The Shape of the Jesus Story and the Jesus-Shaped Life

Stairs Down, Escalator Up. Photo by Jeremy Brooks

The Shape of the Jesus Story and the Jesus-Shaped Life

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

• 1 Corinthians 11:1

• • •

Michael J. Gorman calls the narrative celebrated in the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 “Paul’s Master Story.”

Less widely recognized is the evidence that this text permeates all his letters, and so much so that 2:6-11 should be called not merely the centerpiece of Philippians but Paul’s master story. (p. 12)

Gorman argues that this passage is comprehensive in scope, relating the story of Jesus to Israel’s story, from Adam to the eschatological kingdom. It is also forms a creedal statement that is explicitly anti-imperial, proclaiming that Jesus (and not Caesar) is Lord. Furthermore, this text contains several important narrative patterns that appear constantly throughout the Pauline writings. As Gorman notes: “He regularly adopts and adapts the text’s narrative patterns to display his (a) Christology/soteriology (and, as we will see, his theology proper), but also both is (b) apostolic self-understanding and his (c) ethic or spirituality…” (p. 13)

Here is the first part of this text, Philippians 2:6-8, which embodies the main point of our post today.

who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.

The narrative pattern of 2:6-8 is described as Although [x], not [y] but [z].

The basic sense of the text, then, is that Christ existed as someone with a certain status (2:6a) who did not do one thing (indicated by the main verb in 2:6b) but did do something else — specifically two things, acts of self-humbling and self-emptying, denoted by the two main verbs of 2:7-8 (“emptied himself … humbled himself”). (p. 16)

Michael Gorman cites Joseph Hellerman, who observes that this “downward-bound succession of ignominies [is] constructed in contrast to Rome’s cursus honorum, the elite’s upward-bound race for honors, imitated in various ways throughout the province and colonies.” (p. 16)

For Paul as a Christ-following apostle and for all Christians invited to “take up their cross and follow Jesus,” this is the pattern of life to which we are called. This was the shape of Jesus’ story, the pattern Paul sought to imitate in his apostolic ministry, and the pattern of life he called believers to imitate in him as he followed the Messiah.

Two texts from autobiographical texts in Paul may be highlighted. The first is 1 Thessalonians 2:6-8 —

…nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others,though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Although we were apostles who could have demanded certain things, Paul says, we did not seek to enhance our status and impress others, but we gave our very own selves to serve you gently, with tender, motherly love.

The second passage is from 1 Corinthians 9:

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If I am not an apostle to others, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

This is my defence to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?

… Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.

… But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case. Indeed, I would rather die than that—no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting! If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.

Although we are apostles (with certain legitimate rights), Paul writes, we did not make use of our apostolic rights, but we voluntarily determined not to exercise those rights, instead becoming slaves to others so that we might win them with the good news.

It is in texts like these that Michael Gorman finds “the core meaning of conformity to Christ.” It involves having a certain status and identity but refusing to exploit that for personal gain, instead humbling oneself to love and serve others.

One surprising insight arising from this is that in giving up the self-aggrandizing use of our identity and status, we actually confirm the true nature of our identity and status!

Thus, by humbling himself, taking on humanity, serving as a slave, and going to the cross, Jesus actually exhibited the true character of God! It is not just that “ALTHOUGH Jesus was in the form of God,” he humbled himself, but on a deeper level it is “BECAUSE Jesus was in the form of God” that he went to the cross. The true nature of God is cruciform. The God who hides himself in the crucifixion is most fully revealed in that act of self-giving love.

In the same way, Paul actually proved himself a genuine apostle by setting aside the rights and privileges of his position and deigning to serve.

And likewise, we shall show ourselves to be disciples when we take up the basin and towel and humbly love one another.

This is the Jesus-shaped life.

• • •

Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology
By Michael J. Gorman
Wm. B. Eerdmanns Publishing Co.

• • •

Photo by Jeremy Brooks at Flickr. Creative Commons License

25 thoughts on “The Shape of the Jesus Story and the Jesus-Shaped Life

  1. Nope. So many good books – so little time….

    I read “Cost of Discipleship” when I was in my 20s. It is much more poignant after a few decades of life.



  2. People who wanted to follow Miles Davis had to play with him, not reproduce the notes on a sheet of written music for him to hear; I think you have to do something similar to follow Jesus.


  3. But why do we ignore Jesus entirely and start living based off ANE tribal laws? Laws that he himself barely seemed to follow as they were interpreted at least.

    Why don’t we follow the example of the end result of those laws? Instead of the laws?


  4. So, wouldn’t it follow that, to live and be a Christian, you must strive and act to live just like Christ

    It wouldn’t require that every Christian must remain unmarried, childless, and arrange to die by 33 years of age, would it? There needs to be lots of room for creative imitation, which means there needs to be lots of room for improvisation.


  5. Sure, it is obvious. But it isn’t simple.

    What does that mean for a middle-class schmo in middle America in the second decade of the 21st. century?


  6. The Shape of the Jesus Story and the Jesus-Shaped Life

    Christians, little christs, follow Christ, namely Jesus of Nazareth. We follow Him because we believe he’s the fullest or best representative of God, the Son of God, maybe even God Himself.

    So, wouldn’t it follow that, to live and be a Christian, you must strive and act to live just like Christ? Like Jesus? Having Him as the goal?

    Is this painfully obvious only to me?


  7. Hello Dana,
    I believe it comes from his ‘The Cost of Discipleship’

    It does seem ‘Orthodox’, yes. We know he was Lutheran.

    Have you read Baxter Kruger’s writings?


  8. CM,

    I’m curious about what Gorman says about theosis. Are you going to post on this? If not, could you give me a summary? Thanks-



  9. Probably my favorite band. Since I’m on vacation this week I had time yesterday to do a YouTube memorial all day long. R.I.P. Walter B. You’ve got a name when you lose.


  10. I don’t see how there are *any* rights, really. Unless you are a universalist, which I do lean toward, at times. We are God’s children, with whatever intrinsic qualities come with that and we are the object of God’s love. But rights? Not so much I think. Just try arguing your rights to a ruling entity that disagrees with you. They have guns and swords…


  11. I love the idea of an ““Although [x], not [y] but [z]” bracelet, but I need to know I can EXPLAIN IT first!! 😉


  12. “The true nature of God is cruciform”

    Yes. This. If you want to see this, probably no better place to look than among some (certainly not all) Christian missionaries. I had the privilege of growing up outside the United States as a missionary kid and knowing a few people like this. It’s indescribably beautiful.

    And it’s one of the many reasons I mourn over what American evangelicalism has now become.


  13. My favorite Steely Dan song is “Bodhisattva.”

    bo·dhi·satt·va – a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings.

    I know that the term is Buddhist in nature, but I kinda see Christ in there, too, and I think it lines up with the underlying message of this post.


  14. I have read these verses for many years, but never caught the connection. A very interesting insight by Mr. Gorman.


  15. > We don’t even aspire to it anymore;

    Some latitude should be provided – it is pretty rarely **taught**. 😦 That makes it harder to aspire to.

    This post is one of the most succinct definitions of ““the core meaning of conformity to Christ” that I’ve seen.

    Paul’s weird grammar has a point; I never directly noticed the ““Although [x], not [y] but [z]” before. But it works.


  16. So challenging… to me and all of american christianity, much of which actually practices and teaches the opposite of Paul’s teaching here. We don’t even aspire to it anymore; it’s self-defense, grasping-for-power and self-aggrandizement 24/7…


  17. “It is not just that “ALTHOUGH Jesus was in the form of God,” he humbled himself, but on a deeper level it is “BECAUSE Jesus was in the form of God” that he went to the cross. The true nature of God is cruciform. ”

    The Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have agreed, I believe. In writing on the Incarnation, Bonhoeffer stated,

    “” We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The incarnate lord makes His followers the brothers and sisters of all humanity. The “philanthropy” of God (Titus 3:4) revealed in the Incarnation is the ground of Christian love toward all on earth that bear the name of human. The form of Christ incarnate makes the Church into the body of Christ. All the sorrows of humanity falls upon that form, and only through that form can they be borne. The earthly form of Christ is the form that died on the cross. The image of God is the image of Christ crucified. It is to this image that the life of the disciples must be conformed: in other words, they must be conformed to His death (Phil. 3:10; Rom. 6:4). The Christian life is a life of crucifixion.”


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