I’ve spoken in church a handful of times in my life. This one is from 2011. Does it hold up? Maybe, except for the outdated Wii reference.
This morning, we are going to take a look at a few sentences written by Paul to the people in Philippi, a very important prayer that I believe has much to say to us this morning.
Before we get started, I just want to share this quote as a bit of a compass for where we are going together this morning. It’s from Dallas Willard, who has written some great stuff about faith, discipleship and spirituality over the years.
The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heart-breaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples – student, apprentices, practitioners – of Jesus Christ.
In the first part of his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes this prayer:
9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (NIV)
And again from The Message:
9-11 So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.
Before we take a closer look at these words, let’s take a brief look back at few important details about the author.
Paul, of course, was born as Saul, probably within 10 years of the birth of Jesus. It’s believed that he was born in Tarsus, a centre for Roman imperial activity and Greek culture back in his day. At some point, he moved to Jerusalem, whether with his family or sent there by them to be educated. He studied under the renowned Rabbi Gamaliel I, was extremely well versed in the Old Testament (as any young Jewish student would have been). For those not familiar with the Rabbinic educational system, basically how it worked was that Rabbis would study and meditate and pray over the scriptures, deciding how certain passages were to be interpreted, trying to get as close to the original meaning as possible. He would then come up with set rules and regulations of how to live out the scriptures, and this was called his yoke. If you followed or studied under a certain rabbi, it was because you believed in his interpretations and were prepared to live according to them. This was called a Rabbi’s yoke, which helps us to understand what Jesus meant when he said his yoke is easy.
It’s more than likely that Paul had the contents of the Hebrew scriptures memorized at a young age. He knew Greek, and probably Hebrew and Aramaic as well. Many scholars believe that it’s more than likely that Saul was aware of Jesus, and some even believe that “it is very possible, even probable, that the young Saul even witnessed Jesus’ death.” Saul’s upbringing brought about an entirely different reaction to these events than the original followers of Jesus, however. As Paul himself sums it up, he was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” (Phil 3: 5-6) He was fervently religious and knew much about God and his Scriptures, but the specific way that he was taught to interpret it was far from the Way of Jesus and ultimately led him to persecute the early church.
A couple years after Jesus’ resurrection, something happened to Saul, a change that has since helped others redefine their lives.
For a few years after Jesus’ death, Saul was traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus with authority from Rome to basically hunt down Jesus’ remaining followers. He was stopped dead in his tracks by a bright light, and Jesus himself appeared before him. Immediately, Saul was changed in many ways; he was given the name Paul, began following Jesus, accepting the mission to spread the good news to Gentiles. Please don’t miss this: a man who grew up devoutly studying the Hebrew scriptures was on his way to kill Christians one minute and began not only following Jesus but reaching out to Gentiles the next. Talk about a complete 180.
This brings us to Paul’s letters, which I’m sure he never would have ever guessed would have been part of a new part of the Scriptures. They came out of his missionary journeys, where Paul would travel around and help establish and sustain faith communities throughout the Roman provinces. About 50 years after the death of Jesus, Paul was able to travel to Philippi and got to know the people there, and it was this community that he would address from prison later in life after being arrested in Jerusalem and sent to prison in Rome. Paul felt very strongly about the people in Philippi, as this letter would suggest. He appeared to very much enjoy his time with them, and he was very grateful for the support they had offered him throughout the years. He is essentially writing them to reassure them that everything was going to be ok despite his imprisonment, and to encourage them to keep Christ before them as they live out the gospel that he had brought to them.
Which brings us now more specifically to the verses at hand. Paul has begun his letter with a standard greeting of “grace and peace to you”, and has reminded them that he has been remembering them and praying for them, “confident that the one who began a good work” in them would carry it on to completion. He in turn thanks them for remembering him even in his imprisonment, and then offers up this beautiful prayer on their behalf as a culmination of this opening section.
Paul begins by saying that he prays that their love would overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight. Unfortunately, in reading certain passages of the Bible that have become familiar to us in our various favorite translations, we often miss certain things that the original Greek text would have brought out and that would have been evident to the original audience. Here, Paul is speaking of agape love, a love that comes from God and is unconditional, self-sacrificing and active. The Greek word for abound is parisos, and means “no limit to the growth of increase”, or that it is “more tomorrow than it was today.” This word, or the Hebrew equivalent, is used a few times in the Old Testament, and usually addressing the same kind of theme. In Psalm 86, we read the following: “You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call on you,” and also “you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” To abound, then, isn’t about reaching a certain point; for Paul, he is praying that the people at Philippi would literally actively and sacrificially love more and more each day, qualifying it even further by adding “with knowledge and full insight.”
Now the word that Paul uses here for knowledge is epigenosis. This is not ‘about’ knowledge, or the obtaining of a certain and fixed amount of information. The knowledge that Paul is talking about here is participatory; this is not a reading or hearing about something, but intimate, deep and rich knowledge that can only come from experience.
Take, for example, the Nintendo Wii. When it first came out, it revolutionized video gaming because, more than any other system in the past, it actually made you go through the motions of the game that you were playing. The two that I enjoyed the most were tennis and bowling. You would pick up that controller, make sure that it was safely fastened to your wrist to avoid having it fly across the room and break a lamp, and you would stand at a safe distance from your opponent to avoid popping them in the face with your backswing. As the game would start, you would flick your writs just right and rip an ace down the line – game, set, match, and you’re a tennis player. In bowling, you line up the ball just right, put the perfect curve on it, and bam … you’ve bowled a perfect game. Two sports mastered, just like that. But hold on. There’s a huge difference between knowing how to play Wii tennis, and actually knowing how to play tennis. Who among us didn’t figure out pretty quickly that you could get the same result sitting on the couch and barely moving your arm as you did standing up and swinging away with reckless abandon? But to step outside onto a court, with an actual racket and a tennis ball, and to actually fire a ball hard enough and straight enough for your opponent to not be able to send it back over the net … that’s the epigenosis of tennis. It’s the same difference as watching the running of the bulls on TV, and actually running with the bulls; or seeing a picture of the Eiffel tower and actually looking down on Paris from its heights. The kind of knowledge that Paul is talking about here is not something you can read in a book or see on TV; it must be experienced.
In a more technical sense, Paul here is addressing the differences between the understanding of knowledge in the Hebrew sense vs. that of the more contemporary Greek world in which he lived. As author Alan Hirsch describes it in his new book “On The Verge”, whereas the Greek model was very education and information based, concerned with concepts, ideas, and (dare I say it) doctrines, the ancient Near East worldview, on the other hand, was more life-oriented, concerned with the practical outworking of the interrelationship of all things under God. Essentially, the Greek approach was based on the idea that if people have all the right information, it will change how they act; we are to think our way into a new way of acting or being. Based on the Hebrew approach, we act our way into a new kind of thinking, and this is what Paul is getting at when he is writing about love overflowing with knowledge.
Think about another one of Paul’s letter, this time to the church in Corinth. “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” And Paul is speaking from deep experience here. Remember, he had accumulated just about as much knowledge as he could, about the scriptures no less. But all that knowledge failed to translate into a way of living that was congruent with the call that God has upon his people, the call to love that which he has created, and to show others what he is like. Again, we can listen to all the right sermons, read the best books, attend conferences, but it all means nothing if we are not engaged in acts of love, then, Paul is saying, we don’t really have a full or meaningful knowledge of God and what he is all about.
But of course it’s not just knowledge that Paul is praying for, but also “depth of insight.” The word in Greek is esthesis, and this is the only time that this particular word is used in the Bible. It essentially means having the ability to know what to do in difficult situations, or discerning what the next right thing to do would be. It also involves a keen awareness of what the consequences of these actions will be. Again, this does not revolve around being able to pick out bits of information and dissecting them for the sake of knowledge. This is not about theoretical insight, or, like Paul in his earlier days, having a set list of rules and regulations to live by. This is deeply rooted in the present, in experience, in the daily realities of life, in seeking Christ and hearing His Word spoken to us in fresh ways. It involves being called to and immersed in difficult situations in the first place, and having the courage to step out in loving action on behalf of those who are in need, even when we don’t know what to expect or how it will work out.
This is all about the difference between hearing and acting, between knowing about God and knowing God; it’s about knowledge and insight that affects every area of our lives, so that we are every day living out the love of God and putting it on full display to those around us in meaningful and exciting ways.
Paul finishes off the prayer with 3 pieces that serve to qualify why this kind of knowledge and insight is so important. First, he prays that the people in Philippi would be able to ‘discern what is best”. The Greek word used here is ‘dokimozo’, and was used primarily in reference to money. The other week, I stopped in at Tim Horton’s, and the guy in front of me pulled out a $100 bill. I was hoping that he was going on some sort of pay it forward rampage and would be paying for everyone in line, but sadly this was not the case. The cashier took the bill and placed it under the purple light to make sure that it was not a fake, to examine and check its authenticity. This is ‘dokimozo.’ Paul is praying that the Philippians would be able to check and examine their hearts so that they would be able to live in a way that reflects an authentic and genuine walk with Christ.
Furthermore, he prays that they would be “pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” A few months back, I was listening to an interview with Dan Rather, former anchor for the CBS Evening News and currently the managing editor and anchor of the television news magazine Dan Rather Reports. In these reports, Rather takes a deeper look at certain political and cultural stories, at times shedding some light on or exposing certain injustices going on in the world. In this interview, he had a great line that speaks to what Paul means when he writes about being pure and blameless. What Rather said was this: “I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Paul is urging the people in Philippi to love in such a way that if all was brought into the light, they would have nothing to worry about. When the full splendor of the sun shines, darkness cannot exist; light and dark are not opposites, but rather the absence of the other. Light cleans all the dark and dirty areas of our lives, and Paul was saying to them and saying to us today – what if the sun were to shine on our jokes, the websites we visit, the things we spend our money on. Live in such a way shows that you have nothing to hide in the dark spaces, and also in such a way that those around you are not tripped up by your actions and attitudes. This is what it means to be pure and blameless.
And finally, Paul prays that they would be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes from Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.” To understand this, we must return to the beginning of the prayer, and the word parisos – “no limit to the growth of increase”, or that it is “more tomorrow than it was today.” Paul is calling the people at Philippi to be ever growing, ever reaping a harvest of spiritual fruit. We must look at another letter to see what this might look like. In Galatians, we read that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” These are habitual attitudes must be developed in order to gain the epigenosis and esthesis that Paul is writing about. As Dallas Willard notes, “if we take note of and follow Jesus in what he did when he was not ministering or teaching, we will find ourselves led and enabled to behave as he did when he was ‘on the spot’”. Remember the example of Jesus; in the Gospels we read was regularly engaged in such spiritual practices as prayer, fasting, silence and solitude, practices which led into transformative, missional encounters with those in need. In order to be ready, to display esthesis or to know what the next right thing is to do it is important to adopt various practices and habits according to the Way of Jesus. For, as Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann says, “discipleship fundamentally entails a set of disciplines, habits and practices that are undertaken as regular, concrete, daily practices.” Harvesting fruit takes time and hard work, but if done right, it can be pretty sweet. And as Paul qualifies it at the end, we are to ever be growing in these things, putting them into practice as we interact with the world around us, not merely for the sake of self-improvement or knowledge, but for the glory and praise of God. It is through this, as the Message puts it, that we will make “Jesus Christ attractive to all.”
If you read the NT closely, you will find that the term Christian is found only once in its pages. The more common designation was simply ‘the Way’; Jesus came to show us again who God is, what he cares about, and how to go about making the prayer ‘thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’ a reality. What Dallas Willard is calling us back to and what Paul has reminded us this morning is that as God has demonstrated his abounding love to us in Christ, so to are we to abound in love to all those that we come into contact with through our day-to-day lives. It is this abounding love that leads to knowledge; the Way of Jesus must be lived out before it is mapped out. And as we step out in loving action on behalf of those who are in need, even when we don’t know what to expect or how it will work out, it is then that we will truly begin to know God, our neighbors and ourselves in the esthesis sense of the word.
*note: the info re: Greek translations was borrowed from Rob Bell’s sermon in the same passage a couple years ago.