Philippians 2:1-13 (click to display NIV text)
Oct. 7, 2012
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence but now much more in my absence- continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”
Philippi was the location of Paul’s favorite church, the one most supportive of him, the one that obeyed Jesus, the one that practiced giving. They gave generously to Jerusalem when that church was in need. They gave generously to Paul when he was in prison, even sending one of their members to be with him for a time. So the letter is full of thanksgiving and joy.
There were a few issues that the church faced. The first was persecution. Philippi was a very Roman town, populated largely with former Roman soldiers. The emperor was revered and even worshipped. There was no synagogue there and there are hints in the book of Acts that Jews were not welcome there. Probably Christians were not welcome, either. The young church endured persecution.
In an article in Christianity Today from 1994, a Cuban Christian leader wrote of life in that country when churches were being openly suppressed. During a 35-year period of opposition and in a failing economy, the Methodist Church in Cuba grew from 6,000 to 50,000 people. The leader states, “The search for meaning is just as crucial as the search for bread. While the economy around us is falling apart, Christians are living in a state of special grace. Ordinary Cubans are becoming aware of the church as a saving community of hope.”
In the same way, the persecuted Christians of Philippi were experiencing this special grace and life-saving hope.
The next issue was one of internal dissention. Two members, Euodia and Syntyche, carried on a personal conflict that was spreading into the church. It gives you pause to realize that 2000 years later, the only thing we remember about Euodia and Syntyche, probably both good people who loved the Lord, is that they were in conflict with each other. So that church had to deal with the kind of conflict that often does not have a significant issue behind it, and yet can go on for years, draining energy and good will.
I was thinking of my experience of many years ago of being on a couple of different basketball teams. My high school team was very talented, with several of the players going on to play at major universities. There was no reason for dissension and yet there was significant personal conflict on the team, largely, I think, because of a feeling that we were good enough to afford a certain level of criticism and dissension. It is, after all, rather enjoyable to say mean things about others, and some like to stir the pot from time to time.
When I came to North Park, I was surprised to find that there was none of that on the team. There was instead a focus on the goal, the task ahead. We did not have time for dissension. But also, the team members valued good relationships. The relationships were too good to waste on petty backbiting and hurtful comments. You come to a time in life when you would rather be good friends than be clever in making cutting comments. This is the issue for the Philippians. They must overcome their pointless quarreling if they are to accomplish their mission and enjoy true fellowship in Christ.
Paul calls them to grow deeper in Christ. They needed to move beyond deciding who is right and who is wrong to truly recognize the presence of Christ in their midst, the importance of unity and humility in the church, and the overriding concern for the Mission of Christ in their community. Frank Thielman writes a beautiful summary of Paul’s message to the Philippians.
“Just as Paul was more concerned about the advancement of the Gospel than about his own imprisonment, just as he was more concerned that Christ was being preached than that those who preached Christ sometimes opposed Paul, and just as he was more concerned that Christ be magnified than that he live or die, so the Philippian Christians should concern themselves with conduct worthy of the Gospel in the midst of their own time of testing.” We too ought to pray for and work toward unity in our church.
What is the result of this teaching? There is no further word on Euodia and Syntyche, but listen to this writing by a Christian philosopher named Athenagoras in the second century. He writes to Marcus Aurelius to try to stop the Roman policy of persecuting Christians.
“Do you know any philosophers who have so purified their own hearts as to love their enemies instead of hating them; instead of upbraiding those who first insult them to bless them; and to pray for those who plot against them? With us, on the contrary, you will find unlettered people, tradesmen and old women, who though unable to express in words the advantages of our teaching, demonstrate by acts the value of their principles. For they do not rehearse speeches, but evidence good deeds. When struck, they do not strike back; when robbed, they do not sue; to those who ask, they give, and they love their neighbors as themselves.”
It is in this context of relationships of love and humble service and unity that the word about Christ in verses 5-11 arises. Some see in these verses Paul writing of Christ as the example for our lives. We are to live as he did, not living to our own advantage, but taking the place of the servant, emptying ourselves of pride and position, acting in humility, even willing to die. Frank Thielman writes, “Paul composed this passage with great care in order to portray Jesus as an example for the Philippians to follow as they reshape their thinking about their mutual relationships.”
Others have felt that only Christ could live in such a self-emptying way, and that his obedience to death on the cross is much more than an example of love or humility, it is the unique way to our salvation. They would say that these verses tell the story of the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Christ. This is a brief proclamation of the Gospel. From it we see how Jesus brought salvation to us, and we see that he is Lord. Thielman writes, “He revealed the form of God in the form of a slave and in human likeness. His obedience led him to the cross, the cruelest form of punishment and the one reserved for the lowest classes, especially slaves. Such selfless love in Christ was an expression of his deity.”
Perhaps both views are true. In some settings we are to be Christ, to imitate Christ, for those around us will not know Christ unless they see him in our actions and words. At other times we must recognize that Jesus is Lord, and so obey his word and call. So our relationships in the church spring from our obedience to Christ, who is Lord. Our relationships also come from our imitation of Christ, who lived in humility and as a servant.
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.”