Let us seek, with the blessing of God, to develop a little the special features of this epistle on which we now enter. For the better understanding of what comes before us, we may also compare its character with that of others. Some of its features may be gathered from the very first verse. The Apostle introduces himself in the simplest possible manner: "Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons; grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ." Elsewhere, even if he presents himself as a servant, he does not fail also to add his apostolic title, or some other distinction by which God had separated him from the rest of his brethren. But here it is not so. He is led of the Holy Ghost to present himself upon the broadest ground to the children of God in Philippi; on this he could fully associate Timotheus with himself. Thus we may gather from the very start of the epistle that we are not to look for the wonderful unfoldings of Christian and Church truth, such as we have in Romans, Corinthians, or Ephesians, where the apostleship of Paul is most carefully stated.
"Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle" (Rom. 1). He was not an apostle by birth, but by the call of God. He adds further, that they were saints by the very same divine call whereby he was an apostle - "called to be saints," both through the sovereign grace of God. There was nothing in either that could have been an inherent claim upon God. There was deadly sin in both; but the grace of God that had called them to be saints, had called him to be not a saint only, but an apostle. As such, he addresses them in the full consciousness of the place that Christ had given him and them, unfolding the truth from the very first foundations on which the gospel rests, the grace of God, and the ruin of man. Hence in that epistle you have something that more approaches to a doctrinal treatise than in any other portion of the New Testament. God took care that no apostle ever visited Rome, till there were many saints already there, and then He wrote by the Apostle Paul. The proud imperial city cannot boast of an apostolic foundation; yet, spite of that, man has put in the claim and pressed it with fire and sword. Paul, however, wrote in the fullness of his own apostleship and brings out the truth of God to them most carefully, so that the very ignorance of the Roman saints was the occasion for the Holy Ghost to give us the most elaborate statement of Christian truth which the Word of God contains. By Christian truth, I mean the individual instruction which the soul wants in order to the consciousness of its solid standing before God and the duties which flow from it. There the Apostle writes expressly as an apostle. It could not be understood as a human composition. There must be the authority of God, claimed by the Apostle; and while he strengthens them in their position of saints, by the very same he makes room for that development of Christian truth, for which the epistle is remarkable.
In the Corinthians he addresses them, not merely as saints, as individual Christians, but as an assembly; and there also he asserts his apostleship. Does not this serve to illustrate the truth that there is not a word inserted or omitted in Scripture, but what is full of instruction for our souls if we are willing to be instructed? To the Corinthians he does not add as in Romans, "a servant of Jesus Christ," but simply, "called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, through the will of God." There he carefully puts Sosthenes upon his own proper ground, as a brother, while he distinguishes his own apostleship. The reason is obvious. The Corinthians were in a turbulent state, going so far as even to gainsay the apostleship of Paul. But God never lowers what He has given because men do not like it. It was a part, not more of God's grace to Paul, than of his humble obedience before God, to act and speak as an apostle; if he had not, he would have failed in his duty; he would not have done that which was essential for the glory of God and the good of the saints. Everything is in its proper place. So if the Corinthians were questioning what God had wrought in and by the Apostle Paul, and the place He had given him in His wisdom, the Apostle asserts it with dignity; or rather, the Holy Ghost represents him only as an apostle to them, speaks of others but not as apostles, and addresses the Corinthians as "the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours."
None but one who knew what God is to His saints, and how He holds to the power of His own grace, would have contemplated those at Corinth in such sort as this; none but a heart that understood God's love to His own, and, alas! to what lengths they may be drawn aside where the flesh gains advantage - none but one admirably, divinely acquainted with his own heart and with God - could ever have addressed them in the language with which that epistle opens. But it was God who was writing through His Apostle. And as the conduct of the Church on earth is the thesis of the epistle to the Corinthians, He shows us there the principle of putting away and of receiving again, the administration of the Lord's supper, and its moral meaning; the working of the various gifts in the Church, etc. All these things, as being the functions of the Church, are found in the epistles to the Corinthians. But even in the exercise of gifts, it is gifts in the assembly. Therefore, there is no reference to evangelizing in 1 Corinthians 12 and 1 Corinthians 14, because the evangelist's gift does not, of course, find its exercise within the Church. He goes, properly speaking, outside the Church, in order to exercise that gift. You have prophets, teachers, etc. All these were gifts of a still higher order and regularly exercised in the assembly of God.
Here also we shall see how appropriately the preface falls in with the object of the Holy Ghost throughout: "Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons; grace be unto you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." Now this is the only church where we have the "bishops and deacons" addressed as well as the saints. The reason may have been that it was, more or less, a transition state. We have three things in the Church of the New Testament. The first is - apostles, acting in the full power of their gift and office. Then, besides deacons, bishops or elders (for these two mean the same officials, only called by a different name), apostolically appointed to the charge which the Lord had given them; the bishops having to do with that which is internal, the deacons with that which is external, but both of them local offices, while the Apostle had his authority from the Lord everywhere The Holy Ghost shows us thus the full regimen in the churches; that is to say, the apostles acting in their high place, who were called to establish the foundations of the Church practically, and to govern it upon a large scale throughout the whole breadth of the Church of God upon earth; and beside them, these local guides, the bishops and deacons.
Third. The Apostle was now separated from the church, and hence no longer able to watch over the saints personally. He writes accordingly to those who had no longer his apostolic care, not only where they had not, but, in this case, where they had bishops and deacons. Yet in the latest epistles, where the Apostle is filled with the sense of his speedy departure, there is not the slightest allusion to any provision for perpetuating these officers - not even when writing confidentially to one whom he had called on to ordain elders in Crete, nor to another invested with a charge at Ephesus.
Thus, this epistle brings us to a sort of transition. It supposes the assembly in ecclesiastical order. But the Apostle's absence in person seems to be intended of God to prepare the Church for the absence of apostles entirely. Thus God graciously gave the Church a kind of preparation for their removal from the scene. Practically, even while Paul was on the earth, he was shut out from them, and gone from the scene, as far as regarded apostolic vigilance. The time was coming when there would be no longer apostolically appointed bishops and deacons. The Spirit of God was, it would appear, thereby accustoming the Church to find in God the only stable means of support when apostles would be no longer within reach of those who used to look to them and to claim their wisdom in their difficulties. But though the Apostle was not there, they had the "bishops and deacons," not a bishop and several deacons, and still less bishops and presbyters (or, priests) and deacons, but several of the higher spiritual guides as well as of the lower.
In those days a bishopric was not a great worldly prize, but a serious spiritual care which, however excellent an employment, was no object of ambition or means of lucre. "If any man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work"; but it called for such self-denial, such constant trial by night and day, deeper even in the Church than from the world without, that it was by no means a thing for the best qualified in the Spirit to rush into, but to take up with the utmost gravity, as that to which he was called of God. For this, among other reasons, the Church never pretended to choose or constitute a bishop. It was invariably by apostolic authority. One or more apostles acted in this - not necessarily Paul only or the twelve. It might be a Barnabas; at least we find in certain cases Paul and Barnabas acting together in choosing elders or bishops. But this may show what a delicate task it was. The Lord never gives it to any person except an apostle or an apostolic man (that is, a man sent out by an apostle to do that work for him, such as Titus and perhaps Timothy). But there the Scripture account closes; and while we have provision for the Church going on, and the certainty of gifts supplied to the end, there is no means laid down for perpetuating the appointment of elders and bishops.
Was there, then, forgetfulness of ordinary need on the Apostle's, nay, on God's part? For this is really what the matter comes to; and he who supposes that anything of the kind was omitted in Scripture thus carelessly, in effect impeaches the faithful wisdom of God. Who wrote Scripture? Either you resort to the wretched notion that God was indifferent and the apostles forgot, or, acknowledging that Scripture flows from the highest source, you have no escape from the conclusion that God was intentionally silent as to the future supply of elders or bishops. But the God who knew and ordered everything from the beginning forgot nothing; on the contrary, He expressly, in His own wisdom, left no means, in the foreseen ruin of Christendom, for continuing the appointment of elders and deacons. Was it not then desirable, if not necessary, for churches to have such? Surely, if we reason thus, apostles were as loudly called for as the lower officials.
The fact is most evident that the same God who has seen fit to withhold a continuous line of apostles? has not been pleased to give the means for a scriptural continuance of bishops and deacons. How is it then that we have no such officers now? Most simple is the answer. Because we have no apostles to appoint them. Will you tell me if anybody else has got them? Let us at least be willing to acknowledge our real lack in this respect; it is our duty to God, because it is the truth; and the owning it keeps one from much presumption. For in general Christendom is doing, without apostles, what is only lawful to be done by or with them. The appointment of elders and deacons goes upon the notion that there is an adequate power still resident in men or the Church. But the only scriptural ordaining power is an apostle acting directly or indirectly. Titus or Timothy could not go and ordain elders except as and where authorized by the apostles. Hence when Titus had done this work, he was to come back to the Apostle. He was not in anywise one who had invested in him a certain fund to apply at all times where and how he pleased. Scripture represents that he was acting under apostolic guidance. But after the apostles were gone, not a word about the power acting through these or other delegates of the Apostle.
God forbid that we should pretend either to make an apostle or to make light of his absence! It is more humble to say, We are thankful to use what God has given and whatever God may continue to give, without pretending to more. Is there not faith, and lowliness, and obedience in the position that acknowledges the present want in the Church, and that simply acts according to the power that remains, which is all-sufficient for every need and danger? The true way to glorify God is not to assume an apostolic authority that we do not possess, but to act confiding in the power and presence of the Holy Ghost who does remain. It was distinctly the Lord Himself who, working by the Holy Ghost, acted upon all the saints, and who put each of them in that particular place in the body that He saw fit. It is not a question of our drawing inferences from a man's gifts that he is an apostle. To be an apostle required the express, personal call of the Lord in a remarkable way; and without this there never was adequate ordaining power, personally or by deputy.
As this may help to meet a question that often arises in the minds of Christians, and suggested by a verse such as we have before us, I have thought it well to meet the difficulty, trusting to the Word and Spirit of God.
The Apostle, then, introduces himself and Timothy as "the servants of Jesus Christ to all the saints in Christ Jesus." It is not exactly "to the church," as in writing to the Corinthians or the Thessalonians, but to "all the saints." We may gather from this that he is about to speak of what is individual rather than of what belonged to them as a public assembly; but it is not, as in Romans, on the basis of redemption. He was going to enlarge on their walk with God, saluting them as usual with the words, "grace be unto you, and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ."
Before he opens the epistle, the Apostle breaks forth in thanksgiving to God. "I thank my God," an expression often used in this epistle. It also is individual, knowing now the God in whom he trusted, besides being the expression of affection and of nearness. First, says the Apostle, "I thank my God upon my whole remembrance of you" (for such is the true force), "always in every prayer of mine for you all, making request with joy." This leads me to make the observation, that nearness to God is always accompanied by the heart overflowing with the joy which His realized presence necessarily produces, as well as by a spirit of intercession for the objects of God's love on earth. There may be at the same time the deepest exercise of spirit, and not without the keenest pain; because in the presence of God every sin, sorrow, and shame is more truly and fully felt. What God is, is known, and therefore perfect peace; what man is, and therefore the failure is realized and the dishonour brought on Christ is entered into by the Spirit. But here joy is the prevalent and abiding feeling, the great characteristic effect of the presence of God imprinted on the soul, where the conscience is void of offence toward God and man.
Not that even Paul could thus speak of every assembly, or every saint of God - far from it. His whole remembrance of the Philippian saints opened the sluices of thanksgiving to God. Yet, from the beginning, there was need of prayer; and he was continually supplicating for them all, and this with joy, "for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now." What a wonderful thing that a man, though he were the great Apostle of the Gentiles, could so feel, and that there were here below saints of whom he could so write! Alas! in these selfish days we little know what we have lost, and whence we are fallen. He never prayed for these Philippians but with joy, and yet he was constantly bearing them before God. Had the Apostle been here, could he have thought so of us? Yet, wonderful as it was, it was the simple truth; and it is wholesome for our souls to judge ourselves by such a standard.
Another feature of the epistle to the Philippians is, that the practical condition of the soul is here developed more fully than anywhere else; and this not so much doctrinally as in action and experience. The Apostle lays bare his own motives as well as walk, and even Christ's also. Hence it is peculiarly in this epistle that we find displayed the exercise of individual Christian life. Here we have the power of the Spirit of God acting in the soul of the believer, enabling him to realize Christ in the heart and path here below. But what gave rise to this character of instruction? What circumstances brought it out? The absence of the Apostle from the Philippians, and from his ordinary ministry, while he was imprisoned at Rome. It was not, as at Corinth, that his absence brought out their ostentatious vanity, and party spirit, and worldly laxity, and quarrelings. It led the Philippians to feel the necessity of living increasingly with, and for, and to Christ. There was nothing for it but each one looking, and helping his brother to look, to the Lord Himself. This being the effect produced, the Apostle was full of joy in thinking of them. He had been several years away, and externally in the most dismal circumstances himself; but his joy was not dimmed one whit. On the contrary, there is not another epistle so full of actually tasted happiness; and yet there was never an epistle written when all on earth seemed more clouded and filled with sorrow. So thoroughly is Christ the one circumstance that rules all others to the believer.
When moving about and seeing both the devotedness of the saints, and sinners everywhere brought to God, one can understand the Apostle's continual joy and praise. But think of him in prison for years, chained between two soldiers, debarred from the work that he loved, and others taking advantage of his absence to grieve him, preaching the very gospel out of contention and strife; and yet his heart was so running over with joy that he was filling others with it!
Such is the character of the epistle to the Philippians. If there be a witness of the power of the Spirit of God working through human affections, through the heart of a saint on earth, in the midst of all weakness and trial, it is found here. It is not the picture of a man down under trying circumstances, for under them he never is, but consciously more than conqueror. Not that he never knew what it was to be cast down. He who wrote the second epistle to the Corinthians fully experienced all that which God in His grace made to be a kind of moral preparation for bringing out the comfort that was needed by the saints then and at all times. But this epistle shows us that there is not a single symptom of weariness any more than of perturbation of spirit. You could not tell from it that there was any flesh at all, though he was one who fully took the flesh into account elsewhere, as in Romans and Corinthians, where you have a fearful picture of what may be the condition of the Christian and of the Church.
Not only in Philippians is there no trace of this, but neither is there the dwelling upon our privileges and blessings, as in Ephesians 1. What we have is the enjoyed power of the Spirit of God, that lifts a man day by day above the earth, even when he is walking upon it; and this by making Christ everything to the soul, so that the trials are but occasions of deeper enjoyment, let them be ever so many and grave. This is what we specially want as Christians in order to glorify God; and this is what the Holy Ghost urges on us when we have entered into our proper Christian birthright, individually, as in Romans, and our membership of the Church, as in Corinthians, and our blessing in heavenly places in Christ, as in Ephesians.
Then comes the question, How am I enjoying and carrying out these wondrous privileges, as a saint of God upon earth? To suppose that this is a hard question, and gendering bondage, would be to impeach the perfect goodness of God, as well as to fall into a snare of the devil. What God desires is that we should be blest yet more than we are. He would thus make us more happy. The epistle to the Philippians is one to fill the heart with joy, if there be an eye for Christ. He thanks his God for them for their "fellowship with the gospel from the first day until now." What going out of heart, and sustained vigour! It is not now "the fellowship of His Son," as in 1 Corinthians, which indeed would be true of a Christian under any circumstances. So if Satan had contrived to turn a saint again to folly and sin, the Holy Ghost could remind him that God is faithful by whom he was called unto the fellowship of His Son. And can He have fellowship with unfruitful works of darkness? This is the reason why we should cry to God that, if He have called any to the fellowship of His Son, He would not allow the enemy to drag them into the dirt, but rouse their conscience to their grievous inconsistency.
But there is more. Here it is their fellowship with the gospel, not merely as a blessed message they had received themselves, but in its progress, conflicts, dangers, difficulties, etc. It does not necessarily mean preaching it, but, what was as good, or in itself even better - their hearts thoroughly in and with it. Need I hesitate to say that whatever may be the honour put upon those called to spread the gospel, to have a heart in unison with the gospel is a portion superior to any services as such? Most simply and heartily were the Philippians' affections thus bound up with the gospel; they identified themselves first and last with its career. This was really fellowship with God in the spread of His own glad tidings through the world. The Apostle valued such hearts especially. Nothing less than the sustaining power of the Spirit of God had so wrought in these dear Philippians.
The way in which the gospel had reached them we hear in Acts 16. It began with Paul in prison, when his feet were in the stocks; yet withal, in the midst of shame and pain, he and his companion singing praises to God at midnight! And here we have him, if alone, again a prisoner; and the praises of God are again heard - unwontedly in the great city of Rome. The Philippians were far away; but he could hear them, as it were none the less, singing praises to God, even as he was singing praises to God for them. It was the same blessed fellowship with the gospel that had characterized not him only, but them too, from the very first day until now.
But he goes further, and says, "Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you, will complete it against the day of Jesus Christ." Remark the ground of his confidence. In the Corinthians it is because God was faithful. In Galatians, where there was a still a more serious trial, the Apostle says he was in doubt of them, till he thinks of the Lord; and then he has his heart lit up with a comforting hope that they were Christians after all. People that were practically slighting (little as they thought or intended it, yet virtually slighting) Christ for worldly elements - he could hardly understand how such could be Christians. To turn from a crucified and risen Christ to the rites of an earthly religion is worse than bare earthliness, destructive as this is. Here it is another thing. His confidence is grounded not merely on what God is in character and counsel, but on what he saw of Christ, by the Holy Ghost, in them. Thinking of what they had been and were then, could he hesitate to recognize the evident handiwork of God through His Son? He saw such an unequivocal enjoyment of Christ, and such an identification of interests with Him upon earth, that his confidence was not only in a general way that he would see them with Christ by-and-by, but in the solidity of the work of God in them all the way through. He who had begun in them a good work, he was sure, would complete it unto (or, against) the day of Jesus Christ (v. 6).
"Even as it is meet" (or, "just") "for me to think thus of you all, because ye have me in your heart." v. 7. Such is the version given in the margin, which here prevents the right force of the verse. It was due to them, he means, not merely because he loved them, but he felt and had proof that they had him in their hearts. A blessed bond for hearts at all times is the name of Christ and His gospel. How continually, too, one finds the state of the saints accurately measured and set in evidence by the state of their affections toward anyone that is identified with the work of God on the earth! There will be the strongest possible attempt of Satan to bring an alienation of feeling and a turning of the saints against all such, whether absent or present. It was so in the days of the Apostle Paul; those who were simply cleaving to the Lord crave to him also. It was the very reverse of a mere fleshly feeling, which was sought by his adversaries who, flattering others, were flattered in turn. Paul was perfectly sensible that the more abundantly he loved, the less he was loved; and what a handle this gave to Satan to turn away the saints from the truth.
False teachers and men who may be really converted, but whose flesh is little judged, and whose worldliness is great, always seek to win persons as a party round themselves, by sparing the flesh and humouring the natural character, so as at last to have their own way without question. (2Co_11:19-20) The Apostle's object was to win to Christ. But faithfulness called him often to tread on what was painful to one and another. As long as love flowed freely and Christ was looked to, it was well; but when mortified feeling wrought, because they did not mortify their members on the earth, the tendency was constantly toward making parties, divisions, offences, the forerunners of yet worse evil. But if the Apostle was one who scorned such a thought as gathering a party round himself, these saints had him in their hearts.
He valued this love. How was it shown? "Inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel, ye are all partakers of my grace." They were casting themselves, heart and soul, into the activities and sufferings of the grace of God in the Apostle. Did his bonds make them ashamed or suspicious? To have a friend in jail never was of good report. Did they begin to say in themselves, He must have been doing something wrong because he was a prisoner? On the contrary, seeing that the Apostle Paul had come into the deepest suffering, they looked upon it as the highest honour. If he had gone up to Jerusalem, it was not to spare himself; and though this visit may have been a mistake, certainly it was one of which no person ought to speak lightly. It was a thorough self-sacrifice every step of the way. The Apostle, though he was now as a consequence a prisoner in Rome, never yields to a spirit of regret, still less of repining, but regards all in the good hand of God as furthering the cause of Christ. Did not, for example, his own bonds turn to praise of God? There he was perfectly happy, perhaps never so happy as thus bound. The Philippian saints understood what it was to draw from the divine spring; and consequently their hearts were with him in joy as well as sympathy. Did it weaken the Apostle's love for them personally? "God is my record how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ." v. 8. Happiness as the Lord's prisoner dulled none of his warmest feelings of love toward them.
But besides all this, his love for them made him intensely solicitous about their real wants, and he turns to the Lord for them accordingly. "And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more, in knowledge and in all judgment." v. 9. He wished that they should love (not less, but) with a fuller knowledge and an exercised intelligence. Love, or charity, is the basis, else there would be no building up; this being laid and abounding, full knowledge, instead of puffing up, guides and guards. The more the intelligence is, if it be real and spiritual, the greater the desire to grow in it. Those who do not see anything in Scripture as an object for constant search, and growth, and desire after more, are those, it is to be feared, who see scarce anything in it that is divine. Directly it is discerned that there is infinite light in it, desire to know more and more is a necessary consequence. But it is for practice. And this epistle shows us spiritual progress in the Apostle and in the saints more fully than any other, while it is the epistle that shows us the strongest desire after going on. This is what we know from experience. Whenever we begin to be satisfied with what we have got, there is an end of progress; but when we make a little real advance, we want to make more. Such was the case with these saints, who are prayed for therefore, "That ye may approve things that are excellent," etc. They needed to grow in intelligence, in order that they might be able to judge of things, and so lay hold of what was more excellent.
"That ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ." v. 10. Wonderful thought! The Apostle actually prays for these believers as if he conceived it possible that, growing in love and intelligence, they might walk the path of faith till the day of Christ without a single false step; Paul's marvel, perhaps, would have been that we should count it wonderful. Alas! we know we fail day by day, because we are unspiritual. Why do we let out a vain word or show a wrong feeling? Because we are not realizing the presence and the grace of God. No progress in the things of God will ever keep a person - nothing but actual nearness to Him and dependence on Him. What is a Christian, and what the condition and experience which Scripture recognizes for him here below? He is by grace brought, in virtue of Christ's blood, into the presence of God; who has a power within him, the Holy Ghost, and a power without to lean upon, even the Lord Jesus Christ, and this uninterruptedly and always. Such is the theory; but what is the practice? As far as it is realized, the path is without a single stumble. And let us remember that such is the only sanctioned path for all saints. It belongs not of right to some advanced souls. It is what every Christian has to desire. We can, therefore, readily understand how souls, hearing such thoughts as these, should embrace the idea of a state of perfection. But though the scheme is erroneous and utterly short of our true standard in the second Man, the last Adam, a Christian ought never contentedly to settle down in the thought that he must fail and sin day by day. What is this but calm acquiescence with dishonouring Christ? If we do fail, let us at least always say, It was our own fault, our own unwatchfulness, through not making use of the grace and strength we have in Christ. The treasure there is open for us, and we have only to draw upon it; and the effect is a staid, calm, spiritual progress, the flesh judged, the heart overflowing with happiness in Christ, the path without a stumble till the day of Christ.
More than this, let it be remarked, he prays that they might be filled with the fruit of righteousness, not merely such and such righteous acts in detail, but the blessed product of righteousness by Jesus Christ unto the glory and praise of God (v. 11). There is no thought of, nor room for, imposing the law here, which is rather shut out from being the proper standard for the Christian. There is another, who is both our new object and our rule, even Christ Himself, the image of God, the life and power of fruit bearing for the believer. What a rule for our practical, everyday walk!
From the introduction, which bears ample witness of the Apostle's love in the Spirit to the Philippian saints of his confidence in them and his earnest desire for them, we enter on the first great topic on which he writes - his own condition at Rome. He felt that it was needful to lay it before them in the light of the Lord, not merely because of their affectionate solicitude, not only again because of evil workers, who would gladly make it a handle against himself and his ministry; but chiefly with the holy and loving end of turning it to their profit and even their establishment in the truth and diligence in the work and singleness of purpose in cleaving to the Lord.
Indeed the Apostle had every ground to expect a blessing through that which Satan was perverting to injure souls. It had already issued in good fruit as regarded the work of the gospel; and he looks for just as good fruit as to all that concerned himself, either in the present or in the future, whether by life or by death. Such is the confidence and joy of faith. It overcomes the world; it realizes Christ's victory over the enemy. What can man, what can Satan, do with one who is careful about nothing, but in everything gives thanks? What can either avail to disconcert one whose comfort is in God and who interprets all circumstances by His love, with unshaken reliance on His wisdom and goodness?
Such a one was the Apostle, who now proceeds to turn for the salvation of the saints at Philippi, so tenderly loved, what the malice of Satan and of his instruments would be sure to catch at greedily as a means of alarming some and stumbling others, as if God too cared not for His Church or His servant. It is experience we have unfolded rather than doctrine; it is the rich, and mellow, and mature fruit of the Spirit in the Apostle's own heart as he expounds to them the facts of his own daily life according to God. What a privilege to hear! and how sweet to know that it was not written merely, nor as much, to inform us of him as to conform the saints practically to Christ thereby! Blessedly as the lesson was learned in the bonds that lay upon Paul, for our sakes, no doubt, it has been written. Therefore was the Apostle inspired. Inspiration, however, does not exclude the heart's holy feelings.
"But I wish you to know, brethren, that my condition (literally, what concerns me) has turned out rather (that is, rather than otherwise) unto the furtherance of the gospel; so that my bonds have become manifest in Christ in the whole praetorium and to all the rest." vv. 12, 13. The devil had hoped to merge the Apostle in the common crowd of criminals; but God, ever watchful for good, made it plain that His servant was a prisoner for no moral offence, but because of Christ. Thus the enemy's cunning device had ended in a testimony for the Saviour, and the gospel penetrated where before it was wholly unknown. His bonds were manifestly in Christ's cause. The grace of Christ was made known, and His servant was vindicated.
But this was not all. For as the Apostle tells them further, "Most of the brethren in the Lord, having confidence in my bonds, dare more abundantly to speak the word without fear." v. 14. Here was another step in the blessing, and of rich promise too. How unexpected of the enemy! He, however, was on the alert; and if he could not silence the tongues that bore their testimony to the Saviour, would not fail to bring in mixed motives and tempt some to an unhallowed spirit and aim, even in a work so holy. It was not undiscerned of the Apostle; neither did it disturb in the least his triumphant assurance that all things were working together for good, not only to them that love God, but to the advance of the glad tidings of His grace; so this too he does not hide in sorrow or shame, but cheerfully explains. "Some indeed also on account of envy and strife, but some also on account of goodwill, preach the Christ; these indeed out of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel; but those out of contention, proclaim the Christ, not purely, supposing to stir up tribulation for my bonds." vv. 15-17.
The truth is that the Apostle was then and there in the happiest enjoyment of that truth which, not so long before, he had held before the saints at Rome. He was glorying in tribulations by the way, as well as in the hope of God's glory at the end; and not only so, but glorying in God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom_5:1-2; Rom_5:11). His bonds but proved how entirely the liberty of grace is independent of all that man or Satan can rage against him who stands fast in it and has Him before his heart, by whom alone it came and could be given. There was no blindness to the feelings of some whose zeal in no way concealed their malevolent desires; but nothing weakened the spring of his joy in God, nor his thankful perception that, whatever man meant, the testimony of grace was going out widely and energetically; and Christ was held up and exalted more and more. For it was no question here of doctrine; there is no ground to think that even the contentious men did not preach soundly. It was the good that God intended that occupied Paul's thoughts, whatever might be in theirs. Hence he breaks forth in that blessed expression of an unselfish, full heart, "What then? notwithstanding every way, whether in pretext or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice, yea and will rejoice." v. 18. How happy is the simplicity, how deep the wisdom of faith, which thus sees in everything, even where flesh intrudes into the Lord's work, the defeat of Satan! What a present blessing to his soul who, thus delivered from self-confidence on the one hand and anxiety on the other, sees the sure, steady, onward working of God for the glory of Christ, even as by-and-by when Christ is displayed in His kingdom, all will be ordered to the glory of God the Father! (Phil. 2) Hence in the consciousness of the progress of gospel testimony and his own blessing through all that to which his imprisonment had given occasion, the Apostle can say, "I know that this will turn to my salvation through your supplication and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ; according to my earnest expectation, and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but, in all boldness, as always, now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death." vv. 19, 20. Imprisoned, he could not separate himself from the mighty conflict which was on foot in the world; he knew victory was assured, however hotly the enemy might contest. Salvation here means the final defeat of the enemy, and so it is throughout our epistle, never a past thing as in Ephesians 2 and 2Ti_1:9, but always future, as in 2 Timothy 2 and 2 Timothy 3, manifestly. In Philippians, as in Hebrews, etc., it is the full deliverance at the close. Both views are true, and each has its own importance.
We have seen the expectation and hope of the Apostle, that in nothing he should be ashamed, but in all boldness as always, now also Christ should be magnified in his body, whether by life or by death. His eye was thus on Christ, not for the beginning and the end only, but all the way. In the next verse, 21, he proceeds to vindicate the confidence of his heart. For, says he, "to me to live is Christ and to die is gain." To be spiritually minded, the Apostle tells us elsewhere, is life and peace. Here, speaking of his own daily practice, he shows he had but one aim, motive, object, and business - Christ. And this was said, not at the start of his career, in the overwhelming sense of the Saviour's grace to His proud and self-righteous persecutor, but after long years of unequalled toil, peril, affliction without and sorrows within the Church. "To me to live is Christ." No doubt, the principle was true from the beginning of his eventful life as a Christian. Still, as little do I doubt that it was emphatically and more than ever verified at the very time he was writing, a prisoner in the imperial city.
It is remarkable to what debates and difficulties the verse has given occasion, though the language is plain, the construction unambiguous, and sense as weighty as it is clear. "Interpreters [says a famous man] have hitherto, in my opinion, given a wrong rendering and exposition to this passage; for they mane this distinction, that Christ was life to Paul and death was gain." Certainly this is not the meaning of the Holy Ghost who gave the Apostle to say that to him to live (that is, here below) is Christ and to die gain. That Christ was his life is most true, and is the doctrine of Galatians and Colossians in passages full of beauty and interest. (See Gal. 2; Col. 3.) But here it is no question of doctrine, standing, or life in Christ. The whole matter is the character of his living day by day; and this he declares is "Christ," even as the ceasing to live or to die, he says, would be "gain." And what does this writer substitute? "I, on the other hand, make Christ the subject of discourse in both clauses, so that He is declared to be gain to him both in life and in death; for it is customary with the Greeks to leave the word pros to be understood. Besides that this meaning is less forced, it also corresponds better with the foregoing statement, and contains more complete doctrine. He declares that it is indifferent to him whether he lives or dies, because, having Christ, he reckons both to be gain. So Calvin, followed by Beza, who adds that "Christ" is the subject of both members and "gain" the predicate, and that the ellipse of kata isnot only tolerable but an Atticism! The reader may rest assured that a more vicious and violent rendering has rarely been offered. The truth is that "to live" is the subject, "Christ" the predicate of the first proposition; "to die" is the subject, "gain" the predicate of the second, as in the authorized version. The real force is lost by this strange dislocation of the French reformers, and the true connection is broken.
"For me to live is Christ and to die gain; but if to live in flesh is before me, this to me is worth the while; and what I shall choose, I know not, but I am pressed by the two, having the desire for departing and being with Christ, for it is far better, but to continue in the flesh is more needful for you. And having confidence of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in your faith, that your boast may abound in Christ Jesus through me by my presence again with you." vv. 21-26. Thus the Apostle compares his continuance in life with dying; the former were to him worth while, and what to choose he could not say. Thus there was perplexity from the two things; for he certainly had the desire to slip all that anchored him here and to be with Christ; whereas, on the other hand, he felt that his abiding here would be more necessary on account of the saints. This is no sooner fairly before him than all is clear. There is no more pressure from two sides. He is confident; he knows he will remain and stay with them all for their progress and joy in their faith. How sweet and disinterested is the love which the Holy Ghost gives to the heart that is centred on Christ! Their spiritual interest turns the scale, whatever his personal desire.
Sure I am that we have most of us lost much by failing to realize that to us too this path is open, and that it is the will of our God concerning us. Too little are any of us conscious of the weakening, darkening, deadening effect on our spiritual experience of allowing any object or desire but Christ. How often, for instance, it seems to be taken for granted that a brief season after conversion is not only the due time for first love, but the only time when it is to be expected! In what bright contrast with all such thoughts stands the record we have read of the blessed Apostle's experience! Was it not meant for the Philippians? Is it not also for us? God never intimates in His Word that the saint must droop after conversion; that love, zeal, simplicity of faith must become increasingly poorer and weaker. There are dangers no doubt; but early days have theirs as well as later, and much passes muster at first through lack of spirituality. Where there is full purpose of heart in cleaving to the Lord, He gives, on the contrary, a deepening acquaintance with Himself. It is not, To me to live is for the gospel or even the Church, but, "To me to live is Christ." Tohave Him as the one absorbing, governing motive of the life, day by day, is the strength as well as test of all that is of God; it gives, as nothing else can give, everything its divine place and proportion. "To me to live is Christ" seems to me much more than to say, "To die is gain." For this istrue of many a saint's experience, who could hardly say that. Yet there is not a clause more characteristic; it is the very pith of our epistle. Christian experience is the point. In Philippians, above all others, it is the development of the great problem, how we are to live Christ. As for Paul, it was the one thing he did; and so death, which naturally threatens the loss of this and that and all things, he, on the contrary, realized to be gain. This is the truth, and he enjoyed it.
For years the Apostle, a prisoner, had death before him as a not improbable contingency. Yet assuredly his eye is only the brighter, his strength not abated, but grown, his exercised acquaintance with God, His will and ways, larger than ever. Hence, instead of his thinking it was a question for the emperor to determine, he sees, feels, and speaks as if God had put it all into his own hands; just as in another chapter he says, "I can do all things through Christ (or Him) who strengthens me." Here you have him sitting in judgment on the point whether he is to live or die. He drops Caesar altogether and views it as if God were asking His servant whether he was going to live or die. His answer is that it would be much better for himself to die, but that for the sake of the Church it would be expedient for him to live somewhat longer. Thus the decision of the question is eminently Christlike, against his own strong desire, because his eye was single, and he sacrificed self for the good of the Church. Accordingly he concludes, with wonderful faith and unselfishness, that he is going to live.
"I am in a strait between the two, having the desire for departing and being with Christ, which is very far better: nevertheless to continue in the flesh is more needful for you." Inasmuch as in his heart Christ thus predominated, who certainly was not balancing questions about his own gain, but other people's good; so Paul, therefore, thinks of and in His mind and says, "Having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith: that your boast may be more abundant in Jesus Christ through me by my presence with you again." I do not know a more astonishing and instructive proof of the power of the Spirit of God, in giving a man fellowship practically with God. The flesh being broken and judged in him, he could enter into the mind and feelings of God, and Christ's heart about the Church. Was it really desirable for the Church that Paul should abide? Then, without hesitation and without fleshly feeling, he can say, Paul will abide. Thus he settles the matter and speaks calmly and confidently of seeing them again. Yet is it a man in prison, exposed to the most reckless of Roman emperors, who thinks, decides, says all this!
At the same time he adds, "Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ; that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for (or rather with) the faith of the gospel." His heart's desire, when he came and saw them again, was to see them all unitedly happy, and not only this flowing in of Christ, but such a flowing out of Him that their hearts should be free to spread the knowledge of the gospel everywhere.
Next, he wished to hear that they were frightened in nothing by the adversaries, which is to them a proof of destruction, but "of your salvation, and this from God, because unto you is given, in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake." From this scripture it is evidently of great moment spiritually that we should keep up in our souls good courage in face of the foe, and confidence in God, not only for our own sake, but for others. There is no testimony more gracious, nor more solemn to our adversaries. But how blessed to know that the day comes when, if we are walking with God, every opposer, no matter how proud, will disappear; when all the malice, and wiles, and power that can be brought to put the saints down will only elicit the power of God in their favour! Faith knows all the power of God is its own before that day comes.
It is of the greatest importance that we should cherish calm, and lowly, and patient confidence in God, and that the heart should rest in His love; but this can never be, unless there be present subjection to Christ and enjoyment of what He is toward our souls. To their adversaries this boldness was a demonstration of perdition, as well as of their own final triumph over all that Satan could aim at their hurt. God intended this, because it was given them in behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake. Paul, who was suffering for Christ's sake at that very moment, was thoroughly happy in it, and commends the place to them. It was a good gift of grace; he could say, "The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places," though he was a prisoner. They had the same conflict as they saw in him when a prisoner at Philippi and now heard of in Rome. May our own souls prize this blessed place, if the Lord vouchsafe it in any measure to us!