“So here is what I want you to do: conduct yourselves as true and worthy citizens of the Anointed’s gospel, so that whether I make it or don’t make it to see you, I will at least hear that you continue to stand, united in one spirit, single-minded in purpose as you struggle together for the faith in the gospel. Don’t be alarmed in any way by what your opponents are doing. Your steadfast faith in the face of opposition is a sign that they are doomed and that you have been graced with God’s salvation. And now, you have been given the privilege of not only believing in Jesus the Anointed, our Liberating King, but being chosen to suffer for Him as well." (Philippians 1:27-29) Being a true and worthy citizen of the gospel sounds daunting to me. Why? Because I know me. “Worthy” is not a word that comes to mind in describing myself in relation to the gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven. There are plenty of days in which unworthy seems like the best fit. Yet Paul calls on the Christians in Philippi to conduct themselves as worthy citizens of the gospel, so this must be something we can accomplish with God’s help. God won’t ask us to do what His Spirit won’t empower us to do.
I realized that one reason this sounded daunting was that I was thinking I had to be worthy enough to become a citizen, but that is clearly not what Paul is saying. My righteousness – my self-earned worthiness – has been and always will be garbage (Isaiah 64:6; Ephesians 2:8-9). I am a citizen of the gospel because Jesus is worthy and He has covered my unworthiness on the cross. Paul is talking about what it looks like for a citizen to live in a way that ascribes worth to the one who granted us this citizenship. So this is not a question of salvation. It’s a question of discipleship, of following Jesus in an honoring way.
Last week we talked about how Paul did not just say, “to live is Christ” and then leave a vague phrase hanging in the air. He made it specific: serving Jesus through fruitful labor (1:22) for the growth and joy of others in their life with Christ (1:25). Fortunately, Paul does the same thing again when describing what it means to be a true and worthy citizen of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
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By the time Paul had arrived, the cult of Caesar had become the state religion. The good news (euaggelion – what we call evangelism) for the Romans was about Caesar as a god, a savior and redeemer of the world. (You see on the screen a statue of Statue of the Emperor Octavian Augustus as Jupiter, from the time of Jesus and Paul. The coin that Jesus told people to “Give to Caesar” had Caesar represented as divine).
This announcement was specifically ‘good tidings’. If that phrase sounds familiar, it’s what the angels brought to the shepherds in Luke 2. Though it’s the same word, with Jesus it’s for all people, not just Romans, and it’s about a Savior who is Christ the Lord. It won’t just bring the Pax Romana (the Roman peace through conquest), it will bring peace on the entire earth for those on whom God’s favor rests. It won’t come through a sword that kills others, but through a cross on which Christ dies so that we might live.
When we talk about the True Gospel, we are talking about the truly good news if a saving and redeeming God revealed in Jesus Christ.
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CITIZENS WORTHY OF THE GOSPEL
Paul is referencing the dual citizenship that the Philippian Christians have. The Philippians were both citizens of Rome and citizens of Heaven. In Philippi, it was just assumed that they were to conduct themselves according to the laws and customs of the state. That’s how you honored the emperor.
Paul is not introducing a foreign concept. They knew how to honor the emperor by observing their duties, and they experience the ‘good news’ of Caesar’s reign by taking part in the privileges that went with being Roman. Now they needed to apply what they knew to their citizenship in Heaven.
"Roman colonies were little bits of Rome planted throughout the world, where the citizens never forgot that they were Romans, spoke the Latin language, wore the Latin dress, called their magistrates by the Latin names, however far they might be from Rome. So what Paul is saying is, “You and I know full well the privileges and the responsibilities of being a Roman citizen. You know full well how even in Philippi, so many miles from Rome, you must still live and act as a Roman does. Well then, remember that you have an even higher duty than that. Wherever you are you must live as befits a citizen of the Kingdom of God.” (Barclay, W: The Daily Study Bible)
The Philippian people used to say, “Caesar is Lord,” and they took for granted that their lives would reflect their lord. The principle had not changed. The lordship had. Now they would say, “Jesus is Lord,” and their life would still reflect their Lord.
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CITIZENS WORTHY OF THE GOSPEL THROUGH UNITY, PERSEVERANCE, BOLDNESS, AND SUFFERING.
UNITY: Standing united in one Spirit
As the Holy Spirit unites our spirits in the service of Christ, we “stand firm,” a word that described a Roman military formation in which the soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder and back to back with their shields up and their spears outward. It was the strongest possible defensive position. There are at least two important clarifications concerning Christian unity:
We are united by the Holy Spirit of God, not by our spirit or our effort. I promise you, if you stay here at CLG long enough, things will get tense. You will be offended by what someone says or does. You will “butt heads” instead of “rub elbows.” You will find there are people who are sooooo different from you that you have trouble making small talk, or people whose personalities just clash with yours.
This will happen at any church. But the Holy Spirit works within us to unify us around the person and work of Jesus Christ and result in something that goes beyond merely liking other people. It’s genuine Christian love – the agape, selfless service for and honoring of others. When this type of community happens, it showcases the power of God at work. “Really? You all go to church together? I wouldn't have expected that…” Right. We are united by the Holy Spirit in the cause of Christ.
This isn’t unity for the sake of unity, because people can unite around false or evil things. It is clear throughout Philippians and Paul’s other writings that false teaching and hypocritical people undermine the gospel, shipwreck the faith of many, and destroy unity within the church. So this isn’t a feel good, “why can’t we all just get along” kind of avoidance that looks like unity but actually undermines it. Paul is talking about the unity we experience while struggling together for the message and the cause of Christ. This brings us to…
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PERSEVERANCE: Striving Together for the Faith in the Gospel
The word for "striving" is another army word. (Remember, Philippi was largely populated by ex-military, and this language would have resonated with them.) ‘If united’ describes their purposeful formation, striving describes the activity. Soldiers fought as this unit. Maybe today, when we think of ‘together in a united front,’ we think of the iconic pictures from the civil rights movement when people linked arms are marched in the face of opposition, or (on Superbowl Sunday) we think of teams united in a common cause in the face of great difficulty.
As Christians, we are part of a team that perseveres to defend, proclaim, and live out the “glad tidings” that Jesus is the Savior of the world.
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BOLDNESS: Faithfulness through Opposition
The word translated “alarmed” (ptyresthai) is not found elsewhere in the entire Greek Bible. In Classical Greek, it referred to timid horses startled by something unexpected, perhaps even to the point of stampeding. Paul tells the Philippians not to get spooked. Be bold!
Note why boldness is required. When biblical writers say, “Don’t be discouraged or scared,” they are not saying that there is nothing discouraging or frightening in the Christian life. They’re saying the exact opposite. We are apparently going to experience times that will draw us toward these things, but we are to resist. God promises presence and comfort to His people during these times - and that’s exactly what Paul is passing on here.
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SUFFERING: Privileged to Suffer for Christ
The word ‘privileged’ or “granted” (echaristhe) is from the Greek word for “grace” (charis). We get our term Eucharist from this word. Its use other places in the New Testament gives us an idea of the tone or the mood associated with the word.
- Luke 7:21, Jesus gave sight to the blind
- Romans 8:32, God will freely give us all things
- Philippians 2:9, where God gives Jesus a name above all names
- 1 Corinthians 2:12, where the Holy Spirit helps us know the things given by God
With all those wonderful things in mind - we have been granted (or graced) the privilege of suffering for Christ. This is not about suffering for being obnoxious or suffering because of sin. This is suffering because our commitment to faithfully following Christ has put us in situations that we could have avoided had we turned out back on our faith –but we didn’t, and we suffered for it.
. . . for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed… rejoice that you participate/share in the sufferings of Christ so that you will be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. ( 1 Peter 1:6-7; 1 Peter 4:12ff)
Around the world, Christians are giving their lives. In more and more countries in the Western world, Christians are losing businesses and facing fines and jail time for standing on the truth of God’s Word. What would Paul and Peter say to us? Don’t be surprised. As hard as it seems, rejoice. This is an opportunity for your faith to be refined, and in that refinement “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) will be revealed.
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So what does it mean to be a true and worthy citizen of the gospel?
- It doesn’t mean you need to be perfect.
- It doesn’t mean you need to never offend (though we try not to), or always says the right thing at the right time (though we try to do that too)or never overlook anyone (though it would be nice to always get that right too).
- It doesn’t mean you need to meet everyone’s expectations, or never have a bad day, or have no regrets, or have skills our culture values.
- It doesn’t mean you need to be a Christian superhero.
A true and worthy citizen of the gospel stands firmly united by the Holy Spirit with other Christians while persevering and even suffering for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I owe a lot in this entire series to Matt Chandler’s book on Philippians (To Live Is Christ); a fantastic website called Precept Austin; an article entitled “The Theme and Structure of Philippians, by Robert C. Swift; N.T. Wright’s Bible study Philippians for Everyone; IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture; Keith Krell’s “The Bottom Line” at bible.org; and plenty of other sources I have failed to record. Shoulders of giants….