"Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ . . . that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the Gospel; and in nothing terrified by your adversaries."—Phil. i. 27, 28.
WHEN our translation of the Scriptures was made, "conversation" meant manner of life. It has now dwindled to mean talk. But the rendering of our version was inadequate even when the word had its nobler and fuller meaning. For, though it then contained the substance of the Apostle's exhortation in a general fashion, it entirely obliterated the striking figure which, as many of you know, underlies the exhortation. Instead of " let your conversation be " we ought to read "play the citizen"; or, as the margin of the Revised Version has it, "behave as citizens, worthily of the Gospel of Christ."
Now, what led the Apostle to cast his exhortation into this remarkable form? Perhaps the answer will be found by remembering the note in the Acts of the Apostles about this same city of Philippi, that it was "a colony." Now, the connection between a Roman colony and Rome was a great deal closer than that between an English colony and England. The colonists and their children were Roman citizens. Their names were borne on the roll of the Roman tribes. They were not amenable to the provincial governor, but to their own magistrates; and these administered, not the local codes, but the Roman law. If we remember all these things, they give special force to the form of the exhortation here. No doubt many of the Philippian Christians, like Paul himself, possessed these privileges. They lived in Philippi ; they belonged to Rome. And so Paul would have them do by their true mother city what, as colonists, they did by Rome: realise that they belonged to it, live by its laws, feel the unity of their citizenship, and fight for the extension of its territory. I do not venture to adopt the tone of command befitting an Apostle, but let me put his commandments into exhortations.
I. Let us behave as citizens of the great city.
My text does not mean, as it is sometimes quoted as if it meant, "act as citizens" of an earthly kingdom or community, in a manner becoming the Gospel; though a good many of our citizens and statesmen would be all the better if they took that application of the words to heart. But the community to which we are to feel that we belong is the great mother city beyond the sea. We live in Philippi; we belong to Rome. We are members of another polity than that which surrounds us. And, "sometimes, in calm weather," our souls can catch a sight from some height of its sparkling buildings, lying dreamlike on the opal waves and bathed in unsetting sunshine.
So, brethren, if we are Christian men and women, 6urely one of oar first duties is to keep fresh and vivid in our souls the sense that " here we have no continuing city," not because that truth is bitterly bitten into our souls by the aqua fortis of Change, but because it is the happy result of our happy seeking after the city that is to come. To all you Christian people the words are applicable as to the verity of your true affinities and belongings, whether they are realised consciously or no: "ye are come into the city of the living God."
True, as in Rome and in London, and many another capital, a stream lies between the principal part, where the palaces of the King are, and the suburb on the other side. But the communities are one—
"Though now divided by the stream,
The narrow stream of death."
Brethren, there is nothing—or, let me not exaggerate— there are few things that the average Christianity of this day needs more than that note of unworldliness, of belonging to another community than that in which our lot in the present is cast, which my text prescribes for us. We must speak the language of the land in which we dwell, but we should speak it with a foreign accent. There should be something about us, even when we are doing the same things as other people do—and which we must to a large extent do—that tells that the same things are by us done from such different motives, that they become different from themselves, when done by the men whose cares, and interests, and hopes are "cribbed, cabined, and confined" by the triviality of the transient present.
And that wholesome detachment will enfeeble no work, will darken no joy, but it will take the poison out of _many a sorrow, and it will make small things great, and to be greatly done. He that stands above his work can come down upon it with more efficient blows, and the man that is lifted above the things seen and temporal will be able to draw all the sweetness out of them, to recognise all the nobleness in them, and to work nobly upon them. You are the citizens of another community, therefore you are to work here worthily thereof.
Now, our Apostle in these words not only prescribes the duty of keeping fresh that consciousness of belonging to another order, but he points to the imperial law to which the colonists are to submit—" worthily of the Gospel of Christ." I said that the Roman colonist in Philippi was not governed by the law of Macedonia, but by that of Rome. We, if we are Christian people, are not to be ruled and directed by the maxims of the world, still less by the notions that are current in the society to which we happen to belong, but are to take our commandments at first hand. "I appeal unto Caesar," and I get my law from his autocratic lips.
For the Gospel which we say we believe is not only a set of credenda—things to be believed—but a set of agenda—things to be done; and in Christ Himself, and in the principles which underlie His life and His manifestation, and which plainly flow from all His course and from His Cross, there lie the germs of all human duty, and principles which may be applied to the smallest and the greatest things. The least and the largest of duties come under the one law of obligation, and the manner of their discharge can be found in the one life and death of Jesus Christ and the truths that are wrapped up therein. We do not need a tangle of precepts. Our law has been codified, and it is contained in Him "who hath left us an example that we should follow in His steps."
Only let your citizenship be discharged worthily of the Gospel of Christ; there is the law, the all-sufficient law. The same law that holds together two invisible atoms binds the planets into a system; and "the most ancient heavens" in all their abysses "by it are fresh and strong." Here is the all-comprehensive commandment, large enough to dominate the mightiest, flexible enough to be applied to the most entangled, capable of being brought to bear on the minutest: "Only let your conversation be as it becometh the Gospel of Christ."
II. Let us steadfastly hold by the unity of the city.
One of the secrets of Rome's conquering power was that to every citizen the idea of the city had become a religion. And so, however there might be diversities of judgment in the Forum where they assembled together, they were as one man when the enemy was at the gates or when the eagles had to be carried afield. Therefore, though far inferior to the swift-minded Greek, whose quickness of spirit carried with it the fatal gift of divisiveness, they, by their steadfastly linked power, overthrew a world. Paul would have us, in our degree and fashion, follow such an example, standing fast "in the unity of the spirit."
Now, it may be a question whether we should spell "spirit" here with a capital or a little letter. In the one case the reference would be directly to the Divine Spirit; in the other case it would be to the Christian spirit, actuated by that Divine Spirit. Substantially the meaning comes to be the same in either case. A Christian man's spirit is always regarded in the New Testament as working under, and operated on by, that Divine Spirit which is given to every man that believes in Jesns Christ. And it is the unity, that is brought about by the operation of that one Spirit working in the spirits of all the citizens, that is suggested in our text. There is a deeper region in human nature than the intellect that works by reasoning, and that formulates its conclusions in propositions, and it is by the participation of that deeper element in us all in the one Spirit of God that our oneness is realised. Translate that into modern language, and it just comes to this, that our unity does not lie in identity of opinion, or in the adoption of like forms or methods, but it lies in the participation in a common life. "We are one bread," says Paul, " because we all partake of that one bread." And Christian men and women will never be brought together into anything but an illusive, external, frozen unity, unless we dig deep down beneath the region of opinion, and come to the region where the secrets of the life lie, and be one because the life of the one Lord is in us all.
But the exhortation of my text suggests for us that there are divisive tendencies which we have to resist; and it suggests, too, that the realisation of common eitizenship, and, therein, of unity, supplies a powerful aid to steadfastness, and is the firm ground on which we can stand firm. Isolated, we may be overwhelmed; linked, we are strong. The legionaries had hooks on their shields, which fitted into eyes on their neighbours' bucklers; and thus linked together they made a wall of steel. Half a dozen men, with their arms interlocked in each others', can resist an ugly rush that would sweep them away singly. If we realise our unity in the Spirit we shall stand fast in one spirit. Each of us rooting himself in the Vine, we shall be close to each other.
III. Lastly, let us fight for the faith.
"In one mind striving together for the faith of the Gospel." The unity of spirit, which is realised in the depths of the nature, will, to a large extent, well up into the more superficial elements of humanity, and will bring about a competent oneness of mind. Churches have too often reversed the process, and thought they would begin by making all their members think alike, and then they would all feel alike. Paul says, begin by feeling alike, and you will come in reasonable measure to think alike. Let there be the one spirit, and there will be as much of the one mind as is necessary for union.
"In one mind striving together for the faith of the Gospel." The word "faith" seems here to be used abnormally, in its later common ecclesiastical signification, by which it means not the act of belief but the sum and contents of the thing believed. Though, perhaps, even here we might see the more frequent sense as still in force; "striving together for the faith of the Gospel" may mean striving together that faith may rule in our own hearts and in those of others; but I think the other meaning is perhaps the more probable —viz., that the body of Christian truth which Paul had delivered to the Philippians is by him here designated the faith, the things believed. And to strive for that is our business, Christian people, in this world. What has God made us Christians for? For our own well-being and elevation? Yes! For our own well-being and salvation only? No, but that the leaven might spread from each leavened particle to the unleavened one that lies next it, and God's grace fructify through us to all.
Rome had an expedient, which Russia in later ages copied, of setting on the frontiers military colonies whose one business was to keep the marches and to push forward the boundaries. You and I are set here for that purpose, to see to it that not one inch be encroached upon, but rather that continuously, with a pressure that is as irresistible, though it may be as slow, as that of a glacier, the territory of the Lord Christ be pushed forward in the world. We, as well as Nansen's men, ought to feel that the name of the ship that we are on is the Fram—" The Forward"—and should take the dying word of the Roman Catholic martyr-missionary saint for ours, "Amplius! Amplius !" further, further afield. "Striving for the faith of the Gospel."
My text adds the temper in which this striving should be carried on. "In nothing terrified by your adversaries." The metaphor is taken from the shying of a horse at some obstacle. Now, horses shy partly from nervousness and partly from dim sight. And the latter, as well as the former, is a reason for a great deal of the downcast pessimist talk of weak-hearted Christians in this generation. There is nothing to be afraid about. A great deal will change; a great deal that some of us think very sacred will go. The removing of the things that are shakeable and " shaken " takes place that " the things which cannot be shaken may remain." And they will remain. The Ark is quite safe. I do not say as much about the cart that carries it, but the Ark is safe enough; which, being interpreted, is this: Jesus Christ, His life, His death, His redemption, His salvation, His Spirit, His Church endure, and will endure. So, "in nothing terrified by your adversaries."
That courage fulfils itself—"which is to them an evident token of perdition, and to you of salvation." That courageous confidence is based upon personal experience: "We have heard Him ourselves, and know that this is the Saviour of the world." It is based on nineteen centuries, and it is based upon a sure hope. The striking metaphor of my text is once again employed by Paul in this letter. The other use of it bears upon that subject of the hope of the militant Christians; for he says, in another part of the epistle, "our citizenship is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour." The fight is at its sorest, and "through the long-tormented air " are heard the bugles of an advancing force. Down on to the field comes as Saviour the Captain of the Lord's host; and His onset scatters the enemy, and the colonists who were fighting at the outpost fall in behind Him, and swell His train, and partake of His triumphal entry into the City of the Living God.