Sunday School Lesson for September 14, 2003
Rejoicing Over the Spirit’s Help (1:18-20)
Having addressed the issue of strife and envy among some of the brethren (1:15-17), Paul took great delight in knowing that the gospel was being proclaimed ("whether in pretense or in truth") throughout the region. That he could "rejoice" in the midst of such a situation reflected his intense focus upon the dissemination of the gospel and the faithfulness of God to bring about His sovereign purposes (1:12-13).
The repetition of the word "rejoice" signals the beginning of a new section, or focus, in this first chapter. Paul was not only full of joy over the preaching of the message of Christ; he was also anticipating the revelation of God’s faithfulness in the future— whether this meant life or death in the service of His Lord.
Here, the apostle explicitly expressed his confident hope for the future—"I know this will turn out for my deliverance." The word "know" indicates a sense of certainty, or positive expectation. What Paul knew was that through the "prayers" of his Philippian brethren and the "provision" of the Holy Spirit—"the Spirit of Jesus Christ"—his "deliverance" would be certain (v. 19). The exact nature of this deliverance is the subject of some debate among New Testament interpreters. However, it may be best to understand this as a reference to Paul’s immediate deliverance from death. If this interpretation is correct, it would mean that Paul hopefully anticipated that God would grant him additional opportunities to preach the gospel and engage in missionary labors. The point is that Paul not only knew he could depend upon the prayerful support of his friends, he was also certain that he could count upon the "strengthening of his personal life by that Spirit whom the Lord promised to His disciples in the day of their arraignment before tribunals and magistrates" (Mk. 13:11; Lk. 12:11-12) [R. P. Martin, Philippians, 20].
In verse 20, Paul expressed further confidence that he would not "be put to shame in anything." In other words, he believed that if and when he was called upon to confess his allegiance to Christ before civil magistrates, the Lord would grant him both courage and "boldness," and would sustain his faith so that that the name of Christ would be "exalted." Paul’s reference to his "body" probably indicates his awareness that one’s physical body is the primary instrument of service to God (1 Cor. 6:19-20). His obvious concern was that his body would be used to bring glory and honor to Christ, "whether by life or death."
Caring About Others (1:21-26)
As Paul seriously reflected upon the possibility of freedom on the one hand and martyrdom on the other, he communicated his basic philosophy of life to his readers. Simply stated, "to live is Christ, and to die is gain." This powerful declaration of faith confirms the fact that the apostle understood that his very reason for existence was to glorify the One who had so graciously saved him (cf. Acts 9:15-16). As long as God granted him life, his one aim was to "point people to Christ" [Melick, 84-85]. However, if God did not spare his life, death would result in certain "gain." The blessing or gain the apostle anticipated at the moment of his death would be two-fold. First, he would be immediately ushered into the presence of the Lord where he would receive his heavenly reward (see v. 23). Secondly, he was fully confident that his "fearless martyrdom for Christ" would spark the advancement of the gospel [Martin, 76].
In these three verses Paul’s reflection upon the two possible outcomes of his imprisonment continued. On the one side, deliverance from bondage would result in "fruitful labor" in the work of the gospel (v. 22). Yet, on the other side, death would result in his entrance into the presence of the resurrected Lord—an option Paul considered to be "very much better" (v. 23). It is clear from this and other passages that Paul envisioned no delay between the time of death and the experience of Christ’s presence. He believed that at the moment of death the believer would be immediately granted entrance into what theologians refer to as the intermediate state. This represents the interval between the death of the believer and the Second Advent (including the resurrection and inauguration of the eternal sate). It is a period of conscious, though disembodied, existence before the Lord. Thus, any notion of "an unconscious state following death or of a purgatorial discipline in the next world is denied by the sheer simplicity of Paul’s expectation" [Martin, 79].
That Paul did "not know which to choose" (v. 22) and felt "hard-pressed from both directions" (v. 23) reveals his deep concern for the welfare of his brethren. His "personal desire ‘to be with Christ’ in glory must be subordinated to his pastoral responsibility to the Philippians" [Martin, 79]. Therefore, "to remain," or continue living, is "more necessary" for the sake of his dearly beloved brethren who needed leadership and encouragement as they lived and suffered for Christ (v. 24).
Having considered the options before him, Paul expressed his heart-felt certainty—"convinced of this"—that God would ultimately grant him release from prison and more years of service—"I shall remain and continue with you" (v. 25). This situation would allow the apostle to contribute to the Philippians’ "progress and joy in the faith" (v. 25). Melick observes that just as Paul’s imprisonment had advanced the gospel, "his return to the church would push its faith forward" . Verse 26 indicates that Paul hopefully anticipated a return visit to Philippi and the opportunity to further instruct them in the truth of "Christ Jesus."
Living by the Gospel (1:27-30)
Having communicated his love and profound concern for his brethren, Paul exhorted them to holy living and faithful service. His general exhortation was for each believer to "conduct" his or her life "in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" (v. 27). This means that they should embody the very truths of the gospel in everyday living. Such a life would be characterized by sacrificial love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, mercy, and truth. In other words, their lives should evidence the irrefutable proof that the gospel had radically changed them. It is only a church "that is true to its name, and embodies in its corporate life the gospel it professes and preaches" that will have a maximum impact upon the world [Martin, 82]. In the remaining verses Paul listed several specific characteristics of a worthy life:
Major Themes for Reflection and Application
One: The necessity or prayer—Look carefully at the following Scripture passages: Romans 15:30; 2 Corinthians 1:11; Colossians 4:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:25. What do they have in common? In light of these passages, how would you describe Paul’s theology of prayer? In other words, what part did intercessory prayer play in the ministry of the apostle? How may this be applied to your life and church?
Two: The ministry of the Holy Spirit—How and what does the Holy Spirit provide for believers (v. 19)? What are some of the mechanisms He employs to aid believers in the walk of faith?
Three: Fearless living—How did the apostle Paul come to experience such boldness and confidence even in the face of death (vv. 21-23)? How can modern believers come to know and manifest such God-honoring fearlessness?
Four: Serving others first—Think about the utter unselfishness of Paul. Note how his life and ministry focused upon Christ and the welfare of his brethren. How does Paul’s version of the Christian life challenge twenty-first century believers?
Five: Unity for the sake of Christ—According to this passage (1:27-30), how is authentic unity produced among God’s people? What are some of the inferior substitutes for unity that are often found in today’s churches?
Six: Suffering and sanctification—How does suffering make us better Christians? If God has ordained from all eternity that His people should suffer, how are we to react to times of difficulty? Does this promote apathy and fatalism, or, to the contrary, does it prompt a more vibrant faith?