Unbroken Joy: The Contrary Path to Joy and Greatness

Riverside Church just launched a new teaching series on the book of Philippians, penned by the Apostle Paul while locked away in prison. Over the course of this study, you will learn invaluable life lessons and the secret of unbroken joy, found in Christ, in any and every circumstance.

Listen to this weeks sermon entitled The Contrary Path to Joy and Greatness from Philippians 1:18-26 by Brian Brookins:

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The following is a transcript of the sermon:

The Apostle Paul writes these words:

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.  For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.  If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.


Philippians is unique in the letters of Paul.  It is unusually personal.  It is biographical in nature.  In this passage we gain a look into the life of one of the greatest men that ever lived; an exceptional leader, an exceptional man of God, an apostle and author of many of our New Testament letters.

Here he is in prison, chained to at least one guard, perhaps two guards, one on each side.  He is on trial and he may be executed.  He opens the door to his soul and he lets us in and he exposes his thinking.  He tells us about a tension that he is experiencing.  He is not confused.  He is not discouraged.  He is not undone.  But there is this tension because he is not sure if he will live or die and he is not even sure which he hopes will happen.  He says, “I am hard pressed between the two.  If I die, I go to be with Jesus.  If I live, well, I live.  I’m not even sure which I want to happen.”  In fact, as Paul says when thinking out loud, “I think I would rather die.  I think I would rather go and be with Jesus.”

Sometimes we have those kinds of days.  We lay down, put our head on the pillow, and say, “Wow, I hope this all ends very soon.”  That is not what Paul was experiencing.  This was not weariness and fatigue from opposition and imprisonment.  This was delight in the prospect of seeing Christ.

What we see here is that the Apostle Paul exhibits two characteristics of his life that are the pathway to greatness, the pathway to his experience of joy, and they are just not at all what we expect.  In fact, there is the danger that we will hear them and agree with them in some sort of religious way, but they are so unusual that they are just shocking.  The two ideas are:

  1. For the Christian it is better to die than to live.

The second idea is:

2.  To live is to serve others.  To really live is to live life serving others.

He exposes these two ideas as the railroad tracks that the train of his life runs along.  This is his life.  He is saying, “For me, it is better if I die.  I go.  I’m with Christ.  But if I live, I will live to serve others.”  That, Fathers, is a tremendous message for you on Father’s Day.  I want to outline for you according to God’s word, according to the testimony of Paul and this text, the pathway to joy and greatness and that it is a contrary path.  It is an unusual path.  It is not something that we expect.

We discover here that Paul again is rejoicing and that he is continuing his theme of unbroken joy, unending, uninterrupted joy in Christ.  He begins our text today, “Yes, and I will rejoice.”  What is amazing about that statement is that it follows and it precedes a description of his life in prison.  Verses 12-18 beforehand and verses 18-26 that follow (that we read today) are describing his prison experience and how that is impacting the ministry to which God has called him.  In the middle of it, he is just saying, “Yeah, I’m so happy, I’m rejoicing!  Again, I’ll say it.  Again, I’m rejoicing!”

So we see this great theme:  Unbroken Joy, and we go deeper into it as we look at Paul’s experience.  We are going to break it down into three parts:

  1. The Where
  2. The What, and
  3. The How

Where it comes from, what it looks like, and how we do it.

Let’s jump in with the first:

I. Where it comes from, the source of joy.  I have a friend, Don McCullouch, who has written a book entitled Perfect Circle.  It is a husband’s guide to the six tasks of a contemporary Christian marriage.  He gives six things for husbands to do.  The first five, as I read the book, were somewhat what I expected, and they were delightful.  I could easily go to biblical passages and trace out those five tasks of a husband.  The sixth one surprised me, caught me off guard, but I found it extremely helpful.  The sixth one, the last one, was this:  that a husband, a Christian husband in today’s society must do this task–he must deal with anger and depression.  The moment I read that, I began to kind of go over many years of counseling experiences, trying to encourage and help couples biblically.  Immediately it registered with me how many times I have seen men who have this low grade anger and/or depression, which McCullouch describes as this intrusive, pervading negativity.

I don’t think that’s unique to husbands.  I don’t think it’s unique to men.  I don’t think it’s unique to that particular sphere of life.  We can all sometimes relate to it, but I saw this dynamic at work.  This was the result of McCullouch’s own observations in counseling.  I saw it biblically.  I had experienced it personally, and I saw it in counseling.  Many times adults will tell me, as if they are still children, “I was never able to please my Dad.  My Dad was never really ultimately happy with me.”  The man in their home, perhaps unintentionally, communicated a constant message of dissatisfaction and disapproval, so that the immediate individuals in his family deep in their hearts believed, “He’s just not happy in life or happy with me.”

I hold up today as a contrast to that picture the Apostle Paul, who is infused with the joy of God.  Let’s just describe it like this, because I think we tend to just not know how to get our hands around this concept of joy.  Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones helped me see this when he was teaching through the book of 1 John.  He said there are some characteristics to joy.  One of them is strength.  Joy produces this energy, this vitality, this strength.  It’s kind of a, “I can do anything” mentality.  What does that remind you of?  What does that, “I can do anything” mentality remind you of?  It reminds you, maybe, of Philippians 4:13.  Hopefully that doesn’t remind you of Tim Tebow and Philippians 4:13 written right under his eyes.  “I can do all things through him (through Christ) who gives me strength.”  That is the result of this abounding joy in the Apostle Paul’s life.

Now, in Philippians 4:13 the context there is not how we often use it… kind of this great athletic accomplishment, a career accomplishment, or “I can achieve, I can succeed.”  It’s much deeper than that.  I think that’s there, but actually the context is the Apostle Paul saying, “I have learned the secret of contentment.  I am content no matter what happens to me, no matter what I have, no matter what I don’t have.  I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”

That’s the second observation that Lloyd-Jones makes:  satisfaction.  Think about this.  Joy produces strength and satisfaction.  Look at the book of Philippians.  That is the testimony of Paul.  The man is in prison, tempted, no doubt, to think of all the things he could be accomplishing were he not there.  He is writing letters, influencing us 2000 years later because of the way he is reacting in the midst of these circumstances, saying “I am content in my heart.  I am satisfied.  I can do anything.  I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.”  That is the picture, Dad, which we are after today on Father’s Day 2015.  The joy of the Lord.  This pathway to joy and greatness.  The source of that joy is Jesus Christ.  That is Paul’s ambition.

Philippians is so quotable.  There are many verses in Philippians that you can just grab ahold of, memorize, quote, meditate on.  Verse 21 is one of those statements, one of those verses.  It is Paul’s vision statement for life.  “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”  Paul is saying to us that the source of his life, the source of his joy, the source of his accomplishment and achievement and greatness, though he probably wouldn’t use those words, is Jesus Christ.  Unbroken Joy is found only in Christ.

Before we leave this point (we will come back to it at the conclusion of the message), but before we leave it, let me just draw your attention to one aspect that we might miss here in this text.  When we say joy comes from Christ, it is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ and it is not dependent upon circumstances, sometimes it loses attractiveness for us because it feels like detachment.  Like, “Okay, it’s not dependent on circumstances so therefore it has nothing to do with circumstances.”  That is not the case.  In fact, as Paul winds down this section he says, “Listen, allright, I have thought about it.  I’m pretty sure I’m going to live because it’s better for you.”  That seems arrogant but he is not being arrogant.  He is just saying, “I am going to live to serve you, to help you progress in your joy and in your faith and I am going to come to you.  When I come to you, you are going to glory in Christ all the more.  You are going to abound in Christ all the more.  Won’t it be great when we are reunited?”

See what he is doing?  He is describing circumstances, events in life, where that joy is overflowing and abounding.  So, it’s not a detachment from what happens in your life, it’s just not a dependence upon those things.  It is a source of the well that never runs dry within you, springing up to Living Water.  Jesus is the Bread of Life.  He is the Living Water.  He is the Resurrection and the Life.  He abides in the heart of the believer.  He is the source of unending joy.  He is infinite goodness, infinite wisdom, infinite power residing in you.  To live is Christ.  Jesus Christ is the source of joy and therefore the pathway to greatness; satisfaction, strength flowing from joy, leading us to greatness.

II. WhatWhat does it look like?  What is the character of joy?  Here we see Paul laying out these two very contrary ideas.  I don’t want you to be confused by the word “contrary.”  I was thinking recently of a book, The Contrarians Guide to Leadership.  It was written by Steven B. Sample who was the president of The University of Southern California for about two decades, for an extended period of time.  He had great accomplishments.  More recently, he has retired.  He wrote a book, The Contrarians Guide to Leadership.  In it, his premise is that leadership is very situational, that it is great to know principles, but leadership is not in his opinion as simple as just taking principles and applying them.  There has got to be an ability on the part of the leader to think uniquely, to be a contrarian in a given circumstance, to see what others don’t see.

I don’t know if I entirely agree with this premise, but I have found it very interesting.  He talks about how he would go seasons in his life, six months at a time, where he wouldn’t read the newspaper, wouldn’t watch the news.  Now, this is a university president.  He really needs to stay up on contemporary thought and ideas and events.  But he would purposely remove all of that from his life because he believed that all the media and really all of society takes part in this kind of herd mentality, this herd thinking; that even when people who are flowing along in that current try to be original, try to be unique, they are unaware of how this group-think is influencing them and everything they think.  He found that when he removed himself from that, that he would get his news from relationships, from people.  Instinctively he would know the people and he would know their biases because he was personally connected to them, so he filtered everything they said through his understanding of their proclivities and biases.  He said in the end he felt like he was actually getting much more accurate information.  He explored this avenue because he believed he needed to be able to swim upstream to be an effective leader in his day.  In fact, he tried to make the case to say the 20th century had a lack of great leaders because so much was changed because of technology.  There was an inability for leaders to apply truth that was needed in that day.

Here is the point for you and me.  It’s a point, men, that I think has particular relevance for us, especially for dads.  These ideas are really strange and foreign.  It is better for you if you die.  Now, you have no permission on the part of God to take your life.  In fact, it has been said how foolish it is that the last act in this life would be rebellion against God where you take your life and then you stand before him.  Not a wise thing to do.  For many reasons, obviously that is not what we are advocating here.  But the radical nature of this idea:  that to die is better, I will be with the Lord–  this truth has permeated deep in Paul’s soul.

Think about what you think about when you think about great leaders:  fearless and selfless.  That is what Paul is modeling for us.  He is ready to die and he lives to serve other people.  This is the character, this is the “what” of joy.  This is your pathway, men, to joy.  It comes from Christ.  We say, “I am ready now to go be with him.  To die is better than to live and to live is to serve others.”  That is ultimately the bottom line for Paul.  He says, “You know what?  It would be better off for me if I would just go be with Christ, but if I’m here I can help you grow.  I can help you progress.  I can help you advance.  I will serve you.  That will further my joy as I live not for myself, but for you.”

Fearless.  Selfless.  In verse 25 he describes that his hope is to help them progress in faith and in joy.  He is saying to them (notice there the connection) that joy comes from faith in Christ.  Christ is the source, and through Christ, through their faith in Christ, they experience joy, and his joy in this life is to help them progress in that.  He is ready to die.  Until he dies, he is going to live his life serving other people.

I borrowed from this passage a few weeks ago when we were looking at the subject of mercy ministry.  We talked a little bit about bucket lists.  Do you remember the bucket list conversation?  I asked us the question, “Why does a Christian need a bucket list?”  There are a couple of ways to go about this, but if the idea is, “Before I die, before I kick the bucket, I want to experience certain things,” it just doesn’t make sense for the Christian who is on his or her way to paradise to be thinking about what they are going to experience before they get to paradise.  It is like, “Today is my birthday.  I work in a warehouse.  I am going out to the best steakhouse in the state of Florida and I just want to run up to the vending machine to get one more bag of potato chips before I go.”

Listen, I would love to learn to ride horses.  In heaven, I will have a horse that flies and talks to me.  There’s just no comparison.  I know I’m old now.  You are saying, “Brian, that’s easy for you to say.  You’ve done it all.  You have lived through it all.”  I know what it is to be a Christian young man.  We heard in our service today a young adult describe his experience of being in college and I too can remember, saying to God, “Lord, I want you to come back, but wait till I get married.  Wait till I get married.  Yes, wait till I get married.  Wait till I experience sexual intimacy.  Wait till….I want to do these things!”  I want to tell you, marriage is wonderful.  All those things are great.  Heaven is better, much better.  No comparison.  I know it’s hard for us to translate.  The best things in this life just don’t compare to anything and everything that we will experience when we see Jesus Christ face to face.  As a result, Paul was fearless!  As John Newton said, “Why would we complain when God takes us home early?”  It’s getting to punch out early and you get paid for the full day!  Do we understand?  Has this truth gripped our hearts?  To die is gain.  And to live is to work.  It is to serve others.  And there is joy in serving others.

This is powerfully illustrated in Luke, chapter 10.  Would you turn to Luke, chapter 10?  Let’s just take a moment and look at the example of this in the life of Jesus.  Jesus sends out the 72 to go on a mission.  He doesn’t go with them.  He sends them out.  He tells them, “Take nothing with you.  Go and announce the message of my good news, of my kingdom.”  They go and have tremendous success.

Now, I am speaking directly to men and to fathers.  The great temptation of our lives is this lust for success.  It’s not unique to men; I don’t want to be chauvinistic here.  I know it characterizes all of us, but there is this intense desire, men, that you experience.  I want to succeed.  I want my kids to see me as a success.  I want my wife to see me as a success.  That’s not all bad, not all of that ambition is bad.  But it’s directly addressed here, because the 72 go out and they realize, “We have authority!  We have power in the name of Jesus!”  They experience the rollback of evil in the coming of Christ and the announcing of his kingdom.  This is powerful, heady stuff!  This is the conflict of the ages.  Jesus has appeared on the scene.  He has commissioned 72 to go and to fight evil.  Listen, men, God has called you to do that.  There is a mandate in Christ for you to oppose that which is evil.  Jesus came to strike down and eliminate the works of the devil.

They go and they come back and they are elated!  What does Jesus say?  He says in verse 18: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.  Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.”  Here it is, verse 20:  “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this (do you see our theme of joy?) that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”  The source of joy is Christ and there are these two great truths in terms of the character of how that joy plays out in your life.  One of them is:  “I am ready to die because my joy is really looking forward to heaven.  My name is written in God’s book of life.”  That’s wonderful, but look at what happens.  In that same hour, he, Jesus, rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said:

I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

Do you see what Jesus is doing here?  All this has happened.  Jesus sent out the 72.  They have come back successful.  He talks to them.  He teaches them.  He equips them.  And then, in this moment of exhilaration he breaks out into rejoicing in the Spirit.  This is a picture of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, rejoicing!  What does he say, “God, look at what you’ve done!  Look at your children!  You didn’t give these things to the powerful of this world.  You gave them to the poor, to the destitute of this world.  You chose children to take the message of the ages to the world!”  Jesus is overdone with joy in you!

He says, “Listen, you can’t figure this out.  You can’t save yourself.”  He chooses you.  He chooses to reveal himself to you!  God did that!  It’s amazing!  Jesus rejoiced in it!  And he wants you to live a fearless, courageous life!   Your name is written in the book of heaven and it can’t be blotted out!  So do not fear.

These are contrary truths.  Most people are saying that for me to live is success, accumulation, pleasure, self-promotion.  Paul says it’s Christ, and it is expressed in this character:  I am ready and I live for others.

III. The final point is the practice of how we do it.  The what is ready to die, living for others.  The how, the practice – let’s start with this idea.  Maybe it will help us to unpack the phrase “to live is Christ.”  What does Paul mean when he says, “For me to live is Christ?”  There are clues right here in the text.  The first one is found in verse 20 where he speaks about magnifying Christ.  He says, “My eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but with full courage now as always Christ will be honored.”  The best translation for that word is “magnified.”  It’s megalyno.  You hear the word mega?  It’s “to make large, to make great, to make more visible.”  You can see how that verse is directly an explanation of what it means when we say, “To live is Christ.”  He is saying that my ambition, my eager expectation, my hope, the longing of my heart is to magnify Christ in my body, whether I live or die.

Okay, how do we do this?”

1. We set ourselves a goal, we set our hearts to magnify Christ.  Think of it this way:  your joy increases as God’s glory increases.  The more you experience God’s glory, the more it’s manifested; the larger it is made in your life, the greater your joy.  Listen, moms, dads, everybody:  again, this is contrary.  We think, “I like it when my glory gets a little bit of show-time.”  Right?  I want my credit.  I want my place.  Hey – it’s Father’s Day, right?  Let’s fuss a little bit about Dad.  We all have that desire, but this drives the world.  We applaud this kind of self-promotion.  Paul says, “Listen, here is how this works in our lives:  I have this driving ambition to exalt Christ, and as that happens the experience of my joy is abundantly increasing.”  So, it means to magnify Christ.

2. Secondly, it means to know Christ.  In verse 21, this theme verse, Paul tells us, “To die is gain.”  In verse 23 he tells us that to depart is to be with Christ.  He is describing for us a relational experience.  He knows Christ by the Spirit of God, but he is longing to know him perfectly, to know him face to face.  When he dies and passes from this life, his experience, his knowledge of Christ will dramatically increase, which allows him to say, “For me to die is gain.”  He will unpack this theme for us in chapter 3, verses 8-10:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith– that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…

Paul’s passion is to know Christ, to share in the fellowship of his suffering, the power of his resurrection, to know him deeply, personally, intimately.  Magnify ChristHow do we do this?  How do we practice it in life?  Magnify Christ, knowing Christ, growing in the knowledge of him.

3. Rely upon Christ.  We saw it there in the verses I just read.  Chapter 3:8-10:  My righteousness, my right standing with God comes not through myself, but through faith in Christ, and I rely upon him.  It is seen in this text in a very unusual way.  It’s very helpful.  It was in the beginning of the text, so go back to verse 19.  Paul says, “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance…”  The word “help” there is actually the word “supply,” the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.  Here is what Paul is saying: “Philippians, you are praying for me and God is giving his Spirit.  He is helping me as his Spirit is given in my life.”

You see, he was saved and made right with God by trusting in Christ.  He didn’t earn it.  He received it as a gift.  Now he is living through the strength that the Spirit of God is giving in his life.  There is a dependence, a reliance.  His source of joy is Jesus.  And he has learned in prayer, and in faith, and in fellowship with others to constantly rely upon the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Yesterday, once again we were in an elders’ meeting.  An elder shared something personal.  We stopped.  We took time.  We prayed for him.  This is a common experience for the Christian.  We rely upon God and the help that comes to us through the presence of the Holy Spirit.  We pray.  We fellowship.  God moves.  He works.  The result is an increase in joy, a security in Christ.  His life cannot be taken from me.  Eternity cannot be taken from me.  There is a satisfaction.  There is a power and a strength.

Dads, I would like to end with this.  All of us, it’s easy for us to come to a moment like Father’s Day, a day which should be a day of celebration.  But for many of us there are thoughts about what could have been, what was not, what if.  Because of sin, we have regrets.  We have hurts.  We have our own failures.  We have hurts and offenses.  This is a message that invites us to say that all of that is not the source of our joy.  Jesus Christ is the source of our joy and he stands ready today to redeem all of that.  God’s intention for you is not to live in the regret of where you blew it, or how someone else offended you or how you are just a little disappointed or deeply hurt.  God wants to liberate you from all of that.  Because Jesus Christ is truly the source of joy, the path to joy and greatness.

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