I am often amazed when I hear stories of people who have gone through such hardship and suffering yet they are still so filled with joy. Recently I heard testimony of believers and Christian workers who were still joyful and hopeful despite being displaced and impoverished because of the war in Ukraine. Those brothers and sisters from Myanmar, who have now moved nearby to where I live, are often full of joy, despite the tragedy to their families and communities. And then there are those closer to home who have gone through the loss of employment, significant health battles, or grief in losing a child and yet they have an enduring joy.
How can this be?
Well, the letter to the Philippians answers that question by giving us a picture of Christ. A picture of Christ that highlights the greatness of his character and who he is. For in knowing Christ and more of him we find an enduring joy and a persistent contentment in our lives.
In our world joy is portrayed to us differently. It is sold to us through material means, or short-term experiences, or goods and services we may use. I mean, even the box that held our online shopping recently had written across it, “a little bit of joy”.
When we come to the Bible, we find joy described in numerous ways.
In the Old testament joy comes through the religious practice of the people of Israel, through the festivals, celebration, and worship of God. The Psalms describe joy in personal adoration and through corporate worship (Psalms 42:4; 81:1-3; 16:8ff; 43:4). Isaiah associates joy with the fullness of God’s salvation and with anticipation of our future state with God (Isa 49:13; 61:10ff).
When we come to the New Testament, we find joy first described through Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:10) then through his entry into Jerusalem toward the end of his life and also after the resurrection (Mark 11:9ff; Luke 19:37; Matthew 28:8). Jesus speaks of joy being the result of a deep relationship with him (John 15:11; 16:22-24). In Acts and Paul’s letters joy is shown to come through (a) being part of the body of Christ, (b) the outcome of suffering and sorrow for Christ’s sake, and (c) a gift of the Holy Spirit that comes from the love of God toward us and our love toward God (Acts 13:52), and described as a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). Given that joy is a gift to us we are called to share in the joy of Christ and walk with him in rejoicing in the knowledge and salvation of Christ.
In Philippians joy is attached to knowing Christ.
In knowing Christ, we find an everlasting joy that is deeper than that online shopping experience, or that Big Mac you craved for lunch, or the superannuation package you’ve just signed up for. Whatever joy is being sold to us there is nothing that compares to the joy of Christ, which holds through times of gratitude and happiness as well as through times of deep grief and sadness.
For Paul joy comes through his partnership in the gospel with the Philippian church (1:1-11). It comes through the friendship he has with them; it comes through the unity they strive to have with one-another (2:2), and it comes through the ministry he undertakes on their behalf and in his service to them (2:17-18). As they progress in the faith his joy abounds, and despite the circumstances he finds himself in and the heritage had as a Jewish leader (3:7-8), it is only through knowing Christ as Lord that he is able to say, ‘to live is Christ and to die is gain’ (1:21).
Knowing Christ Forms Our Character
I don’t have a radical conversion story. I was bought up in a Christian home and God and faith have been part of my story since I was born. And for many of us we may look upon our own faith journey as being rather ordinary. But I’m aware of others, and you may be too, who have found Christ and had a total change in their character.
As Paul writes to the Philippians, we read that life in Christ impacts our character, whether we’ve had a radical conversion or not.
This is most clearly seen in the high note of this letter, a poetic-like section, that speaks of Christ’s humility. In 2:5-11, Paul encourages the church to adopt the attitude of Christ. He writes,
5 Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus,
6 who, existing in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God
as something to be exploited.
7 Instead he emptied himself
by assuming the form of a servant,
taking on the likeness of humanity.
And when he had come as a man,
8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death—
even to death on a cross.
9 For this reason God highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow—
in heaven and on earth
and under the earth—
11 and every tongue will confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Here is the call to follow Christ’s example in his humility, but it also highlights the character of Christ. It is what we might call high Christology, helping us understand more of who Christ is.
And what do we learn of the character of Christ?
We learn that he is humble.
Even though Christ is God and was with God and existed together with God he did not use his position to his advantage or to advance himself. Instead, he let go of such a position in order to become a servant to God and to humanity. He humbled himself, came into our world as a man, and then was obedient or submitted to the will of God to such an extent that he would die on a cross to serve and save the world.
This is the gospel, this is the good news.
And in this good news we see the character of Christ.
Christ willingly leaving his elevated and first position in order to become last and be of service to the world.
In Jesus’ lifetime he not only displays his character, but he also teaches his disciples about this virtue of humility.
On at least one occasion the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest among them. I’m amused when I think of what that conversation must have been like because I wonder if it was like those conversations people have about who is the GOAT – the greatest of all-time, whether it me a footballer, or basketballer, or cricket player. They just turn into a bit of a mess. But in response to their debate among themselves Jesus tells them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be last and servant of all” (Mark 9:33-37).
And this is exactly what Christ does. He has become last and a servant for all and in doing so he is exalted and lifted on high.
Christ’s character was modelled through his preaching and teaching and through what he does.
Knowing Christ Impacts Our Conduct
Early in the letter Paul deals with those who are preaching the message of Christ out of selfish ambition (1:17), in chapter two he calls the church to be united (2:2) and encourages them to hold to the word of life (2:17). In chapter three Paul speaks about the confidence many have in the flesh and their own actions. He talks about his own heritage which many would believe puts him in a good position to be right with God (3:4-6). And as he writes these things he has Christ at the forefront. For in knowing Christ we will conduct ourselves in a way that is worthy of the gospel (1:27).
And this is what he writes to the church in 1:27, “Just one thing: As citizens of heaven, live your life worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
First, note that we have a heavenly citizenship. We are part of the people of God who have an everlasting citizenship. This is assuring in and of itself.
But second, the way in which we conduct ourselves is to be worthy of the gospel. There are practical implications for us as we know and grow in Christ.
For the church in Philippi this conduct is expressed in being united with one-another and putting others first (2:2-3). It is doing everything without grumbling and arguing (2:14). It is holding firm to the word of life (2:16). It is standing firm in the faith together despite those who wish to add to the gospel or destroy the church through self-centred and law-adding false teaching (3:2-6). It is rejoicing in the Lord (3:1; 4:4). It is by being gracious toward others (4:5). It is by not worrying about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition, presenting requests to God (4:5-6). And it is by dwelling on that which is just, pure, lovely, and commendable (4:8).
Joy in Christ comes from knowing him. And in knowing him we find our character and our conduct transformed. Transformed into conduct worth of the gospel of Christ.
This post is part of an ongoing series where we will dive into the themes, messages, and lessons found throughout the book of Philippians.