Commentary on Philippians 1:21-30
How can joy flow directly through the same veins as suffering? The many serious issues that confront people in our time put squarely before us the need for Christian practices that open up ways to experience joy that do not deny suffering, and ways to experience suffering that do not preclude a deep and gracious joy. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul speaks from a place where joy and suffering converge, not in abstract thought, but in a Roman prison where he awaits news of his sentencing, to life or to death.
Paul knows he will find a hearing among the Philippians because they, too, have experiences of suffering, anxiety, and deprivation. Roughly a hundred years before this letter was written, Philippi was the site of the final battle of the Roman civil war. The town was taken by Antony and Octavian, subsequently colonized by Rome, and the tillable land seized from the local Greek-speaking populace and given to Roman veterans. Paul’s letter, written in Greek, is addressed to a community of people who have known and continue to experience economic precariousness and social ostracism.¹ The letter does more than create a bond through mutual suffering; the real point is to share the joy and confidence of solidarity in Christ, while maintaining clear-sighted awareness of their situation.
Elsa Tamez stresses the fact that this is not the letter of an “imprisoned criminal” written to close relations who are mainly concerned for the prisoner’s welfare and legal status. Rather, “This letter addresses a community of people who are members of the same targeted movement, meaning that when the letter is sent, the recipients run the same risk as the prisoner.”² To the Roman citizenry of Philippi, the Christ-believers were likely seen as politically provocative. This is the context in which Paul contemplates the poignant ramifications of his death or his release in the first half of today’s reading (Philippians 1:21-26).
But Paul’s tender disclosure of his personal experience is also part of the ground he is laying for high-level persuasion. The second half of today’s reading, 1:27-30, is widely considered to be the thesis statement of the letter, and it would form a logical focus for a sermon, while keeping hearers aware of the vulnerability of both Paul and the Philippians.
Citizens of the Reign of God
While sharing Greek words isn’t something I usually recommend in a sermon, at least one key word here might be worth mentioning, politeuesthe, benignly translated, “live your life” (New Revised Standard Version), but meaning something more like “conduct your citizenship.” It is an edgy term to use in writing to a group of people who are, in fact, non-citizens, and it isn’t until Philippians 3:20 that readers like us gain an understanding of exactly what Paul means—though we should assume that his original audience was quite familiar with his use of the term. At Philippians 3:20, Paul writes that, as opposed to those who live “as enemies of the cross of Christ, … our citizenship is in heaven.” The heavenly citizenship of the people Paul is addressing stands in stark opposition to the citizenship of their Roman neighbors, and is Paul’s way of talking about the practical consequences, the specific moral choices, that are consistent with fidelity to the kingdom of God (1:28). Acts’ description of the ministry of Paul and his companions as “turning the world upside down” (17:6) is reflected here in this upside-down/rightside-up view of true citizenship.
Our constitution: the Gospel of Christ
In terms of this passage, the “gospel of Christ” is a shorthand way to refer to the constitution of the kingdom of God, the specific terms of its citizenship. The moral pattern Paul will set out in Philippians 2:5-11 is the core of the “gospel of Christ” that he mentions here: the willingness to risk oneself entirely for God’s mission to raise up the most vulnerable, a move that appears both foolish and provocative within the cultural norms of Roman Philippi. In this upside-down world, the suffering that the Christ-believers are made to endure is actually evidence of their salvation and future glory, and good reason for rejoicing.
For some time now, writers on Philippians have spoken of the letter as containing a “hidden transcript,” a meaning that would have eluded Paul’s jailers while being transparent to his intended addressees.³ The insider language of Philippians 1:27-30 is a case in point: gospel of Christ, faith, salvation, grace. To outside readers these terms probably seemed opaque and meaningless. But to the intended hearers, they signaled complete devotion to the status-overturning mission of God. The fact that, in our time, these terms have been so relegated to a harmless religious sphere as to seem completely non-threatening to almost any political system at all is a measure of how much we have lost from Paul’s radical understanding of the requirements of our citizenship as a people “in Christ.”
Citizenship in context
The social and political context of anyone reading this commentary today is very different from that of Paul and the Philippians. I am writing from within the U.S., and as a U.S. citizen. Preachers would do well to recognize the pain for non-citizens when speaking even of metaphorical citizenship. Paul would likely be aghast at any move to try to “baptize” our actual citizenship, as is seen in some Christian movements. Rather, we are more like dual citizens, who live by the values of our homeland (God’s realm) wherever we find ourselves.
While Paul described the Philippian church’s citizenship as purely oppositional to their surrounding Roman culture, a citizen-preacher in the U.S. today, preaching to other citizens, must grapple with the particular opportunities and responsibilities that fall to citizens of a democracy. The problems we live among are our own. And in a time marked by destructive oppositionalism, preachers might help their people discern how to “conduct their citizenship” in a way that truly saves, telling the necessary truths in ways that channel the grace of God into a society nearly broken by political division.
This work is not easy, but God is in the midst of it. As Paul writes, “God has graced (empowered) you not only to believe in Christ but to suffer for him as well” (Philippians 1:29). This plural “you” is the supportive community whose risk-taking in Christ is powerful joy.
- Peter Oakes, “The Economic Situation of the Philippian Christians,” in The People Beside Paul The Philippian Assembly and History from Below, edited by Joseph. A. Marchal. Early Christianity and its Literature 17 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015), 66.
- Elsa Tamez, “Philippians,” in Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. Wisdom Commentary Vol. 51 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2017), 65.
- Angela Standhartinger, “Letter from Prison as Hidden Transcript: What it Tells Us about the People at Philippi,” in The People Beside Paul: The Philippian Assembly and History from Below, edited by Joseph A. Marchal. Early Christianity and Its Literature 17 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015), 107-40.