Fallen trees make me sad, especially those whose roots lose their grip while the rest of the tree is otherwise healthy and strong. Our family lives near the Rock Creek National Park that stretches from Washington, D.C. to Maryland. We walk its wooded trails almost daily, and I genuinely grieve when I see a tree uprooted after a storm.
Only recently have I realized that my sadness is a reflection of something deeper. The emotion evoked by fallen trees echoes my grief over all the people with whom I have walked the path of faith only to witness them fall away.
They are many. Missionaries who first shared the gospel with me, leaders of our small church in Central Asia, and friends with whom I have sought the Lord in the midst of difficulties. I looked up to them. They provided comfort, encouragement, and support in my hardest times. When I see a fallen tree, I relive the grief of seeing friends, mentors, brothers, and sisters walk away from faith in the one true God.
Why does it hurt so much to see someone renounce the faith? It certainly creates a sense of personal loss, but I grieve for more than broken fellowships.
I grieve for the loss of their relationship with Jesus.
Am I alone in this grief? Scripture claims the angels rejoice when a person repents from sin (Luke 15:10), but do they grieve when someone renounces the faith? There is no mention of it in the Bible. Regardless, in the Gospels, we read that Jesus grieved during his earthly ministry. He expressed deep sadness over faithless Israel, and he grieved over his faithless disciples.
A PARABLE OF PERSISTENCE
The closing words of Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow recently struck me to my core, “However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8). I think of these words often, especially in light of recent news of high-profile Christians renouncing their faith.
Brothers and sisters, will Jesus find faith on earth when he returns?
The parable is both sobering and encouraging. It is sobering because it strips me of a naïve view of my walk with God and the work of the gospel. The future is not all rosy. Time reveals one’s faith, and it will ultimately be proven when Jesus returns. It is heartbreaking to think that Jesus knew of the countless people whose faith would wither, of the thriving church buildings that would slowly empty only to turn into private residences, shops, or even nightclubs. He knew all this before he died on the cross.
That’s not all, however. There is more to this parable than the grim warning of the realities of this world. I find in this parable a fresh reassurance for my faith. What strengthens my spirit when I read this parable of the faithful and the faithless is that Jesus is Lord and he will bring justice.
A SAVIOR AMIDST THE FALLING TREES
The real object of this parable—indeed of all of Scripture—is Jesus. He is the Lord of this world whether people believe in him or not. He does not grow smaller every time someone defects from the faith. His lordship is the ultimate reality that will bear its weight on the people of this world and at the appointed time will hold them accountable for their actions. There is immense comfort in the thought of Jesus’ authority over this world. This reality encourages us to continue in prayer and to not to lose heart. In the words of the Lord spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “Those who hopefully wait for me will not be put to shame” (Isa. 49:23).
Yet here in America it feels as if we are witnessing more and more trees falling around us. Not only lone church attenders are going astray, but also people who have massive followings, whose words about Jesus, Scripture, and faith ignited and sustained entire movements. Is this the sign of our times? People are publicly renouncing their faith, shouting from the rooftops for all to hear and partake in their decision. When apostasy is thus unrestricted and reaches so many people, it inevitably sets a precedent for others to follow and therefore needs to be addressed.
This, I propose, is what motivated Paul to write his letter to the Philippian believers in the first century AD. Apostasy is not a new phenomenon. The earliest churches saw plenty of it. What’s different now is the publicity surrounding these precedents and the wide reach afforded by our technological age. This is why Paul’s admonition to the Philippian church is even more relevant to us now.
A CALL TO SELFLESSNESS
I suggest that Paul composed his letter to the Philippians in the form of a juxtaposition of two groups of people. On the one side, there are those whose lives and teaching the Philippians were to emulate – Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus. These men are the selfless servants, who love Jesus, suffer for him, and put other people above themselves.
On the other side, there are those whose teachings and lifestyles, if followed, could jeopardize the work God had started in the Philippians. This second group includes people (even Christians) driven by selfish ambition (1:17, 2:21), followers of the Mosaic Law (3:2-3), and those who left Jesus altogether for the love of the world (3:18-20).
In the middle stand the Philippians and their church leaders, who are invited by Paul to look to both sides and chose what is excellent and trustworthy (1:10). The second group of people provides a kind of precedent that Paul fears the faithful believers could follow to their demise. So, in the course of his letter, Paul offers strong arguments about why Philippians should not follow their examples but instead imitate him and ultimately stay faithful to Jesus.
A REMINDER OF ULTIMATE LORDSHIP
The lordship of Christ is one of the main concepts Paul appeals to when he encourages the Philippians to stay committed to Jesus in the midst of competing worldviews. Paul directly mentions Jesus’ lordship at least twice in this letter. In both passages, just like in the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus’ universal authority is an objective reality that exists outside of our human will. It is not people who make Jesus Lord. His power and authority are already established and revealed to the world.
The first instance occurs in the creedal hymn (2:6-11). Here, Jesus commands worship and submission as the only one truly worthy of such honors. Following the Father’s exaltation of Jesus, he now exercises the same authority over the world as the Father does.
The second reference is found in 3:20-21. In this passage, again, Jesus’ claim to lordship is vested in his “power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” In other words, Jesus is Lord over all the inhabitants of the earth, not just his followers.
A PROMISED HOPE
What can we learn from Paul’s writing today when our church leaders renounce their faith, when Christians chase after selfish gain, and when believers are enticed by the world and its ever-changing worldviews? Grieving is not enough. Nor is the quest against the culture of this world. All those attempts have failed miserably.
Instead, just like Paul, our faithful pastors, teachers, and church leaders need to reason carefully with the alternative worldviews, show the superiority of Christ, and disciple believers to live a narrative centered on Jesus.
I doubt Paul’s instructions to the rest of us would be very different from what he wrote to the Philippians. Choose wisely whom to follow. Look for godly and selfless examples. Do not be sidetracked by those who fall away. Serve one another. Rejoice in the Lord, find comfort in his lordship, and joyfully await the promised resurrection.
Vika Pechersky is the author of the Bible study Colossians: The Gospel, the Church, and the New Humanity in Christ (Wipf&Stock). She is currently working on the Bible study guide for the book of Philippians. Vika serves women and children at McLean Bible Church, Montgomery campus in Rockville, Maryland.