The School of Joy: "Seven Secrets of a Happy Prisoner" – Philippians 1:1-11

Something horrific happened this past week – many of us felt it deeply. I know that across America this Sunday there will be a collective GROAN in churches that are deeply concerned about some of the issues our nation selected as they exercised their respective votes. Some states voted to allow marijuana to be legalized. Others voted to install in the Senate openly homosexual leaders in the country. Still others defiantly framed “true care for women” as the unmitigated and inalienable right of a woman to terminate a life in her womb – even if it simply because she finds that life inconvenient. We saw people party in the streets for so-called “rights” that are nothing more than the wholesale licensing of moral wrongs into civil rights. While the pundits spoke of an impending fiscal cliff, many believers across the country were in shock –over the seeming moral cliff our countrymen wish to push all of us over. It was sobering, and it was hard for some of you. I truly do understand.

Yet, I stand as a man full of JOY. If joy is defined as “the resolute assurance that God has neither lost interest in me, nor the power to deal with my problems” – I am truly standing in abundant JOY. I cannot hardly contain myself for all the joy of the Lord that I find within me. You surely have a right to question why I should find such joy and speak in this way. I think that MUST be because I have been spending much time with an old friend of mine – the very man who first helped to teach me about a walk of joy. I want you to meet him today – because he will be our real speaker today. He supplied all the material we will study today, because the hand of God was mighty through his pen. His name is Shaul of the city of Tarsus – but many of you know him by his Gentile name – simply Paul. He was a man who learned joy, and taught joy – and I am one of his disciples in this lesson.

The other day, I stood worshiping God in a dark and dank room that was part of the building, many scholars feel, of Paul’s first imprisonment. I stood in a tenement building from the first century in Rome that belonged to Jews who were cloth dyers and heavy cloth weavers. Situated near the Tiber River, at the heart of the ancient city of Rome, Paul found himself under a “light chain” of arrest somewhere close to where I was standing. From those chambers he received visitors according to Acts 28. From those rooms of house arrest he penned a personal letter to a friend named Philemon of Colossae, and also wrote profound and challenging letters to the small but growing churches at Ephesus, Colossae and Philippi. Facing charges that led him to stand before Nero – a man who killed his mother and kicked his pregnant wife to death – there was a reasonable chance that Paul was at his end. Yet, Paul sat on a stool, quill in hand, with unparalleled joy! He was not a man on the ropes, but a man unstoppable with a message contagious. I want you to catch what he knew. I want to restore the joy to those of you who may be over weighed by life’s troubles. I want you to hear Paul’s surrendered heart and be lifted by his courage and gentleness. It is with that purpose we open the pages of our Bible to Philippians 1 and its first eleven verses. As we do, it will become apparent that Paul learned to meet troubles with joy – but he had to learn how to do it. He learned to stare down loss with a buoyant companion- but it did not come without sincere practice. We will see, at long last, a key truth…

Key Principle: Joy is not a random gift; it can be learned – but it takes practice.

How do you face setbacks and attacks with joy? What did the Spirit of God offer through the Word that can supply us with the tools to work at life when evil seems to march ahead and good seems to suffer? There are seven lessons that we must carefully learn to bring back the hop in our step that comes with the walk of a confident and joyful believer.

What are the seven lessons?

First, I must learn to live with the expectations of a bond-servant (1:1a).

1:1 “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus…”

The Roman world was full of slaves. In fact, in Rome at the time of Paul, there were on any occasion more slaves than free citizens. Slaves were not “stupid”, and performed much more than manual labor. Some were domestic servants, while others were employed at highly skilled jobs and professions. Teachers, accountants, and physicians were often slaves. In Roman elite culture Greek slaves in particular were often highly educated. Among the lowest classes, unskilled slaves (or sometimes those condemned to slavery as criminal punishment), worked on farms, in sulfur or rock quarry mines, and at mills. Often their living conditions were brutal, and their lives short in these harsh places.

Slaves were considered property under Roman law – they had no legal status as a person at all. Unlike citizens, they could be subjected to physical beatings, sexual exploitation (prostitutes were often slaves), sadistic torture, or summary execution. Their testimony could not normally be heard in a court of law except under extreme conditions – and then only after they were tortured – a practice based on the belief that slaves would be too loyal to reveal damaging evidence unless coerced by painful means. Caesar Augustus imposed a 2 percent tax on the sale of slaves, estimated to generate annual revenues of about 5 million sesterces—a figure that indicates some 250,000 sales. The tax was increased to 4 percent by 43 CE under Claudius. Slave markets appear to have existed in many cities, yet outside Rome the major center was of purchase appeared to be ancient Ephesus. Most new slaves were acquired by wholesale dealers who followed the Roman armies. Julius Caesar once sold the entire population of a conquered region in Gaul, no fewer than 53,000 people, to slave dealers on the spot.

In Rome, slaves were sold at public auction or sometimes in shops, or by private sale in the case of more valuable slaves by Roman fiscal officials called “quaestors”. They may have been put on revolving stands, tagged from sale with a plaque of the slave’s place of origin, health, character, intelligence, education, and other information making them more appealing to purchasers. Because the Romans wanted to know exactly what they were buying, slaves were presented naked. The dealer was required to take a slave back within six months if the slave had defects that were not manifest at the sale, or make good the buyer’s loss. Slaves sold “as is” – with no guarantee – were made to wear a cap at the auction.

Why do I mention all this? Because Paul thought of himself as a SLAVE of Jesus Christ. He was not saying it to suggest that Jesus had treated him badly, or shamed him in some way. He was very likely following the pattern of Dr. Luke, who accompanied him to Rome. It appears, from scholarly research, that Luke must have sold himself as a slave to Paul in order to make the journey. Paul’s status on the journey likely increased in the eyes of the Roman soldiers that accompanied him to Rome – because Paul journeyed with a personal slave-physician.

How can learning the expectations of a slave life help me to be JOYFUL? Because the attitudes of privilege and anticipation of personal comfort rights can damage my outlook when it comes to following my Savior. When I think I deserve better than my Master, I become self oriented, and self concerned – and I lose the real perspective I am to have in life. Jesus had a mind to please His Father – even in His death. Paul had a mind to please his Savior – even unto death. Paul did not write that he deserved his “best life now” – quite the contrary. Paul thought of himself as one who was born to serve his Master – and not himself. Did that mean he did not laugh, sing and celebrate life? No, not at all. It meant that he did not consider it strange when hard things came into his life – and therein is a secret.

When believers focus on their own comforts and pleasures, they grow in self focus. When they pay close attention to the delight of their Master – whether in comfort or in difficulty – they become reflectors of a surrendered heart. God is searching for people who desire to serve Him because they love Him – not those who will serve Him simply for the benefits they receive from His good hand.

Matthew Henry wrote, “Whom Christ blesses the world curses. The heirs of heaven have never been the darlings of this world, since the old enmity was put between the seed of woman (Eve) and of the serpent (Devil). Why did Cain hate Abel? Because Abel’s works were righteous.

Persecution is part of Christianity. Jesus warned of it in the Beatitudes of Matthew 5. Paul warned Timothy that “…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…” (2 Timothy 3:12). It is stated, and reminders are placed carefully into Scripture because we are offensive to the world. Righteousness in daily living makes us an offense to people who live for the themselves and feed their flesh. A life surrendered to Jesus Christ convicts those nearby who live for themselves.

Christians need not seek persecution. Conversely, they should neither retreat from it, nor offer retaliation in the face of it, or stand shocked that it has come. Their reward is clearly set in Heaven, and their joy is found in facing earthly strife with the attitude of the early believers who were “…rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name [of Christ].” (Acts 5: 14).

Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer were the two American Christian aide workers being held by the Taliban under threat of death during the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on America and the resulting U.S. attack on Afghanistan. They open their book, “Prisoners of Hope” with these words, “To the Afghan people whom we so dearly love.” These words reflect the heart of Christians who are willing to risk persecution and perhaps death for the sake of taking the gospel to the lost, those who are without Christ as personal Savior and Lord. They also wrote; “To our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Your everlasting love healed our hearts and set us free. May we honor and love you with all that we are for all of our days.” (sermon central illustrations).

Blessed abundantly with the “Righteousness” clothed from God’s forgiveness wardrobe, a believer with a surrendered heart does not resist His will, regardless of the pain or cost. They have learned to think as a slave, not as a freedman. They feel blessed to be counted worthy to undergo persecution for the sake of the righteousness of Christ.

Second, I must learn to build a team in my life (1:1b).

1:1b “…To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons…”

A slave and persecution mentality normally makes people suspicious and wary of connection, yet that is a terribly mistake. Jesus warned that His message would divide families, and cause some to turn against their own flesh and blood. Light contrasts against darkness, and makes the darkness look cold and uninviting. As children of light, we are called to adopt the mentality of those who KNOW THEY NEED each other. Christianity CANNOT be properly lived in isolation, nor can it be properly and fully practiced apart from relationship.

Paul knew the people on the ministry team at Philippi, because they openly declared their allegiance to Jesus by putting their time, talent and treasure on the line for the work to grow. Can the same be said of YOU? Seriously, are YOU in the situation that so clearly demonstrates your commitment to Jesus that your accountant can see that? How about your spouse? How about your co-worker? Is your faith obvious, or is it distant and implied?

Paul saw himself as part of the others who were working for the Kingdom. He wrote BOTH the believers, AND their leaders – both their “episkopos” – their overseers and “diakonos” – their congregational servants. He wrote as a kindred spirit.

It takes a team to pull of Christian testimony. It takes leadership, organization, evaluation and most of all – caring. God drew us into team work. The Christian world has far too many ball hogs that want the stands to acknowledge their every accomplishment. The acid test of the Christian is work that is hard, pushing their endurance – that gets credited to someone else. If you can work hard and know that your Master misses no sacrifice, forgets no suffering and remembers every exploit done for Him – without the need for applause this side of Heaven – you understand your call. We serve on teams, and sometimes your roll will not be singled out. Don’t worry, Jesus keeps perfect score!

Third, I must learn the process God uses to draw men and women (1:2).

1:2 “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Note that Paul’s salutation was specific and ordered. “Grace” came first, then “peace” followed. The fact is that is always the case in the days of the Gospel’s move forward. Grace is God’s unmerited gift of a personal relationship with him, while peace is the result of a life held tightly in His grip. I need to experience God’s grace before I can know God’s peace – that is the Divine process.

In our day, far too many people are committed to the product without the process. We want a great marriage without the requisite work in the relationship. We want the money that comes from hard work without doing the work itself. We want to play the instrument of life well without the hours of tedious practice on its strings… but we know that isn’t real. Yes, people win the lottery or inherit a whirlwind of money – but most live out their days without the “Publisher’s Clearing House” people showing up at the door. They work, and they save. They try to do their best to keep the job they have. In the process of life, they advance painfully slowly at times – but they do advance. Our faith is no different. We cannot be more committed to the end than the process. We must first accept God’s grace, and learn to live in it – then we will gain His peace.

Note that Paul made perfectly clear the source of these incredible blessings – God the Father, and His Son Jesus – the agent of blessing in a life lost to sin. God loves you. He sent His Son to secure your life and bring you peace where it really counts – between you and Him. No man or woman will ever truly have peace with others until they surrender their heart to God’s rich gracious gift of forgiveness – and then begin to feels the washing over of warm peace that soothes the pain-ridden soul.

Fourth, I must learn to be conscious of God’s hand of blessing and RECITE them (1:3-4).

1:3 “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all…”

Paul was not embarrassed, even under the light chain of arrest and awaiting a hearing, to proclaim himself an incredibly blessed man. He took sheer delight in the relationships that grew out of the expansion of the Gospel. As people came to Christ and asked Him for salvation, the family grew. As the family grew, so the photo portion of Paul’s mental wallet grew. Pictures upon pictures upon pictures of new lives, new marriages, new hope, new smiles. Paul thought about them as he flipped through the plastic sleeves of their pictures affixed in his mind and heart.

He thanked God regularly for each of the men, women and children that were being drawn to Christ through His testimony, and through the testimony of those who were already part of God’s Kingdom. Every time he thought of one he prayed, he sought God’s best for them. He was close to them within, though far away without. He wanted them to know they were on his heart, and in his soul. He spoke words of familiarity and care. “Out of sight, out of mind” is not a Christian thing – quite the opposite. We must intensely follow and fervently pray for those who are spread out in many places, as God burdens our hearts for them.

Fifth, I must learn the encouragement of God’s power through the Gospel (1:5-6).

1:5 “…in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Paul took courage and strength from the move of the Gospel and the power of God saving men and women. We should learn this pattern too. We are too self consumed in our culture. God’s work doesn’t STOP at the edges of our church, our movement or even our country.

A year ago, Dr. Wafik Wahba, Associate Professor of Global Christianity at Tyndale University reported a massive meeting of Egyptians. I had a personal friend in that crowd that verifies what was reported:

An estimated 70,000 Egyptian Christians gathered on November 11, 2011 for praise, worship, and prayer at St. Simon Church in Cairo while millions around the globe followed the event live on TV and the Internet. This was a significant event: It was the largest Christian gathering in the modern history of Egypt…The focal point of the gathering was repentance and forgiveness. The leaders of all churches came together in unprecedented unity to lead thousands of people in worship and prayer for Egypt: “We are here to rend our hearts before the Lord and repent for all our sins,” said one priest as he reflected on Joel chapter 2. Before leading the people in prayers of repentance he reminded all church leaders, Let the priests, who minister before the LORD, weep between the porch and the altar. Let them say, “Spare your people, LORD. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” – Joel 2:17. Another priest prayed for the healing of the land and for God’s intervention to save the country from a disastrous famine as the Nile is drying up at alarming rate. The powerful time of praise and worship focused on God’s glory being declared, once again, over the land of Egypt with several songs on the theme of “Blessing Egypt”. One of the highlights of the event was a prayer of dedication, wherein the country and its people were covenanted to the Lord to live a consecrated life. (Tyndale online).

Last week one year later, Stoyan Zaimov, a Christian Post Reporter filed this exciting piece:

October 26, 2012|12:19 pm “A massive four-day national prayer event is starting today, Oct. 26, in the desert north of Cairo, and is expected to draw 50,000 people from all over Egypt and reach around 5 to 6 million viewers with television coverage. “What is happening in Egypt this month is truly awesome. In the midst of increased persecution, turmoil and uncertainty, Christians are reaching out to others and fervently praying ‘in such a time as this.’ Please pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ during this weekend event,” said Jerry Dykstra, Media Relations Director for Open Doors USA. A Christian contact in Egypt who was not identified but spoke with Open Doors, a nonprofit persecution watchdog, explained that the main theme of the event will be to show to Egyptian people how Christ can change lives. “There is no doubt that God is moving in Egypt and showing Himself in mighty ways to many of His children, and to many who are seeking to know Him,” the contact said. “The hunger to know about Jesus and to get to know more about the Christian faith is phenomenal.” He added, “These are, indeed, difficult times we live in today. With all the political, social, economic and religious challenges we have faced here in the last few months, all Egyptians are left with many uncertainties and concerns about the present and future. “But we Christians of Egypt are realizing more and more every day that God is visiting our country with a powerful divine presence, and that the things He is going to do in our country are beyond imagination. This is what we pray for and this is what we are waiting in faith to see happening.”

To walk in the certainty of JOY is to trust the power of God to change lives and renew work. It is to believe that economies are secondary and temporal concerns – hearts of men and women are forever. It is to seek prayerfully the encouragement of God’s harvest in fields all about the globe – instead of looking with disdain and disbelief at the weeds in your own yard. The Gospel IS moving forward, and lives ARE being changed. We can grouse about our own moral downturn, or place it in the context of a God that is ON THE MOVE. Joy cometh in the morning (Ps. 30:5).

Sixth, I must learn the POWER of connected hearts (1:7-8).

1:7 “For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.”

We talked about TEAM at the end of verse one, but this is something even MORE. Paul openly states that it is RIGHT for him to have them attached to his heart, and it is RIGHT for them to feel the same connection to him. Look at the term “affection” in verse 8. This is the word “splágxnon” – a word for the internal organs. It is a way of figuratively saying “gut-level compassion”; the depth of emotion that is a byproduct of a real and deep relationship. Some of you have been believers for many years, but have to honestly say: “I don’t really feel that about other believers!” Those are hard words, but they are true ones. Let me suggest why that may be the case. Deep relationships form under pressure and strain. Our churches in North America have been largely culturally accepted for generations. Real persecution hasn’t really hit us hard. In places where it costs deeply to belong to Jesus, deep bonds are formed in the lives of believers to one another. We have lived through a time where we had a free hand to be light in our touch to one another. Yet, if the skies truly foretell a gathering of morally dark clouds, the church in America will learn anew the lessons of old – and deep relationships will be forged – leading to a powerful connection to one another.

When openly admitting to being a Christian is costly, the fake fly off. Those who have come to Christ and felt His touch draw toward one another. Frivolous differences flake off. We stop our whining about the silly things. I have traveled the earth and met many believers who have suffered. They are not nearly so picky about each other. They love and support each other with all their respective differences. They have seen the edge of the sword, and they have chosen a family with which to take their stand. It is not done lightly – and Paul stated his connection to the believers at Philippi as witnessed by God Himself. It was profound – because they were born again in the trenches of warfare, not the beds of luxury. A powerful connection is forged when the odds are stacked against us in the flesh, and the work of the Spirit within is all that keeps us strong. Persecution turns believers into magnets – attractive to one another, and deeply committed to standing as one. Prosperity and ease lead us to silly divisions, and frivolous chatter – but that falls away under pressure. In a strange way, believers amid persecution report they feel uniquely BLESSED by one another.

Seventh, I must learn the settling nature of a vibrant PRAYER life (1:9-11).

1:9 “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; 11 having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”

We have talked about prayer many times, simply because God’s Word speaks of it constantly. We have defined prayer as the exchange of my broken view, forged in weakness, with His perspective. When I truly pray effectively, I leave with a different view than I came. My pleading gives way to rejoicing – for no other plan is better than the one God has prepared for me.

Look closely at Paul’s prayer. It included several elements:

First, he prayed that the love founded among them would grow abundantly – showing itself in real practical knowledge and discernment about how to live righteously. Don’t skip past this, look closely:

• The terms “real knowledge” are from the Greek compound word “epígnōsis” or epí, “on, fitting” which intensifies “gnṓsis” “knowledge gained through first-hand relationship”. It is “contact-knowledge” or appropriate (“apt, fitting”) experience of first-hand practice

• The term for “discernment” is aísthēsis, a feminine noun – the kind of sensible perception that “cuts through” hazy ethical (moral) matters to really “size things up” (used only in Phil 1:9).

Paul was praying that their love would not be blind and theoretical – but experiential and leading toward greater clarity in truth. Believers need THAT BRAND of love to prevail. We need a growing sense of connection that is holy and discerning and practical.

Next, Paul prayed for their ability to prioritize properly the spiritual growth steps that would lead them to maturity. Believers are easily distracted by the lesser lights of philanthropy. We can feed the hungry and build shelters for those in the cold – and that isn’t wrong. At the same time, the Gospel is not a social theory branded to make life on earth better. The Gospel is about the eternal, not simply the temporal. We must care for others in practical ways, but never at the expense of the Gospel or the exclusion of it. Pagans can feed hungry people, and God’s people should do it in direct connection with credibility to underscore the love of God and the rescue message of God’s Word…I am concerned when practical help replaces Gospel commitment. I am disheartened when those who will not profess Christ in their mouth are so quick to pick up a hammer and call that their witness. It is true that we need to care for men and women so that they will see the love of Christ. I simply argue that faith – true saving faith –comes by hearing, and that by the Word of God. No one was ever saved by being fed or clothed apart from the clear presentation of God’s holy Gospel – we must not forget that.

Finally the goal of Paul’s prayer was the fruit of lives committed to Jesus. He wanted them ready to meet Jesus at the sound of the trumpet, carrying baskets filled up with righteous fruit, as an overflow of the work of God’s spirit within.

He wanted love that drove them into experience and practice. He wanted people who could sort out the most important objectives spiritually and stay focused on them. He wanted people overflowing with fruit that came from the Spirit’s work within. He wanted what any real Pastor wants… mature believers that can think and act in Biblically mandated ways at work, at home and in the public square. He would not stay up nights, tossing and turning about this – it was far beyond his control. Rather, he would bow his knees and humbly hand the situation over to the powerful work of the Spirit of the Living God.

Prayer releases me from having to find a way to do what I cannot do. It opens my heart to allow God to show me how small I am, how BIG He is, and how capable His power can be. Prayer brings peace, because it properly moves over to God the things which He says He will care for – and removes me from the Messiah complex of fixing things in my own power.

In the end, Paul had to learn JOY. He had to practice at it. How did he do it?

He laid down any expectation but that of a slave of Jesus.
• He humbly recognized his need for the others on his team.
• He trusted wholly the process of God’s grace that leads to God’s peace.
• He openly recited a litany of God’s blessings.
• He celebrated the power of the Gospel in others – both near and far.
• He identified the power that came from tying hearts together in Christ.
• He practiced surrender through prayer –exchanging his broken perspective for God’s whole view.

Joy is not a random gift; it can be learned – but it takes practice.

The story is told of an old recluse who lived deep in the wooded mountains of Colorado. After his death, his relatives appeared one day from the city to collect his valuables. The arrived to see an old shack with an outhouse beside it. In the main room of the shack, next to a rock fireplace, was an old cooking pot and some rusted mining equipment. A three-legged chair sat beside a cracked table, and a kerosene lamp served as the only centerpiece for the Spartan surface. On the end of the little room was a dilapidated cot with a threadbare bedroll on it.

Within a few minutes of their arrival, a mountain neighbor appeared to watch them pick through the old relics. A few minutes more passed and the family members started to leave. As they placed the few items they found in their car, the neighbor on his mule, asked them: “Do you mind if I help myself to what’s left in my friend’s cabin?” They didn’t hesitate, and thought the man looked just as poor as their old relative turned our to be. “Go right ahead,” they replied. After all, they thought, what inside that shack could be worth anything?

The family drove away. The old friend entered the shack and walked directly over to the table, moved it, and released one of the loose floor boards. He took out all the gold his old friend had discovered over the past 53 years – enough to have built a palace. That old solitary man died with only a single friend knowing his true value. As the friend looked out of the little window, he watched the cloud of dust behind the family car as it disappeared. He remarked to the mule, “They should have got to know him better.” (adapted from Andrew Chan, sermon central illusrations).

Dear ones, I wonder if perhaps many of us are struggling through life because we do not know the resources our Father has for us. Could it be you lack JOY? You can have it, but it will take practice.