Among its other effects, a terminal diagnosis will lead you to read the Scriptures with very different eyes. All sorts of passages that you thought you understood take on new depth and meaning. For me, the chief of these is Philippians 1:21-24.
Years ago, I read this passage as Paul being Paul. He was a good man and loved the Philippians, so he wanted to continue living in order to help them. That’s true, but it’s vastly incomplete because it doesn’t really reckon with either half of Philippians 1:21.
Let’s start with the back half. When Paul describes death as gain, he isn’t guessing. According to 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, he was caught up into the third heaven and heard inexpressible things that no human can repeat. The unimaginable joys of eternal life were no mystery to him.
Against that gain, though, he balances life in the likeness of Christ. Serving the Philippians is as precious to him as his heavenly reward. This might seem incredible to us, but I think it’s where most genuine disciples would end up if they were placed in Paul’s position.
I’m not eager to die. I don’t look forward to the process of dying, which is likely to be very unpleasant. I don’t relish giving up my abilities one by one. I already miss hunting and hiking, and I’m sure I’ll miss being able to walk when I lose that. However, against those things, I can set my hope of that which is far better. From a selfish perspective, heaven wins every time!
Instead, the losses that I mourn the most are of my opportunities to serve others. I bitterly regret that I probably won’t be able to finish raising my children. I grieve that I won’t be able to give my wife a lifetime of being happily married. I mourn that I will have to step away from the pulpit and the keyboard and won’t be able to help others on to heaven. Once I die, I will be done with all of those things.
I think that’s what Paul is talking about when he says, “To live is Christ.” Christ was a servant who actually LEFT HEAVEN so He could come to earth and help us! The essence of following Him is living with self-sacrificing love. Paul prized the opportunity to do that so highly—an opportunity that would last only as long as his life did--that he was willing to postpone his reward for the sake of others.
The Christian’s bucket list, then, doesn’t consist of travel and skydiving. There’s nothing wrong with them, of course, but they are of no lasting value. Instead, the truly valuable things in life are the times when we can put a family member or a friend ahead of ourselves, take on that Bible class at church that nobody else wants to teach, or gather our courage and invite an outsider to worship with us. Those, not our possessions or abilities, are our true gifts. As Paul found, they are the only things in this life that are worthy to be compared to the joys of heaven.
Every Christian should be able to affirm along with Paul the words of Acts 24:15. There, he says, “I have a hope in God. . . that there will be a resurrection, both of the righteous and the unrighteous.” This hope is an inexpressible comfort to me in my illness, and it is the bedrock of our faith. However, the promise that we find so hopeful and comforting may be very much the opposite to others.
This is evident even in the context of Paul’s statement. His audience is Felix, the corrupt Roman governor of Judea. Even after the judicial hearing of Acts 24:1-23 is over, Felix invites Paul back so he can hear more about faith in Christ.
However, once Paul begins to speak, the tables are turned. It is not the prisoner of Christ who comes away from the discussion intimidated and fearful. It is the powerful government official. As Acts 24:25 reports, when Paul spoke on righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix became so frightened that he couldn’t bear to hear anymore and sent Paul away.
This reveals that just as Paul had a hope of resurrection, Felix had a hope of not-resurrection. He was cruel and greedy. He used his position to solicit bribes--Paul’s experience here was a common one.
What’s more, in this life, no one could challenge Felix on any of it. He was the brother of the powerful imperial secretary Pallas. When Felix returned to Rome at the end of his term of office, his brother used his influence to shield him from prosecution for his crimes. Felix went to his grave unpunished.
How terrifying it must have been for such a man, a man who knew that he never would be called to account in this life, to learn that he would be called to account after it was over! Judgment could not be averted after all. Felix knew that he was neither righteous nor self-controlled, so he could have little doubt about what the outcome of the judgment would be.
Felix had two choices. He could become a Christian, give up his wicked ways, and invite contempt from everyone who knew him. Alternatively, he could determine that Paul was wrong and there would be no resurrection after all.
If there were no resurrection, Felix would be safe. No one ever would hale him into court. The scales of justice never would be balanced. His wickedness would have no more consequences than another man’s righteousness. Our fear—that our faith is vain—was Felix’s hope.
One of my favorite things about Christianity is that Christ makes life meaningful. If I am loyal to Him, I will receive an eternal reward. However, Christ doesn’t make life meaningful only for Christians. He makes it meaningful for everyone.
Because of the resurrection, eternal life is on the table for all of us, but so too is eternal torment. Our choices in life determine which we will get. Thus, for the righteous, the gospel is the best news imaginable. For the unrighteous, it is the worst.
Ephesians 6:13-17 is perhaps the most familiar passage in the entire epistle. Most Christians have heard at least one sermon about the whole armor of God, complete with a helpfully labeled illustration of a Roman soldier. Certainly, there is much to be gained from considering the importance of salvation, righteousness, and so forth to our spiritual lives!
However, there’s another point in this well-known text that is worth considering, and it comes from the phrase that usually only supplies the title for the sermon. We read, “the whole armor of God,” and we think, “OK; this is the armor that God gives us.” That’s true, but it’s incomplete. The whole armor of God isn’t only the armor that God gives. It’s also the armor that He wears.
This is evident from Paul’s use of the Old Testament. He didn’t invent any of the items of the Christian’s armament. Instead, he took passages describing the armament of God and cited or adapted them.
This is most obvious when it comes to the helmet of salvation and the breastplate of righteousness. Both come from Isaiah 59:17, in which Isaiah says of God, “He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head. . .” (NASB95, and throughout). Paul clearly adapted that language for his own purposes, and the adaptation gives us the key to his whole approach.
Similarly, we find the shield of faith in the last part of Psalm 91:4, which tells us, “His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark.” The same Greek word is translated in our Bibles as both “faithfulness” and “faith”.
The other items in the panoply are a bit trickier. The sword that is the word of God is taken from Hosea 6:5, where God says of His unfaithful people, “Therefore I have hewn them in pieces by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of My mouth. . .” The passage doesn’t say straight up that God’s word is a sword; it merely describes His words as a hewing, slaying implement. However, from “hewing, slaying implement” to “sword” isn’t much of a leap.
The belt of truth also takes a little bit of digging to figure out. In the Old Testament, it appears in the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 11:5, which reads, “Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, and faithfulness the belt about His waist.” The link becomes clearer when we realize that the Hebrew word for “faithfulness” also can be translated “truth” and is so translated in the Septuagint, which Paul used in his writing.
Finally, we come to the preparation of the gospel of peace. This comes from Isaiah 52:7, which says in part, “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace. . .” If we look only at the verse, the antecedent of “him” is unclear, but the previous verse, Isaiah 52:6, is about God speaking. In Isaiah 52:7, “him” probably should be “Him”.
Paul, then, isn’t merely telling us to use the equipment that God offers us. He’s telling us to fight like He does, with all of His weapons and His virtues. If that’s the way we enter into spiritual warfare, the devil scarcely can hope to defeat us.
Even among the Pauline epistles, there are elements in each that distinguish them from all the others. Sometimes these differences are due to different scribes (Paul the scribe of Galatians has different diction than Tertius the scribe of Romans or Sosthenes the scribe of 1 Corinthians), but sometimes they’re due to the unique interaction between the spirit of Paul and the Holy Spirit at that particular moment.
In this latter category we must put the parentheticals of Ephesians. The entire epistle gives the impression of a man who is thinking far faster than he is able to talk and has so many important things to say that they keep crowding in on each other. Consequently, there are many places in Ephesians where Paul abruptly abandons an idea, only to return to it a dozen verses or even a few chapters later.
One such place is Ephesians 3:1. He begins the chapter by saying, “For this reason, I, Paul”, but in 3:2, he never says what he, Paul, is doing. Instead, he begins a digression about his apostleship to the Gentiles and its role in God’s eternal purpose.
The digression doesn’t end until 3:14, which begins in the same way that 3:1 does. Finally, we find out what he, Paul, is doing. He is bowing his knees before the Father.
If we don’t recognize 3:2-13 as a parenthetical, we’re going to have trouble following Paul’s argument. “For this reason” in 3:14 doesn’t refer back to 3:13. Paul is focused on much more important things than the Ephesians remaining faithful despite his tribulations.
Instead, it refers back to the closing verses of Ephesians 2, which immediately precede the first “For this reason” of the third chapter. Contextually, “this reason” is the work that Christ has done in breaking down the division between Jew and Gentile and incorporating the latter into God’s household, as per Ephesians 2:19.
“This reason” motivates Paul because he is the apostle to the Gentiles (which is why the digression of 3:2-13 is relevant) and cares about the Ephesians even though they’re Gentiles. They’re part of his family now, which is why the first item in the prayer of 3:14-21 is the observation that every family in heaven and on earth derives its name from the Father.
Even after the prayer is over, Paul continues the theme of unity. According to 4:1-6, the Ephesians are to walk worthy of their calling (the calling that brought them together with Jews in a single holy temple) by pursuing the things that make for unity and peace. If Christ brought all Christians together, the least we can do is stay together!
This point is profound, but if all we ever do is plod through Ephesians verse by verse, we’ll miss it and many other similar treasures. We must remember that Scripture originally was not divided by verse. It was divided by context and argument. The more effort we invest in following the latter through all their twists and turns, the more we will benefit.
One of the most fascinating exchanges in the New Testament appears toward the end of Paul’s defense before the Jerusalem mob, in Acts 22:17-21. The incident that Paul relates took place shortly after his conversion, after he had fled from Damascus and returned to Jerusalem, still preaching the gospel. While he is praying in the temple, Jesus warns him that he is going to have to flee Jerusalem too.
Paul is bewildered by this. The Jews of Jerusalem know that he used to be Church Persecutor No. 1. He beat and imprisoned all the Christians he could catch. When the Sanhedrin mobbed and murdered Stephen, he cheered them on. Surely somebody like that, whose convictions have changed so spectacularly, is worth listening to! Surely if Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of the church, now testifies that Jesus is the Christ, the Jews will find that testimony persuasive!
Paul is both right and wrong. He’s right about the power of the evidence he offers. Even now, 2000 years later, his witness to the resurrection is strong confirmation of our faith.
However, he is wrong about its persuasiveness to the Jews of Jerusalem. His testimony would be enough to win over reasonable people, but those Jews aren’t reasonable. Jesus’ response implies that their hearts are so hardened against the truth that they will respond with violence instead of conversion. Incredible though it may seem, the gospel will find a better hearing among the pagan Gentiles than among God’s chosen people in God’s holy city.
Ironically, the reception to Paul’s speech proves Jesus right. Prophets had been predicting for a thousand years that the Messiah would save the Gentiles too. Nonetheless, the mob finds this notion so hateful that they begin to riot as soon as the words pass Paul’s lips. The Roman commander, who doesn’t have a dog in the fight, is so baffled by their reaction that he is willing to torture Paul to figure out what in the world is going on.
Even today, we still struggle with the illusion that others are reasonable people with honest hearts. We show them enough proof to persuade them three times over, and we are bewildered by the negative responses we get. Look at all the evidence for the existence of God! Look at how many Bible verses testify to the importance of baptism! Often, we react by doubling down, by presenting more evidence, by pointing out more verses.
What we fail to understand in such cases is that we aren’t dealing with a proof problem. We’re dealing with a heart problem. Usually, people reject the truth because they don’t want to be Christians. If we press the point, we might make them angry, but we won’t make them believe. The sooner we recognize the heart problem and stop arguing, the better.
What about us, though? What about the truths we aren’t willing to hear, the Scriptures we aren’t willing to consider, the sacred-cow beliefs that we can’t bear to challenge? The devil is happy to harden the hearts of Christians too. If we do not love the truth ourselves, especially when it is difficult and painful, we may find ourselves no better off than the Jews who heard Paul’s speech. After all, every one of them thought they were faithful servants of God—just like we do.