United We Stand
“Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have laboured side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;”
The Christian church occupies an important place in God’s salvation plan. Jesus did not come to save a bunch of isolated individuals but a people and indeed he declared that he had every intention of building a church, his church. This church of Jesus Christ finds its expression in local congregations scattered throughout the world and their origin goes right back to the first century.
Yes, I know you have probably all met with folk who like to say “You don’t have to go to church to be a believer” but I hope you also know that they have fundamentally missed the point. It is God’s grace that makes a person a Christian not going to church but church is an integral part of generous God’s salvation package. And only a fool would deliberately try to cut himself off from all that God has provided for him.
As you read through the NT the idea of an individual believer living happily a life of splendid isolation is one that you simply won’t find. Believers are meant to relate to each other and the Lord intends them to do so in local communities where together they can live out their new spiritual life in warm fellowship and in genuine service. The very books that make up the NT illustrate the importance the local church. After four gospel narratives focusing upon the person and work of the Saviour the NT continues with the Acts of the Apostles which is a record of how that good news of Jesus spread and how, as it spread, new communities of local believers, churches, were brought in to existence. Next come a whole series of letters which are addressed either to churches or to church leaders. The final Book in the Bible, Revelation which recounts the triumphant victories of the Messiah opens with a series of seven letters addressed to seven churches.
The Christian who is interested in what the Bible has to say simply cannot avoid the church. And then again no Christian in his right mind would ever want to. For the church is Jesus’ idea! I hope that you are part of the church and that you are glad to be so.
And it is perhaps just because the church is so crucial a part of God’s salvation package and so special to Jesus that it has throughout the centuries been a prime target for enemy attacks. The church is a building site and not yet the finished product – and you know what: building sites can be pretty messy places. The church as we experience it is a work that is still in progress and the building blocks are imperfect Christians, people just like us, who are forever making mistakes. The enemy of men’s souls does his utmost to spoil God’s work so that unbelievers are duped into thinking they are fine where they are outside the church.
And that brings us to Paul’s letter to the Philippians and chapter 4. The church was experiencing some problems of disunity within its ranks and Paul wanted to address that sad situation.
Now, before I proceed I want to pause and make it clear that I have not chosen to speak on this subject because I believe us to be facing this problem ourselves at this particular time. As we are working our way through Paul’s letter we have to tackle all the subjects he does and in coming to ch.4 we can’t avoid this one. But having said that this passage has much to teach us because the time may well come when disagreements do arise to test us and we will want to know what to do then.
In what follows we are provided with an example of the way in which Jesus rules over his people for their good. One of the principal ways in which he exercises this rule is by his authoritative word which Christians are to hear and to heed.
The Church’s Effectiveness
Paul has just called upon the church to stand firm in the Lord. (4:1) Earlier in the letter he had already expressed his desire that, whether he was able to be with them or not, he wanted to hear that they were indeed doing just that:
1:27-28 “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, and not frightened in anything by your opponents.”
Paul knew that this type of unity had a powerful effect upon the evangelistic task of the church and so he continued:
“This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.”
But now it was apparent that there was a significant problem that was threatening the unity of the church in Philippi. It is difficult to stand firm when division abounds. And when such division exists the church’s energies will inevitably be diverted away from an eager striving and contending for the progress of the gospel. In making his appeal for the problem to be solved Paul wanted the church’s “reasonableness” to be widely recognised outside so the spread of the gospel would not be inhibited.
So Paul, operating as Christ’s spokesman, addressed the problem. It must have been quite serious for Paul to have heard about it and it must also have been a problem of which the church members were already well aware given the way Paul deals with it so openly. He publicly named the names of those who were at the centre of it all. It was a problem that clearly needed to be dealt with.
What was the problem?
But what was this problem that called for such a reaction from the apostle? Well, simply put, two ladies in the congregation had fallen out with each other. After all you don’t tell people to agree unless in some measure they are disagreeing and need to change. (It was two ladies in this instance but just as easily it could have been two men – so don’t get hung up on gender.)
Sometimes when we look at the modern church with all its splits and divisions we can be tempted to think that the early church was the perfect church but if we do think like that we need to think again. Trouble afflicted many congregations then just as they have troubled churches down through the centuries and still do today. As long as churches are made up of sinners saved by grace problems like this will continue to emerge. The fact that Paul sought to deal with the matter in Philippi ought to encourage us also to face up to them when they surface amongst us. We must not dismiss churches because they have problems from time to time and neither must we conclude that those involved aren’t Christians – church life will never be entirely plain sailing until Christians are made perfect with the return of Christ.
Philippi was having difficulties but it was not the only place that suffered in this way. This type of problem is addressed in a number of different places in the NT. For example:
Jesus said in
Mk.9:50 “be at peace with one another.”
And Paul wrote in a similar vein to the church in Rome:
Rom.12:16-18 “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Now in Philippi it was these two ladies, Euodia and Syntyche, who had their disagreement and it had developed in such a way as to become a negative factor in the life of the entire congregation.
Is that all, you might ask? Does it really matter that much? It’s just a disagreement. And the answer is yes it does matter for such disagreement along with the tension and disunity caused flies in the face of the very nature of the gospel which is a gospel of reconciliation. Yes, imperfect Christians do fall out but that is not the ideal and it hampers the church in accomplishing its mission.
So the problem in Philippi was that two ladies had fallen out with other and of course we’d like to know why but Paul doesn’t really tell us – he doesn’t say whether the matter was doctrinal, social, ethical, ecclesiastical or purely personal. However a number of things do stand out as Paul makes his appeal to them:
Firstly, the issue which divided them, whatever it was, was not an essential matter of gospel faith. When it came to dealing with such matters the apostles were quite prepared to be very severe indeed: for example, the apostle Peter with his rebuttal of Simon the Magician in Acts ch.8 or when Paul himself invoked a curse on members of the circumcision party in his letter to the Galatians. But here there is no trace of that type of severity.
Secondly, Paul didn’t take sides and addressed both ladies in exactly the same manner:
v.2 “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord.”
The fact that Paul didn’t “take sides”, that he didn’t intervene and pronounce judgment, yet still called for for Euodia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord strongly suggests that the fact of disunity was more important than the issue which caused it. It doesn’t seem to be a case of who is right and who is wrong – but that both need to undergo a change.
The Way Forward
Having considered what the nature of the problem was it is now time to look more closely at the remedy. It comes in the form of a specific application of the general principle which had already been taught earlier in the letter. In 2:2 Paul had written:
“complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”
And this is what he now meant as he pleaded with the two ladies to agree in the Lord. He wanted them to:
vv.3-5 “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,”
This was the “not-standing-on-your-rights” sort of mindset that Jesus himself exemplified when he humbled himself in dying for sinners. And it is the type of mindset which the world should see when it looks at the church – it explains the “reasonableness” to which Paul would refer in v.5.
Paul wanted the ladies to agree in the Lord so that harmony might once more mark their relationship with each other. As long as they focused upon their disagreements they were allowing a wedge to drive them apart and this was where the harm lay. If the gospel shows us how a Holy God can be reconciled to unholy sinners then it is surely also capable of reconciling divided sinners!
I wonder how you would feel if you were named as these ladies were in such a public document as this. Just imagine, word has gone round, Paul has sent the church a letter and the church has gathered to hear it read out to the whole congregation and then you hear your own name read out. I wonder how you would have taken that.
It was a potentially embarrassing and difficult situation wasn’t it? But did you notice how Paul had taken steps to prepare the ground? He had been very careful as he wrote his letter. Immediately prior to dealing with this specific issue affecting the whole congregation Paul had declared just how much he loved, valued and esteemed them all. His words might have been difficult for those ladies to hear but they would know them to be the words of a real friend and as the Book of Proverbs has it:
Pr.27:6 “Faithful are the wounds of a friend;”
And Paul had still more to say about these ladies. He refused to lay into them but publicly acknowledged their worth and applauded them. Yes, he must point them out and address them directly but he was very quick to speak positively about them as well. There is surely something for us to learn ourselves as we have to interact with other people.
So who were these ladies, Euodia and Syntyche? These weren’t just anybody, they were genuine, Christian ladies – and their names were in the Book of life, Paul was convinced of that.
The notion of such a book begins in the OT and continues on into the NT where the book will be identified as the Lamb’s book of life. What Paul was saying was that these ladies really did legitimately belong to God’s chosen people, they were destined for heaven.
In addition to this Euodia and Syntyche were important Christian ladies who both had a good track record of gospel service about which Paul was happy to write warmly. It is quite possible they were even among the founding members of the church for they had both contended courageously and energetically for the gospel alongside Paul and other members of his evangelistic team.
A Helping Hand
How wise and realistic Paul was and how good it is to have a Book which has such wisdom to bring us.
Paul recognised that these ladies, even the committed Christian ladies that they were, would need the help of others if they were to be able to move on. So he issued a further set of instructions:
v.3 “Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women,”
And such help is to be proactive – for Paul does not simply suggest that this person must be ready to help should Euodia and Syntyche decide to solicit his intervention. The issue of division is serious and calls for direct action, it mustn’t be allowed to fester on and divert the church from its proper mission. The matter is of course sensitive and in such circumstances we can feel that we’re walking on eggshells and allow the fear of making a mistake to paralyse us but do nothing will not resolve the issue and so can’t be an acceptable option. But neither is such help to be imposed in a patronising fashion. Paul doesn’t act as a judge transmitting his verdict which his true companion is told implement. No it is help that must be offered and since Paul has carefully highlighted the spiritual integrity of these two ladies and they are not to be treated as though they were dismal failures. It is “help” they need which under God’s gracious guidance and blessing will lead them to seeing things clearly together “in the Lord”.
Perhaps the fact that Paul seems to call upon one person to provide this help should also warn us of the dangers of becoming merely interfering busy-bodies. Maybe Paul’s reluctance to highlight the issue behind the disagreement is even designed to stop us becoming gossips too.
How important this help might prove to be! Elsewhere in the NT the gift of helping occupies an important place in the gifts that God gives to his people in the church. Will you pray that the Lord grant such gifts of helping to the church today?
What Should our Reaction Be?
I wonder if some in the church in Philippi were saddened by the fact that Paul referred so openly to the problems they were experiencing in Philippi. Perhaps they were thrilled by what Paul had written earlier in the letter marvelling at Christ’s example but now they’ve been brought back down to earth with a bang as they’ve been reminded of the realities of church life. Maybe they would have preferred to move silently on – it all seemed so depressing to talk about division and lack of unity. You may be tempted to think like that too.
But Paul hasn’t finished yet. In the midst of what might be construed to be a depressing situation Paul reminds the Philippians of something so very important that he actually says it twice:
v.4 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
This very situation of church disunity sad though it may be is nevertheless one of these “always” times!
The exhortation is not to rejoice in the division but in the Lord himself and the Christian always has reason to do that. How different this is from the world’s “Don’t worry, be happy” – that means bury your head in the sand, don’t face up to reality and maybe you’ll feel better whereas Paul’s “rejoice in the Lord” directs you to open your eyes and see all that the Lord has done. And because of who the Lord is we can rejoice in him no matter what the prevailing circumstances are.
To press his point home still further Paul continued with a reason:
v.5 “The Lord is at hand” or “The Lord is near”
Now this little phrase has the commentators dancing trying to figure out just what Paul meant. Did Paul mean that Jesus was close to them in a geographical sense or did he mean that Jesus’ return to them timewise was fast approaching?
Which was it?
And you know we really don’t have to choose for both are true!
Jesus is close at hand is really just another way of saying he would always be with his followers and that he would never leaving them on their own.
Jesus coming in time is near too. His return is the next major event in God’s great and glorious salvation plan. The truth is that our life in this world will soon be over and every tear that we have shed here will be wiped from our eyes, the memory of every sadness felt here will be forever ended. He will complete his work and glory will be our home. In the light of eternity we will have a whole new perspective on the trials and tribulations of our earthly lives:
Rom.8:18 “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
2Cor.4:17 “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,”
The second verse of the hymn THE sands of time are sinking expresses the same idea this way:
2 The King there, in His beauty,
without a veil is seen;
it were a well-spent journey,
though seven deaths lay between;
the Lamb with His fair army
doth on Mount Zion stand,
and glory, glory dwelleth
in Immanuel’s land.
The Lord is the One we’re going to see in his glory and we’re going to enjoy his presence forever and it is this Lord who is even now near to his people.
The OT uses the phrase “the Lord is near” just a couple of times that we should most certainly bear these in mind:
Ps.34:18 “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”
Ps.145:18 “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.”
To know that the Lord is near means to know that he is concerned for us, interested in us and responsive to our needs. And what an encouragement that ought to be to us!
So let us turn to him, let us call out to him and let us be sure that we rejoice in him. And let us press on, taking that united stand of a people who are not seeking to serve their own interests but who are following in the footsteps of the One who gave his all for them. And may the world see and take note.
To God be the Glory,