There are a lot of false gospels out there. One is the notion that Christians will live happy, stress-free, burdenless lives. This gospel is manifested in calendars and wall plaques that quote just the happy, uplifting verses. And those verses are real, but they are not a complete description of the gospel. After all, Christians suffer loss, have spouses and friends and children die too young, go bankrupt, and otherwise suffer many of the same misfortunes as anyone else.
And sometimes, when a Christian has been fed a steady diet of feel-good Christianity and they suffer a hard loss, they lose their faith — or they struggle not only with the loss but also with the threat to their Christianity. How could God have let me suffer like this, when I’m good Christian? Aren’t Christians supposed to be able to rejoice and be glad in every single day?
On the other side of the ledger is the Christian who finds all his hope in heaven. This life is a vail of tears, the valley of death. We just endure the misery of this existence in hopes of a better place after we die.
Such Christians are often legalists, because they figure a bunch of burdensome rules fit this existence perfectly well. God never meant for us to be happy until later, anyway. So being miserable in church is the price we pay for our reward at the end.
Such Christians make pretty lousy evangelists, and because they don’t see the God who is behind the scriptures, they don’t understand the scriptures. They make themselves and their followers miserable — and figure that somehow this pleases God.
When they suffer hardship, their faith is just fine. They’ve gotten so used to misery, they don’t know how else to be.
The actual gospel is quite a different thing, and one good example of the contrast is the book of Philippians. Paul wrote this while in a Roman prison, and the theme of the book is —
(Phil 4:4) Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
But we need to start closer to the beginning.
(Phil 1:14-18) Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly. 15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,
Why does Paul rejoice? Not because he’s in prison, but because his imprisonment has led to the preaching of Christ. To Paul, the mission — Christ — is far more important than his own misfortunes, and this attitude allows him to find true joy in times that would destroy the faith of others.
It’s not that he’s a Christian, precisely. It’s that he’s entirely sold out to the mission of Christ. Christianity doesn’t produce the joy promised in this epistle until we gain the same attitude as Paul.
(Phil 1:21-26) For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.
Again, why does Paul prefer to live — in prison — rather than die and be in the arms of Jesus? Why choose this earthly life over life with Jesus? Because of … the mission. He knows that his life gives joy to the Philippians. There is no selfishness in Paul — he’d rather suffer in the life, and so encourage young Christians, than be in bliss in the next life.
(Phil 1:27-30) Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved–and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.
Immediately after speaking of giving joy to the Philippian Christians, Paul encourages them to be “contending as one man for the faith of the gospel” without fear as this shows that God will save them. Courage in the face of persecution demonstrates the reality of the gospel! And allows the church to experience joy in the face of persecution.
Notice that Paul’s charge isn’t merely to endure persecution. He urges them to “contend” for the gospel. This hardly means to be contentious, as some seem to think! Rather, the word is an allusion to wrestling. We might say “grapple.” “Struggle” or “strive” would be the sense. Strive, fight, grapple — as one man — for the gospel. It’s not a fight against each other, but a fight against the powers of evil. It’s doing the mission, recognizing that there is an enemy fighting against you every step of the way.
When you think this way, persecution seems like the most natural, predictable outcome of your service to Christ. It’s not a shock that life is hard. Of course, it’s hard! Satan is losing and fighting back for all he’s worth!!
(Phil 2:5-13) Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed–not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
What does it mean to be like Jesus? It means surrendering what you have and giving it all up for God. Jesus “made himself nothing.” The Greek word is kenosis, which refers to self-emptying. God had a task for him, and he gave up everything to do it — even his place in heaven with God. As a result, God gave him even greater honor. Honor comes from self-emptying.
This is not the self-emptying of the ascetic. It’s not denying oneself the pleasures of God’s creation. Rather, it’s doing whatever is necessary to accomplish God’s purposes.
Vv. 12-13 are the “therefore.” We are called to “work out” our salvation. “Work out” translates katergozomai, meeting to work to completion: finish the task you began. Why? Because to be like Jesus you have finish the task, even if it means your own death. Do the mission!
But, Paul assures his readers, as hard as this can be, God will be working on their hearts and minds to give them the desire and strength to do exactly that. Just as Moses taught in Deuteronomy 30:6, it is God who will circumcise our hearts, changing us to be the people he wants. We are not being asked to serve God’s purposes alone or without help.
(Phil 2:14-18) Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe 16 as you hold out the word of life–in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. 17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.
“Shine like stars” is a reference to Daniel’s prophecy —
(Dan 12:2-3) Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.
Paul speaks of the Philippians as though they had already been resurrected and given their spiritual bodies — which is true, in a sense. Our baptism is a rebirth and creates a new creation. We can’t see the glow with our human eyes, but we nonetheless shine.
One part of this shining is that they “hold out the word of life.” They are active in God’s mission, they are a city on a hill, a light in a dark room. And the fact that the Philippian church shines — by showing forth the glory of God to others — gives Paul joy even as he is “being poured out” as a drink offering.
There’s a subtle but essential point here. We tend to that “offering” or “sacrifice” is something done to obtain forgiveness of sins. And sometimes that’s true, and this is the language the New Testament uses to speak of Jesus’ sacrificial death. But there was also a host of thanks offerings — giving to God in gratitude for his blessings. See, for example, Leviticus 23:4-14.
Therefore, when Paul says he’s being poured out “like a drink offering” — he’s referring to an offering of gratitude! His imprisonment and possible death are acts of gratitude toward God!
(Phil 4:10-13) I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
There is plenty more to learn from Philippians, but for the sake of time, we skip ahead to Paul’s summary. His summary is simple: I’ll be content — satisfied, unconcerned — no matter how awful my surrounding circumstances are. After all, the worst they can do to me is kill me, and that would be nothing but gain!
“I can do everything” isn’t a boast that he’ll accomplish all he tries. Rather, the sense is: no matter what I have to do for Jesus — suffer persecution, beatings, prison, or death — I can do it through the Lord, because the Lord gives me the strength to do it.
Paul was, you see, totally sold out to God’s mission on earth. Therefore, he was able to find joy — true joy — in whatever circumstance. He could see his own suffering as a gift of gratitude toward God.
True Christianity lives in the tension between the blessings of God and difficulties of this life. Both are true. We don’t have to wait for death to enjoy God’s presence with us. But neither does Christianity immunize us from difficulties. In fact, done right, Christianity produces tough times.
The deepest joys of Christianity aren’t found in getting to play church league basketball and listen to great contemporary Christian music and having pot roast with friends in small groups. The deepest joys are found in paying whatever price is necessary to show forth the glory of God, to fight against the Curse, to shine like stars in a dark world. It’s in seeing God working through disasters like an earthquake or hurricane, in seeing God change the world to be a little better through his disciples, in winning victories over Satan, and in learning to see the world as God sees it.