Reading: Philippians 3:17-4:1
Overview: In the reading today Paul talks about citizenship. Earlier in chapter 3 and in other epistles he shares the complexities of his many identities. Paul was a Jew, a Pharisee and a Roman citizen. He values these identities. But he finds a new one IN CHRIST.
There is a great story of a wealthy businessman who went tramping and got lost. While making his way through the thick growth of the forest he came across a local man who was quite protective of his patch. The local man called out to him: “who are you and where are you going?”. After getting help from this man, and reaching the end of the clearing he said, “would you like to come and live in the city?” The man replied – “no thanks I’m fine here. In any case how would I live there? I have no work.” The wealthy man replied: “I’ll give you a job. I’ll put you in an office next to mine.” The local was surprised at that. “What would I do there?” he asked.
“Every day” said the wealthy man “your job will be to come into my office and ask me that question: ‘who are you, and where are you going?’”
It’s a great question. It’s about identity and it’s about destiny.
In our reading today we see the shaping of Paul’s new identity. The Christian identity is firstly:
- A CLEAR IDENTITY
Who are you? asks the woodsman, the local in the story. It helps to be sure. Certain.
The Christian identity is described in a number of foundational ways including the new birth (John 3) and adoption by God as children (Romans 815; Ephesians 1:5). A key one is this:
- 2 Cor 5:17: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
- Rom_8:1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,
It’s a significant term because “in Christ” we participate in his act of salvation. We die with him (he dies in our place) and we are raised with him (the same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead dwells in us).
With this in mind, let’s look at what Paul writes in the first verse of our reading from Philippians today:
Php 3:17 Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.
If we are copy or imitate Paul’s example here as he suggests, everything else becomes secondary to this one thing of being “in Christ” and of knowing this Jesus.
“in Christ” we find ourselves safe too in our Christian identity.
Paul’s other identities are surrendered to this single identity as a Christian. We see this as we read earlier in chapter 3: Php 3:7 “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” Includes his Jewish pedigree. And then there’s the next verse: Php 3:8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ
The Philippian context us useful here. The people who lived in Philippi were Roman citizens. They valued that but did not want to go back to Rome. They stayed in the colony called Philippi -and wanted it to be like Rome. They liked the security and stability, the infrastructure etc. There were SAFE in Caesar’s province. He was in charge of their world and they were safe in that knowledge.
But now the Philippians were becoming believers. Just as the peace of Rome and its privileges extended to the Roman citizens in Philippi (many of whom were the equivalent of today’s army veterans) God’s Kingdom on earth is the peace – the shalom of God on earth lining us up with the perfection of heaven.
This is supported by the Lord’s prayer where this realignment is reflected in the key part of the prayer: Mat 6:9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, Mat 6:10 your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Paul’s new and clear Christian identity is such an all-consuming thing that he describes it like this: We are in Christ, and Christ is in us (Colossians 1:27).
So to summarise: Heaven sends Christ – Christ calls us and commissions us to work on his behalf. We are as his body an extension of Jesus who ushered in the Kingdom. It happens through us when we are in him and he in us as the will of God becomes a reality on earth. Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 5 where we are “in Christ” and therefore a new creation we are also called his “ambassadors.”
All of this is part of our identity.
We know who we are and where we are going. Our identity and our destiny.
- A CLEAR DESTINY
It’s clear from the whole of his letter to the Philippians that Paul had a passion for doing Jesus’ will on earth AND a desire to be with the Lord.
After writing that for Him to live was Christ and to die gain, he has more to say. Look at the whole passage:
Php 1:21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Php 1:22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! Php 1:23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; Php 1:24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
Also remember what he says in 2 Corinthians 5: 2Co 5:6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 2Co 5:7 We live by faith, not by sight. 2Co 5:8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
Clearly Paul understands his identity and his ultimate destiny. In fact there is a tension between the present and the better future to come in all these passages. There is a longing for what is better.
But it is dangerous to have our priorities reversed. When Paul admonishes those who don’t follow his example, he is quite concerned about this failure. If we return to Philippians 3 we read:
Php 3:18 For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.
Php 3:19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.
He shares this often and with tears, mourning the fact that these people are missing the boat as it were. Instead of a longing for a better destiny, seeking God’s kingdom, being ambassadors of this new creation in Christ, some of his readers are like this:
- They are enemies of the cross of Christ.
- Their god is the stomach, or their belly
- Their glory is in their shame (GNB …proud of what they should be ashamed of)
- Their mind is on earthly (or worldly) things.
The description Paul gives here is that of pagan behaviour focusing on physical pleasure and appetites. This is a warning to the Philippians of the day and to us that our lives should not be conditioned by the world of the senses. These are people who seem self obsessed and whose priorities are inverted.
More than that, to live as an “enemy of the cross” is to deny God’s sacrificial way of rescuing his people. The cross involves self-denial as Philippians 2 reminds us. We too should be like Jesus who gives up power. Terror and violence and the use of power to prove a point is the exact opposite of jesus’ way.
The consequence of living like this is clear in verse 19:
Php 3:19 Their destiny is destruction
It’s a sober warning. But for those who don’t go that route, there are great benefits.
They have a clear identity and a clear destiny.
And we like them live in this in-between time and state where we shouldn’t want to escape the world because we are called to be ambassadors in it, extending his will and his Kingdom.
Our destiny does of course includes the certain hope of eternal life.
- A CERTAIN DESTINY (A CERTAIN HOPE ON EARTH AND IN “HEAVEN”)
Returning to the passage in Philippians 3 we read: Php 3:20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, Php 3:21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
This is not an escapist approach wanting to get to heaven ASAP. For now, we pray and act to bring God’s Kingdom into reality on earth. With the hope of the future in mind – the hope of the new heaven and new earth – the recreation of all things, we work NOW to bring God’s love to bear on the world.
As we do this it follows naturally that we have a solidarity and bond with our earthly citizens like the people of those mosques in Christchurch who were so tragically gunned down this week – not only because we abhor violence and hatred, but because love and compassion are essential to our Christian DNA. They are signs of God’s Kingdom coming on earth. And the Christian community is and was from its inception a multinational family, which goes against views that make any particularly ethnicity better than another. I love it that the followers of jesus were first called Christians in the very multi-ethnic church in Antioch (Acts 13:1).
(See previous post on bbpsermons about the Chistchurch shootings on 15 February 2019) https://bbpsermons.wordpress.com/2019/03/16/reflections-on-the-christchurch-shootings-15-february-2019/?fbclid=IwAR2ig1yzAF4So7eQdKSTkV788sMiPI6vo9no03T04-C2VRSx6QJzjSI0Eno
In fact being the body of Christ – his hands and feet and voice who are his ambassadors urging people to be reconciled with God, we show compassion and care as an expression of his Kingdom and God’s character seen in Jesus and duplicated in us as his followers. After all Jesus’ new commandment is this: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:34).
But what about this heavenly citizenship? What do we make of this? Is Paul wanting to get out of here to a better place? A kind of Christian “beam me up Scotty” if you remember the Star Trek transporter.
No – he is IN CHRIST. His desire is also to be WITH THE LORD fully. Remember: Php 1:23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; Php 1:24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
He recognises that he is needed for ministry to them and others.
In the meantime – like us – he is Heaven’s citizen living on earth. The only really important dual citizenship.
He is like the Roman colonists in Philippi who remain Roman citizens but stay in the colony rather than going back to Rome.
And so are we. We are like colonials from heaven.
So he can declare: But our citizenship is in heaven
And I love the promise of what that means that follows in these verses
And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, Php 3:21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
What a glorious day it will be! For the frail, the infirm, the amputee and the disabled. More than that, it will be glorious for the able-bodied too. I am so looking forward to my body being transformed! And being with the Lord.
In the meantime, we are citizens of heaven representing the Kingdom coming on earth. There is much work to be done:
Showing compassion in the face of terror and tragic deaths, modelling Jesus’ way by imitating Paul as he imitates Christ; praying that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and modelling his will and way of life for others to witness.
This is our identity and our destiny.
As a lovely end to this passage, Phil 4:1 records why Paul tells them these things: – they need this certainty to stand firm in difficult times:
Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!
Our identity and destiny certainly keep us steady in troubled times too.
Readings: Acts 11:19-26, Acts 13:1-3; Galatians 2:11-21
I once went to two mental asylums in one day. No – I was not looking for a bed or room. I was completing a Masters in Pastoral Counselling and Psychology, and it made sense to visit the places where people were locked away for their safety and ours. There were all kinds of people who thought they were prime ministers or famous heroes – one lady claimed to be Margaret Thatcher.
Which reminds me of the story of Margaret Thatcher visiting a retirement home – and introducing herself as the British Prime Minister. Thatcher spoke to one of the inmates and asked him: “do you know who I am?” The patient replied: “No, dear, but I should ask the nurse if I were you. She usually knows.”
I don’t think any of us really would know what it must be like to learn again from scratch who you are – say after an accident where you lose your memory. Amnesia is the word.
These lines from Paul’s letter to the Galatians are actually quite difficult to understand – precisely because they involve losing one identity and gaining another.
Refugees have to work on that don’t they – and oh my there are a lot of them trying to get to new countries at the moment. (Just by the way, Saturday was international refugees’ day – and the numbers are higher than they have ever been.) Emigrants also have to find a new identity. This many of us know.
Paul’s conflict in this letter is not just about other missionaries with a different point of view. Or a different interpretation of the gospel. It’s about fundamental Christian identity – who you are in the Messiah Jesus.
Paul’s conflict with Peter is over the same issue – and his conflict with the churches in Galatia.
Peter had had a vision – if you remember – a sheet coming down from heaven loaded with forbidden un-kosher food. He was convinced about the need to break out of that Jewish mould. He associated with gentiles and ate with them.
But here he changes his tune – and refuses to eat with non-Jews.
In short, Paul accused Peter of hypocrisy. The word means wearing a mask. And much to Paul’s horror, his partner Barnabus, known as the son of encouragement, went along with this. For some reason they were concerned about what the Jewish contingency would think about eating with non-Jews.
The point is – the church in Antioch we read about in Acts 11 and 13 – where Paul and Barnabus were sent out from – was a multicultural church, and they certainly weren’t all Jewish. This was where the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). The moment you identify with this label – and call yourself a Christian – your identity shifts from being a Torah-keeping Jew or a “Gentile sinner” excluded from God’s family – into the family of the New Covenant – your identity is in the Messiah Jesus.
We used to sing a song years back about this shift. “It’s no longer I that liveth – but Christ that liveth in me.” (Galatians 2:20 from the KJV).
I’m not sure that I understood back then. The key verse is Galatians 2:20, which lines up exactly with Paul’s teaching on baptism in Romans 6.
Gal 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. He goes on to say: Gal 2:21- I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
If we have died to our old selves, then our new identity is “in Christ”. In fact that phrase “in Christ” is key to all of this. Listen to Paul elsewhere:
- Rom 8:1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus
- Rom 16:7 Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.
- 1Co 1:30 It is because of him (God) that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
And probably my favourite:
- 2Co 5:17 – Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
Those who are “in Christ” – Christians – are part of a new fellowship, a new covenant and a new family.
Tom Wright reminds us that the identity marker for Jews was circumcision. The identity marker for Christians is faith. He continues:
And if we are ‘in’ the crucified Jesus, that means that our previous identities are irrelevant. They are to be forgotten. We are no longer defined by possession of the law, or by its detailed requirements that set Jew over against Gentile. ‘I died to the law, that I might live to God.’ We must now learn who we are in a whole new way. Who then are we? We are the Messiah’s people, with his life now at work in us. And, since the central thing about him is his loving faithfulness, the central thing about us, the only thing in fact that defines us, is our own loving faithfulness, the glad response of faith to the God who has sent his son to die for us. This is the very heart of Christian identity. Wright, Tom (2002-03-22). Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians (New Testament for Everyone) (p. 26). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
And one of the sure signs of being together in this New Covenant is to eat together. Tom Wright put it this way: To have separate tables within the church is to spurn the generous love of the Messiah. One of the marks of Jesus’ public career was open table-fellowship. God intends it to be a mark of Jesus’ people from that day to this. Wright, Tom (p. 27).
Communion is one of the special meals with profound significance. Every meal together is an intimate sharing amongst those who are family in Christ. And like the church in Antioch – our background is irrelevant!
It’s a new identity that comes with being rescued from the evil age which we spoke about two weeks back: Gal 1:3 “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, Gal 1:4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age …” reaches a climax in Galatians 2:20 – “And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Kingdom New Testament).