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 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you … (verses 27-28)
When we were kids, and company was coming, Mom and Dad often needed to give us a pep talk beforehand, confirming their expectation that we behave ourselves properly when the guests arrived. This was particularly the case if the guests happened to have a somewhat awkward or humorous name. That firm parental reminder was necessary to keep us from spontaneously plunging into fits of giggles, since our sense of “silly” was incredibly strong.
In subsequent years, I’ve learned there are appropriate manners of behaviour for different settings, depending on the occasion. Being a parent on the sidelines of one of my kids’ sporting events was a very different experience than that of conducting a funeral – what’s appropriate for one would be severely out of sorts for the other.
Paul urges the Philippians to “conduct (themselves) in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” When he gives similar instructions elsewhere, Paul most often uses the metaphor of walking, urging his readers to stride forward in a worthy manner. But here, the image is different. He urges the Philippians to “behave as good citizens” – that’s literally what the word “conduct” means. The Philippians understood this concept well because the city of Philippi, outpost though it was, had been designated a colony of Rome, and those living there were considered citizens of that great imperial city itself, a fact that made the Philippians justly proud. They realized their true home was not Philippi, but rather Rome, so they lived by that standard. With that in mind, Paul later reminds them that in fact their citizenship is not anywhere on earth, but actually in heaven. That’s the point here in these verses, also. Paul urges them to live like citizens of the kingdom of Christ, characterized fully by the gospel.
So, what does that conduct look like? How are citizens of the kingdom to behave?
It turns out the key thing Paul has in mind is that they stay united – “that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel.” Already, there is outside opposition brewing in Philippi, potential persecution arising around them. In that light, Paul uses the word “striving,” which evokes images of military conflict or the gladiator’s arena, contexts where the struggle is one of life and death. If soldiers on the battlefield are in disarray, not pulling together, but rather fractured, their hope is slim. But “striving together,” fighting side by side as one, the battle can become a victory.
It seems obvious, doesn’t it, but unity is actually an ongoing challenge. This kingdom conduct doesn’t come naturally. Disagreements, conflicts, hurt feelings, self-focus, jealousy, pride – all of these occur as readily in the church as elsewhere and trip us up, causing us to falter, rather than pulling together.
“Stand firm,” then, “in the one Spirit.” Yes – may it be. The Spirit himself empowers us to live beyond the pitfalls of disunity. “Keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” Paul says in Ephesians 4:3, reminding us that the Spirit is the one who gives us unity in the first place. By standing in him, strengthened with his power, we have a fighting chance of preserving it.
So, be reminded. Realize in advance that opportunities for disunity will arise easily and often, just as readily as giggles threatened to overwhelm me and my siblings way back when. Take the potential fractures seriously. Don’t yield to them. Yield to the Spirit instead. Stand your ground, side by side with brothers and sisters. It’s conduct becoming to the gospel.
Lord Jesus, help me to stand firm with all those called by your name. I confess that I am so easily liable to falter into disunity, allowing offense or disagreement or pettiness to fracture the bond of unity. Forgive me. Give me eyes to see the pitfalls as they arise. Give me strength to keep on embracing the unity you have purchased. For your name’s sake. Amen.
Reflect: In your own experience, is there any circumstance or relationship in which the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” has been broken. If so, confess it. Extend forgiveness where needed. Ask for the Spirit’s empowering. Step back into unity.