Today’s epistle reading presents what’s known among theologians as the Kenosis, a Greek word that simply means an “emptying out” of something. It refers to verse 7 in Philippians 2, where Paul writes that Jesus “emptied Himself, taking on the form of a servant.” It emphasizes all that Jesus willingly surrendered, all that was rightfully His from eternity past to eternity future; yet, for this window of time in the Incarnation, He gave up all of that in obedience to the Father’s will and also of His own accord, all for the purpose of rescuing us from sin and death and opening the way to eternal life.
This passage from Philippians 2 is one that is specially loved by many of us, and that for very good reason. Paul may have been quoting from an early Christian hymn or creed, or it simply may be exalted Pauline prose that beautifully expresses things at the very core of our faith. There’s often a tendency to skip over the first few verses and to rush on to the verses referring to the servanthood of Christ and the imperative for us to “have this mind (or attitude) in ourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” But this morning I want us first to look closely at the introductory verses that give us a context for all that follows:
“Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (2:1,2).
Obviously Paul’s uses of “if” do not imply a hint of doubt or uncertainty, and they might better be translated as “since.” “Since there is:”
- Encouragement in Christ, or Christ-like encouragement,
- Consolation of love, or loving consolation,
- Fellowship of the Spirit, or spiritual fellowship, and
- Affection and compassion, or compassionate lovingkindness,
Backing up for a moment, look again at the 4 things in verse 1. First there is “encouragement in Christ.” The Greek word for “encouragement” is “paraklesis,” a word with the same root as the word that Jesus uses for the Holy Spirit in John’s Gospel. We usually translate it as “Comforter,” but it literally means “one who is called alongside to help.” Here in Philippians, Paul is starting his list with the idea that “in Christ” there is that same sense of having help, comfort and encouragement directly at one’s side. Jesus gives it to us by the Holy Spirit and also enables us to share it with others. This is why, after we say the confession, we hear the “comfortable words” of Jesus, “Come unto Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Then there’s the “consolation of love,” a phrase that again expresses the concept of comfort, a comfort that’s rooted in love. This is the only use of the word for “consolation” in the entire NT. I think it’s being used not only to reinforce the idea of comfort but also to locate this “loving consolation” firmly “in Christ,” as Paul sets up his admonition for us to have the “mind” or “attitude” of Christ Jesus. As John expressed it in I John 4:19, “We love because He first loved us.”
Next is “fellowship of spirit,” a phrase that could be translated as “spiritual fellowship.” Every one of us has attended social events that were superficially very successful but from which we went away with an empty feeling. Similarly, most of us have attended very modest gatherings of fellow believers from which we went away overflowing with a sense of having been fed with spiritual caviar or lobster or fillet mignon or avocado. That’s the spiritual fellowship to which Paul is referring here, and it’s one that we experience every Sunday evening in our gatherings as Grace Anglican Fellowship.
Finally Paul lumps together “affection” and “compassion.” These may be much more compelling words in Greek than they are in English. Doesn’t “affection” sound a bit flat? If Gayle says, “I love you,” it will hit me far more powerfully than if she were to say, “I have affection for you.” But the word might better be translated as “tender mercy,” as it’s one of the Greek words frequently used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word, “chesed,” God’s lovingkindness. It’s a word that Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, uses of God the Father in his song of praise, the Benedictus, when he speaks of “the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us” (Luke 1:78); Paul uses it of God the Son in Philippians 1:8, where he writes, “God is my witness, how I long for you all with the lovingkindness of Christ Jesus.”
Interestingly and very significantly Paul’s next word, translated “compassion,” is yet another word used in the Septuagint to translate “chesed.” In other words, Paul is deliberately jamming together two synonyms that mean “tender mercy” or “lovingkindness,” thereby driving his point home even by his use of a grammatical construction that creates an intentional and emphatic redundancy!
The identical juxtaposition of these two words in the Hebrew original and the Greek translation occurs twice in the Psalms: “Remember, O LORD, Your compassion and Your lovingkindnesses, for they have been from of old” (Psalm 25:6), and “You, O LORD, will not withhold Your compassion from me; Your lovingkindness and Your truth will continually preserve me” (Psalm 40:11). But even more significant is that Paul himself again combines both Greek words in his letter to the Colossians, where he writes, “So, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on compassionate lovingkindness, goodness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). The point is that the very words that appear throughout the OT to describe God’s covenant and redemptive love for His people Israel are used by Paul to describe how we as Christians should relate to each other in a Christ-like fashion. That’s a tall order, and Paul is about to tell us the only way that we can be enabled to do it.
There we have our backdrop for having the humble servant mind of Christ: we start out with Christ-like encouragement, loving consolation, spiritual fellowship and merciful lovingkindness. No wonder Paul says that his joy is made complete when his flock at Philippi moves on from this foundation to an additional 4 things: having the same mind, the same love, spiritual unity and again with redundant emphasis, being of one mind. If we exhibit all 4 of these things, we will indeed have the servant mind of Christ Who did nothing from selfishness or vain conceit, but humbly regarded others as more important than Himself. And, because He was the only One ever to do this perfectly, God has given Him the Name above every name, the Name at which every knee will bow and every tongue will make the confession, “Jesus is Lord.”
Now there’s a Pauline conclusion to all of this that’s intensely practical and characteristically challenging. And herein lies our takeaway this morning, our “so-what” factor, verses 12 and 13: “So then, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God Who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Here Paul is eliminating any ground for either spiritual complacency on the one hand or for spiritual arrogance on the other. We’re to be occupied with “working out” our salvation. That completely eliminates complacency. We may hold differing theological perspectives on precisely what it means to be working out our salvation; but, practically speaking, there’s no disputing Paul’s point that we need to be working, and doing so “with fear and trembling,” words that unambiguously mean exactly what we think they mean.
Work definitely is involved. Salvation itself is the free gift of God, “not of works lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9). We don’t have to work to achieve it. But as soon as we receive it, that’s when the work starts. And it continues right up to the time when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess the deity of Christ.
It might be a good idea to get those knees working right away as part of your preparatory work. But that would be no more than a starting point for doing all that Paul has in mind. This is where Paul in the immediately following verses takes off the gloves and challenges his Philippian believers and us to “prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Philippians 2:15, 16a). That’s what Paul means by working out your salvation. And it’s daunting!
We mentioned spiritual arrogance as well as complacency. The “fear and trembling” aspect of this work cures arrogance. And that’s not all. Verse 13 is the key to everything in this entire passage, and it chases away the slightest trace of arrogance. Are you proud of your Christian work and walk? Are you confident that you’ve done everything that God is requiring of you? Are you spiritually self-satisfied? If so, then you have not come to terms with verse 13, where Paul rightly says that “it is God Who is at work in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” We don’t even get credit for the willingness, much less for the execution. All the credit for the willing and the working goes right back to God.
Is that de-incentivizing for you? Then you don’t yet understand why our coming to this holy table is called a “Eucharist.” Eucharist is not just a Sunday morning activity: it’s a way of life. It’s our obedience as we follow the compelling example of Christ’s obedience, even to death on the Cross. It’s our work, but it’s done in God’s strength and entirely “to the glory of God the Father” (verse 11), just as are the bending of our knees and the confessing of our tongues.
And so here is our invitation to the Table: “Come, you thankful people, come.” Come with thankful hearts. Then, strengthened here by His abundant grace, go forth both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen