The apostle Paul realized the significance of unity for the early church. Remember that Paul wrote his letter to the church in the city of Philippi sometime between 54 AD and the early 60s. The Christian movement was no more than 30 years of age and how it would appear as a new segment of society was in process. In chapter two of his letter to believers in Philippi Paul recounts their achievements and asks them to complete his joy by being unified in spirit around a single purpose.
Paul begins his chapter with a big IF – “Therefore, if you have . . .“ then each of the three following clauses begins with an “if.” The “if” certainly implies something less that perfection in certain areas. The Greek word, however, may be translated “since” and that throws a completely different light on what Paul is saying. (Scholars like to point that the original text is a “first class conditional cause” and assumes the premise to be true.) It is since they belong to Christ that the believers are being encouraged to live differently. Their lifestyle was anything but “politically correct” in a secular society. And that was all right because God was there to encourage and strengthen them as they lived differently than their community.
The word “since” is repeated in the three following clauses. It was since Christ’s love provided the insight, since the Spirit created a warm relationship, and since being in Christ had made their hearts tender and compassionate that Paul could ask them to make his joy complete. And that completeness was to be a unity that affected every part of their communal life. Paul understands the church as a group of believers transformed by the Spirit who work together in perfect unity to carry out the purpose of God here on earth.
There was a time in the life of our nation when the motto E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one,” represented what we as a nation wanted to be and were becoming. Currently it seems to be somewhat the opposite, “Out of one, many.” Diversity has become goal for our nation that once honored unity. Diversity is displacing unity in society as well as in the church. But it runs counter to both scripture and the will of our founders. Paul knew that only by the strength of unity could the church emerge victorious, and Thomas Jefferson and friends knew that the same principle must be in force in order to create a nation that would be genuinely exceptional. A good example of the Judeo-Christian basis of Western democracy.
I know that many of you are not interested in minutia but it’s important to know that Philippians 1:29 is not a new sentence but the continuation of vs. 28. Of the various English translations, I like the NJB’s transfer of the final clause of vs. 28 to the following verse so that it becomes a new sentence. In context it reads, Your courage in times of opposition ”comes from God, for you have been granted the privilege for Christ’s sake not only of believing in him but of suffering for him as well.” Now that we have that out of the way, we can look at what the passage is telling us.
You and I as believers have been given two wonderful privileges that serve the purposes of Christ in this world: the first is to believe in him. Most if not all of us were born in countries where the message of salvation has been clearly and powerfully present. That is a considerable advantage in coming by faith to Christ. Those living in certain foreign lands and remote islands recognize from nature that God exists but not that Christ came to die for their sins. It is a privilege to live where the gospel is clearly and openly proclaimed.
The second privilege may come as a bit of a shock – we are privileged to suffer for Him. What? I would think that the fortunate ones are those who will not have to suffer. You are right; that’s what we think. But God has planned something quite different and significantly more beneficial for us. Not only do we get to believe in him but also to suffer for Him. It certainly is interesting how often God’s plans for us don’t seem quite right; and that’s because by nature we prefer ours to His.
When Christ came and lived among us he was not all that popular. The crowds flocked to hear him, that’s true; but the major reason was that he could perform miracles. He healed the sick and even raised the dead. John tells us that at a certain point in Jesus’ ministry he “no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea,” but “withdrew to be with his disciples” (11:54). Opposition to his message was coming to a point where in a few weeks they would crucify him. Jesus suffered and those who identify with him will receive much the same treatment. But that’s not a downer; anything but! It’s a privilege to suffer for him. Talk about a bright future! They may kill us but that’s what goes with being the follower of the Galilean peasant who claimed to be God and proved it by rising from the dead. The opportunity to stand close by the One who has provided salvation for all who will accept it is a remarkable privilege.
As Paul looks ahead he knows that the church in Philippi will have some rough days. After all, they were a group of religious radicals living in a secular environment. So as their leader he advises them, “Conduct yourselves is a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). Then he points out several ways that this war of living expresses itself. The first and most important is that they “stand firm in one spirit.” Unity should be the most notable aspect of the church. Twice in his upper room prayer Jesus asked that his followers live in unity “so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21; also vs. 23). Unity in Christ is the most effective means of evangelization. It is tangible evidence that its members have stopped living for self and are following the example of their leader who lived a life of concern for the other. That is so clear that one wonders why it even needs to be stated. Unity is the persuasive call to a more satisfactory life.
The second characteristic of true believers is that their unity expresses itself in striving side by side for the “faith of the gospel.” The term includes preventing any distortion of the message as well as bringing others to faith. Paul is fond of vigorous metaphors such as “standing firm . . . joining in combat . . . in no way frightened” – all three appropriate in gladiatorial combat. If the Christian faith is anything, it is a battle for righteousness. It does not appeal to the faint of heart. While it does not call for the sword in most cases it is also true that many have died for their faith. It was Tertullian who, in the second century, wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
A third characteristic of true believers is that they stand unafraid as they live out their faith. The NET has ”not intimidated in any way.” Who can deny a certain hesitancy about living out a principle that is important in one’s religious faith but unacceptable by the culture in which one lives? In today’s world a preacher might think twice about explaining with clarity what Paul is teaching in Romans 1 about a well-known sexual practice. Currently, in America at least, it would not get him in serious trouble with the controlling powers, but he would be “tried” in the court of public opinion.
Speaking in a contemporary church, I believe the apostle Paul would encourage us to display by the way we live the truth of scripture. It calls upon believers to lay down their concern for self and display to others how to live with integrity by placing the other first. They are to take a strong stand for biblical truth and not live in fear lest it not be received. There is a remarkable sense of freedom in taking God at his word and live accordingly
In the previous segment we dealt with Paul’s oft-quoted statement that for him “to live is Christ.” It is important that we now deal with the rest of the sentence – “and to die is gain.” Paul is caught in a dilemma: on the one hand should he die it will mean more of Christ but should he live it will mean fruitful labor. So dying would be better in terms of personal benefit (more of Christ) but living would serve the interests of others (fruitful labor.) Paul asks himself, “Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!” (Phil 1:22.) What strikes me is the implication that the living or dying decision is somehow left up to him. Other translations understand the Greek verb in the sense of “prefer” but even then the choice would be his.
One clear teaching in scripture is that God is the one in control. History unfolds along a path determined by God. Nothing takes him by surprise. It follows that man is not the one to decide such things such as the date of his own demise. So why does Paul wonder about which option to choose? Good question, but far better brains than mine have been trying to answer it from the beginning of recorded history. If the sovereignty of God was the only thing taught in scripture about the control of life’s events, then the answer would be easy. But the bible also teaches that man has a free will, and that means he can freely do what he wants to do. The best known verse in the bible is John 3:16, which closes saying, “Whoever believes in him shall not perish.” Eternal life is available to the one who believes, that is, chooses to accept. But then, does that not leave God out of the decision? What if that person wasn’t chosen? Or, back to the original question: If Paul could choose the time of his death that would make God unnecessary at that point. I warned you, no one, as far I know, has satisfactorily answered the sovereignty/free-will question.
The root of the problem is that when we think or talk about something that involves both God and man we are bringing together two somewhat disparate realms. God exists outside of his own creation but we are limited to our created order. That God is able to communicate with us doesn’t mean that we are able to fully understand the “world” from which he speaks. A somewhat helpful example would be that a father can explain to his son the rules of baseball, but the son isn’t therefore equipped to make top-level decisions in his father’s professional world. They are what we might call two different “spheres.” God can tell us that we have been chosen and we can understand; but that doesn’t mean that his sovereignty has to be something we can explain in terms of our logical system. It’s a clash of spheres. In fact, I’m not sure I’d like to have a god limited to my ability to fully understand.
So God is sovereign and we, his creatures, are free to make decisions. But what if we decide something that is contrary to his will? J. I. Packer, the famous theologian, calls that an antinomy – two statements equally true but beyond the power of human logic to explain. I can live with that!
I would think that of all things the apostle said or wrote, his short statement in Philippians 1 is probably the most widely known: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (vs. 21). In these nine words Paul identifies himself, states his purpose in life, and describes the outcome. Rarely has so much been said in so few words!
First, the context. In spite of the fact that he is chained up in a Roman prison, the gospel is still being preached, and that fills his heart with joy. He is grateful for the prayers of the congregation and trusts that he himself will always be faithful so that whether he lives or is put to death, Christ will be exalted in his body.
Against that background, what exactly is it that Paul is telling us in this terse statement so full of meaning? The statement “to live is Christ” is understood in several ways. One way to take it is that Paul’s life was totally centered on Christ and his redemptive mission. Everything comes into focus on this one central reality. So close is that relationship to the One he met on the Damascus road that he can say, “As far as I’m concerned my life is simply Christ carrying out his plans through me – nothing more, nothing less.” Should Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time (28 medals!) say, “For me to swim is life,” we would know exactly what he meant. Using the metaphor we hear Paul, saying something like, “For me, preaching the gospel is so important that I work out in the gospel at least six hours a day, make every verse count, and train hard for the next time I get to speak.”
But Paul’s simple declaration can be understood as more than a description of how hard he works. Biblical exegetes use the term sensus plenior to refer to a deeper meaning intended by God but not necessarily by the human author. To hear a dog bark means little to me, but for Ron, a friend who earlier in life was attacked by two pit bulls, that same bark sends a severe wave of fright through his body. It has a “deeper meaning.” So, some exegetes understand, “For me to live is Christ” in terms of complete identification with Him. Having died with Christ, as Paul writes in Romans 6:8, we become one with him. That which the man Paul appears to be doing is actually Christ/Paul at work. They are existentially one. There is no isolated “I” who lives and works apart from Christ.
In whichever way you take the statement, it emphasizes the profound relationship between a believer like Paul and the Lord, Jesus Christ.
While in prison Paul learned that there were some in the area who, while preaching the gospel, did it for the wrong reasons. For one thing, they were enjoying the limelight far too much. Beyond that they thought that having to play second fiddle would really bother Paul. But it didn’t. In fact it was a cause for celebration. He exclaimed, “Because of this I rejoice,” and then added, “Yes, and I will continue to rejoice!” (Philippians 1:18.) But that the gospel was being preached in spite of his imprisonment wasn’t the only reason for his rejoicing. He also rejoiced because, as a result of the prayers of believers and the help of the Spirit, it would all work out for his deliverance (vs. 19). And that deliverance was more than just getting out of jail; it included the final vindication of the cause to which he had so completely given himself. It would have been impossible to suppress rejoicing in view of what was happening.
In simple terms, joy has little or nothing to do with the situation in which it breaks out. It is not conditioned by circumstance. Difficulties can’t muzzle it. To grasp what God is doing in the world and that his victory is certain, is bound to make the believer joyful. I can picture Paul, full of joy in an otherwise gloomy prison cell. All around him were criminals who could hardly believe what was going on right there before their eyes. “Sane people,” they say, “don’t get swept away by joy when locked up.” But Paul did. As we said, joy doesn’t depend on what is going on at that moment in one’s life.
There is a lesson here. Generally speaking, our emotional life is determined to a great deal by circumstances. And that’s how we’re made. We hear good news and we smile; bad news and we frown. But since salvation means to be forgiven and restored to a relationship with our heavenly Father who is the source of all joy – in view of that, a face marred by sadness or disapproval is strangely out of place. Once again, joy is a state of the soul – it is not conditioned by exterior factors. Paul was joyful because, even in jail, he knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that after this brief span of time we call life, lay an eternity of delight. On the way to your wedding you may be discouraged for the moment by a flat time, but the real joy of the occasion is bothered in no way. You know, of course, that we are the “bride of Christ” heading to the marriage feast. Hey, forget the flat tire
The apostle Paul, at this point, was locked up in prison but there were others in Philippi who continued to preach the gospel. Paul was not the only one able to proclaim the good news. However, we learn from Philippians 1:15-19 that, while some of those who were preaching were motivated by love (probably for Paul as well as the message itself), others were motivated by selfish ambition. It gratified their ego to be up front. Besides, they were quite sure that Paul would be envious of the notoriety they were gaining. And that’s a perfect example of projection – that’s how they would have felt had they been the one in prison.
But how did Paul react? He was filled with joy – Christ was being preached and that’s what was important. If from love, great! If from selfish ambition and the desire to make him envious, “What does it matter?” (vs. 18). It is the message that matters. We need to remind ourselves that the power is in the Word itself, not in our presentation. Exaggerated rhetoric and flamboyant delivery may excite or amuse, but it is the simple declaration of the Word that touches the heart. In another place Paul points out that his preaching was “not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Corin. 1:17).
Paul’s dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus changed that zealous Rabbi forever. The glad new of forgiveness by faith alone redirected his life from that point on. He was delighted to proclaim the truth, whether from Mars Hill or from the depths of a Roman dungeon. It made no difference. It was the power of the Spirit, not the messenger, which was changing lives. Far too often our concern is on the environment in which the message is delivered rather than the message itself. Beautiful church sanctuaries are a positive expression of the grandeur of the gospel but they will never rise in importance above the gospel itself. As a young man I used to preach on the streets of Portland, OR, and God honored my unsophisticated attempts to share my faith. The great sermons of history are those that with simple clarity announce what God, by sending His Son, has done for the human race. The advice is: Get out of the way and let God!
Had the Paul who was in prison just then been overly concerned about his own miserable state, or whether God was able to use others in the work of evangelization, he would not have been the Paul who, empowered by the Spirit, played such a crucial role in the westward spread of the Christian faith
Some of Paul’s letters were written from a prison cell. His letter to believers in the city of Philippi is one of them. Exactly where that prison was is uncertain but Rome is the most probable. On the surface it would seem that the imprisonment of Christianity’s most influential spokesman would seriously slow down growth in the movement. “Not so,” says Paul; “The circumstances of my present life are helping rather than hindering the advance of the gospel (Philippians 1:12 NJB). Everyone, including the palace guard, was aware that he was in prison because of his fearless proclamation of the gospel. This implies that a wide group of people had been exposed to the gospel and knew at least what it claimed. Now that is good news! How else could you get a wider hearing.
The other benefit of being thrown into jail is that the local believers were emboldened to share their faith without fear. Paul had shown them the way so, setting caution aside, they went about the task freed from the “political correctness” of the day. From ages past people have experienced the compelling force of reality. The life, death, and resurrection of the man Jesus struck the people of the early church as so authentic that they couldn’t help but respond without reserve to its demand to “go and tell.”
What can we learn from those early years of the rapid expanse of Christianity? In the second century Tertullian, the Christian apologist, wisely noted that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” This should not come as a surprise because it was Jesus, the gentle Nazarene, who promised his followers, “You will be hated by everyone because of me” (Matt. 10:22) And the apostle Paul added, “All who desire to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). People do not risk their lives for something in which they do not have that level of commitment.
The view that history is drawing to a close is not simply the opinion of a few on the far right. It is understood by a broad spectrum of those in leadership that right now the world has far more nuclear power than needed for global annihilation. We are also living in a time when it is all but certain that certain rebel groups that glorify death are in the process of obtaining the nuclear armament to make it happen. But along with Paul we can rejoice that our God is sovereign and according to his plan “all things will happen just as he decided long ago” (Eph. 1:11, TLB). Being sovereign means having absolute control. When the curtain of history goes down, God alone will stand center stage as the sovereign King of kings