“Many others of Elrond’s household stood in the shadows and watched them go, bidding them farewell with soft voices. There was no laughter, and no song or music. At last they turned away and faded silently into the dusk.
“They crossed the bridge and wound slowly up the long steep paths that led out of the cloven vale of Rivendell; and they came at length to the high moor where the wind hissed through the heather. Then with one glance at the Last Homely House twinkling below them they strode away far into the night.”
And so began the journey of the Fellowship of the Ring, nine companions with one mission – to take the ring of power to its place of destruction. You know the rest of the story that befell Frodo and his companions – a marvelous story, indeed, a fantastical tale of a strange fellowship of man and hobbit and dwarf and elf and whatever a wizard is. And yet it copies a much older story of a fellowship no less strange, with a mission much more mysterious and grand, and the oddest part of all – is real. It is the fellowship of the gospel.
It is to this fellowship that the apostle Paul speaks in his epistle to the Philippians. Indeed, he uses that very phrase. Look with me at the opening of the letter beginning in verse 3. Paul writes, “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.” The term for partnership is koinonia, which is often translated as fellowship. That is how the King James translates the word in this verse.
It would have remained a fine word to use had it not taken over the years a more general sense of hanging out together. Thus, we have a Fellowship Hall to have “fellowship” in. We have fellowship groups for mutual encouragement. There is nothing wrong with this concept, but it does not capture the meaning of fellowship Paul intended. Paul is thinking of what comes to our mind when we hear the term “team” – a collection of people who are bound together for a task or a mission.
This is J. R. R. Tolkien’s sense of the word fellowship. The fellowship of the ring is a team bound together with the common mission to destroy a ring, and by doing so, to save Middle Earth from the power of darkness. That mission is what draws them together; it is what compels them forward on a dangerous journey.
Paul himself embarked on a dangerous journey throughout the Mediterranean. He encountered his share of peril – stoning, beatings, shipwreck – but not alone. Always he took companions. His mission was to spread the gospel. As he did, as it took root and grew into churches dotting the northern Mediterranean lands, he found these churches becoming part of his fellowship who shared his mission to advance the gospel.
It is that mission which is uppermost in Paul’s mind when he writes the Philippians. The letter is noted for its emphasis on joy. It does indeed permeate the letter, but it is the joy that arises in a team working together for a common goal – in this fellowship of believers whose mission is to advance the gospel. And Paul’s intent is to motivate this fellowship to press on with that mission. Though not as well-known as other verses in Philippians, our text presents the theme and motivation for why he wrote to this fellowship in Philippi.
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ,…
Paul has been writing about his own present experience in his mission. He is in jail, most likely in Rome. The Philippian fellowship knows this. They had sent Epaphroditus to convey their support and to minister to him with gifts they had sent. This isn’t the only time they have sent Paul support. Evidently they did it regularly as Paul notes later in the letter. This was one church that made Paul feel that they were with him.
Paul’s report back to them through Epaphroditus keeps attention on his mission. He writes in verse 12: “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel…” He points out three ways: the guards are hearing the gospel, fellow believers have become emboldened to speak the gospel, and then others out of rivalry are also proclaiming the gospel. So Paul sees good even in imprisonment and even in other believers trying to afflict him in his imprisonment, as he explains it.
He then explains how his circumstances are good for him personally. He believes all is working out for his deliverance, and that he will be able continue his ministry. Indeed, he hopes to return to Philippi and further encourage them in their faith.
Only…well, he wants to give them one word of exhortation.
The phrase, “let your manner of life,” is an interesting one. It is actually one word whose root is politeuo and refers to citizenship, which carries also the meaning of one’s everyday life. So Paul could be telling his partners in the gospel how to carry on in their day-to-day life. But it seems he has something more intended. James Boice points out that citizenship in a Greek city took on much greater significance to the citizens than we understand today. It held a very conscious place in the mind of the people. Furthermore, Philippi held a unique status. Though it was a Greek city, it had been granted the status of a Roman colony, making its people Roman citizens. They were Greeks, but their true citizenship was in Rome. Philippi was located in the land of Greece, but its place was with Rome.
Paul talks about personal conduct in other letters, but he uses a term then for walking. Why then use a term for citizenship here? Is he not rather telling his partners in the gospel to live according to their true citizenship? He actually makes that concept plain in 3:20: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we wait a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…” Paul is concerned about our everyday life; he is concerned that we live it conscious of the citizenship to which we belong. This is not a new idea at all. In his great chapter on faith, the writer of Hebrews speaks of men and women seeking a heavenly homeland. It is the same idea that Peter expresses in his first epistle when he reminds the “elect exiles” that they are a people belonging to God (2:9ff).
This world is not their own, but they also are not just passing through. They are to live out their citizenship in a way that is “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” If you think Frodo was obsessed by the ring he carried, consider Paul’s obsession with the gospel as expressed to the Corinthians: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel…” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23).
And the gospel (if we need a reminder) is about Jesus Christ. Indeed, one could even say it is Christ. Listen to Paul in Philippians: “my imprisonment is for Christ” (1:13); “Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (1:18); “For to me to live is Christ” (1:20); “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:11); “we…glory in Christ Jesus” (3:3); “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:8); “in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (3:8); “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (3:20).
So, what do we have so far? The Philippians are to live as citizens of heaven in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. What is that worthy manner? Paul explains:
…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, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents.
A life worthy of the gospel is one in which together, the Philippian believers “stand firm in one spirit.” By “spirit,” Paul could mean the Holy Spirit or as rendered here, a common disposition, as when a coach urges on team spirit. Gordon Fee leads me to believe the Holy Spirit is intended. Paul uses the same phrase elsewhere (e.g. Ephesians 2:18) meaning the Holy Spirit. But such a phrase meaning team spirit is not found anywhere else.
In the Spirit, they are to stand firm. Paul will say it again in 4:1: “stand firm thus in the Lord.” Don’t let the turbulent tides of the world pull you back and forth. Hold your ground, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that all you are called to do is hold your position. You are to move forward.
So Paul goes on: “with one mind striving side by side.” As they stand together in the one Holy Spirit, they are to strive together with a single mind or devotion. They are to be like a single entity, which if any were former Roman soldiers, as well they might, they would understand. Rome was famous for its fighting force that fought as a single unit. Every champion team understands this concept, as does every well-trained military unit. Side by side, one mind contending for the faith.
This is not standstill Christianity. This is not a mindset of hunkering down against opposing forces. This is a mindset wanting action. There is work to be done for the faith of the gospel, and we know how Paul feels about the gospel! But he does seem slightly concerned about the Philippian fellowship faltering. He says back in 1:6 that he is sure that God who began a good work in them will bring it to completion, but evidently he has heard some reports (perhaps from Epaphroditus) that not everything is well. He goes on in our text to exhort them not to be fearful of their opponents. Maybe another book mocking religion by an atheist author has made the Philippi Times bestseller list. Maybe yet another play has come out exposing the conspiracy of the church to hide evidence that disproves the gospel. Maybe they are being scorned by their neighbors, even facing some persecution. And so he urges them to stand in the Spirit, and strive together with one mind. The best way to protect and to contend is in a team, a fellowship.
Or, and this would actually be Paul’s greater concern, maybe the Philippian fellowship is showing some signs of tension. And so he feels compelled to exhort them, as he does in chapter 2, to “do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant” (2:3). He thinks it necessary to note that they should “do all things without grumbling or questioning” (2:14). Finally, he gets directly to the point and pleads with two women, evidently stalwarts of the fellowship to get along. These women have been partners with Paul, laboring side by side with him for the gospel. “Laboring side by side is the same Greek verb for “striving side by side.” Something has divided even these trustworthy contenders of the faith.
What happened? Is it suffering from opposition that unnerved them in some way? Opposition can take its toll. That is why Paul takes the time in the remaining verses to show them how opposition actually is a sign of their being in Christ. But Paul understands what all leaders know: it is not outside opposition, but inside dissension that is the greater and more likely danger to a fellowship.
Consider again Paul’s own case. He is in prison and other Christian brothers are preaching the gospel “from envy and rivalry.” We might wonder how could Christians do that? Because Christians – those who sincerely believe in Christ and want the gospel to go forth – are also sinners who struggle with envy and rivalry. “Those big name preachers who come in for PCRT – I’ll show that I can preach just as well as them.” (Oops, strike that thought! I would never preach out of rivalry!)
Christians can be lured by theology that sounds good, especially if it calls for what appears to be greater sacrifice. And so Paul constantly had to contend with “circumcision theologians” who thought they were calling Christ’s followers to greater commitment. He addresses their teaching in chapter 3. And then, again, there is the plain old self-centeredness he brings up at the beginning of chapter 2.
There is a reason I started the sermon with the whole “Fellowship of the Ring” story. I took the concept from Phil Ryken who got it from Kent Hughes. When Dr. Ryken described Tenth Church in the mission statement as “a fellowship of kingdom-minded disciples,” he had in mind the kind of fellowship that Tolkien intended, but more importantly is meant by the scriptures we have been studying.
We are a fellowship drawn together for a purpose. That purpose, Dr. Ryken notes at the beginning of the statement, is “to proclaim the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ…” He sounds just like Paul! We are to be kingdom-minded, i.e. we are to live as people whose citizenship is in heaven. We are to want what our Lord Jesus Christ wants. We are to be intent on advancing the kingdom here in our city and outward even to the ends of the earth.
That is exciting! That is a worthwhile mission for a church. That is a glorious mission for a fellowship of the gospel. Don’t we want to strive side by side for such a cause? I believe we do. And I believe we are a fellowship that stands firm in the Spirit, and we do have one mind about striving for the faith. And I believe we have the same frailties as the believers of this great church in Philippi that the Apostle Paul loved so much.
We are a fellowship of kingdom-minded disciples proclaiming the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ and…well…if my sister could realize how embarrassing she is at times with her lack of social skills…and if my brother could see how he is putting people off with his intensity…and that couple would have a great ministry but they keep pushing each other’s buttons…and that other guy has all the gifts but he’s put out with me, of all people …that person thinks no one cares about her… that one just has wrong ideas about how our money should be spent, and…well…the scenarios are endless. When you think about it, we have all the same problems that Paul addresses in his letter to the church at Philippi, and the one in Corinth, and the one in Ephesus and Colossae, and the ones in Galatia.
And yet here we are two thousand years later, with all of our hang-ups, carrying on the same mission with the same mind as those ancient fellowships of the gospel. Despite the sins and the frailties, the tale of the fellowship of the gospel continues on.
My favorite passage in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a conversation between Frodo and Sam on the very stairs leading into Mordor.
“I wonder,” said Frodo. “But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re found of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.”
“No, sir, of course not. Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it – and the Silmaril went on and came to Earendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got – you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?”
“No, they never end as tales,” said Frodo. “But the people in them come, and go when their part’s ended.”
The never-ending tale of the gospel of Christ now has us in it. We have joined the fellowship. We know the ultimate end of Christ’s return, but until that time we have our part to play, not just as individuals but as a fellowship. Others have played their part in this same fellowship of Tenth Church. They stood firm and they strove side by side with the same foibles and troubles as we. There were other fellowships in the city also strong, but over time faltered, leaving once thriving churches empty or worse, with a false gospel to be proclaimed. May it so be that when our part in the tale has ended, and it is time for us to go, that because we did continue on side by side as a fellowship of the gospel, the next generation will also be a fellowship of kingdom-minded disciples advancing the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By D. Marion Clark. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org