Standing Firm 2: Opponents of the Gospel

For I have often told you, and now say again with tears, that many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Philippians 3:18

[This is part 2 of the series Standing Firm on Philippians 1:21-30]

Paul calls the Philippian Christians to “stand firm” (Philippians 1:27). For what, exactly, and against what are they to stand? It will help us to begin by looking at Paul’s experience of conflict.

Paul’s imprisonment reminds us of the fact that there were – and are – people who oppose the message of the gospel and the church of Jesus Christ. Since Paul is in the custody of the Praetorian Guard, it may seem obvious who the opponent is here: the Roman emperor.

As we read the story of Paul’s life, however, we find that there were at least four categories of people who opposed his apostolic ministry.

Paul sometimes found himself in government custody as the indirect result of conflicts with others, and trying to fit the letter into Paul’s life, in fact, may be more difficult than it seems.

One assumes, based on Paul’s reference to the Praetorian Guard, that Paul is in Rome at the end of the journey described by Acts 21-28. At the end of Acts, we find Paul in conflict with fellow Hellenistic Jews who charged him with what are essentially religious crimes. His opponents fomented a riot against him in Jerusalem and Paul appealed to the Roman garrison to protect him. The garrison helped Paul escape to the seat of government in Caesarea where Paul fell into the hands of the corrupt Roman bureaucrat in charge. After languishing in prison for years, Paul’s case came to a head. Local officials put pressure on the Roman governor to deliver Paul to death. Paul knew how this would turn out; it was the same situation Jesus faced at the end of his life. Rather than face certain death in Jerusalem, Paul appealed to Caesar. Paul’s journey to Rome in military custody was the result of his desire to be tried under Roman law – away from pressure of the Jerusalem crowd. If Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote the letter to the Philippians, this is what brought him there.

According to some scholars, however, Paul’s reference to the Praetorian Guard in Philippians may refer to any body of soldiers located in a seat of government. It is possible, then, that Paul wrote Philippians from Ephesus or some other location. It is likely, I think, that Paul wrote the letter from Rome, but it is not possible to assert this with certainty. Consequently, I think that it is worthwhile to look at the several different kinds of opponents that Paul faced throughout his apostolic ministry.

1. Fellow Christians. Paul often faced conflict with others who professed Christ. Some of the conflict was based in theology, religious practice, lifestyle or level of Christian commitment (Philippians 3:2, Philippians 3:18-19, Philippians 4:15). Some of it was based in petty jealousies and personal animosity (Philippians 1:15-17). All of these show up in some form in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

2. Fellow Jews. Paul sometimes faced opposition from fellow members of the covenant community. We find this not only in Jerusalem, but in the cities of Greece and Asia Minor as well (Acts 13:50, Acts 17:4-7, Acts 18:5-6, Acts 18:12-13). This was not apparently an issue in Philippi where there was no synagogue. In Acts 16:13, we find that Paul had to go looking along the river to find a gathering of Jews with whom to worship on the Sabbath.

3. Greek-Roman Populous. Paul sometimes faced violent opposition from the non-Jewish populations of the cities he visited. Acts 16:16-40 describes a violent reaction by the population of Philippi after Paul cast a fortune-telling spirit out of a young girl. Paul evoked a similar reaction in Ephesus where Paul’s preaching threatened the worship of the goddess Artemis (Diana) whose temple dominated the town (Acts 19:23-41).

4. Local Governments. From time to time we find local government officials harassing, arresting and mistreating Paul and his companions. The government of Philippi, for example, illegally mistreated Paul, a Roman citizen (Acts 16:22-23, Acts 16:35-39). Paul’s run-ins with local governments coincided with riots or disruptions associated with more basic conflicts. Government officials were irritated and perhaps threatened by the disruptions of the status quo. We also see examples of corruption (Acts 24:25-27). What is missing from the book of Acts and the letters of Paul, however, is the systemic, empire-wide attempt to root out Christians that characterized later history; even local governments don’t seem overly concerned with Paul’s theological affirmations. Accusations of opposition to Caesar come from the lips of Paul’s religious opponents, not from government officials (Acts 17:7). Neither does Paul seem particularly concerned with the idolatry associated with Roman governance as distinct from the idolatry that pervaded every aspect of pagan culture. Idolatry is idolatry.

Together, the Book of Acts and Paul’s letter to the Philippians show us that the church at Philippi had experienced at least 3 of the 4 types of conflict experienced by Paul himself. That helps us make sense of the statement in Philippians 1:30, “you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”

Paul’s call to stand firm, then, is very broad. Christians are to stand firm in the face of all the various threats to the faith, both internally and externally. They are to stand for Christ and the gospel (properly understood) no matter what.