From his prison cell in Rome, Paul writes a letter to the church in Philippi which he established and of which he was very fond. To these brethren who are remaining faithful and fruitful in good works, he sends a message of encouragement to pursue greater spiritual maturity. He then breaks down the idea of Christian maturity into specific virtues and practices that the Philippians ought to cultivate in order to receive the blessings that come with this higher calling.
Mature Christians, therefore:
- Stand firm when faced with trial or temptation.
- Imitate Christ in all they do.
Mature Christians Rejoice in Trial (2:14-18)
14Do all things without grumbling or disputing;
We need to recall that Paul has just explained how he manages to rejoice even though there are some who are preaching the gospel with the express purpose of provoking him to jealousy and envy of their success while he languishes in prison. Here he lays out the basic attitude for everyday successful Christian living: Do all things without grumbling or disputing.
- Grumbling: Muttering, murmuring, complaining. Seeing only the negative, pointing out what annoys us and sharing that with others. Usually included is a charge against those we think responsible for what we disagree with. The problem with grumbling or complaining is twofold:
- It poisons the atmosphere. Since nothing is perfect to begin with it is easy to point out faults and weakness and spoil whatever good there may be about a person or situation.
- It is contagious because it appeals to man's fleshly and sinful nature. Grumblers usually form a "complainer's club" who impose their negative attitude on those around them. Nothing kills the momentum of a good idea or the impetus to make necessary changes than the constant grumbling of the "complainer's club."
- Disputing: Questioning, second guessing. There is nothing wrong with asking a question or trying to better understand a situation or something asked of us. In this case, however, the questioning is part of the grumbling and complaining. Paul is referring to what people who doubt or refuse to submit do in their resistance to something or someone else's will. They challenge, question or resist the authority, necessity or fairness of what may be taking place. They reason against the thing they are complaining about.
Remember the context in which Paul exhorts them to avoid this type of behavior. In verse 12 he has told them to work out their salvation in fear and trembling. In other words, mature Christians understand that in their walk of faith with the Lord there will be an effort by Satan to undermine their belief through various trials and temptations, even direct attacks on their souls. Fear and trembling because some have fallen away or succumbed to temptation and lost their salvation as a result.
In view of this, Paul instructs them not to play into Satan's hands by grumbling or questioning various aspects of their Christian experience, especially when facing opposition, trials and personal suffering on account of their faith. For example, doubting God's love when suffering on account of one's faith, or complaining about the difficulty or inconvenience of various types of service or conduct required of us. Then there are the various complaints or questions concerning the conduct, sincerity, value or authority of fellow Christians, especially those responsible for teaching or leadership in the church. This type of conduct or attitude actually undermines the development of spiritual maturity in a Christian.
15so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, 16holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.
In these verses Paul explains how those who avoid these things will be viewed. He also mentions the rewards awaiting not only those who refrain from this type of behavior, but also for the one who taught them how to be mature in Christ.
Another word for "innocent" in verse 15 is "unmixed." The idea is that even though Christians are in the world and constantly come into contact with worldly ideas, people and activities, they remain unmixed with these. They remain who they are and not affected or influenced by the world. This conduct, coupled with the fact that they also obey and proclaim the gospel, produces light in the dark world of ignorance, sin and death.
In verse 16 Paul rejoices in this fact because it means that his work as a teacher and mentor as well as his personal suffering for the cause of the gospel will not be wasted in this case.
17But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. 18You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.
Even though Paul was confident of his imminent release (Philippians 1:24-25) he looks to the future and his probable end as a martyr. In Jewish worship, a drink offering of wine was poured out on the side of the altar. This represented the fruit of man's work or labor offered to God. Paul says that he rejoiced in the fact that his work or ministry on their behalf is and will probably be offered up in the future in martyrdom. He encourages them to share his joy that God would grant him this final opportunity to serve and glorify Him.
It is interesting that he uses the "drink offering" imagery of poured out wine because as a Roman citizen his execution would be by decapitation (not crucifixion) and this type of death would produce a gushing out of blood as the head would be cut away from the body.
Two Examples of Maturity in Christ (2:19-30)
Paul leaves the lofty vision of his probable martyrdom in the future and returns quite abruptly to matters at hand, namely some information about two of his coworkers, Timothy and Epaphroditus, both examples of mature Christians.
We first encounter Timothy in Acts 16:1 while Paul was on his second missionary journey. He was from Lystra (North Galatia/modern Turkey), a church the Apostle has established in 49-53 AD. Timothy's mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois, were Christians, and his father was a Greek unbeliever. He joined Paul in 51 AD and along with Luke was one of Paul's closest traveling companions. He ministered to Paul while he was in prison as we read here in Philippians. He seems to have been a timid man, not dealing well with confrontation and often ill with stomach issues (I Timothy 5:23). He was commended into ministry by Paul and the elders (I Timothy 4:14) and eventually sent to work with the church at Ephesus.
19But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, so that I also may be encouraged when I learn of your condition.
Remember that Paul expects to be released but this has not yet happened. His intention is twofold in sending Timothy:
- To bring them news of his release and condition.
- To assess their situation and bring news back to Paul about the Philippians.
Paul's hope is that Timothy will both bring and return good news that will encourage everyone.
20For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. 21For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus. 22But you know of his proven worth, that he served with me in the furtherance of the gospel like a child serving his father. 23Therefore I hope to send him immediately, as soon as I see how things go with me; 24and I trust in the Lord that I myself also will be coming shortly.
Paul describes Timothy as one who cares about the church (specifically the Philippians) as much as he does. They are equally yoked in their concern for the welfare of these Philippian brethren. He contrasts Timothy with the preachers he spoke of in the first chapter, men who preached for gain or to provoke jealousy or envy in Paul. Timothy, he says, is not like these men having faithfully served with Paul and considered by Paul, not simply as a coworker, but a beloved son serving his father (very much like Jesus served His heavenly Father).
This person, that Paul loves as a son, who is a faithful and mature Christian worker will be sent to encourage them as soon as Paul has definite news about his release from prison, which he thinks will be soon.
In the meantime, Paul will send them Epaphroditus.
This brother, sometimes referred to by the contracted form for his name, Epaphras (the name means lovely or handsome) is referred to as the one who first preached to the Colossians (Colossians 1:7) and was sent by the Philippian church with a gift for Paul, and to find out about his circumstances. We do not have much information about him other than his appearance here with Paul and a reference to him as one of the early missionaries who may have planted the church in his home city of Colossae (Colossians 4:10-14).
25But I thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger and minister to my need;
Paul will, therefore, wait until he has definite news of his release before sending Timothy to them, but Epaphroditus, who has recently arrived from Philippi to deliver their gift, will be sent back right away. There is not much personal or historical information in the Bible about this man, but the little we do have paints a very good picture of this mature Christian servant. Note what Paul says about him in a single verse (verse 25):
- Brother in the Lord. Spiritual family.
- Fellow worker. A helper in the task of preaching, teaching the gospel.
- Soldier. Someone to carry on the fight with Paul.
- Messenger. Not just a "messenger boy" but a duly appointed commissioner sent by the church for a specific task.
- Minister. He was specifically sent by the Philippians to serve Paul's needs while in prison, not simply sent to deliver a gift of money for his support.
Paul adds an explanation concerning Epaphroditus' return. Apparently he was sent to stay and help Paul in his work but shortly after his arrival in Rome he fell seriously ill. The news of his near fatal illness got back to the Philippians somehow and they began to worry, not knowing of his condition and whether or not he had survived.
26because he was longing for you all and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. 27For indeed he was sick to the point of death, but God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, so that I would not have sorrow upon sorrow. 28Therefore I have sent him all the more eagerly so that when you see him again you may rejoice and I may be less concerned about you.
In a way, Paul was giving up any further service or comfort that Epaphroditus could have provided him by sending this brother back sooner with his letter, not wanting the Philippians to suffer any more anxiety over his condition. Note that Paul says that God healed Epaphroditus since he was at the point of death (and apparently no doctors or man-made remedies had worked).
29Receive him then in the Lord with all joy, and hold men like him in high regard; 30because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was deficient in your service to me.
Paul sends him back with an exhortation to the Philippians to receive him with honor (because he risked his life to carry out the tasks they sent him to complete), and receive him with joy because God saved him. Paul was encouraged by him, therefore, the Philippians' choice of this man for this mission was justified. Things did not go the way that they had planned (Epaphroditus delivers the gift, stays to minister, returns when Paul is freed) but with God's help they have reason to rejoice (Paul receives their gift and is due to be freed sooner than expected and Epaphroditus is saved from death and returns sooner as well).
Paul, in encouraging the Philippians to strive for spiritual maturity, notes that one mark of a mature Christian is the lack of complaining and arguing in dealing with the various challenges associated with living among unbelievers in a fallen world, and carrying out Christian service and ministry.
He then provides examples of Christian maturity as embodied in two of his co-workers: Timothy and Epaphroditus who each, without grumbling or negative questioning, carried out their ministries in such a way that God was honored, the church was edified and non-believers were exposed to the light of the gospel.
So far in his letter Paul has demonstrated that cultivating spiritual maturity requires that Christians:
- Stand firm in the faith.
- Imitate Christ in action and reaction.
- Rejoice in times of trial (in the passage describing his imprisonment, future martyrdom and Epaphroditus' illness he uses the words joy and rejoice six times).
Ministry is Never Without Trials
As far as we know Paul was never persecuted or made to suffer because he was a Pharisee. It was after his conversion, and more importantly, when he began to minister (by speaking out concerning Christ) that the pushback began. The more effective and fruitful his ministry, the greater the trials, obstacles and persecution became. When they have to kill you to shut you up, the world is paying you the greatest compliment on the effectiveness of your ministry and witness. This is why both Paul (in this section) and Peter in Acts 4:23-24; 5:41 rejoiced when threatened with death because of their ministry.
The lesson for us today is that we should not be surprised, discouraged or give in to whining or second guessing God when our efforts at improving ourselves, doing something good for someone else or serving the church in some way are met with personal difficulties, ingratitude, indifference, unfair accusations or all kinds of roadblocks, this is normal.
The moment a Christian makes an effort to grow, to expand his service or to give more time, effort and money to the church, he becomes a threat to the evil one and the enemy spirits Paul talks about in Ephesians 6. They do not want the gospel spread so any effort to do so will be opposed by them. They do not want people to believe so they will fill the road to belief with all kinds of obstacles (e.g. temptations, false teachings, hypocritical Christians). They do not want Christians who are sitting idly by to become proactive in their faith and their most subtle, vicious and powerful attacks are reserved for believers who want to mature and become more like Christ. Our chances of meeting and overcoming our enemy in our efforts to mature in Christ will greatly increase if we know that there is an enemy and he will eventually be on the attack.
However, God equips us (the Word, the Spirit, the church) for eventual attacks and intervenes so we do not become overwhelmed. For example, God saved Epaphroditus from death because his death might have overwhelmed Paul and the Philippians at a time when he was nearing the end of a long and difficult period in prison.
Paul rejoiced and encouraged the Philippians to rejoice despite these trials because:
- They knew that their suffering was caused by and in service to the gospel of Christ. They suffered as He suffered.
- God was with them and helping them bear under these trials.
- Their rejoicing was a witness that the Spirit that was in them as Christians was exceedingly greater than the evil spirit in the world that caused their suffering.
In the end, their rejoicing in the midst of trial signaled that even though they may have lost the physical battle, they were winning the spiritual war.