Among the most difficult of persuasive tasks is the work of convincing someone to keep believing something in the face of physical pain. What words will be strong enough to counter the terrifying anticipation and experience of bodily brokenness—especially when the hurt can be avoided simply by denying a belief? Paul’s letter to the Philippians, expressly intended to bolster frightened believers, powerfully equips his friends to persevere by offering a God’s-eye perspective on their circumstances.
In my last post I explored how Peter’s first letter exemplifies the job of the epistolary writers, who sought to provide perspective that promotes persevering performance in the believers they addressed. Like 1 Peter, Philippians is clearly addressed to Christians who are suffering fearful persecution, and it’s another excellent example of writing that persuades via perspective.
This context of persecution is something we may miss, though, if we’re accustomed to treating the Epistles section of the NT as an Inspirational-Verses Mine.* Phrases from Philippians have captioned many a motivational poster (think of “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and “Don’t be anxious about anything…”), and if you read through the whole letter you’ll probably bump into a large handful of similarly familiar sentences. As powerful and gracious as these verses already are to us, understanding their context allows us to discover their even higher purpose, which was to equip Christians to face the pain of physical persecution with courage and hope.
Paul’s own situation when he wrote to his friends in Philippi was hardly comfortable. He begins the letter with news from his prison cell in Rome, reassuring his readers that even this unhappy circumstance “has really served to advance the gospel.” His self-conscious example sets the stage for what he needs to get across to them in their own time of suffering. It’s not clear exactly what is happening to the church in Philippi, but these clues suggest that whatever it is, it’s scary:
[Do not be] frightened in anything by your opponents.
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
[You are] children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.
The phrase “it has been granted to you” indicates that it isn’t always the case that Christians will suffer physically; even in those early days, some individuals and groups would have to face more dire situations than others, according to the sovereign plan of God. It happened that these particular believers needed some especially persuasive perspective in order not only to stand fast in their faith during this persecution, but also—what might be the harder task—to do so with truly gracious care for one another.
You can find examples of a God’s-eye perspective throughout the letter, but I especially like Philippians 2 for its concise interweaving of lofty themes and tender encouragement toward a collective commitment to Jesus. While we may be inclined to focus on the doxology-like poem describing Christ’s kenosis (or “emptying” of himself) in vv.5-11, keep in mind the purpose of even these famous theological phrases. Through them, Paul calls his friends to count the benefits of their location “in Christ” and so be motivated to stand firm, not in opposition to each other, but considerately and in all humility (which is the key to stepping aside from rivalry and disunity). In other words, he exhorts them to decide among themselves to believe together, and then strive side by side for the sake of the gospel. He’s building a band of brothers with these words, and so the Christ-theology that we find here, though rich and true, is only incidental to his main purpose.
Two other familiar imperatives, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” and “Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” also need to be set firmly in the context of it having been “granted” to them to suffer and be engaged in conflict. Are these soldiers going to press onward, or will they drop back? According to Paul, they have every incentive to press on and hold fast to the word of life, not recanting even though they’re in a dangerous spot there in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation. In fact, running away from the fight (and hence the faith) would have much, much worse consequences than the persecution they are suffering—no wonder this outworking of their confession is to be accompanied by “fear and trembling”!
The essence of the motivation offered here by Paul is a reminder of true though invisible things, both historical and current. Beginning with their location in Christ through their faith in his person and work, believers should recall that they have an unlimited store of encouragement, comfort, love, affection, sympathy, and participation in the Spirit to bolster them in these anxious days. The Captain they follow is risen, alive, and exalted, and it only awaits God’s pleasure before the whole world inevitably bows the knee to him. Meanwhile they can devote themselves to his service, knowing that God himself provides his children the willingness and energy for this high calling of continuing to love one another in the face of suffering.
Paul ends this section of his letter (our chapter 2) with news of himself and their mutual friends Timothy and Epaphroditus, again providing his Philippian friends with flesh-and-blood examples of faithful perseverance. The personal connection would surely have appealed to these believers, as they considered how much these men, whom they loved and admired, were willing to suffer for the work of Christ. Their special shared history with Paul accounts for his feeling free to spur them on to good works with words like “make my joy complete,” and “obey…so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain,” obviously calculated appeals to the persuasive power of mutual autobiography.
Though it may not be “granted” to all of us to suffer persecution for the faith during our lifetime, recognizing the troubled context of these Philippian Christians should put these famous favorite phrases into perspective for us. If those believers were called to such a high road in the midst of dire circumstances, then surely we, with our relatively puny instances of suffering for the faith, can manage to stand firm in one Spirit without rivalry or grumbling. After all, we, too, have every incentive to do so.
And, come to think of it, if we ever do find ourselves suffering through a season of painful persecution, we can be especially glad that Philippians is so easy to memorize.
*See my earlier post, Fortune Cookies, for some commentary on memorizing Bible verses out of context.