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The Crown Jewel of Spiritual Stability

Tom Pennington Philippians 4:9


Well, for our brief study tonight, I want you to turn with me to Philippians 4, Philippians 4. My mind was drawn to this passage for several reasons this week, but it’s a profound passage and I want you to notice how chapter 4 of Philippians begins. Philippians 4:1, “Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, my beloved.” He begins this chapter, this section, this paragraph with a command, “stand firm.” In other words, be spiritually stable.

That’s a pretty potent command. I think if you’re like me, your first response is, “Well, that’s great, but how? That’s what I want. If I’m in Christ, I want to stand firm. I want to be spiritually strong, spiritually stable. But how do I do that?” Well, the commands that follow down through verse 9 outline the path for pursuing spiritual stability.

In fact, in verses 2 through 9, Paul really identifies six specific steps to spiritual stability. Let me just outline them for you. You can jot them down if you want and then you can go back and look at them at your leisure. I’m only going to focus on the last tonight. But the first is, resolve to live in harmony with other Christians. That’s verses 1 through 3. We talked a lot about that this morning. Secondly, determine to face life’s circumstances with joy (verse 4). The third is make it your ambition to be known for a gentle spirit (verse 5). Number 6 is talk to God about everything (verses 6 and 7). Number 5 of these steps that lead to spiritual stability is, choose to think about the right things. That’s verse 8.

What I want us to do now is look at verse 9 and the sixth step to spiritual stability. I hate to really admit this to you, but when I first came to this passage and really started studying it in depth, I found myself thinking that verse 9 is kind of a throwaway verse. We know there really aren’t any of those in Scripture, but it’s easy for us in our own minds to read through a passage, to come to a verse and think, “Yeah, I know that” and to sort of skip it as if it really doesn’t say anything significant or important. I’m now convinced, however, that verse 9 is really the crown jewel of spiritual stability. What seems simple is in fact incredibly profound.

Look at verse 9 of Philippians 4: “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” The sixth step to spiritual stability, and this is really where I want us to focus is this: live a disciplined life of obedience to God’s standards. Live a disciplined life of obedience. That’s really the heart of spiritual stability. There’s no secret. It’s a matter of a disciplined life pursuing obedience to what God has revealed to us.

Now, as he unfolds this here, Paul begins in verse 9 by reminding us of the foundation of a disciplined life and it’s what we’ve learned, it’s what we’ve received. And he outlines the various ways that we’ve come to know what we know spiritually. Notice the beginning of verse 9, “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me...” He says, first of all, you have learned what you have learned through personal discipleship.

Notice verse 9 says, “The things you have learned”. The Greek word translated “learned” means to learn through instruction. In fact, it’s the verb form of the noun “disciple”. We could translate it like this: “The things you have learned through discipleship.” Paul reminded the Philippians that through his own personal discipleship of them, they had learned God’s truth.

This is part of how God brings His truth to bear in our lives. And all of us have benefited in some way or other from personal discipleship. Whether it was from a parent or a pastor or a friend, somebody has poured his or her life into you and you have learned the truth of God through that personal discipleship.

The second method that God used with the Philippians, and He uses with all of us, is the obvious one, and that is divine revelation. Look at verse 9 again. He says, “[The things which you have] received.” The things which you have received. The Greek word for “receive” is actually a technical term that’s used a number of times in the New Testament for divine revelation. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2, he writes this, “Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.” “You received the divine revelation that contain these commandments directly from the Lord Jesus.” Here in our text, it refers to Paul’s own revelation that he received directly from God as an apostle. And probably it also refers to the other New Testament books that had been written by that point, by the time he writes to the Philippians. And so, he says to the Philippians, and really, he says to us as well, “You have received God’s truth not only through personal discipleship, but you’ve received it through divine revelation, through the Word that you hold in your hand in the Scripture.

There’s a third method that God has used to build His truth into your life and into mine, and that is personal example. Notice again, verse 9, he says, “The things you have...heard and seen in me...” The things you have heard and seen in me. That refers to the things that they’d observed in Paul’s character. They had heard things about him, and they had seen those things with their own eyes. And by watching him who was spiritually mature, they learned how they ought to conduct themselves. They learned how they ought to live.

And again, you and I have had the benefit of that. We have had the experience of interacting with more mature Christians. And as we’ve watched their lives, we’ve learned the truth of God and how we ought to conduct ourselves. So, Paul says to us, “Listen, you’ve been personally discipled. You’ve had the truth of divine revelation passed on to you in the Scripture, and you have had the opportunity to see the faith of others by personal example. You have learned God’s Word in that way. You’ve learned it that way. I’ve learned it that way.

So, what are we supposed to do with that? What are you supposed to do with what you’ve learned? Well, that brings us to the second half of verse 9 and to what I would call the focus of a disciplined life. If the foundation is what we’ve received in those ways, here’s what we’re supposed to do with it. Here’s the focus. Notice again how Paul puts it, “...practice these things...” Again, I can’t overestimate the importance of that statement or the profundity of it. Practice these things! The word “practice” simply means to do, to perform, or to act. In the Greek text, it’s in the present tense. It implies, be practicing these things as a consistent pattern and habit. Do this repeatedly.

What does it mean to practice? Well, Webster’s defines the English word practice, which is a good English word that summarizes this Greek word as something habitual, something customary. We talk about lawyers and doctors practicing. That’s not because they haven’t learned yet what they ought to do. It’s because they are habitually doing the same things with different people. So, what Paul is saying to us, and again, this is absolutely crucial. Paul is saying, “Look, you’ve enjoyed personal discipleship. You have enjoyed the receipt of God’s revelation in His Word. You have seen what this looks like in the lives of spiritually mature people around you. Now, just practice it.” It’s a lot like Nike’s slogan, “Just do it.” I mean, the implication of that slogan is, “Look, you know you ought to exercise. Now, you’ve got the right shoes to do it. You have no more excuses. Just start. Just do it.” That is exactly what Paul is saying. And again, it is so profoundly helpful because we must do what we learn.

This is a consistent theme throughout the New Testament. In fact, let me show you several references. Turn back to the book of Luke, Luke 6:46. Jesus says, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” He says, “Listen, this is simple. I’m your Kurios, I’m your Master. You’re my doulos, My slave. This is really easy. Do what I say. Just do. Just do it.” Look at chapter 8, Luke 8:19: “And His mother and brothers came to Him, and they were unable to get to Him because of the crowd.” You remember, He was teaching, and the house was filled with people who were listening. “And it was reported to Him, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, wishing to see You.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘My mother and My brothers are these who hear the word of God and do it.’“ They don’t just hear it, but they do it. Turn to John. John’s gospel makes this same point in John 13:17. Jesus has just been talking to the disciples and just washed their feet and taught them the significance of that. And in verse 17 He says, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” He said, “Alright, you know what to do. Now, do it and you’ll be blessed in doing it.” Go to chapter 15, John 15:14: “You are My friends if you do what I command you.” This is absolutely crucial. In fact, this is what differentiates a true believer from a false believer, and that is, doing what Christ says. In Matthew 7, He says, there are going to be people who say at the judgment, “You’re my Lord,” and I’m going to say, “Well, you didn’t obey Me. You did lawlessness instead of obeying Me.” You see it in James 1: “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” Nothing is more dangerous than a superficial knowledge of the Word of God. We are to do what we know. Just do it. Just start. Start putting it into practice. We’re talking about the discipline that says, “I’m going to pursue obeying God. I’m going to pursue the discipline of obeying what I know.”

You know, it’s really, it’s no different in a very real sense than what an athlete does. In fact, ironically, that’s the very language Paul uses when he writes to Timothy. He says, “...discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit...” And people discipline themselves to accomplish feats in the physical world, to win prizes, to be in better shape, whatever. They just do it. They just discipline themselves to get it done. Many of them without the Spirit. And he says, “I want you to do the same thing spiritually.” In fact, when he says, “Discipline yourself,” it’s the Greek word from which we get the word “gymnasium.” He says, “Exercise yourself. Use the same discipline that an athlete uses but use it to pursue godliness rather than physical fitness.

So, I remember when all of this became clear to me. It’s so profound because most Christians wait. They’re not doing what they know. They’re not pursuing obedience, a disciplined life of obedience to what they know, because they’ve misunderstood spirituality. Some just enjoy theoretical knowledge and just sort of get lost in the wonder of what they’re learning and forget to practice it. For many, they disconnect knowledge from experience. What they really want is experience. They think the Christian life and the heart of the Christian life is an experience. So, they’re just waiting for that experience. Still others don’t want to just do what the Scripture tells them to do because they don’t feel like it, and they feel like if they do it without feeling like it, it’ll be hypocritical. But of course, that’s not true. You get up when the alarm clock goes off every morning and different times you go to work when you don’t feel like it and you don’t think, “Oh, what a hypocrite I am.” No, you do it because you know it’s important to do. It’s the same way when it comes to those things we learn from the Scripture. Some don’t do what they know from the Scripture because they’re lazy and they just never get to it. Just like they never get to issues in the physical life. Others are distracted, just too busy, so that is never get around to actually pursuing these things. And some, I think, unfortunately are locked in a battle with some sort of a life-controlling, and life-dominating sin, and they tell themselves, “Look, I’ll start that as soon as I get this fixed”, not understanding that if they will pursue a holistic approach to holiness, then the Spirit and the Word will work on that area in which they struggle. So, there are a lot of bad reasons not to do this. But Paul says, “Listen, don’t wait! Don’t wait for a feeling. Don’t wait for an experience. Just practice these things, the things you’ve learned, the things you know. Start doing them. Start putting them into practice.

I mean, where do you start? Well, let me urge you to start, if you haven’t already, with the very basics, the basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian life. Let me just read a little list and, as I read them, I want you to grade yourself on how you’re doing in each of these basic categories, the basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian life. Are you practicing these things? Are you living with a disciplined life of obedience trying to accomplish these things?

Scripture reading, study, meditation, and application. In other words, are you in the Scripture? Are you reading it? Are you intentionally studying it to understand it more deeply and profoundly? Are you meditating on it? You’re taking time to think and ruminate and try to understand better what it means and what you’re supposed to do with it. Are you applying it to your life? Are you taking time to say, “Lord, what am I supposed to do with this? How am I supposed to change in my thinking, in my behavior?” What about prayer? Is prayer a regular part of your disciplined life of obedience. Worship? Are you really engaging in worship, both corporate worship but also individual and personal worship. Evangelism? Service? Are you serving? Are you using your gifts in the life of the church? These are some of the essentials, the basics of the Christian life. Are you intentionally pursuing a disciplined life of obedience in those areas?

I mean, you know those things are important, but maybe you have to admit that in several of those areas, you have to give yourself a failing grade. What do you do? Just practice these things and keep on practicing these things. Start with Scripture and prayer. Start with the basics. Discipline yourself to set aside time almost every day, at least five days out of seven, let’s say, for a starting point, or four days out of seven, where it is a regular part of your life to read and study the Scripture. Now, why don’t most people ever get there? Why do most Christians struggle with that? Well, I think, one, they haven’t really disciplined themselves to do it. They haven’t made a point to do it. But I think once you decide to do it, I think the main problem most people run into is they don’t get up early enough in the morning. Not everybody has their time in the Word and prayer in the morning. Some people are night people, I get that. But most people, if they neglect it in the morning, they rarely get back to it at another point in the day. And so, one of the best things to do is say, “I’m going to do this first thing in the morning.” And the reason people don’t is because they don’t get up early enough. And the reason they don’t get up early enough is because they didn’t get to bed soon enough at night. So, how do you fix that? How do you fix that problem? You make a simple commitment with yourself. I love what Job said in Job 23:12. He said, “...I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food.” I have treasured the words of God’s mouth more than my necessary food. So, make this covenant with yourself. You’re not going to eat a bite of food in a given day until you have spent some time in the Word of God. And let me tell you something. If you make that commitment and you keep it, you’ll always find time to be in God’s Word. It’ll happen because it’ll become a huge priority in your life.

Another basic discipline, if this isn’t a regular part of your life, is discipline yourself to spend time in prayer each day. John Calvin suggested that we build rhythms into our lives, and it’s not just Calvin. This has been the pattern of the people in Scripture. It’s been the pattern of saints throughout the years. David said, “At morning and at noon and at night will I pray.” And so, having some sort of a routine, some sort of a pattern in your prayer life, certainly that would be true before meals. Make it more than, if you’re able, make it more than just a simple prayer for the meal. When you’re by yourself, when you can express your heart. But when you first wake up, before the day gets started at work, as well as at the end of the day, as you’re thinking through what the Lord has done, build rhythms of prayer into your life. Pray at different times when things come up, when things happen, go to prayer. But it helps to have some sort of a pattern of a disciplined life of prayer built into your daily routines.

Now, perhaps you’re hearing me and going, “Tom, look, I get it. I understand what you’re saying, but I tried that, and it doesn’t work.” I’ve heard that many times from people. “I tried it, and it doesn’t work.” What do they mean? Well, they usually mean two things. One, they mean, “I tried it and it just felt awkward. It wasn’t natural.” Well, of course, that’s true. That’s true with any skill that you’re trying to develop. The first time you got on a bicycle, did it feel natural? The first time you got behind the wheel of a car, did it feel natural? Of course not. So, any skill that you’re trying to learn, any habit and pattern, as you’re beginning, it’s going to feel awkward because it’s not familiar.

The other thing that people mean when they say it didn’t work for me is they mean there were no dramatic changes in my life as a result of a week or two weeks of doing that. And my response to that is the same thing would be true in terms of food and sleep, things that you need for health. If you eat badly for two or three weeks, you’re not going to notice a lot of difference in your health in that short period of time. Rather, it’s over the long haul. The same thing is true spiritually. You’re not going to notice some immediate ramping up of your spiritual life and energy and strength by the time you spend a week or two. Think of exercise, the same thing. You spend a week or two sort of getting off the couch, stopping being a couch potato, and you start exercising. It’s not like in that first week or two you’re seeing some dramatic ramp up of your physical capability. It’s step after step, it’s process after process, and the same thing is true spiritually. Don’t expect some switch to flip, and suddenly, after a couple of days of these routines and these disciplines, you’re a different person. You wouldn’t expect that in any other area of life. This is for the long haul. That’s why I entitled this the way I did - live a disciplined life of obedience to God’s standards. It’s over time. It’s line upon line, precept upon precept. It takes time. It takes time to build in habits. All we’re really talking about is your using enough discipline in order to build a new habit into your life.

Those who study such things tell us that if you will be daily, actively involved in incorporating a new habit for six to eight weeks, then that will become, in fact, a new habit in your life. And again, those who study such things, human behavior, tell us that if you do that for six months, then it’s almost certain to become a regular pattern of your life for the rest of your life. I can tell you from experience in my own life, there comes a time when being in the Word of God and being in prayer becomes so important, such an important daily part of your life, that you just can’t imagine going along without it. It’s not the discipline now to try to do it. It’s exactly the opposite. It is such a part of life, something you so look forward to, that it’s awkward when you don’t. It’s difficult when you don’t. So, understand then, we’re talking about showing enough discipline in your life for six to eight weeks to make these basic things a habit. The Holy Spirit will enable you to do that.

Now, I’ve talked a lot about disciplined life. How does that relate to the work of the Holy Spirit? I’m not downplaying the work of the Spirit at all. Remember, our salvation is monergistic. God alone accomplishes our salvation. Sanctification is synergistic, that is, God is at work in us, and we are at work as well. Our work is a disciplined life of obedience to God. God’s work is to do what we can’t, and that is, to use all of those things to actually change us. The Holy Spirit takes our obedience, which could never really change us, and He, in response to that, works through His Word to change us at a heart level. And so, understand then, don’t run after some experience. Don’t wait for some feeling. Just start practicing these things as a disciplined pattern of obedience to God.

Now, look back at verse 9 because Paul finishes back in Philippians 4 with an amazing promise, the promise of a disciplined life. He says, “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice [be habitually practicing] these things, and [if you do that] the God of peace will be with you.” Notice it’s not saying you’ll have peace, although certainly that’s true. It’s saying the God, who is the source of peace, who gives peace, that God, God Himself, will be with you as you seek to pursue a pattern of life that is in obedience to Him. So, Paul says, think about what you’ve learned. Think about what you’ve learned through personal discipleship, through the divine revelation and the Word of God, through the personal example of mature Christians around you. Think about everything you know and determine, by the help of the Holy Spirit, to discipline yourself to practice these things. Just start doing it. And if you’ll do that, the God of peace will be with you.

You see why I said the life of disciplined obedience to God is the crown jewel of spiritual stability. May God use this truth to make us all more spiritually stable.

Let’s pray together.

Our Father, forgive us. Forgive us for being lazy. Forgive us for not being informed of Your path and Your way. Forgive us for accusing You for our lack of growth, for our lack of progress. Father, help us to do what You’ve commanded. Lord, give us the resolve to live a disciplined life, to invest the same effort in godliness that athletes invest in their bodily discipline, not thinking we can change ourselves, but as we pursue that, relying on your Spirit to do what we could never do, and that is, to change us in the process. Lord, help us to invest as we’re supposed to invest. And then Lord, may You work in and through these basic disciplines of the Christian life through our pursuit of obedience in every category, putting into place what we know. Lord, change us and make us more like Your Son, through the work of Your Spirit, and to the glory of Your Name. We pray in Christ’s name, Amen!

Have a good week!


God is Faithful

Tom Pennington Selected Scriptures

The Crown Jewel of Spiritual Stability

Tom Pennington Philippians 4:9

Steps to Spiritual Stability: Resolve to Live in Harmony with Other Christians

Tom Pennington Philippians 4:1-3

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