As Christmas approaches, you will see and hear the word JOY much more often than you do at any other time of year. If you are fortunate, you will sing, “Joy to the World” and be reminded of God’s great gift to us, or you will be reminded of Jeremiah the bullfrog – but that is a whole other story. You may hear songs exclaim: “How great our Joy!” With all the talk about joy – you would think that people had a clear understanding of what it actually is, but the sad fact is that they do not. Biblically speaking, joy isn’t happiness – you can be joyful at the funeral of a friend, but deeply sad at the same time. The Biblical understanding of JOY is closer to a celebration of assurance. That assurance is not in circumstance, but rather in the character of the Sovereign One that holds all my life’s circumstances carefully in His hand. Joy is rooted in understanding that God is on the throne, and that He is not worn out by being there. He is on the job and He is fully engaged. More than that, joy is the assurance that He knows me and my needs – and He isn’t forgetful. He is the very essence of good, and I am on His heart and in His mind.
In our first lesson from Philippians, we read the opening words of the letter, and found that “Joy is not a random gift; it can be learned – but it takes practice. The Apostle Paul had to learn JOY. He had to practice at it – and so do we. How should we do it? We saw seven lessons we glanced at the words of God’s Spirit pressed from the quill of the Apostle:
• He laid down any expectation but that of a slave of Jesus (1:1).
• He humbly recognized his need for the others on his team (1:1).
• He trusted wholly the process of God’s grace that leads to God’s peace (1:2).
• He openly recited a litany of God’s blessings (1:3-5).
• He celebrated the power of the Gospel in others – both near and far (1:6).
• He identified the power that came from tying hearts together in Christ (1:7-8).
• He practiced surrender through prayer –exchanging his broken perspective for God’s whole view (1:9-11).
Now as Paul continued his journey to know, reflect and even attempt to spread JOY to other believers, he had to identify something within, and allow God to defeat it. He had to know and face the fact that there is a strong resistance of the flesh to be molded by the Potter’s hand. Do you have that problem?
Have you ever tried to mold a shape from dough? If the dough has any yeast within, it will grow and change shape after you have handled it. Leave alone your tiny creation and it will become, by completely natural processes, a chubby and unformed version of your former creation. Only an oven can stop the changes. If you really think about it, we are not altogether different from that dough. Deep within our heart, every believer has fallen “natural” tendencies to take the shaping work of the Spirit of God and push out all the forming work that has been done. We exert ourselves and in our flesh we often undo the changes that God is making because of a hunger to regain control by recalling our old systems, our old methods of doing things. Surrendering to the hand of the One who would reshape us and mold us is not easy – but it has incredible benefits and can create exciting open doors for God to use our lives! I can only really spread joy when I am in the Master’s hands and stop wrestling with His shaping work in my life. Our text for this lesson will show a truth that we need to grasp:
Key Principle: Paul’s surrendered heart allowed God to reposition him in places he would not choose to go, but could be most useful to God’s service.
Paul sat in a cell for several years, and then moved to a house arrest near the Tiber River in Rome. Nearly five years of life slipped away as he sat under bonds. He waited for the Master to use Him in God’s chosen way in God’s selected moment. Surrender is truly a self-defining act – it admits limitation in understanding and trust in God’s sovereign plan. I will only ever be what God wants me to be when I recognize that I don’t fully know what that is – and I don’t have the ability in the flesh to get there. As he wrote the Philippians, he said, “I wanted to start churches, but God wanted to reach prison guards. I wanted to teach believers, but God used my prison bars to embolden them without ever seeing my face.” What is at the center of surrender? It is nothing less than excelling in trust in God while admitting my trust in self must be torn away.”
Paul sat in a cell and waited for God to use Him in God’s chosen way. Surrender is a self defining act – it admits limitation in understanding and trust in God’s sovereign plan. I will only ever be what God wants me to be when I recognize that I don’t fully know what that is – and I don’t have the ability in the flesh to get there. I must learn trust to practice surrender.
How did Paul learn to let God shape him?
As Paul wrote Philippians, he sat in his room and waited for another visitor from Colossae. He was used to sitting long hours by now. His days by the sea in Caesarea as he awaited questioning taught him well. God takes His time, and God knows best. Think back with me to Paul’s life over the last half decade before he wrote our text in Philippians. Don’t rush this… because the slow move of God’s hand is part of the point of the lesson…
First there was the questioning of Procurator Antonius Felix, five years before. Felix was a man of Paul’s own age.
• He was given the position of Procurator by Emperor Claudius, who was also responsible for introducing him to his first wife – one Drusilla of Mauretania – a maternal cousin of the Emperor. Claudius arranged for them to marry in Rome around 53, about the time Paul was on his second mission journey.
• By the time Paul met him, Felix had divorced his first wife – after her family connection was no longer of political help to his political career because Claudius had died in 54 and Nero was now hailed as Emperor. Felix dropped her and married another woman- this one also named Drusilla (that way he didn’t have to change the dishes and stationary). The second wife was a Judean princess – the daughter of King Herod Agrippa I (whose death “smitten of worms” was recorded in Acts 12).
• Felix’s second wife, we’ll call her “Drusilla II” like a boat named at a nearby dock – became an interesting historical footnote. She and two children perished along with the many of the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 24 August 79 CE. Drusilla was one of only two major figures reported as dying in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the other being Pliny the Elder. Little did she know when she sat in Acts 24:24 on a judgment seat before Paul, that one day Paul’s Master would sit in permanent judgment over her life – abruptly ended by a volcano.
Paul met Felix at a time of transition for the Procurator. His term of service was nearly completed, and his Imperial patron was no longer on the throne. Nero was a good Emperor for his first years (before 59 when he killed his mother). Felix was facing an uncertain future with a new Judean bride. Would he be called back to Rome? He probably didn’t know. This was a time for uncertainty. You can hear it when reading the New Testament account. Luke reminds us of the time Paul and Felix met:
Acts 24:24 But some days later Felix arrived with Drusilla, his wife who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 But as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you.” 26 At the same time too, he was hoping that money would be given him by Paul; therefore he also used to send for him quite often and converse with him. 27 But after two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, and wishing to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul imprisoned.
Paul prayed fervently, met with Antonius Felix, and then saw his hope fade as he was sent back to his cell, time after time. The frequent discussions may have helped Paul to interject the Gospel, but didn’t get him out of prison. At the same time, they were the closest to LIFE that Felix would ever get. He heard of Christ. He heard of a life free of facing the JUDGE of man. His greed and his fear blinded him – just as it has so many others since.
Felix wasn’t so different from many people we meet today. Any discussion of things like “righteousness”, “self control” and “judgment to come” make them squirm. They want the Gospel of God’s love – not the one that requires them to deny themselves and take up His cross daily to follow Him. I understand. I want to be selfish now and glorified later – but that isn’t Christianity. At least Felix lived when it was clear that you either needed to surrender life and choice to Jesus – or not claim to be a follower. Today, across the airwaves and in many a book there is a “cheap grace” Gospel that pervades – a “have it all now” and “get it all later” version. That teaching isn’t the Gospel of the Apostles – it is a much more modern adaptation. It is not about sacrifice or loving service of Jesus, but about personal greed and comfort. If the Gospel of ME were available at the time of Procurator Felix, he may well have signed on to the Jesus movement – but it would have been the same cloaked self-centered faith that it is today – not a real heart transformation that leads to following Jesus Christ.
Don’t back down when people try to suggest that a Gospel that includes surrender is not the real Gospel. Look at what Paul was sharing. Ask why he didn’t just emphasize what Felix could get from Jesus, but rather what was truly at stake without surrender of the heart and life. Paul’s Gospel wasn’t so easy, and we need to be careful that ours isn’t either. Some would call what I am saying heresy – but it is right within the black and white words of Luke’s account in Acts 24:25. The words of Paul to a lost man were not simply about self-benefit and self-acquisition. It wasn’t all – “You get Heaven… and you get blessing… and you get healing… and you get…” WAIT! The words were about “righteousness”, “self control” and “judgment to come”. Let’s admit that truth isn’t any more popular now than it was in the beginning of the move of the Gospel. When the truth became too hard to swallow, many simply adapted the message to something more palatable. Voila! We have a Christian message that guarantees heaven but requires nothing of surrender! I can both claim Christ and live for self. The only problem is it doesn’t please God and it doesn’t save – because it isn’t real.
The Gospel is this: I cannot work to get to Heaven, because my sinfulness isn’t just about my actions, but about my judicial guilt before a perfect God. Jesus, the Perfect Son of God put on skin and took my place in judgment. He paid my deserved penalty of sin – all of it. I need only acknowledge the gift by truly opening my life to becoming His man or woman – to be a vessel of His will and His choices – and He will gladly receive me before His Father when my life on earth is through. It will be a journey, not an instant surrender. There will be setbacks and I will never be perfect. That isn’t the point. Christians aren’t perfect, they are on a journey to surrender to the nail scarred hands of the Savior, just as He surrendered His life for us. To ask Him to come into my heart so that He may elevate ME is not the message of the Christian church. Our message is about the exaltation of HIM in light of what He has done for us. Surrender is essential to the message, but it is quickly being tossed out of the faith in favor of a new adaptation called the “Gospel of self benefit”.
Back in his cell, Paul sat. Time passed slowly… The second set of questions came from the replacement Roman procurator of Provincia Iudaea, one Portius Festus. He took office near the end of 58 CE, and Provincial coinage changed in the year 59 CE. As Festus rose to the office, Emperor Nero was sinking to new lows. He had his mother Agrippina murdered, and he stole away a Roman general’s wife, and took one Poppeia Sabbina of Pompeii as his new bride. Strangely enough, one of the houses that you can visit today that has been entirely uncovered and excavated is her family home. The Empire was very likely beginning to recognize the uncertainty of the future as the great philosopher and writer Seneca was called for less and less as Nero’s tutor and advisor.
• Festus not only faced the shifting sands of Rome, but inherited problems regarding the creation of civic privileges for Jews under Roman rule. The status of Jews was a constant problem. Festus wanted the Jewish leadership to be quiet, and that didn’t play well into Paul’s possibility of release. In fact, it imperiled him. I suspect he knew it, and that is what caused him to turn down the offer for a trial in Jerusalem. He knew he would be killed on the road to the Holy City, and never make it to trial.
• If he DID get to the Temple, internal fighting made any trial there uncertain, as the increasing controversy and tension between Herod Agrippa II and the Temple priests in Jerusalem bedeviled Festus’ administration. No doubt Paul heard of the troubles, even while imprisoned in Caesarea.
The Apostle Paul stood before Festus. Festus sought to induce Paul to go to Jerusalem for trial; Paul appealed to the Emperor. Luke recorded it this way:
Acts 25:1 Festus then, having arrived in the province, three days later went up to Jerusalem from Caesarea. 2 And the chief priests and the leading men of the Jews brought charges against Paul, and they were urging him, 3 requesting a concession against Paul, that he might have him brought to Jerusalem (at the same time, setting an ambush to kill him on the way). … 6 After he had spent not more than eight or ten days among them, he went down to Caesarea, and on the next day he took his seat on the tribunal and ordered Paul to be brought. 7 After Paul arrived, the Jews who had come down from Jerusalem stood around him, bringing many and serious charges against him which they could not prove, 8 while Paul said in his own defense, “I have committed no offense either against the Law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar.” 9 But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, answered Paul and said, “Are you willing to go up to Jerusalem and stand trial before me on these charges?” 10 But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you also very well know. 11 “If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of those things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar.” 12 Then when Festus had conferred with his council, he answered, “You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you shall go.”
The lessons in the school of JOY did not take place in a Paul that was half asleep. He was aware of the danger lurking below the surface. He trusted God to do what was best, and at the very same time kept his eyes peeled and mind working to make the best choices he could. Believers aren’t lacking trust when they are planning – they are rehearsing with God the possible outcomes and trying to sense His direction. Paul faced a CHOICE about how to move forward. He didn’t go back to his cell and wait for God to divinely intervene. God HAD loosed him from jail before, long ago in Philippi. Rather, he looked at the options and tried to discern what would be the best direction based on his honest understanding.
I get nervous around Christians that believe that no matter WHAT they choose, God will always intervene in a way that makes their lives easier. That just isn’t how a mature believer should think. God loves me, but His highest agenda isn’t my ease – it is my surrender and His message of life. Paul chose ROME because it seemed the best way to get the Gospel to the place where all roads led. He wanted it to hit home, and then be spread from that place.
A third set of questions was now posed to Paul. It is hard to tell from the record how Paul felt about the apologies and defenses he was forced to give. From the Epistles it seems like Paul knew it was not a CHORE, but an OPPORTUNITY. That is the sense we get, especially from the first chapter of Philippians.
The defense before Herod Agrippa II recorded in Acts 25 and 26 is rich, but time won’t permit us to really address it in this lesson. Suffice it to say that Paul offered a defense of the Gospel so ringing that Agrippa replied that he was “almost convinced”. By the time Paul sat on the Tiber River, he had been through a shipwreck, a snake bite, and a tin of official questioning. His freedom was GONE. His travels curtailed. He was a man on a leash.
Tell me that Paul never had a moment with his inner struggle to surrender. I don’t believe it. He learned TRUST by God’s molding work of love.
He fought the questions that arise in the immature heart. At the heart of many un-yielded Christians is a lack of trust. Does God really know what is best for me? Look at what the surrendered and matured man of God could write:
Philippians 1:12 Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, 13 so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, 14 and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.
• It looks like I have been out of the work for years, but the work has grown in new ways (1:12). (God has the right to set me aside from traveling and put me in a locked room, if that is where He wants to work) – the implications of a slave’s expectations.
• I wanted to start churches, but God wanted to reach guards (1:13). Paul was like any other man serving Christ – great plans filled his mind. Yet, God moved him from the front line of service to the cells of jails and now to a small house by the Tiber – waiting. The great struggle of surrender in the believer is nowhere clearer than when his will is powerfully subjugated by God’s overruling hand. God knows the plan and I don’t – I know only my small piece of the puzzle.
• I wanted to build believers by discipleship, but God wanted to make my life an example to stir others (1:14).
Look at the things Paul found out about a surrendered heart…
Paul’s surrendered heart allowed him to look past the petty nonsense that easily engulfs others.
Philippians 1:15 Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; 16 the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17 the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice,
Jealousy thrives in every community, even the community of faith. Some will be angered by any success of others – because they have an selfish heart. One problem with selfishness is that it blinds from God’s real direction. Paul saw his appointment from God – it was clear and real to him. At the same time, as a mature believer, Paul lost no sleep trying to discern the motives of other men – but let their works be measured by God alone. He rejoiced in anything that he could rejoice in. He didn’t draw back his hand from instructing people – his letters are filled with specific injunctions against believers behaving badly. At the same time, he didn’t run around looking for a fight. He wanted to celebrate the proclamation of Christ more than he wanted to find what was wrong with everyone else.
Paul’s surrendered heart opened him to anticipation rather than fear.
Philippians 1:19 for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, 20 according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Surrendered people may not think everything is coming up roses, but they are also not glum people that preach gloom and doom. The plan has not left the Master’s hands. He is very much in control. Understanding that truth is at the heart of JOY. Paul didn’t know if he would live or die – but that wasn’t the point. He KNEW the Gospel would change the world. His only point of anxiousness, and many of us really understand this one, was that HE didn’t want to drop the ball and become a weak link in the chain. He wanted to be bold and face both life and death. He wanted to apprehend in his heart the real meaning of the Resurrection – that Jesus “rendered inoperative” death itself. Facing the sword, he didn’t want to whimper, but to face his own mortal end with an air of Christ’s victory.
Paul’s surrendered heart pushed him from no-win to no-lose thinking.
Philippians 1: 22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.
Believers don’t face a lose-lose life. We will either live today, and have opportunity to exalt our King, reach our neighbor, celebrate a sunrise and sunset, sing for God’s goodness to us – or we will leave this life – and stand in His presence complete, our life’s journey over. If we really understand that, we should have the biggest smiles in the town – for to live or to die is a great opportunity to serve and celebrate the Savior.
I love the grumpy old man who said: “The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance.” That was the Roman orator Cicero in 55 BCE! Things aren’t even close to better now, so who wants to put their trust in society and government?
Why do we labor so hard to be encouraged and seem so easily discouraged? Do we not DESIRE to honor the Savior with the day we have? Are we unsure of what life will be when the body dies? Is the problem that He hasn’t spoken or that I haven’t believed? I suspect we know the answer. It is time for believers to recognize they have been duped into measuring life by material prosperity and not by things that are real. Nothing you buy on “Black Friday” goes past the black hearse at the end of your life. It isn’t real. It isn’t the root and source of happiness. It is just more STUFF. If it helps you be what God wants you to be for Him today, then it is a tool in your hand. If it doesn’t – then it is at least a distraction and at most an idolatrous thing. If we measure life from the wrong perspective, we will be negative when we should not be – for God has told us both in this life and in the next what to expect. Life for the believer is one of anticipation – not despair.
If the dollar falls, my faith will keep soaring until I am home. If my health fails, things will hurt more, and will no doubt cost more – but my life is not dependent on this frail body – but on an ever loving, ever giving, ever generous, ever blessing Father.
Paul’s surrendered heart allowed him to focus on the others in his life and their needs.
Philippians 1:25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again.
I am always amazed when I visit people who I know are experiencing intense pain, and they ask about me and my family. I feel small when I stand next to those who have graduated from the school of God’s amazing “other person focused” curriculum. Mature believers care about the others in the room. They aren’t trying to constantly re-direct the focus back to themselves – that isn’t how they live!
Paul truly believed that he would return to them though he was about to stand before a man whose picture is found in the dictionary under the word “unstable”. Nero was at least unpredictable and at most despicably cruel and heartless. Paul was confident, because he was looking at the church of Philippi and projecting the hope that God would allow him yet another time to sit with them, love on them and share with them. Surrender and self run in opposite directions, and Paul was not his own. You can hear it in his words.
Paul’s surrendered heart gave him confidence that God was always working His plan in the best way.
Philippians 1:27 Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; 28 in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God. 29 For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30 experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.
Those who lack surrender lack trust. They lack confidence that God is capable, qualified and truly GOOD. That lack robs the essential elements of JOY from them. They keep score on wrongs committed against them, and bump up their own score on righteousness. They whimper, whine and complain, and then sing hymns of faith on Sunday like an opera star.
Look at Paul’s words. He PUSHED the people to LIVE CHRIST, not just talk Christ. They weren’t supposed to relax the Gospel because of his imprisonment – they were to step it up! They were to anticipate that God was GOOD even if persecution and suffering increased. They were not to back away from the faith because their leader was under arrest and facing Nero – they were to see this as God being faithful, and Paul being tested. They were not supposed to shut off the possibility of harder times ahead – they were to take JOY from serving Jesus no matter what came next. They were to learn what God taught Paul after long hours of sitting under arrest…