by David Black
"All seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." - 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 labor, who, for the work of Christ, was near 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 "most of the brothers in the Lord have gained confidence from my imprisonment and dare even more to speak the message fearlessly." (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 interests, not those of 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 selfishness. 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 honors, 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 of selfishness 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 has 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 loving spirit, and unselfish Christian zeal — that I may, if possible, rouse a generous emulation in the bosoms 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 endeavor--
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.
II. Recommend the cultivation and exercise of this divine temper, by some motives and arguments.
I. 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 honor 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 unselfish benevolence of a faithful disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.
1. 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 everything 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 has 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 'mere 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 overcomes the world, not realizing 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 buy the treasure hid in the gospel field — the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45-46), which faith has taught him to prize above everything 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, loves not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed (1 Cor. 16:22); but, on the other hand, Grace be with all those who 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 everything that is true, and honest, and just, and pure, and lovely, and of good report (Phil. 4:8); for the love of Christ constrains 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 until 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 who loves father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And again, in still stronger terms (Luke 14:26), If any man comes to me, and hates 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 piety, 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 Savior'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 lack you one thing: sell all that you have and distribute unto the poor, and you shall 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 laborers deserted him in the hour of trial. 'Demas has forsaken me,' says he, 'having loved this present world' (2 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 honor 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 honor 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 Savior; 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 from God, and everyone who loves is born of God, and knows 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 (1 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 everyone 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, those 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 needs, 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 nourish, 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 unselfish zeal for the glory of the Redeemer, and the advancement of his kingdom, which constitutes the brightest ornament of his character.
Allow me now, By a few plain motives and arguments, to
II. Recommend to you the cultivation and exercise of this divine temper.
1. The superior importance of the things of Jesus Christ to our own things, should determine our preference. How poor and trifling, in comparison, are all those objects which so much engross the time and attention of the great bulk of mankind! What a bauble is wealth, compared with the unsearchable riches of Christ! How insignificant is the honor that comes from man, compared with the honor that comes from God! And how contemptible the pleasures of sin, which are but for a season — those short-lived enjoyments for which men barter their souls and eternal salvation, when set in comparison with the high dignity and happiness of being workers together with God, in promoting the holy, wise, and beneficent purposes of his government! The things which are Jesus Christ's, remember, are the things which pertain to the divine glory. 'For the Father loves the Son, and has given all things into his hand' (John 3:35).
And can we conceive, Christians, a higher motive to exertion than the glory of Him who made us? Has the Father committed to the Son the dearest interests of his own glory, and shall we not seek the things which are Jesus Christ's in preference to everything else? Our own things! How do they dwindle into insignificance when contrasted with these! Shall we prefer a little ease, a little worldly interest or indulgence, a little praise or commendation from poor fellow mortals like ourselves--to the glory of God, and the honor of the Redeemer? For these are the only things which can come into competition with the things which are Jesus Christ's.
Take the things which are supposed to be of the greatest importance to mankind — the rise and fall of empires — the revolutions of states and kingdoms — the civil and political interests of the great bodies which divide the inhabitants of the globe. These, it will readily be granted, are justly entitled to regard, since they involve the temporal comfort and prosperity of thousands and millions of our fellow creatures. But bring them into competition with the things which are Jesus Christ's, and what is their amount? Except in so far as they are connected with the advancement of the Redeemer's kingdom, of the increase and peace of which there shall be no end (Isa. 9:7)--they will be found, comparatively speaking, light as a feather, and insignificant as the small dust upon the balance. The salvation of a single soul is an event of greater importance than the conquest of a kingdom!
The humble self-denied followers of the Lamb, who are willing to hazard their lives for the sake of Christ and immortal souls, are far more worthy of being enrolled in the annals of fame — I will not say, than the Caesars and Alexanders, who have deluged the world with blood, whose memory is fitted to excite abhorrence, rather than applause — but than the most renowned patriots, or illustrious benefactors of the human race, who have promoted, in the highest degree, the temporal interests of their fellow creatures. Little as the preaching of the gospel and the effects produced by it are regarded by many, it is followed with consequences infinitely more momentous than those which arise from the deliberations of senates, or the decrees of princes.
And are Christians, then, the only men who are justified in the indulgence of sloth? Are all others active and diligent in promoting, in different ways, what they conceive to be their interest, while those who call themselves disciples of Christ are careless and indifferent about the honor of their Master and the success of his glorious gospel! How true the saying of our blessed Lord, 'The children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light!' (Luke 16:8) Let us blush for shame that we, who profess to have such superior objects in view, should be so far outstripped in activity and zeal by the votaries of Mammon, who aim at nothing higher than the attainment of blessings which perish with the using.
2. Gratitude to the Redeemer for the inestimable benefits he has procured for us, should excite us to seek the things which are Jesus Christ's in preference to our own. Even Christ, we are told, 'pleased not himself' (Rom. 15:3). He sought not his own things, but the glory of his heavenly Father, and the happiness of his people. He 'became poor, that we, through his poverty, might be rich' (II Cor. 8:9): he emptied himself of his glory, though possessed of all the fullness of the Godhead, took upon him the degraded form of a servant, submitted to shame and sufferings, and death itself, that he might deliver us from endless inconceivable misery, and raise us to the possession of immortal glory and blessedness. In this view, how astonishing is the history of Christ's personal ministry! Well might it be said of him, that the zeal of God's house had eaten him up (John 2:17); for it was his food and drink to do the will of his heavenly Father, and to finish his work (John 4:34).
Often did he deny himself the ordinary refreshments of nature, that he might be serviceable to the souls of men. Upon one occasion, when faint and weary, he sat on Jacob's well, and asked of the woman of Samaria a little water to quench his thirst; denied, as he was at first, this trifling blessing, he seems, from the conversation that follows, to have forgotten his thirst in his ardent concern for the salvation of this poor woman's soul (John 4:9-26). And once and again we read of his retiring to a mountain to pray, and spending whole nights in prayer, after having employed the day in public instruction and acts of beneficence (Mark 6:40, Luke 6:12).
What a pattern to his followers! And how powerful a motive likewise to deny ourselves for him, who, for our sakes, labored, and watched, and wept, and prayed, and at last shed his precious blood! How poor the returns which we can possibly make for his marvelous love to us! But surely, if one spark of gratitude remain in our breasts, we cannot fail to judge with the apostle, that "Christ's love compels us, since we have reached this conclusion: if One died for all, then all died. And He died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the One who died for them and was raised." (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)
We must be irresistibly led by this endearing consideration to seek the things which are Jesus Christ's, accounting the honor of his name, and the advancement of his kingdom in the world, of infinitely greater consequence, and far more desirable than any little separate interest of our own. Said the captive Jews in Babylon, "If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Jerusalem as my greatest joy!" (Psalm 137:4-6). In like manner will the pious Christian say, "If ever I forget your dying love, O bleeding Immanuel! if ever I lose the sense of my infinite obligations to your matchless grace, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth! Sooner let me die than not live to you; sooner let me lose the powers of my rational nature, than fail to employ them in your service. Henceforth your glory shall be my constant aim; your will my only rule; and the advancement of your kingdom, in the particular station in which they providence has placed me, the great business of my life."
Nourish, my Christian friends, such sentiments as these. Muse upon the great things which God has done for your souls, until the fire of divine love burn within you, and you feel yourselves constrained to say, "Lord, what will you have us to do — to be — or to suffer? We are ready, through your all-powerful grace assisting us, not to be bound only, but also to die for the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 21:13). We are ready to renounce kindred, country, friends, comforts — everything, in short, which the world holds dear, at the command of him whose we are, and to whom we owe our everlasting all. Only let the grace of Christ be sufficient, and his strength made perfect in our weakness, and love will make pain easy, and labor delightful."
3. To animate us to the exercise of pure and unselfish zeal, let us recall to our minds the example of the best and holiest men who have lived in past ages.
"All seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." And too much cause has there been for the same complaint in every period of the church. But, blessed be God, there have been and still are many noble examples of the contrary spirit. The Lord has not lacked faithful witnesses to his truth, from the earliest ages of the world through all succeeding generations to the present times. But in none was this blessed temper ever more conspicuous, than in Paul himself, the apostle whose words we are now considering. How ardent and unselfish was the zeal of this great apostle, for the honor of his Master! From the time that his Lord met him on his way to Damascus, to the close of his life, a period of more than thirty years, his whole soul was engaged in devising and carrying into execution schemes for the advancement of the Redeemer's kingdom. Sometimes the apostle met with ungrateful returns from those whose best interests he labored to promote; but even ingratitude itself could not damp the generous ardor of his love. Speaking to the Corinthians, he says, "I will most gladly spend and be spent for you. If I love you more, am I to be loved less?" (2 Corinthians 12:15)
In the prosecution of this arduous work, the apostle was sometimes exposed to incredible dangers and hardships. But none of these things moved him, neither did he count his life dear to himself, that he might finish his course with joy. Yes, says he (Phil. 2:17), and if I am offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy and rejoice with you all.
4. In the fourth and last place, Let a regard to our own best and eternal interests determine us to seek the things which are Jesus Christ's in preference to our own. This, at first view, may appear paradoxical, that we should be exhorted to consult our own interest by seeming to overlook and neglect it. But this difficulty vanishes at once if we recollect that the highest interest of man is the salvation of his immortal soul, which forms a part of the things which are Jesus Christ's, and that even with regard to our temporal interest, if we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, all other things, which are truly good and necessary for us, will be added unto us (Matt. 6:33). This seems to be the import of our Lord's gracious promise,"I assure you: There is no one who has left a house, wife or brothers, parents or children because of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more at this time, and eternal life in the age to come." (Luke 18:29-30)
If we simply follow the Lord in the path of duty, devoting our time and talents to his service and glory, and minding the interest of his kingdom above every other concern, the power and promise of God are engaged for our temporal support. We may be brought into difficult and trying circumstances — former friends may frown, or forsake us — adverse dispensations of providence may add to our perplexity and distress — the cruse of oil, and barrel of meal may be nearly exhausted, and the means of future supply may seem to be cut off; but those who fear the Lord shall not lack anything that is good. Sooner will the Lord open windows in heaven than allow any of his children to be utterly forsaken. And though, for the sake of Christ and a good conscience, they may be sometimes called to abandon the dearest earthly comforts — to take, not only the confiscation of their goods, but what is much harder to bear, the loss of their good name; — though they may be hated, reviled, and persecuted for Christ's sake — yet the Lord, who has the hearts of all in his hands, can, in ten thousand ways, restrain the wrath of their enemies. Or, if he allows it in any measure to break forth, he can, by his wonder-working wisdom, render it subservient to their greater good. In every case, and at all events, it shall be well with the righteous (Isa. 3:10). They shall receive manifold more in the present time — a well-grounded sense of the divine favor — peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ — fellowship with him in the ordinances of his grace — the indwelling of the Holy Spirit — the testimony of an approving conscience — and a joyful reviving hope of heaven. These are sufficient to compensate the loss of all earthly comforts, and to preserve the soul steady and serene amidst the raging billows of adversity. Our compassionate Savior will be near to comfort us. His presence can cheer the gloom of solitude, remove the apprehension of danger, strengthen under the severest suffering, and overcome the dread of dying.
And no sooner shall our connection with things seen and temporal be dissolved, than we shall find in the world to come, life everlasting. Those who honor Christ, he will honor. Our seeming losses for his sake will then be found to be unutterable gain. "And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:3). Even a cup of cold water given to a disciple, in the name of a disciple, shall never lose its reward (Matt. 25:21). Our gracious Redeemer will not forget our work of faith and labor of love. His own infinite merit, it is true, will appear in that day to be the only ground of his people's title to the heavenly inheritance; but the works which have been performed under the influence of his blessed Spirit, he will acknowledge and reward, not, indeed, as the cause of his love to them, but as the evidence of their love to him. The basest and most despised of his humble followers he will welcome into his blissful presence with those transporting words, 'Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord!' (Matt. 25:21).
Animated by these glorious hopes, beloved, seek not great things for yourselves, but seek the things which are Jesus Christ's. Be diligent that you be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless at his coming. Occupy your talents until your Lord come. Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord--for you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord. (Jer. 45:5, II Pet. 3:14, Luke 19:13, I Cor. 15:58.)