THE APOSTLE PAUL is brought before us in the New Testament as a pattern for us in three different ways -
For the first of these we turn to i Tim. I. 16; for the second to Acts 20. 17-35; and for the third to the epistle to the Philippians.
It is an epistle of Christian experience. In it the apostle writes, not as ‘Paul the apostle’, but as ‘Paul the bondslave of Jesus Christ’ (a designation that belongs to every believer), in order to define the quality of character proper to Christians as such. He touches upon the different elements that combine in a character truly Christian, and shows that every Christian feature is exemplified in himself, so that he can appeal to the saints to ‘Imitate me’ and ‘Walk so as ye have us for an ensample’.
Here then is Paul’s summing up of the overwhelming, overmastering passion of the devoted Christian; the controlling, compelling principle of true Christian life: ‘For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain’, Phil. I. 21.
Paul says that for him, living means that all the powers of his spirit and soul and body, all his capacities, spiritual, moral and physical, are concentrated to serve His glory and pleasure. Every step of his path is taken, every iota of his service is rendered, every ounce of his energy is used, under the control of His will, in glad, loving, devoted acknowledgment of His claims. Every circumstance of his life is made an opportunity to further Christ’s interests. If he can best serve the interests and glory of Christ by being at liberty to freely move about the earth, preaching and teaching, toiling and serving, he earnestly desires to be at liberty. If he can best serve the pleasure and praise of Christ by spending long months in prison, and at the end face the suffering and shame of a martyr’s death, patiently he will endure such imprisonment and eagerly go forth to welcome such a death. The only thing that matters is that Christ be magnified. Life is of interest and value to him so long as it serves the glory of Christ. When life ceases to serve that end, it has no further interest or value, and he is eager to leave and go to be with Christ, so very far better than being here, even when conditions here are the very best they could be. This is what he means when he says, ‘For me to live is Christ’, and this is what God desires for each of us. What then are the elements that combine in the development of the character that is truly Christian?
This surely is the first element in such a life, and in ‘Paul and Timothy, the bondslaves of Jesus Christ’, 1. 1, it is exemplified. The word used suggests that the person so described is the exclusive property of his master, because of purchase. A slave has no will of his own. He is entirely at his master’s disposal, to be obedient without question to his master’s command, and completely governed by his master’s will. Whether that be a yoke intolerable to be borne, or a yoke in which to delight, depends altogether upon the master to be served. ‘To be a slave is a dreadful thing; to be the slave of Jesus Christ is Heaven begun below’. For Paul (as for every one who truly love Him) this was a designation of highest honour and greatest dignity, and in the sweet slavery of his living, loving Lord, he found all his delight.
As far as ch. 1 of this epistle is concerned, Christ has interests in two spheres.
The interests of Christ in the world are served by the preaching of the Gospel. The interests of Christ in His people are served by the faithful ministry of all His Word, and the godly influence of His devoted servants. So that we read of ‘the furtherance of the gospel’, v. 12, and ‘your furtherance and joy of faith’, v. 25. The apostle was satisfied that ‘The things that had happened to him had fallen out rather to the furtherance of the gospel’, v. 12. The sufferings of this consecrated man had stimulated the energies of the saints to ‘preach Christ’. There were others who preached in the interests of a party, and out of envy, and with the deliberate intention of ‘adding affliction to my bonds’. But what did that matter? Though he would condemn the motive, he would unfeignedly rejoice that Christ was preached, and would welcome increased suffering if thereby the interests of Christ were served. He stood before the opened gate of heaven, and looked into the presence of Christ. What he saw there made him long to enter and to be with Christ. But he knew that die saints had yet need of him, and he was willing to sacrifice, for a little while, what to him would have been nothing but gain, in order to serve the interests of Christ in the furtherance of those who were so precious to Christ, and to him for Christ’s sake.
‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus’, 2. 5. A servant of Christ, devoted to Him, was once asked, ‘How would you, in one word, describe the Lord Jesus?’. His immediate answer was, ‘Others’. And the believer who can truly say, ‘For to me to live is Christ’, is living day by day selflessly devoted to the highest interest and greatest good of others.
The emphasis in ch. 3 is upon the fact that true Christian life is Christ-centred. And in the experience of Paul that principle is beautifully illustrated. ‘That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death’, v. 10. Here is a man, who, in the presence of surpassing beauty in Christ glorified, has learned the corruption of the flesh, and the worthlessness of everything that the world can offer him. For him, henceforth, the world is a vast moral desert, through which he hastens with fleet steps. Nothing can be allowed to hinder him as he eagerly seeks his home in heaven, and presses forward to his desired goal by the side of his Lord. His heart is in the safe keeping of the Son of God, and to follow in the path in which his beloved Leader and Master walked before him, is the only really worth while thing, though it must involve him in the same suffering.
In ch. 4 the apostle speaks of himself as the conqueror of every earthly circumstance, w. 10-13. He has learned the secret of contentment in every condition. He has been initiated into the secret of power to live victoriously, superior to all his surroundings. If, with a longing in our hearts to know the same life of victory, we ask him to disclose the secret to us, his answer is, ‘I am strong for all things in the Christ who keeps on pouring strength into me’.
‘We would see Jesus – this is all we’re needing,
Strength, joy and willingness, come with the sight;
We would see Jesus, dying, risen, pleading;
Then welcome day! and farewell mortal night’.