During the American Civil War, some of the border towns shifted their allegiance back and forth. When Southern troops marched into town the citizens would put up Confederate flags and cheer the Confederate soldiers. But when the Northern troops arrived, the citizens would pull down the Confederate flags and replace them with Union flags, and the townspeople would cheer now for the Union soldiers.
Though these border towns tried to placate both armies, neither side trusted them, respected them, or liked them. Neither army defended them. As it turned out, those cities ended up being taken advantage of by both armies.
The apostle Paul recognized that the Christians in Philippi faced a similar dilemma.
Here’s some background: Philippi was situated at a pass in a range of hills at the eastern edge of Greece and Europe, along the overland trade route from Rome to Asia. following the assassination of Julius Caesar, the decisive battle to determine the fate of the Roman Empire was fought on the plain to the west of Philippi. following his victory, Octavian (later known as Caesar Augustus) made Philippi a Roman colony. As such, Philippi was considered a “little Rome” 700 to 1200 miles away from the actual city of Rome (depending on which route was taken).
the people who lived in the Roman colony always kept in mind that they were citizens of Rome, though their address was on the far edge of Europe. The citizens spoke Latin. They wore the Latin style of clothing. They kept up the Roman customs. They lived in that city as though they were living in Rome itself.
In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi (in Philippians 1:27), he uses a word that was common in the vocabulary of their culture. He tells them to politeuesthe, to conduct themselves in a manner that is in keeping with (or congruent with) their citizenship (polites).
Up to this point, the Philippians had always heard this word applied to their citizenship as Roman citizens far away from the actual city of Rome, but Paul applies it to their citizenship in the kingdom of God far away from heaven. He tells the Christians of Philippi to live in their community in a way that is in keeping with (or congruent with) their identity as God’s citizens—even as God’s own children.
Steve Brown shares, “It was said that in ancient times there lived a very wise tutor called upon to teach the son of a great king. The tutor had a terrible time with this prince. The young man was a difficult child. To be more accurate, the prince was a spoiled brat. The tutor had tried everything to get him to grow, to come to maturity. He tried cajoling, pushing and shoving. Nothing worked. Finally, the tutor came across an idea. He cut a strip of royal purple and pinned it to the young man’s coat. The prince said, ‘What are you doing that for?’
“The tutor answered, ‘Because every time you look at that strip of purple you’ll remember that you’re the king’s son.’”
That’s what Paul is calling the Philippians to do—and what God is calling us to do. Everywhere we are and in everything we do, conduct ourselves in a manner that is in keeping with (or congruent with) who we are as citizens of God’s kingdom and as children of the good and loving God!
Uwe Holmer understood the challenge of living as a citizen of God’s kingdom in a country far away from heaven. While serving as a Lutheran pastor in communist and atheist East Germany, Holmer and his family were persecuted because of his job and his faith. Amidst it all, Holmer and his family maintained their loyalty to a higher kingdom.
When the East German government collapsed, Erich Honecker (the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party, the head of the East German government) and his wife Margot were thrown out of their luxurious home and faced the wrath of the nation. Honecker was put on trial for crimes against his country. Surprisingly Uwe Holmer and his wife opened their home to their former persecutor. For doing so, the Holmers faced the scorn of many of their neighbors, but they saw their action as what was in keeping with their allegiance to a higher kingdom. They remembered that their King is One who commands us to forgive our enemies.
In everything we do, may we live in a manner that is in keeping with our citizenship in heaven and our identity as God’s own children.
To those who know me, this will come as no surprise, but I am realizing that the apostle Paul is a much wiser person than I.
In Paul’s prayer for the Christians in Philippi (in Philippians 1:9-11), he prays that their “love may abound more and more….”
If I had written to the Philippians, I would have ended the prayer right there, believing that all that is needed is more and more love. Let’s just all be as nice to others as we would want them to be nice to us.
But Paul (more wisely than I) recognizes that love needs wisdom as well. He prays that their “love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best….”
What is love that abounds more and more in knowledge and depth of insight? It’s a love that differentiates between the kind of thing I might want done for me and what is truly needed in the situation.
Mitch Albom shares an example in Tuesdays with Morrie about his former professor (and his friend) Morrie Schwartz:
“Morrie was given a grant to observe mental patients and record their treatments. While the idea seems common today, it was groundbreaking in the early fifties. Morrie saw patients who would scream all day. Patients who would cry all night. Patients soiling their underwear. Patients refusing to eat, having to be held down, medicated, fed intravenously.
“One of the patients, a middle-aged woman, came out of her room every day and lay facedown on the tile floor, stayed there for hours, as doctors and nurses stepped around her. Morrie watched in horror. He took notes, which is what he was there to do. Every day, she did the same thing: came out in the morning, lay on the floor, stayed there until the evening, talking to no one, ignored by everyone. It saddened Morrie. He began to sit on the floor with her, even lay down alongside her, trying to draw her out of her misery. Eventually, he got her to sit up, and even to return to her room. What she mostly wanted, he learned, was the same thing many people want—someone to notice she was there.”
Morrie discovered what she needed! That was a love that abounded “more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” It’s what our world needs more of.
Bob Olmstead shares another example from an interview with a letter carrier from rural West Virginia named Rose Mary Hart:
“For my first seven years as a letter carrier I tried to do the job as efficiently and promptly as I could. But in 1976 I [met Jesus] and now I enter into my work differently. I have started to listen to people on my route in a new way. I have begun to share their pain and joy. When I listen, I can hear their turmoil inside. I hear domestic violence. I’ve even broken up a few fights. I’ve seen latchkey kids sitting out on their steps in 10 degree weather because they forgot their key. I hear the frustration of working mothers. They come out and talk to me. Sometimes I don’t even have time to think about a response. But I do what I can, and sometimes word comes to me that something I said was heard. I just walk down the street, but I think I made a difference.”
She pays attention to everyone she meets and does what she can to meet their need. That is a love that abounds “more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” It’s what our world needs more of.
Several years ago, my wife and children and I filled out a ‘relational needs assessment’ that indicated each person’s greatest emotional needs (e.g. the need for affection or security or affirmation or encouragement). I was struck by the fact that each one of us scored differently as to what is our greatest relational need.
Since each of my family members have different kinds of greatest relational needs, I need to express my love to each of them in different ways (while also paying attention to the uniqueness of my own greatest relational needs).
Even within my own family, I find that I need to pray (with Paul’s wisdom) that my love “may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that [I] may be able to discern what is best.”
Tony Evans frequently shares a story that actually comes from his own experience:
“There was a man who noticed some cracks on his living room wall. So he called a painter to repair and cover the cracks. It looked like the painter fixed the problem, but a few weeks later the cracks reappeared. So the man called the painter back, and he once again covered the cracks with putty and paint. The problem looked like it had been fixed. However, in several more weeks the cracks came back but this time they brought all their friends. So the man called the painter again.
“After looking at many more cracks then he had seen before, the painter said, ‘Sir, I can’t help you because you don’t have a problem with cracks.’
“The frustrated homeowner said, ‘Can’t you see my living room wall? Of course I have a problem with cracks!’
“But the painter said, ‘The problem isn’t the cracks in your wall. Your problem is that you have a shifting foundation. The cracks you see on your wall are the symptoms of a deeper issue: the foundation of your house is moving. If you want to fix the cracks, you have to fix your foundation. But unless you fix the problem, you will forever be doing patchwork.”
Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount by stressing that if we want to fix the foundation of our lives, it will require that we listen to what He says and put His words into practice. Jesus said:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain come down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
In First Things First A. Roger Merrill tells of a business consultant who decided to landscape his grounds. He hired a woman with a doctorate in horticulture who was extremely knowledgeable. Because the business consultant traveled a lot, he kept emphasizing to her the need to create his garden in a way that would require little or no maintenance on his part. He insisted on automatic sprinklers and other labor-saving devices. Finally she stopped him and said, “There’s one thing you need to deal with before we go any further. If there’s no gardener, there’s no garden!”
The same principle applies to the garden of our souls and to the quality of our lives. If we do not do the needed work, there will be no worthwhile garden—no peace or joy or contentment in our soul. If we do not put into practice the things Jesus tells us, there will be no adequate, trustworthy foundation to our lives.
Mislabeling can be dangerous—even deadly!
Some years back, the Appeal-Democrat reported a case of dangerous mislabeling:
“A British Columbia-based nursery is trying to track down people who bought poisonous plants that were incorrectly labeled ‘tasty in soup.” Valleybrook Gardens, which distributed the plants has worked with government officials to locate the buyers of 17 improperly labeled perennials sold at stores in Lynnwood, Wash., British Columbia and Ontario from April 18 to 25. Only eight of the plants had been accounted for by Sunday. The label should have read, ‘All parts of this plant are toxic,’ but an employee changed it to, ‘All parts of this plant are tasty in soup,’ said Michel Benoit, the nursery’s general manager. ‘The employee was making a practical joke and thought it would be caught by a horticulturist,’ said Benoit.”
What happens when people paste upon themselves the label “Christian” but are filled with hatred, cruelty, harsh judgments, abuse of others, hypocrisy, gossip, and selfishness?
Sadly, in far too many cases, such people destroy the faith and spiritual lives of many good people.
In Matthew 7:15 Jesus describes such people as ferocious wolves in sheep’s clothing!
In a world of false and deceiving labels, how are we supposed to be able to differentiate between a wolf in sheep’s clothing and the real deal? How are we to recognize a true follower of Jesus from a false one?
In Matthew 7:16-20, Jesus instructs us to recognize people by their fruit.
In vers16 he asks, “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”
That question is not actually as simple as it may seem. William Barclay points out, “There is more in this than meets the eye. ‘Are grapes gathered from thorns?’ asked Jesus. There was a certain thorn, the buckthorn, which had little black berries which closely resembled little grapes. ‘Or figs from thistles?’ There was a certain thistle, which had a flower, which, at least at a distance, might well be taken for a fig.”
Looks can be deceptive. Some people carry Bibles, and recite Scripture, and argue spiritual matters persuasively, but what is the fruit of their lives?
Don’t look merely at a person’s words. Don’t put too much stock in the label they paste upon themselves. Look at the fruit of their lives.
In John 13:35 Jesus stated, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples: if you love one another.”
In Galatians 5:22-23 Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
These are the kinds of things we are to look for in a person’s life to be able to recognize whether he or she is actually a follower of Christ. These are the kinds of things we are to seek in our own lives if we want to be recognized as belonging to Jesus.