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Letter to the Philippians: New Criteria for Measuring Success

fancy_carHave you noticed how ‘success’ keeps getting redefined? In a Western culture cruising on the ‘wealth/celebrity/image’ highway, it could be the way someone dresses, the car they drive, the size of a bank account or number of diplomas on the wall. And worse, such criteria change constantly.

The Letter to the Philippians is Paul’s way of providing an alternative to such shifting sands, and teaching us across the centuries of a permanent standard of success: to boldly follow Christ.

Before going into detail about how he did this, a word about New Testament epistles. Paul’s letters are one-way conversations, as if we were listening to someone on a phone and construe what a conversation is about based on what we overhear.   This epistle tells us that Paul’s Philippian readers are unnerved by his imprisonment. It’s to this mindset that Paul writes.

First, why was Paul’s imprisonment so difficult for the Philippians? Because of the first century’s criteria for success:  honor above all else. Honor was a pivotal value in the ancient Mediterranean world and applied more to men than women. An example is in Luke 14:8 – 10 where Jesus tells a story of guests invited to a wedding banquet.  His story follows what he observed at a dinner party in a leading Pharisee’s home to which he and the others were invited.  The guests carefully chose the places of honor, trumping any other concern such as food, drink or talk.  “Foodies” would not have been at this party!

Returning to the dilemma of the Philippians, they must have assumed that Paul’s recent imprisonment meant his honor had been lost, replaced by its dreaded cultural opposite, shame.   So in addition to concern over Paul’s physical safety, it was this underlying assumption of shame that the Apostle needed to simultaneously address and  educate them away from.

“It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20, NRSV).

Paul is teaching, through his example, that success in life means standing firm in your beliefs, supporting one another, sharing the Gospel with those who have never heard its healing message, and remaining undaunted by opponents. (See the rest of this chapter for his full teaching.)  Paul knows he has met all these spiritual criteria, even to the point of converting his Roman guards, and helps us understand that fidelity to Christ is the ultimate success.  And yes, it looks very different than achievement in any other facet of life.  Through his own imprisonment, Paul reaches across the centuries to tell us that regardless of challenges faced– heartbreak, sickness, death of loved ones, whatever – each hurdle is a way to show our love for Christ and each other.

Paul’s tenderness and obvious affection for the Philippian Christians lifted them to a whole new understanding of what prosperity and success looked and felt like. It is this Christ focus that makes Philippians such a loved epistle.

For those who have challenges with the harsh image often attached to Paul, the Letter to the Philippians is a new view of a more relaxed and deeply loving man who shepherds his flock with tenderness and encouragement. And  he continues to mentor us today in a society that sorely needs to remember what true success looks and feels like.


The Quiet Power of I Thessalonians

Triumph_ThessaloniansSome people aspire to climb Mt. Whitney; others to write the Great American Novel. My desire has been to know the seven letters of Paul so well that they would become like old friends—familiar, trusted and treasured. The past ten years I’ve been on this quest and the latest deep dive has been in I Thessalonians. Each time I emerge in new awe of what Paul wrote, how he communicated and what he understood of God’s nearness.

Because it’s the first letter written in early Christianity, I Thessalonians has significant historical meaning. But that’s not why I’ve grown to treasure it. Rather, what makes it so meaningful is Paul’s understanding of the power of the Holy Spirit to help people grasp what is real and what is sham.

Here’s a brief example, early in chapter 1.   Paul writes:

For when we brought you the Good News, it was not only with words but also with power, for the Holy Spirit gave you full assurance that what we said was true. (NLT)

PDF Instructions

Paul’s 2nd Missionary journey when he visited Thessalonica

Look at the realness of the Holy Spirit to Paul, which can come only from his own life experience of feeling the ‘knowingness’ that we all do when something is truly of God. Paul had been the recipient of the Holy Spirit’s direction, inspiration, and power for years by the time he wrote the Thessalonians. His is the voice of authority. And Paul knows these new converts have experienced it as well already. He appeals to their memory of this to distinguish any draw of the false gods of the pagan world so many were leaving behind, and the ‘somethingness’ — the actuality– of the world of Spirit,  a world they couldn’t perceive with their senses. Think how comforting this reminder must have been for people facing social, political and even physical persecution for their decision to become a Christian.

This is the world the Bible opens to us as well, the world of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, clarity and power.

You may recall that Paul had visited Thessalonica on his second missionary journey but had to escape in the middle of the night when – once again—there was major civil unrest started because of his preaching and teaching. The letter is the result of asking Timothy to check on the new converts and see if they had collapsed under the opposition faced from pagans furious over his new teachings.

What a relief when Timothy reported back of their steadfastness, courage and even alertness to danger. Wow – that every Christian community could model those early Macedonians. Their reputation had grown far beyond Thessalonica and was even inspiring others to hold their ground and withstand the opposition surrounding them. Paul’s gratitude comes through in such deeply affectionate writing that one feels we’re almost reading a personal letter between the closest of friends.

Studying I Thessalonians to understand it’s underlying message, the issues those early workers were facing, how the lessons they learned can impact our lives today, a new glimpse into the nature of the Holy Spirit – these are just some of the reasons studying the Scriptures gets richer daily.

If this interests you, you’ll find a new audio talk on I Thessalonians resulting from this study – an offering of love to everyone that follows the Master’s command to continually ‘search the Scriptures’ (John 5:39).

I Thessalonians - Early Lessons in Discipleship

Image: Triumph of Titus and Vespasian by Giulio Romano



Unlock the New Testament with an Overview…

…or at least open the door ajar!

Establishing a big picture perspective of the Bible

One thing surprised me when I started giving Bible talks some 25 to 30 years ago: that people were so interested in brief overviews – and I mean brief! If our topic was a day on of Paul’s letters, for instance, I was concerned that not everybody had the same background.  The solution?  Create a rather crude human timeline by marching up and down the stage, pausing at a certain spot, asking audience members where Paul, Jesus, John, etc. would be on this imaginary line, or when one of the Gospels might have been written, then wait for them to shout out the answers. Let’s just say the audience didn’t shout so much as rather sheepishly ask if such-and-such was the accurate date.

New Testament Books TimelineDon’t misunderstand.  These people knew their Bibles and, most importantly, loved and tried to live its message.  They just were unsure of how it all hung together.  In college I had a professor who used the metaphor of a clothesline, a complete anachronism today for anyone born after 1980 or so!  There she would hypothetically ‘pin’ the characters and events to an imaginary rope in order of their appearance in history.  It was helpful, and thus, years later, I employed a similar technique.

Most of us are visual learners at least partly, and this turned out to be such an appreciated exercise that I began to do it consistently, always with the response:  ‘how did I never understand this basic time frame?!’  Because most of us are turning to the Scriptures not for any historical interest but to feed our spiritual hunger to know God and His Christ.  And that’s exactly what our motive should be.  But I’ve often seen in my own study and search that the more I understand the historical and geographical settings, for example, the more meaningful the stories, verses and characters become.

We might turn to verses, for instance, but not understand the context of the chapter in which they appear — or what comes before and after that informs that particularly story.  Likewise,  chapters constitute books and books make up Biblical sections or genres.  Pretty soon the Scriptures constitute the most astounding tapestry in which the threads that began centuries before now make up the garments of humility and grace which we want to metaphorically wear.  And this greater view is why I’ve been such an advocate of small group Bible study through the years.  Each deeper dive fills out a bit more of the Scriptural puzzle that unlocks to guide our lives.

As a result, the historical, political and even geographical context for much of the Bible’s characters and stories are a bit clearer to us – now seen from 30,000’.

New Testament Overview Video

This is the background for a gift from BibleRoads –  a New Testament overview video in about thirty minutes, free. We hope many will take advantage of watching it, tell your friends, use it in Sunday School with your iPad or laptop, start a BibleRoads study program with it providing helpful background,  etc. The goal is that after getting a clearer sense of the timeline, the books, letters and stories will be more meaningful.  Then the real goal – bringing their lessons forward to our lives today – happens with ease and grace.

Enjoy this free video overview by clicking on the image at the top of this post.  It’s divided into three parts for ease of viewing if you want to watch it in three ten-minute segments.  Or you can watch it all at once if you prefer.  Please let us know your response and we hope it whets your appetite for further searching of the Scriptures with our many BibleRoads talks and workbooks.

This particular overview is video, meaning you have maps and slides to aid the audio. It was given prior to an in-depth five day class on three of Paul’s letters at a beautiful ranch in the Colorado Rockies this past winter. All maps shared in this presentation are by Manna Bible Maps –

(***Note: This New Testament Overview video is a great accompaniment to the Bible Roads Overview of the Old Testament. If you have not seen it yet, you can gain access by signing up for our monthly newsletter.)


Disciple or Apostle: Time to switch your Tassel?


Graduates from The Curtis Institute of Music switching their tassels

While growing up and hearing stories of Jesus and his followers, and later reading them myself, the two terms disciples and apostles just kind of mushed together.  They were interchangeable, weren’t they?

One of the joys of Bible study is learning distinctions that open new vistas that actually make a difference in our everyday lives.  The variation in these two terms has been one of those big door openers for me.

Disciple is from the Greek math’-a-tais, where –you guessed it — ‘mathematics’ derives.  It means learner, disciple or pupil.  The Greek (μαθητής) is used in the New Testament, however, in a more technical way as apprentice, someone who attaches himself to a spiritual leader, such as Jesus.*

These two verses from Luke show how Jesus used the two terms, and the important distinction between them that would cause him to stay up all night in prayer.

And it came to pass in those days, that he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.  And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles (Luke 6: 12, 13, emphasis added.)

It implies that Jesus had a number of people who had attached themselves to him, considered him their leader and teacher, and themselves his students.  But Jesus wasn’t praying about them but rather, those who could become apostles.

The Greek a-pos’-to-los (ἀπόστολος), means a messenger sent on a mission with full authority.  The New Testament uses it to mean a messenger for God, specifically someone who tells the gospel message.

So what’s the big distinction?  It’s the difference between being a perpetual student or graduating by putting into practice what you know and sharing it with others.  While being a lifelong learner is of course necessary to keep growing, that office of apostle means you take what you know and put it to use.  Even when you don’t think you’re ready.  Even when you don’t feel worthy to even be in your teacher’s shadow.  And especially when you don’t want to speak up and be identified as a follower of Christ Jesus.

So what did Jesus realize the apostle title would demand?  Relying on the Holy Spirit to guide every step and interaction.   Being a Christian requires graduating from the sole act of inhaling, or taking in information and always looking to others as more expert, and begin the deliberate and sometimes bumpy process of exhaling—sharing, speaking up, self-identifying as a Christian.  None of this is easy in a culture that cheers the agnostic or atheistic intellectual as the end all of knowledge and wisdom.

Since it’s the time of year of graduations, you might have attended a ceremony and witnessed an old tradition of degree candidates starting out with the tassels on the front right side of the cap. When the degree is conferred, they switch their tassel to the left front side of the cap—a visual sign that the individual can claim the degree they earned.

Time to flip our tassels!


A Lesson on Joy from Philippi

Statue of Paul the Apostle

Statue of Paul the Apostle, in Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa die Frari, Venice, Italy

One of the special treats of deeper Bible study is having a feel for the differences in Paul’s seven authenticated letters (I Thessalonians, Philippians, I and II Corinthians, Philemon, Galatians and Romans).  Years ago I would read various citations from several of them and they’d kind of mush together.  But having studied them now in depth, it’s as if this huge, distinct musical chorus is behind each one, as distinct as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is from the music of Shostakovich.

These understood distinctions are enriching to our study of Paul’s seven messages to each church community, because the Apostle is a model of thoughtful, adaptable and effective communication.    We see how brilliantly he fashioned his letter to fit the particular challenges of each community he was supporting, when we know more about those individual circumstances.

This is especially true of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Here are many familiar verses, such as “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5); and “Rejoice in the Lord always:  and again I say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4).  At one level, such admonitions sound like solid counsel to a young church wanting to model the Master Christian.

Yet the back-story provides a moving and powerful statement as to how we can deal with the toughest kind of adversity in our lives today.  Because that’s what was happening in Philippi: they were being seriously persecuted, this Roman community with little Jewish presence.  Yet they never gave up their commitment to this Christ-centered message of salvation Paul had shared.  Additionally, their support of Paul himself never flagged.  In fact, these Philippians were the only church community that consistently sent Paul financial assistance,  a gesture he never solicited but for which he was enormously grateful.

There are 155 references in the King James Version of the Bible to ‘joy’, and 60 of those are in the New Testament.  It strikes me as rather remarkable that in this short letter of just four chapters, 10% of those ‘joy’ references can be found in Philippians.

So the next time we’re grousing about too many challenges, I suggest a pause to read these four moving and powerful chapters.  Afterwards we can’t help but realize that joy has little if anything to do with our human circumstances and everything to do with the reality of Christ in our hearts.   Thank you, faithful Philippi!


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