The Safest Soul in All the World

Rejoicing in the Risen Christ

Cities Church | Saint Paul

The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!

Whatever the origins of our English word Easter — and they are apparently too ancient and complicated to trace with certainty, even for Encyclopedia Britannica — Easter has come to function for us today as a two-syllable designation for “Resurrection Sunday.” That’s a good abbreviation: six syllables down to two.

Easter is the highest day in the church calendar, the one Sunday that we specially celebrate the reality that we seek to live in light of every day of the year: Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who lived on earth in full humanity, and died on the cross on Good Friday, rose again bodily on Sunday morning.

And this Easter, we find ourselves at the halfway point of Philippians. In meditating on these verses, with Easter in view, I’ve paused over this word safe in verse 1. What does Paul mean that his “writ[ing] the same things . . . is safe”?

Appeal to Safety

As I was pondering Easter safety this week, I started seeing the word everywhere. Apparently, we are a people very conscious of safety, and very interested in safety, and we perhaps hardly realize how much. In the news just this week was more of the Boeing “safety crisis.” And I saw headlines that read,

  • “Eclipse safety: NYS task force has been working since 2022 to prepare for April 8”
  • “Senators say Meta’s Zuckerberg is slow-walking child safety inquiries”

And I found appeals to safety in my own inbox:

  • The city of Minneapolis directed me to get an HVAC “safety check” as part of a home inspection.
  • I saw a message from SportsEngine with this call to action: “Keep your athlete safe.”
  • And I received unwanted marketing emails that offered the option to “Safely Unsubscribe” (in small print at the bottom, if you can find it).

Some of our constant pursuit of safety is, of course, shallow and misguided and overly fearful. Our modern lives can be filled with petty and disordered desires for safety. And at the same time, there are wise, holy, reasonable desires for safety. That’s what Paul appeals to in verse 1:

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

Easter Joy

Before we focus on “Easter safety,” which will be our theme this morning, let me first say something about “Finally” at the beginning of verse 1. I know there’s a preacher joke here. “Just like a preacher! Paul says ‘Finally’ when he’s only halfway done!”

However, this “finally” is actually a loose connecting phrase that can mean “finally” in some contexts, but in others, it can be “so then” or “in addition” or “above all.” The key here is that Paul just mentioned joy and rejoicing in 2:28–29. And before then, he mentioned gladness and rejoicing, twice each, in 2:17–18. And before that, he made a double mention of his own rejoicing in 1:18. Have you noticed how often Paul not only talks about joy in Philippians, but does it in pairs? We’ll see it again in 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” It’s like he just can’t say it enough. To say it just once doesn’t seem to do it. He needs to say it again.

And Paul is aware of how often he’s talking about rejoicing, and doing so in pairs, and so after saying “rejoice in the Lord” in 3:1, he adds a little bit of a defense for it. He wants his readers to know he’s aware he might sound like a broken record, but he means it, in the best of ways. He’s not being lazy or simpleminded. He doesn’t want to bore them, but to help them, to make them safe. He overcomes whatever dislike or distaste he might have for obvious repetition, and says, “To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.”

It’s safe to keep saying, “Rejoice in the Lord.” It’s for your good. You can’t overdo rejoicing in the Lord. Now, you can underdo all sorts of other things while rejoicing in the Lord. You can underdo sorrow and grieving. You can underdo seriousness. And you can overdo all those. You can overdo all sorts of good things. But joy in Christ, rightly understood, truly experienced, you cannot overdo. You cannot overdo rejoicing in Jesus.

Three Safeties

Our question this morning on Easter is, Safe from what? What does Easter joy — the double joy, the repeated joy, the great joy of the resurrection of Jesus, which is the beating heart of the joy of Christianity — what does joy in the risen Christ give safety from and how?

I see three threats in these verses, and so three safeties for us in the Easter joy of rejoicing in the risen Christ.

1. Easter joy gives us safety from foes.

To be clear, foes, or opponents (1:28), in and of themselves, are the least concern of these three threats. They’re still real, but the least troubling on their own. So, Paul says in verse 2,

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.

So, who are these “dogs” nipping at the Philippians’ heels?

“You cannot overdo rejoicing in Jesus.”

My family and good friends will tell you I’m not a dog person. I recognize that many of you are dog people. I can respect that — to a degree. Sometimes when dogs come up, I like to say, with a smile, Well, you know what the Bible says about dogs, don’t you?

Let’s just say the picture is very negative — but it does have a twist. Dogs were the scum of ancient cities. They were unclean and nasty, like we think of rats today. Dogs would devour dead flesh and lick up spilled blood. And perhaps related to this, the Jews came to associate Gentiles (non-Jews) with dogs. Gentiles were unclean, according to the old covenant; they were outsiders. You may recall Jesus’s interaction with the Canaanite (Gentile) woman in Matthew 15 (and Mark 7), where he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. . . . It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” — the Gentiles (Matthew 15:24, 26).

For Paul, there is an insightful irony in calling these foes “dogs,” because they presume that they are the insiders, and that Gentiles, like the Philippians and us, are the outsiders. We’re the dogs, unclean and unsafe, they think — unless we add old-covenant law-keeping (marked by circumcision) to faith in Jesus.

We call these opponents “Judaizers.” They tried to Judaize Christianity; they tried to put Christ-believing Gentiles back under old-covenant Judaism, rather than letting them just be Gentile Christians in the new covenant without the baggage of the previous era. These Judaizers went around telling Gentile Christians that, essentially, they needed to become Jews physically in order to be truly saved, and safe.

And these Judaizers often dogged Paul’s ministry. They followed him around. After he’d bring the gospel to Gentiles, and move on to the next town, they’d sweep in and try to get new Gentile Christians to think they needed to add Judaism to their faith.

So, when Paul calls them “dogs,” he’s not aiming to insult them but to use instructive irony for the sake of his readers. He’s turning the tables to make the point that believing Gentiles are actually the true Jews (spiritually), and these Judaizers have become the new Gentiles, the outsiders, the dogs. Now Christ has come, and been raised, and inaugurated a new covenant. With Easter Sunday, old is gone; behold, new has come.

And these Judaizing foes might think of themselves as doing good works, according to the old covenant, but in fact they are “evil workers.” In trying to circumcise Gentile flesh in obedience to the old covenant, they are, in fact, mutilators of the flesh. They have missed how Good Friday and Easter have remade the world.

So, how does Easter joy, rejoicing in the risen Christ, make us safe from such foes — these and a thousand others? Specifically, rejoicing in the real Jesus fortifies our souls against trying to add anything to the grounds of our rejoicing. In rejoicing in him — in who he is, in what he accomplished for us at the cross, in his rising back to life, and in that he is alive today and our living Lord on the throne of the universe — we come to know a fullness of joy that will not be flanked or supplemented by anything else. Being satisfied in the risen Christ keeps us from being deceived by other shallow appeals to joy, and keeps us from temptations to try to add to him.

Rejoicing in Jesus is practical. Are you seeking to rejoice in him? Do you aim at this, and pray for this? When you open the Bible, when you pray, when you gather with fellow Christians, and when we come to worship together on Sunday mornings, and when you go to work, and when you live the rest of life, are you seeking to rejoice, to be satisfied, to be happy in the risen Christ?

So, Easter joy gives us safety from foes.

2. Easter joy gives us safety from our own flesh.

This is a greater concern — the danger of self-ruin, the threat of our own sinful hearts, various habits and patterns that would lead us to trust in ourselves for salvation. Or, we might say, the way that foes are a real threat to our souls is through our own sin. Foes harm us by deception. Then, being deceived, we move to trust in ourselves. Verse 3:

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

Remember from verse 2 that these Judaizing foes — who claim to be God’s true people, his Israel, the circumcision — they are actually the dogs, the new Gentile outsiders. Because, Paul says, in verse 3, with emphasis, we are the circumcision. We Christians, both Jews like Paul and Gentiles like the Philippians, who — and this is such an important “who” with the sequence that follows.

Here we get to the heart of the Christian life, which is the human heart. Oh, get this clear on Easter Sunday. Get this heart. Get what it means to be God’s new-covenant people. Circumcision of the flesh is not what makes and defines us. Human deeds and efforts and abilities do not make us and define us. Rather, what circumcision of the flesh had been pointing to all along is circumcision of the heart. That is, a new heart, new desires. A born-again soul. New creation in you. God opens the eyes of your soul to the wonder of his risen Son. He changes your heart to marvel at Jesus and rejoice in him. So, here in verse 3, we get three marks of what it means to really be a Christian.

One, we “worship [live, walk, serve] by the Spirit of God.” That is, God has put his own Spirit in us. He dwells in us. We have the Holy Spirit. Can you believe that? If you are in Christ, you have the Holy Spirit. God himself, in his Spirit, somehow “dwells in” you. We saw it in 2:13: “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” What power against sin! What power to rejoice in the risen Christ! What power for taking the initiative to love and serve others and gladly do what Christ calls us to do.

The risen Christ has poured out his Spirit, and ushered in a new era of history following Easter. Now, God’s people are no longer under the tutelage of the old-covenant law, but have his own Spirit at work in us. We do not worship and live in the old era but in the new, with God’s own Spirit dwelling in us.

And so, two, we “glory in Christ Jesus.” Which is more joy language, but elevated. “Glory” is literally “boast” — we boast in Christ Jesus. “Boasting” is tricky in English because it has negative connotations. So, the ESV translates it “glory” (as in 1:26). What makes boasting, or glorying, good or bad is its object. And so we boast, The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!

True Christians are those who glory in Christ Jesus as the sole grounds of our full acceptance with God. So, when someone asks, How do I get right with God? Or, How can I be truly safe — not in the little trivialities of this life but forever? We boast in Christ. “On my own, I’m ruined. But I glory in the risen Christ. I boast in the one who died for me and rose again. He is worthy. I glory in him!”

So, “boasting” or “glorying” is stronger language for the rejoicing of verse 1. This is Easter joy. This is double joy. This is joy intensified, joy magnified, joy heightened, joy expanded, joy enriched, joy elevated, joy resurrected.

Which means, third, by contrast, Christians are people who “put no confidence in the flesh.” We boast in the risen Christ, not self, for ultimate safety. And if you wonder what “flesh” means here, Paul will make it clear in verses 4–6, as we’ll see next week. In sum: putting “no confidence in the flesh” means not trusting in ourselves or any mere human effort or energy to get and keep us right with God. Not any privilege of our birth, nor any natural ability, nor hard work, nor achievement, nor human wisdom — nothing in us or related to us, whether who we are or what we’ve done. Rather, we glory in Jesus.

Which leads then to one last safety that’s implicit beneath the first two.

3. Easter joy gives us safety from God’s righteous fury against our sin.

This is the greatest threat of all: omnipotent wrath. The offense of our sin against the holy God is the final danger beneath the other dangers. The reason foes could be a danger is they might deceive us to put confidence in ourselves and our actions. And the reason putting confidence in ourselves is a danger is that this discounts the depth of our sin and leaves us unshielded, unsafe before the righteous justice of God against our rebellion.

When Paul says that rejoicing in the Lord “is safe for you,” what’s at bottom is ultimate safety, final safety, eternal safety, safety of soul, safety from the divine justice that our sin deserves.

But Easter joy keeps us safe from the righteous fury we deserve, because rejoicing in the risen Christ is the way we take cover in the Son of God who came, and died, and was raised, to deal with our sin and usher us safely with him into the very presence of God.

You might put it this way: the safest soul in all the universe is the one that rejoices in the risen Christ.

“Being satisfied in the risen Christ keeps us from being deceived by other shallow appeals to joy.”

Rejoicing in the Lord is a place of great safety, shielded from every real threat, even the greatest. God will not destroy those who delight in him. Delight in him is a stronghold (Nehemiah 8:10), a fortress, a safe place, because God always preserves those who delight in him.

So, Cities Church, rejoice in the risen Christ! To say it again is no trouble for me, and safe for you.

The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!

Seeds of Joy at the Table

As we come to the Table, let’s address a question some of us have on a high feast day like Easter, and in a book like Philippians, which accents the importance of rejoicing in the Lord. What if you’re not feeling it? What if you don’t feel happy in the risen Christ? Perhaps you want to rejoice in Jesus, you want to glory in him, but you’re a sinner; your heart’s not where you want it to be. One answer, among others, is this Table.

This Table is not only for those who are boiling over with Easter delight, overflowing with joy in Jesus. It’s also for those who feel their hearts to be sluggish, and know they’re not rejoicing in the Lord like they want to, or like they should. And yet, in the ache of that desire is the seed of joy. In the longing, in the wanting is the seed of Easter joy that we come to nourish and strengthen at this Table.

If you would say with us this morning, “I claim the risen Christ. However high or low my rejoicing, I know myself undeserving. I put no confidence in my flesh. But I do put my confidence, for final safety, in the risen Christ,” then we would have you eat and drink with us, for joy.