The most famous statement from Saint Francis of Assisi was not said by him at all.
“Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary,” goes the line commonly attributed to the founder of the Franciscan order. Yet two problems arise with the quotation. First, there is no evidence Francis ever said it; the closest he got was a statement from his Rule of 1221, in which he tells his followers to “preach by their actions”—in context, meaning that a preacher’s walk should match his talk. And second, the notion of preaching the gospel without words is completely counter to the logic of Scripture. The gospel, after all, is good news that must be spoken: “And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14b).
Why consider Saint Francis here? Because we modern evangelicals are often too quick to engage in surface-level sloganeering as a means to excuse ourselves from our Christian duty.
When Paul tells the Philippian church that they can shine as lights in the world by avoiding complaining and disputing, demonstrating a sharp contrast between proper attitudes and the dark world around them, we may be tempted to think of this as the only way Christians shine. Yet he follows this statement with a participle explaining the means by which they indeed shine: “holding fast to the word of life” (Philippians 2:16a).
What is the word of life? In the immediate context, the phrase refers to the gospel—that which we believe in order to have eternal life. Jesus’ disciples rightly confessed, “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). That is, they knew that Jesus was speaking to them about the way to eternal life. Yet “word of life” signifies even more, as the Anglican cleric John Ellicott outlines in his commentary. Jesus said that his words are life (v. 63). Later, he prayed acknowledging that to know God and his Son Jesus Christ is itself “eternal life” (John 17:3). And the Apostle John, reflecting years later, identified Jesus Christ as the “word of life” himself (1 John 1:1; cf. John 1:1).
Simply put, having positive attitudes is not enough. To accomplish our mission and shine as lights, we need to cling to the gospel and to Jesus Christ himself. (Paul’s concern for the Philippians’ faith becomes more clear in 3:2ff, where he warns them to beware legalistic corruptions of the faith.)
Christians must both hold fast and hold forth the gospel of life. We ourselves shine, yet we also shine by holding forth the light of the good news—like a lighthouse stationed by dark and choppy waters. Not everyone is called to preach nor be a missionary, yet all Christians are to engage in evangelism as the Lord would give opportunity. The English Baptist John Gill summarizes Paul’s remarks: “[T]his Word of life is held forth, partly by the preaching of it to a dark world, as by some; and partly by professing it publicly, as it should be by all who are enlightened with it; and also by living lives . . . suitable to it[.]” Christianity is public truth, not merely private conviction—preached by some, to be professed openly and lived by all.
Finally, the apostle reminds his readers what is at stake: “that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (2:16b). As we saw in Philippians 1, Paul is concerned to present himself and his disciples blameless before the Lord on the final day, the day Christ judges the world. Rather than having labored (or “run”—a common athletic metaphor in Paul’s writings) in vain over the Philippians, Paul aims to be satisfied in his ministry. So, as a pastor, he calls them to persevere in the faith and strive for its advance.
We too, as Christians on mission shining as lights in the world, should consider what it means to be “proud” of our work on the day of judgment. For what do we labor each day—mere material prosperity, or the prospering of souls? What will come of our work after we depart? Will Christ look at it and be pleased? Charles Spurgeon challenges us:
God’s ministers cannot bear the thought of having laboured in vain; and yet if some of us were to die, what would remain of all we have done? I charge you, brethren, to think of what your life-work has been hitherto. Will it remain? Will it abide? Will it stand the test of your own departure? Ah, if you have any fear about it, you may well go to God in prayer, and cry, “Establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands, establish thou it.”
When positivity and good deeds are not enough, we must be faithful in our work to believe and proclaim the gospel. Indeed, we cry out with the psalmist: “yes, establish the work of our hands!” (Psalm 90:17).
You have given me the word of life, the gospel of salvation, in the person and preaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. Help me to cling uncompromisingly to it and not be led astray by a dark world. Help me also to hold it forth for others to see its light and be drawn to Christ. Grant that I would persevere in this work, so that those who labor over my soul would be proud, and I myself would be proud of my service to you in this life.
In Jesus’ name,
- Pray for your local church to hold fast to the gospel and hold forth the gospel to its surrounding community. Ask the Lord to show you your role in this ministry.
- Pray for missionaries laboring to train the world’s 85 percent of pastors who have no formal theological or biblical education. Ask God to help their students hold fast to the word of life in all its truth.
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