June 14, 2015
It has never been particularly easy for the church in the world. When the church first began, it wasn’t long before the believers in Jerusalem were being persecuted and many fled, taking their faith in Christ to other parts of the world, especially Europe.
As Christianity spread, persecution continued until about 313 A.D. when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion. The Catholic Church became powerful and with power came corruption. The Reformation brought a much needed correction. But for the most part the Christian Church in Europe enjoyed great power. Over the years that power has diminished. Today, Europe is Christian in name only and the church has little real influence for Christ.
In Paul’s day persecution was a reality. Spreading the gospel was challenging. Today I want to point out that these are challenging days for the church of Jesus Christ.
I. STAND FIRM. 4:1
This letter to the Philippian believers is designed to be an encouragement to stand firm in the face of persecution. Why is this so important? It’s important because the church of Jesus Christ holds the only real hope for the world through the Gospel. Through the Holy Spirit, the church is the visible presence of Christ in and to the world. And so Paul urges the believers in Philippi to stand firm in Christ, showing the resurrection power of Christ in our lives.
This admonition is first seen in Phil.1:27. Paul himself was under house arrest in Rome for the gospel. And Paul uses himself as an example of one who stands firm in the face of persecution. In Phil.1 we see that what brought Paul joy is that his imprisonment only served to promote the furtherance of the gospel. In Phil.2:15 Paul says that we must do all things without grumbling and complaining so that we will shine like stars in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation. We stand firm for the sake of the gospel.
Later in Phil.2 Paul points to the example of Epaphroditus who stood firm in the work of Christ even though he suffered and almost died because of a serious illness.
Then in Phil.3 Paul presents the wonderful blessings received through faith in Jesus Christ. Those who embrace Christ by faith receive a righteousness from God which enables us to stand before God cleansed of our sin. By faith we inter into a living, eternal relationship with God and we begin living in the kingdom of God.
As disciples of Jesus, we follow him in all circumstances of life. Just as Jesus suffered on the cross, so as we suffer for Christ we are getting to know him in his suffering. Through suffering we can draw closer to Christ, exalting Christ in our bodies. On the basis of Paul’s personal example and because of the blessings found in knowing Christ, Paul urges the believers in Philippi to stand firm in the face of opposition.
Today in the United States the church experiences some persecution. Christians are not particularly liked in some circles and we are often criticized and even ostracized. For awhile in the United States Christianity enjoyed a place of power and influence. But now our influence is waning. In fact many point out that we are a Post-Christendom society.
Perhaps you have heard about the rise of the Nones. The Nones are those who select “none” when asked their religious affiliation. They feel they are better off outside of organized religion. Lately we have heard of the rise of the Dones. Who are the Dones? According to Josh Packard’s book, “Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People are Done with Church but not with Their Faith,” the Dones are some of, “the most committed church attenders, those who have consistently given, prayed longest, served for years, and have been in the most important meetings.” They still believe in Christ but they are leaving the church to keep their faith. They are leaving “because of the judgmental posture of church people,...because they are tired of trying to serve Jesus through the bureaucratic methods of church organizations,...because they wanted to come to their own answers about God through dialogue and struggle, not through prepackaged lectures and the predetermined conclusions of their church leaders,...because their church only understood ‘morality’ in terms of ‘substance abuse’ and ‘sexual activity’ with a common disregard to systemic issues of equality, poverty, and unjust economics.”
As these realities continue to develop, I fear that the church will continue to be pushed out onto the fringes of our culture. It may be that a day of more active persecution will come to the church.
So Paul calls us to the priority of the Gospel. In every circumstance we face we must stand firm in Jesus Christ. We must stand firm rooted in the truth of God’s Word. We must stand firm proclaiming the good news of life in Christ. We must stand firm at home, at work, at school, at church. And as Paul emphasizes in this letter, we must stand firm in the joy of the Lord. Again and again Paul says, “rejoice.” We rejoice in Christ. To not stand firm is to lose our voice and perhaps our faith.
Now if we are going to stand firm in the Lord, it means we must also...stand together
II. STAND TOGETHER. 4:2-3
When Epaphroditus arrived in Philippi and delivered Paul’s letter, the letter would have been read out loud to the congregation. Imagine you are in the congregation. The reader is reading and comes to these two verses: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”
How do you feel when you hear the reader read the names of these two women? How do you feel if you are one of those women? Generally we prefer to be corrected or to correct someone in private. But here, Paul publically calls these women out. Some scholars point out that the fact that Paul mentions their names is a mark of friendship. If Paul was at odds with these women he would not have named them at all.
We don’t know much about these women. Eudoia means, “success” and Syntyche means, “lucky,” but that doesn’t help us. What we do know is that these two women were co-workers in the gospel with Paul and others in the church at Philippi. They labored for the sake of the gospel.
Obviously there was a conflict between them and it was having some impact on the church. We don’t know the nature of the conflict. One scholar suggests that it may have had to do with how to live out the gospel in the face of persecution.
This conflict gives rise to the second reason for why Paul wrote his letter. The seeds of disunity were being sown in the church because of this conflict. Paul writes this letter to urge unity in the church. Stand together.
The phrase, “agree in the Lord,” literally means, “to have the same mindset in the Lord. This takes us back to Phil.2:2,5 where Paul refers to “being in full accord and of one mind,” and “having this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” When there is conflict, the way we think, our overall mindset, will affect the way we deal with the conflict.
Paul says, “agree in the Lord.” I have been thinking about this phrase. Elsewhere in Philippians he refers to being confident in the Lord, hoping in the Lord, trusting in the Lord, and rejoicing in the Lord. What does that mean? Well, surely it refers to the personal presence of the Lord and our being in relationship with him.
What would happen if Jesus were physically present when we had a conflict with someone else? In the Gospels we read about some occasions in which Jesus was called upon to mediate a conflict. For example, in Lk.9:46 we learn that the disciples were arguing among themselves about which of them was the greatest. Jesus did not resolve the conflict, but he did point out that the one who is least among them is the greatest. In Lk.10:38 Jesus is in the home of Martha and her sister Mary. It says that Martha was distracted with much serving, while Mary sat at the feet of Jesus listening to his teaching. Martha said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” How did Jesus respond? He said, “Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things.” Jesus did not resolve the conflict but he did put his finger on Martha’s problem. She was anxious and troubled. In Lk.12:13, someone in a crowd calls out to Jesus and says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Well, Jesus did not resolve the conflict, but he did warn against covetousness and greed.
Are you in conflict with someone? I wonder what Jesus would say to you? Would Jesus talk with you about your pride or your fear? Would Jesus put his finger on your critical, unkind words? Would Jesus say something about how self-centered you are or how demanding you are being? You see, in every conflict the unseen motives and attitudes are often the root of the problem.
The truth is that many of us are defensive and quick to think that we are being unjustly criticized or attacked. Out of our insecurity we often have a need to be right. And sometimes what we think is right is really nothing more than our personal preference. And if we are truly right then we need to cultivate humility more than ever.
In Phil.2 Paul gives a helpful description of the mindset of Jesus. In 2:6 we see that it is in the nature of God to not protect his godness. Jesus didn’t have to hold onto his status of being God at all costs. He never ceased being God, but he didn’t worry about it. He could lay that aside in utter humility to serve us in his life and death on the cross. There was no selfish ambition or conceit in Jesus. He was focused on the mission to seek and save the lost. In Phil.2 Paul also wrote about Timothy who was a co-worker who did not seek his own interests but was genuinely concerned for the welfare of the Philippian believers. In Phil.3 Paul highlights the importance of seeking to know Christ and to become like Christ in any and every circumstance. You see, the more we are focused on knowing Christ and humbly living out the gospel, the better we will be in dealing with conflict.
It is not always easy to resolve conflict. You notice that Paul calls upon someone he refers to as “true companion” to help or assist these two women. It is not good for the gospel, or for the local church when we allow ourselves to hold onto resentments and conflicts with other believers. As Paul points out, our names are in the book of life. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. The underlying question is, do we view ourselves as being part of the local church and do we think that the unity of the church is significant enough to resolve our conflicts? And are we humble enough to allow someone in the church to help us? If we do not view ourselves as being part of the local church, if we are stand alone Christians, it will be difficult for us to stand together having the humble mind of Christ. But men and women our standing together brings power to the gospel witness of the church in the world.
So what does this mean for us today? Well, the strength of any local church is determined by how that congregation stands firm and stands together. Do we all buy into the truth and power of the gospel? Do we all believe that the good news of life in Christ is the most important issue of life? If so we will stand firm centered around Christ and the gospel. And then are we committed to working together to live and promote the gospel? Each of us has different gifts and abilities. If we are committed to living the gospel life and promoting the gospel together there will be any number of initiatives taking place in and through the church as we work together. What does it mean to you to be in Christ and to be a part of his church? Amen.