Human generosity can lead to divine provision (Philippians 4:19). The faith-filled kindness of the Philippians resulted in a prophetic promise of divine care. But notice the provision is according to God’s standards, not theirs. Furthermore this was a prophetic revelation to a specific church. We are not permitted to extract it for ourselves. This does not say that God will always pay back every generous Christian so that he or she is never in need of anything. If so an apology would be in store for the millions of believers who suffer in their poverty or die for lack of food, shelter, medicine, or physical safety. The one who met needs will be the one who has his or her needs met, but we must embrace divine economics. God is not an insurance company that pays out restorative settlements. Often the provision comes in the form of grace to handle the ensuing trial. Psalm 18:29 says, “For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall”. Sometimes we jump the wall, but more often than not we simply need to plough through the army of discouragements, opponents, liars, and scarcity. This too is provision.
The Bible equates coveting with idolatry (Colossians 3:5). As we know, coveting is basically being jealous of someone else’s stuff or situation. This leads to dissatisfaction and a lack of thankfulness. Wage slaves sacrifice the best years of their lives in pursuit of money as a way to get what they want. However money itself is rarely the idol. Even those who hoard cash are really worshipping a sense of security, not the increasingly worthless paper. Let’s admit that material wealth can be an enjoyable stewardship from God. We could call it a blessing in most cases. In our context (a crucial distinction) prosperity should characterize believers under normal circumstances. They accept the biblical principle that the diligent become rich and rule (Proverbs 10:4 and 12:24). They learn to trust God in the face of surplus rather then poverty. Herein lies the danger. In our prosperity, money powers the idol factory. We can easily and freely spend on whatever the lusts of the flesh, eyes, and pride in possessions could call for. One of the keys to stewardship then is learning how to deliberately live in dependence upon God. Idol destruction is a perennial battle for rich and poor alike.
I need to report a theft. The word blessed has been stolen and replaced with a knockoff that means comfortable. Hence we cry blessing when we have surplus money. Says who? I guess Herod the Great was blessed and John the Baptist wasn’t. We have to be really careful the wealth/blessing connection because “We are rich. The Lord has blessed us!” can easily morph into “You don’t have much money, so I guess God hasn’t blessed you…poor soul”. Nonsense. The truth is that blessings (literally happiness’s) from God are not contingent upon material prosperity. So how did this happen? The answer in part is that greed becomes easier to justify. The rich can idolize money, pitch out the blessing line, and sanctify hoarding. After all, God made them rich. Good thing none of us are rich. We would be different. Then again, it’s not what I have, but how I feel about it. The word will be rescued when we stop instinctively correlating blessing and wealth. It betrays an underlying assumption that God loves us only when he makes us comfortable. This in turn fuels the risk of sinning against him by accusing him of wrong when we face scarcity.
The Philippians were clearly told to expect a return on their ministry investment (Phil 4:19). By apostolic-prophetic promise, a guarantee is made that the Lord will provide them with divine compensation for their sacrificial gift. This reward may not be financial, but it will be a blessing that results in true happiness, one that blooms with indifference to material prosperity. It also implies and act of faith that you could give generously out of your own poverty and still be blessed. God injects an alien happiness into our lives rather than forcing us to suck it out of our circumstances.
So the Philippians will receive credit, and be provided for because they gave. This is different than buying a status blessing. It’s not like becoming a high level patron at the local art gallery. Blessings from God cannot be bought. Instead they are a fractional reinstatement of the blessed relationship we lost in the Garden, and anticipate in the Millennial Kingdom. The first blessing is salvation, reconciliation, forgiveness, and adoption. The second blessing (let’s reclaim that term) is the joy-fruit of obedience. The ultimate blessing is heaven. Obedient generosity means life only get’s better.
Man was intimate with God in the Garden of Eden, and therefore truly blessed. The next time will be in the Millennial Kingdom, again resulting in real blessing. The valley in between is crossed on hands and knees, clawing back that blessed closeness with the creator. Counterfeit closeness is ubiquitous for modern evangelicals. It usually comes through knowledge disengaged from the Spirit, mistaking blessedness as a function of how much we know. If we try to grow close to God by studying fact about God then we substitute intimacy with cold expertise, unwittingly calcifying our heart toward the deeper, simpler things. Jesus does not say, “It is more blessed to learn than to receive”. In Philippians Paul links closeness with giving. We can’t buy closeness with God anymore than we can buy closeness with our spouse. What it will do is evacuate the substitutes. Was the rich young ruler really “blessed”? Paul denies coveting (Acts 20:33), and had nothing interrupting his relationship with God. The world’s stuff held no gravitational pull for him. Salvation can be found in no earthly substitute, and if we treasure our true reward (Christ through the gospel), we will gladly abandon imitation blessings.
Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”. Where? This quote is nowhere in the gospels, but came to Paul as a special revelation that he shared with the Ephesian elders before moving on. Being blessed means living in close communion with the living God. The word really could be translated “happy”. So if we want to be happy – truly and totally happy – we need to give. True happiness is not linked to what we have. It is being at peace with yourself and your creator. Giving is one of many blessings a follower of Jesus can enjoy. This blessing can be added to the other beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-10. What becomes evident however is that these beatitudes are all estranged from material prosperity. Consider being broken, mourning, meek, desperately seeking personal holiness, showing mercy to the irresponsible, ignoring the world’s priorities, promoting peace instead of winning, and suffering the persecution that comes from all of this. Don’t assume that by “it is more blessed to give” Jesus is saying, “it is better for us financially and will increase our standing in the community”. It likely won’t. The test is whether we can trust God anyway.
The gospel and generosity are tightly connected in Paul’s final words to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:32-35). Understanding this will help us fully appreciate Philippians 4:19. He commends them to the God and the “word of grace” meaning the gospel. This means handing them over to the gospel with confidence that they will behave accordingly. The same word is used of handing over our souls during a trial (1 Peter 4:19), and Jesus handing over his spirit at death (Luke 23:46). Basically you need to turn yourself in to the gospel like you would to the authorities. If you do, there is a promised inheritance. Secondly Paul talks about generosity. He poured himself out in obedience to Christ who said it is more blessed to give than to receive. If you are taken into custody by the gospel, the result will be radical generosity. He doesn’t shift gears. He doesn’t change subjects by proclaiming indifference to material wealth. One leads to the other. By implication, coveting and greed are the opposite of living according to the word of grace. But it’s my stuff, you protest. Jesus shows that releasing what is rightfully yours to benefit others is living out the gospel you claim to believe (Philippians 2:5-8).
I recently came into the possession of a 50-pound sack of wheat berries; grain to the uninitiated. This is an enormous paper sack of infinitesimally small particles, sold in quantities large enough to warrant the use of a forklift or trained elephant when moving. Yet it is held closed at both ends by one of the most brilliant feats of engineering the world has ever known. I’m not exaggerating here. By pulling a tiny string at the very corner of the bag, the most remarkable thing happens. As you pull, scores of interlocking loops of string along the edge of the bag give way in succession without any effort at all; no ripping, cutting, or stabbing is necessary. If only the sellers of packaged deli meat could be so thoughtful. This is a favorite activity of mine because I love – I mean love – elegant solutions that just work. Philippians 4:19-20 functions the same way. These verses are simple, elegant, and effortlessly tie everything else together in the letter. Trying to remove them would undermine the integrity of the message. In Bible reading, we can’t ignore the familiar way epistles end. Doing so robs us of enjoying a truly elegant ending.
The pronounced absence of thankfulness in our day results in our being caught off guard by sincere expressions of appreciation. In my experience, such expressions are most often seen within the fellowship of believers. We are taught at home and in Sunday school to be thankful, and this in proportion to the gift. Therefore Paul’s statement in Philippians 4:11 is arresting. He begins what should be his thank you note dismissing the need for any help. The situation apparently didn’t warrant such generosity. He commends the Philippians, but never actually says thank you. How disappointed his mother would be if she read this. The truth is he immediately turns the focus off himself, and onto God, reinforcing the disconnection between joy and financial security. In fact, his thanksgiving is directed to God alone for the fruitfulness of the believers in Philippi, and the credit they receive for their support. They gave sacrificially (2 Corinthians 8:1-5), but they did not receive Apostolic praise. Instead they received much more, namely confirmation that God himself would respond in kind. We still need to be thankful, but this lesson from Paul should help us keep the right perspective when that doesn’t happen.
British Soldier: You call yourself a patriot, and loyal subject to the Crown?
Hawkeye: I do not call myself subject to much at all.
I’ve reached a milestone of sorts, able to clearly recall events from 20 years ago. This reality was pressed upon me today when considering the lines above from one of my favorite films, The Last of the Mohican’s (1992). The scene is one of many beautifully constructed sequences displaying the scant regard the main character has for the colonial law of pre-America. Offering him British favor was like Belshazzar offering Daniel third place in Babylon. There is something irresistible about a character that can’t be bought, and doesn’t care what you do to him. The apostle Paul is a first century Hawkeye. For him the inane establishment was Rome, and the offer was his freedom if he would just stop preaching the gospel. My guess is that if Caesar himself walked up and told him to stop in order to show what a loyal subject of the Empire he was, Paul would say apart from Jesus Christ, he isn’t subject to much at all. With that attitude, you hold all the cards.