Picking Out Mirrors (Philippians 3:17–21)

“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” —Philippians 3:17

It is said that “imitation is the highest form of flattery,” and while this may be said in an innocent and even a good way, the fuller quote speaks to the fuller reality. It was Oscar Wilde who said, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery,” and he continued, “that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” That comes off the tongue a bit more sharply and grates on the ears. You sense the arrogance; yet it is a game the masses play along with.

The imitation that this world knows isn’t simply flattery; it is idolatry. We worship the gods, hoping to become one, or a demigod at least. We act as gods, desiring such “flattery.” Image is valued over integrity; coolness over character. Such is the imitation of this world. In contrast, Christian imitation, imitation as it is meant to be, is worship. This is because Christian imitation is an intentional imitation of imitators.

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, emphasis mine). We don’t imitate others so that others will want to imitate us. At least we shouldn’t do it for that reason. Sometime we do play the Pharisee, playing pious for self promotion, but in our best moments we imitate imitators because we want to look like the Jesus they want to look like. Christian imitation isn’t about idolatry committed and desired. It is about worship and sanctification.

All the imitations of this world, are cheap imitations. We were created in the image of God to image forth God. We were created as mirrors. We were created imitators. Imitation is. Because of sin, the image of God is marred. Man, in the words of Augustine, is “homo incurvatus in se,” that is, “curved in on himself.” Man has created gods in his own image and he is becoming like them—deaf, dumb, and dead.

But the saints have been renewed in Christ and are being conformed to His image as we imitate our elder Brother. A critical and commanded way in which this happens is by looking to those who imitate Him. Look to Jesus and look to those who are looking to Jesus.

Wilde was on to something; Imitation is a high form of worship that sinners pay to Greatness. The difference is that Jesus stoops to conform us to His glorious image and the saints would never dare to try to usurp or outshine their Savior. We want to be like Jesus, and we will be, but we would never dream of trying to be Jesus. Our goal is not to idolized in hope of becoming an idol, but to imitate as an act of worship. We are mirrors, and when it is Jesus who is reflected, no one is talking about the mirror, and this is just as we want it. So when you’re picking out a mirror, pick one that neither impresses you with the mirror nor yourself. Pick one that helps you look like Jesus.

Straining towards What You Cannot Grasp (Philippians 3:11–16)

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” —Philippians 3:1

Perfectionism is a peculiar heresy. It is also a perpetual heresy. Part of its peculiarity is its perpetuity. How does this thing live on? A number of variations have afflicted the church throughout the years. All mutations of this virus are strains of Pelagianism. 

Pelagius was that British monk who balked at Augustine’s prayer from his Confessions, “My entire hope is exclusively in your very great mercy. Grant what you command and command what you will” Augustine confessed that man was bankrupt and dependent entirely on grace. Pelagius said man has what it takes in himself. There is grace to help, but it is not necessary.

Charles Finney, who is lauded by many evangelicals as a hero of the Second Great Awakening, was a rank heretic whose perfectionism had a strong Pelagian flavor. He denied original sin and total depravity. In contrast and yet developing from Finney, the most infectious forms of perfectionism today are semi-pelagian. They are an attempt to make pelagianism palatable, but pelagianism dressed in garb of grace is still the whore of works underneath.

Full blown pelagianism is the greater evil, but let’s give it this much, at least in pelagianism man may fully take responsibility for his delusion of perfection. Whereas in much perfectionism, man essentially “blames” God for the delusion.

Perfection may be redefined as not “knowingly sinning” as Wesley did. Since Wesley, most perfectionist theology has a strong experiential flavor as in the Keswick, Higher Life, Holiness, and second-blessing theologies. Through some “crisis experience” one comes to “entire sanctification.” Faith is often stressed in this, in contrast to Pelagius’ works.

But the most dangerous form of perfectionism for many is incipient perfectionism, perfectionism in the bud. You must realize that perfectionism finds prepped soil in the heart of every depraved sinner. In unearthing the origins of Finney’s perfectionism, B.B. Warfield, tracing it to New Haven, meaning Yale, and the professor N.W. Taylor, writes, “Pelagianism, unfortunately does not wait to be imported from New Haven, and does not require inculcating—it is the instinctive thought of the natural man.” Pelagianism is the instinctive thought of natural man.

Now if you don’t realize how subtle the danger can be and if you’re unable to identify this heresy as a sapling, consider this: you haven’t arrived even when you realize the flesh profits nothing and you count all as loss for Christ. You haven’t arrived when you realize you won’t arrive in this life.

The paradoxical position of the children of God is that in this life they are to press on towards that which they acknowledge they will never arrive at until the next. While it is premature to think one may attain perfection in this life, it is immature not to press towards taking hold of that for which you were taken hold of. The late R.C. Sproul once warned, “Sanctification is a process. It is a gradual process. Run for your life from those who promise you instant sanctification.” As Douglas Wilson says, the poison is so often found in the -ism. So you must run from perfectionism, and yet you must run towards perfection.

You must in this life run towards what you will only have in the next. If you’re not running, and using God’s grace as an excuse, then while denying perfection, you’re acting as though you already are.

Ridiculing as Rejoicing (Philippians 3:4–11)

“[R]ejoice in the Lord…

Look out for the dogs…

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…” (Philippians 3:1, 2, 8).

Rejoicing in the Lord corresponds to looking out for dogs in the same way that ridiculing the flesh corresponds to glorying in Christ. Steak at home makes the Slim Jim at the convenience store less appetizing. Joy in Christ not only frees you to not take false teaching seriously; it so liberates you that you can laugh at it—a gut-busting guffaw kind of laugh. If you used that emoji with the cocked head and tears in reply to false teaching, you wouldn’t be exaggerating.

Sometimes one ridicules in another what they lack in themselves. So it is that the geek mocks the jock for his lack of brain and the jock the geek for his lack of braun. The mockery is self-validating and the laughs are a thin attempt to hide jealously and insecurity. Paul, in contrast to this, holds up in himself everything they boast of and then laughs at his own refection. If these dogs are flexing in the mirror, Paul comes alongside them, demonstrates his superiority, and then laughs at how ridiculous he looks and how absurd such posing is.

Paul was no Gentile ridiculing Judaizers. Do you not see the wisdom of God in preeminently calling Paul to confessedly be “an apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:11)? Yes, Matthew, Peter, and John were all Jews. Yes, they ministered to Gentiles too. But Paul was a Hebrew of Hebrews, and he was expressly an apostle to the Gentiles. Matthew was a tax collector. Peter and John were fisherman. Paul was a Pharisee. And here, he holds that up, and laughs at it. 

You must see that this passage is dripping with sarcasm. If this passage were a dog and sarcasm were water, this dog has just had a bath and is now shaking and rubbing its body against the carpet and furniture. What Paul says they put no confidence in, he now ridicules, not because he is laughingly lacking, but because that in which they boast in is laughingly lacking. Paul says, “I’ll play your game,” he scores the most points (v. 4), and then he demonstrates that the game itself, the whole thing, is a loosing enterprise.

Boasting in the flesh before the holy God of heaven is like a doughboy hoping to win World War I by playing chess with a German commander at the Battle of the Somme in no man’s land. Boasting in the flesh before the holy God of heaven is nothing more than a good way to get killed. Thinking you could win that way is laughable and fully worthy of mockery. Paul writes off all his attempts at self-righteousness as nothing more than a steaming hot pile (v. 8). “Rubbish” pathetically fails to capture, the color, or rather the smell of the original language. What the Judaizers hold up as a trophy is that which Paul doesn’t want to step in. These dogs are like children playing with their own diaper deposits, creating a mural on the wall, thinking they’ve exceeded Michangelo. “Look Daddy!”

Three times Paul writes off as loss, loss, and crap what he previously boasted in as credit. Each time he does so, these things are reckoned such in comparison to Christ. This is why Paul’s laugh isn’t off putting like that of a bitter critic. His laugh is infectious. It is infectious because he is infatuated. And it is because he is infatuated with Christ, that he can laugh at the advertisements of the false teachers like they were some corny infomercial. When you’re curled up on the sofa with that quilt your Grandma made and reading Tolkien, you don’t even know the Snuggie infomercial is on. But if you were to divert your attention for a bit, you know what your response would be. Righteous laughter.

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.

An All Encompassing Adverb for the All Encompassing Verbs (Philippians 2:14–18)

“Do all things without grumbling or disputing…” —Philippians 2:14

This is now the third encompassing command we come to in Philippians, but whereas the first two were like verbs, this one is like an adverb. Let me splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

The first encompassing command opens the body of the letter: “live as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27, my translation). Every other command in this letter falls under this one. It is encompassing. The second approaches the Christian life in general from another direction. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12). The whole of the Christian life is encapsulated in both of these commands. They are encompassing as verbs; all you are to be doing as a saint is summed up in them.

But the third encompassing command functions like an adverb. The first two tell you what to do. This command tells you how to do it. How are you to live as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ? By not grumbling or disputing. How are you to work out your salvation with fear and trembling? Again, by not grumbling or disputing.

One thing this adverb-command does is show just how encompassing the first two encompassing commands are. Sometimes we try to compartmentalize the Christian life, discipleship, and piety, as though they were part of our lives. But here Paul calls on the Philippians to “do all things without grumbling or disputing” (emphasis mine). Working out your salvation means doing all things without grumbling or disputing. Living worthy of the gospel means doing all things without grumbling or disputing. All things. The adverb tells you that the verbs involve everything.

For those who have died with Christ and risen to newness of life, the Christian life is the only kind of life they are to live. Discipleship, following Christ, is to be all encompassing. Your life doesn’t have bins. To live is Christ. Prior to Christ, your living was death. Now you live, and all that living is to be a living worthy of the gospel, working out your salvation, doing all things without grumbling or disputing.

Grumbling is contrary to the gospel. Disputing is a failure of discipleship. If you want the fuller splanation, listen below.

Working Out “Working Out” (Philippians 2:12–13)

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

—Philippians 2:12–13

“The Doctor” says of these verses, 

“I venture to put it to you, it is perhaps one of the most perfect summaries of the Christian life to be found anywhere. It was one of those perfect pictures which we tend to find so frequently in the writings of this Apostle. He was very fond of stating the whole thing over and over again; he liked to give a summary of the Christian life, and here is one of the most pregnant statements which even he himself ever made.”

Lloyd-Jones, David Martyn. The Life of Joy. Baker Publishing Group, 1989, p. 160.

As glorious as these two verses are, they have troubled many sola-affirming Protestants. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone and here Paul is telling us to work out our salvation! Keep calm. Carry on. There’s no need to drop sola Scriptura at this point in order to keep the others. Working out the meaning of just two words should work out any difficulties you have with “working out our salvation.”

I’ll only briefly deal with the first here. Paul instructs these saints to work out their salvation. He does not tell them to work it up. He does not tell them to work it in. Paul does not tell them to work for their salvation. He tells them to work it out. We have an aversion to salvation and works ever being put into a concoction together, but we need to be more sophisticated chemists than that. While abhorring Galatian-chemistry involving salvation and works, we need to practice Philippian-chemistry involving salvation and works.

The second word is “salvation.” Our problem here is that we confuse Christianese with Biblical language. Biblical and theological language are not the problem, though people sometimes complain of them as though they are. No one complains when the football commentator speaks football. If you love the game you learn the language. Yes, we need to define our terms and help people along, but many complaints about Biblical language in the church are really just evidence that the church is full of people far more interested in other games.

However, we are fluent in Christianese. Rather than speaking the foreign language of the Bible as heavenly citizens, we impose a foreign language on the Bible. And the sneaky thing about Christianese, is that it so often is just right enough to get you confidently wrong at some critical junctures. When Christians today hear “salvation” they think narrowly when most often the Scriptures speak broadly. Christians think only of the beginning of the race, when the Scriptures are speaking of the whole of it—from start to finish with all the sweat and exertion in-between. Perhaps I’m being a bit unfair. Maybe just as many Christians think of the end of the race as well. But most leave out the race itself. We are deists concerning God’s new creation. God has wound us up. Now we are on our own till the alarm sounds.

The Bible speaks of the salvation of the saints in all three tenses. We were saved; we are being saved; we will be saved. Salvation is not simply something that has happened to you. It is happening to you and it will happen to you. Salvation involves not just your regeneration, justification, and adoption. It also includes your sanctification and glorification. More than that, your salvation stretches further back than your experience. Your salvation stretches from eternity to eternity, from election to glorification.

So when Paul tells these saints in Christ Jesus (1:1) to work out their salvation, he is clearly referring to the nowness of salvation, assuming a past, advancing to the future. Paul is assuming regeneration, justification, and adoption in the past and calling for sanctification in the present towards glorification in the future.

What is sanctification? It is what Paul spoke of in 1:25, it is “progress and joy in the faith.” It is, as Jerry Bridges speaks of it with his various book titles (and very Biblical ones mind you), The Pursuit of Holiness, The Discipline of Grace, and The Practice of Godliness. Sanctification is the saints being sanctified. It is our growth in holiness, godliness, obedience, and discipleship.

But have I not just narrowed a term that I said was broad? Salvation remains broad; it’s the working out that is the narrow part. This part we call sanctification. Sanctification is working out your salvation past toward your salvation future. The salvation you are to work out is God’s salvation—the whole of it; but the working out of it is narrow, it is part of it.

Now, if you’r estill bothered, I have only two things for you at this point. The first is my weak words, linked below. The second is God’s strong word. When the Word causes you to stumble, it will be the word that steadies. Keep reading. When the Word confuses, it will be the Word that clarifies. Keep reading. The salvation you are to work out, is worked out for this reason, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (emphasis mine).

The Valley Below and the Peak Ahead (Philippians 2:9–11)

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, so that…” —Philippians 2:9–10a (emphasis mine)

With Philippians 2:5–8 we stumble onto the ground of Christ’s humiliation. In 2:9–11, we are carried up to the heavens of Christ’s exhalation. Like Moses, we stumble onto the burning bush—God come down. Then, like Isaiah, we are carried up to heaven, to see Christ seated on His throne.

Traversing Philippians 2:6–11 is like going directly from the Dead Sea to Mount Everest. This text takes one as far below sea level as it does above it. In verses 6–8 we are plunged as low as hell (experienced by Christ on earth mind you). In verses 9–11 we are lifted as high as heaven. Christ humbles Himself to be an earthly servant. God exalts Him as heavenly Lord.

And yet, as high as we come in verse 9, we have not yet reached the peak. From verse 9 one can both look back to the valley, and higher up to the summit. If we ask why Christ was exalted, from verse 9 we can see two different answers. The “therefore” looks back to the grounds of Christ’s exaltation. The “so that” looks forward to the goal of Christ’s exaltation.

Why is Christ exalted? Here we are not simply told that Christ humbled Himself and that God exalted Him, but that God exalted Christ because Christ humbled Himself. Christ’s exaltation was a necessary conclusion and consequence of His humiliation. Because the valley was so deep, God will have the mountain so high.

Why is Christ exalted? As we look up to the cloud covered summit, the answer is stunning. Christ is exalted so that He might be exalted.

“…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10–11; emphasis mine).

Just as Christ humbled Himself so that He might humble Himself (2:7–8), God exalts Christ so that Christ might be exalted. Christ’s humiliation is complete. It is finished. But His exhalation has not yet come to its fullness. There is nothing lacking in Christ. Rather, the exhalation that lies ahead is the inescapable manifestation of Christ’s absolute authority for creation’s universal recognition and confession. Christ’s exhalation involves His resurrection, ascension, session, and return. One of these is not yet. The first three are towards the purpose of the last one. Christ was exalted so that He might be exalted. Come Lord Jesus!

The Glorious Danger of Being Caught Up into Christology (Philippians 2:5–8)

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5–8).

All of Scripture is God’s holy, authoritative, inspired, inerrant word, profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, but with Philippians 2:5–11, we come to a most holy place. Like Moses with the burning bush, one feels they stumble onto it. We thought we were simply walking along, then suddenly we are confronted with God manifest on earth. Perhaps, rather than saying we stumble onto it, we should say we get caught up into it. That’s exactly what Paul appears to have done, He does so frequently in his letters. It is as though at the mention of Jesus Christ and His humility, Paul gets carried up. He doesn’t get carried away. He gets carried up. It is one thing to be distracted  by chasing rabbits. Those are unnecessary endeavors. It is another to be distracted by chasing a unicorn. Remaining focused on a lesser thing when confronted with transcendent glory is no virtue.

This is the locus classicus, the definitive text of Christology in the Scriptures, and we don’t come to it directly. Paul doesn’t take up the subject matter of Christology. He stumbles onto it, and then He gets caught up into it. Paul is writing to the Philippians about unity and humility and suddenly, we are caught up with Him into the mystery of the God-man.

This is the glorious danger that all true discussions of Christian ethics and discipleship are liable to. One should always feel they are on the verge of tripping into the Trinity or being caught up into Christology. It is a danger one should readily welcome and plunge into. If our discussions of discipleship avoid this glorious danger, they fail. They fail to be an expression of our living as heavenly citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ, the gospel of the God-man (Philippians 1:27). 

While we cannot replicate the gospel, we should imitate it. We cannot live the gospel, but we should live gospel-shaped lives. The gospel not only provides a river of life, it shapes the banks in which that river is meant to flow. Pondering the mysteries of the incarnation of our Lord, the hypostatic union, Christ’s humiliation and exaltation, is not simply as practical as church unity, it is essential to it.

The Strife of “Unity” and the Unity of Striving (Philippians 1:27–28)

“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.” —Philippians 1:27–28

There is a kind of striving that is to be done in unity and it is the very kind of striving that is conducive to unity. If there isn’t the kind of striving Paul refers to in Philippians 1:27, there will be strife. C.S. Lewis said, “You cant get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” If we make avoiding strife primary, strife is exactly what we’ll get; but if we strive, there will be little strife.

“Striving” paradoxically modifies “standing firm” here. “Standing firm” has a defensive connotation, whereas “striving” has an offensive one. Defending the gospel is like defending a howitzer. We are to stand firm in and for the gospel, knowing that it is the gospel that advances (Philippians 1:12). Striving must happen because the gospel is primary. Christ is primary. Strife within the church happens when the gospel is demoted. 

This is why so many calls for love, unity, and peace fall flat, even within the church. Unity is something that is, and it is in Christ, in the Spirit, in the gospel (cf. Ephesians 4:1–6). If a church makes unity her god, she’ll tear them apart. If unity is primary, you can’t expect the Spirit of unity to get on board, because the unity He has created is found in Christ our Head.

Men need doctrine for there to be unity, doctrine for which they both stand and strive. Jude admonishes us to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Paul commanded Timothy to “guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20). He says this again in 2 Timothy 1:14 adding, “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (emphasis mine). We can count on the Spirit in whom we have unity to be with us if we stand firm in, strive for, and guard the gospel. Forfeit the gospel and whatever unity we may enjoy, know there is nothing of the Holy Spirit in it and it is sure to backfire.

Unity is not primary; it is secondary. Unity isn’t the root; it is a fruit. This is not unity at all costs. It is a unity that is costly. This is not a unity that ends all opposition. This is a unity that stands up against opposition. Too many saints are after a unity in which everyone likes us, instead of a unity that will stand up against everyone hating us. Unity with this world is enmity against God. So, if you want the saints to get along, get them in the fight.

The “Only” Command (Philippians 1:27a)

“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel…” —Philippians 1:27

When introducing a friend to some great man he completely ignorant of, there’s only so much an introduction can do. Philippians 1:27 is a great verse. Alas, this will only be an introduction. We will only deal with the word “only.” But let’s first consider the context in which this light introduction is made.

Philippians 1:27 opens the body of the letter which runs until 4:3. What Paul opens with isn’t unique. What is unique is its placing. It isn’t odd to find a sink in the house, but it is peculiar to find one in the foyer. Paul’s standard MO is doctrine first, then application; truth then commands. With Paul, the theological always undergirds the ethical. Even here, the difference is simply that the theological is assumed. There are no major controversies at Philippi at this time. Paul’s letter has been initiated by their gift. This helps us to understand a bit why Paul opens with a command, but why this command?

I can only think of two likely answers, and we get to them both through that little word “only.” This “only” might be the most significant word in the letter. What is meant by this “only”? The two angles can be seen in two translations that do a bit more interpreting at this point than they do translating. The Christian Standard has “just one thing” while the NIV has “whatever happens.” In the former we see “only” understood as emphatic, while “whatever happens” recalls what Paul has been and will repeatedly tell them concerning his visiting them.

Let’s take up the latter first. Paul is confident, though not absolutely certain, that he will be released and then come to see them (vv. 19, 25–26). Should he not, he wants them to obey this command so that he may hear that they are standing firm without fear.

This leads us naturally to the second intent of “only.” If Paul is not absolutely certain that he will be released, don’t you know this “only” is also emphatic? There is a primacy to this command. Paul opens with this first because it is first. With this “only” Paul not only says “whatever happens” but also “whatever else!” Matthew Harmon says this verse provides the thesis for the body of this letter. I believe we can go further still. This verse provides the thesis for the Christian life.

In a sense you only need this “only” command. Jesus said the great commandment was to love the Lord our God with all our heart soul and mind. The second is like to it: to love our neighbor as ourselves. The command we have in verse 27 is really just another way of stating the same great all encompassing commands of loving God first and neighbor second.

I hope that if you’re unfamiliar with Philippians 1:27, that now, having been introduced, you’ll sense something of his greatness and want to converse and learn as much of him as you can.