“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel…” —Philippians 1:27
When introducing a friend to some great man he completely ignorant of, there’s only so much an introduction can do. Philippians 1:27 is a great verse. Alas, this will only be an introduction. We will only deal with the word “only.” But let’s first consider the context in which this light introduction is made.
Philippians 1:27 opens the body of the letter which runs until 4:3. What Paul opens with isn’t unique. What is unique is its placing. It isn’t odd to find a sink in the house, but it is peculiar to find one in the foyer. Paul’s standard MO is doctrine first, then application; truth then commands. With Paul, the theological always undergirds the ethical. Even here, the difference is simply that the theological is assumed. There are no major controversies at Philippi at this time. Paul’s letter has been initiated by their gift. This helps us to understand a bit why Paul opens with a command, but why this command?
I can only think of two likely answers, and we get to them both through that little word “only.” This “only” might be the most significant word in the letter. What is meant by this “only”? The two angles can be seen in two translations that do a bit more interpreting at this point than they do translating. The Christian Standard has “just one thing” while the NIV has “whatever happens.” In the former we see “only” understood as emphatic, while “whatever happens” recalls what Paul has been and will repeatedly tell them concerning his visiting them.
Let’s take up the latter first. Paul is confident, though not absolutely certain, that he will be released and then come to see them (vv. 19, 25–26). Should he not, he wants them to obey this command so that he may hear that they are standing firm without fear.
This leads us naturally to the second intent of “only.” If Paul is not absolutely certain that he will be released, don’t you know this “only” is also emphatic? There is a primacy to this command. Paul opens with this first because it is first. With this “only” Paul not only says “whatever happens” but also “whatever else!” Matthew Harmon says this verse provides the thesis for the body of this letter. I believe we can go further still. This verse provides the thesis for the Christian life.
In a sense you only need this “only” command. Jesus said the great commandment was to love the Lord our God with all our heart soul and mind. The second is like to it: to love our neighbor as ourselves. The command we have in verse 27 is really just another way of stating the same great all encompassing commands of loving God first and neighbor second.
I hope that if you’re unfamiliar with Philippians 1:27, that now, having been introduced, you’ll sense something of his greatness and want to converse and learn as much of him as you can.