Imitating Christ

Philippians 1:29—2:18

Thomas A Kempis in his book, The Imitation of Christ, said this:

Whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.

If A Kempis is correct, that could explain why there is so much ignorance of God’s Word in the church today; too many Christians are busy running here, there, and everywhere—like chickens with their heads cut off—cultivating their own lives based on their own desires rather than cultivating the life of Christ in them. This is the idea put forth by Paul in Philippians 1:27—

Only one thing concerns me: Be sure that you live in a way that brings honor to the Good News of Christ. Then whether I come and visit you or am away from you, I will hear that you are standing strong with one purpose, that you work together as one for the faith of the Good News… (New Century Version)

This was a major concern of the apostle’s: that his Philippians friends should honor God in how they conduct the day-to-day affairs of their private, public, and communal lives.

But how would the Philippians—or Christians today—know how to live like that? With the hundreds of choices Christians face every day, how do we know which ones honor the Lord? In this section of Paul’s letter, he gives his advice on this part of maturing in the faith. A mature Christian imitates Christ.

1. Unity with Christ, 1:19—2:4

As we have learned, the Philippians were not lukewarm believers; no, this congregation was already deeply spiritual. This congregation was living in holiness, miles away from worldliness and carnality. In spite of this, Paul teaches them how to go even deeper into Christ’s fathomless grace.

a. Suffer like Christ, 1:29—30

For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

Suffering for Christ is not exactly something that excites most Christians! It is natural to avoid suffering of any kind at all costs, but when we avoid suffering for Christ, we miss out on something profound. The word “granted,” echaristhe, is formed on the stem of the noun charis, which means “grace” or “favor.” So Paul is conveying a deep, spiritual truth here. Even as faith in Christ is a gift of God, so also is suffering for the sake of Christ. We should stress, Paul is discussing suffering for Christ, not other kinds of suffering.

Suffering for Christ is one of several means God employs in achieving His gracious purposes for both His own Son and in all believers.

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. (Hebrews 2:10)

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:6—7)

But what does “suffering for Christ” look like? In Paul’s case (and his primary example here), it looks a lot like his imprisonment! He was in prison, not because he broke any laws, but because he had been obedient to a Higher Law: he preached the Gospel. Because some people didn’t like the Gospel, the messenger was thrown into jail.

b. Pursue unity, 2:1—4

Without a doubt, the church at Philippi was populated by an already excellent congregation, full of excellent Christ-like qualities. However, no church is ever “ideal” all the time. While the witness of the Philippian church to the community outside was good, there appears to have been trouble simmering inside the church. Was there some kind of jealousy among the members? Were some members taking advantage of other members? Was there grumbling and backbiting? We don’t know because Paul doesn’t give us details, but there was a problem and his remedy was simple and direct.

…in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (2:3b, 4)

The meaning of verses 1 and 2 needs to be understood because it’s another profound idea from Paul. God gives strength to those who serve Him, God’s love for Christians serves as an incentive, Christians are full of the Holy Spirit, and Christians have love and compassion for each other. These four points serve as a basis for what he says in verses 3 and 4. Because Christians have all these things operating in their lives (or they should!), then it should be easy to live humbly and to put the needs of others ahead of their own.

This is a mark of Christian maturity; this is what unity looks like. Unity does not look like a bunch of people in total agreement about everything all the time. Unity is avoiding things like rivalry and pettiness, and embracing things like cooperation. It’s not that Paul thinks members of a congregation should think less of themselves, it’s that they should think more of others.

2. Dethrone self, 2:5—11

This is arguably the most majestic and profound Christological passages in the Bible. These verses could only have been written by a person carried along by the Holy Spirit, so deep are they. They are difficult to study because as we do so, we feel more like praising and worshiping Jesus that analyzing words!

Paul’s essential message here is identical with what he wrote to the Corinthians:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)

In spite of how theologically profound these verses are, if we remember why Paul wrote them, we will find them easier to grasp. Something was threatening the unity of the Philippian church. Over against the attitudes of some who were, perhaps acting selfishly, Paul sets the attitude of Christ as the ultimate example of humble obedience.

a. The mind of Christ, verses 5—8

In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had… (verse 5)

This represents Paul’s exhortation. The Greek could be translated literally: “Keep thinking this among you, which (attitude) was also in Christ Jesus.” While Christians can in no way duplicate the exact ministry Jesus had on Earth, we can certainly have the same attitude.

This “attitude” is the “mind of Christ.” Moffat translates this brief exhortation: “Treat one another with the same spirit as you experience in Christ Jesus.” Implicit in this exhortation is the notion that it is impossible to love God without at the same time loving other members of the Body of Christ.

Remember why Paul gave the example of Christ to the Philippians: he wanted them to imitate Christ’s attitude. What was Christ’s attitude? Simply this: even though Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the revelation of God Himself, that is, God and Jesus Christ are of one substance, He did not “claim His rights” or “insist on maintaining His right” to be “equal with God.” What that means is that from all eternity, the Son has been equal with the Father. That equality is not based on nature but rather on relationship. And whether in Heaven or on Earth, the Son, even though equal with the Father in every way, never sought to aggressively usurp His will at the expense of the Father’s. He never sought to take the Father’s place.

There is a good example of this in John 5:17—18, where Jesus’ enemies accused Him of vocally proclaiming equality with God. This is something Jesus refused to do.

In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

Jesus did not “make Himself equal with God” because He already was.  He never sought self-enrichment and He never displayed His equality with God in order to boost His stature among men. What a contrast between the first Adam and the Second Adam! The first Adam selfishly desired to be like God, but Jesus Christ, the Second Adam, unselfishly “looked to the interests of others.”

Mature Christians have seen that attitude in Christ and work at developing that same attitude in their own lives.

b. Exalt Christ, verses 9—11

Because Jesus lived in humble obedience to the Father, and because He put the needs of sinners ahead any need or want He may have had, He was and is exalted. And rightfully so.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place … (verse 9)

The word “therefore” (dio) is important. It means “in consequence.” So because Jesus was obedient, God exalted Him. This was something Jesus taught, and it was something He practiced:

For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:12)

In other words, believers don’t need to “puff themselves up” or draw attention to their good works or their talents or whatever. If we simply and humbly live and work for the Lord, not drawing attention to ourselves or our efforts, in due course, God will reward us.

The loftiness of these incredible verses may be distilled into one sentence: It is the servant who has become the Lord. For the Philippians, the practical application was obvious, and it was something that Jesus Himself taught during His earthly ministry—

…and if one of you wants to be first, you must be the slave of the others … (Matthew 20:27, GNT)

Imagine if every church member took Paul’s teaching here to heart, how many problems and schisms could be avoided. This is how mature believers act.

3. Partner with God, 2:12—18

These verses are Paul’s practical application of the deep spiritual truths he just wrote about. The word “therefore” in verse 12 links this passage to the preceding one like this:

  • Since Jesus Christ, by means of His complete, voluntary, unrestricted obedience left an example to follow;

  • Since the reward He received shows that there are amazing things in store for those who follow His example;

  • Since now, today, Jesus Christ is our mediator, imparting strength to all who trust Him and endeavor to live as He lived….therefore…..

….there are two things left to do:

  • Work out your own salvation. Salvation has many aspects, including a present one. Regeneration, the act by which a sinner is initiated into salvation, also comes with present obligations. God the Father accomplishes this regeneration for us, but then we are obliged to do something(s) for Him: work out our own salvation. We do NOT work FOR our salvation, we work IN our salvation. That part of the verse is something most of us understand. The sticking point are the words “your own.” We are not obligated to work out anybody else’s salvation, only our own.

  • With fear and trembling. This isn’t necessarily how we are to work out our own salvation, it’s the attitude we should assume. Philippians is a letter full of joy and optimism, not fear and trembling. Paul is in no way indicating that Christians should live fearful that God will “get them” if they mess up. Paul is referring to a “holy fear” of God that causes us to tremble at the thought of sin.

Knowing that God is the partner of each and every Christian, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, Paul proceeds to list a number of things Christians are expected to do in this present life. Christians are expected to live up to a standard set in the Word of God. If they do, then… will shine among them like stars in the sky… (verse 15b)

Just as stars (phosteres) refer to heavenly bodies that “light the darkness,” so the light of the Christian illuminates the darkness of the moral and spiritual world. Christians ought to be “light-bearers,” like lighthouses on the seacoast.

You are like light for the whole world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. (Matthew 5:14)

This “lighting of the darkness” is possible only by this unique Divine-human partnership. God gives us the ability to live as He commands us to. Our good intentions can get us only so far. Intentions are not actions. Christians are called to action—action that is pleasing to God.

This is another mark of Christian maturity; living lives in Heaven’s direction. Holiness and purity of action, not just of intent, characterize the truly mature believer.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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