The Prison Epistles, Part 10

The Key to Survival

A Study of Philippians 1:27-2:4

The first part of Philippians is a discussion of Paul’s personal situation and that of the Gospel in Rome.  Beginning with 1:27, Paul takes the spotlight off himself and shines it on his readers.  He is about to give a series of strong exhortations centering around the theme of Christian obedience, both Christ’s obedience (2:8) and that of the Church (2:12).

As we study Paul’s writings, it becomes obvious that in Paul’s mind, one of the greatest virtues a believer may possess is obedience, whether that believer is a servant or a leader.  Obedience to the Gospel is what Paul shares with his readers and it is a common fellowship all believers share.  Whether we stand behind the pulpit or sit in front of it, all of us are to be obedient to the Word of God.

1.  Steadfastness, unity, and fearlessness, 1:27-30

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God.  For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

Another way to read the first phrase is:

Only continue to exercise your citizenship in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

The verb Paul uses is politeuesthe, and likely what Paul has in mind is this:  the Philippians (not just the church, but the citizens of that city in general) tended to be proud of their status as Roman citizens.

They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”  (Acts 16:20-21)

But for members of the Church, even though they geographically lived in a Roman city, their true citizenship was in heaven, and their true allegiance should have been to the laws of heaven.  But the word  politeuesthe has a greater meaning.  Originally it meant “to be guided by certain regulations and laws.”  (Nielson)  Philippi was, in reality, an outpost of Rome, literally, it was bit of Rome on foreign soil.  The correlation to the Church’s position on earth cannot be missed here.  Just like Philippi was a piece of Rome in the Mediterranean, so the Church is a piece of heaven on earth.  And members of the Church are obligated to keep both the laws of Heaven and the laws of Rome, but the laws of Heaven take precedence.  That this is the case is borne out in Paul uses of the word mononon, “Whatever happens” (NIV), “Only” (KJV).  It is emphatic, meaning Paul is declaring:  “Let attention to your heavenly citizenship be supreme, no matter what.”

His readers are to “stand firm.”  The Greek is stekete, and is a military term suggesting a soldier was to remain resolute and obedient and that retreat was impossible in spite of enemy onslaughts.  The Philippians were to do this “in one spirit.”  The “spirit”, pneumati, is seen by some as referring to the Holy Spirit, although it is more likely, given the context, Paul is simply referring to a “common spirit” of unity.   MacLaren makes it clear, however, that in the Body of Christ, this “common spirit” is not really possible without the Holy Spirit.  So, we might say that the “common spirit” involves believers getting along with other believers, enabled by the Holy Spirit to do so.

The unity is described by Paul as:

  • contending as one man, NIV
  • striving together with one accord, TNIV

The latter might be more accurate, for the Greek is mia psyche, or “with one soul.”  That is about as unified as human beings can be!  As Hendriksen notes, the unity “envisioned is one of striving or struggling side by side, like gladiators.”  What should be noted, and rarely is, is that this struggle is not against a foe but for the Gospel.   In this part of Scripture, at least, Paul is concerned not primarily with fending off attacks, but mainly in spreading the Gospel of Christ, which is the story of God’s wondrous redemptive truth, centered on the work of Christ, on the Cross, for believer.  This is a powerfully motivating truth which is so often over looked by so many.  The Gospel is to be actively spread, both in word and deed; the Kingdom of God is to advance.

Is this wonderful mission easy?  Paul seems to anticipate this with verse 28:

without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.

In the Greek, “frightened” (pturomenoi) was a term originally used to describe a frightened animal, like a startled or shy horse.   There is no excuse for believers to be scared or frightened as they share their faith with others because the power of God, through the Holy Spirit, ought to compel them to do so.  Similarly, being shy or afraid to speak up for your Christian faith is disobedient to the will of God, and disobedience is a sin, for it disrupts the unity Paul is writing about.  J.B. Philips paraphrases this phrase as only a Brit can:

and not caring two straws for your enemies.

The enemies, in this case, were probably a mixture of hostile Jews and the pagans of Philippi.  The only way the Church can stand against any foe, from within or without, is to be courageous and unified and fight for the Gospel.

A Church that is strong in it’s faith and unified in it’s membership in the face of it’s enemies, is proof that those who oppose that Church are, in fact, on the wrong side, are enemies of God and will ultimately fail because the Church is a force that cannot be stopped.   When a believer stands tall, secure in his faith in the face of any opposition, that is proof that God is working both in that individual and in the Church.

Verse 29 is a shocking verse to some:

For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.

Salvation is a privilege granted only to believers, and that is the privilege we love to talk about and sing about.  However, there are not too many hymns about the other privilege believers have been granted:  to suffer for Christ.

The concept of suffering as a good thing shouldn’t surprise us in light of what the author of Hebrews wrote:

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.  (Hebrews 2:10)

If our Savior was made perfect through suffering, it makes perfect sense that we, too, are perfected through suffering for Him.  Job caught a glimpse of this long before the coming of Christ into the world:

But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.  (Job 23:10)

This is such an important concept, and one that is often so misunderstood.  Suffering is not a mark of God’s anger.

To the Philippians, suffering was the marriage gift when they were espoused to Christ:  the bounty when the enlisted in his service.  Becoming one with him, they entered into the fellowship of his suffering.  (M.R. Vincent)

Paul concludes the paragraph with an encouraging equation of his own suffering (he was in prison) for the Gospel with the Philippians and their struggles.  Acts 16 details the kind of suffering the Philippians had seen Paul experience in their city, and through Epaphroditus they now heard about his present sufferings.  This  must have been a great encouragement for these people; to hear that they and the great apostle himself are suffering the same way for the same cause.  That is unity.

2.  The essence of obedience, 2:1-4

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

The idea of unity is carried on in chapter 2 and hearkens back 1:27,

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel.

Paul lists four reasons for unity, each introduced by the word “if.”  They are:

  • If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ.   Paul uses the Greek paraklesis to describe this benefit of being united with Christ.  We translate that word “consolation” or “exhortation” or “encouragement,” as in the NIV.
  • If any comfort from his love.  This literally means “incentive.”  Christ’s love for us should motivate us to be “one in purpose.”
  • If any fellowship with the Spirit.  This phrase has evoked a difference of opinion among scholars because pneumatos an be taken either subjectively or objectively.  The NIV has taken it objectively, that is, we have a common fellowship with the Holy Spirit.  Subjectively it is the Holy Spirit that produces the fellowship we should be enjoying as believers.
  • If any tenderness and compassion.  “Tender affections and compassions” is a better way to read this phrase.  These emotions ought to exist between members of the Church.

Paul makes it clear that if his friends in Philippi have all those things in their favor, then they should be able to live and function in a divine unity.  Obviously, with verses like this one, the congregation at Philippi was very close to Paul:

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!  (4:1)

The essence of obedience, implied by Paul, is that since we have been the recipients of so  much from Christ, we should act like Him toward our brothers and sisters.  Paul goes on to list four things believers can do to accomplish this:

  • Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  This clause is incomplete in the Greek, and the word phronountes could be taken to mean, “be of one mind.”  The idea Paul is putting out is everything should be done in humility and without any pride.
  • In humility consider others better than yourselves. Paul may have in mind the problem of Euodia and Syntyche:

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. (4:2)

  • There was a problem of disunity to be sure in this church.  But of note, is that this should be done in humility.  There are believers who run around doing all manner of good things for their brothers and sisters, but they make sure everybody in church knows about it!  Paul says NO to that.
  • Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.   This verse is in the imperative, meaning the good of others should be as important a goal in the believers life as what is good for their own life.  Believers should actively seek to find ways to better other people.

It becomes evident that Christians are to almost fade into the background as they obey and emulate their Lord.  Paul’s admonitions here echo the teachings of Jesus that the road to greatness among Christians is service to others.  Frank Thielman offers some practical ways to live like this as he paraphrases Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Christians should:

  • Hold their tongues and refuse to speak an ill word against a Christian brother;
  • Cultivate the humility that comes from the knowledge that we are all sinners and live in His sight by His grace;
  • Take notice of what others need;
  • Refuse to consider their time and calling so valuable that they cannot be interrupted to help with unexpected needs, no matter how small or menial;
  • Bear the burden of their brothers and sisters in the Lord, both by preserving their freedom and by forgiving their sinful abuse of that freedom;
  • Declare God’s Word to their fellow believers when they need to hear it;
  • Understand that Christian authority is characterized by service and does not call attention to the person who performs the service.
(c)  2008  WitzEnd
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