In a nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Today is Palm Sunday. In scripture, it’s the day when Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey, as the crowds wave palm branches and declare, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mt. 21:9).
There’s a number of theological themes involved in Jesus’ triumphal entry. Firstly, there is a recognition of the fact that Jesus is, truly, the king who was expected. Jesus was (and is) the promised Messiah – the king and servant who would truly bring the long-anticipated kingdom of God, restoring Israel and, at the same time, putting Israel to rights.
But, secondly, there’s also the theme that Jesus the Messiah would not be the king that the Israelites were expecting and, therefore, celebrating. Jesus would indeed conquer the kingdoms of the world, but not in any way that the people expected or wanted.
A key point that the Israelites did not understand was that Jesus fulfilled God’s purposes through His suffering. That it was through Jesus’ death that God’s kingdom would be inaugurated. This was not a part of the Israelites’ concept of the Messiah. But it was not through power or conquest that God would prevail. It was through Jesus, the son of God, on a cross.
And so, as we remember Palm Sunday, today, we also remember that Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week. Holy Week is the last week of Lent, and thus the final week of the season in which we, as people of God, anticipate the passion of Christ. It’s the season where we reflect on a number of things – the importance of penance; the importance of prayer; when we reflect on sin and death; where we practice putting aside the things of the flesh (rightly understood) and focus on the work of Christ. As Protestants, we often don’t pay too much attention to Lent. But it’s important, and Holy Week is important, because we remember that life (our Christ-life) is only accomplished through death (through Christ’s death). And it’s important because we live in the in-between time: Between the time of sin and death and when Christ’s kingdom will fully, and only, reign.
So our passage today, taken from the lectionary (the readings for Palm Sunday), is from Philippians chapter 2.
Philippians is Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, is one of those which Paul wrote from prison (though we don’t know which imprisonment). Philippians seems to be somewhat unique in Paul’s letters in that there doesn’t seem to be a specific problem in the church that Paul is correcting.
As we probably know, most of Paul’s letters are typically written to specific congregations because of some particular problem (or problems) in the community – whether they are specific practices, attitudes, or some theology that needs correcting.
Philippians seems to be different. That isn’t to say that there aren’t problems in the congregation – indeed, is it possible to not have problems whenever you gather a group of people together? However, Philippians seems to be almost reflection and exhortation given the nature of Paul’s relationship with the church at Philippi.
So let’s take a closer look at our passage today. The first part of our passage that we will look at is verses 1-4.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.Philippians 2:1-4 NIV
In some respects, this is a pretty straightforward call to community (or being a particular kind of, Christ-like, community). Paul exhorts the Philippians to being like-minded and having the same love (as Christ), being one in spirit and mind, avoiding selfish ambition and vain conceit, valuing others and their interests above one’s self.
What’s important for us here is how this exhortation flows out of, and is because of, the preceding passage. We see that these verses begin with the word, “Therefore,” and we ask once again, “What is the ‘therefore,’ there for?”
I don’t want to get too far off topic, but in the previous verses, we have Paul being thankful for the Philippians support while he is in prison, and reflecting on why he is in prison – which is because of the gospel. Paul concludes those reflections with the words (1:27-30):
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 the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.Philippians 1:27-30 NIV
Here, we have Paul encouraging the Philippians to “conduct [themselves] in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” and to “[strive] together as one for the faith of the gospel.” Further, in that striving for the gospel, they are to not be “frightened in any way by those who oppose [them].” So what we might infer is that there is some way in which the church, by living out or striving for the gospel – that is, the church being the church – invites opposition. Further, this apparently is the reason why Paul is in prison – because of his proclamation of the gospel.
At this point, I’d like to pause and clarify what I mean by that – and by implication, what I think Paul means. What does Paul mean when he’s talking about “[conducting] yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”? And what do we mean when we read that he was opposed (and the church is opposed) and suffered because of it? And what I want to say is that it’s not what we usually mean when we talk about “suffering for the gospel.” Or at least that’s not all it means.
Because when we talk about living for the gospel and suffering for the gospel, we usually have in mind something like Christians proclaiming that we are Christians. Or we have in mind something like, in some countries, not being allowed to evangelize or, in our country, the separation of church and state – not being allowed to talk about our faith (or any faith) in schools. And, again, I do think this is part of it.
But I also think it’s a lot more than this – it’s a lot deeper than this. We’ve talked about this a lot so I won’t go into it in any detail, but what we see in the biblical story is God creating a people. Using slightly different terminology (terminology that we’ve used before), God is establishing His kingdom. What we see through the story of the Old Testament is that the kingdom is to be established (or proclaimed) through Israel, but that Israel fails to establish that kingdom. Jesus Christ, the son of God, is the fulfillment of that promise which was given to Abraham. And it’s through Jesus Christ alone that the kingdom is established.
But the reason Jesus’ message and ministry were so counter-cultural, so radical and so revolutionary, was not because he preached love instead of power, and not because He preached the last before the first, but because He inaugurated an entirely different kind of kingdom. So in other words, when Jesus is proclaiming that God’s kingdom is the only true kingdom, the kingdoms of this world will rise up in opposition. In a very real way, this is precisely what leads to Jesus’ death. (Of course there’s more going on than this – not least of which how Jesus’ death serves as the sacrifice for our sins; this is also foundational to who we are. But we need to keep this in mind, that Jesus ministry was about confronting and rejecting the kingdoms of this world and proclaiming only God as king).
So, when Paul is talking about conducting ourselves in a way worthy of the gospel, and that doing so will lead to opposition, the “Therefore” that we find in our passage today takes on deep meaning. When he says:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind…Philippians 2:1-2 NIV
…the “being united with Christ,” has something to do with being part of the same kingdom; having the same king, the true king, that is not of the kingdoms of this world, and suffering because of it.
I think that this is why Paul encourages – indeed demands – unity in the body. Because, in the face of the kingdoms of this world that command devotion to its own human-centered, manufactured and illusory, fleeting, and unsatisfying values, philosophies, and “truths,” it is all the more important that we remember, practice and live out, the true kingdom of which we are a part.
But let’s carry on. The passage continues with the words, “5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” So what is Christ’s mindset? Well, Paul tells us as he continues:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be used to his own advantage;
rather he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death–
even death on a cross!Philippians 2:6-8
So Paul tells us that Jesus, even though He is God Himself, did not use that to His advantage. Rather, “He made himself nothing,” and “humbled himself,” becoming “obedient to death – even death on a cross”
Now I think that this “humbling himself,” and being “obedient to death” shouldn’t be seen as something that’s an add-on to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom. It’s not as if Jesus was proclaiming the Kingdom and because he upset some people, those people then decided that Jesus had to die to maintain the status quo. Jesus’ death was not a consequence of his earthly ministry.
Rather, Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross, I think, are an essential, irreplaceable, part of His Kingdom proclamation. Indeed, and allowing that I simply don’t have the right words to express this, Jesus suffering and death are the culmination of his Kingdom proclamation.
Now there’s a lot more theology and philosophy and hermeneutics that are involved here, but what this shows us, at least, is something that we should already know. That is, the ways of the Kingdom are not the ways of the world. The ways of Kingdom power are not the ways in which the world understands power. The values of the Kingdom are not the values of the world.
And when we truly understand, and live by, or live in and of, the Kingdom, we will find that the world does not know what to do with us. And when we assert that there is only one King in this Kingdom, the kingdoms of the world which have built up, and been built up by worldly kings, will not only be confused by us, but will oppose us.
Now it’s important to note that Paul is not talking about any suffering that Christians experience at all. Sometimes Christians suffer because there is still sin in the world. Sometimes Christians simply experience the pain and suffering of any person living in a fallen creation. And sometimes Christians suffer because we’re not asserting Christian values or principles at all. Rather, we assert worldly values and principles couched in “Christian” facades. That’s not what Paul is talking about.
Obviously, this means that we need to be diligent about actually learning, living, and being discipled by the true kingdom. At any rate, I digress…
The final section of this passage tells us that Jesus Christ, because He lived out the Father’s purpose faithfully and perfectly, as only He could do, is exalted to the throne of heaven:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.Philippians 2:9-11 NIV
In short, Jesus is exalted as king because He truly understood and lived the kingdom. And He is exalted as king because, through His blood, He broke the power of sin and death because he asserted the power of the kingdom. And He is exalted as king because, by breaking the power of sin and death, He made it possible for us to actually be part of the kingdom of God in a way that wasn’t possible before. Because only He is the way, the truth, and the life.
So What Now…?
Today is Palm Sunday. And Palm Sunday is the day when Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey with the crowds cheering and welcoming Him as the long-awaited king of Israel, the promised Messiah. But Jesus wasn’t the kind of king they were expecting. And He wasn’t the kind of king they wanted. The kingdom of which Jesus is Lord, and of which we are a part, works in ways that the world simply cannot understand.
So, as we enter Holy Week, I urge you to think about, pray about, and reflect upon this new kingdom that God has invited us to be a part of. I encourage you to reflect on what this cost – how Jesus Christ, son of God, gave Himself to make a way for you. As we approach Good Friday, I encourage you to appreciate the truth that our lives are bought with Jesus’ death. And as we approach Easter Sunday, I encourage you to wonder at He alone who is our king.