When Paul composes his letter to the Philippian believers, his personal circumstances are not the best – imprisoned, awaiting trial, with execution as a possible outcome. Within the Christian ranks some leaders were using the occasion in such a way that it actually increased the pressure on Paul! Hard to imagine Christian leaders doing such a thing, but Paul clearly admits it (Phil.1:17). He wants to assure the Philippian believers that he remains confident in Christ, despite this adversity. In addition, he argues that they are on trial just as much as he is because of their partnership with him in the Gospel.
The first chapter of Philippians is filled with contrasts. Shame or greatness (v.20); living or dying (v.21); preaching the Gospel out of rivalry or out of love (vv.15-17); striving well or being intimidated (vv.27-28). While Paul has much to say about his own inner wrestlings as he endures imprisonment, his primary concern is with these Philippian believers, with whom he has a special bond of friendship. The initial clause of v.27 summarizes the entire message of his letter: “whatever happens, conduct yourselves [tNIV reads “as citizens of heaven live (politeuesthe)”; cf. 3:20] in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” The way they do this is defined in the remainder of vv. 27-28.
Paul used two present participles to describe how they were to “stand firm in one [S]pirit”, something necessarily arising from their new status as citizens of God’s kingdom. The first participle, “contending (sunathlountes),” is linked explicitly with their commitment to the Gospel (“for the faith of the Gospel”). Paul emphasizes their collective engagement with the phrase “as one man” (tNIV reads “with one accord”) and the use of this compound verbal form sunathleō, whose prefix indicates joint effort. This verb only occurs in the New Testament here and in Phil. 4:3, where again Paul links it with partnership in the Gospel (“women who have contended (sunēthlēsan) at my side in the cause of the gospel…whose names are in the book of life”). In 1:30 Paul summarizes their life in Christ as “the same struggle (agōna)” which he himself is contesting.
In the literature you discover that some read this term in the context of athletic contests, others set the contention in military contexts, and still others see little, specific referential meaning associated with the word and just consider its sense to be “working together”. This last sense is how Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Volume 1, understand its meaning, linking it with other words that imply work or toil, but adding the nuance of doing this together in the face of opposition or competition.1 The simple form of the verb athleō (2 Timothy 2:5) and its cognate noun athlēsis (Hebrews 10:32) convey a sense of athletic context when used in the New Testament. In 2 Timothy 2:5 the picture is of an athlete striving in a contest and winning the competition. Similarly in Hebrew 10:32 we should place this term alongside the metaphor of athletic competition that comes in Hebrew 12:1 (“let us run with patience the race that is set before us”). However, in Philippians 1 Paul presents few clues that define the nature of the competition or contention. The mention of citizenship and his concern that they “stand together in one spirit” might suggest more of a military context, where the citizens act together to defend their city. However, we also have the juridicial context of Paul’s imprisonment and it is just as likely that Paul is encouraging them to defend themselves against false accusations, just as he is doing. This compound term occurs very infrequently and so we have little evidence, apart from the Philippian context, to help us define its specific nuance. Perhaps the fact that Paul links the same ideas of citizenship, standing firm, and struggle in Philippians 3:20-4:3 should be noted. In that context we have the additional phrase “names in the book of life” which supports the concept of citizenship as the primary context for these terms.
In IV Maccabees this terminology defines Jewish resistance to Seleucid pressure to abandon their religious practices, a writing that is roughly contemporaneous with Paul and probably written by a Jew living outside of Palestine (the same context in which Paul is operating). In particular this writing describes in graphic terms the martyrdom of Eleazar, his wife, and their seven sons by Antiochus Epiphanes. For example, Eleazar, as he dies is compared to an athlete:
But he bore the pains and scorned the punishments and endured the tortures. Like a noble athlete the old man, while being beaten, was victorious over his torturers;…(6:9-10).
As the writer reflects on their perseverance, he exclaims:
Reverence for God was victor and gave the crown to its own athletes. Who did not admire the athletes of the divine legislation? Who were not amazed? (17:15-16)
Whether Paul’s use of cognate terms to describe how the Philippian believers must contend for the Gospel had similar overtones of potential martyrdom is a debated question. However, we can say that Paul’s language in Philippians does indicate the seriousness of the religious contest in which these believers were engaging.
The other participle Paul used in this context, “being frightened (pturomenoi)”, similarly occurs rarely in Greek literature before or during his time. The entry in Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, notes that it describes a horse shying at a noise or a person alarmed at death. Since it is passive in most of its occurrences, some suggest a kind of permissive sense might be appropriate, i.e. “do not let yourself be intimidated by, alarmed at, scared.” Something in the context of a person has potential to scare or intimidate. If this is the notion Paul is expressing, then in Philippians 1:28 he would be encouraging these believers not to let themselves be intimidated by the opposition they experience because of their Christian commitments. When they embraced the Gospel, they entered a serious, extended struggle and elements in that struggle had potential to alarm or scare the believers such they might give up or abandon the struggle. Thus Paul’s exhortation to “stand” and not let anything scare them from pursuing “the goal to win the prize for which God has called [us] heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).
Whether these threats of intimidation arise from within the Christian movement or outside of that community, Paul clearly desires the Philippians believers to maintain their loyalty towards the Gospel. God has set them on their faith journey and He will see them finish well. He used the phrase “in nothing” to define the comprehensiveness of his desire. There is nothing that should deter them from their struggle, no matter who the opposition might be. Paul sees a positive outcome to all of this as the struggle and its intimidation becomes a “demonstration or proof (endeixis) of their deliverance or salvation (sōtēria)”(1:28).
- Paul’s instruction to the Philippians reminds us of the serious nature of our faith relationship with Jesus. How do you experience this contention for the faith of the Gospel in your life?
- The corporate nature of this struggle seems to be important for victory. In what ways are you contending “in one [S]pirit”? Whether “spirit” here refers to the Holy Spirit or a human attitude is unclear, but Paul certainly recognizes the importance of unity in successful perseverance.
- Where do you discern the greatest points of intimidation? What strategies have you discovered that help you face and defeat these forces of fear?
- 1Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, editors, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains, Volume I (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1989, second edition), 515.