If the Gates of Hell Can’t Prevail Against the Church, Why Aren’t We Doing Better? – Philippians 1:27-30
By: Northern Seminary
The question at the top of this study intrigues me: ‘If the gates of hell can’t prevail against the church, why aren’t we doing better?’
That’s the title for a talk I’m giving soon at a conference. It’s a real question for it’s a real puzzle. God’s church was meant to be so strong and so vigorous that no opposition could hold it back.
But, certainly in the west, the church today seems to suffer constant setbacks. Why aren’t we doing better?
Part of the answer – and perhaps part of the talk I’ll give at the conference – lies in what Paul says to the Philippians about elements of a strong, effective church.
27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.
Paul’s words here connect directly with everything he has already written about the outcome of his imprisonment. Will he be sentenced to death? That would be no bad thing for him personally, for he would go to be with Christ. Or will he be set free? And that would give him more opportunity to strengthen young churches like the one in Philippi.
He starts these next verses with the word “only,” but it’s written in a very emphatic form in Greek, so the meaning is above all or no matter what. The NIV translates it “whatever happens.” Paul is saying that no matter what happens with me – whether I live or die – here is what you must do. I’m about to tell you how you must live and work together to be the kind of church the gates of hell really can’t prevail against.
Number one – honor the gospel by the way you live.
“Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (v. 27)
In other words, God has reached into your life and saved you. More than that, he has made you his child. So, child of God, live like a child of God. “Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
When Paul says “conduct yourselves” he uses the Greek verb politeuesthe, and that means ‘behave as citizens.’ The people of Philippi were proud to be Roman citizens. It was a lofty status with privileges and responsibilities. When Paul is writing here, he uses politeuesthe very deliberately, not to say ‘live as true Roman citizens’ but ‘live as true gospel citizens’ – live out the responsibilities of being gospel people. Don’t live beneath your status. Live who you really are, children of the king and citizens of his kingdom (Phil. 3:20).
When God’s people live as God’s people, the church is strong. Being a Christian isn’t a hobby. It’s not something we pick up when we have a spare moment or feel in the mood. It’s not something for only certain days of the week, or when we’re at church or with Christians. People can be very absorbed with sports. They talk about it, watch it, debate it, and feel pain or pleasure depending on whether their team wins. But they know it’s just a game. They step into it and, when they need to, they step out of it.
The church will never be strong if Christians think they can step into its life when they want and step out of its life when they want.
A Christian has handed their life over to God. They’ve been recreated and given a new status as a citizen of heaven. The church is strong when not only the privileges but also the responsibilities of that status are lived out.
Number two – stand together at all times.
Whether Paul is released and visits the Philippians, or whether he stays locked up and only hears about them, there are three things he wants to know are true about them. Each one of these things relates to oneness.
First, stand firm together. Paul says literally that they must stand “in one spirit.” He might mean, stand firm as people of one spirit. But most commentators think Paul would not write of standing firm “in one spirit” without thinking of the Holy Spirit. Therefore he means, “stand firm, bound together by the Holy Spirit.”
Now, even if Paul was only referring to the human level, there is great strength when people are joined together in a great cause. A team of soccer players can be like that. Even more, an army can be inspired and, united in spirit, march forward shoulder to shoulder to face the enemy. But, if there is strength merely from human spirit, how much more when people are infused with God’s Spirit? With the Holy Spirit, they don’t merely share a common cause, they share a common strength.
They will be those who don’t retreat.
They will be those who don’t fall to the ground when facing opposition
They will be those who don’t give up when the work is hard
They will be those who don’t abandon the weak but stay strong together
They will be those who will stand firm no matter what happens or how long until victory comes.
And they’ll be able to do all of these only because God’s Spirit is in them.
Be those people – joined by one Spirit – and then you will be strong, Paul tells them.
Second, strive together for the faith. They should be people of one mind. Churches are not famous for being like that. A church is made up of individuals, so there are different opinions, and many give in to the temptation to fight for their opinion to win. But the church is also one body, and it’s strong only when that body shares the same mission, the same passion, and the same commitment to the gospel of Christ.
I was only in my early twenties when I led a mission team in the small fishing port of Eyemouth in south east Scotland. We slept on hard camp mattresses on the floor of a church hall. We queued up to use the one or two toilets in that building. We ate rough and ready meals. And at every moment we could and in every way we could, we reached out to the citizens of that town with the good news of Jesus. There was no luxury and little rest. But God reached many lives through that team. Never in my life had I been so tired and never in my life have I been so proud of a team of young adults.
It might not have been like that. The team was made up of people who didn’t previously know each other, and they were young men and women in their teens and twenties who could have been distracted in innocent and not-so-innocent ways. But they stayed united and stayed focused.
I remember telling someone afterwards: “God brought us together for one purpose, and no one would have been on that team without being committed to that purpose. We needed each other, we supported each other, we encouraged each other. It was the only way the mission could happen. God brought us together. We knew that and honored that, so the mission got done.”
God brings people together in his church, pours his Spirit on them, and sends them out to do his mission. When we know that, and stand fast together, God’s church is strong.
Third, don’t be panicked by opposition. Paul is thinking of human opposition, people out to discredit the Christian message and even destroy the Christian messengers. That’s why he was being held prisoner, and (as he will make clear in a moment) the Philippian Christians are not strangers to persecution either.
But Christians can also give up when they’re faced with problems. Maybe we naively think that if we’re in the will of God everything should simply fall into place, or that every problem will melt away in answer to prayer.
That’s wishful thinking. Whether we look back a long way in the Old Testament to the struggles Moses faced bringing the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt and into the Promised Land, or the persecution of prophets like Elijah or Jeremiah, or the suffering of Paul and, of course, of Jesus, there’s plenty evidence that serving God comes with a generous serving of problems.
There will always be plenty who go along with the ride when it’s smooth, and back away when the going gets tough.
When Paul speaks of Christians being frightened he uses the same word that would be used when horses are startled and stampede. Churches can stampede. Sometimes people leave. Sometimes everyone just does their own thing. A stampeding church is not strong. But one that stands fast, and stands united, no matter the opposition, that’s the church which prevails no matter what is thrown at it.
When the church, made one and made strong by the Holy Spirit, sticks together, works together and is fearless together, then the church will see great things done, things that will last.
At this point in his writing, Paul adds a comment. It’s as if an extra thought came into his head, and he had to share it. It’s about persecution.
When you face opposition, persistent opposition, and you stand firm, he tells the Philippians two things are true.
One is that it confirms the fate of the persecutors. They have set their face against the gospel. Only through faith in Christ could they be saved, but they’re opposed to the gospel. They won’t repent because they won’t believe. Instead they persecute, and so their opposition becomes a sign of their future destruction.
But, he tells the Philippians, on the other hand, your faithfulness, even when you’re under severe trial, becomes proof of your salvation. Your faith is real. It’s solid. You are sold out to Jesus Christ, and God will honor you.
Jesus had said:
“Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:26)
Therefore, those who stand firm in their faith in the face of persecution or any other severe struggle prove that they’re not ashamed of Jesus and his gospel, so the Father will honor them and take them home to glory.
Those words may be a diversion, but they also constitute important and deeply challenging truth.
Number three – accept the suffering God has given you to experience.
“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.” (vs. 29-30)
Paul was treated badly in Philippi. Acts 16 describes how Paul and Silas were attacked by crowds, “severely flogged” on the orders of the city magistrates, and afterwards thrown into prison. (Acts 16:22-24)
When Paul was writing to the Thessalonians, he clearly hadn’t forgotten the treatment he received in Philippi:
“We had previously suffered and been treated outrageously in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.” (1 Thess. 2:2)
Things have moved on since then, and Paul is aware now that it’s the time for the young Christians to suffer. Those who came to faith in Christ through his witness, and others who believed later, are now experiencing the same opposition and suffering as he had. Philippi was not an easy place to be a Christian.
But, just as an army that runs away when the first casualties fall will never win any battles, so a church that goes silent and passive in the face of persecution will never advance the gospel. Without a willingness to suffer for the sake of Jesus a church will never be strong.
Paul even goes further than that in his words to the Philippians. He tells them that God not only gave them the privilege of believing in Jesus, he has given them the privilege of suffering for the sake of Jesus.
The hardship faced by this church is not an accident, not the actions of wicked opponents, and not punishment on the church for some failure. Suffering has been given to them by God. He’s not punishing them nor torturing them. He’s granting them the honor of suffering for Jesus.
They wouldn’t be the first to see suffering for Jesus as an honor. Early in the church’s story, the apostles were arrested for preaching about Jesus, and before being set free they were flogged and warned never to speak again about Jesus. They were glad to have suffered for Jesus:
“The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” (Acts 5:41)
And, needless to say, they certainly did not keep quiet.
Paul will tell the Philippians later in this letter that he wants to participate in Christ’s sufferings (Phil. 3:10). In another letter he even spoke of how his sufferings filled up in his flesh what is still lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col. 1:24).
There are great depths to what Paul means. He had a deep sense that the sufferings he and others experienced were an important part of God’s plan for his church. The early Christians felt privileged to have the honor of sharing in Christ’s wounds. They prayed to endure. They did not expect persecution to stop.
No Christian and no church can assume an entitlement to the easy life. If the captain of a ship isn’t willing to face storms and turbulent seas, he’d better keep his ship in harbor. But then, what point in having a ship?
The church takes the gospel to the world, and that world is no more likely to smile sweetly and say “How kind of you” than the world which rejected and crucified Jesus. “You killed the author of life,” Peter told the Jerusalem crowd (Acts 3:15).
A church which will not engage in mission is no church. A church which engages in mission but will not accept suffering is deluded and will soon die. Paul teaches that salvation is given by God but so is suffering. No one gets to choose only the one they like.
If the gates of hell can’t prevail against the church, why aren’t we doing better? Answers to that question can’t be reduced to a few quick fixes.
But there is a challenge about how we live as citizens of God’s kingdom.
And there is a challenge about standing strong together, united, firm in our faith and calling, not frightened by opposition.
And there is a challenge about accepting suffering God entrusts to us as we go boldly to the world with the good news.
A marketing firm would prefer a more appealing pitch to sell salvation. But salvation isn’t sold. It’s given. It’s given with all the privileges of being children of the living God, and those privileges include tough standards, tough commands, and tough experiences. But if my Jesus would walk this earth and hang on a cross for me, then nothing about any of those is too much for me to do for him.