All of Paul’s writings are quite dense. This week I have chosen to focus on just three verses from our passage. Paul’s prayer for the Philippian Christians is a model prayer for all of us. We should pray it for ourselves, our family members, our friends, our congregants, our pastors, and anyone we know who does not yet know Christ.
Paul prays that the Philippians’ love will “abound more and more.” Paul is not saying that the Philippians are unloving. He is praying that the love that they will love excessively or to an extreme degree. Paul wants the Philippians to love God, love fellow believers, and not-yet-believers alike. He puts no limits on their love.
But Paul doesn’t leave love undefined. He gives it certain characteristics. The first of these characteristics is knowledge. He uses two words to describe how knowledge relates to love. Paul, first uses a word that means to recognize. Most of us can recognize Donald Trump. But most of us don’t know Donald Trump. We’ve never met him. He certainly has never shared anything of substance with us. So, we know of him, we don’t know him. (If your blood is boiling at the name of Donald Trump, please take a moment to do some deep breathing exercises. I had to pick a name that most everyone would be familiar with.) Paul goes on to use a word that means to be able to perceive, to be able to understand. Most frequently in the New Testament it means to have moral discernment. It follows that Paul is praying that the Philippians will use their love in a way that allows them to make moral distinctions.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that has come to believe that love means making no moral distinctions. The fruit of postmodern thought is that love has come to mean fully affirming everyone’s moral choices. One of the consequences of this is that there are no moral distinctions. We have come to a place in 21st century America where everyone “does what is right in their own eyes (Deuteronomy 12:8; Judges 17:6).”
Paul prays that the Philippians will have knowledge and the ability to make moral distinctions so that, or for the purpose of, making distinctions between things that are excellent and things that are not. What things? Paul leaves it undefined. But since he does not specify, we can assume that he means that we are to make distinction in broad terms. We are to use discernment in making distinctions between truth and error, philosophical ideas, righteous and unrighteous behavior, and things like these.
Too many Christians have been seduced by non-Christian philosophical assumptions into thinking that making distinctions between right and wrong, sin and righteousness, and so on, is morally wrong. They point to Jesus’ saying, “Don’t judge, lest you be judged (Matthew 7:1).” Unfortunately, this overly simplistic approach is an abrogation of Christian responsibility. The New Testament is replete with examples of Christ-followers being called to be holy and set apart from the pagan culture around them. This requires making moral distinctions. This requires using discernment and sound judgement in what is appropriate Christian behavior and what is not. Paul prays that the Philippians will use their love and discernment to make moral distinctions.
The goal of the use of moral discernment grounded in love is that Christ-followers will choose or approve those things which are excellent or worthy or valuable. In short, the result of the use of moral discernment is that when we see the distinction between those things that have value and those that do not, we will choose to behave consistently with those things which have value, those things which are consistent with the righteousness of Christ. Not only that, but that we will approve in others only those things which are valuable and consistent with righteousness of Christ.
So, Paul gives us one purpose of the use of discernment at the beginning of verse 10 and then in the second half of the verse, he gives us another purpose for the use of discernment: sincerity and blamelessness before Christ. The last phrase is the controlling factor for the whole prayer. Paul is not talking about any love. He is talking about the love of Christ. He is not talking about developing our own standard for discerning what is morally excellent. He is praying that the Philippians that will use the standard of Jesus in discerning moral excellence. That same standard applies to all Christ-followers.
Paul prays that the faith of the Philippians will be sincere. Sincerity is the opposite of hypocrisy. A sincere faith is a “what you see is what you get” faith. There is no guile or cunning in a sincere faith. A blameless faith is a faith that does not give offense or cause someone to fall from the faith or cause someone to stumble in their faith. Paul is addressing the those types of people who identify as Christians, but who life in no way resembles the life Christ lived. Their faith is insincere. Having grown up in the South where cultural Christianity was the norm, I knew a lot of people who were Christians in name only. This type of faith is not acceptable to Christ, and Paul prays that the Philippians will live their lives congruently with the faith they claim. We should pray for and do the same. Paul reminds his readers that Jesus will one day come back and that a sincere and blameless faith is the only type of faith that He will find acceptable on that day.
Finally, all of this—love, proper discernment, engaging in morally excellent behavior, and sincerity of faith—is the result of righteousness taking root, growing, blooming, and bearing fruit in our lives. This process, of course, requires planting and nurturing. It does not happen overnight. We must allow the righteousness of Christ to take root. We must be patient. While we are declared righteous through faith in Jesus, the process of becoming righteous is a lifelong process and project. The moral discernment of a new Christian is not as well developed as a more seasoned Christian (supposing the seasoned Christian has tended to his or her spiritual garden).
The resulting life of someone who loves as Jesus loves, makes moral distinctions based on, and chooses to live consistently according to, the righteousness of Christ, will bring glory to God. People will praise God because of this kind of life.
I want to invite you to pray this prayer for everyone on your prayer list for the next week. If you don’t have a prayer list, stop what you are doing and make one right now. Include yourself, your family, your extended family, your coworkers, your small group members, leaders at your church, government officials, your friends who aren’t Christians, and anyone you can think of. We live in a culture that is at odds with Christ in the most fundamental of ways. We will not make any headway for the kingdom of God on our own. We must call on all the power of God in Christ if we are to accomplish the mission of reconciliation that Christ has given us.
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