The Mature Christian Stands Firm and Imitates Christ
In a letter to a church he established during his second missionary journey some 12 years before his Roman imprisonment, Paul greets, blesses and prays for a group of Christians he loves dearly because of their faithfulness and generosity. After having given them information about his personal condition, prospects for his eventual release from prison and assurances that he would be with them soon, Paul sets the course for their continued spiritual development.
Beginning in verse 27 of chapter 1, the Apostle will encourage them to make a continued effort to mature in Christ, and to this end he provides them with six examples of Christian maturity to guide them in this process.
The Maturing Christian Stands Firm (1:27-30)
27Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; 28in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God.
In the previous chapter we left off at Paul's comments about those who were preaching the gospel in order to make him jealous of their success and freedom since he was in prison. We looked at Paul's response to this where he stated that no matter the motivation, if the gospel was preached it would have its effect and in this he rejoiced.
He uses this sinful attitude by some as a bridge to make a first exhortation to the church concerning their conduct. He tells them that their conduct (which should be worthy of the gospel and its subject: Jesus), as opposed to the conduct of these troublemakers (proclaiming the message in word but not in spirit), should remain the same whether he was released or not. He thinks he will be released and eventually be with them in person, but even if he is not he wants them to act in a mature way.
This first example of spiritual maturity, then, is the ability to "stand firm" in the face of opposition. It is possible for the Philippians to do this because:
- They share the same spirit, which is their own spirit animated by the Holy Spirit. They each received Him when they were baptized (Acts 2:38).
- They are united in one mind. They all believe that the gospel is the truth from God.
- They are all working toward the same goal: to maintain the content of the gospel (i.e. the faith; the body of inspired teaching) against change or compromise.
To do these things without fear is a sign of their growing maturity in Christ and a reason Paul rejoices when he thinks or prays for them. In addition to this, standing firm without fear of their opponents indicates two things.
- The destruction of their opponents. If their attackers cannot frighten them to change course or abandon their faith, it is an indication that their enemies have lost the battle, even though on the surface they may seem like a formidable enemy.
- The confirmation of their salvation. If what they believe as true provides them with the strength to stand firm against their enemies (people and actions they can see), then what they believe about their salvation (something they cannot see but must accept by faith) must also be true as well, since God will administer both the judgment on their enemies and their entry into heaven.
29For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.
Paul adds this observation as a way of encouraging them to stand firm against their attackers, and put into a larger spiritual context the suffering that they were experiencing as disciples of Jesus Christ. The Apostle explains that suffering was not in opposition to belief, as if to suffer for Christ were a failing of God's providential care for His children or some kind of aberration in the Christian experience. Suffering in various ways (attacks against the faith, loss of friendships or family conflicts, the emotional and physical discomfort felt as a result of resisting temptations and violence directed against believers because of faith) were natural parts of the Christian experience, not exceptions to the rule.
Paul summarizes this section about standing firm by stating that God is the source of all that the Philippians are experiencing, some of which is understood. For example, He has sent Christ to atone for their sins, and thus made salvation possible. He has provided "the faith" or the teaching of salvation in the gospel for their instruction. He has sent the Holy Spirit to dwell within them and lead them to spiritual maturity, evidenced by their firm stand against the opposition and attack of their faith. Finally, He has permitted (granted) them the privilege of experiencing suffering as a direct result of their faith.
This "suffering" was not discomfort, inconvenience or pain because of human error or sin, nor was it the suffering that all human beings experienced because of life lived in a fallen world (tornados, floods, accidents, etc.) or life lived in a sinful world (victims of crime, corruption or ignorance). No, this suffering was unique in that it was only experienced by those who followed Christ. Paul says that God allows believers to suffer because of their faith in Christ, in the same way that Christ suffered to save those who would eventually believe in Him. In doing this God granted believers the experience of both the spiritual side of Christ (knowledge of the Father through the Holy Spirit accessed by faith in the Son) as well as a concrete experience of His human side (suffering because of His faith and obedience to the Father).
If they stood firm, and as a consequence, suffered for their faith, they would experience the complete life of a true disciple. To show that this experience was universal, Paul refers to His own suffering over a long period of time (..what you saw in me, hear to be in me...) for the gospel. The point here was that even Apostles were subject to this phenomenon of belief and suffering as part of every Christian's experience.
Another indicator of maturity...
The Mature Christian Imitates Christ (2:1-13)
Paul leaves off his encouragement to stand firm in the face of attack and adversity, and describes the kind of things they must do in order to remain strong in the faith while enduring opposition and trials.
1Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; 4do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.
Those on the outside of the church are attacking and putting obstacles in the way of believers, those on the inside, therefore, they must also be involved in countering these attacks by providing things to help fellow believers be still and unmoved. Paul goes from what he believes they are already doing:
- Encouragement in Christ. Mutual edification as Christians.
- The comfort of love. Their love for one another provides comfort and consolation (Greek word for encouragement).
- Fellowship of the Spirit. The strength that comes from consciously sharing the Holy Spirit. The type of relationship that only two Spirit-filled people can have.
- Affection and compassion. This is actual expressed love seen in physical affection, service and the knowledge that other Christians know, understand and share each other's burdens.
Paul is saying that if these things are there, then add the following in order to complete his joy because in doing so they will be growing in Christ as they should.
- Be of the same mind by believing and preaching the same gospel.
- Maintain the same mindset concerning one another, which includes some things already mentioned (love, unity and common goals - faithfulness/salvation).
- Get rid of selfishness and pride. Paul even lays out a practical way to bring this about.
- Humble your mind (your estimation of self).
- Raise others above yourself so you can clearly see them and their worth.
- Consider and see other people's needs, not only your own.
These things they know and can implement until Jesus appears.
5Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Here Paul leaves off the things he knows that they have (faith, love, unity, humility, compassion) and calls on them to go beyond these to imitate Christ Himself, the end state of Christian maturity. What does this imitation of Christ require? Very simply, it calls for the emptying of self. For Jesus, the emptying of self required that He submit to God's plan of salvation which sought to save man from condemnation due to sin resulting in spiritual death. This idea Paul explains in several stages:
- Jesus is God, has always been God and because of this neither aspired to be divine (He already was) nor refused to alter His divine nature in some way (in order to save mankind).
- Jesus altered His divine nature by taking on a human nature incorporated into His divine nature. He gave up nothing of His godly nature in doing this, He merely altered His nature to include and thus permit His interactions with humans as a human being Himself, thus becoming fully human while remaining fully divine.
- He then emptied His human nature of any glorious appearance that His divine nature would cast on Him as a man (think of what He appeared like on the Mount of Transfiguration, His glorified body shinning brightly through His human frame, but this state revealed only to His closest three Apostles - Matthew 17:2-4). He, instead, was born to poor people and experienced normal human life, suffering and temptations (Hebrews 4:15). In addition to taking on a human nature (unaffected by His divine nature) in order to complete His divinely appointed mission, He allowed Himself to be unjustly executed as a common slave (only slaves were subject to execution by crucifixion according to Roman Law). Some think that "He emptied Himself" means that He emptied Himself of part or all of His divine nature and replaced it with a human nature, but this is incorrect for several reasons:
- God cannot become less than God or else He would not be divine.
- If Jesus exchanged His divine nature for a human one then He would only be human while on earth and this is not what the Bible teaches (John 1:1-8; Colossians 1:15-20) where both John and Paul explain in detail the dual nature of Jesus. "He was God and man simultaneously" (Lenski, Commentary on Philippians p. 770-787).
In context, Paul is not asking the Philippians to somehow submit to a cruel and unjust death in order to imitate Christ (although many have done so in their service to Jesus). The broader lesson for all Christians who seek Christian maturity is that our imitation of Christ really begins when we start the process of emptying ourselves of "self." As God, Jesus had no need and no possibility of becoming less divine, however He did have options as far as the human nature He incorporated into His divine nature was concerned (e.g. king or common man, rich or poor, respected or rejected, victory through power or victory through weakness, refuse the cup of suffering or drink the cup, His will or His Father's will). As Paul writes, He emptied Himself to the point of dying a cruel death like a common criminal. His emptying of self was dictated by the will of the Father in completing the plan for man's salvation.
For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.
- John 6:38
In the same way the emptying of self in our lives resulting in Christian maturity as we imitate Christ requires us to constantly seek and obey God's will instead of our own will for our lives. This does not necessarily mean we will be poor, unjustly accused or executed for our faith. It does mean, however, that we will suffer the emotional as well as the physical pain that comes as a result of denying our own will, desires and flesh in order to do the will and purpose of Christ in our lives.
Paul does not give specific examples of this emptying of ourselves but provides the glorious results of this as it took place in the life of Jesus.
9For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus emptied His human nature of any glory that it might have exhibited because it was embedded in His divine nature. However, once His mission was completed, God raised Him from the dead not as His emptied self, but as His glorious self. We see this as the gospel writers described His appearances after His resurrection in the glorious and exalted form Paul speaks of here.
In addition to His glorious appearance, Jesus' resurrection also confirms that He is now exalted above every other human prophet and proclaimed savior who ever lived or will live. Peter states this in Acts 4:12.
And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved."
- Acts 4:12
Jesus was rejected and put on a cross as the lowest of slaves, but after His resurrection the way of salvation can only be accessed through Him. Jesus, the God/Man, is Lord above all. It is implied that the emptying of ourselves in order to be filled with Christ will also, after our own resurrection, yield similar glorious and eternal results (I Corinthians 15:50-58).
12So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
Paul adds a word of encouragement to all those who would seek maturity by imitating this emptying of self primarily achieved by the effort to obey God's will. He is happy to note that they have done this in the past when he was with them and have continued to do so despite his absence (at least four years during his imprisonment).
"Working out their salvation in fear and trembling" is an encouragement to keep the faith and maintain their walk with God recognizing that Satan, through his lies and the draw of the world are constant threats to their souls. Fear and trembling because the danger is real and they need to be careful (I Peter 5:8).
The good news, however, is that God Himself, through the Holy Spirit, His word and His church are partners with the Christian who seeks to know and imitate Christ. When these partners agree on what they desire, there is great joy and confidence for success. I can, therefore, be confident that what I desire (to empty myself of "self" and fill myself with Christ) is according to God's will and He through the Spirit, word and church will joyfully accomplish this in me.
So Paul describes an important indicator of the maturing Christian: the desire to imitate Christ. This, he says, is accomplished as the believer empties himself of self, much as Jesus emptied His human nature of all reflective divine glory and filled the void with God's will in the mission of saving man. This not only led to the salvation of mankind but the glorifying of Jesus Christ as the Lord of Lords forever.
In the same way God works at filling us up with the things of Christ so that we too will be raised up with glorified bodies to live with Him forever.