A Letter from Prison (Philippians, pt 3)

This is the third in a series of posts with thoughts from Paul’s letter to the PhilippiansA Letter from Prison (Philippians, pt 1). These posts are personal reflections taken from devotional reading of the book.

I have always been captured by Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:12-13:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill His good pleasure.

These two short verses provide what I see as the best description of the mysterious tension that exists in our lives between God’s power and our effort. Paul is challenging his readers to obey God – and his teaching about God – even though he is geographically apart from them and in prison. He offers a kind, yet challenging, word to the believers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

In essence, Paul is telling us that we need to put in hard work to work this all out. It will not just ‘happen’ without energy expended and effort given to the work. I cannot help but think of Paul’s encouragement to his young pastoral trainee, Timothy, to “train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7). His comparison in that passage to physical training seems to echo through the current words to the Philippian believers. ‘Get to it! Don’t stop working at it!’ Paul says.

But the other half of the equation is the reality that “it is God who works in you.” This working out of our salvation is not something based in human effort alone. Our own efforts find strength and their source in the truth that God is at work within us. This should encourage us, but also give us that “fear and trembling” Paul references here. Right now and right here in our lives, the Living God is at work. He will do His work in our lives. That’s why Paul said that God will “fulfill His good purpose” in us or, as he wrote earlier in this same letter, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Philippians 1:6).

So, we find ourselves resting in this mysterious tension that we are to work out our salvation, while knowing that anything that comes worth talking about is fully from God’s gracious work in us. We cannot wait for God to do something without putting some effort into it. Yet, we cannot believe our efforts will do a thing apart from the powerful working of God in our lives.

[If you want to explore Philippians further, consider viewing the 2018 preaching series, “Unshackled: Joy Beyond Circumstances,” beginning with the message, “The Joy of Faith.”]

A Letter from Prison (Philippians, pt 2)

This is the second in a series of posts in which I reflect on Paul’s letter to the Philippians. These posts are personal reflections taken from devotional reading of the book.

Paul looks at the motivations behind how we live. He wants his readers, and us, to live worthy of the gospel, be like-minded, and have a Christlike attitude with each other:

  • “Whatever happens, as citizens of heaven live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27)
  • “Not only to believe in Him, but to suffer for Him” (1:29)
  • “being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind” (2:2)
  • “in your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had” (2:5)

It seems like our motivation for doing this should come from understanding our heavenly citizenship and from Christ’s example. At times, we may be motivated by the presence of a godly leader or mentor, like Paul, but that should not be our primary motivation.

Instead, Paul tells the Philippians, we should derive our primary motivation in life from a firm focus upon Christ’s example and our eternal destiny. When we face struggles in our life, just as Paul was enduring imprisonment when writing this letter, these larger realities will keep us going in life.

What motivates you to keep going in life? How has Christ’s example or focus on your eternal destiny helped you to keep going?

[If you want to explore Philippians further, consider viewing the 2018 preaching series, “Unshackled: Joy Beyond Circumstances,” beginning with the message, “The Joy of Faith.”]

A Letter from Prison (Philippians, pt 1)

Over the next several weeks, I’m going to share some thoughts from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. These posts are personal reflections taken from devotional reading of the book.

At the beginning of his letter to the Philippian believers, Paul is eminently thankful and joyful:

  • verse 3: “I thank my God in all my remembrances of you”
  • verse 4: “always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy
  • verse 5: “thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now”
  • verse 18: “what then? only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice
  • verse 19: “Yes, and I shall rejoice. For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance”

Paul is imprisoned while writing this, yet his letter bursts forth with life and joy. What is it that makes Paul able to write with such exuberance? It is his confidence in God.

By divine coincidence, while reading these words from Paul, I came across Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s words on thankfulness in community in his masterful work Life Together:

Thankfulness works in the Christian community as it usually does in the Christian life. Only those who give thanks for little things receive the great things as well. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts prepared for us because we do not give thanks for daily gifts….How can God entrust great things to those who will not gratefully receive the little things from God’s hand?

If Paul can live with joy and thankfulness in prison, how can we not be thankful and joyful in our daily lives today?

What are you thankful for today? What life situation or setting makes it a challenge for you to be thankful?

[If you want to explore Philippians further, consider viewing the 2018 preaching series, “Unshackled: Joy Beyond Circumstances,” beginning with the message, “The Joy of Faith.”]

||40days|| week five: follow to freedom

Walking out of prison is not something you do. Even with all of the mystique of stories about prison escapes, when it comes right down to it, prisons are places you go to but don’t get out of by your own will or effort.

But what if someone sets you free?

In this fifth week of the ||40days|| journey we are looking at following Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel we read what appears to be an autobiographical account of Jesus calling Matthew to follow Him. Matthew is a tax collector for the Romans who, like most in his trade, was likely enriching himself at the expense of his own people. He was not liked by the Romans because he was a Jew, while at the same time he was not liked much by the Jews because he was seen a traitor and a thief. Matthew is caught up in a prison both of his own choices and his circumstances. It is at this point that we read about a very straightforward encounter between Jesus and Matthew:

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow Me,’ He told him, and Matthew got up and followed Him. (Matthew 9:9)

Sometimes the prisons that hold us are not physical but spiritual realities with personal and social impact. Read More »

Philippi: Passion for Christ (discussion questions)

Here are discussion questions that accompany my message “Passion for Christ” from our series “Light for the City” at Eastbrook this past weekend on Philippians 3:1-14.

Discussion Questions:

1. Put in simple terms, Christianity is not about religion but about relationship with the living God. How does Paul describe his former way of seeing things – a ‘religious’ perspective – in the first six verses of Philippians 3?

2. What would you say is the fundamental difference between Paul’s former way of seeing life with God and his Christ-centered view of life with God? Compare 3:1-6 with 3:7-11.

3. Paul writes this: “Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (3:7). In your own life, what things have you counted a ‘loss for the sake of Christ’?

4. In 3:8-9, Paul explains that knowing Christ is the most important thing in all of life. This is because of what Christ has done for us (our position before God) and because of living life with Christ (our experience of God). How would you describe what Christ has done for you? How would you describe your experience of life with Christ; ‘knowing Christ’ as Paul talks about it?

5. Paul uses the phrase ‘I press on’ twice in 3:12-15. He uses the metaphor of an athlete to further describe the strenuous pursuit of God in our daily lives. How are you straining and pressing on to know God day by day? What spiritual practices do you engage in to know God more?

6. Take some time at the end of your study to consider at least one thing you have learned that will change how you live practically. If you are in a group, share this with one another. If you are on your own, write it out somewhere you will see it and come back to it each day this week.