Tuesday, August 22, 2006

New Testament Reflections: Phil 1:27-30

Philippians 1:27-30

Conduct Amid Persecution

NASB: 27 Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; 28 in no way alarmed by your opponents--which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God. 29 For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30 experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.

Literal: 27 Only in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ conduct yourselves, in order that whether coming and seeing you [or] whether being absent I hear the things concerning you, that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one soul fighting together for the faith of the gospel. 28 And not being frightened in anything by the ones opposing, which is to them evidence of destruction, but of you salvation, and this from God. 29 Because to you it has been graciously given the in behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him, but also the in behalf of him to suffer. 30 the same struggle having such as you saw in me and now you hear in [reference to] me.

1:27 As we have shown in our comments on the preceding passage, Paul has left his fate open-ended, in spite of the confidence he exudes about his impending release from prison. Here, once again, he entertains the notion that he may not be coming back to the Philippians after all, and so wants to give them further instruction, just in case. The NIV has captured the intent of monos (“only” in the NASB) in its “Whatever happens.” Whether Paul makes it back to them (whether coming and seeing you) or continues his plight in prison (whether being absent I hear the things concerning you), he has but one instruction for the Philippians: Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. The root of the word translated “conduct yourselves” in the NASB (politeuomai) means literally “to live as a citizen.” Paul will later make the connection that “our citizenship (politeuma) is in heaven” (Phil 3:20), not on this earth. We do not hold dual citizenship, but are ambassadors of one country (a heavenly kingdom) to another (an earthly realm). Paul’s instruction, therefore, is to “conduct yourselves as citizens” of Christ’s kingdom in this world.

Such a statement is so all-encompassing of the Christian life that it hardly requires explanation. Any believer who hears it intuitively knows what it entails, even if he does not always or ultimately act on that instinct. If I am living as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, I will be performing those tasks that advance that kingdom, and avoiding the things that do not advance it. But here Paul has something more specific in mind. The goal of his exhortation is to ensure they are standing firm in one spirit. How exactly does Paul envision this “standing firm” should be accomplished? With one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel. Notwithstanding the NASB’s “one mind” or the NIV’s “one man,” the Greek mia psyche is best translated as “one soul.” It is one’s inmost being that Paul wants active in the defense and advancement of the gospel. But it cannot be done alone; the entire church must be up to the task, and must collectively, as one soul, “strive together” (the word can also mean “fight together”). Hence, as much as the ambassador model holds true for the Christian living in this world (whose primary role is reconciliation), Paul’s point here is much more forceful. His imagery is rather that of a soldier infiltrating the enemy’s camp to advance his Captain’s cause while at all costs defending the ground of that cause—in this case, “the faith of the gospel.”

What is striking is that Paul envisages this “striving for the faith of the gospel” as the single most important mission of the church; and he assumes it is best done by the church collectively. Paul would surely disapprove of a church in which the “defense of the gospel” (v. 16) is a secondary activity relegated to one or a mere handful of individuals. This is an activity that Paul sees as a shared goal by all in the church. Soldiers in battle quickly fall if they separate and each one is left fending for himself. But they gain ground when they move together. Paul’s singular concern is that the church is “standing firm,” after all, and this can be done only by propping each other up, standing side by side and back to back as it were, “fighting together with one soul.” Any church found downplaying the importance of this mission, or relegating it to some obscure “parachurch” ministry, has missed the Apostle’s message.

1:28 It is little wonder that most churches today simply relegate this mission to parachurch ministries. After all, the prospect of “fighting together for the faith of the gospel” usually results in the unpleasantness of opposition. No one but the contentious enjoys conflict; but it is to conflict we are called nevertheless. Paul makes no pretense of what the outcome will be when defending the faith, and he anticipates the church’s reaction to it by issuing another exhortation: in no way alarmed by your opponents—literally, “and not being frightened in anything by the ones opposing.” Opposition will always accompany a defense of the gospel. People do not like to be told they are in error, and that that error carries consequences for them. And so, in various ways they lash out, attacking the source of the message. Historically that sometimes takes the form of a counter argument, sometimes persecution and confiscation of property, and sometimes imprisonment and death. To be sure, there is little that is more disheartening than being opposed and attacked merely for speaking the truth. It is discouraging to be the recipient of slander, gossip, and bad will; and frightening to know your very life may be at stake.

Such was the situation in Philippi, a major outpost of the Roman empire, populated by Roman soldiers who were tasked with upholding legal religions (religio licita) and squashing illegal ones. Paul and Silas had been thrown in jail there many years prior (Acts 16), and the church there was in no better shape now that their ringleader, Paul, had landed in prison once again, but this time in Rome. It is in such a context that Paul exhorts them not to fear the opposition. But under the circumstances, how could they avoid it? Paul’s explanation is not as clear as we might like: which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God. The first question we might ask here is just what is the antecedent of the relative pronoun “which”? That is to say, just what is the “sign of destruction” envisaged here? The Philippians’ fear; the attacks of those who oppose, or both? Second, just who is the object of destruction in the phase “sign of destruction for them”? The Philippian believers or those who oppose them? And third, what does the phrase “but of salvation for you” mean?

In answer to the first question, although the antecedent of the relative pronoun “which” could grammatically be the Philippian believers’ fear, that solution does not go well with the phrase “but of salvation for you,” which is presented as a coordinating clause to “sign of destruction for them.” Fear has no place in the salvation of God’s people (1 John 4:18), and so could not act as a “sign of salvation.” Hence, the antecedent of the relative pronoun is much more likely the persecution and opposition the Philippian believers were experiencing.

The answer to the second question is a bit more difficult to determine. Do we take “sign of destruction” as referring to the Philippian believers from the viewpoint of the opposition, or as referring to the opposition from the viewpoint of the Philippian believers? For reference sake, I have enlisted the help of three translations below:

which is to/for them a sign/evidence of destruction, but your salvation, and this from God (literal translation)

which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God (NASB)

this is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved-- and that by God (NIV)

While the NASB has left the matter open, the NIV has come down on the side of the first option with its “This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed.” On this rendering, however, the “sign to them” is a sign they will never actually see. After all, (1) how exactly would their persecution of the church act as a “sign” that they themselves will be destroyed, and (2) who would proceed with an action if he has accurately discerned the sign and cognitively knows he will be destroyed for it? Conceivably, the sign could one issued by God for the benefit of the Philippian believers. But in that case, it is difficult to envisage in what way Paul could rightly say is it a “sign to them” (i.e., the opposition). Arguably, it is even more difficult to know in what way this persecution could act as a sign to the same persecutors that the Philippian believers “will be saved” (NIV).

Much of the confusion clears up if we note two things that can be seen in the literal translation above. First, the dative case personal pronoun autois can be read just as readily “to them” as “for them” (as any first-year Greek student knows, either translation is equally valid). Second, the word translated “sign” (endeiksis) is just as readily translated “evidence/indication.” The only other places it occurs are in Rom 3:25 & 26 (both occurrences translated “demonstrate” or “demonstration”), and 2 Cor 8:24, where the meaning is clearly “proof” or “evidence”—it is this latter option which I will argue is operative in the present passage.

These things noted, the phrase is to be translated (literally) as something like, “which [opposition] is, to them, evidence of destruction, but your salvation, and this from God”; and means something like, “While this opposition you are experiencing is evidence to them that you will eventually be destroyed (by the Roman officials who will be alerted to this opposition and will begin investigating your religio illicita status), in reality it is objective evidence of your salvation.”

One final question surrounds the use of the phrase but of salvation for you. Paul has used this word before (1:19) when referring to his anticipation that his own present circumstances will “turn out for his salvation” (translated “deliverance” in the NASB and NIV, though unjustly). There we saw that the word is used as a likely reference to his impending death. But that is really only half the story. The word “salvation” (soteria), as used by Paul in 1:19, 1:28, and 2:12, implies more than the end result. For Paul it includes the life, actions, and conduct that lead to that result. His designated “way of salvation” in 1:19 is that he would “magnify Christ,” and in the process “not be made ashamed in anything” leading up to or upon reaching that point. In 2:12, Paul will instruct the Philippians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Here as in 1:19, “salvation” is viewed as an entire way of life, carved out by God and leading to an ultimate climax.

This usage, although rare, is not without precedent outside this letter. In 2 Tim 2:15, in the context of the proper role for a woman, Paul insists that he does not want women “to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (2:12). They are, in contrast, to “learn in quietness and full submission” (2:11, NIV). That is their role in relation to authority in the church. Paul explains that the reasons for this can be traced back to creation, and are two-fold: (1) Adam was created first (a sort of authority by priority, 2:13), and (2) Eve was “deceived” by the serpent and “fell into transgression” (imposing a legal ruling of sorts on all daughters of Eve, 2:14).

It is not our purpose here to enter the fray of the debate surrounding the role of women in the church. What is of special interest to us is what comes next. Paul says, “But women will be saved through childbearing-- if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” The word “saved” here (sozo) is the verbal form of soteria. This is not some alternative means of justification before God, as though Men are justified by faith and women are justified by having children. Paul is rather speaking of the role of the Christian woman on this earth before God. Rather than occupying their lives with pursuits that God has carved out for men (doctrinal teaching, exercising authority in the church, etc.), they are to pursue those things that fall along the path God has carved out for women—domestic activities, represented here by childbearing. That is their path of “salvation,” not aspiring to teach and to exercise authority. Those things, in Paul’s view, are part of the “salvation” path God has carved out for the man.

In a very similar way, Paul insists that the present opposition of the Philippians is part of this “salvation path.” It is easy to lose the Christian perspective on this when undergoing opposition and persecution. The internal turmoil that accompanies personal attacks—whether physical, legal, or merely verbal—often takes precedence over wisdom and insight. It is just like Paul to put things into spiritual perspective; and that is just what he does here with the little phrase, and that from God. It is tempting to associate this phrase only with the salvation of the Philippian believers, and not with the persecution itself. But that would be a mistake. The current opposition is no accident. Paul envisions both coming from God, which idea becomes even clearer in v. 29.

1:29 Part of the “salvation path” carved out for us is unique to each individual. For Paul, it was impending death and then ultimate martyrdom (1:19)—something to which not all Christians are called. Part of this path, as we have seen in 1 Tim 2:15, is unique to each gender. But the largest part is common to all Christians: For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake. Paul now makes clear just what he means by the phrases “your salvation” and “that from God” in v. 28. “Suffering”—here and elsewhere in the Bible, it is important to note, specifically in the form of external opposition and persecution due to taking a stand for the gospel; not the morbid self-flagellation of Roman Catholic tradition—is part and parcel of the Christian life. As such it stands as the most glaring contradiction of Christianity as we know it in the Western world today. Persecution and suffering are things we hear about at a safe distance.

But could it not be argued, someone might ask, that this is the salvation path for the Philippian church (and perhaps other churches as well), and not for the whole church? Could Paul’s words “it has been granted to you . . . to suffer for his sake” be taken in limited application, intended only for to the Philippians? Exegetically, this is an option; theologically, it is not. There are just too many other places in Scripture that say the same thing. Jesus insists the very basis for this persecution is our election and calling out of this word: “but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Jn 15:19); and guarantees that his followers would be mistreated as he was: “A slave is not greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (Jn 15:20), “If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!” (Matt 10:25). Paul affirms this is the general and expected fate of the church when he says, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8-9). When the Thessalonians were undergoing trials of persecution, Paul reassures them by reminding them this is just what is to be expected: “You know quite well that we were destined for [these trials]. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know” (2 Thess 2:2-4). That this would be no limited persecution of selected churches, but a way of life for each Christian is evident from Paul’s statement elsewhere: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).

But such persecution and opposition is no sign of God’s displeasure. Quite the contrary; the context makes it clear that persecution/opposition is a good thing from the standpoint of the Christian way of thinking, precisely because it is something determined for us by God himself. It is counted as a privilege that has been granted to us. Indeed, it is a gift “graciously given” (charizomai, from charis = “grace”) by the hand of God. Such people are “blessed,” according to Jesus: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” (Matt 5:11-12). And this was certainly the attitude of the first believers, for after being flogged for their stand for the gospel the apostle left the Sanhedrin “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41).

Moreover, this “grant of suffering” for Christ goes hand in hand with our very “grant” to believe: “For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” Strikingly, Paul does not attempt here to persuade the Philippians that the very ability they have to believe in Christ is a “grant” from God given to some and not to others. Indeed, he assumes this is common knowledge for the Christian, and presents it as a mere throw-away statement intended only as a basis for helping them to understand why they are now being persecuted. Paul tells them, in essence, to view their current suffering with the same joy they had upon learning of their election to salvation. Just as God sovereignly led them to faith in Christ through his gracious “grant,” so also he is sovereignly controlling the circumstances of the persecution they are now experiencing. This persecution teaches them the mindset of Paul (which Paul will soon reveal is the very mindset of Christ, 2:1-11) regarding his purpose on this earth; a mere vessel of Christ to be used up and disposed of at His good pleasure. In Paul’s mind, how could that not be an occasion for rejoicing!

1:30 Indeed, Paul’s earlier statement regarding their “partnership” with him “in the gospel” (1:5) now takes a definite form; because in undergoing this opposition, they are experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me. The Philippians knew firsthand of Paul’s persecution. They witnessed his incarceration with Silas so many years before (Acts 16). And now (if not then) they know his joyful mindset through that persecution, and his great hope that they will come to share that mindset. Paul will expand on this mindset in chapter 2.