“Learning to discern the best path – Part Two” – Philippians 2

We have all been there – the choice between two paths. Robert Frost immortalized the process in his twenty line poem, “The Road Less Taken”. The ending five lines describe looking back:

I shall be telling this with a sigh  
Somewhere ages and ages hence:         
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—     
I took the one less traveled by,           
And that has made all the difference.

Obviously the choice of the path we take has everything to do with where we end up. Obviously, choosing the wrong path is perilous. What is true for our career path is also true for our walk with God. For Paul the Apostle, he chose to follow Jesus and spread the Gospel. He ended up in house arrest near the Tiber River in Rome, where he awaited a meeting with the Roman Emperor to plead his case. Some concluded that Paul made a wrong turn, and they were not afraid to say so. Yet, they were very wrong. God was at work! While waiting, he heard about the problems of the small church enclaves that dotted the Empire at Christianity’s infancy. He prayed for the believers and their struggles. He sought God on their behalf. God’s answer came in the form of a revelation of truth that Paul needed to share with the church.

The letter can easily be divided into three parts: First, the Prayer of the Church Planter (1:1-11) – where Paul showed believers how they could lose frustration and gain a positive heart. Next, the Prescriptions of the Church Planter (1:2-4:9) – where Paul showed believers how to learn to discern the best path. At the end of the letter, Paul demonstrated the Pattern of the Church Planter (4:10-23) –unlocking constant encouragement secrets.

Our last study left us in the middle of the “Prescriptions” section. Paul offered three treatments in what has become the first chapter of the letter.

  • Treatment #1: He offered vision – He helped people see that God was doing things on a broader plain:
  • Treatment #2: He demonstrated transparency – Paul shared with his spiritual family the struggles he faced, and that with honestly:
  • Treatment #3: He drew them together – He  let the team know that standing together was the secret to standing strong.

Our study this time will add yet TWO MORE treatments to the package. All of the treatments flow from a single principle…

Key Principle: Careful attention to choosing the right path is essential to getting you to your desired destination!

Paul added more to the series of treatments for their problems.

Treatment #4: He pointed out clear standards – Paul presented to the believers the “bench marks” of obedience they can follow. On this occasion, Paul offered two to the believers at Philippi.

Humility as a Bench Mark of Obedience: “Other person centeredness” was the standard modeled by our Savior. A benchmark is a tem borrowed from Mathematics and particularly from the work of Surveying that is defined as “a mark on a stone post or other permanent feature, at a point whose exact elevation and position is known: used as a reference point in surveying.” Paul offered two FIXED MEASURES of obedience to the Philippians, the first was HUMILITY.

Humility is defined differently in our culture than in our Bible. In our culture it is “the quality of being modest, and respectful”, derived from the Latin word for “from the earth”, or “low” (derived from humus, or earth). It can be an “aw shuks” quality of feeling low or insignificant. Biblically speaking, it is something far from that. Humility in the Bible is OTHER PERSON CENTEREDNESS. It is that quality of losing one’s self in something greater than self directed thought. It is thinking of another because they are more important that you to you.

Jesus was HUMBLE. He didn’t think He was less than God said of Him. He wasn’t LOWLY in the sense of misunderstanding His own importance. He was OTHER PERSON CENTERED in His actions – therefore humble. Paul used that truth to reveal something that is only offered in a shadow elsewhere in Scripture: That Jesus consciously chose to come to die for us in a dialogue with the Father BEFORE He put on skin in the form of a baby. The clearest place to see this is the text of Philippians 2. Paul’s point was that they should : “Fill out the joy you have begun in me by becoming servants one of another. Look at Jesus’ model of emptying Himself and adopt His way of thinking about yourselves. In obedience, show His changes in your life reverently, knowing that God can change multiply your work and even change your heart.

Here is the uncut version from the Word: (2:1-4). 2:1 Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2 make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

Take these verse apart and you will see the incredible truth of what Jesus chose to do.

First, Paul opened with a series of “ifs” that all have affirmative answers. There IS encouragement in Christ. There IS consolation of love from Him. There IS fellowship in and of God’s Spirit. There IS affection and compassion that believers share because of their ONENESS in Messiah. All these “ifs” can be read as “BECAUSE THERE IS…” In light of God’s lifting, loving, bonding together – Paul called on the people JOIN THEIR THINKING TOGETHER – BE OF ONE MIND.

How would that unity look in a practical way? Would everyone like the same things, choose the same desserts and music? NO… but they would STOP BEING SELFISH. The opposite of selfishness was Biblical humility.

Selfishness is never seen more clearly than a spirit of entitlement. Fiona Smith, in her blog wrote these words in 2007: ”Although born in Britain, I lived for many years in South Africa, with all its massive social problems. So when I finally ‘came home’ a few years ago I had little patience with people who moaned and complained about poor housing, transport, policing, education and healthcare. When I pointed out that compared to many other parts of the world we have it good, I was told, bluntly, that in Britain ‘we deserve more.’ The American constitution defines certain ‘inalienable rights’, while the British social welfare system sets out to deliver them. We live in an age of entitlement. We demand and expect a certain standard of living: a good house, a decent education, an above-inflation salary, streets free of crime and grime, must-have appliances, designer décor, fashionable clothes, continental holidays… And why not? We’re British. We deserve it….Psychologists and sociologists are linking this sense of entitlement to the rise in violent crime and inappropriate social behavior. If we don’t get what we think we deserve – materially and emotionally – we are easily overcome by a sense of injustice. And this can bubble over into rage: date rage; road rage; sports rage; shopping rage; parking rage … spiritual rage? ….When I was at university a young man called Graeme was very active in our Christian Union. Like Jacob, he struggled with God, and I was drawn by his passion and refusal to let go until God blessed him. But one day he just gave up and pinned his reasons for doing so to the Christian Union notice board. I wish I’d kept a copy of his declaration of the death of God. But I remember the opening sentence: ‘This is why I no longer believe in God.’ Graeme went on to list a series of promises that God had made in His word, promises that Graeme held on to, believed in and prayed for, and how they failed to materialize in his life. ‘There are only two possible conclusions I can make,’ said Graeme (and I paraphrase), ‘either there’s something wrong with me or there’s something wrong with God. I know that I’ve done everything I can, so I’ve kept up my side of the bargain, but God has not come through on His. I can only conclude that God has lied, and seeing God can’t lie, this leads me to the inevitable conclusion that He cannot really exist.’ Graeme left soon after that, and I have no idea what happened to him. I can only pray that he realizes there was a third conclusion he didn’t consider: that his understanding of God’s promises might have been wrong.”

What Graeme didn’t understand was that he was not equal with God, and he was not ENTITLED to anything… but that is not our culture. We live in a culture where the soloist better be ME or I quit the church choral group. My child better be highlighted in the bulletin or I will let you know how deeply hurt I was.

We must demonstrate HUMILITY by demonstrating the UNSELFISH BEHAVIOR called up by Paul as a bench mark of obedience.

Paul then carted out the best picture of this behavior EVER on the planetthe picture of what Jesus did for us. Philippians 2:5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Paul didn’t make the Philippians WONDER about what humility looked like. He opened the door to show us a room that was long hidden by God… the room of the discussion between Jesus and His Heavenly Father before the Incarnation.

  • Jesus had the conscious attitude of other person centeredness before He had a human body (2:5-6).
  • Jesus existed in completion on the throne of God Most High and made a conscious choice (2:6).
  • Jesus deliberately “emptied Himself” – a state of self imposed limitation – to redeem us (2:7).
  • His act of humility was in meeting a need for our salvation through His death (2:8)

After Paul assured his readers that God accepted and honored the sacrifice of Christ as the Preeminent One, he returned to his main point. They were to work out the salvation they received from God through accepting Jesus, by changing their behavior that was so naturally inclined to think of SELF FIRST.

A youth minister was attending a Special Olympics where handicapped children competed with tremendous dedication & enthusiasm. One event was the 220-yard dash. Contestants lined up at the starting line, & at the signal, started running as fast as they could. One boy by the name of Andrew quickly took the lead, & was soon about 50 yards ahead of everybody else. As he approached the final turn he looked back & saw that his best friend had fallen & hurt himself on the track. Andrew stopped & looked at the finish line. Then he looked back at his friend. People were hollering, “Run, Andrew, run!” But he didn’t. He went back & got his friend, helped him up, brushed off the cinders. And hand in hand, they crossed the finish line dead last. But as they did, the people cheered, because there are some things more important than finishing first.

That is a picture of what Jesus did. Though a VICTOR, He became a SERVANT. That is the picture of what we are called to become, but this is not all.

Tranquility as a Bench Mark of Obedience: “Calm reasonableness” was the attitude they were called to exhibit consistently. There was a second BENCH MARK – and it is found in how we handle the pressures of daily life, and the stresses of interpersonal relationships one with another. Paul wrote:

Phil. 2:14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing; 15 so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, 16 holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain. 17 But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. 18 You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.

Someone has written: “On the seventh day God rested….and on the eighth day God started answering complaints.” Some days it feels like that may be true – even when you are serving God. It is easy to get negative, isn’t it?

Someone else astutely observed: Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

Paul unfolded the simple truth: We need to work together without verbalizing all our selfish immaturity. We need to LIFT the discussion above whining – so that we can be SHINING EXAMPLES of what God wants to show. Let me offer this rule: “If you KNOW you are not an example of what God wants others to see, don’t verbally criticize others who are trying to be!”

Treatment #5: He fleshed out teachings on unity: Paul shared his camaraderie with others in the service of Jesus

From the end of Philippians 2, it is possible to identify at least four tests that help us know where we stand on fleshing out UNITY in the body of Christ.

The first was the CONCERN TEST:

Philippians 2:19 But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly, so that I also may be encouraged when I learn of your condition. 20 For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare.

First, it was an effort to send Timothy. Departing was not simple. That in itself should remind us that if believers are walking together as they should be – church hopping will not be simple. Parting should hurt, and take effort.

Second, note that the term “kindred spirit” (isopsyxos) is literally “equal-soul (identity)” shown in Spirit led believers who treat the moral weight of a matter similarly – with the same “right conviction”. It is used in 2 Pet 1:1 as “equally precious” or “like precious faith”. This issue is this: We stand in unity when we identify with those who have the same concerns and moral principles.

The concern test is this: Am I deeply concerned for other believers in my service to the King? Do we share the same moral precepts and critical areas of concern in life choices?

The second akin to it is the COOPERATION TEST:

Phil. 2:21 For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus. 22 But you know of his proven worth, that he served with me in the furtherance of the gospel like a child serving his father. 23 Therefore I hope to send him immediately, as soon as I see how things go with me; 24 and I trust in the Lord that I myself also will be coming shortly.

First and foremost, the cooperation test is about the ability to practically serve one another. Those who serve their own interests were fickle when times were hard. They were at one time with the Apostle – and then defectors when self benefit ran its course. We must be ever so careful not to allow self interest to dictate our involvement. Where do you hear it? “I’m not going to that, because I don’t feel like it really touches me, or meets my need!” Could it be that it meets a need in someone else for you to be a part of it?

Pastor Newland wrote these words, and I found them helpful: “Do you ever ask yourself on Sunday morning, “Why am I going to church? Am I going because I feel I owe a debt to God, so I’m trying to pay it back? Or because I’m carrying a heavy burden that I hope will be lifted? Or because I like the music & the fellowship & even the preaching? Why am I going?” Why should we go? Well, if we’re genuinely interested in others, the church becomes a training ground where we learn how to help one another. So when you come to church, be on the lookout. Over there is a mother with both hands full, trying to herd her kids through the door. Maybe she could use your help. Or you’re sitting near a guest, here for the first time. Introduce yourself & tell them, “I’m glad you came.” And let them know that if we can help them in any way to grow in their faith, that’s why we’re here. Or when you look at the prayer list, & learn of someone who is having a difficult time – get a card & write them a note, & let them know that you’ll be praying for them. Or if someone you know is struggling with a heavy burden of grief or loss, hold their hand, & maybe weep with them. Just let them know that you care.”

Second, it is also worth noting that the work of Timothy was advancing the Gospel by serving the one that God called to lead him. He served Jesus by serving Paul. Cooperation, not an entrepreneurial self adventure, was the evidence of God’s building up of Timothy to a worthy help in the Kingdom. Tim bent his life around what God was doing in and through Paul – not expecting Paul to conform a program to himself. Those who desire to learn should work to change their lives to conform to the offerings of the trainer – launching out more slowly and helping with greater fervency.

The cooperation test is this: Am I willing to practically serve those who God has put before us to lead us to maturity?

The third is the COMMITMENT TEST:

Phil. 2:25 But I thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger and minister to my need; 26 because he was longing for you all and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick. 27 For indeed he was sick to the point of death, but God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, so that I would not have sorrow upon sorrow. 28 Therefore I have sent him all the more eagerly so that when you see him again you may rejoice and I may be less concerned about you.

We are living in a generation that hate responsibilities and ignore commitments. Say anything you want about Epaphroditus, you cannot argue that he was uncommitted to the work. Paul called him a BROTHER, a FELLOW LABORER, a FELLOW SOLDIER, a MESSENGER and a MINISTER. No wonder he almost died. The guy had so many jobsin the ministry, he couldn’t fit them on his Latin business card. Saving Epaphroditus’ life was a genuine prize to Paul who was worried he would be buried in administration and service if his companion died! Paul would have lost a right arm in ministry, and been sorrowful and weighted down. Paul sent him (presumably with the letter we are now studying) to assure people their prayers were answered for his restoration to health.

So often we forget those whose commitment means so much! One man asked his friend “By whose preaching were you converted?” The man replied, “NOT BY ANYONE’S PREACHING, BUT BY MOTHER’S PRACTICING.”

The commitment test is simple: “Will they miss me if I am gone?” If there would be no functional change in the body of believers because of your absence, something is desperately wrong with your commitment – and that is burning a wound in the unity of the body.

The fourth is the CONSIDERATION TEST:

Phil. 2:29 Receive him then in the Lord with all joy, and hold men like him in high regard; 30 because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was deficient in your service to me.

People that want unity are unafraid to honor other people. Selfish and immature believers are defensive about God’s blessing on others in their ministry works for Him. Paul directed they hold Epaphroditus in HIGH REGARD – because of the effective work he did for filling in the gap of aid to Paul. The terms “high regard” are a translation of éntimos (an adjective derived from “en” or  “in,” intensifying “timḗ” or “attributed honor”) – it is properly hold in honor, cherish, hold precious or hold in a condition of personal respect.

The consideration test is this: “Do I esteem greatly those who are working in all the areas of ministry that service our community?”

Before we go, it is worth recalling that unity is not a “pie in the sky ideal” … it was revealed to be practiced. Chuck Swindoll wrote these words: “Imagine, if you will, that you work for a company whose president found it necessary to travel out of the country and spend an extended period of time abroad. So he says to you and the other trusted employees, “Look, I’m going to leave. And while I’m gone, I want you to pay close attention to the business. You manage things while I’m away. I will write you regularly. When I do, I will instruct you in what you should do from now until I return from this trip.” Everyone agrees. He leaves and stays gone for a couple of years. During that time he writes often, communicating his desires and concerns. Finally he returns. He walks up to the front door of the company and immediately discovers everything is in a mess–weeds flourishing in the flower beds, windows broken across the front of the building, the gal at the front desk dozing, loud music roaring from several offices, two or three people engaged in horseplay in the back room. Instead of making a profit, the business has suffered a great loss. Without hesitation he calls everyone together and with a frown asks, “What happened? Didn’t you get my letters?” You say, “Oh, yeah, sure. We got all your letters. We’ve even bound them in a book. And some of us have memorized them. In fact, we have ‘letter study’ every Sunday. You know, those were really great letters.” I think the president would then ask, “But what did you do about my instructions?” And, no doubt the employees would respond, “Do? Well, nothing. But we read every one!” – Charles Swindoll, Living Above the Level of Mediocrity, p. 242.

Careful attention to choosing the right path is essential to getting you to your desired destination!