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Imitating the Incarnation


This is the way God works: in a setting clouded with shadows and selfishness, the light shines…in God’s world and yours!
It is more than coincidental that one of the important biblical passages on the coming of Christ into the world was written because of a squabble between two women in a church. The incident which prompted Paul to write the well-known verses in Philippians 2:1-8 was a hostile rivalry that started as a private matter but soon affected an entire congregation. The church in Philippi was taking sides behind two contentious women. Pride and stubbornness kept the women–Euodia and Syntyche (Philippians 4:2)–from resolving their problems.
It is contrary to the deepest spirit of Christianity to try to eclipse and put down other Christians. But it seems to be the favorite indoor sport of too many people to try to gain the ascendancy over their fellow believers. How should a pastor of a church tackle the problem? Ignore it? Put the two people out of the church? Call them before the deacons?
Paul dealt with the matter by mail and left a record for the entire Christian church throughout the ages to read. Paul’s answer to the problem was that right thought patterns can free believers from rivalry and infighting. He showed that Jesus Christ, in His coming from heaven to earth as an infant, leaves us a striking example for selfless living: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (verse 2:5 NASB).
Appeal for Unity
But before Paul describes the humility of Christ in His incarnation, he makes an appeal for unity among the believers in the Philippian church. There is a difference between union and unity. Merger of religious bodies means union, but it does not guarantee unity. You might tie two cats together by the tails and hang them over a clothesline, but their union does not mean unity!
Paul lists four incentives for spiritual unity in the church (2:1). These four great facts form the basis of a matchless fellowship.
The first incentive is our status in Christ before God: “since there is encouragement in Christ.” We are joint participants in all that Christ is and has. His status as a Son of God gives us believers in Him the status as sons of God. This first incentive for unity is a vital and spiritual kinship, not just a common label.
The second springs from love: “since there is any consolation of love” (or since there is consolation in being loved). We are wanted, God loves us. Quarrelsome people who have alienated their friends should remember that God loves them, and that since God loves them, they should strive for spiritual unity in their church.
“Since theirs is fellowship of the Spirit” is the third incentive. There is unity among believers who are in tune with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will not be party to any shady deal. Our fellowship with the Holy Spirit is proved by our fellowship with others in whom the Spirit dwells.
The final incentive comes from an appeal to our humanity. It is inhuman to be unkind. This appeal is apart from any divine considerations. The mention of “affection and sympathy” refers to viscera, the seat of compassion. “Do you have a heart? If so, listen to me,” says Paul. Jesus Christ can make a cruel, coarse, uncouth person considerate and gracious. Christ’s compassion will not allow a Christian to retaliate. The recipient of compassion should be able to give compassion.
Because these four facts form the basis of a spiritual unity in a church, Paul can say, “Complete my joy by being of the same mind” (2:2). Christians will not see eye-to-eye on all points. We have different personalities, educations, backgrounds, IQs. To be of “the same mind” does not mean to agree completely on everything, but to hold to the same four bases of spiritual fellowship in verse 1.
Euodia and Syntyche were at each other’s jugular vein. It was not so important that they hold to the same views as it was that their attitude toward each other be grounded in God. The proper attitude is described as “having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). These phrases describe two souls in perfect harmony. The church is a choir and should have symphony of soul. There should be accord, not discord.
Negative Attitudes
Now Paul turns to two bad attitudes: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit.” Selfishness literally means assertiveness. The selfish person is out for Number One. He promotes his own cause. He follows the law of the jungle–every man for himself. He knocks others down to get his own way. He pushes his own cause and cares little for others. An acid test of Christian love is to help those who can be of no service to you. When it comes to helping others, some people will stop at nothing!
The second sin is conceit. Empty conceit is vain glory, making ourselves out to be something we are not. It is personal pride as opposed to making God’s attributes manifest in your life. It is selfish ambition driving us to force an inflated ego image on others.
These two sins were destroying a unity of mind in the Philippian church. As a solution to this sin problem, Paul writes, “But with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (2:3b-4 NAS). The antidote to the sins of selfishness and conceit is a right mind attitude. Our thought pattern should have its perspective in the person of Christ.
Humility of mind does not mean that one becomes a Uriah Heep. It does not mean that we try to fool ourselves by thinking that we are something less than we actually are. A humble-minded person realizes that everything he has and is is from God. God, therefore, gets the credit. God is not asking us to believe that all other Christians have more intelligence and ability than we do.
Imitating the Incarnation
At this point we turn to one of the greatest Christmas passages in the Bible (Philippians 2:5-8). There is a definite connection between what we have just read and these next verses.
Jesus Christ is introduced as the exemplary illustration of the sort of mind we are to assume in our interpersonal relationships. The apostle John wrote in his Gospel that “the Word was made flesh,” and in his first epistle he said “the life was made manifest and we saw it.” Paul said it in another way: Christ “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant.”
In eternity past, Christ was Jehovah God, possessing and exercising all the attributes of Deity that we ascribe to God the Father. At the incarnation, Christ gave us His environment of glory to be born in a stable. He temporarily stripped Himself of the insignia of majesty to become a servant. The role of servant was not forced upon Him; Jesus deliberately appropriated servanthood, not only to serve His Father, but to serve man. “But I am among you as one who serves,” He told His disciples (Luke 22:7).
The incarnation is an illustration of the humility Paul encouraged the Philippians to assume. God Almighty became a man! God set aside the independent exercise of His attributes and stepped into a man’s body to die. Moreover, He died the death of a criminal–a punishment dispensed by Romans only to the condemned, a death undeserved by the perfect sinless God-man. Jesus was not merely concerned with His own interests. He had time for others. The sovereign Son of God had the right to expect the worship and praise of the human race. But He couldn’t have been more insulted and rejected than He was–”even the death of the cross.”
This is the thought pattern which should characterize believers. Is there someone with whom you are at odds? When your hurts exceed the insults of Christ, then possibly you have the right to retaliate. Until then, we are to have His attitudes. We are to look at the world as He viewed it. His love for others carried Him from the heights of heaven to the depths of death. The eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere-present, sovereign, living and just God gave us the perfect example of humility when He submitted to becoming a man, a servant, a sacrifice.
G. Fred Bergen, director of the orphan homes founded by George Muller, knew something of the example of Christ when he said, “Tell my younger brethren that they may be too big for God to use them, but they cannot be too small.”
Our celebration of Christmas is not complete until we assume the thought pattern that made Christmas possible. A habit of thought does not come from crowding Christ into one day of the year. Someone has said, “I wish we could put the Christmas spirit into jars and open a jar every month.” With the mind of Christ possessing Christians, it is possible to open a jar every day and every hour. What a graphic illustration of humility Christ gives us! Does this attitude characterize your relationships with others? If we have not received this renewed mind from our Savior, it certainly won’t be found under a Christmas tree.