dinner tables, and resources to them.
When we look at the teaching of the New Testament we repeatedly see the assumption we see plainly here in Philippians: to become united to Christ is to become united to others united to Him. To join His body is to join every other member of the body. To be adopted into His family is to now gain brothers and sisters. This is why Paul often ends his letters the same way he ends Philippians, “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you,” (Phil 4:21). Every saint, every Christian you meet, you should be open to and willing to engage in relationship. In other words, we are commanded by God to have a unique openness to relationship with the fellow Christians in our life.
Here is another way of putting it: the Bible has no category for someone having fellowship with Christ and not also having fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ.
This is one of the reasons why our church practices church membership—it is a way for us to try to practice the kind of committed concrete fellowship and love that is to be an organic outgrowth of believing the gospel. It is one thing to claim to love other Christians in general, but the rubber meets the road when you have to be committed to and love Christians in particular. It is particular, real Christians who can offend us, who have different interests than us, who we may not get along with. Real commitment is proven when it is difficult, when it isn’t easy. It was the fact that the Philippians continued to support Paul when he was embattled that made him so grateful for them.
You choose your friends, but you don’t choose your family. What a great opportunity to get to put the rubber on the road when the family God has placed you in requires you to love people who are different than you! If you aren’t a member of a church, how do you know you aren’t just choosing relationships of convenience, never needing to exercise the muscle of commitment and fellowship we see here? If you are a member, are you living out your membership vows? Is your life marked by the kind of costly fellowship in the gospel we see the Philippians practicing, that we see Paul thanking God for? If Paul were to write a letter to our church, would he be thanking God for our fellowship in the gospel?
But Marc, I’m introverted—relationships are taxing. My life is busy! I don’t think I can practically make this work. I understand. Few people like making new relationships or relationships with people who are different than them. And life is busy, we tend to fall into the ruts of the immediate needs we have. Here is what I am encouraging you towards: make church one of the ruts of your life, one of the immovable commitments you have that displaces other ones. You’re going to be at church on Sunday, you’re going to be at small group, you’re going to be at coffee Friday morning with that brother or sister.
One thing that sticks out as you read this section, and the entire book of Philippians, is just how encouraging Paul is towards the church. In verses 3-5 Paul said that he always thanks God when he prays for them, with joy. I don’t know how you picture Paul in your mind’s eye, but I have always viewed him as a bit of a bookworm, a guy who was really serious about study, an intellectual—maybe he was kind of a dry person to be around, but really serious about theology. But the emotive language here breaks that picture up. Listen to verses 7 and 8 again, “It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus,” (1:7-8).
It is hard to read this and not be struck by the fact that Paul seems to genuinely love this church. Read that passage again slowly. It is right for Paul to feel this way about them, because he holds them in his heart, he yearns for them with the affection of Christ. There is a love and affection for the Philippians that Paul has received from Jesus, and Paul tells them as much. Later, Paul tells them, “Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved,” (Phil 4:1).
Do you want to create a community here marked by fellowship in the gospel? Speak words of encouragement to one another. Tell one another that you appreciate each other, tell someone what it is about them that you are grateful to God for.
We see the bullseye of Christian encouragement in verse 6: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” (Phil 1:6). Philippians 1:6 may be one of the most encouraging verses in the entire Bible. If you are at all worried that being an over-the-top encourager may run the risk of inflating people’s egos or make you bend the truth slightly to make someone feel better, look no further than Philippians 1:6. This turns our attention off of the person we are encouraging as the source and onto God, to praise and thank Him for what He has done in the life of the person. Notice, it is God who begins the good work and it is God who finishes it. In other words, God is the one who saved you, God is the one who redeemed you, He is the one who started this whole thing, so He is the one who will see it through to the end. Jesus loves His own to the end (John 13:1). And this is something that Paul is certain of. This tells us what Markus Bockmuehl reminds us of: “Christian assurance rests not in the Christian-ness of our Christianity but in “the God-ness of God.”
So, there you have a discouraged Christian in front of you. She is deflated by her sin, by her own deficiencies. She feels like an airplane that has lost power and is slowly gliding closer and closer to the ground. It’s just a matter of time before she crashes. And left alone, she likely will. But put that same sister into a church that takes the ministry of encouragement seriously, and she will have others around her communicating the very love of God to her that they have received in Jesus. They will speak words of encouragement, they will tell her that she is loved, and they will remind her of the great truth that her Christian faith was a gift God gave her and it is something He will not take away. She is not about to implode, not about to crash, but God upholds her faith with His loving providence. One of the ways we can cultivate a fellowship in the gospel at our church is through the ministry of encouragement—telling one another of our love, of our gratefulness for each other.
And, in the mysterious providence of the Lord, that will create a feedback loop effect where the love and affection we have for one another will be amplified. In the same way that peevishness and criticism amplify short tempers and bad moods and creates a culture where its easy to dislike people, so too does affirmation and encouragement amplify love and affection for one another and creates a culture of grace.
One other way we can create this kind of fellowship here at Quinault is through prayer. After thanking God for the Philippians and encouraging them, he then turns to pray for them even more: “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God,” (1:9-11).
He prays that their love would increase even more and would be coupled with knowledge and discernment to approve what is excellent. Knowledge and discernment are not antithetical to love, they sharpen it. We do not want a love at our church that comes at the expense of our knowledge of God and our discernment. When we couple love with knowledge it leads us to be pure and blameless on the last day, filled with fruit of righteousness, probably another term for what Paul labels the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5.
Note the confidence Paul has here that his prayer will be answered. His prayers will result in them being filled with the fruit of righteousness. Note also his certainty and confidence earlier in verse 6: "And I am sure of this..." One of the greatest tools in our toolkit of encouragement is the certainty of God hearing our prayers, the certainty that God will fulfill His promises, the certainty that God Himself will accomplish what we know we cannot accomplish ourselves.
Who Is a God Like You? (Micah 7:18-20)
Sermon Audio: Who Is a God Like You?
Sermon Discussion Questions:
- Read Micah 7:18-20. What stood out to you most from the sermon?
- What did Peter believe about Jesus in John 6? (See 6:68-69) Did the sermon alter anyway you would help someone struggling with doubts? If so, how?
- In what ways are we children of Abraham? See Gal 3:7-9.
- What is the connection between Get 3:15 and Micah 7:19?
- What does it mean that God "passes over" our transgression?
- What would change in your life if you fully believed that God delighted in showing His steadfast love to you?
It was time to evolve. The church’s teaching could no longer be understood in light of new discoveries. The teachings didn’t make logical sense and, frankly, were offensive. How would the church fulfill the Great Commission if she was burdened down with this superstitious, backwards, and degrading doctrine? Surely, it would turn away the sophisticated, the cultured, the elites of the day. Doesn’t this make God seem diminished? In fact, did the gospels even really teach this? Or was this just an addition? A tradition that had grown alongside the gospel like a barnacle on the hull of ship, needing only to be scraped off and removed, deconstructed. Jesus could not be a human.
After an influx of the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who believed matter to be inherently inferior, had begun to sweep through the church, a group of Christians in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries rejected the incarnation and taught that Jesus only appeared to be a human, but really was a spirit (Docetism). They saw two truths in the story of the gospel--Jesus is God, and Jesus became a man—but could not see how these two truths could be reconciled together. They simply didn’t have the mental framework that included both realities, so they decided to hold on to one (Jesus is God) and reject the other (Jesus is Man).
This dilemma is something that has happened all throughout the history of Christianity. People are drawn in by something that they really like in the Bible, but then encounter something they don’t have a category for.
The recent trend in evangelicalism called “deconstruction” is just another iteration of this. Or, at least, sometimes it is. When a Christian explains that they are “deconstructing” their faith, they may be just evaluating whether the Bible actually teaches something they have always assumed the Bible teaches. And there is a healthy place in the Christian life for this kind of critique and evaluation. Things can adhere onto our faith that really have nothing to do with what the Bible teaches.
Often, however, what has happened is that they have encountered something taught in the Bible that is difficult to accept and lack the framework for understanding how it can be reconciled with the rest of the Bible’s teaching or what they intuitively assume to be true. So, if we are modern Westerners, one dilemma we wrestle with is: How can a loving God judge people? What do we do with all the violence in the Old Testament? Or, if we are a traditional ancient culture, How can a just God pardon the guilty? What do we do with all the commands to love our enemies?
I firmly believe the Bible provides help we need to our questions, it is not a book of enigma meant to confuse you so profoundly that you are left to pretend you understand it (when you really don’t) or to simply abandon it out of frustration. But, if you are currently in the process of wrestling with doubts, if there are teachings in the Bible that you struggle with deeply or don’t know how to square them with something else you believe to be true about the world, then I want you to consider a different route to take when wrestling with your doubts. I want to take the approach that has seemed to work on Peter in John 6.
John 6 is where Jesus seems to go out of His way to be offensive and unclear. Five times in one brief paragraph Jesus tells a crowd of thousands, “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood” (John 6:51-59), but doesn’t explain anything about what that means, offers no clarifying comments about metaphor, what the Lord’s Supper will one day symbolize, the meaning of His death—nothing. So, naturally, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him,” (John 6:66). So Jesus turns to the twelve and asks, “Do you want to go away as well?” and, “Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God,” (John 6:68-69). How do you get to that point? How do you have that kind of faith? What I want for my own soul, for my children, for this church is to have this kind of faith—confronted with something that seems baffling, offensive, maybe even hearing ourselves wonder, Are you sure you believe this? but to be so tethered to Jesus that the second voice we hear ourselves say be, Where else would we go? He alone has the words of eternal life.
Doing the hard work of theology and study to answer these questions plays a vital role in the Christian life. We need to understand how to answer difficult aspects of the Bible, how to respond to contemporary challenges to our faith—one day, Peter will finally understand what Jesus meant in John 6. But, what we first need is to see is what Peter saw, experience what he experienced—words of eternal life.
Our text in Micah provides a tight distillation of the essential truths of Christianity that provide that safety tether we need to explore our other questions of faith, by providing us a picture of what God is like.
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
You will show faithfulness to Jacob
and steadfast love to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our fathers
from the days of old.
- Micah 7:18-20
An Overview of Micah:
These verses serve as the conclusion of the book of the prophet Micah. Micah has been prophesying to Israel during her rebellion, sin, and complacency. Chapter one described the coming destruction upon Israel for her idolatry. Chapter two zoomed in to see what the idolatry looks like in practice in Israel through the curses pronounced on the oppressors who exploit women and children. Chapter three turned to the judges, leaders, and false prophets who had led Israel astray with false promises of peace while those in power devoured the weak and practiced injustice—God promises that He will transform Jerusalem into a desolation in response. But chapter four then looks ahead to the future—God will not be angry with His people forever and will take the desolate Jerusalem and transform it into this cosmic mountain that will draw in peoples from all nations to come worship the true God when He redeems His people from their exile. Chapter five promises that Israel’s ruler, the Messiah, will be born in Bethlehem who will deliver a remnant of Israel from their oppression and purify them of their sin. Chapter six raises another indictment the Lord has with Israel: she has abandoned what God has required of her, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with her God. God promises that He will punish her for her sins by striking her with a grievous blow. Chapter seven concludes with Micah’s lamentation that all of Israel has fallen into darkness, but then turns in hope to confess that though he sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to them, the Lord will plead their case and will vindicate them. God’s people shall be restored and all of God’s promises to them shall be fulfilled, and the enemies of God’s people who taunted them will be judged.
And all of this leads Micah to ask: Who is a God like you?
There is something that Micah has seen in God woven throughout his book that leads Micah to wonder out loud—who is like God? Where else would I go? There is something that the living God has that I cannot find anywhere else.
What God Remembers
You will show faithfulness to Jacob
and steadfast love to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our fathers
from the days of old.
In the Bible “steadfast love” and “faithfulness” are a word-pair used together to describe what God’s essential character is. Steadfast love, hesed, if you remember is God’s loyal loving commitment He has made to you, His covenantal, binding love that compels Him to act for your good. Faithfulness means God’s commitment to do what He has said He will do, His trustworthy character, His truthfulness. Usually in the Bible “steadfast love” appears first before “faithfulness,” but here Micah switches the order around, probably to end on the note that he thinks is most important (steadfast love).
God had made many promises to Abraham and Jacob--promises like there would be a land they would inherit, that God would bless them and all nations of the earth would be blessed through them, and that they would become as numerous as the sands of the seashore, as the stars in the sky. Jacob and Abraham, of course, have been fed for several hundred years by the time of Micah. But here we see God’s commitment He has made to Jacob and Abraham is not a dead issue for Micah. It is a ground of great comfort—God has made His promises to Abraham, the father of faith, and Jacob, the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. Micah is confident that God is going to continue to stay faithful to those promises, which is good news for us.
Although most of us here are not ethnically descended from Abraham, the Bible teaches that if we have faith in Jesus, we can spiritually become children of Abraham. This is what Paul understands in his letter to the Galatians:
“Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” Gal 3:7-9
Therefore, we Gentiles (non-Jews) are now inheritors to God's promises to Israel. We have been "grafted in" (Rom 11:17) to the people of Israel. Therefore, we can be comforted that God will keep His promises He has made to Abraham, to Jacob, because we receive the benefits of those promises.
What God Forgets
He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
God will have compassion on His people—Micah has detailed the many ways that God has chastised them, but His main point (which we will see next) is that God’s anger towards our sin is temporary. We may experience the rod of loving discipline for a moment, but like a beach ball bobbing among the waves, God’s compassion for us will always be there.
Here we are told that "He will tread our iniquities underfoot." God will somehow trample our sins underneath His feet the way grapes are crushed under the winemakers feet. This passage actually should remind us of the great first promise that Satan will one day be trampled underfoot:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
- Gen 3:15
God will judge our sins the same way He will judge Satan; He will treat our sins the way Satan will be treated. But, wonder of wonders, God will somehow be able to crush our sins without crushing us. God has created a way by which He can peel our sins off of us, unload the entire storehouse of His wrath upon it, and leave us unscathed.
Next, we are told that: “All our sins will be cast into the depths of the sea.” As in, God will ball up our sins and heave them into the place that they can never be retrieved from. This is one of the basic promises of the New Covenant: “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more," (Heb 8:12). This is what Psalm 103 looks forward to: “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities," (Ps 103:10).
Heaven is not going to be an eternity where God holds our sins over our head or where we walk around with a sheepish sense of impropriety, having all our sins play on a loop in our head. Jesus is not going to welcome you into the New Creation on a technicality, but look down on you for being so wretched and so vile. No, He does not treat us according to our sins; our sins He will remember no more. No more! The sins that you cannot forget, God cannot remember.
Imagine that in your past you had committed some heinous crime. And you were to come to find out that there was a video recording of you committing the crime. If the authorities get their hands on that evidence, you will be done for, you will pay--it doesn't matter how bad you feel about it now, justice must happen. How would you then feel if someone were to grab that video evidence, tie it to a rock, and drop it into the deepest part of the ocean? Take that and multiply it by infinity to see what God has done for you in Christ.
What Makes God Happy
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
- Micah 7:18a
In the last of the ten plagues of the Exodus, God instructed His people to sacrifice a spotless lamb and paint the doorposts of their homes with its blood. When the angel of death descended on Egypt, when he saw the blood painted on the doorposts he would “pass over” that home and go on to another. That event became known as the “Passover”, and was commemorated through a feast celebrated every year. But the blood on the doorposts shows us that the families inside their homes were just as liable to judgment as the families who didn’t put blood on their doors. It was not simply the fact that the people were ethnically descendant from Abraham that preserved them—they couldn’t say, Well, I’m part of the chosen people, so I don’t need to worry. No, God’s people were just as sinful as anyone else, they just took shelter under the sacrifice of another to preserve them from judgment. It was the blood of the lamb that spared them.
And that is what God does here—He does not permit iniquity; He pardons it. He "passes over" transgression for the remnant of his inheritance. But “pardoning” and “passing over” still imply payment. If you steal thousands of dollars from me, and I pardon you, I don’t require you to pay me back, I have just paid, lost thousands. In other words, when God pardons our sins, He isn’t pretending our sins don’t exist, He “passes over” them because the punishment for our sins is transferred to another—a Lamb’s blood is shed so ours won’t be (John 1:29).
An old hunter was out in an open field when he heard reports of a brush fire quickly approaching him. Knowing he would not be able to outrun the blaze, he pulled out his lighter and carefully burned a wide circle around him, and sat down. When the flames came close, the fire burned right over him, but he was left untouched. There was nothing it could burn. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Rev 5:6). If you trust Him and follow Him, He will take your sins into Himself and bear them away to the cross. Then, when the fires of judgment burn, you will be left untouched, passed over; a part of the remnant of God’s inheritance, His people.
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
- Micah 7:18b
Here Micah taps into the foundational teaching of Exodus 34:6-7 where God reveals His glory to Moses and is summarized well in the 103rd psalm, “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever,” (Ps 103:8-9). God’s anger is real, but limited—but not His steadfast love. And His steadfast love will last forever.
But consider what we are told here: God delights in steadfast love. It makes God happy to show steadfast love. This little line is showing us the motivation that God has for all He is doing here. Everything we are reading about in verses 18-20 are fueled and motivated by this: why is God pardoning our sin, why is He forgiving iniquity, why is He casting our sins into the sea? Because it makes God happy to show His steadfast love towards you. He delights in steadfast love.
Consider this: If God is all powerful, is sovereign, if “Our God is in the heavens and does whatever He pleases,” (Ps 115:3), then that means that God will always do what makes Him happiest. You always do what makes you happiest—you will even submit to things that make you unhappy for a time for a greater happiness that comes in the end. God, who is infinitely more capable than you are at satisfying His own desire for happiness, does this perfectly, and will even go through what is unpleasant to achieve His highest end of happiness. Which we see in Hebrews, “…Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God,” (Heb 12:2).
The cross was shameful, it was painful, the burdens of taking on the sins of all the elect across time and space was not enjoyable for Jesus—He asks the Father if there is any other way to be spared from it! But, “for the joy that was set before him” He endures. What joy? What made Jesus happy? The joy of showing steadfast love to His people, the joy of forgiving their sins, the joy of showing faithfulness to His elect, to the remnant of his inheritance. It makes God happy to forgive your sins. Are you ever tempted to feel like you cannot bring your sins to God? Like every time you go to confess you are burdening God?
God does not delight in sin, but God delights in showing you He is committed to you no matter what and He has sent His Son. So bring your sin, bring your guilt, bring your bedraggled and sleepy soul to Him. We dare not refuse. Who are we to deprive God of His joy?
When you see this, when this sinks down into your heart, you will ask: Who is a God like this? Where else shall we go?
Friend, perhaps you are struggling with serious doubts; perhaps there are questions you have about the Bible that you don't know what to do with. You should explore those questions, you should read good books, and you should listen to faithful teaching. But if you don't first begin with an experience with who God is for you in Christ, if you don't "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps 34:8), then no amount of study or resources will help.
Christmas Eve: A Weary World Rejoices (Matt 11:28-30)
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Matt 11:28-30
Christmas is a time where we gather to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus. It is a time where we sit in stunned wonder that the infinite God became an infant. That the God who spoke the world into creation suddenly couldn’t speak any words. That the all-powerful God who holds His scepter over the kingdoms of earth now could not hold his head up on His own. What humility, what condescension! But Jesus did not descend and take on flesh to remain an infant. The little child in a manger grows and becomes a man who will die for the sins of His people for the forgiveness of their sins and then resurrect from the dead. The purpose of Christmas is Easter.
Between Christmas and Easter we get the works and teachings of Jesus, we see His reason for coming to the world, who He came to save, and what His death meant. And in Matthew 11:28-30 we find one of the most sublime pictures of what He has come to offer: rest. Three things we see from this passage: Jesus wants us to come to Him; Jesus wants us to rest; Jesus wants us to know His heart.
Jesus Wants Us to Come to Him
Christmas is a celebration of how Jesus has come to us, but in His coming to us, He invites us to come to Him. Many religious traditions invite you to come, so to speak, to them—you adopt their teaching, you participate in their rituals, you keep their rules. And in many religious traditions it is only after you do all of these things (and do them sufficiently enough), that you get salvation, nirvana, or enlightenment. But Jesus offers us something different. He tells us to come to Him, but only after He has first come to us. He has condescended to us, taken on skin and flesh, became touchable, weak, limited—mortal. And He did all of this not merely at the risk of His life, but at the cost of His life. It is one thing for a rescuer to plan some daring escape, knowing that he runs the risk of losing his life in the process; it is another thing altogether for him to know that if he attempts the rescue, he will perish, and still chooses to go in. Jesus came precisely so He could lay down His life to rescue us. Jesus came to us because we, on our own, could never come to Him.
But Jesus doesn’t leave us where we are. He comes to us, but then invites us to come to Him. Which means that Jesus is inviting us to walk away from our own pattern of life and to follow Him. Jesus loves us enough to not leave us where we are. Notice, that when Jesus invites us to Him, He doesn’t invite us to a system, or a contract, or 12 steps to a become more productive—He invites us to Himself, “Come to me.” Christianity is not a welcome to a program, but a person.
Also, notice in His offer He describes Himself as a teacher: “learn from me.” Jesus assumes that there is truth He possesses that you need to learn. When we come to Him, He is asking us to come with the humility of one who acknowledges that we don’t have everything in our lives together and Jesus has the answers we need. If you have thought that you were clever enough or smart enough or strong enough to make it through life on your own but have found that your best laid plans, hopes, dreams, and ambitions have not given you freedom, but weariness; that the same dullness and guilt and boredom and bleariness is there, then Jesus invites you to come learn from Him today.
Jesus Wants Us to Rest
Jesus invites us to come to Him so that we can find rest. Jesus looks at us and says, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, (or burdened), and I will give you rest.” Jesus knows that we are burdened. In Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge’s dead business partner visits him in the night and he is wrapped in coils of heavy chain. When Scrooge asks his friend why he wears such a thing, his friend responds: “I wear the chain I forged in life…I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” The chain represents his sins—his greed, his cruelty, and his lack of compassion for his fellow man—all things that Scrooge himself is guilty of. The ghost then asks Scrooge: “Is it’s pattern strange to you? Or would you know…the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?”
We may not all be Ebenezer Scrooge, but Jesus assumes that all of us carry a burden. We are “heavy laden.” Like the ghost, we carry the weight of our sins that we have chosen, but like Scrooge we are often so distracted with life and our pursuits that we are blind to the chain, only somewhat sensing an imperceptibly growing weight bearing us down. Life keeps going on, but we are slumping more and more. Perhaps you are not religious and one of the things that you dislike about Christianity is that you think it makes everyone feel guilty by talking about sins. And if someone is carrying a heavy burden, it can certainly be irritating for someone to walk by and comment, “Wow, that looks heavy!” and leave them to struggle. But it is another thing entirely for someone to walk by and say, “Wow, that looks heavy,” and then lifts the burden off them. Jesus was not born, Christmas did not happen, and Jesus did not die on the cross just to walk around and say, “Wow, that looks heavy!” Rather Jesus invites the weary and the heavy laden to Himself to take the chains of their sins, their guilt, off them, and onto Himself, he was born to “save His people from their sins,” (Matt 1:21).
What do you fear others finding out about you most? What is the one thing you can’t forgive yourself for? Your anger, your abortion, your greed, your promiscuity, your addiction—maybe you can’t forgive yourself for those things, but Jesus can. Perhaps you cannot let go of your sins because you know that things must be made right, you need to make it up, or you need to punish yourself; atonement must be made. And, in a way, you’re right. No amount of meditation, or good deeds, or exciting distractions will erase what you’ve done. And this is exactly why Christmas happened. So that a Savior could come and He could take your sins, He could take your guilt, He could take your place, and He could make atonement, make it right, pay the debt that your sins had deserved through His death. When Jesus died on the cross, when He looked up to the heavens and said, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” it was because He was suffering the punishment we deserved. And He did, totally. So that now free forgiveness can be offered to all who turn to Him.
“Let our miseries drive us to seek Christ; …he admits none to the enjoyment of his rest but those who sink under the burden,” (John Calvin, on Matt 11:28).
So bring the darkest, blackest, most shameful part of your soul, bring your thousands of failed resolutions to do better next time, bring your embarrassment, bring your doubt, bring your guilt and heave them onto Jesus. You may have unforgivable sins, but there is an unimaginably kind Savior, and He can do what you cannot. He can give rest, sweet rest that comes from total, real, unqualified, complete, unconditional, no holds barred, absolute forgiveness.
Jesus Wants Us to See His Heart
But this isn’t all Jesus offers us. You notice the strange paradox of this passage: Jesus invites us to come to Him to find rest, but do you see what He offers? A yoke. “Take my yoke upon you.” A yoke is a wooden instrument placed on the shoulders of cattle or oxen that harnesses their strength, usually attached to a plow. So Jesus promises us rest, but then offers an instrument of labor? Even more paradoxically, He states, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” One writer comments, “What helium does to a balloon, Jesus’ yoke does to us.” So Jesus offers us His yoke, but promises it is light and easy; Jesus wants us to abandon the heavy yoke of the world and of our sins and replace it with His. This shows us that Jesus is not offering a forgiveness that is disconnected from Himself. If we are to come to Jesus to find rest, we must be willing to learn from Him, to follow Him, to submit to Him. We do not receive help from Jesus the way we receive help from our government—Jesus doesn’t mail us a “forgiveness” check in the mail. He invites us to become a part of His family, to follow His teaching, to join His people. This is what we do when we read our Bible, pray, and gather every Sunday for worship—we are obeying Jesus, and learning together about what it means to follow Him and be His disciple.
Aha! Maybe you are thinking, I know there would be a catch. If Jesus wants to be our teacher and wants to place a yoke on our necks, why should we come to Him? Shouldn’t we just trust ourselves? How do we know that God won’t exploit us, take advantage of us? Because Jesus shows us His heart: I am gentle and lowly in heart. The puritan Thomas Goodwin points out that this is the only place in the entire Bible where Jesus describes His heart. I don’t know what your conception of God is like, perhaps cold and distant; harsh and calculating; permissive and disinterested? But here we have Jesus Himself explain who He is at the core of His being:
Gentle: not harsh, not brittle; welcoming and warm; the most understanding person you have ever met.
Lowly: not arrogant, not too busy to make time for you, not concerned that you are too unimportant for Him, but humble, kind.
If Jesus is these two things at His heart, then that means His yoke really is easy, really is light. It means that the path He is calling you to really is a path that leads to more rest. Trust Him. Follow him.
Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.