Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O LORD.
Oh, continue your steadfast love to those who know you,
and your righteousness to the upright of heart!
—Psalm 36:5–6, 10
The 36th psalm is one of stark contrast. The psalms are constantly doing presenting such contrasts, but normally we expect to see the righteous on one side and the wicked on the other. Here the contrast is greater because opposite the wicked we find not the righteous, but the Righteous One.
Now, knowing that is the case, what of God would you expect David to set in contrast to the wickedness of the wicked? His righteousness? Justice? Holiness? Instead David’s emphatic is the covenant love of Yahweh. I would argue that it is his exclusive focus. For example, I believe it is clear that the “righteousness” of God that is like the mighty mountains (v. 6) is made parallel to the steadfast love of Yahweh in verse 10.
This, the covenant love of God, is where the fundamental contrast lies. The saints know that the distinction between the righteous and the wicked is not one that we cause to come into being. The only reason we stand apart from sinners is because of the mighty and free grace and mercy of God to us in the new covenant of Jesus’s blood whereby we are made a new creation and given a new heart. Yahweh’s word to Israel through Joshua made this clear, “Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many” (Joshua 24:2–3, emphasis mine). They served other gods. There was no contrast. And then there was. Why? Because God took their father Abraham.
Prior to these words through Joshua, Moses explained to them, “Moses reminded them, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:6–8).
God loves them because He loves them, keeping covenant. The source of God’s covenant love flows from His own depths. It is not dependent on us. This is why it is inexhaustible and infinite and free. It extends to the heavens. It reaches to the clouds. It is like the mighty mountains and the great deeps. How precious is your covenant love, O God!
For without cause they hid their net for me;
without cause they dug a pit for my life.
Let destruction come upon him when he does not know it!
And let the net that he hid ensnare him;
let him fall into it—to his destruction!
Then my soul will rejoice in the LORD,
exulting in his salvation.
All my bones shall say,
“O LORD, who is like you,
delivering the poor
from him who is too strong for him,
the poor and needy from him who robs him?”
What are we to do with the imprecatory psalms? I’m afraid the most common answer is to be embarrassed by them. Hide them in the closet. And should any nosey guest pry, pull them out, hold them up with disgust and ask “What is this?”, then respond with profuse apologies. Excuse them saying “Oh those! Those are Old Testament. We don’t use them anymore.”
I hope you find such embarrassment embarrassing. This may be what many do with the imprecatory psalms, but what should we do with them? Sing them! If that thought makes the modern church uncomfortable I’m certain the reason isn’t because she’s become so loving but because she’s become so soft. As odd as it may seem to some, what a soft church needs is more poetry; more of what James Adams calls the War Psalms of the Prince of Peace (highly recommended).
The problem is that we don’t know how to read poetry anymore. Luckily for us, Hebrew poetry doesn’t major on meter rhyme. God in His wisdom laid down a structure that translates well. It is the thought that rhymes. We call this thought rhyme structure parallelism. Translatable as this is, we still can’t read the stuff. Something more significant than a tire alignment is needed. The ignition timing is off. If you’re uneasy with the imprecatory psalms, your heart is off rhythm with the meter of heaven because your thoughts are inharmonious with the wisdom from above.
So how are we to read God’s poems? Less us. More Him. Poetry is meant to evoke strong emotion. Where we go wrong is that we make it more about expressing our emotion rather than that which is to evoke the emotions. The psalms are meant to train the affections. If there is a rub, your affections are off. You need training. Your heart must be timed. We read the psalms the same way we read modern worship lyrics off the screen. We never get past the warm up. “Do-Re-Me, me, me, me, me, me, me.” Our eyes are on our expression. Theology hasn’t given rise to doxology. We’ve become experience-expression junkies.
To read God’s poetry we must read it covenantally, and the chief covenant in view is the Davidic covenant. When you take up the psalms, think king and kingdom. The second psalm sets you up to understand all the imprecatory psalms.
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.” —Psalm 2:1–6
If we are embarrassed by the “war psalms of the Prince of Peace” the reason is that we are more concerned for our own name than we are zealous for the Name of our God and His King. The name of Christ is blasphemed, do you not long for this ultimately to be righted?
When a serial rapist or a molester of children is justly sentenced, and just sentencing would mean the death penalty, would you say it is categorically wrong for the victims to rejoice?
When Nazi leaders involved in the Holocaust were charged guilty and sentenced to death by hanging, was it wrong for survivors to rejoice at justice?
Should the pro-choice movement be exposed for the lie that it is and humiliated, the Democratic party seen to be bowing before the god Molech, and the abortion of fetuses recognized as the murder of the innocent children made in the image of God so that abortionists are charged with multiple counts of first degree premeditated murder—saints, should this be so, and God that it would be, would it not be righteous and holy and good for the saints to rejoice at such a thing?
When God’s King was humble and man was proud, would it have been wrong to long for resurrection and vindication?
With God’s King risen from the grave and now seated in glory, is it wrong to rejoice at the thought of Him returning in majesty to inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” so that “they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away form the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:5)?
Is it wrong for God to be God? Is it wrong for the saints to long for God to be God?
No! May all of our bones say, “O Yahweh, who is like you?” (Psalm 35:10).
Yes, we should long that every enemy might come to know the salvation of our Lord. Yes, pray that the persecutor may become a Paul. Pray that the abortionist may repent like Manasseh of his worship of Molech. Pray that when the justly executed criminal breathes his last, he, like the thief on the cross, awakes to paradise in the presence of Christ. But let none of this curb your desire for God to be fully God, to manifestly be all who He has revealed Himself to be—“Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6–8). With all your bones say, “O Yahweh, who is like you?”
1I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
2 My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
let the humble hear and be glad.
3 Oh, magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together!
8 Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
—Psalm 34:1–3, 8
Praise is invitational. Praise is joy come into bloom ready to pollinate. Praise is unselfish joy. Praise is a shared joy that wants others to share in that joy.
C.S. Lewis, in answering what he calls the “problem of praise” (that is the seeming problem of God being selfish in demanding our praise) gives several answers. The following one is highly pertinent to our meditation.
“The most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything—strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise…I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what we indeed can’t help doing, about everything else we value.”
Praise goes out hoping to bring others in and David wants to bring the saints all the way in. When David invites us to praise Yahweh with him, he doesn’t do so like a husband praising his wife asking “Isn’t she amazing?” There is a distance between a husband’s enjoyment of his wife and thus his praise of her and another’s enjoyment of her and praising her. David invites you to praise Yahweh with him the way one man will praise a slice of pizza. “This is the best. Have some!”
I almost hesitate to use this illustration because we have stepped down from something greater to something lesser to make the point. The greater joy, a wife, cannot be fully shared. The lesser one can. For the saints though, God is the greatest joy and fully shareable.
Do you leap at the invitation extended by David? If not, have you really tasted? Do you really fear? Have you cried out? Have you sought?
If you did answer “Yes!”, then isn’t it your longing not simply to join in praise with David but to extend his invitation to praise further? Don’t you not only long to praise, but long for others to praise God? Oh for a thousand tongues to sing! I cannot have a thousand tongues of my own, but I may be used by God to grow the choir. If praise is the consummation of joy, and my joy is God, my own voice is not enough. There must be more. The longing to praise is inseparable from the longing for others to praise.
1 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
2 Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah
5 I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah
While David keeps silent about his sin, his sin is loud. Sin has an echo and that echo reverberates louder the more you try to stifle it. David’s silence is an attempt at “deceit” (cf. v. 2). It is an attempt to “cover” (cf. v. 5). But our coverings of fig leaves don’t hide nuthin’.
When God’s children are silent, something is wrong. Silence is an attempt to muffle the echo of sin. John Goldingay comments, “Keeping quiet is not a mark of OT piety. OT piety makes noise, either in lament and prayer or in thanksgiving and praise. There is something suspicious about a person keeping quiet. It gives the impression that something is being concealed.” When the kids are silent, parents suspect. When God’s children are silent, God knows. Our silence doesn’t keep God in ignorance. It shouts to our own knowledge of our guilt.
Worse still, our silence is blasphemous. Our silence says we think God is a fool. We play mute thinking we’ve made God blind and deaf. We think ourselves more sly than God is wise. By silently denying our sin, we call God a liar. 1 John 1:10 – “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” Silence on sin is sin doubled down. We dishonor God by our rebellion and then we blaspheme Him with our ridiculing silence.
The only way to silence the echo of our sin is to let it reverberate to heaven with confession. The only way to cover sin, is to uncover it. Try to cover your sin, and it will be exposed by judgment or chastisement. Expose it, and it will be covered by mercy and grace. When you stop trying to cover your own sin, God will cover it. He will cleanse you by the shed blood of Christ and cover you with the robe of His righteousness.
"In you, O LORD, do I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me!
Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily!
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me!
For you are my rock and my fortress;
and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me..."
Before David prays “be a rock of refuge for me,” he confesses and declares “in you, O LORD, do I take refuge.” The prayers of the psalms, we may even say the prayers of the Bible, are full of confessions and declarations. Such declarations often verge on praise, and no doubt this one is an expression of praise, but on the face it, it is just a statement. A confession.
Such confessions and declarations in prayer are a way of thinking on God with God. This is how we should think on God—prayerfully. Say your prayers with confessions of truth, but also, say your confessions prayerfully. As John Owen put it this way:
“Meditate of [upon] God with God; that is, when we would undertake thoughts and meditations of God, his excellencies, his properties, his glory, his majesty, his love, his goodness, let it be done in a way of speaking unto God, in a deep humiliation and abasement of our souls before him. This will fix the mind, and draw it forth from one thing to another, to give glory unto God in a due manner, and affect the soul until it be brought into that holy admiration of God and delight in him which is acceptable unto him. My meaning is, that it be done in a way of prayer and praise,—speaking unto God.”
Because we don’t declare truth in our prayers, we petition lies in our prayers. Because we don’t confess truth, we pray lies. When you fill your prayers with more declarations and confessions of truth, you will petition your God better in those prayers. Such declarations have a way of pulling us out of our little kingdoms and reorienting our prayers around the kingdom of God.
What David first declares, he then pleas, and then he offers as the grounds for that plea what he has declared. “In you, O LORD, do I take refuge… Be a rock of refuge for me… for you are my rock and fortress” (Psalm 31:1, 2, 3; emphasis mine). Prayer is asking God to be for us what He has said He will be for us because He has said He will be that for us. In your prayers, argue God to God. I believe it was another Puritan author who said something like “God is fond of his own handwriting. Show it to Him.”
If the athlete wants to plaster Philippians 4:13 on their person or proclaim it during an interview, let him then speak of having learned to accept both defeat and victory with joy and peace and contentment in Christ. Let him speak of being strengthened to play in his prime with humility and also strengthened to fade from the spotlight with dignity. If he does so, then I might think that he’s actually read a few verses other than 4:13.
Philippians 4:13 unveils the “secret” of Philippians 4:12. The secret Paul speaks of is not one for “success” but contentment in the face of success or failure, a promotion or the loss of a job, life or death, sickness or health. The secret of this verse isn’t how you can achieve your goals. It is how you may accept with heavenly poise God’s holy, wise, and good providence wether it stings or is sweet. The strength Paul speaks of is grace to receive whatever comes your way as a heavenly citizen living worthy of the gospel of Christ.
The Greek word for “contentment” here, all by itself, suggests the pagan Stoic notion of self-sufficiency and independence. But the word is not by itself. Paul flips its natural meaning upside down. Paul’s contentment is independent from states of either abundance or need, but it is not independent. It is Christ-dependent. Paul finds contentment through Christ in Christ.
Lloyd-Jones, preaching on theses verses said, “It is a statement that is characterized at one and the same time by a sense of triumph and humility. Paul sounds at first as if he is boasting, and yet, when you look at this statement again, you find that it is one of the most glorious and striking tributes that he has ever paid anywhere to his Lord and Master.” But too many, when they quote this verse, are boasting. It is all triumph with no humility. It is the same stoic notion found in Henley’s Invictus.
“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
No, Paul says, “Christ is the master of my life. To live is Christ and to die is gain. Christ is the captain of my soul. I am sure that He who began a good work in me will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” This is the secret of contentment: finding joy in Christ through Christ; Christ-dependence certain of Christ-sufficiency; desperately needed grace and utterly certain grace; recognizing a need as vast as the ocean and knowing there is a supply as vast as the cosmos. Forget Henley. Sing with Wesley instead.
Thou hidden source of calm repose,
Thou all sufficient love divine,
My help and refuge from my foes,
Secure I am if Thou art mine;
And lo! from sin, and grief, and shame
I hide me, Jesus, in Thy name.
Thy mighty name salvation is,
And keeps my happy soul above.
Comfort it brings, and power, and peace,
And joy, and everlasting love.
To me, with Thy great name, are given
Pardon, and holiness and heaven.
Jesus, my all in all Thou art;
My rest in toil, my ease in pain;
The healing of my broken heart,
In war my peace, in loss my gain;
My smile beneath the tyrant’s frown;
In shame my glory and my crown.
In want my plentiful supply,
In weakness my almighty power;
In bonds my perfect liberty,
My light in Satan’s darkest hour;
In grief my joy unspeakable,
My life in death, my all-in-all.
“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” —Philippians 3:17
It is said that “imitation is the highest form of flattery,” and while this may be said in an innocent and even a good way, the fuller quote speaks to the fuller reality. It was Oscar Wilde who said, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery,” and he continued, “that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” That comes off the tongue a bit more sharply and grates on the ears. You sense the arrogance; yet it is a game the masses play along with.
The imitation that this world knows isn’t simply flattery; it is idolatry. We worship the gods, hoping to become one, or a demigod at least. We act as gods, desiring such “flattery.” Image is valued over integrity; coolness over character. Such is the imitation of this world. In contrast, Christian imitation, imitation as it is meant to be, is worship. This is because Christian imitation is an intentional imitation of imitators.
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, emphasis mine). We don’t imitate others so that others will want to imitate us. At least we shouldn’t do it for that reason. Sometime we do play the Pharisee, playing pious for self promotion, but in our best moments we imitate imitators because we want to look like the Jesus they want to look like. Christian imitation isn’t about idolatry committed and desired. It is about worship and sanctification.
All the imitations of this world, are cheap imitations. We were created in the image of God to image forth God. We were created as mirrors. We were created imitators. Imitation is. Because of sin, the image of God is marred. Man, in the words of Augustine, is “homo incurvatus in se,” that is, “curved in on himself.” Man has created gods in his own image and he is becoming like them—deaf, dumb, and dead.
But the saints have been renewed in Christ and are being conformed to His image as we imitate our elder Brother. A critical and commanded way in which this happens is by looking to those who imitate Him. Look to Jesus and look to those who are looking to Jesus.
Wilde was on to something; Imitation is a high form of worship that sinners pay to Greatness. The difference is that Jesus stoops to conform us to His glorious image and the saints would never dare to try to usurp or outshine their Savior. We want to be like Jesus, and we will be, but we would never dream of trying to be Jesus. Our goal is not to idolized in hope of becoming an idol, but to imitate as an act of worship. We are mirrors, and when it is Jesus who is reflected, no one is talking about the mirror, and this is just as we want it. So when you’re picking out a mirror, pick one that neither impresses you with the mirror nor yourself. Pick one that helps you look like Jesus.
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” —Philippians 3:1
Perfectionism is a peculiar heresy. It is also a perpetual heresy. Part of its peculiarity is its perpetuity. How does this thing live on? A number of variations have afflicted the church throughout the years. All mutations of this virus are strains of Pelagianism.
Pelagius was that British monk who balked at Augustine’s prayer from his Confessions, “My entire hope is exclusively in your very great mercy. Grant what you command and command what you will” Augustine confessed that man was bankrupt and dependent entirely on grace. Pelagius said man has what it takes in himself. There is grace to help, but it is not necessary.
Charles Finney, who is lauded by many evangelicals as a hero of the Second Great Awakening, was a rank heretic whose perfectionism had a strong Pelagian flavor. He denied original sin and total depravity. In contrast and yet developing from Finney, the most infectious forms of perfectionism today are semi-pelagian. They are an attempt to make pelagianism palatable, but pelagianism dressed in garb of grace is still the whore of works underneath.
Full blown pelagianism is the greater evil, but let’s give it this much, at least in pelagianism man may fully take responsibility for his delusion of perfection. Whereas in much perfectionism, man essentially “blames” God for the delusion.
Perfection may be redefined as not “knowingly sinning” as Wesley did. Since Wesley, most perfectionist theology has a strong experiential flavor as in the Keswick, Higher Life, Holiness, and second-blessing theologies. Through some “crisis experience” one comes to “entire sanctification.” Faith is often stressed in this, in contrast to Pelagius’ works.
But the most dangerous form of perfectionism for many is incipient perfectionism, perfectionism in the bud. You must realize that perfectionism finds prepped soil in the heart of every depraved sinner. In unearthing the origins of Finney’s perfectionism, B.B. Warfield, tracing it to New Haven, meaning Yale, and the professor N.W. Taylor, writes, “Pelagianism, unfortunately does not wait to be imported from New Haven, and does not require inculcating—it is the instinctive thought of the natural man.” Pelagianism is the instinctive thought of natural man.
Now if you don’t realize how subtle the danger can be and if you’re unable to identify this heresy as a sapling, consider this: you haven’t arrived even when you realize the flesh profits nothing and you count all as loss for Christ. You haven’t arrived when you realize you won’t arrive in this life.
The paradoxical position of the children of God is that in this life they are to press on towards that which they acknowledge they will never arrive at until the next. While it is premature to think one may attain perfection in this life, it is immature not to press towards taking hold of that for which you were taken hold of. The late R.C. Sproul once warned, “Sanctification is a process. It is a gradual process. Run for your life from those who promise you instant sanctification.” As Douglas Wilson says, the poison is so often found in the -ism. So you must run from perfectionism, and yet you must run towards perfection.
You must in this life run towards what you will only have in the next. If you’re not running, and using God’s grace as an excuse, then while denying perfection, you’re acting as though you already are.
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…” (Philippians 3:1, 2, 8).
Rejoicing in the Lord corresponds to looking out for dogs in the same way that ridiculing the flesh corresponds to glorying in Christ. Steak at home makes the Slim Jim at the convenience store less appetizing. Joy in Christ not only frees you to not take false teaching seriously; it so liberates you that you can laugh at it—a gut-busting guffaw kind of laugh. If you used that emoji with the cocked head and tears in reply to false teaching, you wouldn’t be exaggerating.
Sometimes one ridicules in another what they lack in themselves. So it is that the geek mocks the jock for his lack of brain and the jock the geek for his lack of braun. The mockery is self-validating and the laughs are a thin attempt to hide jealously and insecurity. Paul, in contrast to this, holds up in himself everything they boast of and then laughs at his own refection. If these dogs are flexing in the mirror, Paul comes alongside them, demonstrates his superiority, and then laughs at how ridiculous he looks and how absurd such posing is.
Paul was no Gentile ridiculing Judaizers. Do you not see the wisdom of God in preeminently calling Paul to confessedly be “an apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:11)? Yes, Matthew, Peter, and John were all Jews. Yes, they ministered to Gentiles too. But Paul was a Hebrew of Hebrews, and he was expressly an apostle to the Gentiles. Matthew was a tax collector. Peter and John were fisherman. Paul was a Pharisee. And here, he holds that up, and laughs at it.
You must see that this passage is dripping with sarcasm. If this passage were a dog and sarcasm were water, this dog has just had a bath and is now shaking and rubbing its body against the carpet and furniture. What Paul says they put no confidence in, he now ridicules, not because he is laughingly lacking, but because that in which they boast in is laughingly lacking. Paul says, “I’ll play your game,” he scores the most points (v. 4), and then he demonstrates that the game itself, the whole thing, is a loosing enterprise.
Boasting in the flesh before the holy God of heaven is like a doughboy hoping to win World War I by playing chess with a German commander at the Battle of the Somme in no man’s land. Boasting in the flesh before the holy God of heaven is nothing more than a good way to get killed. Thinking you could win that way is laughable and fully worthy of mockery. Paul writes off all his attempts at self-righteousness as nothing more than a steaming hot pile (v. 8). “Rubbish” pathetically fails to capture, the color, or rather the smell of the original language. What the Judaizers hold up as a trophy is that which Paul doesn’t want to step in. These dogs are like children playing with their own diaper deposits, creating a mural on the wall, thinking they’ve exceeded Michangelo. “Look Daddy!”
Three times Paul writes off as loss, loss, and crap what he previously boasted in as credit. Each time he does so, these things are reckoned such in comparison to Christ. This is why Paul’s laugh isn’t off putting like that of a bitter critic. His laugh is infectious. It is infectious because he is infatuated. And it is because he is infatuated with Christ, that he can laugh at the advertisements of the false teachers like they were some corny infomercial. When you’re curled up on the sofa with that quilt your Grandma made and reading Tolkien, you don’t even know the Snuggie infomercial is on. But if you were to divert your attention for a bit, you know what your response would be. Righteous laughter.
“So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.” —Philippians 2:29–30
The first and only other time I’ve preached this text was eight years ago. A pastor-buddy had put together a preaching conference at a nearby church, going through the book of Philippians. Upon receiving my assignment, one of my first thoughts honestly was “Really! Out of all the texts in Philippians, you give me this one?” Pride. In not wanting to preach Philippians 2:19–30 I was disobeying Philippians 2:14. And 1:27. I was grumbling against God by way of an unspoken dispute with my brother who should have given me a glorious passage like 2:5–11 dealing with the humiliation and exaltation of our Lord.
Compared to Paul’s exclamation “To live is Christ, and to die is gain,” or the encompassing commands “live as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27) and “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12), and especially in comparison to that deep and majestic passage concerning the humiliation and exhalation of our Lord (2:6–11)—compared to these passages, this text seems so humble, plain, and modest. In Gordon Fee I found both confirmation and rebuke. “After the exalted language of the Christ story in 2:6-11 and the striking metaphors in 2:14-18 by which this was applied to the Philippians’ situation, it is easy to view this material as mundane—which in a sense it is—and to neglect it as of little import, which it is not.”
Frank Theilman is easier on the conscience, but he also fosters intrigue. “After the theologically rich language of 2:5–18, we are surprised suddenly to encounter two paragraphs whose primary concern seems to be the travel plans of Paul and his coworkers. Why would Paul include such mundane information at this point in his letter?”
Why? Now there is curiosity? Why saints? When you read, always ask “Why?” This is the kind of material you would expect Paul to close with. Why is it here? The first clue that this isn’t haphazard, that there is a purpose is invisible to you in the English Standard Version. The New American Standard has “But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy;” likewise the New King James has “But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy” (all emphasis mine).
There is a connection then between all these visits Paul speaks of and what has preceded. What is the connection? Paul has just spoken of the possibility of his being poured out as a drink offering (2:17), that is, his death. Backing up further in 2:12 he speaks of their obedience whether or not he is present, which leads us back to 1:27 where Paul tells them to live as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ whether or not he comes to see them. All of this finds its explanation in 1:12–26 where we learn of Paul’s imprisonment and his hope to be released, but also of his preparedness should he face death. The travel itineraries relayed here relate to Paul’s absence and presence.
But is this the only connection? I believe upon study it becomes plain that 2:19–30 relate not only to Paul’s being present or absent, but also to everything that Paul has said to them in light of his possible presence or absence. What one sees is that the very apex of theological reflection and the ethical exhortation Paul brings you to in 2:5–11 with the humiliation of our Lord, is brought down and exemplified here. The humility of our Lord is high theology, high theology we are to imitate. Here this high theology is brought down and this is the kind of down that is then lifted up. This is not a humble text; it is a humbling text. But the humility it exemplifies is the humility that God exalts.