Sneaky Ninja Salvation

Good morning friends. This is our third week in our series—Complete Joy—here we’re walking through the letter to the Philippians. And this week, as I was preparing, you know what I kept thinking about? That’s right—The Lord of the Rings. 

There’s this section of The Fellowship of the Ring, where Frodo and Gandalf and the fellowship—in their quest to destroy the Ring of Power—need to cross the Misty Mountains and decide that they will go under them. They dive deep into an elaborate subterranean network of tunnels, chambers, mines, and feasting halls called Moria. They’re expecting to find friends there. But they find only corpses. 

When they arrive, they realize that the once great underground kingdom of Moria, has become a tomb. Something has happened. And in one of the chambers, they find a book. It’s the annuls—the record—of what has happened here in Moria. Gandalf blows away some dirt and dust. It’s tattered and falling apart… but you can still read the words. 

Words!—we take them for granted, but they’re the most amazing of technology! They’re just these patterned lines and markings… and they can communicate across years or decades or even centuries. We take them for granted, but words—carefully written and preserved—can unlock the mystery of Moria. 

Gandalf can decipher the markings—the message—the correspondence:

We cannot get out. We cannot get out. They have taken the bridge and Second Hall… We are still ho{ldin}g… but hope… Óin’s party went five days ago but today only four returned. The pool is up to the wall at West-gate. The Watcher in the Water took Óin—we cannot get out. The end comes soon. We hear drums, drums in the deep. They are coming. (Book of Mazarbul)

Right? Even now—most of us have gotten a little swept up by the strange words. The words are unsettling. And we’re curious for more. But it’s fiction. Moria has never existed. Mythical dwarves experienced no tragedy there. Gandalf, alas, is not a real person.

Still… we want to know more.

Now… let’s move from fiction to nonfiction. 

Papyrus 46 | Chester Beatty Library & Museum

This is called Papyrus 46. An artifact of history—not mythology. You could hop on a plane today and go see it. It’s housed in the Chester Beatty Library and Museum in Dublin. This is one of the earliest complete copies—not bits or fragments—of the ancient letter we just read today. In a world without scanners or copy-machines, the words have been painstakingly preserved—copied by hand. It’s a second-century copy of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. 

Most of us have seen the Bible so much—or at least heard about it so much—that we don’t really recognize what we’re reading. We’re reading ancient, ancient words. The patterned lines and markings of the ancient Greek have been translated for us and neatly set in Times New Roman… and we forget the miles and centuries that they’ve traveled. This is ancient correspondence from the first century. Its author was talking about stuff so important that people hand-copied it. 

Let the strange words sink in. 

As we’ve said, this is a letter. Paul—one of the earliest Christian leaders—is in prison somewhere in the Roman Empire… with the best guesses being Rome itself or the city of Ephesus. These markings and lines were first scratched out by candlelight or in darkness.

And there’s something unsettling about his words. Not in the same way as “They are coming.” More in the way of… what planet is this guy living on? Is this guy smoking something? Because he’s full of joy—deep soul happiness. 

This letter has a reputation of being one of the most excited, enthusiastic, joyful letters in history. Again, that’s not a statement of faith; that’s a statement of history. Whatever you think about Paul, and his life, and the New Testament, and Jesus and God—you read this letter… written by a man in an ancient Roman prison—hungry—dirty—waiting however long for someone bring him food—likely in literal, cold and heavy chains—and regardless of your religious beliefs—as a matter of history—you have to scratch your head about this guy. 

Paul seems freer in his prison than most of us in our homes. He’s more joyful in a cold prison than we are taking a hot shower. Joy—excitement—enthusiasm—optimism—bleeds out him onto papyrus.

Near the middle of the letter, he’s going to say that something similar to that… that he’s being emptied—poured out—like a cup of wine on an altar…

“…but I’m glad about this.” (Philippians 2v17)

And then (v18) “you should be glad about it too—be glad with me!” And towards the end of the letter (4v4), he famously says, “Rejoice in the Lord… really often.” No: “Rejoice always—again I say it: rejoice!” Or as the Common English Bible puts it: “Be glad.”

What is up with this guy?

What was driving him to scratch out these lines and markings? In what we read today, we actually heard two really curious things. First, he’s joyful even though people are trying to cause him pain (v12-18). And, second, he’s joyful even though he’d really prefer to hurry up and die (v20-26). Those are curiosities, right? He’s joyful while people are trying to cause him pain. And he’s joyful even though death would be preferable. Those are the big movements of what we read today… verses 12-18 and verses 20-26. They’re worth thinking about for a couple of minutes. And to really understand them we’ll find a sneaky hidden ninja holding them together in verse 19. 

First, people are trying to cause him pain. And he yet he’s glad. He acknowledges (v14-18) that his being in prison has actually made more people start talking about Jesus.

Most of the brothers and sisters have had more confidence through the Lord to speak the word boldly and bravely because of my jail time. Some certainly preach Christ with jealous and competitive motives, but others preach with good motives. They are motivated by love, because they know that I’m put here to give a defense of the gospel; the others preach Christ because of their selfish ambition. They are insincere, hoping to cause me more pain while I’m in prison.

What do I think about this? Just this: since Christ is proclaimed in every possible way, whether from dishonest or true motives, I’m glad and I’ll continue to be glad. (Philippians 1v14-18)

So Paul being in prison is the talk of the town. But when people talk about the situation, they’re less talking about Paul and more talking about why Paul is in prison. People are talking about Jesus. Paul being in prison means Jesus is the talk of the town. And that makes Paul really happy. Most people are talking about Jesus sincerely. 

Sure, there are a handful of people—like Jackamemnon over there—who think talking loudly about Jesus will somehow stir up trouble for Paul… will cause him pain. We have to speculate, but evidently if Roman authorities hear tons of people talking about Jesus as Lord instead of Caesar as Lord, the authorities may just keep Paul locked up longer. 

And so ole Jackammenon keeps standing by the water cooler and saying: “You know, I keep hearing about this Jesus… Did you hear about this Jesus fella?… All anyone is talking about is that Jesus.”

And Paul says, “YES! I don’t care why they’re doing it… just keep doing it! The good news of Jesus is Lord needs to keep going out.” 

Paul isn’t worried about the pain it could cause him. Paul isn’t dwelling on “why don’t they like me?” Paul isn’t threatened by more people taking his job. (“Hey—that gospel proclaiming thing was my gig. Stop it.”) Paul recognizes that there is something more important in the world than Paul. 

Paul is small. (Side note: that’s literally what “Paulos” means in Greek: “small” or “tiny” or something… that’s the name that Saul of Taursus chose for himself after meeting Jesus.)

Paul is small and something is else big. Someone else is bigger—and more beautiful—and more important—than Paul. Jesus invites us into the freedom of being small—a life not about us.  That’s what we can see going on with Paul. Paul’s life is about way more than Paul’s life. That’s the heart of humility, by the way. It’s NOT that you or I or Paul are not important; that we don’t matter. It’s the recognition that we—our desires and our egos and our comfort and even our safety—are not the center of the universe. Paul—the small—recognizes that you can take away all of those things, and the universe keeps going. 

So he celebrates. He rejoices. He’s glad. Because people are talking about the center. “Jesus being talked about is so much more important than my ego, or my comfort, or my fulfillment.”

Paul is the one writing from prison, but is the one who seems free. I mean, how many of us have found this kind of freedom? How many of us have found the daily freedom—the daily lightness—of being small? The trick to being small, of course, is to find something bigger than yourself. And in Jesus, Paul has found the biggest, most important thing of all. 

So Paul is joyful—he’s glad—even if people want to cause him harm—because they’re actually advancing what he thinks is most important. But Paul isn’t just joyful while people are wanting to hurt him, he’s also joyful even when death would be preferable, which is verses 20-26: 

Rather, I hope with daring courage that Christ’s greatness will be seen in my body, now as always, whether I live or die. Because for me, living serves Christ and dying is even better. If I continue to live in this world, I get results from my work. But I don’t know what I prefer. I’m torn between the two because I want to leave this life and be with Christ, which is far better. However, it’s more important for me to stay in this world for your sake. I’m sure of this: I will stay alive and remain with all of you to help your progress and the joy of your faith, and to increase your pride in Christ Jesus through my presence when I visit you again. (Philippians 1v20-26)

Right smack in the middle of this, we hear those famous words: “Because for me, living serves Christ and dying is even better.” The Common English Bible has added words to help us understand it, but they actually kind of muddle it a bit here. The King James—which many of us know by heart—is almost as close as you can get: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

It’s this compact little statement—like a mantra or a motto—the kind of thing you could say to yourself over and over throughout the day. Like “Hakuna Matata.” In Greek, it even rhymes. “To live: Christos. To die: kerdos.” What we often fail to realize about these famous words, however, is that Paul is thinking a lot about the kerdos—about the dying—about the gain. He actually comes out and says it in verse 23: “I want to leave this life and be with Christos—with the King—which is far better.”

If Paul—sitting and sleeping on stone in the dark and the cold—hadn’t contemplated escape into the arms of Jesus through suicide, it would be a little surprising culturally. Suicide in the ancient world wasn’t at all a dishonorable way to go. From Socrates drinking hemlock to prisoners choosing to kill themselves instead of fighting in the colosseum, suicide in the ancient world—as it is now—was a final decisive way to take control and not live at the mercy of others.

But Paul says “no” to suicide. “No… I’m not going to do what would be preferable—what would be better—what would be gain—for me.” Paul says “no” to his desire to die, because he know that others need him. The Philippians need him.

“…it’s more important, for me to stay in this world for your sake.” (Philippians 1v24)

The heart of following Jesus means denying ourselves for the sake of loving others. Joy is found in denying our gain for their good. And so Paul can say in the same breath, to die would be gain but I’m interested in your good. “I’m not driven by my gain… I’m driven by your good.”

How many of us have tasted this kind of joyful life? The kind of joy where we’ll gladly let go of what we would like because it means good for someone else? The joy called “servanthood.” That questions like “how I can help” and “how I can bring good to others?” get us through the day?

This is why parenthood is so immensely difficult and incredibly satisfying. Parenthood forces us into servanthood. The diaper has to be changed, even though I’m tired. We need to read this book again, even though I’d rather do something else. I’ll give up my rest, my sleep, my comfort, my gain… for your good. But it’s not just parenting… it’s really any healthy relationship. It’s the challenge and invitation of any marriage; any friendship, any business relationship with integrity. When the moment comes where I have to choose between my gain and your good, which will I choose?

True, Paul is trapped by chains of iron and walls of stone, but Paul isn’t concerned about living at the mercy of others. Paul is obsessed with living for the sake of others. That’s what keeps him going…being a servant. That’s his joy—even though things are bleak right now: “It’s more important for your sake. I’m not thinking about my gain—my kerdos. I’m thinking about your kerdos—your gain.

And this actually brings us to the sneaky ninja, that has been sitting quietly in the middle of this passage. He’s hiding in verse 19:

I’m glad because I know that this will result in my release through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1v19)

…this will result in “my release.” Other translations say “my deliverance.” Still others say “my rescue.” That word is notoriously tricky to translate. It’s the word sōtērian. It can mean “rescue” or “safety” or “preservation” or “deliverance.” It’s the word that frequently gets translated “salvation.”

Salvation has been hiding—like a ninja—right in the middle of this passage. It’s like one of those movies where there’s a dark shadow across a wall and, suddenly, you see eyes open in the blackness. A ninja has been there. Silent. The whole time. That’s what we’ve got here. 

Ninja silent salvation has been quietly sitting in middle of this passage. Right between “people trying to harm me” and “I kinda wish I could die,” salvation has been hiding the whole time. Like a ninja. 

“I know that this will result in my sōtērian.”

What’s the “this“? Well… all of it. All of this mess will result in my salvation. That surprises us, huh? Most of the time, we think of our salvation as when we finally get out of the mess, right? But Paul sees clearly what true salvation really is:

The substance of salvation is sharing God’s life. That’s what salvation is. We get to share the deep, true, eternal Life that is over and under and behind everything. 

The only time we get a definition of eternal life in the Scriptures, it’s from the lips of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel when he says:

This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. (John 17v3)

Or as Paul puts it here: “to live is Christ.”And it’s like Paul is saying, ”All of this mess around me right now… it’s actually resulting in my salvation… because it’s making me like Jesus. It’s helping me know the life of God.”

People trying to cause him pain… that’s a chance to practice humility. To get small. To submit to something bigger, and say, “The gospel is so much more important me.”

His pain of being in prison… that’s a chance to practice servanthood. To die to his desire to die so he can live for others. To live for something outside of himself and say, “You good is so much more important than my gain.”

Humility and servanthood; that’s what we’re seeing in Paul. And the reason why we see it in Paul is because Paul is sharing the very life of God himself. That’s exactly how Philippians 2 is going to talk about Jesus:

Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself… (Philippians 2v3-7a)

We look at Jesus and we see God denying gain for our good. We look at Jesus and we see God making himself small.

That’s what the good life looks like. 
That’s what eternal life looks like.
That’s what salvation looks like. 

It looks like servanthood and humility. 

They’re not just the “mechanism” that saves us. The servanthood and humility of the cross aren’t just the doorway into salvation… and then there’s something else inside. No, servanthood and humility are the house itself. God opens salvation to us on the cross and then invites us to live there.

Invites us to live in his life.
Invites us to say: “To live is Christ.”
Invites us to share God’s life.

That’s the substance of salvation. The trouble is we want a “salvation” that God isn’t offering. God is offering us his very own life—servanthood and humility—and we’re like… “Yeah… can you fix this situation in my life?” We’re saying: “Can you get me out of this mess? Can you fix all of… this?” And God is saying: “I’m using all of this to fix you.”

We want a “salvation” that God isn’t offering, because we want a “salvation” that wouldn’t save us. 

I feel like God says to me frequently:

“Brett, what you’re asking for isn’t salvation… it’s just the next whatever. And that next whatever won’t save you… but all of “this” will result in your salvation. If I got you out of that situation, you’d stay in that prison of pride. If I take that away, you will never taste the joy of living for others and not yourself. So, no, my child—I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m going to save you.

“I’m going set you free with humility… and it’s going to be uncomfortable. I’m using all of this. And I’m going to give you real joy. But it’s going to be hard to get there. Because you’re going to have to give up living for yourself as you learn to live for others. Make no mistake, though—I’m going to share my life with you. And it’s going to be better than all the counterfeit life you’ve ever lived.”

Salvation is typically sneaky ninja silent. Which is really annoying, because I don’t want a stealthy Savior. We don’t care for Ninja Jesus; we want him obvious and conquering. But Ninja Jesus quietly smuggles salvation into us—into places that are usually impossible to reach. Salvation is already at work in your life; already at work in my life. The Spirit of Jesus is already working. In all of this. 

Whatever God is allowing in our lives, it’s for our salvation. Whatever is happening; whatever is not happening; we’re invited to trust that this is for our salvation. Salvation is at work in situations that don’t look like salvation. Part of what it means to be a Christian is to continually wake up to the fact that God is present and God is at work. To recognize the whites of his eyes in the midst of the shadows.

We’re invited to say, “I don’t need the next whatever; I need salvation… Make me like you. Make me humble. Make a servant. Right here, in chains of iron and walls of stone. 

We’re already in the perfect spot: we’re already in the mess. Let him help you die to your ego, to your ambition, to your need to be large. Let him help you find freedom of being small—of living for something bigger than yourself. Let him set you free of the prison of living for your own comfort. Let him show the joy of serving others; surrendering your gain and living for their good.

Paul is joyful because he’s sees the whites of salvation’s eyes in the shadows. He’s begun recognizing salvation all around him. May we too recognize him too. May we recognize that this—all of this—this mess—will result in our release, our rescue, our salvation, our sharing the life of God.