I have three sisters and one brother. My brother, Scott, and I shared a room all the years we were growing up together in our household, and like all brothers, there was a good, healthy rivalry between us. We had our fair share wrestling matches, which started off as a good time but ended in more than that! On one particular occasion, a wrestling match turned into a fight and, before long, we had crashed into the door of our bedroom. The door to our room was a shutter door, with slats running its full length, and as we hit the door, all the slats in the top panel came loose and went crashing to the floor. Our bedroom was in the basement of our house, and as the door broke apart, we heard our father’s feet hit the floor. As his feet hit the floor, that bitter rivalry quickly turned into brotherly cooperation as we sought to fix the door before our father came down the stairs. I can still clearly remember how, in a moment of time, we became united toward a common purpose.
The church also needs to be united around a common purpose—the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ—but, if we are honest, we will admit that there is sometimes rivalry and division in the church. Nevertheless, as we see our common purpose, we ought to be able to lay those things aside and stand united for the sake of the gospel.
A pastor recently said to me that, at least as he had observed it, there are two ways that the devil most often tries to destroy what God is doing in a church: (1) through outright attack, and (2) through inward division. Perhaps the most common and damaging attack from Satan comes to us in this second way. The devil is a master at dividing in order to conquer.
The apostle Paul was concerned about both of these types of attack in the church at Philippi. He indicates briefly in chapters 1 & 3 about the outward attacks of Satan on the church, but it seems that the apostle’s greatest concern was that division within the church was rearing its ugly head. Consider a few sample texts from this epistle that indicate Paul’s concern over division:
- Philippians 2:1-4—“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
- Philippians 2:14—“Do all things without grumbling or questioning.”
- Philippians 3:16 (KJV)—“Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.”
- Philippians 4:1-3—“Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Paul begins his (subtle) appeal for unity in the very first chapter (vv. 27-30). He will only mention specific names in the fourth chapter, but his hints at division begin right from the outset. In reality, v. 27 could begin a new chapter, for here Paul begins dealing with a new theme. His theme, in brief, is “united we stand.”
You will recall from our studies so far that Paul is in prison in Rome. He expects that God will give him release, and this release was eventually forthcoming, albeit only for a short time. However, even though he anticipated a deliverance, he realised the need to write to the Philippians while he was still in prison. We might summarise Paul’s words to the Philippians in this way, “Whether or not I am with you, I expect you to be united as a church. You are facing the enemy: don’t be divided, be united in the gospel.” In this section, the apostle identifies four ways that believers are united. As we examine these verses, let us pay heed, that we might be encouraged that, in Christ, united we stand.
United as Citizens
Paul begins with a challenge to the Philippians concerning their citizenship, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (v. 27). He uses an interesting word here, which is translated in our English text as “let your manner of life be.” It is the Greek word politeuomai, which means “to behave as a citizen.” The word is in fact used this way in 3:20, where it is translated as “citizenship.” One Bible version renders the opening clause of this verse with this interpretation in mind: “The only thing that matters is that you continue to live as good citizens in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
The challenge, then, is that the Philippians are united as citizens, and that they must live in a manner worthy of their citizenship. The concept of citizenship would have been easily understood by the Philippians, and perhaps a little historical background will help at this point.
Philippi was an important Roman colony in New Testament times. This was a significant privilege, for it meant that any native of Philippi automatically enjoyed the rights of a Roman citizen. Of course, all the responsibilities of Roman citizenship also rested on the shoulders of a Philippian. Citizenship was a grave matter in those days, for to be a citizen of a particular empire meant that loyalty to the empire was paramount. All other loyalties were secondary, and relationships were only as important as the part that they played in your loyalty to the empire. The worst conceivable thing that you could do as a Roman citizen was to bring reproach upon the name of the empire.
Paul is evidently playing on words here, for the most important loyalty to the Christian is obviously toward the kingdom of God. However, since the concept of citizenship was so familiar to the Philippians, Paul could drive home his point powerfully: they were to place as much emphasis—indeed, more emphasis—on their loyalty to the kingdom of God as they were to the Roman Empire. They were to so live that the gospel of the kingdom of Christ would be honoured.
In the Roman world, the citizen was subordinate to the state. His time, his energies, his skills—all his endeavours—were devoted first of all to the interests of the society at large. Paul challenges the Philippians along similar lines: since they were citizens of the kingdom of God, they were to put their own interests aside in favour of the interests of the kingdom. John MacArthur has summarised it well: “By implication it means being a good citizen, one whose conduct brings honor to the political body to whom one belongs.” We might summarise Paul’s words in this way: “Behave as citizens of God’s empire in a manner that is appropriate to the good news of Jesus Christ. Don’t bring disrepute upon His kingdom.”
Paul’s challenge raises several relevant principles for us to heed. First, we need to be united, as citizens, in bringing honour to our King and His kingdom. As with ancient Roman citizenship, what we do as individuals does affect the community at large. If we do not behave as worthy citizens of the kingdom of God, living in a manner that brings honour to the gospel, then the kingdom at large is affected.
Some years ago, someone told a member of John MacArthur’s church that he would never attend that church because the most corrupt lawyer in Los Angeles was a member there. When word of this comment reached MacArthur, he was deeply disturbed. That Sunday, he repeated the story to his congregation and, not knowing who the lawyer in question was, made a public exhortation for him to repent. He warned that such a testimony was bringing disrepute upon the gospel of Christ and was dragging the name of their church through the mud. That Lord’s Day, MacArthur relates, 25 lawyers repented!
Indeed, what we do as citizens of the kingdom affects the kingdom at large. We must be careful not to bring disrepute to the gospel. A man who was in the South African rowing team at the 2006 Olympic Games told me of the strict rule that if they did anything to bring disrepute upon the name of South Africa, they would find themselves on the next plane home. If bringing disrepute upon the name of a country is taken so seriously, how much more seriously are we to take bringing disrepute upon the name of Christ?
Second, we must put the interests of the community first. That means if there is tension between you and a fellow church member, you need to put the interests of the community first. Putting the interests of the community first, you have two options: either confront the issue and deal with it, or cover it in charity. If you choose instead to place your own interests first, you can be sure that the entire church will suffer.
Third, we need to be united in the common cause of the gospel. This will require us to put our own pursuits and petty grievances on hold as we band together for the sake of the gospel. I have had the opportunity in the past to visit Somaliland, a land that was devastated by civil war not too long ago. Over the last 16 years, the people of Somaliland have put their differences aside, banded together and worked to restore order to their land. It’s a wonderful thing to see, but such unity should be even more evident in the church.
Fourth, we must do all of this because the King is present! Paul begins the verse with the word “only,” which is in an emphatic tense. We might render the sense of Paul’s plea as “at all costs,” or “whatever it takes.” But notice that the Philippians were at all costs to live as worthy citizens of God’s kingdom “whether I come and see you or am absent” (v. 27). They were not to be motivated by Paul’s presence in their midst, but by God’s presence. In like manner, we do what is right, not out of fear of man, but because we fear God, who is always present.
United as Soldiers
The second way in which the Philippians were united was as soldiers. Paul wanted to “hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit” (v. 27). The phrase “standing firm” is a military term, which carries the idea of holding one’s ground, or maintaining one’s allegiance. It seems that Paul is switching metaphors from that of a citizen to that of a soldier. This is a natural transition, for a state must be defended by its citizens. Sometimes a citizen must put on a soldier’s uniform. In the case of the church, it is the gospel message that must be defended by those who are citizens of the kingdom of God.
Paul’s desire was that the believers in Philippi be found “standing firm in one spirit.” The idea here is that they must stand totally united. Acts 4:32 says of the Jerusalem church that they “were of one heart and soul.” That is what Paul desired to hear of the Philippian believers, whether he was actually present to see it or not. He wanted them to guard the as a gospel united army. None of them could waver on the message of the kingdom: the treasure of the kingdom must be guarded!
Once again, this raises several areas of practical relevance to us. First, if we will be united as soldiers guarding the gospel, we must be united doctrinally. We must be united in our local questions concerning issues such as: What is the gospel? What does the gospel produce? We cannot compromise on doctrine if we will stand united in our effort to guard the gospel.
The temptation when it comes to guarding the doctrine can be to become contentious for the faith rather than actually contending for the faith. No doubt, we have all met Christians who are contentious for the faith, and perhaps some of us have even fallen into that sinful disposition ourselves. But we need to guard against this temptation if we will stand united for the gospel. Yes, we must rise up and contend for the faith when someone misrepresents the gospel, but we must not become contentious over our petty differences.
Second, we need to have a soldier’s mentality: that the whole is more important than the part. Stated another way, we need to have the mentality that the mission takes precedence over our preferences. I enjoy reading books about the military. When soldiers have a mission, they immediately unite around that cause as they forget their own preferences. They share the same type of food. Though the platoon may comprise various races, languages and cultures, they unite around a common mission.
The church of Jesus Christ needs to do the same. We need to stand united as soldiers for the sake of the gospel. Your local church may not meet all your specific preferences, but you need to be willing to forego your own preferences—cultural preferences, musical taste, etc.—for the sake of the whole. A young couple who recently moved to our church from another city told me of the previous church they attended. This church had as its only musical instrument an old fashioned organ. They told me of the old hymns that they sang and concluded, “The music wasn’t really our preference, but the Word of God was preached.” Immediately, I thought that this young couple understood the principle: the Word of God took preference over all other preferences.
Third, as soldiers, we need to support one another. Not all soldiers stand all the time, but when soldiers fall it is up to those who are still standing to go and support the fallen. In like manner, Christian soldiers who are standing have the responsibility to rescue and restore those who have fallen. The result will be that they stand wit the strong once again.
Fourth, we need to exercise a soldier’s sacrificial mindset. On a monument at the foot of a soldier’s grave near Iwa Jima, this inscription can be seen, “When you go home, tell them of us and say, / ‘For your tomorrow we gave our today.’” Thousands of soldiers were killed in that battle, each giving their today for the tomorrow of others. In like manner, the next generation in our churches ought to declare, “The soldiers of the previous generation were united for the gospel, and for our tomorrow they gave their today.” We must die to self for the glory of the gospel.
United as Athletes
Paul now shifts his use of metaphor to that of an athlete: “with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (v. 27). The word “striving” comes from the Greek root athlos, from which we derive our English word “athlete” or “athletics.” The word means “to contend together,” and it is a word that was lifted from the athletic arena. In v. 30 we find the word “conflict,” which is a translation of the Greek word agon, which is a synonym for the word translated “striving.” Just as the Philippians were to be soldiers with one spirit, so they were to be athletes with one mind or soul.
As athletes, we are to strive together toward a common prize, which in our case is the propagation, protection and promotion of the gospel. The metaphor of an athlete here is not unique in Paul’s writings. He speaks elsewhere of fighting the good fight and of running the race (2 Timothy 4:6-8), and this draws our attention once again to being united toward a common goal.
The athletic metaphor highlights both the personal and corporate nature of our relationship with God. South African batsman Herschelle Gibbs was recently banned for three one day international cricket matches for bringing reproach upon the game by swearing at Pakistani supporters. Gibbs’ exclusion from the squad for those three games affected the team at large. Certainly, he is an individual player, who strives to better his individual record with each game he plays, but his behaviour had affects far beyond his own personal game. His misbehaviour caused the entire team to suffer.
In the athletic realm the same is true. Whether you are a 100 metre runner, or a 10,000 metre runner, you compete in an individual capacity for the greater good of the team. If both the 100 metre runner and the 10,000 metre runner achieve gold in their disciplines, they have both done well for themselves; more than that, however, they have contributed significantly to the overall score of the team.
Paul challenges the believers in Philippi to train well for their race, because each athlete’s contribution adds to the overall performance of the team. As noted above, what we do does affect others.
As a team, we must hold onto one another. In the Special Olympics some years ago, the runners in a particular race all reached the finish line, bar one who was struggling at the back. Without hesitation, the other athletes in the race all moved back to where the last runner was struggling and ran with him to the finish line. That is the way it ought to be in the local church: we must cheer one another on, and carry one another when necessary for the gospel’s sake.
Above all, let us remember that we cannot fulfil these responsibilities if we are bickering amongst ourselves, harbouring bitterness and exercising a critical spirit toward others. We are a team, and we must unite as a team.
United as Sufferers
We are united as citizens, soldiers and athletes, but in all of this we are united in the midst of spiritual opposition: “and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (vv. 28-30).
Paul writes to the Philippians of their “opponents.” Quite possibly, these were the same people that had some years earlier caused so much trouble for Paul when he first came to Philippi. Both amongst the Jews and the Gentiles there were those who stood in opposition to the church. But because the church was united, there was no need for them to be “frightened” or “terrified” (KJV) by their opponents.
The word translated “frightened” or “terrified” was used in classical Greek to speak of a horse that was stampeding because it had been startled. One of my daughters loves horses, and so naturally I have spent some time around the animals. It is obvious to anyone watching that horses are skittish creatures, which can be frightened by something as small as the cracking of a stick. They appear to be strong and noble, but are easily frightened by things that should cause them no real fear at all.
This seems to be Paul’s point in writing to the Philippians. There was no need for them to be frightened by their enemies. And one reason that they had no need to fear was because they were standing together. When I was a child I quickly learned that there was safety in numbers. If you surrounded yourself with friends, you could avoid a lot of trouble you would otherwise face. This seems to be Paul’s concept here: strength in numbers. Yes, they were suffering according to the will of God, but there was no need to feel intimidated. But ultimately there was no need for them to be intimidated, for God indeed would vindicate them.
Interestingly, Paul draws attention to the fact that they were suffering just like he was (v. 30). The word “conflict,” as noted above, is the Greek word agon, from which the English word “agony” is derived. They had both seen Paul suffering when he was with them, and they had heard that he was still suffering whilst in prison. They had also seen that Paul was not intimidated by his enemies, and now the apostle challenges them, facing the same suffering, to remain as resolute as he had in the face of their trials.
Paul adds a word of encouragement to them in their suffering: “This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (vv. 28-29).
Let’s first consider this second sentence. In the same way that they believed on Christ by God’s sovereign grace (it had been “granted” to them), so they suffered only by God’s sovereign grace. Suffering is a gift that no one wants, but one that every believer needs. Ultimately, the Philippians needed to recognise that the suffering was “from God.”
It should be asked at this point why Paul brings suffering into his discussion. I suspect that one reason for it is because he wants the Philippians to know who his enemies were, and who they were not. Some years ago, a pastor told me to some of the difficulties he had experienced in his life and church. He admitted that most of those difficulties were his own fault, but that God had worked in his life to grant him repentance and to change him. After God had brought him to repentance, he put the following words in his pulpit, so that he would see them every time he got up to preach: “They are not your enemy.” He came to realise that the church was not his enemy.
Perhaps Paul wanted to guard the Philippians against the temptation to think that their fellow church members were their enemies. It is easy during times of suffering to turn on those you are closest to, but Paul desired to guard his readers from this. He wanted them to understand that their enemy was without the church, not within.
We could state many reasons that God allows suffering in our lives, but Paul focuses upon one in v. 28: “This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.” Note that our suffering is a “clear sign” to our enemies of two things: “their destruction” (that they will lose), and “your salvation” (that the church will be vindicated). Simply put, one of the reasons that God allows suffering in the lives of believers is so that people will see that the gospel will triumph. The temptation was very real for the Philippians to turn on one another in the midst of their suffering, so Paul sought to refocus them on the fact that they should be united, because their unity in suffering would be a clear indication that the gospel would indeed succeed. As one author has put it, “The failure of the church to be intimidated by its enemies was a token of the ultimate failure of the enemies of God. Their attacks were futile and the church would prevail.”
As believers in the 21st century, we need to see ourselves as joint-sufferers in God’s kingdom and for His gospel. Perhaps this is an increasing insight that we need to have, for the Word of God is quite clear on the matter: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). In light of this truth, perhaps we should ask ourselves, Are we really suffering for the gospel? I am afraid that much of our “suffering” is nothing but pettiness. “I’m suffering,” we lament, “because so-and-so didn’t shake my hand at church today.” Or, “I’m suffering because I was not considered in the church for such-and-such a ministry.” But we cannot overlook the fact that the suffering in Philippi was suffering for the gospel.
Someone recently commented to me that what the church in South Africa needs is a good dose of persecution. Now, I have no martyr’s mentality and I am not filled with gleeful anticipation at the thought of suffering, but perhaps there is some truth to the comment. The fact of the matter is that if we do live a godly life we will be persecuted; in the midst of our persecution, let us realise that the gospel will be vindicated, and let us thus stand together for the sake of the gospel of Christ.
Our suffering needs to be corporately shared. We need to corporately embrace the gift that nobody wants but that every believer needs.
Let us be united: as citizens, as soldiers, as athletes and as sufferers. Let us do so by taking the cross of Christ seriously. Looking to Him as we do so will enable us to be united in spirit and in mind for, in Christ indeed, united we stand.