The Lord's Day Evening
August 29, 2004
“Can I Be Sure of Anything?”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
We come this evening to the final sermon in the series that's taken us through July and August of this past summer on the subject of “Guidance.”
We've been looking at the topic of guidance from a number of perspectives. We've seen, for example, that the Reformers looked to Scripture and saw in Scripture examples of guidance along three quite distinct lines. There were, in the first place, laws–commandments. God tells us what we should and shouldn't do. In the second place, He gives promises: promises of blessing, if you follow a certain direction; threats of covenantal curses if you go in another direction. And in the third place, the Reformers said in Scripture you discover examples, templates, if you like, of guidance–models in the lives and biographies of various men and women. And we've been examining some of those in the past few weeks, and we've looked, amongst others, at Jonah and Abraham, and more recently in Nehemiah.
And this evening I want us to go into the New Testament and look at an example of guidance in the Apostle Paul, and in something that he writes here in his letter to the Philippians. It's an extraordinary thing that Paul confesses here in the opening chapter of Philippians. He has many, many things to say about a whole variety of issues, and we're narrowing our focus to what he has to say in particular about guidance. But one of the things that we discover is that Paul seems to be uncertain–uncertain about his own future. Uncertain about what may happen to him in the coming weeks and months and years. He knows with certainty the past, and he has a measure of wisdom about discerning the present, but about the future he doesn't have absolute certainty about the way God will guide him.
He's talking about the issue of guidance. Actually, our forefathers would have said he's talking about the issue of providence, God's superintendence, God's control over every detail of our lives. It's been quite astonishing how everything seems to have come together in the service this evening...the hymns, and the children's address, and also in the item that was sung just a few minutes ago. All of which seemed in some way or another to assure us of God's control over our lives, ordering our lives, directing the course of our lives. And what we find here in Philippians 1 is a trust: Paul's confidence, Paul's assurance in the providence of God.
Now before we read Philippians 1, let's come before God in prayer. Let's pray.
Our Father in heaven, this is Your word. You caused it to be written. Holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. Now come again, we pray, as we study it together. We desire with all of our hearts that it would be a profit to us. We want to learn from it, learn to conform our lives more and more after the pattern and likeness of Jesus Christ. Come, then, Holy Spirit, and enable us to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest all that You have caused to be written in the Scriptures. We ask it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who
are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace
from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God in all my
remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you
all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will
perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is only right for me to feel
this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my
imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are
partakers of grace with me. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with
the affection of Christ Jesus. And this I pray, that your love may abound still
more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the
things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of
Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through
Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear. Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose.
But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith,
so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again. Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God. For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.
This is God's holy and infallible word:
Samuel Rutherford, writing as he wrote voluminously a number of letters, writing to a Lady Kenmure1 at the death of her husband, said to her in this letter: “I believe faith will teach you to kiss a striking Lord.” I believe faith will teach you to kiss a striking Lord. Well, in some ways God has struck the Apostle Paul, and also at the same time these Philippians Christians.
The Philippians are troubled, and they’re deeply troubled by Paul's imprisonment. Paul is the mighty apostle; he's also a close friend of many in the Philippian church. He was probably closer to the Philippian church than to any of the other churches. This is the church that seems to have helped him, both in material ways–sending him gifts when he's in prison, helping him perhaps with legal fees (lawyers had to be paid then, as now), and the legal fees Paul no doubt needed when he was imprisoned in Rome. It was this church that took up an offering, apparently, and brought it by the hands of Epaphroditus to visit with Paul.
The churches are troubled. They’re troubled because they've lost a friend, they’re troubled because they’re unsure of the future for the Apostle Paul, and therefore unsure of the future for themselves. What is going to happen to the church of Jesus Christ? The church is relatively new and young, it's a fledgling church. What will become of it if something happens to the Apostle Paul? How could God allow this to happen? Many of the Philippians were beginning to think that if they were in charge of the future, if they were in charge of guidance, they would certainly do things this way rather than that way. And Paul is writing to address that particular issue, their concern over guidance, their perplexity over God's guidance in the past, over the way God has brought things to this particular impasse. The Apostle Paul is languishing in a prison in Rome, though perhaps he actually wasn't facing imminent death.
Now as Paul addresses this, he asks the Philippians to think along three lines of thought: the past, the present, and the future. And he begins by addressing the past.
I. The past.
And he says in verse 12–it's a sort of off-hand, casual sort of statement: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me.....” He's talking about what has happened to him; he's talking about his story, his life story, his life story up until this point. He's talking about these circumstances that have come together to bring him to this point where he is in prison and facing perhaps imminent death. He's looking back, he's addressing what has occurred, what has happened in his life. We all do it. Perhaps you've been doing it today, you've been doing it this week. How in the world do I find myself in this particular circumstance? What has happened? What are all of the little incidents, all of the circumstances that brought together, and come together, and bring to pass this particular contingency that Paul now finds himself in? He's in a prison in Rome.
He doesn't make a meal of it. He doesn't complain about the past journey to Rome that should have taken perhaps a few weeks, but in fact took several months, you remember. He was almost drowned. He spent already many years in prison. Someone has suggested that in his adult life Paul spent more years in prison than out of prison. What a long journey, before actually sitting down and writing this particular letter. He’d been warned some years earlier, when he’d gone to Jerusalem, when he set foot in Jerusalem he was forewarned by the Holy Spirit that bonds and imprisonments awaited him.
And trouble wasn't long delayed. Paul went out of his way to try and measure up to all of the Jewish scruples, but an entirely false accusation was brought against him, leveled against him by his own people. He was nearly lynched, you remember, by a religious mob. He ends up in this Roman prison, and he barely escapes flogging, only because he pleads his Roman citizenship. The entire case is a mockery: a mockery of justice. There seems to have been people trying to buy their way into Paul's case, looking perhaps for a bribe. Paul seems to be hinting at that in some place or another.
The entire scenario, the past, the events of Paul's life–it's not what Paul would have written. If Paul was in charge of his own guidance, he wouldn't have written this particular story. If the Philippians had written down... what was it you want for this beloved apostle whom you love with all of your hearts; you’d pluck out your very eyes for the Apostle Paul...what is it that you would write down? What is it that you would want and desire? It isn't this.
And Paul is addressing the past, and he's saying that God is in charge of the past. What has happened to me... there is a past, there is a set of circumstances. There's no point in whining about it.
There's no point in re-addressing the past–if only I'd done this, if only I'd done that, if only I hadn't driven along that road at that particular time of day I wouldn't have been involved in that accident. We do that, don't we? We second-guess with hindsight, twenty-twenty vision, we look back, and we try to address it. And we say if we hadn't done this, then these circumstances wouldn't have been brought about, and so on. And Paul stands back from all of that, and he says the past is in God's hands. The past is in God's hands.
II. The present
Then he goes on, and he addresses the present. Look again at verse twelve: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to be has really served to advance the gospel.” He uses a very strong Greek word. It is the word that has the connotation that it has turned out this way because there is a superintending hand of governance. Someone's hand is on the tiller. Someone's hand is guiding this great ship of our lives. That's what Paul seems to be saying: that these things have turned out, and they have turned out for a particular purpose, and they’re actually going to be for a good purpose, for addressing the glory of God, for advancing the kingdom of God. If it wasn't for these particular circumstances, the church would be hampered in some way. Paul is saying here in a sort of historical form what he puts in a more theological form when he writes to the Romans in chapter eight and verse twenty-eight, when he says that “all things work together for good to them that love God.” And they worked together for good because God works them together for good.
Now, he addresses the providence, the guidance of God, in the present and from the circumstances of the past upon three different sets of people.
The unbelievers. He talks first of all about those who seemingly don't know the Lord Jesus Christ, those who are not Christians. It has become clear, he says in verse 13 that the imperial guard, or the Praetorian Guard have in some way been affected by these circumstances. These circumstances: Paul in prison, Paul in Rome surrounded by this elite Roman guard, the praetorian guard, the imperial guard. This has actually served to advance the gospel amongst this group of unbelievers, Paul is saying. Something has become clear to him. He's in chains, as he puts it, for Christ. These trials and tribulations, these difficulties–and God guides us into difficulties–God doesn't promise us a Rolls Royce ride to heaven. There will be trials. There will be difficulties. There will be hard days. There will be circumstances that are difficult to interpret. There’ll be events that transpire in the life of Christians—dear Christians, the most useful of Christians— that are hard to interpret. And Paul says these particular circumstances, in the guidance of God, in the directing purposes of God, in the over-ruling providence of God, have advanced the cause of the gospel amongst unbelievers.
Now, think about the Apostle Paul in jail. In prison, there was a time when seemingly he was allowed sort of out of the prison and into some kind of house arrest in a private house of some kind. There would have been a guard there, too, when he was in prison. No doubt he was chained, manacled, to one of these imperial soldiers. Wherever he would go in that prison, whatever function he would have to perform, this soldier would go with him. Imagine that! Morning and afternoon and evening, and during the course of the night....and Paul would converse with these soldiers, he’d talk to them. He’d ask them their names. He’d ask them about their wives. He’d ask them about their children, and about their parents, or where they came from, and what military campaigns and exploits they had been involved in. And when there would be a change of guard–it would take place every few hours or so–every three, four hours there’d be a change of guard, and Paul no doubt would welcome this new one, and call him by name, and say, ‘You know, Silvanus,...’ (or whatever his name was) ‘...welcome, good to see you again.’ And he’d start relating his life story. He would talk endlessly, I'm sure, about the gospel, about his conversion, about the road to Damascus, about the blinding light, about Jesus. He would talk to these Roman soldiers about the works of Jesus, the miracles of Jesus, the life of Jesus, the death of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, the ascension of Jesus. He’d tell them that there were Roman soldiers in Judea, in Jerusalem, who’d been converted, who are worshipping Jesus as Lord. And Paul says, ‘Do you understand? These circumstances, this guiding hand of God in my life have advanced the cause of the gospel amongst a group of people who otherwise would never have heard the gospel.’
We've talked to friends here in this church, and they've been sick, and they've gone to a hospital–Baptist Hospital, the University Medical Center, whichever one it is–and they've spoken to people from other parts of the state. They've spoken to nurses and medical attendants, and doctors and anesthetists, and found themselves in situations that otherwise they would never have had that opportunity. It was a key in the providence of God, in the guidance of God in their lives for the advance of the gospel.
And then Paul talks about the effect of God's guidance in the present on those who are fellow believers. He talks about Roman Christians in the palace, in the very seat of the empire in Rome. And apparently news has come to the Apostle Paul, no doubt from these imperial guards, that there were Christians even in Caesar's household. And he says, at the end of verse 14, “...they also are now speaking about Jesus with much more boldness.” My imprisonment and my response to God's guidance in my life has been for them a kind of spur. Well, if Paul can speak about Jesus in a Roman cell, then I can speak about Jesus in my place of work. And you see what Paul is saying? The trying and difficult circumstances in the life of the Apostle Paul had emboldened other Christians to speak about Jesus.
Hugh Latimer2 was one of the greatest of all of the English preachers in the sixteenth century, the one who eventually was burnt at the stake in Oxford. And when he was arrested, arrested during reign of Queen Mary, Latimer was committed to a painful house arrest, in a home of the Mayor of Oxford, Edmund and Margaret Irish. He was there for eighteen months. He had to live there, with their hatred of him and all that he stood for. And he talks...the biographies of Latimer talk about the boorish behavior and dismissive way that they treated Hugh Latimer. But the wife of that mayor, Margaret Irish, over the course of eighteen months was won over to his modesty, to his meekness, to the transparency of Christ that shone through his very being. And not only was she won over to Hugh Latimer, she was won over to the Savior. She made profession of faith in Jesus Christ. This man, who, in the guidance of God, in the over-ruling, directing purposes of God, would cause him to be burned at the stake in Oxford, for a while was an instrument in the salvation of another.
And then Paul speaks of the effect of his imprisonment upon specific believers, preachers. And he says a rather strange thing: that there were two kinds of preachers in Paul's time. There were those who preached out of good will and good motives, and then there were those who seemingly were preaching out of envy. They weren't preaching a false gospel–Paul would have another thing to say if they were preaching a false gospel. They were preaching the gospel, but their motives were all wrong. They were seeing this as an opportunity for them to increase in the limelight now that Paul was in prison. And apparently news of this had reached Paul in prison. It's a very ugly thing, and Paul doesn't enlarge upon it. But the big-heartedness of the apostle says to these Philippians, ‘Look, if my imprisonment causes these people, even if their motives are all wrong, if it causes them to preach the gospel with more fervor, then glory be to God.’
III. The future.
Well, he talks about the past, and he talks about the present, but then he talks about the future. And perhaps in our interest in this subject of guidance, this is the point at which we want to perhaps focus a little more closely. And Paul says something deeply, deeply interesting in verse 19. He says in verse 19 that whatever happens to me, he is absolutely persuaded that it will be for the glory of God. And he goes on to expand upon that. He's absolutely convinced that no matter what is going to happen, it's going to be for the advancement of the glory of God. He's absolutely convinced as he rationalizes–and notice what he does. There are two possibilities for Paul's future. He's trying to discern the guidance of God. What does God want me to do? You know, that's a difficult question to ask if you’re in prison and facing death... you know, there aren't that many things that are open to you. So the pool, as it were, of choices is very narrow for the Apostle Paul, and the two choices are that he’ll win his case, or the emperor will give him clemency and he’ll be released and he’ll go back and do some more work for the advancement of the kingdom of God and build up the church, and visit these dear Philippians that he longs and desires to do; or, or...God will take him home.
Now, he doesn't expand on how that will be. It will be by a horrible death, but He’ll take him home. And he utters this astonishing statement. It's one of our favorite texts, it's one we quote, isn't it, in times of stress: “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” is one, but here in Philippians he says “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” To live is Christ, and to die is gain. It's as though the apostle is reminding himself of that New England primer that we sometimes say to ourselves before we go to bed at night: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.” And Paul is saying “for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
But then in verse 25, he says, “Now convinced of this...” and what is he convinced about? In verse 24, “...to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Paul isn't afraid to die. I wish we had time to expand on that. That's a wonderful point. Paul isn't afraid to die. He's not in the least bit frightened of death. Now, he might be frightened of the manner of death, so he doesn't talk about that here. And I think all of us are rightly and properly afraid of the manner of death. I think you even see something of that in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the fearful nature that overtook our Lord in those last few hours. That's not what Paul is talking about. He knows, he has an absolute certainty and assurance that if he dies, he's going to be in the presence of Jesus, and he longs for that, and he desires that. And he says it's very far better, but his heart is for these people. It's not his own desire that's important at the end of the day. It's not his own interest that's important. It's not his own comfort zone that's uppermost in Paul's thoughts. It's these dear Philippians. So he says in verse 24, ... “to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. And convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith.”
Now that's a very astonishing thing for the apostle to say. He's reasoning. He's not subject here to second-sight. He's not claiming the gifts of a prophet, being able to foresee the future. He actually says that he doesn't know which of these is going to transpire. He's on the one hand uncertain of what the future may hold, and he's reasoning, he's rationalizing. And the best thought that he comes to, it seems to me, the best thought that he comes to is that he will remain. He says in verse 25, “this is my conviction; I know that I will remain and continue with you all.” But notice what he says in verse 27: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent....” Now, in verse 25 he says “I'm convinced of this...” and then two verses later he says, well, maybe I’ll come and maybe I won't.
As though the apostle is saying, ‘This is my conviction but it may not be God's conviction.’ You know–this is my discernment of the future. This is how I see God guiding me. This is what I think is best for the church at this point, but you know, God's ways are not my ways. His thoughts are not my thoughts. So whether I come to you or whether I don't come to you....’ And it's as though the Apostle Paul is saying, and he says it elsewhere, ‘I'm saying this to you. I'm not speaking to you now as an apostle, it's not the Lord, this is not the Spirit speaking to you, this is Paul, this is I, Paul, who is speaking to you, and I'm giving you my best shot. I'm giving you my sanctified, reasonable conjecture about this matter.’
And my friends, it seems to me that unless Scripture has specifically spoken about our futures, unless there is a specific word of God written down in the Scripture, that's all we've got. Now I know that there are Christians who are absolutely convinced that God has told them this or that or the other. And I know that. But I'm saying....my understanding of this is that all that we can be absolutely certain of is what God has written down in His word. That's all that we can be absolutely certain about, and the rest, God says to us, like, seemingly, he's saying to the Apostle Paul, ‘Now I want you to sit down and think about this. I want you to consider what the options are. I want you to think what the better options are, and then I want you to discern what the best option is. I want you to consider what your gifts are. I want you to consider what doors of opportunity I may be opening for you. I want you to pray about this. I want you to discuss it with your friends. I want you to be sensitive to the nudges that the Spirit may give to you, but at the end of the day, you make your choice. You come to your conclusion.’
But you just may be wrong. There's always that possibility that you just may be wrong. And I'm saying that because I talk to students at the seminary, and they are absolutely convinced that God is guiding them to this or that or the other, and half way through their seminary time, they discern something else. And that's OK, and that's fine! We’re fallible creatures. And God is a God who guides us and directs us, and insures that at every step of the journey—even if we make some mistakes, even if we make a miscalculation—it's not as though we're going to miss the grand conclusion! God can get us back on track again.
You know, it's not like waiting for a train or a plane to Baltimore, and if you miss your plane in Jackson to Atlanta, you've had it, because there is nowhere else to go! You’re going to miss your appointment. You know, God can over-rule all of those things.
And I'm saying here is a wonderful example, and I'm encouraged by this. I'm enormously encouraged by this: that the great Apostle Paul seems to be in a strait between two choices: whether to remain or whether to depart. And he's reasoning through what seems to be the best thing, and at one point he's even saying that he's convinced that he will remain (and actually, he did remain for a while). But then, as it were, before the breath is out of his lungs, he says whether I come to you or whether I don't come to you, because, you know, our ways are not God's ways, and God's ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts–and at the end of the day, at the end of the day we must subject all of our plans and all of our decisions and all of our goals, however keenly we feel about them, we must submit them all to the sovereignty of God.
You notice in verse 26, “...so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus...” Do you see what Paul's great concern is, for these dear Philippians? That through his example, they would give glory to Jesus. And in this matter of guidance, in this matter of providence, in this matter of the over-ruling of God, that it is the supreme concern: the glory of God. Nothing else matters. Nothing else matters, but the glory of God.
May God enable us as His children to live like that. Let's pray together.
Our Father in heaven, as we come to the close of this particular series this summer, we thank You for this time that we've spent in Your word. We pray that you would continue to instruct us in the way that we should go. Have Your hand continually upon us. Help us to be your servants, and enable us especially to seek first Your glory, the advancement of Your kingdom. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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