Last week we focused on what most commentators call the heart of the letter to the Philippians. Here in Philippians 1:27 Paul gives his first command…
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.
Paul was calling them to live “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” It doesn’t mean we have to “live up” to it or repay Christ for dying for us, but simply that we are to live our lives in sync with the gospel and strive “for the faith of the gospel.”
The context in which Paul was writing is that the Philippians were facing opponents. We know from other passages that those in Macedonia were facing “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).
Paul wanted them to stand firm by uniting themselves in spirit and mind and fighting side by side. As we’ve already noticed, unity is a primary theme of this letter.
They were being attacked by their opponents. Nero-madness was just beginning. Christians were being forced to bow down to Nero, or else. Claiming Jesus as Lord was sedition against the empire.
Paul encourages them to “not [be] frightened in anything” by these opponents. This is the negative counterpart to the more positive “striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” as a way to stand firm—by striving, not being frightened.
Fear, when others attack us, is quite natural. The word “frightened” or “alarmed” is a word used of startled horses about to bolt. It describes a panic reaction. Don’t panic, advises Paul. Keep your head. You’re a citizen of Heaven. God is in control. Don’t be intimidated. You are to stand firm instead of falling away.
You know many athletes put on a brave front, and even trash talk, but the proof is in their abilities. The stakes at Philippi, however, were much higher than any game.
Unlike the bravado and posturing at the onset of an athletic event, this will be “a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” (v. 28b). This doesn’t mean that their adversaries would recognize their own doom, though they might have a dim awareness of it, but that it is nevertheless a sign of their destruction, their judgment. Of course, believers see it all, including their own salvation. D.A. Carson explains:
Your change in character, your united stand in defense of the gospel, your ability to withstand with meekness and without fear the opposition that you must endure, constitutes a sign. That sign speaks volumes, both to the outside world and the Christian community. It is a sign of judgment against the world that is mounting the opposition; it is a sign of assurance that these believers really are the people of God and will be saved on the last day.
When opponents do their worst, and we’re still standing for Christ, that is “a clear sign,” a prophetic warning, that God is with us. For example, when the Empress Eudoxia, in the fourth century, threatened John Chrysostom with banishment, he told her, “You cannot banish me, for this world is my Father’s house.” “But I will kill you,” she said. “No, you cannot, for my life is hidden with Christ in God.” “Then I will take away your treasures.” “No, you cannot, for my treasure is in heaven, and my heart is there.” “But I will drive you away from your friends, and you will have no one left.” “No, you cannot, for I have a friend in heaven from whom you cannot separate me. I defy you, for there is nothing you can do to harm me.”
John Chrysostom’s courage made him a clear sign of the weakness of her power and of the power of his weakness. The tactics of this world are weak, though they appear powerful. The truth of the gospel is strong, though it appears weak. Jesus is Lord. He just is. And the world is stuck with him, because they can’t impeach him, and he isn’t going to resign.
But how is our generation going to see his glory? Through our courage.
Jesus spoke of opponents in the Olivet discourse in Luke’s gospel, urging his disciples not to worry about how they might defend themselves when Jerusalem is overrun by an army, referring ultimately to events preceding the second coming. They will be given words, Jesus says, which none of their adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.
Paul also used the term to refer to those who opposed him and his message, including those who were violent in their opposition. In 1 Corinthians 16:9 he says that his work was not yet completed in Ephesus because there was a great door (cf. “door” in Acts 14:27; 2 Cor 2;12; Col 4:13) of opportunity open for him there.
These opponents seem to be Jewish antagonists who often dogged Paul’s steps and caused trouble in the churches he founded.
Paul’s discussion in 3:2-3 seem to indicate that indeed Jews were involved, in one way or another. He refers to Christians as the “true circumcision” which seems to indicate that his opponents were of Jewish origin, though he regards them as the “false circumcision.” Also, when he says that he “puts no confidence in the flesh,” this makes more sense if Jews who do put confidence in the flesh were behind at least some of the problems in Philippi.
However, Fee suggests that the persecutors were the Romans themselves, noting Paul’s emphasis on Christ as “lord” and “savior,” claims that would raise the ire of loyal Romans.
The proofs that the Philippians’ courageous stand was a sign of their salvation were the twin facts that they were graced with salvation and with suffering: “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” (v. 29).
John Piper reminds us…
God graciously gives suffering and faith to his people so that they might enjoy making much of Christ to their adversaries through fearless faith and humble love.
The verb “granted” can be literally rendered “graced” because it means “to give freely or graciously as a favor.” And the passive voice means that the twin gifts are from God.
By the way, there are two Greek words for “give,” the word didomi and the word charizomai.
You can didomi a punch in the nose. You can give somebody a punch in the nose. You cannot charizomai a person a punch in the nose. This is love. This is all grace, all good, all kindness, all undeserving, all blessing.
God graciously gives you faith to believe. It is a gift. I think that is what Ephesians 2:8-9 are saying as well, that faith is graciously given to us—that the Holy Spirit according to the sovereign will of God regenerates our spirit so that our spiritual ears can hear the gospel and our spiritual eyes can see the beauty and supremacy and superiority of Jesus Christ and move toward trusting His work in our behalf.
The gracious gift of believing in Christ is a magnificent blessing. It is the grand evidence that God looks on you with favor. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12, 13).
But notice that God also graciously gives us suffering. Suffering is a gracious gift from God, a result of His undeserved kindness to us!
But with this there is also another magnificent boon, as Karl Barth explains: “The grace of being permitted to believe in Christ is surpassed by the grace of being permitted to suffer for him, of being permitted to walk the way of Christ with Christ himself to the perfection of fellowship with him” (Karl Barth, Epistle to the Philippians , trans. James W. Leitch (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 49). The fellowship of Christ’s sufferings moves the believer beyond the role of beneficiary of Christ’s death to a sharer in his sufferings (cf. Colossians 1:24).
Note here that the verb is in the passive voice, referring to God’s activity and that it is past tense (aorist in Greek). Thus the “granting” of the suffering occurred at the time they believed. Therefore, God has a plan for the life of his children worked out from the very beginning of our salvation. Obviously the Lord has a plan for us from before all eternity (Eph 1:4), but Paul’s specific focus here is from the time of our initial conversion/belief forward.
The pleasure of God in persecution is a startling concept, but a biblical one.
John Piper goes on…
Surely, Paul wants us to feel the tension in that. He graciously, mercifully, lovingly gives this wonderful gift, not only of faith. The accent falls on suffering. Free gift, here it is. I love you. It has been granted to you for the sake of Christ, for the glory of Christ, for magnifying Christ, that you should not only believe but also suffer. That’s a gift. So, two gifts. Now think with me: How did those two gifts produce the sign of fearlessness in particular?
In order to create a sign, a big bright unmistakable, irrefutable sign of fearlessness, what do you need? You need something to be afraid of, and you need faith so that you won’t be afraid of it…
To say I want to erect a sign of fearlessness means I’m putting enemies in your face, and I’m giving you faith. The two gifts of verse 29 create the sign of verse 27–28. That’s what the ground clause is for.
So we suffer. From Satan’s side, suffering comes to us as a way of tempting us towards sin, as a stumbling stone. From God’s viewpoint, suffering comes to us as a way of proving and improving our faith, as a stepping stone.
This attitude wasn’t Paul’s alone because we read in Acts that after the apostles had been beaten in the presence of the council of Israel, “they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).
So we should reject the fear of suffering and receive the favor of suffering. That is a completely different mindset!
This generation of professing Christians seeks to run from shame as far and as fast as possible, as if it were a pure, unmixed evil! The apostles’ generation rejoiced that they had been considered worthy to receive the divine favor of suffering shame for the matchless name of the Lord Jesus Christ. May God grant that we see the glory that they saw—that we would be so satisfied by Christ that we would count it a privilege to meet the world’s shame if it means that we can put His glory on display.
Years after being flogged that day, Peter would write, “To the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing,” and, “if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but to glorify God in this name” (1 Peter 4:13, 16).
We note too that “the believing” and “the suffering” were granted on behalf of Christ (to huper christou). What Paul is saying is that just as Christ suffered at the hands of sinful men in order to procure their salvation (cf. 2:6-11), so also the Philippians now have an opportunity to suffer for their Lord. A disciple is not above his master. It is not that the Philippians are suffering simply because they are allied with the name of Christ. It is much more intimate than that idea will allow (cf. Phil 3:10-11). They are suffering for the one whom they now love and for the one whom they are waiting to return from heaven (3:20).
Here, as a further word of encouragement and motivation to live as citizens “worthy of the gospel,” Paul indicated that the Philippians share in the same sufferings with him — “engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (v. 30). They and Paul together made up the heroic fellowship of the gospel (cf. 1:5), which meant that they shared in the same “conflict” ( agôn ) with Pa’ul. Their conflict, whether in Philippi or Rome, was one. What they saw Paul endure in Philippi (and what they themselves were enduring in Philippi) along with what they heard he was enduring in Rome was all part of the apostolic agôn.
Paul’s point was that he and the Philippians were all recipients of grace as they had been given the gifts of salvation and suffering. Their mutual agôn (from which we get “agony”) was a testimony to the grace of God. Listen to John Calvin’s passionate application:
Oh, if this conviction were fixed in our minds, that persecutions are to be reckoned among God’s benefits, what progress would be made in the doctrine of godliness! And yet, what is more certain than that it is the highest honour of the Divine grace, that we suffer for His name either reproach, or imprisonment, or miseries, or tortures, or even death, for in that case He decorates us with His insignia. But more will be found who will order God and His gifts to be gone, rather than embrace the cross readily when it is offered to them. Woe, then, to our stupidity! (John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, Calvin’s Commentaries, trans. T. H. L. Parker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), p. 243) .
The understanding that suffering and salvation are both gifts of grace is essential to discipleship and perseverance.
Faith and persecution are often a package gift; when the flame of faith shines in a dark place, the darkness will try to douse that faith and snuff it out. God writes a persecution story for his church so that mankind will be pointed back to the greatest story: the death and resurrection of Christ. Persecution is a parable that puts the death and resurrection of Christ on display again and again and again and again. Persecutors try to kill the faith of believers like they tried to kill Jesus, but faith rises just like Jesus did. When persecutors try everything in their power to kill faith, but faith refuses to die, resurrection power is on display. Opponents should fear, because they are actually fighting God, and they will lose.
God’s power preserves our faith. He who began the good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of Christ (Phil. 1:6), and nothing in all creation will be able to separate believers from his almighty grip of grace.
See, suffering for Christ’s sake provides us a wonderful opportunity to put the worth and sufficiency of Christ on display. It gives us an opportunity to magnify Him by being more satisfied in Him than by all that this world can offer and by all that death can take.
To illustrate, the third verse of that great hymn, On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand, says, “His oath, His covenant, His blood / support me in the whelming flood. / When all around my soul gives way, / He then is all my hope and stay.”
Commenting on that line, John Piper writes, “If we hold fast to Him ‘when all around our soul gives way,’ then we show that He is more to be desired than all we have lost” (Desiring God, 266). And magnifying Christ—showing that He is more to be desired than all that we could lose—is the very thing that we were created to do (Isa 43:7; Phil 1:20–21). If we understand this, it’s clear to see that it’s a divine gift to suffer on behalf of Christ. It is a gracious gift of unmerited favor to be given the privilege of being prisms to reflect the glory and sufficiency of Jesus to the world.
Another great hymn says, “Heav’nly peace, divinest comfort / Here by faith in Him to dwell / For I know whate’er befall me / Jesus doeth all things well.” Where do heavenly peace and divine comfort come from? From the knowledge that whatever happens, Jesus the sovereign Lord is doing it, and He doeth all things well.
So when suffering comes—and it’s coming, if it’s not already here—don’t try to save God from His sovereignty, and in the same breath steal your heavenly peace and divinest comfort. Instead, count that suffering as a gracious gift, direct from the loving hand of your Father, of the opportunity to magnify the worth of Christ in your response to it. Then, you would suffer in a manner worthy of the Gospel.