Christian Experience

John Alfred Trench

Notes of an Address at Streatham, London, 1910, on Philippians 4

I suppose there is no part of the Word of God so characterized by joy as this epistle to the Philippians. We might have thought that Ephesians would be the epistle of joy, where God has been pleased to give us the fullest unfolding of the blessedness of the Christian position, as in Christ in the heavenlies, both individually and corporately. But it is not so stamped with this character of joy as the epistle before us. In Philippians it is the path of the servant in which Christ is known as the power and joy of going on down here through the daily circumstances of the path, whatever they may be. We might have said it was very fine in theory, but absolutely unworkable and impracticable if the Spirit of God had not been pleased to present this life of divine and heavenly joy in the experience of one of the Lord’s beloved servants down here. He had been enabled to live out this life of joy in his own experience. It is not a joy that depends on the circumstances of the path. We are never left to be dependent on circumstances for joy. The keynote of the epistle is, “My brethren, rejoice in the Lord.” When you think of Paul’s circumstances you will admit they were anything but joyful. Brethren actually emboldened by his imprisonment to go and preach Christ out of contention, “supposing to add affliction to his bonds,” but all only turns to joy for the Lord’s dear servant. He reflects that it is only Christ they can preach. They would not be listened to if they did not preach Christ, and so in this he finds joy. “I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.”

So we find the realization of all this in one like ourselves, who writes not as an Apostle, but as a servant of Jesus Christ (chap. 1:1), and with the assurance that the resources that were available for this life of joy in him are available for us today. He evidently thought he was going to close his epistle at the opening of this third chapter, when his last word to us would have been, “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord”; but the Spirit of God leads him to write on, and how well it is for us that he does. For he is led to glance at the various hindrances to the realization of this blessed life of divine joy, not to occupy us with the hindrances, but with a power to carry us on in joy in spite of every hindrance.

First there is the warning, “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers,” and he was evidently just going to say “the circumcision,” but he is inspired to reserve this word now for the Christian; and accordingly he uses a term of reproach, indicating but a partial, instead of complete, cutting off: “Beware of the concision.” Circumcision is now made characteristic of the Christian position. How and why? Because by infinite grace we have been brought to bow to the end of all that we are, under the judgment of God in the cross of Jesus Christ, instead of merely bearing a mark of that judgment in the flesh, and being left to cultivate it under law. This makes room for the next thing. “We worship by the Spirit of God” (as it really is). The blessed Spirit of God is the power for worship, while we find the spring of it in “rejoice in Christ Jesus.” And now he touches upon the first great hindrance to this life of joy—“and have no confidence in the flesh”—it is religious flesh. There is no difference before God in the character of the flesh, religious or otherwise, but there is a great difference in our practical experience of it. In the case of one converted from open profligacy and the like, he is not tempted to look back on himself; he only thinks of the past with a shudder; but in a case like that of Saul of Tarsus, one who has long cultivated the flesh, and won for himself a reputation beyond all his compeers by his religion, that is the man that is in danger. That is the character of the flesh that is the worst hindrance to this blessed life of joy. The danger is, in such a case, lest the eye should turn back on self, and be occupied with any supposed gain or progress made in the flesh. We learn from one of his sentences in the Acts that he was a strictly conscientious man, and here that he was earnestly religious, and blameless in outward life. He might have had confidence in the flesh if any man could. But when he was travelling to Damascus at midday a light above the brightness of the sun shone round about him, and he heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” What then became of the flesh in which he had worked? By all his blameless life, and earnest religiousness, and strict conscientiousness, he was the worst enemy of the Lord Jesus Christ in glory the world had ever seen. There was no one could compare with him on the ground of carefully cultivated religious flesh, and that was what came of it. He was occupied in seeking to blot the very memory of the name of Jesus out of the earth, if he could.

But what a revolution in his soul in a moment! “What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ,” Nor was this only in the first flush of that wonderful revelation of Christ to his soul. “Yes, doubtless, and I do count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.” There was the sustained estimate of the worthlessness of everything out of Christ. And now what does he think of all he lost? “And do count them but refuse that I may win Christ.”

Now, beloved friends, I want for myself and for you that we may get hold of what is presented as the power of practical deliverance from all that line of things, of self-occupation that has been such a snare to many. We see it here. It is the power of that which the soul has before it. It is not merely that as the circumcision we have looked back and bowed to the total judgment of all we were as children of Adam in the Cross of Christ—blessed as it is to be brought to that point in the history of God’s ways with the soul. But what had Paul before him? He says, “That I may win Christ, and be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.” He was looking to be found, on into the everlasting glory, in a righteousness which was divine in character, instead of the best human righteousness, and which only became his by faith in Christ Jesus, where all of self was absolutely excluded. Well, but you may ask, was not he already clothed in divine righteousness?

Of course he was, or he could not have been looking to be found in it in the everlasting glory. But here it is the immense power of what he has before his soul as he looks on into the future. Instead of a subtle glance back upon all he had gained among his fellows by the earnest cultivation of the flesh, he was wholly occupied with the thought of being found before God in a righteousness which was wholly divine, and which was his by no legal effort or attainment of the flesh, but only by faith in Christ Jesus. No shred of religious self entered into such an anticipation. It makes powerfully for the practical deliverance of our souls from what is of man and the flesh to have nothing but the righteousness of God before us as eternally our place in Christ.

The next great hindrance the Apostle is led to look at is the scene that lies around us in the world, our surroundings—a very significant word. How is this hindrance to be met? It is again in the power of that which is before us, of that which the heart makes its object, “That I may know Him” (v. 10). But you may say, Who was there ever, that knew Christ as he knew Him, who had suffered the loss of all things for Him, and counted all its loss but refuse? Ah, beloved friends, the knowledge of Christ is an insatiable thing.

The more we know Him the more we want to know Him. Nothing will satisfy the heart that knows Him but to know Him better. And it is by these very desires the growth of the soul is carried on. “He satisfieth the longing soul.” If God in His grace awakens the longing, it is that He may satisfy that longing; and with every fresh satisfying there is fresh capacity for deeper longing and deeper satisfying. How much we have to seek that there may be these exercises of the soul. But he goes on, “and the power of His resurrection.” That is the place where I am one with Him in glory. What for? That my blessing may be more assured? Nothing of the kind. “And the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable to His death.” That is, that in the power of the place where he was one with Him, he might go down more completely into identification with Christ in His rejection here, even to close his path like his Master by a martyr’s death, if such was His will for His servant.

And now, mark, “If by any means I may arrive at resurrection from among the dead.” That is what is before him; as to everything around him, only to taste more fully of the portion of a rejected Christ, while his eye is upon the glorious end of such a path, to be be raised out from among the dead like Christ, in full conformity to Him in glory. What would the finest situation ever offered to a man down here be to one that had such a position before him? He can afford to despise it all. Does the verse express that he was uncertain about reaching the end? No, that is not it at all; it is that mind and heart are so upon the end of the way that he does not care what the character of the way that leads there. It may be rough or it may be smooth; it may be long or short. But he is not occupied with the way. His eye is wholly upon the end of it; and what an end—to be raised from the dead to be like Christ in glory. He is pressing on through everything here to reach that glorious consummation.

“Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect”—for there is no perfection of condition known in Scripture, short of reaching Christ in glory—“but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which I am already apprehended of Christ Jesus.” He is not speaking here of any mental apprehension of things. He is using a word that is only used, so far as I know, in modern English, in the language of the police court: we know what it means by a policeman apprehending a man. It is then: If that I may lay hold of that for which Christ has laid hold of me. What did He lay hold of you and me for? Nothing short of being with Himself and like Him in the glory of God for ever. Now, he says, that is what I am set for.

“Brethren, I count not myself to have laid hold of it, but this one thing I do.” How far do we know anything of the power of this simple concentration of heart and mind on what God has set before us. “One thing I do”—not many things, as so often thought desirable. And what is it? “Forgetting the things that are behind”—that does not refer to the failures of the past: we were not meant to forget them—it is very profitable that we should remember the failures of the past, to be humbled by them. It means that he is not occupied with the milestones, the past points of progress or of victories won. He has no time to take account of the length of the way he has traversed. He views the race set before him with his whole mind on the end of it. “Reaching forth to the things that are before.” He is using the most forcible words of the racecourse: the attitude of a man in running, with his head and neck extended out beyond the rest of his body, in the earnestness of pressing on to the goal and the prize. “I press toward the goal for the prize of the calling on high of God in Christ Jesus.” What do we know, beloved friends, of the power of all that we have been thus called to in infinite grace. How few are the objects that God has set before us to those we set before ourselves! What could exceed the blessedness of them? What holy energy they would impart to the life, and be our very real deliverance from the things that so easily divert us in the scene we are passing through. The goal was Christ then, to reach Him in the glory where He is, and the prize was Christ thus reached. Nor is all this presented to us as a beautiful picture to admire—to make us think of the man or servant. Paul is inspired to give us his experience as true Christian experience—not that it is the experience of every Christian, but that which is only proper and normal to him as such. “Let us, therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded.” Oh, but you say, I thought he had only just said, “Not as though I were already perfect.” But that was when he was speaking of the condition of the Christian; but now he is speaking of our position in Christ, in which he could not be more perfect. Nobody could be more perfect as to his position than to be in Christ, and this is the common position of every believer. He speaks, then, to those who are in the faith of their souls in Christ before God, and what he desires for them is that they should have the same mind as the Apostle had, a mind concentrated on the things which are before, pressing on to reach the goal as their one pursuit, instead of being attracted by the hundred and one things that the enemy spreads out to turn them aside on every hand. Beloved friends, I do not think we estimate aright the power of an object worthy to control the heart. It has been often illustrated by a mother who hears that her child has been run over in the street. She is not attracted by the things that are in the shop windows. She has got an adequate object before her to engross her whole attention—she runs to reach her child, and she is not conscious of the things hung up in the shop windows. Oh, beloved friends, is Christ an adequate object to engross our souls? If He were before the soul in the excellency and glory of His Person, we should not have much difficulty in passing the various things by which the enemy would seek to attract or distract us in the scene of Christ’s rejection. We should not be even conscious of their presence. Oh, what joy and satisfaction there comes with Christ so known and before the soul! Where is there anything to be found like being filled with the things that are before? If we rest in our place in Christ, let us see to it that we be minded as Paul was—to have nothing but Christ before him,

Alas! it was not so with all. “But if in anything ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you.” He cannot let down the standard of Christian object to anyone’s imperfect apprehension of it.

“Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule.” It might be thought that I have only to think of myself, and not mind anybody else; but that would not be Christianity at all. Christianity teaches me to think of everybody but myself. It may come to it at last that you have to go on by yourself alone, but it will not be before you have tried, by every means and resource of faith, to draw on the Lord’s beloved ones with yourself in the path of pressing on to reach Him. The last clause of the verse (v. 16) is not scripture: and it will be easily seen that it could not be, for the case he supposes is that we do not mind the same thing. It is sorrowful that it should be so, and it makes a difficulty. But at least we may seek out what we have in common, and not break the rank, but walk in step, as is the force of the expression, as long as it is possible without compromise of the truth.

“Brethren, be followers together of me, and mark them which walk, so as ye have us for an example.” They had in Paul the true proper sample of Christian life and experience. And now all this is brought out the more forcibly by the contrast of the next two verses. “Many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ.” He does not say they are enemies of Christ: they profess to he His friends. But they hate the cross. The cross is the point and power of separation from all that is of man and the world: and this they would not have. “They were the enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame; who mind earthly things.” And here the question is often introduced, “Is he speaking of mere professors?” But that is just where the passage is silent. It affirms nothing of the real relations of their souls with God. Paul judges by their outward course, and what he says applies in principle to all who profess Christ. It was not of heathen he was speaking. What else could the poor heathen do but mind earthly things? What he speaks of is meant to tell upon you and me. What have our minds been on today? Minding earthly things is the road to destruction. If the Lord’s beloved ones get on that road, they will be delivered out of it before it reaches its fearful end.

“For our conversation is in heaven.” It is difficult to represent the thought by any English word. It is literally “citizenship,” but citizenship is a cold thing in England. To a Greek the word the Spirit uses here would express the deepest interest of his life. His citizenship came before his wife, his children, or any other interest. It serves the Apostle, therefore, to express that all the deepest springs of our moral life are in heaven now. We are only awaiting the Lord Jesus Christ to change our bodies. As to everything else, we belong to heaven now. We are looking for Him as Saviour who shall change our bodies of humiliation into the fashion of His body of glory, according to the power whereby He is able to subdue all things unto Himself. Thus he does not close the chapter without showing how we may reach the goal without death at all. Wherever you find something about death —and there are only four passages that speak of the death of the believer in the epistles—you will generally find what brings in the proper hope of the Christian; that is, the coming of the Lord. Ever since the special revelation of it in the earliest of the Apostle’s writings, he looks upon it as ingrained into the whole Christian life. There is nothing between these two aspects of what is before us to clash in the least. What could be more blessed than that when the Lord comes He should find His own pressing on with every energy of their whole being, not to reach some earthly object, but to reach Christ and full conformity to Him in glory. Then at His coming, in the twinkling of an eye, we have reached the goal without death at all, all that is mortal swallowed up in the power of that life we already possess in Him.

Now (chap. 4:4-5) he reverts to the exhortation with which he was going to close his epistle, only adding strength to it by the word “always.” “Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say, rejoice. Let your moderation [or rather yieldingness] be known unto all men.” It is the opposite of standing on our supposed rights. The Lord is going to have His rights. He is at hand. It will be time enough for us to get ours when He gets His. Meanwhile, we can afford to yield. “Be careful for nothing.” Ah! you say, there is just the thing I was listening for. My cares are the greatest hindrance to realizing this life of blessed joy upon earth. But He says, “Be careful for nothing.” But, you say, if you knew my circumstances, you would know that I could not but be careful for many things. The blessed God, He who says “Be careful for nothing,” knows your circumstances. But He does not leave you without a resource to carry you on rejoicing always, in spite of all that might suggest care. “In everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known unto God.” There is your resource, whether it be in trifles or in great things. What a wonderful resource it is, beloved friends. In everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, and that not because of the expected blessing, but because we cannot draw near to God without thinking of the wonderful revelation He has given us of Himself in His beloved Son. “If He has not spared His own Son, but given Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things.” And thus the heart knows it is all right and bows in thanksgiving at the same time, as you find relief in pressing all that was pressing on you on the heart of God, knowing now that it is well you should. With the result that “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and thoughts [as it really is—often a very difficult part of us to manage]—by Christ Jesus.” He guarantees that if we only trust Him with our cares, He will put the peace in which He dwells Himself on the throne, where no breath of trouble ever came, into our hearts and thoughts. You say you cannot understand it. God has anticipated you, and tells us it passes all understanding. He does not expect you to understand it. Oh, beloved friends, only act upon it, only trust Him, and instead of carrying that load of care upon your heart all the hours of the day, carry all to Him. Put your care into His heart, and He guarantees that He will put His peace into yours. It does pass all understanding. You will be a wonder to yourself and to all who know you. How blessed it is to have had the hindrances, looked at and owned, so far as that we are furnished with the resources that availed for the Lord’s beloved servant, and are as good for us today, that we may ever realize this blessed life of divine and heavenly joy upon earth. It is His will for us. It is His command to us once more tonight, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice.”

J.A.Trench

Words of Grace and Encouragement 1910