Looking East


Philippians 3:17-4:1

I have entitled this sermon “Looking East.” A word of explanation is in order. In Christian history the return of Christ is associated with the East, though it is not entirely certain why. And not the Second Coming only, of course. Christian churches were early on typically built on an east-west axis with the pulpit and table at the east end, so much so that now the chancel of a sanctuary is referred to as the “east end” even if it is not, in fact, at the eastern end of the building. I stand to your west, but in the “east end” of our building. Clement of Alexandria in the later 2nd century explained that the custom of praying standing toward the east was due to the association of the east with sunrise and new birth. Others explain that the Second Adam brings us again to Paradise which, as we remember was located “in the east,” according to Gen. 2:8. Then, there is the reference in the Lord’s Olivette Discourse in Matthew 24 to the coming of the Son of Man like lightning that comes from the east (24:27). No one should imagine that Christians actually thought that there was something geographically definite about all of this, only that it made for a way to embody the Christian hope in the resurrection and the new and eternal life we will receive when Jesus comes again. It is this that explains the ancient custom of Christian’s burying their dead with their feet pointed toward the east so that, as it were, when on the day of resurrection they stand up they will be facing the Lord as he returns. It was a way of saying that they buried their dead in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. So “looking east” means to live looking to the future and, supremely, looking for the second coming of the Lord Jesus.

Text Comment

Remember, we are in the midst, actually coming to the conclusion of Paul’s warning against the theological mistakes that had insinuated themselves into the thinking of the Philippians Christians. Some had been tempted by the Judaizers to make too much of outward performances and too little of faith in Jesus Christ and his finished work. Others, or perhaps the same folk, had become self-satisfied and were content to settle for the measure of godliness they had already attained. Paul has replied in personal terms, speaking, on the one hand, of his own rejection of the status and recognition provided by his own religious effort, however impressive from his former viewpoint, in order to rely entirely on the righteousness of Jesus Christ and, on the other, of his determination to go forward and to press on in the life of faith to become more and more the man Christ saved him to be. Our text this morning concludes and completes this section of the letter.

v.18

It is commonplace in Paul and in the rest of the Bible that believers are urged to imitate those who live godly lives and to notice and reject the example of those who do not. It isn’t boasting for Paul to call upon these Christians to imitate him because he has just said what he wants them to imitate in him is his repudiation of self-confidence and spiritual pride. [Moule, 101] He wants them to be as conscious of their failings as he is of his and as dependent upon God’s grace to keep going on as he knows he must be.

v.19

Paul, of course, and no doubt his readers knew of whom the apostle was speaking, the people whose god was their stomach. But it is hard for us to know precisely whom he means. They seem to be licentious people, given to sensuality, immoral and worldly. In which case there may have been a separate group of antinomians, professing Christians given to moral laxity, troubling the Philippian church. They would be enemies of the cross because they imagined that Christ’s atonement and the forgiveness of sins that comes from it gave them liberty to live immoral lives and so they disgraced the cross before the eyes of the world. The judaizers were not morally lax in these ways – indeed, precisely the opposite – and they are the only “enemies” specifically referred to in the letter. So some commentators suggest that the description of these people in v. 19 could be applied to the judaizers with the terms to be taken not literally but figuratively: a fleshly mind, a concentration on the accomplishments of this world, and a betrayal of their privileges as the chosen people of God. The judaizers were, in Paul’s mind, certainly “enemies of the cross.”

v.20

The sense is “we live on earth as those whose home is in heaven.” [Moule, 104] In an early Christian writing, the Epistle to Diognetus we read: “Christians, as dwellers, are on earth, as citizens, [are] in heaven.”

v.21

The connection between the hope of the second coming of Christ and the believer’s resurrection and his present godly living – remember, that is what Paul is talking about in these verses – is made elsewhere. In 1 John 3:3 we read, following an account of what will be so on the great day, “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself…” And Peter says something similar. “So, then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.” [2 Pet. 3:14]

In chapter one of this same letter Paul has already spoken of the believer’s going to be with the Lord at death. But like the rest of the New Testament, the emphasis always falls primarily and ultimately on the resurrection of the body at the end of history and the consummation of our salvation that will occur only then. There are two steps into eternity most Christians will take, the first at death and the second at the resurrection, but the second step is always the most important one. Death takes us only so far. And some Christians – those alive in the world at the Second Coming – will never even take that step. But the resurrection is for every believer and the consummation of everyone’s salvation in Christ. Finally, body and soul together in spiritual perfection! And all of this, of course, is what Jesus will do, the one in whom we trust and whom Paul says we must resolve to know better and better. And we have nothing to fear. Christ is the Lord of Lords and will bring his will to pass and fulfill the commitment he has made to his disciples and there is no power in this world that can prevent him: not his enemies, not our death.

Take note of the persistent New Testament teaching that it is our self-same lowly body that will be renewed at the Second Coming. Our true self – as that self has lived and died in this world – will be made perfect in glory. There is a great mystery here, of course, but the New Testament is well aware of the mystery and does not shy away from it because it cannot be explained beforehand. Will there be any particular particle of our own earthly bodies in our new bodies? Who can say? Is there any particle of my body now at age 56 that was present in it at age 20? But it is you, body and soul, who will be raised and made perfect by Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior. That is the point.

4:1

Paul concludes his exhortation with a warmly personal and encouraging summation.

In a happy providence, we come to these verses at the turn of the year. It is perhaps the most sacred duty of any Christian minister to bring the future into his hearers’ present. Faithful sermons on the Word of God will constantly remind God’s people that the meaning of their lives – and of every human life – at any moment is determined absolutely, ultimately, and unchangeably by what will become of them when they die and when Jesus comes again. If we deny that we are not Christians!

And what better time to consider the future than at New Years, when we are helped by our consciousness of the passage of time to consider our lives as a journey to their end.

The great Scottish preacher, James Stalker, once said at the induction of a minister friend into his new pulpit:

“I like to think of the minister as only one of the congregation set apart by the rest for a particular purpose. They say to him: Look, brother, we are busy with our daily toils, and confused with cares, but we eagerly long for peace and light to illuminate our life, and we have heard there is a land where these are to be found, a land of repose and joy, full of thoughts that breathe and words that burn, but we cannot go [there] ourselves. We are too embroiled in daily cares. Come, we elect you, and set you free from toil, and you shall go [there] for us, and week by week trade with that land and bring us its treasures and its spoils.” [Cited in A. Gammie, Preachers I Have Heard, 44-45]

Well that is one way of thinking about my calling and about the help I am charged to give you Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day. I am to pay visits to the land where you are going – if you are a follower of Jesus Christ – and bring you back reports for your encouragement and inspiration. Because, after all, that land is yours as much as it is mine and to know that and to remember that must make a very great difference to you and to the way you live your life in this world. I am to help you, but heaven is your home, your citizenship is there and, as Paul says here, you must live your daily life conscious of that fact.

When Samuel Rutherford’s immortal Letters were published for the first time shortly after his death by his friend Robert M’Ward, he added the subtitle: Joshua Redivivus, Joshua brought to life again. Joshua, of course, was one of the spies sent to bring back a report of the Promised Land and who brought back a good report and encouraged Israel to press on to take possession of that land of milk and honey. In one of his letters to the young minister Hugh MacKail, Rutherford describes himself as a spy “to see the land and try the ford…” [Letters, 240, Bonar ed. The reference is not specifically to heaven in this instance.] And that is what Rutherford was always doing to the immense encouragement of the saints: he was telling them of heaven, how soon they would be there, what life is like there, and what it will be like to the see the Savior face to face. Rutherford was always talking and writing and preaching about heaven, and as a result, there were many in the church in those days that lived as if their citizenship were there!

Hugh MacKail himself was one of them. Arrested for his loyalty to the Word of God he was tortured in hopes of his incriminating others loyal to the Covenanter cause. His leg was enclosed in an iron sleeve and then an iron wedge was driven with a heavy mallet between his leg and the casing. This was known as “the boot.” His leg was pulverized and the pain was beyond excruciating. But he gave up no others and when moved from one prison to another in preparation for his execution, shouted to a friend in the crowd watching him shuffle by: “How good is the news! Four days now until I see Jesus!” And later, when climbing up the scaffold from which he would be hung, he said that he was going home to his father’s house and that every step brought him nearer to heaven. And just before he was hung, he delivered one of those characteristic Covenanter farewells:

“Farewell, father and mother, friends and relations! Farewell, the world and all delights. Farewell, meat and drink! Farewell, sun, moon, and stars! Welcome, God and Father! Welcome, sweet Lord Jesus, Mediator of the New Covenant! Welcome, blessed Spirit of Grace, God of all consolation! Welcome, glory! Welcome, eternal life! Welcome death!” [J. Purves, Fair Sunshine, 33-34]

A lively sense of heaven as his home had nerved him and steeled him and inspired him just as Paul hoped it would the Philippians in his day. How far removed is this from the conventional pieties that someone hears at funerals but almost never in the run of daily life. American Christians have long debated whether George Washington was a Christian or simply one of the many deists that inhabited the colonies at the time of the revolution. Because he is such a revered figure in American history, everyone wants Washington on his side. The fact that the name of Jesus Christ occurs almost never in his written remains or in others’ recollections of his speech perhaps explains the following. Washington had no difficulty uttering the conventional pieties about heaven, as when he said of his mother after her death – a woman who had been a trial to him — that he had hope “that she is translated to a happier place.” But, speaking of himself, in the dull quiet after the war was over, imagining that the great work of his life was over and facing the fact that the men in his family did not characteristically live long lives, he told Lafayette that “he might soon expect to be entombed in the dreary mansions of my fathers.” [Cited in A.J. Langguth, Union 1812, 4, 6] That does not sound much like a Christian. The Bible permits believers to want to remain in the world to complete their work for the Lord; it does not permit them to think of life after death as dreary and unwelcome. A person’s view of heaven is a bellwether. It reveals something fundamental about his or her faith or lack of it. Compare George Washington with this:

An important figure in mid-20th century English Christianity was a Cambridge scholar of ancient languages by the name of Basil Atkinson. He was, as you might expect of a life-long bachelor who lived first with his old mother and then with his sister, who rode through Cambridge on an old bicycle, and whose official role in the university was as keeper of ancient manuscripts and under-librarian, an eccentric man. He had a voice that was often mimicked. Being, however, a man of good humor, he used to tell the story on himself of having addressed a meeting of the University of London’s Christian Union only to have the moderator artlessly tell the audience, after he had sat down, that in tomorrow’s meeting they were to have speaking to them two undergraduates from Oxford, perfectly normal human beings. But Basil Atkinson was a devout and prayerful Christian and a great friend and encourager of Christian university students, including the young John Stott. He was also a fearless preacher of the gospel. He would often preach in the open air in Cambridge. University towns are not kind to open air preachers. A characteristic story is told of one occasion in which in one of his open-air sermons he mentioned heaven. “What do you know about heaven?” shouted out a student heckler. With his famous smile, Basil replied, “I live there.” [Dudley-Smith, John Stott, i, 184-185]

Thomas Ken, the 17th century English bishop and hymn-writer said a similar thing, if you remember, of his brother-in law, Isaac Walton, the friend of John Donne and the father of the sport of fishing. His Compleat Angler is the third most often published book of English literature (after the Bible and the Works of Shakespeare), having now run to some 300 editions. Ken was himself a godly man and knew godliness when he saw it and said of Walton: “Of this just man let this due praise be given, heaven was in him before he was in heaven.”

But Paul is saying that every Christian should aspire to such a life as might be described in just that way. The Philippians, you remember, lived in a Roman colony. They claimed a distinction granted to comparatively few non Romans in those days: Roman citizenship. It was a distinction of which they were naturally proud and it had significant benefits, not least freedom from Roman taxes. So it was an especially appropriate thing for Paul to say to these Christians. Your citizenship, the citizenship that matters is not Roman. This world, even this favored Roman city is not your home, not in any permanent or fundamentally important sense. Rome can give you nothing that you won’t soon lose and nothing really that answers your longing for home, for eternity, for joy, for peace, for God himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But in Christ you have all those things forever. Your home, your citizenship is heaven. You are at home only where he is. And you are heading there fast enough; you will be there soon enough. That fact ought to be more important to you and ought to shape your life far, far more than the citizenship you share with other inhabitants of this world who know nothing of Christ or of his coming again or of the resurrection of the dead.

Now Paul does not here do anything more than mention heaven. He does not describe it as John did at the end of his Revelation or as Jesus did in some of his parables. But no doubt he had taught the Philippians a great deal about heaven when he taught them the gospel of Christ. He would have used and explained all the magnificent descriptions of that place and that life that we find in Holy Scripture: the better country or Promised Land, the land of milk and honey; the Lord’s house as it is called in the Psalms; Paradise, the bosom of Abraham, the mansions of the Lord, and the banquet hall, as Jesus describes it; home as Paul describes heaven to be; the city of God and the new Jerusalem as we read in Hebrews and Revelation. It is all of that and so much more.

Surely it should not be difficult for us to grasp how much a lively sense of this future, of our present citizenship in that heavenly country – seated together with Christ in the heavenly places – must help us. How can we be overcome by sadness with such a future as this present to our minds? Sadness must come in this world of sin and death, but it can never be the last word, or even the main word, when our citizenship is in heaven? And if the joy of the Lord is our strength, then must we not always be strong if future joy is always crowding into our present by way of anticipation and lively imagination.

And how can we be indifferent to the summons that we have been given to live for Christ lives of purity, love, sacrifice, and service when such a reward lies before us? What ingrates must we be who are going to that land where everlasting joy rests on each man or woman’s head if we are unwilling to serve the one who has, at such terrible cost to himself, opened for us the way to that place and into that endless life? How can we live in indifference to the will of our Savior when it is our expectation that very soon we will see him face to face and become like him as a result? This is Paul’s point: the prospect of eternal life must produce a hunger and thirst for righteousness. It must in the very nature of the case because Christ has both given us this glorious kingdom and summoned us to live worthy of it until we get there. Goodness and heaven go together; that is why bad people have no interest in heaven and why no interest in heaven is a mark of human badness. Christ and heaven go together and the love and longing for the one is the love and longing for the other because heaven is where he is and always shall be.

And how can we be indifferent to the plight of others around us, how can we be stingy or small-minded, when we are about to acquire wealth beyond our wildest dreams and live in joy beyond the power of words to express? It should be an easy thing to make sacrifices for others when you know that the day of sacrifices is almost over and the eternal years of perfect human fulfillment are about to begin. This too is what Paul thought. There was a creeping problem of disunity in the Philippian church, but he was sure that if they kept heaven in their mind’s eye, that dissension would melt away. Jealousy and envy, pride and self-assertion depend upon the sense that we must have what we want here and now and upon the foolish idea that we don’t have enough. But no one who is thinking of heaven and considering the prospect of being there any longer thinks that!

You know and I know that if we could, for just a moment or two, look into heaven and see the life that people live there, and behold the glory of God and feel its warmth, and see the Lord Christ standing there, and take in the happiness and the perfection of that place and everyone in that place – that place where we are going because of Jesus – why, we would lose all interest in what we have here or can acquire here and we would all become generous to a fault, giving away to others in a quixotic desire somehow to be more worthy of the place where we are going.

Paul was surely right. The more heaven is a reality to us, the more we reckon with the fact that it is our true home, that we will soon be there with all the saints, that we are soon to be made perfect in body and soul and that forever, the more the prospect of the resurrection animates our days and nights, the better we will live in every way. A young woman is not cast down with fear and worry that she will never marry, the night before her wedding. Her dreams are of another kind altogether. A traveler does not abandon his long journey and despair of reaching his destination when he can finally see it in the distance. On the contrary he quickens his step. A prisoner does not weep himself to sleep in despair the night before his release. On the contrary he finds it difficult to sleep at all for the exciting prospect of walking through those gates to freedom. And a man does not continue to pinch his pennies for fear of not making ends meet when the very next day he is to come into full possession of the immense fortune that has been bequeathed to him. That is Paul’s argument and his logic is inescapable.

It used to be said of a person that he was “so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good.” But, frankly, that is impossible. Anyone who is truly heavenly minded will be of very earthly good. The more we live in heaven – by anticipation, by imagination, and by living faith in and identification with Jesus Christ who is now in heaven for us – the more we will live in this world as a Christian ought to live and a Christian living as he or she ought to live is the most earthly good of all. So open your eyes to see what Christ has shown you of your future in his word and your hearts to believe that you are, in every important way, already there with him.

Once in a dream I saw the flowers
That bud and bloom in Paradise;
More fair are they than waking eyes
Have seen in all this world of ours.
And faint the perfume-bearing rose,
And faint the lily on its stem,
And faint the perfect violet,
Compared with them.

I heard the songs of paradise;
Each bird sat singing in its place;
A tender song so full of grace
It soared like incense to the skies.
Each bird sat singing to its mate
Soft cooing notes among the trees:
The nightingale herself were cold
To such as these.

I saw the fourfold River flow,
And deep it was, with golden sand;
It flowed between a mossy land
With murmured music grave and low.
It hath refreshment for all thirst,
For fainting spirits strength and rest:
Earth holds not such a draught as this
From east to west.

The Tree of Life stood budding there,
Abundant with its twelvefold fruits;
Eternal sap sustains its roots,
Its shadowing branches fill the air.
Its leaves are healing for the world,
Its fruit the hungry world can feed.
Sweeter than honey to the taste
And balm indeed.

I saw the Gate called Beautiful;
And looked, but scarce could look within;
I saw the golden streets begin,
And outskirts of the glassy pool.
Oh harps, oh crowns of plenteous stars,
Oh green palm-branches, many-leaved –
Eye hath not seen, nor ear hath heard,
Nor heart conceived.

I hope to see these things again,
But not as once in dreams by night;
To see them with my very sight,
And touch and handle and attain:
To have all heaven beneath my feet
For narrow way that once they trod;
To have my part with all the saints
And with my God.
Christina Rossetti