Religion causes war. No that is not a quote! Religion causes war. It is and always will divide people and is often the cause of much fighting, arguing and humans destroying one another. As you look round the world and back into history is there not so much evidence of that being true? Religion causes war.
Maybe you are surprised to hear someone say that in a church. Let me tell you why I believe that is true.
All religions (though they have many differences) basically involve people holding an exclusive set of beliefs that they think is the truth – which even includes atheists, who's belief just happens to be that there is no God. That has a tendency to lead to a view that I'm right and everyone else is wrong. And that sense of superiority can lead down a track where you end up oppressing or even killing those who are different from you because you think you are better than them. It’s not always the case, but it can be the case. And of course the same kind of attitude can even be shown to those from the same religion who differ from you in some way or other.
But Christianity is unique. It is the only religion that totally avoids that trap of looking down on others to the extent you may justify mistreating or even killing them. It is the only thing that has the power to create genuinely peaceful behaviour between human beings because it humbles us. It is totally unique because at its heart lies a man who is God dying on cross to save people who don't love him. It is totally unique in its power to transform men and women from arrogant, self-centred people into those who - like their God - are willing to give their lives for the good of others. We will see all that in our passage for tonight, which is Philippians 2:1-11. Please turn with me to page 1179 so we can look at that in more detail.
A quick setting of the scene, as we're jumping in at chapter 2 of the book. Philippians is a letter written by one of the first church leaders called Paul to a church he planted in a city called Philippi in the country now known as Greece. In the part we are looking at together he will tell them that fighting and division is inconsistent behaviour for those who are Christians because of the central teaching of our faith, which he reminds them about. It's an incredible passage and it is so appropriate to look at together as we are about to enter this new calendar year and exciting stage in our church life. It may well have been written 2000 years ago, but it was meant for our ears too, and God will speak to us through it tonight.
I'll be covering the passage under 2 headings and in case you'd like to know where we are heading or are taking notes on the blank page on the back of the service sheet let me tell you what they are :-
Point 1: A Christian church should be a united church (v1-4)
Point 2: Jesus's attitude of humility is to be our example (v5-11)
So, firstly, A Christian church should be a united church (v1-4)
So often in life who we are, what we do or what we believe dramatically effects the way we live. If it does not – and we act in a way that is inconsistent we are rightly accused of hypocrisy. For example, Nicole Kidman (who has the job of endorsing and promoting Chanel's no 5 perfume) was recently falsely accused by the Daily Telegraph of preferring and publicly using a rival perfume. It was a serious claim because, if it had been true (and I hasten to say it wasn’t – she got a lot of money from them in a court case!) it would not have been the behaviour you would expect from someone who promotes another brand – and a breach of her contract!
And similarly, I was talking to a friend of mine a couple of days ago who is very high up in the management of Sainsbury’s. He was driving to the party I happened to be at and the person who he was driving with wanted to stop somewhere and get something for the party, so they stopped at a Tescos. Of course he point blank refused to go into Tescos as a leading manager of Sainsburys. he would not go in. Not only did he not want to be seen with a Tescos bag, but he felt it was inconsistent for him to go and shop there.
Well the same is true of a Christian. If we believe in the teachings of Jesus that has a dramatic effect on the way we live and there is some behaviour that is consistent with our faith and there are some that are not. Our words and our behaviour and especially our attitudes need to be in harmony with the gospel. Look back just a little bit to chapter 1 and verse 27:-
27"Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ."
Paul wanted the Philippian church - and us – to live lives that are consistent with what we believe. If we do not, then we bring the gospel and Jesus Christ into disrepute. Someone I know is one of only two Christians in her work place. It causes her no end of frustration that the other Christian is well known throughout the office as a lazy, ambitious man who is perfectly happy to trample on the others in his office in his attempt to climb the career ladder. Everyone trys to stay out of his way. He is also known to be a church attender but his life does not explain what it means to be a Christian or point people towards the gospel message.
So what area of life does Paul concentrate on when he calls us to live in a 'manner worthy of the gospel of Christ'? He tells us that a Christian church should be a united church. V27 again:-
27"Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel 28without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you..."
What does it mean 'to stand firm in one spirit'? It means to stand together as one person in their faith. This does not mean we should all become clones of one another, but we are to be determined to cling onto the central truth of the gospel message which we came to believe in – and we are to guard against for example false teaching from within the church and pressure to change their beliefs from those outside the church who oppose us and our faith .
What does it mean
'to contend as one man for the faith of the gospel'?
It means to struggle together to tell others about Jesus and the gospel message that we have stood so firmly on. The image Paul probably had in his mind is a group of soldiers standing side by side and fighting together in a war as one unit. Although there were many Christians in Philippi they needed to work together as they stood up for the gospel against opposition. Then, as now, people do not want the influence of Jesus to change their lives or to change society and so they oppose him and the oppose his people. We should expect that suffering and I'm sure many of you here have, are or will facing that kind of opposition in our work, school/uni or families. To contend as one man will mean not shouldering that opposition on your own.
But whatever happens – whether we face opposition or not - Paul teaches that a Christian church should be a united church. We see that again in verse 1 and of chapter 2 as well. He says:
1"If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.”
Again we are to be united in our mind and attitude. We are to be united in our faith (that’s what he means by 'like-minded and 'having the same love') and we are to work together to share the good news with those who do not know it (that’s what he means by 'being one in spirit and purpose').
What are examples of those things? Well the obvious one is the way we as a church put on 9 carols by candlelight services is one great example of how we have worked together to get the gospel out to others. Another obvious one is the way we have together worked and given sacrificially of our money and time and friends to set-up the new church in Gateshead, which is just 3 weeks away from starting weekly meeting on the new church site. We also regularly pray and give money to and support those who have gone from this church with the aim of sharing the gospel with those who have never heard it across the globe (see boards at back of church if you'd like to know more about how you can do this). We are also united together as a church on what the central truths of the faith are – and have so far avoided, by God’s mercy, dividing over secondary or less important issues.
But we are not perfect and we must be on our guard. Paul wrote as he did to the Philippians either because they were fighting (and felt they needed to hear this) or because he knew they could in the future (and he wanted to protect them from it). The same is true of us.
What prevents that unity? We do, by our attitudes. Look at verses 3 and 4:-
3 "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others."
So we need to ask ourselves: how are we doing in this area of our life. Are we behaving in a way that is motivated by selfish ambition or vain conceit? When we are involved in a ministry area or in helping others do we do so because we want others to think well of us? I remember one man who had been married for many years confessing that he realised one day – to his horror – that he only ever bought flowers for his wife when he know they were going to have guests – Why? Because he wanted them to think highly of him, that he was a great husband even after 20 years of marriage. We may laugh, but do we do things like that?
Are we motivated by vain conceit or a feeling that you are better than others? Are the some things that we feel are below us? When I started work on the staff here one of my weekly roles was helping put together the service sheets for the meetings each Sunday. One well meaning Christian friends said to me 'oh you should not be wasting you time doing things like that'. Are we too proud to serve others?
Are we humble, considering others better than ourselves? Are we willing to do the background jobs that are not visible, but help serve the church and one another? Do we look not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others?
That includes putting ourselves out for the sake of those who do not yet believe in the Christian message? Do we resent the costs involved in being a church that seeks to be welcoming to visitors and that is committed to growing? There is a cost involved in those things.
We need to be on our guard as a church. Satan seeks to destroy the unity of our fellowship and we need to be vigilant. These are searching questions that we must ask them both as a fellowship and as individuals within it.
So, are there people you're not seeing eye-to-eye with – maybe in your ministry teams, husbands or wives, families, or among your friends? Then please deal with it. First go to God and ask for forgiveness and the strength to be Christ-like in the situation, however difficult it may be. Then take the initiative – whether or not you feel you are the one to blame. I'm always conscious how easy it can be to hide in JPC if you wanted to. If you fall out with someone there are plenty of other people about. You can just move seats or ministry teams and pretty much never meet again. That doesn't solve the problem however it just buries it. We must not allow such divisions in our fellowship.
So Point 1: A Christian church should be a united church (v1-4). A fine thing to pray for and what Paul calls us to. But how can we do this?
Point 2: Jesus's attitude of humility is to be our example (v5-11)
The way Paul encourages them to be a united church is to remind them of Jesus Christ. Verse 5 is the key verse to understanding this passage. Paul tells them that to be united they need to make sure their attitude or mind is the same as Jesus's attitude.
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (v5)
He then quotes what is probably a hymn and it is a very rich passage that is a wonderful summary of the main Christian teaching bout Jesus! It covers 3 main aspects which we will look at in turn, (1) v6-7 Jesus's birth (2) v8 Jesus's death and (3) v9-11 Jesus's resurrection and ascension.
As we look at these verses together you will see, or be reminded of what is unique about Christianity. It will also become clear what behaviour is consistent with a God like that and with those who believe in a God like that.
So first, Jesus birth v6-7
6"Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness."
Let's look a bit more closely at the phrases:-
Being in very nature God = he was God! He had all the distinctive characteristics of God – all the things that are only true of God and if they were lost he would no longer be God. Jesus has the very nature of God. In other words, Jesus WAS God. That has always been the clear teaching of Jesus himself and of the apostles ever since.
An then at the beginning of that sentence it says ‘Being in very nature God’ and then he goes on to say ‘did not consider equality with God something to be grasped ‘. That word being is like the word because. This shows us what God's character is like. So you can read it like this: ‘because he was in very nature God, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped’. It was because he was God that he didn’t grasp. What does the phrase grasped mean? It cannot mean in this context to 'try to take something he did not have’ because he is God! Rather it means he did not hold onto his equality with God. Jesus being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, something to be held onto.
Rather he ‘made himself nothing’. This does NOT mean he gave up the nature of God. It means he gave up the glory of being God by becoming man. As well as being God he took on the nature of man. He took the lowest position, without privilege, without power, without authority. When Jesus became a servant he willingly gave up what was his by right in order to save us.
It says in verse 7 he took the ‘very nature of a servant’ – he took on the characteristics of a human. That is what we remember at Christmas! That Jesus Christ - God - became man, born into a filthy, mucky stable into a poor family. Why? To save us. To serve us! Those who had rebelled against him – who had been created in his image, but who themselves had grasped after equality with God and tried to make a name for ourselves.
In summary, his birth shows us that he was God who came as a man to be a servant of others. God became a man! The one who has always existed, the creator of the universe, the all powerful, all knowing one – Jesus, who was fully God, became a human being.
What does that mean for us? How God can be God and also a man is a mystery, but it is also a wonderful truth. God himself was willing to come to the earth as a human and serve us. If we understand that, and I mean really grasp the ground shattering implications of this how can it not mean, at the very least, that we are willing to consider ourselves the servants of others? We are told to have the same attitude as Christ Jesus,
For the Christian, that is the defining event of our faith – that is what our whole faith hangs on. God became a man. So we are to be like him. We too are to have the attitude of a servant. We are to put the needs of others above our own. And if we demonstrate that attitude more and more then we will live at peace and in unity with those around us in the way Paul has described. That is the behaviour that is consistent with the God we serve and are being made more and more like.
Second we see Jesus death (v8)
8 "And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!"
Not only did Jesus humble himself by coming to the earth as a man, he went even further than that. He humbled himself by obeying his Father's will and dying on a cross. That is what we remember at Easter and you cannot separate his birth and his death. The reason Jesus came at Christmas was to make the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf at Easter – he gave up his life so that we could live. Isn't that exactly the attitude behind verses 3 and 4?
3"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
That is what Jesus did when he came and died on a cross.
Why did he do this? This is the wonderful heart of the Christian faith and it is a man who is God dying on cross to save people who don't love him. Jesus died a criminal’s death – though he was perfect and never rejected God. He did it to save us. You see we are all the exact opposite of Jesus. The Bible says we rebelled against our creator God. That we rejected him as our ruler and wanted to decide for ourselves how to run our own lives. Look again and verses 6 and 7 and as you do so, let me contrast it with what the Bible says is the attitude every one of us has towards God:-
"being in very nature man, we did consider equality with God something to be grasped,"
and we tried to make ourselves into something, trying to take the very nature of God.
That attitude towards God is what the Bible calls sin and for that we rightly deserved God's anger and punishment for that rebellion. But Jesus came to take the punishment instead of us. A good man dying for sinners so that we can be forgiven – if we accept his free offer. All we need to do is humble ourselves enough to recognise that we need to be forgiven for our rebellion. Then we need to humble ourselves enough to realise that we cannot ever make up for it on our own no matter how many times we come to church, or give money to the poor or however else we try to buy God off.
What does this mean for us? What does it mean to have the attitude of Christ Jesus? In part, to have the same attitude as Jesus here would mean to be obedient to God. Remember it says he was ‘obedient to death—even death on a cross’. That is the emphasis in these verses. Like Jesus, my whole purpose in life is to do what he wants of me, rather than what I want. Like Jesus we are to be willing to do his will pay whatever the cost and give our lives for the sake of others.
But it also means there is no way we can look down on others. Because of Jesus death on the cross, we are acceptable to God not by our own effort and work but by what Jesus has done to make us acceptable. So it is not the case that we do good things – even religious things - so that God can is happy with us and so will accept us. We are and never will be good enough. He dies for us - his enemies.
And because we are saved by grace there is no place – no place at all - for us to feel superior or look down on others and so oppress them. And that is why Christianity is different from every other religion. It is not me doing more things and therefore being acceptable to God and so I can look down on others. No. The essence of being a Christian is to be humbled. To realise you can’t do it. You cannot stand at the cross and be arrogant. If we grasp the truth of these verses, our attitude will change and it will lead to greater unity in our fellowship.
Third, Jesus' resurrection (v9-11)
9"Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
Jesus’s death was not the end. Three days later he rose again and was then, though he did not grasp it, he was exalted and back in his rightful position not just as God but receiving the glory he deserved.
These verses are astounding because what they do is apply an Old Testament passage (the reading we had earlier from Isaiah 45:22-23) that spoke of God and God alone and those verses are taken and applied to Jesus. To the Jews that would have been absolutely shocking. Verses that were applied to God alone now applied to Jesus. There is no doubt at all that Jesus was God and man.
Well, what does it mean to have the same attitude as Jesus here? It means we will not serve others to seek glory for ourselves. Rather we will leave it to God to reward us in his way and in his time.
As we grasp the truth of the gospel we will be transformed and changed. That is how we can be a church that is unified.
I don’t know if any of you give blood and receive the blood donor magazine. Well in the latest edition, Pete Waterman is on the front cover and he tells a very moving story of how a member of his family was saved by a donation of blood. Giving blood is of course a great thing to do, but the quote that is right along the front of the article is this: ‘You will never be more grateful to anyone’. And as good as it is to give blood, as good as it is to be involved in maybe saving someone’s life by doing that, we will be more grateful to someone else. And that person is Jesus, who was God became man, and he died on a cross, who has ascended and risen, and through him – if we trust in him – will make us acceptable to God.
So let me pinch that phrase and apply it to Jesus and his work on the cross. You will never be more grateful to him.
So to end with let me repeat what I started with: Christianity is the only religion that totally avoids that trap of looking down on others to the extent you may end up justify mistreating or even killing them. It is the only thing that has the power to create genuinely peaceful behaviour between human beings because it humbles us. It is totally unique because at its heart lies a man who is God dying on cross to save people who don't love him. It is totally unique in its power to transform men and women from arrogant, self-centred people into those who, like their God, are willing to give their lives for the good of others.
If you are a Christian then let us consider and consider deeply our wonderful Saviour and in gratefulness for all he has done for us let us live a life worth of the gospel. And that will lead to a church that is united. Let's make that our prayer for the church for the year ahead.
If you are not yet someone who would call yourself a Christian then please take the time to consider Jesus. In those verses it says everyone will kneel before the throne of the Lord Jesus Christ. Some because they acknowledge him as their Lord and Saviour. And others who will realise, too late, that he is the King. Please, while you still have time, take the time to consider Jesus and if you come to know him, you too will also never be more grateful to anyone else.
Eternal Father, you never had a beginning. You will never have an end. You are the Alpha and the Omega. This we believe, because you have revealed it to us. Our hearts are full of thanks that you have opened our eyes to see and know that Jesus Christ is your eternal, divine Son, begotten, not made, and that you, O Father, and he, your Son, are one God. Eternal Father, please chase away from our minds our small picture of Christ. Fill our minds instead with the truth and beauty of your all-glorious Son and transform us so that we become more and more like him. In Jesus name we pray. Amen