I recently re-read the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians. It is short, beautifully written, with passage after passage that seems to cry out, “Preach me, preach me!” On this occasion I was not reading the text in order to prepare a sermon. I was reading it as though it were a letter written specifically to and for me personally. And, as happens so often when I read the Holy Scriptures, it seemed as though I was reading it again for the first time.
As I read the text, I recalled that I had indeed used a portion of this letter as a sermon text about a year ago. After I completed my reading of the letter, I looked up the script of that sermon, and as I read it, God spoke to me through it. Even though I had written the sermon, God used it, a year after its composition, to touch my own heart and meet a need in my own life. It occurred to me that He might want to use that text to speak to you, as well, and so I am drawing on the text of that sermon as the basis for three blog posts, all under the title of “A Worthy Ambition.”
In the fourth chapter of his letter to the Christians in Philippi, Paul wrote these words in verse 9:
The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things; and the God of peace shall be with you.
That instruction simply echoes what he had earlier written, even more succinctly, to the Corinthians:
Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)
Although some dispute the claim, many believe St. Francis of Assisi actually made the famous statement, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Whether St. Francis spoke it or not, that counsel reflects the heart of Paul’s conviction in these verses. There is hardly a more effective apologetic for the Christian message than these two words—”Watch me.”
Imagine the impact on our culture if, instead of making excuses for our inconsistencies and constantly pointing out the obvious—i.e. that Christians are flawed human beings just like everybody else—every Christian believer could say, when asked what makes Christianity superior to any other system of belief…
“You want to know the difference? Watch me. Watch how I live my life. In fact, come and follow me around for a month. Watch what I do, how I spend my time, how I relate to other people. Watch me carefully, and then you tell me if there is any difference.”
We all know the power of example, both good and bad—what the psychologists and sociologists call “existential mimicry.” It’s how we develop our accents and speech patterns. It’s how we acquire our preferences and our prejudices. We imitate, first our parents then our peers.
Years ago, in some education course I took in college, a teacher highlighted the importance of this principle when she said:
“You won’t teach like you are taught to teach; you will teach like you are taught.”
The same goes for preaching, by the way. That’s why, when I taught college and seminary courses in how to prepare and deliver sermons, I had my students watch hours of preaching, by really good preachers, in order to develop a taste for excellence and effectiveness. And I guarantee you, that did more for their preaching abilities than any or all of my lectures, brilliant as they were.
This pattern of imitation is no less common, and no less important, in the spiritual arena. We learn (whether we realize it or not) from the example of others, both good and bad. We learn to pray by being around people who pray. We learn consistency in Christian living by emulating the consistent Christians around us.
Now there’s a good word. It means to “try to equal or excel.” Again I ask you to imagine the impact on the Christian community, and on the culture at large, if all, or even most, Christian believers made it their goal to “equal or excel” the quality and consistency of life which they observe in those other Christians whose attitudes and behaviors are most godly and Christlike.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul told us what kinds of people to emulate before he summed up his point (in 4:9) by telling us to be like him.
Just over half way through the letter, in chapter three, verse 10, Paul made it clear what constituted his own highest goal in life, his most noble and worthy ambition—
That I may know Him (Christ Jesus) and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death;
When I was a senior in Bible college (way back just after the earth’s crust cooled) and was preparing to graduate, all seniors were asked to submit the Bible reference for what each of us considered to be his or her “life verse,” which would then be published beside our names in the printed program.
[Never mind that most of my classmates had never given 20 seconds of thought to what might be their “life verse.” In fact one guy, the group’s resident iconoclast, was so put off by the whole idea that he submitted, as his “life verse,” Luke 17:32. Fortunately, before the text of the Class Day program was sent off to the printer, somebody actually took the time to look up the scripture references. That’s when they learned that the text of Luke 17:32 reads, in its entirety: Remember Lot’s wife.]
Unlike my friend, I was fully prepared to declare my “life verse.” It was, in fact, Philippians 3:10. From the first time I read the verse with any comprehension at all, it had spoken to me, and I adopted Paul’s most worthy ambition as my own.
I should probably note that, in those early years, I was more focused on the “power of His resurrection” bit than on the “fellowship of His sufferings” bit. In fact, it is only in recent years that I have even begun to appreciate what might really be involved in knowing Jesus “in the fellowship of His sufferings.”
That I may know Him (i.e. Jesus Christ), Paul wrote, as his life’s highest goal and most worthy ambition…
and the power of His resurrection—a supernatural power for faithful living, available to us because Jesus overcame death, a truth which Paul emphasized in Ephesians 1:19, 20.
(I pray that you may know) the surpassing greatness of (God’s) power toward us who believe… which He brought about in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenlies.
and the fellowship of His sufferings—Paul knew that Jesus had suffered because He was holy, and the world was sinful. Paul wanted to live that way and to be prepared to suffer for it, even as Jesus did.
being conformed to His death—Paul wanted to become so much like Jesus that, if necessary, he would be willing to die for Him.
Now that’s a worthy ambition.
That’s also the goal we should pursue. Paul’s worthy ambition should become ours, since, in Philippians 4:9, he tells us to emulate him. In my next two posts, I’ll examine some specific characteristics we should look for in the people we choose to emulate. Paul lays out a number of them in his letter to the Philippians, and that will be our guide in this process. Thanks for reading, and, as always…
Soli Deo Gloria