Friday, February 24, 2012

Reading Philippians Missionally: Part Two

In the previous post, we described Paul's exhortation to live as citizens worthy of the Gospel. In this second post, we can unpack it more fully in light of Jesus' example.

The call to live as citizens of heaven is a profound and radical shift in one’s understanding of status. We can see that Paul prepares his readers for this shift in his self-description at the beginning of his letter. In Philippians 1:1, Paul and Timothy take the title of “slaves of Christ Jesus” for themselves. On first glance, this may not seem significant, but his is the sole place in Paul’s letters where he only identifies himself as a slave without further qualification. In Romans 1:1 and Titus 1:1 Paul describes himself as "slave of God" or " slave of Jesus" respectively but also adds "apostle". Adding the powerful title “apostle” speaks of authority and subverts in some ways the use of slave. However, in Philippians, Paul and Timothy are simply "slaves of Messiah Jesus." This is important to Paul’s word to the Philippians about a new understanding of citizenship. The only other use of doulos in Philippians occurs at 2:7 and describes Jesus as one who “emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness." Philippians 2:7 records Jesus' action/demonstration of not considering equality with God something to be clung to or exploited. The use of slave language for both Paul (the founder of the church in Philippi) and Jesus (the crucified and risen Lord) is subversive in the Philippians context. It is a call to the Philippian Christ followers, many of whom had privileges as Roman citizens, to willingly embrace a lower status in imitation of Paul and Jesus for the sake of the advancement of the Gospel. The Gospel moves forward not by selfishly clinging or exploiting one’s own status, but by valuing and serving others.

Don’t miss the profound challenge contextually to the Philippians of Paul’s description of Jesus as a slave. Slaves sat at the bottom of the status ladder in Roman society. Paul’s subversive use of slave is a key element in his teaching about living as citizens worthy of the Gospel. In 2:1-18, Paul offers Jesus as the first of three examples. At the center of this section is the Christ hymn (2:5-11). This poetic text unpacks what it means to embody the mind/attitude/intentions of Jesus. Jesus is described positively for his own renunciation of status for the sake of advancing God’s mission. Philippians 2:6 marvels at the reversal of expectations over the issue of Jesus' status. This text affirms that Jesus was divine and equal to God. Despite this reality, Jesus did not take this position of being equal with God as a privileged position to be exploit for his own gain. Jesus does not regard his status of being equal with God to be a collection of rights and prerogatives to be exploited for his own benefit. Instead, Jesus took the form of humanity. This announces the incarnation of Jesus into our world as a human. Notice this is announced first by the phrase “taking the form of a slave (Grk doulos). This establishes the full force of Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians about a new kind of citizenship. Their model is no longer the status quo of Roman social norms. It is Jesus. It is not merely that Jesus assumes the role and status of a slave. He identifies with it fully by embracing death on a cross. Don’t miss the subversive power of this statement. Christ followers are too used to thinking about Jesus’ death on the cross that we can easily miss its message in context. Jesus could have died an atoning death in a variety of ways. Why death on a cross? Crucifixion was reserved for the lowest classes of society. Roman citizens could not be crucified except as a penalty for treason. So to the Philippians, Jesus’ death on a cross demonstrated the extent to which Jesus was willing to renounce his status and identify with his adopted status of slave for the sake of God’s mission.

The last half of the Christ hymn records the results of Jesus’ willing embrace of a new status. 2:9 announced dramatically that as a direct result of his humble embrace of low status, God highly exalted Jesus and gave him the name above all names.In other words, Jesus has his lowly status reversed. Jesus moves from the bottom of the status ladder to the highest possible one. He is LORD (2:11). This is no mere honor. There is no status above it. By identifying Jesus with the Name, i.e., Yahweh of Israel's Scriptues, Jesus moves from the bottom of the status realm to a status above Roman citizenship, above the Roman emperor, and even above the Roman gods. Jesus alone is LORD and all others will bow before him. The message to the philippians believers is clear. They may cling to their status as Roman citizens, but if they willingly embrace a lower status, they will be raised up by God in Christ Jesus. The only status worth attaining is one given by God. The implication also that any temporary loss of status for the sake of God's mission is infinitely worth it. As the Philippian Christ followers, realign themselves for God's mission they position themselves to reach others for the Gospel through their witness by moving from a way of life that values putting the self and its status first to focusing on lifting the status and honor of others (2:2-3). By doing so, the Philippians will "shine continually as stars in the world" (2:15). Stars have functioned as navigation points and signs for millennia. In like manner, the Philippians will serve as clues to the world about true God. Such a life is nothing more and nothing less than a rediscovery of what God intended for humanity at creation (Gen 1:26-31). The status that Christ followers embrace establishes the limits of whom they can reach with the Gospel.

What do you think?

I offer a full missional reading of Philippians as an example of how to deploy a missional approach to Scriputre in my latest book:

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