Paul was a prisoner when he wrote his letter of joy to the Philippians. In it he showed that he was aware that they too were experiencing serious problems. A key passage in this regard is 1:27-30, which indicates two problems that the Philippians were facing, disunity within the church and suffering from opposition.
27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 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, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)
Paul opens the passage by encouraging the Philippians to behave in a manner appropriate to the goals and standards of the gospel. In Colossians 1:10-12, Paul described it as, “bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.”
Paul’s saying that he wanted to hear that the Philippians “are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,” suggests that there was disunity within the church at Philippi. The problem was evidently caused by some form of rivalry or conceit that resulted in everyone’s looking out for only his or her own interests (2:3-4). So far disunity had manifested itself only in complaining and arguing (2:14) and a disagreement between two women in the church (4:2). However, Paul seems to have been worried that it might weaken the Philippians’ ability to stand fast in the face of the suffering that they were experiencing from opponents (1:27-28) and concerned about its effect on their growth as Christians and on their witness to those around them. The first concern is suggested by his exhorting them to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12) and the second by his exhorting them to be “blameless and innocent, 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” (2:15-16).
In place of rivalry or conceit, Paul calls for humility evidenced by his readers’ considering others better than themselves and looking out to the interests of others as well as to their own interests (2:3-4). He points to the example of Jesus Christ who lay aside his deity and became a man and then, as a man, died on a cross (2:6-8)—”as God he ‘emptied himself’ (over against doing anything on the basis of selfish ambition) and as man he ‘humbled himself’ (over against doing anything on the basis of vain glory)” (Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995, page 33). Paul also contrasts Timothy’s interest in the Philippians’ welfare with the preoccupation of others with their own interests (2:20-21). Finally, in his closing exhortations, he beseeches the two women, Euodia and Syntyche, to “agree in the Lord” and entreats a co-worker whom he addresses as “true companion” to help the women (4:2-3).
Scholars disagree as to who the Philippians’ opponents were, Philippians 1:27-30’s indicating only that they were unbelievers—they were destined for destruction—and that they were causing the Philippians to suffer for Christ’s sake. If those who think that the passage anticipates Paul’s warnings in chapter 3 are right, they were either Jews or Judaizers, the latter being Jewish Christians who told Gentile Christians that they couldn’t be saved unless they were circumcised and obeyed the law of Moses (Acts 15:1,24). However, I think that it’s more likely that the opponents of Philippians 1:27-30 were pagan neighbours, perhaps even authorities.
Whoever they were, Paul exhorts the Philippians to stand firm and not to be afraid in any way of their opponents (1:27-28). He encourages them to view their suffering as a blessing, telling them that their suffering “for the sake of Christ” had been “granted” to them (1:29), perhaps an allusion to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” He also compares their suffering with his own past and present sufferings for Christ—“engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (1:30), thus suggesting that their suffering was part of their “partnership in the gospel” with him and of their being “partakers with me of grace” (1:5,7). He returns to these ideas metaphorically in Philippians 2:17, where he pictures his current suffering as the “drink offering” poured out in conjunction with their “sacrificial offering” (see Exodus 29:38-41).
Just as he rejoiced in his situation, Paul encouraged the Philippians to rejoice in theirs—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
Yesterday evening the Life group which my wife, Leonora, and I host discussed Philippians 1:12-30 guided by the questions given in “The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups.”