This is going to be an intentionally vague post but in the light of certain recent events both local and global within the church and from without – it would seem to me that the message of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one in particular that needs to be preached in the church local and global. The Philippian church was a suffering church – Philippi had been established as a town for the veterans of the Roman Army and had been named after King Philip (Alexander the Great’s father) – it received many privileges and especially when it paid tribute to the Caesars, especially as “kurios” (Lord). For the Christians this was a problem. A big problem. They could not and would not call Caesar “kurios.” That term they reserved for Jesus Christ alone. The problem for the Christians living in Philippi then was that this brought on much persecution and suffering – be it loss of work or removal from the various guilds, higher taxes and so on. Their refusal to call Caesar “Lord” jepordized the special status and standing of the city in the eyes of Rome. The citizens of Philippi were not going to put up with that. No way. So this caused many problems for the Philippian church. Strife arose among them. Conflict, struggle, finger pointing, murmuring, grumbling, complaining which also probably led to minimized acceptance of and or fellowship with one another and the like. and ’round and ’round the mulberry bush it went. It was tearing the church apart.
Paul urged them not to give in to the stress and the pressure both from within and from without. It would undermine two things: the unity of the church and progress of the gospel.
With regard to the unity of the church – I think it’s the true theme and purpose of the letter. I know may think joy is the main theme, especially since the word joy or rejoice occurs frequently throughout the letter, but in my opinion, which has been heavily influenced by the work of Dave Black (his blog, some of his papers and his Linguistics book) and also from Gordon Fee’s commentary on the letter, is that unity is the major theme of the letter and that, for the sake of the gospel.
For Paul, I am not sure much else mattered. If ever there was a truly gospel-centered person, it was the apostle Paul. He lived and died (literally) for the sake of the progress of the gospel (yeah, that’s probably too many uses of “of.” lol).
I think we might see this most strongly in Philippians 1:27-28:
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. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God (NIV). (capitalized “for” is mine)
In his estimation, despite whatever happened, all that mattered in life was that the church maintained its unity and that the gospel went forth – and in someways I’ll aver that for Paul the two were in tandem with each other. Anytime unity in the church was broken or under duress – it affected the progress of the gospel. As proof, while he was in prison, in chains, others took advantage of the situation and went about promoting themselves and or criticizing Paul (1:15-18). You would think, “goodness, he got thrown in jail, is chained to a wall, and others are out there mocking him and or promoting themselves, supposedly “preaching the gospel.” That’s gotta be rough. So discouraging too.” And yet, what brought Paul true joy? Nothing other than the progress of the gospel. It may not have been going forth in the best ways, but nevertheless, it was going forth.
I share this because I know the church local and global is in the midst of conflict. There is strife about certain preachers locally. The church in the Middle East is being systematically murdered. The church is facing new levels of conflict both from within and from without.
I think Paul’s prophetic and pastoral word here is most pertinent for our times – I mean I could be over-reaching but it seems to me that if ever there was a time the church needed to be “striving together as one FOR the faith of the gospel,” it is now. I could be wrong but I see a lot of finger pointing going on (not that I haven’t been guiltless of this myself) and some complaining going on, a ton of “folding of the arms” so to speak (a resistant defensive posture), all kinds of line drawing in the sand and the like. The church abroad is facing much suffering. I am not on the ground over there but I know from personal experience that hardship can either build up or break down.
In the midst of conflict in the world around us, it’s important that we “keep the main thing the main thing” – and for us as Christians, the main thing should be unity in the body for the sake of/progress of the gospel. Any infighting, whining, complaining and so on will only hinder the progress of the gospel, not help it (IMO). Now, unity is not uniformity (as an example, the NFL is in unity about how to play football, though the various teams within wear different uniforms). We, the church (that is, all Christians), can have differences about some things and that’s all part of being human – and still have the same end goal in mind – the progress of the gospel.
I pray this message be the message to the modern church – that “he who has an ear will hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”