Philippians 1:28, “and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.”
Roman citizenship was no trifling matter for first-century people, and the Roman Empire valued loyalty to the state above most everything else. At the time Paul wrote to the Philippians, loyalty to the empire was increasingly tied to the emperor cult, and the pagan citizens of Rome were beginning to look askance at anyone who did not honor the caesar as “lord” and “savior.” This put Christians in a hard position because the fundamental confession of the believer — “Jesus is Lord” — conflicted with the caesar’s demand for his subjects’ highest allegiance.
First-century Philippi took pride in being a Roman colony, and cultural demands for that city’s residents to show full obeisance to the emperor would have been strong. Paul’s emphasis in Philippians on Jesus’ sovereign lordship likely indicates that the Philippian Christians felt pressure to acknowledge the caesar as lord (Phil. 2:5–11). It would have been easy for believers to be afraid for their safety in such circumstances and for disunity to break out in the church over the degree to which the emperor was owed loyalty. There was a strong need for a unified Christian witness to the lordship of Christ because that would eliminate any fear of opposition, as the apostle explains in Philippians 1:28. With others at their side confessing the exclusivity of Jesus, Christian boldness in the Philippian church would follow. Today we can expect strength when Christians work together for the biblical truth and in the power of the Holy Spirit, who unites us to Christ according to the Father’s plan (Acts 4:23–31; Eph. 1:3–14).
Ironically, even though it might have appeared otherwise, “mighty” Rome’s pressure on and persecutions of the “weak” Christians were indications of the empire’s condemnation and the church’s salvation. Persecution reveals the Lord’s foes for what they really are — enemies who foolishly rail against God’s authority. Furthermore, our endurance of pain for Jesus’ name reveals the authenticity of our faith. John Calvin comments, “Persecutions are in a manner seals of adoption to the children of God, if they endure them with fortitude and patience: the wicked give a token of their condemnation, because they stumble against a stone by which they shall be bruised to pieces (Matt. 21:44).”
We do not earn our place in heaven through the consistent endurance of persecution and harassment. Rather, such endurance proves that we have the faith that can alone lay hold of the benefits of salvation, for “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22). Our primary prayer should not be that we would escape persecutions great or small but that we would have the grace to endure them faithfully.