27 Only, be worthy citizens of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or while absent I hear of you, that you are standing firm in one spirit, as with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents, for to them it is a clear sign of their destruction, but of your salvation, and this from God. 29 For to you has been granted for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 as you experience the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
2:1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort of love, any fellowship in [community of] the Spirit, any heartfelt compassion and kindness, 2 make my joy complete in that you think the same, having the same love, being one in soul and thought. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves, 4 each of you not looking to your own interests, but [also] to the interests of others.
(The above is my own “literal” – but still readable – translation, made with reference to the most commonly used English translations. The commentary that follows below is my own, except for aid from my lexicon resources.)
The Phronema of Gospel Citizenship
It is perhaps the curse of Christianity that from the very beginning it was subject to divisions and conflicts. We live with those divisions today. Even the Philippian community, so unified, so free of the divisions that Paul encountered in Corinth and elsewhere, nevertheless had to deal with “opponents” who are not identified or named by Paul, though there are hints in chapter 3.
- Paul understood very well that he was writing to Greeks, and Greeks were always and still are very political. So he uses political language as he begins this paragraph. The paragraph in question (verses 27-30) is one sentence in the Greek; and the main verb in this sentence is πολιτεύεσθε. This verb comes from the noun πολίτης, citizen.
- The opening phrase is impressive, but it is inadequately translated in most English versions: “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” in the NRSV is typical; or the NIV’s “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” English translations miss the political echo that is at the heart of this statement.
- The verb πολιτεύομαι is brilliantly defined in the Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains: to conduct oneself with proper reference to one’s obligations in relationship to others, as part of some community — ‘to live, to conduct one’s life, to live in relation to others.’ By ignoring the political connotations of the verb, most English translations simply fall into the individualistic mindset of contemporary Christianity. Yes, “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel” (NRSV), “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (NIV); but always in relation to others in a community. Politics for the ancient Greeks was not a matter of political parties – though political parties come very easily to Greeks – it was a matter of civic responsibility and accountability. The King James Version is interesting: “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ.” I assume the word “conversation” meant more in 1610 than it does today, but at least it captures a little of the Greek mindset, since Greeks like to talk – especially politics! (Even the Bible tells me so! Consider Acts 17:21. Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.)
- The translation adopted here is mainly due to my friend Mike in Scotland, who was the first to alert me to the possibility of using the word “citizen” in this passage. A “citizen of the gospel”: what a marvelous thing to be – although Mike’s version is more striking: “Only be good citizens of Messiah’s Joyful News.” And it means quite simply to inhabit the gospel (the Good News) fully, assuming all responsibilities – just as a citizen of a country assumes all the responsibilities of belonging to that nation. And of course citizenship always implies civic responsibility.
- If the Philippians are facing opponents, their unity in the πολίτευμα, politeuma, is their greatest strength – just as citizenship entails the protection of the nation. Paul returns to the theme of citizenship later in this epistle, in 3:20, where he writes “our citizenship (πολίτευμα) is in heaven.”
- Every year at the Easter midnight Liturgy we read the extraordinary Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom. And I have always had trouble translating one phrase in that homily: Ἀνέστη Χριστός, καὶ ζωὴ πολιτεύεται. The usual translation, and the one that I also have adopted over the years, is: “Christ is Risen, and life reigns.” But Chrysostom uses the same verb πολιτεύομαι that Paul uses here in Philippians with very similar or identical meaning I would presume. The usual translation is okay, but what would be a better translation? The English language is very inadequate when it comes to translating the Greek genius of turning nouns into verbs – as here, where πολίτης → πολιτεύομαι.
- The Philippians’ citizenship in the gospel gives them the strength to strive for the gospel – just as the citizens of a nation fight to defend their country against enemies. But the Philippians don’t strive as soldiers; rather they strive as if they were one soul, μιᾷ ψυχῇ. And their striving will most likely result in suffering, just as Paul himself suffered. Will this suffering come from their “opponents” or from the Roman authorities? It really doesn’t matter, as long as the suffering comes from faith in Christ and “for the sake of Christ.” Again here we see Paul’s total identification not only with the gospel (the good news), but with Christ himself and his passion. And “passion” is a word that applies to Paul in all its meanings.
Paul smoothly transitions into preparing his readers for what is coming, the great Christ Hymn of verses 6-11. He piles on words and phrases that can only inspire and are the direct result of being “citizens of the Joyful News”. Shouldn’t this section describe the church in all its manifestations? Isn’t the church the community that is inhabited by “citizens” of the gospel (the good news, Joyful News)?
- He begins with what could easily be described as a catalogue of Christian virtues – and virtues that directly refer to Christ’s own “conversation” in life (to use the KJV word): παράκλησις (encouragement) ἐν Χριστῷ, παραμύθιον (comfort) ἀγάπης, κοινωνία (fellowship, communion) πνεύματος, σπλάγχνα (compassion), οἰκτιρμοί (kindness).
- Παράκλησις – paraklesis, encouragement – only has meaning for Paul when it is “in Christ”, ἐν Χριστῷ en Christō. It doesn’t come only from Christ himself; it comes from the mutuality of a community that is “in Christ”! Paul is not writing to individuals; he is writing to a community that are one spirit, one mind, one heart. That unity is the source of encouragement.
- Παραμύθιον ἀγάπης – the comfort of love, agape. Agape love for Paul was, of course, the height of the Christian lifestyle and attitude to life. See 1 Corinthians 13: Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends… So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. Reading this passage one can understand how Paul here in Philippians connects comfort, paramythion, with love, agape – the comfort is the comfort that love provides. But agape is not only the love between humans; it is also human love for God; and it is the love of God for human beings. And it is the love that binds the Trinity. How often in the Gospels – especially at the Baptism and Transfiguration – God the Father proclaims “this is my beloved son” – ἀγαπητός, agapetos.
- In one particularly arresting passage, Paul writes: ὃς ἐρρύσατο ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ σκότους καὶ μετέστησεν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ υἱοῦ τῆς ἀγάπης αὐτοῦ (Colossians 1:13 – which leads to another Christ Hymn similar to the one here in Philippians 2:6-11). So here in Colossians Christ is not the more conventional “beloved son” but “the son of his love”! Only Paul could write such a phrase. It is also important to note that in the Colossians passage, it is again the idea of a citizenship that is clearly implied: God has taken us from citizenship in the powers of darkness to citizenship in the kingdom of the son of his love! Again here most English translations take the easy way out by translating “his beloved Son” instead of the literal “the son of his love”; the KJV says “the kingdom of his dear Son” – Ugh! The NIV’s “the Son he loves” is not better. There is something more organic, more from the guts of God, to call Jesus “the son of his love”. Just as a human child is the result of the love of two people, so also the eternal Son of God is the eternal result of God’s love. Paul brings us much closer to the inner life of the Trinity with such a phrase than all the fancy words of the Nicene Creed ever could. This is the problem with our theology: it took biblical language and imagery and turned it into Greek philosophical terminology, a development which itself contributed hugely to the breakdown of Christian unity!
- Κοινωνία – communion/fellowship, koinonia – is the unique gift of the Spirit, πνεύματος. As in 2 Corinthians 13:14, where Paul wrote: Thegrace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
- Σπλάγχνα, splaghna, is coupled with οἰκτιρμοί, oiktirmoi, by the conjunction καὶ. The conjunction καὶ does not bring a list to an end. It joins σπλάγχνα and οἰκτιρμοί as a couplet that conveys deepfelt compassion. Note how Paul combines the same words in Colossians 3:12, ἐνδύσασθαι σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ – “put on heartfelt compassion.” This is compassion that is moved from the depths of one’s being, from the σπλάγχνα. Paul does not stay at the level of nice talk, he goes for maximum impact.
- The catalogue of virtues in verse 1 leads Paul to begin the transition to the Christ hymn, primarily through use of the verb φρονέω, phroneō. Encouragement, comfort, fellowship and compassion – yes, all these, but Paul’s joy will only be complete if on top of these they share the same love and vision.
- Paul uses the verb φρονέω twice in verse 2 and then climactically in verse 5 where it enables him to lead straight into the Christ hymn. φρονέω – an amazing, multifaceted verb in the ancient Greek, together with several derivatives, like φρόνησις, φρόνημα, φρόνιμος, etc. – all ultimately deriving from φρήν, usually in the plural φρένες “diaphragm.” Originally this was regarded as the seat of intellectual and spiritual activity. The diaphragm determined the nature and strength of the breath and hence also the human spirit and its emotions. In Homer φρένες means “inner part,” “mind,” “consciousness,” “understanding” etc. and like the other terms for inner organs it is the agent of spiritual and intellectual experiences. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 9, page 220) By the time Paul was writing, the verb usually carried the meaning of setting one’s mind on something and developing an attitude, a disposition, after careful thought.
- Romans 8:6 – “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The word translated as “to set the mind on…” is φρόνημα, phronema. For Paul and for the ancient Greeks, φρόνημα was not simply about thinking – just thinking never killed anyone, or almost never. To set the mind on something, meant for Paul and the ancient Greeks the action that goes with the mind’s thinking – more broadly, the life that goes with the mind’s thinking. And later in this chapter 8 of Romans, Paul says something even bolder. Verse 27: And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. τὸ φρόνημα τοῦ πνεύματος is the key phrase.
- So in Romans 8, that simple word, φρόνημα, phronema, is used by Paul in such a way as to unite our approach to thought and life with God’s own Spirit. When we come to Philippians 2:5 – Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ – Paul is basically saying, be united with the Spirit of God so that you can live as Christ lived. “Have the same mind” (or, attitude) is the usual translation, and it falls short, as translations usually do. But to be fair to the various translations, they do try to express the Greek without resorting to long, convoluted sentences. It’s usually a trade-off.
- Paul uses the verb φρονέω ten times in this letter to the Philippians, which is more than he uses it even in the much longer epistle to the Romans (9 times in that letter)! In all the remaining epistles of Paul, the verb occurs only 4 times in all. Clearly, Philippians and Romans were very much epistles of phronema! (Don’t ask me to explain what I meant by that last statement.)
- Verses 3 and 4 builds on the phronema and leads directly to the Christ hymn. In the first part of this letter (what we call chapter 1) Paul acknowledged and thanked the Philippians for their support and their work with him in upholding and promoting the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, in what we call chapter 2, he is addressing their personal and communal life principles, and he uses the verb φρονέω in order to emphasise that citizenship in the gospel of Christ is not just about promoting a message of salvation, but about living in that message of salvation, living in accordance with how Christ lived. He will explicitly make that point in the next, all-important section of this wonderful letter to a wonderful community of Christ followers.