"Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel." (Phil.1.27 NRSV)
When Paul arrived in any city he visited the synagogue of his Jewish brethren, and reasoned with them out of their Scriptures (Acts 17.2). There is no record of a synagogue at Philippi and, if that was so, he would be forcibly reminded that he was in Gentile land and his special mission to Gentiles had begun in earnest. No doubt if we today arrived in a strange city we would seek fellowship with those of our own faith, or failing that, join with our countrymen. We might hear of some gathering "where prayer was wont to be made", where we would find an ear for the truth. If, after a few days, we heard of such a meeting down by the riverside, our feet would soon take us there. This is just what Paul did, and it was to the women there that Paul spoke with joy. Could it have been that no men had arranged a service of worship and that the believing women had made their own arrangements? Had there been a synagogue, the men would have been in charge. However that may be, it must be noted that it was women who first responded to the message of truth in Europe.
The woman specially referred to in the narrative was Lydia of Thyatira. Thyatira was in Asia, the very region where Paul had recently served the faith. Perhaps she had heard of Paul's work there; perhaps she had told the women at the riverside; perhaps it was due to them and in answer to their prayers that the vision was given to Paul "to come over and help us". No doubt the Apostle was glad at their response. In that response was there the answer why he had been hindered from going into Asia to preach?
So began Paul's European service and from that small riverside prayer meeting grew the Church which Paul loved so much. Later, when writing to them, he would affectionately speak of the fellowship in the Gospel he had had with them "from the first day until now"—the first day he came to the riverside (Phil.1.5). Later in the epistle his regard and love for them prompts him to refer to them as "my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown" (4.1).
Paul went from Philippi to other cities, returning on occasion, but eventually went back to Jerusalem where he was arrested and, after tedious waiting, was sent to Rome for trial. In Rome at last, with his liberty somewhat restricted, but living in his own hired house (Acts 28.30), he would recall his brethren in other lands and decide to write to them, exhort them, and hope to hear in return of their steadfastness. To encourage them, he told them how he himself had fared in the faith and how he still served. His example added point to his words when, in our text, he urged them to stand and serve. Though hindered from travelling to other cities and lands as previously, he had found willing ears right in Caesar's Praetorium (1.12‑13).
The following verses in his letter speak of his bonds and tell of his life devoted to the Gospel even to the point of death, which he does not fear. Yet while he personally longs for the return of Christ and the consummation of the Church's hope, he knows that for him to remain in the flesh and continue in service is necessary for the Philippian and other churches. He could not be sure that he would ever see them again. Verses 25,26 express the hope that he would do so, and some say that when he was acquitted in his first trial he revisited this and other churches. But whether he sees them or not, he hopes to hear two things of them. This brings us to the words in our opening text.
Verse 27 in the AV urges that our conversation be worthy of the Gospel of Christ. The word rendered "conversation" is better thought of as "living as a citizen", but we may linger with the AV translation to gain a lesson. By a man's speech we learn what country or district he hails from, and by his conversation we know what his interests are. Conversation includes fellowship and discussion. If men hear us converse on Scriptural themes, at least they will judge that we belong to no earthly country. It is but a short step from conversation to living as a citizen. When in the Apostle Peter's writings we read "conversation" the thought behind the word is "behaviour" - another characteristic that reveals citizenship. Our citizenship is in heaven; our conversation reveals this; and so does our behaviour. Our citizenship is in heaven because we are "risen with Christ and seek those things which are above" (Col.3.1-3) and having found them, "set our affections" on them, for "where our treasure is there will our heart be also".
Citizenship carries privileges which we may humbly claim. The Apostle Paul himself gives us a good example of this during his last visit to Jerusalem. Asian Jews had stirred up the people, saying that Paul had polluted the temple, and the Captain of the guard intervened to stop the Jews who were beating Paul, and he took him under guard to the castle. Upon Paul asking permission to speak, the Captain replied, "Canst thou speak Greek? Art thou not that Egyptian,… ?" Paul replied that he was a Jew of Tarsus, a citizen of no mean city; and receiving permission to speak to the people, he spoke in the Hebrew tongue. This temporarily silenced the mob (Acts 22.2) and Paul gave a spirited defence of his life and Christian mission until the uproar began again. Then the Chief Captain ordered Paul to be examined by scourging, whereupon Paul immediately claimed that he was a Roman citizen. When he heard this, the Captain feared to hurt him, and set him loose, commanding the council to give Paul a hearing. In this way Paul used his Hebrew speech, his Tarsus citizenship, and also his Roman, to obtain freedom to defend himself.
Paul began his defence before the council by saying, "I have lived in all good conscience before God until this day". The word translated "lived" is the same as that in Phil. 1.27 - living as a citizen before God. Citizenship, behaviour, and way of life are all in this word. Who better than Paul could write on this subject?
Citizenship carries responsibilities as well as privileges ‑ among them, the responsibility to uphold the dignity of the country we claim. If the citizen of another country living among us claims special privileges and dignity, we may find that he is also an ambassador. He represents the king and country from which he came, and if ever questioned on his actions would claim his rights and the protection of his own country. Another visiting citizen claiming special rights might be the king's son. Surely we may claim all of these; so that we may find in Phil.1.27 the thoughts of conversation, behaviour, citizenship, ambassadorship, and sonship.
The Apostle hopes to find that the conduct of the Philippian brethren (whether he comes and sees them or hears about them) is worthy of the Gospel, and that they stand fast in one spirit, striving together for the faith of the Gospel. These two injunctions to stand and to strive are complementary, for one speaks of holding on while the other tells of activity. One assumes work done; the other, work still to be done. The first belongs to the internal life of the Church, the latter to the Church's outside activities. The first assumes the Philippian Church to be convinced and confident, the other that they defend what they believe. These two phases of Christian life assist each other, for he who stands fast is well suited to actively defend the faith, and he who works to defend the faith will increase his own steadfastness.
The standing fast, for them and for us, is in one spirit. There are other exhortations in Paul's writings to stand fast - "stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free"; "stand fast and hold the traditions ye have been taught"; "stand fast in the Lord"; and above all, "having done all, to stand".
What is the significance of 'in one spirit'? The Greek word (pneuma) is used with various meanings, and in Vine it is said to refer in this verse to purpose or aim - to intention. Psalm 78.8 refers to rebellious Israelites whose spirit was not faithful to God. Ezra 1.5 speaks of those whose spirit God had stirred up to go and rebuild the temple. In our text the one spirit is a common purpose in standing for the Gospel.
Other translations of this verse take 'spirit' as meaning God's Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the sign of life in the body of Christ, for by one spirit are we all baptised into one body. The Holy Spirit makes us sons of God, and is personal proof to us that this is what we are. So we may read Paul's words as "stand fast in the Holy Spirit" - which has made us New Creatures and Sons of God.
The second injunction is that they should be "with one mind striving together for the faith of the Gospel", just as Paul himself was doing at that very time. The Greek word for mind is "psuche" (thus we have the two Greek words associated with life, "pneuma" and "psuche" in one verse) and is used of active life, whereas "pneuma" is used of the life within. "Psuche" is used here as though we are alive, active, with one soul, one being, one corporate body standing shoulder to shoulder defending the faith. This "psuche" life is that which others will see by our striving; the "pneuma" life is that internal and eternal life which proves to ourselves how and where we stand.
In our text Paul has been saying - let your citizenship of the Kingdom of Heaven be worthy of the Gospel of Christ, so that you are firm in your sonship and active in your service. We are sons and yet servants. We serve because we are sons. The advice is repeated in Phil.2.15,16, "That ye may be blameless and harmless (good citizens, in fact), sons of God, not meriting rebuke, in the midst of a crooked nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world, holding forth the word of life" (in other words striving for the faith of the Gospel).
When Paul heard of the Philippians being steadfast in these respects, he would know that he had not laboured in vain. His call to Macedonia would once more be confirmed. He again would say, "We live if ye stand fast in the Lord" (1 Thess.3.8).