Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Encouragement and Consolation in Christ

Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, (Philippians 2:1)

The second chapter of Philippians opens with this verse, and there are two hugely important things about it in the first two words. First of all, “Therefore” is a word that makes it abundantly clear that what is now being communicated is based on what was said in the past.1 Specifically here, Paul is tying his upcoming exhortation to his call for correct Christian conduct that began in Philippians 1:27. Secondly, “if” sets up an “if…then” construction for Paul’s argument (even though the “then” is implicit rather than explicit). But this is not a question or a possible set of circumstances that he’s dealing with. Paul is setting up a rhetorical question that should be understood as saying “because there is encouragement in Christ….”

The word encouragement (translated as “consolation” in the KJV and NKJV) is a word that is similar to word translated as “Comforter” in reference to the Holy Spirit elsewhere in the New Testament. And in a similar way, the meaning of the word “encouragement” here carries a “coming alongside of” someone in order to give them assistance by offering them comfort, counsel, or exhortation. The fact that Christ indeed has come alongside of the believer is undeniable. And it is from our shared experience with Him and His perfect example for us that we can obtain great joy and encouragement.

In Matthew 10:24,25 and John 13:13-16, Jesus shows us by His own example what we should expect in trials and He shows us how we should serve one another. It is because Christ gave us the supreme example of the righteous undergoing persecution and of the overqualified or the over-dignified condescending to do a lowly or menial task of service that we can find great encouragement from Him. He’s been here. He was tempted in every way that we are tempted and He served His disciples in ways that were “less than” His status demanded of Him. He endured the normal and every day woes of a sinful world. He had loved ones die. He was betrayed by a close friend. He was hated on account of His Lord. And whenever we encounter the trials, persecution, and, as we saw in verse 27 of chapter 1, suffering for the sake of Christ, we can take great comfort and be incalculably encouraged by the fact that our Lord endured the same before us and that He has promised to keep us through it by His own power.
68 Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. 69 We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68,69)

Peter was asked if he too would desert Christ, and he responded with a resoundingly clear and beautiful testimony of the fullness truth that we have in our Lord. It is with the same spirit of Peter’s response to Christ regarding His sufficiency, I think, that Matthew Henry wrote regarding our encouragement and consolation in Christ when he, rhetorically, asked, “If we have not consolation in Christ, where else can we expect it?”2

We have no other source of saving, lasting, or infallible truth, and we have no other source of immeasurable, sufficient, and consistent comfort that can be found in Christ through His Word and His Work (specifically, His work on the cross following a perfectly righteous life). And consequently, we need to look at Him for both truth and encouragement.

And flowing from the encouragement that we have in Christ, we are also the beneficiary recipient of the consolation of His love (2:1b). The word translated as “consolation” (or “comfort” in KJV, NKJV, and some others) is closely tied to the word translated “encouragement” or “consolation” in the beginning (2:1a) of this verse. I wouldn’t say that these terms and ideas are completely interchangeable because they are not synonymous, but they are closely related by the way that Paul uses them here in a way that makes them virtually indistinguishable. This “consolation of love” carries the idea of a sincere word spoken in love and in the consoling of a dear friend in a difficult time.

The love that is being communicated here is the self sacrificing, God honoring, self-depreciating, lay-your-life down, father to son, brother to brother, husband to wife, sacrificial love that saw its fullest expression in Christ when he defined this love as He died on the cross for us. But the cross was an even greater picture of love than if the picture were of a father dying for his child, or a picture of a marine falling on a live hand grenade that dropped into the midst of him and his comrades. They gave up their own lives to save the lives of the ones they loved and who, presumably, loved them. The cross is a greater picture because we were not friends with God when Christ died in our place. I was alienated from God and an enemy of God in my mind through wicked works before Christ saved me. (Colossians 1:21 KJV) Moreover, the enmity was mutual; I was God’s enemy because of my sin, and I hated God because of His righteousness and holiness. This is the canvas for the glorious picture of the love of God in Christ that was painted in blood.

My friends, do not look to gain encouragement, exhortation, or comfort from any self help book, seminar, or some other means. In fact, don’t even primarily look to your church, godly spouse, or best friend to receive these things. The fellowship of the church and of godly friends is a means of grace in that we can receive encouragement, exhortation, and comfort from them, and that is one of the ministries of the church body. But the comfort and encouragement are only displayed, at best, in a diluted and second-handed way. Look to Christ, first and foremost, for your encouragement, joy, comfort, and exhortation. Look to Christ through His Word and the power of His Spirit to find the epitome of encouragement and the comfort of love that any mortal can ever experience.

But with that said, don’t look to Christ in order to receive these blessings. For if that is your goal, then it would be close to idolatry or similar to only loving my wife because of what she does for me. Look to Christ, dwell on Christ, and savor Christ because He is worthy to be looked at. Look to Christ because He is so gloriously gracious and merciful, and because He is so unparalleled in His righteousness that He is due all adoration and all love and all praise. That is the correct context for a Christian to find our comfort in Christ.

1 Just ask yourself, “What’s the ‘therefore’ there for?” and you will be in a good position to better understand the full extent of what is being said.

2 (from Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Modern Edition, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1991 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.)

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