Practical Insights from the Greek of Philippians 1:27

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Paul writes in Philippians 1:27a, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (NIV).   “Conduct yourselves in a manner” translates the Greek term politeuesthe (πολιτεύεσθε).  A closer look at this term reveals an interesting theological and historical nuance that’s not readily apparent in most English translations, as Thomas Moore explains in his Philippians commentary.

The Greek word πολιτεύεσθε is a second plural present middle imperative from the verb πολιτεύομαι that means, “I conduct/lead my life” (BDAG, s.v. “πολιτεύομαι” 3, p. 846). Syntactically, πολιτεύεσθε is the main verb of the independent clause. Semantically, the present tense functions as a customary present, denoting continuing action. The imperative is used as a simple command (see W, 485, 714–17, 721–22). Paul seemingly chose this word to suggest that the Philippians are a colony of Christians planted in Philippi. They must be loyal first of all to Christ and to conduct their lives according to the gospel, the standards of their commonwealth (Thielman, 93).

Lexical Nugget: Πολιτεύεσθε (1:27). Normally when Paul writes about how believers are to “live worthily” (e.g., Eph. 4:1; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:12), he often uses the verb περιπατέω, which literally means, “walk” (used thirty-two times in his letters to denote a manner of life, cf. Phil. 3:17–18). He also regularly uses the verb ζάω (“live”). But here he uses πολιτεύεσθε, a verb derived from the Greek word for “city” or “city-state” (πόλις). This is the only place it occurs in Paul’s letters. On the one hand, πολιτεύεσθε could simply mean “live, conduct yourselves” (CNT ESV NIV NASB NKJV NRSV; TDNT 6:534).

On the other hand, the common Greco-Roman meaning of this verb was “to live as a citizen” (TDNT 6:517–18; Brewer, 76–83). Paul likely intends this meaning here (NLT TNIV NETMG). CSB specifies that Paul is referring to their heavenly citizenship: “As citizens of heaven, live.” This would have been a meaningful term for Paul’s readers. Philippi was a Roman colonia, its citizens were Roman citizens. While it is not clear that any of the Christians in Philippi were Roman citizens (perhaps 40 percent of the city’s ten thousand inhabitants were), they knew how important the concept of citizenship was in a city like Philippi.

In Philippians 3:20, Paul states that believers belong to a commonwealth in heaven. He wants the Philippian believers to think of their loyalties, not only to Rome (cf. Rom. 13:1–14), but more importantly to the Lord. It is Christ, not Caesar, to whom they owe their primary obligation. Paul is urging them to live as citizens of God’s kingdom while they are citizens of Rome (NIDNTTE 4:96). Philo used [this verb to describe]sojourners sent down from heaven to occupy earth as to a colony, looking upon the heavenly region, in which “they have citizenship” (Conf. 17 §§77–78). In the only other New Testament occurrence of the word (Acts 23:1), Paul says that he had lived his life (πεπολίτευμαι) with all good conscience before God. He may have been emphasizing that as a Pharisee, he was a member of God’s commonwealth and had lived as a good citizen for God abiding by the Jewish law (EDNT 3:130). This was how the Hellenistic-Jewish writers in the Old Testament Apocrypha (2 Macc 6:1; 11:25; 3 Macc 3:4; 4 Macc 2:8, 23; 4:23; 5:16) and Josephus (Vita 1.2 §12) used it. 

Learn more about Philippians: An Exegetical Guide for Preaching and Teaching (Big Greek Idea) or request a faculty examination, media, or blog review copy.

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