We come this morning to our nineteenth and last sermon on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Though prompted by circumstances peculiar to Paul’s life and to the situation then prevailing in the Philippian Church, and so very definitely a piece of first century correspondence, it contains one of the most beautiful accounts of the Christian faith and the life that is to flow from it in all of Holy Scripture. What would the followers of Jesus Christ have done throughout the ages without “to live is Christ and to die is gain,” or “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far,” or, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” which is followed by the glorious Carmen Christi which concludes with the thrilling prospect “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father;” or “that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own…but that which is through faith in Christ,” or “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal…,” or “our citizenship is in heaven,” or “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” and on and on. We can only imagine how the letter struck those who first heard it read, the Philippians who understood every circumstance to which Paul makes reference, but we know what a priceless treasure it has proved to Christians ever since. And now we come to the end.
So as to make sure that the Philippians understand the measure of his appreciation for their generosity he tells them that he has not forgotten the unique place they have had in his heart from the beginning, some ten years before, when they generously supported his ministry when no one else did. He is not necessarily blaming the other churches. They may not have known that gifts were needed. You can read about that history in Acts 17 and 2 Corinthians 11:9. The significance of the mention of Thessalonica is that it is the next major town on the Roman road from Philippi to Athens. So Paul had scarcely left Philippi before gifts from the new believers began following him.
Once again, Paul does not want his enthusiastic appreciation to be misunderstood as a request for more. [Silva, 205] He is interested not in what he may receive from their generosity but what they will. The term Paul uses can mean the profit gained in business and here means something like “the interest that accrues to your account.” It is a strikingly commercial way of speaking, though, in context, Paul is hardly speaking of a business transaction. [O’Brien, 538]
The gifts they sent Paul were a great blessing to him and have fully met his need, but, more important, they were pleasing to God.
No one was a more worthy champion of the grace of God and of the sinner’s justification solely by faith in Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Savior, than was the Apostle Paul. No one did more to fix the doctrine of salvation as a free gift and in no respect an achievement of man in the mind and heart of the church as did the great apostle to the Gentiles. The English Puritan, Thomas Willcox, who lived from 1621 to 1687, beautifully summed up the mind of the Apostle Paul in his sermon Honey Out of The Rock.
“This will be sound religion: to rest all upon the everlasting mountains of God’s love and grace in Christ, to live continually in the sight of Christ’s infinite righteousness and merits…. To see [your sins] all pardoned: in those sights to pray, hear, and go forth…seeing your polluted self, and your weak performances accepted continually; in those sights to trample upon all your self-glories, righteousness, [and] privileges…and be found continually in the righteousness of Christ only, rejoicing in the ruins of your own righteousness, the spoiling of all your own excellencies, that Christ alone as Mediator, may be exalted on his throne.”
That was Paul’s view of salvation – to unworthy and helpless sinners it comes by grace alone, Christ alone, through faith alone – and he has beautifully and emphatically reiterated that view of salvation here in Philippians. He said, in chapter 3, of all the sorts of things that human beings tend to take pride in before God – and he had lots of those things, much more than you or I – “I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own…but that which is through faith in Christ.” A holy God demands so much more than you or I could ever give him. He demands perfect goodness and we are so far from perfection that we hardly know what goodness is. But Christ, the Son of God, making himself nothing and coming into the world which he had made as one of his own creatures, lived that life of perfect goodness – the one man who has ever done so – and lived it not for himself, for as the Son of God he had nothing to gain, but lived it for us that he might give us his righteousness so that we might stand accepted in God’s judgment. He paid our debt; he bore our curse; he kept the law for us, in our place, so that, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism: “God grants and credits to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, as if I had been as obedient as Christ was obedient for me.” The role of faith in all of this is simply, by believing, to accept this free gift with a loving and grateful heart.
Paul gave his life to proclaim that good news, he traveled the world with that message on his tongue. He was Christ’s ambassador preaching to everyone who would listen to him that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting men’s sins against them. As he said in one city after another: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” That was Paul’s great message. He began with it, he ended with it. He founded churches with it; he changed the world with it. It is this message, of course, that makes the Christian faith utterly unique in the world. Only the Bible says that for men to be saved and to rise to eternal life, God had to intervene on his behalf, and in love he did so.
That good news of dying men finding eternal life in Jesus Christ as a sheer gift, a gift they did not and could not earn, was so much the passion of the great apostle, so much the central theme of his letters, that it takes us aback to hear him say as he does here in Phil. 4:17 that he knows that the Philippians’ generosity to him will be credited to their account. That is, because the Philippians were kind and generous to him, because they supported his work, the Lord will see to it that they get something in return. Indeed, the language unmistakably implies that the more we do for Christ and his kingdom the larger our account will become. The language of verse 17, as all the commentators make a point of saying, is even commercial or business language, the language of profit and interest and return.
I often tell Florence, that the reason I ask her to scratch my back is that by giving her works of kindness to perform I am increasing her reward in heaven. And when she asks why I don’t volunteer to scratch her back, I say that I’m not so selfish as to steal her heavenly reward for myself! Well, we know that isn’t what Paul was after. But if that isn’t what he means, how are we to think and what are we to make of his striking comment?
In a world of free grace, of sinners eternally indebted to Christ for doing for them what they could not do for themselves, whence comes this alien idea of some good work being credited to our account, as if we were earning points or making investments in a heavenly bank account? Isn’t that the way non-Christians think? They imagine that if they are good enough – or, perhaps more realistically, if they aren’t too bad – the doors of heaven will swing open to let them in. Ask virtually anybody in our country nowadays who is not a serious Christian – no matter how often he or she goes to church – and you will hear the same thing: they do this and they are that and that should be enough to make God pleased with them. They are as much as saying that they are storing up treasure in heaven by being good people here. But Paul has taught us never to say such a thing or even to begin to think of salvation in such a superficial and sentimental way. Sinners cannot earn points with God! But what then of this comment? We might slide right by this obiter dictum of the Apostle Paul, this aside, this passing remark – many Bible readers do – except for the fact that Paul says this sort of thing again and again in his letters.
Very clearly free grace and justification by faith do not mean for the Apostle Paul that the Lord is indifferent to the lives his people live, or that he will not reward them differently according to the measure of their faithfulness and commitment to him. Holy Scripture teaches very emphatically that God in his judgment will make appropriate distinctions between people in their respective classes. The unsaved will be punished in strict justice, as Jesus said: some beaten with many stripes and some beaten with few. But the same is true of those saved by God’s grace: some will, by the faithfulness of their living in this world, lay up more treasure in heaven than others. As Paul said in another place, also speaking to Christians:
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
The champion of free grace is reminding Christians of that! So much is this Paul’s understanding of the situation that he can say in 1 Cor. 3 that there are Christian teachers and preachers, for example, who, for a failure to undertake their ministry faithfully, will barely be saved while their work itself is destroyed in the fire. Some Christians are more faithful than others and God’s judgment will take that fact into account. Or, in the language of Phil. 4:17, some believers will have more credited to their account than others. There is a direct line drawn between the faithfulness and devotion of our lives here and our reward in heaven. As we read in Revelation, our works “follow us” to heaven!
This fact raises concerns in many Christian hearts. There are even some theologians who have sought to deny that Paul, or Jesus, or John, or any other biblical writer teaches any such thing. But the point is made too many times in too many ways to be denied and the Christian church, in general and our Reformed church in particular, therefore, have not denied it. There is a storing up of treasure in heaven, as Jesus says; our works do follow us, as John says, and “the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does,” [Eph. 6:8], as Paul says. Phil. 4:17 is one among many texts that make this same point and that challenge us to see our lives here as the opportunity to serve the Lord in the prospect of his reward. There are, to be sure, many other reasons to serve the Lord, even more important and higher reasons, but this is a reason too and the Bible does not hesitate to tell us so. The Christian life is difficult to live and we need motivation to do something so difficult. So the Bible gives us many reasons to be what Christians ought to be and to do what Christians ought to do. And one of those motives is this: God will not fail to reward the faithfulness of his followers.
But, says a Christian troubled by the thought: is not heaven – the free gift of God – now in some respect, to some degree being made a reward for our effort? Doesn’t this idea overturn Paul’s doctrine of grace alone and faith alone and Christ alone? Well, obviously not, for Paul, the champion of salvation by grace through faith alone, is the one who speaks so plainly of the believer’s recompense in heaven according to the faithfulness of his or her life in this world.
Paul obviously never thought that the free gift of salvation to undeserving sinners meant that a man or woman could not serve the Lord faithfully and fruitfully or that there was not a real and very important difference between Christians who served the Lord conspicuously well and those who did not. Paul was the very last man to think that justification by the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ meant that Christ did not care about how his followers lived their lives and, in his final judgment, would not take care to make proper distinctions between them according to their faithfulness, their zeal, and their fruitfulness. Paul is encouraging us here not to be among those who are saved though as through fire, but to be among those whose faithful and fruitful service the Lord Christ will reward with a greater measure of his favor on the Great Day! This is the great way Paul prevents us from thinking we can take God’s gift of salvation and relax and be indifferent to living for Christ.
We can, of course, say other things. We could point out that Jesus said “Without me you can do nothing.” So even the good works that Christians do they do only because the Lord Jesus enables them by his Spirit. When the Lord rewards his disciples for their faithfulness to him he is, in Augustine’s justly famous phrase, “crowning his own gifts.”
But, asks another: how could heaven be heaven if some have greater rewards than others? Would this not inject a sense of loss, of disappointment into some hearts and a spirit of pride into others? Well, clearly no. The angels do not all occupy the same rank in heaven – archangels are above other angels, for example – and yet they are all perfectly holy and happy.
Dante, in his passage through heaven in the Paradiso encounters one Piccarda. This woman inhabits the lowest level of heaven because she had broken a vow that she made to God. [Canto iii] But Dante notices that she is perfectly content with her lot and full of joy.
She with those other spirits gently smiled;
Then answered with such gladness, that she seem’d
With love’s first flame to glow: ‘Brother! Our will
Is, in composure, settled by the power
Of love, who makes us [want] alone
What we possess, and [nothing] beyond desire:
If we should wish to be exalted more,
Then must our wishes jar with the high will
Of him, who sets us here; which in these orbs
Thou wilt confess not possible…
In other words, she has a perfect mind about her station, she agrees with it because it is God’s just and holy will, and, after all, it is heaven and she is with the Lord whom she loves with a perfect passion. His will, especially concerning herself, is her delight! Besides, is there any more perfect human righteousness than really to rejoice in the accomplishments of others and to take delight even in those who surpass us in some way? If that is great goodness and real righteousness—humanly to rejoice in the greater accomplishments of others—then surely there will be lots of that in heaven. In any case, seeing this good woman in the lower part of heaven, Dante reflects
Then saw I clearly how each spot in heaven
Is Paradise, though with like gracious dew
The supreme virtue shower not over all.
It is still heaven and still perfect love and goodness even if everyone’s station is not the same. Tell me parents: would you not rejoice to see your children ahead of you in heaven? Would that not make heaven two heavens for you? Well imagine having in your heart – as every man and woman will then – such love for everyone else as you have for your children!
But others ask still another question: what is the interest that is earned, what does credit to our account secure for us, and what is it that we receive for the deeds done in the body, when they are good? And surely at this point we have to be careful to stop where the Bible stops and not to speculate concerning what God has not chosen to reveal. Jesus in one of his parables speaks of one faithful man ruling over ten cities and another over five; but is that a literal prediction or a metaphor? Frankly, I don’t know what greater reward the Philippians will receive for their devotion to the gospel and its spread through the world. No one knows.
Clearly to be with Christ and to be in heaven is the great reward and every Christian receives that. It is the Savior’s gift to all who trust in him. More than that it is hard to say, but we can be sure it will be an entirely appropriate distinction that he will make between one believer and another, a difference completely suitable to human life now made perfect in every way; and a distinction that everyone in heaven will celebrate and find wise and good and useful. Fact is, think about it: a world where everyone is the same and does the same is not likely to be nearly as interesting a world, certainly not as authentically human a world!
Let no one take our crown in the proclamation of salvation by grace alone and justification by faith alone. Let it be true of us as Robert Murray McCheyne said it was true of one of his ministerial friends, a Glasgow pastor named John Muir: “Muir is imputed righteousness to the backbone!” Let us aspire to be nothing so much as “Christ for me, the hope of glory” to the backbone. But let us, at the same time, be Christian faithfulness, Christian devotion, Christian service to the backbone, the kind of noble service of the kingdom of God that the Philippians were famous for, the kind of Christian service that, alas, is not always found in the same measure among Christians. This is Paul’s appeal to us and to everyone who aspires to a life of serving Jesus Christ.
How ready the Bible is to speak of our lives this way. How like our heavenly Father and our great Captain to care how we live and how we serve and how we fight. How often the Word of God appeals to our sense of honor and our desire to do great things for the one who did indescribably great things for us. What else could be meant by the astonishing summons, one would think the utterly impossible summons, to walk worthy of the calling we have received (Eph. 4:1), to live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (Phil. 1:27), to live worthy of the Lord and to please him in every way (Col. 1:10), to live lives worthy of God (1 Thess. 2:12), worthy of the kingdom of God (2 Thess. 1:5), or to act in a way worthy of the saints (Rom. 16:2). And why else should the Lord Jesus, in teaching his disciples, lay such stress on the heroic element – courage, sacrifice, high purpose – in authentic Christian discipleship. You remember very well his memorable sayings about cutting off right arms and gouging our right eyes so as to be holy and to live holy lives; about laying down one’s life; about taking up one’s cross; about hating one’s father and mother, wife or husband, children, for his sake and for the sake of his kingdom. C.T. Studd, the pioneering missionary, was only being faithful to Jesus and Paul when he condensed the spirit and the principle of Christian living into one memorable aphorism:
“If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can
be too great for me to make for Him.”
But, at the same time, how honest the Bible is in admitting that not all Christians serve Christ and the gospel as sacrificially as others, not every believer is as devoted to the cause, as careless of his or her own comfort and welfare, as are other believers. Here it was the Philippians who distinguished themselves by their generous and sacrificial gifts to support the missionary enterprise of the Apostle Paul. Paul did not hesitate to draw attention to their unusual measure of devotion and service; nor did he hesitate to promise for them a reward commensurate with that greater devotion and commitment. And there is in this matter-of-fact remark a tremendous encouragement for us to higher and better things.
If we are as the Philippians were, Paul is as much as saying, there will be for us this same reward, this same notice on the Savior’s part, this same requital of a faithful servant’s hard work and sacrifice. How characteristic of the Bible to urge upon all of us who believe in Jesus Christ a life of great accomplishment, of noble deeds, and of self-sacrificing service. Christ is our Savior. He is also our example. He left us an example that we should follow in his steps. And what example did he set for us but that of a life of devotion to his Father’s will, of great sacrifice willingly made on behalf of others, of heroic effort to secure the interests of God in the hearts of men, of a short life of intense labor ended in exhaustion, to be sure, but also the deepest satisfaction.
How could it be otherwise than that people who know the living God and into whose hearts the love of God in Christ has been poured, should live their lives high above the ground and should aspire to accomplish great things in the name and for the sake of their God.
Paul is obviously intending to encourage us to higher and better things by giving us another reason to resist our lower nature and to aspire to all that pleases God. God will be pleased with you when you serve him, all the more when you do it sacrificially, he says in v. 18. He will love you for what you do for him. But, there is more: he will also make sure that you receive your due, that every faithful piece of service, every act of love in Jesus name, every effort you make to advance the interests of his name in the hearts and lives of others will have its proper reward, payment, as it were, of interest on your account.
I am now teaching Caesar’s Gallic Wars to my fourth year high school Latin class. You may remember that at the beginning of his masterpiece, Caesar explains that the Belgae were the bravest of the three peoples that populated Gaul because they were furthest removed from the highly developed civilization of the Roman province and so were least often visited by merchants with enervating luxuries for sale, and nearest to the Germans who lived across the Rhine, with whom they were continually at war. How unlike the brave Belgae we are as a people nowadays. Caesar has provided an almost perfect description of our effete culture: enervating luxuries in abundance and very little of that warfare that nerves and steels the spirit. Such has been America for many years and such its effect upon all its people, Christians among them. Such has been its effect on me!
And what does that mean but that we of all people, we American Christians, we Christians of the West, must pay special attention to the Bible’s summons to lives of daring, difficulty, and sacrifice for the sake of the gospel and kingdom of Jesus Christ. And to that end let us remember that we will never regret a single thing, the least thing that we do for the sake and in the name of Jesus Christ. It will have its reward!
Paul could take delight in the grace and love of these believers not only because he profited from it himself, but because he knew God would not forget to reward his brethren for it.
The man or woman who remembers that through a day will not think the same thoughts or live the same life.