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God’s Economics

November 6, 2011

The Text

14Yet it was kind of you to share my
trouble. 15And you Philippians yourselves know that in the
beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into
partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. 16Even
in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. 17Not
that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your
credit. 18I have received full payment, and more. I am well
supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a
fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19And
my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory
in Christ Jesus. 20To our God and Father be glory forever
and ever. Amen.

(Philippians 4:14-20 ESV)

A Closer Look at the Text

Paul’s Economics. Paul was well supplied, and he saw his
supplies coming from God by way of the Philippians. It’s necessary to
understand the first word of verse 19 (“and”) in order to fully
understand the rest of that verse. Is it “and also” or “and so” or “and
by the same token”? In other words, does verse 19 serve as an
independent observation alongside verse 18 (God supplies me, God
supplies you)? Or, does verse 19 have some dependency on verse 18 (God
supplies me, and so you can expect that God will supply you)? The fact
that verse 18 is in the present tense (I am well supplied) and verse 19
is in the future tense (God will supply) seems to point to the latter

Either way, we can look at Paul and ask how God has supplied
all of his needs. What were his needs? As a prisoner under house
arrest, with a Roman guard nearby (perhaps chained to him), Paul’s
needs were probably fairly basic: food, water, writing materials. After
all, in Philippians 4:11 Paul had observed that he had learned that he was to be
content in all situations. If economics are based mostly on discontent
with unmet needs and wants, Paul’s economics were minimal.

“It is Better to Give than to Receive” is a worn-out cliché. But at Verse 17 Paul
is not promising that generosity is rewarded with some sort of a mushy
psycho-bliss. When Paul says “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the
fruit that increases to your credit,” he’s acknowledging that when the
Philippians send support to Paul out of love for him and for Christ
(and out of obedience) the greatest blessing accrues to the
Philippians. Their blessings are, in Paul’s economics, greater than
Paul’s, even though Paul is the recipient.

Some Observations about the Text

God’s Economics. Economics – the dismal
– is a strange pseudo-science. As a predictor of human
behavior, it fails. People (and corporations and governments) do
strange things. Have you ever seen a member of community organization
take a day off from work (where he earns, say, about $10 per hour) in
order to panhandle on street corners on behalf of his organization
(where he earned $2.35 per hour)? That makes about as much sense as
governments that spend $666 billion on economic “stimulus,” or, $278,000 per job “created
or saved.” I have seen people risk prison sentences by cheating on
their taxes (in order to save $812.00).  “Rational choice
might make for a recognized economic or legal theory, but it’s not how
humans actually behave.

In God we Trust

Witness Lee wrote a commentary on 1 Timothy 1:3-7 called The
Economy of God
. He pointed out that “economy” is the anglicized
form of the Greek word oikonomia, which occurs throughout the New Testament (1
Timothy 1:4; Ephesians 1:10; 3:2; 3:9; 1 Corinthians 9:17; Colossians
). Oikonomia is a compound of two nouns: oikos,
which means house, and nomos, which means law. Witness Lee
thought of God as an immensely wealthy householder who dispenses His
unsearchable riches (Ephesians 3:8) to His people, the members of His household. He does so based
on his priorities. What are His priorities? His glory, His kingdom, his
love. Nothing is dispensed by God outside of God’s priorities.

I am not entirely sure about Witness Lee’s theology (I haven’t
really studied it), but he’s right about one thing: God’s economy is
certainly not the same as any human economy. God’s economy operates
from His riches and His grace and His wisdom, not from human struggle
or from a cursed earth. For example, in my own experience I saw that He
was willing to allow a recovery ministry to run hard for two and a half
years (absorbing a tremendous amount of time and money and emotion and
energy), prayerfully interacting with hundreds of people. As a result
of that effort, one or two people turned to Him. He loves those one or
two people enough to invest (even to the point of burn-out) the lives
of those who zealously invested in and worked that recovery ministry. I
know that in God’s economy things work this way. God’s measure of
cost-benefit goes beyond anything we can imagine. Think about the
“cost-benefit analysis” of John 3:16. Or of Matthew 16:26 / Mark 8:36. And pretty much the rest of the Bible, starting with creation by God (Genesis
) and concluding with creation by God (Revelation
). I also know that no ministry can be accurately measured by
nose counts in God’s economy because many times a ministry cultivates
and plants and nurtures but does not harvest (Matthew
13:1-9; Mark 4:1-9; and Luke 8:4-8
). In all cases, God actually
causes the germination and the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).

Gospel Apologetics

Nonbelievers will often offer this pithy objection to faith in
Christ: “I don’t understand how God could _______________ ….” (fill
in the blank). Sometimes nonbelievers say this in a tone of voice
that seems to imply that God’s actions or decisions are not legitimate
unless they fully understand them. They seem to believe that it makes
sense for them to assume that their reasoning supersedes God’s. It
would be rude and unkind and a poor witness to simply respond, “Of
course you don’t.” But actually that’s an accurate response. The
nonbeliever does not understand for two reasons.

First, he or she is not God, and no human understands the mind of God.

Second, nonbelievers minds are darkened, so they walk in the
futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding,
alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in
them, due to their hardness of heart. When it comes to God’s law and
holiness (and the common revelation of their conscience) they have
often become callous. (Ephesians
) So of course they would not understand how God could
(fill in the blank). They no
longer want to. They aren’t seeking His ways.

Some believers are more obvious about this than others. Some are
obviously in full rebellion and are running hard away from him. For
example, when it comes to social issues, they are moving quickly through the Overton
so that their “acceptance level” of cultural moral decline
is often in the process of moving from unthinkable to radical to
acceptable to sensible to popular. Eventually, just about any loosening
of moral strictures will make complete sense to them. On the other
hand, any effort to move in the direction of God’s law not only does
not make sense, but it is often offensive to them.

There are lots of things that can be said about how to witness to
nonbelievers who are obviously in full rebellion. But one of the most
effective weapons in our arsenal is described in Philippians 4:
Contentment. A follower of Christ can learn to be content, just as Paul
learned that he ought to be content, no matter what. True contentment
is, for most people, elusive if not outright unattainable. And yet we
have it. We have the peace that surpasses all understanding. As long as
we reflect that peace, that hope, no matter what come our way, we will
never run out of opportunities to have conversations about the gospel
with those who do not.

Audio MP3 Discussion of this post is available here.

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