What Unites Us?”
Topic: Expository Passage: Philippians 1:27-30
I think that one of the most comical stories in Scripture takes place in Acts 23. Paul stands before the Sanhedrin, and they are intent on proving to the Romans that he should die for preaching the gospel. So, Paul was surrounded by 70 Jewish elders, who were as united as politicians can be by a passionate desire to kill Paul.
But Paul knew that the Pharisees and Sadducees who made up the Sanhedrin had major differences, and they did not like each other. For one, the Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife; whereas the Pharisees did. So, Paul decided to exploit this difference.
All he said was, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged (Acts 23:6)!” Immediately the room blew up in debate. The Pharisees and Sadducees were were furious at each other, not Paul. It got so heated that Romans were afraid they would tear Paul apart, and they took him away. It was a brilliant move. Paul exploited a tear within Sanhedrin, and in the process he made them impotent to fight the real battle they had gathered to win.
It’s a comical little story, but sadly Satan repeatedly uses the same strategy to make churches useless. He introduces some stupid little conflict, and suddenly Christians are fighting each other, or they just drift apart. Regardless, the conflict distracts from the real mission and beliefs that should unite God’s people, and the church becomes useless for fighting the real enemy.
Paul was concerned that this may happen in Philippi; therefore, our passage urges the Philippians to see the true objective and the real enemy and to fight, not against each other, but for each other and for the gospel mission. In the process he provides us with a valuable reminder of what should unite us and how we should fight. Paul begins with a very heavy command.
I. The Command (v. 27a)
This is a very important command. Paul has just spent 12–26 updating the Philippians on his situation, and it’s as if he now turns to them, looks them in the eye, and says, “‘Only’ (or above all else) let your conduct be worthy of the gospel.”
Paul uses an unusual verb that would have special significance to the Philippians. The verb is politeúomai. We get our word politics from the same root. It means to fulfill your duties as a citizen. In the secular sphere, it meant that you take pride in your community, you represent it well, and you fulfill your civic duties.
This idea would have a special impact in a patriotic community like Philippi, where they took great pride in their Roman citizenship. And Paul uses this sentiment to he reminds the believers that they have a much higher citizenship. He makes a similar point 3:20. We are citizens of a much greater kingdom than Rome or the U.S.A.
Therefore, in 1:27 God commands us “to fulfill our duties as citizens of heaven in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” It’s a weighty reminder, first, of the fact that Christ gave his life for our salvation. He made the ultimate sacrifice, and through the gospel he has transformed everything. We have a new citizenship and an entirely new purpose.
As well, we have a new power to fulfill that purpose. Through Christ, we can live worthy of the gospel. As a result, we must to take pride in our new citizenship, and we must live as worthy representatives of that kingdom.
So, let’s all be reminded today of the incredible gift we have received, and the incredible responsibility that comes with that gift. Every part of my life—my speech, my work ethic, my family life, my civic life, and my church life reflects on the gospel. So, I must reflect what Christ did for me and the new life I have in him by living worthy of the gospel.
Let that sink in, and as the Spirit shows you areas where your life is not worthy of the gospel, determine by God’s grace to change them. In sum, this is a broad command that applies to every arena of life; however, Paul is especially concerned with 2 implications of our heavenly citizenship.
II. First Implication: We must be united by our mission (v. 27b).
Paul frames the discussion with the fact that the Philippians must do what is right no matter what happens to Paul—no matter if Nero frees him to come visit or executes him. Paul sounds like a good parent who wants his children to do what is right all the time, not just when mom and dad are in the room. Specifically, they must “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind.” In other words…
We must remain unified in the face of opposition. In this statement, Paul uses a powerful metaphor that would be very familiar in the Roman world. David Garland states, “The command to ‘stand firm in one spirit’ is a military metaphor that pictures the Philippians as resolute soldiers standing their ground. In ancient hoplite (armed foot soldier) warfare, troops fought as a densely packed phalanx, eight ranks deep, that moved together against their opponents. Maintaining the cohesion of the massed military formation with shields overlapping and spears extended was more important than individual virtuosity with weapons…Soldiers therefore needed to stay in formation, whether attacking or retreating, and defeat could follow if one soldier broke ranks and allowed the enemy to pour through.”
The Romans had used this method of warfare to dominate every foe. By standing together, they all remained safe, and they became an unstoppable force. But everything could fall apart very quickly if just a few soldiers broke from the ranks and left a flank exposed. Paul uses this familiar picture of warfare to make a powerful point regarding unity in the church.
In particular, we are also engaged in a fight to the death with a variety of enemies. In this context, Paul is especially concerned with the open hostility of unbelievers. He says in vv. 28–30 that “adversaries” were persecuting them. Most likely, the Philippians were suffering for refusing to participate in emperor worship, which was central life in Philippi. It was hard. They were being pushed out of work and important relationships and maybe even enduring punishment at hands of the law. Paul was concerned that the church may scatter in panic in the face of this threat.
Of course, we face plenty of other adversaries. Satan is always looking for weaknesses he can exploit. The world dangles temptation after temptation in front of our eyes. And our greatest adversary is our own flesh. We are all full of pride, lust, and selfishness.
And these enemies are far too strong for us to battle them on our own. The Christian life is too hard for you to fight it by yourself. And even if you can convince yourself that you are up to the fight, know that many others are not. They need your help.
Therefore, God says that we must “stand fast in one spirt, with one mind.” We’ve got to close ranks, take our position in the battle formation, and stand together. We cannot let fear, petty fights, personal agendas, or childish selfishness create a weak spot that our enemies can exploit.
I’m so thankful for the unity that we enjoy at Life Point. I’m so thankful for how I hear time and time again how we are standing together and supporting each other in struggle for godliness. However, biblical unity never happens accidentally. We’ve got to work every day to see the big picture, to recognize each other’s needs, and to stay unified. Most importantly we need to pray that God would protect us from Satan’s efforts to divide and conquer. In sum, we have to stand fast, and then at the end of v. 27 Paul turns from defense to offense. We must “strive…”
We must work together for maturity and mission. Paul closes v. 27 with another graphic verb. The verb is athleo, from which we get our word athlete. It pictures an athlete giving everything he has to win the game. And Paul here uses the compound form of the verb sunathleo, which emphasizes the idea that we don’t play the game alone. Instead, the team fights together to win the game.
The ESV captures the sense well, when it translates the verb as, “striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” He wants us to see that we don’t win by ignoring each other and attacking the fighting alone. Instead, we are in it together, and we must work together, and fight with each other and for each other. We must strive “side by side.”
Specifically, Paul says that we fight together for “the faith of the gospel.” It’s important that we understand this phrase in context. Specifically, Paul has already talked at great length in chapter 1 about Great Commission ministry. He said in v. 7 that he was committed to the “defense and confirmation of the gospel.” He mentions the “furtherance of the gospel” in v. 12 and “bold(ly) speak(ing) the word” in v. 14. Verses 15–18 mention “preaching Christ” 3xs, and v. 20 says Paul’s ambition is to “magnify” Christ.
As well, Paul has described the Philippians’ participation in his mission. Verse 5 mentions their “fellowship (i.e., participation) in the gospel,” and v. 7 says they are “partakers of grace with me.” And in v. 19 Paul says that his preaching will be aided “through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit.”
Hopefully you get the point. Paul is focused on the advance of the gospel through evangelism and discipleship, and he has repeatedly emphasized how the church is to work together to this end. So when Paul says in 27 that we are to “strive together for the faith of the gospel,” he is not just saying that we need to stand together. No, he is saying that we must work side by side to make and mature disciples. He confirms this in 4:3, where he uses this same verb. We are to “labor (together) in the gospel.”
So Paul is making a very important and practical point about what unites the church and how we are to live together. And to really appreciate what Paul is saying, it’s helpful to contrast it with common and ultimately fragile forces for unity in the church (slide).
As you can see on the screen, I’ve put up 6 common forces (among others) that bind people to a church. You ask someone why they go to a particular church or why they are leaving a church, and they say, “My family goes there.” “All my friends are there.” “Everyone dresses up or dresses down.” “I really like the pastor.” “They have good activities, and the music gets my adrenaline going.” Or, “It’s what I’m used to.”
But I believe that the more these sorts of things hold a church together, the weaker it inherently is and the less effective it will be in honoring the Lord and fulfilling his will. For example, if you are at a church because your family goes there, you probably haven’t bought into the mission, and what happens when your family leaves? The same goes for a church built around a pastor’s personality. That church may have a lot of people, but it probably won’t build strong disciples and co-laborers, and those churches often wilt if the pastor leaves.
So what’s answer? Paul tells us right here in v. 27. Lasting and fruitful unity comes as we are all “striving together for the faith of the gospel (slide). In other words, we all believe the gospel, love the gospel, and are committed to the mission of advancing the gospel.
As you can see, I’ve added 4 expressions of this mission. We all hunger to worship God, not just get excited. We long to reach the lost. We want grow mature disciples, and we want to fellowship or partner together in helping each other grow in godliness. Our common passion for these aspects of the mission bind us together.
Otherwise, we may have lots of different preferences and convictions, but Christ and his mission are at the center of our hearts and this passion and priority draws us toward others with the same focus.
This is real Christian unity. It is grace-empowered. It is stable, and it breeds effective ministry that glorifies the Lord. So I want to challenge you to value our gospel mission very highly, first for the good of your own soul. Desire discipleship and strong spiritual fellowship from the church. And then value this mission for the good of others. Be passionate about being a disciple and then making disciples. And then work to link arms with others who are going in the same direction. Let’s strive side by side, because we need each other and because we will be far more effective together than we ever will be by ourselves.
And then keep this focus as you participate at Life Point. Yes, have a good time, build friends, and like the pastor. But remember the main thing, and work by God’s grace to make the gospel what binds you to the body. It is essential that we are united by our mission. And then the second implication of living worthy of the gospel is that…
III. Second Implication: We must embrace suffering (vv. 28–30).
In these verses, Paul alludes to the fact that Philippians were suffering persecution themselves even as they prayed for Paul. As I already mentioned, the most likely explanation is that the Christians refused to participate in emperor worship, which was central to life in Philippi. This stance probably excluded them from a lot of jobs and trade guilds. It probably affected family relationships, which again often affected work.
But as well, Paul says in v. 30 that they were suffering, “The same conflict…” The conflict they saw would have been during his first visit to Philippi, when Paul was beaten and imprisoned for his ministry. And of course, the conflict Paul was currently enduring also involved prison. Therefore, we can assume that the local authorities had turned on the church and were using the law against them.
These kinds of things are terribly difficult and troubling. Again, this pressure was probably threatening to divide the church, which is why Paul just made such a big point about unity. Now he turns specifically to the issue of persecution and gives two challenges to the Philippians and to us. First…
Don’t be intimidated (v. 28). God says that living worthy of the gospel requires that you, “not…(be) terrified by your adversaries.” When you read that think of any army that panics and scatters before the enemy. So Paul is saying, “Stay calm, and stay together.”
This is because if they endure and remain faithful, it will be “To them a proof…” That’s a bit of an odd statement, but the basic point is clear. Again, assuming the believers passed the test of persecution, Paul is saying that it will serve as proof that their faith is real and that they are on the winning side. It’s just like any other test. When you pass one test, it gives confidence in your ability and that you will pass the next one.
Now, Paul adds that victory shouldn’t lead to gloating. Our strength and our victory are ultimately from God, not ourselves. We can only endure in the strength of his grace. But again, when he gives victory it’s a sign that we have the real thing, that we will continue to endure, and someday we will inherit our full salvation in the presence of the Lord.
Of course, Paul also notes that the opposite is also true. Our victory is also a “proof of perdition” from God against the adversary. Evil men may seem to have the advantage today, but they will be judged in the end.
So v. 28 challenges us to have an eternal perspective on persecution and suffering. Don’t merely look at your present pain or even the success of wicked men. Rather, recognize what God is doing, recognize your eternal hope, and stay calm, because God will continue to carry you.
It’s a needed encouragement for us also. Are you ever tempted to panic in the face of hardship? I am. Do you ever grow discontent because the wicked prosper while you suffer? We all fight this battle. But when hardship comes, especially for the sake of the gospel, we’ve got to step back and think in light of eternity. God is in control. He has sustained you in the past, so remember what he has done, and trust that he will do it again.
And then with eyes of faith look past your present hardship and see the eternal salvation you have with Christ. We have no reason to be intimidated. “If God is for us, who can be against us” (Rom 8:31)? The second challenge is…
Embrace “the fellowship of His sufferings” (vv. 29–30). Verse 29 makes one of those statements that requires a double take. Paul mentions 2 things that have been granted to us by God. Interestingly, the Greek verb (charidzomai) comes from the root meaning grace. First, we have been graced with faith. We didn’t ultimately choose God; he chose us. Even our faith is a gift of his grace.
But second, and this is the one that’s surprising, Paul tells the Philippians that God has blessed them with the opportunity to suffer on behalf of Christ in a similar manner to how Paul had suffered. That’s not normal is it? Why would anyone consider being fired, kicked out of your family, or going to jail a grace of God?
The answer is found 3:10. Paul says that the only way we can know Christ to fullest extent is to participate in his suffering. In other words, Christ’s pathway to glory included suffering, and when we suffer for him, we come to know him and to experience his grace in a very unique way. Not only that, we become like him, and share in a part of his glory adding even more hope that someday we will be fully glorified.
And so the challenge is not that we should go looking for pain. Rather, when suffering comes, with eyes of faith we must see that the reward for endurance is worth far more than what we have lost. Specifically, to know Christ and to become like him is far better than a good job, lots of friends, and a comfortable life. And when we see that reward, the temporal cost looks very small.
The same goes for the general hardships of life. James 1:2–4 state, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” We have to believe that the joy of godliness is worth the pain.
So Christian, don’t spend your life running from trials or bitter about trials. And do not be let the cost of discipleship keep you from boldly standing for the truth, sharing the gospel, and challenging fellow believers. Rather, embrace “the fellowship of His sufferings,” because you see the reward.
In conclusion, God commands us to, “live worthy of the gospel of Christ.” All of my life must be a worthy reflection of my heavenly citizenship. And then Paul adds that living worthy of the gospel means that we must, fight for each other and for the gospel mission, no matter the cost. We are brothers, and we have been giving a great calling. So let’s fight for our brothers, bearing their burdens and standing with them, and then let’s fight together for the glory of Christ and the spread of his gospel.