“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons…”
Arbeit macht frei.
This phrase is one of the most insidious sentences ever spoken. It was first written as the title of the German book by a sociologist encouraging derelicts to find meaning in life through work. It became a horrible inscription in a wrought-iron gate welcoming millions of Jews, defiant Christians, and other enemies of the state to the infamous concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Arbeit macht frei—work makes you free. The cruel reality was, of course, quite the opposite.
Nothing can compare to that unforgettable gate I saw at Dachau, but the tragedy is that the phrase tricking human beings into cruel slavery continues. There is a veritable wrought-iron gate in our own society that says, “Entertainment (for example) will bring you joy.” Anyone living in the 21st century West has been lulled, if not lured, by the siren song of the wicked sentinel of that horrid gate. I believe I have passed through that garish gate, marveling at its promise only afterward to remember it is the cruelest of some devil’s amusement. I realized too late the pleasant palisade I saw from the outside actually had barbed wire on the inside. That which promised freedom and joy was really a prison and incapable of fulfilling its promise. Perhaps some of you have had the experience, as well. I wonder how many families battle each other as they walk through the gate with the promise inscribed on the wrought-iron arbor “this” will bring you joy. (Flip through the television infomercials or your email inbox, then fill in the blank: more channels; lower mortgage rates; fabulous vacations; up-to-date fashion; lose the weight you want; men, get the hair on your head that you lost; ladies, tighten the skin and look 20 years younger; guys and gals, sign up to get into the right school and secure your future now…The promises go on and on.) It’s not that any of these are wrong in and of themselves; each should be judged on their own merits. However, when something promises to answer the great existential questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? What is the meaning of life? How can I be happy? How can I have eternal life? it always leads to disappointment and ultimately, invariably, tragically, a labor camp of lies.
God’s way is happier—guaranteed. The Bible comes like the Allies of World War II to set the poor prisoners free, to set you free with the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are no cultural prisons that cannot be transformed by the gospel. The inscriptions on our iconic prisons must be ripped away by the truth of the gospel and replaced with the resurrection message, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38).
Today we begin a study about the life of joy. We begin a study that I believe can replace those cultural lies with biblical truth. The study is from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. Paul had founded the Philippian church on his second missionary journey when he had received the vision of a man from Macedonia crying, “Come help us.” His first convert was a businesswoman named Lydia followed by a Macedonian jailer and his family. The Philippian church was, thus, the first church in Europe; it was the first church founded by the apostle Paul in his ministry. It always would hold a special place in his heart. That special place is reflected in the tender letter that is here recorded. This is not a theological treatise as the epistle to the Romans is. Rather, it is very tender note of thanks from his heart, the heart of the founding pastor of the Philippian church.
The Philippian church had given a gift to Paul by way of a messenger named Epaphroditus. The apostle Paul was imprisoned in Rome, likely in A.D.62, 11 years after founding the church at Philippi, and took the opportunity to write, with his assistant Timothy, to the church at Philippi. The letter he sent was in itself a gift—the gift of joy. The Greek word for joy (kara) would be repeated, or one of its derivatives, 20 times in this letter. Perhaps the main point of the whole book is Philippians 4:4, which says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice.”
One thing to remember about Paul is that his theological treatises are personal, and his personal letters are theological. All theology was personal for Paul, all personal religion was theological. There was not a dichotomy between the theological and the personal or the pastoral and the doctrinal. (I believe those are examples of the kinds of distinctions we also should abandon). Thus, Philippians is a very personal letter to a loving congregation that is filled with rich doctrinal truth, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for the church so that its truth applies to our lives today. Nothing is more applicable than in the very first line of Paul’s introduction, which includes a reference to the Greek word doulos, which means “servant, bond slave, or humble servant.” Paul didn’t give his identity as an apostle but (as he does in Philemon), he identifies himself as a servant.
It is in this opening and standing on this word, doulos, from God that we find our release from the bondage of cultural lies and the entrance to the life of joy and freedom. There is freedom through servanthood.
There are two necessary moves to make in our escape from the prison camp of cultural lies.
The first necessary move is this: The servanthood who brings true joy and freedom is a servanthood found in Jesus Christ.
No nothing could be clearer in the passage than this: The apostle was a bondservant to Jesus Christ: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus…”
We need to be careful and understand that to be a bondservant is to be completely sold out to the Master. There is no reservation. There is no holding back. It is a complete ownership. Paul used a term that would’ve been quite familiar to his audience. The Greco-Roman system of indentured servant was well-known in his day. There was no legal standing of the slave before the Roman government. All rights were subjugated to the master. Paul was saying that all his rights were subjugated to Jesus Christ. His life was completely swallowed up in the life and identity of Jesus Christ. This man was in prison for Jesus Christ. This man suffered for Jesus Christ. Yet this man would write of his great joy in the Lord Jesus Christ. He was the freest man of all, yet he was in prison. Oh, the joys of being a doulos for Jesus the Lord.
We have read many times of great leaders in our own day who were prisoners: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nelson Mandela. In each case, these renowned leaders demonstrated that while they were in prison, their minds and spirits soared in unfettered freedom. In fact, their imprisonment became the incubator for the ideas that would change the world for the better in their time. Freedom came, paradoxically, from their isolation and imprisonment.
Now, to be sure, you don’t have to be locked in a prison in Rome in the first century or in the Gulag in Siberia in order to experience the joy Christ promises. That is not the imprisonment or the servanthood Paul is dealing with here. The word doulos refers to the nature of his soul, his identity. This man had given his life completely to Jesus Christ and in humble service to Him and Him alone he found boundless freedom.
My dear friend, you can know that freedom, as well. In fact, genuinely boundless freedom can only be known through your life hidden in Christ Jesus as Lord.
It has been said, “You gotta serve somebody. It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord; but you gonna have to serve somebody.” That is absolutely biblical. Who do you serve? Right now, does your master bring you perfect freedom? You answer that truthfully, and I know you will want to come to my Master, Jesus the Lord. He welcomes those who want to trade their bondage for the joy of servanthood in His kingdom.
So the first move toward your freedom, the first escape route out of the prison workcamp of the cultural lies of this age is to accept the offer of Jesus Christ to come to Him, to call on His name by faith today.
The second move is found in this truth: The servanthood that brings true joy and freedom is a servanthood focused on others.
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons…
Do you see the second part of verse 1? Paul was a servant of Jesus Christ, but he also was a servant of others. Paul was a servant of the saints, that is to all of those who are in Christ Jesus at the church at Philippi.
One of the great marks and defining characteristics of the apostle Paul is that he gave his life for the sake of others. In fact, he told Timothy by way of his testimony of his own pastorate at Ephesus: “Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10).
I remember when I first read those words as a young pastor. I felt I could pour out my life for the sake of Jesus Christ, but it was quite another thing to pour out my life for the sake of, well…for the sake of church members who were sometimes rather difficult people to love. Yet, the teaching of the Scripture is clear: As we give our lives to Jesus Christ we increasingly will desire to follow Him. In following Jesus Christ, we desire to give our lives away to others because that is what our Savior did.
It is said that couples who lived together as man and wife for many years actually begin to look like each other. What is happening is, of course, the couple begin to share in common values to such a degree they do resemble each other in so many ways it becomes difficult to think of them apart. Their children, likewise, share in the family attributes (that transcend physical characteristics). There is a distinctive familial culture that develops in all the members of the household. Likewise, there is a family tradition in the church the flows from the Lord of our homes. We follow the way of King Jesus. As His subjects, we desire to follow Him. Some say that some of us, as we follow Him for many years, grow to look like Him. I have known such sainted people. I seek them out so I can learn of His ways from them.
You see, one of the chief characteristics of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is that He came to give His life away to others. In fact, the mission statement of Jesus Christ is given in Mark 10:45: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
The greatest servant to others is Jesus Christ. He is the supreme doulos. He the Servant of us all and yet is most free. To know Him is to know One who desired to give His life away for you and me. The more we know Him, the more we love Him. The more we love Him, the more we desire to love and serve others. It is the family way in the household of the King. It also is the way to joy inexpressible and ultimate freedom.
What if you applied this today? What if you went in search of someone to bless? Someone to help? Someone to love? What if that someone was in your own home? Sometimes that is the greatest challenge, but it will bring the greatest freedom.
Chains to the Gospel
So we’ve learned from the apostle Paul’s introduction that freedom comes from servanthood, a servanthood found in Christ and focused on others.
It was a time of my life when I felt that if I surrendered my life to Christ I somehow would lose my freedom. I came across a story that helped put things in divine perspective. I read about Martin Luther, the great Reformer of the Church. Luther, I learned, was accomplished in many fields and possessed of uncommon and extraordinary gifts that could’ve been used to gain prominence in numerous endeavors. The unifier of what we understand as Germany could have been the greatest musician, lawyer, scholar or politician of his age. Yet, because Luther was called to preach his life was in chains, chains to the gospel. In his chains, Luther found his freedom. I realized, in that time of studying the life of Luther, that I also had been called to the gospel ministry. I had been running from what I felt was an indentured service to Christ. I was right. I was wrong that it was a service that brought bondage. The chains of the gospel were velvet chains that brought unimaginable liberty of the mind and soul. I raised my hands up by faith and was led away into service. I received joy upon joy. In an amazing twist of heaven, I was set free, and I am still kicking up my heels.
This is how servanthood brings freedom. This is how being a bond-slave to Jesus Christ brings perfect and unending joy.
This is a joy that can be yours today. Reach out your arms by faith and say, “Lord Jesus Christ I want to be free. Take me completely as Your daughter, as Your son. I confess You as the resurrected and living Lord and Savior of the world, the very God of gods who came to save sinners such as myself. Forgive my sins through Your sacrificial death at the cross. Fill me with Your Holy Spirit that I may follow You all of the days of my life and one day see You face to face and enter Your eternal kingdom. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.”