The central argument of Philippians is found in 1:27-4:1. This section may be outlined as follows:
I. Living Worthily as Citizens of Heaven/Gospel (1:27-4:1)
A. Exhortation: Live as Citizens of Gospel/Heaven (1:27-30)
1. Standing Firm (1:27-28)
2. Sharing Christ’s (and Paul’s ) suffering (1:29-30)
B. Example One: Imitation of Christ (2:1-18)
1. The Mind of Christ (2:1-5)
2. The Humiliation and Exaltation of Jesus Christ (2:6-11)
3. Exhortation to live in response to Jesus (2:12-18)
C. Example Two: Imitation of Paul’s Coworkers (2:19-30)
1. Timothy’s Example (2:19-24)
2. Epaphroditus’s Example (2:25-27)
3. Exhortation to welcome Paul’s Co-workers in Philippi (2:28-30)
D. Example Three: Imitation of Paul (3:1-21)
1. Warning: Confidence in the Flesh– 3:1-6
2. The Way: Confidence in Knowing Jesus Christ (3:7-16)
3. Exhortation to follow the preceding examples (3:17-21)
E. Conclusion – General Exhortation to Continue Standing Firm – 4:1
1:27a is the overarching general exhortation that controls 1:27-4:1. Its translation in English is ambiguous:
NASB Philippians 1:27 Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ;
NIV Philippians 1:27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.
NRSV Philippians 1:27 Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,
NKJV Philippians 1:27 Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ,
NLT Philippians 1:27 Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ.
Only the NLT (which tends to be very dynamic in its translation) captures the literal sense of the Greek language. The main verb in the 1:27a is an imperative that means “live as a citizen.” Its noun cognate is found in 3:20 “our citizenship is in heaven.” In Paul’s other writings, he uses the Greek work (peripateo) meaning “walk/live” (1 Thes 2:12; Col 1:10; Eph 4:1) in similar expressions.
Why does he use this particular exhortation “Live as citizens of the Gospel of Christ” in Philippians?
1) The missiological setting of Philippi set the stage for this vocabulary. Philippi was a Roman colonial city. Many of its residents (presumably including some the Christ followers) enjoyed Roman citizenship. This was a significant and important status in the Empire. Paul captures a meaningful word for Roman citizens and deploys it skillfully to call the Christians of Philippi to embrace a different sort of status and citizenship. A fundamental insight in 1:27-4:1 is this: the status that one embraces sets the limits of one’s capacity to reach others with the Gospel. Roman citizenship is a set of privileges that one enjoys and is able to exploit for his or her own benefit. Gospel citizenship is a privileged relationship with God that unleashes one to lay aside personal benefits for the sake of God’s mission and for the good of others. It is worth pondering and reflecting on Paul’s word selection. What are some images/metaphors/phrases that can we subverted and refilled with Gospel content in our contemporary settings.
2) Paul is clear that this is the key command in his letter. Most of our English translations begin v. 27 with “only.” The idea here is this: pay attention to this one thing or only one thing. In other words, if the Philippians can embody this one exhortation, they will be living well. This is emphasized by the framing use of “our citizenship exists in heaven” (3:20). Paul begins and ends this large block of teaching with a reference to citizenship. Paul is challenging the Philippians to rethink their notion of citizenship with its privileges in the Empire and embrace to new citizenship with Kingdom of God as God’s missional people in the world.
3) The nuance of the imperative “live as citizens of the Gospel of Christ” is an ongoing action. We may capture this by translating the clause “live continually of the Gospel of Christ.” Paul is stressing that this calling is a moment by moment existence. It is not a one time or occasional activity. It is the essence of being a Christ follower in Philippi.
4) The goal is missional. The purpose for Paul’s command is so that Paul will hear about the Philippian’s Gospel shaped actions (1:27b-28). The principal witness according to Paul will be the Philippians “standing unified (“in one spirit”) contending for the Gospel without being intimidated by foes. The stress on unity as a witness will weigh heavily in Paul’s subsequent argument. The people of God present a corporate witness to the world that is vital and powerful.
5) Paul does not shy away from the reality of suffering and hardship due to the Gospel for the Philippian Christ followers (29-30). He talks about suffering as a given in the same way that their believing is a given (29). This is not suffering in general or suffering due to ill chosen actions. The suffering Paul is describing is suffering because they are allied with Jesus the Messiah. Paul’s initial entry into Philippi stirred up quite the opposition (Acts 16:16-40). The Philippians Christ followers are now experiencing similar troubles as Paul. If Paul’s current troubles were with the Empire (1:12-26), it may be that the Philippians were running into conflict with Roman citizens in Philippi who honored the Emperor alone as Lord. The confession “Jesus the Messiah is LORD” (2:9-10) is a bold and daring one in the context of an Empire that crushed all opposition. To have an allegiance above the state is risky.
To be continued…
© 2009 Brian D. Russell