A Christian cannot be spotted by his actions, since his actions are not
what determined his Christianity. A Christian became a
Christian by God's grace, completely independent from any works on the
part of that feeble sinner who was so fortunate as to be showered with
God's saving grace. Furthermore, the possibility exists that a
grace-saved Christian might never even take the first step toward
Christian maturity, and he may never reflect the standards set by Paul
in the prison epistles. Still, if he was saved by grace, his
heavenly destiny is sealed, and he will reign with Christ
forever. Also, even an unsaved person can, at times
demonstrate some of the traits which Paul gives. Let's study Paul's
standards for obedience according to his admonitions to Christians in his prison epistles.
A word study of Paul's prison epistles reveals how many times the following words are used:
||Jesus / Christ
||Knowledge / Wisdom / Mind / Learn / Word
||Joy / Rejoice
||Power / Strength / Strong
||Edification / Build up / Mature / Grow
I believe that this list explains what Paul considered to be important, and what he emphasized most in his teachings.
First of all, the words "Jesus Christ" dominate these epistles, by far,
more than any other words or themes. The reason for the
epistles is Christ. Without Christ, there would be no gospel and no
faith in which to grow. Paul is clearly establishing priorities by
mentioning Christ in every other verse on the average. Paul
is acknowledging the Christian's identity with Christ. We are
in Him, we share in his grace, He is our example, and we are bound by
obedience to Him. This is the overall theme of these prison
epistles. All other themes are categorized beneath this one.
Perhaps the most dominating admonition in the prison epistles is to do
everything "in love." "Show forbearance in love", "speak the
truth in love", etc. By this Paul is teaching that our mental
attitudes must be free of all bitterness and ill will, and we must be
willing to actively pursue the well-being of others. This
mental attitude of love should control our hearts and our actions
relative to Christ, as well as to other men.
Paul begins and ends each letter with "grace", and this grace is found
throughout each of the prison epistles. Our salvation is due
to the saving grace of Christ, and we should exercise grace as we grow
as Christians. This suggests a free and no-strings-attached
attitude. As Christ freely gave us salvation with no strings attached,
our attitude and actions toward God and toward men should be one of
freedom without attaching requirements of merit to the objects of our
grace. Grace is free, unmerited, undeserved giving, which needs no
human external motivation. True grace is given liberally,
decisively, excitedly, personally, freely, desirable, readily, willing,
voluntarily, and cheerfully. Grace is complete freedom,
liberty, and truth. God gives grace to us, and we reflect His grace to others.
Grace is not merited or deserved, or given in exchange for anything
else. Grace is not paid for anything expected, and it is not owed for
anything received. It is the non-compulsive, non-pressured
favor of God. Grace relieves all pressures and stress, and it
gives us the happiness and relaxed mental attitude that Paul
illustrates throughout Philippians. Only grace can provide a truly
personal relationship with God, and Christians
MUST understand grace in order to live the Christian life of submission and obedience to God.
Perhaps the most evident lesson taught by the prison epistles is that
Christians must continually learn God's word. We are
repeatedly admonished to gain knowledge and wisdom by filling our minds
with the Word of God. How else would we know of such core doctrines as
grace and love, if it weren't for our study of God's word? Bible study
is where the Christian life begins, and it is the root from which all growth stems.
Paul wants all Christians to have peace. This "peace of God
which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in
Christ Jesus." This peace is closely intertwined with God's
grace. It is peace from God, and it is available to all
Christians. It is what allows us to have relaxed mental
attitudes, even during times of suffering.
Philippians is an admonition to be joyful. Joy is in, and
worry is out. We are to rejoice in our Christianity, and this shouldn't
be hard to do in light of all that Christ bought for us on the cross.
All the things mentioned here come from God. This not only
demonstrates God's grace, but also his power. Our power is in
Him. That's why we don't have to worry. We don't
have to do things on our own power. We rely on God's
power. We can now stop worrying and relax, because God will
do everything through us that He wants done.
We are commanded to pray. The prison epistles stress three
aspects of prayer. First and foremost, we pray with
thanksgiving. Just think of all the things we have to be
thankful for. Even if we forget about God's daily provisions
for our food, clothing, and shelter, just consider all the things we
are listing in this document. We should be thankful for God's
grace, peace, joy, love, and power! I believe that a large
part of our prayer life should be devoted to thanking God.
Secondly, we are to praise God. We need to continually express
to God that we know that he is the sovereign God. I believe
Paul has us to do this so that we won't forget that He is sovereign.
Thirdly, we are to bring our requests, petitions, and supplications to
God. In light of God's power, grace, and love, I don't even
think we have to dwell too much on our petitions. Just tell
God what they are, thank Him and praise Him, and he will provide!
All the prison epistles stress edification and building up each other,
and Ephesians 4 is especially strong on helping each other to grow to
maturity. We are to GROW in all the things we have mentioned
here--God's grace, power, love, etc. We do that by studying
His Word, and then we build each other up through mutual encouragement.
Though humility isn't explicitly mentioned as many times as some of the
other doctrines, it is nevertheless a core doctrine of the prison
epistles. One cannot exercise grace, peace, and love, without
exercising humility! Our attitudes must be selfless. No
command is more straightforward than ". . . regard others as more important than yourselves!"
Unity is also a common theme here, but I believe that since we are all
imperfect, this is a little more idealistic than the other
doctrines. We shouldn't go overboard on unity and carry it
over into the realm of ecumenical circles. We are to be
united IN Christ,
to the extent that each member of the union adheres to God's
word. However, I do not believe that Paul is suggesting compromising God's word to a single degree.
As you might expect, a Christian filled with grace, peace, and love
will be a Christian of great patience. If you don't have an
attitude of grace, you'll be hard-pressed to exhibit Christian patience.
These are the traits that identify a Spirit-filled
Christian: being like Christ; love; grace; learning God's
Word; peace; joy; power; prayer; edification; humility; unity; and, patience.
Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick
figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. The
good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his
heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in
his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks. (Luke 6:44-45)
However, 1 John 1:8 warns that "If we claim to be without sin,
we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Although
Christians are not perfect, others should be able to see the evidence of God's fruit in our lives.
Owen Weber 2009