A Sermon on Philippians 2:1-13 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 28 November 2021
Our Bible reading today is a truly wonderful passage of Scripture. Many people love the psalms. Many people love Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But I love Philippians chapter 2. I love it because what we find in it, is not just the gospel, the good news about Jesus, and not just the extraordinary benefits of the gospel, but also how the gospel and its extraordinary benefits should shape our lives.
In verses 6 to 11 the apostle Paul retells the key points of the gospel story. And the first key point is that the birth of Jesus was not the beginning of the eternal Son of God, but his new beginning when he took our flesh. For example, on the 28th August 1993 I was ordained as a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. It was the beginning of a new chapter for me, the start of a 28 year adventure that has brought me here today.
But it was by no means the first chapter of my life. I was born in 1965. Raised in the suburbs of Sydney, the middle of three children. Finished high school and university and theological college. I didn’t just come to life on the day I became a pastor.
In the same way, Christmas Day marks the beginning of a new chapter in Jesus’ life, the start of a more than 30 year adventure that led him from Bethlehem to Calvary. But it was not the first chapter in Jesus’ life. For as Paul affirms in Philippians chapter 2 verse 6, before Bethlehem, before the first Christmas Day, the Son of God existed in the very nature of God, and enjoyed equality with God.
John began his Gospel with a similar message.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Even the beginning of creation which the Father made through his Word was not the first chapter of the story of the Word who became flesh. Because “in the beginning”he already “was”.
What this means is that the birth of Jesus was not an accident. It was a choice, a decision, a calling to ministry, not just as genuine and valid as my own, but even more so. It was a calling and a ministry of which mine and yours and anyone’s are only poor copies. In the eternal plan of God, the Father sent his Son. And the Son, for his part, chose to obey.
For he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, something to be hoarded, something that he couldn’t live without and from which he did not wish to be parted. The Son of God did not hide in heaven, afraid to lose his privilege. His place as prince above the angels did not have to be pried out of his clenched fists. He was not dragged kicking and screaming into the world, like a boy forced by his mother to have a bath. He came willingly, shrugging off his royal robes to put on the work clothes of our humanity. He made himself nothing. He took the very nature of a servant. He was made in human likeness. I did not choose to be born. You did not choose to be born either. But the Son of God did and lived among us as Jesus of Nazareth.
But wait, there’s more.
The second key point of the gospel is that not content to live as one of us, Jesus humbled himself further. He became obedient. And was baptised by John in the Jordan river, standing in the same line as sinners. He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness and was tested by the evil one. He announced the coming kingdom of God, going from town to town and village to village, teaching the crowds, healing the sick, enduring the angry accusations of the rulers and authorities. He did not run and hide, but he turned his face towards Jerusalem where he was arrested and put on trial and found guilty.
He became obedient to death, even death on a cross.
At one word twelve legions of angels could have come to his rescue. Instead, he said,
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
The third key point of the gospel is that just as his birth at Bethlehem was not the beginning of the first chapter of his life, so his death at Calvary was not the last page of his last chapter. As the only human being who ever practiced what he preached, Jesus was raised to life and exalted to the right hand of the Father in heaven. So that when we give an account of our lives, and every secret we have hidden is exposed, and the standard of judgment that we have used on others is applied to us, our judge will bear the scars of the nails in his hands. At his name we will bow our knee and every single living person will confess with their lips the truth of the gospel that Jesus Christ is Lord.
The eternal, obedient, humble, exalted Jesus is the king who rules all kings and queens. This gospel, this good news that we believe that we confess, that we sing about, that we live for, will on that day be shown to be publically and undeniably true. Jesus is not just a good man. He is not just our helper, our Saviour. But he is our maker, our master, our example, our message and our Lord.
Verse 1 then describes some of the wonderful benefits of the gospel. At its heart the gospel is good news. It is good news about Jesus. But it would also not be good news if it were not also good news for us. And so Paul writes,
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion …
Four times Paul uses the word “if”. But he is not using the “if” to raise any doubts about whether his friends in Philippi have these things. I know that sometimes we use the word that way. For example, I might say, “If it rains this afternoon, I’ll have to dry the washing in the drier.” I’m not saying it will rain or it won’t. With the weather the way it has been lately, I’m not at all confident about making predictions. All I am saying is that I have certain plans in case it rains.
But sometimes we use “if” very differently. I might say to a friend, “If I have ever done you a favour, then please do this one thing for me.” I might need to borrow his car or stay over at his place for a night. Now I am not casting doubt on whether I’ve ever done him a favour. In fact, that’s what friends do. We help each other and one good turn deserves another. What I am doing, is basing my appeal for help on the fact that I have done favours for him in the past. In this case, “if” almost means “because” or “since”. It introduces the condition on which I base my plea.
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ …
And this is what we have in Jesus. Encouragement. It is the assurance of God’s love. Because only love can explain what Jesus has done for us. He lived among us for us. He died for us. He lives in heaven for us. Because he cares about us and about what happens to us so that the Father’s purpose of life and joy in making us may be fulfilled for us.
When so much news is discouraging and gets us down, God’s love for us in Jesus reminds us why we live and what we live for. It is pure, undiluted, 100% genuine encouragement, that awakens us from the nightmare of sin and death to a life of hope and purpose and fulfilment.
We also have comfort. Because life is full of disappointments and the life of discipleship, of following Jesus, is not easy. And the longer we live, the more we lose and every loss brings us grief. So that just as much as life is full of joy, it is also full of tears. But there is comfort in Jesus. For we know that he has won every victory. And when he comes to bring in the kingdom of God in all its fullness, he will wipe away every tear. And we will be comforted because pain and sadness are temporary but peace and joy are eternal. And so even in the midst of our sorrows we endure them in hope and we find true and lasting comfort.
And there is fellowship with the Spirit. For in Jesus and by the Spirit we are united to God and united to each other. In the presence of the Spirit we share the life of God and in our love for each other we share each other’s life. We share our time, our belongings, our gifts. We belong to God and we belong to each other and have real community, not based on worldly pursuits or hobbies or accidents of birth and location, but based on our common experience of salvation and our common mission of sharing the gospel. For we are members of the same family, children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ.
And we have tenderness and compassion. For God, whom we have offended by our many sins, overlooks our faults and wipes away the record of our misdeeds, because he knows how weak and fragile we are. He forgives us, not wanting sin and hell to claim us, but wanting us for himself. He knows what we need and he listens to us. He is kind to us like a father. Like a father can be and should be, God is. And we are safe in him and nothing can snatch us out of his hand.
Of course, these are not all the benefits of the gospel. But they were the ones on Paul’s mind as he wrote chapter 2. And they are more than enough for today.
This gospel, this good news about Jesus and the amazing benefits that we have through him, then shape our lives. Paul wrote, if these things are true, and they are, if all these wonderful benefits are yours,
then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interest of others.
The gospel in a nutshell is that it is not about you. It is for you. But it is not about you. It is about God rescuing his creation in order to fulfil his original purpose. It is about Jesus fulfilling that purpose in his life and death and new life. This wonderful message frees us from the responsibility of clawing and grasping for everything that we can get in life. It frees us from the lie that life is a competition and that if you are winning then I must be losing, and that I can only win at your expense. It frees us from the empty, hopeless, lonely life of selfishness and it opens our hearts and minds to welcome others into our life. We can stop climbing over each other up the greasy pole and instead, help each other up. For if the gospel is about God’s victory over everything that obstructs his purpose, then he wins, and if he wins, we all win, so that if you win, I win too.
So that the gospel shapes us as individuals, and it shapes us as members of the church community and so it shapes us as a church. So that in this fellowship of Christ, there is unity, and humility, and mutual love. It doesn’t mean we stop being ambitious, but it does mean that our ambitions and goals and values are transformed. So that we are ambitious to out-do each other in love and to pursue the goals that achieve our mutual benefit.
When a new drug is being developed, it might first be tested on animals. But before it is released to the wider community, it must be first tested on a sample of human beings. They are willing subjects. They might have the disease that the new drug is trying to cure and nothing else is working so they might as well volunteer for the human trial.
The kingdom of God is coming. Jesus is coming to claim the victory that he won over sin and death on the cross. The whole universe will sing and dance in harmony with the will of its creator. And we will sit down at the banquet of God in celebration of his power and love. But in the meantime that kingdom and its values and all it stands for are being tested on a sample of human beings. They are willing subjects, because they have seen the great harm that their selfishness and pride has caused and they are willing to do anything they have to make peace with their creator.
The church and its members are those willing test subjects and the world is waiting for the results, to see the values and blessings of the future kingdom seen in us. As Jesus said,
The world will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.
Let me finish up with Paul’s own words in Philippians chapter 2, one of my favourite passages of the Bible, in verse 5.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.
Today we’ve been talking about the gospel. We’ve been talking about the amazing benefits of the gospel for us. And how those benefits should shape our lives. It is nothing less than that the life of Jesus, his mind, his heart, his attitude, may be found in us.