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Grasping Our Identity

Philippians 2:1-13

Today’s text presents us with three notable insights into one of the earliest expressions of a healthy and mature church—the church in Philippi. First, we get a picture of what was being experienced. Second, we read the content of a hymn used in its worship. And third, we see how its leaders confront conflict. We will discover that all three flow out from one common center—Jesus Christ!

Let’s take a quick look at this church and why Paul writes to it. The church in Philippi was located on a plain in Macedonia along the Egnatian Way, which was a major road serving as the primary connector between the western and eastern parts of the Roman Empire. This road played a significant role in spreading Roman religious and cultural views. This would place the church in Philippi in the middle of cultural and religious influences that would often conflict with the gospel. The church in Philippi wasn’t just a healthy church—it was a church established in hostile territory. We are not told how many people or churches make up the Philippian congregation, but the intro of the letter Paul and Timothy write to it indicates that it is an established church with possibly many leaders and strong organization. Also, it is clear that this flock was a source of joy for Paul. They were a church that gave him support and not trouble. Paul speaks to them as “partners” and never needs to appeal to his authority. Sounds like a dream church for any pastor or church leader.

But this healthy church was not immune to challenges. For starters, Paul, their beloved partner in the gospel, is in prison and is unable to visit them, so he writes them a letter with the help of Timothy. Paul’s primary reason for writing them is to thank them for their continued support especially during his difficult situation. But he also takes the opportunity in the letter to prepare them for what will likely be further persecution coming their way. He encourages them to work together. In this encouragement Paul will also have to address a current issue within the church. They have been experiencing some division among themselves, so Paul exhorts them to unity.

Perhaps this snapshot of the church in Philippi can encourage us today in our own churches. It is clear that a faithful church is not determined by some prominent standing of its leaders among the surrounding populace, but rather by their commitment to the gospel. Also, the church is not qualified as a mature congregation simply by an increasing acceptance in its community, but rather by walking in the way of the Lord, even when that leads to increasingly being out of step with the dominant culture. Isn’t it encouraging to know that even Paul’s favorite church wasn’t devoid of challenges? Sometimes there are movements built around the idea that the early church was an ideal expression of how a church should operate and if we could only replicate it, we would then have the perfect church. But any fair reading of the letters addressed to these churches will reveal that they had many, if not more, of the same issues our church may be facing now. Karl Barth once said, “There are no letters in the New Testament apart from the problems of the church.” Therefore, we do not need to place our hope in some secret formula hidden in the early churches. Like them, our hope is in the same Lord Jesus Christ, who is present with his grace in our century as he was in theirs.

Now we will look at how Paul addresses a particular problem in the church in Philippi.

Phil. 2:1-13  So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

     This section begins with “Therefore,” which sends us back a few verses where Paul tells the Philippian brothers and sisters to conduct themselves “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” What follows is Paul’s exhortation to do just that. Notice how Paul confronts the internal conflicts in the church by exhorting them to the unity they have in Christ. Paul will begin by laying a foundation presented in four “if” statements. He is going to point his gospel partners back to a shared experience in Christ that serves as a foundation to build on. Basically, he is telling them that “if” they have experienced these four things, then they have a solid foundation for unity. He wants them to focus on their unity in Christ to help them not be divided over their differences in the church.

Let’s look at each of these four “If” statements with an eye towards seeing our own foundation in Christ for unity within our churches today.

  1. “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ…”

This is listed first and is the most important. Paul is bringing them to remember what it is to be a Christian. Our true identity is found only in Christ, or as Paul puts it here, “united with Christ.” That’s foundational. If you are ever asked what makes you a Christian, what is the first thing you think of? Is it that you go to church? Maybe it’s because of your behavior, what you do or don’t do? Is it because you read the Bible and pray? What comes to mind? Paul is saying here that the fundamental and foundational answer to that question is that we are Christians because we are united with Christ. Everything we do or don’t do flows out of that. This should be the most encouraging reality we could ever imagine. This secures our identity in the very being of the eternal Son who has his identity in his relationship with his Father.

Paul is calling on his church to remember who they are in Christ—to be encouraged by the tremendous good news of who they belong to and the permanence of that belonging. Perhaps this will bring the church together to remember a time before their divisions when they would encourage one another with this reality. Unity will flow out of such encouragement. If we each point to the same belonging we have in Christ, then we are sharing something that is foundational to our identity. Unity will flow from such sharing. Can you think of any times in the church where there has been an experience of Christ being present? While many of us may have stories of when we experienced the reality of our union with Christ, others of us never thought of our experience in the words of “union.” Our union is in Christ and therefore our unity with one another is found only in Christ.

  1. “If any comfort from his love…”

The second “if” statement Paul provides is to bring to remembrance their shared experience of Christ’s love for them. Maybe we should emphasize the word “his” love. Today there are many distorted views of what love is. For the Christian, love is found, defined and experienced only in Christ. Paul wants the church to recount their comfort that comes from this love. Jesus’ identity was secured in knowing he was the beloved Son of the Father. All he did and went through was sustained in this love. In Christ we are not given some sentimental feel-good story of “love” but rather, we are given a share in the reality of love the Father has for his own Son. We are given a share in the love the Son has for his Father. This is not a love we could produce on our own. It is an eternal love that is shared with us as we are “united with Christ.” This is a foundational comfort that can smooth over any differences a church may be experiencing. Loving others tends to flow naturally when we are secure in being beloved. This is a love we pray for and God provides.

  1. “If any common sharing in the Spirit…”

Or in other words, “fellowship.” Paul wants his church to also remember when the Holy Spirit brought about fellowship among them. Fellowship in the Spirit is much deeper than anything we can accomplish on our own. The fellowship the Spirit shares with believers is the same fellowship the Father and Son have been sharing for all eternity. It’s a fellowship that is received, not achieved. True fellowship is not some ideal of our own making. We can cease our grasping and our attempts to control and shape our church community to fit our ideals and instead receive the fellowship in the Spirit. This can bring about freedom and wholeness in our relationships as we relax our controlling grips on shaping “fellowship.” Ask God to help you recognize and experience this freedom and wholeness in relationships. And don’t be discouraged if you don’t sense that softening of grace toward another. Some experiences are more powerful, some are so subtle you don’t even notice it. But here’s the key, we can trust God to guide our relationships. The Spirit does not leave us to our own devices to create the bonds of fellowship we so long to enjoy.

  1. “If any tenderness and compassion…”

Notice Paul qualifies this by saying “any” tenderness and compassion. Any at all is evidence that the Spirit is working among them. The church in Philippi may not be experiencing much of this “tenderness and compassion” as they are divided against each other. So, Paul wants them to remember a time when they did once share such warm-heartedness towards one another. Where does that come from? We, too, may need to recall warmer days in our fellowships if we are struggling in the present to get along. It is not the warm feelings in the past that we are trying to use to rekindle a fire in the present. Rather, it is remembering the presence of Christ and his tenderness and compassion toward us manifested in our past relationships with others. It’s one more indicator that we are indeed “united with Christ,” which is our unifying identity.

After four “if” statements, Paul delivers one “then” statement to draw his statement to a close.

Then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and one mind.

There is joy in unity. But not just any unity, but the unity that comes by sharing in our identity in Christ. It’s an identity marked by sharing in the Lord’s mind, heart and spirit. This presents the church with a choice. They can choose to lay down their “right” to have things their way or they can continue to hold onto their own way of thinking. Paul goes on to tell them not to go down that road.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.

This is the orientation of life that destroys unity. Paul has succinctly summed up the sinful inward condition. We are not made to exist for ourselves as if we are detached, self-sufficient creatures. The Triune God has created us to share in his life that is other focused and experienced in unified relationship. Paul says it like this:

Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

We may think, yeah right! That sounds impossible. And it is!

But remember what Paul is trying to do. He is trying to remind them of who they are as people “united with Christ.” Jesus’ identity is wrapped up in the life of Father, Son, and Spirit. For all eternity Jesus has existed in this circle of knowing and being known. It is the Triune circle of perfect, holy and righteous relationship. This is the mind of Christ that Paul is encouraging us to have in his letter to the Philippians. Jesus shares his mind with us. It’s not a mind or attitude that we must create or get on our own.

Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.

Since Jesus shares his life of identity in the Triune God of love with us by the Spirit, we are encouraged to share in what he is. We can do it in our relationship with God and with our relationships “with one another.”

Then Paul turns to a hymn that may have been circulated and sung in the churches of his day.

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)

Paul wants us to become like Christ, and he uses this hymn that sings about Christ becoming like us. This is a powerful hymn full of deep Christology. How often can a hymn lift us into the encouragement and comfort that comes by being reminded of who Jesus is for us? If a hymn is good, it will remind us of the goodness of him. After giving the tall order to be like-minded, to put aside self-focused living, to live in humility where others come first, Paul needs to pull out his big guns by reminding them of who Jesus is. He picks the hymn to do the heavy lifting for him. This song would remind the members that everything he has told them to do has already been done for them in Christ. He is not calling on the church to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but he is telling them in song form to remember once again that their identity is “united with Christ.”

Through this hymn Paul is able to tell us that Jesus is fully God and fully man. Although Jesus is God, he lives out his life in the flesh as a man. In contrast to Adam, Jesus is not living by grasping to be God. He lives out his humanity by receiving his identity from the Father. He is not grasping, controlling or manipulating in order to secure his own identity. He rests in receiving from the Father by the Spirit.

We see Jesus living a life of humility, obedience and sacrifice. Jesus shows us what it means to truly be human. As fallen creatures, we are unable to truly live in this humble life of obedience and sacrifice, but Jesus has lived it for us and now is sharing that life with us by the Spirit. What we see on the cross is the Triune God destroying the Fall. Jesus has made peace by taking all death and sin, all our controlling and grasping ways for identity, to the cross and destroying it. As a result of this, the Father exalts him. Even Jesus’ exaltation is something to be received. Jesus does not crown himself.

Now Paul concludes with the same word he started with in this section, “Therefore…” Only this time he is now referring back to all he and his well-chosen hymn have said about Jesus Christ. On this ground he can call them forth to faithful obedience, not determined by Paul’s presence but on the basis of Jesus’ presence in them by the Spirit. Paul states it like this:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)

Paul is not telling them to “imitate” Jesus as if Jesus were just a role model or ideal. No, he is encouraging the church to work out in the Spirit what Jesus has already worked in by the Spirit. In other words, they are called to participate in a reality, not create one of their own. We can’t just seize our identity in Christ. So, Paul is calling them and us today to embrace our identity as the one body “united with Christ.”

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Discuss the connection between obedience and faith. How does knowing the Father is faithful to us enable us to more fully obey him?
  • Can you think of times where you “held out your hands and closed your eyes” in obedience to the Father? Share your experience.
  • What parallels did you take from the description of the Philippian church and your church today? Did you see anything encouraging? Discouraging?
  • The sermon defined being a Christian as one who is “united with Christ.” Has this been your usual understanding of what it means to be a Christian? What are some typical ideas of what defines the identity of being a Christian?
  • Using the four “If” statements in the sermon, can you think of times you experienced these in the church? Any examples from the following that you can share?
    • “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ…”
    • “if any comfort from his love…”
    • “if any common sharing in the Spirit…”
    • “if any tenderness and compassion…”
  • Can you think of Christ-centered hymns that you find are rich sources of comfort and encouragement like the one Paul uses in Philippians?

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