It is a very difficult thing to say, “This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth to those things which are before, I press toward the mark,” etc. (Phil. 3). The apostle had such a sight of what was at the end, he was so set a-going by it, that he was able to press forward towards the mark.
This epistle is not marked by great doctrines, but by speaking of the Christian course. Such a character of the epistle explains why the apostle speaks of “working out your own salvation with fear and trembling”; not because God has done everything for you, but “for it is God which worketh in you, both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Just as when Israel was redeemed, they could speak of salvation as the end of their race, and not as the acceptance of their persons.
The enemy seemed to have got a great advantage by putting Paul into prison, but it was not at all so. “I know that this shall turn to my salvation.” It was not at all a vain thing, his speaking of his desire to depart and to be with Christ. “Yet what I shall choose, I wot not.” He had to choose between Christ and service here, and Christ and rest there.
He says nothing about circumstances, nothing about the Emperor Nero; he leaves them quite out of the account. But “I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith.” What we learn from Scripture of the apostle’s circumstances when he wrote this epistle, greatly helps us to understand the spirit in which he wrote. Many epistles give us more doctrine, as Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians; but none so gives us the likeness of the practical experience of the apostle in his Christian course.
Christ in resurrection was at the end of the vista before him, and the light of it was shining all down the path. The very thing he desired was to be a partaker of Christ’s sufferings. He was looking for constant approximation to resurrection, for it was in resurrection he was to be conformed to Christ. He was taken hold of by grace for it, but now he desires himself to lay hold of it. He could count all things but loss and dung “for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus”; and people do not like to be taking up filth. If we are gathering up what is here, we have not such a sight of the glory of the Lord as Paul had. At the first glow of conversion there is no difficulty in this; it is a very easy thing to count all things but loss then. Paul does not say, I have made all this sacrifice: see what I have done. He does not say, I did count them but dung, but “I do count them,” etc. That which keeps his energy alive and fresh is, that he does not run uncertainly.
The first thing to understand is, not that we are in the course to resurrection, but that resurrection has put us in a certain place. This gives us energy in pressing forward to the mark, because we have one object before us. We find it so even in the natural man; he becomes clear-sighted when he has only one object instead of many. But in the things of God it is much more so, because there it is divine sight and divine energy.
“Rejoice in the Lord always.” Certainly it could not be in circumstances, for he was a prisoner. Christians are often a great deal happier in the trial, than they are in thinking of it; for there the stability, the certainty, the nearness, and the power of Christ are much more learnt, and they are happier. Paul could not so well have said, “Rejoice in the Lord always,” if he had not known what it was to be a prisoner. Just as in Psalm 34, “I will bless Jehovah at all times, his praise shall continually be in my mouth.” Why? “This poor man cried, and Jehovah heard him, and delivered him out of all his troubles.” “I sought Jehovah, and he heard me,” etc. This was what enabled him to say, “I will bless Jehovah at all times.” He had been in trouble, and had been heard when in trouble. It must have been an exceeding trial for one of Paul’s active disposition for service to be kept a prisoner; and this is the time when he can say to the persons who were in the commonplace circumstances which were dragging down their hearts day by day, “Rejoice in the Lord always!” Grace is sufficient for favourable circumstances, but they are by far the most trying (spiritually) to the believer. There is an easy way of going on in worldliness, and there is nothing more sad than the quiet comfortable Christian going on day by day, apart from dependence on the Lord. It must be as with Israel and the manna; there must be the daily gathering and daily dependence upon God. If circumstances come between our hearts and God, we are powerless. If Christ is nearer, circumstances will not hinder our joy in God. “The Lord is at hand!” Just as when you look at a light on a perfectly dark night; though it may be two miles off, it appears quite close. So, the more we prove the darkness of the world, whilst enjoying the love of Christ, the nearer the hope will appear.
“Be careful for nothing,” when he had everything to make him careful, when he knew what it was to be in prison and to hunger in the prison. Why can he say this? Because he had found Christ there. What has a man to be careful for, if Christ is caring for him?
“And the peace of God which passeth all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Not, You shall keep the peace of God, but “the peace of God shall keep your hearts and minds”—the peace in which God dwells; and what peace must that be? Can any circumstances shake God’s throne? God is not troubled about circumstances. Lay the whole burden upon Him, “and the peace of God shall keep your hearts and minds,” and you shall have it flowing into your hearts as a river, passing all understanding. The word is, “Be careful for nothing,” not even about the church, though God forbid that we should not care for it.
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things.” First, cast all the troubles and cares upon God, and then our minds will be at leisure to turn and think upon whatsoever things are lovely, etc., alone—all these blessed things, which, notwithstanding Satan, grew as fruit. If the soul is occupied with the evil, there will be weakness, hut if occupying ourselves with the good, the soul will be strengthened.
Now we have the “God of peace.” You walk in the power in which you have seen me walk. ‘Those things which ye have seen and heard in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you,’ not only the peace of God, but the God of peace. You will have God’s power with you. Paul had walked in that path and had found the God of peace with him all the way through.
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again.” How glad the apostle is to see fruit! Besides rejoicing in the Lord always, he rejoices in the Lord about them: what made him happy was that he saw Christ blessing the saints. There is no such joy on earth (save communion) as seeing the saints walking in the truth.
Verses 11-13. We are apt to take the last of these verses as a general truth, and it is so; but he does not use it in this way here. What we have here is the practical, experimental acquaintance of Paul with this thing. He had been in peril, in want, and in plenty (a far more dangerous thing); he had found a present Christ sufficient for him in all circumstances. “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” He cannot be our strength in circumstances which are contrary to His will. He would have our souls exercised, if not seeing the path straight before us, if we are walking in a path contrary to His will. There cannot be that happy liberty where the path of dependence upon God has been left. When Christians first leave the path of dependence on the Holy Ghost, they find difficulties and uneasiness; but gradually they are apt to get used to it, and then there is less conscience and less uneasiness. Where a person has left the path of spiritual power, everything takes the form of duties. The first working of the Spirit of God is to make him uneasy; then there is nothing to do but to go back the way he came. There are ‘perplexities which arise from leaving the simple straightforward path; then the Lord comes in and restores the soul for His name’s sake. The Lord does give His people rest on their way; as He did to Israel when the ark went before them to find out a place where they might rest. Circumstances need never hinder the power of spiritual joy. If I am in prosperity or in adversity, nothing can separate me from His love. It is not said, through Christ which strengthened, but “which strengtheneth me”: it is a present thing. Verses 14-18. Still lifting them up out of the mere temporal circumstances, and leading them into the consciousness of the connection of the saints with God— “a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God.”
“My God shall supply all your need, according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus,” the God to whom I belong, and who, in a certain sense, belongs to me—the God whose faithfulness I know—who fed me when hungry, who strengthened me when weak. Exceeding sweet is it to see that what Paul had passed through, had brought him so near to God. He has found in all things, in prison, in want, etc., the infallible certainty of being associated with God.