Tom continues our series 'Letters from Lockdown' preaching from Philippians 1:18-30. In this section of the letter Paul shows the Philippians the importance of corporate Christian fellowship in the face of suffering.
The phrase ‘Brits abroad’ usually refers to the embarrassing behaviour of British people on holiday. Most of us have probably known the embarrassment of seeing fellow Brits ‘behaving badly.’ This sense of embarrassment comes from the instinctive feeling that the British should act as ambassadors for our nation, instead of bringing shame and ridicule to it.
These days, our identity is not as wedded to our nation as it once was, but it is true that if we are citizens of a country, our behaviour says something about our nation. And in the ancient world this was definitely true.
To be a citizen of Rome was a great privilege. It was synonymous with the idea of ‘civilisation’, and if you called yourself a citizen of Rome, you had to behave in a way worthy of Rome. The Philippians would have felt this, because they were a Roman colony. They were ‘Rome in miniature’, and, accordingly, they were expected to live in a manner worthy of that.
Yet without belittling this citizenship to Rome, Paul says in Chapter 20 verse 3 ‘Our citizenship is in Heaven.’ That is quite a statement to announce to a Roman colony!
Paul is, here, tapping into their culture. He’s effectively saying: ‘You know what it means to belong to Rome but remember that you are ‘In Christ’ and that is infinitely more important. You have been adopted into God’s family and Jesus Christ is your sovereign. The privileges and laws of Heaven are yours. So, whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.
If we worry about the embarrassing behaviour of ‘Brits abroad’, how much more seriously should we consider the idea that Christians are ‘Heaven abroad’.
That is the focus of this passage in Philippians. Paul is in prison, and he recognises that his future is very uncertain. But his main point in these verses is that, whether he is able to be with the believers in Philippi or not, he wants them to live a life that is worthy of the Gospel.
What is that going to look like?
To walk worthy is to walk together in opposition
Look at verses 27-28 again. “Whatever happens conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you, or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one spirit, striving together as one, for the faith of the Gospel, without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. “
The word for frightened in verse 28 is interesting. It is only used here in the New Testament, but in another ancient text it was used to describe the uncontrollable stampede of startled horses. Picture the crouching lioness approaching a herd of antelope. Suddenly she springs up and starts running; the herd panics, bolts and runs off in a hundred different directions.
The Lord is saying, don’t be like that when it comes to opposition. Don’t let it creep up on you; don’t let it cause you to bolt. If we belong to Jesus, there will inevitably be a clash with the citizens of this world, but we need to be prepared for it.
In Christian circles, we frequently use the word persecution, and the meaning of this word can lose its impact because the kind of persecution we face in the UK is very different from that faced by many Christians around the world. If you just look on the Open Doors Website, you will see the dreadful hostility and ill treatment that our Christian family face around the world; and you will realise that there is a real and terrifying clashing going on between the citizens of Heaven and those of this world.
Or, closer to home, think about our youth groups, Soul and Rooted. At school these kids might be left out or ignored because they don’t share the same values as their non-christian peers. Students on the CU campus may be called unscientific and homophobic and intolerant. Non-Christian family members might constantly question your decision to base your faith in Jesus. It is possible that one day Christian parents may not be allowed any say at all in the education of their children. All their rights might be taken away.
Paul’s point is that he wants the Philippian Christians to realise that a Christian life is not a protected life. It cannot be lived in a monastery, safe and walled in. It is more like a boat in the ocean. Imagine a little raft in the middle of all that turbulence and force. It is a vulnerable thing.
Paul is saying: “Don’t be surprised; don’t be frightened; don’t let it creep up on you; and don’t let it cause you to scatter in a hundred different directions. It happened to Jesus Christ; it happened to me; and it’s happening to you.”
As verse 30 states: “you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”
So, according to Paul, the worthy life involves not being frightened in any way by those who oppose us.
Now that all sounds well and good, but how do we do that? How do those brothers and sisters in Open Doors do that? Paul says the answer is: you stick together.
Whether Paul ever sees them again, or whether he doesn’t, the thing to remember is they do not need to depend on him in order to stand firm. With or without him, he wants this to be the case. If they are going to walk worthy, they need to lean on Christ, and they need each other.
Think of the lioness again. When she and the pack are creeping up on the antelope, what do they want to do? They want to create panic amongst the herd, and once this happens, the lions will try to separate off a member of the herd; a young one; a weak one. Why? Because they know, the more alone a thing is, the more helpless it is. Very rarely will they just dive headlong into the herd, because they know that when the herd stands together it stands firm.
Verse 27 states: “I will know that you stand firm in the one spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel, without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.”
Notice the ‘one-ness’: one spirit striving together as one. The way we live a worthy life is to remain steadfast. The way we remain steadfast is by sticking together. When a member of Soul is feeling pushed out because they want to live for Jesus, meeting with the group on a Friday, and on a Sunday, even if it’s only over Zoom, is vital because for 2-3 hours a week they know ‘I’m not the only one. I am striving together with these friends for the gospel’. Similarly, when a student is called unscientific for trusting in the Bible, the CU and the local church are vital for their encouragement. When a family member keeps questioning you about why you want to live according to the Bible, having homegroup is vital for supporting and encouraging you. For just a few hours each week, in each of these situations, you know you’re not the only one. You’re striving together with others for the Gospel.
Sticking together is the way we stand firm and remain unfearful of those who oppose us. And it is a helpful application for this lockdown.
The Prime Minister’s broadcast last Sunday may have left you feeling disappointed with the latest government restrictions. You may be feeling: “How can I possibly survive another month or two months? This isn’t the relaxation of Lockdown I was hoping for.”
The answer is to keep striving together.
Yes, it’s really hard not being able to meet together at Church, but at least it is now possible to arrange one to one meetings in the park with another person, and even if it’s just to see another person’s face, to say ‘Keep going. I’m in this with you. How can I pray for you?’ this small thing reminds us that we are striving together in this difficulty for the Gospel.
Perhaps you feel worn out by zoom calls and messages and phone calls. Paul would say to us ‘Now is not the time to give up on that.’ We need it now more than ever: to keep talking, to keep sharing, to keep praying, and to keep listening to the word. It is limited fellowship, but we mustn’t give up on it, because, when opposition or hardship come our way, if we try to go it alone, we are like the antelope separated from the herd. We won’t stand. But if we draw ranks and strive together, by God’s grace, we will stand. For we are striving together as one, by the one spirit, for the sake of the one Lord Jesus Christ.
So, let’s not give up on this vital fellowship.
But this striving together is not just a passive thing. We’re not to be like the snail who, when it senses a threat, draws inside its shell and waits for the storm to pass. We are to take steps forward into enemy territory with the Gospel. In verse 27 the meaning of striving together, is the same as the word ‘contend’ which we find further on, in Philippians 4:3
“Yes, and I ask you, my true companions, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the Gospel.”
This striving together is not just a defensive strategy. We strive together in taking the gospel out.
Matthew Henry says
“It becomes those who profess the Gospel to strive for it, to use a holy violence in taking the kingdom of Heaven.”
When we draw together, we don’t just lock our shields and wait for the arrows to stop flying. We take steps into enemy territory by proclaiming Jesus Christ; by not being pushed back by the opposition; but by uniting and looking for fresh opportunities for the Gospel.
A first century critic of the Gospel reportedly scoffed to a Christian ‘Where is your carpenter now?’ and the Christian replied ‘Where is he? He’s making a coffin for your emperor’.
Even if, individually, we don’t have that kind of boldness, when we strive together, we can have full confidence in Christ. And this is the kind of advancement that Paul is proving, even behind bars. Instead of being like the snail, drawing himself into his shell, he can claim, in verse 13,
“The whole palace guard know that I am in chains for Christ.”
Whatever the opposition may be in this virus situation, we stand together not only for defence and encouragement, but to advance the Gospel; to look for opportunities to witness as a church.
We need to keep ringing each other and encouraging and praying for one another. Make this situation count for the Gospel; to strive together by grace, for our Lord and for his Gospel. Striving together as one in defence and attack, that is the worthy life we’ve been called to.
To walk worthy, is to send a message
To walk worthy means not only to walk together in opposition, but it is also to send a message. When we live in this way, striving together in defence, in attack, and not being frightened, it sends a message.
Verse 28: “This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved - and that by God.”
For thousands of years enemies have tried to destroy the people of God, using every method you can think of: exile, persecution, injustice, burning Bibles, smashing churches, side-lining believers. It’s all been tried and yet here we are. The old enemies are gone and there are more Christians than ever before. And Paul is saying, if those enemies knew their history, and they thought about it clearly, they would realise that there is a remarkable strength in the people of God, which must come from outside themselves. And if that is true, such enemies had better be careful because whilst everyone who tried to oppose Christianity is gone, Christians keep growing.
When we stand firm, striving together like this, as one for the Gospel, it’s a sign to enemies that, however weak the Church may look, they cannot defeat the bride of Christ. God is in her and she will survive. It is a sign to enemies that they are kicking against a very hard, strong wall, and they cannot prevail against it.
But it is also a sign for us.
Verse 28 says: “This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved, and that, by God.”
In other words when the church stands firm in all the ways that I’ve tried to describe, there is only one explanation. It is God. And if He is giving us the grace to stand firm like this in the presence of enemies, then that is a sign that we really do belong to Him and we will be saved. Praise the Lord.
So, Cornerstone, this is encouraging news, that by the grace of God, and by the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by rebirth through the Holy Spirit we are citizens of Heaven. All the rights and all the privileges of Heaven belong to us. We’ve been saved by grace, and also, as it says in verse 29, we suffer by grace.
“for it has been granted”.
The word ‘granted is the root word for grace. So, you could translate it as “for it has been graced to you” on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him but also to suffer for Him. That is an amazing thought. We are saved by God’s grace, but also, we suffer by God’s grace. We share in the sufferings of Christ. We share in the struggles of the apostle. We join with the ranks of believers across history, who suffered for the name of Christ. It is the grace of God.
How do we face it? Do we pull inside our shell? No! We tighten the reins and draw together and then we go forward with the Gospel; knowing that in the end, no matter who the enemy is, and no matter what the trial, Jesus is still Lord, the Gospel is still true and God himself lives within us and we will be saved.
When we live like that, we live a life that is worthy of the Gospel. We may or may not be “Brits abroad”, but “Heaven abroad” we most certainly are. So, let us live in the manner that is worthy of that great calling.
Philippians 1:18 - 1:30
18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.
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.