We spoke last week that believers in Jesus Christ have two lives. In Christ, we have an abundant life in this world as we follow Jesus’ and a second life awaits us in the spirit with God in heaven. Today, since we are here in this world, let’s speak a bit more about our life in Christ in this world.
When we accept Christ in the here and now, our identity becomes fixed to Christ’s identity. Our identity is so set by Christ that we openly carry the label, Christians. To be a Christian is to state that we are a follower of Christ. To be a Christian does not mean we are a Baptist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, or any other denomination of church. To be a Christian is a complete identity. When we say we are a Baptist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or Lutheran we are simply describing the setting in which we choose to practice the outworking of our identity in Christ.
So, if we accept Christ and the identity of being Christian in the here and now, what does that mean? How does our new identity in Christ expected to be seen by others? I think one of the best ways to see what it means to be a Christian is by looking through the lens of the Apostle Paul’s letters to the early church. Paul wrote his letter about 50 AD to 60 AD. The frame in which Paul wrote was simpler than today. For Paul, there were two groups of people: pagans and Jews. Gradually, coming from each of those two groups was an emerging group called the People of the Way or Christians. When Paul wrote his letters, there were no denominations of Christians. However, at the time of the emergence of the Christians, the Jews began persecuting the Christians for being Christians. Later, the pagans would become the chief persecutors of the Christians.
In the emergence of the Christians, under persecution, instruction was needed as to what it meant to identity as a Christian. We know from our own natural lives that for instructions to be effective, instructions must be simple, easily remembered, able to survive the test of time, and be applicable under all circumstances. Paul’s letters provided instruction to the emerging church. But Paul knew his instructions to church must not be his own. Paul knew his instructions needed to be of God because Jesus intended the Church to be the instrument of proclaiming God’s good news. And that good news, the gospel message of salvation, was to change the world. The latter point bears repeating. The Church founded by Jesus was intended to be an instrument through which God would share the salvation message and move the world to change. And so, Paul’s instruction to the Church about what it meant to identify as having a new life in Christ, needed to simple, easily remembered, survive the test of time, be applicable under all circumstances, and lead to changing the world. What was it then that Paul was moved to write about the identity of Christians?
Let’s start with Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Paul began his letter with these opening statements.
- 3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy.
- 9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
- 27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.
There are a couple of important points we need to make here. First, Paul was writing to other Christians. Paul’s letter is not for the world at large. Paul’s letter is a letter to a Church, and must be read in the context of the Church. Second, we see that Paul was joyful at the thought of Christians in the Church. It did not matter to Paul what city the people were in who formed the church. What mattered was the world was changing because the church existed. Third, Paul prayed for these people. Paul prayed for a deepening of their faith, of their understanding, and for a more bountiful harvest of the fruit, the product of their righteous behavior. Paul wanted these people to flourish. Finally, Paul prayed that whatever this collection of Christians did, that it would do so in a manner worthy of Jesus.
Paul’s letter was providing Christians that we should be joyful every time we see that Christians are gathered, whether that is expressed in the form of a new church or in the form of a worship service. Paul’s words mean that we should be celebrating not only what we do together as Christians, but we should also celebrate what other Christians are accomplishing, whether across the world or across the street. We should be joyfully praying for them.
In my devotional this week, I read an illustration that I want to adapt here. Almost all of us at some point in our life had a sports team, or individual involved in competition, or watched with anticipation an Olympic sporting event on television. We were rooting for someone or some team in those competitions. We wanted our team or person to win against the others. Perhaps in that event, someone from the other team or the opponent committed a foul, stepped over the line, or went out of bounds causing that team or individual to face a penalty or other added challenge. What did we do in response to their transgression? We cheered hurrah, of course. This is natural. We are excited to see our team prosper and be recognized for their hard work even if it meant we cheered a new hardship for the opposing team. Sometimes in the economy of church life, we forget to pray for the work of other churches and even sometimes we can have a bit of delight in the failings and struggles of another church.
But we must ask ourselves this, “Does God cheer when someone we know goes out of bounds and sins? Does God say “Hurrah” when another church struggles or stumbles along because of a misstep in their faithfulness?” I do not think so. I think God is grieved by sin and missteps by individuals or churches themselves. Paul was telling his friends in Philippi that he prayed for them always. He prayed for them in their success and in their stumbling. We should likewise be praying in joy for other Christians and churches whether they are enjoying a season of success or a season of distress.
Why should we pray in such a way? We should be joyful for ourselves and other Christians because the fact that Christians gather is a sign that the world is continuing to change for the better. Let me say that again. We should be joyful for ourselves and other Christians because the fact that Christians gather is a sign that the world is continuing to change for the better. Now in today’s chaotic and conflicted society, you might be inclined to think I have lost my mind to say that the world is getting better. My sanity or the state of the world would be a good topic of debate but not for today. Instead, what I want you to image is what the world would be like without Christians. If you think society is coarse and life is not worth what it should be worth today, can you imagine what this world would be like without the influence of Jesus through his people, the church? I shudder to think what life on earth would be like. Jesus changed the world and is continuing to do so through his church. Paul recognized what the church was accomplishing before his own eyes, and Paul was overjoyed.
From a posture of joy and prayer for Christians, Paul then imparted the much-needed guidance to all Christians about how to live out an identity with Christ. Paul said it in just a few words which we can sum up this way, “If you identify with Christ, if you are a Christian, then “adopt the same attitude as that of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:5a).
People who identify with Christ have a new life with Christ and therefore, Paul says, ought to have a new attitude in toward life. And the attitude of a Christian is not a mystery or tailored to be different from one Christian to the next. Paul said the attitude of all Christians for all times for all parts of the word, expressed in all languages and in all denominations should be the same attitude that Jesus Christ expressed.
Attitude refers to a set of emotions, beliefs, and behaviors toward a particular object, person, thing, or event. Paul said that Christian, the Church, must adopt the attitude of Jesus Christ. We think about that for a moment, and we think that makes sense. If my identity is tied to Jesus, then by attitude should come from him. We think, “Yeah, that makes sense…but wait, what is the attitude of Jesus Christ?” Paul would say, I am glad you asked.
Paul wrote, “5 Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. 7 Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8). Jesus’ attitude in a single word was one of humility.
Paul said Jesus expressed his humility first by emptying himself of status in heaven and taking on the likeness of humanity, becoming flesh and blood. So in heaven, Jesus humbled himself to become human. That was step one. On earth, Paul said, Jesus then expressed his humility by “assuming the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). So on earth, Jesus humbled himself to serve others. Jesus was and is God. He has absolute power over all there ever was, is and will be. And yet he humbled himself in heaven to become human and then as a human, he humbled himself on earth to become servant.
I was reading something the other day that made me think. It began with the proposition we have heard before, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This little proverbial saying, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” means that whenever a person has power over others, that power corrupts him or her. Power morally destroys a person’s nature and fills them with destructive pride. However, this was not true of Jesus. Jesus had absolute power and yet power never corrupted Jesus. Why was Jesus not corrupted by power? Perhaps it is because the proverbial saying should be, “Absolute power, removes the mask we wear, absolutely.” Meaning whenever a person has power over others, that power eventually removes any masks they wear revealing their true self. This proverb would be true for Jesus and all of humanity. The absolute power of Jesus Christ removed any mask any might claim Jesus wore and in doing so we discover Jesus is the same with or without any mask. Jesus was and is humble through and through. Jesus was and is slow to anger, abounding in love, bringing comfort and encouragement. This is what Paul meant by the attitude of Jesus. But we know that people, we have people in our life, that have power over others, and they like to appear kindhearted, generous, and benevolent. And yet, as they gain power the mask fails and drops, and we see a very different person. This is who we are as humans. This is the world.
Paul was saying we cannot wear the mask of being Christ, we must adopt the same through and through attitude of Christ. And the attitude of Christ is thoroughly humble. Now being humble does not mean we are to become a doormat to others or live like a monk or have a low sense of self-esteem. Paul gave descriptors to the humble nature of Christ in the opening of the second chapter of his letter. Let’s look at how Christ expressed humility.
In verse 2, Paul asked whether his readers had:
- Encouragement in Christ. The humility of Jesus was expressed as being an encourager of people. Jesus was available to people who were discouraged and lacking hope. He lifted people up and walked with them through their fears. We then to adopt the same attitude of Christ must be open to others and be encouragers.
- Consolation in [His] love. The humility of Jesus was expressed in loving others, particularly those who the society refused to love or respect. Jesus loved and elevated in this life women, children, Samaritans, Phoenicians, fishermen, and tax collectors all who of whom were outside the center of religious life. But more important than elevating them socially, Jesus loved them before God. We then to adopt the same attitude of Christ must love others and use our sense of love to elevate them. We must love others to lift them up before God. Love them by praying for them.
- Fellowship in the Spirit. Jesus expressed humility through fellowship. Jesus celebrated life and broke bread with his disciples, with friends, and even detractors. Jesus invested in the lives of others in intimate ways. We then to adopt the same attitude as Christ must be willing to be intimate with others. If we have a home, do we open it to be used for fellowship. If we do not have a home to receive people, do we walk with people or make an effort to include them into the fellowship of the church? Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). Having the same attitude as Christ is to draw people together in fellowship so that Christ is evident in the Spirit.
- Affection and Mercy. Jesus expressed humility through affection toward others and conveying mercy. Jesus called his disciples “friends,” a term of affection. In mercy, Jesus gave relief to others. We then to adopt the same attitude as Christ must be appropriately affectionate toward others not as a response to affection received but in advance of receiving affection. We need to become good enduring friends to each other and offer relief without asking.
In verse 3 and 4, Paul went further and told his readers that to adopt the same attitude as Christ meant, “3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. 4 Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Jesus’ concern was for others. The concern for others was the reason God sent Jesus. We then to adopt the same attitude as Christ must be concerned and act in the best interests of others.
Believers have the identity of Christ but must express that identity with the same attitude as Christ that is with through and through humility. Christ’s humility is expressed toward other believers with encouragement, love, and affection. It is a humility that offers fellowship and mercy as well as acts on behalf of one another. The attitude, the humility of Christ, expressed by Christians is a light into an otherwise dark world of self-centeredness. The humility of Christ did and will continue to change the world and Jesus invites each of us to be part of that exciting future. Amen and Amen.