In today’s Philippians text, St. Paul transitions from bringing the church up to date on his personal situation to his first exhortation to the congregation. He urges them to live their life in a manner “worthy of the gospel of Christ” and it is to this theme I direct your attention.
Verse 27 begins with the word only. This “only” picks up the uncertainty of Paul’s circumstances and places the exhortation as a trustworthy goal to aim at in the midst of uncertainty. “Whether I come and see you, or whether, being away I hear about you” indicates the limits of Paul’s knowledge of what will happen with him, even though he has faith that he will see them again at some point. However, he has every expectation that he will know about the state of the church—one way or another. How he will know is the not the most important thing—whether he comes, or whether he only hears—makes no difference What is most important is that he learn that they are living in a manner worthy of the Gospel.
Notice that the Apostle couches this exhortation, then, in the context of his strong personal connection with the Philippian Christians. He does not hesitate to ask them to live this way, as it were, for him. He says, in effect, “Let me hear good things about you.” Of course, Paul’s deepest desire is that they live for the Lord. However, he lets them know how much encouragement it would bring to him if they are faithful to Christ and is not shy about leveraging this. By the way, he is even more straightforward about this in Chapter 2, when he introduces the call to unity with, “Make my joy complete.” This may strike us as a bit out of place at first glance; however, St. Paul is modeling what he will ask them to do. He will ask them to think about others in the body and regard their needs as important as their own. In his exhortations, he asks the Philippians to think about him, even as he makes it clear how much he is thinking about them.
Two other structural observations are in order about these transitional verses 27-30. The first is that it is one sentence in the original text. Thus, the whole passage is an elaboration of what it means to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. Moreover, with these longer sentences, what comes at the “period” carries special weight or attention. This indicates that suffering for the name of Christ is particularly significant for a life worthy of the gospel.
The second structural consideration is the rhetorical repetition of seeing and hearing. The section opens with the possibilities yet to be determined—“whether I come and see, or whether, being away, I hear.” The section closes with the struggle of living worthily of the gospel—a struggle that they saw in Paul and continue to hear about in his life. This rhetorically contrasts the uncertainty of some aspects of our experience, in God’s providence, with the certainty of the cost of discipleship.
Turning then to the theme of a manner of life worthy of the gospel, let’s look at it both in its broader use in scripture and then at its specific elaboration in verses 27-30. One thing that jumps out about the exhortation to a manner of life worthy of the gospel is that this theme appears prominently in the prison epistles to churches—Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. The same exhortation also occurs in 1 Thessalonians 2:12. I will not take time to examine each of these instances, but it is worth noting that unity, gratitude, and steadfastness feature strongly in the context of the exhortations to live in “a worthy manner.”
One striking feature of the Philippian exhortation to a worthy manner of living is St. Paul’s use of a word that originally meant “to live as a free citizen.” (Greek: politeuomai) Several Greek orators of the 5th and 4th centuries BC use the word in this way. In all the other letters where Paul exhorts to a worthy manner of living he uses the word “walk.” Thus we read:
- Ephesians 4:1 I...beg you to lead a life (walk) worthy of the calling to which you were called
- Colossians 1:10 praying that you may filled with the knowledge of Gods will... so that you may lead lives (walk) worthy of the Lord
- 1 Thess. 2:12 exhorting and encouraging and testifying to the end that you may live lives (walk) worthy of God, who called you into his own kingdom and glory.
So, it is intriguing that Paul uses a verb for conducting one’s life with a root related to citizenship in the exhortation to the Philippians. Philippi, after all, was a Roman colony, a little “Rome away from Rome” as it were. Luke describes it as “a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.” (Acts 16:12) To the extent that members of the Philippian church may have held Roman citizenship, this would surely have been a point of pride. When we consider that later in the letter Paul will remind them that “their citizenship is in heaven” (3:20), a connection with “citizenship” in the exhortation to “live your life” is at least plausible.
On the other hand, by St. Paul’s time, this word had the more general meaning of “behave” or “conduct one’s life.” This is its common meaning in the Books of Maccabees (in the Greek Old Testament). Resisting Rome and Greco-Roman culture, they “behaved according to the law.”
(2 Macc. 6:1) St. Paul himself uses the word in a similar way in his speech to the Council: “While Paul was looking intently at the council he said, ‘Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.’” (Acts 23:1) So, while the association with citizenship and freedom is very suggestive, we should be content to say that Paul uses the word to indicate conduct that conforms to a standard. The Maccabees behaved according to the law of God; Paul exhorts the Philippians to behave according to this standard: worthy of the gospel of Christ.
Here we are reminded of St. Paul’s foundational approach to the way Christians are to behave. Having been delivered from the legalism and works-righteousness mentality of his background in Pharisaism, St. Paul is careful not to ground Christian behavior in law. Of course, the law is good and Paul is not an antinomian. However, he consistently grounds Christian conduct in the grace of God. God has given us a new identity, a new name, a new family, a new citizenship. By his mercy to us in Christ’s cross, and through our baptism and the work of the Holy Spirit, we have been made new creatures. The gospel is the message of God’s grace; moreover, in Philippians, the “gospel” is short-hand for the new enterprise set in motion by the message—the cause of Christ in the world. Paul’s exhortation is that we live in a manner worthy of our new standing in grace—a life consistent with, and a credit to, the message and cause of the gospel. That is why, for example, in Colossians 1:12, “joyfully giving thanks” is worthy of the gospel.
Christians often fall into confusion on this theme of worthiness. Now worthiness is about deserving. If we are worthy of something, that means we deserve (or do not deserve) something. John the Baptized said of Jesus, “I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” (Mt. 3:11) The Prodigal Son said to his Father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” (Lu. 15:21) St. Paul says of the ungodly that “They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things are worthy of death...” (Rom. 1:32) Examples could be multiplied. Worthy has to do with what is deserved. Thus, a manner of life that is worthy of the gospel is a way of living that deserves to be called “gospel” living, or more simply, a way of life that is consistent with the gospel.
It is important to understand that worthy in our text is an adverb. It is about how we live, not what we are. None of us are worthy to be Christians. None of us deserve the grace of God. None of us deserve to be adopted into God’s family or to be granted heavenly citizenship. This is all of grace. But, having been granted this new standing we are called upon to live in a manner worthy of the gift we have received. We cannot do this perfectly, of course; however, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the power of God at work within us, our lives can be a credit, rather than a fundamental contradiction, to the gospel. This is how St. Paul always encourages us to think about behavior. He makes this principal most abundantly clear in 1 Timothy 1:9-11 where he characterizes lawless, godless behavior as “contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God...”
In Philippians 1:27-30 the Apostle identifies two broad aspects of manner of life “worthy of the gospel.” Of course, the whole epistle is really an expansion of these themes, so this morning I will examine them only briefly, to help us anticipate their fuller exposition in the weeks ahead.
Note in the first place that a manner of life worthy of the gospel is exhibited in the unity of the body of Christ. He wants to hear that they are “standing fast in one spirit, striving together with one mind (lit.‘soul’) for the faith of the gospel.” They are to guard against distortions of the gospel. These distortions of the gospel may come about through false interpretations of the scriptures, such as, for example, the Judaizing tendency which he challenges at the beginning of Chapter 3. Or, they may come about through the temptation to compromise the gospel to avoid persecution. Or, they may come about through a desire to mitigate the high moral standard of the gospel, such as those in Chapter 3 whose God is their appetites, who glory in their shame, whose minds are set on earthly things. (3:19) The gospel is a treasure, a deposit to be guarded. The church is to be united in this.
This is particularly counter-cultural in our time. Simply put, a manner of life worthy of the gospel is a corporate life; it is lived in the fellowship of the body, in full participation in the worship and mission of the church. Ours is a society in which individualism reigns. Church is valued for the benefits that we may take from it for our own personal edification or in the opportunities it provides to do things that are personally fulfilling. And, there are more than enough choices such that standing in one spirit, striving with one mind would hardly seem to be necessary. We can all find a church that suits our particular tastes. Commitment to maintain deep agreement and deep unity is not something North American Christianity requires of us. But, living in a manner worthy of the gospel does.
It is interesting that the only other place that the word translated “striving side by side” in verse 27 is used in the New Testament is in Philippians 4:3, of Euodia and Syntyche, who had striven “side by side” with Paul in the gospel. Now Euodia and Syntyche apparently struggled to get along. Paul’s exhortation to stand fast in one spirit and strive side by side with one mind certainly applied to them. They are a reminder that even the most dedicated Christians can struggle to get along, but also that living worthily of the gospel makes the struggle important.
Second, a life worthy of the gospel requires courage and loyalty to Christ. Those who strive for the faith of the gospel are not to be intimidated by the opposition. Here Paul speaks of the paradoxical gift of persecution. Moreover, he uses this as an opportunity to explain more of what it means to be “sharers in the gospel.” He gives thanks in 1:5 “because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” This sharing is not just in worship and faith and material treasure. It is also in suffering. This is explicitly identified as a gift and privilege granted by God. Paul writes to encourage them by letting them know that God has given him strength to endure suffering. If they share in suffering, they will also share in the gift of endurance. Learning to see suffering for the gospel as a privilege may appear to be a hard lesson; however, setting in the context of a life worthy of the gospel makes its importance crystal clear.
In closing I would like to make an observation about the connection between the missionary task and contending or striving for the faith of the gospel. In the context of long established churches, theology can become soft or fuzzy. Precision may not be the highest value. On the other hand, if people are going out with a message that challenges and questions the most basic assumptions of unreached peoples, it is crucial that the missionaries be clear about the message. Paul, for example, was in constant communication with the churches he planted to reinforce and clarify, as needed, the gospel message. He was vigilant against distortions and syncretism of any kind.
It is telling that in the modern era, the missionary enterprise has been the arena in which fundamental theological differences have surfaced in long-established churches. In the recent past, a lot of churches left the PCUSA for bodies like our own EPC precisely because many PCUSA mission entities did not see the gospel message as a uniquely saving message. A missions conference in which the keynote address was “What’s the Big Deal about Jesus” and the answer, essentially, “not much” was the last straw for a lot of former PCUSA churches. Moreover, this was in some ways a repetition of events in the early 20th century that precipitated the fundamentalist - modernist controversy. Many missionaries went out from mainline churches and, when confronted with the devotion of people to their ancestral non-Christian religions, began to question the need to share the Christian message. Their approach was to find and affirm the “essential” truths of Christianity in non-Christian religious systems and reduce the missionary enterprise to improving the material lives of impoverished, suffering people. Conservative Christians, of course, found the essentials of Christianity in the uniqueness of Christ as the full revelation of God’s truth and the world’s only Savior.
All of this reminds us that a way of life worthy of the gospel is significant mainly in a missionary setting. For those of us who are wondering what it might mean for us to live like missionaries—continuing the missionary enterprise—this is the place to start! Amen.