A Humbling Text (Philippians 2:19–30)

“So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.” —Philippians 2:29–30

The first and only other time I’ve preached this text was eight years ago. A pastor-buddy had put together a preaching conference at a nearby church, going through the book of Philippians. Upon receiving my assignment, one of my first thoughts honestly was “Really! Out of all the texts in Philippians, you give me this one?” Pride. In not wanting to preach Philippians 2:19–30 I was disobeying Philippians 2:14. And 1:27. I was grumbling against God by way of an unspoken dispute with my brother who should have given me a glorious passage like 2:5–11 dealing with the humiliation and exaltation of our Lord.

Compared to Paul’s exclamation “To live is Christ, and to die is gain,” or the encompassing commands “live as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27) and “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12), and especially in comparison to that deep and majestic passage concerning the humiliation and exhalation of our Lord (2:6–11)—compared to these passages, this text seems so humble, plain, and modest. In Gordon Fee I found both confirmation and rebuke. “After the exalted language of the Christ story in 2:6-11 and the striking metaphors in 2:14-18 by which this was applied to the Philippians’ situation, it is easy to view this material as mundane—which in a sense it is—and to neglect it as of little import, which it is not.”

Frank Theilman is easier on the conscience, but he also fosters intrigue. “After the theologically rich language of 2:5–18, we are surprised suddenly to encounter two paragraphs whose primary concern seems to be the travel plans of Paul and his coworkers. Why would Paul include such mundane information at this point in his letter?”

Why? Now there is curiosity? Why saints? When you read, always ask “Why?” This is the kind of material you would expect Paul to close with. Why is it here? The first clue that this isn’t haphazard, that there is a purpose is invisible to you in the English Standard Version. The New American Standard has “But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy;” likewise the New King James has “But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy” (all emphasis mine).

There is a connection then between all these visits Paul speaks of and what has preceded. What is the connection? Paul has just spoken of the possibility of his being poured out as a drink offering (2:17), that is, his death. Backing up further in 2:12 he speaks of their obedience whether or not he is present, which leads us back to 1:27 where Paul tells them to live as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ whether or not he comes to see them. All of this finds its explanation in 1:12–26 where we learn of Paul’s imprisonment and his hope to be released, but also of his preparedness should he face death. The travel itineraries relayed here relate to Paul’s absence and presence.

But is this the only connection? I believe upon study it becomes plain that 2:19–30 relate not only to Paul’s being present or absent, but also to everything that Paul has said to them in light of his possible presence or absence. What one sees is that the very apex of theological reflection and the ethical exhortation Paul brings you to in 2:5–11 with the humiliation of our Lord, is brought down and exemplified here. The humility of our Lord is high theology, high theology we are to imitate. Here this high theology is brought down and this is the kind of down that is then lifted up. This is not a humble text; it is a humbling text. But the humility it exemplifies is the humility that God exalts.

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