We’ve turned a corner on this COVID-19 pandemic that makes us realize that this is a marathon, not a sprint. You’ve heard a lot from me–but if you hear nothing else, hear this!
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Philippians 2:14). Here, Paul indicates that this is part and parcel of working out our salvation with fear and trembling. We live a life of reverence toward God (fear) and out of trembling over the nature of sin. And let me say this: the moment that sin no longer causes us to tremble, no longer convicts, then we are not working out our sanctification, we are working out our self-love. We work out what God works in. Reverently. With conviction!
Notice the comprehensive command here: do all things without grumbling or disputing. Everything you as a follower of Christ do without grumbling or disputing. Can you imagine this? Now, we might not always use the words grumbling and disputing, but we have other words such as griping, complaining, arguing. Of late, there’s a word that sounds so innocent, and even therapeutic: venting. We call up a friend, get on social media, or couch it as a prayer request and unload all the anger and bitterness they have regarding others.
But let’s dig deeper. The word ‘grumbling’ in the NT comes from the word that is used to describe how the people of Israel grumbled against God in the wilderness. It was a general pattern with God’s people. They grumbled when they didn’t have the food or water they wanted. They grumbled when they came to the Promised Land and saw the inhabitants and said, “They are too big, and we’re too small!” In Numbers 16, Korah led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, the leaders.
Do you see the pattern? You may say, “Well, they just grumbled at what they had or didn’t have. They grumbled against the leaders’ direction.” That’s true, but deep down, do you know who they really were grumbling against? God Himself. And it’s that way for all sin. In Psalm 51, a confession of sin after King David committed adultery with the wife of one of his soldiers, he said something interesting: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” All sin that’s against God’s imagebearers is also against God Himself.
Let’s not forget about what disputing means. The Greek dictionary (BDAG) defines this word as one where ‘verbal exchange … takes place when conflicting ideas are expressed.’ It deals with an attitude that must challenge and resist rather than submit. And this isn’t just about outward expression, but also inward thinking as well. So, while outward obedience is good, if we go about outwardly doing the right things, but inwardly we grumble and dispute, we miss. What do we do when this happens? Let’s put that on a shelf and look at some other things, such as:
The why: “that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” (15a). Interesting pivot here. If you do all things without grumbling or disputing, you’ll be blameless and innocent? Blameless? Do we mean sinless? No! It means that you would not be accused of wrongdoing. Innocent is right along with this: it means ‘still in its original state of intactness, totality, or moral innocence.’ In essence, it means that no charge of wrongdoing in word, thought, or action would stick.
He goes on: “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.” This echoes a verse Deuteronomy 32:5:
“They have dealt corruptly with him;
they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
they are a crooked and twisted generation.
Again, even with God’s faithfulness and provision, they grumbled and disputed—and would do so again in their history. But the only way we can be children of God is not through Adam, for he was blemished. Not through David, for he fell as well. But through Christ, we can be called sons of God – faithful in Him! Not crooked or twisted in their rebellion. And thus, grumbling and rebelling among the people of God is more in keeping with the crooked and twisted, identifies us with rebellion against God.
Do we grumble and dispute? How do we react when things do not go the way we want or think they should?
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. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again (Philippians 1:22-26).
What’s the first word here? “If.” Consider what faced Paul? “If I am to live in the flesh…” meaning, “If I am to escape the possible execution I’m facing.” I’ve been at the bedside of many who have been sick and/or dying. When the possibility of death comes along, the vast majority of us approach this season with anxiety and dread. We ask all sorts of questions about the life we will leave behind. Paul could have asked these same questions about what would happen with his churches and those he won to Christ.
Our present life entails fruitful labor for Christ. In verse 22, we read, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.” If Paul lived, then praise God—fruitful labor for him! He would continue to tell others of the good news of Christ.
Compare him with the likes of Hezekiah. In Isaiah, chapters 38-39, King Hezekiah was on the point of death. He did not approach the prospect of death well!
And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover.” 2 Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, 3 and said, “Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.
4 Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: 5 “Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. 6 I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and will defend this city.
Hezekiah wept at the thought of death. He wanted to stay here. But those 15 years that God gave him were tragic years. At the beginning of Isaiah 39, a Babylonian delegate asked to see the Temple, the armory, the storehouses, everything. Hezekiah was proud, so he allowed it. Isaiah responded:
5 Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: 6 Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord. 7 And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” 8 Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my days.”
He wanted to stay in order to glorify himself rather than God. Even when tragedy would hit, he took comfort in that this tragedy wouldn’t happen as long as he was alive—even if it affected his sons and people.
How different are Hezekiah than Paul! But if we were to take inventory of our hearts in our culture, and even those who name the name of Christ, we identify more with Hezekiah, don’t we? Some of you know that I’ve just started working on a team the North American Missions Board helping churches that are within two years of dying not to, well, die. They’ve gotten to a position of looking inward more than outward, ministering more to themselves rather than to the changing communities around them. Many of these churches would rather die than to change. As long as they have comfort in their own community, they are fine–for at least there is peace and security in their days.
We wish for fruitful labor, that is, labor that bears fruit! Make your life count, dear Christian! Do you believe that God’s favor is found in peace and security in your days–or fighting the good fight of faith for the eternal security of others?
Can anything good come out of sin? Can anything good come out of walking through the valley of the shadow of death? Let me tell you something that has subtly crept into the church. Are you ready? We believe that church is just for us. We look at things in the church through the wrong lenses–and we know how that goes, when you grab the wrong glasses. So when something comes along, new or otherwise, we need to change our attitudes. But look at Psalm 51:13-15:
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
Take, oh, our sin. We come along and praise God for forgiving us of our sin, then we stop. “Forgiven! Clean! That’s all the matters!” But look at what David said should God forgive him: “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” In other words, when God takes us through that valley of the shadow of death and our sin, He brings us out so we can teach others about the justice, holiness, righteousness, love, and deliverance of our mighty God! How?
Singing aloud of your righteousness. Did you realize that singing songs of forgiveness is a teaching tool? Granted, some songs say little, so the worship leadership needs to pick songs of salvific substance. Sing about the cross (1 Corinthians 2:2), the empty tomb (Philippians 2:8-11), the blood (Ephesians 1:7) and our sin (Psalm 51). Sing of His worth (Revelation 5:9-11). Thank him (Ephesians 5:18-19) and encourage in His Word through song (Colossians 3:15-16). Sing it loud!
Speak aloud of His praise! When God loosens the tongue, like Zechariah, we will sing praises to him (Luke 1:67-79). God intends for us to use our words to exalt him and to edify others around us in the gospel! Paul urges the Colossians, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6). Salt is used as a preservative, to preserve the things of Christ and the gospel in a lost and dying world. So may our speech in a world with a propensity to sin preserve the truth of the gospel, even if others do not wish to hear it.
Some lessons we only learn in the valley. But God will be with us in Christ, to help others who travel in that valley as well. Even God can bring good out of something so bad.
What a mighty God we serve!
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.
Have you ever visited someone or talked to someone with every intention of trying to encourage them, and they turn around in their troubled times and encourage you? When we see that “what has happened” to him was, as it said in v. 13, imprisonment! Christ has called us to go to those who are sick, ill, and in prison. Why? To strengthen and encourage them. Yet Paul tells them a great piece of encouragement: all of what’s happened has proven to advance the gospel. Not slow it down. Not stop it! Not obliterate it. Advance it!
But where? Notice where and to whom the gospel is advancing: “the imperial guard and to all the rest.” At the beginning of Romans, Paul said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” That term, ‘Greek,’ doesn’t mean those from Greece. In that culture, the Greek language and culture pervaded the Roman Empire. It refers to all non-Jews. Gentiles. You see, we cannot understand Paul outside of His call in Acts 9:15-16:
15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
Here, he carries it before Gentiles—but few likely expected that it would be among the Roman guard and other inmates. But why do we find ourselves limiting who would hear the gospel?
All we need to do is look at the life of Jesus. When my name sake, “Matthew,” left his tax booth and followed Jesus, he threw a party:
10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learnwhat this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
“Tax collectors and sinners.” Over and over, Jesus received those whom the religious elite with their moral superiority rejected. A pastor friend of mine told of a time when he met a fellow churchman at a Starbucks. Over and over, the churchman kept saying, “How can we eat here? Do you know the causes they support?” To which my pastor friend said, “But aren’t these the very people we are called to reach?”
The gospel is advancing. Jesus told the Pharisees that he came to call ‘sinners’ to repentance. When you came to Christ, dear Christian, did you see yourself as a sinner in need of a Savior? Or, as so many seem to believe, God saved you due to your goodness, your righteousness, if you will? As you read through the gospels, you always sensed that the Pharisees believed God loved them because of their moral superiority. And those are not the people Christ came to call. He came to call sinners, and that’s the very thing that people in their flesh struggle with the most! Most people come into our churches wanting therapy, to feel better about themselves, thinking they we are essential good people needing a tune-up. Former quarterback and Joe Theismann explained to his soon-to-be ex-wife why he had an affair, said to her, “God wants Joe Theismann to be happy.” So, both inside and outside the church, we believe there is some righteousness we have and that God is in heaven looking to us saying, “What will make you happy? Let’s put it over the goal-line.” The gospel advances. How joyful for the Christian!
Did you know that the moment you surrendered to Christ, you became a partner in the gospel with every other believer on the planet? God sent the apostle Paul to plant and establish churches all through Asia Minor, into Rome, and likely into Spain. As he won many to Christ who rescued them from their sins both now and eternally, what God used him to do is acquired more partners in the gospel.
So Paul leads off his prayer with thanksgiving. Dear Lord, every time I think of these believers in Philippi, I am grateful and have joy because of having them as partners! I wonder, would Paul be able to say that of me? Would he be able to say that of our churches here in Denver? Would he be able to say that of Arapahoe Road Baptist Church. As we see from the Ephesian church in Revelation, Christ told them they had lost their first love. The essentials had moved to the peripherals, and the peripherals move to the essentials.What are the essentials? Albert Mohler helps us out:
First-level theological issues would include those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith. Included among these most crucial doctrines would be doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture.
While we could spend weeks on each of these issues, what we do see if that if a Christian or churches compromise on any of these doctrines, we undermine the gospel. The gospel is not simply believing a set of facts, but it is a surrender to all that Christ has revealed about His nature, His work in rescuing us, and how He aims to work in us! That’s the good news—God will not hold us according to our sins, but will rescue us according to His grace.
We are partners in this and because of this. And the apostle Paul modeled this partnership. Look at the first three words of this letter: Paul and Timothy. Paul was Timothy’s spiritual father. Paul was 12 years older than Timothy (Paul born in AD 5, Timothy born in AD 17), making them 45 and 33, respectively. Regardless of their backgrounds, they were partners in the gospel,servants of Christ Jesus, and saints.
It’s here we revisit the issue of surrender. Go back to verse 1 again: The word for ‘servants’ is the word doulos which means a bondservant, or a full-fledged slave. Slaves had no rights, but willingly surrendered them to their Master. We hear of slaves and automatically hearken back to the black eye of our history, in the race-based slavery found in our country in the 18th and 19th century. Here, slaves could be found in all strata of Roman life, and serve that way willingly in order to pay off a debt.
Saints come from the understanding of being set apart for His use. In fact,the word church many times in the NT comes from the word ekklesia, which means called out ones. A partnership in the gospel means that we have surrendered our rights to his, we are saints who are called out from the world while still in the world.
He also calls out the overseers and deacons. Overseers (from the Greek presbuteros) are the spiritual overseers and leaders of the church. Deacon are the ones in charge of the physical matters of the church. As the saints are the called-out ones from the world, the overseers and deacons are the called-out ones of the church (ordained, if you will). They are called out to be leaders in the church, as Hebrews 13 identifies,the ones who delivered the Word to you. The Word brings joy and unity, something that the leaders bring with the Word. Ephesians 4:11-13:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
You see, the unity that your leaders are to model and provide is a unity not just in being welcoming and friendly, but a unity in the Word of God— which makes us alive in the Spirit but also kills the flesh!
Let’s partner in the gospel, finding our joy in Christ and unity with one another. The gospel brings joy in Christ, and the more we pursue Christ, the more unified we’ll be with each other.
Nancy Pearcey challenges me more than any other in showing the need of having a strong Christian worldview, but also interacting with other non-Christian worldviews. In Pearcey’s book Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning, Pearcey cited a study that showed the one factor which helped students keep their faith after high school. What was it?
A recent study by Fuller Seminary found that when teens graduate from high school, they often “graduate from God”as well. But the researchers also discovered one factor that proved most effective in helping young people retain their Christian convictions. What would you expect it to be? More prayer? More Bible study? As important as those things are, surprisingly, the most significant factor was whether they had a safe place to wrestle with doubts and questions before leaving home. The study concluded, “The more college students felt that they had the opportunity to express their doubt while they were in high school, the higher [their] levels of faith maturity and spiritual maturity.”
In other words, the only way teens become truly “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks”(1 Pet. 3:15) is by wrestling personally with the questions.”
The challenge for our Christian homes and churches is to have these environments as ‘safe places to wrestle with doubts.’ I began wrestling at 15, and I’m thankful for having places where I could share some of my concerns and work through them.
Pastors, give your student pastors the room to help students explore the issues of the faith that trouble them. Student pastors, given your students room to express those issues. Better now than later while you still have influence!