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Discipleship in Philippians


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“All I ask is that you live as his kingdom, honouring the good news that he is king” (Philippians 1:27)

Disciple is a kingdom word. A disciple is literally a trainee, an apprentice. Jesus trained disciples to proclaim the restoration of heaven’s reign arriving in him, sending them out to enact the kingdom.

Many books on discipleship don’t start from there, but here’s one that does: Living the King Jesus Gospel: Discipleship and Ministry Then and Now (Cascade Books, 2021). Seventeen pastors and scholars built on Scot McKnight’s work on the kingdom, covering discipleship in the New Testament, in Christian history, and in our shared life today. In this post we’ll just look at Nijay Gupta’s chapter on Philippians.

What would you see as the main theme of Philippians? Joy? Partnership? Jesus’ servant heart and ascension? These themes are present, and Michael Gorman is right to treat 2:5-11 as “Paul’s master story.” (Journal of Theological Interpretation, 1:1-2, 2007, 147– 170).

Nijay Gupta titled his chapter, “Living as Good Citizens of the Gospel Kingdom of Christ according to Philippians.” Why?

Recently I was translating Philippians for another project. After the epistolary introduction, thanksgiving and prayer (1:1-11), Paul gives them news of how he’s doing (1:12-26) and then tells us his purpose in writing to them:

Philippians 1:27 (my translation, compare NIV)
All I ask is that you live as his kingdom, honouring the good news that he is king, so that — whether I come and see you or I can’t — I hear that you stand together with one spirit, pulling together with one life in loyalty to the good proclamation [of Christ’s kingship].

Your translation probably says, “Live worthy of the gospel.” Why translate it as, Live as his kingdom? The verb demands it, as Gupta realized:

It is strange that English translations are so hesitant to explicate the political nature of this verb, since Paul also used the related term politeuma (“commonwealth”) later in the same letter (Phil 3:20). Our purpose here is to investigate why Paul deviated from his normal language of Christian living to use an obviously politically-charged verb. (68)

As Gupta says, disciples are called to live as a positive, contributing member, active in civic affairs and enhancing the overall honor and livelihood of the commonwealth (69). But there’s another dimension to this. Josephus used this verb to describe how God expected his people to continue living as his kingdom even in a foreign land. So:

The generic (denotative) use of politeuō refers to functioning as a citizen of a commonwealth, but the meaning could be intensified when the subject of the verb lived in a foreign land. In that case, the activity of politeuō involves adhering to the standards and ethos of that origin community and serving as a kind of representative of their homeland. (70)

That’s exactly what Paul was calling the Philippians to do. Living in an outpost of the Empire that prized their Roman citizenship, their values are turned upside down because they are citizens of the kingdom of the crucified king. Instead of seeking their own honour, they are to regard each other in the same way our self-giving king received this kingship: as servant of all. That’s Paul’s own explanation of politeuma, to live as citizens of his kingdom (1:28 – 2:11 and the rest of the letter).

The gospel is the good news that God’s anointed (the Christ) has been raised up and given the name above every name. That’s an explosive claim:

As for “gospel” (euangelion) in 1:27, this of course refers to the divine message, the good news of Jesus Christ, but in Roman political discourse euangelion (and related terms) could refer to the “good news” of the birth or reign of particular Roman emperors. We see this with, for example, the famous Priene inscription where the birthday of Augustus was declared a holiday. It was recognized that the empire enjoyed peace and prosperity thanks to “a Savior who has ended war, setting things right in peace.” Again, the inscription attests that Caesar Augustus’s blessings surpassed any who had come before and would certainly outmatch any who follow, so “because of him the birthday of God began good news (euangelia) for the world.” Surely, Paul occasionally bumped into inscriptions that called the emperor’s reign “good news” for the Roman world; whatever Paul thought about the relative merits and blessings of the empire, the gospel of Jesus Christ was the greatest and best “Good News.” (71).

So what does it mean to live as citizens who honour the good news that Jesus is king?

When we put this all together in Phil 1:27, Paul was exhorting the believers there to prioritize their allegiance to their true civic identity, the unity and esprit de corps they possess through the Lord Jesus Christ. …
If we wanted to explore the unique lifestyle of gospel kingdom citizens, the best place to look in Philippians is the so-called Christ Hymn (which I prefer to call the “Ode to Jesus”), 2:5–11. (72)

The source and the character of our citizenship is our king — our being found in him as his kingdom. He is the complete reconfiguration of our humanity. That’s the narrative as Philippians unfolds it:

Philippians 3:20-21 (my translation, compare NIV)
For our citizenship is established in the heavens, and from there we anticipate a Saviour — our Lord Jesus the Messiah — who will reconfigure our embodied humility in keeping with his embodied splendour, in accordance with all he is able to achieve as he brings everything under his authority.

Gupta describes this citizenship as our true civic identity (73). Consequently, our job is to be faithful representatives of our heavenly commonwealth, to bring honor to our Lord Jesus Christ (76). So, what disciples are known for is what our gospel community is for rather than what we are against (76).

Existing political allegiances exist through ambition, so they divide us. The gospel brings the whole of humanity together under the selfless leader anointed and raised up by God to restore his governance over us all (Philippians 2:1-11). Living as good gospel citizens is inherently a call to come together as one (76).

The vision of Christ’s kingship reframes how we see each other. That’s why Paul uses the word phroneō ten times. It’s means how we regard each other: how Paul regards them (1:7), how we regard each other (2:2), how Messiah Jesus regarded us (2:5), how those who understand the gospel regard each other (3:15), in contrast with how godless people regard earthly things (3:19). It’s about how the Philippians showed their regard for Paul (4:10). In an honour / shame world, it’s about not seeking our own honour, but giving each other the honour that comes from being the community that exists in Messiah Jesus, our honour derived from his.

The most honourable employment would have been working for Caesar’s household. But the twist at the end of Paul’s letter has Caesar’s servants giving recognition to the servants of a greater king, the devoted community whose identity comes from Messiah Jesus:

Philippians 4:21-23 (my translation, compare NIV)
21 Recognize the whole devoted community that is in Messiah Jesus. The family with me recognize you. 22 The whole devoted community recognizes you, especially those from the Emperor’s household. 23 The benevolence of our Lord, Jesus the Messiah be with your spirit.

Discipleship means being trained as servants of the king. Gupta summarizes this as the message of Philippians:

Obedience, not posturing (Phil 2:12–18). … Resilience, not conformity (3:1–21). … Humility, not hubris (2:1–12). … Joy and contentment, not cynicism and greed (4:8–20)…. The good citizen of the gospel kingdom of Christ is a person filled with good news of the great Savior, living fully and deeply here on earth, but driven by the mission and ethos of the heavenly commonwealth to the praise of God. (77–78)

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Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia
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Used with permission of the author, Allen Browne.

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