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Jesus as “lordly example”

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(I’m grateful to Larry Hurtado for the expression “lordly example”)

Philippians 2:12–3:21

The lofty thoughts of Jesus’ universal acclamation (Philippians 2:9-11) did not hijack Paul’s original intent which was to set Jesus as the lordly example of humility and self-sacrifice.  He continued to drive the point home by appealing to the examples of Timothy, Epaphroditus, and Paul himself.  They have actualized the mind of Christ as their own life-stories will show and serve as examples for the church to imitate.Rediscovering Paul cover 

Implicit within the story of Jesus’ humiliation, incarnation, exaltation and acclamation is the promise that those who humble themselves will be exalted.  This teaching is certainly consistent with what we find elsewhere in the NT.   Nevertheless, the exaltation of the humble followers presents no counterpart, even remotely, to the universal acclamation of the Lord Jesus.  Still, even without developing the point, believers are left to ponder how God will exalt them for their humble obedience. 

The only proper response in the face of so lordly an example is obedience, “working out your salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12).  This does not mean, of course, that people can save themselves; it means they cooperate with God’s transforming energy in them.  They work without grumbling so their light can shine in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (2:14-15).  They hold on to the “word of life” now so that in the day of Christ (at the parousia) Paul can be proud (2:16).  After all, their apostle may be poured out as a libation on the altar, facing obedience unto death sooner rather than later. 

Timothy and Epaphroditus provided Paul with good examples of faithful followers who exhibited the mind of Christ.  Paul hoped to send Timothy soon to Philippi.  Like Jesus before him, Timothy was genuinely concerned about the Philippians’ welfare (2:20-21).  While others were watching out for themselves, Timothy would seek the good of Christ and his church.  Epaphroditus too had nearly died for the work Christ.  He had risked his life to serve Paul on behalf of the Philippians (2:29-30).  Now the apostle was going to send him back with his sincere thanks in hope they would receive and honor him. 

Paul next turned to his own life as an example of one who had “the mind of Christ.”  Following a warning against the threat of false teachers (“dogs,” “evil workers,” “the mutilators,” likely referring to the mutilation of the flesh in circumcision), the apostle claimed that Christ-believers were in fact the true circumcision (3:1-3).  After all they worship God in the Spirit, boast in Christ Jesus and place no confidence in the flesh.  It was this last remark, “no confidence in the flesh” that prompted Paul’s discourse on his own past.  Prior to his Christophany, Paul had quite a resume and enjoyed a number of bragging rights: (1) circumcised as per the Law on the eighth day; (2) from God’s covenant people; (3) from the important tribe of Benjamin; (4) a conservative, Hebraist Jew; (5) from a prestigious sect, the Pharisees; (6)  practiced “zeal” against the church; and (7) blameless under the Law regarding righteousness (3:4-6).  The pre-Christian Paul enjoyed a status nearly all would have envied.  But like the pre-incarnate Christ, he emptied himself of those gains and wrote them off as losses for the sake of Christ (3:7).   Indeed, he suffered the loss of all things and considered them “dung” compared to the excellence of what it meant to “know Christ” and be found in Him (3:8-10).  To “know Christ” implies intimacy and a knowledge based on experience.  It is knowledge of a person not knowledge about a thing.  The upshot of his own Christ-patterned humility meant that he left behind a law-based righteousness for the faith-based righteousness of God made possible through the faithfulness of Christ’s obedient sacrifice on the cross (3:9).  As Paul identified completely with the humiliation and death of Jesus, he expected also to share in his exaltation/ resurrection (3:10).  In that sense, Paul’s own story would be absorbed one day into the wider story of Christ. Paul

Although Paul had journeyed deep into the knowledge of Christ, he had certainly not arrived at his final destination.  So he pressed on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (3:14).  To do so he had to forget his past, namely, the “exalted” status he formerly enjoyed, and stretch out toward the future.  Those who wish to move toward perfection in the Christian life need not look back. 

Paul invited the Philippians to join him in imitating Christ and to pay attention to those, like Timothy and Epaphroditus, who present a model for how to walk.[1]  They are not to follow the example of those who lives as “enemies of Christ.”  Their destiny is not exaltation with Christ but destruction and shame because their mind is not the humble mind of Christ.  Their mind is set on earthly things (3:18-19).  Genuine believers understand their citizenship is in heaven; they belong to another city.  As “resident aliens” they are not at home in the world; instead they wait patiently for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Christian churches of Paul stand therefore as an alternative community in the world.  They do not look to Rome for guidance; they look to heaven.  They do not worship Caesar as Lord; they worship the Lord Jesus.  They expect only small benefits from any so-called earthly saviors; they wait ultimately for a Savior from heaven who will transform the world with power beyond this world.  Those who pattern their lives on the story of the Christ’s humiliation and exaltation can expect their humbled bodies to be transformed in conformity with the body of His glory.   As the apostle looked the future, the Christ hymn continued to echo in his inspired imagination.  We note here the following correspondences:

  The humiliation of Christ (2:6-8) –>the body of our humiliation (3:21)

  The exaltation of Christ (2:9) –>transformed to the body of his glory (3:21)

  The universal acclamation (2:10-11)–> the subjection of all things (3:21)

Clearly the Christ hymn provided Paul with more than a pattern for humble service to others; it also provided the (implicit) promise that believers who enter into his humiliation will also enter into his glorious exaltation (3:20-21).


[1] The imperative in 3:17 is difficult to translate.  It means either “join together in imitating me” or “join me in imitating Christ.”  Both are possible since Paul clearly urged believers to imitate Christ elsewhere and he also encouraged others to imitate him as one who imitates Christ (see Eph 5:1; 1 Thess 1:7; 1 Cor 11:1; cf. Phil 4:9).


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