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Fight Valiantly! Contending in Philippi

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 8 Mar 2019

Lee Gatiss continues our Lent series on fighting for the faith by looking at what Paul says in his letter to the Philippians. These Lent posts are also available as video podcasts on our YouTube channel.

In Philippians 1:27-30, Paul speaks of the conflict he and they are engaged in together, and how they ought to be conducting themselves in it:

“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, 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. 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, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”

The Philippians are“striving side by side” to promote and defend the good news of Jesus Christ against a backdrop of opposition and suffering. Paul encourages them to fight valiantly “for the faith of the gospel”, in a united and corporate way — “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side” without being afraid of what might happen as a result. They must be united and unfazed by intimidating opposition.

In the next chapter, Paul will help them to do this by holding up the example of Christ himself who “made himself nothing” for us and for our salvation. They too should, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).

This, then, is the “manner of life” they are to adopt; this word in verse 27 is the one from which we get our word “politics”, and it originally refers to corporate conduct as citizens in a city (polis). It’s therefore political conduct that is “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Gospel politics should reflect to the city the good news of who our Lord is and what he has done, but also demonstrate that we, his people in this place, are united together as citizens of another, heavenly kingdom.

This continues to be a theme in the letter. In Philippians 4:1-2, Paul addresses an instance where two women are not contending in a manner worthy of the gospel at the moment:

“Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have laboured side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”

Paul wants the Philippians to stand firm, in a context where there are certain false teachers, “those dogs” as he calls them, who “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19). This could throw some of them off course, so Paul reminds them of their heavenly citizenship and where their focus should be.

How to cope with this background situation may be what is behind the disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche, which Paul asks someone to help sort out. These women have previously contended side by side with Paul and his other co-workers for the gospel. They contended for something, not against someone, so to speak — contending is about a positive thing they were struggling to promote. But now something has happened and they are no longer pulling in the same direction.

So Paul asks a trusted coworker to help them sort that out, and reminds them of their heavenly citizenship, mentioning the book of life. This is meant to help them reconcile and work together again: since they are all heading to the same eternal destination, they should be singing from the same hymn sheet in the here and now. But this also shows us that there have always been disagreements about contending amongst those whose names are in the book of life, and efforts to agree where possible have apostolic sanction.

I think the context of what comes next is also part of Paul’s attempt to get the Philippians, including these two women, contending together and standing firm. These verses are meant to help them. He says, verse 4…

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

So we contend together for the gospel, in a gospel way: rejoicing in the Lord and our common destiny, remembering his nearness, through prayer, through focusing on the positive, and by practising what Paul preached and lived before them.

If we have joy and thanksgiving inwardly it will be evidenced outwardly by gentleness and peace between sisters such as Euodia and Syntyche. We will react proportionately and reasonably rather than flying off the handle and making relational situations worse; when Paul urges us to well-known “reasonableness”, the word he uses has the sense of being gracious and gently forbearing, the opposite of being quarrelsome.

Is this the atmosphere, the ambience, of the way we contend for the gospel? Joyful, prayerful, positive, working on our disagreements together for the sake of the gospel, and promoting something positive. We should remember that “anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5). Gospel rules do not involve violence but prayer and rejoicing, which Paul and Timothy exemplified in their patient endurance of a Philippian jail (e.g. Acts 16:25) and their positive use of that opportunity for the sake of gospel witness.

As Luther paraphrases Philippians 4:5-6, “Don’t worry. You have the Lord as your Protector. The Lord stands by you. He Himself will take up and sustain your case. Put aside all your fear, anger, and bitterness. If you intend to do any fighting, fight with prayers. After all, there is no other way by which we can more sharply assail Satan and cause him to totter than with our prayers.”

Questions for Reflection
1. How could we encourage less rivalry and more humility in our corporate contending?
2. How might focusing on our eternal destiny help to resolve conflicts in the present?
3. What part should reasonableness play in our public contending for the faith?

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society and the editor of Gospel Flourishing in a Time of Confusion, the latest book from Church Society.

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