Philippians 2:1&2 “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.”
One of the prime marks of the fulness of God’s blessing resting upon Christians or a congregation is their knowledge of the joy of heaven. Of course they have also come to know the truth, as well as living new and different lives, but as regards their affections they growingly experience a joy that they never knew before. A book written by one of the Puritans, Robert Asty, has recently been reprinted. It is typical of their conviction about the centrality of joy. It is called Rejoicing in the Lord Jesus in All Cases and Conditions, and it is based on a text from the prophet Habakkuk, “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour” (Hab. 3:18). The prophet, many of you will remember, is saying at the close of his prophecy, that if there is an utter famine and all the crops fail and his herds perish he will yet rejoice in the reality of the living God who is his Saviour.
Christian joy is a state of mind. It is not an accident of temperament or the result of unpredictable Providence. It is a matter of choice we make by the grace of God. “Oh, happy day!” cries Philip Doddridge as he considers that time when he fixed his choice on Jesus Christ as his Saviour and his God. We are told in the book of Acts that after the Ethiopian had been converted and baptized he went on his way rejoicing (Acts 8:39). One of the most striking verses in the book of Acts is Luke’s summary of the change that came over Samaria. Philip had been preaching there and many had believed on Christ, and we learn, “there was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:8). When the prodigal came home, “they began to be merry” (Luke 15:24 [AV])
When the late John Miller was a professor at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia in 1970 a number of students took him to preach on the streets of New York. He had been suffering from depression, and was prejudiced against street preaching. It evoked images of a single man standing on the corner, speaking into the wind with no one listening. Nevertheless the students wouldn’t take no for an answer and he found himself getting up onto a small platform and speaking as loudly as he could about “living water for the thirsty.” To his amazement, people gathered to hear him, and as men crossed the street to listen he felt a deep joy. At one point, to the amusement of his students, he said, “Oh, the bliss of knowing Jesus Christ personally!” The language was archaic but it described what the Spirit was bringing into his life. “The depression and self-pity were gone. I was inexpressibly happy” (C. John Miller, “A Faith Worth Sharing,” P&R Philipsburg, N.J., 1999, p.92). His joy returned in service.
Now it is the responsibility of a minister to make sinners sad, and to make Christians glad. The apostle John was inspired by the Holy Ghost to write his first letter for this purpose, “to make our joy complete” (I Jn. 1:4). The apostle Paul described his vocation to the Corinthian church in this way, we “are helpers of your joy” (2 Cors. 1:24 [AV]). A minister is able to do this only when the world is under his feet, heaven is in his eye, the Gospel is in his hand, Christ is in his heart and he is pleading with men as an ambassador for God. Then he can elevate the joy of a congregation to become an abundant joy. When he knows nothing but the Lord Jesus and him crucified, enjoys nothing but the conversion of sinners, hopes for nothing but the kingdom of God and glories in nothing but the cross of Christ, then, I say, he is qualified to be a helper of men’s joy, and only then.
But this particular text in Philippians 2 is coming to this truth from a different perspective. It tells us that it is also the responsibility of each member of the congregation to make the joy of their minister complete. It is a theme of the New Testament. The writer to the Hebrews gives his readers a series of exhortations as to how they should live, adding that they should obey their elders, “so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebs. 13:17). To meet a gospel preacher who is depressed is a troubling occasion. To know that he is sad because of the failure of Christians is alarming. Perhaps he used to serve another man, and in that work he was quite happy, but now he is serving Jesus Christ – and he is unhappy? What does that suggest to you about his Master? That his yoke isn’t easy, and his burden isn’t light. Is such a minister able to preach good tidings of great joy to all the world? Can he promise the world that if they come to Christ they will find rest – when clearly he has lost his own rest?
Church members are to act in such a way that those who are their spiritual shepherds become joyful men. Think of a child who never does anything criminal, and who keeps all the rules of his household. He does not stay out late without explanation. He doesn’t play his music too loud. He doesn’t go on the town carousing. He keeps his job and seems to be diligent at it, but he is giving no joy to his parents, rather, pain. Why? Because he is totally morose. He comes to the table and eats his meals with them but says nothing. He seems to be quite uninterested in the lives of his family. He goes back to his room when the meal is over and closes his door. He is more like a lodger than a son. His parents despair of him. They don’t understand him. His whole attitude gives them no joy at all. He lives a totally self-centred life. His heaviness and estrangement from the family makes every gathering a grief.
John Frame has written, “If we become ‘problem’ church members, becoming burdens to our leaders and robbing them of joy, we will have to answer to God. There are many types of ‘problem’ church members; those who are guilty of obvious sins, like adultery or hatred or gossip, those who must be pleaded with to come to services but are always around to register complaints, those who demand that everything be done to their specifications or else they will yell and scream – or sulk. Such people we know, are in spiritual danger because they are displeasing God. But our passage says that one way they displease God is by making life hard for their leaders – robbing them of joy. Do you realise what an evil thing it is to rob someone of joy? Because of our self-centredness, we don’t often think about our sins in that way, that they rob others of joy; but we should. That’s an important perspective on sin. And it’s especially important when we grieve those who are working their heads off to keep us on the right path, to tend and feed us as Jesus’ lambs. But it often happens.” (IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 4, Number 28, July 17 to July 24, 2002)
It is here that we are all being tested. Are we increasing the joy of our fellow Christians, and especially our pastors? Surely we all would agree that it is the devil’s work to make a minister’s life miserable, and that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to make his joy complete. The well-known writer Jerry Bridges was taking a conference in a church when a deacon approached him to discuss the kind of salary they should be paying their pastor. Jerry records, “In the course of our conversation this deacon made a very perceptive statement that amazed me. He said, ‘Our pastor is our most valuable asset. He is worth far more than this church building” (Jerry Bridges, The Crisis of Caring, P&R, 1987, p.145). If that observation is true, then fulfil your pastor’s joy! The apostle is pleading here with the congregation at Philippi and he is saying to them, “Make my joy complete. This is your responsibility towards me. Maybe I am failing you by not being a helper of your joy, but that is no excuse for you to fail in your God-given duty to me by not fulfilling my joy.”
What a character is the apostle Paul! Remember when he writes this letter he is in prison. He is chained to a Roman soldier day and night, and yet he can say such things as, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation . . . I am amply supplied” (4:12&18). But in our text he is saying that he wants some fine tuning, he desires that they to make his joy complete. “You are able to do this for me – so do it!” God has made the most abundant resources available to all of us for this life-enhancing enterprise of making the joy of other Christians vital and dynamic. You can do this. The only reason you don’t is because you don’t want to. What an impoverishment for the church is such a failure. Then the texture of the life of the congregation is less exultant, more dutiful, less affectionate, more legal in its spirit. Joyless preaching and church leadership can be awfully boring, but even worse than that, a joyless teaching ministry can easily distort the very content of the gospel. Make your fellow Christians rejoice, especially your pastors! What greater blessing could you be to them? Let us look at what the apostle lists here as the means of spreading joy:
1. THE DIVINE PROVISION FOR FULFILLING ONE ANOTHER’S JOY.
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion” (v.1). Paul repeats the word ‘if’ four times, but he isn’t expressing any doubt that the Philippians might not possess these blessings, quite the reverse. There is nothing more certain than the fact that the Christian possesses these realities. Paul is speaking like a football coach who is addressing his star team and he is saying to them, “If you are in tiptop physical condition, and if you have wonderful athletic skills, and if you are getting paid 40,000 a week, and if there are going to be 60,000 fans soon chanting your names, and if winning this match gets us the title – then go out and play the game of your life!” What Paul lists here are some of the dynamic graces of reality that every single Christian possesses – encouragement from being united with Christ – you’ve got it. The comfort from his love – you’ve got it. Fellowship with the Spirit – you’ve got it. Tenderness and compassion – you’ve got it. These four blessings are part of every spiritual blessing with which the Christian is blessed through Christ Jesus. If they are indeed yours then they are to be exhibited in our lives, particularly in making one another’s joy complete. Let us examine them.
i] There is the encouragement that comes from being united to Christ.
Being in Christ should equip us to strengthen other Christians’ joy. All of us who heard Ted Donnelly speaking at the Aberystwyth Conference will remember the way he took an illustration of the Puritan, Thomas Goodwin from his book, Christ Set Forth. In this illustration Goodwin is comparing Adam and Christ as ‘the first man’ and ‘the second Man’ respectively, and Goodwin says: “Paul speaks of them as if there had never been any more men in the world, nor was there ever to be for time to come, except these two. And why? but because these two between them had all the rest of the sons of men hanging at their girdle” (Goodwin’s Works, James Nichol edition, 1862, Vol. 4, p.31). But it is the mark of a great preacher that he can take an allusion like that and build it up in a memorable way, hooking it into our memories and applying it to the affections of his hearers. This is what Ted Donnelly did in our hearing (what some of you miss by not attending the Conference!), but what Ted has also written in one of his books which all of you ought to buy and read:
“Can you visualize the picture which Goodwin draws for us? He imagines two great giants, one called Adam and the other Christ. Each is wearing an enormous leather ‘girdle’ or belt with millions of little hooks on it. You and I, and all humanity, are hanging either at Adam’s belt or at Christ’s belt. There is no third option, no other place for us. And God deals with us only through Adam or through Christ. If you are hanging at Adam’s belt, you share in the experience of sinful, fallen Adam, and your entire relationship with God is through him. But if you hanging at Christ’s belt, all God’s dealings with you are through Christ. When you received Jesus as your Saviour, you were involved in a massive and momentous transfer. The Almighty himself unhooked you from Adam’s belt and hooked you onto Christ’s. So you now have a different Head, a different Mediator, a new Representative. You have passed from Adam into Christ, and whereas God formerly dealt with you only through Adam, he now deals with you only through his Son. You are in Christ unchangeably and for ever.
“This union with Christ underlies every part of the Christian life. It is why a true believer can never fall away permanently from faith. How could someone hanging on Christ’s belt become detached and be lost? It is at the heart of our growth in holiness, for sanctification is based on union with Christ in his death and resurrection. Such is Paul’s argument in Romans 6: ‘You died with Christ, and you have been raised with him. You are no longer in Adam. Live accordingly’.” (Edward Donnelly, “Heaven and Hell,” Banner of Truth, 2001, pp.87&88).
What encouragement, to know this, that I who have been joined by faith to the Lord Jesus share in all the blessings that this Colossus, Christ, has gained for me. In him I was chosen before the foundation of the world. In him I have fulfilled all the righteousness which God can ever ask of me. In him the man I used to be under the domination of sin is dead and gone for ever. In him only the new man in Christ lives day by day. Through him I have a new vision of the creation, new strength to do anything God requires of me, new hopes for the future, and a new fellowship to whom I belong.
So if God says to me, “Make the joy of your minister complete,” then I can do it, but not I, Christ who lives in me. If he tells me to love my fellow Christian fervently with a pure heart, I can do it because I am receiving from the fulness of Christ day by day. If he commands me to love my neighbour as myself, I can do it. If he says that I am to love my enemy, I am able to do that too, from being plugged into Christ. Whatever the burdens he asks me to bear, the temptations he makes me face, the trials he guides me into, the losses he requires that I endure, then I can do it all by the encouragement or ‘sympathy’ or ‘exhortation’ (the word can be translated in all those ways) that comes from being grafted into Christ.
This week has seen the first anniversary of the September 11 abomination. Let’s allow Lisa Beamer bear witness to the encouragement of being joined Christ. Her husband Todd was on Flight 93 that went down in Pennsylvania. He was the one who said, “Let’s Roll!” This was the ordinary American identifying and taking on immense wickedness. He lost his life in the struggle, but many others in Washington were saved by what he did. He left behind Lisa and three small children (one born last January) – what a discouragement for her. But she has another source of encouragement. Lisa Beamer has said this: “God knew the terrible choices the terrorists would make and that Todd Beamer would die as a result. God knew my children would be left without a father and me without a husband . . . Yet in his sovereignty and in his perspective on the big picture, he knew it was better to allow the events to unfold as they did rather than redirect Todd’s plans to avoid death. . . . I can’t see all the reasons he might have allowed this when I know he could have stopped it . . . I don’t like how his plan looks from my perspective right now, but knowing that he loves me and can see the world from start to finish helps me say, ‘It’s OK.'” She says, “If we believe wholeheartedly, each moment, that our destiny rests in the hands of Jesus Christ – the one with ultimate love and ultimate power – what do we have to be concerned about? Of course, our humanity clouds this truth many times but hanging on to glimpses of it keeps everything in perspective.”
Other Christians, from the encouragement of illimitable access to the indwelling Christ, have been enabled to make Lisa’s joy complete. She says, “The Lord knows that I am hurting and in need right now. Every day He provides encouragement and resources just for me. Little things show me that He is with me: a Scripture with just the words I need to hear, a call from a friend when I feel lonely, help with a task that I can’t do alone, or a hug and ‘I love you’ from one of my children. God’s love is truly sufficient to meet any need that I have.” That is the encouragement that comes from being united with Christ.
Lisa Beamer has experienced this. She says, “The picture of the church as the hands and feet of Christ, with each person having a special gift, has been well portrayed to me these last months. In the beginning, it was immediate and practical help I needed – meals, child care, managing phone calls, and mail. Now that we’re out of the crisis mode it is rebuilding help I need, counseling, encouragement, prayer.” That has come to her from others who also know the encouragement that comes from being united with Christ.
Christians gave generous gifts to Lisa. Some letters were simply addressed, “Lisa Beamer, New Jersey,” and got to her. This is her response: “I didn’t feel comfortable keeping this money for ourselves when there were many unknown families who should share.” So she started the Todd M. Beamer Foundation to assist children who lost a parent in the 9/11 calamity. She received this grace of giving to others from the indwelling of the One who Himself gives and gives. She says, “Because we have a hope in the Lord, we know beyond a doubt that one day we will see Todd again. I hurt for the people who don’t have that same hope, and I pray that they will see something in our family that will encourage them to trust in the Lord.” That attitude is possible through the encouragement that comes from being united with Christ. That is one of the resources which God has given to you to strengthen the joy of other believers. But there is another:
ii] The Comfort that Comes from his Love.
Paul is talking about the incentive to give joy to others that we find in Christ’s love for us. Think of a wife utterly secure in the love of her husband. He adores her. That is the foundation of their marriage, and she can reach out to others, and welcome people to her home, and take decisions herself certain that he trusts her implicitly and cares for her deeply. Think of the faithfulness of a pastor in addressing the teaching of the Bible from the pulpit and laying it on the consciences of his hearers knowing that if he can show that something is in the Scriptures the congregation’s love for him will demand that he tell it like it is, however much it rebukes them or requires a change of thinking and action on their part. He can speak the whole counsel of God sure of their love for him.
The Christian can bask in the warm love of God. We are not God’s ‘servants’ rather we are his children. A servant returns to his own home at the end of the working day, but we live in our Father’s home. The servant gets paid a wage, but we are heirs of God, joint heirs with Christ. A divine inheritance is ours. All grace always abounds to us from the immeasurable love of God.
The comfort Lisa Beamer has got from this love over the past year has been the foundation of all her strength. She does not presume to know better than God how to run the world or her own life. She says: “My faith wasn’t rooted in governments, religion, tall buildings, or frail people. Instead, my faith and my security were in God. A thought struck me. Who are you to question God and say that you have a better plan than He does? You don’t have the same wisdom and knowledge that He has, or the understanding of the big picture . . . We aren’t privy to the perspective God has and shouldn’t claim to know better than he does what should happen and what shouldn’t. . . . Faith means that, regardless of circumstances, we take him at his word that he loves us and will bring us to a good result if we just trust and obey him. Obviously, the ramifications of this understanding have been tremendous for me since 9/11.”
The apostle Paul felt gripped by the love of God. He knew that nothing could ever separate him from that love, that not for a moment would Jesus’ love be switched off and hatred rule in the courts of heaven or amidst the kingdom of God below. We know that God has a good purpose in all the hard things that happen to his people. Lisa Beamer says, “God’s sovereignty has been made clear to me. When I am tempted to become angry and ask ‘What if . . . ?’ and , ‘Why us . . . ?’ God says, ‘I knew on September 10, and I could have stopped it, but I have a plan for greater good than you can ever imagine.’ I don’t know God’s plan, and honestly, right now I don’t like it very much. But I trust that He is true to His promise in Romans 8:28: ‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.’ My only responsibility is to love God. He’ll work out the rest.” When she is asked to autograph copies of her biography Lisa signs her name and then writes “Genesis 50:20, As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” That is the comfort one Christian woman has had when God has taken from her best friend. God’s love for her has kept her, and so, far from being a drain on the members of her evangelical congregation near Princeton, New Jersey, because of this fearful loss, she has been comforted by God and she has made the joy of other members of that congregation complete. But there is more:
iii] Fellowship with the Spirit.
Even more provision is available for raising the spirits of men and women and helping their joy! More than being joined to Christ, and more than the comfort of his immeasurable love. There is communion with God the Holy Spirit. There is only one Holy Spirit. He descended upon Christ at his baptism. He also descends upon us at regeneration when he baptises us into Christ’s body. The very same Spirit that filled Christ is in us and is in all our fellow-believers’ puny lives. God does not give the Spirit by measure, doling him out in some limited way. God gives him in abundance. We do not receive half the Spirit, or 90 per cent of the Spirit. God the Spirit himself comes upon every Christian so that our bodies become temples of the Holy Spirit. I am reminded of that incident when Elijah had been taken up to heaven in the chariot and horses of fire leaving Elisha alone without the inspiration and leadership of the great man. Then Elisha took up the cloak that Elijah had left behind and smote the waters of the Jordan with it, just as Elijah had done, and to the same effect! The waters opened again and Elisha could cross over as he and Elijah had done. Elisha had yearned that he inherit the spirit of Elijah, but in a double portion, and God granted it to him, and the opening of the Jordan was a sign that the Lord, the God of Elijah, was with Elisha.
A greater one that Elijah has led us to this day, and the Spirit who was in Christ, in all his fulness, is in his people. I suppose that we are not surprised by the Spirit coming upon Jesus to further uphold him in his great redemptive work. He is the Holy Spirit, and Christ is God’s holy child Jesus. But think of the grace the Holy Spirit displays in coming upon ourselves. Every Christian was a child of darkness when the Spirit came upon him. Every Christian was dead in sins when the Spirit quickened him. Every Christian’s heart was deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. Every Christian was totally depraved. There was not one sin-free zone in the life of any one of us. Then the Holy Spirit entered us. He came into the closest proximity with all our darkness and death and depravity. He joined himself – the Holy One – to us who drink iniquity like water.
Think of that first day a century ago for a fourteen year old Welsh boy to go into a coal-mine to start his career as a miner. Down and down the shaft into the darkness he drops, all the millions of tons of strata above him, the roof of the various shafts along which he walks to the coal-face kept up by frail pit-props. All that seems to be pressing down upon him. There he is, without one glimpse of natural light whatsoever, dust and the smell of gas everywhere. How he longs for the hour when his shift is over, and the cage will sweep him up to the surface and the fresh air again. But what is that wretched encounter with blackness compared to the Holy Spirit coming down and down into this sinful world and into a sinner’s life permeating his heart, mind, soul, spirit, strength, affections, all of which are polluted by sin – while he is holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners, without spot and without blemish? The Holy Spirit is light and in him is no darkness at all, yet he comes into the sinner, in and in he comes, in and in and in, leaving no part remote from his influe nce. He joins himself to us, and we to him, and he doesn’t come for one working shift, but for ever. He will never leave that favoured sinner again, and while he is there, until death the Spirit has to fight for his own survival. The flesh of that sinner will lust against him, and war against his influence, and hate all he does, seeking to grieve him and quench him. But the Spirit loves us with the same love as Jesus’ own love. Because he loves us he remains in our lives. He endures such humilities. When any Christian sins he sins as one indwelt by the Spirit. Yet the Spirit will never let us go. We will know his fellowship.
The Spirit comes into a working relationship with us. He never slumbers nor sleeps and his task is to make us and the whole church like the Son of God. He has made up his mind that he is going to do this for every single one of the people of God, even for the most backsliding, and nothing will deflect him from this calling. To that end he will constantly lead us, both comforting and rebuking us. He will sanctify us, mortifying our sins and stirring up our graces. He will strengthen us to be the sort of husbands and wives and family members we should be. Whatever the obligations of the Sermon on the Mount or the great apostolic imperatives that conclude many of the New Testament letters, he will give us grace to do them. So when the word tells us to make the joy of our leaders complete the fellowshipping Spirit will help us to do it.
There was once a small boy reading a book in a park. A man came and sat on the bench and glanced across and said to him, “What are you reading?” “It’s the New Testament,” he said, “I was given it for my birthday.” “Do you believe there’s a God?” asked the man. “Yes,” the boy said. “Well,” the man said, “can you tell me is your God a little God or a great God?” The boy was silent for a moment and then he said, “He is both.” “How can that be?” said the man. “Well, he is so little he can come and live in my heart, yet he is so great that the whole world cannot contain him.” So it is with the Holy Spirit, he is so great that at creation he was hovering over the primeval waters, but in grace he will come into the heart of a little Christian girl or boy who trusts in him and he will fill every part of them. That will make the joy of every parent complete. But there is more:
iv] Tenderness and Compassion.
Paul has been reminding us of God’s great works, but now he has one more plea. “What about the fruit of the Holy Spirit?” he is asking. “You have not been barren in the Lord’s service. The Spirit has not ceased his fructifying work in your lives has he?” There are abilities, mindsets, and virtues which he creates in every Christian. There are quite a number of lists of these graces in the New Testament, in Romans 5, and Galatians 5, and I Timothy 6, and 2 Timothy 3, and 2 Peter 1. Paul seizes on two basic graces here, tenderness and compassion. No Christian is a stranger to them. Every believer knows something of tenderness and compassion. You see their relevance to Paul’s concern? “Make my joy complete!” he cries. “I appeal to your tenderness. Aren’t you gentle to other people? Won’t you in tenderness fulfil my joy?
What about your compassion? Think of that wretched time in Jonah’s life when his compassion shrank to a hard pebble in his life. He was a preacher sent by God to bring God’s word to Nineveh, and yet Jonah refused to help those people’s joy. God forced Jonah to go there and preach to them. God used Jonah’s reluctant words changing Nineveh and withdrawing his wrath, and Jonah sulked. He wouldn’t help their joy because he lacked the Lord’s compassion. Every Christian is an imperfect Christian, will you show your imperfect leaders no compassion? All of us are tender and compassionate to those who love us. What proof that we are Christians is that? We are to show these graces to all men, and especially to those in the household of faith.
So Paul rehearses all the provision God has made for us to live a new life, one that leaves us all without any excuse for not making the joy of our leaders’ complete.
But there is one more thing we have to notice and that is what is the behaviour that gives a Christian leader joy.
2. THE LIFE THAT FULFILS ANOTHER CHRISTIAN’S JOY.
“by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (v.2). What a man Paul was! Alec Motyer asks us, “Were we in prison, chained, guarded, unjustly accused, vilified by those who ought to be our friends, with no present comfort and no guaranteed future, what would our joy be?” (J. Alec Motyer, “The Richness of Christ,” Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London 1966, p.66). Where are you happiest? On vacation? Sitting down to a delicious meal with your family and friends? Lying back in your own comfy bed at night at the end of a fulfilling day? If you were in prison, separated from all of that, would you ever experience complete joy? Yes you would. It was in jail that some Christians found Christ for the first time. It was in a prison cell that God’s servants like Geoffrey Bull in Tibet or Poh Boon Sing of Malaysia found Christ to be the joy of heaven to earth sent down.
What might be Ian Stillman’s joy in his Indian prison today? I guess it would be in letters from home, visits from his wife and friends, and hope that the cause of his release was being advanced. But for Paul his joy is complete at news of the unity of the Philippian congregation. That reality is what makes him rejoice. In other words it is certainly not people praising him and telling him what a wonderful man he is. I was with a minister last week and he was telling me of one member who considers that my friend is the greatest preacher in the world. This man actually moved to the area to join the church, and no matter how eloquent other visiting ministers may be he is anxious to inform his pastor that none of them compares to him. My friend tries to avoid him when he observes him making a beeline for him on Sundays because he is unfailingly unctuous in his complements. In fact my friend said to me, “I see him heading in my direction and there’s no escape, and I think, ‘O Help!'” Sober thanks that a sermon was helpful is very acceptable, but that sort of thing cannot be the foundation of a minister’s joy.
Of course we could all encourage one another much more than we are doing. The New Testament is full of examples of praise and thanks being given to fellow believers. There was a schoolteacher called Helen Mrosla who taught a class of fifteen year-olds in Morris, Minnesota. A mean irritable spirit had developed in her form and Helen was not enjoying this year of teaching, and one day there was a particularly unpleasant outburst of contempt in the class. So what Helen did was this, she passed to every one of her teenagers a list with the names of all their fellow pupils written down. She then asked the class to write opposite each student the best thoughts they had about these class members. There was a lot of pencil-gnawing for the next half hour, but the task was completed. That night she listed the comments for every teenager and she presented the papers to each of them on the next day – exactly what positive things their fellow students had written about them. There was a deep silence as each student read those shy words of appreciation from other members of the class. Most of the pieces of paper were carefully folded and kept for years. The atmosphere of the class changed; the belittling criticisms died away and there was more patience, affection and humanity in the classroom. That is one way that the world may stimulate a dying joy, but the church knows a better way. Paul in this second verse is exhorting them as those united to Christ and who are in the fellowship of the Spirit to use those resources to be of one mind, one love, one spirit and one purpose. That alone is going to make his joy complete. They can do this because of their limitless spiritual capital.
So it was a great challenge to this Philippian congregation. What is more important to them? Is it promoting their own agendas, or is it giving this apostle who had brought them the gospel the joy of seeing them think together, and love together, and being one in spirit and purpose? It is not enough for us to say, “Well, my only concern is to give joy to Christ.” No. It is as Christ sees us giving joy to others by lives of peace and love that he rejoices. We are being tested again concerning our conduct, motives and our actions. Will what we are saying and doing bring joy to those who care for the church? Paul says, “I need no other happiness than to know that the church is thinking and working together possessed by the same spirit.”
The apostle had heard that outside his prison in Rome there were Christians preaching Christ out of selfish ambition, stirring up trouble for Paul. He knew that in Philippi some of the leading women of the church could hardly bear to be in the same room together. Life worthy of the gospel, life that gives joy to other Christians, is the life of unity. It is not political unity. It is (he has told us in the opening verse of this chapter) unity in Christ, it is sustained by the comforts of his love and the fellowship of the Spirit and it is manifest in tenderness and compassion. It is unity that shows itself in one mind, one love, one spirit and one purpose. Unity is crucial for spiritual joy. But unity is a by-product. It arises out of other matters. No engaged couple will come together and say, “We are committed to unity.” Unity in what? They are committed to certain values that they share together, a oneness in morality, a common love for great principles and ideals. Part of courtship is discovering whether you share enough to be united for the rest of your lives. You discover that you both believe the Bible; you obey the law of God and its sacred absolutes; you are committed to mission; you uphold the Christian family. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” you say together. These beliefs provide the unity that will hold them together. So it is with unity within the church. There must be unity in believing the teaching of the Bible, and unity in the experience of salvation. Only then can there be a unity of living in fellowship. So it begins by being united with Christ (the doctrine), being comforted by his love, experiencing the fellowship of the Spirit, and it results in “tenderness and compassion” (the practice). That is the unity that gives a pastor joy.
Dr Lloyd-Jones says, “According to the Apostle, the only way in which men and women can get rid of a spirit of faction and vainglory is by being linked together in a common object, or interest, a common allegiance. Now this is something which I think we can prove quite easily as a perfectly sound psychological principle. How often during that last war were we told of the extraordinary scenes in air-raid shelters; how different people belonging to different classes, there, in the common need to shelter from the bombs and death, forgot all the differences between them and became one. This was because in the common interest they forgot the divisions and the distinctions. That is why you always tend to have a coalition government during a war; in periods of crises and common need all distinctions are forgotten and we suddenly become united.
“Now that is the very thing that the Apostle is teaching here. It is no use just asking men and women to forget their differences and distinctions and be kind and friendly, that is not the New Testament teaching. The New Testament knows that this is hopelessly inadequate. The world believes in that kind of thing, and has its own reasons for doing so. By drugging itself in various ways it can produce a spirit of good cheer and friendship and understanding, but it is merely the result of drugs. The New Testament says that before you can get that real unity and concord, that peace and amity among men, there must be a common allegiance, and it must be a common allegiance to God and to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Joy,” Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1989, p.142). Paul spells out what that common allegiance is. He tells us what makes his joy complete. There are three components:
i] Being like-minded.
That means believing and obeying the Christian faith. It means having a Scriptural mind. It means that your thinking is Bibline. It means that you hold to the great apostolic teachings found in the Word of God and confessed in the historic Christian confessions of faith. If you remove truths from that faith as the modernists do and discard great revealed doctrines then we are never going to be like-minded. John Stott attended the World Council of Churches meeting in Nairobi (1975) as an advisor, and after observing their discussions he concluded “that the World Council uses Scripture as a drunk uses a lamppost, namely for support rather than illumination”.
However, if you add to that faith, for example, the traditions of the Roman and Orthodox denominations or the teachings of the cults (like the book of Mormon) then you are never going to be like-minded. If we are not like-minded in our understanding of Christian truth then it is certain we are never going to make the joy of Christian leaders complete. For example, when a man tells you that he no longer holds to the truths of the sovereignty of God your heart sinks. How will he ever be a witness and a comforter like Lisa Beamer when September 11 events occur if he no longer believes that God works all things after the counsel of his own will? Those who are in two minds on the issue of whether God is sovereign are always using the language of, “balance between the two wings within the church.” That outlook means the acceptance of perpetual fence-sitting and adopting a guilty silence.
The vocation of the church, and especially its pulpit, is to give the Word of God a powerful creative place in Christians’ lives and in the life of the nation. That alone can transform its life for good. That may seem to those who have little understanding of spiritual power, an astonishing claim to make, but it is true, and perfectly reasonable. When you go to board an airliner and stand beside it on the runway it must seem incredible that that great machine fully loaded can take to the air at all. It seems so vast and heavy that it could not possibly leave the ground. Yet we do not reckon with the power of the engines and the dynamics of flight, if we think like that. We are ignorant of the possibilities. The Word of God, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the power of God. It represents enormous spiritual energy, which when it operates in the lives of people and societies, is capable of lifting them up, saving them from sin, transforming their lives and making them the children of God. It lifts people individually and as a society on to a different and higher plane.
Some of you are familiar with the story of the mutiny on the Bounty, but it had a remarkable sequel, which is perhaps less well known. The mutineers made their way to the uninhabited island of Pitcairn. Their hopes of an idyllic life there were not fulfilled. Jealousies, fuelled by alcohol, led to mayhem and murder. Soon there was only one of the original crew left with several Tahitian woman and their children. That man, John Adams, was converted in a remarkable way. He visited the wreck and rescued the ship’s Bible. Having brought it ashore, he began to read it. His life was changed and in time the life of the island was transformed. He began to instruct the women and the children in the teachings of the Bible; they met for regular worship; and peace and order were restored. When, some fifteen years later, a British warship called at the island, they found an exemplary Christian community. Such is the power of God’s Word for “righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people”. What happened in that small community can happen elsewhere, in fact, wherever people will submit themselves to the Word of God and accept its authority and teaching. What joy will then be displayed by God’s preachers.
ii] Having the same love.
It is not enough to be united as powerful upholders of the truth of the Bible. There must also be the love declared in the Bible enfleshed in our lives. Who can say anything fresh about this much misunderstood and abused word ‘love’? It is the greatest grace of all. To fail here is to fail at the heart of Christianity. It is the new commandment Prophet Jesus gave his pupils. Children are back at school and how proud some of them are to be wearing the uniforms of their new schools. Christ’s pupils also have a distinctive means of showing that they are his. It is not clothing, hairstyle or some badge. The Lord said that by living in a certain way people outside the church would know that we were his disciples. It would be by the way we love one another.
Let us all agree what we mean by love: “love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (I Cor. 13:4-8). Everyone of us is to show that love: 100 per cent of us. No exemptions are possible from this requirement. And all of us are to love in that distinct apostolic way, and never to be content with any deviation from it. That love will cover over what we see of the sins of many in the church. You can love like that. Don’t be resistant because you feel you’ve been let down. Come and love! I am reminded of family outings to the seaside and my wife and daughters in the sea encouraging reluctant old me to join them. “Come on Dad! . . . Come on! The water is warm . . . once you get used to it . . .” Paul is telling us that the waters of Christian love are warm, but we have to be involved. We have to take the risk and love sacrificially and self-denyingly, and keep loving. Only by that love will we make our leaders’ joy complete.
iii] Being one in spirit and purpose.
Christians have been made one by the new birth. One organism. One family. One brotherhood. One people. One for ever. So I must express my oneness with my brothers and sisters in every possible way. The model that God has given us for the expression of this unity is his own unity as the triune God: “that they may be one as we are” (Jn. 17:11). This is not simply a lofty standard it is a devastating standard. All the Christians in the congregation are to be as united as the three persons in the Godhead. Can you imagine the Father grumbling to the Spirit about the Son? Can you think of the Son making snide remarks to the Father about the Spirit? Can you imagine the angels grumbling about Gabriel or Michael that they are getting too bossy? Can you imagine the spirits of just men made perfect in heaven looking at dying Christians entering the gates of paradise in 2002 and saying wearily that they are not a patch on the quality of Christians who came into heaven fifty years ago? Can you imagine heaven being a place where God and angels and glorified Christians discourage one another, and run one another down, and gossip about one another in some demeaning manner? Never! They are one in spirit and purpose. They love each other. They share with each other. They co-operate. They live in and through one another.
The congregation on earth ought to do the same. It is a colony of heaven on earth. Relations between its various citizens should be reflections of the relations between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit and all who live with them in glory. You have a problem with other members? You can learn to love them. There must. I saw two children being given two ice popsicles and the 8 year-old brother was making an enormous fuss because his was red and he wanted orange. On and on he grumbled lamenting the wrong flavoured popsicle. His 6 year-old sister had had enough of this, and fixing a world-weary eye on him she muttered, “Deal with it!” He sighed and ceased his fussing immediately. So too with you. God is saying, “Deal with your estrangement from a fellow Christian. Deal with it! You have these limitless resources, you are joined to Christ and soon you will be eternally loving one another fervently. Deal with it! There is no excuse for this.”
In the New Testament a heretic is a divisive person. He is a man who causes divisions; who miscalls other Christians; who is factious. That’s what a heretic is. Of course there is a link between our modern use of the word and the New Testament use. The great trouble with false doctrine is precisely that it divides churches. That is its evil. Dividing the church is iniquitous. Fragmenting, fomenting discord, behaving in a way that shows disregard for the peace and harmony of the church is a heinous sin. But when Christians are like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose then they will make their pastor’s joy complete.
15 September 2002 GEOFF THOMAS