Books of the Bible: Philippians (1)
1:1 -4:3 (i.e.,
the entire epistle)
It’s the predominant theme of the apostle Paul’s letter to
the congregation in the city of
I need to be encouraged, and so do you, because every day brings
upon us much that can discourage us.
It’s not difficult to become frustrated, set back on our heels,
and finally disheartened. Everyone
In the year 64, from a prison in
, Paul wrote his warm letter to Philippian church.
It’s the warmest letter we have from him.
It’s not a systematic treatise (such as the much longer epistle
to the five congregations in
) that lays bare the totality of Paul’s understanding of the gospel,
progressing from point to point to point.
The missive to
is a personal letter, and he wrote it the way you and I write personal
letters: we jot down whatever comes to mind, in any order at all,
letters are always the warmest, aren’t they?
Paul had loved these people ever since he established the
twelve years earlier. The
city had originally been named after Philip, father of Alexander the
Great. The church there was
the first congregation Paul had planted in
. Now he’s detected
that the people need encouragement, and he’s determined to supply it.
of course real encouragement can’t be something unsubstantial, such as
frothy well-wishing. Real
encouragement has to have a foundation.
The foundation of their encouragement, Paul insists, is that the
Christians of Philippi are God’s commonwealth or God’s colony.
“Remember”, he says, “our commonwealth (meaning theirs and
his), our citizenship is in heaven, above.
We are God’s colony in
It was the custom of
to settle outlying areas of the Roman Empire by sending out retired
soldiers, with their families, into the territories far from
. Since a soldier’s career
is never long, these retired soldiers were still moderately young and
energetic. They were
transplanted in groups of 300. Together
with their wives and children they formed a sizeable colony.
Regardless of how far from
they were settled, they always remembered that they were citizens of
. However far from Rome they
might have to live, they insisted on wearing Roman dress; they spoke the
Roman language; they lived by Roman law and custom.
Above all, they were sustained by resources sent from the great
city itself. They were
’s colony in an alien environment, and they were never to forget whose
they were, therefore who they were, and whom they could count on.
“In the same way”, exclaims the apostle, “you Christians in
are God’s colony. Your citizenship lies elsewhere.
Remember whose you are. Then
you’ll remember who you are. And
you’ll remember what resources you can draw on.”
This is bedrock. And
this is the foundation of his encouragement.
-- They need
encouragement, first of all, in order to be content amidst life’s
uncertainties. “I know
what it is to have plenty”, he writes, “and I know what it is to
have little. I have learned
to be content with whatever I have.
I can do all things – I have the strength to face all
conditions – through him, Jesus Christ, who strengthens me.”
At any time you and I may have to be
content with less. We need
encouragement to understand and accept this.
’s standard of living peaked in 1972.
It has declined every year since then.
To be sure, it hasn’t declined dramatically; but it has never
re-gained its peak of 1972. Perhaps
this point isn’t as telling for me as it is for my children, since
they will never know the economic privilege that I have known.
Privilege? I wasn’t
born with a silver spoon in my mouth.
Far from it. Nonetheless,
in terms of what economists call “real wealth”, each generation of
Canadians, ever since Confederation in 1867, has been twice as wealthy
as the preceding generation. I
am twice as wealthy as my parents; they were twice as wealthy as their
parents, and so on. But this
pattern has ended: the next generation
isn’t going to be twice as wealthy as the present generation.
The gravy train appears to have congealed.
Young people entering the labour force today aren’t paid a
bonus of thousands of dollars to start just because they have a
university degree. When
Maureen wanted to begin teaching school in 1966 she had to be
interviewed. Was the interview rigorous?
It lasted twenty seconds. “Sign
here” said the Board of Education official as he shoved the contract
under her nose.
When I was a young adult it was understood
that every self-respecting Canadian was on the road to owning her own
home. People who didn’t
“own their own home” were thought to be short-sighted or shiftless.
Nobody talks this way now, as owning a house becomes increasingly
difficult for Canadians.
For decades 20% of
’s Gross Domestic Product came from the sale of non-renewable
resources in the ground (such as copper, nickel, oil.)
I’m in favour of selling non-renewable resources.
Leaving copper or oil in the ground is useless; therefore let’s
extract it and sell it. That
is, sell it once, since it’s non-renewable.
In other words, 20% of the income we all enjoyed we never
Is all of this discouraging?
“Listen”, says our friend from of old, “I’ve known
economic privilege. I
don’t have it now. But
neither do I complain about not having it.
I am ready for anything through the strength of the One who lives
within me”, in J.B. Phillips’ fine translation.
Several years ago I walked into a
fellow-minister’s home and found nailed to the wall a line I shall
never forget: “The more you have to live for, the less you need to
live on.” A huge witness
the Christian community can make to the wider society is just this:
“There’s more to live for.”
So far in this sermon we’ve talked about
scarcity and abundance, the “more” and the “less”, in terms of
economics. But we
shouldn’t restrict it to economics.
There are many matters in life that aren’t matters of
economics, yet which still have to do with the “more” or the
“less”. I have in mind
something as commonplace as friends or acquaintances.
Is it better to move in an orbit of many acquaintances, be a
hail-fellow-well-met, even the life of the party? Or
is it better to have two friends with whom we could entrust anything and
who would never fail us or forsake us?
The more we have to live for (our Lord, his truth, his kingdom,
his promises), the less we need to live on (more-or-less superficial
acquaintances who may stimulate us or flatter us but would never go to
the floor for us).
We are God’s colony, Paul reminds his readers; our citizenship is in heaven;
we live here on earth always remembering whose we are and therefore who
we are and what we can count on from the eternal city whose outpost we
-- Paul encourages
his readers in
yet again; this time he encourages them to resist mind-pollution, and
therefore to resist heart-pollution.
“Whatever is true”, he says, “whatever is honourable, just,
pure; whatever is lovely and gracious – think about these things.
Hold them up.” When
he says “Think about these things” he doesn’t mean “Ponder them
now and then; reflect on them once in a while; mull them over when
nothing else is occupying your mind.”
“Think about these
things”: he means “Hold them up; hold them up in your mind; soak
your imagination in them. Whatever
is true, honourable, just, gracious, lovely: steep yourselves in all
this until it’s fixed in your mind and heart and bloodstream.”
It so happens that whatever is fixed in mind and heart and
bloodstream will effervesce in us for the rest of our lives.
When we wake up, when we fall asleep, when our minds are relaxed,
unguarded; when we’ve “let down” at the end of the day or
haven’t yet “geared up” at the start of the day; when we are all
alone by ourselves, when we come to lie week after week as we wait to
die; what’s going to flood into our minds and soak our hearts? –
precisely what we’ve hung up in our minds for years.
agrees that reason is part of the definition of the human.
In other words, reason is essential to being human.
Where we are frequently one-sided, however, is our restricting reason to reasoning.
We assume that reasoning is thinking deductively or inductively.
One instance of deductive thinking is logic: “All humans are
mortal; Socrates is human; therefore Socrates is mortal.”
Inductive thinking is what we do when we experiment
performed many experiments and made many observations, we conclude that
water consists of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.
The mistake we make is assuming that deductive thinking and
inductive thinking are all there is to thinking, all there is to reason.
Too frequently we forget that there’s yet another kind of
thinking: pictorial thinking, imagistic thinking, everything that fills
up our imaginations. At the
level of scientific thinking a child opens an encyclopaedia and reads
“Horse: an herbivorous quadruped that runs on one toe.”
Perfectly true. But
at the level of the imagination (where children live) the child thinks
“Black Stallion”. And
then there swims into the child’s mind a wonderful assortment of
images around Black Stallion: adventure, danger, affection, strength,
Years later the child, now an adult, hears
at one level of reason such expressions as “immigrant”, “New
Canadian”, “refugee”. At
another level of reason, this time the level of imagination, he’s
flooded with – with what? --
“Wop?” “Paki?” “Slant-Eye?” All of these images are
negative; they foster contempt and hatred; these images are purely
Let’s be honest: adults, not merely
children – we adults live in our imaginations far more than we live in
deductive or inductive reasoning. Then
what are the images that swim through our heads night and day?
What are the images that we foster in each other and nourish in
ourselves? Paul knows that
we live chiefly in our imaginations.
For this reason he urges, “Whatever is true (always a good
place to start); whatever is just; whatever is noble, kind, gracious –
hold these up. Soak your
imagination in them. Because
these images are going to effervesce night and day, always bubbling up
from your unconscious mind to your conscious, then back down to your
unconscious where they shape you when you aren’t even aware of it.”
The apostle is profound here: abstract ideas don’t govern our
mind; images govern our mind.
when we hear the word “true”, what concrete image comes to mind
instantly? When I hear the
word “godly” the image that comes to me automatically is Ronald Ward
and I sitting in his living room. Ronald
Ward was professor of New Testament at the
(1952-1963), and he was the most transparently godly, unaffectedly
godly, believably godly person that I have ever met.
I think of the man every day.
In his natural, credible, transparent, uncontrived manner he said
to me (among many other things), “Victor, if we genuinely fear God, we
shall never have to be afraid of him.”
“Whatever is just, whatever is fair –
think about it”, says the apostle, “Hold it up in your
One day when I was 23 years old I was discussing the World War II
with my father. I began to
speak disdainfully of German history, German people, German military
personnel. My father
didn’t rebuke me or argue with me.
Instead he told me a story, a story about Winston Churchill.
When General Erwin Rommel’s forces were hammering the British
Eighth Army in North Africa, hammering the Brits so badly that the Brits
were on the point of going under, a British member of parliament rose in
the House of Commons and spoke contemptuously of the German general,
Rommel. Churchill took it
for as long as he could, then he leapt to his feet and shouted, “I
will not permit you to speak such villainies about so fine a soldier”.
That’s all my father said.
He had hung up in my mind, my imagination, a picture I shall
never be without. “Whatever
Whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is commendable, Paul says, “Think on it”.
He means “Catch the vision of it.”
Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch woman who survived Ravensbruck, the
forced labour camp (death camp too); years afterward Corrie told a story
about her sister, Betsie, who didn’t survive.
One day the two sisters were unloading boxcars when a guard,
angry at the low productivity of Betsie (who was very ill), cut her with
his whip. Upon seeing her
sister struck and seeing her sister bleed, Corrie was enraged.
Betsie put her hand over the wound and cried, “Don’t look at
it Corrie; don’t look at it. Look
You fill it in. Think
about it. Catch the vision
of it. Fill your imagination with it.
Because as it is with our imagination, so it is with us.
-- The last point
we’re going to note from Paul’s letter to the Philippian
congregation has to do with humility.
Whereas the other congregations Paul wrote had horrific problems
within them, the congregation in
had no such problems. Paul
was always joyful when he had this congregation in mind.
He wrote, “Do one thing to make my joy (my joy in you)
complete: humble yourselves with the same humility wherewith Christ
Jesus humbled himself in order that he might serve.
For although he was in the form of God…he chose to take the
form of a servant.”
We must be sure to understand what humility
Humility isn’t self-belittlement.
Self-belittlement is the pathetic overflow of low self-esteem.
Jesus didn’t lack self-esteem.
Humility isn’t pretending we lack the
gifts we know we have and everyone else knows we have.
Such pretending is phoney. Jesus
never pretended he wasn’t the world’s sole Saviour and Lord.
Then what is humility?
It’s self-forgetfulness; self-forgetfulness in the work Christ
has given us to do on behalf of his people.
Humility is self-forgetfulness in the service of a purpose bigger
and nobler than our ego and its clamouring.
As in any congregation there were tensions
in the congregation in
. Luke tells us in Acts that
a woman named
belonged to the congregation.
was an extremely wealthy businesswoman.
A slave girl belonged as well.
In first-century society a slave girl wouldn’t have been
regarded as a human being, merely as a useful tool that had to be fed.
and the slave girl would have brought very different social histories to
This particular slave girl, we are told,
spoke Greek. Another person
in the congregation was a Roman jail-keeper, and he spoke Latin.
We can feel the tension as these three people sat side-by-side in
church and whispered to each other, “There’s much about you I
don’t understand. I
don’t come from your social set. I
don’t live in your financial world.
And I have little facility in your language.”
And then there were Euodia and Syntyche,
two women who had had a tiff at a church meeting.
The tiff had spilled over and now was upsetting more than merely
the two of them. Paul urges
the two women to “agree in the Lord” – which is to say, he
encourages them to humble themselves, forget themselves as once more
they are taken up into the kingdom pursuits of Christ’s people.
“Remember”, says the apostle, “We are
God’s colony. We belong to
a different country and possess a different citizenship.
Then let’s be different. Let’s be
like our Lord.” Different
in what respect? “Do
nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others
as better than yourselves. Let
each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of
And what will be the result of such
unselfconscious humility? In
the first place, our arrogant, obnoxious self-importance will be curbed.
In the second place, our fellow-believers will be edified.
In the third place – let’s let Paul tell us himself: “You
will shine like stars…in the midst of a crooked and perverse
generation.” It is Christ-modelled,
Christ-inspired humility that corrects us, helps the congregation, and
scintillates in a world that boasts of its corruption.
wrote his warm letter to the Philippian congregation when he was in
prison awaiting execution. He
knew he had only weeks to live. Still,
he was preoccupied with his friends in Christ, the joy they have brought
him (in this one letter Paul speaks of joy more frequently than he does
anywhere else), and the encouragement he has wanted to impart to them.
Then may you and I find in the apostle’s
word encouragement too, for we need
encouragement to find contentment in our
Lord at all times and amidst all circumstances;
encouragement to steep our thinking, our
imaginations, in what is true and just and gracious
encouragement to forget ourselves in humble
service on behalf of Christ’s people.