The Blazing Fastball that Gives Us Confidence

July 15, 1986, Roger Clemens went to bat in his first all-star game. Roger was the sizzling right-hander for the Boston Red Sox who had been named starting pitcher for the American League All-Star team. In the second inning, it was his turn to bat. But batting was something Roger Clemens was not used to doing. He never batted, because in his league, the American League, they had the designated-hitter rule—someone else batted in place of the pitcher. Roger Clemens never batted; he just pitched.

But the All-Star games between the American League and the National League alternated each year between the rules of the two leagues, and this year it was the National League’s rule—pitchers would bat for themselves. So Roger Clemens found himself coming to bat for the first time.

He took a few uncertain practice swings in the on-deck circle, and then he stepped into the batter’s box. On the mound was Dwight Gooden, the best pitcher in the National League. The year before, Dwight had won the Cy Young Award for being the best pitcher in all of baseball. So a pitcher who never batted was facing the best pitcher in all of baseball.

Dwight Gooden wound up and threw a white-hot, streaking fastball that blew by Roger Clemens. Roger stepped out of the box and blinked his eyes a few times. Then he turned to the catcher behind him, Gary Carter.

“Gary, is that what my pitches look like?”

“You bet it is!” Gary said.

Roger Clemens stepped back into the box and quickly struck out. But when he went back on the pitcher’s mound to pitch for his team, he threw three perfect innings—nobody on the other team got a hit. He was voted the game’s Most Valuable Player. And he told people that from that day on, he had a greater confidence in his own pitching. When he saw how powerful his own fastball was and when he saw how it was working, he then pitched with all the confidence in the world.

What could give a church that same confidence—that God was powerfully working in it? What streaking “fastball” could we see that would tell us that God was making our church a place of joy and spiritual growth?

That’s not just a question for a church. It’s also a question for individuals. What would give you confidence that God was genuinely working in you? What “fastball” would give you confidence that he’s part of your life, actively working in you, and planning nothing but good for you? What gives churches or individuals confidence that God is working in them?

One day, sitting in prison, the apostle Paul wrote to a church, “I’m confident that God has begun a good work in you, and I’m confident that he’ll continue that work until it’s complete. I’m absolutely confident that God has started something good in you, and I know for sure he’s going to finish it.”

What made him say that? What did he see in that small Philippian church that led him to write, “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6)?

Paul was confident; he was absolutely sure that God had started something very good in this small church—God had brought them into existence, and he was now working in them to accomplish something very good; nothing was going to stop it from taking place. What made Paul so confident? What made him so sure?

The reason Paul was so confident was because he saw some very concrete, objective, consistent things they were doing so that others would hear about what Christ had done for them. Look at the opening paragraphs of his letter to see that this is what gives us confidence that God is at work in us—because we’re doing some very tangible and on-going things to make Christ known to others.

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel (1:1-5a).

There it is—“your partnership in the gospel”—your tangible joining with me in making Christ known to others. I’m thankful for your partnership, for all the objective, concrete things you’re doing so that others can hear about Christ.

Paul goes on to say that this tangible partnership has been ongoing—“from the first day until now”—“from when we first met until just this last week.” It’s not only been concrete, it’s been sustained and consistent over the years. It’s been a partnership in the gospel over a long period of time.

This tangible, sustained partnership in making the gospel known is what makes Paul confident that God is working in them—“being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6). Your tangible and ongoing partnership in the gospel, the things you do so that others will hear about him, concretely showing up over a long period of time—these are the things that make me confident God has started something in you and he’s going to carry it to completion.

Paul is justified in having this confidence about them:
“It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:7-8).

He affectionately has them in his heart; he loves them and knows their history. He remembers them with joy because whether he is in chains, as he is presently, or whether he is out and about, they have continually and tangibly partnered with him in the grace of making Christ known to others.

What was Paul remembering? What was their tangible and on-going commitment to share with him in making the gospel known? What concrete actions reveal that a church or individual is committed to making Christ known? He undoubtedly has three things in mind.

First, their homes were available as a place to meet. “From the very first day” he met them, one of them immediately made her home available as a regular meeting place. Right off the bat, there was a spirit of “Please, use my home as a place where others can come and hear the message.” He remembered his first week in the city and how the first person to accept the gospel tangibly made it possible for others to also hear the good news.

We know about this immediate opening of the home from the Book of Acts, where we read about Paul’s first week in their city. He came to their city on one of his missionary travels. There were no Christians in the city at that time. It fact, there weren’t even enough Jews in the city to have a Jewish synagogue.

The best Paul could find was a small Jewish prayer meeting, mostly women, [who] met under some trees by the river. He joined them and began to speak about Christ to them. The Lord opened the heart of one of the ladies there, a woman named Lydia. Lydia owned her own import business and had a large house, which she immediately made available. She pressed Paul to use her home as a base for his ministry and wouldn’t take “No” for an answer:
“From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis. From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days. On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us” (Acts 16:11-15).

Paul continued in Philippi for a period of time, undergoing flogging and imprisonment as a result of his ministry. When he was finally released and ready to resume his travels, he said farewell to the believers at Lydia’s house, which had continued to be a meeting place for the believers (Acts 16:16-40).

That’s one way you can be confident that people are committed to the work of the Lord—their homes are available. Obviously, not everybody’s home is large enough for some gatherings. That was true in Philippi, and it’s true with us. Lydia was in the import business and apparently made enough money to have a home that could accommodate others. Not all of us have that kind of home.

But when people do have suitable homes and quickly open them up for others, that’s a sign that God is working in them. It shows that they’re committed to participating in the ministry of making him known. They’re willing to go through the effort of vacuuming the rugs, straightening the furniture, cleaning the windows, mowing the lawn, and making refreshments. You can be confident that God is working in them because you see a tangible desire to help God’s work take place.

When people can’t be bothered to make their homes available, it may be because the work of God is not central to their lives. Their attitude is: “Yes, go to church on Sunday, but after that, get on with life, and don’t put yourself out anymore.” It doesn’t seem that God or his work is important to them. You can be confident that God is working when homes are quickly available so that others can benefit.

What else was Paul remembering? What other tangible, ongoing evidence did he see that made him confident God was working in them?

He was remembering, secondly, that they were willing to take some heat for their faith. They knew they would pay a price in their culture if they became Christians, and they were willing to pay it. Philippi was a unique city with a special government status. It was connected to the Roman emperor in ways other cities weren’t. And it was important, therefore, in Philippi, to be politically correct, which meant worshipping the emperor as if he were a god.

Paul remembered that his Christian friends in Philippi were willing to pay the price for not doing that. He’ll say a little later in his letter, “You’re going through some of the same stuff I had to go through; you’re suffering some of the same things I did because of your Christian faith” (Phil. 1:28-30).

Their tangible, sustained partnership showed in their willingness to pay a price for their Christian faith. You can be confident that God is at work in someone when you see that person standing up for the truth and willing to take some heat for it.

When you see a young mom raise the question in a PTA meeting, “Do we really need to have ‘alternative lifestyles’ introduced into our fourth grade classes? I’m not sure I want my 10-year-old daughter to read a book titled Johnny Has Two Daddies or Both My Mommies Love Me. Is that necessary?

I wish we wouldn’t do that—when you see her stand for the truth, even though it may mean being booed or hissed or called homophobic, narrow, and prejudiced—when you see someone willing to pay a price for the sake of the truth, you can be confident that God is in her, working something good in her life.

When you see an elderly widow and widower get married—both in their 80s, both living on Social Security, both knowing that if they just shacked up together, they could keep both their Social Security checks, but if they do the righteous thing and get married, our government will cancel one of their Social Security checks, and they’ll have to live on half the money—when you see them take a stand for truth and righteousness and pay a price for it, you can be confident that God is part of their lives and doing good in them.

When people won’t take a stand for the truth and when they won’t risk some consequence for the sake of righteousness, it’s probably because God is not part of their lives. He’s not working in them. Their attitude is: “Never mind what God wants; I’m gonna look out for myself.”

Paul says, “I remember your homes being available and your willingness to stand for the truth. And I’m confident that God has started a good work in you, which he’ll take to completion.”

There’s one last thing that Paul was remembering. There’s one more tangible, specific, concrete thing they did—consistently—from the first day right up until the time he wrote this letter. And it seemed to be uppermost in his mind, for he spent the most time on it. It more than anything else made him confident about them. It was that generously, again and again, they gave their money. You can have confidence that God is in people’s lives when they give their money.

More than once these Philippians had sent money to Paul over the years to support him in his travels and preaching. The very letter he was then writing was in part a “thank you” note for their latest gift, one that had arrived just that week. More than anything else, their financial partnership and desire to share in the gospel convinced him that God was at work in them.

He will be explicit about this at the end of his letter. He’s thankful that they’ve been able to send another financial gift, not so much because he needs the money, but because of what it says about God’s work in them:
“I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account” (4:10-17).

Paul remembers that from the first day until the present, they were the only church that partnered financially with him in making the gospel known. And this made him confident that God was at work in them. When people give money generously, again and again, you can be confident that God is in their lives.

When people won’t do that—when they give just a few bucks to sort of play the part instead of the real percentage of their incomes that God is looking for—it’s probably a sign that God is not in their lives. Because when God has begun a work in you and you sense his reality and his presence, you want to honor him. You want to thank him, and you want to give at a level that says, “I want others to know you too.” When God is real and working in people’s lives, they give—generously and consistently.
Paul remembered this small church’s partnership from the first day he met them to the present. He remembered the tangible and ongoing things they did for the sake of the gospel—their homes being opened, their stand for the truth, and their consistent and generous giving. And he was confident that God had begun a good work in them and would take it to completion.

We can share that confidence that God is doing a good work in us. We can point to the same things. Not a streaking fastball, but the concrete and consistent things that we do: our homes opened for prayer, for youth, for meetings; our willingness to take a stand for the truth; and our loving and joyful giving in order that God’s work will be strong.

From Invitation to Phillipians: Building a Great Church Through Humility by Donald R. Sunukjian. Copyright © 2014 by Donald R. Sunukjian. Published by Weaver Book Company. Used by permission.

Donald Sunukjian is professor of Christian Ministry and Leadership at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University in La Mirada, California.

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