Those of us who grew up here in the south may not be aware of our southern drawl. Back in college mine was still quite pronounced, as words like Bible were (properly) pronounced “biiiible.” It was quite obvious, when we would travel up north, that I was “not from around here.” I didn’t quite fit in.
Paul expressed this very idea, although on a deeper and more significant level, to the Philippians, where he said…
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.
Compare this to Philippians 3:20 where Paul says “But our citizenship is in heaven…”
Verse 27 starts out with a command…
“Only let your manner of life as citizens be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” The Greek verb is politeuesthai , which shares its root with the cognate noun polis or “city” as well as with another noun, politeuma , which is translated “citizenship” in 3:20 (“But our citizenship is in heaven”). So here in verse 27 it means “live as citizens.”
Paul is telling the Philippians that, in the words of Jesus, we are “in the world, but not of the world.” We are citizens, but we are citizens of another land, a heavenly kingdom…and we are to live like it.
Philippi prided itself on being a Roman colony, offering the honor and privilege of Roman citizenship. A colony was a body of people living in new territory but retaining ties to a parent state. As a Roman colony, they were to reflect and expand the values and culture of Rome.
Remember, Philippi was a Roman colony, and the people there took pride in their Roman citizenship. They lived in accordance with Roman customs. Even though they were about 800 miles from Rome, they were not under any regional authority, but answered directly to Rome, governed by Roman laws. They were a Roman outpost. These colonists lived differently than the barbarians surrounding them because they were citizens of a different country.
But Paul tells the Philippians that they have a different citizenship. They belong to a different kingdom.
Paul reminds the congregation that they should look to Christ, not Caesar, for their model of behavior, since their primary allegiance is to God and his kingdom.
Gordon Fee adds, “As Philippi was a colony of Rome in Macedonia, so the church was a ‘colony of heaven’ in Philippi, whose members were to live as its citizens in Philippi” (Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 162).
Paul could not have more carefully chosen and crafted his words to impress and encourage his Philippian brothers and sisters as they struggled in that self-consciously prideful, elitist little Roman colony that was so preoccupied with the coveted citizenship of Rome. Here Paul challenges his beloved Philippians with a “counter-citizenship whose capital and seat of power are not earthly but heavenly, whose guarantor is not Nero but Christ” (Markus Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians , Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: A & C Black Limited, 1998), p. 98).
The town of Philippi was enjoying the personal patronage and benefactions of Lord (Kyrios) Caesar, but the Philippians were subjects of the one who alone is Kyrios and to whom every knee (including “Lord” Nero’s) will bow. (Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians , p. 157)
The evidence of living well as citizens of Heaven is a life “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Paul’s emphasis on worthiness can be heard in the original’s word order: “Only worthy of the gospel of Christ live as citizens.”
The phrase “worthy of the gospel” requires some explanation. “Worthy” signifies something that fits with the weight and worth of its standard of reference. Paul elsewhere speaks of living worthy of the Christian “calling” (Eph. 4:1), of “the Lord” (Col. 1:10), or of “God” (1 Thess. 2:12).
In this passage, the standard of reference or measuring rod is the gospel. In this sense, the closest parallel is Galatians 2:14 and its reference to “conduct” that is or is not “in step with the truth of the gospel.” The gospel is the “gold standard” for the Christian life, and as such its worth and weight govern the Christian life. The gospel becomes the shared story that unites all Christians and provides a reference point for all of their thinking and living. D. A. Carson says it well: “Conduct worthy of the gospel is above all conduct that promotes the gospel” (Carson, Basics for Believers, 55).
For Paul, the gospel was primary. He rejoiced in their partnership in the gospel (1:4, 5) and that it was preached, even from not-entirely-altruistic motives (1:14-15). Paul’s heart was for gospel progress, no matter the cost to himself.
The gospel is the indicative, it tells us what Christ has done for us. That is followed by the imperative, be His colony and live out His values, in Philippi, in Mena, wherever you live.
The first implication of this text is that sanctification is the necessary fruit of justification. The one who has been justified by grace through faith in Christ alone—the one who has been declared righteous in his position before God—will grow and progress with respect to practical righteousness in his life.
But the second implication of this text (as with many other NT texts) is that the indicative must precede the imperative—justification must precede sanctification. Paul doesn’t just jump into practical application, or a 12-step program. Rather, our right behavior flows out of being graciously saved by Jesus Christ.
The Scottish Puritan Henry Scougal, in his book, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, articulated this reality very well. He wrote,
“The love which a pious man bears to God and goodness is not so much by virtue of a command enjoining him so to do, as by a new nature instructing and prompting him to do it; nor doth he pay his devotions as an unavoidable tribute, only to appease the Divine justice, or quiet his clamorous conscience; but those religious exercises are the proper emanations of the Divine life, the natural employments of the new-born soul.” (38–39)
You see, if the Divine life has been sown within you by the Spirit’s regeneration of your heart, the fight for obedience is simply acting in line with your new nature. So when Paul commands us to live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel, he is showing us that our efforts in sanctification are fueled by Gospel grace.
There is a wonderful little rhyme that masterfully captures the beauty of divine grace in sanctification. We’re unsure of the author but it’s often attributed to John Bunyan:
‘Run, John, run!’ the Law demands,
But gives me neither feet nor hands.
Far better news the Gospel brings,
For it bids me fly, and gives me wings!”
Now, as Kent Hughes reminds us:
This gospel-first ethic was what Paul enjoined of the Philippians. There had never ever been a congenial environment for the gospel in Philippi. The little Roman polis declared war on Paul and his converts from day one when the Roman lictors beat him and Silas (cf. Acts 16:22).
The battle was cosmic. Those believers, as citizens of Heaven and subjects of the Lord of lords, were engaged in mortal combat. And their weapons were the good news — the preaching of Christ — and lives that proved “worthy of the gospel.”
Now, the language of these verses indicates that we are to live our lives as if we are in a battle—standing firm, striving side by side, not frightened, suffering, engaged in conflict.
For far too long the American church has acted like life is a playground instead of a battleground. God has not saved us so that we can live comfortably, happily, and self-centeredly in suburbia. He has conscripted us into His army. We have a mission given to us by our Commander-in-Chief, to take the message of His salvation and Lordship into enemy territory, to win captives from the forces of darkness.
As in every war, our mission requires us to be combat ready and to struggle to win. If we forget our mission and get caught up with our own comfort, we will be quick to desert the cause when the enemy attacks.
These verses are calling the Philippians, and you and me, to recognize that we are part of another kingdom, with loyalties and allegiances to another king, and that is going to put us at odds with this world.
Many commentators believe that verse 27 is the theme verse of this epistle, expressing the idea that we are to live our lives worthy of the gospel. The rest of the epistle spells this idea out.
This verse is the thesis statement of the entire letter; it is the first imperative of the letter, and all subsequent imperatives serve to flesh out what it means to behave as citizens worthy of the gospel. The adverb “only” adds a note of sharp singularity so that the command is even more of a focal point.
This is the message that Paul has been working toward and will support throughout the remainder of this letter.
This little phrase is the very heart of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul’s preeminent concern in his letter to the church of Philippi is that they would bring the practice of their lives into conformity with the position they enjoy as sharers in the Gospel of Christ.
When we determine to be loyal to Christ as King and the good news of His victory over sin and death, it will bring us into conflict with the world around us.
Paul wanted to be confident that they would stand firm and strive together…
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,
The reality is, we will have troubles in this world; the world will hate us because of our love for Christ. Jesus said in John 15
18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.
And in John 16:33 Jesus tells us
In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Kent Hughes explains the cultural context:
The Philippians’ commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord was a threat to the civic-minded patriotic Romans who ran Philippi. The Philippians’ allegiance to another “Lord” than Caesar bordered on treason as it challenged the political establishment. At times Christians were tarred with the (amazing to us!) opprobrium “atheist” because their loyalty to Christ challenged the divinity of Caesar.
The Roman citizens of Philippi, who customarily honored the emperor at every public gathering, pressured the church to conform. Christians were a political embarrassment with their Kyrios Jesus. And more, Christians who had the temerity to declare with Paul that their citizenship was in Heaven (cf. 3:20) were thought to be “un-Roman” and thus enemies to public order.
Because of this there was widespread persecution in Philippi and throughout the other churches of Macedonia, about whom we have these sound bites: “a severe test of affliction . . . extreme poverty” (2 Corinthians 8:2), “in much affliction” (1 Thessalonians 1:6), “your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring” (2 Thessalonians 1:4). Heavenly citizenship worthy of the gospel was costly and demanding.
1:27b–28 Paul follows the command of verse 27a with a purpose clause signified in the ESV by “so that” (hina). The previous command serves as a defining purpose for any situation in which the Philippian believers find themselves. Regardless of whether Paul comes to see them or remains absent, this command to behave as worthy citizens will not change.
Our responsibility is to “stand firm.” Actually, “standing firm” is a in a purpose clause, defining why we are to live our lives as citizens worthy of the gospel. We are in a war. We have to stand our ground, like Paul told the Ephesians, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Eph. 6:13).
The opposite of standing is “falling away,” which is why Jesus told his disciples about the opposition they would be facing (John 16:1). Like a good soldier, we are to hold our ground at all costs.
We are to do this “in one spirit, with one mind.” These two phrases modify both the action of standing and the action of striving side by side later in verse 27. Likely they are both referring to the deep sense of community they had experienced together (although Gordon Fee makes a strong case for “spirit” as Holy Spirit). We stand and strive best when we do it alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ. The reality is, we need each other.
We stand in God’s strength, yes; but we also need to stand arm in arm with our fellow believers.
“Striving side by side” is the teamwork vocabulary of athletes or soldiers. It is a participle defining how we stand firm. We cannot stand firm without our brothers.
It is at the heart of winning teams. Stephen Ambrose in his book Comrades , which includes the story of Lewis and Clark, describes this as the secret of their epic accomplishments: “What Lewis and Clark had done, first of all, was to demonstrate that there is nothing that men cannot do if they get themselves together and act as a team” (Stephen E. Ambrose, Comrades (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), pp. 105, 106) .
A bad example was the U.S. Olympic basketball team in the 2004 Olympics. There were plenty of individual stars, but they did not play together as a team.
The importance of working together is also illustrated in nature.
“One of the largest, strongest horses in the world is the Belgian draft horse. Competitions are held to see which horse can pull the most and one Belgian can pull 8,000 pounds. The weird thing is if you put two Belgian horses in the harness who are strangers to each other, together they can pull 20,000 – 24,000 pounds. Two can pull not twice as much as one but three times as much as one. This example represents the power of synergy. However, if the two horses are raised and trained together they learn to pull and think as one. The trained, and therefore unified, pair can pull 30,000 – 32,000 pounds, almost four times as much as a single horse” (https://jtweav.com/synergy-belgian-draft-horse/)
Notice that it is not just the fact of being yoked together that makes the difference, but when they are “raised and trained together they learn to pull and think as one.”
Paul will continue to emphasize this “same mindedness” into Philippians 2, where he says…
2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
The imagery of striving side by side calls to mind Roman soldiers marching forward in lock-step for the advancement of the empire. Teamwork makes us powerful.
The only other place in the NT where the rare verb “strive side by side” occurs is Philippians 4:3, where Paul’s coworkers have labored side by side in the gospel. They are striving for the progress of the gospel, expressed as faith originating with or produced by the gospel.
So, live worthy of the gospel so that you can stand firm for the gospel, by locking arms with your brothers and sisters in Christ, fighting against the enemy and not each other.