Read text: 2: 1-11
The Takeaway: If we want to embrace a life of joy, we have to accept the invitation of God to suffer for his sake.
Now you can take a nap
We’re going to do a bit of a word study with this text to get some of the flavor that is washed out in the English. Before we do that, we need to recap some things, fill in some history, and follow up on some threads that Phil has begun in this series.
I am, and have always been, in awe of this passage. It is one of the clearest declarations of Christology from the earliest church that we have with us today. Christology is how we understand and explain the personhood and working of Christ; we express a Christology anytime we try to express what we believe about Jesus. In the early church, they were trying to wrap their brains around what had been happening in the world of faith around them. Ongoing today – we are still trying to figure out the Messiah.
As Jesus was wrapping up his public ministry, he said some confusing things. One of the most confusing was “some of you will not taste death until I return.” Like texting brb, only way more layered. That’s a nice thing to hear when you know the Messiah will be right back. But well, time has been moving on, and still no sign – and lots of good community members are tasting death, so what gives?
The letter to the Philippians was written some 25 years after the event of Jesus. A couple years after the resurrection, a young man named Saul was out doing his duty – defending the faith by killing folks who did not agree with his agenda, heretics – when he himself was confronted by a blinding vision of the risen Lord. We know that Saul changed his ways, changed his name, changed his agenda. He became pivotal in the formation of the early community of believers. At that time, they were known as the people of the Way, and just a short time later, they became more organized as “the church.” According to the NT scholar Ben Witherington III, Paul was not a successful recruiter to the cause, not at first; people did not trust his conversion, and his message was rough, unpolished. It was as if, like the rest of us, he is trying to wrap his soul around who this Jesus is, and struggling to put his understandings to words. At one point early in his ministry, he makes such a mess of it, Witherington suggests, that he has to be lowered out the window before the community of believers puts a hurting to him. Really, Jesus is a hard guy to understand.
That is the environment that surrounds these letters. They are organic, not frozen in time, but written in response to real and credible confusion and even doubt. There are practical concerns – we see that especially in Corinthians and Galatians, but also here in Philippians. Of course, the big concern in Philippi was the growing factionalism over issues of faith and practice. It is familiar to us even now. We’ll come back to this. But at the heart of all these questions was the concern, how do we exhibit a life of faith in the absence of Jesus, waiting for his return? We continue to ask the same question.
Pastor Phil has pointed out that Philippians mentions joy more than any other letter. He has pointed out that Paul has come to realize that suffering is to be his lot in life. Phil also saw that at the heart of Paul’s life-experience, and at the heart of Paul’s faith experience, is this powerful statement, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. In the greco-roman world, this idea was foreign. It was not normal then; it is not normal to us even now.
In Rumors of God, by Whitehead and Tyson, they make the point that we have rather subverted that thought, so that we live more like “to live is gain, and to die is Christ.” I think we work, we practice faith, we do family and community, in ways that keep us as secure as possible, to be comfortable, or perhaps even to get ahead of the game a bit. We play it safe. It is a passive and even backward way to approach faith – faith is no longer faith when the agenda is to stay out of trouble. We do it anyway, because we want to be with Jesus in the end. To live is gain, and to die is Christ. It is a two-fold blessing for the faithful. Sadly, that is not how it reads – and if Paul is anything, he is careful about how he puts things.
So as Paul moves into this part of the letter, he has pivoted on this idea, to Live is Christ and to die is gain. And what he develops from there is both profound and mystical. And it demonstrates just how difficult it is to articulate the nature of the Lordship of Jesus, and how we connect to Him. Paul is addressing this body because they are in a bit of a conflict; they don’t agree on how the blessing of God comes across to, and through, the church. They don’t agree on this whole “new covenant” idea. So what we see in this first section of Ch 2 has far-reaching consequences for how we approach faith as a body of believers intent on living out the purpose of God in the world – it impacted them, it impacts us.
Let’s look at the passage carefully. Read 1-4
We see this in Vs. 1: in English, these characteristics come across as almost passive or even inconsequential, as if by happenstance– if you feel this way, or just in case you have this feeling… encouragement/consolation, comfort, fellowship, tenderness and compassion. It’s the “if” that is misleading, perhaps even tongue in cheek. In the Greek behind the English, the language is more firm, no if about it– now read verse 1
encouragement: paraklaysis, both refreshment and exhortation
consolation: paramoothion, persuasive address; is neither a doorprize or a moment of being consoled – it is movement from one position to another, it is active persuasion, as if Paul is suggesting, as Christ has moved you from a previous place to a new place of action; an old understanding, to console someone is to move them from say sorrow to joy
fellowship: koinonia, is active participation within a group,
tenderness: splangchnon, bowels, guts, the heart of hearts
compassion: oyktirmos, to us, a stirring deep in the heart, moving to action – a stirring of the gut, longing, impassioned heart for something – it is to truly desire something.
V. 2: then make my joy complete – in this moment Paul is going to bridge two very different ideas, one not often joined in the Roman world, or the Greek world, or even our world. It is the conjunction of joy and suffering. This thought started in Ch 1: 29, For it has been granted to you on behalf of CHrist not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him. This is a tough sell. We might respond, Say what? I don’t think so. Or, Now this is worth signing onto – NOT. How can it be? Joy and suffering in the same breath?
Remember this letter is being written to a community. It is an open letter. Paul is exhorting the community of faith – we need to be of one mind here, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose; being united: soom-psuchos, in one spirit in Christ, to be a body focused on the desires of Christ, this word is only used here in the entire New Testament.
Vs. 3-4: this all hinges on two concepts, first, “selfish ambition”; second, in “humility consider/regard others”
selfish ambition: erithia, partisanship – addressing the factionalism within the Philippian church; interesting word history, only James and Paul use this word, and prior to NT times, only Aristotle used it, to describe politicians or parties who cheat their way to the top, a strong admonition to people who would manipulate a church toward their own ends; a difficult thing in church leadership is to be tempted to believe you are in that position because of some special wisdom or ability; Paul says that leads us down the wrong path. As he goes forward in this passage he describes what keeps us on the right path.
Empty conceit: kenodoxia, used only here in Philippians – Paul is really driving a point here; this kind of seflish ambition, this false leadership, is nothing but empty pride based on puffed up self-esteem; it is not spiritual at all; in Ecclesiastes, it would be stated as “vanity and striving for the wind” – vapor, gas
humility: tappy-nof-ro-soo’-nay: to have a sense of one’s own littleness; this is an absolutely foreign concept in the Greco-Roman world, where self was elevated to godly levels; this sentiment echoes today, even in the Christian world, where we can get so taken with our own spiritual ambitions and accomplishments, to the detriment of others; or where believers look down on the pitiable estate of non-believers; this is not some co-dependent sense of worthlessness, but rather a position of strength, truly seeking to offer the best to those around us; and without humility of this sort, we cannot do or be what Paul suggests next
regard: haygayomai; now we get to a pivotal word: this takes us into deep waters; to regard others as he is describing here is to look at others from a princely point of view, and yet still consider them more significant than oneself or one’s own agenda; the opposite would be condescension, where we, from our lofty spiritual heights look down on others with pity, work with them by tolerating them, and hope they don’t rub off on us
to haygayomai is to fully believe, fully trust, and fully act on, that this other, or these others who don’t look like me, think like me or act like me, are just as significant to God and his kingdom as me and my peeps. No place for cronyism in the body of Christ.
In that spiritual space, the mandate of v.4 becomes much more enjoyable, and remember joy is a central thread in this book – it is always easier to invest in something or someone when we perceive that it is of benefit to us; to invest in others who are not like us is to grow beyond our self-imposed limits, and to stretch toward God as he calls us forward.
So if we were to rephrase the beginning of this passage, we might consider it as follows:
1. As your union with Christ compels you, as his love moves you, as you participate with the Spirit, as the deep places of your hearts are stirred,
2. I find I am overflowing with joy, as all of us together are fully focused on the desires of Christ, in mind, in love, in spirit and in purpose.
3. Selfish bickering, partisanship and vanity are not our way, but rather we humbly seek to offer our best to those around us, recognizing the significance of others over our own needs and agendas.
4. As we continue together united in Christ, we balance our own concerns with the concerns of others.
About joy – one thing this passage makes clear (esp from 1:29 through here) is that if joy is our central pursuit, then our experience of it is fleeting, perhaps not really joy at all, but the shadow of it that we call happiness. However, as we will learn, if Christ-likeness is the pursuit, joy is the reward. We tend to get that backwards – we like happy experiences, we shop for them, we ingest them, we spend hours in front of the computer or game system or tv seeking it out, like watching sports for instance, only in the end to feel umm deflated. Perhaps only 11 out of 12 of us feel that way.
What does it look like to pursue Christ-likeness? This is the question that points to messiness and holiness, suffering and joy. It is the mystical heart of the text ahead of us.
From 5-11, Paul is quoting the text of one of the earliest of Christian hymns. Rarely do we get a glimpse of how a whole community perceives Jesus – usually we get the point of view of just one or two. But in presenting this text, Paul lays out a nearly unbelievable concept, one that is at the heart of everything we say or do or are about.
I believe that we lose touch with this, that we get so caught up
in the shoulds and oughts of faith, the doing of fine deeds, the hashing out of fine doctrinal points, the making sure that somebody doesn’t get their feelings hurt, or that someone (else) is doing their job and not dropping the ball, so many ways we lose sight of this central belief of who we are…
We are so much like the Philippians. They were just 25 years removed from the presence of Jesus, and impacted so hard by his life and ministry they were left wondering “did anybody get the number of that bus?” Confusion is everywhere, but one thing remains true
So here Paul lays out, in no uncertain terms, this manifest of Jesus, the man, the Christ, the Son of the Living God
Read 5-8 again, then go back and then highlight these words::
form: morph, form and function, no mere image but the full reality of, have no doubt
regard: there is that princely regard again,
grasped: this is a strange term, harpagmos, and only used here in the entire Bible; it is to rob, to steal booty; Barclay suggests that Paul or the whoever the hymn writer was, was making a parallel to the first Adam, who we learn in Gen 3:5 is trying to be like God upon eating the fruit, essentially robbing God; Jesus we see is withdrawing his hand from the that which would be robbery, to claim equality with God is something even he would not do
As a result, he is found in the likeness of men; here we see a powerful, early articulation of the doctrine of Christ, fully divine, fully human – we don’t make this stuff up, God reveals it to us
How does Jesus deal with that? In a fully realized state of humility, always choosing the state of slavish obedience, even to death.
This is tough for us: we want our rights! Pick an amendment, we want that right to be ours. But the obedience that Jesus displays is antithetical to our chronic grasping for rights – his is the choice
to set aside his rights,
his rights to justice,
his rights to truth
and even divine right,
He makes this choice as he regards, from his princely position, the needs of others. Oh that we could demonstrate that much love. The humility of Christ is to take on suffering in a profound new way. It is to be invested and involved in the messy needs of others. And while that does not sound like fun to me, it is the way of joy.
What we see in vs 5-8 is the activity and personhood of Jesus. Can we get our heads around that?
Fully divine, the very form and essence of God
fully human, found in the likeness of humanity
humble and willing to endure unspeakable suffering
for the sake of US
How does that engender joy? Because of the response and activity of God: read vs 9-11
for this reason: dio – does not mean, if you do this now, this will happen later, but rather, as this is ongoing, God responds
highly exalted: huper-oop-so’o, to set to a place above all others, only ever used here, and only ever used to describe the finality of God’s activity in Christ.
This phrase “the name which is above all names” – in that day, in that world, where caesar is god, this a concept that would bring a hush and a shudder – to say this is to imply that in all of creation, in heaven and on earth and even under the earth (aside: this is a cosmological reference whose meaning we can only guess), there is a name that brings everyone to silence, there is a presence that humbles even the mightiest of heroes, even the worthiest of enemies, a name so great, that at this name
every knee will bow
every tongue will confess
Now there’s an interesting word to use here – confess: exomologe’o; it means to profess joyfully; really? Everyone? I believe yes and no. I believe it is like in Lord Of The Rings, when the One Ring that holds evil dominion over middle-earth is destroyed, and the top of the mountain is blown off. The first, gut – down in the bowels – reaction is to celebrate. The evil one is vanquished! Only moments later does one realize the price paid, the suffering of those held dear. For the believer, there is the shocking full realization of the cost to Jesus. For the impenitent, those who just have chronically refused the love of God, the knee will bow, the tongue will confess, even joyfully, but moments later, there will be the realization of all that has been lost, and the question will come to mind, but what about me?
But here, the promise is sure: the form of Jesus, fully divine, fully human, fully obedient, humbly emptied of self to the salvation of others, brings a hush and a shudder, and at his name, every knee will bow, every tongue will confess
to the glory of God the Father.
Can we wrap our hearts around that? Have we lost touch with that?
Are we so busy doing and working and grasping and condescending and seeking our own private joys, that we have lost touch with the author and perfecter of our souls?
Are we so busy seeking the moral high-ground and the rights we hold so dear, that we have forgotten our need for humility, to regard, from our blessed and lofty positions, the needs of others as more important than our own?
Have we forgotten how to bend the knee and confess with the tongue, that this Jesus is Lord?
Our joy is found in this: that we are invited into the sufferings of others; that we are united with the spirit of Christ; that to live is Christ, and only Christ, and to die is gain; and that only when we engage in his suffering do we experience his joy.
This is the calling of God to his people: we are to suffer for joy.
In this, we humbly seek to serve one another
In this, we join God in elevating the name of Jesus above all others
In this, we bring glory to God
For many of us, faith is about walking a line. It’s about following the rules. It’s about tolerating that which doesn’t make us happy, and grasping the blessing that we think is coming to us. Yet Jesus is calling us to something different: to humility, to suffering for the sake of others, putting aside our own selfish partisan ambitions, to truly seek to embrace those who are struggling.
Like the Philippians, we are called to make this Jesus central again – to fully embrace him again. I am still trying to wrap my brain and heart around what this means in my life. The invitation to all of us is to ask ourselves, where do I fall short? How have I been condescending, how have I been selfish? How have I disregarded those who don’t look like me, act like me or think like me? How have I written people off as less important or significant than me?