John Piper’s Candidating Sermon at Bethlehem Baptist
The life of any church and any Christian can be described or summarized like this: “Paul planted and Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). This morning, I want to talk about the most important thing: God.
Prison Is No Setback
As you know, there is a city in northern Greece called Philippi. Paul, on his second missionary journey, founded a church there, a church that he came to love very, very much. It’s evident from his letter. Twelve years later, he was in jail in Rome on trial for his life. In those intervening years, this church had supported Paul in his ministry financially more than any other church. And they loved him. He was their apostle and they held him in high esteem. When they found out that he was on trial for his life, they didn’t disassociate with him to save their necks. Instead, they aligned themselves with him, and sent off Epaphroditus with more gifts to support him.
“What matters is that Christ goes on being preached.”
But Epaphroditus also brings bad news to Paul in Rome. He says to Paul that back in the church there are enemies of the cross who are threatening the faith of the believers. And they hear that Paul is in prison and on trial for his very life, and they don’t know if he is ever going to come back and help. They are very distraught. If the enemies attack at home and the apostle dies in Rome, what’s going to happen to the gospel? So, Paul writes this letter to the Philippians.
He writes to encourage them and tells them that the gospel of Christ is far too great to depend on his fate for its success. Look at what he says in Philippians 1:12–14:
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
In other words, Paul says, “Don’t fret about the gospel. Don’t worry about me. What really matters is not whether I get out of jail, or even whether I live. What matters is that Christ goes on being preached. So, keep your love straight, Philippians. Not Paul but Christ must go on being honored, and in that I rejoice.”
Let me focus on Philippians 1:19–26. That comes right after the section where Paul assures them that even though there are people out there using the gospel to rub salt into Paul’s wounds, they are unwittingly making him happy because what makes Paul happy is when Christ is preached.
For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
Paul has one main passion in life, doesn’t he? It seems clear from this text that in everything — absolutely everything he does — he is passionate that Christ might be magnified, exalted, honored, and shown to be magnificent. Now he has a very strange way of stressing this. Look at verse 20: “It is my eager expectation and hope that I might not be at all ashamed . . .”
Not Ashamed but Magnifying Christ
Shame is that horrible sense of guilt or failure when you just don’t measure up in front of the people whose approval you want very much. It’s what that little kid feels in the Christmas program when he forgets his lines, and there’s that unending time when nobody says anything. His heart is thundering so loud in his chest he thinks it’s going to explode, and the tears start rolling down his face, and the little kids in the front start to twitter brutally.
We know what shame is. It’s when the President of the United States has to admit the tapes have been found and played, and all the foul language and deceit is clear for the whole nation to hear. He stands publicly disgraced. We know what shame is.
But what’s the opposite of shame? What’s the alternative to being put to shame? It’s remembering the lines and hearing the applause. It’s governing well and getting re-elected. The opposite of being shamed is being honored, usually. But Paul was a very unusual person. Christians ought to be very unusual people. For Paul, the opposite of shame was not that I might be honored but that Christ might be honored. “It is my eager expectation and hope that I might in nothing be put to shame but with all boldness Christ might be magnified in my body.”
What you love determines what you will feel shame about. If you love for men to think highly of you, you will feel horrible shame when they don’t. If you love for men to think highly of Christ, you feel shame when they belittle him on your account.
But Paul loved Christ. He loved Christ like very few people have ever loved him. “Whatever gain I had I counted as loss. I count everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord!” (Philippians 3:8). Whenever something is of tremendous value to you, whenever you cherish something because of its uniqueness or its power or its beauty, there is an inevitable longing that you draw others’ attention to it so that they can share your high regard for it.
And that’s why Paul’s all-consuming goal in life was that people magnify Christ, because Christ was of infinite value to Paul. He wanted other people very much to appreciate and magnify Christ with him. That’s what it means to magnify Christ: to show the magnitude of his value.
Death Is No Threat
Now in a moment of weakness the Philippian church might have said, “Yes, Paul, Christ is of great value to you now. You enjoy a very intimate fellowship with him. He gives you a fruitful ministry. He rescues you from shipwreck. But Paul, there is a sword hanging over your head. There is a death sentence awaiting you. Where is the value of Christ now?” And so, Paul adds in verse 20, “My confidence is that Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death.”
Death is a threat to the degree that it frustrates our goals, our greatest goals. Death is fearful to the degree that it threatens to rob you of what you value most. But Paul valued Christ most! He looked at death and he didn’t see it as a frustration. He saw it as an occasion for the fulfillment of his highest value: that Christ might be magnified.
“What you love determines what you will feel shame about.”
Life and death: they seem like such opposites; they seem so contradictory; they seem like enemies. But in Paul’s mind there is this unity somehow, so that whether by life or by death Christ would be magnified. The greatest longing he had would be fulfilled in both. So in a sense, it was a matter of indifference to him which one the Lord would give him.
Then in verse 21 Paul gives us a very packed summary statement of how it is that he can be so confident that Christ is going to be magnified whether he lives or whether he dies. He says, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Then in verses 22–26 he unpacks this summary statement. Let’s take the two halves of verse 21 and let them be the guidelines that lead us through 22–26.
To Die Is Gain
First, “For me to die is gain.” I have wondered about Paul on his visit to Jerusalem that he tells about in Galatians, where he had about fifteen days with Peter. I wonder if Peter told Paul about that experience he had with the risen Lord recorded for us in John 21. Do you remember what Jesus did there to Peter? He asked him if he loved him, and Peter stressed that he did love him. Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” But then Jesus says to Peter, “When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would, but when you are old you are going to stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you don’t want to go.” And John adds, “This he said to show by what death he would glorify God.” (John 21:18–19)
There is no difference between glorifying God in your death and magnifying Christ in your death. I don’t doubt that later on when those two men took the right hand of fellowship and went their separate ways, one the apostle to the Jews and the other the apostle to the Gentiles, that firm handshake and the meeting of those eyes communicated one thing: “Brother, we will magnify Christ to death.” I hunger for that kind of fellowship.
But how are we going to magnify Christ in death? How can we die so that in our dying the value, the magnitude of the value of Christ will be visible? Paul’s answer is this: if you believe in your heart, if you really believe that to die is gain, you will magnify Christ in your dying.
He says in verse 23, “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” That is an amazing statement. Better? Better than all those friends at high school? Better than falling in love with Noël? Better than hugging to yourself three beautiful sons? Better than a promotion in the company? Better than a well-deserved retirement and grandchildren? Yes! Yes! Ten thousand times better as far as Paul was concerned.
And if I didn’t believe it, how could I ever aspire to the office of pastorate? Not to mention in a church where 107 people are over eighty years old, and another 171 are over the age of sixty-five? If I didn’t believe I could say to every gray-haired believer in this church that the best is yet to come, I wouldn’t bother candidating. But it’s true, and I do believe it. I don’t mean a fat pension and a luxury condominium either. I mean Christ, and you all know that.
We will magnify Christ in our dying precisely to the degree that we believe that fellowship with him in heaven is more to be preferred than any person or any thing in this earth. “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). When we come to the hour when everything will be taken from us but Christ, we will magnify him by saying, “In Christ I have everything and more!”
To Live Is Christ
But most of us now, turning to the second half of verse 21, have some years to live. Even the oldest among us have to ask the question, how shall I magnify Christ in my body this afternoon? Tonight? At my work this week? So Paul says, “To me to live is Christ.” What does he mean by that? The explanation begins in verse 22: “If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.”
“If you really believe that to die is gain, you will magnify Christ in your dying.”
That’s a strange way to explain “for to me to live is Christ.” “To me to live is Christ” is substituted by “for me to live is fruitful labor.” But he goes a step farther in verses 24–26 to explain how fruitful labor and living being Christ are almost one in the same thing. In verse 22 he said, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.” Now in verse 24, “To remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” In other words, the fruitful labor that Paul lives for is not labor merely for his sake. It is labor that is very needful for the church at Philippi.
So, the phrase, “for me to live is Christ” now becomes “For me to live is very fruitful labor for your sakes.” And then comes verse 25. He defines what the fruit is: “I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy of faith.”
Now we can see the steps in Paul’s thinking. First, “for me to live is Christ.” That is, “for me to live is to be dedicated to fruitful labor.” Then he says, “For me to be dedicated to fruitful labor is for your sake.” And then finally he defines the fruit that is to come about in their lives as the advancement and the joy of faith: “the increase of your faith and its overflow with joy.”
Faith Does the Magnifying
I wonder if it’s clear to you why it is that in Paul’s thinking “to live is Christ” is virtually the same as “to live is to be devoted to your joy of faith.” I think I can show you why those two statements are virtually synonymous. But we need a definition of faith to show that. See if you accept this one. I think it’s a New Testament definition.
Faith is the confidence or trust that we put in a person who has given us cause to think that he is reliable and is able and willing to help us in our need. If that’s a good definition of faith, I think we can find out why it is that to say, “for me to live is Christ” and “for me to live is for your joy of faith” are the same thing. Notice what that definition implies about the person trusted.
Pretend you are in downtown Minneapolis about five o’clock in the afternoon walking to the bus stop. A man runs up to you with a sack of money, shoves it into your hand and says, “Would you deposit this for me? I gotta go!” You ask, “Who are you? How do you know I can be trusted? You don’t even know me.” He says, “Oh don’t worry about things. I don’t care about that. I think you’ll do it. Go ahead, put it in the bank.” And runs off and disappears into the crowd.
Has that man paid you a compliment? I don’t think he has. He’s crazy. Foolish action never compliments anybody.
But picture this: same scene. You are walking along and a new man comes up to you. He shoves a bag of money into your hand and says, “Would you deposit that for me? I don’t have time.” And you ask, “Wait a minute, how can you trust me with this money? You don’t even know me.” He says, “I know you. You don’t know me, but I know you. I’ve watched you from a distance. I’ve seen how you do your business. I’ve watched how you handle your family. I’ve asked ten people who know you well what they think and they’ve vouched for you one hundred percent. You’ll do it.” And he’s gone.
You stand there, holding this money, with a tremendous sense of obligation, and how do you feel? Do you know how you feel? Magnified, honored — tremendously honored. Because he has trusted you on good evidence. I think that’s the way it is with Jesus.
Faith in Christ Means Joy in Christ
The sequence of thought in verse 20 goes like this: “My eager expectation and hope is that my life might magnify Christ.” Summary statement: “for me to live is Christ.” Next explanation: “for me to live is fruitful labor.” Next explanation: “my fruitful labor is the advancement and joy of your faith.”
Now you can see the arc back to verse 21. “For me to live is Christ” and “for me to live is for your faith” means this: “for me to live for your advancement of faith is to kindle in you that one attitude which alone magnifies Christ most, namely trust.” So to live for their faith and to live for Christ alone are the same thing. The only way we can live for Christ is to live by and for faith in Christ.
For me to live is Christ-magnifying faith, you might say. But that’s not all. We left out a word, the word joy in verse 25: “I will continue with you for your joy.” Now, this little phrase in most translations is “joy in faith” or “from faith.” Literally, it is “joy of faith.” I think that means for Paul that when we have faith, we will have joy. They belong together. He can no more conceive of faith without joy than he can conceive of springtime without flowers.
“I will aim to love Christ with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my strength.”
He says in Romans 15:13 as he prays for the church, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing.” In other words, believing is the means to joy. Joy comes from a confident trust in Christ and his promises. He also said to the Corinthians, describing his ministry in 2 Corinthians 1:24, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy.” He replaces one word for the other because for Paul they are virtually interchangeable. You can’t have the one without the other. Joy comes from a confident, hopeful trust in the promises of God which are “Yes” in Christ Jesus because of his death and resurrection. This is why Paul ends the text in verse 26 with a reference to “glorying in” or “boasting in Christ.”
Now when we ask finally how it is that “for me to live is Christ” and “for me to live is your joy,” it should also make sense that those are virtually the same statement. Paul has only one joy in mind here: joy in Christ, joy that comes from the bounty of Christ’s provision and his promises. If we delight in the Christ who is so bountiful, is not our joy a magnifying of Christ? When you are happy about something, you magnify that thing. So, not only faith but the fruit of faith in joy magnifies Christ tremendously.
Magnifying Christ as Pastor
Now let’s turn to some implications for this passage for our situation. I’ll apply it to myself and leave you to apply it to yourself.
Right now in my own life, I stand on the brink of a professional change. I really love my job at Bethel College. It is very rewarding. When I see students out there who are in my 1 Corinthians class, it makes me very glad.
One of the ways God has said to me, “Move Piper,” is this: when I read Philippians 1:19–26, there is in me a tremendous longing. Last October, it became an irresistible longing to be an instrument in God’s hands to fulfill these goals in a local church.
At this point in my life, I say, and I believe God is saying to me, “The potential, Piper, for magnifying me is greater now in the pastorate than in the professorship.” That’s why the move. When I become a pastor, I am going to have one all-encompassing goal, a very simple goal, that in nothing I might be ashamed but that in everything I might magnify Christ whether by life or by death. To that end, I aim at three things:
1. I will aim to love Christ with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my strength. Because when I die in the midst of my ministry and say farewell to a beloved flock and a cherished family, I want to be able to believe that it is gain. And in my dying, I want to be able to bear witness to a church that Christ is great indeed and worthy of all our trust.
2. While I live and minister, my goal is going to be to make the people glad in God. Woe to the pastor who uses his position to hammer year after year in chiseling out a hard, sour people! He has forgotten his calling. “I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your advancement and your joy of faith.”
3. Since joy comes from faith, and faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of God, it will have to be my main goal — my tremendously fulfilling and joyful goal — to feed that flock the word of God every week, week in and week out. I will pray that Jesus’s words will become fulfilled in my words. The banner of every sermon I preach will be this: “My words I have spoken to you in order that my joy might be in you and that your joy might be full” (John 15:11).