Sunday, 23 April 2017

Loving as Jesus Does (Phil. 1:8)

There are numerous surprising statements in the Bible. Some of them are connected to what God has done for sinners as explained in the message of the gospel. Other surprising statements are found in the details connected to God’s amazing plans for the future blessing of his people. But there are also surprising ones connected to the Christian life. For example, the goal of sanctification is to become like Jesus. Or we can remind ourselves that Jesus said that his people would abide in him and he in them. Somehow, they would know Jesus in their inner lives.

It is obvious that Paul regarded this statement as very important. We can see that is the case from his insertion of an oath at the beginning of the sentence. Why did he feel obliged to write in this way? Why did the Holy Spirit lead him to write in his way? Maybe it was because the claim marked him out as unusual, as such an advanced Christian, that normally no one would believe that such an outlook was possible. If that was the case, we would need to respond by saying that Paul was a very good apostle, and all we could do was admire his devotion.
Alternatively, Paul may have used the oath because of the importance of what he was describing. After all, Paul told other Christians to imitate him as far as he imitated Jesus. And here he is clearly claiming to imitate the Saviour. He could have wanted to stress this imitation because some of the people in Philippi were not loving one another in this way.

The man who loved like this
Everyone knows who Saul of Tarsus was. He was a passionate Pharisee who hated with an intensity everyone whom he imagined was offending God. His passion for God did not bring him close to God. Instead he was on a trajectory that was taking him further and further from God. Saul was certainly marked by zeal, but it was zeal without love for Jesus or for his people. Yet we know that Jesus had his eye on Saul of Tarsus and was determined to bring him into the state of salvation.

Saul’s conversion was very sudden in the sense that he had not been seeking for Jesus. Moreover, it was very surprising from a human point of view because there was not the slightest hint from anywhere that it was about to happen. Of course, his conversion was strategic because he was marked out by Jesus as a future servant of his who would take the gospel throughout the Roman Empire.
There are some important details that we can observe from Saul’s experience. The first is that one can become a Christian without having gone through a prolonged period of conviction of sin. It is important to observe that conviction of sin that does not lead to trusting in Jesus is not spiritual conviction of sin. When the Spirit convicts of sin, he shows that sinner the remedy for it, as happened on the Day of Pentecost.
A second feature that we should observe from Saul’s experience is that Christian conversion is a radical change of affections. Saul discovered that he loved Jesus and his people. This new outlook did not begin a few weeks after his conversion. Instead it commenced when he received spiritual life. He did not discover everything at once, but he did discover that he was prepared to listen to those he once despised. We can see that this was the case from the way he submitted to the instructions of Ananias when he was sent by Jesus to give guidance to Saul in Damascus.

The mystery of loving like this
In the Book of Acts, Luke records the experience of Saul meeting Jesus three times, with two of them presented in Paul’s own words of testimony. As far as the details of the meeting are concerned, the human source of them has to be Saul himself because he is the only one who knew what had taken place. Those with him had seen some external details, but none of them saw into the experience. What details did Saul choose to pass on?

Saul tells us that initially he recognised that it was a divine encounter because he realised that the Lord was speaking to him from heaven. Yet he also says that there was something mysterious about it because he had to ask the divine Interrupter who he was. In the reply that was given to him, he discovered who the Lord was, when in answer to his request he was told that Jesus was speaking to him. This information must have been a real shock to Saul of Tarsus.

Yet he also heard other details that must have influenced him strongly because he did not forget them. He heard Jesus claim that although he was in heaven he was united to his people. Saul heard Jesus say that he was being persecuted by Saul in his actions against Christians. Each time, Saul had laid his hands on a believer he had assaulted Jesus. Saul had discovered that there was a living union between Jesus and each of his people.

In subsequent days and years, Saul discovered that the union between Jesus and his people was an incredible one. Each time, the apostle uses the words ‘in Christ’ he is referring to this union and if we choose to look through his letters we will spot the wide range of ways in which that brief phrase is used.

How is this living union realised in the lives of converted people, whether or not they were ever like Saul of Tarsus before their conversions? The answer to this question is that this is the work of the Holy Spirit in the inner lives of those who believe in Jesus. Jesus himself had said that he would send the Holy Spirit to help his disciples live the Christian life. The Spirit would work in their lives to make them like Jesus.

The manner of loving like this
When Paul that he yearns for them all with the affection of Jesus Christ, he uses a striking term. The word translated as ‘affection’ was used of the inner parts such as the heart and the stomach. We can understand this by thinking of the parts of our body that is affected when something exciting is happening. Our hearts begin to palpitate, our stomachs begin to flutter, even our breathing can increase. Paul is describing a very strong expression of love.

Obviously, this kind of loving is spiritual, dependent on the working of the Spirit in our souls. We know therefore that the reason for the absence of this attitude at any time in the life of a believer must be connected to grieving the Holy Spirit. If he is not grieved, then the fruit of the Spirit will be evident.

It is important to note that he does not say that he is trying to imitate the affection of Jesus Christ. Obviously, all believers are to copy Jesus because he is their great example. But Paul says more than imitation here. He says that the affection that he has is actually the affection of Jesus Christ. The apostle has a love that is profound and supernatural. And he has this love because he is united to Jesus by the Holy Spirit.

We can also say that the presence of this type of love is special in that its presence is clear evidence of salvation. Paul now loved deeply those whom he once would have despised and hated. Many of the people to whom he sent this letter were Gentiles from Philippi, and before his conversion he would have had nothing to do with Gentiles. Now he loved them because Jesus had changed him.

The love that Paul describes here as the affection of Jesus was a very strong one. We can see that was the case from the verb he uses to describe it. He says that he yearned for them. The idea behind this word is of a person abroad who is longing for his homeland. Paul was separated from his friends in Philippi and he informs them that without them he felt as if he was away from home. Just as a traveller longs to see familiar sites, so Paul longed to see their familiar faces.

Moreover, Paul states that this love was not selective when he says that he yearned for all of them. No doubt, he would have loved some of them longer than others and he mentions some of them by name in this letter. Still, there was none of them outside the circle of his warm affections. After all, how could the affection of Jesus omit one of his people from his embrace?

We should not be surprised when Paul says that he has the affection of Christ. After all, he gives his peace and his joy to his people, so why should he also not give his love? What Paul is describing here is another way of saying that believers possess the life of Christ. In a way similar to how blood flows through our natural bodies and gives life, so the Spirit of Jesus flows through our spiritual bodies giving us life. Jesus, although in heaven, is the source of our life.

There are many things that could be said about the affection of Jesus. For example, he was tender and gentle, compassionate and gracious, in his words and in his actions. Sometimes he had to speak strongly, but he never spoke harshly or inappropriately. His words were marked by pardon and peace. His relationship to his disciples can be covered in three words: intimacy, instruction and intercession. As he was with them, he was patient with their failings, he rejoiced in their successes, and he protected them from the devil’s attacks.

How does this life reveal itself? Clearly we have to get rid of all that prevents this life manifesting itself. It is sinful attitudes or actions that stops this renewal being experienced in our hearts. This shows the importance of ongoing repentance for our sins as well as ongoing appropriation of what Jesus has for us. By prayer and Bible reading, by fellowship with and meditation on Jesus, we become increasingly like him, and others will take note that we are like Jesus.

Paul’s affections for them in his prayers is stressed in the immediate context. We can see from what he says that he had a very strong love for the believers in Philippi and his petitions reveal how focussed he was on them continuing to experience and practice divine love. His words in verse 9 indicate that if love is absent the other blessings cannot be known. So he therefore prayed that they would know divine love in their souls.

The knowledge that Paul loved them would make it easier for any of them to take criticisms from him or to do things that he asked. In chapter 4, he mentions two quarrelling women. How does love interact with them? He appeals to them to be of one mind in the Lord. The apostle knows that they need help and so asks another believer to help them.

This kind of love is obviously very high; indeed, it is hard to imagine what kind of love could be higher. Yet although it is so high, it is not described as being beyond the experience of any believer. This attitude was not reduced by Paul’s circumstances (he was under arrest) nor by the spiritual conflicts that were taking place (he mentions false teachers in the letter).

Paul’s description of himself indicates to us that he saw himself as a kind of spiritual channel through which the affection of Jesus could be poured out on other people. This type of self-perception is astonishing. Paul knew that he was a sinner, yet he also knew that he could be so changed that he became a living instrument of the Saviour. I suppose we could say that Paul’s words challenge us to be a channel.

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