Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Part 3 Joy though Obedience

“ Transformed by Joy”
A study of the Biblical Book of Philippians

We began our journey into Philippians by looking at the story in Acts of how the church in Philippi had been founded by Paul. We then reflected on Paul’s later circumstances, as a prisoner in Rome writing to a church whose love for each other and for him brought to him a great sense of joy.

Paul instructs his readers to find joy through their endeavor to live truly Christ-like lives. He offers them the bold statement, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain’.  Whilst heaven may indeed be something to look forward to he states the more pressing need was that the work of the Kingdom move forward.

He invites the Philippians to find joy through ‘living lives worthy of the gospel” What did that mean? We concluded last time on an ‘If’ verse and I gave you the ‘Authorized Adrian Translation’ of the first verses of Chapter 2. “If this discipleship journey we are on together has blessed you in any way, if love has made a difference to your life, if being a part of your church community has been in any way positive… then make my day by taking it further, going deeper, sharing and caring like you have never done before.”

And so on to verses 3 through 5.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus:-

Paul insists that for joy to be truly experienced it must be found within the context of a community of faith. And in order for that community to flourish so that joy can be known, there must be a commitment to looking out for each others needs and interests.  There was no room for those who wanted to ‘push their way towards the front’ or ‘sweet-talk their way to the top’ (as the Message bible transliterates).

Paul urges them to regard ‘each other as better than themselves’. Such an exhortation is not meant to foster false modesty, or create low self-esteem, but to encourage a grateful and graceful recognition of the rights and achievements of others in the community.

 Humility was a virtue not often expressed in Greek culture any more than it is in our own. Humility can be portrayed as the sneaky, whining variety epitomized in Charles Dicken’s character of Uriah Heap (from David Copperfield), who wrings his hands and says ‘Very humble, very humble sir…” The kind of humility Paul has in mind is rather that which shone so lovingly through the ministry of Jesus.

Our 5th verse invites us to think of ourselves the way Jesus thought of Himself. We move into a section, often called the ‘Philippian Hymn’, which speaks about the true humility and eventual exaltation of Christ. Before we actually look at this passage, which some commentators describe as one of the most significant in the whole New Testament, a bit of background to these verses may be helpful.

Although it is described as a ‘hymn’ translators are not in agreement as to how it actually should be translated. Some versions of the English Bible line it out, as though it were a poem. But others point out that, if it were a poem, it does not follow the usual structure of other Greek poems.

Some suggest it was a poem that Paul added lines to. Others that it was a liturgical item, as though it were part of an ancient church bulletin. A few suggest Paul may have been the author, but others point out that it contains vocabulary that Paul does not use elsewhere in his writings.

The verses are theologically significant because they present the idea that Jesus came from God and returned to God having completed His mission here on earth in obedience to the Father’s will.  Some commentators have suggested that such understanding only came later in Christianity, but if Paul (who writes around AD 60-62) was quoting earlier sources, then it appears such teaching had been around a lot earlier.

I’m sure most of you will not lose any sleep over such debates, so for the purpose of our study, I’m treating the hymn as a liturgical poem. But firstly let us read it in the Scripture –

Phillipians 2:6-11

“ who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross! As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow– in heaven and on earth and under the earth– and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (Phi2:6-11NET)

I offer you the following structure. Not because it is more grammatically correct  or in any way a better translation, but simply… as a structure… we can use for our study!

Philippian Hymn

Though He was in the form of God,
He did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
But emptied Himself,
Taking the form of a slave.

Being born in human likeness,
And being found in human form,
He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death;
Even death on a cross.

Therefore God highly exalted Him
And gave Him the name that is above all names,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
In heaven and on earth
And under the earth,

And every tongue confess…
‘Jesus Christ is Lord’
To the glory of God the Father!

(Adapted from New Revised Standard translation)

Let us recall also the theme we are taking for our study of Philippians, namely being ‘Transformed by Joy’ and the theme of this particular session, ‘Joy through obedience’. This hymn speaks of death, suffering and the Cross, not in any way descriptive of joyful events, but frames them in the larger picture of the glory and exaltation of Jesus and His willingness to give His life in service.

First Stanza:   
Though He was in the form of God,
He did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
But emptied Himself,
Taking the form of a slave.

This theology in this passage echoes that of passages such as the opening section of Johns Gospel and the Book of Hebrews which present Jesus as the eternal one, present with God at the beginning and through whom all things came into being.

John1:1-3 - ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being.’ (NRS)

Hebrews1:1-3- ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom He also created the worlds. 3 He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and He sustains all things by His powerful word.’ (NRS)

The notion that creation involved more than one ‘agent’ is an ancient one. Genesis 1:2 speaks of the ‘Spirit of God’ hovering over the waters, whilst Genesis 3: 22 pictures God declaring "Behold, the man has become like one of Us…” (plural). Whilst it is not the best practice to pull scriptures out of their original context, the idea of God as being a unity that was more than a ‘ONE’ had been around long before Paul wrote his letters.

Our hymn begins by picturing Jesus as being in the form of God and having equality with God. We then have this idea of Jesus letting go of all that privilege in order to declare solidarity with humanity. As the Message Bible reads:- “When the time came, He set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!

The Greek term for this ‘self-emptying’ is ‘Kenosis’. The voluntary setting aside of all privilege. There is a hymn that says; “Thou who wast rich beyond all measure, All for our sakes becamest poor”.  Such is the idea in this first stanza.

Notice that the humanity that Jesus takes upon Himself is of the humblest and lowest kind. He comes as a slave (or as different translations have it a ‘bond-servant, or ‘servant of no reputation’).  There is no mention of working for payment or reward. He comes to us with the motivation of love as an act of  grace.

Second Stanza: 
Being born in human likeness,
And being found in human form,
He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death;
Even death on a cross.   

Two of the great celebrations of the Christian year are Christmas and Easter. We find them both in this short passage. The idea of Christ being born in human form, as a baby in the manger, is re-enacted in nativity plays around the world on an annual basis.

The events of Christ’s humiliation that lead up to His crucifixion are ones we focus upon every Easter season. Time after time in the gospel narratives we hear Jesus saying He must do His Father’s will.  His whole life is an act of obedience. That obedience is not only His duty but also His joy. The life of Jesus is defined by joyful service!

Third Stanza:    
Therefore God highly exalted Him
And gave Him the name that is above all names,
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
In heaven and on earth
And under the earth

The other side of the Easter narrative is of course the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. The very last Sunday in the Christian year is “Christ the King Sunday” (or the more political correct ‘Rule of Christ Sunday’ which for myself really doesn’t capture that ‘every knee shall bow’ idea quite so well!)

Our first stanza referenced Genesis, but now we are in the imagery of the last book of the Bible, Revelation, which is full of images of the victory of Christ and the worship that is due to His name. Not only does this brief hymn take us through all the seasons of the Christian calendar, but also through all the books of Scripture.

Fourth Stanza 
And every tongue confess…
‘Jesus Christ is Lord’
To the glory of God the Father!

The earliest Christian confession of faith was simple. ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’. The hymn concludes by picturing a day when all, in Judea, in Rome, and even in the wild untamed world beyond the empires boundaries, would share in that confession and all that it implies.  And all of this to the glory of God!

The importance of these few verses should not be underestimated. If it indeed pre-dates Paul and was part of the earliest churches liturgy and theology then it gives us a unique glimpse into what the earliest Christians thought was important and some of the beliefs that became established in the early church.

Some critics of Christianity suggest that our modern version of faith has more to do with Paul than it has to do with the gospels, and suggest that Paul shows little knowledge of the actual life of Jesus and the theology of the gospel narratives. This hymn, about the obedient life of Jesus Christ, who was born among us, died for us and was raised for us, and who will ultimately reign victorious, would strongly suggest otherwise.

 If it were written by Paul, then he knew more than his critics admit, if it was a whole lot earlier than Paul, then the early church was a whole lot more developed than they are prepared to acknowledge!

But how does Paul follow up on this hymn. Our next passage; verses 12-15.

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.

Paul is telling them, that just as they had always followed his example of following Jesus Christ (something that we saw in the first chapter gave him great joy when he was far from them stuck in a Roman jail) so, whether he would be able to be with them or not, they were to recall the example of servanthood Christ set before them and was calling for them to embrace.

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ is an injunction that they treat their personal discipleship with the utmost awe and with serious intent. This was their most vital task. This is why Jesus went through all that He did. That their lives may change. That they would allow God, through the Holy Spirit to carry on renewing them and reshaping the life that they shared together.

He warns them of the sorts of things that could so quickly destroy communities of faith. Murmuring. Arguing. Complaining. Maybe Paul has in mind the journeys of the people of Israel in the desert following their Exodus from Egypt.  Whatever Moses did, however God acted it was invariably followed by murmuring and complaints and grumbles. And it nearly destroyed them. It happened then. It happens now. Paul says; “Don’t let it happen to you”. Or as I heard it said on the Andy Griffiths’ show “Nip it in the bud”!

The ways of the world were something they were called to rise above.  They were supposed to be different. They were called to be light, not add to the darkness. They were to ‘shine like stars’.  And if they couldn’t do it for their own sake, then maybe they could do it for the sake of their community or even for Paul!  Actually, he was counting on them, as our next passage reveals. (16-18)

It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you-- and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.

Now remember Paul’s life is on the line! Whilst he earnestly hoped to be released and the treatment he was receiving in jail was a whole lot better than it could have been, the wind could change any time. When he said “To live is Christ, to die is gain’ he spoke as a man who’s life could be over in a moment. 

The image he uses of his life ‘being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice’ is  deeply sacramental. If his life, like the life of His Lord, is to be broken like the bread at the table, if his life, like the blood of Christ, is to be poured out like communion wine, then they needed to know that such was something he was prepared to face, because they made it all worth while! The faith he had seen birthed in them gave him hope and courage and most of all … deep joy.

Using an image from the Roman games he talks about not ‘running the race in vain”. If you have ever watched a football game and seen the player run 96 yards down the field to score a touch down, not knowing that the ref has thrown a yellow flag, then you know what ‘running in vain’ means! Paul encourages them to hold onto what they believe, to continue to allow the love of Jesus Christ to remake their lives, individually and together as a community.

And their ultimate example is not to be Paul, but Jesus Christ, the Jesus of the Philippian hymn. The One who gave up all privilege so that they may know themselves children of God. The One who was obedient, obedient even unto death, the death of the cross. The One whom God raised to glory and before whom every knee would one day bow and every tongue one day confess as the true Lord of life. 

If their lives, and our lives, are to be transformed, then such requires willful obedience to the example of Jesus Christ.  Notice the words ‘joy’ or ‘joyful’ appear 4 times in verses 17 and 18.  Obedience is not seen as a burdensome duty but the essence of Christian faith.  It is, after all an obedience based upon love.

To perform an action because one has to do so, out of duty, or expecting payment, is one thing. But to take on a task, out of love for somebody, is a whole different ball game. The first can be hard going, and even create resentment. The second way, the better way of love, whilst it may be hard, also breeds joy.

This time we talked about “Joy through Obedience”.
Next time we’ll look at “Joy through Faithfulness”.

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