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Philippians 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Appeal: In the Face of Opposition

Sometimes it is hard to say in a letter what one feels compelled to put to a close friend--like when writing to urge a ninety-one-year-old father to stop driving, for his sake and that of others. Without body language, voice inflections and facial expressions, the words might seem cold. Even though good friendships will endure such moments, confrontations and appeals always have the possibility of bringing some momentary tensions.

This is where Paul now is in his letter; and in his case there is the added burden that he has sometimes appeared to be more forceful when writing than in person (2 Cor 10:10). But speak into their situation he must, even though (perhaps especially because) they have partnered with him in the work of the gospel for these many years (see 1:5; 4:15-16). His friends are now in double jeopardy: there is some posturing going on among them that has all the potential of open conflict at the very time they are also facing strong opposition in Philippi.All of these cards Paul lays on the table in this opening paragraph, which in fact is one long, convoluted sentence in Greek. Its complexity is due in part to the friendship thing, as he makes transition from his hoped-for future coming (vv. 25-26) to present realities in Philippi, and in part to his attempt to say it carefully while putting it all in front of them. The various parts of the sentence can be easily traced (the numbers reflect the actual order of the sentence): (1) He starts (v. 27a) with an appeal to live worthy of the gospel in Philippi, using a metaphor that also contains an appeal to their civic pride, (3) followed (v. 27c) by a clause that spells out what that will mean for them, contending for the gospel in the unity of the Spirit while (4) not being intimidated by the opposition (v. 28a). Part of this is complicated (2) by his adding the presence/absence motif (v. 27b) as a way of transition from verses 25-26. (5) After an aside that spells out the eternal destiny of both sides (v. 28b), (6) he concludes with a theological explanation of Christian suffering (vv. 29-30).The Appeal (1:27) The NIV's whatever happens translates the adverb "only," a word "lifted like a warning finger" (Barth 1962:45) to catch their attention about present realities. Paul expects to be released from his present imprisonment partly for the sake of his Philippian brothers and sisters' further "progress and joy" regarding "the faith." But in the meantime, while Paul is still "absent" from them, he wishes to hear the same kind of good report "about your affairs" (NIV about you) that he would hope to find had he been able to come now with Epaphroditus.

At issue is how the Philippians conduct themselves, meaning live out the gospel in Philippi. Pivotal to the present appeal is that instead of the ordinary Jewish metaphor "to walk [in the ways of the Lord]," Paul uses a political metaphor, which will appear again in 3:20-21. The people of Philippi took due pride in their having been made a Roman colony by Caesar Augustus, which brought the privileges and prestige of Roman citizenship. Paul now urges them to live out their citizenship (conduct yourselves) in a manner--and the sentence begins with these emphatic words--worthy of the gospel of Christ. What is intended by this wordplay is something like "Live in the Roman colony of Philippi as worthy citizens of your heavenly homeland." That, after all, is precisely the contrast made in 3:17-20, where "our citizenship is in heaven," in contrast to those whose minds are set on "earthly things."

The use of this metaphor is a brilliant stroke. Not only does it appeal to their own historic pride as Philippians, but now applied to their present setting, it urges concern both for the mission of the gospel in Philippi and especially for the welfare of the state, meaning in this case that they take seriously their "civic" responsibilities within the believing community. Their being of one mind and heart is at stake; disharmony will lead to their collective ruin.How are they to bring this off? By standing firm in the one Spirit as they contend side by side as one person for the faith of the gospel. With these words, and in typical fashion, Paul switches metaphors, this time to an athletic contest, probably used metaphorically in turn to suggest a battle. The image is of people engaged in spiritual warfare (imagery that will hardly be lost on those who live in a military colony!), standing their ground firmly by the power of the Holy Spirit, who as the one Spirit is also the source of their unity (cf. 1 Cor 12:13), thus anticipating 2:1. Despite the frequency of its appearance in English translations, this phrase can scarcely mean in one spirit (NIV), as though it meant to have a common mind about something. Such an idiom with the word spirit is unknown in all of Greek literature. Paul himself uses this phrase elsewhere to refer to the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:9, 13; Eph 2:18), precisely in places, as here, where Christian unity is at stake.

They are urged thus to stand firm in/by the one Spirit so as to contend together as one person for the faith of the gospel. Here we are at the heart of things: their need to have harmony within the Christian community as they live out the gospel in Philippi. The gospel is the beginning and end of everything for Paul. Thus for them to live out their (heavenly) citizenship in a manner worthy of the gospel means for them to contend for the faith of the gospel, and to do so in the unity that only the Spirit brings. All the more so now because they are facing some kind of opposition that is resulting in suffering.The Opposition (1:28) Contending . . . for the faith of the gospel immediately calls to mind the opposition. So Paul adds, without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. The (somewhat rare) word translated frightened, used sometimes to refer to "spooking" horses, probably here carries the nuance "be intimidated" or "be thrown into consternation."

But what kind of opposition would possibly intimidate the Philippian believers? Although we cannot be certain, the best guess is related to the fact that Philippi was a Roman military colony, whose populace for very good historical reasons were devoted to the emperor (see introduction). In fact the cult of the emperor, whose "divine" titles were "lord" and "savior," apparently flourished in Philippi, so that every public event also served as an opportunity to proclaim "Caesar is lord"--in very much the same way as "The Star-Spangled Banner" or "O Canada!" is sung before public events in North America.

The problem for believers is obvious--and would easily arouse suspicions as well as hostility. For they were devoted to another Lord and Savior (Phil 3:20 is the only place this combination occurs in Paul's letters) and would find proclaiming Caesar as lord to be an impossible conflict of devotion. To top it all off, their Lord had in fact been crucified by the Roman "lord," thus branding him forever as an enemy of the state, of the insurrectionist type. Thus believers in Christ could scarcely be more out of touch with the sympathies of the local populace than in a place like Philippi. Hence Paul's concern that those who oppose them not intimidate or throw them into consternation.

This in part accounts for the constant focus on Christ in this letter. He who, following his crucifixion, currently reigns as Lord (2:9) will someday return from heaven as Lord and Savior (3:20-21), before whom every knee will bow--including that of the current "lord Caesar," Nero himself, who will join with all others to confess that the only Lord is none other than Jesus Christ (2:10-11).

Paul's mention of the opposition now prompts him to insert a parenthetical moment, describing what their standing up to the opposition will mean, as by the Holy Spirit they form a united front in contending for . . . the gospel in Philippi. Such "Spiritual" boldness on their part will serve as a sign (perhaps "omen") to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved.

How so, Paul does not say, but the answer probably lies with the Philippians' embracing the eschatological certainties just given in verses 21-24, which will give to them, as to Paul, uncommon boldness in proclaiming Christ in Philippi. Such people cannot be intimidated by anyone or anything, since they belong to the future with a kind of certainty that people whose lives are basically controlled by Fate could never understand--surely an "omen," Paul says, using the language of their own worldview, that they are headed for destruction.

At the same time, of course, such resolve and unity in the face of opposition will fall out as salvation for the Philippians. Although the grammar is a bit sticky here, most likely the word saved ("salvation") carries a sense very close to that in verse 19. Such salvation/vindication will not necessarily be manifest to the opponents, but it will become clear to the believers themselves. To drive this point of assurance home, Paul adds, "And this (their destruction and your salvation/vindication) comes from none other than God himself."

As always God is both the first and the last word. Salvation is at his initiative; it comes from him. Thus it is the first word. But in this sentence, in light of the Philippians' need for reassurance, it is the last word as well. Everything is from God; the Philippians can rest assured. Which is also a necessary word in light of the theological explanation of suffering that Paul is about to offer.The Suffering--Theologically Explained (1:29-30) People who reflect an attitude that suggests "Oh boy, I get to suffer for Jesus" cause most of us to squirm. Somehow they haven't got it quite right; and they surely cannot appeal to Paul for such an attitude. Paul's attitude toward Christian suffering is altogether theological and christocentric at its core. It is based on Christ's teaching on discipleship, that servants are to be like their master, and on Paul's own understanding of present Christian existence as both "already" and "not yet."The parenthetical nature of verse 28b makes the for with which this sentence begins a bit problematic. What ultimately triggers all of this is the mention of the opposition, filtered through Paul's knowledge of his readers' present, very real, situation. But the immediate reason for the for is the mention of their final salvation as from (NIV by) God. The God who saves you, who has thus granted to you (literally "graced you"!) on behalf of Christ . . . to believe on him, is the same God who has also graced you to suffer for him. So who needs such "gracing"? one might ask.

The clue again lies in the christocentric nature of Paul's understanding of everything. Literally he says, "To you has been graciously given on behalf of Christ . . . to suffer on his behalf." This emphasis must be understood in light of the Christ narrative to which Paul will appeal in 2:5-11. A crucified Lord produces disciples who themselves take up a cross as they follow him. We are thus to live on behalf of Christ in the same way Christ himself lived--and died--on behalf of this fallen, broken world. That is why salvation includes suffering on behalf of Christ, since those who oppose the Philippian believers as they proclaim the gospel of Christ are of a kind with those who crucified their Lord in the first place. And for believers, as for our Lord, the path to glorification leads through the suffering of the cross ( living "cruciform" [see note on 1:11]).

But Paul is not finished. He concludes by reminding his partners in the gospel that he and they are in this together as well; they are going through the same struggle they have seen him go through. His present accent falls on the same, meaning "of a kind with his," which causes a lot of things to fall into place, including both the length and the content of the preceding narrative about "my affairs" (vv. 12-26). Their present suffering on Christ's behalf has been equally brought on by those who oppose the gospel, very likely reflecting a common source as well, the Roman Empire.

In making this point, he reminds them that their struggle is identical to that which you saw I had. Among the recipients of this letter would be the jailer and his household and (perhaps) the young slave girl whose having been set free from Satan's tyranny had resulted in the first of Paul's sufferings on behalf of Christ that they had seen. In fact, not long after that initial stay in Philippi he wrote to another Macedonian congregation and referred to his Philippian experience in terms of suffering and being shamefully treated (1 Thess 2:2). The struggle was always there, and every time he came through Philippi they saw more of the same, which over time took on a variety of forms.

And so he reminds them that their present suffering is precisely of a kind with his current Roman imprisonment. They are partners in suffering for the gospel as well as in proclaiming it; and that reality--and resource--is what he will draw on as he now returns to the appeal that they stand firm in the one Spirit, contending side by side for the gospel (2:1-4).

Although our particulars differ considerably, the theological concerns that emerge in this paragraph are greatly needed in the church today, both in the Western church where the struggle in a post-Christian, postmodern world is immense, though the suffering is less so, and in churches in the emerging world, where suffering is often more prevalent but where sectarian strife all too often hampers the cause of the gospel.

One of the reasons most of us in the West do not know more about the content of verses 29-30 is that we have so poorly heeded the threefold exhortation that precedes: (1) to stand firm in the one Spirit (overall our pneumatology is especially weak); (2) to contend for the faith of the gospel as one person (the faith of the gospel has been watered down on all sides, by the blatant materialism that erodes the evangelical church as well as by a banal "liberalism," neither of which is worth contending for; and our sectarianism has more often resulted in in-house furor than in contending for the gospel in the face of pagan opposition); and (3) to do so without being intimidated in any way by the opposition (who tend to focus on our many weaknesses, so as to continually deflect our contending for the gospel of our crucified Savior per se).

The net result is that the content of Paul's explanation is something contemporary Christians hear reluctantly, either out of guilt that so many of us look so little like this or out of fear that it might someday really be true for us. The key is to return to Paul's emphasis, "for the sake of Christ." Our tendency is to focus on the suffering. What is needed is a radical paradigm shift toward Christ--and his apostle--as God's ultimate paradigm for us. Through "death on a cross" he not only "saved us" but modeled for us God's way of dealing with the opposition--loving them to death.

Previous commentary:
The Philippians' Affairs: Exhortation to Steadfastness and Unity

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