The Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Philippians 1:18-26

To Live Is Christ; To Die Is Gain

Christians do not desire death, but neither do we fear it.  Oh, we pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done” and desire wholeheartedly our Lord’s return, but not because we hate this life.  We pray this way, first because the Scripture enjoins it upon us, but second because we desire to see our Lord’s vindication when his invisible reign is made manifest for all to see and marvel at in the world, when he shall rule the nations with a rod of iron.  Prior to that great day, why yes, there are times when we especially feel ready to go—when in public worship or private meditation and prayer as our hearts are lifted up in praise and adoration, when through the Spirit’s power we experience freedom from the sin which so easily beset us for so many years, or perhaps those times when we just look up and thank God for all the blessings and most especially the display of His matchless grace in our salvation—indeed, there are times when we are so ready to depart this life and be with him that we might even weep as a widow for her beloved.  We agree with Paul: To depart and be with Christ is far better.

But at the same time, the believer knows that he is not alone even in this vale of tears.  We know that here we are pilgrims, sojourners, and aliens—and we wholeheartedly embrace these words.  We are ready to roll up our sleeves and engage in fruitful labor.  There are people around us who need our attention for the gospel’s sake.  And we desire that above all, “Christ will be honored in [our bodies], whether by life of by death.”  For the servant does not care where he is as long as he is serving his lord and master, just as the beloved cares not where she is as long as her lover is near.

And what is the reason for all this?  How is the Christian able to endure both life and death and be content in any and all circumstances?  Paul answers this question in one of his most memorable lines: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (a very literal translation of the Greek).  For the believer, be it life or death, it is all about Christ.  Thus, he may be content wherever he is, be it home or abroad, here or there, on earth or in heaven.  Of course, heaven is far better; indeed, there is no comparison.  But this is not because heaven is so much more wonderful than this world in and of itself, but because our being with him will be all the closer, sin no longer impeding.  In the meantime, we are still with him, in the heavenlies, though walking on the earth, for to live is Christ.  That’s one of those truths I don’t think I can unpack; nevertheless, it is one of those truths every believer understands deep within though he cannot express: To live is Christ, but oh to depart….

Saturday in the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Philippians 1:12-18

God’s Word Unhinged

One of the ironies of Church history is that when the Church has many resources and much money, popularity and public will, some of its greatest mission ventures turn into failures.  On the other hand, when matters seem their worst, when resources are few, when Christians are persecuted and popular will and the engine of government is turned against the Church, the gospel marches on and conquers the hardest hearts.  An ancient teacher (Tertullian) said, “The blood of the martyrs is seed for the Church.”  This has been proven again and again.

Philippians is one of Paul’s “prison letters.”  Scholars argue over where he was imprisoned when he wrote the letter (Rome, Caesarea, or Ephesus?).  One might have thought that the imprisonment of Paul would have been a terrible blow to the Church—its greatest missionary kept from preaching Christ in city after city throughout the empire.  But no.  Paul tells us the exact opposite: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.”  Apparently the officers and soldiers in the barracks were aware why Paul was in prison: For preaching Christ and for the defense of the gospel.  Moreover, Paul’s imprisonment had the effect of filling other Christians with courage to go out and do the same, and with great boldness.

It is sad that, as Paul tells us, some of those preached Christ out of rivalry, even hoping to afflict Paul while in prison, perhaps thinking him as jealous as themselves.  Yes, many have preached Christ from rivalry and pretense down through the ages.  But though they shall be judged on that day for their hypocrisy, those who received Christ through their treacherous lips will still enter glory, for God uses even donkeys to speak His word (Numbers 22). 

“What then,” says Paul, “Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”  No, Paul wasn’t approving of the motives out of which they preached—and for those ill motives they shall be judged—but he still had to rejoice that Christ was preached.  You see, whether it be from pagans without or false brethren within, God’s word will not be bound.  Paul was in chains, but the word was free and ever shall be.  Why?  Because it is God’s word whereby He calls out those whom He shall save.  And in this way, God proves His sovereignty, His power, and the triumph of His will over the objections of men.

Friday in the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Philippians 1:7-11

Partakers of Grace

Now Paul becomes very personal, and there is a reason for this.  Paul had so many struggles as an apostle.  He provides a brief list of these in 2 Corinthians 11:23-33: Imprisonment, beatings, stoning, constant dangers and threats from both Jews and Gentiles, and to top it all, brothers in the churches which he founded who later turned on him and questioned his apostleship.  He was, no doubt, often lonely in his ministry.  Surely, had it not been for the Spirit’s presence in his life, he would never have persevered. 

But there was one church out there, one church that encouraged him and supported him.  I have heard (no one knows exactly where these sayings come from) that it takes seven occasions of encouragement to make up for one occasion of destructive criticism.  (I wonder if this says as much about ourselves as people who tend to wallow in self-pity as it does about those who tear us down.)  No wonder Paul valued this church so highly.  In all of his struggles, they were there.  He mentions in 4:15-16 that only the Philippians had “entered into partnership with [him] in giving and receiving,” and that when he was in Thessalonica, they had sent him help for his needs “once and again.”  Using a form of the word, κοινωνια, which we discussed yesterday, the Philippians had become partakers with Paul in God’s grace, “both in [his] imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”  Is it any wonder that Paul yearned for them with the affection of Christ Jesus? 

And so now Paul prays that their “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that [they] may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.”  Here we see that love and knowledge go together in the Christian faith.  Love is the impetus that makes us want to do the good deed; knowledge is the means whereby we discern what the good deed is.  “Love” is a word that is used far too haphazardly today and usually equated in the world with notions of “tolerance” for sinful lifestyles.  Love must be informed with knowledge which makes us to seek moral purity and blamelessness before the day of our Lord’s coming.  Knowledge makes us to know how to rightly apply love, where, and for what needs.  Love is not promiscuous; it is discerning—that is what Paul tells us here.  And these Philippians hit the target in their expression of love for an apostle who greatly needed it.

Thursday in the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Philippians 1:1-6

I Thank My God When I Remember You

Of all of Paul’s letters, his Letter to the Church at Philippi might have the most personal and warmest feel to it.  These Macedonians loved their Apostle.  Acts 16 relates the account of Paul and Silas’ time in that city after Paul’s vision of a Macedonian crying out for help: the conversion of Lydia, their incarceration and miraculous jail break, the conversion of the Jailer, and apology of the magistrates.  We might say Paul left Philippi in triumph.  But that didn’t matter to Paul.  What did matter to him was the welfare of the churches, and when one considers the problems which plagued Corinth and Galatia, the church at Philippi was a breath of fresh air—not that they didn’t have their problems (every church does)—but theirs were small by comparison.

As always, Paul addresses the “saints” at Philippi, by which he means believers in Christ Jesus.  It is the inexpressible privilege that sinners such as we are deemed by God as His saints, but then we know that we are so considered only because of the shed blood of Jesus Christ which covers those sins and makes us clean in the Father’s sight.  The mention of “overseers and deacons” suggests that the churches were becoming more organized around offices—men called of God and set aside by the church to lead, teach, and administer the sacraments.  And Paul closes his greeting as usual pronouncing the blessing, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” for grace can only come to us from the Father through His Son which is the only way to experience peace in this life.

Scholars call the next part of the letter, “Thanksgiving and Prayer,” and Paul often includes this just after his greeting.  But one senses that there is something special in this “thanksgiving.”  The Philippians had recently sent Paul a “gift” to help him in his ministry (4:10-20), so Paul is writing this “Thank you” letter in response.  He cannot but bless God for this church, thanking God every time he remembers them, constantly breathing prayers to heaven on their behalf.  This had been a faithful church, sharing in Paul’s ministry from the beginning.  The word translated “sharing” is κοινωνια, which can also mean, “partnership” or “fellowship.”  But it goes way beyond meals after worship and includes missional support both financial and “boots on the ground.”  And this work which God was doing in the Philippians, this daily sanctifying work in them proven by their partnership in the ministry, God would being to completion at the coming of His Son.  Imagine—one day we shall be complete in Him, fully redeemed, and without sin.

Wednesday in the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Ephesians 6:18-23

Praying at All Times

Believers will sometimes experience dry times in their walk with the Lord.  They will wonder what is wrong and if there is something missing in their Christian life.  No doubt, unconfessed and especially unrepented sin in one’s life can lead to such valleys.  But assuming that one has examined oneself and has opened his or her heart before the Lord, the reason for such dry spells lies simply in the brokenness of the world and our own lives this side of heaven.  And the Church has no “silver bullet” to get one through these seasons, that is, other than the disciplines that she recommends at all times for the saints: prayer, Bible reading, meditating thereon, worshiping God with and being active in your local church, and going about doing good.  These are the things believers must continually do in season and out.

I begin this way to highlight the emphasis that Paul now places on the importance of intercessory prayer, urging the Ephesians to pray “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.  To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.”  This, we should be doing at all times, and without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).  And it is praying for others that may be the very discipline that pulls you out of your own doldrums.  And as we pray for those whom we know, let us not forget to pray for those we don’t—such as those in Muslim and Communist nations where Christians are routinely persecuted for the faith.

As usual at the end of his letter, Paul becomes personal.  He confesses that he, the Apostle, needs prayer: “And [pray] for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”  Thus, we see that even Paul struggled with boldness to proclaim the gospel; then again, being imprisoned for doing so might lessen one’s boldness.  But Paul’s plea only begs the question: What’s our excuse? 

Paul’s final greetings always reveal his heart for the churches.  His desire was to encourage.  How we need encouragers among us.  Some have that gift, but we should all seek to lift one another up and so bless the lives of others with heaven-sent words.  Finally, may the love of the Father and His Son go with us every day—the only means of true peace we shall ever have—and may our hearts love Him with “love incorruptible.”  I love that phrase, and we have such love “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

Tuesday in the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Ephesians 6:14-18

Those Pieces of Armor

Having put on the armor of God, Paul moves to the individual pieces of that armor.  Of course, he is speaking metaphorically, but that in no way diminishes the reality of the battle that believers must endure and the power of the heavenly weapons they must wield against the forces arrayed against them.  And those forces so arrayed against us are the demonic forces which Paul has already denoted as “cosmic powers,” the world which is under the dominion of those powers, and our own sinful nature.  Against these, we must be constantly on guard and engage in the power of the Spirit if we shall know victory and peace.

“Stand,” Paul cries.  This is the first order of business—to determine that one shall fight.  One cannot gain the victory without fighting.  The first piece of armor the believer must don is the “belt of truth.”  The Christian does not believe in fairy tales, nor does he see the truth he believes as one among many in a cafeteria of religious choices.  The believer must believe that he stands by the truth of God revealed in His word.  Though the world may belittle him and think him hopelessly backward and intolerant, he cherishes the truth and prays that God would take him ever deeper into it.  Next is the “breastplate of righteousness.”  I think it fitting that the piece of armor that speaks of righteousness covers the believer’s heart.  Ours is a faith which must speak and act righteous deeds grounded in our being made righteous through the blood of God’s dear Son.  Then we have the shoes we must wear ever ready to go with the “gospel of peace.”  Isaiah 52:7 tells us, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news…who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”  Christians do battle by being ready to share the good news as opportunity permits.

Next, the Christian must put on the “shield of faith.”  Its usefulness is to “extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one.”  The devil is not throwing softballs at us; he aims to kill us.  Only faith—the knowledge that we stand with the Holy One—can extinguish those flaming darts.  The “helmet of salvation” is our hope of victory.  The war is already won; these are skirmishes before our Lord comes to rule with a rod of iron.  We fight as victors behind our Champion.  And finally we have as a weapon the “Sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”  Does this weapon sound weak compared to guns and tanks?  Then Listen: By His word, God created the world, and by His word, He shall slay the wicked and smite the nations.  Satan’s arsenal is truly pathetic in comparison.

F. F. Bruce whose work I used for help on this devotion closes his comments on this section:

When John Bunyan described the equipment which Christian received in the armory of the House Beautiful and used to good effect against Apollyon on the next stage of his journey, he drew on this passage in Ephesians, and noted that no armor was provided for the back, so that at the approach of Apollyon Christian had no option but “to venture and stand his ground” (NICNT, 410).

Nor do we have any other option.

Monday in the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Ephesians 6:10-13

Put on the Whole Armor of God

Believers have been endowed with amazing strength which is referred to in Ephesians 1:18-20.  There, Paul prays that we might know the greatness of His power to those who believe, “according to the working of His great might that He worked in Christ when He raised him from the dead and seated him at His right hand in the heavenly places.”  God wants us to know His strength, not our own which when handling demonic influences is no help at all.  And this is why in the passage before us, Paul names our real enemies and encourages us to prepare for battle—for battle is what the Christian life is and it must be met with the full armor of God.

First, we are commanded to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.”  The Apostle does not say, “Be strong” or “Buck up!”  We are not encouraged to do anything in our own strength; we are encouraged to be “strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.”  Anything less is useless.  Why is this?  Because we are not battling flesh and blood; our enemies are the entire demonic host arrayed against us—which is really quite horrifying when one considers it.  We foolishly think that our enemies are people, and then sinfully accuse them in our minds.  They are only tools in the devil’s hands.  And Paul describes these as “rulers,” “authorities,” “cosmic powers over this present darkness,” and “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  Jesus called Satan the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), and Paul called him earlier “the prince of the power of the air” (2:2).  Granted, people may behave as demons and do so of their own (severely incapacitated) free will, but it is the demonic realm that is behind them and stirring up their darkened minds and hearts.

But Colossians 2:15 tells us that our Lord has “disarmed the rulers and authorities.”  Yes, they are still active and shall be until they meet their appointed end (Revelation 20:7-10), but their power has been broken for the believer.  He is to put on the “whole armor of God” and stand firm against temptation and all the wiles of the devil.  And we can stand firm.  The believer has been given the power through the Holy Spirit to withstand these temptations.  Sin is always our fault.  Sin for the believer occurs when he refuses to put to use the resources which are his in Christ Jesus—that greatest gift being the Holy Spirit who girds us with the implements of warfare we shall discuss tomorrow.  We have our part and the power within us is the power that raised Christ from the dead.  So let us be strong in the Lord that we may withstand in the evil day—and they’re only getting worse.

The Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Ephesians 6:5-9

Masters and Slaves

Slavery was a reality of the ancient world, and the modern world as well.  Indeed, slavery exists in its most despicable form today in human trafficking.  May the Lord take away this scourge and protect and make successful those who work to end it.

But it was a reality then.  I will save for the “addendum” comments about the Bible and slavery itself; for now, let us attend to the teaching that this passage of Scripture offers that does concern what we have today: workers and bosses.  First, if we work a job (and there are few who do not), we should do it “with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as [we] would for Christ.”  This command of the Apostle might offend some, but it shouldn’t.  We must understand that the Lord commands us to fear no one on earth (1 Peter 3:6 and the multiple places where we are told to “Fear not”), nor tremble—which is why he immediately adds, “as you would Christ.”  We are only to fear our Lord as fear is an integral ingredient of worship; that is, the one you fear is the one you worship.  Thus, we are to consider our work as done unto the Lord and in fear of the One who knows whether or not we are doing our best work, for we are to do all to his glory (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Second, and in the same manner, we are to do our work not to please men but to please Christ.  If we seek to serve men, our work will only be as good as the reward we receive from men.  So Paul reiterates that we are to do our work “as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man.”  We note that in our work, it is the intention of the heart that is most important: Are our hearts pure?  Whom are we seeking to please?  We are first and foremost the Lord’s servants; after that, we may work any job and serve anyone we please as long as it is honorable work and service. 

We see that Masters (in our case, bosses) also have the duty to be fair and not threatening.  Why?  Because they have a Master in heaven—the One who is truly Master.  And He shall one day judge slaves and masters, workers and bosses, and without partiality.  We might add that bosses should also oversee with the same purity of heart as those whom they oversee, seeking the best for them as well as the institution they all serve.  We live in a world bound together economically.  To the extent that we all do the best work we can (and the Christian even better), we make a better world in which to live.  And this is a common grace God gives to all.

Addendum

The Bible is often “faulted” with condoning slavery.  I would like to address this.  There is no doubt that the Old Testament condoned slavery as Exodus 21 and other numerous passages bear out.  But we must also understand that slavery was a fact of life in the ancient world.  And though what I am about to say is anathema to many ears, it was not always harsh and terrible.  For instance, it is obvious that Abraham’s servant loved him (Genesis 24).  Indeed, in the ancient and medieval world, practically everyone was a servant of someone no matter how high or low one’s place was.  I say this only because we must be wary of judging a previous era by our own standards.  That said, I do not see that the Bible anywhere condones the chattel slavery which existed in America until the Civil War. 

And though I affirm the entire Bible, we must also highlight those places in which the New Testament fulfills the Old and fills it with “fresh wine.”  We have such a case regarding slavery.  I consider Paul’s letter to Philemon the Bible’s “Emancipation Proclamation.”  It is obvious that Paul is telling Philemon, the slave-owner, to let Onesimus, the slave, go free.  Paul also tells slaves that if they can gain their freedom to do so (1 Corinthians 7:21).  And certainly chattel slavery is condemned in Revelation 18:13.  And, of course, the “Granddaddy” of all passages of Scripture ultimately condemning slavery is the entire exodus account of the children of Israel in Exodus 1-15.  In sum, it seems that God, for reasons of His own, accommodated slavery in the Old Testament, much like He did divorce (Matthew 19:8).

But I will be brave enough to say one thing more: God never accommodated sexual immorality: adultery, fornication, unnatural acts between people of the same sex, bestiality—we read nowhere (certainly not in the New Testament) in which God said, “Go ahead.”  Paul never said that the Corinthians might visit the pagan temple and go into a prostitute once a year—and there were Christians doing it.  The Scriptures do not accommodate theft, lying, abortion, dishonoring one’s parents—these are all condemned. 

Which leads me to ask the question: When we look at our society in the twenty-first century, are we really better than previous societies?  Some who believe that human beings can be perfected would say so.  But man is always a sinner, his best works always marred by sin.  Just when he thinks he has made one step forward, he makes two backward.  The only progress I see in the world is that progress introduced by the Church—from which many of the abolitionists came.  It was the Church which began hospitals, orphanages, and set humane rules for war, etc.  We are beset with sin until the end; may we seek purity of heart before God and man before He returns

Saturday in the Fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Ephesians 6:1-4

Children Obey Your Parents

Of the Ten Commandments which have taken the most beatings in the past several decades, I would say number five tops the list: Honor your father and your mother, which Paul rewrites here in a much simpler form: Children obey your parents.  I say this because this is the one which has been most under attack either by shaming certain forms of punishment (especially corporal) or through the contemporary cult of self-esteem in which it is urged that children be ever coddled and affirmed in their behaviors but rarely if ever disciplined.  Respect is owed to children just as much as elders to the point that I have seen adults groveling before children.  And now a child is allowed even to choose his or her own gender.  Children must be much wiser than they used to be.

But they’re not wiser.  Indeed, Proverbs teaches us that children are natively foolish and so need guidance and correction from their elders.  And to refuse to guide and correct one’s son or daughter is to truly abuse one’s child.  And because children are naturally ignorant and foolish, the Scripture commands that they respect, honor, and obey their parents.  So serious a matter for the Lord is this that Exodus 21:17 tells us: “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.”  In contrast, children are to inherit a wonderful promise through such obedience: “That it may go well with [them] and that [they] may live long in the land.”

But the passage also puts the other foot down: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”  Here we see that ultimate responsibility for the rearing of godly children is with the father; he is the one who is to see to the godly instruction of his children and cannot pawn that off to his local church, school, or even his wife.  And such instruction is taught verbally and lived before the child as is referenced in Deuteronomy 6:7 concerning the Lord’s commandments: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”  A child cannot be blamed for ignorance of the Lord’s ways, but his father can and will be.  The father who models gospel living, being slow to anger with his children but quick to discipline (understanding that “discipline” is as much the way a household is run as anything else), gentle and patient, correcting with love and understanding—such a father will be blessed in his children as will his wife.  Let your child see that you submit to the Lord, then shall he do the same.

Friday in the Fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Ephesians 5:25-33

Husbands, Love Your Wives

What took Paul three verses to say to wives, he now takes nine verses to say to husbands.  This is because the husband has the greater responsibility as the God-ordained leader of the family and household.  As it is hers to nurture and nourish, it is his to provide and protect—not that these are mutually exclusive, after all, women provide and protect and men nurture and nourish, each according to the particular way of their sexual differentiation as male and female—but his being a man requires of him the role of leadership, a role not based upon utility or practicality but upon his being the man in the marital relationship.

As we saw yesterday, the marital relationship between husband and wife is to image the marriage between Christ and his Church.  And as the proper response of the Church is to submit to her Lord, so the proper response of a wife is to submit to her husband.  Likewise as Christ loved the Church and gave his life for her, then the first responsibility and duty of a husband is to love his wife.  And as Christ’s love for his Bride washes and sanctifies her, so the Christlike love of a husband so washes and sanctifies his wife.  This is, indeed, saying something extraordinary and we wonder how this can be.  And so Paul himself calls this marital bond between husband and wife a great mystery for the reason being that it refers to Christ and his Church.  So we must assume that in some spiritual way, as believers in Christ Jesus and partakers of the Holy Spirit and such heavenly gifts which flow there from, that a husband’s love itself is sanctified by the Holy Spirit that it may sanctify his wife—and God provides this sanctification in virtue of the fact that such marriage truly images and partakes of that marital bond between Christ and his Church.

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  Please note: not one spirit, not one soul, but one flesh.  The marital union is such that the intimacy expressed (which is reserved for marriage alone) is a one flesh union, such that the union of soul and spirit happens through the uniting of his body with hers —the fruit being (when all is well and nothing intervenes) a baby.  Unnatural liaisons can image neither Christ and his Church as they are sinful and thus impossible of sanctification, nor become “one flesh” as they are naturally fruitless, producing nothing but sensual gratification which is enjoyed by two bodies which shall ever remain separate.  It is shameful that I must even speak of this.  Let us focus instead on the sanctifying mystery of marriage.