… that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27)
[This is part 5 of the series Standing Firm on Philippians 1:21-30]
The English Standard Versions translation of sunathleo as “striving side by side” in Philippians 1:27 attempts to capture the two components of one compound word: sun (together) + athleo (strive, compete, struggle). Athleo is obviously related to the English word “athlete.” As you read Paul’s words, however, a different metaphor comes to mind.
… that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 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. 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, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Philippians 1:27-30)
Having just watched 300 this weekend, when I read this passage in Philippians I pictured ancient soldiers standing together in line of battle, shield-to-shield in the face of the enemy.
The film is the (oversimplified) story 300 Spartans defending their homeland against hundreds of thousands of Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. At one point in the film, a severely disabled man approached King Leonidas requesting that he be allowed to fight with the Spartans. Leonidas applauded his bravery, but then asked the man to raise his shield to his shoulders. The man could not raise his arms. Leonidas then told the man that he could not fight in the Spartan line. Spartans did not fight as individuals, but they fought together as one man in battle formation. Standing side-by-side before the enemy, they protected each other and supported each other. Each one depended on the soldier to his left and his right. When they stood together in formation, the whole was stronger than the sum of its parts. If the formation were to break, that’s when the danger would be the greatest. Every man in the line of battle had to be able to do his part for the sake of the formation as a whole.
Would it be reasonable to think that Christians in a town steeped in military history and tradition might have heard Paul’s language in Philippians 1:27-30 as a military metaphor? Christians are to face the enemy standing side by side, like soldiers in a line of battle.
Listen to some of Paul’s words, and see if you don’t hear it that way? As citizens, stand firm in one spirit – strive together as one man (psuche) – don’t be frightened of your opponents – they will be destroyed, but you will be delivered – it has been given to you as a gift to suffer for Christ – we’re all in the same battle. I can almost hear Henry V on St. Crispian’s Day.
If Paul is using a military metaphor here, there is at least one weakness to it: those standing side by side in Christ don’t slay their enemies – or even win the battle. Paul recognizes that. When Paul speaks of “their destruction” and “your salvation,” he adds “and that from God.” It is all God’s work, from the destruction of the evil to salvation of believers. Even apart from the violent means of human warfare, the military metaphor falls short if it suggests that God’s ultimate victory rests in human hands. When Christians stand side-by-side for the faith – even in the face of death – “this is a sign,” Paul says, a witness to Christ’s opponents of their ultimate defeat and God’s ultimate victory (Philippians 1:28). The church is the community that proclaims Christ’s victory over the world. It is not the force that secures that victory, either by violence or by suffering.
If the victory belongs to God, then there is another weakness of the metaphor: victory doesn’t depend on the prowess, strength or capability of those standing in the line. Unlike the army of Leonidas, the disabled, the imperfect and the physically weak are all welcome.
Women are welcome in this battle line, too. In Philippians 4:3, Paul uses the same word (sunathleo) to describe the work of Euodia and Synteche. Regrettably, these two women who once fought side-by-side with Paul on behalf of the gospel had now turned their weapons on each other. Unfortunately, that’s not the last time that Christians decided to spend more energy fighting each other than in standing up for Christ. Paul asked the Philippian church to help these women reorient themselves, reconcile with each other and stand side-by-side once again.
Stand firm, Christians, and don’t be afraid of the enemy.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us. The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.
With confidence in Christ and the encouragement of our fellow believers, we can stand firm in the face of anything – even in the face of death.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.
Christians face many opponents to their faith. Some of them are the same ones Paul faced. Many Christians still contend with government persecution, hostile neighbors and religious intolerance. Sometimes the enemy is just personal discouragement from problems at home, at work or with neighbors down the street. There are many different kinds of battles.
Paul faced even death with joy and confidence. A measure of that joy came from his relationship with other Christians:
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now (Philippians 1:3-5 TNIV)
We are not alone. We live as Citizens of God’s Kingdom even now. We get a taste of our future home in our life together in Christ. And we stand beside each other in all of life’s conflicts.
Take courage, Christians, your brothers and sisters stand beside you. Stand firm against every force that opposes Christ and his gospel – and stand with your brothers and sisters in the faith. We encourage each other and strengthen each as we stand together, shield-to-shield in the line of battle.