For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, having the same conflict which you saw in me and now hear is in me.
Believe it or not, the Greek word ἀγών ("agōn") is a word we learn about pretty early in our literary education. In middle school we start to learn about how stories are structured with a "protagonist" and an "antagonist," and by secondary school and college we understand how the conflict between those two characters is played out. We also vaguely understand the definition of the word "agony" as we have "agonized" about an upcoming test or a date or a job interview. And those words all come from a simple little Greek word that indicated an assembly where people come together in contest with each other.
In the New Testament, that word is translated "conflict" (as it is in the verse above) or "fight" (as in 1 Timothy 6:12, 2 Timothy 4:7) or even "race" (Hebrews 12:1). In every instance where Paul uses the word in his letters, he is talking about the difficulty of living the Christian life in a world that is antagonistic to faith in God. As Paul told the Philippians in the previous verses:
Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and not in any way terrified by your adversaries, which is to them a proof of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that from God.
In short, their standing fast in their faith, their persistence in living the gospel, is proof of the fact that they are saved. Were they not saved, they would not have the strength to stand in the storm that assailed them from all sides. Of course, the Philippians have witnessed such bitter conflict between Paul and unbelievers before (Acts 16:11-40), and they were well aware that the current epistle was sent to them from a jail in Rome. Thus they knew what they might face for the gospel of Jesus Christ, and Paul knew that they knew. And so Paul's encouragement to them is that such suffering, such agony, was a privilege, part and parcel of the faith granted to them by Jesus. They were granted the right to believe in Christ and to suffer for His sake just as Paul had done. Through their faith and perseverance, they would show themselves to be true disciples of their crucified Lord.
11 "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.
12 "Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
The righteous are always persecuted, because all men are born into sin and desire to stay there, practicing lawlessness and self-righteousness. But Jesus came to break the bondage to sin, to break us of our inherent nature, and to make us hunger and thirst for righteousness. And so, once we are saved and desire the righteousness of God instead of the "morality" of men, we become enemies of the world. To God, we are the protagonists of the drama of redemption, and the unbelievers are the antagonists as they attack our choice to live by a higher standard.
And yet even the antagonists can become protagonists.
1 Timothy 1:12-15
12 And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, 13 although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.
14 And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.
15 This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.
Paul had formerly been the antagonist, been the persecutor, been the insolent, prideful, "religious" man who preyed upon believers. And yet the grace of God fell on that sinner Saul of Tarsis and made him an apostle, a true disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, so that he might suffer as a believer as once he had inflicted suffering. Did the reborn Paul consider this payback for his years of persecuting believers? Not at all. On the contrary, as he makes clear in today's passage and others, he considers it a gift that he has been granted to suffer for the gospel just as Jesus suffered. So he reminds the Philippians that their conflict, their agony, their contest with the unbelievers around them is a good thing that will prove their faith in God and be an example of the power of salvation to the unbelieving world.
Today we face the same conflict that Paul faced in his day. In some parts of this "modern" world, Christian disciples are still jailed, beaten, and executed as blasphemers. In our own country, we who speak the truth in love are labeled as intolerant, bigoted, hate-filled, and ignorant. The crucified and risen Lord Jesus is, as Paul so aptly put it to the Corinthians, foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others--and yet salvation to us who believe. And we must remember this: PERSECUTION OF BELIEVERS WILL NOT CEASE UNTIL OUR LORD RETURNS. Our task, then, is to endure persecution--to face the agony, the conflict, the contest, the fight, the race--with faith and grace, knowing that even while the world persecutes us, we can still show the world the face of Christ, the One who saves.
Lord God Almighty, I thank You that You have redeemed me and allowed me to be a disciple. Compared to Paul and other jailed believers, I know I have it easy, and so, like the Philippians, I pray that when persecution comes my way, I will have the strength to stand fast. I pray, Father, that others will also be strengthened, that they may fight the good fight, persist in the race, and bear up in the conflict that even now others face in this world. May Your righteousness reign in our lives, O Lord. Amen.