The passage opens with ‘where-fore’ which refers the reader back to the last section of chapter 3. The coming exhort-ation towards two disagreeing sisters in the assembly is issued in the light of their heavenly citizenship, the coming of the Lord Jesus, and the glorious transformation that will fit Christians for eternally dwelling with God in the new heavens and new earth, Phil. 3. 20-21. The exhortation to Euodias and Syntyche, followed by related instructions on prayer and ethics, are rooted in the believer’s identity as part of a community of saints actuated by Christ’s resurrection power.
Before addressing the problem, Paul’s pastoral heart overflows in love towards the Philippian saints; twice he calls them ‘beloved’, and also refers to them as his ‘longed for brethren’, v. 1. The first term is a cognate of the highest biblical word for love – agape; it is a strong affection emulating God’s heart. One commentator describes it as ‘a love that is deep-seated, self-sacrificing, thorough, intelligent, and purposeful, a love in which the entire personality takes part’.1 The second descriptor he uses is a strong term, expressing heartfelt desire. As Moule elaborates, ‘The word occurs here only in the New Testament, but the cognate verb occurs 1. 6, 2. 26, and cognate nouns Rom. 15. 23; 2 Cor. 7. 7, 11. The address here is full of deep personal tenderness, and of longing desire to revisit Philippi’.2 Finally, in language reminiscent of his description of the Thessalonian assembly, 1 Thess. 2. 19-20, he calls them his ‘joy and crown’. Joy is a frequent theme in this letter, and one may easily see that the apostle’s enjoyment is bound up with the Philippians’ spiritual welfare. ‘Crown’ is the stephanos – the laurel wreath given to victorious athletes – as opposed to the diadema – the royal crown of monarchs. Witherington iii elucidates the scene well,
‘In finishing this appeal, Paul twice calls the Philippians his beloved (agapetoi), speaking of what they are to him now, but he also calls them his crown and joy, speaking of what they will be at the day of Christ’s return. Paul envisions a grand celebration, perhaps like that at the end of the Olympic games, where the victors are given their wreaths and there is much rejoicing over what has been accomplished by those who have run and successfully finished their races’.3
These opening remarks demonstrate the deep love that Paul characteristically felt for other Christians – especially for those who were his children in the faith. His appeals and rebukes stem from his love for them in their mutual life in the Lord. Like his first exhortation in the book, Phil. 1. 27, he next exhorts them to ‘so stand fast in the Lord’, v. 1. In place of ‘so’ the English Standard Version renders it ‘thus’ and, clearer still, the New American Standard Bible has ‘in this way’. In other words, they are to stand firm as they await the Lord’s return. Eadie expands the thought, ‘To stand, or stand fast, in the Lord, is neither to wander out of Him, or even to waver in connection with Him, but to remain immovable in fellowship with Him – to live in Him without pause – to walk in Him without digression – to love Him without rival – and serve Him without compromise’.4 Moule adds, ‘The Christian is never to stand still, as to growth and service; ever to stand fast, as to faith, hope, and love’.5
The discord between two prominent sisters in the assembly is implied, rather than explicitly stated. It is a serious problem nonetheless, as Motyer pointedly observes, ‘The division of Christians is the sin of fratricide’.6 Instead of dwelling on the unedifying details of the rupture, Paul attacks the root problem by prescribing this remedy, ‘Be of the same mind in the Lord’, v. 2. The antidote to discord among believers is having the Christ-like mind which is spoken of in chapter 2 verses 5-11. If they put their fellow Christian first and abased themselves as the Lord did, then their differences would rapidly fade into oblivion. One writer asserts that ‘Each is reminded of her true sphere in the Lord, and that all strife ends in submission to His will. This is the secret of harmony’.7 Ironside passionately declares, ‘Alas, that we so little realize this, and are often so insistent on what seems to us exceedingly important truth, when nothing vital is at stake, while a brother or sister equally honest and earnest may fail to see things as we see them; and, at the judgment-seat of Christ, it may be manifested that, after all, they, and not we, were right, or perhaps that both were wrong’.8
Even in identifying their problem, Paul keeps in mind their past service (‘which laboured with me in the gospel’, v. 2) and their future status (‘whose names are written in the book of life’). Of course, this last phrase refers to all of the unnamed fellow labourers, as if to say, ‘I won’t enumerate them all in this letter, but the Lord knows them that are His, and being inscribed in His book of life is what ultimately matters’, see Luke 10. 20. These two sisters are included in that number, whose salvation rests secure in Christ – as evidenced by the presence of their names in that book. The apostle never loses sight of what they are in Christ; thus, he is able to speak the truth in love to them, and not grow impatient or overindulgent towards them. Their problem gives rise to an excellent display of the Christian life, so eloquently depicted in these words:
'[the passage] unfolds in one sentence after another the manifestation here below of the eternal life in all its holy loveliness. It invites Euodia, and Syntyche, and us with them, to the sight of what the believer is called to be, and may be, day by day, as he rejoices in the Lord, and recollects His presence, and tells Him everything as it comes, and so lives “in rest and quietness," deep in His peace; and finds his happy thoughts occupied not with the miseries of self-esteem and self-assertion, but with all that is pure and good, in the smile of the God of peace’.9
At least one other spiritual brother in the assembly is also enlisted to help them achieve this reconciliation, v. 2. Some Bible teachers hold that the Greek term translated ‘yokefellow’ is actually a proper name, ‘Syzygus’. They contend that as in the case of Onesimus, Philem. 11, there is a word play on this brother’s name. There seems to be little extrabiblical evidence for this name, however, and the KJV and most other reliable translations opt for translating it as a generic description of one of the apostle’s co-workers. In any case, this ‘true yokefellow’ needed to help Euodias and Syntyche mend the rift between them. Truly, the ministry of bringing disagreeing saints into harmonious thinking in the Lord is a vitally important spiritual service to the well-being of the local assembly.
Amazingly, despite the problems in Philippi and his own imprisonment, Paul next commands them twice over to rejoice, v. 4. This notable imperative is grounded ‘in the Lord’ – only in Him can joy predominate amidst any circumstances, be they tragic, happy, or anything in between. The Lord is unchanging, Heb. 13. 8, and His steadfast loving-kindness is constant in every situation, Lam. 3. 22-24. Once more, Eadie captures the essence of verse 4,
‘To rejoice in Him is to exult in Him, not as a dim abstraction, but as a living person – so near and so loving, so generous and so powerful, that the spirit ever turns to him in admiring grateful homage, covets His presence as its sunshine, and revels in fellowship with Him. Despondency is weakness, but joy is strength. Is it rash to say, in fine, that the churches of Christ are strangers by far too much to this repeated charge of the apostle – that the current ideas of Christ are too historic in their character, and want the freshness of a personal reality – that He is thought of more as a Being in remoteness and glory, far above and beyond the stars, than as a personal and sympathizing Saviour – that salvation is regarded more as a process a man thankfully submits to, than a continuous and happy union with Jesus – and that therefore, though Christians may run and are not weary, and may walk and are not faint, they seldom mount up with wings as eagles, and then, if they do, is not their flight brief and exhaustive?’10
Often, modern Christianity is blighted by schism and interpersonal conflict. Too often there is a spirit of censoriousness among believers, rather than the righteous love that flowed through the irrepressible Paul. We would do well to get back to basics: namely, cultivating the Christlike mind that loves one’s brethren in deed and rejoices in the Lord whatever the surrounding situation may be. If we do this, local assemblies will be shining testimonies of the love of God in Christ and the unity that prevails among saints who have their ‘minds on things above’, Col. 3. 2 NKJV.
William Hendriksen, Exposition of Philippians. New Testament Commentary, Vol. 5. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1962, pg. 189.
H. C. G. Moule, The Epistle to the Philippians, with Introduction and Notes. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1893, pg. 108.
Ben Witherington III, Friendship & Finances In Philippi: The Letter Of Paul To The Philippians. Valley Forge: Trinity International, 1994, pp. 102-103.
John Eadie, Commentary on the Greek Text in the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1859, pg. 238.
H. C. G. Moule, pg. 108.
J. Alec Motyer, The Message of Philippians. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1984, pg. 200.
H. C. Hewlett, Philippians, pdf., pg. 8.
H. A. Ironside, Notes on the Epistle to the Philippians. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1922, pp. 106-107.
H. C. G. Moule, Philippian Studies. New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1900, pp. 226f.
John Eadie, pp. 244-245.