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The Letter to the Philippians – “Pressing Toward the Goal”

In this section Paul is reflecting on the opposition that he faces in proclaiming the gospel.  This same kind of opposition is being faced by the Philippians.  Paul then is offering them encouragement.  The purpose of his life and ministry is that “Christ will be exalted.”  Nothing more, nothing less.

Chapter 1:15-30 – “Christ will be Exalted”

 

  1. “Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry” – 1:15-18a

Paul faces conflict in virtually every phase of his life and ministry.  Here he is talking about other Christian missionaries who proclaim Christ out of “selfish ambition.” Corruption came into the church early on.  There is a twofold problem in this situation.  The first is that some people are proclaiming the gospel out of false motives, out of envy and rivalry.  The accusation of their “selfish ambition” may reflect an attitude that wanted exorbitant payment or special privileges for communicating the message of salvation.

Paul’s response seems puzzling.  He takes an open ended attitude saying at least these selfish people are in fact proclaiming Christ.  They have the message right even if their lives aren’t consistent with what they preach and teach.  One still would think that such messengers would be more detrimental to the gospel than helpful, “practice what you preach.”  Yet Paul has such confidence in the overwhelming power of the gospel that it will still have an impact in spite of the character of those who proclaim it.

The second problem is more personal.  These other missionaries are apparently attacking Paul himself.  They are intending to increase his suffering in his imprisonment.  Taking the general view that Paul here is under house arrest in Rome he then is limited in where he can go and he can only interact with those who come to see him (Acts 28:30).

Paul is the author of no less than thirteen books of the New Testament.  He is the major figure of the apostolic era.  Yet he was often criticized not only for what he said but how he said it (II Cor. 10:10).  Even other Christians were wary of him (Acts 21:17-26).  Beyond that, Paul’s powerful message of salvation by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9) has always had a mixed reaction among Christians who invariably gravitate toward some form of law despite what Paul has said (Rom. 3:20).

It would be very understandable if Paul became discouraged.  Yet that is not the case at all.  Paul rejoices in the fact that Christ is “proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true.” Paul’s confidence is boundless because it is centered in Christ alone.  It is not based on himself, his personal circumstances or the attitudes and actions of those around him.

II. Living is Christ and Dying is Gain – 1:18b-26

Paul goes back and forth in his thoughts at this point.  He maintains his attitude of rejoicing which is a key theme of this whole letter (Phil. 4:4).  Initially he expresses confidence that he will be delivered.  He bases this partly on the prayers of the Philippians but also on the work of God’s Spirit.  Paul still had some confidence in Roman justice.  He was not leading an insurrection against the emperor.  He had done nothing wrong.  He therefore could count on being acquitted.

In any event Paul here reflects on the possibility of his death.  In doing so he makes the great affirmation, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (v. 21).  Paul then goes on to say that death is actually preferable to continuing in this life.  Death, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would later say, is the gateway to life.  Death leads to being with Christ.  He says that is far better than anything in this life.  However, he then turns to the fact that his earthly ministry needs to continue for the benefit of the Philippians and his other churches.  He wants to support them in their “progress and joy in faith.”

Paul’s thoughts then come full circle.  He expresses his confidence that he will come to see them again.  There will be a favorable outcome to his appearance before the emperor.  Paul poses the same question to all of us.  Do our lives reflect the gospel of Christ, a gospel that for Paul is sheer joy?

He reminds them that the gospel is a matter of faith.  They are to stand firm in this faith which in other places he has so often identified with freedom (Gal. 5:1).  Without this freedom there is no gospel.  By the same token the “freedom of the Christian” (a favorite phrase of Martin Luther) should reflect the reality of the gospel (good news).

Paul now goes on to describe the very stark reality that there are those who oppose the gospel.  This is far more than other Christians acting out of “selfish ambition.”  We are not sure who these opponents were.  They may have been followers of the cult of the emperor or those who worshipped other spirits such as that which Paul and Silas encountered when they first came to Philippi (Acts 16:16-24).

Whatever the opposition Paul is convinced that it will not prevail.  These opponents are quite frankly facing destruction.  This is not a call for Christians to defend themselves.  God is in charge and he alone is the one who will do away with the opponents.  God alone is the source of the Philippians’ salvation and safety.

III. Standing Firm

Paul’s final words here deal with suffering.  Paul makes the straightforward statement that God has graciously granted us the privilege not only of believing in Christ but of suffering for him as well.  Paul then refers to the common struggle in testifying to the gospel that he shares with the Philippians.

Paul here is not saying that all suffering is suffering for Christ.  Suffering embraces many dimensions.  Why was Epaphroditus suffering from illness (Phil. 2:27)?  Paul himself endured suffering over his pride (II Cor. 12:1-10).

The suffering Paul is referring to is the opposition to the gospel (Acts 5:41).    Testifying to the gospel requires more than simply telling the gospel story.  It means standing up and following Jesus in his defense of the rejected and the despised, bringing good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed (Luke 4:16-21).  It is in living out the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ that we encounter true joy.

Questions for Us –

  1. Does Paul’s comments on those who proclaim Christ out of “selfish ambition” apply to present day scandals in the church?  Following Paul’s example how should we react?
  2. How can we interpret Paul’s statement that living is Christ and dying is gain?  Would you agree with that statement?   Why?
  3. Have you ever had to suffer for your faith in Christ?

Next Study – Phil. 2:1-23 – “Jesus’ Model”