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This is Part 2 of my commentary on Philippians 1:9-11. In Part 1 I share the personal spiritual struggles I dealt with in my early adulthood and my personal testimony. I hope you take a few minutes to read Part 1, because it will help you understand why I fell in love with the book of Philippians many years ago, especially verses 9-11 in the first chapter. They are the foundation on which I base my personal convictions and a terrific guide for making decisions that please the Lord.
You’ll notice that the chart below looks much like a set of stairs. This is to show that the different attributes in verses 9-11 are foundational, one builds on another. You can’t go to step 2 until you’ve accomplished step 1. You can’t reach step 3 until you’ve achieved step 2, and so on.
Verse 9 is the beginning of a list of things Paul is praying for the believers at Philippi. He prays, first of all, that their love may abound. Love for what? Or, for whom? Paul could have been praying that their love for each other abound (Ephesians 1:15, Colossians 1:4, 1 Thessalonians 1:3). It’s possible that he was praying that they be filled with Christ’s love . After all, if we aren’t filled with Christ’s love, how can we love others? Another possibility is that Paul was praying concerning their character, that they would be characterized by love. Perhaps he was praying that their love toward the Lord would abound (Philemon 1:5). Whatever the case, Paul wanted their love to abound yet more and more in knowledge.
We know in our earthly relationships that the more we love someone, the more we want to know about him or her. We want to know his/her favorite food, favorite color or fragrance. What makes him happy? What makes her sad, or angry? Love draws us closer and produces a desire to have a more intimate knowledge of another. I think that’s why Paul mentions love as the basis of gaining knowledge. Love gives the incentive and motivation to know more. Why shouldn’t it be the same with the Lord? Our love for Him, first of all, should always be increasing. Then, as our love for Him abounds, we will desire to know more and more about Him, His teachings and His doctrines (Colossians 1:9-10). And, it’s through God’s Word that we can gain knowledge of Him. That, and through prayer.
When our love abounds more and more in knowledge, we will begin to make better judgments, or decisions. Why? Because the better we know the Lord, the better we will know how He will respond. When we can truly answer the question, “what would Jesus do?” we will make better decisions. This is the work and evidence of the Holy Spirit’s control in our lives.
As we start making better decisions, we will eventually approve those things that are excellent. The word “approve” refers to testing, or proving that something is worthy. Paul also used a similar word in Romans 12:2 when he instructed us “to prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
Obviously, there are multiple choices for every decision we make. Our choices can be the antithesis of godly. They can be sinful, even evil. We can make poor decisions, or just okay decisions. The decisions we make can actually be a good ones; but as we contemplate our choices for each and every decision we face, there is always one that is the best, the most excellent one. The second chart illustrates this.
Obviously, not all the decisions listed above would be considered “excellent” choices. I purposely checked the “excellent” category to indicate the goal for which we should strive. Even when confronted with several “good” choices, the key question to ask is, “what is the most excellent choice?” As our love abounds in yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment, we will desire to approve those things that are excellent. This would be what most pleases the Lord. This chart helped me tremendously because it showed me that making excellent choices is about more than choosing between right and wrong. Even when confronted with several good choices, there is always going to be one that is the most excellent...the one that most pleases the Lord. Therefore, that’s the one I should choose.
As we begin to make excellent choices, we will be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ. The word “sincere” actually comes from a Latin word, sine cera, which literally means “without wax.” In Greek it means “sun tested.” When I first learned about china, I was taught that the thinner and more transparent the china, the better its quality. This was also true in ancient times. Pottery that was thick and non-transparent when held up to the sun was considered a lesser quality than the more translucent pottery. However, the thinner and finer pottery was fragile and could more easily crack in the firing process. Dishonest vendors would often try to cover up the cracks by trying to conceal it with a wax substance and try to pass it off as perfect. Once the piece was painted or glazed, the crack would be virtually undetectable unless it was held up to the sunlight to test its “sincerety.”
Like the dishonest vendors, we Christians too often put on our spiritual suit of clothes in an attempt to cover up the hypocrisy that lies within our hearts. Obviously we aren’t perfect and we all have our flaws, but God always knows our heart’s intentions and motives (1 Samuel 16:7, Isaiah 55:8-9). Paul prayed that as our lives are tested and held up to His light, we would be proved worthy, sincere and without offense.
A natural result of this lifestyle is being filled with (or controlled by) the fruits of righteousness (Colossians 1:6, 10), which are by Jesus Christ. “The ‘fruits of righteousness’ is an Old Testament expression that has to do with the fulfilling of all of the requirements of the Law. Righteousness was to be the product of the Law because the Law revealed the righteousness and holiness of God. What Paul desires in the lives of these believers is conformity to the standard of God’s revealed holiness. But this righteousness about which he prays here does not come from the Law The fruits of righteousness for which Paul prayed were the result of walking after the Spirit (Romans 8:4), not the flesh. These fruits are produced ‘by Jesus Christ.’”. And, finally, all that we love, know, discern and approve is to be unto the glory and praise of God. Paul was always conscientious that our primary motive should be to glorify Jesus, and he reminded us of this throughout his epistles in verses such as, “Whether, therefore, ye eat, or drink, or whatever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
What excited me so much about these verses is the focus on the positive things I can be doing rather than on the negative things I shouldn’t. There are no “thou shalt nots.” There are no rules with the threat of punishment if I fail to obey. Instead, the foundation of my making good decisions is to be my love for the Lord. When I get caught up with what’s right and wrong, or whether or not a particular action is permissible for me to do, the focus is on myself. I’m really trying to determine how close I can get to the “sin line” before crossing it. In other words, I’m concentrating on what I can get away with.
I’m not proposing that I shouldn’t be concerned with wrong doing. Instead, I’m proposing that I should be more concerned with right doing. And, not just doing right, but doing excellently. When my sights are on Jesus Christ and proving my love for Him. I’m not going to be thinking about how close my toes can get to the sin line before going over it. I’m going to be thinking about how close I can get to Jesus and what will please Him.
Another reason the Philippians 1:9-11 type of decision-making process is so meaningful to me is because the type of Christianity I was raised with was guilt ridden. The key motivation in making the right choice was to make one feel guilty. I found no joy in making a decision strictly on the basis of guilt, or just to avoid consequences — even when the right decision was made in the end. To illustrate this point, consider the following story. Though humorous, I think it makes a valid point.
The Naughty Parrot
The parrot finally got the message only after some extreme threats and a perception of what was in store for him if he didn’t change his behavior. Unfortunately, his future obedience will always be a result of fear for his master, and what will become of him if he disobeys. Just think of the difference in their relationship if the parrot had chosen to please his master out of love. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). Fear and love are not compatible. When love is perfect, fear has no place in a relationship.
Combine this concept with that of Philippians 1:9-11. As our love abounds, fear should decrease. What a difference in our relationship with the Lord when we choose to serve Him out of love. There is a sweetness in our relationship and a “joy unspeakable” (1 Peter 3:8) when we serve the Lord out of a willingness of heart, rather than from a sense of duty.
Parents, consider the following scenario (if you’re not a parent, rework the circumstances to fit a situation or subordinate at work): You arrive home and see that your children have vacuumed the floors, dusted the furniture, washed and dried the laundry, set the table and are ready to serve dinner. What is your response? Well, it depends on your expectations. If you had left your children orders that all of these chores were to be completed before you arrived home, your response would be based on how well your children followed your instructions. Were the floors vacuumed? Was the laundry done and put away? If the chores weren’t completed, there would be consequences, right? But what if you hadn’t given your children any such instructions, and they had done all these chores to please and show their love for you? You would be kicking up your heels, thinking you had the best kids in the world.
Under which conditions would you, as a parent, receive the most pleasure? Obviously, this is a ridiculous question to ask. If you came home with the expectation that the chores “better be done,” you would enter the house scrutinizing the floors and furniture to determine how well your children had followed through on your instructions. But can you imagine if your children’s actions were motivated by love? You’d be overjoyed. You’d be bragging on them to all your friends and co-workers, telling them what great kids you have. On the other hand, which children do you think did these chores with the most joy? Obviously, those who were motivated to do them out of love. Those who did them as an assignment most likely did them either out of a fear of punishment, or because they expected some type of compensation in return, such as doing them in exchange for an allowance. In either case, their motives were selfish and self-centered.
I think this scenario is a great illustration of the lesson I learned from Philippians 1:9-11. I had no joy in my Christian life when my decisions were based on duty or fear of the consequences if I didn’t obey. When I make excellent choices now because my love for my Heavenly Father is abounding more and more in knowledge and in all judgment, approving those things that are excellent, my life is filled with joy. Like the parent, I believe that our Heavenly Father is most pleased when, as His child, I make excellent choices and obey Him out of love. When I obey Him out of fear of the consequences, there is no joy in that -- not for Him and not for me. That’s what the law was about thousands of years ago. That’s what legalism is about today.
I have come to a better understanding of the Law through Ray Stedman’s book, From Guilt to Glory in which he describes the Law’s purpose. First, it was a standard of conduct. It was the expected behavior. When an Israelite fulfilled the Law, he didn’t receive an “atta boy” or a pat on the back for a doing a good job. There was no reward for doing the expected. However, anything less was a sin. While rewards might not have been handed out for following the Law (which produced righteousness), there sure were consequences when the Law wasn’t followed. Thus, the second purpose of the Law was to condemn failure. It punished wrong doing. Therefore, the effect of the Law was to discourage. It gives a sense of despair. While churches today enjoy proclaiming God’s grace, there are still churches which continue to uphold an unspoken “law.” They expect a particular mode of behavior from their members. Anything less than that brings about condemnation. On the surface those churches may appear to be growing and thriving, but I believe a closer look would reveal many joyless, unhappy church members. The reason for that is they have been taught to do the right thing by following the rules, rather than being allowed to do the right thing because they have been taught to love Jesus.
We make hundreds, maybe even thousands, of decisions everyday, from what we wear, which route to take to work, what we eat, how we treat others, how we perform our job, how we worship, and what we do with our free time. Unlike the Israelites who lived under the guidance of law, we have the Holy Spirit indwelling us to help us make excellent choices. That’s the beauty of what we believers have today under the dispensation of grace. While we still have His instruction book, the Bible, to show us how we should live, God did not make us robots to automatically obey every command or to live within a restricted set of circumstances. He has given us the wonderful privilege of deciding for ourselves that He is worthy of our love and devotion, and we demonstrate that by saying, “Lord, thank you, I choose your way.”
As you evaluate your life, remember it is the excellent choices we make which most glorify and please the Lord. To help you determined how your life’s activities are achieving that goal, here’s another way to use the chart shown earlier in this commentary. List, instead, all the activities in which you primarily spend your time. Some possibilities are listed for you to get you started.
Complete the list based on your own lifestyle, then go back and rate each activity. Granted, there are many activities that are necessary in life, such as household chores, that you might have a hard time placing in the “Excellent” category. Yet if you can honestly say that those activities are being done for the proper motive “...whatever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31), then why not rate them as “Excellent?” When you finish rating the activities, what does the list reflect about your life? In which rating(s) do most of your activities fall? Does the list reveal that your overall life is pleasing to the Lord? If not, then you may need to realign some of your activities, or make readjustments about how you’re spending your time, and how you’re living your life.
I join Paul in his prayer that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.
Martin, Ralph P. The New Century Bible Commentary - Philippians. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI: 1976, Reprinted 1989) 68.
Boice, James Montgomery. Philippians - An Expositional Commentary. (Ministry Resources Library, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI: 1971) 54.
Pentecost, J. Dwight. A Joy of Living - A Study of Philippians. (Lamplighter Books, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI: 1973) 24.
Hawthorne, Gerald F. Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 43, Philippians. (Word Books, Waco, TX: 1983) 25.
Stedman, Ray C. From Guilt to Glory, Volume 1, Hope for the Helpless. (Originally published: Multnomah Press, Portland, OR: 1978) 211-222.