Much of the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians discussed the repercussions of Paul’s legal situation. Paul strongly communicated his foremost wish that the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ advance. He desired that his legal status not disgrace the Lord or the gospel in any way. Noting the advance of the gospel despite his status (imprisonment), Paul turned to encourage his readers’ involvement in the ministry of the gospel.
The text for this lesson begins with a resounding exhortation to serve the gospel. The passage moves to discuss the confidence and attitudes that must accompany the administration of the gospel. The passage ends on one of Scripture’s epic high notes, the so-called “Christ Hymn,” which itself concludes with a crescendo of glory to God the Father.
Our conduct (Philippians 1:27-30)
Paul discussed the gospel prior to this passage. His deep concern was that the gospel would spread widely, unhindered by human constraints. Paul’s foremost desire was that people would hear the gospel, receive it into their lives, commit their lives to it, and experience the spiritual transformation that it promises—just as Paul himself and his Philippian readers had experienced.
Paul then turned to encourage his readers concerning their own contributions to the advancement of the gospel. Verse 27 is the only verse in this epistle in which the word “gospel” appears twice, emphasizing the importance of the reader’s service of the message of Christ. The verse begins with Paul applying his gospel discussion his readers’ lives. Several exhortations follow, dominating the content of the letter through 2:18.
The first matter of concern in verse 27 centers on the phrase “conduct yourselves” (NIV, NASB). It has various renderings: “let your conversation be” (KJV), “let your conduct be” (NKJV), “you must live” (CEV), “live your life” (HCSB), “live in such a way” (MSG), and “as citizens of heaven live” (TNIV). These interpretations demonstrate the difficulty in translating one Greek word—a rousing command.
The Greek word in question has the word “city,” or more precisely “citizenship,” as its root. Paul appealed to citizenship, a matter of considerable esteem for Philippians. In America, it is sometimes observed, citizenship often is taken for granted—though it is a source of pride for many who have attained American citizenship.
In contrast, the residents of the city of Philippi had been awarded Roman citizenship by Octavian (later to become Caesar Augustus) because the decisive victory in his struggle for the Roman crown was won on the plains outside Philippi. Many of Octavian’s veterans later retired in Philippi. It comes as no surprise, then, that the people of Philippi took tremendous pride in their status as citizens of Rome.
Paul strategically selected this command, with citizenship as its core, to exhort his readers to live out the duties of their heavenly citizenship. One can imagine Paul’s readers’ immediate attention upon hearing this word. Just as earthly citizenship has its duties, heavenly citizenship also has requirements that its honorable citizens must fulfill.
The duties of heavenly citizenship begin with living in a manner worthy of the gospel. The gospel is the message of the holy God who gave his blameless Son as an unblemished sacrifice of atonement so that sinful people could be rescued from destruction and saved to God’s holy presence for eternity. Casual attention to the gospel just will not do. The “civic” duty of every citizen of heaven is to serve worthily the very message that transformed their existence from lost causes to beloved children of the living God.
One civic duty Paul states is to “stand firm” in unity (v. 27) in the struggle against suffering. Verse 29 refers to suffering, and verse 28 refers to fright in the face of opposition. This connection suggests Paul saw the Philippians suffering at the hand of the enemies of the gospel. Thus the Philippian Christians suffered for the gospel as Paul had (v. 30).
Standing firm in unity against a common foe is a military concept, again readily understandable by the Philippians. Rallying to stand firm in unity against the opponents of the gospel is a discipline that followers of Christ must learn.
Paul further describes “standing firm” as “contending for the faith of the gospel” (v. 27). Standing firm seems to some as a passive activity. Every combat veteran who has been ordered to maintain their position in a firefight will tersely explain that standing firm is anything but passive. “Contending” explains the nature of “standing firm.” Believers must stand firm and contend for the gospel that dramatically has changed their destiny.
Verse 29 reminds Paul’s readers that believers have been “granted” the (1) right to believe in Christ Jesus and, having done so, (2) the obligation to suffer for him. Acts 5:41 states that the apostles rejoiced for being counted worthy to suffer disgrace for Jesus. This attitude sets apart Jesus’ true followers and presents a “sign,” or warning, to detractors whose opposition to the gospel will lead them to destruction (v. 28).
Our priority (Philippians 2:1-4)
The reference to suffering caused Paul to realize the Philippian church needed some pastoral encouragement. Paul’s shepherding moment reveals the inspiring insight that suffering by believers is well attended by the gentle ministrations of the Lord himself.
Verse 1 provides four parallel and rich if-clauses that build to a remarkable then-clause in verse 2. The if-clauses have a hint of a Trinitarian form, beginning with Christ.
The first clause attributes encouragement to Christ. The phrase actually is “in Christ,” Paul’s shorthand reference to the believer’s saved status. “In Christ” speaks to the believer’s position or standing resulting from his or her faith. They stand before God, “in Christ,” in a position of unassailable security. Encouragement amid suffering thus abounds!
The second clause mentions “love” without referencing whose love provides the comfort or consolation. Some translations provide a pronoun to connect the love to Christ. Perhaps God’s love is implied. Possibly Paul referred to the fuller experience of his Philippian readers who enjoyed God’s love, Christ’s love, the love of their apostle, and their love for one another. The point seems not to be indefinite but expressive of a multifaceted Christian experience.
The third clause references the fellowship of the Spirit, the common possession of all believers and the sign of God’s presence with his people.
The fourth clause speaks to “compassions” and “mercies”—plural ideas reflecting repeated experiences. Christ piled these uplifting experiences together for his followers to experience as they serve and suffer together for his kingdom.
Verse 2 provides a surprising then-clause, anchored by another command. Paul’s command is to make his joy complete. He already was joyful about his Philippian brothers and sisters in Christ. He presses them to make his joy full by striving in unity to serve the high ideals of the kingdom of Christ. These ideals are spelled out in the remainder of the paragraph. Four elements of unity occur in verse 2, followed by six words or phrases that encourage living by the kingdom’s character of sacrificial selflessness (vv. 3-4).
Paul’s emphasis on standing fast and contending for the faith now has been further explained. God’s people stand fast through unity in Christ. God’s people contend for the faith by practicing selfless ministry among one another. Such conduct resists encroachment by the enemy and reinforces the communication of the gospel through the practice of Christ’s character.
Our attitude (Philippians 2:5-8)
As an appeal to serve God in such a selfless manner, Paul turns to the example of Jesus. Some consider the passage as a portion of an ancient hymn, due to its poetical character.
Note its biographical narrative describing Christ’s selfless service. Jesus’ story begins with his divine place in heaven, observes his commitment to service, describes his coming in human form, then his humble obedience on the cross. It is a lowly end for a servant, but a glorious triumph for our Lord.
Of special interest is Christ’s sense of service and complete devotion to his duty. The Philippians, and Paul himself, have their duty in God’s kingdom. Christian duty is best fulfilled when performed with the same “mind” or attitude as Christ.
The first phrase in verse 6 reminds us Christ is fully divine. The second line states Christ did not value the rights of his divine position so highly that he ignored humanity’s greatest need.
This is the meaning of the phrase, though the wording is famously difficult to translate into English. The KJV has “thought it not robbery” while other translations smooth the difficult rendering into English with “something to be grasped.” The essence of robbing is “grabbing,” yet in English, robbery is incompatible to notions about a holy God.
Likely, Paul used an expressive idiom which has lost some force in translation and the advance of time. His point, though, seems clear enough: Christ did not consider holding onto his divine rights as more important than serving humans in the time of their greatest need. He willingly left heaven to come to earth in human form.
Verse 7 states Christ emptied himself, giving himself for the sake of others. He did not stop emptying himself at the point of being humbled, that is, becoming a human. Christ emptied himself further, becoming a servant. The word translated “servant” is the standard Greek word for “slave.” Slaves, or servants, are humans completely emptied of authority and value. Thus Christ’s emptying was extreme: not just becoming a human, but also a servant.
Verse 8 describes the completeness of Jesus’ humility: obedience (the essential requirement for a slave) to the point of death. Some deaths are noble, but Christ’s was the most ignoble of all: a criminal’s death on a disgraceful cross. Yet Christ willingly gave himself to suffer in such extremity because of his servant “attitude.”
Our confession (Philippians 2:9-11)
The final section of this lesson is the climactic response to Christ’s humble service. Actually two responses are described. First, God exalted Jesus to the highest place of all. This divine act reversed the criminal sentence Jesus received and removed the disgraceful stigma associated with it.
Exaltation refers to enthroning above others. It implies Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven—unmentioned due to the brevity and sweeping movement of the poetry. Jesus’ exaltation is seconded by his reception of a name that is above all other names. Jesus’ name is glorious. The universe’s great ruler also is its greatest hero.
The second response to Christ’s humble service comes from humans. Verse 10 ominously notes all humans will acknowledge Jesus’ tremendous feat. Jesus has been placed in a position no one can refuse to acknowledge. All humanity will bow to Christ in his new exalted status. Human station and circumstances will not matter, because all beings will bow to Jesus.
This includes heavenly beings, earthly beings, namely humans, and even beings “under the earth.” Under the earth refers most likely to dead beings, mainly humans. Nothing is stated about eternal destinies. Such is not necessary in the midst of the affirmation of Christ’s absolute exaltation. The implication is that as the absolute ruler, Christ will decide all eternal destinies. The further implication is that one can choose to “acknowledge” Christ’s authority to rule now, by believing the gospel and serving Christ’s kingdom. On the other hand, one can defer acknowledging Christ to a later time, to one’s peril.
Verse 11 reinforces the assertion of verse 10. Every tongue will confess Jesus Christ is Lord. Not all confessions are believer’s confessions. All people one day will acknowledge Jesus Christ is Lord. Those who confess by faith Jesus Christ as Lord will exult at the mention of his glorious name.
Though a Christian may experience suffering, the call of duty is strong and service to the gospel is the operational standard of the kingdom. Let us, therefore, live up to the expectations of the gospel that so marvelously transforms the lives of believers.