There isn't much in the way of normal theological content from Paul here, but he does exemplify some really important things about the Christian life in general, and pastoral ministry in particular.
Paul expresses such deep personal appreciation for and connection with Timothy and Epaphras. These are not buddies he hangs out with to watch a game and have a drink. These are men who have been in the trenches together... they have shared life and ministry at a profoundly deep level. They have risked there lives for the gospel together, and in so doing they have had to care for each other in crises. They have had each other's backs. They have bled together and for one another. There is a deep bond that is only forged in the context of a shared life and a shared mission.
I wonder how many of us have experienced that kind of friendship and fellowship, beyond the fun and enjoyment of people in our lives. I wonder if you have entered into something deeper, not based on affinity or life stage or common interests or hobbies; something anchored in the deep soil of a transcendant purpose, like the advancement of the gospel.
I am absolutely convinced that the Christian life is somewhat lonely and disappointing for many of us because the community we experience is community as an end in itself, which actually neuters the kind of community we were created for. I'm convinced that many pastors and leaders in the church are somewhat lonely and disappointed with ministry because they are living for a greater purpose without inviting others into it at the same level, or entrusting real ministry to others who will carry the load with us. Gospel advancement is a team sport and we're trying to play it has an individual sport.
But God designed us for community, which actually flourishes when it's formed in the pursuit of a shared mission. Community for community's sake ends up being a social club. But what if we gave ourselves together to the purpose for which we were created? Like the bond formed between fellow soldiers on the battle field, when we bleed together and for each other for the sake of something Greater, our appreciation for one another, affection for another and interdependence upon one another is deepened and the end for which God created all things draws nearer.
Rethinking Safety (v. 1):
I my sermon on Sunday, I talked about Jesus redefining safety for us. We tend to think of safety as the absence of threatening circumstances, but Jesus tells us that safety is actually about His presence with us in whatever threatening circumstances he leads us. In Philippians 3:1, Paul adds another surprising element to personal safety.
We tend to think of safety, in a social sense, as an environment where we can be accepted at our worst, in our struggles and even with our sin. But Paul ties our safety, not to our honest expression of personal weakness, but to our rejoicing in whatever place we find ourselves. Rejoicing in all things is a meaningful and non-ignorable way to guard our souls and the direction of our lives. Or from the other side, venting, complaining, grumbling, and giving expression to whatever negative emotions we feel is not healthy or safe for our souls and it doesn't create a healthy or safe social environment for others. There is safety in joy.
Rethinking Sin (v.2-6):
Paul then starts in on this thing of the flesh... and it's important to note that in Paul's theology "the flesh" is how he categorizes the sin nature that is common to all men. And the reason he uses this term is because it captures the essence of sin, which is simply the self. Flesh is the external layer that comprises who we are. And the works of the flesh are the outward manifestations of ourselves, and inherently sinful. In other words, the essence of sin is not limited to identifiably disobedient behavior. The essence of sin is that it's just our natural thoughts, normal feelings, and ordinary impulses ruling our lives as an expression of ourselves as lord of our own lives, rather than our lives being surrendered to and driven by the Lordship of Christ.
Paul is saying that he has a personal resume that was far more impressive than what almost anybody else could present. When it comes to achievement and accomplishment and pedigree, Paul was varsity. But it was of the flesh. But to trust in ones own record and merits, even in their moral superiority and uprightness, is to be anti-gospel. Confidence in the flesh is self-reliance and definitionally sinful.
Rethinking Success (v. 7-11):
So, Paul says that it is all worthless. Whatever fame, fortune, reputation, respect, pride and sense of accomplishment I gain from being good at being good, it's all garbage in the end. It's a whole lot of effort for a whole lot of disappointment. And Paul exchanged any accomplishments or aspirations for the actual gain of union with Christ. Neither success, nor satisfaction is found in anything amount of things we can achieve for ourselves or for others. True success and real satisfaction are found in identification with Christ by faith. It's through faith in the risen Jesus, and his living presence in our lives that we put our flesh to death and rid ourselves of ourselves. We receive the perfections of Jesus and live in the power of Jesus because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And any success or satisfaction in life, and in death for the matter, is rooted in and anchored to our living faith in the living Jesus.
May aim as a pastor, according to Colossians 1, is present those under my leadership "mature in Christ." So it grabs my attention when Paul says in v. 15 that "those who are mature" will think in a particular way, because I want think like a mature Christian and I want to disciple people into maturing in Christ.
So what is it that characterizes the thoughts and mindset of a mature Christian? in v. 13-14 the indicator is quite simple: Mature Christians leaving our past behind us and leaning into the future Jesus has secured for us. But Pauls says this is the way we think. So, it's not just that we act like we aren't attached to our past, it means we are genuinely and powerfully detached from our past. Our regrets, failures, mistakes and sins; our hurts, wounds, sufferings and pain; our successes, victories, achievements and accomplishment; we are not defined by, governed by, driven by, held back by, insecure about, or enslaved to any of our past wins and losses. We are living in the moment, alive to all that Christ has done to free us from those things, and empowered for movement toward the upward call of Christ to himself and a life worthy of Him.
And then Paul says in the last few verses of chapter 3 that in our lives, we will be following the leadership and example of someone to somewhere and we should be careful and discerning about who we pattern our lives after. We called to follow Christ but that is not an individual pursuit. We are on a journey together with others who are in Christ, and it's to our advantage to identify those who are a little further along in their development and maturity so that we can imitate their faith... not to be like them, but to be formed by what is forming them.
This is essentially a call to be discipled and make disciples... I wonder who you are leading into a growing relationship with Jesus... and I wonder who you're following there too. We should all be meaningfully and personally and intentionally engaged on both the giving and receiving end of mentoring relationships as an essential part of our own discipleship.
Who are you receiving from and who are you pouring into?
3 ideas worthy of consideration here:
1) The Importance of Encouragement in Building Trust in a Church Family (v. 1)
Well these vereses are packed with surprising insight about the Christian life and how to walk in step with Jesus. Notice that Paul, in Philippians 4:1, having already communicated his love and affection for the Philippians continues to weave those sincere assurances and reminders of his heart for them. It's just a great example of pastoring and loving people well.
Life is really depleting and discrouaging and disappointed and defeating... we can feel very isolated and alone. Our emotions swell in powerful ways to deceive us and distract us from what is true. We need encouragement and reinforcement from one another and from our spiritual leaders. We need gracious reminders of the grace we've been captured by, and grace filled encouragement grounded in the grace we're living in day by day. The gospel is more than a word of encouragement to be sure, but it certainly isn't less than encouragement. Gospel shaped ministry ought to bathe people in encouragement.
But the encouragement of gospel-centered community does not define correction and confrontation out of that community. Encouragement and correction are like currencies of disproportionate value in human experience... Encouragement trades for pennies on the dollar of correction. It's a high exchange rate. We need to provide a lot of encouragement if we expect to have any correction to be well received or valued. Churches should be social environments where sarcasm and snarky humor are the exception, and the encouragement of gospel reassurance and reinforcement should be the rule. Appreciation and and affirmation should be normalized.
2) The Importance of Correction in Maintaining Church Unity (v. 2-3)
You might remember Paul emphasized the importance, in general, of unity and oneness within the church back in the beginning of chapter 2... Now, Paul addresses specific people who are apparently in a public spat of some sort within the church. There are two ladies who have worked in the church together and alongside other leaders in fruitful and God honoring ways, but they find themselves in a sharp disagreement or at some impasse relationally. This is the realism of the Bible again, as always... you can't do life together within a church community without the reality of conflict and the ever present threat of division and strife.
And Paul calls these two women to reconciliation but he also calls the leaders and church community as a whole to take responsibility for making sure these sisters are reconciled. Division and strife between two individuals within a church impacts the whole church and is therefore the responsibility of the whole church. We can't take these things lightly in our midst... we must pursue unity diligently, but we must also guard unity vigilantly. This is not optional for a church to thrive... this is a priority and it involves difficult, uncomfortable and hard conversations. It demands listening and laboring together for understanding and putting away petty and personal griveances for the larger purposes of gospel progress.
3) The Importance of Reasonableness in Shaping Church Culture (v. 4-7)
Next we see this contrast between reasonableness and anxiousness. And Paul is acknowledging in some sense the vulnerability we all have to anxiety as a response to external circumstances and uncertainties. But he says as part of our life together and witness to the world, we should known for and governed by our reasonableness and not our emotional impulses. Which is a little surprising considering the secularism of our day has tried to position themselves as the reasonable people and it's the religious, in general, and Christians in particular who are emotionally driven.
Paul's contention thought, is that if the gospel is true, and we believe it's true, than the only reasonable response to life's difficulties is to filter them through what is true in light of the gospel. It's unreasonable to believe the gospel deeply and yet ride the emotional wave of fear and worry which we're prone toward. It's unreasonable to believe the gospel and react to unbeleivers angrily and with defensiveness or hostility. The gospel, if it's true and defining our reality should settle our internal world and temper our outward responses so that we might be seen and known as those who aren't easily provoked. Real Christianity is not void of emotion, but it isn't driven by emotion. Real Christianity is reasonable and rational, providing a coherent way of making sense of very emotional and deeply felt realities, in order to not be ruled by those emotions. Christianity doesn't rid us of emotions or dismiss them... but it does provide an objective filter through which to run them and re-order them.
Living as though the gospel were really true means we must align our thoughts and emotions with the gospel. And doing so is the route to the peace of God we all long for. But it's not natural or easy. So Paul, v. 8-9 tells us a simple yet difficult way to move definitvely in that direction... he says to set your minds on things that align with the truth of the gospel, enhance the beauty of the gospel, reinforce the centrality and reliability of the gospel, etc.
And all of this sounds great but it's really hard and unnatural and even impossible on our own. But if we'll surround ourselves with others who are like minded and in this shared pursuit... if we'll try to do it on our own but by the help of God's Spirit, with the safety net of God's grace and attached to the vehicle of God's people, we can meaningfully move forward in these ways... litte by litte, step by step, from glory to glory.