Philippians Day Three
September 18, 2020, 5:00 AM

Pilgrim Will Progress
Philippians 1:6, 9-11

I am sure of this,
that he who began a good work in you
will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more,
with knowledge and all discernment,
so that you may approve what is excellent,
and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,
filled with the fruit of righteousness
that comes through Jesus Christ,
to the glory and praise of God.

I’ve a confession to make: I love reading for sermons. The preparation is three-quarters the fun of the thing — not necessarily the writing part! But there is one necessary evil in the weekly, relentless onslaught of the Lord’s Day sermon deadline that drives me nuts: (cue Dracula’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor) Technical Commentaries. They literally drain the lifeblood out of you sometimes. The opening of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is case in point. Three commentaries I crack open on my desk, and the authors are putting me to sleep by breaking down Greco-Roman epistolary forms. Pontificating on the ways the letter is or isn’t Pauline based on what some 19th century German theologian said. Sheesh. I know that stuff’ll preach! …Not.

Instead of eating seminary lecture prunes, I craved more from Philippians. Afterall, it is the Word of God. It is eternal. Paul did say somewhere that all Scripture is God oxygen – profitable for teaching, admonition, correction and training in all righteousness. I wanted the spiritual marrow of Philippians, not exacting technicalities. More!

I think I found it, though I can’t lay blame on any expert I’ve come across. It’s my own stuff. Philippians is about an alternate citizenship. Being gifted with supernatural, heavenly citizenship. With its bestowal comes encouragement to live it well. The history of Philippi with its roots anchored deep in the glow of Roman colony status, gloried in all things Roman, all the time. Roman soil in the backwoods of Macedonia. The beacon of light on the marshes along the Via Egnatia. Philippians is a reveal from the apostle of higher, heavenly loyalties to the homeland of Heaven. Now, that’ll preach!

This coming Sunday, we’ll mull over the ending of the first chapter where Paul writes (1:27), “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” That expression “manner of life” translates the Greek word politeuomai. (Pronounced poly-two-oh-my.) It means “live as a citizen.” The New Living Translation (NLT) nails it this way: “Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven.” Paul uses the same root-word in 3:20 when he declares, “Our citizenship is in heaven.” This literary hint gives me confidence to work out how citizenship plays throughout the letter. I think it fits.

As I read history, a great contrast is evident between what passed as normal for Roman citizens, to what was expected of Christian citizens. Jesus followers lived up to a higher bar. In Nic Fields’ recent book on the history of Byzantine Constantinople (c. fourth century A.D.), he prosaically notes the difference:

“While pagan priests and magistrates competed in their philotimia [the pursuit of honor], Christians looked upon this as pure vainglory [boastfulness]. While civic cults of the empire paid honor to the presiding manifest divinities of the city, the Christian ‘city’ lay in the kingdom of Heaven and their ‘assembly’ was the gathering of people of God throughout the world. The cults and myths gave pagans a focus for their civic patriotism, yet Christians obeyed one law, the same from city to city. Indeed, [only a] person whose loyalties were less engaged by the hometown… could respond to this idea of a universal assembly. At their festivals, the elite pagan families made distributions to the civic authorities, members of their own ruling class. Christians brought their funds to those in need, men and women, citizen and non-citizen. Christian charity differed in motive from pagan philanthropy: it earned merit in Heaven and sustained that dear to God, the poor… Moreover, the poor were attracted to a faith that taught poverty was the law of Christ. All people were equal, and no one branch of mankind should rule over another. The idea of ‘doing unto others as you would wish them to do unto you’ was not alien to pagan ethics, but there was no precedent for the further Christian advice to ‘love one’s enemies[!]’ (God’s City: Byzantine Constantinople by Nic Fields, [Pen & Sword, 2017], pp.73-74).

Obviously, early Christians took their celestial citizenship seriously. What I find especially noteworthy is that the author of this passage, Nic Fields, is not a Christian, and doesn’t appear to have any sympathies with Christianity — in fact, seems to relish the shade he throws. But even an outsider observes the weight of a heavenly homeland upon the human heart. That’s the way it’s supposed to be – always.

This brings us to the highlighted Philippians text that opened this blog entry: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you...” That is, when God resurrected your dead flesh, he began an ongoing, persistent work of making you fit for heavenly citizenship. Paradoxically, this process requires your work. But this is God’s work. How’s that for holy tension? BTW, you’re not supposed to be able to get your mind around it.

He “will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Because, again, it is ultimately God’s work! However, “it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” You must still live in to it. You must still persevere over mountains and through low valleys. But the endgame is this: If you are genuinely a work of the Lord; you will be an answer to this prayer. This is the only outcome available to a real Christian. God says that he will bring your earthly pilgrimage to sweaty completion.

This offer was true for the ancient Philippians. It is still true for us, today.

When I ponder the message of Philippians, I think of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. We are, in Christ, heading for the heavenly city. We are, as well, learning heavenly citizenship along the way. It is hard work. But, remember, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Remember too, this is also God’s work, that he will complete it. In his time, before that Great Day. Be encouraged.

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