Striving for the Faith of the Gospel
Spreading the Vision
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have. (NIV)
Have you ever wondered what tales will be told in the age to come? When the Lord Jesus has come, and the judgment is past, and the kingdom is established, and all sin and misery are gone forever, and the world is new, what will we talk about when we gather around the fireplace on a cool Minnesota evening, or as we walk through the leaves by the St. Croix River that have been turned red and yellow not by the sun but by the glory of God? What tales will we tell to each other?
The Tales We Will Tell in the Age to Come
We will tell tales of the grace of God in the history of redemption. We will tell stories about God's power and mercy in the lives of his people—especially the people who dreamed and planned and labored and struggled and fought and suffered for the advancement of the gospel. We will talk with sweet tears in our eyes (I think it's only the painful tears that the Lord will wipe away) about the times when we were fearful and gave no witness to Christ, the times when we planned our dream vacations thoroughly but dreamed no dreams about attempting anything great or small for the gospel. And they will be sweet tears because we will remember how the patience of God did not forsake us in those days the way it could have at any moment, but instead little by little, now and then, more and more his patience made us love Jesus Christ so much that we began to strive for the faith of the gospel.
We will sit in our backyards by the apple trees and grape vines and yellow mums and tell a thousand tales of how God made us willing to venture something for the advancement of the gospel. And you can mark it down with almost complete certainty that the Bork hearings will be all but forgotten, and the NFL strike will be totally forgotten, but the power and grace of God that moved you to tell the gospel to an unbeliever and pray for their conversion will be told in the kingdom forever and ever. And the grip of God's mercy that made you run your business and do your job for the glory of Jesus Christ will be sung in the backyard ballads of the age to come.
And I would even go so far to say that when we visit Pizza Hut in the new heavens and the new earth, the four televisions will not be showing decadent soaps or ludicrous all-star wrestling. They will be showing clips from the appendices of the book of life where God has recorded all your works of faith and labors of love.
The Biblical Evidence for This Picture of the Future
The biblical evidence for all this is the glimpse we get in the book of Revelation into the future of God's people. It says,
And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and wonderful are thy deeds, O Lord God the Almighty!
So the ballads of the new earth will be about the exploits of Moses and Jesus . . . and surely all the other saints—like you and me. Surely none of God's work will be forgotten.
And you can be sure that the history books in the kingdom of God will tell a different story than the ones we read today. The great people will not be mainly politicians but missionaries, and the weapons will not be guns but the gospel, and the main institution will not be government but the church, and the anecdotes that give it all the color and smell of real life will be the stories of your faith and my faith, and how one night you dreamed up a way to share the gospel and had the courage and endurance to see it through.
One time a woman came to Jesus in Bethany and poured some costly ointment on his head—such a simple, obscure, loving act; and he said, "Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her" (Mark 14:3–9).
And if Jesus means for such a story to be told around the world, then in the age to come when time is no constraint, and memory doesn't fail, will not your story be told just like hers? Indeed it will. And the most thrilling tales of all will be the stories of how the gospel spread and conquered unbelief through unlikely people like us.
Spreading the Vision to Those Who Don't See It
The third reason that we exist as a church is to spread the vision of God to those who don't yet see it and savor it.
Bethlehem, we have said, is a vision of God, and we exist
- to savor that vision in worship,
- to strengthen the vision in nurture, and
- to spread the vision in evangelism and missions.
Today we focus on the third priority—the commitment to spread the vision of God to those in this city and around the world whose eyes have never seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Our text is Philippians 1:27–30. The point of the text is how to live worthily of the gospel. Verse 27: "Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ." But before we look at how the text tells us to live worthily of the gospel, I want to show you how the gospel relates to a vision of God. We exist to savor, strengthen, and spread a vision of God. What then does that have to do with the gospel?
How Does Spreading the Gospel Relate?
Is the spreading of the gospel the same as the spreading of a vision of God? Let's look at 2 Corinthians 4. Paul admits that his gospel is veiled to some people. They are blinded in their unbelief by the god of this age, namely, Satan (verses 3–4). But in verses 4 and 6 Paul describes the gospel in terms of a vision of God.
The Glory of Christ and the Glory of God
In verse 4 near the end he refers to the "light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness [or: image] of God." It is the gospel of the glory of Christ, the image of God. So the gospel is a vision of the glory of Christ—which is the very glory of God.
Now compare this to verse 6 near the end. There is a phrase almost the same. Here Paul refers to the "light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ." Notice the changes between verses 4 and 6.
Verse 4 refers to the glory of Christ who is the image of God, and verse 6 refers to the glory of God in the face of Christ. There is not much difference. When we talk of the vision of God in the gospel, we can speak of the glory of Christ (as in verse 4) and then relate that to God by saying he is the very image of God, so that his glory is the also the glory of God. Or we can speak of the glory of God (as in verse 6) and then relate that to Christ by saying that it is in the face of Christ, so that the glory of God is in fact the glory of Christ.
The Vision of God in the Gospel
So what is the vision of God in the gospel? It is the portrayal of Jesus Christ as the radiance of the glory of God, so that his person and his work have infinite value.
Or (following verse 6) we can say it another way: the vision of God in the gospel is the portrayal of the glory of God, shining forth in the face of Jesus Christ. To use the words of John in his gospel (1:14): "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father."
So I come back to Philippians 1:27, and when I read, "Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel," I see in the gospel a vision of God. Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel, that is, let it be worthy of the glory of Christ who is the image of God. Let your manner of life be worthy of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
When we hear in the gospel that Jesus Christ died to save sinners and rose to conquer death, what we must see and believe is a vision of God—Christ coming to serve is a vision of God, Christ crucified is a vision of God, Christ risen and reigning is a vision of God. And becoming a Christian is what happens when the light of this vision shines overpoweringly into the heart of a sinner and outclasses all other treasures.
How to Live Worthily of the Gospel
Now we are ready to see how Paul describes the way to live worthily of this Gospel. Verses 27–28a:
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.
In that sentence Paul tells us three marks of living worthily of the gospel:
- Verse 27: standing firm in one spirit, "Let you manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that . . . I may hear you stand firm in one spirit . . . "
- Verse 27 (the next phrase): striving for the faith of the gospel, " . . . with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel . . . "
- Verse 28: fearlessness in the presence of the enemies, " . . . not frightened in anything by your opponents . . . "
How could we put these three marks of living worthily of the gospel into a unified statement? I would say: we are living worthy of the gospel when we are striving for the faith of the gospel with fearlessness and unity. Or: the mark of living worthily of the gospel is a unified, fearless striving for the faith of the gospel.
Our Own Faith in the Gospel Not in View
It is possible that the striving for the faith of the gospel refers to the zeal and vigilance that we should show to strengthen and preserve our own faith. But I doubt that is what Paul has in mind. I think he has in mind the sorts of efforts we make to spread the faith of the gospel.
The reason I think that is because in verse 28 he speaks of the need to be fearless before our opponents. In other words the situation he has in mind is something public—some effort for the gospel that meets with opposition. And in 2:15 he refers to them as shining as lights in the world, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.
So what Paul is saying is that in order to live lives worthy of the gospel there must be a unified fearless striving for the faith of the gospel—an effort in some way to see the gospel spread and win more and more faith in the world of unbelief.
"Striving" for the Faith of the Gospel
The word Paul uses for "strive" is sunathleo. You can hear the word athleo in there, from which we get our word athlete. It's the word used in 2 Timothy 2:5 where Paul says, "An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules." It's also used in Philippians 4:3 where Paul tries to get Euodia and Syntyche to be reconciled with each other after their dispute, "I ask you, true yokefellow, help these women, for they have labored side by side with me [that's the same word] in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life."
So in its three uses the word is translated "strive," "labor," and "compete." It has in it the effort and discipline and endurance of athletic endeavor. Which I take to mean, then, that one essential way to walk worthy of the gospel is fix your eyes on the goal of spreading the faith of the gospel, and then apply the effort and discipline and endurance of an athlete to reaching that goal.
All Other Living Slights the Gospel
And when Paul says that this is the kind of life that is worthy of the gospel, he means that any other kind of life would slight the gospel. Not striving to spread the faith of the gospel is to treat the gospel as cheap. If the gospel is a vision of the glory of Christ without which no one can be saved, it is the most precious thing anyone can know. To live worthily of the gospel, we simply must become, as it were, athletes—men athletes and women athletes, eighty-year-old athletes and eight year old athletes.
None of us will be measured in our athletic prowess against the decathlon powers of an apostle Paul or William Carey or John Wesley. We will be measured against what we could have done, not by what someone else could have done. And we all can do something, if we love the gospel of the glory of Christ.
But do we love to see the glory of Christ exalted when the gospel is believed? Or are we more interested in whether the Twins win the pennant? Does this relatively minor and insignificant sports event make us want to wave a banner more with more athletic vigor than the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the very image of the omnipotent God?
The Gospel Is Worthy of Acceptance by All
When we live worthily of the gospel, we talk the way Gil Zinke talks about going to Japan. He grew up in Japan, went to the University of Wisconsin and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and now is under appointment with his wife Norene with the BGC to go to Japan. He wrote in a recent Conference publication,
I'm motivated not so much by the need (which is dire), but by the conviction that God is worthy of the worship of every Japanese; Christ is worthy to receive the full reward of His suffering; the Holy Spirit is sovereign enough to use even me in drawing people to God; and the Gospel is worthy of acceptance by all.
That last phrase is a great phrase in the history of missions. Andrew Fuller wrote a book in the 1780's that inspired William Carey to strive for the faith of the gospel. It was called Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation.
Savoring and Spreading the Vision of God's Glory
Therefore we exist as a church not just to savor the vision of the glory of God in the face of Christ, and not just to instill and deepen and clarify that vision, but to spread that vision. O that we could come under the judgment of the city fathers the way the apostles did in Acts 5:28, "We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching." Could it not be said of us, "They have filled Minneapolis with their teaching!"?
Your striving for the faith of the gospel will not be exactly like any one else's. Don't be paralyzed in your imagination by comparing yourself with others. Dream your own dream. God wills for you to strive for the faith of the gospel—to do something with effort and discipline and endurance to promote the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.
The Possibilities Are Limitless
It may be that you will write letters, or practice hospitality in your neighborhood, or share books that you are reading, or visit nursing homes or prisons or hospitals. The staff and apprentices spoke last Monday about the increasing number of AIDS patients—a whole floor set aside at the University Hospital. Is the gospel "worthy of all acceptation" there? Will the church shine like the stars in the midst of a selfish and fearful generation, the way some Christians did in the 1340's when the Bubonic Plague wiped out one third of the population of Europe?
Or perhaps you will strive for the faith of the gospel by weaving your way into the PTA or neighborhood action groups. Maybe you will invite a young mother to come with you to M.O.M.S. this Tuesday morning at 9:15, or a young father to come to P.O.P.S. this Tuesday evening at 7:00 when David Livingston talks about raising four girls. Or maybe you will bring some neighborhood kids to clubs on Wednesday evening and try to get their parents.
Or if you are good with a tool and brush, going with the teams on Nehemiah's day in neighborhood. Or just getting yourself trained for ordinary daily evangelism by attending the Sunday School class on Ordinary Evangelism taught by Mark Janke (one of our apprentices under appointment with his wife Brenda as missionaries to West Germany) beginning next Sunday morning at 11:15 in the fellowship hall.
Or maybe you should talk to Steve Roy about how you can help reach out to visitors that come to Bethlehem, or talk to Peter and Cheryl Nelson about how to get involved with international students, or talk to Cole Grace about handing out leaflets at a gathering of Hindus in St. Paul, or talk to Brad Soukup or Randal Vanmeter or Oscar Huerta about the evangelism team.
The possibilities are limitless. Dream your own dream. God will honor any little baby step you take to strive for the faith of the gospel.
An Introduction to Our Newest Spreading Tool
I close by introducing to you one of our newest means of spreading the vision. The key workman behind it has been Peter Nelson who served full-time with us last year. It is an introductory packet to the life and ministry of Bethlehem. Beginning next Sunday we will welcome our visitors by giving them a packet during the welcome to worship.
But today as you leave the service there will be one available to each person or family. Our goal with this material is twofold:
- to put into the hands of newcomers something that will answer most of their questions about the faith and life of our church;
- to give you an attractive means of inviting others to Bethlehem
and sharing with them what we stand for and what we do.
I would like to close by praying with you that God would take this and all the other possibilities that exist and fill us with a desire to use them as we strive for the faith of the gospel.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2013 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org