There’s an old saying that goes, “Whatever you’re overflowing with will spill out when you’re bumped.” The apostle Paul was bumped all over the world and nothing spilled out but gold, silver and precious stones. With the jewelry of Roman chains hanging about him he wrote, Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-7). Those words have brought comfort and peace to millions of God’s children, suffering for His name’s sake, disappointed over life’s direction, heart-broken by rejection, and nearly crumbling under the burdens of life. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body (2 Cor. 4:7-10).
The book of Philippians was written to comfort the believers in that city who continued in the storm that Paul had begun. For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake (1:29). The book is a catalogue of situations in which the peace of God comes to believers and they find Him to be the God of peace. The centerpiece is the example of Christ Himself in chapter two. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus (2:5). In the midst of His eternal existence, the Son of God left His throne in glory to take upon Himself the form of a servant and to humble Himself to the death of Calvary’s cross. For this, God exalted Him to the highest of heavenly positions, there to intercede for those who will follow Him through the storms of this world. Only those who have trusted Him with their eternal souls can find the peace of God in the temporal storms of this life. And there is no peace that calms the restless sea like that peace.
When disappointment comes (1:12-18)
Even in prison, Paul found many of his friends and acquaintances preaching his message with the wrong motive (in “pretense,” vs. 18). Their only motivation was that they might be seen of others as great preachers. But it did not discourage the apostle. “If thou will be endured, learn to endure others.”1 Noel Smith once wrote, “A man ought not to permit what his enemies are doing to have greater weight with him than what he ought to be doing, and he should never be so foolish as to sacrifice his dignity to his indignation.”2
The apostle found that good people were made confident by his own steadfastness (vs. 14); that others manifested the love of the brethren because he remained set for the defense of the gospel (1:17); that he could rejoice in the knowledge that the gospel was being preached, even if by wrong motives (the wrong gospel, or demonic messengers, Paul never tolerated). Many good men are discouraged today because their godly efforts are being overshadowed by those who glory in appearance and not in heart (2 Cor. 5:12). But the peace of God brings benefits that cannot be hid.
When death comes (1:20-24)
What if Paul died in that first Roman imprisonment? Would that mean defeat? Not at all! For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (1:21). It was Paul’s desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better (1:23). Only a man whose conversation is in heaven (3:20) could have such a victorious view of possible death. How can you defeat a man like that? Calvin wrote, “Let men do their utmost, they cannot do worse than murder us! And will not the heavenly life compensate for this?”3 In describing the terrible persecution of Christians in the 14th century, and the record of it by John Foxe, Bruce Shelley wrote, “Aside from the Bible, his book probably did more to shape the mind of Englishmen than any other single volume.”4 The apostle’s letter to the Philippians accomplished the same for those believers.
It may not be death in Christian martyrdom, but any death is the last enemy for mortal believers. Paul could see that death to this life was “gain” of the heavenly life (1:21); he knew that if God gave him more time on this earth it was for a purpose (24); and he realized that whatever God allowed was His will and Paul could, therefore, do either with “confidence” (1:25). David Cummins wrote, “Thank God for these wonderful men who had their feet on the ground but their hearts in heaven!”5
When sickness comes (2:25-30)
In the midst of everything else that Paul was handling at this time, a life-threatening illness came upon one of his most dear and trusted assistants, Epaphroditus. For indeed he was sick nigh unto death (2:27). Because for the work of Christ he was nigh unto death, not regarding his life, to supply your lack of faith (2:30). For Paul, this was not on him only, but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow (2:27). In like situation Job said, But now he hath made me weary: thou hast made desolate all my company (Job 16:7). Caring for sick loved ones can be one of the most tiring and stressful acts of service one can perform.
In his own battle with cancer David Jeremiah wrote, “The heat of suffering is a refiner’s fire, purifying the gold of godly character and wisdom. Wouldn’t we rather it be a simpler, more comfortable process? But we know life simply doesn’t play out that way. Everything worthy in this world comes at a price.”6 Paul learned that God’s mercy becomes the sweetest at such times (2:27); that our struggles can be a testimony of encouragement to others (2:28); and that faithfulness in times of distress will hold such an one in “reputation” (2:29). No wonder C.S. Lewis could write, ”God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”7
When heresies come (3:2-3; 17-20)
The selfish preaching of believers was tolerated by Paul but the false preaching of unbelievers drew his severest criticism and, in Paul’s ministry, no heresy was more costly than the legalism of a works salvation. Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision (3:2). They are enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things (3:18-19). Until Christ comes, we will not be free from the false teaching of those who would hate the very cross of Christ.
Though this heresy of Jewish legalism was largely responsible for Paul’s Roman imprisonment, the apostle could contrast their false position with our own true position in Christ (3:3); he could recall his own background in that same heresy and testify to the resignation of any confidence he once had “in the flesh” (3:4); he took the opportunity to uphold and praise those brothers who were godly examples during this time (3:17); and he could remind the believers that our own conversation is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ (3:20). A.J. Gordon reminded us that, “It is the man who stands who moves the world.”8
When suffering comes (1:29; 3:10)
In addition to opposition, a possible death sentence, sickness ,and heresy, the apostle and his converts in Philippi were physically suffering for their faith. This is not the same thing as sickness, which comes to all, but suffering that comes specifically for his sake (1:29). Peter said it was to be reproached for the name of Christ . . . . if any man suffer as a Christian (1 Pet. 4:14, 16). To Paul, this was the avenue to both fellowship with Christ and power for ministry: That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death (3:10). As one wrote, “We fellowship Christ’s sufferings when we suffer for his name’s sake, when the hatred that struck him strikes us because of him.”9
One doesn’t have to read far into the biographies of great men of God to find the source of their power that came through fellowshipping with Christ in times of persecution. Bunyan was confined for eighteen years in the Bedford jail for merely preaching in the fields without the government’s permission. Knox was put to rowing in the galley of a French merchant vessel for teaching citizens of St. Andrews the gospel instead of the Roman mass. Men like that had powerful preaching and writing ministries after such baptisms of fire. “It is often said that suffering colors life; but when we meet life with the ‘upomone [patience] which Christ can give, the color of life is never grey or black; it is always tinged with glory.”10
When poverty comes (4:10-14)
No one can doubt the sincerity of Paul in giving up a comfortable life for the near destitution of an apostle’s life. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ (3:7). Unfortunately, the most pointed verse regarding his ability to live in whatever state God placed him in, has been used by many as a means to gain: I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me (4:13). Paul knew both how to be abased, and I know how to abound (4:12). In any situation Paul was content which of course, is greater gain than all the world’s riches. Paul looked at the times of poverty as “instruction” (4:12) or, literally, “to be initiated.” Having passed that test, he could “do all things” that his Lord called on him to do.
This man of little means was, consequently, trusted by the churches with the greatest of their possessions as he took their offering to Jerusalem. Alexander Maclaren wrote, “But this is always true — that the people who do not make worldly good their first object are the people who can be most safely trusted with it, and who get the most enjoyment out of it.”11
When help comes (4:15-19)
With the greatest of missionary hearts, Paul thanked the Philippian church for their financial support of him and his ministry. It was, he wrote, an odor of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God (4:18b). Missionaries and others who depend on the gifts of God’s churches and people find themselves in the difficult position of both seeking and receiving help. Not that I desire a gift: but I desire fruit that may abound to your account (4:17). This humbling aspect of ministry molds some of God’s greatest servants.
Paul could see that their gift was a means of fruit in the lives of the believers (4:17); that it created within himself a satisfaction to accept, as from God, whatever came his way (4:18); that it generated many thanksgivings both on his part as well as theirs for the success of this endeavor (4:18); and that it opened the channel for God to replenish their generosity through His riches in glory by Christ Jesus (4:19). As Hudson Taylor said, “The Lord’s work done in the Lord’s way will never fail to have the Lord’s provision.”12
And so . . . .
There is truly the peace of God in the storms of life for those who know the God of peace. He is the same God who promised to Israel: When thou passeth through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee (Isa. 43:2).
He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength when the labours increase;
To added affliction he addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.
When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done;
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources,
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.
Notes: 1. Thomas á Kempis, The Imitation Of Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1984) 95. 2. Noel Smith, “The Abdication of Mental Integrity”, Baptist Bible Tribune, May 17, 1957. 3. John Calvin, “On Enduring Persecution,” Orations (New York: Collier, 1902) 1374. 4. Bruce Shelley, Church History In Plain Language (Dallas: Word, 1995) 294. 5. E. Wayne Thompson & David L. Cummins, This Day in Baptist History (Greenville: BJU, 1993) 24. 6. David Jeremiah, A Bend In The Road (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000) 9. 7. C.S. Lewis, The Problem Of Pain (New York: MacMillan, 1962) 93. 8. Quoted by J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership (Chicago: Moody, 1971) 64. 9. R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of First Peter (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1966) 203. 10. William Barclay, Revelation, vol I (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976) 62. 11. Alexander Maclaren, Exposition of First Kings (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1959) 159. 12. Quoted by Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1971) 65.