“Incarnational” – Philippians 2:1-11

Author and missionary J. Todd Billings offers this autobiographical description of his Bible college missions class:

“As a student in a Christian college classroom, I am told that, just as God became flesh in a particular culture two thousand years ago, it is my job in relating to another culture to become “incarnate” to that culture. I receive training in cultural anthropology to help make this “incarnation” possible. Eight months later in Uganda, while learning the local language and culture, I wonder: is it really possible for me to become incarnate in another culture? I have no doubt that I am called to be a learner of this new culture and a servant through the witness of my life. But is the eternal Word’s act of becoming incarnate really an appropriate model for ministry? Will the Ugandans necessarily “see Jesus” as a result of my efforts at cultural identification? Or am I assuming in this model that my own presence rather than that of Christ is redemptive?”

On December 25th much of Christendom celebrates the event that is at the center of the Christian gospel – the incarnation of Jesus Christ when God became flesh and dwelled among us. This unique and unrepeatable event is written of most clearly in John 1:1-14 and speaks only of Jesus. Nowhere in Scripture is the incarnation suggested as a missionary model or strategy for people to mimic as they carry out the Great Commission. This is why Billings became so confused with the teaching when he sought to apply it in the mission field. In no sense of the word does the commission to preach the Gospel call us to mimic the incarnation; yet advocates of “incarnational missiology” typically go to Philippians 2:1-11 to defend their methods.

As our minds are tuned into the birth of Christ next Sunday, we will look at the true meaning of the beloved, though less popular Christmas text found in Philippians 2:1-11; this is an ancient hymn celebrating the incarnation of the Son of God. In this text Christ’s deity is central. In the incarnation God remains God, even as He takes on flesh. This, of course is something that no man can ever imitate. Rather than calling us to imitate God, the hymn of Philippians 2 calls us to participate in the life of the suffering Servant in our union with Christ. Though we share in Christ’s nature, it’s always Christ alone who is uniquely the redeemer King and God.

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