Miroslav Volf contends that God’s people in current times and places must choose to live “against the tide” – a tide characterised by the inner pull toward self-absorption and away from care for others, impelled by what he calls a “culture stripped of grace” (Volf, Against the Tide (Eerdmans, 2010) xi-xii). In different ways, in previous eras, this has always been the case. Paul speaks to it in Philippians 2:14-16.
Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. (ESV)
What did it mean for God’s people to live in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation? In this naming of the 1st century Philippian context, Paul chooses words used, for example, to describe the bent shape of dry wood that, once straight and true, has become distorted, perverse and warped. Philippi was a Roman colony populated in part by war veterans, the general population of which was endowed with Roman citizenship. Without doubt a powerful “crooked and twisted” alternative gospel, focused on worshiping the Emperor as lord and saviour was widely proclaimed in the city.
But the phrase Paul chooses is not entirely new. He is only too conscious of its significance in the ancient story of Israel’s people wandering in the wilderness. In Deuteronomy 32:5 Moses had written of them: “They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation.” And again in Deuteronomy 32:20: “They are a perverse generation, children in whom there is no faithfulness.”
It was hard to be faithful to God in 1st century Philippi. It had been hard to be faithful to God in those wilderness years. Paul brings two narratives together as he writes about “living without blemish in the midst …” (2:14)
And of course there is a third narrative which actually governs Paul’s thought – that of the gospel events of Messiah Jesus. In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul has portrayed Jesus as the utterly faithful one who having taken the form of a servant, “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him …” In his humility, Jesus incarnated a radical alternative to grumbling Israel. In his exaltation, he became a radical alternative to pretentious, false lords such as the Roman Caesar.
Three narratives inform this portion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians – that of Israel, that of Jesus and that of the Philippians themselves. And these three impel Paul to conclude by reflecting on a fourth narrative – his own. His aim is that “in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.” (2:16-18)
The apostle exhibits a storied imagination as he writes – the story of Israel, of Jesus, of his 1st century friends in Philippi, and finally of himself. It is up to us now to live faithfully in response to God’s Word as we also seek to be God’s children in our times and places. We must add our story to theirs.
* * *
Rod Thompson has just commenced as National Principal/CEO of Laidlaw College in Auckland. He is passionate about family (he and Rosanne have recently become grandparents for the second time), the Bible, theology, art, music, history, culture – and red wine in moderation.