Radical Ministry in a Darkened World
To see our desperate need to live through Christ, we have to begin with the context that precedes Philippians 2. In Philippians 1:27, Paul shares the foreboding words, “Whatever happens…” As Paul pens these words he’s in prison—in chains for Christ. And it’s not just Paul who is suffering for Christ. In verses 28-30, Paul explains that the Philippians are also being persecuted and opposed. They are also suffering on behalf of Christ. They are going through the same struggle that Paul is going through.
This word “struggle” relates to an athletic contest, with all the strife, exertion, and hardship connected with it. Paul writes to real people with real problems out of his and their very real struggles. It’s as if Paul says:
“We don’t know what might happen next. We don’t know what new opposition, what new opponent we might face tomorrow. We don’t know what new suffering and struggle the next day might bring. We don’t know how the world might try to beat us up and knock us down.”
That’s why in Philippians1:28, Paul prays that the Philippians would not be frightened by those who opposed them—by the world that sought to knock them down for their gospel faith. “Frightened” pictures a timid, scared, or skittish horse. It means to be startled, terrified, fearful, worried, anxious, and overwhelmed.
Have you ever felt like that in life? Have you ever been beaten down by life? Let’s be honest, when life is knocking us down, for most of us and for most of our counselees, most of our prayers are all about, “Lord, change my circumstances. Please make life easier. Rescue me from these hard times!”
But in this context of real people with real problems, Paul’s not satisfied simply to change their circumstances or their feelings. He’s focused on changing their character as he writes in Philippians 1:27, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
This word “conduct” was associated with the practice of good citizenship in the Roman Empire. It was used in Paul’s day to exhort Roman citizens—who were free and not enslaved—to live up to the privileges and responsibilities they had as citizens.
In Philippians 3:20, Paul reminds us that our citizenship is in heaven. We could paraphrase Paul like this.
“Behave as citizens of heaven, in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Even when you’re opposed, persecuted, suffering, struggling, and beaten down by this world, live like citizens of Christ’s kingdom—of the next world, of the world to come. Christ has broken the chains of sin and freed you from Satan’s power—so live like the new person you already are in Christ. When the world knocks you down, don’t turn to the world for answers. The world teaches us to live as citizens of earth: through self, by self, for self. God’s Word teaches and empowers us to live as citizens of heaven on earth: through Christ, like Christ, and for Christ’s glory.”
Having said this, Paul understands how difficult it is to live a godly life in an ungodly world. That’s why he describes in Philippians 1:27 how we stand firm when the world wants to knock us down. “Stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel.” The word contend is a compound word made up of sun which means with and of athleo which means athlete—athletes together.
We don’t stand firm alone, we stand firm together. This means that if our churches are to become saturated with biblical counseling and one-another ministry—we have to learn to be a team standing firm together. It means that Christian husbands and wives are a team—standing firm together. It means that Christian parents and children are a team—standing firm together.
When I counsel couples, they often come to me “at each other’s throats!” The wife perceives her husband to be her enemy. The husband acts as if his wife is his adversary. So, I’ll start the biblical counseling session by saying, “Your spouse is not your enemy. Satan is your enemy! Let’s work together as teammates, as soul mates to defeat your true enemy—Satan!” That’s also true of us as brothers and sisters together in our churches. We stand firm and contend together as spiritual Olympic athletes living as teammates through Christ.
This vital background from Philippians 1 helps us to understand why we need to live through Christ’s power. Assaulted by internal fears and external opposition, the people Paul ministered to were tempted to give up and give in rather than to stand firm for the gospel. When people in your church come to you feeling like this, or when you feel like this, where do we turn?
In Philippians 2, notice where the Apostle Paul doesn’t turn and what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t tell a bunch of cute stories. He tells the truth about Jesus. He doesn’t point people to their own resources. He points people to the resources of Christ. In Philippians 2:1, Paul says to struggling people:
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion.”
We’ve all read this verse scores of times. Now let’s re-read it in the context of Philippians 1.
“Even when the world tries to knock you down, you can stand firm together because you have already received encouragement from Christ, because you have already received the comfort of His love, because you already have the fellowship of the Spirit, because you have already received tenderness and compassion from God the Father.”
Paul’s counsel, biblical counsel, is Christ-centered. Here’s how we communicate it in the Biblical Counseling Coalition’s Confessional Statement.
“We point people to a person, Jesus our Redeemer, and not to a program, theory, or experience. We place our trust in the transforming power of the Redeemer as the only hope to change people’s hearts, not in any human system of change. People need a personal and dynamic relationship with Jesus, not a system of self-salvation, self-management, or self-actualization. Wise counselors seek to lead struggling, hurting, sinning, and confused people to the hope, resources, strength, and life that are available only in Christ.”
When you and I struggle, where do we turn to find victory in our suffering and victory over our besetting sins? Paul turns us to Christ. Paul does not offer self-help, but Christ-hope.