“To me, the least significant of all the saints, this grace was given to declare to the nations the incomprehensible riches of Christ and to give light for all of the plan of the mystery hidden from the ages in God who created all things, in order that the manifold wisdom of God through the church may now also be made known to the authorities in heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord in whom the boldness and freedom to enter with confidence through faith in him.”
We are going to need to break this down some, but in the original Greek, this forms one sentence, so I wanted also to preserve the flow of thought. This morning, though, I want to talk about the very curious language of Paul being the least amongst the saints. How do we understand and measure this? Is this just a sense of false humility or is there something else going on here?
I think it can be safely affirmed that there is no false humility in Paul’s language…here or anywhere. Such would be disingenuous and sin. Far be it from the Apostle to adopt such a tone in his letter. Often, people point out that it is Paul who led persecutions of Christians and that he was present at the martyrdom of Stephen. Indeed this is both true and plays into Paul’s personal testimony. God has made the murderer of the saints a saint himself; what an ironic twist in the plan and design of God. Yet, I think that there is more at play.
In the Jewish mind there was a certain “pride of position” in the world. Indeed, God had given them the Law and they had stewarded it faithfully across the generations even though they could not understand the mystery it contained, which pointed to Christ. Yet, Paul, a Jew, was not called to be the Apostle to the Jews; he was called to be Apostle to the gentiles — people whom the Jews considered to be unclean. From a Jewish perspective, Paul would have remained ritually unclean for the majority of his ministry.
Note: Paul is not complaining about his situation, but celebrating it. Shall not the last be first in the Kingdom of God? Is it not the servant of the most lowly that God honors? Has not Paul been given one of the most abased roles (from a Jewish perspective) exactly because God was using him mightily in the kingdom? Yes, indeed, Paul is “least” in significance from a human perspective and thus God will use him in mighty ways from a divine perspective.
God’s ways are not our ways, beloved. How often we look to preachers with mega-churches or massive ministries and celebrate them when we ought to celebrate the humble minister who faithfully guides and instructs his flock across the years. How often the church confuses position when it comes to God’s kingdom. Yet, those who are first in the eyes of man will spend eternity as last in the eyes of God. So, for what will you strive?
“And you know his character, how as child of a father he has served with me in the Gospel.”
Over the years, between my time as a school teacher/administrator and as a pastor, one of the more enjoyable things that I have had the privilege of doing is to write letters of recommendation for students and former students. Whether they were applying for jobs, to colleges, or for scholarships or other honors, it is always a joy to tell others of the character of one you admire. And this, Paul has been doing on behalf of Timothy — and indeed, based on these words, Timothy has much to live up to, indeed.
Notice too that these words of Paul’s about Timothy are not an empty compliment. Timothy has proved himself to be faithful and useful to Paul by labor, integrity, and sacrifice. It is the laboring of Timothy in faithful service that gives definition and meaning to this statement. Of course, as Christians, we too ought to strive, like Timothy, that the same might one day be said about us not only by those Christians who have mentored us but ultimately by God himself pronouncing the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” We certainly do not earn our salvation nor can we ever do enough and sacrifice enough to warrant such a statement from God, but that statement of God takes on meaning in light of the sacrifice and faithfulness of the service for which we strive.
Indeed, let me reassert, we are not saved by or through our works…if works are added to grace then grace is no longer grace (Romans 11:5-6). If even one single work is necessary…no matter how small or insignificant seeming…then grace is meaningless. Even if that one work is nothing more than a choice one makes to accept grace, then it is still a work and grace is nullified. Salvation is God’s doing from beginning to end and many of us are brought into the kingdom kicking and screaming…but even if we aren’t, it is still God who brings us. If we seek, it is because God is drawing us to seek Him. Apart from God we are dead in our sins and a dead man can do nothing to help himself. God must first give us life and then we can respond.
That said, we are also called to make our calling and election sure by building on the things that God has begun in us (2 Peter 2:5-11). My challenge to you is to do so in such a way that, like Timothy, a good report will be issued in that day we stand before Christ’s judgment seat.
“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon in order that I may be encouraged by the knowledge of you.”
On one level, this is a continuation of the spirit that Paul has been expressing toward the people in Philippi. He holds them in high esteem and with great affection, so surely firsthand news of how they are going, brought to him through Timothy, will encourage his heart while he is in prison. How one mark of the believer is that he (or she) has a sincere desire to know how the church is doing, and a desire to rejoice with the saints (if even from a distance) with their successes. How sad it is when there is either no interest or, the interest is more of a competitive nature where one takes some degree of satisfaction in the struggles of another congregation.
On another level, we might also speak of the language that Paul uses when he speaks of how he hopes to send Timothy to them. He does not speak generically of hope, but places his hope in the Lord Jesus. This echoes James’ language when he speaks of doing this or that, “Lord willing” (James 4:13-15), remembering that God is sovereign not over our salvation, but over all of the occasions of our lives and over the opportunities that we may or may not receive. He numbers our days and we cannot move either to the right or to the left without God’s sovereign permission in our lives.
Yet, I do believe that the most significant notion in these words is that of Timothy’s role as a surrogate visitor for Paul to Philippi. We have already seen that Timothy has been mentioned as being present with Paul while he is here in prison and most of us know of the close relationship that these two men had as mentor and student. Even so, Paul is willing to send Timothy to the church, depriving himself of the comfort of Timothy’s presence, so that news might be brought from the church in Philippi.
Remember, these were times when news (and people) did not travel as fast as it does today. A departure by Timothy would not be a short event but likely would have lasted even for months (depending on the seasons and storms brewing). Yet, Paul was willing to make such a sacrifice for said knowledge. But more than that, for Timothy was essentially the one into whose hands Paul’s ministry would fall. Here Paul is preparing to send Timothy out to this church to minister to them on his behalf, essentially placing this responsibility on Timothy’s shoulders.
And that is the heart of mentoring. How often as leaders, employees, coaches, and even as parents we want to micromanage the lives of those we are leading or mentoring along so that everything goes smoothly and that they don’t make the mistakes that we made as we learned. Now, while I agree that I do not wish for my children (for example) to make many of the mistakes that I made when younger, we must always recognize often we learn more through our mistakes than we learn through our successes. Many of the mistakes we made getting to where we are now are mistakes that, in God’s providence, have guided us to where we are now. Certainly, there are mistakes that no one should make and only by the grace of God were we brought through them — these we should guide others away from — but other mistakes, when made, do not need to be the end of all things, but can be turned into a learning experience from which maturity can develop. Paul does not micromanage Timothy; similarly, we should not micromanage those whom we mentor.
“On one hand, there are some who proclaim Christ from jealousy and contention while others do so in good will; the latter from love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel; the former preach Christ out of contention, not genuinely, intending tribulation to arise while I am in my chains.”
At the first reading of these words, it would be natural to be shocked at what it is Paul is saying. Indeed, there are some people who, being jealous of the attention that Paul is getting, begin preaching Christ…not with any sincerity, but in the hopes that they will bring Paul grief while he is imprisoned and can do nothing to stop them. Surely this must not be the case! Are there some who are so wicked and brazen that they would do such a thing? The sad thing is that there were such people in Paul’s day and there still are such people today, who use the pulpit and the ministry to serve their own ends and care nothing about the state of Christ’s church.
So, how does Paul react to that? Does he rail against those who preach ingenuously? No, he doesn’t, but we will get to that. God is indeed clear that he has a judgment awaiting those who are shepherds who are only interested in feeding themselves (see Ezekiel 34 and Jude). And, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:9; Hebrews 10:30). God will bring judgment and great will be their fall, we need not fret over the end of the wicked.
At the same time, it should grieve us that there are so many in our world today that would make the Gospel their meal-ticket rather than a ministry. Even mores, it ought to grieve us that so many people would be so ignorant of the teachings of scripture that they would fall into such traps…people desperate to have their “ears itched” instead of being instructed in the Word of Truth. May we pray for a generation that will be so committed to the scriptures that they would see through the thin veneer of the prosperity gospel, the liberal gospel, and the heretical teaching that such contentious preachers would find no welcome in our communities. May God’s word be lifted up, not the greed or pride of men.
“Now, I want you to know, brothers, that which has happened to me is rather for the advancement of the Gospel;”
Paul’s focus here and always is on the advancement of the Gospel. He is willing to suffer anything and lose everything, and still call it good, so long as the Gospel goes forth. For Paul, every encounter, good or ill, is an opportunity to share the Gospel with those who are perishing. And oh, how far short of Paul’s example we generally fall.
How easy it is for us, in today’s age, to forget that we know the answer to the question that people are asking in the depths of their soul. We know that there is a God and that he is the one that gives meaning to life. We know that though we all fall woefully short of the standard of perfection that God sets, he sent his Son, Jesus, to live amongst us, show us the Father’s character in himself, and then to die in our place that we might stand in his place in judgement…we might be viewed as righteous sons, not disobedient rebels. We know that there is life after death and that the only way to the Father is through the Son and all who reject the Son will be cast into the fires of Hell…righteous judgment for a life of sin and rebellion against the Father. We know the Truth of these matters and we have also experienced the life that comes from being indwell by the Spirit of God…why do we shy away from sharing this with others? Why do we not use every opportunity as a tool to advance the Gospel?
Sadly, our tendency is to be consumed with ourselves. When things are going wrong…maybe we are hospitalized for something…we tend to focus on our suffering rather than use the interaction with Doctors, Nurses, and other care-givers as a chance to share the Gospel. When things are going well, perhaps when we are making plans for a wedding or graduation, we tend to be focused again on the details of our own celebration rather than in using this event to evangelize guests or those who we are hiring to cater, decorate, or provide other services. Loved ones, we do this not because of God’s design for us, we do this because of sin. Paul sets another model for us, one where self is secondary to Gospel and where even though he has suffered and has been falsely imprisoned, he is still using these events to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Will you, this day, covenant to start seeing all your interactions as opportunities to share the Gospel with others instead of serving self? Such is the model that Paul sets before us.
“Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to all the holy ones in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.”
Philippians is one of Paul’s later letters, written while in Prison in Rome (c.f. 4:22), and towards the end of his life. This places the letter as having been written in the early 60s, AD. The Church in Philippi had sent him a gift (4:16,18). It was not uncommon, in ancient times, that those in house prison were to pay for their own lodging essentially, forcing them to rely on the generosity of friends and family. Such is the context of this letter where Paul is responding back and saying, “thank you,” to these generous Christians.
Though this first verse is little more than an introductory greeting, it contains a great deal of depth and ought not be overlooked. To begin with, we find Timothy with Paul. This is earlier in his imprisonment as Paul is speaking of sending Timothy to the church in Philippi with his greetings and for their aide (2:9). Yet, this is taking place before Paul writes for Timothy to return (2 Timothy 4:9) which is closer to his death. Again, this helps us to discern the timeline of Paul’s letters.
More importantly is the title that Paul applies both to himself and to Timothy. He says that they are slaves or (as is sometimes translated) bondservants of Christ Jesus. The term that is used here is douvloß (doulos), which is one of the terms that Paul quite regularly uses to describe his service to Jesus Christ. This term refers not to a mere hired servant, but to a servant who is bound (as a slave would be) to his master. As Christians, we serve Christ Jesus and Christ alone. We given permission to have two masters (Luke 16:13) and we do not serve Christ for a season and then serve another (as hired servants might do). We are bound to serve Christ until the very day we die.
This is a mindset that the modern church has largely forgotten. People are quick to live lives and expend energies for the things that they want, but when they get tired, weary, or frustrated at the direction that things are going, they bail out and do something different. Such is not the calling of a Christian. No matter what the cost, not matter where he leads us, we must follow for we are not our own. We, if we will be faithful, must grasp this notion and serve Christ, not self.
“And last of all, as to one who is stillborn, he was seen [by me]. For I, myself am the least of the apostles, not worthy to be called an apostle, for I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9)
Though Paul understood that he had been forgiven, he never forgot the life that God had redeemed him from. Paul, then known as Saul, had been a great persecutor of the Christian church and had been zealous to see this fledgling church destroyed. He was even present at the execution of Stephen, holding the cloaks of those who were stoning him to death. And though Paul turned his zeal toward preaching the gospel, he never forgot the evils that he had committed.
The term that Paul uses of himself is e¡ktrwma (ektroma), which can refer to a premature birth, a stillborn child, a miscarriage, or even an aborted baby. The language that Paul is using expresses the idea that he was one who was not supposed to live, yet Christ, in his mercy, revealed himself to Paul anyway, giving him life. Paul, probably the greatest missionary preacher of all time, understood that he brought nothing of his own to the table—the only good in him was God in him.
While there are many Christians who have a difficulty remembering a time when they were not trusting in Jesus Christ for redemption, there are many of us also that do remember with great grief the days of our rebellion, before God brought us to salvation. As I reflect on the years of my own rebellion, it shames me to think upon some of the things that I did. At the same time, those dark days make God’s gift of salvation very sweet to me. As I read this passage, I think that I have a sense of the joy and gratitude that Paul had in serving Jesus. Jesus has given we, the redeemed, so much and has assured us of so much more—and there is not an ounce of that blessing that we are deserving of. He pours it out freely according to his grace.
And God uses us to minister to others as well! When we read these letters that Paul wrote, sometimes we forget that the purpose behind them was to correct problems that were going on in a church—ministering from a distance. And if God is willing to use a sinner like Paul, and even a sinner like me—He is willing to use you in his work. What a remarkable thing that God would use us—broken and frail vessels as we are—and use us successfully for his glory.
Friends, if you are a born-again believer in Jesus Christ, you have been given a great and wonderful gift. But never forget that that gift comes with responsibilities. When God calls a person to himself he does so with a purpose—which means that you have a calling in life. For some of us that calling means preaching the Gospel from the pulpit. For others, it means preaching the gospel by the way you live your life in the workplace—by the way you farm, by the way you fix automobiles, by the way you work as a secretary or as an accountant, or in whatever you do—do so as for the Lord (Colossians 3:23). Do so not to earn your grace, for it is freely given; rather, do so as a way of expressing your gratitude and obedience to God.
“For I delivered to you of first importance that which I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;” (1 Corinthians 15:3)
Paul now is about to lay out for the Corinthians once again the essentials of the faith. Please note, these things that he lays down are what he calls things of “first importance.” As you read through the writings of Paul, you will find other doctrines that are of high importance for a Christian to hold to, but the doctrine of Christ’s death and resurrection is the first and most important of all doctrines. Regardless of what other things you may or may not hold to, if you do not hold to this doctrine you cannot call yourself a Christian. It is of first importance.
Through the history of the church, there have been those who have tried to deny this doctrine. Even in our own day, there are those who would teach that there was no historical Jesus. Friends, these people are heretics and blasphemers and we should never allow ourselves to be swayed by their arguments; rather, we need to call them to repentance.
Why is this doctrine so important? To understand the doctrine’s importance you need to unpackage what Paul is saying. In this verse, Paul lays before us one half of the doctrine; namely, that Christ died for our sins. There are three elements that come out of this statement.
The first element is that Christ died. To die, Christ had to be fully human. Were Christ some kind of legendary Greek god-man or demi-god, being part human and part God, there would have been no real death, for an immortal God cannot die. Christ did die, and that means he had to be fully human by definition. Were Christ not fully human he could not have identified with us, he could not have suffered like we do, and no sacrifice would have been made. For atonement to be made, blood needed to be shed; this is the purpose of all of the Old Testament sacrifices. Jesus offered himself up as the sacrificial lamb, which means his blood needed to be shed for our sins.
The Apostle John would later write that Christ is our propitiation (1 John 2:2). Though sometimes this word is translated as “atonement,” there is a difference between atonement and propitiation. Atonement is the bringing of two parties back into harmony after they have been separated. Christ certainly did just that, becoming a bridge to cross the gap between a sinful mankind and a Holy God. But, propitiation is the act which brings atonement. Jesus’ act of propitiation was his death on the cross, where he took the just punishment for the sins of the elect upon his own head. This required his sacrifice, which required his death, which requires that he be fully human.
Secondly, the sacrifice is for our sins. The only one who had the ability to make a perfect sacrifice for sinful man was God himself. Because of the fall, sin tainted all that we are and all that we do. We are not capable of satisfying God’s righteous judgment. This is why God sent his son, that those who believe in as their Lord and Savior would be saved. That means that Jesus, by definition, was also fully divine. He had to be fully human to make the sacrifice, but he had to be fully divine for that sacrifice to be effective. Oh, the heresies of the church that would have been avoided had people listened to the Apostle Paul’s words!
Thirdly, all this happened in accordance with the scriptures. God had proclaimed in his word the promise of a coming redeemer. He did so as far back as the fall (see Genesis 3:15). And, throughout the scriptures, particularly as you read the prophetic writings, there is a clear hand that is always pointing to Christ. And Christ fulfilled all of the prophesies that point toward him. This is an amazing fact. This means two things for us. First, it means that God is in complete control of all of human history. Were God just influencing things as they went along (making good guesses as the “Open Theists” would say) then some of the prophetic statements would have necessarily fallen through the cracks—none did. The only way that hundreds of statements about Christ could have been fulfilled in Christ was if God had intimately controlled history, and indeed, he wrote the book. Second, it also tells us that the entirety of the Old Testament is about Jesus. Jesus is directly or indirectly the subject of all of scripture! What an amazing statement that is, dear friend.
And these things only represent one half of the doctrine of first importance. Paul is essentially telling the Corinthians that until they get this doctrine right, they will never make any sense of the other doctrines of the church. As I said earlier, this is not the only essential doctrine of the Christian faith, but this is the doctrine that will provide the foundation for the other doctrines clearly taught in scripture. Friends, grasp a hold of this doctrine and cling to it. It is the foundation of your hope. Without Christ’s shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins, and as we will soon see, without his resurrection, there is no hope of life beyond the grave. Be encouraged by all God offers to you in Christ.