Christian Citizenship: Living Out the Gospel (Phil. 1:27-2:2)
At first I was convinced that the church at Philippi (in Paul’s day) and the church in Dallas, Texas (in our own day) had little in common. But I’ve changed my mind about that, and I would like to explain why. In the past year or so, a number of distressing events have occurred in our country. These may not be equally distressing to all, but surely there seems to be a pattern emerging that should cause Christians (and others) concern.
On the front page of newspapers across our country and around the world, we saw the picture of heavily-armed federal officers batter down the front door of a humble home and releasing tear gas in the early hours of April 24. One picture captured the image of a federal officer with a gas mask covering his face, his finger near the trigger of his automatic weapon, ready to fire if necessary. Was this officer involved in a drug bust, where highly armed and dangerous drug dealers were being confronted? No. Was this an arrest of gunrunners or terrorists? No. This raid took place in the early hours of the morning when the residents inside the house would normally have been sleeping. As I understand the events, the door was battered down, and the armed officers stormed in to face a man holding a terrified six-year-old boy. The legality of this action is highly suspect, and the morality of it may be even more in question. This action was apparently ordered by the Justice Department of our nation. And while the current administration seems so eager to “protect the rights” of one boy, they aggressively promote granting a “most-favored-nation” trade status to China, knowing full well that this government flagrantly and shamelessly violates human rights.
More and more bills legalizing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are being introduced, and all too many of them are becoming law. We have just seen one state legalize homosexual marriages, and it is possible that others may follow. Christian groups are not granted official status and are sometimes refused permission to meet on college and university campuses, simply because they are a religious group, or because they are a religious group with strong moral values. The Supreme Court is now deliberating a case that may determine whether an organization like the Boy Scouts of America can set moral standards for its leaders. The White House has taken the lead in protecting those who would perform partial birth abortions, one of the most cruel and abominable forms of murder ever known to mankind.
Many Christians have maintained that at the time of its founding, the United States of America was, in fact, a “Christian nation.” I’m not convinced that this was ever completely true. I believe that there were some fine Christian politicians in the days when our nation was founded, but I doubt that we could ever have claimed to be a “Christian nation.” In spite of this, our government has traditionally protected the rights of Christians to worship freely and to proclaim their faith to others. All this seems to be changing rapidly. Many are getting the uneasy feeling that government is now beginning to oppose and penalize Christians, rather than to protect them.
If this is true to one degree or another, as it most certainly seems to be, then we certainly can identify with the saints in Philippi, who at the time of Paul’s writing them, were just beginning to suffer persecution for their faith:
27 Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ so that—whether I come and see you or whether I remain absent—I should hear that you are standing in one spirit, by contending together with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and by not being frightened in any way by your opponents. This is a sign of their destruction, but of your salvation—a sign which is from God. 29 For it has been granted to you not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are encountering the same conflict that you saw me face and now hear that I am facing (Philippians 1:27-30).
From these words, we learn that persecution against the saints in Philippi is becoming more and more intense. The exact source of this persecution is not clearly indicated, but it is not difficult to determine with a certain measure of confidence. We know that men who were quite clearly Gentiles initiated the initial persecution of Paul and Silas. They carefully differentiated Paul and Silas, who were Jews, from themselves as Gentiles (Acts 16:20-21). The magistrates of Philippi were also a part of the cruel and illegal treatment of Paul and Silas. It would therefore seem that the opposition against the saints in Philippi may have come from several sources.
I am inclined to believe that the persecution of the church at Philippi had a certain amount of official sanction from the governing authorities in Philippi. This may have begun with the civil authorities simply “looking the other way” when persecution occurred. We see that happening today in India, where fundamentalist Hindus are attacking and harassing Christians. We also see it in other parts of the world, where Muslim fundamentalists are persecuting the church in predominantly Muslim nations. In time, however, I believe that the civic authorities at Philippi became more directly involved in the persecution of the church.
The persecution of the church at Philippi may be the result of several factors. The first is the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, and thus to the Jews. The Jews were not even ready to admit that they were a subject nation, under the rule of Rome: “We are descendants of Abraham,” they replied, “and have never been anyone’s slaves! How can you say, ‘You will become free’?” (John 8:33)
The Jews were known for being a stubborn, stiff-necked people, who chafed under Roman rule. The Romans were well aware of the fact that a number of Jews were willing to employ force to overthrow Roman rule if they could. Again and again the Jews caused trouble for Rome, and the Roman rulers were getting tired of it. After all, Claudius had commanded all Jews to leave Rome (Acts 18:2). No wonder Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, had so little interest in the charges brought against Paul, or in the beating that the Jews were giving Sosthenes before his very eyes (Acts 18:12-17). At best, he would merely “put up with them” (Acts 18:14), and only if they had a real case to present to him.
The gospel was the fulfillment of Jewish messianic hopes, and even Gentile salvation was truly “of the Jews” (see John 4:22; Romans 9:4-5). But unbelieving Jews not only set themselves against our Lord, they also opposed the gospel that was proclaimed by the apostles and the New Testament saints. Nearly everywhere Paul traveled and spoke he met with Jewish resistance. We know, for example, that when the unbelieving Jews of Thessalonica learned that Paul had gone on to Berea to preach the gospel, they followed him there to cause trouble for him (Acts 17:13). The result was that disturbances seemed to follow Paul wherever he went (Acts 17:5-6).
For some time, Roman officials were willing to view Christianity as a faction of Judaism, and thus Christianity received the same protection under Roman law as Judaism. But as Roman officials grew more and more frustrated with Jewish resistance and rebellion, the Gentile saints may have began to suffer because of their identification with Judaism and the Jews.
Second, the church at Philippi may have begun to suffer persecution because of its association with Paul. Because riots and disturbances seemed to follow Paul wherever he went, I believe that at least some Roman officials may have begun to think of him as trouble. How could any unbeliever not be tempted to feel that Paul had caused a great deal of trouble for Rome? He was arrested in Jerusalem for “disturbing the peace.” It was only with great Roman effort and expense that Paul’s life was spared and that he was brought to Rome to stand trial before Caesar. Even his appeal was misunderstood as an unnecessary legal move (see Acts 26:32). How easy it was to jump to the conclusion that Paul was a troublemaker, and that those who followed him were troublemakers also.29
When Paul first came to Philippi, he cast the demon out of the fortune-telling slave girl. The owners of the slave girl were angry because Paul ruined a profitable business venture. Their charge against Paul and Silas is most significant:
19 But when her owners saw their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. 20 When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are throwing our city into confusion. They are Jews 21 and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us to accept or practice, since we are Romans” (Acts 16:19-21, emphasis mine).
This charge is essentially the same indictment the Jews made against Jesus (Luke 23:2), and also that the Jews made against Paul (see Acts 24:5-6, 12). It drew attention to the fact that Paul was a Jew. It also infers that because he was a Jew, Paul was constantly opposing Roman authority, like his fellow countrymen. Paul and Silas, they charged, were advocating practices and customs that were illegal for Roman citizens. What they did not seem to know at the time was that Paul and Silas were both Jews and Roman citizens (Acts 16:37).
Third, Paul had legally embarrassed the magistrates of Philippi, and it may now appear to them that they have finally gained the upper hand. The magistrates of Philippi were too quick to believe the worst about Paul and Silas, and so they hastily condemned these two men and commenced their punishment without giving them “due process of law,” as Roman law guaranteed all Roman citizens. When they sent word to the jailor instructing him to release Paul and Silas, Paul refused to leave without a public acknowledgment of their error. They were the ones who had broken the law, not Paul or Silas. They must have dealt very gently with these two men, and with the church, lest their own transgressions be exposed publicly. We might say that Paul had these magistrates “over a barrel.” But ten years or more has passed, and Paul is now incarcerated in Rome. He may seem powerless to the Philippian magistrates. If there was ever a time when they could expect to get away with persecuting the saints in Philippi, it was probably now.
And so we see that our circumstances are not really that different from the Philippians of Paul’s day. Religious liberties they had once known were quickly eroding, and persecution was clearly on the horizon. They watched Paul suffer from a distance when he first arrived in Philippi; then, they identified with Paul in his preaching and defense of the gospel in other places; now, they are beginning to be persecuted themselves.
Paul has very carefully laid out his case. He begins by describing himself and Timothy as slaves of Christ (1:1-2). He then describes his deep love and affection for the Philippian saints, and his prayers for them for their maturity and growth, especially in knowledge and love (1:3-11). This is followed by a description of Paul’s attitude toward his circumstances, including those brethren who are seeking to gain at Paul’s expense (1:12-18a). Then, Paul speaks of his attitude toward life and death. He indicated that death would be better for him because it would bring him into the presence of His Lord, but he was persuaded that God had purposed for him to remain on earth a while longer, to serve the saints at Philippi and elsewhere (1:18b-26). Paul is now about to challenge his Philippian friends to follow in his steps (1:27—2:4), and more importantly in the steps of the Savior (2:5-11).
So it is that we see Paul’s words turning from himself to his readers, and from a narrative account to imperatives, instructing the Philippians as to how they should conduct themselves in order to live up to the standard of the gospel. In the original text, Philippians 1:27-30 is one long sentence, preparing the way for one of the greatest texts in all of the New Testament (Philippians 2:5-11).
27 Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ so that—whether I command see you or whether I remain absent—I should hear that you are standing in one spirit, by contending together with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28 and by not being frightened in any way by your opponents. This is a sign of their destruction, but of your salvation—a sign which is from God. 29 For it has been granted to you not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are encountering the same conflict that you saw me face and now hear that I am facing.
Suddenly, Paul has changed the subject from his circumstances, attitude, and conduct to that of the Philippians. The “only” is almost a dividing line between the two matters, pointing out the transition from the one topic to the latter. Paul then gives a clear word of instruction. The translation above, “conduct yourselves” may be a little too generic. It follows the sense of the King James Version, which reads, “let your conversation be.…” I am inclined to embrace the view of A. T. Robertson, who informs us that the verb Paul has employed means,
“…to be a citizen, to manage a state's affairs, to live as a citizen. Only twice in N.T., here and Acts 23:1. Philippi as a colony possessed Roman citizenship and Paul was proud of his own possession of this right. The Authorized Version missed the figure completely by the word ‘conversation’ which did refer to conduct and not mere talk as now, but did not preserve the figure of citizenship. Better render, ‘Only do ye live as citizens.’”30
The word Paul commonly uses when referring to one’s conduct is “walk.” The term we find in our text is found but two times in the New Testament (Philippians 1:27; Acts 23:1).31 In both instances, in my opinion, Paul is talking about one’s conduct as a citizen, one’s civic conduct, one’s conduct in relationship to government. We can see from Paul’s writings on this subject that he strongly advocated submission to the governmental authorities (Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1-7; cf. also 1 Peter 2:11-17). Jesus was accused of treason against Rome; the Jews were often perceived as rebels against Rome’s authority. Since many disturbances broke out in reaction to Paul’s preaching and ministry, it was vitally important for Christians to be law-abiding citizens. I believe that Paul begins his instruction on Christian conduct by addressing the Christians conduct as a citizen of the state.32
As well as giving a very specific command to the Philippian saints, Paul also lays down a guiding general principle that can be summarized in this way:
The gospel is the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ; it is the declaration of how God has made it possible for men to obtain the forgiveness of their sins and the assurance of eternal life. The gospel is also a new and higher standard of conduct for Christians that we are commanded to live up to.
In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he very clearly sets out the doctrine of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 1-5). He concludes this section by indicating that God’s grace is greater and more powerful than sin, so that grace always outruns sin. Paul immediately raises the question, “If my sin prompts God’s grace, and the display of God’s grace glorifies Him, then why should I not continue to live in sin, so that grace may abound?” (Romans 5:20-6:1). Paul’s response is given in chapter 6. When we were saved, we were united with Christ. This saving work of the Holy Spirit (of uniting us with Christ and His work of redemption) was symbolized in our water baptism. Water baptism symbolically declares that we were united with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. In Him, we died to sin and were buried. In Him, we were raised to newness of life. If we have died to sin and have been raised to a new kind of life, how can we continue to live in sin? The gospel sets a new standard of conduct.
This has many other dimensions. If we received the forgiveness of sins by grace, how can we refuse, as Christians, to forgive those who sin against us? If we were once alienated from God as sinners, and by the gracious work of Jesus Christ, we have been reconciled to God and to men (see Ephesians 2), then how can we refuse to be reconciled to others, even though they may have sinned against us? The gospel sets a new standard for our conduct, and by His grace, we are to live up to that standard.
Paul urges the Philippian saints to live up to the gospel standard whether he is present with them or not. He does not want their conduct to be determined by the outcome of his trial, by his presence or absence. I understand this very well as a former schoolteacher. When I taught sixth grade, I would sometimes need to leave the classroom, to go to the principal’s office or some other part of the building. I might need to step outside to speak with another teacher or a parent. I wanted my students to learn to behave properly, whether or not I was in the room. (I have to confess, this was not a task that was easily accomplished. Sometimes I would step outside and linger out of sight for a moment, and then suddenly look in the window when it started to get noisy. I would see who was out of their seat and making noise, and deal with them.) Paul wanted the Philippians to “carry on” in his absence, in a way that would be consistent with the gospel, pleasing to God and to him. We know from Paul’s epistles that nothing brought him greater joy than to receive a report that the saints in a particular church were doing well in the Lord (see 2:19).
Paul does not leave the Philippians with merely a general command to live up to the gospel; he immediately provides clarification concerning what he has in mind. His specific instructions concern the civic conduct of the saints in the face of opposition and persecution. From a positive point of view, the Philippians are urged to stand and to strive together for the faith of the gospel. This is a call to unity, with a specific goal in mind: proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost community. The “faith of the gospel” as I understand it is the Christian faith as defined by the gospel. The expression “striving together” implies that this “standing firm” in the proclamation of the gospel will take place in the face of resistance and opposition, and that discipline and perseverance are required. It is striving that must be done together, something like a “tug of war,” where every member of the team must give his or her full effort, in concert with the rest of the team.
Paul’s instruction has a negative element: the Philippians are not to be frightened or intimidated in any way (obviously, Paul sees fear taking many different forms) by the opposition. Americans have almost no grasp of what Paul is talking about here, though we may before too long. Christians in other parts of the world know what Paul means all too well. Men and women who profess faith may well be beaten by those who oppose the gospel, and Christian women are sometimes raped. In some parts of the world, the saints are kidnapped and sold as slaves. Churches and the houses of believers may be burned down, and employment may be forbidden. Prison is a very real possibility for those who preach the gospel in China. In the face of such efforts to defeat and destroy Christianity, the church must stand together and stand tall, not frightened by the evils that may befall them, and most importantly, not being silenced regarding their faith.
Believers need to understand the significance of their suffering. There are some who will say that the suffering of a saint is an indication of sin in that saint’s life. This was the case with Job’s three friends, and it was even the case with some of Paul’s colleagues (see Philippians 1:15-17). But Paul informs us that suffering for the sake of the gospel has a very different meaning, a two-fold meaning. First, our suffering is a sign of destruction. I believe that it is a sign to the saints of the coming the destruction of their enemies at the return of Christ, when He will judge His enemies.33
3 We ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith flourishes more and more and the love of each one of you all for one another is ever greater. 4 As a result we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and afflictions you are enduring. 5 This is evidence of God’s righteous judgment, to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which in fact you are suffering. 6 For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you 7 and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when Jesus Christ is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. 8 With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed—and you did in fact believe our testimony (2 Thessalonians 1:3-10).
In Philippians, as in 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul informs the saints that persecution is to be perceived as an encouragement, as an occasion for rejoicing. Peter says the same thing.
12 Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice and be glad. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory, who is the Spirit of God, rests on you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or thief or criminal or as a troublemaker. 16 But if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God that you bear such a name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin, starting with the house of God. And if it starts with us, what will be the fate of those who are disobedient to the gospel of God? 18 And if the righteous are barely saved, what will become of the ungodly and sinners? 19 So then let those who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator as they do good (1 Peter 4:12-19).
For those who would suggest that suffering is always the result of sin and is God’s chastening of the saint, let them remember that suffering for the sake of righteousness is just the opposite:
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way” (Matthew 5:10-12).
So, since Christ suffered in the flesh, you also arm yourselves with the same attitude, because the one who has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin (1 Peter 4:1).
Secondly, Paul now informs us that suffering, along with salvation, is a gracious gift from God:
29 For it has been granted to you not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are encountering the same conflict that you saw me face and now hear that I am facing.
This is no academic matter; the Philippians have now begun to experience the kind of suffering that they previously had only observed from a distance. They saw the suffering that Paul experienced in that Philippian prison, and they heard of Paul’s suffering in Rome. Now, they were beginning to experience the same kind of suffering themselves. That suffering, Paul writes, is a gift of God’s grace. It is a gift like that of our salvation. It is a gift that comes with our salvation. Salvation and suffering are very closely related.
How can suffering be a gracious gift? Paul does not pause to tell us at this point in his epistle, though he will deal much more thoroughly with this matter in chapter 3. Let me suggest just a few of the reasons, before we catch up with Paul’s argument. First, suffering for Christ identifies us with Christ. Our Lord promised that if men hated Him, they would hate us also (John 15:18-21). To be hated for Christ’s sake is to be recognized as a Christian by the world. Second, suffering for Christ’s sake is evidence of having some measure of victory over sin (see 1 Peter 4:1 above). Third, suffering for Christ’s sake makes us hunger for heaven and desire to leave this world behind (see 2 Corinthians 4-5). Fourth, suffering for Christ’s sake takes us to a deeper level of intimacy with our Lord. Thus, Paul can speak of the “fellowship of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). Fifth, suffering for Christ’s sake is a privilege, for which we should praise and glorify God (Acts 4:23-31; see 1 Peter 4:16). Finally, as we have just seen, suffering persecution at the hands of unbelievers is a sign of their destruction and of our salvation.
A Call to Christian Unity
1 If34 [therefore]35 there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort provided by love, any fellowship in the Spirit, any affection or mercy, 2 complete my joy and be of the same mind, by having the same love, being united in spirit, and having one purpose. 3 Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. 4 Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but the interests of others as well.
Paul now takes up the appeal for Christian unity he introduced in 1:27. Paul begins by focusing on the motivation for unity. Obviously, many efforts have been made to reveal the “deep meaning” of each of these expressions, with emphasis on the fine nuances of each term. I am inclined to view them in a different, and more general, way. I like Gordon Fee’s comments on verse 2:
The concern of the appeal is expressed in verse 2, where he piles up three phrases that all say essentially the same thing: that their community life should be characterized by unity of mind and love. Only thus can they complete Paul’s own joy.36
I would suggest that just as in verse 2 Paul is “piling up phrases” that depict Christian unity, in verse 1 Paul is “piling up phrases” that depict our motivation for such unity.
These motivations are not the same, each focusing on a particular element of God’s care and grace, showered upon the believer. It appears as though these are graces that Paul’s readers have experienced. These are not just intellectual possibilities, but experiential realities. It is as though he expects his readers to nod in agreement with each of them. Yes, they have experienced encouragement in Christ, comfort flowing out of love, the fellowship of the Spirit, and affection and mercy. All of these graces appear to be blessings which are especially needed, granted, and noted in times of suffering. As I write these words, a good friend is waging a courageous battle with cancer. While Bill Humphries would never have chosen to have cancer, he delights in the mercy and grace he has experienced in the midst of his suffering.
There is one final motivation that Paul mentions in the first words of verse 2: “complete my joy.” Paul’s joy was in the salvation and growth of the Philippian saints. For the Philippians to promote and practice Christian unity was to “make Paul’s day,” as we would say. At the end of this epistle, we will find Paul rejoicing over the concern that the Philippian saints had shown for him. His joy was not in the gift itself, but in what it represented. It was a token of their unity with him and of their growth in the Lord. Paul rejoiced because he knew that this would result in their blessing.
A More Precise Definition of Unity
Paul moves from these “motivations” for Christian unity in verses 1-2a to the “manifestations” of Christian unity in 2b. Few would dispute the fact that the New Testament is emphatic in its instruction to Christians to practice and to promote unity. There is, however, a lot of discussion (and debate!) over the nature of the unity Christians are called to practice. From our text, we can make several observations concerning Paul’s concept of unity. First, the unity Paul requires is not a formal, organizational unity. His words do not mandate organizations like the World Council of Churches. Neither is he calling for the kind of unity that can be created by a denomination. In our text, Paul is not calling for unity between various local churches, though this is definitely biblical. What Paul calls for is the practice of unity among the various individual believers in Philippi.
We know from chapter 4 that there was some kind of rift between Euodia and Syntyche (verse 2). Paul wants believers in the church at Philippi to be “one.” He wants them to be reconciled and to practice unity. The unity Paul requires involves “being in agreement,” or, as other versions translate it, being “like-minded,” or “having the same mind.” It should be immediately apparent that this cannot mean that Christians are all to agree on every topic. Unity should be evident in demonstrations of love, harmony, and mutual commitment to unity.
It occurred to me that God has enabled me to observe the very things Paul is describing over the past 25 years as a part of the leadership of Community Bible Chapel. We have been firmly committed to the biblical principle that the church is to be led by a plurality of elders, rather than by one man. I believe we have experienced an unusual measure of unity over the history of our church. Though we are elders, each of us has a sin nature. We have our biases, “pet peeves,” prejudices, and preferences. We come from different backgrounds, and we have a wide range of occupations. In addition, we each have different spiritual gifts and ministries. Yet, in spite of all our differences, we have been able to work together in harmony, love, and unity. We have been able to deal with many difficult issues and have experienced unity while making many important decisions.
Many people would say that leading a church in this manner (by a plurality of elders) is inefficient, at best, and impossible at the worst. To be honest, it has not always been easy, and it certainly does take more time and patience. But in the end, we come to decisions that all have had a part in making, and with which all can agree. Obviously, everyone does not “get his way,” and that is good. Honestly, some elders may not be as enthusiastic about a particular decision as others. But it is a decision that has been made by men who love and respect one another, who do not have to “get their own way,” and who are committed to preserving and promoting Christian unity.
I would tell you that at this very moment Christian unity is one of our very high priorities. We are a very diverse group of people in many ways, and we like it that way. Indeed, we believe that God wants it this way. In Dallas, Texas, we have the luxury of having many churches, a good number of which believe in the gospel and seek to follow the Scriptures. One can attend a very large church or a very small one. There are “high church” and “low church” formats. One can worship in a traditional fashion or in a more contemporary style. The problem is that churches tend to become homogeneous (“birds of a feather flock together”). Some church growth advocates think that we should cater to this trend, with each church focusing on a particular piece of the “market.” We differ. We believe that, ideally, our church should represent various races, and all parts of the social and economic spectrum. We know that this is not possible, but diversity is something we strive for. We believe that our church should also grant some latitude in non-crucial areas of theology.37 For example, those who hold to a pre-tribulation rapture of the church should be able to worship alongside those who do not. We would hope that our church would tolerate a broad range of convictions. For example, in our church there are a good number who are strongly committed to home schooling. On the other hand, we have those whose children are in public schools, and others who attend private schools. All have convictions on such matters, and we all need to learn to live and worship together in unity. This is precisely what Paul is talking about in our text.
Think of the diversity in the church at Philippi. We know that there was a Jewish businesswoman, Lydia, who was one of the first members. There were probably other Jewish women who came to faith, also. We don’t know that the fortuneteller was saved, but she might have been. And then there was the jailor, and perhaps some of the prisoners. That’s diversity. It could cover all the territories Paul named elsewhere, Jew and Gentile, slave (the fortuneteller) and free, male and female (Galatians 3:28). If Paul can instruct them to live together in love and harmony, then surely we can do so also, by God’s grace.
The more I have studied this passage, the more I was reminded of our Lord’s words, recorded in John 14-16, spoken to His disciples just before His arrest, trial, and crucifixion. He was no longer going to be with them physically, but he was going to be very much with them “in Spirit.” Just as He was going to be hated and persecuted by men, so His disciples would be as well. They were encouraged to “abide in Him,” to keep His commandments, and to love one another. By these things, they would mark themselves out as His disciples.
While Paul is confident that God may give him more time on earth, he will not be with the Philippians most of the time. However, they will suffer persecution as followers of Jesus Christ, just as Paul did. The Philippian saints are encouraged to continue to persevere in their faith and to practice unity among themselves.
Paul makes it very clear that while coming to faith in Jesus Christ is the most important decision one can make in life, it is imperative that Christians understand faith in Christ to be a life-transforming decision. Consequently, the gospel is not only the good news about how one can experience the forgiveness of their sins and the promise of eternal life through faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is also a new standard for the conduct of saints in a godless and hostile world.
In particular, the Scriptures set out a very high standard for one’s conduct as a citizen in this world. We are “strangers and pilgrims” in this world; or, to put it in the words of a song that used to be popular a number of years ago,
“This world is not my home,
I’m just a passin’ through.
My treasures are laid up,
Somewhere beyond the blue.”
As true as this is, we have a task, a mission, to fulfill in this world, and that is to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have a duty to minister to our brothers and sisters in Christ and to urge lost sinners to trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. We are to live in this world, subject to the powers that God has placed over us (see Romans 13:1-7). We are to live in peace, as much as possible. This text is a “call to arms,” but the “arms” are those of the Christian warrior, the weapons of spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:10-20).
In our text, Paul is instructing Christians to live up to the standard of conduct established by the gospel of Jesus Christ. By their faith in Jesus Christ and their identification with Him in His death, burial, and resurrection, Christians have died to sin, and thus should no longer continue to live in sin. They will not fully attain to the gospel standard, but their lives should manifest a substantial change, as a result of salvation. It is possible however that someone may be reading this message who is desperately striving to live up to the gospel standard, but is failing miserably to do so because they are not yet saved. God’s standards always show us up as sinners, because we fall so short of achieving them. If you are striving to be good and to do right in your own strength, I would urge you to acknowledge that you are a sinner, and that your works will never earn God’s favor, or merit your salvation. Trust in Jesus Christ, and His righteousness for your salvation, and then you will no longer seek to earn God’s favor or salvation.
Our text is about Christian unity. Let me ask you a rather straightforward question. Are there fellow-Christians from whom you have suffered alienation, and with whom you have not yet been reconciled? This rift should have been addressed immediately (Ephesians 4:26). Whether it is you who have offended your brother (Matthew 5:23-24), or your brother who has offended you (Matthew 18:15f.), reconciliation is your responsibility. Your “brother” may be your wife, or your husband, or your child, or a former friend. I would urge you to grasp the fact that reconciliation and Christian unity is something that is very important to our Lord. God reconciled lost sinners to Himself through the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary (see Ephesians 2:1-10); He also reconciled Jews and Gentiles through His atoning work on the cross (see Ephesians 2:11-22). No broken relationship should be allowed to remain broken. I urge you to give serious thought to this matter of reconciliation and unity, and to apply it to your life, and to your relationships.
29 It would have been interesting if some official in Rome had learned that Paul had written to the church at Rome, and he had read Romans to learn about Paul’s views on one’s civic duties. I’m sure that Romans 13:1ff. would have been most enlightening.
31 Some scholars believe that the emphasis on “civic conduct” is not as prominent in Acts 23:1. I would differ with them. Paul is standing trial before the Sanhedrin for inciting a riot, and more specifically for breaking Jewish law by bringing a Gentile into a forbidden part of the temple (Acts 21:27-30). I believe that Paul is not claiming to have lived a perfect life, but rather that he is claiming to be blameless regarding any charge that he had broken any laws.
32 It is true that Paul will soon call attention to the fact that the Philippians are also “citizens of heaven” (Philippians 3:20), but this does not seem to be his emphasis here. The fact that we are citizens of heaven should prompt us to live as good citizens here on earth (compare Jeremiah 29:4-7).
33 Dr. Hawthorne takes the position that this “destruction” is “the destruction of saints and the Christian faith,” the figment of the vain imaginations of our opponents. He concludes that the contrast is not between the destruction of the enemies of the gospel and the deliverance of the saints, but between the perception of the enemies of the gospel (that they can and will destroy the church) and the perception of the saints (that we will be delivered). It is true that Paul is quite terse in the original text, and it is also true that the enemies of the cross may foolishly think they can defeat us. Nevertheless, I believe that here Paul is speaking to saints concerning the way we should interpret our persecution for the faith. I believe Paul is referring to the final destruction of the enemies of the cross. See Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians (Waco, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1983), pp. 58-60.
35 I am not sure why the “therefore” was omitted here, but it is in the original text, and I think it is essential to rightly understand Paul’s words. Fee writes, “The NIV and other translations, following the unfortunate chapter division at this point, obscure the clear relationship of this paragraph with what has immediately preceded. Paul’s sentence begins with a ‘therefore’ (= ‘for this reason’), which is probably intended to pick up on all of 1:27-30.” Gordon D. Fee, Philippians (Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press, 1999, p. 84).