Take a Stand
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Take a Stand

Philippians 1:27  (ID: 2044)

In the midst of suffering and persecution, we may be tempted to envy the lives of the wicked who seem to prosper in their rebellion. In this study, however, Alistair Begg encourages us to trust God’s sovereign plan and, united in His Spirit, stand fearlessly against opposition. God is in charge and will never forsake us. Our behavior, therefore, should reflect our beliefs and make the Gospel all the more attractive to the surrounding culture.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Philippians, Volume 1

Shining Lights in a Darkened World Philippians 1:1–2:30 Series ID: 15001

Sermon Transcript: Print

Foolish we would be to simply gather to listen to the voice of a mere man. And were it not for the fact that our conviction is that when your Word is truly preached your voice is really heard, we would have scant expectation in coming to these moments. But because we believe that you have given us your unerring Word, and you have granted to us the power of your Spirit so that by the Spirit, through the Word, we may, in fact, see Christ, and with our mind’s eye be able to reach out and lay hold upon him in the great and precious promises of his Word. To this end we seek you, in his lovely name. Amen.

Turn with me to Philippians 1:27, if you would. Verse 27:

“Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”

Paul, in writing to the church at Philippi, as you know now, is writing from difficult circumstances in Rome. He is a prisoner. The “struggle” to which he refers in the concluding phrases of the portion we’ve just read is this struggle that is represented by his imprisonment. He has been concerned in the opening verses of the letter to convey his affection and gratitude to the church at Philippi, for they, out of a sense of concern for Paul, had dispatched one of their number to take gifts to Paul so that he might be encouraged in his circumstances that were so daunting. And for the first twenty-six verses, essentially, he has been concerned to talk about himself because they were concerned about him. When we come to the twenty-seventh verse, the tenor of things changes, and he begins now to express his concerns for the Philippian Christians themselves. And in these concluding verses of chapter 1, I would like us to notice four things: first of all, the statement to be made, then the stand to be taken, then the sign to be given, then the struggle to be faced. And I’ll come back to each of these as I introduce them. If it’s unhelpful to you to have alliteration, just come up with another outline of your own, but if you find these words helpful for your retention, then you can make note of them as we’re going through.

A Statement to Be Made

First of all, what do we mean, then, by this notion of a “statement being made”? Well, you will notice in verse 27 that he says, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Paul says, “In your everyday lives, Philippians, you are making a statement.” All of us make statements in the way we dress, in the way we smile or glower, in the way we conduct ourselves. And since that is the case, the Christian believer is to make a statement that is in harmony with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The King James Version actually used the word conversation. Some of you may have a King James Version in front of you, and you will know that the verse begins, “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ.” And when in the twentieth century we read the seventeenth-century English, we’re tempted to assume that what Paul was referring to was simply about our talk. That is, of course, where an understanding of language is so important, because seventeenth-century English used conversation as a description not of talk, but of conduct, of behavior, of way of life. Consequently, when the NIV translates it, it talks in terms of Christian conduct. It is a call to the Philippians to close the gap between their belief and their behavior—to close the gap between the creed they profess and the conduct they display. In fact, the Greek word for “conduct yourselves”—and it is just one word, a verb, politeuesthe—is the word which gives us in English our word police and also gives us the word politics.

It is as we understand ourselves to be members of the City of God that we learn what it means to live in the City of Man.

So, in a very real sense, Paul is concerned here with Christian citizenship, which, of course, is a concern in every generation. The Philippians were members of the political structure of Rome; Philippi was a garrison town. Philippi was like a mini-Rome; people came to Philippi and it reminded them of Rome. And Paul says, “When people meet you as a little community, it should give them a foretaste of heaven. In the same way that as Philippians you have certain things that are conducive to an understanding of the political structure of Rome, so you as Christians should have that about your conduct which is indicative of the kingship of the Lord Jesus Christ.” So we have this dual dimension, which is, of course, classically represented for us in Augustine’s two cities: the City of God and the City of Man.[1] And it is as we understand ourselves to be members of the City of God that we learn what it means to live in the City of Man. 

Turn for a moment to Titus chapter 2, and let’s just iterate this point—reiterate the point about a concern for citizenship. If you go, for example, to verse 10, where he’s giving instructions about the transforming power of the gospel and the way that those who formerly did certain things no longer do them, he’s concerned that people who stole won’t steal anymore, but that they will “show … they can be fully trusted.” Now, notice the purpose clause here: Why is this? “So that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive”—“attractive.” If you go down to verse 14: we are “a people that are his very own,” and we’re “eager to do … good.” And, in fact, the preoccupation of Paul in writing to Titus is that he would be an encouragement to the people of his day to have a citizenship that is marked by these kind of things. How then should we react to the political structures of our day? Well, you’ll find it in verses 1 and 2 of chapter 3: “Remind the people,” he says, “to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward[s] all men.” So there you are: that’s how to live starting tomorrow morning. Let’s put it into practice.

so much of the face of conservative evangelicalism is an ugly face, not an attractive face. It’s not an endearing face, it’s a face that people have to endure. It’s not a welcoming face.

The gospel is such that our conduct, he says (going back to Philippians), is not to jar with the melody line of the gospel, but is to jive, if you like, with the melody line of the gospel. It is to harmonize with it. Now, just this past week, when I went down to the university to speak, amongst the myriad questions that came to me afterwards there was inevitably the question, “Why is it, then, that if Christians say they believe these things there are so many hypocrites in the church?” And of course, one has to answer, as one always does, “Well, first of all, we would like you to look at Christ, who is the leader, rather than his followers.” Once we’ve said that, we know that in the pregnant pause there is something else which needs to be said, which is, “I have to confess to you that it is absolutely shameful that I am such a hypocrite, and that I do so little by my life and lifestyle to make attractive to you, as an agnostic, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Indeed, so much of the face of conservative evangelicalism is an ugly face, not an attractive face. It’s not an endearing face, it’s a face that people have to endure. It’s not a welcoming face. 

And Paul is addressing this. He says, “Now, for those of you who are in Philippi, you’ve gotta understand that you’re making a statement.” The gospel is a gospel of love: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son [as an atoning sacrifice] for our sins. [Therefore,] we ought … to love one another,”[2] and we ought to love those who are unlovely, and we ought to love those whom we regard as, frankly, unlovable. Which is of course, very, very different from what is so often the picture of the church. Instead of the picture of the church being a group of people who have united, if you like, to hold hands and look out onto the watching world, and to make gaps in the circle every four or five people so that people attracted to this large, worshipping, loving environment come in through the passageways in the circle—instead of that being the average picture, the average picture is of a circle that is enclosed with its back turned to the world and held in rigid phalanx against any kind of intrusion. And every so often someone will look over their shoulder and say, “Oh, you don’t want to come as well, do you?” Any time you find a church fellowship that has established a measure of exclusivity, that has lost touch with the reality that Jesus said, “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white … [for] harvest,”[3] you are encountering a church family that needs to pay careful attention to this call to recognize that there is a statement being made, and the statement we make is to harmonize with the gospel of Christ.

It’s a gospel of love, it’s a gospel of life: “I am come that [you] might have life, and that [you] might have it [in all of its fullness].”[4] Why, then, so many so lifeless Christians, so many dour-looking characters? The people that would see us at McDonald’s or see us in our cars, there wouldn’t be one thing, hardly, that would ever make them run up and rap on a window and say, “Hey, what are you laughing about? What are you singing about? What are you smiling about?” No, no. “No, no. Oh, it’s a very solemn business, this Christian business—very, very solemn.” Well, it is solemn, but it’s not joyless. It’s life! We’re the ones that know what life is, because we’ve been given eternal life that will never end. So how can we have a gospel that’s all about life and have a church that looks so much like death? You realize that people, they’re not able to put these two things together. Why? Because we don’t conduct ourselves in accord with the gospel of Christ.

It’s a gospel of love, it’s a gospel of life, it’s a gospel of liberty: “Stand fast”—Galatians 5:1—“in the liberty [with which] Christ [has set you] free, and [do not be] entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”[5] And yet, by and large, the picture that is presented to the watching world is of a group of people who’ve tied themselves up in all kinds of knots, and “We welcome you to ‘Christianity: A Thousand Things That a Boy Is Not Allowed to Do.’ Why don’t you join us?” That wasn’t how Jesus got in trouble. Jesus got in trouble because he was apparently doing a ton of things that the Pharisees thought he wasn’t allowed to do. And it was because he was doing all these things that he wasn’t allowed to do that they concluded he wasn’t the Son of God, because if he was the Son of God then he would look just like the Pharisees. It was because that he was the Son of God that he didn’t look like the Pharisees!

Not merely in the words you say
Not only in the deeds confessed
But in the most unconscious way
Is Christ expressed.[6]

What kind of statement, then, was the church at Philippi going to make? What kind of statement is the church at Parkside making in relationship to these matters?

Notice there in verse 27, before we quickly move on, that this conduct amongst the people there is to be holding true “whatever happens,” and whether Paul is there or not. In other words, their conduct to living a life is not dependent on his presence among them. It’s more than possible that there was a quality about their Christian commitment that was lacking when he wasn’t there, and he may be taking a little dig at them and saying, “You know, I’m not with you just now, but I hope you’re keeping on,” in the same way that a school teacher does when she walks out of the classroom. She hopes that in her absence there will be as much diligence as there is in her presence. She hopes that in years to come, when this young man has grown and has become a father of his own and has gone through university and has taken employment, that he will come back and he will say, “You know, I want to thank you for the days in your classroom, because it was there, whether you were present or whether you were absent, that I forged these great convictions and this great love” for whatever it is—biology, or arithmetic, or geometry, or history, or whatever it might be.

Your involvement in the things of Christ should not be affected by the presence or absence of any particular Christian leader; it should be dictated to by your faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I was an assistant to Derek Prime at Charlotte Chapel, I noticed something that was a challenge to me, and that was that on the number of occasions that I was given the opportunity of preaching, it was markedly different. Oh, it was markedly different, first of all, because the standard of preaching was significantly lower than when Derek Prime was a preacher. But that wasn’t what confronted me; I understood that. What confronted me was the sparseness of the congregation. And I realized that when he left, so did the people, saying something about the level of their interest in the things of the Spirit of God and their commitment to faithfulness. Paul says, “Whether I’m there or whether I’m gone…” Your involvement in the things of Christ should not be affected by the presence or absence of any particular Christian leader; it should be dictated to by your faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ . There’s a big challenge in that. I’m sure that never happens here when I’m gone.

A Stand to Be Taken

Secondly, there’s not only a statement to be made, there is a stand to be taken. He’s concerned because there are those who oppose them. Verse 28: “those who oppose you.” Look at the phrase. Remember, Jesus says in John 15 that they will hate his followers. “But,” he says, “you shouldn’t be unduly concerned about this, because they hated me as well.” That’s actually John 15:18: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”

So the question for the Philippians was not whether they would experience opposition; the questions was, how would they respond to the opposition that they experienced? Of course, it would be easy for them to take no stand at all—“The man who doesn’t stand for something will fall for anything”—and Paul is concerned that these individuals will be standing—indeed, that they will be united in their posture, “stand[ing] firm in one spirit.” Their union with one another is a spiritual union. That means that it is a union that God has engendered. They have been made to drink of the one Spirit, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12: “For we were all baptized … into one body … and we were all given the one Spirit [from which] to drink”[7]—so that unity in the body of Christ is not some external pattern that is engendered as a result of various denominational officials giving up various little bits and pieces of their own particular interest in the hope that we can present to the world an amalgamation of religions that is based on the lowest common denominator. That’s called ecumenism, and it is empty and fatuous and unhelpful.

The unity whereby you get the people of God from a whole breadth of experiences and backgrounds and cultures and lifestyles is a unity that God engenders.

The unity whereby you get the people of God from a whole breadth of experiences and backgrounds and cultures and lifestyles is a unity that God engenders.  That’s why when you go across the world and you meet people that you’ve never met before, suddenly you’re embracing this person as your brother. Say, “Well, why do I feel this way about this man? Why would this man care about me in this way? Why do we have this immediate conversation that is something far more than a camaraderie?” It is because it is the Spirit of God that’s at work in the child of God. It is a wonderful thing. It’s true.

Their unity was spiritual; their unity was purposeful: “stand[ing] firm in one spirit … as one man,” for what? “For the faith of the gospel.” Standing “for the faith of the gospel.” What does the church stand for at the end of the twentieth century? Of all the things that we might be able to go out and survey our pagan neighbors about and say, “What do you think the church stands for?” how many would say it stands for the faith of the gospel? Or even a phrase that would be in concurrence with that? Precious few, I think. But you see, that was Paul’s driving passion. Romans 1:16, he says, “I[’m] not ashamed of the gospel”—the gospel—“because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, [and] then for the Gentile.”

The church is not called to stand fast for a political opinion, a political party, or an ideology. The church is to stand for the faith of the gospel.

You see, the church is not called to stand fast for a political opinion, or for a political party, or for an ideology, or for a pro- stance on something. Those things are accretions; these are extrusions from this central core issue. But the church is to stand for the faith of the gospel,  you see. This is how we can go into the community: you go into the community and say, “I’m not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation for everyone, first for the homosexual, and then for the heterosexual. I’m not ashamed of the gospel, because it’s the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, first for the Democrat, and then for the Republican. I’m not ashamed of the gospel, because it’s the power of God for all who believe, first for the poor, and then for the rich.” In other words, the only thing that we’ve got to go out and say to our world is “good news” is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. And yet what are we spending our time doing? Telling them about every other thing, concerned about all imaginable concerns, and all under the disguise of “This is the great issue, you know, for the future.”

The future for humanity rests in a Galilean carpenter’s death. The pivotal event of Christianity, the pivotal event of world history, the abidingly significant issue is seen upon a cross. Not in a banner, but in a cross. Not in a triumph, but in a failure. Not in power, but in weakness. Not in wisdom, but in apparent folly. Small wonder we make such little impact, for we want no folly, all wisdom, no weakness, all power. So we give up on the very thing that would make us an influence in the culture. We only have one string to our bow. That’s the only way you can fire the arrows. You give up on that string, there’s nothing to do. And that’s why we’re where we are today.

The unity is spiritual, the unity is purposeful, and the unity is to be fearless—fearless. Verse 28: “without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.” The word there is actually skittish. It’s the word that would be used of the shying of a horse. It’s the only time that it’s used in the New Testament; it’s a very secular word. I don’t know if you know much about horses. What I know about horses could be written on the smallest fingernail on my hand. But I have had my time with horses, none more famous than the day that I went horse riding with my then-girlfriend and her sister. And confronted by a very nice place in England, and aware of the fact that I was distinctly out of place in this context, I was less than truthful about my equestrian abilities. And so I was ushered onto a large horse by the name of George that apparently was a real piece of work. And when he saw my reflection in a puddle, he took off with me on the back, and it was not a pretty sight. I don’t know what it was that made him so skittish, why he had to shy and buck and jump and run through the trees and split the little metal button that was on the top of that hat that I was wearing. (Boy, I looked a beauty in that, I can tell you. My hair was all sticking out the sides, and I really looked the part. I’m surprised my wife didn’t dump me just at that point, as my girlfriend then.) But the fearfulness of horses is the word that he uses, the skittishness of it. And he says, “Now, don’t be like that. Don’t let the people who oppose you make you all the time be jumping and trying to absorb or get out of the way. No,” he says, “don’t do that.”

You know, he may be actually making a reference to the Battle of Philippi. You remember when we introduced the studies we said that one of the significant things about Philippi was that it was the place of the battle that took place between the forces of Brutus and Cassius, who were the defenders of the Roman republic, and they fought against Antony and Octavian, who were the avengers of Caesar’s death. But before ever the battle ensued, Cassius, as one of the leaders, committed suicide, because he was afraid that they were about to lose the battle. He got skittish and bailed on it. And it may well be that Paul, in using that kind of picture, is calling on the resource of the understanding of the people and saying, “Now, don’t do a Cassius on us here. Don’t get skittish and jump. Stand together.”

In fact, the word that he uses is an athletic word, synathlountes, and it is a word that is descriptive of wrestling—not the kind of wrestling that happens at high school here, with one boy and another boy, and those things over their ears, trying to force one another on that big circular mat. But no, this was a wrestling competition that had a number of people in each team, and they lined up against one another behind two lines, and when the signal was given they went at it with each other, on a united front—so they were just one writhing, sweating, mass of humanity trying to prevail over the other. Not a very dainty picture on a Sunday morning, I admit, but nevertheless, that is the picture: side by side, seeking to prevail by the power of God’s Spirit through the ministry of God’s Word. What is it? “[Well] I just might have a problem that [you] understand. We all need somebody to lean on.”[8] Can’t do it on our own, none of us; it was never intended. “In one Spirit, [standing firm], contending as one man for the faith of the gospel.”

A Sign to Be Given

What’s the statement that the church at Philippi was making? Was it in concurrence with the gospel of Christ? What about the stand that the church in Philippi was taking? Was it marked by this unity and purposefulness? What about the sign that they were giving? That’s our third word, referred to in verse 28b: “This,” he says, “is a sign” that points two ways: it points in one direction to salvation, and it points in the other direction to destruction. “This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God.”

Do you notice the matter-of-factness of the Bible in relationship to the issues of eternal destiny? None of this twentieth-century concern about political correctness, no attempt to try and make it sound as though everybody is going to be fine and everyone will be saved and nobody will be destroyed. No, it just says, you know, “This is a sign that points two ways.” It gives the thumbs-up to some, and it gives the thumbs-down to others, in a way that would be true, again, of the Roman gladiatorial contests: Caesar would sit up on the dais, the gladiators would go at it with one another, and one would prevail upon the other. He would bring the man to the point of total subjugation, he would stand over him, often with his foot on his chest and his sword at his throat, and he would then look up to the dais where Caesar sat, and he would wait for the sign. And if Caesar thought the man who was on the ground had committed himself well in battle, he may determine to let him go; if he didn’t like how he did, he would take the sword to him and he would be gone. And so he stood and he waited for the sign: either this, or this. And the “this” meant victory for the one chap, and the “this” meant destruction for the other.

These are the eternal verities, my Christian friends. Everybody is not going to heaven. We thought about this at Table Talk on Wednesday: that no one goes to heaven deservingly, and no one goes to hell unwillingly. No one goes to heaven deservingly, and no one goes to hell unwillingly. C. S. Lewis, in his writings, points out that heaven is a place for sinners who trust in God for salvation, and hell is a place for sinners who choose not to trust in God for salvation.[9] Heaven is not a place where the good people go, and hell is the place where the bad people go. The bad people go one of two places: to heaven, and never deservingly; and to hell, and never unwillingly. That’s why this sign is so vital—a sign which declares their doom, but points to the salvation of those who are their victims.

Too often, you see, the church—and probably in Philippi, too—regarded the persecution of those around them as a sign of the superiority of the pagans; as a sign that the world, if you like, was winning; as a sign that somehow or another this pathetic little Christian community had no future at all, and we were just a lost little group in the midst of a big world that was on its way to oblivion, and that somehow or another God had taken his hands off the whole mess, and we were at sea, and we were in a rowing boat and had no oars and no compass and no guide and no nothing, and, “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” and all the wringing of our hands.

I never met such hand-wringing as I find it amongst evangelical Christians. I never met such moaning and groaning and griping and whining as is represented by the conservative wing of the church. Of all people who ought to understand, we seem so slow to believe what was told us of the prophets. “How foolish,” says Jesus to the folks, “and … slow of heart to believe all that the [apostles wrote]!”[10] In what context? In the context where two disciples had got together and formed a pity party, and they said, “It’s all over. We thought it was gonna be great. We thought he would be the one to redeem the people Israel, and now everything is ended in a Palestinian cave. It’s all done and finished with! They took him down from the cross, Joseph of Arimathea and another fellow, they put him away in a tomb, and now we’re on our way, we’re out of here, we don’t know where we’re going.”

And what an irony that they’re telling the risen Christ this, you see? They’re telling the Lord of glory that he’s dead—and he’s alive! Do you get the irony of it? I mean, it’s not like they’re telling the guy up the street. They’re telling Christ! They don’t know it’s Christ, and they’re telling him, “It’s over, Christ!” And Christ’s there going, “It’s over? What do you think I’m doing here?” That’s what we’re doing still: “O God, it’s over. Oh, I don’t know if you saw the New York Times, but it’s over. It’s over again. We thought that this was the time we would make a great gain, and oh, it’s over. Oh, we don’t know what to do.” Oh, when will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?

When will we learn the lesson of Asaph in Psalm 73? “My foot had almost slipped. I was on a slippery slope. I became like a brute beast. I envied the arrogant. I looked at these people and I said to myself”—Asaph speaking—“I said to myself, ‘They’re winning. They’re sidestepping all the trials, they’re missing all the sufferings. They are the epitome of wealth and stature. They’re on the fronts of all the magazines. Look at their bodies, so strong and powerful. Look at the girls, so sculpted and beautiful, not a wrinkle in sight, not an indication of gravity taking hold at all. No, they’re all just wonderful, spectacular people, and they’re in charge of it all. And here we are, the Christians, buffeted and defeated and beaten down and forced to stand in the checkout counter, and look at how well they’re all doing, and how terrific it all is, and how pathetic we are. And we go in that building and sing those songs, but they’re out here, and they’re in control, and oh, I envy the wicked. I think I may become one of them. I think I shall.’”

“And then,” he said, “I went into the temple of God. And I bowed down before a sovereign God who is almighty over all the affairs of time. And I brought my view of the world and of the culture underneath the umbrella of God’s sovereign purpose. And I’ve brought myself to understand that the Lord God omnipotent reigns. And so I’m no longer,” he says to himself, “sent into a panic by their opposition. I realize now,” says Asaph, “that their condition is not intimidating. Their condition is pitiful—pitiful.”

It is only when the people of God will bow before a sovereign God that we will begin to understand that we are not intimidated by the godless.

You see, it is only when the people of God will bow before a sovereign God that we will begin to understand that we are not intimidated by the godless . Oh, we may be for a moment or two. Our feet may almost slip. We may say, “Well, they’re the attractive people. They’re the beautiful people. They’re the powerful people.” But once we go into the temple of God and we put it underneath his all-arching wisdom, we say, “There is no reason here for panic. There is no reason here for confusion. God’s in charge!”

Now, where do we discover that? In the Bible! How does it get ministered to our hearts? By the Holy Spirit! What does God use to that end? The preaching of the Word of God—not exclusively, but primarily, so that we may come together on the Lord’s Day and be recalibrated. Because just like your wheels need balanced all the time, because you’re going down these jolly roads here—you’re paying all this money for taxes, and you’re going down the roads, ga-da-dunk, ga-ga-ga-dunk, ga-dunk, dunk, dunk … I mean, if we could get it into some kind of pattern we could put music to it. But the fact of the matter is, all it does, it just beats the tar out of your tires. And you have to go back in, say, “Could I have a front-end alignment? Could I have them recalibrated? Could I get fixed? Because I want to go just smoothly down the road.”

We come out of a week—I do—buffeted, needing a front-end alignment. That’s why I come to church: for a front-end alignment. “You do?” Yes, in part, not all. But there are other people in there, and when they come in for a front-end alignment we say, “Hey, let’s sing together, you know. How thankful we are that God is able to put us back in line. Let’s thank God that even though our wheels bounced all this week, that we envied the wicked and were in deep difficulty, that God is still in control. But we’re not gonna panic.” “We will not [panic],” says Luther in his great hymn, “for God ha[s] willed his truth to triumph through us.”[11]

“Religious Conservatives, Stung by Vote Losses, Blame [the] G.O.P. for Focusing on Clinton.”
For Christian conservative leaders, Tuesday[’s] election was a pivotal test of their political power. They poured millions of dollars into key races, blitzed churchgoers with voter guides…

Thank you for the little things on my windshield last week. Don’t do it again.

[and] blitzed churchgoers with voter[s’] guides and helped persuade Republican leaders to make the election a national referendum on President Clinton’s moral fitness for office.[12]

This is a lady writing in the New York Times, and eventually she just says, as a total pagan, “When will these people ever wake up and recognize that the only thing they have to offer the world is the gospel—that they can never legislate for the soul of a nation, because a nation doesn’t have a soul?” And I listened all week, and people on the radio are telling me, “Oh, we got a battle here for the soul of America.” I’m shouting at the radio, “America doesn’t have a soul!” People have souls. Nations don’t have souls. And so that is exactly why we’re in the position we’re in: because we have marshaled the troops to fight for a nonexistent soul, meanwhile failing to marshal the troops to fight for the souls of men and women. Because we’ll fight somewhere, especially if we feel intimidated. But not if we pity them.

Christ was never intimidated. “Looking for me?” he said, walking out from the darkness of the garden. They never had to go and find him cooried in a corner somewhere with his boy Judas coming for him: “Let me give you a kiss Jesus”; he says, “Is it me you’re looking for? I have the power to call legions of angels. I have the power to lay my life down. I have the power to take my life up again. Put your sword away, Peter. I told you that before, you cloth ears. You just don’t … don’t be doing that. If my kingdom was one of those kingdoms, we would do it. We’re not doing it that way, Peter. We’re doing it a different way.” Peter’s going, “I don’t like the way we’re doing it.” “Hey, shut up. We’re doing it the way I said.” And that’s the problem: many Christians don’t like the way that the King has determined to do it. It’s God who has the power to bring down kings and exalt kings.

A Struggle to Be Faced

Now, let me go to my final point: there’s a struggle to be faced. Look at verse 29: “For it[’s] been granted [un]to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.” “Pardon? I understand that my salvation is granted to me as a gift from God—that’s what the phrase means—but are you telling me that suffering is a gift from God?” Yep. The Philippians and Paul are fighting the same enemy—Ephesians 6. Paul, remember, when he writes to the Corinthians, says, “We don’t wage war as the world wages war. We have divine power for pulling down strongholds.”[13] And the people are going, “And exactly what is that?” and he says, “The preaching of the Word and prayer.”

D. E. Hoste said, “I would not appoint a man or a woman to the mission field until he had first learned to wrestle with the evil one, because if he or she has not learned to wrestle with the evil one they will wrestle with their fellow missionaries.”[14] And in the same measure, until we have learned to wrestle in the arena where the struggle really takes place, we have no right talking about it, because if we don’t wrestle there we will go out and wrestle at every other point. And that’s exactly where the church is: it’s wrestling on every other front.

Now, let me give you a quote, which is a hard quote, both because it’s archaic and because of what it says, and I use this as my penultimate statement. Quoting from somebody in an earlier era about the nature of persecution being given to the believers as a gift from God, he says,

The persecution of believers is not a fortuitous event, which happens either by chance, or by the malice of men or devils alone. It is God, who guides the whole affair by a special providence. He sees the rage of the enemies of his people. He knows their designs, he perceives all that they are contriving against the gospel, and could (if such were his good pleasure) dissipate both their plans and their efforts in an instant. [But] he lets them alone, and by secret arrangements manages their violence against every one of his servants, as his supreme wisdom sees best. He [that is, God] himself marks the field where the combat is to be decided. He orders the weapons and the blows, and rules every action. He calls his warrior, and himself places him in front of the enemy. Christian, do not stop at men, and at the appearances of things. Be convinced that it is the Lord who arranges all your trials. You will enter into none but by his permission.[15]

Sinclair Ferguson puts it far more succinctly when he writes, “Suffering is the friction which polishes our graces.”[16]

God is prepared to go to any lengths to make us like his Son. The cross proves that.

And loved ones, is it not this, that in the experience of suffering we learn that God is prepared to go to any lengths to make us like his Son? The cross proves that.  He’ll stop at nothing to change us into his image, and suffering is one of the instruments he uses. And so Luther writes, translated by Thomas Carlyle into the English,

And were this world all devils o’er,
And watching to devour us,
We lay it not to heart so sore;
Not they can overpower us.
And let the prince of ill
Look grim as e’er he will,
He harms us not a whit;
For why? — his doom is writ;
One little word shall fell him.[17]

If there’s “one little word,” what is that word? Well, it’s actually a Greek word. It’s actually an Aramaic word, but in Greek it is tetelestai, which in English is a phrase, It is finished. And when the Lord Jesus declared upon the cross, “It is finished,” it was checkmate for the Evil One. He may engage in minor skirmishes, as he does, for all of the rest of time, but he cannot alter the ultimate outcome.

And so Luther concludes,

God’s Word, for all their craft and force,
One moment will not linger,
But, spite of hell, shall have its course;
’Tis written by His finger.

In other words, all hell will break loose, but that’s not to intimidate the believer, because God’s in charge of that as well.

And though they take our life,
Goods, honor, children, wife,
Yet is their profit small;
These things shall vanish all:
The city of God remaineth!

At a far more trivial level, my father used to sing a little chorus that went like this:

Cheer up, ye saints of God.
There’s nothing to worry about.
Nothing to make you feel afraid.
Nothing to make you doubt.
Remember Jesus never fails,
So why not trust him and shout?
You’ll be sorry you worried at all
tomorrow morning.

God reigns. “Ye … saints, fresh courage take.”[18]

Let us pray:

O God our Father, “If you do not go up with us,” said your servant of old, “we dare not go from this place.”[19] That’s exactly how we feel. If you do not go up with us to the challenges of family and our future, our education, commerce, the totality of our beings, then we’re fearful to leave this place. Thank you for your promise: “I will never leave you [or] forsake you”[20]—that by your same power, which sets the planets in their place, you know when a sparrow falls to the ground. And as Jesus reminded his disciples, “Are [we] not much more valuable than they?”[21]

And now unto him who is able to keep us from falling, and to present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, and dominion and power, now and forevermore. Amen.[22]

[1] Augustine, The City of God 1.1.

[2] 1 John 4:10–11 (KJV).

[3] John 4:35 (KJV).

[4] John 10:10 (KJV).

[5] Galatians 5:1 (KJV).

[6] Attributed to Beatrice Clelland.

[7] 1 Corinthians 12:13 (NIV 1984).

[8] Bill Withers, “Lean on Me” (1972).

[9] See, for instance, C. S. Lewis, “Hell,” chap. 8 in The Problem of Pain (1940).

[10] Luke 24:25 (NIV 1984).

[11] Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (1529).

[12] Laurie Goodstein, “Religious Conservatives, Stung by Vote Losses, Blame G.O.P. for Focusing on Clinton,” New York Times, November 5, 1998.

[13] 2 Corinthians 10:4 (paraphrased).

[14] D. E. Hoste, If I Am to Lead (1968; repr., Singapore: Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1987), 8. Paraphrased.

[15] Jean Daille, An Exposition of the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Philippians, trans. James Sherman (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1843) 43.

[16] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Philippians (1997; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2018), 36.

[17] Luther, “Mighty Fortress.”

[18] William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774).

[19] Exodus 33:15 (paraphrased).

[20] Joshua 1:5 (NIV 1984).

[21] Matthew 6:26 (NIV 1984).

[22] Jude vv. 24–25 (paraphrased).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.