Commentary on Philippians 1:21-30
The first part of today’s lesson from Philippians tells us Paul’s own thinking about his possible impending death at the hands of the Roman authorities.
He writes from prison, not knowing whether he will be released and able to visit his beloved congregation again. One would expect him to feel helpless, caged, at the mercy of a capricious and corrupt empire, yet he writes with an extraordinary sense of freedom. He rejoices that, through the Philippians’ prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, even his present situation will “turn out for my deliverance.”
He adds, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death” (1:20b-21). Note how comprehensively Paul understands “deliverance” here: it encompasses life and death, and is manifested by his hope of being a fearless witness to Jesus Christ regardless of the outcome of his situation. The word translated “boldness” signifies the confident attitude of a free citizen, in comparison with the fearful subservience of a slave. The freedom of thought and behavior which Paul models entails remarkable indifference to the power of the Roman authorities.
Yet he does hope and expect to be released, so he may see the Philippians again, and so they in turn will give glory to Christ. He glories in them, and they glory in him. Their relationship is one of reciprocating witness and reciprocating glory in the midst of shared struggle. So in the second half of today’s lesson, Paul writes as if his confident boldness is contagious. He expects that the Philippians’ experience will mirror his own. How so?
First, Paul encourages them to live their life “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” The Greek work translated “live your life” is politeusthe. Related to the Greek word for city, polis, it has the sense of “live as a free citizen,” “conduct your public life.” As a plural verb, it addresses the Philippian community as a whole, not simply individuals within it. Together, in their public life, they are to live as free citizens — not of Rome, but of God’s coming rule on earth (3:20). Remember, Paul is writing this from jail. As Paul’s followers, the Philippians might anticipate a similar end for themselves.
Secondly, Paul also encourages the Philippians to a public life that will witness to their paradoxical freedom in the gospel. Such a life is marked above all by unity: “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and . . . in no way intimidated by your opponents.”
This is a striking vision of the church’s role in public life. First, it takes its cues from an accused prisoner awaiting possible execution. Second, it exhibits unity. When we consider the portrayals of churches in relationship to contemporary politics, unity is not the descriptor that comes to mind. Mutual recrimination, angry and destructive actions, and hate-mongering rather than confident joy, are more the order of the day. This is hardly a winsome witness to the faith of the gospel. Small, beleaguered, perhaps ostracized or harassed, the Philippians are told simply to hold fast their hope in Christ, without being intimidated by those who oppose them, and implicitly without reacting in fear or hatred.
Thirdly, the Philippians’ refusal to be intimidated by their opponents is a sign of both destruction and salvation. Which way the sign points is a matter of perception. While most translations, including the NRSV, read “their (i.e., the opponents’) destruction,” the possessive pronoun is missing in the Greek, thus leaving the sentence ambiguous. Paul might also be saying that the opponents think the Philippians are heading for destruction, because of the suffering they are experiencing — but the Philippians know better.
They know they are headed for salvation, and that even their suffering is a sign of God’s choice of them and their service of Christ. Once again, they are bound together with Paul in a mutually supportive relationship — they share his conflict and suffering, because their entire struggle is a sharing in the sufferings of Christ (3:10).
Finally, the basis of Paul’s and the Philippians’ confidence is simply this: “this is God’s doing.” It may look like Paul’s jailers are in charge. It may look like the Philippians’ “opponents,” whoever they are, are in charge. But no — God is in charge, and God is the only Savior, “who will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself” (3:21).
This is the reciprocating glory that animates Paul’s confidence throughout this extraordinary letter — the hope of glory that comes from Christ, and that animates a mutual joy and pride in the relationship between Paul and the Philippians.