The “Only” Command (Philippians 1:27a)

“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.

For the Love of the Name (Philippians 1:12–18a)

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:15–18).

In many areas of life there are two kinds of fans. It could concern literature, film, music, but let’s take baseball as our example. The first type is the more common. He enjoys the game, but he loves his team. The second, the more rare, enjoys a team, but he loves the game. He is the true baseball fan. It is baseball itself that he is a fan of. And of course there are those who just come for the hot dogs, but that is another matter.

As to the fans, here is how you might distinguish the two. When the game is over, even if it was an amazing game, the more common fan will always walk away devastated if his team lost. Something of his identity is linked with that specific team. He loves his team in a sense more than he does the game. In contrast, the second type, though he wishes his team to have won, will walk away talking about how great a game it was.

Simply because man takes up holy things doesn’t act as a forcefield against such vices. We see the same thing in the church. I’m afraid it is more common to find Christians, who quite often, what they get really excited about is their team and not the game. Their team might be the flavor of music, a particular ministry, a preacher, or even a solid theological persuasion. Your team can be a good team, the team that should win, but God have mercy on us so that it is the game itself that we most love. God have mercy on us such that it matters not if we’re watching amateurs who play just to play, or professionals who are only in it for glory and money—still we can rejoice, simply because it is the game we love.

For Paul, it is far less concerning for an insincere man to preach the true gospel, than for a sincere man to preach a false gospel. The truth of the message is more important than the sincerity of the messenger. Because Christ is preached, Paul rejoices. 

If Christ is preached, let us rejoice. When Christ is preached at Falls Creek, at an Arminian seeker-sensitive Church, or by some hipster topical-sermon preaching pop-culture pastor, rejoice! There may be much that bothers us, there may be much to legitimately critique and express concern about, to point out how the very gospel preached is outshone or subverted by other things, but inasmuch as the gospel is preached, let us rejoice. Or can you only rejoice when it is your team? When it is a reformed church? When it is through a ministry like Ligonier rather than Lifeway?

Opposite the “holy club” from which Wesley and Whitefield came, their later arose what were called “hell fire clubs” to mock and obstruct the revival. At one tavern, among such a group, a Mr. Thorpe rose to outdo his fellows in mimicking George Whitefield, or “Dr. Squintum” as they called him because of malady that is something like a lazy eye. He began by reading Luke 13:3, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” But as he continued mocking Whitefield’s preaching of the gospel, he was converted and later became a minister.

I’m not advocating that we rejoice when the gospel is so ridiculed, but this should make it clear why, when the gospel is preached, we can rejoice in that. Why can we rejoice whenever the gospel is preached, regardless of who preaches it? Because, as Paul told the Romans, it is the gospel that is the power of God unto salvation. However man may try to use the Son to make themselves shine, they will always be overshadowed. Attempt to use Jesus as your spotlight, and you’ll find Him so bright, all eyes will be on Him.

Tipping the Scales with Balance (Philippians 1:3–11)

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:3–11).

If you want the scale of your life to be heavy on thankfulness, you shouldn’t think that petitions burden the scale on the opposite side. When we notice that our prayer life is fat on request and slim on thanks, we can easily become the guy who chases down his steroids with protein shakes and hits the gym twice every day. Sure, he’s bulked up, but that ain’t healthy. What thankfulness is to contentment, we shouldn’t think petition is to discontent. You can’t fix thanklessness with petition-lessness.

In Paul’s prayer not only are thanksgiving and petition mingled, they’re rooted in the same soil. So rather than being puzzled at this odd connection, we must realize that they are unstable compounds when isolated. These two go together like sodium and chloride. They also separate like them. Thankfulness, all alone, is very well as corrosive as chlorine. If your prayers only communicate contentment and no longing, perhaps it’s that you’re at home in this world and merely blessing God for it. We readily note the danger of prayers full nothing but petition. Thing is, if we try to correct it by beefing up on thanksgiving, we’ll find we’ve carried over the same root problem. Both the glutton and the body builder can have the same root sin. What we’re after is wholeness and balance. Perhaps then we should label one side of the scale “holiness” and the other “sinfulness.” If you want the scale tipped towards holiness, you need balance in your life. Not a balance between things such as godliness and ungodliness of course, but a balance of things that both go together on the holiness side of the scale, things like godly thankfulness and godly petition.

Rather than thanksgiving or petition rooted in self, what we need are thanksgiving and petition rooted in the gospel of Christ. What Paul gives thanks for is, upon examination, what Paul petitions for. Paul’s joyful gratitude is rooted in the good work God has done in the Philippians and the gospel partnership that is the result. His petition for them to abound in love with knowledge is essentially a prayer that God will continue to do this good work, a good work Paul has already said he is certain of.

When you want to tip the scales with thankfulness, what you need isn’t less sodium and more chloride. What you need is more salt. Look to Christ. Anchor your prayers in the gospel. Then you will see reasons not only to give thanks; you will long for more.

A Word to the Saints about a Word for the Saints (Philippians 1:1–2)

“Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:1–2).

When believers read that Paul wrote Philippians to “all the saints” it is critical that they realize that they are all—everyone of them reading the letter—saints. The saints are not an elite task force within the church. Every one of God’s elect children is enlisted with this basic rank. The saints are simply those positionally sanctified, that is, those who have been set apart from this world unto God. The saints then are not a select group within the church, they are the church—the assembly of God, a group distinct from this world.

Paul in his greeting also refers to “overseers,” also known as elders or pastors (cf. Titus 1:5–7). “Overseers” is also a word largely alien to church speak today. Too often we are more adept at speaking Christianese than we are Biblese. The consequences of this I’m afraid are often dire. In the instance of overseers/elders, believers can fail often make the connection to pastors. For instance, they never reason, “The church at Philippi had overseers, plural. Why then does my church have only one?” It’s like a person only knowing “cow” and failing to realize that all this talk about Herefords is talk about cows. When we turn to the word “saint,” the problem hits closer to home. If cows were so cognizant, it would be like a cow failing to realize it was a Hereford.

“Saints” is Paul’s most common way of addressing believers. Over sixty times the New Testament speaks of God’s beloved in this way. When you survey older Christian literature—the early church fathers, the reformers, the puritans, even an author as recent as B.B. Warfield—you’ll find this address quite common. We would do well to recover it. If you think it odd, remember, it wasn’t as if the world addressed their letters in this way. It was a uniquely Christian thing to do. If you avoid using it to be less awkward, well, that is very un-saintly. So be a saint, and refer to those who are saints as saints.

And this gets to why we should be so zealous to use the word, not to make much of us, but to make much of Christ. Outside of Christ we are ain’ts. We ain’t holy. We ain’t good. But in Christ we are righteous. In Christ we are holy. In Christ we are children of God. In Christ we are heirs. In Christ we are partakers of the promises. On and on we could go. Every blessing of salvation we enjoy, we enjoy in Christ. This is why John Murray would write, “Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.” So can you see why it is that if you are in Christ, you are so set apart from this world. Why it is that you are so saintly? So dearest saints, make much of Jesus by addressing one another not only as “saints,” but also, sometimes go ahead and tease it out further, and address each other  as “saints in Christ Jesus.”

“As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight” (Psalm 16:3).