20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22If 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 boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.
27 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 the one Spirit, striving together as one 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 in 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.
Last week we learned that Paul wrote his letter to the church at Philippi after having been arrested and put in jail for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. When the Philippians heard about his situation, they raised financial support and then sent one of their own, Epaphroditus, on the dangerous journey to bring the gift to Paul in person and offer him assistance with whatever he needs. Along the way, Epaphroditus became so sick that he almost died, but he completed his mission and had been sent back to Philippi with Paul’s letter of thanks for their partnership in the ministry of the gospel. After expressing his hope and joy in the Philippian Church, Paul takes a step back for a moment to reflect on his current situation, and to confront any fear that might be working its way into their hearts on account of him.
II. Courage is Born from Faith
The Bible has a lot to say about fear. From cover to cover, scripture tells us the unfolding story of God’s great love for his people and demonstrates his faithfulness to them. All along the way, as the people of God face one adversary after another – adversaries they have no hope of defeating on their own – God steps in to say this: “Don’t be afraid; just believe!” And then he shows them that their faith is well placed, as he leads them to victory after victory and makes his name great among the nations.
Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 41 this morning is just one of many examples of God’s faithfulness. As the prophet speaks the words of God, he reminds both Israel then, and also the church today, that we are a chosen people, hand-picked by God to be his servants. He reminds us that all those who stand against us will be cast aside as long as we are faithful, because God will be with us. He issues a call for courage in the face of mounting obstacles, and says “Do not fear; I will help you.”
Courage. Don’t be afraid; just believe! Courage.
Courage may take the form of waiting patiently for God to act in the midst of great stress or chaos. This type of courage is founded on hope, that God is who he says he is and will do what he has promised to do. And it requires that we learn to become people who know how to wait upon the Lord. Waiting does not mean inaction. It means learning to pray, to pay attention, and to joining the Lord in the many ways he is already redeeming the world. This sort of courageous waiting manifests as a sure trust and confidence that, even when everything is going wrong, God’s power will make good out of evil.
The Bible has many examples if this sort of trust and confidence. In particular, you may remember the story of Joseph, who grew up spoiled by his father until his older brothers got so sick of him that they sold him into slavery to Egyptians, and told their father he had been killed by a wild animal. He then served with such distinction that he was promoted to oversee his master’s house, until Potiphar’s wife falsely accused Joseph of making a pass at her, and got him landed in prison. While in prison, he interpreted the dream of a fellow prisoner, who was restored to his position in Pharaoh’s household, just as Joseph promised him, and who promptly forgot about Joseph, until Pharaoh also had a dream that he needed to have interpreted. After interpreting Pharaoh’s dream with supernatural wisdom and insight, Pharaoh placed Joseph over his new project to store up and distribute food for the impending famine, during which his brothers came to him seeking grain to feed their families. Though his brothers did not recognize him, Joseph didn’t take advantage of his power and position to exact revenge on them, but instead, after testing their hearts, welcomed them and their families to Egypt, where he ensured that they prospered.
You might think that all of this shows Joseph’s ability to forgive, and you would be right, but what does this have to do with courage? If we fast-forward a few years to the death of Joseph’s father, Jacob, we find that the brothers are still worried Joseph will seek out revenge. They approached him saying that their father had told them to ask for his forgiveness for their evil intentions. Joseph’s response to them is courageous. “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid.” (Genesis 50:20-21a) Joseph’s courageous response is to trust that God has been working all along in Joseph’s life, and will continue to do so.
Joseph’s courage was born of faith. It is faith that God knows what he is doing, that he is God and we are not, that he is powerful enough to make good on his promises, and that his will is to turn what is meant for evil into something good, in this life or the next. This sort of courage makes us able to stand firm in our hope, when everything is crashing down around us. It is a gift of God to those who know and love him.
Wouldn’t you like to have this kind of courage in the face of adversity?
III. Paul Desires Courage
In Philippians 1, verses 20-26, Paul expresses his desire and expectation for the same courage that Joseph had. His hope is that he will not be ashamed by his response to his current situation, that he will exemplify courage and faith in his witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, even if that witness ultimately leads to his death. In fact, Paul is so filled with hope in the promises of God that he sees death as a blessing, a fulfillment of the promise that he will one day be with his Savior. He is confident that God will honor his covenant with Israel, and that Paul will one day experience the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting. But Paul’s true courage is shown in his desire to live now, even in the midst of his persecution, so that he can continue the great work that God is doing and encourage the Philippians in their faith.
Even now he can see the fruit of God working through his adversity. The Palace guards can’t ignore his message now that he is in prison, and this is generating boldness in Paul’s brothers and sisters in the faith. If Paul is able to remain firm in his commitment to Christ, risking life and limb for the sake of the gospel, then so can they. Even those who are talking about Jesus to mock the faithful are something to be welcomed, Paul says, because in any case, Jesus’ name is still being proclaimed. The good news of the new King and his kingdom are still being made known. No matter what they do, the powers and principalities of this world can’t stop the message, and it gives Paul great hope and joy.
This is the response of faith to adversity. This is courage in the face of seeming defeat. To hold fast to the promises of the gospel and bear witness to their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, no matter our current situation.
IV. Paul’s Challenge and Promise
Now, although Paul is ready to experience life with God in death, he firmly believes that he will remain alive, so that God will continue to be glorified by his life, and so that the Philippians will be encouraged by his presence with them. But Paul also knows that his knowledge is limited, and God has not yet made known to him the entirety of his plans for Paul’s life. And so he ends this section of his letter in verses 27-30 with a challenge and a promise to the church at Philippi.
First, is the challenge – “Whatever happens” – whether Paul’s imprisonment ends in his death or his release – “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (Verse 27)
We remember that Paul has already praised the Philippians for their partnership with him in the gospel. He is writing them to say thank you for supporting him and to express his joy in the way that they have received and lived out the presence of God’s grace and mercy in their lives. He has already shared his confidence in verse 6 that that God will complete the good work he has begun in the Philippian church, because he has seen first hand the love of God shed abroad in their hearts. This is the evidence of their faith.
So when Paul tells them to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel, what does he mean? I believe he means this: whether he remains in prison or not, don’t forget who runs the show. God is in control. And if the worse should happen and he is called to die for his faith, don’t forget who runs the show. God is in control. And when they meet with opposition, whether because of his imprisonment or death, don’t forget who runs the show. God is in control. And what does it take to recognize that God is in control?
Faith! Have faith that God knows what he is doing and that he will yet make something good out of things that are meant for evil. Have courage to face your enemies, knowing that God is faithful, and that he is working to complete the good work he has begun in you. Have faith that he knows your fear and he knows your pain, and has already brought victory over them through the cross. Have faith enough to act in public as those who have been transformed inside and out by the power of God, because this is the greatest testimony of that faith.
Do you have that faith this morning? It is the gift of God to those who believe!
After his challenge to the Philippian Church Paul makes them a promise – “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.” (Verse 29)
For Paul, there was no question that persecution would come for those who follow Jesus. They are living as citizens of a new kingdom, with a new King on the throne. This flew in the face of Rome and King Caesar. So Paul knew the persecutions would continue and even increase. But he is telling the Philippians that this too will be a sign for the nations that Jesus Christ is Lord. He has already won the victory, and nothing can snatch that out of his hands. When the Philippians endure the suffering that is to come, they proclaim that victory and the kingdom.
Paul’s challenge and his promise resonate as clearly for us today as they did for the Philippians almost two thousand years ago. His call to the Philippians to remain courageous and to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel is still our call. Our world is no longer subject to Rome or Caesar, but our world is dominated by greed and lust for power. We have new gods that seek to rule us, each and every day. But we are still citizens of another kingdom, and we must live as though we are not of this world, even while we live in it. When we conduct ourselves as those who live in the power of the Holy Spirit, who are no longer bound by sin, but free in Christ, we proclaim loud enough for all to hear that there is a new King in town, and that he runs the show. When we face our enemies – sickness, powerlessness, fear, sin, death, and all things opposed to the gospel – when we face these with courage born of faith, we help to usher in the kingdom of God and bear witness to the good news that Christ has already overcome sin and death, and they can have no more dominion over us.
Having courage may, at times, mean waiting patiently in the midst of a terrible situation, like Paul. Having courage might sometimes mean that we must leave our comfortable places and take a dangerous journey, like Epaphoditus on the Roman road. Courage may mean standing firm in our convictions, even when they bring about suffering from those who oppose us. You see, courage is about self-denial, rather than self-preservation. And while we should not seek to suffer in the name of Christ, neither should we be unwilling or afraid to do so. Nor should suffering in this world surprise us.
But take heart! Christ has overcome the world. Christian courage always entails persevering in our faith in both thought and deed by grace, through faith in Jesus. It is a quiet confidence that God will fulfill his purposes in the world and complete the good work that he has begun in us. In other words, true courage is a gift of God, flowing out of our recognition of who we are in Christ – children of God, and precious to him.
Whatever your challenges are this morning, I am here to tell you that you have an advocate in God. Better yet, God is a God who doesn’t content himself with offering his support from a distance. He has made it a habit to break into our world and banish the dark places, first in Christ, and now continually by his Spirit. He is listening to our cries of suffering, and he understands. He understands because he has experienced the full measure of human suffering two thousand years ago on a cross. You don’t have to fight your battles alone. Ask God to give you his courage, born of faith, and he will be faithful to give it. And never forget, you are not alone in your struggles, because God will fight your battles for you, if you trust him.
“Do not fear; just believe!”
And now, as you leave this place: whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that you might stand firm in one spirit, contending as one body for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.