Philippians 2:4-11 is a magnificent section of Scripture. In this passage, Paul further develops a thought that he began in Philippians 1:7 where he speaks of being a partaker of God’s grace “both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel.” In this passage, Paul describes grace as being God’s work of transforming us through persecution into sacrificial givers to others, equipping us to sacrificial involvement in the cause of Christ and His gospel. Paul develops this thought even further in chapter 2 when he turns our attention to the example of Jesus and His willingness to sacrifice for us.
For many of us, the thought that persecution and suffering can be a gracious gift from God is foreign. We tend to think of grace as something that we freely receive. We are unaccustomed to think that grace is also something meant to transform us into being not only grateful receivers of the free gift of salvation but also sacrificial givers of this same gospel to others. But reflecting on the example of our Saviour, Paul wants his readers to see how self-centered living is the exact opposite of what Christ calls us to. We are to have the same mind or attitude as our Lord when, rather than seeing His equality with God as being something to selfishly grasped, Jesus understood that the nature of deity was to be self-giving (2:6). To be sacrificial to the point of suffering and dying is part of the very nature of who God is. We read that Jesus, being God, willingly emptied Himself, took the form of a servant, and humbled Himself to the point of death (2:5–8). This, Paul says, is to be the attitude of each of those who are Christ’s followers as well (verse 5).
While it is important and biblical to defend the rights of Christians to worship freely and to defend those who suffer unjustly, it is also vital to remember that the cost of following Christ usually means that we refuse to grasp on to these rights for ourselves. Jesus had every right to be treated with respect and honour, being God. We have every right to be treated with respect because we are created in the image of God (cf. Genesis 1:27; 9:6; James 3:9). The Hebrew word for image is the same term used for idol. Although Israel was forbidden to have any false gods or idols or to create an idol to represent the true God, God Himself designed a single living image (or idol, if you like) to represent him – humanity. We are God’s idols. Not to be worshipped but created to represent God to others as God’s living sculptures.
As His representatives, we are called to fulfill His purposes in the same way in which He does. And Jesus demonstrated God’s methodology in His life and death on the cross– sacrifice, self-giving, humility, and obedience even to the point of death. This means having a readiness to even give up anything – our possessions, priorities, rights, hopes, families, even our lives for God. When we focus too much on our own personal rights, we are looking backward rather than forward, inward rather than outward, focusing on the image rather than on the One we are to represent. Yes, we recognize the wrongs we suffer, the pains, hurts and violations, but we forgive and renew our focus on the task before us, on our responsibilities as God’s representatives in this hostile world.
Again, we need to emphasize that this does not presuppose that the rights we possess as human beings are not legitimate and that others can (and perhaps should) uphold them. Nor does this give us the excuse to not uphold the rights of others. If we have no rights, as some would say, then renouncing them would be meaningless. Giving up illegitimate rights can hardly be considered a sacrifice. But there are times (probably more often than we are comfortable admitting) when the call to follow Christ and to conform to His image requires that we renounce the rights that we may rightfully possess, even the right to life itself.
Similarly, to refuse to uphold the rights of others simply because we have personally chosen to renounce these rights for the sake of the Kingdom is unjust and a direct violation of scriptural commands to defend the weak and oppressed and to speak on their behalf. It would be a cruel person who says, “Since I refuse to uphold my rights, I will bind you to my decision as well by letting you suffer in silence and refuse to raise a finger to help you.” This is why The Voice of the Martyrs exists. We obey the biblical admonitions to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak, to defend the rights of defenceless because they have chosen to renounce these rights for the sake of Christ.