June 30, 2010 David Balzer

Philippians 1:3-11: Pursuing Excellence

“To PURSUE EXCELLENCE”. Google tells me that’s the motto, or mission, or duty of organisations as diverse as

  1. the Royal Australian and NZ college of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists,
  2. Canterbury Christ Church University
  3. Xiamen University in China
  4. West Point Military Academy
  5. The Hastings Police Department, Nebraska

To pursue excellence. It carries the idea of a single-minded commitment to achieving quality. Never settling for second-best. Of always throwing your whole self into a task – your energy, your concentration, your time.

Perhaps it’s a bit jingoistic, but let me ask the question, how does it fit with being a Christian? What part should PURSUING EXCELLENCE have in the CHRISTIAN life? As individuals, or as a church? I guess it depends on what your definition of EXCELLENCE is.

  • For universities, it’s excellence in EDUCATION AND RESEARCH.
  • For the college of obstetricians and gynaecologists, they say their goal is excellence IN THE DELIVERY OF HEALTH CARE TO WOMEN THROUGHOUT THEIR LIVES.
  • And for the Hastings Police Department, Nebraska, their mission (and I quote) is to “pursue excellence by working in concert through effective partnerships with our diverse community/ to improve the quality of life which provides a safe and clean environment to all our citizens and visitors”. Whatever THAT means.

So, what excellent things should A CHRISTIAN be pursuing? Fairly obviously, the EXCELLENT things are the things of GOD, the things of ETERNITY. Things that cause the name of Jesus to be honoured, that cause people to recognise their sin, repent, and live honouring him as king.

In his letter to the Philippians, we can see how PAUL pursued excellence. Like Ch 1 v20. The excellence of glorifying Christ.

20 I EAGERLY EXPECT AND HOPE that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always CHRIST WILL BE EXALTED IN MY BODY, WHETHER BY LIFE OR BY .

Or into Ch 3 v7. The excellence of an eternal prize in heaven.

(If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more):

7 But whatever was to my PROFIT I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider EVERYTHING a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of KNOWING CHRIST JESUS MY LORD, for whose sake I have lost all things. I CONSIDER THEM RUBBISH, that I may GAIN CHRIST 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith….

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I PRESS ON to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I PRESS ON toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Pursuing excellence. Pursuing the things of God. The rich reward and eternal glory of heaven. It consumed Paul’s life. And, as we’ll find out, it was what he prayed that OTHERS would be doing too.

But unfortunately, I’m not sure PURSUING EXCELLENCE is how most of us describe OUR OWN Christian life.

Perhaps, if we’re honest with ourselves, life is just so busy, that the things of Christ – the excellent things – just seem to slip down our priority list. And so, if we even thought about it, our motto, rather than “to pursue excellence” might be more along the lines of ;

  • “To wander half-heartedly after mediocrity.
  • Or “to meander in the general direction of whatever’s most urgent and noisy”.
  • Or “to stroll nonchalantly after the easiest and most comfortable option. As long as there’s nothing to watch on TV that night”.

But that’s just NOT GOOD ENOUGH. And Paul won’t allow us that option. He prays for his Philippian readers. It’s only a short prayer – 3 verses, and he’s really only praying for one thing. It’s a prayer that their love will abound so that they can discern what’s BEST, and be pure and blameless. In other words, it’s a prayer to PURSUE what’s EXCELLENT.

But if we take it seriously, and if we begin to pray it for ourselves and for others, and as God answers it. It’s a prayer that will remove our lukewarm, black and white, faded, second-rate, half-hearted, poor imitation of a Christian life. And begin to make it one Jesus is PROUD of. Where we pursue the excellent things – the things of significance. The things that MATTER.

It’s one that will transform our attitudes and actions, our thoughts and our words. It will transform our church, and our families.

Now, that’s a big build-up. But I think it’s a big prayer that can measure up. So let’s turn to it now, and see what you think.

  1. May your love abound more and more

The first part of Paul’s prayer is fairly straightforward. There in v9. That the PHILIPPIANS’ LOVE MAY ABOUND MORE AND MORE.

He doesn’t say WHO the Philippians are to love. But he expands on the same idea when he prays for the Thessalonian Christians. 1 Thess 3:12

12 May the Lord make your love increase and overflow FOR EACH OTHER and for EVERYONE ELSE

May this group of Christians be one who are CHARACTERISED by love. Towards EVERYONE. Christian, non-Christian. Insider/ outsider. Loveable and Unloveable. When people look at them, may it be their LOVE that’s the defining characteristic of followers of Jesus

Love that ABOUNDS is love that OVERFLOWS INTO ACTIONS. Into WORDS. Into the sacrificial service of God and for others. You can see the sort of thing Paul’s thinking about a bit further on into Ch 2. Paul pleads, v2, that they be

like-minded, having the same LOVE, being one in SPIRIT and PURPOSE. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility CONSIDER OTHERS BETTER THAN YOURSELVES. 4 Each of you SHOULD LOOK NOT ONLY TO YOUR OWN INTERESTS, BUT ALSO TO THE INTERESTS OF OTHERS.

That’s love that abounds more and more.

  1. Love in knowledge and depth of insight

But for Paul, it’s not just love in some sort of undefined, GENERAL sense. It’s FOCUSSED love. SPECIFIC love. Look at the next phrase in v9.

that your love may abound more and more IN KNOWLEDGE AND DEPTH OF INSIGHT

That’s knowledge of God, of people. Knowledge about situations. About eternity. And depth of insight is to do with making wise, moral choices in the light of that knowledge.

You see, Paul’s not talking about love ON ITS OWN – which simply becomes SENTIMENTAL and SOFT and EMPTY. That can flatter, or spoil others. And in the end, it’s not in the person’s best interest. But it’s love that abounds in knowledge and insight.

Occasionally I get phoned up by people who WANT things. They phone the church number, looking for help. Sometimes it’s just food. They’ve had an extra bill this week, and there’s nothing in the cupboard. So, I bring them a few bags of groceries.

Other times people want MONEY. A of years ago, a guy phoned, and said he was stranded in Victoria at a Highway Road House, and needed money to buy a bus ticket back to Blacktown. He was getting back with his wife and kids, who were staying at her parents. He couldn’t let them know. He said the bus was leaving in an hour, and I needed to transfer the money into his account so he could buy the ticket.

I actually said I WOULD, but on the way, I dropped into the address where he said his wife and kids were staying. Guess what? They’d never heard of him. He phoned back asking about the money. He got quite angry and called me a liar when I told him I’d changed my mind. But he’d actually lied to ME.

To just hand over money shows love WITHOUT knowledge and insight. But Paul prays for love that abounds in knowledge and depth of insight.

He’s got in mind love that’s PERCEPTIVE. That can discern what someone NEEDS, rather than just WANTS, and does that INSTEAD. Love that’s willing to ask questions, and dig a bit deeper to find out what’s REALLY going on.

And it’s love that’s TOUGH. That can make difficult choices. It’s love that can go out on a limb, and risk causing offence. Risk being thought of badly. That can risk being a peacemaker between two fighting friends.

It’s love that knows when the right time to make the phone call is. And when a card would be better. Whether it’s right to bring around a meal, or offer help. It’s love that knows when it’s right to rebuke, and when it’s best to keep quiet. When it’s right to risk the friendship by bringing up Jesus, and it’s love that knows what to say when you DO.

  1. So that you may be able to discern what is best

You can see this is the sort of love Paul’s thinking about because of what he goes on to pray. It’s the THIRD part of his prayer – there in v10. His prayer is for love that abounds in knowledge and insight SO THAT YOU MAY BE ABLE TO DISCERN WHAT IS BEST.

In other words, so that you may be able to test or approve the things which are most excellent or valuable.

Apply the HEART of love/ with the HEAD of knowledge and insight, so that in a whole range of situations, you can DECIDE YOUR RESPONSE on the basis of choosing the things that are MOST EXCELLENT OR VALUABLE.

Pursuing excellence becomes much harder than a simple difference between right and wrong. For lots of decisions, it’s a choice between TWO GOOD THINGS. Which do you choose?

Let me give you some examples.

What’s the MOST EXCELLENT way to use your holidays? What brings most glory to God? How do you balance time for your family, time to refresh yourself, time to perhaps serve on a Christian youth camp, or go to something like CMS Summer school? It takes knowledge and insight to know the MOST excellent things.

Perhaps you’re finishing school – deciding on a career. What’s the MOST EXCELLENT career for you/ The one where God can use you for his glory the MOST? The one where you can show love for God and others, and use your unique gifts? It takes knowledge and insight to know the MOST excellent things.

What do you READ? In the last six months, you’ve probably read newspapers and magazines. But have you also found time to read any good Christian books. Books that will help you understand the Bible better, or improve your spiritual discipline, or broaden your views of God and his purposes? It takes knowledge and insight to know the MOST excellent things.

How do you use your MONEY? Are you using it on the MOST EXCELLENT THINGS? Things that will last into ETERNITY? Or is it all disappearing on things that will rust, and break down, and wear out? And perhaps more importantly, what’s your ATTITUDE when give money to support ministry? Do you do it GRUDGINGLY, or do you DELIGHT to do it, returning to God what’s his anyway, because you’ve got the wisdom and insight to recognise the MOST EXCELLENT THINGS.

And as we look forward into 2007, how are you going to fill it up? What things can you TAKE UP? What things can you STOP doing? They might all be GOOD things, but it takes discernment to know the MOST EXCELLENT THINGS.

Will you get trained to teach Kids Church better, or read your Bible better? Will you give up some WORK time to do some MINISTRY? Will you STOP spending on ONE thing, so you can support an EXCELLENT missionary opportunity? Will you give up one night of TV a week, so you can show hospitality? It takes knowledge and insight to know the MOST excellent things.

You can see examples of this sort of decision making in other parts of the letter. Like down in v14. Paul’s writing from prison. And when word of it gets out, the option for the Christians is to shut up shop. Keep quiet and play it safe. Or speak out, and risk being put in prison themselves.

But, they show love that abounds in knowledge and insight. And so they’ve worked out what the most excellent thing is. V14.

14 Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.

Or there’s Paul himself, down in v22 of Ch 1. He’s in prison, and his thoughts have turned to . It’s possible. And Paul can’t help looking forward to it. But on the other hand, there’s so much work for him to be doing among the churches.

Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

He needs knowledge and insight to know the most excellent thing. Look at his conclusion. V25

5 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your PROGRESS AND JOY IN THE FAITH, 26 so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.

The progress and joy in the faith of OTHERS. That’s what’s BEST. Better than Paul’s comfort or release from suffering. And so, that’s what he’ll spend his life PURSUING.

  1. Pure and blameless until the day of Christ, Filled with fruit of righteousness

And you can see the RESULT of this sort of lifestyle in the NEXT part of Paul’s prayer. When people start living like THAT –making the knowledgeable and insightful loving decisions that choose what’s MOST IMPORTANT, it results in them being (v10 &11)

pure and blameless until the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ

That’s about EVERYONE being pure and blameless until the day of Christ. Those who are SHOWING the loving discernment, and those who are RECEIVING the love.

As YOU pursue what’s excellent, and show love to others, then YOU are showing the fruit that comes from being a disciple of Jesus – evidence of the right standing you have as God’s friend.

But you also encourage OTHERS to grow in maturity. Because their maturity and joy in the faith is the most excellent thing you can do for them, then THEY will be growing in those things that show the fruit of righteousness.

And notice it’s all to be done with one eye on the day of Christ. That’s judgment day. But I think Paul’s saying something MORE than just that they’ll keep doing these things UNTIL Christ returns. He’s not so much thinking of it like the HSC. The exams that hang over your head, like an omen making you work hard right to the end.

If that’s the idea Paul was trying to get across, he could have used the word â€%9 il”. Filled with the fruit of righteousness UNTIL the day of Christ. That’s what the NIV says. But Paul LITERALLY says “Filled with the fruit of righteousness INTO the day of Christ. Or TOWARDS the day of Christ.

I think he’s saying something much more attractive and compelling. His prayer is that Christians will so live/ that they recognise that their lives are HEADED TOWARDS the day of Christ. To the new heavens and the new earth, when the fruit of their lives will be ENTIRELY righteous. To recognise that the fruit they’re growing NOW is of the same type and flavour as the fruit they’ll, one day, show in perfection. The sweet first-fruits of a harvest to come.

They’re on the path towards a life that PERFECTLY reflects Jesus. They’re not there YET, but they’re ON THE WAY.

And living your life with that sort of perspective gives you the taste that builds your appetite for MORE. That seeks to grow more and more of the fruit of righteousness in ourselves, and in those around us.

And when Christians who view their INDIVIDUAL lives like that GATHER TOGETHER. Then church becomes a time-travelling outpost of heaven. An anticipation, a glimpse into the future where we see, and experience, even if in a clouded and dull way, the sort of love and character and flavour of perfect righteousness.

It’s the sort of pursuit of excellence Paul was consumed with. A future-oriented, determined and costly, single-minded commitment to discerning the most excellent things, and to work with all his strength to achieving them.

You can see that sort of desire in the way Paul treated his present life. Flip over the chapter 3 v12. We read it earlier. But I just want you to dwell on his words.

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I PRESS ON to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I PRESS ON toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Make that YOUR declaration. Make it your prayer that OTHERS may be able to declare it.

Pray for yourself, and others, that

your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ-to the glory and praise of God.

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