New Testament Words and Verses
Philippians 1:25-30, Striving Together
Once Paul has left the theme of whether he will live or die, he turns his attention to the life of the Philippian community. His language in describing that life comes from athletic terminology, and their striving together to be faithful may lead them to a life of suffering. But a careful reader can’t help to notice how Paul both opens and closes this passage with multiple references to himself. Faith truly is about them and their striving together for God, but it also is quite a bit about Paul. Let’s hear the passage.
We begin with verse 25, where he wants to put the unproductive discussion of whether he will live or die behind him:
καὶ τοῦτο πεποιθὼς οἶδα ὅτι μενῶ καὶ παραμενῶ πᾶσιν ὑμῖν εἰς τὴν ὑμῶν προκοπὴν καὶ χαρὰν τῆς πίστεως,
“And having been persuaded of this fact, I know that I will remain, and I will continue to stick around with all of you in your advance/going forward/progress and joy in the faith.”
After Paul finally dispatches the issue of whether he will live or die, he returns to a theme that began the first major section of this letter (1:12): the progress (προκοπή) of the faith. But here the progress is not a general advance of the Gospel but the specific progress of the Philippian believers in their faith. The goal of this progress is then stated in verse 26, in rather more unclear terms than one would like: “so that your boasting may abound in Christ Jesus in me through my presence with you.”
The meaning is clear even if some of the words are rough: that through Paul’s presence with the people they may learn to luxuriate (“boast”) in the faith. But what is especially interesting is that Paul gets twice as much “face time” in verse 26 as Christ. They are to abound in Christ, to be sure, but it is “in Christ Jesus in me through my presence.” Or, because Christ is living in or evident in Paul, and since he is with them, their faith may be more secure.
But Paul may very well have been speaking too soon. He is in prison and he anticipates seeing them again, but it is almost certain that he didn’t. The great irony of his inner debate, which spilled out in this letter—his debating whether to live or die— and then deciding to live, is that the Roman leaders in charge of his imprisonment may very well have decided that Paul is now going to die==Just when Paul decided that he will live. That is, Paul has very little if any control over whether he will live or die, but he gives the impression this decision is in his power.
Being Worthy of the Gospel (vv 27-30)
Well, Paul often sounds more compelling when he speaks about his call or mission or the responsibility of believers to be faithful to their call, and so he finishes the first chapter with an exhortation for them to be faithful. He begins, in verse 27,
Μόνον ἀξίως τοῦ εὐαγγελίου τοῦ Χριστοῦ πολιτεύεσθε, ἵνα εἴτε ἐλθὼν καὶ ἰδὼν ὑμᾶς εἴτε ἀπὼν ἀκούω τὰ περὶ ὑμῶν, ὅτι στήκετε ἐν ἑνὶ πνεύματι, μιᾷ ψυχῇ συναθλοῦντες τῇ πίστει τοῦ εὐαγγελίου. . .
“Only conduct your lives as citizens in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am distant from you, I hear various things concerning you, that you stand firmly in one spirit, that you strive with one soul in the faith of the Gospel.”
The language is beautiful and even riveting. The verb “to live as a citizen” (πολιτεύομαι) only appears here and Acts 28:1 in the NT. This is “secular” terminology, and it refers to their lives as citizens in the Roman world. Paul wants them to live faithfully as citizens but also as worthy Christians in that commitment. Paul expects this double commitment from them. Interestingly, however, once he has talked about their dual commitment (citizens of the state; faithful Christians), he stresses how they are to do this in one spirit and with one soul (v 27). How can this be possible? Well, the language of athletic endeavor is brought in to “resolve” the tension between the citizenship of the one and the two. They “share a common struggle” or “compete” (συναθλέω) in this task. A few verses later, when he describes the nature of this life as leading to suffering (v 29), he talks about them having the same struggle/athletic contest (ἀγῶνα, from which we get the word “agonize”) which they saw and heard was part of Paul’s struggle. If the Philippian Christians are not only to believe but also to suffer for their faith, they know that they have a worthy predecessor in Paul.
So, Philippians 1 ends with a wonderful statement of the Christian faith as struggle and suffering. It is endurable for the Philippians not only because of the strength of the Spirit, but because they have the powerful example of Paul in his Epistle and, they hope, again some day in the future by his presence.
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