A global positioning system enables you to determine at any precise moment exactly where you are in the world. It uses satellite reference points to accomplish this. Morally followers of Jesus have a positioning system that exists in heaven, enabling them to know where they are in the moral world. Using well-known Jewish language, Paul expresses it this way in Phil. 3:20: "the guidance for our civil behaviour (politeuma) lies in heaven."
In this section of Philippians Paul is contrasting the conduct of true followers of Jesus with other people. In his view those who do not belong to Jesus have their thinking shaped and focused "on earthly things (epigeia)". Their moral reference points are bound by this world, with all of the relativism and distortion that this entails. Christians are different because they gain their moral bearings from a heavenly source, namely Jesus Christ.
Paul used the cognate verb in 1:20 where he urges believers "to walk (politeuesthe) worthily of gospel of the Messiah." This kind of language occurs in Jewish literature of the Second Temple period, particularly the Maccebean books. In these contexts we find the idea expressed that Jewish people, in contrast to their Hellenistic neighbours, lived according to the law of Moses. Their moral reference points were located in the covenant. So they had social and moral laws that were different from their Greek acquaintances. This often led to misunderstandings and ridicule, but the Jewish people were bound to follow their peculiar ways. Josephus uses the same language as he describes the necessity for Jewish people to walk or live according to their ancestral laws.
Paul, I am sure, was well aware of this kind of usage. His incorporation of it into Philippians is deliberate and is designed to help his Christian friends understand clearly what has happened to them as followers of Jesus. No longer do they take their cue from human customs, ancestral traditions, or regional legal codes. Rather, their direction comes straight from heaven itself, mediated through the life and teachings of Jesus, the Messiah. In this case it is the "gospel of the Messiah". Paul gives full colour to what this would look like in Philippians 2:5-11 as he describes the actions of Jesus in becoming incarnate, humbling himself and taking the form of a servant so that we might receive the full benefits of salvation. This is the kind of moral and spiritual guidance that now gives shape and colour to the believer’s life.
There is a real sense of opposition to this kind of heavenly-directed life. Choices made because of commitment to the Gospel will generate suffering, opposition and perhaps even death, as the Messiah himself experienced. This puts followers of Jesus into a place of struggle. We desire to depart and be with Jesus, so that we no longer face this suffering. Yet, it may be helpful for our Christian friends for us to remain and continue to participate in the struggle. This is the tension that Paul wrestles with. He is able to be content with his role because he gains his sense of worth, value and direction from heaven itself and this makes all the difference.
Is your moral positioning today being directed by God Himself through the teaching and guidance of His Spirit? Do your moral decisions portray your commitment to Jesus and his ways of humility, service, and love? This is what Paul pursued as the most significant thing in his life – to be like Jesus.
Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today,
- think about some of the moral decisions you have made recently. Do they reflect God’s moral framework, or some other frame of reference?
- How conscious are you of the moral distance that exists between you and those who do not follow Jesus? How does this find expression? What is your response to this – disregard it, minimize it, live with it? What should your response be according to Philippians 3:19-21?
- What moral compass points does Paul emphasize in Phil. 1:27-2:4? Are these evident in your life and ministry? How can they become more pronounced and distinctive?