The Lord's Day Morning
June 8, 2008
Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility,
Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians
“Grace, with Your Spirit”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, let me invite you to turn with me to Philippians 4:21. After a year together in this glorious letter, we have come to our final exposition of Paul's word to the Philippians. Last Lord's Day morning we were looking at Philippians 4:10-20, in which Paul addresses one of the most important aspects of the Christian life: that is, contentment. And we said as we looked at that passage that Paul teaches us about the need for contentment, and about the nature of contentment, the secret of contentment, the song of contentment, and the gratefulness of contentment. As he taught us about those five things we discovered that God intends Christians to be content, but that contentment is non-circumstantial. It doesn't come from our circumstances. It doesn't come from the calmness and the blessedness of our present situation or from the difficulties and trials of our present situation. In fact, it has to be learned, and we found it very encouraging that even the Apostle Paul had to learn contentment, and so there's hope for us as well.
We said that the very heart of the secret of contentment is the rest that the believer has which is deep and personal, and doctrinal, and experiential; that is, the rest that the believer has on God's providence. And we said that gospel contentment believes that “my God will supply all my needs,” and then consequently expresses itself in gratitude to God.
I cannot too highly recommend to you Jeremiah Burroughs’ book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. I mentioned it last week and before the service this morning, and I’ll mention it one more time. This little book, which is available in a paperback from The Banner of Truth, has a wonderful set of chapter titles which I hope will entice you to read it yourself. The first chapter is called “Christian Contentment Described,” and then the second, third, and fourth chapters are all given the title “The Mystery of Contentment” and in those three chapters there are fifteen Bible points that are described as a part of the secret of contentment. The final two chapters of the book, chapters twelve and thirteen, are called “How to Attain Contentment.” Now I hope just hearing those chapter titles will entice you to read this book and read it slowly. And if that doesn't entice you, let me just give you an outline of what Burroughs says is the secret of contentment.
The first thing he says is this: “A Christian is content, yet unsatisfied.” Now doesn't that intrigue you? Don't you want to learn about that? “A Christian is content, yet unsatisfied.” He then says that our contentment comes from subtraction. (Now if you’re like me, I want to know subtraction of what! Well, you’ll have to read the book and find out!) He says, “Our contentment comes by adding another burden to ourselves.” Isn't that intriguing? He says that contentment comes by changing our affliction into something else; by doing the work of his circumstances; by melting our will into God's will; by purging out that which is within; by living on the dew of God's blessing; by seeing God's love in all our afflictions; by having our afflictions sanctified in Christ; by getting strength from Christ; by making up our lack in God; by getting our contentment from the covenant of grace by realizing the things of heaven and by opening our hearts to God. Now don't you want to learn about those things? Let me commend to you Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.
Well, this morning as we come to Philippians 4:21-23, you’re going to find out why I've been using “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” as our benediction on Sunday mornings for the last year. Today we are bidding farewell to the letter of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians — at least from the pulpit in this series. For a year now, we have tried to work its truth deep down into our hearts, and today we come to the end of that course; and as you allow your eyes to scan the passage that is before you, I want to draw your attention to four greetings and a grace. The four greetings are found in verses 21-22; the grace is found in verse 23. Those four greetings are, one, Paul's greetings to the Philippians: “Greet every saint…” (verse 21); the second greeting is the greeting of those who were with Paul (verse 21): “The brothers who are with me greet you.” The third greeting is the greeting of the whole congregation of Christians in Rome. You see it in verse 22: “All the saints greet you.” The fourth greeting comes from believers that are in Caesar's household, again verse 22. Those are the four greetings. And then there is a grace, there is a benediction, as Paul says “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” You see that in verse 23. So I want to draw your attention to those four greetings and that one grace in Philippians 4:21-23.
Now before we read God's word and hear it proclaimed, let's look to Him in prayer and ask Him to add His blessing to it. Let's pray.
Our heavenly Father, You have been faithful to reveal yourself and Your promises and purposes to us through the Apostle Paul, whom You inspired by Your own Holy Spirit, the blessed third Person of the Trinity. You have been faithful to open up yourself and Your word of truth over this last year, and we ask that You would do it yet one more time from this great letter; and we ask that You would open our hearts to receive it, to behold wonderful things in Your law, to make our meditation acceptable in Your sight, for us to embrace it by faith and live it by Your grace and mercy. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of the living God:
“Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar's household.
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
How do you close a letter like this? How do you close a letter that features some of the greatest sentences in all of Christian literature? I mean, think back over this letter. In Philippians 1:6, Paul has given us the immortal phrase, “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” And he said in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” And he has encouraged us in Philippians 1:29, saying, “For to you it has been granted not only to believe, but also to suffer for Christ's sake.” And in Philippians 2:12-13, he summed up the whole of the Christian life and the progress of sanctification by saying, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you….” And then, in Philippians 3:8-11, he virtually summarizes the gospel for us, telling us in verse 8, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord.” In Philippians 3:14, he says, “I press on toward the goal, for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” [Our young people learned that verse in Vacation Bible School this last week.] In Philippians 3:20, he said, “For our citizenship is in heaven.” In Philippians 4:7, he says, “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” In Philippians 4:8 he utters those memorable words,
“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”
In Philippians 4:11, he says, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am.” And in Philippians 4:13, he says, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” And last week, we saw in Philippians 4:19, he says, “My God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
How do you end a book with all that in it?
Well, have you ever heard a speaker or a preacher trying to land a talk or a sermon, and he just can't quite get there? He's circling, and he's circling, and you say, “Oops! You missed that spot! You could have stopped there.” And around and around he goes. Well, the Apostle Paul doesn't have that problem. He lands this letter with greetings and a grace — four greetings, one grace — and he teaches us three things in those four greetings and in that one grace. Let me just tell you ahead of time what it is that he teaches us.
First, he teaches us the importance of the communion of the saints through life and ministry. Through these four greetings and this one grace, he teaches us the importance of the communion of the saints for Christian life and ministry.
Second, he teaches us the invincibility of the converting power of the gospel and of God the Holy Spirit. In these four greetings and in this one grace, he teaches us of the invincibility of the converting power of the gospel and of God the Holy Spirit.
And third, he teaches us the consecrating blessing of the prayer of benediction when he pronounces that benediction, that grace, at the end of this book. And I'd like to look at those three things with you briefly.
First, let's look at the greetings. They’re contained in verses 21-22, and there are four of them. But I want to draw your attention to three of them, very briefly. Look at verses 21-22: “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus…the brothers who are with me greet you…all the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar's household.” Notice specifically the first three greetings.
I. The importance of the communion of the saints through life and ministry
The first greeting comes from Paul. It's Paul's greeting to the Philippian congregation, but he says it in a really interesting way. He doesn't say ‘I greet all of you.’ He doesn't say ‘Greet the whole congregation for me.’ He says it in a really interesting way. He says, “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus.” In other words, the Apostle Paul is wanting to extend his personal greeting not simply to the congregation at large, but individually he wants them to know that he is sending his greeting to them.
Do you remember? At the end of Charles Dickens’ famous story A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim is gathered in the assembled company which now includes even Ebenezer Scrooge himself, whose heart has been changed. And Tiny Tim says what? “God bless us every one.” In other words, Tiny Tim's blessing, his prayer lifted up, is that God's blessing would rest not just on the whole group but on every distinct one of them. Well, the Apostle Paul's greeting is designed to be extended not just to the group as a whole, but to every distinct one of them. “God bless us every one,” Tiny Tim says; Paul says, “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus.”
Then he extends greetings from the brothers who are with him. Now this is particularly poignant, because if you remember back to Philippians 2:21, Paul indicates to the Philippians that there were many Christians in Rome who were not cooperating with him in the gospel ministry. In fact, in some ways he was isolated from them. And yet, here Paul brings greetings from the brothers who are with him. You remember that even though there were some who were not cooperating with Paul, Paul always had Timothy and he always had Epaphroditus, and there were others as well who were faithful to him every step of the way. And he says those brothers give their greetings to you as well.
And then, again in verse 22, he says, “All the saints greet you.” In other words, there's a church-wide message of greeting that comes from all the Roman Christians to the Christians in the church at Philippi. Now it would be very easy to look at this passage and say this is just the standard formal Roman greetings of the day which would have been typical in any letter sent from a pagan to a pagan, or from a pagan group to another pagan group. But that would be to underestimate the importance of its inclusion in the word of God. The Apostle Paul never operates pro forma, and even his greetings provide for us a model of a very important aspect of the Christian life. Paul is modeling for us again here an important aspect of the Christian life, and that important aspect of the Christian life that he is drawing your and my attention to is the communion of the saints. He wants us to think congregationally, and he wants us to think Christianly; that is, he wants us to be concerned for the whole of our congregation, he wants us to think in terms of our relationship with other congregations, and he wants us to think about the things which uniquely unite us in fraternal bonds as Christians.
There are many things that unite the people who are sitting in this room today, and many of the things that unite us don't have anything to do with the gospel. Some of us don't speak with an accent. You know — like me! I don't have an accent. But Derek has an accent. No, it's just that I share a certain kind of dialect with many other people in this room, but those things don't pertain to the gospel. Paul wants us to be focused in on those things that unite us together because of the gospel. He wants us to think congregationally and he wants us to think Christian-ly, but he also wants to show us how to relate to our missionaries and church-planters and campus ministers. Here Paul is; in extending the greetings of the ministers and missionaries of the Philippian church who are working in Rome, and from the Roman congregation back to the Philippians, he is modeling the kind of close relationship that we ought to have with our missionaries. We ought to know them by name, we ought to greet them by name, and we ought to care about what's going on in their lives. They ought to know that we are regularly praying for them. We ought to be writing them, if not calling them. And they ought to know that when they’re prayed for in our congregation, they are not a name unassociated with any personal relationship, but they are people that are genuinely loved and cared for by this congregation.
Now, many of you have been following in The First Epistle and you know that just over a month ago our elders made a significant change in the way that we're doing missionary support, and one of the reasons they did that was because of this very passage. We had about 170 missionaries on our rolls, and guess how many of you can know all 170 of those missionaries? That's right! None of you. There's not a single person in our congregation that knows all those 170 missionaries. Well, over the next several years our elders want us to give more to fewer missionaries. So we’ll continue to give just as much as we're giving — in fact, we want to give more than we've ever given before to missionaries — but we're going to give more to fewer of them.
Why? Not only so that when they come back from the mission field they don't spend 37 weeks trying to travel around to all the churches they have to go to to get their support; not only so that we give them a lot of money instead of a little money, but especially so that you will know them and they will know you, so that actual personal relationships develop in this congregation with them so that you know them personally and they know you personally. Thereby it is our desire to be a greater encouragement to our missionaries and to cultivate a greater missionary commitment and spirit in our congregation, and it's motivated by this very reason here. Paul is showing us that we ought to have deep bonds of relationship with those who are going out and spreading the gospel. We ought to know every campus minister, every evangelist, every church planter, every missionary that this congregation supports. We ought to know them, and they ought to know that they are known in our midst, loved, cared for, prayed for, and personally akin in gospel friendship. And Paul is modeling for us even in these greetings the communion of the saints in life and ministry.
II. The power of God's gospel for conversion, even in the halls of power
But there's a second thing that he's doing in these greetings as well. Paul is showing us the power of God's gospel for conversion, even in the halls of power. He's showing us the power of the gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit to change sinners, and you see it especially in verse 22: “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar's household.”
Now, I do not think that it is an accident that the Apostle Paul waits until the last sentence of this book to tell the Philippians this. If you’ll remember all the way back in Philippians 1:12-13 (and it's okay to turn there and cheat, and see, if you don't remember those verses)…if you remember all the way back to Philippians 1:12-13, Paul in that passage shows that he is concerned that the Philippians not think that God's evangelistic purposes through Paul have been thwarted by the fact that he is in prison. The Philippians are sacrificially supporting Paul's mission, even though they are people that are gripped by poverty, and Paul knows that they could be very disappointed by the realization that this person they have invested the precious little money that they have in, in order to see sinners converted to the gospel, and a church planted, and evangelism done — that they could be very disappointed to find out that he's in prison.
And so early on in this letter, look at what he says: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” So he's saying, ‘Look, don't think that the gospel has been stopped because I'm in prison. The gospel is going right ahead even though I am in prison; in fact, what has happened to me is serving the gospel. It's become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.’ So Paul's saying in Philippians 1:12-13, ‘Even though I'm in prison, it's being used for the gospel.’ But he waits till the last sentence of the book before he gives the benediction to tell them this. And don't you love what he says? He says, ‘All the saints in the church here in Rome greet you, especially those who are in the household of Nero, who is the Caesar.’
Now, you realize what Paul's saying there. It's the only time he ever says this. He's saying, ‘Philippians, just want you to know this. There are Christians now in the emperor's household…in that mad, maniacal, wicked man's household, there are now Christians.’ Jerome, a couple of hundred years after this time, will tell us that Nero's wife became a Christian. I can't confirm that. I don't know historically. But Jerome says that Nero's wife even became a Christian. But already Paul is saying to the Philippians there are Christians even in the household of Nero. In the very highest reaches of the realms of this empire, God has converted sinners and built the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Be encouraged,’ he's saying.
Think of it, my friends. Thirty years after Jesus is crucified, this marginal, persecuted, minority sect has converts in the household of the emperor of the Roman Empire. Thirty years after Jesus is crucified! In the year 197, about 130 years after Paul wrote these words…Paul wrote those words about Christians being in the household of Nero about in about 63 or 64…In A.D. 63 or 64. In A.D. 197, Tertullian wrote a letter to Roman citizens saying this: “We are but of yesterday…” [We've only been around a little while.]
“We are but of yesterday, but we have filled your empire. Your cities, your islands, your forts, your towns, your marketplaces, your very military camps and wards and companies, and palace and senate and forum — all of these swarm with Christians. We have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods. They are the only places that you can name in your empire where there are not Christians.”
One hundred seventy years after the Lord Jesus was crucified, dead, buried, and raised again, Tertullian can write that.
One hundred fifteen years later, in about 315, the Christian religion will be made legal for the first time in the Roman Empire, and then less than 75 years later Christianity will become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Now, church historians and sociologists can debate until the cows come home about how it is that this tiny, persecuted, minority, marginalized sect can, without any modern means of technology — no radio, no television, no cars, no telegraphs, no iPods® – they can debate till the cows come home how that can go in A.D. 30 with twelve disciples and a larger circle of seventy around them to being the official religion of the Roman Empire in less than four centuries. But the Apostle Paul wants you to know the reason is because of the converting power of the gospel, and of God the Holy Spirit. He can convert people even in Nero's household.
Now, it may well be that in the years to come that even in our United States we see moral darkness in government — in the judiciary, or in the congress, or in the executive branch — like we've not seen before. It may well be. But my friends, it matters not in comparison to the invincibility of the converting power of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and God the Holy Spirit. He is able to go into the darkest places and bring sinners to himself and build up the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us with the Philippians be of good cheer. It does not matter what is happening in society; the gospel is still the power of God unto salvation for them that believe, and God can change anyone, anywhere, any time. He's sovereign.
Paul teaches us that even in the greetings. Don't you love the way he does it? It's at the very end of the book, and he says, ‘One last thing — ‘Hi’ from the Christians in Caesar's household. They’re there, Philippians. The gospel is spreading.’
III. A blessing.
And then he pronounces a blessing. You see it in verse 23. Here's the grace. We've looked at the four greetings; now the grace in this benediction.
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
Now, Paul uses that same blessing, that same benediction, that same grace, at the end of Galatians and at the end of Philemon, and it's actually very typical of Paul in other letters as well. The only thing that's unusual is the phrase “with your spirit.” He's not simply saying God's grace be on your spirit, as opposed to your body. He's actually saying ‘God's grace be poured out on and in you until it permeates to the very core of your being, your spirit.’ If you take the image of Psalm 133, of God's blessing being poured out like the oil that is being poured on Aaron's head, and it rolls off his head and down onto the shoulders, and down his garments until it drips off onto his feet from the bottom of his garment…the Apostle Paul is saying, ‘Actually, I'm looking for something that is even more permeating than that as an image. May God's grace…may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. May it penetrate and permeate to the very core of your being and flow out from there everywhere, in and upon you.’ And after what the Apostle Paul has asked us to do in this passage, what do we need but grace?
Jeremiah Burroughs, in his little book, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, says there must be grace to make the soul steady. There must be grace to make the soul steady. And we need that grace. Maybe you’re here today and you need to see your sin, so that you will see your Savior. Well, you need grace, because the Apostle Paul says we're dead in our trespasses and sins, but God makes us alive together with Jesus Christ. “For by grace we are saved, through faith, and that not of ourselves; it is the gift of God, lest any should boast.” So if we're going to see our sins today we need God's grace. But we don't just need grace in order to be converted. We don't just need grace in order to be saved at the first. We need grace from beginning to end.
Perhaps you need grace today to endure the sins of others toward you. Perhaps you need grace today to face the trial that God has called you to. Perhaps you need grace because of the circumstances in your marriage or your family, or your vocation. Where are you going to get that grace? Only from God. And here's the Apostle Paul, at the end of this book, saying, ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ not only be with you, but permeate to the very core of your being, and envelope you and uphold you, and transform you, and change you, and enable you to live in the midst of your trials — in the midst of the obstacles and opportunities of your life to live to God, to walk worthy of the gospel, to have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus. May God's grace suffice for you for the living of these days.’
You understand that every time we gather to worship the Lord together, at the end of that season of worship the pastor — whoever is presiding — calls down a Scriptural benediction upon you, the congregation. We believe that prayer is a means of grace; that is, that it is a way by which God shows His favor to and strengthens His children, all those who trust in Jesus Christ. And so as the pastor who is presiding calls down that grace on you, he is consecrating you for life and service with the very blessing of God; and as a means of grace that prayer is there to equip you to live until the next week when the congregation gathers again, so that you’re just not here to learn some new thing. You’re not just here to be discipled in the truth; you’re here to receive grace from God, and the Apostle Paul is saying that this grace that he pronounces at the end of this book is a consecrating blessing that is designed to make your soul steady, so that you can endure anything.
That's how Paul ends this book — with four greetings and a grace, teaching us about our relationship to our missionaries, and the importance of the communion of the saints in life and ministry, teaching us about the converting power of the gospel and of God the Holy Spirit, and reminding us what is happening when the pastor calls down by prayer God's blessings on His people, using the promises of Scripture in Jesus’ name. They are a consecrating blessing in the prayer of benediction. May God bless us.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, in a few moments as we sing of the grace that You have provided for us, remind us that we live wholly by Your grace and that we always need Your grace, and that we find Your grace readily extended to us in Your kind and good hands; and, let us go there to it and for it. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Take your hymnals in hand and turn with me to No. 695, By Grace I Am an Heir of Heaven.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.