Philippians is a wonderful book. We have heard references to this letter of Paul’s many times and know familiar verses:
He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ (1:6).
Therefore God also has highly exalted Him [Christ] and given Him the name which is above every name (2:9).
What things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ (3:7).
When I taught this book recently, I titled the series “Great Expectations.” This is an apt description of the confident tone of Paul’s epistle. Paul is calling on the congregation in Philippi to be certain of their faith while they served. They should build their faith on the stability of the ship in which they travel, rather than on any certainty of good weather.
In chapter 1, Paul recounts many challenges — bad weather — not the least of which are his bonds. But in verse 20, he says he holds an “earnest expectation” in the gospel. This phrase is taken from a compound Greek word, apokaradokia, which describes a person whose head is erect, on a neck stretched out, with attention to the goal ahead. In the Greek classics, it is used to describe the watchman who, in the words of scholar K. S. Wuest, “peered into the darkness, eagerly looking for the first gleam of the distant beacon which would announce the capture of Troy.”
The apostle expresses this confidence while his circumstances suggest reason to fear. Additionally, though Paul’s boldness is producing boldness in others, some are preaching the gospel while others are using the gospel (vv. 15-17). Wicked people were even using the preaching of Jesus to undermine Paul. I can think of few things baser than using the words of Christ to advance a personal agenda through the defaming of another person. Paul says, nevertheless, Christ is being preached and for that, he is rejoicing and he will rejoice! (v. 18).
We all have had times when we’ve had to determine to rejoice and maintain our confident expectation despite negative circumstances.
A few years ago, I suffered the loss of my mother. She was a fine woman and committed Christian. But before her death, she had recurring TMI’s (small strokes) that preceded dementia, and she had declined for years in assisted living. My mother finally had the major stroke that we feared, severe enough to take her ability to communicate, move, and breathe easily.
For well over a week my mother lingered. We eventually began praying for her release because we did not think she could come back to a quality of life that we hoped for her. We sat by her, sometimes holding her hand, watching her labor for breath.
During this difficult time, I prayed that my mother would gently go home, but when that did not happen, I sought understanding from the Lord. He reminded me of the words of Job: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15).
From that day until her death on New Year’s Day, I repeated these words to myself. God did not slay Mom; the broken condition of this world did that. I realized that the sad, lingering condition my mother suffered is the opposite of God’s desire but is the legal ramification of sin.
The result is that I will trust Him in stormy weather because He is a reverse image of the worst we see. Where there is lingering death, He offers eternal life. When people show hate, we can long for true love. As despair increases, it showcases the hope within our reach. And when we are inclined to lack resolve, God offers energy.
Just like Job the sufferer, Paul shows that Christ is magnified in his body in life, but even in death (Philippians 1:20).
Encouragement and perseverance
In addition to trust, God taught me other lessons through my mother’s death. Since that difficult week, I have repeated these very words of Job to offer hope to other people who are suffering. I spoke them in my sermon for Mom’s funeral and write them today in this article. When I was raw in discouragement, God used this experience to make me sensitive spiritually so that He might teach something valuable.
My mother is now safe in the arms of Jesus. We rejoice because her pain is over and her eternal joy has just begun. Nevertheless, we have to keep rowing on, sometimes through storms and difficulties in a world that is at the least negligent and often antagonistic toward faith.
Paul knows this well, but he says that according to his earnest expectation — and yes, hope — he will preach boldly. Then he speaks these familiar words: “ For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (v. 21). This is a mouthful even for Paul. Christ is the ship that sails confidently through troubled waters. When Christ is our life, then physical death is only victory. Christ as our life means everything that what we suffer can have meaning and redemption. When we die to ourselves and live to Christ, hope overrides all of our “deaths.” We then receive incentive to continue to live faithfully — contentedly (4:11).
As finite people, we struggle to grasp the infinite, but here it is: Jesus is the sum of all things, and everything else is in Him (Colossians 1:16, 17). One day “Every knee should bow . . . and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10, 11).
In the meantime, I hope to be that watchman who eagerly peers forward, awaiting redemption to live at a level of faith that Paul showed on a constant basis.