‘For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.‘ – Philippians 2:21.
We cannot suppose that the apostle intended, by these words, to characterize all his fellow Christians, the whole multitude of believers — many of whom were conspicuous for a spirit and temper the very reverse of that which the apostle here condemns. He speaks, in the context, of Timothy as one who, as a son with a father, served with him in the gospel (Phil. 2:22), and a little after, of Epaphroditus, his brother and companion in labour, who, for the work of Christ, was nigh unto death, not regarding his life to supply their lack of service towards him (Phil. 2:25, 30). And in the foregoing chapter he tells us that many of the brethren, waxing confident by his bonds, were much more bold to speak the word without fear (Phil. 1:14).
But from this, as well as many other parts of Paul’s epistolary writings, it appears that even at this early period of the church a selfish and worldly spirit had begun to manifest itself among those who bore the Christian name. And, in particular, we have reason to think that the apostle had occasion to witness the prevalence of this spirit among many real or pretended friends of Christianity, at the time when he wrote this epistle. And if such were the case in this purest age of the church, when the temptations to a false and hypocritical profession of religion were so much fewer than they are at present, is it any wonder that, in these corrupt and degenerate times in which we live, we should have still greater cause to complain, that all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s?
Selfishness, or inordinate self-love, is the common character of mankind. While men are strangers to the regenerating power of divine grace, they are almost wholly guided by it. Even their boasted benevolence, uninfluenced by the principles and motives which the gospel inspires, is little better than refined selfishness. The world they pursue as their chief good — its honours, its riches, or its pleasures, are, in their estimation, of the highest importance; so that, regardless of the glory of their Maker and of the ultimate end of their being, they only consult the means of present selfish gratification. Nor is this temper, alas! wholly confined to those who are living without God, and without hope in the world. It is too often found, in a certain degree, in men who are, upon the whole, actuated by nobler principles. The cursed leaven has spread itself through the church of Christ and infected the minds even of its genuine members. I do not mean to affirm, that a prevailing worldly or selfish spirit is compatible with real religion — No; let God be true, though every man should prove a liar. The tree is known by its fruits; and if any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of his. But as Christians are only sanctified in part, there may remain a considerable mixture of selfishness, even in those in whose hearts the love of God is supreme. Hence have arisen the envies, jealousy, and party spirit which have tarnished the character and marred the usefulness of many wise and good men.
To trace the nature and point out the causes of this criminal temper would open up a very wide, and perhaps, not unprofitable subject of discourse; and such a train of reflection is naturally suggested by the words of the text. But this is not my purpose at present. My design, in the choice of this text, is not so much to expose the sinfulness and mischievous consequences of a selfish and worldly spirit in the professors of Christianity, as to recommend a temper opposite to it: — to show the dignity, excellence, and unspeakable advantages of public spirit, and disinterested Christian zeal — that I may, if possible, rouse a generous emulation in the breasts of those, who, possessing the means and opportunities of doing good, have not been so active as they might have been, in improving the talents committed to them. With this end in view, and looking up to God for his blessing, I shall endeavour, I. To state and explain the principles by which true Christians are led to seek the things which are Jesus Christ’s, in preference to their own. And then, II. Recommend the cultivation and exercise of this divine temper, by some motives and arguments.
I. I am to state and explain to you, the principles by which true Christians are led to seek the things which are Jesus Christ’s, in preference to their own. The things which are Jesus Christ’s are the things pertaining to the kingdom and glory of Jesus Christ, with the means of promoting them. These are opposed to our own things: that is, to our own ease, reputation, or worldly interest, which duty to God, and a regard to the honour of our Lord Jesus Christ, will often require us to sacrifice. They who are possessed of the genuine spirit of Christianity will discover, in their general temper and conduct, a superiority to those selfish views which actuate the rest of mankind. Let us attend, then, to the principles upon which such a character is formed, contrasting the selfishness of a worldling or mere formalist in religion, with the enlarged and disinterested benevolence of a faithful disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I. The grand principle upon which the Christian character is formed, and that which gives birth to every other gracious disposition, is faith. Faith, as the apostle tells us, is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). It gives a kind of present subsistence to things future and invisible; representing them to the mind, not as bare probabilities, but as absolute certainties, to which we may attach the firmest credit, and on which we may rely with the most unsuspicious confidence. Faith has respect to the testimony of God, as the ground upon which it rests. It embraces the whole system of revealed truth, and yields an implicit and unqualified assent to every thing which bears the undoubted mark of divine authority. The Christian does not consider himself at liberty to choose or to refuse certain parts of the divine testimony, according as they may appear to him to be more or less conformable to his corrupt prejudices or sinful inclinations. He considers himself equally bound by every word which God hath spoken, and cordially acquiesces in all his revealed will, as holy, and just, and good.
But it is too evident that all men have not this faith (II Thess. 3:2). Many openly oppose and deride it, while others, who esteem themselves, and would be esteemed by others, Christians, are satisfied with a cold formal assent to the truth of divine revelation in general, without understanding its nature, examining its contents, or feeling any particular interest in the doctrines which it reveals. The consequence is that with all their pretended veneration for the sacred scriptures, they receive no serious lasting impression from them, nor do they at all experience their practical influence. Naming the name of Christ, they depart not from iniquity, but walk after the course of this world, and mind only earthly things. Hence it is that so many professors of Christianity, especially in the age in which we live, when a mere outward profession of religion is attended with little danger to a man’s worldly interest, seek their own things in preference to the things which are Jesus Christ’s.
It is far otherwise with the man who is possessed of genuine faith in the gospel. Inspired with this divine principle, the true Christian is taught to form a proper estimate of the unspeakable value of spiritual blessings, and the comparative insignificance of all earthly pursuits, while he looks not at the things which are seen and temporal, but at those things which are unseen and eternal (II Cor. 4:8). Risen with Christ, he seeks and sets his affections on things above, not on things on the earth (Col. 3:1-2). According to the measure of his faith is his superiority to low earthly schemes and selfish considerations. These, it is true, may mingle with his religious duties, and debase his purest services, which cannot fail to humble him deeply in the sight of God; but they do not form his predominant character: they arise from the weakness of his faith, and are neither allowed nor indulged, but powerfully resisted and mourned over before the Lord. With all his acknowledged imperfection, an habitual regard to the things which are Jesus Christ’s, in preference to his own things, is abundantly manifest in the prevailing temper of his mind as well as in the general tenor of his conduct.
In nothing, perhaps, is true spiritual religion (the religion, I mean, which flows from a living faith in the gospel) more distinguished from a form of godliness than in this respect. The stream can rise no higher than the fountain from which it flows. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; but that which is born of the spirit is spirit (John 3:6). A worldly man’s religion is regulated by worldly principles; his fear of God is taught by the precepts of men (Isa. 29:13). A stranger to the faith which overcometh the world, not realising the things of an unseen and everlasting state, he is always afraid of venturing too far, of being righteous overmuch, of hurting his worldly interest, and incurring the censure and reproach of those whose good opinion he wishes to preserve. But the simple-hearted genuine disciple of Christ has learned to deny himself, to take up his cross, and follow his blessed Lord. He has counted the cost, and is made willing to sell all that he has, that he may bury the treasure hid in the gospel field — the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45-46), which faith has taught him to prize above every thing which this world can bestow.
2. Connected with this principle, and naturally flowing from it, is another gracious disposition which has a powerful influence in forming the Christian character — a supreme love to the Lord Jesus Christ.
No temper or disposition of mind is more frequently spoken of in scripture, as characteristic of a real Christian, than love to Christ. It is of the very nature and essence of true religion. If any man, says the apostle, love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha (I Cor. 16:22); but, on the other hand, Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity (Eph. 6:24). Love to Christ, proceeding from faith in him, is something more than a transient glow of affection. It is something more than saying unto Christ, Lord, Lord, which many do, who in works deny him. Genuine love to Christ is a powerful, operative, abiding principle. It is the spring of all acceptable obedience, the grand incentive to the practice of every thing that is true, and honest, and just, and pure, and lovely, and of good report (Phil. 4:8); for the love of Christ constraineth us: it impels us forward, and bears us on in its own course, like a mighty current which carries all before it. But how is this gracious principle brought into action, or in what way is its existence in the soul manifested in the outward conduct? Our Lord Jesus Christ is not now personally present upon earth, to receive from his friends any visible tokens of regard. The heavens have received him till the time of the restitution of all things. But he has a cause, a kingdom, an interest in the world, and what is done for the advancement of his kingdom and interest among men, out of love to his name, he considers as done to himself.
Here, then, brethren, is the test of the sincerity of our love to Christ — a test which he himself requires as indispensably necessary to the character of his disciples (Matt. 10:37). He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And again, in still stronger terms (Luke 14:26), If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. The meaning of both these passages is the same. They evidently refer to the supreme affection of the soul, and to that decided preference which the things of Jesus Christ ought to have in our minds above our own things. Our Lord, in the words just now recited, cannot be supposed to require us absolutely to hate our brethren and kinsmen according to the flesh (for this would be as contrary to the plainest principles of religion, as to the common dictates of humanity), but, in a comparative view, we are commanded to act as if we hated them, so as to be willing to renounce our dearest friends, when duty to Christ demands such a sacrifice; — that is, when we must either forsake them, or forsake our blessed Lord.
This doctrine, which appears to many an hard saying, is strikingly illustrated by an apposite example which occurs in the history of our Saviour’s personal ministry (Luke 18:18-23). We read of a certain ruler who came to Christ, professing great respect for his character and an earnest desire to be instructed by him. Good Master, said he, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? Our Lord, who knew what was in man, perceived that, with all his professions of regard, the love of the world was predominant in his heart, and therefore he put his boasted virtue to the trial by telling him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me. The event was such as might have been expected, in the case of one whose heart was not right with God. He went away very sorrowful, for he was very rich. For the same reason, one of Paul’s fellow labourers deserted him in the hour of trial. Demas hath forsaken me, says he, having loved this present world (II Tim. 4:10). And many, alas! in every age, who are called by the name of Christ, and with their mouths show much love, plainly discover by their conduct that the world has the chief place in their heart, preferring their own ease, credit, and interest, to the honour of Christ and the advancement of his kingdom, whenever they happen to come in competition with each other.
The genuine disciples of Christ, who are possessed of a supreme love to him, are men of another spirit. To them, the honour of Christ and the advancement of his kingdom are matters of the most serious concern. They rejoice in Zion’s prosperity, and are filled with the deepest regret when the interest of the Redeemer’s kingdom appears to be in a low and declining state. Nor are they satisfied with indolent wishes and unmeaning compliments, when they have it in their power to give more substantial proofs of regard to the Saviour; but constrained by his love, present their bodies and spirits as living sacrifices, and cheerfully consecrate their time, and talents, and substance, and influence to his service and glory.
3. Another principle, arising from the two former, which has a powerful influence in forming the Christian character, is love to the souls of men, or true Christian benevolence.
The origin of this divine temper is to be traced to the love of God, displayed in the redemption of the world by his Son Jesus Christ. For, as the apostle John informs us, Love is of God, and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren (I John 4:7 and 3:16). The character of man as a fallen apostate creature is the very reverse of this — Hateful, and hating one another (Titus 3:3) exhibits a no less just than melancholy picture of his history in all past ages, with but few exceptions. Nor is this difficult to be accounted for. While every one pursues his own apparent interest, without regard to the welfare or happiness of others, various will be the occasions of mutual strife and contention. Pride and covetousness, these two evil demons which haunt the smaller, as well as the larger societies of men, have produced innumerable mischiefs in the world. Hence have arisen wars and fightings, discord and jealousy, peevishness and discontent, which, in ten thousand instances, have broken the peace of nations, of churches, and families.
There is, I acknowledge, a sort of benevolence, which, greatly for the benefit of society, is to be found among those who are strangers to the saving power of the gospel. But however useful this sort of benevolence may be in its own place, it falls short of that love to mankind which is the fruit of a living faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The common benevolence which springs from mere natural principles, refers chiefly to men’s bodily wants, and temporal distresses; whereas true Christian love, while it does not overlook these, aims at higher objects, and, deeply sensible how infinitely superior the concerns of the soul are to those things which relate only to a present life, directs its principal efforts to the spiritual interests and eternal salvation of mankind. While the Christian philanthropist, then, mourns over the countless calamities of suffering humanity, he is still more deeply affected with the spiritual distresses of his fellow creatures. By holding up to our view the great pattern of divine benevolence, exhibited in the gift of God’s own Son, the gospel has a tendency to beget and cherish, in particular, an ardent love to the souls of men.
These, then, are the principles which contribute to form in the Christian that pure and disinterested zeal for the glory of the Redeemer, and the advancement of his kingdom, which constitutes the brightest ornament of his character.
David Black (1762-1806) was pastor of Lady Yester’s, Edinburgh, Scotland, from 1794 until his death.