Paul’s letter to the Philippians is regarded as his most joyous, but Christians today might also find it to be Paul’s most challenging word. He calls the Philippian church to radical unity, a unity born of the gospel that will bring light to the darkness of their generation. He calls the church to share the mind of Jesus and to do this by setting aside selfish ambition and vain conceit.
Vain conceit. What is that? It’s seeking empty glory to uplift self. And selfish ambition, being concerned about self regardless of others – only caring about others to the point that it encroaches on my needs. Paul tells his friends to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Nothing. That’s a tall order. In a world focused on self-promotion, personal gain, and making time for me, it would be much more likely to do everything out of selfish ambition or vain conceit than to do nothing in that manner.
Pastor Matt Byrd assured us that this is a universal struggle, but reminded us that through sanctification as we learn to follow Christ more closely and walk more fully in His love, that the depth of the struggle is minimized in our lives.
In a world where the self is celebrated, how can we know if we’re accepting Paul’s charge, or contributing to the darkness? There are some questions we can ask ourselves to sift through the condition of our hearts in response to Paul’s challenge.
- Do I rejoice when others succeed? Or when they fail?
- Do I live and die by what others think of me, working to ensure their thoughts of me are good? If I do, I’m placing greater importance on my glory, and less on Christ’s glory.
- Do I desire to get, get, get? Or do I give, give, give? This world tells us to get our share, but the Bible holds to a very different economy. It’s in giving that we are filled.
- Do I recognize I am entitled to nothing? Only Jesus, who left His heavenly appointment to pursue us on earth, is deserving of riches. Anything I have is a gift from Him, the giver of all good gifts.
- Do I serve others when it isn’t convenient? Do I serve them when I will get nothing from the service?
So how does Paul love this way? And how does he expect us to love this way? Even at our most loving, we’re prone to love according to our own preferences and desires – how do we completely set aside all traces of selfishness and vanity?
Verse 5 answers that question. Paul reminds us to look like, act like, in all ways to the best of our abilities to resemble Jesus. And then Paul recounts Jesus’ actions that are the truth of the gospel.
Renunciation: Jesus, fully God, un-created being, chooses to veil His deity and give up all He is entitled to in Heaven, in pursuit of us, though we had nothing to offer Him in return. He was already entitled to all the riches of Heaven. He didn’t need us.
Incarnation: He becomes fully man, remaining fully God, living a perfect, sinless life among us, pursuing us, knowing He will gain nothing from His acts of love toward us. And still, he desires a relationship with us that will span eternity.
Crucifixion: Jesus’ obedience didn’t end when it became inconvenient. Nor did His joy in serving us. They both continued to the point of, and throughout, His humiliating death on the cross, dying in our place so that we could live in fellowship with Him now and forever.
How can emulate this, and where do we start?
Renunciation: From what do we need to walk away? What do we need to set aside? We have no deity to veil, no place in Heaven to exit. What selfish ambition are we pursuing instead of Christ? What vain conceit do we seek over His glory?
Incarnation: In Christ’s incarnation He served us. Who can we serve? Where, and how? How can we set aside vain conceit, serving others, counting them greater than us, and seeking Christ’s glory?
Crucifixion: Christians in 21st Century suburban America aren’t likely to be martyred for their faith. We’re not likely to literally die for anyone’s salvation. So what does this look like for us? This is where we set aside vain conceit, serving others, counting them greater than us, and seeking Christ’s glory. This is where we die to self and live for Christ. Verse 13 tells us we do this by allowing God, the Holy Spirit, to work in us, and to work through us; and by asking Him and allowing Him to strengthen us in His ways, sanctifying us, equipping us to live this call. It all starts with fixing our eyes on Jesus, walking with Him and learning from Him. He empowers us as we surrender to Him.
It’s in obeying Jesus that we find joy. It’s also in our obedience that He is glorified. We live the gospel (Renunciation, Incarnation, Crucifixion) to point others toward the gospel. We become the light Paul mentions in verse 15 when we love radically, as Jesus did. When we fix our eyes on Jesus we let the Holy Spirit show us the ways we can live out the gospel portrait (Renunciation, Incarnation, Crucifixion), with each round of asking bringing us into closer fellowship with Jesus, remaking ourselves less in our own image and more in His likeness. Each attempt to live out the portrait of the gospel enables us to live in greater unity, with less selfishness and vain conceit, better emulating the mind of Christ.
It’s a tall order and a daunting challenge for sure. But it’s the very reason we were created and the means to the life of meaning our hearts crave. It’s the only thing that will allow us a spirit of joy when we find ourselves in chains and the only way to unity with others nothing like us. It’s the greatest source of light for this dark, dark world.