Holding Fast to the Word of Life (1)
I don’t know how you feel about this, but there have been times during the course of my life and ministry in the local church when I seriously wondered if it might be the wise thing to do simply to quit and withdraw into the isolation and seclusion of a monastery. As boring and outrageous as that may sound to you, at times it has struck me as profoundly appealing.
It shouldn’t take a genius to figure out why. We today, no less so than the Philippians in the first century, live in what Paul refers to as “a crooked and twisted generation” (Philippians 2:15). I’ll have more to say about those words in a moment, but for now I think you’ll agree with me that they accurately describe our world in 2013. It is morally crooked, intellectually twisted, spiritually degenerate, and in countless ways dark and ugly. Everywhere I turn I see one more disheartening and disgusting example of the devaluation of human life, the distortion of human sexuality, the corruption of our financial institutions, greed, arrogance, selfishness run amok, and I find myself saying: “I want out of here. Just get me out of here.” Or, in my more spiritually reflective moments my response is simply: “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”
I promise you that I will never yield to that temptation. I’m not going anywhere. Darn it! But seriously, many in the history of the Christian church have said, “I’ve had enough; I can’t function any longer in this cesspool of society; I can’t live a godly life surrounded by so much ungodliness and temptation.” In response, they’ve quit their jobs, abandoned their families, said good-bye to the church and run off to the desert or the wilderness.
This is precisely what happened in the early years of the 4th century a.d. When, as a result of the policies of Constantine, Christianity became legal and most persecution ended and it became not only safe but increasingly fashionable, profitable, and politically advantageous to be a Christian, people turned tail and ran to the hills. It was called monasticism.
The so-called “monastics” believed that withdrawal or retreat from the world would protect them from the temptations of both society and the flesh. The believed that if they were going to avoid being corrupted by “a crooked and twisted generation,” the only solution was to run away from it and, in effect, hide.
One such monastic named Antony (250-356) fled into the desert where he eventually barricaded himself in an abandoned fort for twenty years. Perhaps the most famous of all monastics was a man named Simon the Stylite (390-460) who spent 10 years alone in a cell in Antioch. In 423 he began living at the top of a 60 ft. pillar. For 30 years he sat on a platform a mere 3 ft. in diameter! His example inspired countless others.
Now, I’ve never been tempted to take it that far, but the prospect of isolation from the world and thus insulation against all its temptations and corruption has at times struck me as appealing. So why, then, have I never given it serious consideration? Aside from the fact that I’m married and had two daughters to raise, aside from the fact that there are some things about our world that I actually enjoy, like baseball and movies and college football and hanging out with friends, why was this never a legitimate option?
The answer, in part, is found in Philippians 2:14-18, especially in vv. 15-16. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s be sure we know what Paul is saying that leads up to his point about our responsibility in this world, in this crooked and twisted generation of ours. Here is the text.
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:14-18).
It almost seems that in commanding us not to grumble and question or dispute he might as well have commanded us not to breathe. Such things are so natural to fallen, sinful people like us. But Paul has something very specific in mind in using these words.
His language echoes the OT description of the Israelites who grumbled, murmured and complained against Moses following the exodus from Egypt and during their wandering in the wilderness (see Exodus 15-17; Numbers 14-17; 1 Corinthians 10:10). In fact, virtually everything Paul says in vv. 14-15 is designed to contrast how the Jewish people acted during their wilderness wandering and how we are supposed to act today. Let me give you some examples.
First, the Israelites grumbled and complained against both God and Moses, insisting that they had been brought out of Egypt to die in the wilderness. “Better to go back into Egypt, even if it means slavery; at least there we would have enough food and water!” The bottom line was that they didn’t believe God’s promises to them. They let their challenging circumstances drown out the voice of God’s covenant promise that he would bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey.
I don’t think Paul is suggesting that the Philippians were grumbling about God or questioning his goodness or whether or not he was trustworthy. Their “grumbling” was against one another. It amounted to complaining and gossiping and slandering one another. It’s the sort of “grumbling” that contributes to the breakdown of unity in the body of Christ, the very thing Paul had earlier called them to pursue and cultivate (see 1:27 and 2:2). The “questioning” here in v. 14 is probably a reference to petty arguments over matters that simply didn’t matter. There was division in the church because of silly disputes over secondary doctrines and personality conflicts.
“Stop it!” says Paul.
The second indication that Paul has in mind OT Israel in the wilderness is from what he says in v. 15. The word translated “without blemish” was used to describe the perfection of the sacrificial lamb in Leviticus (see Exodus 29:1 and 1 Peter 1:19). And the Israelites were “children of God” whose calling was to “shine as lights” in the Gentile “world”. We read in Isaiah 9:2 – “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” Israel had been called to serve as “a light for the nations” (Isaiah 42:6b). “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6b).
And if that weren’t enough, yet a third reason we know that Paul is contrasting the failure of OT Israel and the calling that is now on the Christian church is because of this reference to “a crooked and twisted generation” (v. 15). In the OT, Moses used that language to describe Israel herself, not the Gentiles. Listen to the description of Israel in Deuteronomy 32:5 – “They [that is, Israel] have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation.” But now this applies to the non-Christian world in the midst of which we, the church, the true children of God, are to shine as lights without blemish.
Yes, you are the children of God, says Paul. So live like it! Being the children of God is not wishful thinking: it is rock-solid reality. So let your privileged status as God’s sons and daughters work itself out in the way you conduct yourself.
To be continued . . .