“Citizens of Heaven, Part 1:
Not Frightened in the Face of Opposition & Suffering”
Philippians 1:27-30 (Pt. 1)
August 20, 2023
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
The Reading of the Word
We return, this morning, to Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi.
We will spend two more Sundays in our summer series in Philippians – this Sunday and next – and then we will return to our fall series in Deuteronomy.
At this point in Paul’s letter, he has told them about his affairs – about what has been going on in his life – and now he shifts and begins to address their affairs – what is going on in their lives.
With that in mind, we turn to Philippians 1:27-30.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
This is the Word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Prayer of Illumination
Lord, your hands have made and fashioned us;
give us understanding that we may learn your commandments,
that we, your people, might rejoice together,
as we see the work that you are doing in each of us.
Let your steadfast love comfort us,
according to your promises.
Work now in our hearts, to conform them to your word,
that we may not be put to shame,
but might delight in you.
Teach us from your word now, we ask,
in Jesus’s name. Amen
[Based on Psalm 119:73, 74, 76, 80]
We see again this week what we’ve seen the last few weeks – that Paul has an ability to pack a lot of information into just a few sentences. [Fee, 159]
What I’ve done the last few weeks is to spend two Sundays on each text, in order to focus on at least the two most dominant themes in each passage, while keeping each sermon a bit more manageable and digestible. And it’s an approach I’ll take for our last two sermons this summer in Philippians as well.
There’s a lot going on here. But there are two dominant goals that Paul has as he addresses the problem before the Philippian Christians.
The problem Paul is addressing is that the Christians in Philippi are facing opposition and potential suffering. They are under threat because of their faith. Paul begins to talk to them here about how they should handle that threat, and as he does, he has two main goals: he calls them first to not be frightened, and second to be united.
Those two themes go together in important ways, but they are also distinct. And so we will take them separately.
This morning we will consider Paul’s calling on the Philippian Christians to not be frightened by the challenges ahead of them, and next Lord’s Day we will consider Paul’s calling on them to be united with one another.
So first, we need to acknowledge the reality of fear in the lives of the Philippian Christians, as well as in our own lives.
Paul says, in verse twenty-seven and twenty-eight, that what he wants to hear about them is that they are “not frightened in anything by [their] opponents.” And that statement has a couple implications.
One is that the Christians in Philippi faced a real temptation to be frightened. Paul wouldn’t raise it if it wasn’t a concern. Paul acknowledges that there were real threats that the Philippians faced, and he also knew that there were voices, maybe some internally, maybe some externally, that were tempting the Philippian Christians towards fear.
A second implication of Paul’s statement was that he is concerned about a specific type of fear. There are a lot of things that we may struggle with fear about in life. And in a sense, what we have to say this morning applies to each of those areas. But the focus Paul has here – and so our focus as well – is on a specific kind of fear: fear of their opponents.
So, the problem Paul is addressing is that the Philippian Christians are being tempted, for understandable reasons, to be frightened by those who oppose them.
And as we realize that we should also see that this is an incredibly prevalent temptation in our culture as well.
We live in a culture that is profoundly marked by fear.
Frank Furedi is a sociologist who has written extensively about fear, and how it functions today in Western culture. In one article, he discusses some of the dynamics of how this plays out – particularly in an interplay in how we relate to both circumstances, and authority.
Furedi explains that people in our modern Western culture tend to be fearful about perceived threats and dangers in the world around them. And because of that fear, they demand that those in authority come up with solutions to protect them. But then, at the very same time, people in modern Western culture are also very fearful about the exercise of authority over them. And so we fear not just the circumstances that threaten us, but also the authoritative solutions offered from above us. Both of those dynamics tend to fracture and atomize us, and so we lose even a shared common perspective on our fears in our culture.
We could take those lines from Furedi and follow them out a bit further than and note that when people are afraid of both the initial dangers and the authoritative solutions, and they may then tend to divide and fragment based on their disagreements over which element we should most fear. Some will keep their fears focused on the initial threats around them. Others will keep their fears focused on the authority figures above them. And the clash can just spiral from there, heightening the fears of each group.
I’ve extrapolated from his original writing a bit, but I should note that Furedi’s original article that described the roots of these dynamics was written in 2019. The years that followed seemed to bear out this thesis pretty well.
We’ll talk about some of the social and community dynamics of all this next week, but for now, I just want to focus on the reality of the fear itself – particularly the fear of other people.
Most people in our culture feel on some level that they are surrounded by, and under the authority of, their cultural, spiritual, and moral opponents. And one of the most common responses to that feeling is fear.
We find ourselves doom scrolling through social media, reading one post or article after another, which, if we had to sum them up, would really just say, again and again, “Things are bad. Someone’s out to get you. And you should be afraid.”
We watch cable news or listen to podcasts that reinforce it: “Things are bad. Someone’s out to get you. And you should be afraid.”
At the same time there’s often an inner voice that picks up and then repeats the mantra – that pushes us to ruminate on those themes, that repeats again and again in our minds: “Things are bad. Someone’s out to get you. And you should be afraid.”
Politicians and advertisers alike, looking to get our money or our votes reinforce it further: “Things are bad. Someone’s out to get you. And you should be afraid.”
And the Bible also tells us that the spiritual forces of darkness – including the devil himself – continue to whisper the same refrain in the ears of our hearts: “Things are bad. Someone’s out to get you. And you should be afraid.”
Now, here’s the thing. The Bible doesn’t really dispute the first two statements in that mantra. It would say they’re incomplete statements for understanding the world, of course … but not wrong. Things often are bad. We live in a fallen world. People often are out to get you. Conflict is real in general, and the Bible tells us that there is an acute conflict between the world in rebellion against God, and the people of God.
Think again of our text. Paul is in prison. So things, in a sense, are bad. Look at verse 28. Paul acknowledges that the Philippian Christians do have opponents.
Things may be bad. And someone may be out to get you.
Where the Bible interrupts our culture’s mantra though, is the third point: Because the Bible says to God’s people: Things may be bad. Someone may be out to get you. But you shouldn’t be afraid.
You should maybe be concerned. You should maybe be actively engaged against those threats – both in prayer and in activity in the world around you. But you shouldn’t be afraid.
Paul says in verse twenty-eight that what he really wants to hear about Christians is that they are “not frightened in anything by their opponents.”
And yet … we often are frightened. Aren’t we?
We often are afraid.
Whether we fear our opponents who are around us or above us, we are often characterized by fear when it comes to those who oppose us spiritually in this world.
And so we see something of a gap between where we are when it comes to fear, and where Paul says we should be.
How do we address that gap?
That’s what we want to consider this morning.
And we want to approach it by asking four questions that I think this text pushes us to ask:
- First, where is our safety?
- Second, what is our expectation?
- Third, where is our encouragement? And,
- Fourth, what is our victory?
So: Where is your safety? What is your expectation? Where is your encouragement? And what is your victory?
Where Is Your Safety?
First: Where is your safety?
And it could be helpful to begin by asking yourself where you normally look for safety.
Some of us tend to try to look to our own resources: to our money or our power or our brains or our abilities. Others try to look to some outside earthly help: to someone we know, to a group we are a part of, to an earthly champion we think can make things right for us.
But where do you tend to look for safety and security?
The Bible tells us that there are many ways God gives us people and things that can provide help, and some level of practical protection in this life, and the Bible calls us to be diligent and wise in how we use those gifts.
But the Bible is also emphatic that none of those things can provide us with ultimate safety and security. Only the Lord can do that.
But understanding that rightly means revising our understanding of what safety really is.
And Paul did that in the paragraph right before our text this morning. There he spoke of his own situation, but as he makes clear in verse thirty, he did that to provide a model for how the Philippian Christians should think of their situation.
And there he wrote that he knew that his circumstances would turn out for his deliverance – for his salvation – whether “by life or by death.” Because, as he said in verse twenty-one: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Now, we talked at length about that verse the last two Sundays, and I won’t re-hash it all now – those sermons are on the website if you weren’t here for them.
But those verses are still key to understanding verse twenty-eight of our text. Our safety, Paul says, is that whatever happens to us in this life, whether we live or whether we die, Christ has us in his hands. He is with us in this life, whatever trials may come, and he will have us, safely in his keeping, even if we die. He is stronger than death. And so, even if the worst were to happen (humanly speaking), even if we were to die as a result of our trials, Christ will keep our soul safe even in death, and in the end, he will raise us from the dead, to live with him forever. That is the safety that Christ offers us.
It’s a different kind of safety than we often look for. It’s not a safety that lets us skip difficulties or suffering. It’s not a safety that lets us skip death. But rather, it’s a safety in which Christ keeps us in his care through any trial, and even through death itself, with the promise that in the end, he will raise us from the dead, to be with him for all eternity.
And that presence of God, and that keeping of God has always been the only source of true safety and security that the people of God can have.
It was why David, in the 23rd Psalm, could say to God: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; … .”
It’s why Paul could say to the church in Rome: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, […] nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ.
And Jesus himself reminded us of how this should reshape our fears. He said: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Then he adds “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” [Matthew 10:28, 32-33]
What we should fear is the possibility of not being in a right relationship with God. But if we know God through Jesus Christ, then we have no reason to fear any earthly opponent we face in this world.
When you look at your opponents in this world, if your ultimate trust is in your strength, or your resources, or your earthly friends, you will always live in fear of your opponents, because each of those earthly sources of safety is limited, and your opponents always have the opportunity to get just a bit more strength, or just a few more resources, or just a couple more earthly friends than you have … and then what?
But if God is your friend … if Christ is your safety and security … then you don’t need to fear what man can do to you. Even if your opponents kill your body, you need not fear. That will not be the end of the story for you. At the moment of death, you will go to be with Christ. And at the last day, he will restore your body, raise you up, and you will live safe in a new heaven and a new earth forever, with him.
If we really believe that, we will not fear our opponents – no matter how strong or vicious they may be. Because in Christ we have true safety.
That’s the first thing we see here – the answer to the question: Where is our safety?
What Is Your Expectation?
It leads to the second question for us to consider: What is your expectation?
What is your expectation for this life? And is it more shaped by the Bible … or by our culture?
I think we are far more shaped by our culture than we realize in this area. When it comes to what we expect our lives to be like, most of us here are Americans first, and Christians only second.
Let me explain what I mean. First, let me make it clear that I’m not talking even about what we want in life, but what we expect. What is our assumption about what life will be like, so that any deviation from it surprises or confuses us? And it’s in that respect that I want us to especially see how we are more shaped by our culture than by the Bible.
Our expectations for life, tend to be very American. We expect to be healthy, successful, prosperous, and free. Now – there may be some caveats on those expectations for each of us individually. Maybe you only expect two or three of those yourself. Maybe you’d add some conditions: that it depends on hard work or smart choices. But with whatever nuances need to be made for you personally, I think most of us expect that if we do things right, we should have a happy, healthy, successful, financially secure life in which we are free to do mostly whatever we want.
And we expect that so much, that when those things don’t fall into place, we’re not just appropriately grieved or frustrated – we’re indignant. We feel cheated – scammed. We feel like something promised to us has been snatched away.
But does the Bible really promise us those things in this life?
To be sure, the Bible doesn’t condemn those things. Health, wealth, success, and freedom, rightly understood, and rightly used can be great blessings in this life. The Bible acknowledges that. But it doesn’t promise us those things in this life. It doesn’t tell us to expect them. It doesn’t assure us that health, wealth, success, and freedom will be our earthly calling.
What does it tell us our calling is instead?
Well … take a look at verse twenty-nine: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”
Paul’s point is that God has graciously given two things to the Philippian Christians: First, that they would receive salvation through Christ. And second, that they would suffer for Christ.
And the Bible tells us that that second item is something that ordinarily accompanies the first – so much so that we should expect it.
After all, Jesus said to his disciples: “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. […] If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul [in other words “of the devil”], “how much more will they malign those of his household.” [Matthew 10:24-25]
If Jesus was slandered, hated, and crucified by this world … what is our expectation as his disciples?
And yet … our default assumption is often that we should reign in this life – we should be in power and control, we should have health and wealth and success and freedom … but the Bible tells us instead that what we should expect is to suffer with Christ. [Romans 8:17] It says that we should expect the unbelieving world to treat us as it treated him.
To be sure, ordinarily we should use the resources and opportunities the Lord gives us to faithfully seek health, prosperity, safety, success, and freedom for ourselves and for others. And the Lord graciously grants those things to many Christians.
Such earthly blessings may be a goal to work towards, and a gift to give thanks for … but they are not an expectation to presume upon. Instead, the Bible seems to tell us that our default assumption – that what we expect in this life – should be to suffer for Jesus.
Now be honest: Do you ever even allow yourself to think about that? And if you did …, would it make you angry? Does the thought that the Bible seems to promise you earthly suffering more than it promises you earthly success – does that make you feel … indignant?
To the extent that we respond to such biblical claims with anger and indignation – to the extent that we expect a life of health, prosperity, success, and freedom more than a life of suffering for the sake of Jesus – to that extent our hearts and our expectations have been shaped more by the American Dream than by the gospel.
This life has many blessings. To engage with this life rightly is Christ, Paul tells us. We focused on that just two Sundays ago. But Christ also suffered in this world. We shouldn’t presume that we won’t.
And that’s something many of us need to grapple with. Because it’s related to fear. Fear is not just a function of where we look for safety. It’s also often a function of the gap between what we expect life to be like and what it’s actually like. When the American Dream becomes the American Expectation, we set ourselves up for a wide gulf between our expectations and the reality of life in this world for the people of God, which the Bible describes very differently.
And so the second thing for us to consider is: What are your expectations?
The Bible tells us that we should expect that we may be called to suffer for Jesus’s sake, rather than assuming we are owed a life of ease and comfort.
Now … that that can be a tough thing for us to swallow. It’s counter to what we hear all around us, and counter to what many of us have been told our whole lives.
Thinking about it can lead to discouragement.
Where Is Your Encouragement?
Which brings us to our third point: Where is your encouragement?
We just said that we’re often tempted to presume that we should have lives of uninterrupted prosperity and success. But the Bible says differently. If the Bible tells us that Christians are often called instead to suffering and loss for the sake of Christ – then where can we look for encouragement in light of that reality?
And in our text this morning, Paul tells us to look within us, before us, and beside us.
First, the Bible tells us to look within us. But it’s not ourselves that we’re looking for as we do.
This comes out in verse twenty-seven.
In verse twenty-seven, Paul writes that what he wants to hear about them is that they are “standing firm in one spirit with one mind.” The ESV puts the word “spirit” there in lower case, in English, which tends tends to give the impression that Paul is really just saying that he wants the congregation to be united – the very same thing he says in the next phrase. But Gordon Fee points out that while in English we may speak of a united group of people as having “one spirit,” in ancient Greek literature we don’t find that phrase used that way – and we especially don’t see it used that way anywhere else in the writings of Paul.
Instead, Fee argues that what fits best with Paul’s writing and vocabulary is that he’s telling them to stand firm in the Spirit (Spirit with a capital “S”), meaning the Holy Spirit … and then standing in the Spirit, to strive together side-by-side with one mind. But the first thing Paul draws their attention to is their relationship to the Holy Spirit. [Fee, 164-166]
Which makes sense, because just a few verses earlier he himself said that his confidence came from “the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” – another reference to the Holy Spirit.
For Paul, the first step when it comes to the encouragement and strength that we need is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives.
Repeatedly in the Bible, the Holy Spirit gives God’s people faith to overcome their fears. In the Old Testament again and again, the Holy Spirit rushes on someone in order to help them stand up to frightening enemies without fear – whether those enemies are the Mesopotamians [Judges 3:10], the Midianites [Judges 6:34], the Ammonites [Judges 11:29; 1 Samuel 11:6], the Philistines [Judges 14:19], or even Goliath himself [1 Samuel 16:13, which leads right into chapter 17].
Over and over, the Spirit falls on someone not just to strengthen them, but also to give them faith that overcomes their fear of their opponents.
Realizing that role of the Holy Spirit should give us new eyes to see what’s going on at the Day of Pentecost. But also, realizing that role of the Spirit should give us new ears to hear what Paul means when he says that he wants us to stand firm in the Holy Spirit, and not be frightened in anything by our opponents.
When we face trials and tribulations – when we face threats and even enemies, the Holy Spirit can help us stand firm. The Holy Spirit gave the judges and kings of Israel faith to overcome their fear in the face of opposition, and the Holy Spirit can do the same for us.
And he does that, in large part, by assuring us of our relationship to God. As the Apostle Paul points out in Romans 8, the same Spirit of God who bears witness with our spirits that we are children of God, also keeps us from falling back into fear when we’re called to suffer with Christ. [Romans 8:14-17] Because, as he writes to Timothy: “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” [2 Timothy 1:7]
If you are a Christian, the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, the same Spirit who strengthened Paul to face his opponents, the same Spirit who strengthened David to face Goliath, that same Spirit dwells in you. Ask for his help. Ask for the Lord to stir up his Spirit in you and encourage you in the face of your fears.
That’s the first place Paul calls us to look for encouragement.
The second place Paul tells us to look for encouragement is in what we set before us.
Paul calls us to look to mature Christians who have endured hardships and opposition faithfully. And in the Philippians’ case, Paul points them to himself.
We see this in verse thirty. There Paul writes that they are “engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”
As the Philippians are engaged in conflict and facing opposition, Paul calls them to think about how they’ve seen him handle such situations with faith.
He reminds them first that they’ve heard about his faithfulness in the midst of trials in Rome. But second, he reminds them that they’ve also seen him endure such trials in faith, and without fear, when he was at Philippi. There, in their own city, Paul was publicly beaten and then imprisoned for healing a slave girl in the name of Jesus. [Acts 16:12-40]
And Paul brings that to mind for the Philippian Christians, and encourages them to hold his example before them as they too face opposition.
When we face opposition and trials, we need to hold before us the lives of faithful Christians who have endured similar or greater trials with faith and perseverance. We need to hear those stories. We need to read those stories. We may need to see those stories if they play out before us. We need to let those stories of Christian faithfulness in trials shape our expectations and our imaginations.
What kind of stories shape your imagination? What kinds of stories do you spend most of your time on? Do you spend actual time in your life on stories of Christian faithfulness in the face of suffering, whether from the Bible, or from history, or from current events? Our culture may urge us to let our imaginations be shaped by stories of worldly dominance, earthly conquest, political combat, and extreme home makeovers … but that should not be what most shapes us. But is it?
Whether in books, or newsletters, or movies, or the people around you, where can you look to God’s people for inspiring models of what patient Christian faithfulness looks like in the face of frightening opposition?
So … Paul calls us to look within us for the Holy Spirit. He calls us to set before us for Christian models.
But he also calls us to look beside us for faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.
Paul writes in verse twenty-seven that the Christians in Philippi need to strive “side by side for the faith of the gospel.” When facing opposition, it’s especially important that we bear one another’s burdens and build one another up.
When fearful circumstances arise, do you have Christians in your life that you can rely on to come alongside you for support? Such people are a gift of God. But those relationships often need to be cultivated. You are surrounded by fellow Christians this morning. If none of them are at your side yet in your spiritual walk, then how can you begin to cultivate that relationship with them today?
Paul reminds us in this text that our only true safety is found in Christ. He then speaks of our expectations for this life: that as we walk with Christ we will also suffer with Christ. Third, he reminds us to look for encouragement from the Holy Spirit within us, Christian models before us, and Christian friends beside us.
What Is Your Victory?
That brings us to our fourth and final question: What is your victory?
Now, as we’ve already said in our first point, our ultimate victory comes not in this life, but the next – when Christ will give us true security and true vindication. As Paul has said elsewhere “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” [1 Corinthians 15:19]
Our ultimate victory is in the life that is to come.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no victory for God’s people in this life.
And here the Apostle John is helpful. John writes “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.” [ 1 John 5:4]
“This is the victory that overcomes the world – our faith.”
That’s why Paul says in verse twenty that his focus is, whatever may come, that Christ would be honored, whether by his life or by his death.
For Paul, victory in this life was honoring Christ by being faithful to him, and trusting in him, no matter what trials came. For Paul victory was faithfully honoring Christ regardless of the circumstances. And such faith testifies to the world.
That’s what Paul says in verse twenty-eight. First, he tells the Philippians not to be frightened in anything by their opponents. And then he says that when they do this – when they trust Christ, so that their faith overcomes their fear, then, he says “this is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.”
When we live out our faith, and cling to Christ, we ourselves point to the truth of the gospel and the hollowness of the ways of the world. We testify to Christ and against the world. And as we do, we overcome the world: “This is the victory that overcomes the world – our faith.”
When we define victory in this life as Paul does – when we see victory as faithfully pointing to Jesus, in word and deed, as we trust him for our safety and vindication – when we do that, then we need not fear our opponents. Because whatever they may do, our faith is the victory that overcomes the world.
We live in a world that has many things to be afraid of.
Things may be bad. People may be out to get us. But the Bible tells us, nonetheless: Do not be afraid.
The Apostle Peter tells us not to “fear anything that is frightening.” [2 Peter 3:6] The Apostle Paul tells us not to be frightened in anything by our opponents. [Philippians 1:28] And the Apostle John tells us that though the world may threaten us, “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.” [1 John 4:4 NASB]
And so, filled with the Holy Spirit, encouraged and supported by our brothers and sisters, and trusting in Jesus for our final victory and security, let us throw off worldly fears, and let us seek to honor Christ in all we do, whether in life or in death.
This sermon draws on material from:
Barth, Karl. The Epistle to the Philippians. 40th Anniversary Edition. Translated by James W. Leitch. Introductory Essays by Bruce L. McCormack and Francis B. Watson. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Furedi, Frank. “Fear Today.” First Things. January 2019. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2019/01/fear-today
Fee, Gordon D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995.
Hansen, G. Walter. The Letter to the Philippians. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.
McDonough, Sean M. Introduction and notes to Philippians in The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.
Note: In my preaching I often cite and draw from a range of sources, which includes material from Christians within my theological tradition, Christians outside my theological tradition (in keeping with our church’s core value of “Reformed Catholicity”), and also (following the Apostle Paul’s example in Acts 17) non-Christians who are well outside of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. And so, when I cite an author or a source, that citation should not be understood or construed as me necessarily agreeing with, endorsing, or recommending to others anything else from that author or source, except for what I explicitly say I agree with, endorse, or recommend. When engaging with different materials and thinkers, all Christians must exercise wisdom and discernment to determine what is helpful, appropriate, and edifying for each person, taking into account their current needs, wisdom, and spiritual maturity.
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