Updated: May 17
Last week, I was sitting on Rockaway Beach in Long Island watching the waves collapse one over another, rushing ever so quickly in and out, but not in a hurried way. After all, they were made that way.
I figured: Why not read one of my favorite chapters of the Bible that happens along the shore - John 21?
Asking God to teach me something new or remind of something I needed to hear again, He faithfully did just that.
By the Shore:
In John 21, we see Jesus restore Peter after Peter denies even knowing Jesus right as Jesus was dying for him, and for you, and for me (John 18.15-27).
He gently and firmly asks Peter three times: Do you love me more than these...Do you love me...Do you love me?
Jesus then says to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me” (John 21.17-19).
There is SO much in this passage, but what God drew me to were the words: by what kind of death he was to glorify God.
It brought to mind the letter that Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, where he says, “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1.20).
A Letter from Paul
Before that, Paul is giving the church family an update on his current situation and the spread of the gospel:
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear (Philippians 1.12-14).
Here, we are reminded that Paul is writing to the church at Philippi from prison. He wants them to know that his imprisonment has been for good. The greatest good. It has advanced the gospel. Those in the imperial guard know exactly why Paul is there. They see that he is willing to give up his freedom and life for the message of Jesus. There is no greater testimony that what Paul was sharing was true, life-changing, and eternity-altering than that he was willing to give his life for it.
He also shares that his imprisonment has not only been a witness to those who are not in Christ, but has been used by God to challenge and strengthen those who are in Christ to preach the gospel without fear.
There’s this sense of joy about him in this. A few paragraphs later he even writes, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1.29).
It is a privilege, something to rejoice over, to suffer for the sake of the blameless Lamb who suffered and ultimately died in our place.
What does Success Look Like?
A lot of times we can disregard the fact that Paul wrote these letters from prison and in the midst of persecution. It’s a frequent occurrence in the Bible so we almost become numb to it.
Here’s what struck me though - his idea of what success looks like.
If you’re graduating, you’ve probably answered these questions a million times:
What are your plans? What are you doing after graduation?
You're probably cringing right now as you read those words.
Most likely you have some key things you’ve gotten used to sharing. Even if you’re not totally confident in your decision, there are things you say with confidence just to have an answer for people. My sister calls them talking points.
In these conversations, what have people told you success looks like after you graduate? What do they praise? Or, if they don’t tell you directly, what do their questions imply?
Probably not imprisonment. Even for the sake of Christ.
After all, our world defines success in a way that makes sense if our world is all there is. If there’s no God but the gods we make in and of ourselves.
But, Paul had had an encounter with the risen Jesus. He knew this world was temporary. He knew there was a God he was separated from and could not be reconciled to on his own.
As a result, to Paul, success looked like living for Christ and the sake of His gospel. Even if that meant living imprisoned. Even if that meant dying:
Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better (Philippians 1.18-23).
Notice what he says: My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
Jesus is Better
Paul longed to be with Jesus. He knew with absolute certainty that the other side of eternity was far better.
Do we know that? Do we live like that?
Or do we live in a way that clings to this world?
I think a lot of us like to think we would die for Jesus. But, are we willing to live for him?
This past year, I read a book by Christopher Yuan called Holy Sexuality. He posed a similar question: Do we live in a way that makes it unmistakable to a dying world that Jesus is better than anything this world has to offer?
The reality is, many of us will not be asked to die for him. We’ll live, and we’ll be asked to die to ourselves daily. That means our lives, how we make decisions, and how we think about the future look totally different than the rest of the world.
We live our lives on this earth for the sake of Christ. Knowing Him and making Him known. When we feel settled. When we feel restless. When we think we know the future. When we have no idea what it holds. Following Him in the midst of it. Asking Him to use us for His glory and His kingdom no matter what.
According to the Bible, that's what success looks like. Very different than what the world says right?
What Does this Look Like?
Paul then gives them a picture of what this looks like by pointing them to the life of Jesus. Who though He was God didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped. He emptied Himself as a servant. He became obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Here’s where we need to be reminded of the gospel. We will all, without a doubt, fall short of this call to live for Him. In our sin, we will cling to this world. We will chase after things that are not of God. We will get distracted. We will take our eyes off Him. We will find our identity in things other than our King. We will lay our worship - our time, our words, our thoughts - at the feet of created things instead of the Creator.
But here’s our hope: Jesus. Jesus knew that.
He knew Peter would deny Him before He died for him. He knew the same for you and me. And He did it anyway.
Not to affirm, or excuse, or make those things okay. Not to enable us to take advantage of grace. Rather, it was to make us right with God.
His blood covers all our sin - past, present, and future. We’ve been purchased at the highest price. Our lives are no longer our own. His grace saves us and changes us.
Daily Reminders to Rest in and Proclaim the Gospel
And when we fall short, we are called to repent and ask for His help to continue following Him. He draws us back, near to Himself, just like He did with Peter.
What does He tell Peter to do after that? Feed His sheep. Follow Him. He sends Peter out to build Christ’s church, as an imperfect human, who will need daily reminders of his need for a Savior, and the grace that’s been bestowed on him.
The same is true for us, and God will certainly work in those daily reminders to compel each of us to proclaim the gospel more and more.
My Prayer for You:
So, here’s my prayer for all of you as you graduate and move on through a few knowns and many more unknowns. As you discern what’s next and what “success” looks like. As you learn and relearn how to make decisions based on what life is truly about.
They're not my words, but the words the apostle Paul began his letter to Philippi with over 2000 years ago:
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God (Philippians 1.9-11).