Jesus is God’s eternal Son (He 1:1-4). Yet his life on earth was slave-like (Ph 2:6-7), lived under the brutal authority of worldly powers and often utterly exhausting. Why? In order to save his people from sin (Ph 2:8; 1Jo 4:10). God laid out this path for him and Jesus had absolute trust in his Father (Jo 5:19), so he accepted its hardships. That faith was richly rewarded in Jesus’ victory, resurrection and ascension to heaven’s throne (Ph 2:10-11). And now Jesus’ approach lies before Christians as the way they are to think and act: Paul calls all Christians to emulate the Lord’s unworldly humility (Ph 2:3-5). Our verses describe the apostle himself living up to that call.
Paul is currently imprisoned in Caesarea following the trouble, two years earlier, in Jerusalem (Ac 21-24). Previously judged by Felix, that Roman Governor has now been replaced by Festus (Ac 24:27). On his opening visit to Jerusalem, Festus is confronted by Jewish leaders demanding Paul’s retrial (v1,2) though their motivation is far more sinister: they hope to have him killed (v3). Festus, however, is unwilling to give way to their pressure and insists that any further assessment of Paul must take place in Caesarea (v4,5) – a policy he implements a few days later (v6). But though Paul is safe, his circumstances must be very frustrating for him: locked up for so long on unprovable charges (v7)! Sure, he is confident he was right to come to Judea (Ac 21:13); he believes his witness to the Jews is a vital last one before their punishment. Yet, all the troubles which have come his way as a result must tax his mind and heart. So how does he process it all?
The answer lies in his words in Philippians 2. Jesus’ life was slave-like so Paul must accept the same pattern from God. Luke brings that out in the similarities he describes between Paul’s trial and Jesus’. Paul is pushed around by powerful people; Paul’s life hangs in the balance; Paul has to do things that naturally he would rather flee from. His life is slave-like, like Jesus’. And Christians must be ready to accept the same at points in their lives. We have to be willing to submit to God in those periods where we feel mistreated, frustrated, trapped by events. That may be dramatic times of trouble such as Paul faces here, but it can also be in the humdrum times too. It’s not an option for us to complain when life becomes a drudge or to spend each day dreaming of the better life which we feel we are owed. Jesus has called Christians to a humble frame of mind which always wonders how to love, serve and bless others (Ph 2:3-7). The choices we then make may look crazy to others since they curtail our freedom and may leave us weaker, poorer or appearing to be failures. Yet we are to be convinced that this is Jesus’ path of true living.
However, that does not mean we cannot challenge others over their treatment of us. Paul knows that since Jesus died in Jerusalem, he does not need to. So he argues against the false charges being brought, including the new one of political sedition against Caesar (v8). And he refuses the invitation to return to Jerusalem (v9). He’s in a Roman court (v10) under the jurisdiction of the emperor, so he would rather go to Rome (v11)! Having consulted with his advisers, Festus agrees to the request (v12). So Paul, rightly, looks to escape from martyrdom in Jerusalem: Christians are free to escape from death or trouble if they are able; we offer to sacrifice ourselves only when it is necessary. However, Paul also has other important reasons for going to Rome. Firstly, it’s a good springboard from which to reach the ‘barbarians’ of outer lands (Ro 15:23,24). Secondly, it’s the right place to complete his task of telling the Jews across the world that Jesus is the Messiah (Ac 28:17-28). Hence Paul’s request is not simply to make his life safer; indeed, he knows that it could easily end in something terrible (Ph 1:20). But as a slave of Jesus, he will go.
Paul’s mindset is the mindset of Christ which must be the mindset of all true Christians. Unlike Paul in Rome and Jesus in Jerusalem, we can’t be sure that the Lord definitely wants us in our current location. They were in those cities in fulfilment of prophecies. So we are free to move from where we live and take up new work elsewhere. But we are still bound to ask whether this is the most loving thing to do. And if love for God and others requires us to remain in an unhappy situation, then we should do so. Neither self-concern nor selfishness can drive the decisions we make in life; humble love is our director. We are to think of others, as Jesus did, and then in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, learn to be content. Paul did (Ph 4:11-13).