The introduction to the letter – Paul’s greeting of his Philippian brethren, his bringing them up to date on his situation, and his assuring them of his own cheerful calm in the face of an uncertain future – is now complete. The chapter division should be placed here, after 1:26. 1:27 begins the next large section of the letter that extends from 1:27 to 2:18. Readers of the Bible know this section very well as a characteristically Pauline summons to a life of holiness and love for Christ’s sake. It contains some of the most famous individual statements on Christian living to be found anywhere in the Bible. And it begins, as Paul usually begins such a section, with an introduction. And it is that introduction that we have before us this morning.
You will see immediately that Paul has turned away from his own situation, the subject of the preceding verses all the way back to v. 3, and now addresses himself to the Philippians and their lives. In context he is saying, “Whatever happens with me,” this is what I expect of you.
Here, in the introduction, the summons is put very generally – “live worthy of the gospel of Christ” – and what follows in 2:1-18 will provide the detail.
Remember, “gospel” means “good news” and in the Bible refers to the surpassingly magnificent message or news about what Christ has done to save his people from their sins and give them eternal life. It is good news because it announces to spiritually dead men that in Christ they may find eternal life.
Christians always need to be reminded of their calling to live holy lives of love for God and others, but the Philippians had an even greater need for this reminder. They had adversaries who were bringing pressure to bear. To live a faithful Christian life required tenacity on their part. They had to stand firm and contend together. The fact that they had to do this together is a point Paul will return to in the opening verses of chapter 2.
Paul does not at this point identify the opposition. He will speak pointedly of a judaizing party in 3:2 and those may be the people he is talking about here, but as well it could be Gentiles who were causing the young Christian church trouble. As we saw some weeks ago, there does not seem to have been a large community of Jews in Philippi – there was no synagogue – so local opposition would likely have come from Gentiles. The Judaizers, Jewish Christians who taught that Gentile Christians had to be circumcised to be saved, would have come from elsewhere. Here Paul says again what he says in several different ways elsewhere that those who wish to live godly lives will suffer persecution and the fact that the Philippians are suffering it is proof of their belonging to God and of their being identified with the Lord Jesus in the greater conflict between Christ and the Prince of darkness that rages in this world.
The connection between v. 29 and verse 28, the for or because, gives a thought like this: “The conflicts you are experiencing may appear frightening and thus threaten to discourage you, but you cannot allow that to happen. Perhaps you are tempted to interpret these conflicts as a bad omen, as though God is displeased with you and intends to destroy you. But that is exactly wrong. You must interpret what is happening as evidence of God’s design to save you! Why? Because suffering is the way to glory…” [Silva, 83] Paul goes on to say, “So it has been and will be for me.” Remember how Paul put it to the believers in Asia Minor in Acts 14:22: “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” And when those sufferings are sufferings for the sake of Christ, that is, on account of the fact that you are living for Christ and are identified with him, then those sufferings are a sign of your salvation. In the same way, opposition to the gospel such as is being shown by their opponents is the evidence that they are the Lord’s enemies and, therefore, is evidence of their impending destruction.
It is worth a brief notice that 1:28-29, together with Eph. 2:8 are direct assertions of the fact that a believer’s faith is not his own doing but is the gift of God. The similarity between the two statements is clearer in Paul’s Greek than it is in the English translation. There are many Christians, as you know, who maintain that while Christ provided the possibility of salvation by dying on the cross for sin, it lies within the believer’s unfettered freedom to avail himself of that possibility or not. The cross is Christ’s doing, but faith is ours. This is plainly not the Bible’s view and for many more reasons than that a believer’s faith in Christ is also said to be God’s doing not man’s. Our salvation, from beginning to end – the sin-bearing of Christ on the cross and our believing in him – it is all of God, all his grace, all his gift, all his doing. Salvation is of the Lord; not parts of it; all of it.
When I graduated from seminary I indulged the illusion common to seminary graduates that I knew Greek. I had taken every course in New Testament Greek offered in the curriculum. I had taken some additional reading courses and I could sight-read much of the New Testament. I thought of myself as something of a Greek scholar. So when I arrived at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland for graduate studies I had plans to smooth off the rough edges of my Greek scholarship by taking some courses in classical Greek in the Arts Faculty. After all, Aberdeen had a long and distinguished tradition in the classics. Sir William Ramsay, one of the great classicists of the modern era, had taught there a century before. And they were happy to have me. Classics had already fallen on hard times and few students were signing up for the department’s offerings. I enrolled in a class in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. I carefully translated the first chapter – learning lots of words I hadn’t learned in my New Testament Greek – and went to class the first day. There were four students, including myself, seated and ready when in walked the professor with his long, flowing while hair.
He sat down, opened his Oxford Classical Text to the first chapter, and began to read and, over the next few minutes, I had an epiphany. I realized in a flash of sudden illumination that this man thought and spoke in classical Greek. You could tell by the way he read the sentences of that opening chapter. He read it as I read English. That Greek came as naturally to him as English does to me. He read Thucydides in paragraphs, not word by word, as I read Greek. I realized in a moment of startling clarity that this man could have a conversation in classical Greek with anyone else who knew the language. If Thucydides were to reappear, the two men could sit down and have a long discussion in Greek about the war and its causes and about Thucydides’ literary approach to writing history. Over the next weeks and months, as the classes came and went, his mastery of that ancient language was confirmed over and over again. He spoke it today much better than many would have been able to speak it who had been born and raised as Greek speakers in Thucydides’ day. The most important lesson that I learned from that experience was that I didn’t know Greek and that I would never know Greek. I learned that I would never be in a position to judge what a New Testament sentence meant because of my own supposed knowledge of Greek. I would always have to rely on the judgment of men who really knew the language. I didn’t know the language as I thought I did. I did not have the native speaker’s grasp of the language; I couldn’t think in it, I couldn’t speak it. I just knew a lot of grammatical rules and a small number of words. This man knew ancient Greek as a living language!
This professor could feel the language. He could tell why one word was used instead of another – just the way you have that feeling and judge the almost imperceptible but nevertheless important differences between words that mean almost the same thing and convey almost but not quite the same feeling. That can be very important knowledge when one is reading great authors who chose their words carefully. The difference between the right word and the almost right word, Mark Twain once said, is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug!
Well Paul knew Greek. If it weren’t the language of his birth and upbringing, it was a tongue in which, by the time he was a young man, he had gained complete fluency. He had read the Greek poets and philosophers. We can tell that from some of the things he says in his sermons, speeches, and letters. And he was both an accomplished speaker and writer of Greek, indeed, far and away the most influential Greek writer who ever lived. Now I say all of this because Paul used a word in v. 27 that he didn’t usually use, a word that had a certain feel to it, a word that when Philippians heard it, they would have got a certain idea or sense from it different from the sense or idea that they would have got had Paul used the word he more ordinarily used. He chose this word carefully, intentionally, precisely because he knew Greek so well and knew how to convey thoughts and ideas in that language. It is the word the NIV translates as conduct yourselves. The NIV’s translation, faithful enough as it is, does not help us to catch the scent of this word as it would have been caught by the noses of Paul’s Philippian readers. It is a word with a past, a past they would have known and appreciated.
The word is πολιτεύομαι, a verb that is part of a group of words derived from the Greek word πόλις, city or state. The πόλις was a fundamental idea of Greek life and a fundamental part of Greek identity. The verb πολιτεύομαι means to be or to live as a citizen – we might say it means “to live your citizen-life” [Moule, CBSC, 57] your life as a citizen of your πόλις, an idea that was a great source of pride for Greek people, and it is not Paul’s customary word to describe Christian conduct or behavior. He usually uses the verb “to walk” and in several places in his letter says the very same thing he says here but with that verb: “walk worthy of the gospel” or “walk worthy of the grace you have received.”
Now, to be sure, there are those who will warn us that the verb Paul uses here in 1:27 may have lost its original sense of living as a citizen. Words often do lose their etymological meaning. We know that. And we know that preachers and even biblical scholars, lacking linguistic sophistication, can ring the changes on the etymology or the original meaning of a word when that original meaning had long since been lost. A pastor of mine used to make a great deal of the fact that the Greek word for power is the origin of our word dynamite. But you can’t read dynamite back into the Greek word. Similarly, the origin of our word disaster is found in astrology. In Greek it means that something happened “under the wrong star,” but when someone uses that word today it would be entirely incorrect to assume that he believes in astrology. The Greek word for “church,” εκκλησία, is composed of the preposition εκ, meaning “out of,” and the verb καλέω, meaning “to call.” And preachers have long made sermons out of the original meaning of that word. We Christians, we members of the church are the “called-out ones” they cried. We are called out of the world and are to have a different life. Well that is true enough, but you can’t derive that summons from the word εκκλησία. By the time of the New Testament, no Greek speaker heard that word as the “called out.” That original sense had long since been lost. The word simply meant, and had meant for centuries, “the assembly’ or “the congregation of the people.” It was, for example, the word used for the democratic assemblies of Greek city states. And it was this meaning – assembly or congregation – that led the translators of the Hebrew OT two-hundred years before Christ to choose εκκλησία to translate the two common OT words for congregation or assembly.
Well, some say that, in a similar way, the Greek verb πολιτεύομαι that Paul uses here really just means “to conduct oneself” or “to live one’s life” and here has no overtones of living as a citizen of a state. That seems, moreover, to be the meaning the word has in its only other use in the New Testament, Acts 23:1, where Paul uses it to say that he had lived his life in all good conscience before God. It is possible that this is all Paul means with the verb here, but for one thing. The noun related to this verb, πολίτευμα, which means “citizenship,” or “state” or “commonwealth” also appears in Philippians (in 3:20) and is there followed in the next few verses by the same two verbs that follow the verb here in 1:27: “stand” and “contend together.” The use of the noun in 3:20 in the same way the verb is used in 1:27 has led commentators who have a nose for the unique smell of Greek words to detect the original scent of this word here in Phil. 1:27. Remember Philippi was a Roman colony, a significant distinction for a Greek town. The great J.B. Lightfoot, the 19th century biblical scholar and Anglican bishop, and a classical scholar of no mean reputation, said of this verb that, at this time, it seems always to refer to public duties devolving on a man as a member of a body, i.e. as a citizen of some commonwealth.” Even in Acts 23:1, Lightfoot points out, Paul is replying to an accusation that he had violated the laws and customs of his Jewish citizenship.  So, by using this word – which Paul doesn’t otherwise employ when saying what he says here – Paul seems to be taking note of the Philippians understandable pride in their Roman citizenship and by using this particular verb – a verb that would be familiar to these people in another context – he was saying something like this:
“You know the pride and responsibility attached to living in a Roman colony: remember that you have a higher allegiance calling you to faithful conduct.” [Silva, 80; Lightfoot; O’Brien; Moule; ad loc.]
It is like Paul saying to a Christian who is also a patriotic American: ‘remember, you have a higher allegiance than that to your country. You have an identity far more important and far more consequential than your identity as an American. And your life must clearly reflect that spiritual identity and citizenship.”
And precisely how must these Christians live out their citizenship? Well, Paul says they must live as Christian citizens who are worthy of the gospel. As I said, Paul uses that way of speaking frequently in his letters.
- In Col. 1:10 he wrote, “we pray…that you may live a life worthy of the Lord…”
- In 1 Thess. 2:12 we have: “we urge you to live lives worthy of the God who calls you into his kingdom…”
- In Eph. 4:1 we have: “…I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”
- And we find the same idea in different language in Rom. 12:1 where Paul exhorts his readers to offer their bodies to God…which is, he says, their “reasonable worship.” The NIV has “spiritual worship” but that misses the point of Paul’s word and of his oft-repeated emphasis on this thought that our lives must agree with and be lived in consistency with the gospel, with the truth that has been revealed to us about Jesus Christ. The reasonable worship of our lives is living that corresponds to the gospel, faithfully responds to it, and agrees with it. There is, as it were, a logic to the Christian life and it is the logic of the gospel of Christ.
What Paul means here in Phil. 1:27 and in all these other summary statements in his letters that read the same way is that the simple way to define the Christian life is that it is a life that becomes the gospel of Christ, life lived in response to it, lived by its principles and by its powers, and lived for its sake. The Christian life has one rule and it is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. You can reduce all of Christianity, all of the Bible to these two simple statements: 1) believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved, you and your house; and 2) live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ. To those who are yet in their sins and without salvation we say, “Believe in Jesus and receive the forgiveness of sins, become a child of God, and receive title to heaven.” To those who have believed and have been saved we say, “Live a life worthy of the gospel.” And always in that order. You can’t live a life worthy of the gospel until you have embraced the gospel and been saved by it. Christians don’t live their unique life in order to be saved they live their unique life because they have been saved. We live from life, not to life. Our life for God is a gift returned for his far greater gift given to us.
The gospel is a message of Christ’s sacrifice of himself for your salvation, his bearing your sins for your salvation. The Christian life is a life lived out of that reality. And how so? In so many, many ways.
- Christ suffered to fulfill the will of God and to bring his people to salvation. Christians suffer in this world for the same reason. It was an utterly revolutionary idea in the world of that time that one would suffer for his God. But someone who has embraced the gospel understands the redemptive purpose of suffering and its place in the salvation of God’s people. Christians accept their lives as the way of the cross, are not surprised by it, and understand it, because Christ’s suffering on the cross is the way of their salvation.
- To live worthy of the gospel, Paul will say in the following verses, is to live humbly. The gospel is a message of grace being lavished upon the undeserving and so no one can live worthy of the gospel who is not conscious of his own unworthiness and grateful for God’s condescension to him or her; no one can live worthy of the gospel who looks down his nose at others.
- Christ placed the interests of others above his own, and one who lives worthy of the gospel will do the same.
- Christ gave himself and was willing to suffer greatly to secure the salvation of others, and those who live worthy of the gospel will do the same.
- Christ devoted himself to doing the will of his Father in heaven – that is how he saved us – and those who live worthy of the gospel will have the same mind about obedience, and holiness, and the service of others that he did.
- Christ saved his people to bring them into his family – his Father becomes our Father and Christ himself becomes our brother – and those who live worthy of the gospel will consider fellow Christians as brothers and sisters and love them with a family love.
- And, relative to the point that Paul begins with in this introduction, Christ, to save his people, suffered all manner of opposition from others and remained faithful to his calling as our Savior no matter the fierce opposition he faced. Those who live worthy of the gospel will do the same and not let the opposition of others come between them and their calling.
And on and on it goes. Every single part of the Christian life, every duty that a Christian has, every service he or she is called to offer derives from and is the inevitable implication of the gospel: the good news of God’s love and grace and Christ’s sacrifice that saved a wretch like me.
This is why new Christians, who have yet to be taught many things about the Christian life, so often instinctively know in what ways their lives must change now that they have received Christ as their Savior and confessed him as their Lord. I know of a woman who for some years lived in the inner circle of American feminism. She worked for NOW, the National Organization for Women, was an advocate of abortion rights, and lived as a lesbian. But then Christ found her and she became his follower. Before anyone told her that lesbianism or abortion could not be reconciled with her faith in Christ – and remember, there is no specific commandment against abortion anywhere in the Bible – she knew those things were wrong – those things which were so much a part of her life and morality before she became a Christian – she knew by a kind of gospel instinct that she could not longer be a lesbian nor an advocate of abortion.
I know a man who as soon as he became a follower of Christ – before anyone told him how Christians are to live – told the several women that he was seeing that he could no longer continue to see them; that he had to relate to women in a very different way.
He knew, she knew that a Christian had to live a life worthy of the gospel. The gospel, faith in Christ, salvation by God’s grace had brought him, had brought her into a new community, a new citizenship, a new πόλις, and his life had to correspond to his new identity, an identity defined by Christ and his salvation. “Live as citizens of this gospel community,” Paul says, as if in saying that, he had said all. The New Testament helpfully tells us many things about how we are to live as Christians, but, had Paul said nothing more than he says here in Phil. 1:27, Christ’s followers, I firmly believe, would have understood their calling in very much the same terms. The New Testament gives us the details, but they could all be worked out from the principles of the gospel itself. We should love like Christ loved us, humble ourselves as he did, suffer as he did for righteousness sake, work for others and for their salvation as he did, and care for our spiritual family as he did.
The Philippians knew very well how much it meant to their city to be a Roman colony, a very special kind, an exalted kind of πόλις. They knew what pride they took in their citizenship. So when Paul told them to live as citizens of the community created by the gospel of Christ, they understood in a profound way that Paul was telling them that what Christ had done for them must now become the defining principle of their lives and the pattern of their daily living. Citizens of Philippi thought of their lives in terms of their citizenship. Citizens of the gospel community must do so as well and much more so and in far higher and deeper ways.
I read recently the results of a new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center. The pollsters asked 820 self-identified Christians the question: “Do you identify yourself first as American or as Christian?” One would have thought that anyone who thought himself or herself a Christian would have answered that question without hesitation: “First as a Christian, of course!” But, in fact, 42% answered “Christian first” and 48% “American first.” 7% didn’t know. Now, to be sure, “self-identified Christian” probably doesn’t mean very much. That includes about 90% of the American population and a very great many of those people, obviously, do not have a serious commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Perhaps more concerning, only 62% of those who identified themselves as “evangelical Christians” answered “Christian first.” That means 38% of those who think of themselves as Bible-believing Christians said that they thought of themselves as Americans before they thought of themselves as Christians. [“While We’re At It,” First Things (November 2006) 75] Paul wouldn’t stand for that! And not a one of us should imagine that there is any other way, any possible way for a true Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, to answer that question but by saying, “I am a Christian first and, for that matter, I’m a Christian last as well.”
We may be Americans, at least most of us here this morning. Some of us are men some women, some one race some another, some one ethnic background, some another, some rich and some poor, some highly educated and others not so much, some married and some single, some young and some old. None of these things – not one of them – important as they are in some ways, tells us anything ultimately definitive about us. The thing that matters, the thing that tells the tale about our lives – who we really are; why and how we live as we do is, what shall we say, that we are gospelites, or gospelers, or gospelians. You can read our lives and living right out of that identity. Our citizenship is the community of faith in Jesus Christ, the commonwealth of those whom he saved by his death on the cross, the nation of those whose privilege it is in this world to live to the praise of his glorious name! That is who we are and that is what we are: that and nothing more! And if that is so, Paul says, then I expect you to live like it!