Connections 09.24.2017: Somewhere between Heaven and Earth

Psalm 145:1-8; Philippians 1:27-30

David is feeling pretty good about God in Psalm 145. Unlike in other psalms, there’s no word about vengeance or swords or wrath. David spends the entire psalm, even through verse 21, proclaiming God’s wonder and nearness and faithfulness. What led him to write this psalm amid all the others so full of lament, fear, anger, and revenge? Is this a classic case of praising God when things are going well, or is it a genuine outpouring of love to a good God? I believe it’s the latter. David’s language here is heaven-bound, and it is encouraging.

In Philippians, Paul seems a little more realistic. Writing on behalf of himself and Timothy to the believers in Philippi, he encourages them to stay strong against “opponents” and insists that their suffering for Christ is a privilege. What led Paul to write these words? Is this a classic case of false hope amid despair, or is it a genuine attempt at encouragement from someone who understands what his readers are going through? I believe it’s the latter. Paul’s language here is earth-bound, and it too is encouraging.

As followers of Christ in an often-beautiful but also often-troubling world, we do best when we are able to live in balance. Yes, life is precious and glorious and breathtaking and wonderful, and yes, life is sad and frightening and delicate and difficult. Many times, too, it settles between those two extremes. The witness of Scripture includes times of elation and times of despair, but mostly it pictures folks living in between. Sometimes we live on the mountain, and sometimes we dwell in the valleys—but always we live with the presence of a good God who loves us, who is known to us through Jesus Christ, and who speaks to us through the Holy Spirit.

We are both heaven-bound and earth-bound. Wherever we happen to be on the range of human experience, may we remember that God is always with us.

Discussion

1. What psalms are comforting to you in difficult times? Which ones do you identify with in times of joy and contentment?
2. As you read Paul’s letters, how often does he refer to suffering? In what ways does he offer encouragement to people who may be in despair?
3. Why might it be helpful for us to have Scriptures that encourage us in suffering, help us rejoice in delight, and instruct us for the times in between?
4. What does it mean to you to be both “heaven-bound” and “earth-bound”?
5. How do you know God is with you at all times?

Reference Shelf

If the Philippians were to live worthily as citizens of the gospel of Christ, then they would need to “stand firm in one spirit.” Arguably, it is the Holy Spirit, not the human spirit, whom Paul has in mind here (cf. 1 Cor 12:9, 13; Eph 2:18), even if interpreters have tended to regard en heni pneumatic (“in one spirit”) as parallel to and roughly synonymous with the phrase mia psyche (“with one soul”) that immediately follows. Either way, Paul desires to see or to hear that the assembly is standing firm. Near the conclusion of the letter, the apostle calls the congregation to “stand firm in the Lord” (4:1). In the face of opposition and pressure (note 1:28), Paul calls the Philippians to hold their ground like embattled soldiers and not to beat a retreat.

Whether present or absent, Paul also desires for the church to stand firm by “struggling with one soul for the faith of the gospel” (1:27). The participle translated here “struggling” (synathlountes) would be equally appropriate on the battlefield or in the athletic arena. The only other time the word synathlein occurs in the New Testament is in Philippians 4:3, where Paul indicates that Euodia and Synthyche had struggled with him in the gospel. The faith that is the gospel is precisely that for which Paul wants the Philippians to contend as a unified fellowship.

To stand firm in the one Spirit, the church would not only need to struggle with, not against, one another, but they would also have to combat fears aroused by their opponents. The source and nature of the Philippians’ opposition does not deter Paul here. He does contend, however, that the congregation’s courageous response to their opponents functions as a sign or omen to the opposition of their destruction (cf. 2 Thess 1:5). Contrariwise, not being frightened by their foes signals, Paul suggests, the Philippians’ salvation from God. Although it is difficult to envision how the church’s fearless reaction to opposition could simultaneously signify salvation to the Philippians and destruction to their opponents, Paul may be suggesting that the assembly’s steadfastness in the throes of affliction stems from and is supported by their eschatological conviction that God would ultimately turn the tables and settle the score (cf. 3:19-20). Furthermore, 1:28 may intimate that the Philippians’ winsome witness in the face of distress could cause their oppressors to wonder if they were “fighting against God” (cf. Acts 5:39), and, if so, to wonder what their future might hold. When speaking of those who “live as enemies of the cross” later in the letter (3:18), Paul again employs the word “destruction” (apøleia), a term that occurs on only three other occasions in the Pauline letter collection (Rom 9:22; 2 Thess 2:3; 1 Tim 6:9). He also speaks in 3:20-21 of the Lord Jesus Christ as the Savior and Transformer of believers and as the one who has the power to subject all things to himself (3:20-21).

Todd D. Still, Philippians & Philemon, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011) 43-44.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a local charity serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (12) and Natalie (10) and her husband John. For fun, she tries to stay caught up on the latest amazing TV series (including Doctor Who, Sherlock, Gilmore Girls, and The Crown).

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