I’ve been reading Philippians a bit recently – I was leading a short session this morning for those preaching on Philippians at our church over the coming weeks. As I’ve read and re-read I’ve felt that the book has come more and more into focus. As it has done so I am more and more convinced that the heart of the book is (perhaps unsurprisingly) 2:5-11:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The Philippians are told to have the same mindset as Jesus, and then Paul outlines Jesus’ journey from heaven to earth, to a cross – the very lowest point imaginable, the shameful death of a common slave, and then to exaltation now and in the future.
This pattern of suffering and then glory is the same pattern as Paul outlines in Philippians 3:10-11
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
To know Jesus is to both know his resurrection power and his sufferings. It is the expectation that we will suffer, perhaps to the point of death, certainly to the point of having to give up something dearly held, because it is only in that suffering that we can expect to share in his glory. This suffering, becoming like Christ in his death, involves humiliation. It involves what is considered shameful. It involves a cross. And a cross is not a nice decoration for a church, the cross is the symbol of torture, death and despair. The cross is the barbed wire fence that spells the end of hope for the one seeking refuge. The cross is the torture chamber where the confession of despair is extracted. The cross is foolish and despised and weak. And it is to the cross that we are called.
That pattern of suffering then glory comes in contrast to two other patterns of life in Philippians 3. Two ways to get to glory without a cross. The first is Paul’s old way of life as a Pharisee. The way of perfectly keeping an external code. Everything Paul says about his past in 3:1-6 is accurate. He was blameless. He did keep the law. But it wasn’t enough. Because it wasn’t about knowing Christ. Now that Christ has come belonging to God can never be simply about keeping laws. Now the Spirit is given to all God’s people so that all God’s people, from greatest to least can know him. A written code can be kept. Jesus’ way of life always calls us further into a deeper discipleship, an ever growing following of the crucified Christ. As we follow the call there comes the ever deepening awareness that the full meaning of the written code is the crucified life – and so we can’t keep it. We can only come back to the crucified and risen Christ to see that he gives a righteousness that is based on Christ’s faithfulness – a righteousness from God that is through faith. It is all about Jesus. We stand before God because of Jesus’ faithfulness, because of Jesus’ obedience to death on a cross. We live our lives, and lay our lives down because he lives and laid his life down.
The other way to glory is in 3:18-19 – Paul describes this way with tears. Their goal is destruction, their god is their stomachs, their glory is their shame. This is the way that makes a new kind of glory, a glory out of things that should make us ashamed. This is the way of the world without God. We take something that should be shameful and make it a virtue to be emulated. Usually it is something that satisfies our appetites and our greed – that is what stomach most likely refers to here. We make a god out of what we most want, and spend everything in service of that desire. And the goal of that life, the final destination is destruction. No wonder Paul says it with tears.
That leads me to the haunting question. How much do I believe that? How much do I truly believe that the only way to glory is the cross? How much am I prepared to sacrifice for him?
Of course it is immeasurably worth it for Paul who writes 3:20-21:
20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
That is what is in store for all who follow Paul’s example and adopt this mindset that was in Jesus. The mindset of suffering now, of crucifying self to follow Christ. The encouragement we have in this letter comes right at the end.
4:19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.
Everything we need to follow this pattern of life is met by God – out of his riches. Yes it will be hard. Indeed it is impossible for men – but not for God – and he will give us all we need to follow him. All we need to do what he wants.
As Timothy Dudley Smith puts it in one of his hymns:
Lord for ourselves; in living power remake us-
self on the cross, and Christ upon the throne,
past put behind us, for the future take us:
Lord of our lives, to live for Christ alone.
Philippians is a letter of joy – but a joy that comes through pain. A joy that comes when we know the pain of the cross. A joy that comes through tears, through heartache and loss. But a joy that promises a morning brighter than any earthly dawn. When the morning sun will finally rise and chase every shadow and sighing away. When we finally see the risen sun and we see the risen Lord. Then we will know that any suffering now has been worth it, for the greater glimpse of our Lord and King, our Saviour and Friend:
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”