Throughout college, I tutored undergraduates in English composition. We often reminded our students: always articulate a clear thesis. Without a central point, there’s nothing else worth saying.
Philippians 1:27 is arguably the thesis of the entire epistle. We are to walk worthy of the gospel, conducting ourselves in a manner befitting our Christian citizenship. This exhortation captures what Paul has said up to this point and lays the foundation for the rest.
Paul offers support for his thesis: “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” (Philippians 1:27b). Expecting to be released but unsure if he would be able to visit Philippi, Paul’s pastoral concern was that the believers would remain steadfast together in the faith.
This steadfastness requires unity in the church—a holistic unity of both “spirit” and “mind” (or “soul”). Christians are united not only by spiritual truths but also by the earthly realities that affect the heart, mind, and soul. Cooperation in mission depends not only on theological alignment but also an abiding solidarity and concern for our brothers and sisters as fellow soldiers on a battlefield. This unity of spirit only comes from the Spirit, since there “is one body and one Spirit” (Ephesians 4:4).
Paul deploys a powerful metaphor to drive his thesis. What the ESV renders “striving side by side” is a single word in Greek referring to athletic exertion. Elsewhere the word is translated “competes as an athlete” (2 Timothy 2:5 NASB). In this light, the call to “stand firm” evokes the image of a wrestler in a match maintaining his footing. In Philippians 4:3, the word refers to two female coworkers in ministry who “shared [Paul’s] struggle in the cause of the gospel” (NASB). Christ’s mission requires not only unity but discipline, prowess, and strength.
Follow the sheer force of Paul’s appeal. The Philippians, once marked chiefly by their identity as colonists ruled by Roman generals, are now combatants in a better battle. They are to contend for the city of God in hostile territory, following their heavenly Commander’s commission: “Occupy until I come” (see Luke 19:13).
Yet Christians are not to engage in strife but to strive. There is enough strife in the world already. We are to strive for a cause: “the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). Paul is referring not only to your faith, which may waver day to day, but the faith. In other words, he is speaking of the objective content of the faith, not the subjective experience of faith. Paul summons his audience to join this battle for truth, in which he too is a combatant (1:30).
It has been said that in the history of war, victory often does not go to those with greater numbers or forces. It goes instead to those with the most strength of will. In the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.), in which the Spartans famously took their last stand against the Persians with only 300 men, forcibly-drafted Persian soldiers were driven to the battlefield by the sound of whips. Meanwhile, the Spartans came out singing their battle song. Though they lost the fight, two and a half millennia later their strength of will is still legendary.
The pagan Spartans died for a worldly cause. How much more should we strive and sing for the cause of Christ? As J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) summarizes: “The Lord Jesus bids you ‘occupy.’ By that He means that you are to be ‘a doer’ in your Christianity, and not merely a hearer and professor. He wants His servants not only to receive His wages, and eat His bread, and dwell in His house, and belong to His family—but also to do His work.”
Are you striving together with other believers in the global spiritual battle to advance the faith? Paul’s thesis rouses us to strengthen our will in the cause of Christ. May we heed his appeal.
You have called us with a holy calling—to have one spirit, one mind, and to strive together for the faith. I confess I am often lethargic and apathetic in my work for you. Thank you for sending your Holy Spirit to strive within me and strengthen me for this task. Surround me with other believers to spur me on. Grant that I would not be content in life unless I am contending for the faith in some way, great or small, global or local.
In Jesus’ name,
- Pray for unity in your church in the cause of the gospel. Ask God to show you ways to be on mission as a church together, not just as individuals.
- Pray for fledgling church plants on the mission field to be strengthened and effective in ministry.
- Ask God to supply more laborers for the harvest (Matthew 9:38) with an indomitable, Spirit-filled willpower to advance the gospel.
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