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rod thompson – living in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation

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.

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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.


  1. Mark Maffey says:

    Hi Rod

    I like your take on Paul’s storied imagination, Yancey in his book “The Bible Jesus Knew” reiterates that we need to know the sources New Testament writers were drawing from, to understand the context they were writing into, and see how we can bridge into our 21st century context. Whilst we as preachers need to sit down with the text and do our own work, I do like the NIV Application Commentary series for their help – see link below

    This award-winning series helps you understand the original meaning of the biblical text in its original context. All the elements of traditional exegesis—in concise form—are discussed. But the authors don’t stop there—they bridge the gap between the world of the Bible and the world of today, between the original context and the contemporary context, by focusing on both the timely and timeless aspects of the text. The authors dwell on the contemporary significance of the Bible by focusing on contemporary contexts in which the Bible can be applied today. The NIV Application Commentary discusses the Bible in a way that engages contemporary life and culture.

    As you say from Philippians 2 we need to shine like stars:

    Children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars
    In the universe as you hold out the word of life in order that I may boast on the day of Christ
    Like the church at Philippi we face the challenge to be blameless in world from which sin pours
    To stand on the promises of God’s word, to be prophetic in our speaking out to put God first
    To love the Lord our God with all our strength, mind, heart and souls, and to love our neighbours
    We like Paul need to have the desire to push on toward the Goal, to boast on the day of Christ


  2. Ben Fountain says:

    Good comments (and I always give bonus points for quoting Miroslav).

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