Philippians 2: 1 – 3: 21.
Life’s lessons are ideally learnt when it is facilitated through observation of a behavioural model before us, with its outcome clearly delineated for our appraisal. In the Epistle to the Philippians, like in many of his Epistles, the Apostle Paul purposefully singled out exemplars of Christian maturity. Here, apart from his own testimony, two others were included, Timothy and Epaphroditus, to illustrate what Christlikeness denoted (1Cor11:1; Eph 2:10; Eph 4:22-24). They are, firstly, individuals who are genuinely interested and concerned for another’s welfare, in priority to their own (Phil 2:19-21). Their other-centredness is enduringly pronounced, both conversationally and behaviourally, as they seek to see Christ formed in individual lives. Their profundity of this benevolent attitude mirrors that of Christ Himself, referred to earlier by Paul (Phil 2:5-8): “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men….. He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:5-8).
Secondly, their maturity in the faith had been tested in a variety of circumstances, and they had proved themselves commendable. Timothy, handpicked by Paul, who had mentored him and seen him through thick-and-thin, was sent to the Philippian congregation, implying a level of trust that the Apostle had in his competence to handle sensitive church administrative and disciplinary matters in his place, despite his youthfulness (Phil 2:22-24). Epaphroditus was the Philippian church’s messenger sent to minister to Paul, at that time, imprisoned in Rome. He proved himself useful to Paul as “a brother in Christ, a fellow worker and fellow soldier.” At some unspecified point, he had been gravely ill, at the point of death, but recovered miraculously. In his sickness, Epaphroditus was more concerned about church members at home unduly worrying about him than about his own predicament (Phil 2:25-26). We also note Paul’s empathy and caring concern over his team members, to the extent of his confessed unpacified sorrow if Epaphroditus were to perish (Phil 2:27-30). The Apostle’s leadership was characterized by serving others in humility and without expectation of earthly rewards, exemplifying a level of spiritual maturity in following Christ, notwithstanding the many life-threatening duress and stress he endured (c.f., 2Cor 11:23-33). Paul was not unmindful of his own heritage, learning and journey as a Jewish scholar and an elite member of his community, but having met the Lord in a vision at the Damascus Gate (Acts 9:1-19), he concluded that they could never replace the surpassing value of knowing Christ (c.f., 2Cor 5:21). Their persistent testimony was to know the sufficiency of Christ in the exercise of their faith and an appreciation of righteousness that was derived from God (Phil 3:1-9). Although the significance of their personal sacrificial losses was tangible and material, usually enduring much suffering, they persevered patiently. Paul summarised it aptly, he considered every earthly advantage as ‘rubbish’ in order to gain Christ as a mark of Christian maturity.
And finally, they aspired to know God better as they look forward in life, irrespective of the adverse conditions they were or had been experiencing (Phil 2:10-16). Like Paul, they do not consider themselves as having achieved conclusively the goal of spiritual growth this side of heaven, but they pressed on undeterred, in step with the Holy Spirit, not allowing themselves to be stagnated by issues as they sought to allow Christ to live His life through them. Their penchant for God is infectious because of the reality of their faith and humility in service. The gospel they emulated did not only focus on the message of salvation but articulated a whole new way of life in Christ, as they fully embraced its life-giving message (Phil 2:17-21). It seems apparent that due to their unalterable heavenly citizenship, their eschatological outlook (viz., their eager expectation of Christ’s second coming during their lifetime – perhaps akin to a bride waiting for her bridegroom’s appearance) impacted the way they lived their life. The emphasis, as Paul practically stated, is living life fully in the here and now, in this world, with their motivation focused on Christ-like values (c.f., Phil 2:1-7). May we learn to emulate these historical giants of our Biblical faith, including others in our respective church community who are models of Christlikeness.