Companions in Christ
The Harvard Study of Adult Development is a decades-long project that’s resulted in a greater understanding of the importance of healthy relationships. The research began with a group of 268 sophomores at Harvard University in the 1930s and later expanded to, among others, 456 Boston inner-city residents. Researchers have conducted interviews with the participants and pored over their medical records every few years. What they’ve discovered is that close relationships are the biggest factor in predicting happiness and health. It turns out that if we surround ourselves with the right people, we’ll likely experience a deeper sense of joy.
This appears to reflect what the apostle Paul is describing in Philippians 1. Writing from prison, Paul can’t help but tell his friends that he thanks God for them every time he remembers them, praying “with joy” (v. 4). But these aren’t just any friends; these are brothers and sisters in Jesus who “share in God’s grace,” partners in the gospel with Paul (v. 7). Their relationship was one of sharing and mutuality—a true fellowship shaped by God’s love and the gospel itself.
Yes, friends are important, but fellow companions in Christ are catalysts of a true and deep joy. The grace of God can bind us together like nothing else. And even through the darkest seasons of life, the joy that comes from that bond will last.
Practice These Things
As I helped my son with his math homework it began apparent he was less then enthusiastic about doing multiple problems related to the same concept. “I’ve got it, Dad!,” he insisted, hoping I would let him out doing all the problems. I then gently explained to him that a concept is just a concept until we learn how to work it out in practice.
At the end of Paul’s letter to his friends in Philippi, he wrote about practice. “Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us” (Philippians 4:9). Here are five things he mentions: reconciliation—as he urged Euodia and Syntyche to do (vv, 1–3); joy—as he reminded his readers to cultivate (v. 4); gentleness—as he urged them to employ in their relation to the world (v. 5); prayer—as he had modeled for them in person and in writing (vv. 6–7); and focus—as he had shown even in prison (v. 8). Reconciliation, joy, gentleness, prayer, and focus—things we’re called to live out as believers in Jesus. Like any habit, these virtues must be intentionally done in order to be cultivated.
But the good news of the gospel, as Paul had already told the Philippians, is that “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (2:13). We’re never practicing in our own power. God will provide what we need (4:19).
No Longer Yourself
In the summer of 1859, Monsieur Charles Blondin became the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope—something he would go on to do hundreds of times. Once he did it with his manager Harry Colcord on his back. Blondin gave Colcord these instructions: “Look up, Harry . . . you are no longer Colcord, you are Blondin. . . . If I sway, sway with me. Do not attempt to do any balancing yourself. If you do we will both go to our death.”
Paul, in essence, said to the Galatian believers: You can’t walk the line of living a life that is pleasing to God apart from faith in Christ. But here’s the good news—you don’t have to! No amount of attempting to earn our way to God will ever cut it. So are we passive in our salvation? No! Our invitation is to cling to Christ. Clinging to Jesus means putting to death an old, independent way of living; it’s as if we ourselves have died. Yet, we go on living. But “the life [we] now live in the body, [we] live by faith in the Son of God, who loved [us] and gave himself for [us]” (Galatians 2:20).
Where are we trying to walk the tightrope today? God hasn’t called us to walk out on the rope to Him; He’s called us to cling to Him and walk this life with Him.
The Problem Within
A few years ago, a woodpecker began tapping on the siding of our home. We thought the problem was only external. Then one day, my son and I climbed up a ladder into the attic only to have a bird fly past our startled faces. The problem was worse than we’d suspected: it was inside our house.
When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the crowd was hoping He would be the one to fix their external problem—their oppression by the Romans. They went wild, shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9). This was the moment they’d been waiting for; God’s appointed King had come. If God’s chosen Deliverer was going to begin reforming things, wouldn't He start with all the wrong out there? But in most gospel accounts, the “triumphal entry” is followed by Jesus driving out exploitative moneychangers . . . from the temple (vv. 12–13). He was cleaning house, and from the inside out.
That’s what happens when we welcome Jesus as king; He comes to set things right—and He starts with us. He makes us confront the evil inside. Jesus on the donkey is like the warriors in the Trojan Horse. The Horse was welcomed as a symbol of peace, but its ultimate aim was unconditional surrender. Jesus our King requires the same from us.
Lift Up Your Eyes
The clouds hung low, blocking the horizon and limiting visibility to only a few hundred yards. The minutes dragged on. The effect on my mood was noticeable. But then, as afternoon approached, the clouds began to break, and I saw it: beautiful Pikes Peak, the most recognizable landmark of my city, flanked on each side by the mountain range. A smile broke over my face. I considered that even our physical perspective—our literal line of sight—can affect our spiritual vision. And I was reminded of the psalmist singing, “I lift my eyes to the mountains” (Psalm 121:1). Sometimes we simply need to lift our eyes a bit higher!
The psalmist pondered where his help came from, maybe because the hilltops around Israel were dotted with altars to pagan gods and often contained robbers. Or it could have been because the psalmist looked up beyond the hills to Mount Zion where the Temple stood, and remembered that the Maker of Heaven and Earth was his covenant God (v. 2). Either way, to worship we must look up. We have to lift our eyes higher than our circumstances, higher than our troubles and trials, higher than the empty promises of the false gods of our day. Then we can see the Creator and Redeemer, the One who calls us by name. He’s the one who will “watch over your coming and going” today and forevermore (v. 8).
A Song in the Night
The sun had long set when our electrical power suddenly went out. I was at home with our two younger children, and this was their first time experiencing a power outage. After verifying that the utility company knew about the outage, I located some candles, and the kids and I huddled together in the kitchen around the flickering flames. They seemed nervous and unsettled, so we began to sing. Soon the concerned looks on their faces were replaced with smiles. Sometimes in our darkest moments we need a song.
Psalm 103 was prayed or sung after the people of God had returned from exile to a homeland that had been laid waste. In a moment of crisis, they needed to sing. But not just any song, they needed to sing about who God is and what He does. Psalm 103 also helps us remember that He’s compassionate, merciful, patient, and full of faithful love (v. 8). And in case we wonder if the judgment for our sin still hangs over our heads, the psalm announces that God isn’t angry, has forgiven, and feels compassion. These are good things to sing during the dark nights of our lives.
Maybe that’s where you find yourself: In a dark and difficult place, wondering if God really is good, questioning His love for you. If so, pray and sing to the One who abounds in love!
The True Servant
In 27 BC, the Roman ruler Octavian came before the Senate to lay down his powers. He’d won a civil war, become the sole ruler of that region of the world, and was functioning like an emperor. Yet he knew such power was viewed suspiciously. So Octavian renounced his powers before the Senate, vowing to simply be an appointed official. Their response? The Roman Senate honored the ruler by crowning him with a civic crown and naming him the servant of the Roman people. He was also given the name Augustus—the “great one.”
Paul wrote of Jesus emptying Himself and taking on the form of a servant, Augustus appeared to do the same. Or had he? Augustus only acted like he was surrendering his power for his own gain. Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8). Death on a Roman cross was the worst form of humiliation and shame.
Today, a primary reason people today praise “servant leadership” as a virtue is because of Jesus. Humility wasn’t a Greek or Roman virtue. Because Jesus died on the cross for us, He is the true Servant. He’s the true Savior.
Christ became a servant in order to save us. He “made himself nothing” so that we could receive something truly great—the gift of salvation and eternal life.
A few years ago, my doctor gave me a stern talk about my health. I took his words to heart and began going to the gym and adjusting my diet. Over time, both my cholesterol and my weight went down, and my self-esteem went up. But then something not so good happened: I began noticing other people’s dietary choices and judging them. Isn’t it funny that often when we find a scoring system that grades us well, we use it to lift ourselves up and put others down. It seems to be an innate human tendency to cling to self-made standards in an attempt to justify ourselves—systems of self-justification and guilt-management.
Paul warned the Philippians about doing such things. There were those were putting their confidence in religious performance or cultural conformity, and Paul wanted them to know that he had more reason to boast of such things: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more” (v. 4). Yet Paul knew his pedigree and performance was “garbage” compared to “knowing Christ” (v. 8). Only Jesus loves us as we are, rescues us, and gives us the power to become more like Him. No earning required; no score-keeping possible.
Boasting is bad in itself, but a boast based on false confidence is tragic. The gospel calls us away from misplaced confidence and into communion with a Savior who loves us and gave Himself for us.
Slow, but Sure
I ran into an old friend who told me what he’d been up to, but I confess it seemed too good to be true. Within a few months of that conversation, however, his band was everywhere—from charting top singles on the radio to having a hit song pulsing under TV ads. His rise to fame was meteoric.
We can be obsessed with significance and success—the big and the dramatic, the quick and the meteoric. But the parables of the mustard seed and yeast compare the way of the Kingdom (God’s reign on earth) to small, hidden, and seemingly insignificant things whose work is slow and gradual.
The Kingdom is like its King. Christ’s mission culminated in His life, like a seed, being buried in the ground; like yeast, being hidden in the dough. Yet He rose. Like a tree breaking through the dirt, like bread when the heat is turned up. Jesus rose.
We’re invited to live according to His way, the way that’s persisting and permeating. To resist the temptation to take matters into our own hands, to grasp for power and to justify our dealings in the world by the outcomes they may produce. The outcome—“a tree . . . that the birds come and perch in its branches” (v. 32) and the bread that provides a feast—will be Christ’s doing, not ours.