Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians: Friends in the Gospel
Note: When passages are quoted at the beginning of new sections, I will be using The Message translation because of its conversational, friendly tone. You can compare this version with others, as well as have access to Gordon Fee’s commentary, at Bible Gateway.
Nothing can frustrate the advance of the gospel more, both in a Christian community’s effectiveness in their witness for Christ and in Christians’ individual lives, than internal unrest among believers. The gospel is all about reconciliation, and unreconciled people do not advertise it well.
• Gordon Fee
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Meanwhile, live in such a way that you are a credit to the Message of Christ. Let nothing in your conduct hang on whether I come or not. Your conduct must be the same whether I show up to see things for myself or hear of it from a distance. Stand united, singular in vision, contending for people’s trust in the Message, the good news, not flinching or dodging in the slightest before the opposition. Your courage and unity will show them what they’re up against: defeat for them, victory for you—and both because of God. There’s far more to this life than trusting in Christ. There’s also suffering for him. And the suffering is as much a gift as the trusting. You’re involved in the same kind of struggle you saw me go through, on which you are now getting an updated report in this letter.
Today’s passage begins the “body” of this friendship letter. The focus turns at this point from Paul’s news about himself to words of encouragement and instruction to the Philippian congregation. And, as the quote from Gordon Fee above indicates, the Apostle’s main concern is that the church be unified in their life together as they face the pressures of living for Christ in the midst of a community that didn’t always appreciate their faith and practice.
You will observe the note of “suffering” in this passage, a suffering that Paul describes as “the same kind of struggle you saw me go through.” This may have reference to the troubles Paul and Silas endured on their first visit to Philippi (Acts 16), and/or to his present circumstances in prison that he just informed them about in 1:12-26. At any rate, the Apostle who brought the strange good news of a crucified and risen Lord to Philippi, had also exhibited in his own body that Jesus’ followers are those who take up the cross as well.
In his commentary, Fee points out a key metaphor that Paul uses here to motivate the Philippians to maintain “courage and unity.”
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.
We can admire Paul’s brilliant way of communicating in terms to which his audience can relate. In essence, Paul is urging people who have been raised to have strong civic pride in their Caesar-blessed city of Roman privilege, to imagine what it would mean to carry that same attitude in their life together as blessed saints in their Lord Jesus Christ’s community of faith and love. Even when it means that others might not appreciate the new community and her new Lord.
In chapter two, Paul will put even more flesh on this overall exhortation, setting before the Philippians real examples of people who were willing to sacrifice their own agendas for the sake of serving their neighbors, suffering that others might have life.
Apparently, God’s plan is that his people will win, but not by winning. “The suffering is as much a gift as the trusting.” Not because suffering is good or to be desired in and of itself. But because God’s only way to life is through death.
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Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. at Flickr. Creative Commons License
Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians – Friends in the Gospel