Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 24, 2023
Philippians 1:21-30 Commentary
John Wooden was the hugely successful coach of America’s UCLA’s men’s basketball team. He also sought to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Wooden once famously said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s Paul would probably have agreed. After all, in its verse 27 he tells Philippi’s Christians, “Whatever happens [monon], conduct yourselves [politeuesthe] in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ [axios tou euangeliou].”* The Message lyrically paraphrases this plea as, “Live in such a way that you are a credit to the Message of Christ.”
Of course, Paul isn’t talking here about living our lives in ways that are consistent with the gospel when no one is looking. He’s, instead, calling the Christians in Philippi to live in such a way that they’re a credit to Christ’s message whether the apostle is “looking” or not.
When Paul writes to the Philippians, he can’t literally look at them because he writes at a physical distance from them. In verses 25-26 the apostle says, “I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ will overflow on account of me.”
Paul had planted the church in Philippi. The Spirit likely also used him to encourage people to receive God’s grace with their faith in Jesus Christ. Paul may have, further, spent time with the Philippians. Now, however, as Paul writes to them, he is under what is likely Roman house arrest.
Of course, Paul recognizes that he’s in danger. “I eagerly expect and hope,” he writes in verse 20, “that I will be in no way ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” In verse 23 he adds, “I am torn between [life and death]: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
Yet whether he remains under house arrest or is able to return to Philippi, Paul expects his readers to live their lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (27).” Whether Philippi’s Christians endure suffering for Jesus’ sake or live relatively unharmed, they must live in ways that are consistent with the grace God has shown them in Jesus Christ. Quite simply, “whatever happens,” the apostle expects Philippi’s Christians to “live in such a way that [they] are a credit to the Message of Christ.”
Verse 27’s phrase “axios tou euangeliou” basically summarizes the shape of the Christian life to which Paul summons his readers. The adverb axios is variously translated as “worthily” or “appropriately.” Euangeliou literally refers to a “good message.”
God saves God’s dearly beloved people by grace alone. We can only receive that grace with our trust in Jesus Christ. Such faith, however, is never a mere intellectual exercise. It always includes a response that’s appropriate to the immense scale of the good news that is the gospel of Christ.
Such a lifestyle, however, has political implications. When, in fact, Paul talks about Christian worthy conduct, he trades his usual word for discipleship for one that connotes living out one’s citizenship (Fred Craddock, Philippians, John Knox Press, 1985). Philippi was a place that Craddock calls “proud of itself as a little Rome.” Yet the apostle summons his readers to behave in ways that show that their primary loyalty is not to any mighty empire, but to the kingdom of God.
As Paul continues, he describes some of the shape of such loyalty. In verse 27 he calls the Christians in Philippi to “stand firm [stekete] in one spirit, contending [synathlountes] as one man for the faith [te pistei] of the gospel [tou euangeliou].” Paul insists that those who follow Jesus both persevere in our own faith and work together with other Christians for the faith. We pay attention to both our own spiritual wellness and promote the wellness of others. It’s appropriate for God’s adopted children to keep an eye on the health of our own faith as well as work for the healthy faith of others.
Christians sometimes assume that we alone are responsible for our own spiritual well-being. However, the apostle reminds us that we always persevere in the Christian faith together. This at least suggests that Jesus’ friends must cultivate an openness to the insights of others about the health of our Christian faith.
In reflecting on Paul’s call to unity in our 21st century context, the biblical scholar Susan Eastman writes, “When we consider the portrayals of churches in relationship to contemporary politics, unity is not the descriptor that comes to mind. Mutual recrimination, angry and destructive actions, and hatemongering rather than confident joy, are more the order of the day. This is hardly a winsome witness to the faith of the gospel.”
Paul adds to his description of a faith that’s an appropriate response to God’s grace a lack of fear. He calls the Christians in Philippi to contend for the faith of the gospel “without being frightened [ptyromenoi] in any way by those who oppose [antikeimenon] you” (28).
One natural response to any kind of opposition is fear. The threat of violent opposition that may lead to death only heightens such terror. The Philippian Christians need only read the earlier part of Paul’s letter to be reminded of just how fearsome and dangerous such opposition may be.
However, the apostle invites his readers not to give in to such fear. He, in fact, calls the Philippians’ opponents’ opposition to them “sign to them that … you will be saved” (28b). Their enemies’ opposition is, in other words, a cause for gratitude for its confirmation of God’s saving love for God’s people in Philippi.
In fact, Paul continues in verse 29, such suffering has been “granted to [echaristhe]” the Christians in Philippi. God doesn’t just grace God’s adopted sons and daughters with belief in the Lord. God also shows us favor and kindness by allowing us to “suffer [paschein]” for Jesus’ sake.
That is, however, at least arguably, among the most shocking assertions that Paul ever made. After all, we think of suffering for our faith as something to be tolerated, if not somehow avoided. Christians have a hard time, further, imagining what role God plays in allowing the kind of suffering that is so contrary for what God intends for us.
Here, however, Paul calls suffering for Christ’s sake a “gift” from God. The apostle even heightens verse 29’s mystery by linking his suffering for Jesus’ sake to the Philippians’ mistreatment. “It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ … to suffer for him, since you are going the same struggle [agona] you saw I had and now hear that I still have.” While the apostle elsewhere refers to Christians’ participation in Christ’s suffering, here he at least implies that Philippi’s Christians are, in a way, participating in his suffering.
It may seem like an almost egotistical assertion on Paul’s part. Yet it’s a reminder that when Christians suffer for Jesus’ sake, we don’t just endure something of what he endured. We also share in something of the misery our brothers and sisters in Christ are experiencing. Perhaps, then, the Spirit may use our own suffering to help deepen our empathy and sympathy for what other Christians are enduring.
*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.
“If Jesus was alive today, would he be a member of the Chinese Communist Party?” is John Sudworth’s provocative opening of his article, “Why Many Christians in China Have Turned to Underground Churches” that he posted on bbc.com on March 26, 2016. “Well, perhaps he would,” he continues, at least “according to one Beijing based priest, who serves in an official, state-sanctioned church …
“The Chinese Communist Party once tried to destroy religion. It failed. And today, according to some estimates, there are more Christians in China than Communist Party members. Up to 100 million will be celebrating across China this Easter weekend.
“But what it failed to destroy, the Party still wants to control. So an officially atheist government effectively runs its own churches and controls the appointment of its own priests.
Like Pastor Wu Weiqing from Beijing’s Haidian Church. ‘We have to remember first of all we are a citizen of this country,’ he says. ‘And we are a citizen of the Kingdom of God. That comes second’.”
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