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Models for Christian Living: Lessons from Surfing and St. Paul

Brian D. Russell


What kind of person do I need to become to serve as a model of Christlike character for others?

A Lesson from Surfing

I took up surfing the year before I turned 40 years old. I had watched surfers from the safety of the seashore for many years. I figured it was now or never. My daughters were elementary school age at the time and they eagerly took up the sport with me. My progress was hard won. It took well over a hundred attempts before I ever caught my first wave. My youngest daughter showed me up on her first attempt. She was seven years old. She was petite for her age. She was small enough that she did not even need a full sized surf board. I taught her using a four foot body board.

She caught her first wave just south of Port Canaveral, Florida. We were about thirty yards offshore. She was light enough that she balanced on the body board while I held it steady as we awaited the next set of waves. The perfect one approached. I pushed the board into the wave. My daughter kept her balance and glided down the face of the wave. At this moment, she did something extraordinary. She was so proud of her triumph that while she surfed the wave she began sharing her joy with everyone within shouting distance. She cried out, “Look at me! Everyone, look at me!”

I remember chuckling to myself at her lack of humility and thinking that she would grow out of this. Yet, while reading Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul’s exhortation in 3:17 reminded me of my daughter’s words. Paul wrote, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.”

Paul’s Challenge to the Philippians

In Philippians, Paul calls believers to live as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ (1:27–30, 3:20). Paul writes to empower the Philippian Christ followers to serve as witnesses of the good news for their city. Of course the principal model for the Christian life is Jesus himself (2:1–18). Yet Paul offers Jesus as the first model of four that he includes from 2:1–3:16 as examples of what a citizen worthy of the Gospel looks like.

The issue in Philippians was the status of the believers within the Roman world. Many of the Christians in Philippi (like Paul himself) were Roman citizens. Roman citizenship offered substantial privileges within the Empire and was not common in the provinces. The city of Philippi was a Roman colony so Philippi enjoyed a standing within the Empire that other cities outside of Rome did not.

A fundamental insight in 1:27-4:1 is this: the status that one embraces sets the limits of one’s capacity to reach others with the gospel. Roman citizenship is a set of privileges that one enjoys and is able to exploit for his or her own benefit. Gospel citizenship is a privileged relationship with God that unleashes one to lay aside personal benefits for the sake of God’s mission and for the good of others.

Paul begins with Jesus. The hymn in 2:6–11 captures the core message of gospel citizenship. Although (or perhaps because) Jesus shares equality with God, Jesus did not exploit this status for his personal gain (2:6). Instead, Jesus renounced the status of divinity and embraced the status of a slave (2:7). This was a profound subversion of the Roman social ladder. Slaves were at the bottom far below the gods (and well below the status of a Roman citizen). In fact, Jesus embraced his slave status to the extent that he was obedient to death on a cross (2:8). This is a significant statement. Jesus could have died in a variety of ways to atone for sin. He took up the cross in part because crucifixion was reserved only for those of no status such as slaves. Yet what happened to Jesus (2:9–11)? God highly exalted him and gave him the name above all names.

This is the first model for citizenship. The Philippians are to work out their salvation (2:12) in light of Jesus’ life and shine as stars within their generation (2:15). But it is easy to point to Jesus as the model because Jesus is no longer physically present. His story is aspirational, but Paul offers something profoundly incarnational.

Paul moves to include three humans whom the Philippians know intimately as contemporary examples of Christlike character and action: Timothy (1:1, 2:19–24), Epaphroditus (2:25–30), and himself (1:1–26, 3:1–16). Timothy demonstrated a genuine other centered outlook in the way that he ministered among the Philippians. Epaphroditus was a member of the Philippian community. He faced death in order to serve in the mission of the gospel when the Philippians sent him to help the imprisoned Paul. Paul himself suffered in prison (1:12–26) and modeled the reality that knowing Christ Jesus as Lord was a greater gain than any mere human accomplishment (3:1–16).

The Philippians knew these men. Paul could not distort their character. Paul took this risk to teach us the importance of our personal lives in the advance of the gospel. Paul could say with integrity, “If you want to see what the Christian life looks like, look at me as well as the lives of my co-workers Timothy and Epaphroditus.”

Implications for Living

This text calls us to remember and give thanks for the women and men in our lives from whom we’ve learned how to live out the gospel. Who are yours?

More importantly, it challenges us to recognize the necessity of nurturing personal holiness as an integral part of how God advances his mission in the world. Who is watching and learning from me?

As I think about Paul’s words to the Philippians, I see and hear my daughter surfing and crying out, “Look at me! Everyone, look at me!”

What kind of person do I need to become in order to serve as a model of Christlike character for others?

Posted Jun 11, 2018       /      /   Google Plus    /