What would you like your last words to be? What do you want to say on your deathbed? Here are some amusing famous last words from people’s deathbeds:
– Apparently Oscar Wilde said: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do!”
– Humphrey Bogart said: “I knew I should never have switched from Whiskey to Martini!”
– But my personal favourite is Spike Milligan’s final sentence: “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. He was under house arrest in Rome and shortly to be put on trial for his faith. Paul knew the death penalty was a real possibility. So, unsurprisingly, Paul chose to write to his loved ones – 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”.
So as we look at chapter 4 of Philippians today, we are reading Paul’s last words to his loved ones. Words of guidance and encouragement. Words they should treasure, in case they never saw him again.
I think Paul’s famous last words to the Philippians they can be summed up under four headings. Four instructions we too would do well to heed:
– Firstly, he wants us to be joyful (v.4)
– Second, he tells us to be gentle (v.5)
– Thirdly, he encourages us to be prayerful (v.6-7)
– And finally, he asks us to be thoughtful (v.8-9).
Let’s briefly look at each in turn…
If you have a Bible within reach, 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 life. My list included my wedding to Helen 14 years ago, plus of course the birth of our three children since then.
But in our opening verse today Paul tells us – not for the first time! – 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 earthly experience can offer. An unshakeable joy based upon everything Jesus has achieved for us.
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!
Secondly, in verse 5 today Paul says he 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 supremely gentle and gracious, not selfish, when he allowed himself to be nailed to a tree for our salvation. So let’s be gentle, like our Saviour.
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. There is a great promise in verse 7 today that if we do commit all our anxieties to God in prayer he will give us inner contentment and calm in return. In short, says Paul, God will give us a peace “which transcends all understanding”.
So do 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 his blessings. Because if we do, God’s Spirit will calm our heart and soothe our spirit. So let’s be prayerful!
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’s 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. As Paul says in verse 9, this means attending closely to the teaching of Paul and the other biblical authors.
– When it comes to our behaviour, do we seek to imitate and applaud those individuals we know who exhibit godliness, kindness, generosity and all the other fruit of the Spirit? Above all, do we look to Christ as our perfect role model?
– 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 hope so!
But why are we to think about such good things? What is wrong with filling our minds with impurity and untruth? The reason is that 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.
So let’s be careful with what we watch on TV, what we look at on the internet, and what 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 worse? Are we making good use of the ‘off’ button on our remote control or mobile phone, or are we letting unwholesome material distract our minds from what is wholesome, holy and good? 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. With God’s help, let’s be joyful, let’s be gentle, let’s be prayerful – and let’s be thoughtful.
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