Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Biblical Christmas Spirit Imitates Christ - He Emptied Himself
by by Rev C Bouwman
Minister: C Bouwman on Philippians 1:27a held on Christmas Day 25 December 2002. Text: Philippians 1:27a "Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise" Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
The Christmas messages spoken this year by the world’s leaders will invariably include mention of this past year’s terrorist activities and the possibility of war in the new year. In the light of such developments, the emphasis will be on the peace that Christmas represents, and so the hope that peace will prevail in the new year.
One may indeed hope for peace. But of all the people in the world, Christians alone have the recipe. It’s this recipe for peace that the Holy Spirit lays before us in the verses we read from Philippians this morning.
I proclaim to you this morning the word of our God about Christ’s example in emptying Himself. I summarize the sermon with this theme:
BIBLICAL CHRISTMAS SPIRIT IMITATES CHRIST: HE EMPTIED HIMSELF.
- The problem amongst the Philippians.
- The example for the Philippians.
- The mandate to the Philippians.
1. The Problem amongst the Philippians.
I asked your attention previous time to an earlier portion of chap 1. In his chains and imprisonment, with around him those who preached Christ in an attempt to hurt Paul, the apostle had put to the Philippians the reason for his enduring optimism: "For to me," he’d said in vs 21, "to live is Christ!" The opposition and the suffering of this broken life did not get Paul down, simply because he kept his eye on Christ victorious, the Lord of heaven and earth who sovereignly gave Paul afflictions in order to further the cause of the gospel. So Paul wouldn’t complain of the way Christ went with him –and we must not either- "for to live is Christ, and to die is gain!"
As it was, the Christians of Philippi did understand something of Paul’s vision. According to the first verses of chap 1, the Philippian Christians were alive in Christ. So –vs 3- "I thank my God upon every remembrance of you" –why?- because (vs 5) the brethren of Philippi cheerfully assisted Paul in his work. So –vs 6- Paul can state emphatically that God had "begun a good work" in the Philippians, and God would "complete it until the day of Jesus Christ." There was a genuine love amongst these Christians for the Lord and for each other, and that made the apostle so very, very thankful.
But the Christians of Philippi –like we today- had but a small beginning of the obedience God requires. So, while Paul on the one hand encourages the Philippians by reminding them of the marvellous work God has done in their midst, he also shows them how their love could abound more and more (vs 9). That’s the point of the passage we read this morning. Vs 27: Paul’s readers should "stand fast in one Spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel," and he writes that simply because the Philippian Christians were not standing fast in one Spirit, were not striving with one mind for the faith of the gospel. The same thought comes up in 2:2. Paul wants the Philippians to be "like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind," and such an injunction makes sense only if these Philippians lacked in their like-mindedness. Again, 2:3 reveals that some of the brethren were driven by "selfish ambition or conceit"; some esteemed themselves better Christians, better elders, better parents, better judges of the problems that be than others.
Well, now, if "to live is Christ," then the example of Christ is also going to be so very instructive. That is why Paul says in our text that the Philippians are always to conduct themselves "in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ." If "to live is Christ," your life must show it. That’s the theme of the passage we read this morning.
The word translated for us as ‘conduct’ is literally ‘citizenship’; it’s the same word as 3:20, where our translation reads that "our citizenship is in heaven." That’s Paul’s instruction: "let your citizenship be worthy of the gospel of Christ."
Citizenship. We’re all familiar with the concept. It is today as in Paul’s days: citizens of a given community take an active interest in the affairs of their community. We in our day all do our bit to keep Armadale/Kelmscott a tidy town, we do our bit to promote local business, we participate in neighborhood watch, when we’re away we promote Armadale/Kelmscott as the best possible place to live, and so on. We understand that such behavior is the very least that’s expected of worthy citizens.
Paul’s wish is that the Christians of Philippi be good citizens of their town too. Yet his point was not simply that the Philippian Christians keep their town tidy; they need to exercise their citizenship in a manner "worthy of the gospel of Christ," and that’s to say that they recognize that the gospel itself is good for town –indeed, it’s the critical thing town needs- and so advertise that gospel in their manner of living.
But being driven by selfishness or conceit does not advertise the gospel to the rest of town. If even Christians fight amongst themselves, if they’re driven by selfishness, who in the world will see from their conduct something of God’s work for sinners? And who will want to join them? Here is the material Jesus expressed in His high-priestly prayer before He went to the cross. Jn 17: "I … pray … for all those who will believe in Me … that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us" –why?- "that the world may believe that You sent Me" (vss 20f). The Lord God answered that prayer for the early church directly after Pentecost, for the Holy Spirit tells us that "the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and soul" (Acts 4:32), and the result was that "the people esteemed they highly. And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women…" (Acts 5:14).
The Lord answered the prayer in Philippi too, for there was amongst the believers of town something of this unity so that the apostle could thank the Lord for every remembrance of these Philippian Christians. But that unity, that love for one another had to abound for the sake of the gospel in the community, and that’s what Paul means when he says in our text that he wants the Philippians’ public conduct, the Philippians’ citizenship, to be worthy of the gospel of Christ.
And yes, that prayer of the Lord is answered in our midst too; there is within Kelmscott –and I am sure it is in West Kelmscott too- much of the love and the care and the unity the Lord desires. While we may thank the Lord sincerely for that, we also need to recognise that this love needs to abound more and more; we certainly have not reached the goal of perfection. So we need to know just how the apostle encouraged the Philippians to abound in love, to know what a life "worthy of the gospel of Christ" looks like. That brings us to our second point:
2. The Example for the Philippians.
Yes, congregation, what does a life "worthy of the gospel of Christ" look like? What must the public see in the Christian’s life?
Paul answers the question in 2:5-11. He’d said in vs 3 that "in lowliness of mind" each was to "esteem others better than himself," and he added in vs 4 that each was to "look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others." He sums it up in vs 5: "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus" (NIV).
How so? What was Christ’s attitude? Vs 6 contains two terms that describe Christ’s exalted position. Paul speaks of Christ Jesus "being in the form of God" (as the passage literally says) and His being "equal with God." The point of the two terms comes down to the same: Jesus Christ is true God just as the Father is God. He has been with the Father in glory from eternity, is worthy of the same honor as the Father. As Jesus said to His disciples: "I and My Father are one" (Jn 10:30). Or in the words of the Nicene Creed: "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father."
But, Paul continues, despite Jesus’ exalted position as God He did not insist on remaining in that high position, nor did He insist on receiving from angels and men the honor and the homage that belongs to being God. That’s the point of vs 6. Our translation says that Jesus "did not consider it robbery to be equal with God." Though the term Paul uses can indeed mean ‘robbery’, the fine point of the word is that one grasps at this or that – and that grasping can indeed lead to robbery, stealing. Well now, though Jesus Christ was true God from eternity, He did not clutch at Godhead, did not insist upon clinging to the privileges that belong to deity. The wealthy of the world want to be treated as wealthy; glitz and praise is seen as their right. The powerful of the world grasp at the adulation and the respect that belongs to the powerful, insist on receiving it, being treated as powerful. But Jesus –though true God- did not "grasp" for these things, did not insist upon these things. Instead –vs 7- He emptied Himself, "made Himself of no reputation."
Here, brothers and sisters, is the gospel of Christmas. He who was true God emptied Himself, took on "the form of a bondservant," and He came "in the likeness of men." The shepherds who saw Him lying in His manger saw nothing special, saw simply another baby like you and I were. There was no indication of deity about this Child, no halo around His little head, no angels standing beside Him to do His bidding, no servants ensuring this royal Child was comfortable. So radically did He empty Himself that He –who since creation had innumerable angels at His command- now took on the form of a slave, the lowest of human society, one who didn’t have to think…, just do what he was told…. That is Christmas for Christ!
Yet even that is not the extent of Jesus’ emptying! Vs 8: "and being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and become obedient to death - even death on a cross." He looked like a man, and He was a man, but He was also much more for He remained true God. But even on earth Jesus did not insist on the homage and the honor that His Godhead deserves. Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but He who was true God from eternity insisted on no place to lay His head. Kings have armies and powerful men have servants, but He through whom the Father created the world did not in His hour of need call upon His Father to send twelve legions of angels. He rather humbled Himself, deliberately put Himself at the bottom of the ladder to the point of accepting the shame and the horrors of crucifixion – that worst death imaginable…. Try, congregation, to get your mind around it: true God laid aside His Godhead and took up manhood, more, was content to take the role of a slave, even the shame of a cross…. What contrast, what contrast!! See there heaven’s Christmas spirit, more, see there what God is like!!
For there is the point, brothers and sisters: who is your God? Worthy the Son is, most definitely, to receive all honor and praise and worship from every creature in all creation – simply because He is God. But does He cling to that praise, does He insist on all the trappings that rightly belong to being God? The picture the apostle draws in Philippians 2 is not of a God clinging at all costs to the dignity and the exaltation that belongs to Godness. Instead, God was willing to empty Himself! Christ Jesus, true God, emptied Himself, humbled Himself, was content to become a slave! As Jesus said it while He was on earth: "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many" (Mt 20:28).
How different, how very different to the pattern of behavior we people are used to! And therefore: how very different too from the pattern of behavior people attribute to the gods we create after human image! People by nature insist on respect, on the homage that belongs to one’s status in society. People by nature want to be on top of the pile, and want to be padded and pampered as such. It’s that self-centeredness that produces the frictions and tensions and disagreements and squabbles that characterize so much of human existence – including amongst the Christians of Philippi! But, says Paul, God is so different! Christmas: there’s the evidence that Jesus Christ did not grasp at the honor and the homage that belongs to His status as God. Christmas: He emptied Himself….
The result? We would say: it means He ends up with nothing left. For if you don’t defend yourself, if you don’t insist on your rights, you get trodden underfoot; hasn’t evolution taught us of survival for the fittest?! But look, congregation, at vs 9! "Therefore" –that is, because He emptied Himself, because He did not insist upon the privileges of Godhead- "therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name…." That the Lord God would take Him into heaven and give Him a seat at His right hand as Lord of lords and King of kings: that, says Paul, is the reward God gave to Christ Jesus because He emptied Himself. And see: that is the rule in the kingdom of heaven: the first shall be last and the last first. For God exalts those who humble themselves, and God humbles those who exalt themselves (Mt 23:12; Ps 18:27; Prov 29:23; cf 18:12). "Survival of the fittest" is the doctrine of unbelief, not the ethic of Scripture!
Why did Paul mention Christmas, this radical self-emptying on Jesus’ part? Why tell the Philippians that Jesus did not insist on the privileges of His Godhead? The people of town knew these Christians were Christians, and so –says Paul- the people of town should see in these Christians what Christ was really like. Then yes, there was love amongst these Philippian Christians, they were emptying themselves. But that self-emptying wasn’t as complete as it ought to be, for it didn’t match up to the example of Christ. These Christians should radiate the Christmas spirit every day in every thing, and there were failings; Paul had learned from Epaphroditus that the people of town saw selfish ambition amongst the Christians, saw from the Christians’ behavior that the one esteemed the self better than the other. That kind of public conduct was not worthy of the gospel of Christ, simply because Christ Himself acted so differently. He humbled Himself, emptied Himself, did not insist on the privileges of status, but was content to become a slave…. And that’s the example the Christians of Philippi were to follow. In the words of our text: "Let your citizenship be worthy of the gospel of Christ." Or vs 5: "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus." And that’s, of course, an example which not only the Christians of Philippi were to follow, but the Christians of today must too….
That brings us to our third point:
3. The Mandate to the Philippians.
Paul picks up that mandate in 2:12. "Therefore, my beloved," he says, "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." The point of the command is not that the Philippians are to get to work earning their eternal salvation, somehow laboring to obtain forgiveness of sins and life eternal. That’s clear from the fact that these Christians already have salvation. Chap 1:6: the God "who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ." What the point is then? This: exactly because the Lord has given them salvation in Jesus Christ –and that means that they benefit from Jesus’ self-emptying- the Philippians must give that salvation concrete expression in their daily lives as citizens of Philippi. How are they to work out, give expression to that salvation God has given them in Christ? That’s the instruction of our text; they are to let their citizenship, their public conduct "be worthy of the gospel of Christ." That is: they are to empty themselves as Christ emptied Himself!
Then it’s true: by human standards someone may have the right to insist that others give him honor, the "best seat in the synagogue" or the eldership in the church, or the benefit of the doubt in an argument. But just as the Lord Jesus Christ did not insist on the privileges of His Godhead, so the children of God are not to insist on the privileges that may rightly be theirs. As the Lord emptied Himself, humbled Himself, put Himself last, so too the children of God are to empty themselves, be humble, put themselves last. And no, that does not mean that they will never be vindicated, but it does mean that space is given to God to vindicate them. Recall that principle in God’s kingdom: the first shall be last, and the last first, and that’s why the Lord God highly exalted Jesus. And He will do the same for His children who follow the example of Christ, who let themselves be last in marriage, last in family, last in relations now characterised by antagonism.
But –true as that is- that’s not the reason Paul gives in this passage of Scripture for emptying oneself. The apostle wants the Philippians to be rid of their squabbling, their divisions, their selfish ambitions, and he wants that because the gospel of Christ has to be evident in the community. To get rid of that squabbling the apostle doesn’t immerse himself into the details of this case or that. Instead he reminds them first that "to live is Christ," and if the eye is fixed on Christ one can see good even in imprisonment or brothers preaching Christ with wrong motivation; recall the material of last Sunday. Now he adds that to get rid of squabbling the Philippian Christians need the attitude of Christ, that is, they are not to insist on receiving the right that is their due, but should be content with being the least – simply because God exalts those who humble themselves.
That’s the attitude that produces obedience to the instruction of vs 14: "do everything without complaining and arguing." Literally, Paul speaks of ‘muttering’, grumbling, as Israel did in the desert. Paul doesn’t want that muttering and grumbling amongst Christians, simply because it’s the fruit of insisting on your own way. No, says Paul, follow the example of Christ, who did not insist on the privileges that belonged to His status as God, but He emptied Himself, becoming a slave. By following that example you become "blameless and pure, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and depraved generation" (vs 15). The world insists on being right, the world feeds an ego, but Paul would have the Christians here to be different, radically different, publicly conducting themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Paul would have the community of believers thinking and acting together, living in love and kindness for the benefit of the other, putting away selfish ambition and self-valuations, and concentrating on the needs of others at least as much as on own needs. That’s what Christ did. The people of town notice this Christmas spirit because it’s so different from the bickering, divisions, and disputes that characterize a world driven by selfish ambition. This advertises the gospel, for such conduct is worthy of the gospel of Christ; by adopting such an attitude Christians "shine like stars in the universe" – as Paul says in vs 15.
In today’s Christmas season everybody talks about goodwill and love to fellow men; for a little while the world’s warring factions bury their hatchets. It happens every year, but does not last. But in the church it does; by the grace of God love grows. But it needs to abound, and so the Lord would have us cultivate that Christmas spirit in ourselves and each other. "To live is Christ," and therefore the children of God follow the example of Christ in self-emptying, not insisting on our rights.
In a world that seeks peace, the Christian has the recipe, learned from Christ at the world’s first Christmas. It’s our privilege to demonstrate this Christmas spirit in our daily conduct. Amen.