"Our Witness in 'Attitude'"
(Delivered Sunday, February 8, 2009 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
I invite you this morning to turn to the second chapter of Paul's letter to the Philippians. In the middle of this chapter, in verses 14-16, we read this word of instruction to Paul's brothers and sisters in Philppi;
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Over the past little while, I have developed an interesting 'morning' routine. The first thing I do when I get up, of course, is to make coffee. (No surprise there.) But while the coffee is brewing, I turn the television on to the morning news show—to see what the big news of the day might be. Lately, after fifteen minutes of listening to the news anchors tell me how unprecedentedly 'horrible' everything is right now, I get my cup of coffee, sit on the recliner, open my Bible, and gain a higher perspective from God's unchanging word.
If the only view of things we had today were the things told to us by the news shows, we'd have to conclude that these are the most dire days in human history. And of course, there's no question that 'hard times' really do seem to be just around the corner. But how truly hopeless we'd be if we didn't have God's sure word on the times in which we're living!
And here's what I've been concluding lately. The more I have compared the current threat of 'hard times' with the unchanging promises of God's word, the more I realize that we're living in a time of great opportunity for the gospel. Many of the things that people have been trusting in, and many of the comforts that they have been building their lives upon, will very likely be shaken from them soon. And perhaps, in the months to come, many people in our culture will become more receptive to the message of the gospel than they've ever been in their entire lives. Perhaps spiritual revival is about to be given to our nation.
We have a great opportunity, as God's people, to stand out in these 'hard times'; and to bear a message of bright hope in an increasingly darkening and fear-filled world. And it's the thought of this 'opportunity' that has drawn me to this morning's passage from Paul's letter to the Philippians.
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Stop and consider Paul's situation when he wrote this letter. He was in a prison—most likely somewhere in Rome—in chains for the cause of Christ (see 1:13). What's more, he considered that there was a very real possibility that he may soon be put to death for his faith (1:20).
And yet, even in the midst of such dire circumstances—Paul experienced an abiding joy in the Lord Jesus Christ. He had confidence that his situation was under God's sovereign control. And he had a peaceful assurance that God would bring good out of the circumstances. In fact, he was able to affirm that God had already done so. He wrote at the beginning of his letter;
Paul greeted the trials of life with an expressed joy and confidence in God's providential hand. And as a result, Paul's faithful attitude was used by God to impact and encourage others. And now, in this letter, Paul was urging his believing friends to do the same as he was doing. He told them,
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Dear brothers and sisters; the people of this world are watching us. They hear us proclaim the good news of Jesus; and they are longing to see that we really believe the good news we preach, and really trust the wonderful Savior we proclaim. They will especially be watching us in the difficult days and months to come. They will be watching us, and listening to us, and trying to discover if the Jesus we preach really makes a difference in our lives during the coming 'hard times'.
And as this morning's passage shows us, the truth of what we proclaim to them about Jesus will, in part, be proven to them by our attitude of thankfulness and joy in Him during those times of trial. We advance the cause of the gospel in this dark world—and particularly during the difficult days that may lay ahead—when we keep an attitude of thankful submission to God in the midst of trying times.
Now; let's look again at Paul's words of instruction. Notice, first of all . . .
1. WHAT WE ARE COMMANDED TO DO (v. 14).
Paul says, "Do all things without complaining and disputing . . ."
The word translated "complaining" is one that basically means "to murmur"—which is a word that sounds like what it means. When someone has to do something they don't want to do, they often walk away 'murmuring' something under their breath; "Murmur-mur-murmurmur!" They don't necessarily mean for the words to be understood—even though they may mean for the sound to be heard. It's an inward expression of grouching.
And the other word—"disputing"—describes an outward expression. The Greek word that Paul uses here is the one we get the English word "dialog" from; except in this case it's not speaking of a positive, constructive act of reasoning. Rather, it speaks here of the act of arguing or contending.
In the original language, Paul placed the word "all" in the first position in the sentence. This was in order to give it emphasis. And the word "do" is put in the form of a present, continuous, habitual action. In other words, Paul is giving us a command that is to be our constant, habitual practice in all situations as Christians—"All things make it your practice to do without complaining or disputing . . ."
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When I think of this command from Paul, my mind goes back to the Old Testament times; and to the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. They give us, sadly, an example of what not to do.
God had mercifully displayed His glory and power to them. He had delivered them out of their bondage in Egypt. He was even leading them to a land He promised them—a land flowing with milk and honey. They had actually seen God demonstrate His power over the mighty Egyptian army with their own eyes—at the Red Sea.
And yet, it was just a few days out into their journey to the promised land that the complaining and disputes began. They "complained" against Moses because they were thirsty (Exodus 15:22-24). A little while later, they "complained" because they were hungry (Exodus 16:3). Pretty soon, they "contended" with Moses because they were thirsty again (Exodus 17:1-3). Then, later on, they "complained" again because the manna wasn't as good as the food they ate in Egypt (Numbers 11:4-6). When they got to the promised land, they complained because it had giants (Numbers 13:33-14:4). When they were denied the chance to go into the promised land because of their fear of the giants, they complained against the leadership of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:3-4). And when the earth opened up and swallowed those who rebelled in their complaint, the people complained further that it was Moses and Aaron that had killed them (Numbers 16:41).
Because of all that they knew of the power of God, and after all the goodness and mercy He had already demonstrated to them, this constant murmuring and contention was a very wicked sin on their part. God was actually showing great kindness to them through the very things that they were complaining about; and He was exercising His sovereign power to bring about ultimate good for them.
And if you think about it, you realize that we who are in Christ today know even more about the goodness and power of the mighty God of Israel than they did! God has shown an even greater grace to us; and has given us even greater promises of future glory. We have a much clearer revelation of God give to us than they did. And so, it's an even greater act of unfaithfulness for us to be characterized by complaining and contentiousness.
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And so, that's the basic command of this passage: "Do all things without complaining and disputing". And now, notice . . .
2. WHY WE ARE COMMANDED TO DO IT (v. 15).
First, Paul gives us a moral purpose for this command. He says that it's "that you may become blameless and harmless . . ." The first word "blameless" means to be "without defect". And the second word "harmless" might be better translated "unmixed". Together, the two words suggest the act of living in a way that's consistent with our profession of faith—a profession with which no fault could be found, or toward which no accusation could be made that it was mingled with unfaithfulness and sin.
The Bible teaches us that "all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). And yet, when we enter into trying times with an attitude of complaint and disputing, we basically tell the world that we don't really believe that God works all things out for our good. We, in a very practical sense, deny what we profess; and end up communicating to unbelieving people that we don't have anything more going for us in Christ than they do outside of Him.
We basically deny our faith when we grumble and fuss; and that's one reason why Paul commands us to do all things without complaining and disputing.
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We might call Paul's second purpose for this command a theological one. It has to do with behaving in a way that is consistent with what God's word says that we are. Paul goes on to say that we must do all things without complaining or disputing that we may become "children of God without fault . . ."
Now, we need to understand this accurately. Paul isn't saying that, if we can just learn to do all things without complaining or disputing, we will eventually become children of God. We can never work our way up to becoming "children of God". Rather, the Bible teaches us that we are already children of the heavenly Father by grace through our faith in His Son Jesus. "But as many as received Him," John tells us, "to them He gave the right to become children of God" (John 1:12). As John tells us elsewhere, "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called the children of God" (1 John 3:1). That's what we are right now, as a theological reality, by faith in Jesus.
But the thing that we aren't yet is "children of God without fault". We still need to grow daily to become, in practice, what we already are in position. We still need to allow God to shape us, and form us, and mature us increasingly into the image of His dear Son Jesus—even though we have already been adopted fully into His family.
And that's why we must be in the habit of doing all things without complaining and disputing. When we complain and argue against the things that God brings our way, we are acting contrary to our high position in Christ. We are acting like we're not really God's children at all—or that He is not our loving, caring, all-powerful Father who only does us good.
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And I suggest that a third purpose Paul had in mind in giving this command—a purpose that is particularly relevant to our times—was an evangelistic one. We are to do all things without complaining and disputing so that we may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault "in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world . . ."
The word that's translated "lights" doesn't mean that we're the source of the light. In fact, it might better be translated "luminaries". Jesus is the light; and we are bearers of the light of His life in us. He came into this world as "the light of men" (John 1:4); but now that He has left this world and has returned to the Father, He has given us the privilege of being the bearers of His "light".
And so, we are to stand in the midst of this "crooked and perverse generation", and shine as lights in a dark world—illuminating the way to Him. While He was on this earth, He said;
And yet, when we complain and dispute—when we grumble and murmur against God, and contend and argue with Him over the trials that come our way, or the difficult people He has placed in our sphere, or challenges that He permits to come into our lives for our good and His glory—we forget our privileged purpose! We forget our divinely appointed role as His "lights". We are still "lights" of course—even when we grumble and fuss. But when we do so, we allow the light in us to become obscured to the sight of those who most need to see it.
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There is so much about our growth in Christ, or our position in Christ, or our purpose in Christ, that is hindered when we allow grumbling and contentions to characterize our lives. But at the same time, much good is accomplished when we obey this command from Paul, and practice the habit of doing all things without complaining or disputing!
And next, look at . . .
3. WHAT WE ARE TO BE DOING AT THE SAME TIME (v. 16a).
Paul says that we're to be "holding fast the word of life . . ."
Isn't that a fascinating name for the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ—"the word of life"? It's "the word of life" because it is, itself, 'living' (Hebrews 4:12). It's also "the word of life" because it points to Jesus Christ who Himself is "life" (1 John 1:1). It's "the word of life" because it shows us the way to eternal life (John 6:68). And finally, it's "the word of life" because it teaches us how to live the kind of life that pleases God (2 Timothy 3:16-17). And Paul says that while we seek to do all things without complaining or disputing, we're also to be sure that we're "holding fast" this "word of life".
If this is the correct way to translate this phrase—"holding fast"—then Paul would be saying that as we do all things without complaining and disputing we're to also be holding on tightly to the word of life; or as it is in the English Standard Version, "holding fast to the word of life". And how important that is! The more we cling tightly to God's faithful word, the more we will be able to affirm His perspective during tough times—and the less we will be inclined to grumble and fight against His good will for us.
But many Bible scholars have argued that it is more accurately translated as it's found in the King James Version—"holding forth" the world of life, or as it is in the New International Version—"as you hold out the word of life". And if that's the case, Paul would then be urging us to do all things without complaining and disputing as we—at the same time—make sure that we hold the word of life out to people. We would then be doing what Peter said in 1 Peter 3:15-16:
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In either case, whether it was "holding fast" to the word of life ourselves, or "holding forth" the word of life for others, Paul had a vested interest in the matter. He had given himself diligently to see Christ established in the lives of his dear Philippian friends. As he said in verse 17, "Yes, and if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith"—in other words, if it must be that he lay his life down to advance the cause of Christ in them—"I am glad and rejoice with you all."
And this leads us to . . .
4. WHAT THE RESULT WILL BE (v. 16b).
He urges them to do all this, "so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain."
If Paul's beloved brothers and sisters would faithfully grow into the habit of doing all things without complaining or disputing; if they thus prove themselves to be blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom they shine as lights in the world; and if they were careful, at the same time, to "hold fast" the word of faith—either in the sense of being faithful to it or of faithfully declaring it, while living in such a way as to affirm its truth—then Paul's work in the gospel would not be in vain.
His work in the gospel would expand beyond himself through them—just as it was doing while he was in prison. Others would not only hear the gospel being proclaimed by the Philippians, but would also see it being lived out by them. Their lives would not hinder the gospel, but rather advance it and adorn it! They would stand out in this dark world as those who have truly been transformed by Jesus Christ. They would be living "gospel tracts" that declare the gospel's power.
And when Paul stood before God on the day of Christ, he would have a cause for great rejoicing. He would see not only the Philippians themselves receiving honor from the Lord and hearing Him say to them, "Well done!"; but he'd also see others who had been influenced to trust in Christ by the godly lives of those Philippian believers!
So you see, dear brothers and sisters; this command—"Do all things without complaining or disputing"—isn't just important because it makes us into nicer people to be around. It's important because it greatly aids and advances the cause of the gospel in everyone around us—in our homes, in our work-places, in our neighborhoods, in our schools, among our friends and family members, and in the lives of all those that God places near us.
This will always be true. But it will be especially true should the times ahead prove to be hard for all of us. And that makes the threat of 'hard times', in reality, a great opportunity for us as we bear the gospel to the people around us.
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Now; I'm grateful that Paul put this command the way He did. As I said, he used the present tense of the verb; so that the idea is that we should practice the habit of doing all things without complaining or disputing. I'm glad for that; because I still blow it. But I want to grow.
And may I close with a suggestion of how we might grow into the habit of obeying this command? I believe that the very best way for us to counteract this sinful tendency to complain and dispute is to replace it with another habit. We should cultivate, instead, the habit of a sincere "thankfulness" toward God in all things.
The Bible doesn't just tell us to do all things "without" something—leaving us, as it were, with a practical vacuum. It tells us what to do instead. It says that we are to be "giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 5:20). It says, "In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thessalonians 5:18). When difficult circumstances and hard times come your way, and you respond by giving thanks to Him in those circumstances, you will find that you cannot—at the same time—complain and dispute with Him about them! It's impossible to do! One act dispels the other.
Because the all-powerful and all-loving God is our Father, and through Jesus Christ our glorious Brother, we have the greatest reason of all people to give Him constant thanks. May we do so—and thus "do all things without complaining or disputing".
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