Big Idea: Stand firm through fellowship, prayer, and Scripture.
I’m fascinated by the life of a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian from the past century. He died at the end of World War II as a Christian martyr and as a resistor to the Nazi regime.
He got his Ph.D. at age 21. One of the leading theologians of the day called his Ph.D. thesis a “theological miracle.” Bonhoeffer became obsessed with the idea of God’s presence among his people.
He was so disillusioned by the condition of the German church that he started a resistance movement called the Confessing Church, insisting that Christ, not Hitler, was the head of the church. The Confessing Church came under all kinds of pressure. The official church made it illegal to mention the names of anybody who joined the Confessing Church. They shut down giving to the church, and eventually its meetings.
But Bonhoeffer started an underground seminary of people who would take the gospel seriously. He believed that Christians could stand firm against the pressures of the day and follow Jesus as they engaged in certain practices. This is where he wrote two of his most popular books, The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together.
But some of his friends thought he was hardcore. After Life Together came out, one of his friends came to visit Bonhoeffer in the underground seminary and suggested that maybe Bonhoeffer should lighten up.
Bonhoeffer took him out on a boat and rowed across the river. He took him to the top of a hill where they saw Nazi fighter planes landing and taking off, and soldiers moving about.
Bonhoeffer spoke of a new generation of Germans in training, whose disciplines were formed “for a kingdom … of hardness and cruelty.” It would be necessary, he explained, to propose a superior discipline (of life among the Christians) if the Nazis were to be defeated.
“You have to be stronger than these tormentors that you find everywhere today…” (Strange Glory)
They got back into the boat and road back to seminary.
“You have to be stronger than these tormenters.” As one preacher says:
Here is Bonhoeffer pointing at a ragged little school for preachers, and then pointing at Hitler amassing his troops, and in the prophetic tradition of contrast, he says that this (the people of God) must be stronger than that (the discipline of the world around us). This must be stronger than that.
This little school that probably only trained 50-60 pastors produced a community so strong that today we talk about the fall of the Third Reich and the rise of the church. This must be stronger than that.
The question today is the same. How can we be formed so that we live in a way that’s faithful? How can we grow?
Surprisingly, this is the same question that a small group of Christians faced almost two thousand years ago in a place called Philippi, located in modern-day Greece. Philippi was a Roman city deeply entrenched in Roman political and social life. It was not an easy place to be a Christian. Paul is writing from prison to a small group of young, scared, and discouraged Christians about how to live genuinely Christian lives even when society is pushing you to adapt. And so Paul writes to them with an agenda:
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 are standing 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. (Philippians 1:27-28)
…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)
The question remains: how are they to do this? And in the last half of the chapter, he gets very practical. In chapter 3 he tells them to avoid false teachers — something that continues to be very important today! But then in chapter 4 he describes a set of practices that are going to be crucial for us if we’re going to grow.
In chapter 4, Paul describes the normal Christian life. The three practices that he mentions in this passage are essential for every follower of Jesus. If we are going to follow Jesus faithfully, then we need to build these three habits into our lives.
Philippians 4:1 says:
Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.
There’s the command: stand firm. Hold your ground. Maintain your position. In the face of mounting pressure all around you, stand firm in your faith.
That’s the command. But how do we actually do it? Paul lists three practices — I’m going to call them habits — that are essential for all of us.
Live in Christian community (despite the obstacles). (4:2-3)
Paul’s writing to a church, and in the middle of this he addresses both two ladies within the church, as well as the entire church around them:
I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:2-3)
We have no idea what was going on between these two women. They were active members of the church, and there was obviously some disagreement between them. In some ways I wish we had more information about them, but in other ways I’m glad we don’t. We see in the example of these two women that living within the church is hard. I could come up with about 20 reasons right now why we shouldn’t get along.
But Paul tells them to agree in the Lord. Be united. They have disagreements over something, but they have something even bigger they can agree upon. He calls them to think the same way in the Lord. Not only that, but he goes on and asks his coworker in the church — possibly to help out to restore their relationship with each other, to restore the community that has been broken.
The issue that they faced in Philippi was personal conflict. But there are all kinds of other issues that can get in the way of Christian community as well. One of the most powerful today is individualism: the belief that we don’t need other Christians to grow; that we can do it alone without anyone else. But Paul says that we’ve got to pursue the same mind in Jesus, to stand against anything that will pull us away from genuine Christian relationships, because we need each other to grow.
I’ve seen both of these problems kill Christian community: conflict and apathy. To be honest, I don’t know which is worse. But it’s enough of an issue that it’s the first thing that Paul addresses after telling the church to stand firm. If we’re going to stand firm, if we’re going to grow, our agreement in Christ must be stronger than all the things that pull us apart.
I mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the beginning. He wrote this in Life Together: “If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you.” We need the church. But that’s not all we need.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)
We tend to think about prayer as something we should do, like flossing our teeth and eating broccoli. Paul sees prayer as something we must do. He sees it as a way to manage our anxiety, to get the peace that we’ve been promised. Prayer isn’t just a spiritual discipline to Paul. It’s a necessity.
If you read verses 4 to 7, you’ll see that there are some pretty unusual qualities Paul wants them to exhibit: joy, reasonableness, a non-anxiousness, and a peace that can’t be explained by the circumstances. Have you ever met someone who is joyful, reasonable, non-anxious, and peaceful even when life is hard? I have.
But we can only live this way if we’re prayerful. Paul pictures a way of life in which we are in such constant communication with God that an entirely new way of existing begins to take shape in our lives. We begin to act and feel differently.
This is the second way to stand firm. If we’re going to look and act and think differently from the world, we need to engage in fellowship and then live our lives in prayer, not as an obligation but as a way of life. But there’s one more habit we see in this passage.
Fill Your Mind With Scripture. (4:8-9)
What shapes your mind? What shapes how you think about the world the most? Verses 8-9 say:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
Paul is calling the Philippians to a way of life that’s different: one that won’t tolerate divisions between them, and one that is so saturated with prayer that there’s something different about the way that they live. And now he calls them to think differently.
Paul never mentions what to do in this passage, but he doesn’t mention how to do it. But I will. The best way to fill your mind with what’s true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worth of praise is to fill your mind with Scripture. There is nothing that will change your life as much as building a regular habit of Scripture intake into your life — not just reading it but filling your mind with it and thinking about these things.
And so Dietrich Bonhoeffer could stand on a hill looking at the Nazi fighting forces, and go back to his little seminary knowing that they had to build a set of practices that were stronger than the practices of the Nazis. And we today must realize that we need a set of practices that are stronger than all of those in the world that will shape us into the image of this world without us even knowing it.
How can we grow? Growth is founded on what Jesus has done for us: in his sacrificial death in our place that frees us from guilt and gives us new life. But then if you want to stand firm and grow you will need three practices:
- You will need to commit to living the Christian life in Christian community
- You will need to develop the habit of prayer
- You will need to fill your mind with Scripture
This must be stronger than that. We need you to build these habits.
I’ve never met anyone who’s encountered God’s grace and who’s practiced these three habits from the heart—reading or listening to the Bible, praying, and pursuing worship and fellowship within a church community—who hasn’t grown. Conversely, I’ve never met a single person who’s grown spiritually who hasn’t engaged in these three core habits. These are the foundational habits that we’re called to practice for the rest of our lives. We never get beyond them. They shape us and help us grow in our joyful pursuit of God and in our love for others. (How to Grow)
We never get beyond them. Are you ready to build these three habits into your life?