The apostle Paul used the metaphor as a major tool in his desire to present truth in a way that would be easy to understand and hard to forget. Believers are “stars” shinning in a society that is “warped and crooked,” while he, the apostle, is being “poured out like a drink offering” on the “sacrifice” of their faithful service (Philippians 2:15-17). One writer refers to Paul as the “master of the mixed metaphor.” In any case, he uses the metaphor of a sacrificial offering to picture his life as being poured out as a libation over the offering of the life and service of the believers at Philippi. What it lacks in specificity it gains in its power to communicate. The metaphor is built on the ancient ritual of sacrifice. The truth being set forth is that what the church is doing in giving themselves without reserve to the cause of the gospel is joined with Paul’s willing acceptance of death if necessary; the joint effort becomes a sacrificial offering to God. Granted, the metaphor would be more effective in a society where literal sacrifice was customary, but even for us in a decidedly different culture, it is still a powerful way to share the truth.
The point I would emphasize is that for the believer, living is best accomplished by dying. To the church at Rome, Paul writes that they have “died to sin” (6:2), that they have been “buried with him” (6:4) so that now that they are dead they are “set free from sin” (6:7). Earlier in Philippians we heard Paul declare, “For me to die is gain” (1:21). The way to live is to die, so Paul urges his readers, “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1). I admit this sounds strange in our day when the culture tells us that to live is to get the most out of it. Seek success; live up to your potential; be positive. But Jesus says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Absolutely counter-cultural. I know that the New Testament teaching on how best to live is at odds with today’s cultural norms but that’s what we would expect. They crucified Jesus and that describes the ongoing response of secularism to his message. There is little use in trying to make the gospel palatable to those who insist that life is no more than an opportunity to get the most for oneself. Any opposition must be eliminated.
Back to our text. Paul closes this section of his letter telling his readers that by living in a sacrificial way, “They too will be glad and rejoice with him” (vs. 18). The Christian faith teaches that the way up is down. It runs opposite to all that the world would have us believe. The ultimate test for us is whether we believe God or the advice of men. It’s that simple. For the true believer it isn’t really a decision – you die in order to live. And that is not something for the future but for every day of the time period we used to call life.