Up to this point Paul has focused on his own difficult circumstances (Philippians 1:1-26), but now he turns to discuss the difficult circumstances the Philippians are facing. Paul experiences joy by looking beyond his own circumstances to show concern for others.
Paul begins by telling the Philippians that, no matter what happens to him, they should conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27). Robert Lightner writes:
“The words conduct yourselves translate a political word which would mean much to the Philippian believers. Literally it means ‘live as citizens.’” (Bible Knowledge Commentary, Philippians 1:27).
Philippi was a Roman colony that acted like a “little Rome” away from Rome. Although they were hundreds of miles away from Rome, the Philippians had all of the rights, responsibilities, and privileges of citizens of Rome. They understood the concept of living as citizens of a faraway place. Later on, Paul explicitly tells them “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
But Paul wasn’t merely trying to evoke patriotic images by telling them to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Even if the Roman government put Paul to death, Paul didn’t want the Philippians to revolt against the government. Rather, they were to demonstrate God’s grace. Paul gave them three examples of what their conduct should be like. He wanted to hear that they were (1) standing firm; (2) striving together; and (3) in no way alarmed by their opponents. And, if the government decided against Paul’s case and opposed this new “sect” called “Christians,” then the Roman government could crack down on the Christians in Philippi, resulting in increased persecution.
Regardless of what the future held for Paul or for the Philippians, they were to stand firm. Earlier in his letter Paul explained how his past obstacles became unexpected opportunities (Philippians 1:12-14), so in the midst of difficult circumstances they could stand firm because God knew what He was doing. In Philippians 4:1, Paul reminds them again to “stand firm.” Interestingly, this second exhortation also occurs right after Paul’s mention that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Perhaps there is a notion that as citizens they could hold their heads high (stand firm) in confidence of their rights as citizens of heaven. This also highlights the importance of keeping an eternal perspective on our present circumstances. In light of eternity, our difficult circumstances are not as significant as they might seem.
Paul began his letter to the Philippians by talking about how partnership with the saints brings joy in difficult circumstances (Philippians 1:1-11), so now he reminds them of how important it is for them to strive together for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27). The word translated as “striving together” is literally “striving together as athletes” (sunathleo). The Romans loved their Olympic games, so athletes were highly esteemed in their culture. Paul emphasized that they should be working together, rather than being divided by dissention, which was his next topic for discussion (Philippians 2:1-16). Some translations use the expression “contending together.” Like contenders in an athletic competition, the Philippians were to contend against a common opponent, not against each other.
In No Way Alarmed by Their Opponents
Just as Paul had discussed his own opponents (Philippians 1:15-18), he warned the Philippians that they, too, should not be alarmed by their opponents (Philippians 1:28). Their external conflict and suffering should not come as a surprise—and yet, how often do we get hit with conflict and suffering and wonder, Why is this happening to me? In the very next verses, Paul writes: “For to you it has been granted . . . to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me and now hear to be in me” (Philippians 1:29-30, NASB). We will explore verses 29-30 more next time. Until then,
Questions for Reflection (Things to Journal)
What area of opposition do you face? How can you stand firm in the midst of opposition?
In what ways are you striving together with other believers for a common purpose? Describe how the church might work like a team of athletes.
Opposition tends to catch us by surprise. Why should we not be surprised when conflict and suffering happen in our lives?
Strategy for Discovering Joy in Difficult Circumstances
#5 Discover joy in difficult circumstances by looking beyond my own circumstances to show concern for others.