I wonder what you would like your last words to be? What do you want to say upon your deathbed? Here are some funny famous last words from people in the past:
- Apparently Oscar Wilde said: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do!”
- And Humphrey Bogart said: “I knew I should never have switched from Whiskey to Martini!”
- But my personal favourite is Spike Milligan’s epitaph: “I told you I was ill!”
More seriously, if you thought you were about to die, who would you write to or call, and what would you say to them? I guess you would contact your loved ones, and use words that expressed your love for them, and offered them guidance and encouragement for the rest of their earthly lives.
The apostle Paul was in a similar situation when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. A letter we have been looking at in our services this month. Paul was under house arrest in Rome, in chains and under armed guard. He was shortly to be put on trial for his faith, and Paul knew the death penalty was a real possibility. So, unsurprisingly, Paul chose to write to his loved ones. Not to an individual or to his biological family, but to the Christians in Philippi, a church that Paul himself had founded. In verse 1 of today’s chapter he calls the Philippians his “brothers & sisters”, and his “dear friends”. Paul tells them that he “loves them and longs for them”. They are his “joy” and his “crown”, or as we might put it today, they are his ‘pride and joy’. So as we look at chapter 4 of Philippians today, we are reading Paul’s last words to his loved ones. Words he most wanted them to hear. Words they should treasure, should they never see him again.
So what was Paul’s parting shot to the Philippians? What were the last words he wanted to leave them with? I think they can be summed up under four headings. Four words he wants the Philippian Christians to treasure. Four things we too should treasure today:
- Firstly, he wants us to be joyful (v.4)
- Second, he wants us to be gentle (v.5)
- Thirdly, he wants us to be prayerful (v.6-7)
- And finally, he wants us to be thoughtful (v.8-9).
Be joyful, gentle, prayerful and thoughtful. Paul’s famous last words to the Philippians. Let’s look at each in turn.
- Be Joyful!
If you have a Bible in your hands, look with me at verse 4 of our passage today. Paul writes “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
What makes you happy, what gives you joy? I was thinking back over the things that have given me most joy and pleasure in recent years. My list included my wedding to Helen 7 years ago, plus of course the birth of our two children since then. Being accepted for ordination in 2007 and finding this post last year also brought smiles to my face. And I remember exuberantly celebrating Crystal Palace’s promotion to the Premier League last May, then rejoicing in our league survival this season.
But in our opening verse today Paul tells us to be joyful in the Lord. He wants us to have a deep and lasting joy that is based on our relationship with Christ. A joy that is more profound, more resilient than any football match, marriage or other earthly experience can offer. An unshakeable joy based upon everything Jesus has achieved for us. A joy we can express in prayer, in praise and in grateful obedience to our Saviour.
If you are a Christian here this morning let me joyfully remind you what Christ has accomplished for you by his death and resurrection. And if you are not yet a Christian, let me share with you what is on offer to anyone who puts their faith in the Lord Jesus.
- Firstly, Christians can rejoice because our sins are forgiven. Our guilt was taken away at the Cross and we are members of God’s forgiven people.
- Christians can also be joyful because God is at work in our lives today. Through every trial and temptation we face, God is with us by his Spirit, making us ever more like his Son.
- And Christians can even rejoice in the face of death. Christ’s resurrection means that death is not the end for us or a doorway to divine judgment. Rather, death is merely the threshold to everlasting life. Everlasting life in a world without disease and decay. A world where Jesus is undisputed king.
To rejoice in the Lord is not to put our head in the sand or deny the harsh realities of life. It is to know that whatever happens we are loved, we are saved and we have a glorious future ahead. A future that is ‘over’ and ‘above’ our present circumstances, held secure in Heaven for us. So let us rejoice!
- Be Gentle!
Secondly, in verse 5 today Paul wants his readers to be known for their gentleness. To be gentle is not to be a wimp or a weakling, but someone who is humble, kind and selfless. Throughout the letter to the Philippians we have seen Paul commend these qualities, haven’t we? Above all, in that great passage of Philippians chapter 2, Paul has held up for us Christ as the supreme example of humility and selflessness. There was no aggression or assertiveness in Christ’s decision to come to earth as our Saviour. And he was being gentle and gracious, not selfish, when he allowed himself to be nailed to a tree for our salvation.
Paul adds another reason for gentleness in verse 5. We should be gentle and humble because “the Lord is near”. We live every day in the presence of God. Just as it would be foolish and treacherous to be proud and self-assertive in the presence of the Queen, it is wrong of us to promote ourselves and our own agendas when we live our lives under the gaze of almighty God. So let’s be gentle.
- Be Prayerful!
If joy and gentleness should be features of our Christian lives, then prayerfulness is a third. Because in verse 6 Paul writes: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
God knows the countless temptations, trials and tests that life can throw at us. Things that so easily make us worried and anxious. Problems with our health or our family or our career that could so easily cause us stress. And that’s even before we open the newspaper or turn on the TV news.
But God wants us to know that he can help us handle all of our problems and concerns, if only we let him. As the Bible says elsewhere: “Cast all your anxiety on God, because he cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7). And there is a great promise in verse 7 of our passage today that if we do commit all our anxieties to God in prayer he will give us inner peace, contentment and assurance in return. If we turn to him in prayer, the same Jesus who could calm a storm on Lake Galilee can certainly calm our troubled hearts too. God will give us his peace, a peace “which transcends all understanding”.
So in practice let’s make sure that we set aside time to pray every day. Find a few quiet minutes each day to offer God our anxieties and fears, to lift before him the troubles of others, and to thank him for all he has given us and promised us. No special words are required. We can say what we really feel. And if we do this, God Spirit will calm our hearts and clear our minds. So let’s be prayerful!
- Be Thoughtful!
Fourthly and finally, Paul wants us to be thoughtful. In verses 8 and 9 of today’s passage he encourages us to think about “whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable…excellent or praiseworthy”. That is a pretty comprehensive list! It seems to cover everything that is good in the areas of belief, behaviour and beauty:
- In the area of belief, it means learning and reflecting on everything true about God, about ourselves and about the world he has made. Are we listening to the voice of Paul and others in the Bible who teach us about the character of God, the nature of humanity and the work of Christ?
- In the area of behaviour, do we seek to imitate and applaud those individuals in Scripture and in society who exhibit godliness, kindness, generosity and all the other fruit of the Spirit? Above all, do we look to Christ as our authoritative role model and example for living?
- And in the area of beauty, do we appreciate and delight in all that God has made, giving thanks to him for all that is attractive, intricate and glorious in Creation? I spoke two weeks ago about the majesty of the night sky, and I hope we all delight in the wonders of nature in our world as well.
Why are we to think about such good things? What is wrong with filling our minds with impurity and untruth? The reason is that if we are to remain strong in faith and holiness, our thoughts matter. If our thoughts go astray, our beliefs and our behaviour can soon follow.
We do well to remember the following quote from James Allen: “Sow a thought and you reap an action. Sow an action and you reap a habit. Sow a habit and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny.” Jesus himself said that every murder has its origin in an angry thought, and every act of adultery begins with a lustful look. If we guard what goes on in our minds, then godly behaviour will follow.
In today’s passage and elsewhere Paul offers us some practical tips for guarding our minds:
- Most importantly, we must read God’s Word frequently, ideally every day. In 2 Timothy 3:15-16, Paul tells us that the Bible can make us “wise for salvation” and equip us “for every good work”, so we do well to meditate on its teaching. Do make use of sermons on Sundays, plus house groups and Bible study notes during the week to help you feed on God’s Word.
- As well as reading the Bible, we should learn from godly Christian leaders who explain and apply what the Bible says. This is what Paul is driving at in verse 9, when he writes “whatever you have learned or received from me, put it into practice”. For example, I’m personally nourished in my faith by reading inspiring books by Christian authors. Books by men like Vaughan Roberts, Barry Cooper and David Cook would be a great place to start, and I’ve added some to our church library this week. They are great aids to godly living. Biographies of Christian men and women throughout history can also be instructive and inspirational to us. Preachers like Charles Simeon, bishops like Thomas Cranmer, pastors like John Stott and missionaries like Hudson Taylor have all inspired me to follow Christ more closely.
- Finally, we must be careful with what we watch on TV, what we look at on the internet, and what things we read. Are we filling our minds with things that are wholesome, edifying and true, or are we allowing our thoughts to be shaped by secular values, on-screen violence or other immorality? Are we making good use of the off button on our remote control, or am I letting unwholesome TV deprive me of quality time with my friends, my family or with God?
So let’s make sure we guard our hearts and minds, and take responsibility for what we and our children give our attention to. In other words, be thoughtful!
As I finish this morning, none of us knows what our last words will be. We don’t know whether they will be witty, wise or even audible. But we do know Paul’s last words to the Philippians. Last words that should be of first importance for us. Last words written in the face of death that can guide us in life: Be joyful, be gentle, be prayerful and be thoughtful!