Going back to Paul rejoicing on the one hand about Christ being preached even though the preachers were preaching out of rivalry, and then, on the other hand, Paul telling the Philippians to do nothing out of rivalry or conceit–what can we make of this apparent contradiction? Here is my take. Scripture is clear. It affirms that God opposes the proud. And it also affirms that God will accomplish His sovereign purposes, in this case, even using proud, ambitious, self-seeking preachers to save people.
Who are these proud, conceited preachers competing with? Who is on the other side of the rivalry? It’s Paul. Paul, the great apostle, the chosen one who was appointed by God to preach Christ and to defend a pure gospel. There were many other preachers in Paul’s day who were probably pretty jealous of him. Who is this guy Paul? Why is he getting all of the attention? Why is he starting all of these churches? They saw him as the guy on top that they needed to knock off of the pedestal. They became rivals with Paul instead of co-laborers.
What was Paul’s reaction to these rivalries? Was he offended? Did he take it personally? Was he threatened? No, he displayed incredible humility by not focusing on himself because if he did, he would’ve become no different from the proud, self-seeking preachers he was criticizing. Instead of looking to defend himself, Paul lifted up the name of Christ.
18 What does it matter? Just that in every way, whether out of false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed. And in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice…
Even with insincere, conceited preachers who sought to compete against him, Paul was humble. He said, what does it matter? He can rejoice that Christ is proclaimed. Now that doesn’t mean that he is okay with insincere, conceited preachers. Which is why he tells the Philippians, do NOTHING out of rivalry and conceit. Don’t allow even a hint, even a whiff of pride to enter your heart or it’s going to destroy you.
The word for “rivalry” in the Greek means faction, contention, strife. The word for “conceit” is vain-glory or empty glorifying. Giving glory to something or someone that is not glorious. This world is all about rivalries and conceit and empty glory. I went to Cal and Cal has a huge rivalry with Stanford. Or shall I say Stanford has a huge rivalry with Cal. Cal, we know we are better, but Stanford wants to remind us that we are not the only school in Northern California of note. During football season, there is the Big Game between the two schools and both campuses go crazy to lift up the glory of their team and ultimately their school. Think of how beautiful it would be if Cal and Stanford said, let’s put our rivalry aside and let’s work together for the purpose of teaching and equipping the next generation of young minds, not simply to help them get a job or to earn money, but to love truth and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. And let’s suppose both universities decided to give away this education at a low cost so that anyone who wants to could receive a world-class education because both schools have plenty of money in their endowment funds. That would be beautiful. Instead, you have the number one public school in the nation competing against arguably one of the best private schools in the nation. And at bottom, each side is just glorifying a school name, an institution. And alumni lift up the name of their schools because we went there and if the school is glorified, we can receive a few crumbs of the glory that falls from the table and write it on our resume. Rivalry, conceit, vain-glory, empty glorifying. Ascribing glory to something or someone that is not glorious. Pride is the way of the world.
Why is God so upset with rivalries and conceit and the way of human pride and the divisions and factions that result? Because human pride is an illusion and God wants to bring us to reality.
Turn with me to Luke 1:46-52 and let’s read Mary’s Magnificat, or Mary’s song of praise when Mary learns through an angel that the Son of God would be born in her womb..
46 And Mary said: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, 47 and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior, 48 because He has looked with favor on the humble condition of His slave. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 because the Mighty One has done great things for me, and His name is holy. 50 His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him. 51 He has done a mighty deed with His arm; He has scattered the proud because of the thoughts of their hearts; 52 He has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.
Here again, we see two ways of life. The humble condition of Mary, who sees herself as an unworthy slave. Vs. the proud. I want to focus on the second half of v51.
51 …He has scattered the proud because of the thoughts of their hearts.
The word “thoughts” can be translated as imaginations. God has scattered the proud because of the imaginations of their hearts. The proud are stuck in their imaginations. They are imprisoned to a false reality.
Kids have incredibly elaborate imaginations. In an instant, they can transport themselves to a world with fire-breathing dragons and knights with flaming swords and princesses trapped in a tower. When I was younger, I was a dreamer. My parents told me it was my dream to be a doctor since I was 5 years old, but I seriously doubt that this was my dream. I’m sure it was their dream for me. I was just a young kid who was brainwashed by some clever parents who taught me that all Asian kids had to become doctors, or we would bring shame on the family name.
I was a dreamer. When I was by myself, late at night, I would dream of being in the NBA. Game 7, down by 2, time is running out and my teammates pass me the ball beyond the three point line and I throw it up with two men in my face and it’s a swish. Nothing but net. The crowd goes wild. They start chanting my name as I stand on top of the score’s table. Then, I would wake up and I’d realize I was in my room by myself with a nerf ball.
When I got a little older, my dreams switched from sports to money. There was a show when I was young with Michael J. Fox, who appears to be making a comeback these days. The show was called Family Ties and I thought, one day, I want to be like Michael J. Fox’s character. He’s so cool. He’s young, talented, witty. He has a bright future ahead of him. He’ll be a millionaire in no time.
It’s okay to have dreams like this when you are young because any career path seems possible when at that age. Any goal seems attainable. You feel invincible. But suppose, for a man like myself approaching 40 with a bad back, suppose I went around and said, hey, look at Jeremy Lin, that Asian American kid who looks like he should be studying at the library but instead he’s playing for the Houston Rockets in the NBA, he made it to the NBA so I think I can make it. I just have to lose a few pounds and work on my jump shot. I think you would say, Ray, you’re living on Fantasy Island. Wake up. Look in the mirror.
As we get older, our dreams may change, our imaginations might sound a bit more realistic, but at the core, I wonder if much has changed. Have we shed those childhood imaginations? We used to think we were invincible with a Superman cape around our neck with nerf bullets deflecting off of our chest. But now as adults we think, look at me. Look at what I’ve become. We become proud. We start looking down on others. We start believing that we can do anything we put our minds to. The sky is the limit. We think we control our own destiny.
If you think this way, then I hate to break it to you, but you’re stuck in an imaginary world that doesn’t exist. The fact that we are even here worshipping together is not because of anything we did. The breath in our lungs that allows us to live another day is purely because God in his grace has allowed it. He sustains our life. There is no guarantee of tomorrow. Life is like mist. It’s here today and gone by morning.
If you think you have control over anything, I’m sorry to say that you are a proud person whom God has scattered in the prison of the thoughts and imaginations of your heart. We can’t guarantee that any of us will be here tomorrow. We can’t control our health, we can’t guarantee the well-being of our kids and loved ones. We can’t even predict when our government will get back to work. We have zero control. Absolutely none.