There’s been a resurgence of superhero films and television shows of late. Amidst the inhuman powers and impressive gadgets, I think one the reasons why we are fascinated by superheros is because there is a sense of comfort in knowing that someone with extraordinary abilities is willing to stand between us and harm. A superhero stands out, not just because of his/her superpowers but because his/her willingness to use those powers for the good of others.

In this article, I examine Paul’s writings in Philippians 2:1-16, reading the text for what it means to contemporary Christians rather than what it meant for its original audiences[1].

There are five components to Paul’s logical argument in this text. If, then, because, because, and therefore.

Paul lays out the ‘if’ in verse 1; quoting from the Message Bible: “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care…” that’s the if. The premise of the rest of the passage is based on this ‘if.’ The rest of the passage only applies to us if the ‘if’ applies to us.

If we’ve gotten anything at all from following Christ, if his love has made a difference in our life, if being in community with the Holy Spirit means anything at all to us, “then do me a favor:” says Paul. “Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” (v 1-4).

If all the ‘if’s apply to the believers in Philippi, and consequently to us, the believers today, then Paul urges us to be united, to love each other, to help others with an attitude of humility thinking they’re better than us.

Because – here’s the first because, starting in verse 5: “5-8 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.”

If we claim to be believers in Christ, then we should be united and we should humbly help each other out, because we are imitating the one whom we profess to follow. Christ, who had every right to lord it over people, didn’t behave like he was better than the rest of us, but instead willingly and obediently followed the Father’s will all the way to the cross. If we’re Christians, then we should act like Christ because that’s whom we follow.

Paul’s second ‘because’ is laid out in verses 9-11:

9-11 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.

The second ‘because’ is the reason why God has exalted Jesus – because of his obedience. If we are Christians, then we should act like it, because we follow Jesus who was exalted by God because he was obedient.

It is interesting that Paul specifically instructs people to consider others better than us. I think he understood that it doesn’t take much for us to start thinking of ourselves as better than some people. As social beings who live in communities, we get our sense of self from our interactions with other people[2]. Others provide a frame of reference for us.[3] Inevitably, we operate in systems that have various social currencies wherein those who are rich in that particular currency feel superior to those who are not. In the world of academia, the currency is qualifications and publications, for example. In the world of church leadership, the currency could be the size of the congregation. The challenges is when we confuse social currency with inherent value of a person. A qualified academic is informed in a particular discipline, but not inherently superior to another human being. Paul urges believers in Christ to be humble, considering others better than ourselves.

The ‘therefore’ in Paul’s logic is articulated in verses 12 – 16:

12-13 What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure.

14-16 Do everything readily and cheerfully—no bickering, no second-guessing allowed! Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God. Carry the light-giving Message into the night so I’ll have good cause to be proud of you on the day that Christ returns. You’ll be living proof that I didn’t go to all this work for nothing.

If we’re Christian, then we should behave like Christ, because we follow Christ who was exalted by God because of his obedience; therefore we should be energetic in our salvation, doing everything cheerfully without quarrelling or grumbling, we should be in the world, but uncorrupted by the world, providing a glimpse of God.

There are three aspects to this ‘therefore.’ First, Paul says our behaviour should be counter-cultural. We should be so willing to serve, so full of humility, so full of unity, and so uncorrupted that we stand out.

The second aspect of this part of Paul’s message is for us to be in the world, in dark places where light is most needed. While he asks us not to be corrupted by darkness, he says, “Go out into the world, uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air.” Thirdly, Paul gives us a clue as to how we can sustain this lifestyle of shining in dark places without being corrupted by those places – he says “as you hold firmly to the word of life.”

Holding firmly, daily, to the word of God in everyday relationship with Christ is the only way one can live up to Paul’s big ask in the ‘therefore’ of this passage.

If, then, because, because, therefore.

If we consider ourselves to be Christian, then we should serve others humbly, thinking they’re better than us, because we follow Jesus who humbled himself for the sake of humanity, because of his obedience God exalted him, therefore, as his followers, we should go out into the world, uncorrupted, where we shine like stars as we hold firmly to the word of life.

We are made to stand out. But we are not made to stand out like superheros with dazzling powers and impressive toys. We are made to stand out in a very different way. We are made to stand out because we follow Christ who stood out in contrast to the expectations of his time. He communed with “sinners” with compassion instead of ostracising them with condemnation, instead of demanding ‘honour where honour is due[4],’ he honoured his disciples by washing their feet; he spoke truth without compromise while loving without prejudice. Humility, unity, integrity, love – these set apart a follower of Christ.

And so Paul exhorts the believers of Philippi to allow Christ to transform them from within so that their behaviour is a breath of fresh air to people who are used to hearing grumbling, used to disunity, used to being condemned. This exhortation likewise applies to us, the believers in today’s churches.

 

About the Author: Associate Professor Lily Arasaratnam-Smith is the Director of Research at Alphacrucis College.

[1] For a Biblical reading method, see Grey, N. (2008). Them, us & me: How the Old Testament speaks to people today. APSS Press.

[2] Cooley, C. H. (1902). Human nature and social order. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[3] Shaffer, L. S. (2005). From mirror self-recognition to looking-glass self: Exploring the justification hypothesis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61(1), 47-65.

[4] Romans 13: 7