Onward Christian soldiers of Philippi

Roman soldiers march in the circus maxiumus in Rome in this 17th century artwork by Aniello Falcone. St. Paul, knowing the military background of the soldiers stationed at Philippi, drops numerous references his audience would understand in his letter to the Philippians.

If you’re like me, you usually skip over the introductory remarks in your Bible and go straight to reading a biblical text. After all, do we really need to know all the details about the places to whom Paul wrote? As tempting as this shortcut might be, you could miss out on several valuable insights.

Gary Michuta

For example, Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a good example of how knowing the historical background of Philippi can help illuminate Paul’s message.

Philippi was named after Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, who defeated the Thracians and took the city in 356 B.C. In 31 B.C., Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium and rebuilt Philippi, turning it into a military outpost. By placing retired soldiers in Philippi, Octavian shrewdly ensured the city’s loyalty to Rome. As a military colony, retired army veterans enjoyed the benefits of being Roman citizens and other civic privileges.

If you read Paul’s letter to the Philippians with this military background in mind, you’ll catch all sorts of references and allusions to military service. After all, what better way to explain contending for the faith to a military colony than to appeal to the life they knew best?

Take, for example, Philippians 1:27-30. Paul writes:

“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 stand 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. This is a clear omen to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine.”

This passage is riddled with military ideas. Like an army, Christians are to stand firm, united in one spirit, fighting “side by side” for the faith of the Gospel, and not being frightened by the enemy.

It’s interesting that Paul insists that Christians should fight “side by side.” This was already an old military tactic. The ancient Greek author Onasander counseled generals to station their solders in pairs with friends standing next to friends and brothers standing next to brothers so that when danger comes the soldiers will fight more recklessly for the friend or brother beside him. Paul seems to have the same thing in mind with Christians. We are like soldiers standing side by side with our brothers and sisters contending for the faith.

Another ancient military idea was that generals should lead by example. Paul likewise offers himself as an example for the Christians in Philippi. He says that both he and the Christians at Phillippi were engaging in the same battle, “…which you saw and now hear to be mine.”

Elsewhere, he encourages them, like good soldiers to “… [d]o all things without grumbling or questioning” (Philippians 2:14).

Paul even speaks of Epaphroditus as a heroic soldier:

“I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill … So receive him in the Lord with all joy; and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete your service to me” (Philippians 2:25-26, 30).

Epaphroditus is described by Paul as a “fellow soldier” who risked his life to carry out his service for Paul. He therefore exhorts the Church in Philippi to “honor such men” just as soldiers are honored for going beyond and above the call of duty.

These are only a few of dozens of references in Philippians that take on a deeper meaning when looked at from a military perspective. Read it for yourself and see what other references you can find.

Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.