The Joy of Contentment
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Philippians 4:10–23
“THE JOY OF CONTENTMENT”
10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. 15 And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. 16 Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. 18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.
21 Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. 22 All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.
23 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
One of the reasons that “prosperity theology” is so harmful is found in its ability to insert a paragraph of heresy into a volume of truth, thereby transforming its message entirely. What seems so “right” and “appealing” to the reader is because he or she has not gone far enough into the book to recognize the real plot of the story and who the Main Character actually is. Or, if they have, they have not paid enough attention to realize that they, at some point, have wandered off the path that the Author intended and were on their way toward a “dead-end” conclusion.
When Paul wrote the letter that we know as his Epistle to the Philippians, he did so in order to encourage his readers to “keep the main thing the main thing” in terms of Christian living. Repeatedly he reminded them that, having repented of their sins and embraced God’s provision of salvation through the death of His Son, they were to find their “joy” and fulfillment in Jesus Christ. In Him alone! While many benefits accrued to the believing sinner by virtue of their faith in Christ, their focus was to remain firmly fixed on the Giver of those gifts...and not on the gifts themselves.
This has been the writer’s theme throughout this small but encouraging letter. We have noted throughout this recent series of messages that believers are commanded to “Rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 4:4). We are to find our ultimate “joy” in Him...not a “manufactured joy” on our part, but an appropriation of that “joy” that the Lord Himself produces in the lives of those who are secure in Him (cf. Galatians 5:22-23). Therefore, when we are charged to “Rejoice in the Lord,” the implication is that we are to “find our joy” in Him.
Paul sets himself up as an example. Writing as a prisoner in Rome and awaiting trial, separated from the ministry to which he had devoted himself, as well as from the colleagues whom he loved and with whom he faithfully served, longing to know how the churches were getting along that he had planted, he nevertheless maintained his “joy” in the Lord and greatly longed for others to do the same.
Last week we saw that the outcome of finding our “joy” in the Lord was “peace.” Not the absence of conflict, but what is described in verse 7 as “the peace of God” and verse 9 as “the God of peace.” It is “the peace of God” that is able to “guard (our) hearts and (our) minds in Christ Jesus” in every circumstance of life. And as its Great Provider and Sustainer, it is “the God of peace” who will make His personal presence known and real to us.
As we enter into this final section of the Philippian letter, Paul sums up what is experientially meant by “the peace of God” and “the God of peace” with another word: “contentment.” Specifically, contentment is the outflow of “the peace of God” produced by “the God of peace,” in whom “joy” is found.
There is perhaps on our part the tendency to equate “contentment” with “complacency.” That is a far-cry from how the term is used here. In fact, the particular word that is found in verse 11 (“αυταρκηs”) was one used proudly by the ancient Stoics in reference to “resourcefulness” and “self-sufficiency.” With regard to this, Gordon Fee has noted that...
The word translated “content” expresses the ultimate goal of Stoicism: to live above need and abundance in such a way as to be “self-sufficient,” not meaning that one is oblivious to circumstances, but that the truly autarkes person is not determined by such. One is “independent” of others and of circumstances in the sense of being free from their either causing distress or effecting serenity.
Paul is the only New Testament writer who uses the term and he does so sparingly (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:8 and 2 Timothy 6:6). When he does use it, he attaches a Christian perspective to it. No Christian is “self-sufficient” or “resourceful in and of himself.” Rather, as we read in 2 Corinthians 9:8, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency (that’s the word) in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.”
So, as we consider this concluding section of this letter, there is much we can learn from being in a “contented” state. We’ll look first at...
The lessons retained by means of contentment (verses 10-13).
Paul writes in verse 10, “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me.” Were we to have begun reading at this point in the letter, we might assume that the apostle was complaining and feeling sorry for himself. But just the opposite is true. Instead, he is affirming his readers for having renewed their “concern” for him after having been separated from him for so long. The picture is that of a plant that has lain dormant all winter, and which sprouts and blossoms again when the spring of the year arrives.
The “concern” of the Philippians for him had been present all along, but as the rest of verse 10 explains, they “had no opportunity” to show that concern or to minister to his needs. Incarcerated in Rome, he had been inaccessible to them. For a time they had not even known his whereabouts. Now, thanks to the selfless ministry of Epaphroditus, of whom we read in chapter 2(:25-30), they had located him and were able to pass along some type of “love gift” to him.
This section has been described by some as Paul’s “thank you note” to them. At first reading, it sounds as if he is saying—as we sometimes do—“You really shouldn’t have.” Actually, he is using the occasion to make a strong theological and practical point that takes us through verse 13.
Obviously in “need” himself, he chooses not to focus on that, but rather to explain the result of finding his “joy” in the Lord. Seen within that context, his words present a challenge to those of us who are in Christ. He writes, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” In verse 12, he tells us what he learned on his road to “contentment”: “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”
Now that’s “contentment!” “In whatever situation” and “in any and every circumstance,” Paul had “learned” and was able to retain and now “knew” what he called “the secret” of being “satisfied” “in the Lord.” Actually, there was no “secret” to it at all. The term Paul employs here (“μυεω”) was used in reference to the initiatory rites of the “mystery cults” of Paul’s day. Here Paul insists that his “initiation” into a life of “contentment” with Christ came by way of the varied circumstances he encountered everyday as he carried out his apostolic ministry.
The “secret,” as he describes it is found in verse 13, which may be one of most misapplied verses in all of Scripture: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This was Paul’s “prosperity theology,” but it was a far-cry from the “spin” that today’s “health and wealth” messengers put on it. While these self-professed “preachers” are all “on-board” for “facing plenty,” they have little regard for “hunger.” And while they love to promise “abundance,” they struggle to explain “need.” So, if God does not guarantee a “name-it, claim-it” relationship with Him, what then is the “secret” of Paul’s “contentment”?
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” How often have you seen that verse misinterpreted to mean, “I can do anything I set my mind to do...with God’s help, of course.” It sounds so promising, but it is not sound biblical theology. In fact, it can be misleading and quite damaging.
Hudson Taylor was the founder of the China Inland Mission. Nearly three decades following his death, his son Howard authored a widely-read book entitled Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret. In it he recounted that for many years Hudson Taylor had labored hard in the ministry of the Gospel, believing that he was trusting God to meet his needs. In spite of that, he found little joy or freedom in the work that he was doing. One day he received a letter from a friend, a line of which read, “It is not by trusting our own faithfulness, but by looking away to the Faithful One.” This he committed to do with every one of his remaining days, as challenging and as difficult as they would prove to be.
It was the same “secret” that Paul had learned much earlier. Out of both encouraging and discouraging times, he discovered that “contentment” was found by fully entrusting himself to “the Faithful One,” Christ Jesus Himself...the One who was able to empower Him in the work to which he had been called by the strength being imparted to him. Especially in our “weakness,” as he points out elsewhere, it is by God’s strength that God’s servants are made strong (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9).
We should mention, as John Calvin and others have been quick to point out, that the “all things” mentioned here is not a “blank check” given by God, whereby we write upon it whatever our need, want, or request happen to be. Rather, it refers to those things that relate to His calling on our lives. As Hudson Taylor so very clearly put it, “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s provision.” It is in Him where our “contentment” is found.
“Contentment” is not merely an academic course in our Lord’s curriculum. There are actual benefits—at times, tangible ones—associated with it. In verses 14 through 20, we see...
The blessings received by means of contentment (verses 14-20).
Lest we may still somehow be thinking that Paul was ungrateful for the gift the Philippians had sent, he begins this paragraph by commending them: “Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble.” Even as he languished in confinement hundreds of miles from them, they were his “partners” in the Gospel. It was a relationship that had begun ten years earlier when he had first introduced them to Christ in Acts 16.
You may recall from that account, that after being beaten and jailed—events that had actually led to the birth of the church in Philippi—Paul and his traveling companions were escorted from the city and invited not to return. That may well have been what he references in verse 15, where he writes, “When I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.”
These were true “pioneer missionaries,” with no mission board to support them...only the gifts of God’s people. And, at this point, only the Philippian believers came to their aid. Their generosity is further elaborated upon in verse 16: “Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.”
I can’t help but read these words and relate them to our contemporary support of missionaries in the work they are called to do abroad. While it is true that the Sparks family receives their support through the International Mission Board and indirectly through our giving to the Lottie Moon Offering, it can all become so “impersonal” if we are not careful. Speaking with Harvey in recent days, he related how he, Jenifer, and the kids miss many of the simple things from home...things like macaroni and cheese, ketchup, and certain spices that are not available in Mozambique. I have asked them to prepare a “want list” of items like these so that we may begin compiling items and pass them along to them in the near future. And what they most earnestly seek is our prayers, it is that “personal touch” we are able to supply that keeps them most connected with us...and us with them.
I believe that this was something of what Paul may have had in mind when he told the Philippian church in verse 17, “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit.” Whatever the gift they had sent to the apostle, it was probably not a large sum. Perhaps it was little more than the equivalent of a few dollars, or possibly a small “care package.” It was not the gift itself that brought Paul “joy,” but rather the fact that they had given it. He sought the blessing it would bring to them for being able to share in his ministry. He wanted it to add to their “account,” their “investment” in the work of the Gospel.
Someone has written, “We’ll miss contentment if keeping rather than releasing becomes our objective. We too often love things and use people, when we should be using things and loving people. We are most content when we’re grateful for what we have and generous to those who need.”
As for Paul personally, he writes in verse 18, “I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” The imagery that he employs brings to mind the Old Testament sacrificial system and the offerings that were prescribed and pleasing to the Lord.
Epaphroditus, whom we met in chapter 2(:25-30), was the man who had hand-delivered the Philippians’ gift to Paul, risking his life and becoming gravely ill in the process. Such selfless sacrifice on his part had made the reception of the gift even sweeter and more meaningful to Paul. Now, that same fellow-servant was about to be dispatched back to Philippi and would be carrying this very letter which was at that very moment in the process of being composed.
A.T. Robertson, the renowned Greek scholar from the last century, wrote, “It is the spiritual reward that spurs men into the ministry and holds them to it.” With the proper motivation, we are able not only to persevere in the work to which God calls us but to find “contentment”...“contentment” in Him.
Paul is thus able to conclude in verse 19, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” This is another verse that is widely misinterpreted and misapplied by the proponents of “prosperity theology.” Notice, first of all, that what is promised is the meeting of our “need,” not our “greed.”
This promissory statement has inherent within it several provisos that can be easily overlooked. What is meant by “every need of yours” being amply supplied by God’s “riches in glory” is that God’s “supply” is assured in God’s way and in keeping with His good purposes and God’s timing. Our every “beck and call” is not what He promises to respond to.
If I could paraphrase Paul on this point, I believe what he is saying to the Philippians is, “You have generously supplied my physical requirements by your gifts, and God is the Rewarder of such self-sacrificial service. He will not disappoint you in the full supply of your need as well.”
Perhaps giving momentary pause in order to reflect upon that thought launches the apostle into a doxology in verse 20: “To our God and Father be glory forever and ever”...to which he adds his “Amen.”
As we consider this blessed thought, you and I ought to affix our own affirmation to it. David wrote in Psalm 37(:25), “I have been young and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging bread.” The Lord of David’s day remains the Lord of ours. The blessing of contentment comes in knowing Him in practice as well as in theory, and in entrusting Him to supply our every “need” according to His perfect plan for us.
It is at this point in the letter where we believe Paul stopped dictating to the one who was recording his words, picked up the pen himself, and with is own hand added these final words of benediction. In verses 21 through 23, we find...
The greetings renewed by means of contentment (verses 21-23).
Generally, we tend to pass over the concluding words of a New Testament epistle without giving them much thought. If indeed “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable” (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16), then that is obviously a mistake.
In verse 21, Paul passes along his greetings to his fellow “saints” in Philippi. The wording suggests not a general salutation to the community of believers lumped together as a whole, but an acknowledgment of each member of the church individually. Every one of them was significant to the apostle.
He further extends to the Philippians the greetings from “the brothers” who were with him in Rome...those who likely had been and continued to be his fellow-laborers in the Gospel, and happened to be with him at that time. From chapter 2, and verse 19, it would seem likely that Timothy would have been among those “brothers.”
Now in verse 22, he adds, “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.” There were other believers in Rome when Paul arrived, and they too would have been included in the greeting being passed along to the church in Philippi. Special mention is made of “those of Caesar’s household.” While these could have included relatives of the Emperor, as well as other people of note, the reference most likely is to those who were employed to serve Caesar in one capacity or another. How many of these individuals Paul may have actually led to faith in Christ, one can only speculate. But we can presume there would have been some, if not many.
The letter closes with a prayer: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” It is a prayer that finds its foundation on the theme and substance of the entire epistle: joy that produces peace manifests itself through contentment. It is a joy that comes to us by “grace.” It cannot be bought, borrowed, or stolen. It cannot be earned. It comes to us when we acknowledge of need for it and receive it by faith.
On this note, Paul laid down the pen, perhaps rolled up the scroll, and handed it to Epaphroditus. Everything in this letter—from beginning to end, and everywhere in between—was founded on “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” To miss that is to risk misappropriating everything that the apostle has been inspired by God to record for our instruction and edification.
If we are to fully appreciate this letter as it is meant to be understood, we would do well to return to the 16th chapter of the Book of Acts where the story of Paul’s relationship first began. It is there that we learn that it had not been his intention to cross over to Macedonia, but when he perceived it to have been the call of God, he made his way there with haste.
Arriving and taking several days to survey the city, he and his team first proclaimed the Gospel to a group of women along a river bank. There Lydia became his first European convert. Immediately her house became the site of the first church in Philippi.
As Paul’s preaching began making inroads in and around the city, he and Silas were arrested by local authorities, beaten, and cast into prison. It was here where Paul’s “joy”—that “joy” “in the Lord” which brought “peace” and “contentment,” and of which he writes in this epistle—was first made evident. As the two men sang songs in the night, “there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened” (Acts 16:25-27).
Fearing for his life, the Philippian jailer fearfully cried the words that all of us will one day be compelled to cry: “What must I do to be saved?” It is here that we read the glorious response: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31).
Search for it wherever else we might try, but there is no “joy,” no “peace,” no “contentment” apart from a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. But let me clear. If it is “joy,” “peace,” or “contentment” that you seek, you will not likely find them. What must be sought is Christ—Christ Himself. For it is “in Him”—and “in Him” alone that these blessings—and so much more—are to be found (cf. Matthew 6:33). Do you know this Christ, and do you find yourself “in Him” this morning?
The message of the Epistle to the Philippians might be summarized as a reminder that as His followers, we are “in Christ” and He is “in us.” Our security is founded by our relationship with Him and not in any way based on our performance. Because this is so, we are commanded to “rejoice in the Lord”...a command that He gives us grace to fulfill. And as we “rejoice,” we are promised “peace”—His peace—the evidence of which is “contentment.”
In anticipation of His arrival, the psalmist spoke of this Christ and the “contentment” He would bring, saying, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forever more.”
I earnestly pray that “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” And my hope is that you have already discovered that “contentment” is found in Him alone.