XIX. GIFTS AND SACRIFICES.
"But I rejoice in the Lord greatly, that now at length you have revived your thought for me; wherein you did indeed take thought, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound: in everything and in all things have I learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want. I can do all things in Him that strengthens me. However you did well, that you had fellowship with my affliction. And you yourselves also know, you Philippians, that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no Church had fellowship with me in the matter of giving and receiving, but you only; for even in Thessalonica you sent once and again to my need. Not that I seek for the gift; but I seek for the fruit that increases to your account. But I have all things, and abound: I am filled, having received from Epaphroditus the things that came from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God. And my God shall fulfil every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus. Now to our God and Father be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
"Salute every saint in Christ Jesus. The brethren which are with me salute you. All the saints salute you, especially they that are of Cæsar's household.
"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit." — Phil. iv, 10-23 (R.V.).
The Apostle had urged joy in the Lord, and a moderation visible to all men. If any one supposes that in doing so he recommended a stoical temper, insensible to the impressions of passing things, the passage which now comes before us will correct that error. It shows us how the Apostle could "rejoice in the Lord," and yet reap great satisfaction from providential incidents. "I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your thought for me," or, as in the older version, "that your care for me has flourished again."
Worldly eagerness, and worldly care and anxiety about persons and things, are reprimanded by the spirit of rejoicing in the Lord. But the persons and the things about us all have a connection with the Lord, if we have eyes to see it, and hearts to mark it; and that is the chief thing about them. They are in the Lord's world, the Lord calls us to have to do with them: as for the persons, they are, some of them, the Lord's servants, and all of them the Lord calls us to love and to benefit; as for the things, the Lord appoints our lot among them, and they are full of a meaning which He puts into them. So regard to the Lord and a spirit of rejoicing in Him may pervade our earthly life. The worldly eagerness and worldly care must be controlled. There is no avoiding that conflict. But now — shall we in faith give ourselves to learn the true rejoicing in the Lord? If not, our Christianity must be at best low and comfortless. But if we do, we shall be rewarded by a growing liberty. The more that joy possesses us, the more will it give occasion to the finest and freest play of feeling in reference to passing things; and some of these which, on other accounts, might seem insignificant, will begin to yield us an abounding consolation.
These Philippians, who had given early proof of attachment to the gospel, had lately, for some reason or other, been unable, "lacked opportunity," to minister to the wants of Paul. Now the winter, whatever it was, that hindered the expression of their goodwill was gone, and their care of Paul flourished again. Did the Apostle think it needful to freeze up the feelings of satisfaction which this incident awakened? No: but in his case those feelings, having spiritual elevation, became so much the more deep and glad. He rejoiced greatly in this; and still, he was rejoicing in the Lord. Let us mark how this comes out both when we consider what was not the spring of his gladness, and what it was.
"Not that I speak in respect of want." It was not the change from want to comparative plenty that explained the nature of his feelings. Yet he evidently implies that he had been in want, strange as that may seem in a city where there was a Christian congregation. But though the removal of that pressure would no doubt be thankfully taken, yet for a man whose gladness was in the Lord no mere change of that kind would lead to "rejoicing greatly." "I speak not in respect of want: I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound: in everything and in all things have I learned the secret (have been initiated) both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want. I can do all things through Him that strengthens me."
"Therewith to be content." Paul had learned to be so minded that, in trying circumstances, he did not anxiously cast about for help, but was sufficed: his desires were brought down to the facts of his condition. In that state he counted himself to have enough. He knew how to suit himself to abasement, that common experience of the indigent and friendless; and he knew how to suit himself to abundance, when that was sent: each as a familiar state in which he made himself at home — not overgrieved or overjoyed, not greatly elevated or greatly depressed. "I have been instructed," or initiated (the word used by the heathen of introduction to the mysteries), "not only into the experience of those conditions, but into the way of taking kindly with them both." Mark how his words follow one another: "I have learned" — been put through a course of teaching and have had a teacher; "I know" — it has become familiar to me, I understand it; "I am initiated" — if there is a secret in it, something hidden from the natural man, I have been led into that, out and in, through and through.
If we would know by what discipline the Lord trained Paul to this mind, we may listen to what Paul himself says of it (1 Cor. iv. 9-13): "I think God has set plainly us the apostles last of all, as men doomed to death: for we are made a spectacle to the world.... Even to this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling-place; and we toil, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat: we are made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things, to this day" (see also 2 Cor. vi. 4, xi. 23). If, again, we would know the manner of his training in such experiences, take 2 Cor. xii. 8, 9: "Concerning this thing I urgently requested thrice that it might depart from me. And He said to me, My grace is sufficient for you; for My strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities." Also how his faith created and gathered strength in all these, we may see from Rom. viii. 24-28: "We are saved by hope.... If we hope for that which we see not, then do we with patience wait for it. Also the Spirit helps our infirmity: for we know not how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us.... And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God." So "being strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, to all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness" (Col. i. 11), he was able to say, "I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me."
This was the course, and this the fruit, of Paul's biography. But each Christian has his own life, the tenor and the upshot of which should not be wholly estranged from Paul's.
Now what it was that did move him so to rejoice is explained when he speaks of the Philippians "holding fellowship with his affliction"; and, again, when he says, "I desire fruit that may abound to your account." He saw in their succour the blessed unity of Christ's living Church, the members having mutual interest, so that if one suffers all suffer. The Philippians claimed a right to take part as fellow-members in the Apostle's state and wants, and to communicate with his affliction. And this was only a continuation of their former practice in the beginning of the gospel. This, as a fruit of Christ's work and of the presence of His Spirit, refreshed the Apostle. It was a manifestation in the sphere of temporal things of the working of a high principle, communion with the common Lord. And it betokened the progress of the work of grace, in that the Philippians were not weary in well-doing. So it was fruit that abounded to their account.
It may be noticed that the directness and frankness of the Apostle's speech to the Philippians on these matters convey a testimony to the generous Christian feeling which prevailed among them. He speaks as one who feared no misconstruction. He does not fear that they will either mistake his meaning or do wrong to his motives; as he, on the other side, puts no other than a loving construction upon their action. He could not so trust all the Churches. In some there was so little of large Christian sympathy that a complaining tone in such matters was forced on him. But in the case of the Philippians he has no difficulty in interpreting their gift simply as embodying their earnest claim to be counted "partakers of the benefit," and therefore entitled to bear the burdens and alleviate the sufferings of Paul. Gladly he admits and welcomes this claim. It is worth observing that the way of giving vent to Christian feeling here exemplified was apparent at Philippi from the very first. Not only did it appear when Paul departed from Macedonia (ver. 15); but, before that, the earliest convert, Lydia, struck the keynote, — "If you judge me faithful in the Lord, come into my house" (Acts xvi. 15). Both in individuals and in Churches, the style of feeling and action embraced at the outset of Christianity, under the first impressions, often continues to prevail long after.
Now, in virtue of this liberality, Paul had all and abounded. He had desired to see the old spirit flourish again, and he had his wish. "I have all: I feel greatly enriched since I received the things sent by Epaphroditus." What gladdened him was not the outward comfort which these gifts supplied, but much more, the spiritual meaning they carried in their bosom. Let us see how he reads that meaning.
This gift comes to him. As it comes, what is it? From its destination and its motives it takes on a blessed character. It is "an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God." This was what came to the Apostle: something that was in a peculiar manner God's own, something which He regarded, set value on, and counted precious. Further, it turned out to be something in connection with which the assurance ought to go forth, "My God shall fulfil every need of yours." They had ministered to Paul's need, in faith, love, thankfulness, and loyal care of Christ's servant. Christ counted it done to Him: as such He would surely repay it, supplying their need with that considerate liberality which it becomes Him to exhibit. Observe, then, the position in which the Apostle finds himself. He is himself the object of Christian kindness; affections created in the Philippians by the Holy Ghost are clinging to him and caring for him. He is also one so linked with God's great cause, that offerings sent to him, in the spirit described, become an "odour of a sweet smell, an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord." Also this supply of his need is so directly a service done to Christ, that when it is done, God, as it were, stands forth directly on His servant's behalf: He will repay it, supplying the need of those who supplied His servant. Poor though Paul may be, and sometimes sad, yet see how the resources of God must be pledged to requite the kindness done to him. All this made him very glad. His heart warmed under it. What a blessed, happy, secure, and, looking forward, what a hopeful state was his! This came home to him all at once with the Philippians' gift. No wonder that he says, "I have all and abound."
If any one chooses to say that all this was true about the Apostle, and he might have known it, apart from the gift, and even if it had never come, that may be a kind of truth, but it signifies exactly nothing to the purpose. It is one thing to have a doctrine which one knows: it is another thing to have the Holy Spirit setting it home with a warmth and glory that fills the man with joy. The Spirit of God may do this without means, but often He uses means, and, indeed, what we esteem little means; by little things carrying home great impressions, as out of the mouths of babes and sucklings He perfects praise. When a child of God is cast down, no one can tell out of how small a thing the Spirit of God may cause to arise a peace that passes all understanding.
Christianity confers great weight and dignity on little things. This gift, not in itself very great, passing between Christians at Philippi and an Apostle imprisoned at Rome, belongs after all to an unearthly sphere. Paul sees its connection with all spiritual things, and with the heavenly places where Christ is. And it comes to him carrying a rich meaning, preaching everlasting consolation and good hope through grace.
Mark, again, the illustration of the truth that the members have need of one another, and are compacted by that which every joint supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part. The strong may benefit by the weak, as well as the weak by the strong. This Apostle, who could do all things through Christ who strengthens him, might be very far more advanced as a Christian than any one in Philippi. Possibly there was nothing any of them could say, no advice they could tender to him in words, that would have been of material benefit to the Apostle. But that which, following the impulse of their faith and love, they did, was of material benefit. It filled his heart with a joyful sense of the relation in which he stood to them, to Christ, to God. It welled up for him like a water-spring in a dry land. No one can tell how it may have conduced to enable him to go forward with more liberty and power, testifying in Rome the gospel of God.
Nor must we omit the comfort to all who serve God in their generation arising from the view which the Apostle is here led to take. There may be trials from without and trials from within. Still God cares for His servant. God will provide for him out of that which is peculiarly His own. God so identifies him with Himself, that He must needs requite all who befriend him out of His own riches in glory.
So far for the bearing of the case on Paul. We have still to look a little into the view given of this Philippian gift on its own account. It is emphatically called a sweet savour, an offering acceptable and well-pleasing to God. We have seen already (ch. ii. 17) that believers are called upon to offer themselves as a sacrifice; and now we see also that their obedience, or that which they do for Christ's sake, is reckoned as an offering to God. So it is said (Heb. xiii. 16) "to do good and to communicate forget not, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased." It need hardly be said they are not sacrifices to atone for sin. But they are offerings accepted by God, at His altar, from His children's hands. They suitably express both the gratitude of believers to God, and the sincerity of their Christianity in general. God grants us this way of expressing the earnestness of our regard to Him: and He expects that we shall gladly avail ourselves of it; our obedience is to assume the character of a glad and willing offering. The expressions used by the Apostle here assure us that there is a Divine complacency in the manifestation of this spirit on the part of God's children. The heart of Him who has revealed Himself in Christ, of Him who rested and was refreshed on the seventh day over His good and fair works, counts for a sweet savour, acceptable and well-pleasing, the works of faith and love willingly done for His name's sake.
In this connection it is fit we should remember that the view we take of money, and the use we make of it, are referred to with extraordinary frequency in the New Testament, as a decisive test of Christian sincerity. This feature of Bible teaching is very faintly realised by many.
The other point noteworthy in relation to this Philippian gift is the assurance that it shall be recompensed. God will not be unfaithful to reward their work and labour of love, in that they have ministered to His servant.
We are not to shrink from the doctrine of reward because it has been perverted. It is true the good works of a Christian cannot be the foundation of his title to life eternal. They proceed from the grace of God; they are very imperfect and mixed at their best. Yet they are precious fruits of Christ's death, and of God's grace, arising through the faith and love of souls renewed and liberated. When a penitent and believing man is found devoting to God what he is and has, doing so freely and lovingly, that is a blessed thing. God sets value on it. It is accepted as fruit which the man brings, as the offering which he yields. The heart of Christ rejoices over it. Now it is fit that the value set on this fruit should be shown, and the way God takes to show it is to reward the service. Such a man "shall in no wise lose his reward." God orders the administration of His mercy so that it really comes in a way of recompense for works of faith and labours of love.
This may well convince us that the kindness of our Father is measureless. He omits nothing that can win His children's love, and bind them to Himself. Might not those servants who have gone furthest and done most, feel it almost a bitter thing to hear reward spoken of? For if their service could be far more worthy, it could not amount to an adequate expression of gratitude for all their Father has done for them. Yet He will certainly reward. Cups of cold water given to disciples shall have remembrance made of them, by Him who reckons all those gifts to be presented as an honor upon Himself. Every way God overwhelms His children with His goodness. There is no dealing with this God, otherwise than by confessing that every way we are debtors. It is vain to think of paying the debt, or relieving oneself of any of the weight of obligation. Only we may with all our hearts give glory to Him to whom we owe all.
Accordingly the Apostle closes in a doxology: "Now to our God and Father be glory for ever."
Among the salutations with which the Epistle winds up, every one must be struck with that which goes in the name of "those of Cæsar's household." Bishop Lightfoot has annexed to his Commentary an essay on this topic, which collects, with his usual skill, the available information. It was remarked in connection with ch. i. 12, that Cæsar's household was an immense establishment, comprehending thousands of persons, employed in all sorts of functions, and composed chiefly, either of slaves, or of those who had emerged from slavery into the condition of freedmen. Indications have been gathered from ancient mortuary inscriptions tending to show that a notable proportion of Christians, whose names are preserved in this way, had probably been connected with the household. At the end of the first century, a whole branch of the Flavian imperial family became Christian; and it is possible, as indicated in an earlier page, that they may have done so under the influence of Christian servants. This, however, fell later. The Apostle wrote in Nero's days. It is certain that at this time singularly profligate persons exercised great sway in the household. It is also certain that powerful Jewish influences had got a footing; and these would in all likelihood act against the gospel. Yet there were also Christian brethren. We may believe that Paul's own work had operated notably to produce this result (ch. i. 12). At all events, there they were. Amid all that was vile and unscrupulous, the word of God had its course; men were converted and were sanctified by the washing of water by the word. Then, as now, the Lord gathered His elect from unlikely quarters: how secure soever the strong man's goods seemed to be, his defences went down before the might of a stronger than he. Probably the Christians in the household belonged chiefly or exclusively to the lower grades of the service, and might be partly protected by their obscurity. Yet surely entanglements and perplexities, fears and sorrows, must often have been the portion of the saints of Nero's household. Out of all these the Lord delivered them. This glimpse lets us see the process going on which by-and-by made so strange a revolution in the heathen world. It reminds us also for what peculiarities of trial God's grace has been found sufficient.
"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit." This is the parting benediction; certainly an appropriate one, for the whole Epistle breathes the same atmosphere. The Epistle would not fail of its effect, if their spirit retained the consciousness of the grace of Christ; if throughout their life they owned its sway, and felt its attraction, its charm, its power to elevate and purify and comfort.
In following the course of thought and feeling which this letter embodies, we have seen the Apostle touch various topics. They rise into view as pastoral care, or friendly feeling, as outward circumstances suggest them. The demands of Christian friendship, the responsibilities of the Christian ministry, the trials of Christian endurance; what is due from an apostle, or from a Church member; how life and death are to be confronted; what is to be done about dangers and faults; how pride and self-will are to be judged and remedied; how the narrow heart is to be reprimanded and enlarged; how the life of a disciple is to become luminous and edifying, — in reference to all, and all alike, he speaks from the same central position, and with the same fulness of resource. In Christ revealed, in Christ received and known, he finds the light, and the strength, and the salve, which every case requires. Each new demand unlocks new resources, new conceptions of goodness and of victory.
So, in one great passage, in the third chapter, catching fire, as it were, from the scorn with which a religion of externals fills him, he breaks forth into a magnificent proclamation of the true Christianity. He celebrates its reality and intensity as life in Christ — Christ known, found, gained — Christ in the righteousness of faith and in the power of resurrection. He depicts vividly the aspiration and endeavour of that life as it continually presses onward from faith to experience and achievement, as it verifies relations to a world unseen, and looks and hastes towards a world to come. Then the wave of thought and feeling subsides; but its force is felt in the last wavelets of loving counsel that ripple to the shore.
One feels that for Paul, who was rich in doctrine, doctrine is after all but the measure of mighty forces which are alive in his own experience. No doctrine, not one, is for the intellect alone: all go out into heart and conscience and life. More than this: he lets us see that, for Christians, Christ Himself is the great abiding means of grace. He is not only the pledge and guarantee that holiness shall be reached: He is Himself our way of reaching it. He is so for the Christian societies, as well as for the individual Christian soul.
One cannot but wonder sometimes in reading Paul's Epistles what manner of congregations they were to whom such remarkable letters were sent. Did they understand the deeper and loftier passages? Were Paul and they on common ground? But the answer may be, that whatever they failed to attain, they at least apprehended a new world created for them by the interposition of Christ — new horizons, new possibilities, new hopes and fears, new motives, new consolations, new friendships, and a new destiny. The grace of Christ had made all new — in which process they themselves were new. Their "spirit" had become like a lyre new-strung to render new harmonies. And the great thoughts of the Apostle, if not always grasped or followed, yet made every string vibrate — so much on his part and so much on theirs being sensitive to the grace of our Lord Jesus.
Before long they all passed away: Paul beheaded at Rome, as the story goes; the Philippian converts dying out; and the world changing in manners, thought, and speech, in all directions. But the message entrusted to Paul lives still, and awakens the same response in the hearts of Christians of to-day, as it did among the Philippians when first read among them. It still assures us that the highest thing in life has been found, — that it meets us in Him who came among us meek, and having salvation.
From the Epistle to the Philippians by Robert Rainy, D.D., Principal of New College. Edinburgh. Published by FUNK & WAGNALLS COMPANY in 1990. Digitally produced by Colin Bell, Julia Neufeld and the Online
Reach for the Calling Creator
To the Philippians - R. Rainy
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your calling be the best.