Today, we’re going to be finishing up the letter of Philippians today. We’re in the fourth chapter. If you want to go ahead and get your bible out and turn there we’ll be starting in verse 10. It’ll also be on the screen if you don’t have your bible.
Just to catch you up in case you haven’t been here for the previous weeks or if you forgotten some like I have, Paul starts out this letter writing to the church at Philippi, to the Philippian Christians there. He says he’s thankful for them. In fact, he rejoices over them while he’s currently imprisoned. He, at the very moment of writing this letter, is most likely chained to a Roman guard in captivity. Yet, he’s rejoicing over these Christians far away.
In chapter 2 he encourages this church to be unified in the things of Christ and in the gospel. He tells us in this same chapter that the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in bodily form in the person of Jesus. Jesus was fully God and fully man. He says that your righteousness comes from God and it’s based on Christ’s faithfulness, not on the works of man. That’s just the heart of the gospel right there, the faithfulness of Christ over and above what we could never accomplish on our own. He goes on to say that our anxieties should lead us to pray. That’s what we looked at last week.
Today, before we get started I have a question for you. What is your greatest need? If we were close friends and we were getting coffee and sitting at Starbucks or something like that, and I were to ask you “what is your greatest need”, how would you answer? Hold on to that, and we’ll come back to it later.
We’re going to start reading in Philippians chapter 4 verse 10.
I have great joy in the Lord,” Paul says, “because now at last you have again expressed your concern for me.” Now I know you were concerned before, but you had no opportunity to do anything.
This concern he’s referencing is a showing of financial support. They have sent him money to help further the spread of the gospel.
I’m not saying this because I am I need, for I’ve learned to be content in any circumstance. I’ve experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing, I’m able to do all things through the one who strengthens me. Nevertheless, you did well to share with me in my trouble.
And as you Philippians know, at the beginning of my gospel ministry, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in this matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even in Thessalonica on more than one occasion, you sent something for my need.
This church at Philippi has a long history of supporting the spread of the gospel through Paul and his work. One of the cities he mentions there Thessalonica was where Paul also did ministry. This church has been a long and consistent companion with him in taking the good news of Christ to the world.
I do not say this because I’m seeking a gift. Rather, I seek the credit that abounds to your account. For I’ve received everything, and I have plenty. I have all I need because I’ve received from Epaphroditus what you sent, a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, very pleasing to God. And my God will supply your every need according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. May glory be given to God our Father forever and ever. Amen.”
Paul is quite thankful that the Philippians have sent him money. In fact, he mentions his joy here. Joy has been a theme in this letter. The very first week we started going through this letter as a church, the Philippians little bumper video started playing and it sounded really cheerful, especially for first thing on a Sunday morning. I was sitting there thinking, “Okay, he’s in prison while writing this. Why is this music so chipper, so summer?”
You know what’s interesting, the more I’ve paid attention as we’ve gone through this book I’ve noticed that Paul is very joyful here. In fact, in this letter he mentions joy and rejoicing more than in any other letter in the New Testament, written by him or someone else. This letter that he writes from prison while being down and out, a circumstance we would not often consider being a joyous encounter, is where Paul is at his most joyous. That type of countercultural thinking should help shape how we interpret everything he says in this letter, including what we look at today.
In verse 10 he says,
“I have great joy in the Lord because now at last you have again expressed your concern for me.”
Now, he never actually says “thank you” for sending me money in this whole two paragraphs here. He never actually thanks them. Some scholars have actually called these two paragraphs a “thankless, thank you.” This might seem a little confusing to us, because he says things like the following. “Well, I rejoice in that you sent me things for my need, but I’m not in need.” He calls it giving and receiving. He calls it a credit that abounds to their account. It’s an acceptable sacrifice. None of this is warm language. It kind of sounds like trade. “You gave me something. I received it. You have a credit to your account.” It’s not very warm. This could lead us to ask, “What is going on here?”
Now I think there are 2 reasons for it. One is cultural and one is spiritual. From a cultural perspective in that day someone who had received a gift was obligated to repay the gift.In a way, you actually being given a debt when you were given a gift.
We’re kind of familiar with this. If someone does a favor for you, what’s the expectation? You're going to do a favor for them. It’s not totally a gift. It’s kind of a gift with some strings attached. Or it might be that you and your wife have another couple over for dinner. Most likely you're probably going to be thinking, “They need to have us over before we have them back over.”
That’s kind of how it works today sometimes, but it was much more formalized back then. In their culture, if you couldn’t repay the gift you were expected to repay the favor by praising and honoring the other person. This creates an interesting set of circumstances for Paul, because on the one hand he’s not able to actually repay their gift - he’s chained to a Roman guard under house arrest. He also doesn’t see overly praising and honoring people for the actions they’ve done as an option either.
So what’s he do? He reinterprets the whole set of circumstances. In verse 10 he frames this whole thing as giving thanks to God for what they did. He then says that everything he does is through God who gives them strength. In verse 17 he says that God has credited them with their gift. He calls their gift an offering to God and says it was pleasing to him. In verse 20 he concludes the section by saying that glory should be given to God.
He kind of reinterprets everything they did. Instead of giving to him and him receiving from them. He says, “You gave to God and I received from God.” But in a very direct way also the Philippians sent the money to Paul. This way of handling the situation reinforces the fact that ultimately they’re giving in the furtherance of the gospel what’s to God.
It’s that same way today. We just had the opportunity for you to give, to support the work of God here in Tallahassee and abroad through your offering a few minutes ago. If you wrote a check, it probably says to “City Church.” In a very real way you are giving to this church and we are receiving from you, and we’re thankful for that. But in perhaps a more real way you're actually giving to God and this church is receiving from God, because ultimately God is sovereign over everything, but he uses means, he uses us. He’s chosen to work that way. It’s the same type of thing back with Paul. He received from the Philippians but he credits it as coming from God.
Avoiding Problems in Giving and Receiving
This approach and way of viewing it helps Paul avoid 3 potential problems: manipulation, flattery, and silence. When we receive something oftentimes we can tend a little too much towards manipulation. Because what we’re going to do is thank the person enough so they feel appreciated but not too much to make it seem like we don’t have a need, because hopefully they’ll do it again. If someone takes you out to lunch you're going to probably thank them enough so they feel appreciated but also so hopefully they’ll do it again. Paul avoids this in how he thanks God for the gift and further goes on to say, “I don’t have a need.”
Now we would consider Paul as having physical needs. But to Paul those aren’t real needs. We’ll get into that a little more as we go on today. He avoids manipulation but he also avoids flattery. He doesn’t go over the top praising the other person. Because this is actually a potential pitfall too. If someone has done something nice for us, is it nice of us to repay that with something that might tempt them to sin? If you're constantly getting complimented by someone else and the praise is over the top, it’s going to be hard not to feel puffed up or prideful in that set of circumstances.
Paul just takes that potential temptation off the table by giving thanks to God for what the Philippians did. He also avoids the potential pitfall of silence. Because it would certainly be rude not to even acknowledge the gift. Paul praises God for the gift, but this is key, he praises God in front of the Philippians. He writes his praise to God in this letter that he’s sending to them.
I think this can be instructive for us too. When someone blesses you, when someone does something great and worthy of praise that’s God honoring, well praise God for what that person did, praise God for what God has done through that person, but praise God in front of that person. That’s kind of a countercultural way of doing it.
Oftentimes what we end up doing is saying yes, we acknowledge intellectually that the good things people do as Christians are fruit of the spirit, but instead of praising the spirit for those good things, we praise the person. That’s not the most spiritually appropriate way to do things oftentimes.
If you're interested in more information on this, there’s a good book called “Practicing Affirmation.” My wife got it for me for Christmas. I’m sitting there opening gifts and I get this book called “Practicing Affirmation” from my wife and I’m thinking, “Is this a hint? Like what are you trying to tell me?” Then I remembered I’d actually put it on my wish list, but it took me a while to remember that... That’s a good book I would recommend to you.
Oftentimes and sadly, sin has corrupted even the giving and receiving of thanks. It’s corrupted every single area of life and communication to the extent where it’s hard to give thanks to someone without the thought of what we might get or how we’ll be seen. We don’t often think about how our thanks might make them feel in terms of potentially tempting them to pride. Paul avoids those potential pitfalls.
What does it mean to do “all things” through Christ who strengthens us?
Since we’re talking about things that have been corrupted like the giving and receiving of gifts, I want to spend some time on some other things that have been corrupted. In this passage there are 2 verses that have often been taken out of context. In fact, one of them is the third most searched verse on the biblegateway.com website. The top 3 of the top 5 of verses on Bible Gateway are often taken out of context.
The verse I’m talking about is Philippians 4:13 where Paul says, “I’m able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.” The second verse we’ll look at is verse 19. “My God will supply your every need according to his glorious riches.”
Now oftentimes as a culture when we think about Philippians 4:13 we think about sports teams, claiming this promise, “God, we can win this game through you who gives us strength.” Or perhaps you think of the student who hasn’t studied very well for their test and says, “God, I can do this, I can get an A through you who strengthens me.” Or perhaps you think of Tim Tebow who used to have Philippians 4:13 kind of painted on his face when he played football.
The problem with this is the way we often interpret this verse and apply it to our lives doesn’t actually match its context. We actually create a version of Jesus, a version of the gospel that does not match the true and original one. Because what we often do is recast biblical promises in light of our sinful desires and thus we miss out on their true intent.
Now there’s a long history of people doing this, of coming up with the wrong idea about Jesus or the gospel. For instance, in the first century the Jews did the same thing. They expected a messiah who would come and free them from their Roman oppressors, and what they got was Jesus, the Messiah, who told them they were their own oppressors, they were slaves to their own sin, and they liked it so much they killed him for it. There is a long track record of people having encounters with Christ, with the good news of the gospel and getting it wrong. Now we don’t often get it as wrong as the Jews did, but we still misunderstand the truth of what the gospel really is and what it means for our life post-salvation.
The tendency I see in the church and in my own life is to expect Jesus to be our gift giver, to pave a way for a better tomorrow, a brighter future, and to make that future successful and prosperous. This type of thinking has a name and it exists on a spectrum, but broadly it’s called the “prosperity gospel.” There are a variety of ways of describing it and there are a variety of positions, I’m not trying to paint everyone with the same brush, but it generally goes something like this:
God wants to prosper you. He wants to make you successful. He wants to make you wealthy. God is for you. He wants you to live up to your potential. He wants to bless you with things and he wants to make you wealthy. He didn’t create you to be average. He created you to be extraordinary. He wants you to be free from lack and free from poverty. He wants you to live your best life now. He wants to give you total victory in all areas of your life, relationships, finances, health, all areas.
But it’s said that you need to claim these promises, that you need to have a stronger faith, that you need to pray more specifically, because God is just sitting there, just waiting desperately to bless you with things, if you’ll only but change some of your behaviors and thought patterns.
Now, like I said, this exists on a spectrum from” true holiness, looks like physical wealth and prosperity,” to “if you pray more and pay more specifically God’s going to give you those things you're praying for, that you're utterly desiring, that you're seeking him for.” Or maybe that just looks like: God’s going to make your life comfortable.
This should lead us to ask, “If that’s the prosperity gospel, then what’s the true gospel?” Well before we talk about what we get as a result of the gospel, we need to back up and talk about who we are. Because we are creatures created in the image of God by a holy, sovereign God. Then, as creatures, we have rebelled against him, we have sinned against him, we’ve broken his law, we’ve put our desires above his desires. This leaves us with a problem. Because God is holy and just and he does not leave rebellion unpunished.
So what did he do? Back in Philippians 2 Paul tells us that the fullness of God came to dwell in the bodily form of Jesus Christ. He ultimately lives a perfect life, goes to the cross, dies so that his death would atone for the sin of everyone who would come to place their faith in him and repent of their sins. When we do that, when we place our trust for salvation in Jesus, our sins are forgiven. But what’s the result of this salvation? Is it things? Is it prosperity? Is it health, wealth, and happiness? Well no, not necessarily. Because the result of salvation is a changed life and a changed life that is progressively set in more and more on the things of God, not on the things of this world.
The prosperity gospel teaches idolatry, not Christ centered sufficiency
Our first point today if you're taking notes is that the prosperity gospel teaches idolatry, not Christ centered sufficiency.
Because it teaches you to desire things, to desire gifts, and to seek God as a means to get those gifts. In a very real way it prioritizes the gifts over the gift giver, it prioritizes the things God has created over the creator God himself. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of idolatry.
This counterfeit gospel offers us what we wanted even without Jesus. It doesn’t offer us things we want as the result of Christ transformed desires. It doesn’t make any sense to say that the things we’re supposed to want because of Christ are the same things we wanted before Christ: money, power, success, fame. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t need Jesus to want those. I wanted those before Jesus. I still struggle with wanting those now. What I need from Jesus is the power to combat those struggles. I don’t need a false gospel that tells me, “No, those are the things Christ wants you to desire.” That’s totally backwards.
This gospel, this prosperity gospel it’s not good news. It ultimately leads to idolatry. It’s evil and it’s no gospel at all. One of the verses that’s used to support it is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The only way you come up with prosperity from that is if you rip that verse dying and bleeding out of its context. Because verses have life, life transforming power, and they have meaning in their contexts. Let’s read the context for verse 13
I have learned to be content in any circumstance. I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I’ve learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing. I’m able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.”
All things. like what things? Like be without, like be content, like have Christ centered sufficiency. Because we didn’t need Jesus to want cars, boats, homes, and happiness. What we need Jesus for is to not want those things, to want the blessings that come from him, not the things of this world. Because what Jesus wants us to have more of is Jesus, as “Sunday school” as that sounds. Jesus didn’t save us so he could start fulfilling our desires. He saved us so we could start living out his will. The prosperity gospel flips those 2 things.
How do you find contentment? That’s what Paul’s talking about here. He’s saying that the “all things” he can do is ultimately be content. How do we find that? By realizing that Jesus should be our true treasure and by pursuing him over things, over idolatry.
If God wanted us to have health, wealth, and good relationships, if that’s truly the mark of holiness, then what do we do of Jesus? Did he have wealth? Well, he was born into a poor family, born and laid in a feeding trough for animals, did not even have a house to claim his own while he did ministry, couldn’t pay the taxes at the temple. That’s not very wealthy at all.
What about relationships? One of the people closest to him betrayed him. His nation ultimately executed him as a treasonous heretic, and his disciples fled afterwards. So he’s not doing so well in the health and relationship category either. That’s the problem with the prosperity gospel. Its concept of holiness is not even big enough for Jesus. Surely, that can’t be the right concept of what holiness looks like if it doesn’t even accommodate Jesus.
What about Paul? Paul’s the one writing this letter. Remember he’s writing it while probably chained to a Roman guard, so that should give us some perspective. But we know some other things about Paul’s life after he became a Christian. It seems like after becoming a Christian his life by worldly standards went downhill. We see that he was
- bitten by snakes
- stoned and left for dead (and not that “you went on vacation to Colorado” type of stoned either.)
- He was beaten with rods 3 times
- whipped with 39 lashes, 5 times
- attacked by an angry mob
- shipwrecked 3 times
- under arrest for 2 years without a trial.
I have never experienced any of those. I almost guarantee you, if I were to experience one of them I would struggle with contentment. Yet Paul experienced that list and many more and still writes things like, “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” In other words, I can be content through Christ.
The true gospel as opposed to the prosperity gospel has Jesus as our treasure, it has holiness as our goal, not things as our goal with Jesus as a means to them. The first point was the prosperity gospel teaches idolatry, not Christ centered sufficiency.
The prosperity gospel cheapens the grace of God and exults the work of man
Our second point today is that the prosperity gospel cheapens the grace of God and exults the work of man. Because generally, as a part of the prosperity gospel, you're told that in order for God to bless you, you have to do some things, like have more faith, or pray, or pay more, or pray more specifically, or pray longer. Or you need to think more positively. Your problem is negative thinking, it might be said. Or you need to vocalize and speak out loud those things you want to bring them into existence.
Remember, this all exists on a spectrum, but what this does is totally ignore the biggest problem you and I have ever had. Because our biggest problem is not that we don’t have cars, boats, or houses, or success in sports. Our biggest problem is that we were separated from God as a result of our rebellion. For the Christian our biggest problem and biggest need has already been met, and it can only go up for here as the Christian.
Now from a worldly perspective it might not look like it’s just going up. But from a Christ centered biblical perspective, life only gets better for the Christian in a spiritual and very real sense. Because Christ has paid for our greatest need. But for the non-Christian this is as good as it gets apart from putting your trust in Christ and submitting to his lordship. Because God is not going to leave sin unpunished.
But remember the prosperity gospel teaches us to desire the things of this world, not the things of Christ. It ends up with us going on 2 different trajectories. But the prosperity gospel trajectory actually mirrors the trajectory of the unsaved person, and it further misunderstands that the biggest gift we have ever been given, the biggest blessing was the atoning death of Christ on the cross. We weren’t able to earn that. We didn’t deserve it: that’s grace. God expressed his favor, his unmerited favor to us while we were actively rebelling against him.
But the prosperity gospel says you need to do some things in order for God to bless you, you need to have more faith or act a certain way in order for God to prosper you. On this view he’s kind of like your heavenly-sugar-daddy-genie-in-the-sky type of figure, where he exists to give us the things we want and we don’t exist to give him the things he wants.
But Jesus didn’t die on the cross so we could have nicer cars, or so we could win events, pass tests, find a spouse that meets all of the criteria on our checklist, or find a house that has every line we’ve put on our prayer list. He didn’t die to do that. He came to do bigger things than that, to meet our greatest need which was for him. He came to fulfill our need for holiness, not happiness. He came to fulfill our need for contentment which can only be found in him, not capitalistic fulfillment.
Now I’m not saying things are bad. I’m not saying things are good either. Things are neutral. How we feel about things, how we desire things, how we see Jesus in relationship to things, that’s where the good and bad starts coming in.
My point with all of this is that you can’t see who God has blessed more when you see a man walking to work and when you see a man driving an Audi to work. God does not bless us by physical things as part of the new covenant. That is not a sign of it at all. Because remember, that type of blessing isn’t big enough for Paul, it’s not big enough for most any of the apostles, and it’s certainly not big enough for Jesus. We need to recast our thinking.
I think this is a very common problem. I see this all the time. I find this tendency in my own life. I’m preaching to myself here too, where I interpret the good things that happen to me as God blessing me for some innate righteousness I probably have or something I did right. But God will never see me as better than he saw me in Christ initially. I can’t ever add to that. He will never see me as less than the righteousness of Christ because I can never detract from that. The prosperity gospel misses that. It doesn’t have a Christ centered sufficiency. It doesn’t have grace filled gospel. It has a works filled gospel.
Now you may be thinking, “I don’t expect God to bless me like that with those examples you’ve mentioned.” Well good. But there is this tendency in Christianity today to where our prayer life, the proportion of it is generally about things we want, things we desire, and we’re praying specifically and fervently and long for these things. My question to you would be, is that really the way our prayer should be structured? Is that really the proportion they should have? Did Christ save me so I could ask him to continually give me things, and change my circumstances, and make me more comfortable? Is that the pattern I see of the disciples and the apostles and Jesus himself? I don’t think it is. This type of proportion, if it exists in our life, leaves us dangerously unbalanced.
Like I said, I’m preaching to myself here too. My mother is actually here for her birthday. After the first service, she asked me a difficult question. She said, “So what’s your greatest need, Brian?” (The first question I asked you.) I paused and what I had to say is, “I need to accept and apply to my life the things I just got done saying.” That’s my greatest need, if I have to be honest with you, that I need this just as much as anyone else. Because this is a countercultural way to view the world, it is a biblical and spiritual way to view the world, but it is very difficult nonetheless.
The prosperity gospel misses the true blessings that are found in Christ
Our third point, the prosperity gospel misses the true blessings that are found in Christ. Remember, it encourages idolatry, not Christ centered sufficiency. It demeans the grace of God. It exults the work of man. It also misses the blessings we’ve already been given, or been promised to be given. In taking this passage and other passages like Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 8:28, and others out of context the prosperity gospel misses the biggest treasures that are available out there, and many of them are already ours or have been promised to be ours in Christ.
Paul wrote a letter to the church at Ephesus. We actually went through this as a church last year. In chapter 1 he goes on for several verses to list the blessings we have in Christ. I want to read some of that for us today. He says,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms, for he chose us in him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in his presence. In love he predestined us for adoption as his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in his son.
In those 3 verses there are at least 5 blessings that we have in Christ. The first one would be that we were chosen by God before the foundation of the world. The holy sovereign all-knowing God who knew we would rebel chose to save us before he even created us. That’s a blessing. Because it takes us to the second blessing in this passage, which is that we are now holy and blameless if we are in Christ. Remember, that was our biggest need. We were not holy. We were not blameless before a holy and blameless God. But in Christ we are. That’s a blessing. That’s better than any boat or any physical thing could ever be.
The third blessing listed is that we are loved by God himself. The creator of the universe loves you, knows you, and cares about you. We are predestined to adoption into the family of God, and the fifth would be that we are accepted. In a day and age where everyone wants to fit, everyone wants to be accepted, you are accepted by the God of the universe if you were in Christ. There could be no better acceptance than that. There could be no better family to be a part of than that. In a time when sin has wrecked everything like we’ve said, gift-giving, receiving, also families, God’s family is the perfect family to be a part of because it has a perfect father at its head.
Just in those 3 verses we see 5 blessings. But if you read through the rest of the chapter, which we’re not going to do, you see several more. I’m going to read some of those blessings for you.
We’ve been redeemed through this blood, forgiven of our sins, given grace abundantly. We’ve been told the mystery of God’s will. We’ve attained to an eternal inheritance. We’ve heard the word of truth and we’ve been sealed by the spirit.
I wonder how many times do we think about the fact that God has revealed his will to us is a blessing, the fact that we were able to hear and respond to the gospel is a blessing. Not everyone has that. There are people-groups in this world who have not heard the good news. God, being just, will punish them for the things they knowingly did wrong. God’s not obligated to offer people a pardon before he’s justified in punishing their rebellion. Nonetheless, the fact that we have heard the gospel, the good news, that’s a blessing. Are we as thankful for that as we are for the material things in our life? That’s the question.
Here’s another blessing we don’t often think about. In Matthew Jesus says that we are blessed when people persecute us, and say things falsely about us on account of him. We should rejoice and be glad. If we can understand that, we can understand how Paul’s most joyous letter is the one written from captivity. If we can understand that, that we are blessed when we are persecuted, when the world reviles us for Christ, then we can understand how “to live is Christ and to die is gain” - the things Paul has been talking about in this letter.
The mark of true Christian maturity isn’t getting things from God. It’s learning to value the true blessings, the ones that can never be taken away, that moth and rust could never destroy, that we have in Christ. As John Piper says, “God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.” When we find our satisfaction in God, we will be able to do all things - like be content - through Christ who strengthens us.
How do you combat want? How do you combat the desires of this world that we all struggle with? We need to treasure Christ more than anything else. This looks like a process of continually fighting our sinful desires and pursuing God ordained, God honoring desires. The true mark of doing all things through Christ is being content in him, with who he is, with the love he’s shown, with how he’s recreating us in his image. That’s how we find true contentment.
That is the truest and most important blessing that anyone could ever receive: being set right, being justified in the eyes of God, and being recreated in his image and the likeness of Christ. Because God’s promise that we can rest in as a church, as Christians today is that he is and always will be enough.
Let’s return to that first question: what’s your greatest need? Is the answer different now? Because if I’m being honest with you, if you were to stop me in the street and say, “What’s your greatest need,” I don’t think I would’ve come up with a God honoring answer. This is a struggle for me. What we always need to do is recast our desires, recast our thoughts, and reframe them in light and in the mold of God’s word. I would encourage you this week, as you leave today, as you think, as we’re about to pray, to consider what your greatest need is in light of who God is, in light of who you are, in light of what he’s done for you. Let’s pray.