Three Pathways of Spiritual Progress

Posted on March 24, 2012 by

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We are impressed with “word pictures” which invite our minds to imagine and participate when reading. Frequently, certain words stand out in the color and texture they give to Scripture. Placing these words under the microscope becomes a spiritual adventure all its own.

Although unique in their own rights, the biblical languages are robust in their imagery. It is truly a feast to which one would do well to prepare themselves to enjoy. In this way one may have a “proper appreciation for the uniqueness of each” language and in turn the biblical passage under consideration.[1]

In this present study we will consider a word from the New Testament which provides tremendous spiritual insight and invites us to grow in faith. Imagery is a powerful tool God uses to move us to think and behave spiritually and New Testament Greek is a powerful tool in this regard:

We may be sure that every word in the Greek Testament is […] brimming with suggestive and illustrative material, ready to contribute its share in the Divine Revelation to those who possess the ingenuity to find it, and the perseverance essential to the effort.[2]

As is typically the case for me, I stumbled upon the word prokope in preparation for my lessons and I am thankful for it. We will briefly consider a few passages where the term is used to highlight the power of word studies in our quest to stretch forward in our own development as children of God (Phil. 3.12-16).

The Greek New Testament

The New Testament is written in a unique form of the Greek language, known as “the Common” Greek (Koine). It is historically situated between the highly literary Classical Era of Greek (1000 BC to 330 BC) and the Medieval Greek of Constantinople (AD 330 to AD 1453).[3]

The Greek of the New Testament Era (330 BC to AD 330) was characterized with “greater explicitness” in contrast to its predecessor’s idiosyncratic complexity.[4] Because of this tendency to be less elaborate, it developed into “the most precise instrument for the expression of human thought that the world has ever known”.[5]

This is one of the various repercussions flowing from the conquests of Alexander the Great, as he not only conquered lands and peoples but imposed upon them Greek culture, their philosophical worldview, and their language.

Koine then became the language of the Mediterranean world (lingua franca), and quite adaptable “to the service of the many peoples of the time”.[6] This demonstrates the providence of God anticipating the Gospel proclamation from Jewish Jerusalem to the center of the Greek speaking world of the Roman Empire (Acts 1.8).

Making “Progress”

Paul uses the Greek word prokope three times in the New Testament, twice in Philippians (1.12, 25), and once in Paul’s first letter to Timothy (4.15). In the English Standard Version, the term is translated “advance” (Phil. 1.12), and “progress” (Phil. 1.25, 1 Tim. 4.15). The New King James also renders it as “furtherance” (Phil. 1.12).

The word comes from a larger word group, but presently it is sufficient to understand its basic usage. The compound term (pro + kopto) suggests the idea of movement, such as cutting forward, a strike forward, an extension, or an advance.[7]

From all indications, the term’s use outside of the New Testament was typically used for pioneers cutting away undergrowth before an army, and so furthering its march and the military campaign’s agenda.[8] This agricultural image lends itself naturally to describe “progress” of health, spiritual life, or economical standing.[9]

To capture this metaphoric emphasis, the force of the term as been expanded in this way: “to change one’s state for the better by advancing and making progress”.[10] It is this “good sense” which is meant in Philippians 1.12, 25 and 1 Timothy 4.15.[11]

The following thoughts and comments are submitted for spiritual reflection, observing that “progress” (prokope) can occur at any moment. We only need to take time to adjust our perspective.

Philippians 1.12

The setting of this passage is found in Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, as he awaits the outcome of his case – “whether by life [freedom] or by death” (1.20).

For Paul it is all about perspective, faithfulness is a rugged matter which is not defined by difficult times; instead, it is revealed during these hardships. Paul’s anchor is Christ and anything which can be leveraged to proclaim the gospel makes the suffering worth it all (2.17-18).

By faith, Paul is capable of seeing his chains (1.13), his two year imprisonment (Acts 28.30-31), and personal conflict with brethren (Phil. 1.14-18), in terms of the “advancement” of the Gospel (1.12, 18).

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. (1.12-13)

Much of Paul’s spiritual vigor hinges upon his use of the word “advance” (prokope). The proclamation of “Christ” is all that concerned him (Phil. 1.18).

Paul perceives that his imprisonment “opened the door to new spheres of work and activity, into which he would never otherwise have penetrated”.[12] This providential opportunity is all that matters in Paul’s mind.[13]

Instead of being restrained by his chains, the appeal to Caesar actually trailblazed through the underbrush of politics, social status, religious pluralism, and provincial distance in order to effectually bring the Gospel to people and lands previous “unreachable” (Phil. 4.21-22; cf. 2 Cor. 2.12). Though Paul was physically bound and restrained, the Gospel proved to be unbound and unrestrained!

Philippians 1.25

Paul strikes upon the theme of “progress” again, this time in terms of Christian spiritual growth. It seems that Caesar’s verdict regarding Paul’s case could go either way, yet the apostle acknowledges their need for his presence:

Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

The language is remarkably vivid and here stresses the spiritual breakthroughs which the apostle envisions occurring when he returns to the great Macedonian city of Philippi.

He plans to remain and stand alongside his fellow workers in Philippi so they will matriculate in spirituality and in the type of joy which embodies faith in God despite problematic times (Phil. 1. 27-30). Faith is not only to grow in the cool of the day, but also in the eye of the storm.

Here we find the biblical precedent for spiritual mentorship (2 Tim. 2.2). Too many times we fail to see the powerful influence of gospel preachers and teachers of the Word as a lightning rod to develop Christians (cf. Phil. 4.8-9).

Spiritual mentors have a way to clear the brush ahead of us, so that we can have success in our changes towards mature spiritual development. We must avail ourselves of the great resources of spiritual men and women who can help us to make progress through out own spiritual jungles.

1 Timothy 4.15

As the other side of the same coin mentioned in Philippians 1.25, Paul speaks of Timothy’s spiritual life and the attention his protégé in the faith must give to his own development.

Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.

Paul clearly demands Timothy to have a “sustained” absorption with his own spiritual development and the execution of his responsibilities as an evangelist (1 Tim. 4.12).[14]

The end results will be to set his own spiritual trailblazing on open display (i.e. “manifest”). If he cannot be a spiritual man how then will the evangelist develop others? This seems to be the case here. Personal responsible for spiritual growth is fundamental individually and collectively as a congregation (Phil. 2.12-13). The source of Timothy’s ministry is the Scripture (1 Tim. 4.13) and the spiritual gift given to him (1 Tim. 4.14).

Paul gives Timothy a necessary call to clear the underbrush of his own spiritual life, in as much as it impacts his ministry. The evangelist must recognize that he is “the sum of all the thoughts which have been welcomed” into his mind.[15] A minister’s spirituality will bleed into his ministry for good or bad; moreover, without influence he cannot lead.

It is Timothy’s lifestyle as a young thirties man (1 Tim. 4.12) in light of his great responsibilities of an evangelist which is the background for a need to be what you preach. This is not a call to self aggrandizement, but an emphasis upon the fact that faith is not lived in a closet. As Frank Pack affirms:

The preacher cannot be the center of the stage, scripturally. Sometimes we have done this. This is one of the greatest temptations of the men who are successful preachers. They come to have inflated egos.[16]

Unless one thinks this call to spiritual development only applies to the preacher, in Matthew 13.51-52 committed disciples of Jesus are described in the following parable:

Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. (Matt. 13.52)

The implication is that every Christian grow spiritually through life’s experiences. In time one can rely upon these experiences and new observations from Scripture as they have enhanced their lives. “All have their use; and we must not content ourselves with old discoveries, but must be adding new. Live and learn.”[17] We may only add, live and learn to live and teach the Gospel.

Concluding Thoughts

There are other matters which we have not given enough attention to as we consider these passages, however, the notes above bring us to the conclusion that (1) spiritual progress occurs when we see that God can make any situation which appears suppressive of the cause of Christ to actually be the pathway through which he cuts through for the proclamation of the Gospel.

(2) Spiritual development will occur when we establish relationships with those who proclaim and teach the Word of God, who can lead us in a faithful understanding of the text and bring us in contact with the Word alone. Mentoring in spiritual development is needed and scriptural. Too many times we are frustrated spiritually because we surround ourselves with unspiritual alliances.

(3) In the final analysis, spiritual development is a personal responsibility and is an outgrowth of living out biblical teaching. This development is not to be kept in a bottle, but shared and made available to be seen in the presence of the church and society. Faith is not a hidden discipline, it is one that will become apparent to all.

It is always interesting to follow a word in Scripture and see how inspired authors use certain words. They have a tremendous impact upon our imagination and assist us in conceiving those abstract ideas by providing “word pictures” which can be readily understood. Here we have found three pathways of spiritual progress. The adventure, then, has only begun.

Sources

  1. Larry Walker, 1992, “Biblical Languages” in The Origin of the Bible edited by Philip W. Comfort (Repr. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 2003), 218.
  2. Guy N. Woods, 1970, How to Read the Greek New Testament (Repr. Nashville, Tenn.: Gospel Advocate, 1984), 19.
  3. Daniel B. Wallace, 2000, The Basics of New Testament Syntax: An Intermediate Greek Grammar (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan), 17-18.
  4. Daniel B. Wallace, 2000, 18.
  5. Wayne Jackson, 1996, Treasures from the Greek New Testament for the English Reader (Stockton, Calif.: Courier Publications), “Preface”.
  6. Archibald T. Robertson, 1929, “Language of the New Testament” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia edited by James Orr (Repr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1939), 3: 1827.
  7. Ralph Earle, 1986, Word Meanings in the New Testament (Repr. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1998), 331, 394; Ceslas Spicq, 1994, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, translated by James D. Ernest (Repr. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1996), 3: 185.
  8. Marvin R. Vincent, n.d., Word Studies in the New Testament (Repr. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson), 3: 419; Gerald F. Hawthorne, 1983, Philippians WBC 43 edited by Ralph P. Martin (Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson), 34.
  9. James H. Moulton and George Milligan, 1930, Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (Repr. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1997), 542.
  10. Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, 1989, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2d edition (New York, N.Y.: United Bible Societies), 1: 155.
  11. William E. Vine, 1996, The Collected Writings of W.E. Vine (Nashville, Tenn.: Nelson), 2: 294.
  12. William Barclay, 1975, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, revised edition (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster), 20.
  13. Jacobus J. Müller, 1955, The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians, NICNT edited by Frederick F. Bruce (Repr. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991), 49.
  14. Wayne Jackson, 2007, Before I Die: Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus (Stockton, Calif.: Courier Publications), 130-31.
  15. E. W. McMillan, 1959, The Minister’s Spiritual Life (Austin, Tex.: Firm Foundation), 8.
  16. Frank Pack and Prentice Meador, Jr., 1969, Preaching to Modern Man (Abilene, Tex.: Biblical Research Press), 25.
  17. Matthew Henry, n.d., Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, electronic edition (Franklin, Tenn.: e-Sword, 2000-2012).
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