Bible Commentary

PHILIPPIANS 21: Running in Vain (2:16-18)

rembrandt-apostle_paul“Hold firmly to the word of life; then, on the day of Christ’s return, I will be proud that I did not run the race in vain and that my work was not useless. But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy. Yes, you should rejoice, and I will share your joy” (Phil 2:16-18).

The greatest tragedy is not to die but to have lived a long life with no real sense of purpose. Twenty-first century life in the West boasts of more freedoms, opportunities, modern comforts, and vocational choices than ever before.  Yet, we are also more depressed than ever before.  We go-go-go nonstop, working longer hours and involving ourselves in more activities.  Exhausted from an unsustainable pace of life, many collapse on the couch and medicate themselves with heavy doses of TV, mindless internet browsing or video games.  Many slave away at unfulfilling jobs in order to make ends meet and pay all the bills.  We then try to fill this empty longing for greater meaning, mission and purpose with cheap, momentary thrills that never satisfy. 

If one were ever stop moving long enough to listen to their heart’s deeper cries, they might have to face the fact that they might be running the race of life in vain, living a life filled to the brim with what in the end is according to Paul “useless work.” Throughout his letters, Paul speaks autobiographically about his own life’s purpose and passion.  Paul’s favorite images for the special calling God has placed on him is that of an olympic athlete running a race or a boxer fighting to win the prize (cf. Phil 3:14; 1 Cor 9:24-27; 2 Tim 4:7).  

In this passage, Paul provides several key insights into his long-term outlook on life that we would all do well to imitate.  

1.  Christ is coming back.  Paul was no doubt familiar with Jesus’ many parables about the Master’s return and he lived always with this expectation in mind.  Paul was looking forward to the day when Christ would return and say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness’ (Matt 25:21). Are you ready for this encounter with the returning King?  

2. Paul’s work was not useless. Caribou Coffee proclaims, “Life’s Short. Stay Awake.”  Paul’s motto was “Life’s short. Serve God’s eternal purposes.” Paul took pride in the fact that he was investing his life in accomplishing the work God had given him to do.  His great fear was that he might be “running the race in vain” or wasting his time on things that don’t matter in the end.  Are you wasting your life on things that are useless work?  

3. Paul views his life as a sacrificial offering to God and rejoices in it.  Paul does not fear death — so long as his life that is being poured out in death is pleasing to God.  Elsewhere he urges us to offer our bodies “as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” (Rom. 12:1). This is a truth Paul greatly rejoices in.  He lays his head on his pillow each night with a joyful grin from ear to ear because his life is pleasing to the Lord.  This is what excites him, animates him, gets his blood pumping and adrenaline racing.  He finds joy in nothing more than serving the Lord.  What brings you greatest joy?  What do you rejoice over most?

4. Paul longs to share this joy with others.  When we find something we’re passionate about, something that gives us great joy and satisfaction we naturally want to share it with others.  Paul can’t help but invite others into his deep, abiding joy and peace he has found in Christ. So he says,”I want all of you to share that joy.” Are you unabashedly, unashamedly sharing your greatest joys with others?  Are you inviting others into the great love we have in Christ?  

Do you get the sense that every fiber of Paul’s being is fully captivated by a deep, abiding, constant concern for the things of God? Do you get even a whiff of mixed motives, divided priorities or dual allegiances?  Paul has truly encountered the risen Christ and his deepest affections are now swept up in the orbit of the Kingdom of God.  His own prayer seems to have been answered as he speaks as one who has been “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17-18).

May we also be filled with such a single-minded commitment to making our lives count for God!  As Paul would say, “Life’s short.  So pour it out like a liquid offering to God!”

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