Discover the Secret to Suffering Well in Philippians 1:27-30

In this fourth posting, we are continuing the blog series with content from biblical scholar Scot McKnight. McKnight has recently published New Testament Everyday Bible Study series with HarperChristian Resources. McKnight combines interpretive insights with pastoral wisdom for all the books of the New Testament. Each volume provides original meaning, fresh interpretation, and practical application.

In this blog series, we’ll be sharing Scot’s insights and wisdom on the book of Philippians. It is available as a book as well: Philippians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians: Kingdom Living in Today’s World. For twelve weeks, Bible Gateway will publish a chapter from the Bible study book, taking you through the full text of McKnight’s study on Philippians. For this week, here is the fourth study, Our Common Life of Suffering | Philippians 1:27-30.

27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

How do some people seem to be prepared to endure suffering for Christ?

When I was a child, our church celebrated global missions with an annual conference. Every year we heard about someone suffering for the gospel. The stories were not only uplifting but challenging. Would I be willing to endure the same? I sometimes asked myself. I also heard stories from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which put suffering on the top tier of Christian experiences.

As a college student I learned the stories of Dietrich Bonhoeffer under Hitler and Nelson Mandela under South African apartheid. Some are prepared because they have learned such stories and have witnessed suffering for the gospel. Suffering for Jesus was the way of the church in the earliest decades (and centuries).

Paul’s persecution stories were known to the Philippians. But Paul’s instructions transcend storytelling, and his instructions are all formed into one very long sentence – yes, 1:27–30 is one sentence in Greek.

In fact, as Carolyn Osiek observes, this long sentence forms the core message of the entire letter. The message is that the Christian life is a “public act having social or community consequences,” including opposition that may lead to extreme consequences.

First, he begins at the beginning of all Christian living: become a King Jesus citizen. The NIV’s “conduct yourselves” translates the Greek word politeuomai, and if you stare at it, you can see it stands behind our word “politics.”

My friend and colleague, Nijay Gupta, paraphrases it so well with “be good citizens of the gospel kingdom of Christ.” Such a claim to a King Jesus citizenship demoted a claim to Roman citizenship. Gupta describes what Paul meant with these claims:

  1. The earth may be our home, but our commonwealth is heaven (3:20).
  2. Our enemy is not the state or a party but sin.
  3. We are called to be a light together.
  4. And this heavenly commonwealth has higher standards for our behavior.

Bockmuehl describes it as a lifestyle that “is conceived as a deliberate, publicly visible, and . . . politically relevant” way of life. A kingdom worldview prepares a person to endure hardship for the kingdom, and that’s exactly what “worthy of the gospel of Christ” means.

Second, we are empowered to be kingdom citizens when we “stand firm in the one Spirit” (1:27). Now that’s a stunning expression. You may know that the Greek word for “Spirit” is pneuma, which can be translated as wind.

Every Christmas season folks in our community have Santas and Angels and Elves that lay flat during the day but are filled with air in the evening. And they have lights. Paul’s image works similarly: the Spirit fills us up so much we can stand up for Christ as citizens of King Jesus. The “one” Spirit is the Spirit that brings us into a common life, a united front in a divided world.

Third, the image behind “striving together” suggests athletes training or competing with one another to achieve victory (1:27; notice the same term at 4:3). Instead of training for a laurel wreath, the Roman world’s gold medal, they are training in faithful allegiance to the gospel and its reward of the kingdom. Training like this produces fearless courage to live under King Jesus (1:28).

A fourth element of their readiness to face whatever comes their way is a famous Christian irony. We find it in 1:28. The experience of faithful endurance to opposition reveals its exact opposite, namely, that their opponents will meet God in judgment but the Philippian faithful “will be saved”! This element’s irony is underscored when Paul says in 1:29–30 that suffering is a gift from God because in suffering they join Paul who joins Jesus.

Nothing was more Christian for those first believers than participating in the sufferings Christ himself suffered. It is not clear who these opponents are. However, that Paul connects their suffering to his could indicate they too are experiencing harassment from the Roman authorities. It must be stated as well, perhaps because we are insensitive at this point, that Paul is not endorsing suffering as redemptive.

As Monya Stubbs puts it, Paul here “does not sacralize suffering.” No, rather, this suffering is the result of joining in what God is doing and experiencing the backhand of evil and injustice–all in a struggle to bring about God’s justice.

Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. What is the core message of Philippians, summarized in this section of the letter?
  2. What does it mean to be a good citizen of God’s kingdom, according to Nijay Gupta?
  3. How does the Holy Spirit empower our Godly citizenship?
  4. How does Paul connect the suffering of faithful followers with the suffering of Jesus?
  5. How well prepared are you to endure suffering for Jesus? What could you do to become better prepared?

New Testament Everyday Bible Study is published by HarperCollins Resources, a division of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.

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