Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ: that, whether I come and see you or be absent, I may hear of your state, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27).
In our sound-bite saturated world full of sloganeering and the expectation of reducing any worthwhile message to 140 characters or less, you could explain what it means to follow the Lord Jesus in worse ways than “living worthily of the Gospel.”
Paul is imprisoned in Rome somewhere around 59-61 CE (Philippians 1:12-13, 4:22); he writes to the church in Philippi which he had helped begin around a decade earlier (ca. 49-50 CE; Acts 16:11-40). The Philippian church was a source of support and strength for Paul; they provided for his needs many times, he has little need to rebuke them, and generally spends the time in his letter to them encouraging them to persevere and abound in what they are already doing (Philippians 1:3-11, 4:14-20). Having given thanks for their faith and association in the Gospel, speaking of his current situation, and considering his future (Philippians 1:1-26), he provides an important and definitive exhortation in Philippians 1:27: to live as worthy of the Gospel of Christ, to stand firm in one spirit, striving together for the faith of the Gospel with one mind.
Paul uses very specific language in this verse. To “live” is in Greek politeuesthe, literally, to be a citizen or behave as a citizen would, thus, to live in accordance with the polity; therefore, to “live worthily of the Gospel” is really to conduct oneself according to the constitution of the Kingdom of God, following Jesus’ commands, pursuing the Kingdom life God intends under the reign of His Son (1 John 2:3-6). This term would resonate for the Philippians who lived in a Roman colony; they would have seen quite clearly what was expected of Roman citizenry, but here are encouraged to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God. “Striving together” for the faith of the Gospel is the Greek sunathlountes, literally, wrestling, competing, contending at the same time alongside/with another; he uses the same term to describe how Euodia, Syntyche, Clement, and others “labored with” him in Philippians 4:3. This “striving with” evokes teammates working together to win at a sport; so with the “conflict” or “contest” in Philippians 1:30, the same term used in Hebrews 12:1, but also as in fighting the good fight of faith in 1 Timothy 6:12, 2 Timothy 4:7, perhaps showing that a military understanding of comrades fighting together would not be entirely inappropriate for this passage.
Thus Paul exhorts the Christians of Philippi to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ, in a way worthy of the Gospel. A life worthy of the Gospel is, by definition, worthy of the good news proclaimed regarding Jesus of Nazareth, His birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and the hope of His return (Matthew 1:1-25, Acts 2:14-36, Acts 17:30-31, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, etc.). A life worthy of the Gospel is consistent with the life of Jesus, manifesting the fruit of the Spirit, having turned aside from the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:17-24, 1 Peter 2:18-25). As the Lord Jesus came not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many, who humbled Himself by taking on the form of a servant, and proved willing to suffer for the sake of others and to overcome evil (Matthew 20:25-28, Philippians 2:5-11, 1 Peter 2:18-25), so it must be with those who would live according to His life and reign in His Kingdom. The good citizen of the Kingdom of God in Christ will not conduct him or herself as citizens of the Rome would; they are about love, patience, humility, service, consideration of the needs of others, holiness, righteousness, and joint participation in Christ with the fellow people of God; so much of this will be utterly foreign to citizens of Rome or otherwise of this world who lived and continue to live for more selfish and carnal purposes!
It remains important to stress that Paul did not intend for the Christians of Philippi to live lives worthy of the Gospel individually and independently in a bubble. To live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ in such a way so as to be worthy of the Gospel demands perseverance in one spirit, in one soul striving together for the faith of that Gospel (Philippians 1:27). The Philippians must strive together in light of the trials they have and will no doubt be soon experiencing: they have adversaries, they are or are about to suffer on Christ’s behalf, and are involved in same conflict as Paul himself (Philippians 1:28-30). If Acts 16:16-24 are any indication, the Philippian Christians would be accused of practicing and encouraging the practice of customs not lawful for Romans, and experience imprisonment, beatings, and perhaps even martyrdom. Divided they would fall; only if they remained united would they stand firm and strive together through this trial. It is likely not a coincidence that two of the churches born in the midst of persecution, Philippi and Thessalonica, proved notable for their maturity and strength in Christ, while churches which experienced more prosperity and less external harassment, like Corinth and Laodicea, proved more carnal and immature. The faith will either be fully rejected or become quite precious if your life is endangered by it; solidarity and community with your fellow people of God proves necessary when forsaken by worldly family members, friends, co-workers, and the like.
Despite fear-mongering to the contrary, no such significant danger of persecution is on the horizon for twenty-first century Christians in the Western world. There are some parts of the world where Christians do experience this type of persecution, and we do well to pray for them and to seek to encourage them as we have opportunity (1 Peter 5:9-10). Yet our need to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ, worthy of the good news of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and promise of return, persevering in one spirit, striving together with one soul for the faith of the Gospel is no less acute. Our world today is full of people who claim certain moral standards without living by them; plenty of people live independently in alienation, quite lonely, yearning for connection, but resolutely going to trudge along in their own path. This has never been the way of the God who is One in relational unity, holy and righteous, loving, gracious, and merciful; if we live as hypocrites with a country club or entertainment venue attitude toward the church and thus the fellow people of God, we prove to be citizens of this world, not worthy of the Gospel of Christ and not reflecting the values of His Kingdom. “Lone rangers” cannot remain so in Christ! No; the only way we will make it through is together, standing firm together, striving together, encouraging and edifying one another. Yes, this demands a high level of doctrinal agreement, but doctrinal agreement alone is not true unity. As Paul continues in Philippians 2:1-4, true unity demands considering the needs of one another as greater than our own, seeking out one another’s needs, demanding love, humility, and service. This unity does not come easily or automatically; it demands great effort and constant vigilance. It will lead to hurt, suffering, pain, and agony; consider, after all, all that Jesus endured from the people of God. Yet it remains the only way forward if we really want to participate as citizens in the Kingdom of God in Christ; it is the only way to live worthily of the good news of Jesus who lived, died, and was raised again to reconcile all things back to God (2 Corinthians 5:18).
As God is One in relational unity, so we will only truly find life in God when we strive to be like Him, conformed to the image of Christ, participating as a citizen of the heavenly Kingdom, living worthily of Christ, one with one another and one with God (John 17:20-23, Romans 8:29, Philippians 1:27). To share in the resurrection of life and to jointly participate in eternal life with the fellow people of God in His presence is, after all, the hope of the Christian in Christ; if we do not share in even a glimpse of that life now, how can we share it in the life to come? We do well, therefore, to seek to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God in Christ, living like Jesus, standing firm and striving together with the people of God, becoming ever closer to God and one another just as God intended, and be prepared to participate in the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry