About a week ago, Michael and I had the opportunity to teach an Inductive Bible Study method seminar at our church, Okotoks Alliance. We usually use the book of Philemon to teach the method (it’s short and packs a punch!), but we had taught the method using Philemon at OAC in 2014, and we wanted to invite people who had come to the first seminar, as well as newbies. This meant we had to pick another book; we settled on Philippians.
Why Philippians? Part of the reason is that it is only four chapters long. Also, there are really no theological landmines in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which is important when you only have three hours. But those practicalities aside, we taught Philippians because it’s an incredible book, it lends itself beautifully to application, and Philippians 2:5-8 are some of our favourite verses of Scripture:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
As I studied Philippians to prepare to lead others through studying Philippians, I was struck by the theme of Paul’s use of examples of people suffering humbly for the Gospel, with joy. The first example is Paul himself. Paul repeatedly speaks of his own imprisonment, never complaining, but noting how what had happened to him had “really served to advance the gospel” (1:12). When contemplating the possible outcomes of his situation, he struggled to choose whether it would be better to live and continue to contend for the Gospel, or die and be with Christ (1:21-24).
Later, Paul unpacks two more examples of suffering for Christ, with joy: Timothy and Epaphroditus (2:19-30). Timothy is described as a man who seeks the interests of Jesus Christ, unlike others who seek their own interests. He had served with Paul for the Gospel, and Paul knew he could trust this young man to care for the Philippians’ welfare. Epaphroditus is described as dedicated to the work of Christ, as he had been ill and almost died, risking his life for the Gospel.
The ultimate example of suffering for the Gospel with joy, of course, is described in 2:5-8, quoted above. Jesus – God Himself, denied Himself, serving in life, through His death, and in His resurrection. The author of Hebrews says, “for the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). By making Jesus’ example central to his letter to the Philippians, Paul shows the reader that Jesus does not ask His followers to do anything He has not already done. He has gone before the Philippians (and us), suffering with joy.
What does it look like to suffer with joy? Paul is not suggesting the Christ-follower “fakes it until s/he makes it.” The cause of Christ is so worthy, when we rightly understand the Gospel, joy is inescapable, unavoidable. Paul could rejoice from prison, because he saw the Gospel going forward. Epaphroditus could suffer life-threatening illness for the cause of Christ, because he knew the work of Christ was more important than life itself. When we rightly understand the beauty and implications of the Gospel, no sacrifice will seem too great. Like the apostles of the early church, when we comprehend the fullness of the Gospel, when we face difficulty or persecution as a result of our faith, we can even rejoice that we “were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).
I know I
don’t always usually don’t have this attitude. When I face challenges directly related to my identity as a believer (because we live in a world that can be hostile to followers of Jesus, regardless of the country one lives in), my response is not always hardly ever rejoicing. As I read Philippians, and as I see these examples of believers suffering for the Gospel with joy, I know I need a deeper understanding of what Jesus has done. Are you in the same place, or am I the only one? Lord, help us to comprehend the Gospel in a way that makes joy inescapable, regardless of the challenges we face. Help us to meditate on Your Word and Your goodness, so we can’t help but rejoice, regardless of our situations and circumstances. We don’t want to paste inauthentic smiles on our faces – we want an authentic joy that comes from knowing You.