It is all very well to say that being “worthy of the gospel of Christ” means being restored to the image of God so that we begin to reflect the character of the Lord Jesus. But what does that mean?
The New Testament does not leave us to make this up. It does not allow us to say, “The way I like to think about this is . . .” In fact a few verses after urging his friends in Philippi to “be worthy,” Paul explains that it means “have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus . . .” (Phil. 2:5).
To “be worthy” involves sharing “the mind [or as we might say, mindset] of Christ Jesus.” Paul proceeds to explain that mindset in Philippians 2:5–11. True, these verses describe Christ’s actions. But those actions are the expressions of his mindset—and sharing it is fundamental to living in a way that is “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Paul has the same goal in view when he later writes that those who are “mature” will think the same way he does (Phil. 3:15).
What then does it mean to have the mind of Christ?
A Model of Humility
I rarely think about Philippians 2:1–11 without recalling an evening in my first few weeks as a university student. I was seated in an Inter-Varsity meeting listening to the distinguished Anglican preacher John R. W. Stott expounding this passage.
He began calmly with a question: “What is the secret of Christian unity?” But then (to my horror!) he paused, waiting for one of us to answer. At age seventeen you don’t have masses of wisdom, but I had enough to think, “I’m not answering him; I might get it wrong!” In fact, the first person to answer got it wrong, and so John Stott put us out of our misery. We waited in anticipation as he said, “The secret of Christian unity is”—I can still hear his refined Rugby School and Cambridge-educated accent pronounce the word—“humility.”
Decades later, on the last occasion I heard him preach, I remembered his words. He was then experiencing TIAs,1 and, having lost his place in the middle of his exposition, he stood quietly, and in a sense helpless, before the congregation. Hitherto I had never heard him miss a beat or struggle for words, the way ordinary preaching mortals do. But as John Stott now stood, dignified, but speechless for a few moments that may have seemed an eternity, I found myself transported in memory to that room where I, aged seventeen, heard him pronounce the word “humility.” And I thought, “Now you are illustrating the humility of Christ about which you once taught us.”
In the intervening years I had been befriended by him and had come to know him, and so I found his modeling of his own preaching very moving.
Perhaps you have had the privilege of knowing Christians who have left the same impression on you. According to Paul we are to watch them and to imitate them: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (Phil. 3:17).
But what is it we have seen in these models? It is Christlikeness, isn’t it? And the quintessence of this is humility—the mindset of the Savior.
Imitation Is Not “Cloning”
Perhaps this is an appropriate place to include a word of warning. The biblical principle of imitating others is not a matter of “cloning.” Biblical imitation means recognizing patterns and principles and building them into the way we ourselves do things. But if we try to be clones, we lose ourselves in the process—we never become the person we are cloning ourselves to be, nor are we any longer truly ourselves. And discerning eyes see through us. Genuine imitation is organic, not mechanical; it is internal, not external.
This warning has, perhaps, a special relevance to younger preachers. Certainly the danger—and perhaps the temptation—is most obvious in preachers because of their public role. Most people are not watched by anywhere between dozens and thousands of people each week!
I once heard an American preacher pass on a shrewd comment his preacher-father had made to him: “Many preachers spend the first five years of their ministry trying to be someone else, the next five years trying to find out who they really are, and the rest of their lives being the preacher the Lord meant them to be.”
Biblical imitation means recognizing patterns and principles and building them into the way we ourselves do things.
That’s often true. And in some instances it is all too obviously true. Hence the warning: biblical imitation is not merely external cloning. It is not a matter of imitating mannerisms, intonations, phraseology, or idiosyncrasies. How oddly superficial to think that these are the source of a preacher’s fruitfulness. Sometimes, of course, this is simply a matter of naivete. But sometimes it appears to be an attempt to take the fast route to usefulness; or even, sadly, impressiveness or influence. It is not always well motivated. Like Simon Magus, we might desire the fruit someone else displays without being willing to nurture the root, the trunk, or the branches of being in Christ ourselves.
When someone persists in cloning himself to be what he isn’t, he ceases to be the person God means him to be. And the situation is worse if cloning is the—doubtless unspoken— goal of the institution in which he is trained. Then it may take either a crisis or an expert analyst to restore the reality of grace that leads to lasting fruitfulness.
Perhaps you have seen this, or even been this—someone who has lost himself in an effort to possess what another has. In the case of preaching, you may even recognize the preacher someone is attempting to be; or you sense the telltale signs of a lack of authenticity. It is a kind of act, a performance before us, rather than a spiritual nourishing. What is missing is the foot-washing disposition that comes from humility and love. There is a difference between the preaching of someone who is, in disposition, on his knees before you and someone who is on his feet lording it over you. Sadly, the difference is not always recognized. But the one is serving you while the other is using you—and perhaps even abusing you.
No doubt some of the characteristics of preachers we admire “rub off.” But if so, we need to dust ourselves down. Otherwise, while we may not become false preachers, we nevertheless may become false as preachers. And then we will need to be further deconstructed if our ministry is to be “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” We may not have plagiarized in order to impress others with a sermon that is not our own. But we may have plagiarized a character or personality others have in order to fulfill our ambition to possess another’s reputation or ministry impact.
What is the missing note? Humility. We have wanted something God has not given us and tried to obtain it by being someone he has not made us to be. We may not have grasped equality with God, but we have grasped equality with someone else. It is un-Jesus-like. And almost inevitably, what is missing is the key Paul said opened a door into the hearts of the Thessalonians: “So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8).
If we have lost ourselves by becoming clones of someone else, it is not likely to be because we love God’s people the way our loving Lord Jesus did, who “made himself of no reputation” (Phil. 2:7 KJV). Being “worthy of the gospel” as its heralds therefore requires the ability to echo (properly imitate) Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:5: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” Paul preached Christ as Lord. But what lent authenticity to his preaching was being like Jesus himself in the upper room: when Paul preached, he was inwardly on his knees before those who heard him. Far from seeking to be someone whose gifts they admired, he saw himself as their bondservant, whose service he wanted them to receive.
Sinclair B. Ferguson