The tragedy at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX took everyone by surprise, causing grief, sadness and a lot of questions to flood our souls. But maybe the biggest question for Christians is: Where was God in Sutherland Springs?
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These are trying times in the lives of the people of Ottawa, Canada and the world. We’ve experienced something here in Canada that we are not used to – an attack on our own parliament buildings. Canadians across the country were glued to their TVs and computers as they watched downtown Ottawa turn chaotic and swarm with RCMP and city police.
The loss of the soldiers in Montreal and guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are not the first Canadian soldiers we have lost, but the way we lost them shakes many of us deeply. We’re read words like “homegrown terrorist” in the news and it causes our heart to ache and our heads to spin. “How can this happen here?”, we ask ourselves.
One overwhelming emotion I’ve seen on the news coverage is anger. People were angry that this happened here in Canada. Steven Harper, on the Thursday night after the shooting, said:
“In the past couple of decades, we see across the world, increasing places where the planet is descending into savagery.”
Canadians are angry that the savagery, cynicism, paranoia and fear that others feel around the world has come to us. We’re supposed to be the exception– but now, somehow, we’re not. And that hurts us on a deep level.
We like having an open parliament building where everyone can visit. We like that our Prime Minister can go to hockey games without needing to alter commuter traffic for an entire city. We love sewing the Canadian flag on our backpack and knowing we will accepted everywhere with open arms. The idea that someone could hate us so much that they could cause this kind of confusion and panic makes us angry, sad, and bewildered.
And then we open our scriptures to Philippians 4:1-9:
“Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.
I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Andthe peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Some words I didn’t hear as I watched the news yesterday were words like “rejoice” or “thanksgiving” or “the peace of God”. But the passage that we just read tells us that we are to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” It says, “do not be anxious about anything”. It says we should be thankful for “everything”. It says that we are to think of things that are “honourable”, “pure”, “lovely”… but what was “honourable” about a madman with a gun running up the halls of the parliament buildings? What is “lovely” about watching emergency responders perform CPR on a dying soldier? Where is the “God of peace” that is supposed to be “with” us this week?
Can this passage really speak to what we are feeling and experiencing today? I believe it can if we take some time to see what God is saying.
Background on Paul
Let’s start with some background. The Apostle Paul is writing as he us under house arrest in Rome, probably chained to an armed, Roman guard, awaiting his trial before Ceasar. He had gone through a lot to get to this point. In Jerusalem he had been tried before the Jewish Sanhedrin, men who were once his allies and friends, now his most bitter enemies. They had plotted to kill him, but he escaped and was transferred to Caesarea where he was accused of all manner of things before the Roman Governor Felix.
Felix couldn’t care less and stuck him in jail for two years hoping that Paul would bribe him to go free. Felix was replaced by Festus who had Paul dragged back to Jerusalem to hear all the accusations again. Then Paul had to stand before King Agrippa and hear it all again.
Over and over the great missionary, had his name dragged through the mud and was prevented from going anywhere. The frustration must have been immense. But his troubles weren’t done yet. Now Paul would be sent to Rome to stand before the highest court in the land – Caesar himself, Emperor Nero
To get there Paul would be sent by ship, bound as a prisoner. It took forever to get there. Stop after stop, with terrible weather, and an even worse crew. Paul tried to warn them, but the foolish sailors steered the ship into a hurricane which bashed the ship nearly to pieces and made them throw all their cargo overboard. Almost 300 people lost in the middle of the Mediterranean, beaten for days, hungry and lacking sleep. Then, after two weeks on one dark night, they had to anchor themselves so they wouldn’t get utterly destroyed by the approaching rocks. Even then the soldiers had to stop their sailors from trying to escape by stealing all the life-boats.
In the morning they ran the ship aground so they could get safely to shore. But even then Paul’s troubles weren’t over. Now the soldiers wanted to kill all the prisoners so they didn’t get away – including Paul. By God’s grace, the centurion stop them. Then they started a fire to get warm and as Paul was getting some wood he was bit by a poisonous snake. That’s rough day.
They waited three more months on the island where they were shipwrecked before they could set off to Rome. And when he finally did, he was still under arrest, still chained to a Roman guard, still a prisoner. And he was there for two full years. It was from Rome that he sat down to write letters to some of the churches he had planted during his trips.
Background on the Church in Philippi
One of the first churches he wrote to were the Philippians. This was one of Paul’s favourite churches and it really shows in his letter to them. He writes a glowing introduction, commending them for their faithfulness, generosity, and overwhelming love for him and his mission. He knows they are sick with worry, because by then, the story of all that had happened had reached them. And so he writes to his friends to tell them how he is.
Actually, the description of the Philippian church reminds of a description of Canada, even Ottawa. It was a strategic city in the Roman empire full of many different kinds of people. They had very generous rights and privileges that others in the world didn’t have. They had good schools, thriving commercial centers and were a leading city in the area. They had gold and silver mines and a thriving arts culture. They were proud to be Philippians and proud to be Romans – just as we are proud to be Canadians.
Paul’s usual first stop, when he came to a new city, was the local synagogue – but Philippi didn’t have one because there were too few Jews. But he met a group of women lead by a woman named Lydia who has a successful business and large home. After some trouble with the local magistrates, who had Paul and Silas stripped, flogged and imprisoned – which lead to the miraculous conversion of the Jailer and his whole family – Paul plants a church at Lydia’s house in Philippi.
That church was a lot like our churches in Ottawa. Wealthy compared to most, full of gentiles, surrounded by a very religious but pagan culture, empowering of women, diverse in ethnicity and beliefs. Paul could very well have been writing this letter to us.
Trouble is Coming
But Paul isn’t just writing to thank this church, but to warn them. The suffering that he was enduring in Rome, and had endured in his ministry, was going to be coming to them very soon – if it hadn’t already.
He had heard from Epaphroditus who was sent by the Philippians to bring money and supplies for his long imprisonment, that there were some issues cropping up in and around the church. Paul may have been going through some frustrations – like not being sure if he would live or die at any given moment –but his concern wasn’t for himself, it was for church he had left behind.
We read in 1:28 that Paul tells them to not be “frightened in anything by your opponents.” And then in in 1:29, he tells them to expect it to get worse. He says, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.” There was the opposition against this church, and it was growing.
There were cunning and deceptive false teachers who preached a health-and-wealth gospel, or salvation by works, and had infiltrated the churches, and were undermining Paul’s teaching and badmouthing him while he was away. You can feel Paul’s anger at them in chapter three.
Then there were the non-believers in Philippi were also coming against the church. Paul had experienced them first hand when he was arrested and beaten for healing a demon-possessed girl. And Paul knew that the church would be experiencing far worse.
There was also the Roman Empire, now headed by Emperor Nero, famous for his hatred of Christians – and who, in only two years from the writing of this letter, would blame the burning of Rome on the followers of Christ, starting a terrible wave of intense persecution.
And then because of this internal and external pressure, the church was starting to fracture. Factions and divisions were forming within the congregation. Paul encouraged them in Chapter 2 to be like Jesus in their humility and service for one another, and to stop complaining – presumably because rivalries and selfish ambition was starting to take hold among the leaders.
They are Like Us
I think that what Paul and the Philippian church was going through, may be similar to what many of us may are feeling here today. We love Jesus, we love His church, we love His Word, we love Canada and living in peace. But that peace was shattered, and it reminded us of a lot of other bad things that are happening around us.
Just as Paul’s missionary work was fraught with danger, and the church at Philippi was facing persecution that was only getting worse, so we feel the danger of uncertainty and evil pressing in on our borders – and now inside them. And it makes us anxious.
Just as Paul was repeatedly frustrated as he tried to spread the gospel, and the church in Philippi sensed their own city turning against them, so we feel the frustration of trying to bring God’s message to a city and nation that opposes our message and is closing its ears, hearts and doors to the Gospel. We know the anguish that Paul felt as he watched false teachers rise up and spread lies to young believers. And some of us even know the pain of being slandered by our own brothers and sisters, and the anguish of watching a once united church split apart.
Paul, and the Philippians, are not so different from us.
This section of scripture that we are looking at today, is written with deep love and concern from pastor to his church. He’s under arrest, far away, and knows that his friends are facing many difficult things, and are on the brink of even more troubled times…
And so, in light of all he has lived through, all he has said in his letters, all that he knows about Jesus and the Gospel, and what he sees coming in their future – he writes some important things to help them. Remember, he doesn’t know if this will be his last letter or not. He could die tomorrow. And so these last words of this letter to his friends, are of extreme importance. They are not fluffy, religiosity, but are instructions on how this church can stand firm as believers during times of trial.
There is much that can be said about this passage, but I think we can boil it down to three main points:
1. Attend to Each Other
Pauls’ first encouragement is to attend to each other. Be united and stay united. Look at verses 1-3 and remember the pressures this church is facing. Persecution from worldly and spiritual forces, false teachers and factions within. Everything is conspiring to tear this church to pieces. And so the first thing Paul addresses is the unity in the church.
In verse one he calls them “my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown” to assure them that what he is about to say is said in love – not the anger which he had for the false teachers just a few sentences ago, but with love. He reminds them they are a family. He tells them to “stand firm thus in the Lord”, reminding them that they are bound together not only as family, but also by faith in Jesus Christ. And he calls them “my beloved” (translated in the NIV as “my friends”) to remind them that they are not only brothers in Christ, not only sharing the same faith, but also friends who care for one another.
But the family, the faith, and the friendship, was threatened by two influential women in the church who were fighting with one another. It was more than a simple disagreement. This was serious and it was threatening the church; just as all stubbornness, selfishness, and pride threatens the church. These weren’t non-believers, or even new believers. Euodia and Syntyche were long-standing Christian women of good reputation who had worked directly with Paul to spread the gospel. But now there was something between them.
We don’t know what they were arguing about. It could have been doctrine, or mission work, how the money was handled, how a ministry was to be done, or what color the church should be painted. We just don’t know – but it had grown beyond a disagreement into a full-blown division. A wall had been erected between these two women and likely a bunch of others who were choosing sides.
But notice this, Paul doesn’t only address the women. He doesn’t say, “Get over it and get along.” No. He addresses the people who were at the centre of the issue, and then he addresses someone else. Look at verse 2-3, “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women…”
To the women he says, “I beg you, I plead with you, I implore you, to work this out. For the sake of one another. For the sake of the church. Find agreement. Submit to the Lord.” And then he turns to address someone else: the “true companion”.
Much ink has been spilled about this person. It could be Timothy or Silas, or it could be simply that the word “companion” should be translated as the name Syzygus. Whatever the case, the whole point is that Paul wanted someone else to have the courage to step in and help these two figure this out. They needed someone who would come and be a peacemaker.
So our application is simple. As Jesus said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” (Mark 3:25) A church must work hard at staying united.
Unity is hard work. It requires humility, compromise, and the phrase we read over and over in the New Testament – to “bear with” one another (Rom 15:1. Eph 4:2; Col 3:13). But what is the other choice? To divide into factions, to split up the body of Christ, to hold onto bitterness and frustration and anger, to allow our brothers, sisters and friends to fall away from the fellowship and the faith, and to teach our children that the Christ’s church is full of arguing, bitterness and pride?
No, we must stand firm in the Lord, as family, and friends, and we must have the courage to help each other to remain united. This isn’t the only church struggling with this. In Hebrews 10:25 we read the preacher imploring the church to stay together, to “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”
Satan’s trying to break us up so we are weak, bitter and alone. We are much stronger when we stick together.
2. Attend to Our Hearts
The second exhortation from Paul is about attending to our own hearts. Look at the words that are used in verse 4-7. “Rejoice” is there twice. The word “reasonableness” can also be translated “gentleness”. Paul speaks of anxiety, thankfulness, and peace. These are all feelings. He’s saying, be careful to pay attention to our attitudes.
He doesn’t tell us to live in denial and paste a smile on our face. That would be foolish. He knows things are rough and are going to get worse. He’s lived it. And yet he says, “Rejoice!”, “do not be anxious”, and to be full of “Thanksgiving”. How can he say that?
Well, notice that every one of those heart-words is attached to our relationship with Jesus. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Be “reasonable” because “the Lord is at hand.” “Do not be anxious” because God is listening to your prayers and knows your needs.
Our heart attitude is directly connected to the consistency of our relationship with God. If we are far from Him, not reading scripture, not among His people, not singing songs to Him, not bringing our needs to Him in prayer – then we will not be able to rejoice, we will become unreasonable and inconsiderate. We will see more problems, our faith will wither, and we will not be thankful.
Look at verse 7. How do we “guard our hearts and our minds”? When the world is crashing around us, enemies are at our borders, we feel anxious, afraid and alone – how do we guard ourselves from being overwhelmed by fear and sadness? We press in closer to Jesus.
Who’s peace is it that “passes all understanding”? God’s. Who will “guard our hearts and minds”? Christ Jesus. It’s not us. We don’t need to find our own “peace” – that’s an external gift, not one we generate ourselves. We don’t guard our hearts. Jesus does.
And so Paul says, “When the heat is on and troubles start to come… Rejoice because Jesus knows what He’s doing.
Be reasonable and gentle and kind (don’t allow your anxiety to be an excuse to hurt others) – because Jesus is “at hand”. He’s there. He’s present. He’s with you. He will help.
“Do not be anxious” – because Jesus standing before the Heavenly Father from whom all good things come, who causes the rain to fall and who holds the world in His hands – and Jesus is talking to God about you. He is your advocate, your friend, and your Saviour. And therefore you can be thankful because even your present sufferings are known to God and He will use them all for His glory, your good and the good of His church.”
We are implored by scripture, to never forget to attend out our hearts by pressing in, ever-closer, to Jesus.
3. Attend to Our Minds
The final exhortation Paul gives – at least in the section we’re studying today – moves from the heart to the mind. He says in verse 8,
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
This is not a life of denial. This is not a burying of our heads in the sand. This is not avoiding talking about and dealing with difficult issues. This is not cowering in fear. This is not avoiding the world. This is about allowing the Holy Spirit to dominate our thoughts.
Our thinking determines how we live. 35 times in the epistles we are reminded of what “we know”.
- “We know that suffering produces perseverance…” (Romans 5:3).
- “We know that our old self was crucified with [Christ]…” (Rom 5:5)
- “We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus…” (2 Cor 4:14)
- “We know, brothers and sisters, loved by God, that he has chosen you…” (1 Thess 1:4)
- “We know him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’…” (Heb 10:30)
And so Paul reminds us that we need to be sure to attend to our minds – what we know – during difficult times.
It’s so easy to sit in front of the TV or the computer and fill our minds with gossip, lies, anxiety, and anger. To allow ourselves to be enveloped by the drama that is all over our Facebook feed. It’s easy to get swept up in the 24hr news cycle that keeps us on the edge of our seats, pushing fear and panic on us, reminding us moment by moment of the danger we are in and how uncertain things are.
It’s also easy for us to throw all that aside and live in the world of fantasy. Turn on Netflix and mainline every episode of Sherlock or Futurama, or turn on the Xbox, the PS4, or Steam, or grab our iPhone, and make the world go away for hours at a time.
But look at what Paul says in verse 9, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” He seems to say, “Don’t let the world tell you what to think. Don’t give up your thinking to others. Don’t give up and try not thinking about anything. Remember, you have learned things from scripture and from good teachers – be diligent in doing these things you’ve learned. You have received things from God and from your family and friends – use those things you have received to steady your thought life and ready your mind. You have heard things and seen things in the Apostles, and the mature around you – watch them, listen to them, and then go out and ‘practice these things.’ Be active in practicing good thinking.”
To the Corinthians Paul wrote,
“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” (2 Cor 10:5)
Why? Because as you do that, “the God of peace will be with you.”
God says in his word to keep your mind on things you know are “true” – because then you won’t fall for lies.
Keep your mind on things that are “honorable” and you will find your bravery and strength.
Keep your mind on that which is “just” and it will help keep you from unrighteous thoughts.
Keep your mind on things that are “pure” so that you will be a good vessel for the Holy Spirit to fill.
Be mindful that though you feel you are surrounded by only fear and dread, in truth, there is a “lovely” world that reflects the glory of God and reminds you of His goodness.
Listen to your family and friends who are pointing you to things that are “commendable”.
Remember that there are many “excellent” things that are “worthy of praise” that can turn your heart to Jesus.
As you fill your minds with those things you will have the mind of Christ, and then you will have peace.
As we do these things, as we practice them, as we work together in unity and guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus – we will know, and feel, and share with others, “the peace of God which passes all understanding”. Even – and maybe especially – in troubled and uncertain times.