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Encouragements to Live Lives of Gospel Joy
Stand firm in the gospel
Philippians, Chapter 1, verses 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.
With these verses the apostle closes his report to the Philippians about himself, and he begins a series of instructions, or encouragements, which continue throughout most of the rest of the epistle. Whatever happens to him personally, Paul tells the Philippians—whether he comes to them as he expects or remains absent from them—they should conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel. The root meaning of the verb Paul uses here is “exercise citizenship.” The Philippians, many of them Roman army veterans and their families, were especially proud of their Roman citizenship. The apostle wanted to remind them that, as Christians, they possessed a citizenship even more important than the earthly citizenship of which they were so proud. The Philippian believers were citizens of Jesus’ spiritual kingdom. As their conduct gave evidence of their cherished Roman citizenship in so many ways, it likewise should reflect their spiritual citizenship in even more ways.
To exercise citizenship “in a manner worthy of the gospel” means to live in a manner that will truly give evidence of the new spiritual life that the gospel has produced in one’s heart. When the gospel enters human hearts and joins sinful human beings to Christ by faith, it changes people’s lives. It moves and empowers human beings, who previously had lived only for themselves, to live in love to God and to their fellow men. Paul urges the Philippians here to show what the gospel has done for them and in them by living lives that will bring honor to God and will glorify the Lord whom the gospel proclaims.
If they exercise their spiritual citizenship in accord with what the gospel has done in and for them, the Philippians will “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.” Believers who exercise citizenship worthy of the gospel will take a firm stand on the gospel. They will hold fast to the gospel teachings they have received and will not compromise with error. They will live in harmony with one another, struggling side by side to defend and promote the gospel in a hostile world.
Nor will they fear the enemies that oppose them. Because of their Christian confession, the Philippian believers faced many enemies. (Paul will further describe those enemies in chapter 3.) But believers who stand firm in the gospel need not be frightened by any of their enemies, no matter how fierce or how powerful the enemies may appear. Rather, they can confidently and courageously carry out their struggle against those enemies, knowing that the Lord is on their side.
The very fact that God gives believers fearlessness in the face of their enemies is a sign of the enemies’ destruction and the believers’ salvation. When enemies see the fearless courage with which the little band of believers stands up for Jesus and the gospel, they will have to concede that the believers have working for them a power far greater than any human power, a power that they simply cannot overcome.
Finally, the apostle personally identifies with the Philippians by reminding them that as they struggle on behalf of the gospel, they stand on common ground with him. Many of the Philippians had personally witnessed some of the conflicts the apostle had endured. They remembered when he first brought the gospel to their city and how he had been slandered, mobbed, flogged, and thrown into a Roman dungeon. They also remembered how the apostle had remained steadfast and how he and his missionary partner Silas had sung hymns of praise to the Lord from the depths of the prison.
In this letter the Philippians could read again about the apostle’s bonds and about how those who were encouraged by Satan were raising up affliction for him. The apostle’s entire career as a Christian and as a missionary had been a constant struggle, requiring great exertion against powerful foes. Yet during this conflict the apostle received daily strength from the Lord. As he battled on, he could still rejoice daily.
As they faced their enemies, the Philippians were engaged in the same struggle. The archenemy was the same. The cause was the same, and the source of strength for the struggle was also the same. The joy in the Lord Jesus that they could experience in their struggle was the same, and the ultimate victory was the same. Just knowing this should encourage the Philippians in their daily struggles and fill their hearts with fresh courage and joy.
Our constant aim, as Christians too, is to exercise our citizenship in a manner worthy of the gospel, to reflect in our lives the gracious work that the Holy Spirit, through the gospel, has accomplished in us. If that is truly our aim, and if we daily and consciously seek the Spirit’s help to accomplish it, then our lives also will be characterized by firm loyalty to the gospel, by harmony with one another, and by fearlessness in the face of powerful enemies. Like the 1st-century Philippians, 21st-century believers have many enemies to fight—people and forces and philosophies from atheism to Zen. Their ultimate instigator is Satan, and their common aim is to silence the gospel and blunt its impact in the world.
As we fight the battle, we can constantly be encouraged by the realization that we are fighting the very same battle that faithful believers like the apostle Paul and the Philippians have fought, and we can rejoice in the promise that the Lord will also provide to us the spiritual gifts we need to overcome our enemies and win the ultimate victory: the gifts of steadfastness, harmony, and fearlessness, all of which signify our enemies’ ultimate defeat and our final victory.
Live in harmony and humility with one another
Philippians, Chapter 2, verses 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.
If the Philippians and other believers are to stand firm against the enemies of the gospel that threaten them from without, they must first be firmly united among themselves.
Paul has already spoken of “stand[ing] firm in one spirit” (1:27). Now he expands on that thought, turning his encouragement inward to the matter of believers’ relationships with one another. The apostle’s appeal here is thoroughly evangelical, or gospel-based. He speaks to the Philippians’ hearts, reminding them of the gospel blessings that are theirs in Christ, and then appeals to them on the basis of those blessings. With four short, powerful conditional clauses, Paul reminds the Philippians that they have indeed been encouraged by Christ, comforted by his love, made spiritually new and alive by the Spirit’s work in their hearts, and blessed by the Spirit with the gifts of tenderness and compassion. So he has a right to assume that all he is about to request of the Philippians will naturally follow from their faith.
The Philippians had already brought much joy to the apostle. Their partnership in the gospel, their faith and love, their generosity all brought him joy every time he thought about them or prayed for them. But there was one more thing the Philippians could strive to do, Paul says, that would truly make his joy complete. That one thing was to seek a greater measure of harmony in their dealings and relationships with one another.
These words of the apostle have led some Bible students to conclude that pride and internal strife were problems for the Philippian congregation. Perhaps they were. Later on, in chapter 4, the apostle mentions a specific personal rivalry between two of the congregation’s prominent women. Whether more of such problems existed in the congregation or not, the apostle felt that the Philippians needed encouragement in this particular area of their Christian lives.
And what congregation doesn’t? Where sinners are living and working together with sinners, pride and selfishness are always rearing their ugly heads. The devil works particularly hard to use those products of each member’s sinful nature to disrupt the congregation’s work through disharmony and strife. In flourishing congregations, where many members are knowledgeable and gifted, there is always the danger of the more gifted members looking down upon the less gifted and of the less gifted envying the more gifted. And it is always characteristic of human nature to minimize one’s own weaknesses and to exaggerate one’s own strengths, while doing just the opposite when observing the weaknesses and strengths of others. These things can severely stunt the spiritual growth of any congregation.
The apostle Paul regarded the selfishness and pride that disrupt congregational harmony as particularly troublesome and dangerous sins. This is evident from the fact that he issues warnings against them in just about every one of his epistles. Other examples of such warnings are found in Galatians 5:25,26; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; and Ephesians 4:2,3. So, whether lack of harmony was more of a problem in the Philippian congregation than in others or not, the Philippian believers certainly needed the Christ-centered encouragements of our text. And so do we.
Paul encourages the Philippians to strive for greater unity of disposition, lowliness, and helpfulness. Unity of disposition is the common view of life that believers ought to share, because they have been united by the Spirit in a common faith in the Lord Jesus. “Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, our comforts and our cares,” as one hymn writer puts it (Christian Worship [CW] 494:2). Believers who are “like-minded” judge all things by the Word of God. They love one another with the unselfish kind of love that gives without expecting anything in return and finds its motive and example in the love of Christ. And like-minded Christians agree on the great common goal of promoting Jesus’ kingdom in the world. Though they may be different in many other respects, believers think alike spiritually. And they ought to be working and praying continually for a greater unity of disposition.
Lowliness, or humble-mindedness, is also a key New Testament concept, a distinctive mark of the committed Christian. Lowliness is the opposite of the selfishness and pride of our corrupt sinful natures. First-century society placed little value on lowliness. In fact, it regarded lowliness as the equivalent of cowardice and equated pride and self-assertiveness with manhood. The non-Christian world today thinks in the same way. Books and classes offering assertiveness training and effective methods of exercising power and “looking out for number one” are tremendously popular and profitable. But the attitude of a heart changed by God’s grace is no longer “me first and everybody else after me, if at all.” Rather, it is an attitude that humbly and lovingly places the interests of others before one’s own.
When he urges believers to “consider others better than yourselves,” Paul is not advocating a false modesty. He does not want talented believers to deny their special gifts or to hide or neglect them. He is laying down a general principle that should govern believers’ relationships with one another. A humble child of God, no matter how many or how few his gifts may be, will strive to put the best construction on everything his neighbor does. He will happily acknowledge and respect whatever gifts the neighbor has, be they many or few. In everything, the humble Christian will strive to give the neighbor first consideration.
When each person in a community of Christians considers others as better than himself in this way, a marvelous harmony has to result. No one in that community is looked down upon; rather, everyone is looked up to, as all willingly give of themselves to show kindness to others. Paul himself had learned the grace of lowliness well.
Can the same be said of us? Or does our self-assertiveness show that our lives are not as Spirit-directed as they should be? It is difficult for Christians to put their faith into practice when it means adopting attitudes and actions that are radically different from those of the society in which they live. But right there is where true Christians show their colors and sham Christians are exposed. Only the gospel can give us, who are at the same time both saints and sinners, the spiritual strength we need to live the lives of lowliness that will clearly distinguish us as genuine followers of our lowly Lord.
Harmony becomes practical among Christians in helpfulness, when each believer strives to do those things that serve and help his neighbor in every possible way. The world’s way is to look out for oneself. It considers the needs of others only when it sees some ultimate advantage for itself, but believers’ concern for their neighbors’ interest will supersede concern for their own. And again, what a sure means that will be of promoting God-pleasing harmony among Christians.