Thursday, February 2, 2017

Advantage: Unity!

How to Gain Unity’s Advantage

“Only conduct yourselves [as citizens] worthily of the gospel of Christ
so that, whether I come and see you or whether I am absent,

I may hear the things concerning you:

that you stand firm in one Spirit,

with one mind contending together for the faith of the gospel

 and not being frightened at anything

by the ones who are opposing—

which is a sign of destruction to them

but of salvation for you,

and this from God.

For it has been given to you on behalf of Christ

not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer on behalf of Him,

having the same struggle

which you saw with me and now hear to be with me.”

--Philippians 1:27-30


Without using the word Paul presents “unity” as the means to a great advantage.  The only thing he longs to next discover about the church in Philippi is that they face their opposition with a united front.  This will serve as a sign or indicator from God in two ways.  For the opponents, it portends their inevitable destruction.  But for the Christians who have joined arms and share the Spirit, this surely indicates their salvation.  In the context of conflict and opposition, a sign from God is an amazing advantage!
Social Advantage
To begin to comprehend the sociological advantage, imagine if one of us were arrested—say for refusing to bake a cake—and were therefore incarcerated.  Jail is a means of making one feel isolated, demeaned, and excluded—terrible experiences for a social creature.  You would understand this treatment against you to be representative of the whole society.  But imagine how you would feel if you received visits to your cell from every member of your church!  Every Christian in the county!  This is probably the sense of Heb. 13:3; we visit jailed Christians.  Now, the guards and wardens might reconsider their evaluation of you, the prisoner.  The press might take notice.  Society’s perception might well change, since you are obviously esteemed and valued by such a large number of people.  Their regard and relational investment in you would raise your value before the watching world.  Contrariwise, imagine your sensations if no one came.  Unity brings advantage.
This example is meaningful in the context of Philippians.  Paul was incarcerated on his initial evangelistic visit (Acts 16), and is back in jail as he writes (Phil. 1:30).  He gained advantage from Silas in the first stint, and from Epaphroditus (4:18) in the latter sentence.

Or again, consider the advantage felt especially early in the American Restoration.  Those who early braved estrangement from their denominational social groups suffered scorn and ostracism.  All they had was the Lord and one another, they being but small in number.  The denominations had established structure and swelling membership from which to offer acceptance and status.  And those leaving these groups found what?  A place among Barton Stone’s vilified ex-Presbyterians?  Dubious status in James O’Kelly’s “secession” from the Methodists?  Recognition as a Campbellite?  Such moves were from status to stigma, but what an advantage came when such outcasts banded together in Christian unity!  These stragglers became a movement and observers eventually joined in great numbers.  Advantage unity!

Or again, look at the phenomenal growth of the NT church across the social boundaries of many diverse cultures in the Greco-Roman world.  Success appeared highly unlikely for any calculating odds.  But Jew bonded to Gentile in Christ Jesus, and the resulting unity redrew the social map as Christianity became a conquering force.

Spiritual Advantage

Paul appreciates the social advantage of unity, but much more the theological gains.  He so appreciated the comfort brought by loving brothers and sisters while he wore the chains, but admits he didn’t even need these comforts (Phil. 4:10-14).  The spiritual advantage of unity was enough to fill his heart.  The nature of this advantage becomes apparent when we grasp the message of Philippians.

To begin, unity is the fruit of “walking worthily” (1:27).  I have added to the translation above the sense of “walking worthily [as citizens]” because the word chosen by Paul (the root of which forms our word “politics”) would have special connotations in a Roman colony like Philippi and among people privileged with Roman citizenship, as were the Philippians.  But he urges these Christians to walk worthily “of the gospel.”  I suspect many of us make the mistake (as I once did) of understanding this to mean conduct befitting careful morals, solid ethics, fervent religiosity (church attendance), and lovingly responsible relationships.  Not so, if we let context be our guide and follow the function of Paul’s words.  Of course, the sort of “worthy walking” that I am thus setting aside is plainly required of Christians.  None of these responsibilities are optional.  However, they are not what Paul is communicating here, and we miss the boat if we settle for an alternative meaning.


Think about it.  What does it mean to walk worthily of the “gospel”?  The gospel is the Cross-death of Jesus that led to glorious resurrection and exaltation—how, pray tell, does one walk worthily of that?  Well, again, everything suggested in the previous paragraph would not seem enough, would it?  The Scriptures as my witness, nothing suffices as a walk worthy of Jesus’ death that is short of a death of our own.  We answer His dying with a death of our own, or we fall far short of acting worthily!

Response to “gospel”

 Let’s establish this.  Since they were not Protestants and heirs of the Reformation pioneered by Luther and Calvin, Bible authors like Paul and Peter were not at all embarrassed to speak of “obeying the gospel”, as in 2 Thess. 1:8 and 1 Peter 4:17.  What, works of merit!  No.  Actually both Scriptures discuss those who fail to obey the gospel as beyond the scope of salvation.  The implication is that those who do “obey” the gospel are insiders to Christian salvation.  But again, what does it mean to “obey” the gospel?  What does it mean to “disobey”?

Let it be suggested that one obeys the gospel in exactly the same fashion as one walks worthily of it:  through his own responsive death!  When Jesus called disciples, He warned-off any who would not “take up their own crosses and follow [presumably to the place of death]” (cf. Mark 8:34 and parallels in other Gospels).  As He was to embrace crucifixion for them; so must each of us for Him!  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right:  “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  This spiritual death involving total sacrifice of self is not presented as a goal that a Christian attains after long, steady and incremental progress.  Jesus presents this in radical demand as prerequisite:  the walk of discipleship begins only after one accepts it.  As J. Paul Sampley (Walking Between the Times, p. 19) writes:  “Participation in Christ’s death is the beginning of the believer’s faith journey.” The New Covenant, in bare essence, is the agreement between Christ and the believer to share this death.  The resulting relationship brings salvation.

Now while the death of Jesus was physical and mortal, our responsive deaths are not necessarily so.  They may be so in all actuality, as when we obey the command to faithfulness in such a way that it brings martyrdom (Rev. 2:10).  That is one way to take up your cross and follow; one way to obey the gospel; one way to walk worthily of Christ Jesus!  But we find indicators that the “death” may actually leave us, in some sense, alive—strange as that may sound.  On one occasion, Jesus in Luke’s Gospel was heard to bid prospective disciples to take up their crosses “daily” (9:23).  That is impossible to do daily for mortals who have but one mortal life to give!  But daily dying is possible if we embrace the type set forth in 2 Cor. 5:14-15, NASB—“For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.”  We allow our “self”—in autonomy, independence, and self-determination—to die the death.  Then, when Christ enters us and takes over that area of control, we can declare as Paul did that it is no longer us who live. We have been crucified!  It is now Christ living in us (Gal. 2:20-21).  Although we still breathe and feel our hearts beating, we can say with Paul:  “I die daily” (1 Cor. 15:31).

Sounds like baptism!

It will be lost on none of my fellow heirs of Restorationist heritage that the ground we have thus staked out is overlapped by baptism in its full dimension.  Baptism is the immersion in water where death with Christ is deliberately taken.  Baptism is death; baptism is crucifixion.  It need be done just once, but dying comes daily thereafter.  We are conceptually on the same ground staked out by Paul in Romans 6!  We have been baptized into the death of Jesus, offering to God in that moment our own death to self and to sin.  We become “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1)—what a concept!  We are raised—with the water dripping off us—to newness of life.  And newness of life is meant in such a way as to answer the question that sets off the discussion of that incredible chapter:  “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?”  Our lives change so as to answer that question with the sharpest negative!  Having died with Christ in such a way that we are directed (in the power of the Holy Spirit) no longer by our “self” but by our new Lord, our lives take on sanctification and righteousness.  We are transformed daily.

Four models for unity in Philippians

Paul expressed everything written in the previous five paragraphs simply as “walking worthily of the Gospel.”  The meaning he intends has everything to do with the Cross and our response.  This may easily be shown to fit the flow of the Philippian letter as demonstrated by four models worthy of imitation.

Consider the people set forth as examples to the Christians who are called, in unity, to stand faithfully together against their opponents.  First example:  Paul presents himself as he struggled through his own personal dilemma—to die (and be with Jesus) or to remain alive (and stay with the brothers and sisters)?  He settled that deliberately by giving advantage to Philippi’s Christians!  Had he sought his own advantage, he would have died mortally and entered himself without delay into the presence of Christ Jesus (1:21ff.).  However, his actions are those of a man who has experienced a death of self in response to Jesus, enabling him to bring advantage to others in unity.  Second example:  Paul hopes to send Timothy, because while others think of their own interests and advantages, Timothy is genuinely concerned about others (2:19-22).  Again, a man walking worthily of Jesus’ dying brings advantage to others.  Third example:  there is their own congregational minister, Epaphroditus (2:25ff.; 4:18ff.).  He came close to mortality for the work of Christ, doubtless because having already died it was of no further concern! 

Paul, Timothy, Epaphroditus—all of them advantaged the unity in the church because they each died responsively to Jesus.  To the point, they actually were each imitating the supreme example of Jesus himself!  Jesus was a worthy model—to them and to us—because of His own dying.  When Jesus died, it meant setting aside His essential equality with God (a personal advantage), without which as a forfeit, He could not have advantaged others.  Reader, you ought break from this page and read Philippians 2:1-18 before resuming.

A “sign” with two opposite meanings

This brings us in to the sign, both of Christian salvation and of their opponents’ destruction—in each case a sign from God (1:28).  The Christians’ salvation is thus marked as with a sign or definite indicator because their walks correspond worthily to the Cross-death of Jesus.  This is the supreme fulfillment of the work of God.  But the opponents are just the opposite; they stand in contradistinction to those who carry their own crosses to follow Jesus.  In 3:18-19, after exhorting:  “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us”, Paul describes the opponents as “enemies of the Cross.”  Their orientation to Jesus and His Cross is adversarial rather than responsive—and this marks them with a clear indicator, a sign from God.  Their god is their “appetite”—devotion to selfish concerns that brings no advantage to others.  Their glory—rooted in self rather than in Christ Jesus—is really shame.  Their end is destruction—a death apart from Christ—in lieu of one that they could have shared with Him had they been responsive.  As I read it, these opponents were other members of the church at Philippi whom Paul described as “preaching Christ out of selfish ambition” (1:17) and “from envy and strife” (1:15).  So, the sign reveals the acceptance of death-with-Jesus (thus an indicator of salvation) or reveals the non-acceptance (an indicator of destruction).

Unity brings advantage!  But this is an advantage that may only be produced by Christians who die responsively with and for Jesus.  These dying-yet-alive Christians are walking worthily of the gospel.

Some Practical Applications

So, how can we gain the advantage of unity?  Let’s consider three ways to live this out.

First, a personal application.  Phil. 2:1-5 is a supremely beautiful exhortation which gains its power in the glorious model set forth by Jesus in the “Christ hymn” (2:6-11).  This is holy ground we are walking on.  Jesus set aside all the personal advantage that came with being God and with not being associated with sinful humanity.  Yet…He took His place among us, left all of that behind, took a slave’s status that left Him dead—nailed to a Cross.  Those who manage to take this in are exhorted:  “Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus” (v.5).

Let’s be plain about this:  if we do not respond to His Cross-work with a death of our own, we are outside of Christ and will have no advantage to bring to the unity of His people.  You determine whether your heart does or does not make this response.  This should have been the central feature of your conversion/baptism, which leads to the second application.

Second, an evangelistic application.  When I made my first attempts at evangelism, I did shoddy work.  I understood the requirements that we often memorize on five fingers—hear, believe, confess, repent, and be baptized.  I understood these to bring the ultimate prize—salvation!  All that is true, but I found out that it is possible to go through all of this with a new believer with hardly a mention of Jesus.  Without mention of what He did on the Cross, and why.  Without making it explicit that His death necessitates a death of our own (the gospel that saves actually contains two crosses!).   

Now when I present the gospel for obedience, I declare that the only acceptable response is dying with Jesus.  I give the convert space and time to fully consider and decide by urging them to “count the cost” as Jesus did (see Luke 14:25-33).  No one should be baptized short of this determination.  I do not press for baptism until this happens.

By the way, this presents a huge demand upon a convert, but in my experience it brings a great advantage to the evangelist and aids success.  A convert who is willing thus to die is not apt to quibble over things that easily become disagreements and break the deal:

·        Is baptism really necessary?

·        Do I really have to break off an immoral relationship?

·        Are you telling me I can no longer drink alcohol or take drugs?

Find a convert willing to die, and this all becomes much easier.  The reason is that the real engagement now is not between you and the convert, but between her and Jesus.  You (the evangelist) need no longer do any “arm twisting” because Jesus is now doing the heavy lifting—and isn’t that how things should be?

Third, an application for preaching.  A major element of preaching is moral exhortation, getting Christians to “shun the wrong and do the right.”  You may have noticed that to get Christians to say “no” to sin and “yes” to holiness requires more motivation than “because the Bible says so.”  People will not quit simply because you prove convincingly that it is sin.  It’s not until Jesus is lifted up before them on the Cross that hearts will bend and defer, and those in the audience who have already yielded to the gospel will make easy work for the preacher.  Now, all that’s required is a reminder that they have already died to such things!  The preacher simply queries how anyone beholding the Crucifixion could fall into temptation, could engage in sin, or could refuse the sacrifice called for in the pursuit of holiness?  As in evangelism, the minister is no longer the one responsible for undertaking the heavy work of motivation; Jesus has already done that!  If the Cross won’t work, nothing will.

In closing, we gain unity’s advantage by responding, one and all, to the Cross.