Here Be Dragons?

The most rewarding parts of life will be those places you’re currently reluctant to enter.

Disappearing Joy

Christmas keeps trying to come earlier every year.  People resist it because of the sentimental and commercial overload they’re forced to endure. During the yuletide season it seems everywhere we look somebody is putting a spin on the holidays.

Turn on the TV and you’ll see everything from Toyota dealerships to hemorrhoid cream with holiday jingles and festive outfits.  And if this season extends too long, we begin to feel we’re pickled in a holiday ghetto from which there is no escape.

I understand that allegedly, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” but can we be honest for a few minutes?  Subtract all the extras from Jesus—the lights, the gifts, the parties, the Christmas hams—and the 25th will feel the same as any other day, like February 2, or May 4th, or September 19th.

It seems Jesus alone just can’t cut it like Jesus with eggnog, or Jesus with a new electric train set. By Himself, the Savior of the world is too small. That’s why when the decorations go away (and they will on January 1st, or for some of you, February), melancholy settles over everything.  Unfortunately during this time, the suicide rate also goes up.

We Christians should enjoy the holidays, but at the same time make sure we’re plugged into a joy that is ultimately holiday-proof.  Our happiness shouldn’t disappear with the tinsel.

There was a time when the happiest man in all the city of Rome was in jail, with no extras.  This was the Apostle Paul.  We’ll read part of a letter he wrote while in custody (Phil. 1:18-25), paying careful attention to what produced his bullet-proof, jail-proof, extras-proof joy.

Hopes and Dreams of the World’s Happiest Man

“Yes, and I will rejoice,” Paul says at the end of Philippians 1:18, “For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.”  Thus far we understand him, or at least we think we do.  Paul rejoices because things are going to turn out.  When someone is unjustly jailed as he was, the situation will “turn out” when he is set free, and his innocence is vindicated.

Deliverance will come with his walking papers.  Right?

Not really.

The apostle clarifies in the next phrase that, “it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed.”  He is far less interested in being delivered from jail as he is being delivered from shame.  And shame for Paul would happen if he fell short of his life’s goal:  “that with full courage, now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”  This final bit of ambivalence toward life or death illustrates that his freedom is secondary compared to honoring Christ in his body.

The translation “honor” seems suitable enough here, although unable to capture the sense of the far more robust and colorful Greek word megalunthestemai, which means to magnify, or show to be great.

Paul had grown in his revelation of a glorious Christ, and wished to show that this Christ who lived in Him, was greater than he.  And yet, Paul was not above the possibility of acting foolishly in the crisis moment.  For instance, he could have compromised his faith in order to save himself—backpedaled perhaps on some specific of the faith to satisfy his captors.  Had he done so, it would have magnified his fear and anxiety, while shrinking Christ down to pocket-size.

Or, he might have become angry, criticizing the Roman justice system as rigged and corrupt.  “As soon as I get out of here,” an angry Paul could have said, “I’m going to get a thousand names on a petition and throw out these crooked magistrates.”  That would have certainly magnified his outrage, but diminished Christ.

Or, Paul could have complained about his cell, the food he ate, and the guard to whom he was chained—“the only bath that that man ever takes is when he gets caught in the rain!”  But again, Christ would not have been magnified.  Center stage and spotlight would have instead gone to a complaining first century Jewish rabbi.  What a shame that would have been.

We can only magnify one thing at a time, and Paul knew it.

First, Don’t Trust Yourself

When it came to being delivered from the shame of his own foibles and shoddy “strengths,” the apostle apparently didn’t place a lot of stock in any mysterious apostolic power.  Instead, he writes to the Philippians, “I know I will magnify Christ…through your prayers.”

Paul firstly turns to a group of believers in his hour of need—people to whom he was committed and who were committed to him.  No flattery is involved here.  From the sounds of it, he actually believed if they prayed, God would hear their prayers.  He valued the church.

An unfortunate view of Paul sees him as an isolated, lone, spiritual powerhouse.  Everyone needs him, but he needs no one.  This distorted understanding of the apostle unfortunately inspires folks who want little to do with other Christians, yet love to indulge in private spiritual fulfillment.

Such believers attend church for years, going here and there based on personal interests—this church for its preaching, that church for its music, and then that one for its programs—and yet they manage never to commit to anyone.  When the eventual crisis hits, they turn to others for help, but no one is there.  And when they finally do approach someone from one of the churches they attend, it is a picture of awkwardness:

“Uh, I can’t remember your name, but would you pray for me?”
“Er…yes, sure.” 

Later that night in the prayer meeting, (which the troubled Christian doesn’t attend because he’s at the movie night of one of his other two churches), the man who agreed to pray for him says, “Lord, remember the guy in the polo shirt who talked to me in the lobby and told me his life is falling apart.” Everyone says “Amen” and then moves to the next petition on the list—brother Bob’s arthritic knee.

In these verses, Paul is not soliciting random prayer requests from strangers.  No, he hopes to leverage the communal power of prayer.  He trusted in the prayers of believers who knew him and valued him.

But that wasn’t all.  He also trusted he would magnify Christ through “the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.”  Again, the Greek word epichoregia (bountiful supply), is more robust than its English translation, “help.”

The apostle could know, and be confident because he had believers around him praying, and the Spirit within Him bountifully supplying the power of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.  This buoyed his confidence that he would megalunthesetai Christos, and so he could afford to rejoice.

“Hmmm…Will I choose to be Executed or Set Free?”

All of these considerations led into a most unusual decision-making process.

Paul says, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  Then, continuing the thought, says, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.” Living is certainly one possibility for him, and has its benefits.

For one, fruitful labor would result.  As he moved about in this world, people would continue to be saved and Christians would continue to grow because of his influence. But how could he be so confident of this outcome? Was it because of his enormous gifts, or sanctity of life?

Neither.  Recall that Paul saw himself surrounded by praying believers and supplied by the Spirit of Jesus Christ within him, all of which would lead to his magnifying Christ.  Under those circumstances, he needed only to live and walk in this world, taking the magnified Christ with him wherever he went. When people met him, they would meet the big Christ, and sooner or later, fruit would result.  This prospect greatly appealed to him.

But then he begins to reveal a strange, if not transcendent deliberation: “which I shall choose I cannot tell.”   Paul is torn.  He must decide whether the Romans will put him to death or free him. He sees it as his choice to make. It was not the choice of the courts, or of Caesar, or even of the entire Roman Empire. He considers it his choice, and he believes God is willing to honor his decision.

It isn’t easy.

“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.” Here, it seems, is the game changing thought, the pivotal point.  The Philippians, as well as other Christians, need him.  He writes, “convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.”  It is better for now, he decides, to bear fruit.

As he imagined the Philippians farther along in their faith than ever before, and more joyful in Christ than they ever had been, it ended the deliberation.  He knew with certainty that sooner or later he would be with Christ beyond the grave in glories unimaginable, but for a little longer, the believers should benefit from him.

And so Paul’s final decision made the startling and timeless statement that fruitfulness is worth living for, even if it means the postponement of personal gain.  Jesus was not a Blow Pop to the Apostle, like so much candy to be savored in a corner.  Paul saw the Savior as a Horn of Plenty, to pour out gifts and blessings upon God’s children.

Looking at Your Life Map

These verses might be hard for many of us to understand, let alone relate to.  If you were to change the identity of the writer from Paul to a future version of yourself, they might even unnerve you.

Magnifying Christ, whether by life or death?  A life lived for spiritual fruit?  Immediately we wonder about our families and jobs. How would they fit in to such a picture?  Perhaps we’re secretly concerned about some things more than we’d like to admit—the newest Netflix series, softball, video game systems, Taylor Swift concerts, iPhones, vacation time shares, and fine dining.  What happens to these?  Will all the fun in life get leveled under a bulldozer of top-shelf spirituality?  These concerns hint that maybe magnifying Christ and blessing others makes life sterile.

But take a look at vintage world maps.  Ancient cartographers often got the scale wrong, lopsiding the continents, and either widening or narrowing major bodies of water. On some of these clumsy maps you can also find unexplored areas, where no one had ever been.   Map makers often placed the artistic insert of a sea monster in those spaces, and labeled it, “Here be dragons.” They viewed the unknown as deadly.  Mariners would therefore avoid these areas, choosing not to sail their ships into such uncertain seas. This is the way we often think of areas we have yet to visit in Christ. We imagine them as drab, stiff, void of happiness.

Yet verses like these in Philippians encourage us to stretch beyond where we have grown.  Paul’s example reminds us there is more, and that your final destination is not where you currently nest.

Upon reaching these places, you may yet write upon your life map, “Here be progress.”   “Here be joy.

“Here be fruitfulness.


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