Connections 10.01.2017: Your Bootstraps, God’s Boots

Philippians 2:1-13

I teach a couple of classes at a state college near my home. The courses are designed to help freshmen successfully transition from high school to college.

One of the recurring themes of the courses is the necessity of accepting responsibility. “You are responsible for your life,” I find myself saying repeatedly. “You can choose your future.” “Be a creator, not a victim.” “Discover your dreams, set your goals, and meet your objectives.” “It’s up to you.”

It’s all very inspiring.

Paul sounds a little like that in this week’s lesson text. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (v. 5). “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (v. 12b).

“You can have the mind of Christ if you really want it” and “you can be a successful follower of Jesus if you really work at it,” Paul seems to say.

It’s up to you. It’s your responsibility. No one but you can determine your path. So get to it. Hey ho, let’s go!

Every bit of that is true, as far as it goes.

But even as my college courses stress personal responsibility, they also teach the students that they’re not on their own. “We’re here to help you,” I hear myself saying quite often. “Don’t struggle alone.” “Let your professors, your advisor, and Student Services help you.” “If you’re struggling with a course, go to the academic support office and work with a tutor. If you’re struggling with your emotions, make an appointment with a counselor.”

We also aren’t on our own when it comes to living out our faith. Paul tells us to have the mind of Christ, but Jesus has shown us what that looks like (vv. 6-11). And he tells us to work out our own salvation, but he then says, “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (v. 13). God is at work in us! God gives us both the desire and the ability to do what God wants us to do!

My students must choose to take responsibility for their education, but they have a lot of good people available to help them be successful in college. They cheat themselves if they don’t take advantage of them.

Christians must choose to take responsibility for our discipleship, but we have God Almighty to help us be successful in becoming who God wants us to be and doing what God wants us to do. It’d be a shame not to actively seek God’s help.

As you’re trying to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, remember that God gave you the boots and knows more about them than you do.

Discussion

1. How does having the mind of Christ contribute to the church’s ministry?
2. Which is our default setting: pride or humility? Why do you give that answer?
3. Based on the Christ hymn of verses 6-11, how would you describe the mind of Christ? How can we develop Jesus’ lifestyle of humility, service, and sacrifice?
4. What steps can we take to be better followers of Jesus? How can we “work out [our] own salvation”? How does knowing that is working in us help us do so?
5. How can we help each other live in the ways Paul calls us to in this passage?

Reference Shelf

The apostle’s initial appeal to the church in this section (i.e., 2:12-18) is to “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12). As Paul saw it, “salvation” is a progressive experience that commences with one’s confession of Jesus as Lord (see Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3) and culminates with the coming of the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 1:19, 28; 3:20; Rom 13:11). Until the Savior appears, believers are to conduct themselves and their affairs with an attitude of “fear and trembling” (phobou kai tromou). Reverential respect is due the one before whom every knee will bend in homage and every tongue will speak in praise (contrast Phil 1:28). Awe is an appropriate response for those seeking to practice and to enter into the presence of God. If humility before other believers is advisable, humility before the one in whom a person places ultimate trust is essential (note Jas 4:10; 1 Pet 5:6). In Philippians, Christ is lauded as the one “who will transform the body of our humiliation to be like the body of his glory, according to the power which enables him to subject all things into himself ” (3:21).

As elsewhere in Paul (cf. 2 Cor 7:15; Eph 6:5), the phrase “fear and trembling” appears in conjunction with obedience. Prior to and in preparation for his admonition to the church to “work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling,” Paul maintains that the Philippians “have always obeyed.” While he does not specify whom they have obeyed, he continues by contending that they have obeyed not only as in his presence (parousia) but now much more so in his absence (apousia). This statement, coupled with the ambiguity resulting from Paul’s failure to specify the object of the church’s obedience, prompts the translators of the NRSV to insert “me” (i.e., Paul) after “obeyed.” I think it unlikely, however, that Paul (only) has obedience to himself in mind here. Even as Jesus’ “obedience unto death” was obedience to God (2:8), so also Christ followers are to be obedient to God through Christ. Additionally, there is no clear-cut case in Paul’s letters where the apostle enjoins or envisions Christian obedience (solely) to him (note, though, 2 Cor 2:9; 7:15; 10:6; Phlm 21). With that being said, as Christ’s apostle Paul did anticipate that the Philippians would follow his instruction and imitate his example (see esp. 3:17; 4:9; cf. 1 Cor 11:1; 1 Thess 1:6). Although Paul’s critics tend to regard such a perspective as egocentric, if not narcissistic, excess, Paul would have viewed calling his churches to adhere to his teaching and to emulate his living as integral to his apostolic remit and responsibility. Though distinguishable (cf. 1:15-18a), Paul viewed the gospel message and messenger as “two peas in a pod.”

Todd D. Still, Philippians & Philemon, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011) 73-74

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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