A Life Worthy of
Philippians 1: 27
In my sermon preparation this week, I began the week with a very basic question. Our Scripture this morning begins with a rather interesting commandment: “Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.”
We have already established that the Book of Philippians was written by the Apostle Paul and addressed to the Christians at Philippi. Paul was the first person to preach the Gospel in Philippi. The first people to accept the Gospel in Philippi eventually organized themselves (with Paul’s help) into the first Christian church in their area. (Incidentally, this was the first Christian church on the continent of Europe.)
Paul preached the Gospel in Philippi. The people accepted the Gospel and formed the first Christian church in Europe. Now, Paul is challenging the Christians at Philippi to live “worthy of the Gospel.”
All this talk about “the Gospel” raises a question for me: “What is the Gospel?”
Sometimes we use the phrase “preach the Gospel” in reference to a sermon about salvation. Like two Sundays ago when Richard Jackson was here and walked us through his marked New Testament. In this sense, Gospel refers to the way a person can be saved…Saved from sin and saved from eternal death in Hell.
Other times we use the word Gospel to describe the first four books of the New Testament. There is the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John. In this context, Gospel refers to a type of literature—books of the Bible which describe the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.
In both of these examples, we are trying to define the Twenty-First Century meaning of the Gospel. We are trying to determine what people like you and I mean when we talk about the Gospel. I don’t think this helps us to interpret Philippians 1. Instead of focusing on ourselves and our understanding of the Gospel, I think we need to focus on what the Gospel meant in the First Century. Specifically, we need to determine what Paul meant when he wrote about the Gospel and preached the Gospel.
The Greek word we translate “the Gospel” is the word euangelion. It literally means “Good News” and we typically think of the Gospel as a distinctly Christian word. However, that was not the case in the First Century Roman world. In fact, the Romans were talking about good news and using the word gospel before the Christians. The earliest usage of the Greek word for good news comes from a Roman inscription, dated 9 B.C.
The providence which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending in him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere…; the birthday of the god (Augustus) was the beginning for the world of the good news that has come to men through him…(N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said. [
William B. Eerdmans, 1997.], p. 43.) Grand Rapids
This inscription shows us that ancient people associated good news with the announcement of a new king. The installation of a new king or emperor was a very hopeful time. Perhaps this king would be better than the last king. Perhaps this king will be everything we have ever hoped for—peace and prosperity like we’ve never known before…a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.
Paul understood this contextual meaning and preached a new Gospel. Do not place your hope in the government. There is a new king, a better king, a king who will fulfill all your hopes for a better future. This king is not Augustus, Claudius, Nero or any other Caesar. The only King who can bring about a better future is King Jesus. King Jesus is not the king over Israel or the Roman Empire. Jesus is the King of a new realm—the Kingdom of God.
For Paul, the Gospel is the final chapter in what God has been doing since the very beginning. God called the people of Israel to be the People of God. Now, in the Person of Jesus, God has issued an open invitation to all people, all races and all nations to become a part of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God transcends all human boundaries, and Jesus is the only way to enter God’s Kingdom.
The Gospel cannot be separated from the life of Jesus. If we do not talk about Jesus, then all we have left is a series of commandments and propositions and good deeds that don’t really make a lot of sense. Paul’s teachings can only make sense in light of the life, crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus.
Ultimately, this is the Gospel…Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God who came to earth to establish the Kingdom of God through his life, crucifixion and Resurrection.
To believe the Gospel affects everything about our lives. It affects our theology (what we believe about God), because we come face to face with the reality that God loves us and provided the way for us to be saved. It affects our ethics (the way we live our lives), because God has given us the life of Jesus as the example we ought to follow / imitate. It affects our worldview (the way we view and interpret society around us), because we recognize that this world is at odds with the message of the Gospel. This world has an upside down value system, and one day God will put things in their proper order. This world needs to know Jesus and receive his invitation into the Kingdom of God.
Philippians 1: 27 – 30
27 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 one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved--and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.
This first verse has always been troubling to me. The Gospel is what God is doing and has already done for us through Jesus. The Gospel is not what we can do for God. For that matter, the Gospel is a free gift of God’s Grace. Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins and rose again as the promise of new and eternal life. This is not something we can ever earn or deserve. It is simply a gift of Grace…A gift we accept by faith in Jesus. In this sense, we could never be worthy of the Gospel.
Since we can never live worthy of the Gospel, this leads me to believe we are focusing on the wrong word as the key to interpret Paul’s command. Perhaps we would do better to focus on Paul’s word that is translated “conduct yourselves” in the NIV.
The Greek word Paul uses here is an unusual word for Paul. In fact, this is the only place where Paul uses this particular word. He typically uses the Greek word peripateo to give ethical instructions to his congregations. In this case, he uses the word politeusthe, which is related to the Greek word for city (polis) and where we get our English word “politics.” A literal translation of this Greek word would be something like “live as a good citizen.” Therefore, Philippians 1: 27 can be translated literally, “Live as good citizens of the Gospel.”
I think Paul intentionally used this word, knowing that it would resonate with his Philippian audience. Historians tell us that Philippi was a Roman which operated like a smaller version of the city of Rome. Roman culture and customs were a part of everyday life in Philippi. There was also a large Roman military base in Philippi. As a result, the Philippian population had a large number of both active and retired military. This tells us there were a lot of Roman citizens living in Philippi. Of course, not everyone in Philippi was a Roman citizen…Not everyone in the Roman Empire was a Roman citizen.
In the ancient world, Roman citizenship was a very valuable thing to have. Citizenship brought several privileges that noncitizens did not enjoy. Roman citizens did not have to pay Roman taxes. Roman citizens were promised due process when they got in trouble with the law. The Book of Acts tells us that Paul was a Roman citizen, who appealed to his citizenship several times to make sure that he received a fair trial. (Acts 16 tells the story of Paul and Silas in Philippi. They were arrested and held in prison overnight. The next morning, the Romans wanted to release Paul and Silas quietly. But Paul appealed to his Roman citizenship and insisted that they could not go away without due process.)
Even though Paul was a Roman citizen, he didn’t go around bragging about his status. He didn’t tell the Philippians that they needed to do everything in their power to gain Roman citizenship like his. No. In places like this, Paul is teaching us that there is another citizenship which is infinitely more valuable than being a citizen of the most powerful nation in the world.
We might even make a case that Paul held dual citizenship. On one hand, he was a citizen of Rome. And Roman citizenship was valuable to Paul. It helped him get out of some sticky situations. On the other hand, Paul was a citizen of the Kingdom of God. And, this was the citizenship most valuable to Paul. An eternal citizenship which can never be taken away is more valuable than any earthly citizenship.
This is the key to understanding Paul’s instructions. To the Philippians, Paul says: “If you have to choose between being a good Roman citizen and a good citizen of the Kingdom of God, choose the Gospel over Rome.” To American Christians like you and me, Paul says: “If you have to choose between being a good American citizen and a good citizen of the Kingdom of God, choose the Gospel over America.”
American citizenship is a wonderful thing. I wouldn’t want to be a citizen of any other nation. We value freedom and respect for all people. And, there is nothing wrong with being a citizen of both the United States of America and a citizen of the Kingdom of God…as long as the two are not at odds. When American values conflict with Christian values, we need to follow Paul’s instructions to place the Gospel above all other values.
Paul describes how to live as good citizens of the Kingdom of God with three military illustrations.
Another way to state this is to say, “stand your ground.” When the culture is seducing you and pulling you away from the Gospel, “stand your ground.”
In the Roman military, soldiers were equipped with shields. One shield was just big enough to protect one soldier. However, a group of soldiers could stand shoulder to shoulder with their shields in front of them to protect a larger area. This fortification was only successful as long as the soldiers could stay together with their shields as close together as possible. If anyone broke ranks, the protection would fail.
Contending as One “Man”
“Contending” could be used either in military settings or in athletic competitions—specifically wrestling. Two wrestlers would contend against each other. Two soldiers would contend together against a common enemy.
In this context, Paul is not encouraging the church to fight against each other. No. Conflict inside the church makes the church weaker. Instead, Paul encourages the church to fight together as “one man.” Literally, he says as one psyche—one soul, or one spirit. (This is not the typical word used to refer to the Holy Spirit, so Paul has something else in mind. Perhaps he is referring to something like “team spirit” within the church.)
The idea here is that we struggle against the same enemy. When we go out in many different directions, we are not working together. But, when we operate with the same spirit in the same direction toward the same goal, we are stronger together
Without Being Afraid
If the Philippians were living as good citizens of the Kingdom of God, then they would find themselves at odds with the culture around them. There were good things about Rome and all the benefits afforded to colonies like Philippi. However, their ultimate allegiance was not to Rome or to Caesar. Ultimately, their citizenship was in Heaven and Jesus was their Lord. As a result, they could expect some opposition and persecution from the powers that be.
So, Paul encourages them not to be afraid of the government or the consequences they will face.
The Bible teaches us that we should always honor and respect the government. Jesus said to “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” Paul tells us to obey the authorities, because ultimately government authorities work for God and will answer to God one day.
But, the Bible also teaches us that there is only One who is to be feared. We honor and respect the government and its leaders. We worship God alone.
In each of these three illustrations, Paul is teaching us that there is strength in numbers. A lone Christian could never stand up under opposition and persecution. However, a group of Christians—a church of Christians—has the strength to stand our ground, to fight together (as one team) against a common enemy and not be afraid of whatever we face…Because we face it together.
A story is told about a man who was driving his car down an old country road. For whatever reason, his car slipped off the road and into a ditch. He was stuck and didn’t know how he would get his car out of the ditch.
Eventually, a farmer came up riding a cart being pulled by an old blind mule named Gus. The man asked the farmer for help. The farmer unhitched old Gus from the cart and hitched old Gus to the car in the ditch.
The farmer cracked his whip and yelled, “Yaa, Sam. Pull.” Gus just stood there. He cracked the whip again and yelled, “Yaa, Jake. Pull.” Again, Gus just stood there. He cracked the whip a third time and yelled, “Yaa, Gus. Pull.” Old Gus came to life and steadily pulled the car out of the ditch.
Out of curiosity, the driver asked the farmer why he called all those other names. The farmer replied, “Old Gus is blind. If he thought he was the only one pulling, he wouldn’t have even tried. But, if Gus thinks he is working with a team, he is stronger than he thinks he is.”
As a member of a team / a church, we are stronger than we think we are. Live as good citizens of the Gospel / the Kingdom of God…You are never alone…We are in this struggle together…You are stronger than you think you are.