Second Sunday in Lent – Epistle

by Crossings

Bodies of Humiliation
Philippians 3:17–4:1
Second Sunday in Lent
Analysis by Bruce T. Martin

Phil 3:17 Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 18For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 20But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. 4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

DIAGNOSIS: Enemies of the Cross

Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem) – The Belly
Paul hints that some Philippian “opponents” (1:28) preach Christ to incite “envy” and “rivalry,” others out of “selfish ambition” and “insincerity” (1:15, 17). They are likely the “dogs,” “evil-workers,” and “mutilators of the flesh” cited in 3:2. What is so wrong with these preachers of Christ? If they are those (that is, the Jews who have consistently dogged Paul and his gospel by) seeking to make Jews of believing Gentiles by way of circumcision and the law, then Paul’s evaluation of them is sharp indeed. He diagnoses their humiliation in three steps, neatly summed up in 3:19: On a basic, fleshly, external level, they want everything to be about them–even when their actions appear to be godly. “Their god is the belly,” Paul concludes. “Belly” (literally, “stomach”) is Paul’s catch phrase for the entire range of devotion humans offer to themselves. (In this vein, we might well call the opponents “belly dancers.”) But if we limit the “belly” to one of the so-called seven deadly sin–namely, gluttony–we will surely miss the point. And the law will not permit this deception, for humans are in a constant dance with themselves, a dance of self-deceit. In the end, it is a dance with–or, perhaps, a dance around–Death. Whether we devote ourselves to grand ideas or to justice or luxury or longevity or good looks or good works, we belly dancers nonetheless die. We dare not demonize the Judaizers; for insofar as we preach the law apart from the saving cross, we are they!

Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem) – Earthly Citizenship
“Their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things” (3:19). Our home, so to speak, is earth. Of course, we are obliged to take care of our home and our bodies, both communally and individually. Stewardship and ecology are mandates from God. The demands of the law and its working among us are preservative at least temporarily. But if we abuse the law, treating it instead as a contract (and a bad one for us, at that), the law becomes vainglorious. This is step two in Paul’s diagnosis: Those who glory in the flesh elevate the flesh beyond its intended limit, and destroy themselves in the process. Thus, Paul can say that for those who mutilate the flesh (the Judaizers, via the law of circumcision) “their glory is in their shame” (3:19). [Conversely, Paul himself puts no confidence in the flesh but instead glories in Christ (2:3) and the citizenship of heaven (3:20).] Despite this misuse of the law, God is not mocked, for the law is also the instrument of our humiliation (for the sake of our eventual glorification). Our earthly citizenship, our earthly mindset or earthly faith, cannot save us, no matter how much devotion we show; it can only enslave us and, in the end, destroy us.

Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem) – Destruction
Which brings us to step three of Paul’s diagnosis: “Their end is destruction” (3:19). The law’s final work upon the opponents/us, its “goal” and “ending” (Greek, telos), is death. This is God’s work (1:28c-30). Death is our final humiliation, the end of all that we do, think, or believe about ourselves; the end of our “belly dancing” with God. Why is this so? Why should we be penalized for attempting to be obedient to God demands? Quite honestly, because we must first die to sin in order to be raised in honor. Or, more precisely, because without dying to ourselves we remain “enemies of the cross” (3:18; see 3:3-16). Our bodies, our minds, our spirits, all our self-deceptions, our self-created gods and attempts to become gods cannot coexist with the true God. Our earthly citizenship, regardless of how sublime, cannot continue. Thus God requires our humiliation, even unto death. By way of the law, we are made a “body of humiliation” (3:21). Only in this way can the glory of Christ be fully revealed in us (that is, in our new body) on the day of Christ (1:6, passim).


Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution) – Our Crucified and Risen Savior
Those whom Paul names as his beloved (4:1) are, of first importance, loved by Christ. They are “saints” (1:1) not in name only but in reality. The reality is that Jesus the Christ humbled himself under the full weight and penalty of the law, for our sake, demonstrating in his own body of humiliation (his crucifixion, summing up and completing his life for us) so that the promises of God will not be defeated by sin and death. Christ is savior because “he [the risen one] will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory” (3:21). The power of God is located both in the humiliation and in the glorification of Jesus–in that order. Again, this is God’s work, for the humbled one who died to himself was alive to God (1:21). The good news (1:27) is that Christ has made us his own (3:12), promises to continue his love in us now, and will bring his work in us to completion on the day of Jesus Christ (1:6, 10-11).

Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution) – Heavenly Citizenship
Now, knowing what Christ has accomplished for us and continues to work in us, our minds are set on Christ and on his goal, his telos (see 1:7). Set free from the fear and threat of death, a new life and reality is open to us (2:5!): a heavenly citizenship (3:20) with a new set of loyalties and presuppositions. As illustrated in Paul’s biography (1:19-26; 3:4-14), Christian freedom and honor is based on faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ. This faith does not locate itself in any doctrine about Christ but rather trusts in his unbreakable promise that he will transform us. Such faith engenders an entirely new mindset, for which the biography of Christ is the model (2:1-11). No longer do we strive for acceptance from God; our new standing before God is simply given. Our life in Christ flows from this reality and promise. Unlike the slavish mindset of the law, our new mindset is “spiritual,” receiving its life directly from the Spirit. It doesn’t depend on any prescription, or “how to” manual, or regulations to define it. But our citizenship in heaven does have a definite shape, a definite form (3:21).

Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution) – Bodies of Humiliation
Coming full circle, the Philippian opponents must finally reckon with the Philippian Christians themselves–the body into which they have been conformed (3:21) rather than, say, their theology (1:27-30; 4:4-9). So Paul presents an ethic of humiliation, but now for the sake of the world. True, we are humiliated by the law in our bodies and in our minds, so that the old may give way to the new. But now, on the basis of faith in Christ, that very humiliation is cause for rejoicing! How so? Because in our humiliated bodies the gospel is being vindicated. Let our “opponents” see for themselves that in our (collective) body we have no room for envy, rivalry, selfish ambition or insincerity. Indeed, our body of humiliation is a “clear sign of their [Christ’s opponents’] destruction” (1:28), even as it is a reminder of our own! But it is much more than that: Our body of humiliation is a sign also of our “salvation” on the day of Christ. Our bodily humiliation is a likeness unto the death of Christ and an anticipation of our resurrection in him (3:10-11). Therefore, Paul urges the Philippians to “stand firm” in the faith (1:27; 2:2, 16; 3:15-16; 4:1). There is no greater honor now, in this life, than to bear in our cruciform body the gospel of Jesus Christ.


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