(c) Copyright 2000 Rev. Bill Versteeg
"Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!
I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.
Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life." NIV
Brothers and sisters in Christ:
This is one passage where what appears to be an obvious interpretation might be the wrong interpretation. Most of you would probably regard the interpretation like a good number of commentators would . They tell us it appears that Euodia and Syntyche were faithful members in the Philippian church, maybe even founding members, and they ran into some dispute or disagreement that had the potential of dividing or at least seriously and negatively affecting the Philippian congregation. So Paul's instruction to these two women is to smarten up, agree with each other and get things back in order in the church.
There are some problems with that interpretation.
1: This is a pious way of encouraging Christians (whom they obviously were) to agree with each other on some theological issue.
2. The phrase "in the Lord" has to do with their ministry/work, whatever they were doing, on behalf of the Lord.
At least it becomes clear that Paul highly regards them, literally singles them out for honor even as he pleads with them to agree with each other.
Now this passage becomes even more interesting because Paul makes it very clear that their work was key to his ministry. He says
"Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life."
Euodia and Syntyche CONTENDED at Paul's side.
Who were these women? We have no record in the scriptures of these two women helping Paul in his missionary efforts, they simply arise in this setting. But the word that Paul uses which we translate "contended at my side" is the Greek word "synathlein" - literally to be "athletes together." Probably the best way to picture this word is to think of any olympic sport in which two athletes have to work together to get the job done, and to bring out the point this morning, let me use the illustration of canoeing. To go canoeing and actually get somewhere quickly, there has to be a partnership among the athletes or rowers.
Last Summer, my next door neighbor took me Canoeing. He's into it in a major way, he even has a racing canoe. We got out to the Kam river. He put me in the front. This canoe even had adjustable seats, he had to slide mine way back to get the canoe to sit level in the water. We got to the project of canoeing. I started the way I always do. Lower hand pulling, upper hand relatively stationary. In no time we were on our way, front end bobbing up and down with each one of my strokes. He told me I was doing it all wrong and with that style of rowing we would hardly get anywhere. He told me I had to use shorter strokes, keep my lower hand as a stationary pivot, and my upper hand doing a circular motion to row without pulling the canoe deeper into the water. It was not only an issue of timing, rowing on the correct side, it was an issue of style and strength and strategy. In canoeing, one athlete cannot carry the team, both rowers must work toward the goal. To canoe effectively, we had to by "syn - athletes" - contending together to get the job done.
Paul says in this passage that these women were his companion athletes, along with Clement in the cause of the gospel. Paul holds these two women in high honor, even as he pleads with them to agree in the Lord.
And then on top of that - Paul doesn't tell his "loyal yokefellow" (probably Luke) to correct them, he simply tells Luke to help them for the reason that they have been so essential to the advancement of the gospel.
So to come to grips with this passage even though on the surface it looks like an argument among important individuals in the Philippian church there are some very clear problems -
I suggest to you this morning that what looks like a normal interpretation to this passage is an interpretation that is very weak if we look closely at the text. And to bring out that point, let me do a little bit of a word study with you, a word study which I hope will reveal the nature of the labour or contending these two women were involved in.
First of all, this exact word - "synathlein" only occurs twice in the scriptures - it also occurs in Philippains 1:27 which says
"Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you."
In this passage, the word which we translate contend, would be very similar to our word "contest" or "intense battle" with the aim to victory. Now this image of contest, or intense battle is actually a common one in Paul especially when it comes to the work of Prayer! Listen to Romans 15:30
"I urge (plead - parakalw - same as Phil 4:2) you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love the Spirit, to join me in my struggle (sunagwnizw = agonize together) by praying to God with me."
Here Paul's appeal to other Christians is to join with him in a close companionship of struggle, a kind of athletic spiritual struggle by praying for him.
Again, let me use the illustration of Canoeing to bring out this image of prayer as an athletic partnership. As I mentioned, my neighbor is a dedicated canoeist. He often goes on races and comes back a winner. He and his partner have a certain strategy for a race. Normally, they average about 60 strokes per minute, but at the beginning of the race, they will often maintain 90 strokes per minute for about 10 minutes to get the canoe on a plane. So we thought we would try it out on the Kam river . We increased our strokes to about 75/minute.
Paul invited his fellow Christians to join with him in the strenuous activity of prayer for the advancement of the gospel.
Paul understood that the intercessory prayers of others were keys to the wellbeing of his ministry. Listen to II Cor 1:8bff
"We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might no rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in the answer ot the prayers of many."
This same theme is picked up in Philippians 1:19
"Yes I will continue to rejoice for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance."
This whole imagery of battle of prayer, Paul picks up in Ephesians 6 when he tells us in prayer to put on the whole armor of God.
As we research these themes in Paul's epistles, it starts to become clear. Euodia, and Syntiche, even though they we have no record of them ever being on any of Paul's missionary journeys with him, were prayer partners - partners in the labour of ministry that worked with him as people to be honored in the ministry of prayer. And his pleading to them to agree with each other was not an attempt to settle a dispute in the church at Philippi (there is no other mention in this passage, or the letter to the Philippians about a dispute), rather he pleads with them to agree with one another in the work of prayer for him. This in simple obedience to the promise that Christ gave in Matthew 18:19
"Again I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."
That text if your memory is very good was at the foundation of our initiative in 1995 called prayer 4s. The objective of prayer 4s is to gather together in prayer, to agree with each other in prayer, to join with each other on behalf of others, and each other because we were never designed to do Christian ministry, we were never called to be Christian individualists - we were called from the very beginning to be a community of faith - where we strive together for the cause of the gospel.
So at the end of this year, let me encourage you to pray together - join with each other and pray for one another and so help one another with your prayers. See your prayers together, in agreement, as prayers which are as helpful as being there in person, striving, struggling, whatever image you want to use, as powerful as being there in person.
You see prayer is what brings the concerns of earth to heaven and so brings the blessings of heaven to earth.
The christian community simply does not advance unless we pray.
If there is a battle to be fought - it will not be won unless there is prayer.
Is there a heart to be won, it will not be won unless we pray!
Is there a sickness to be healed, prayer can do what doctors can't.
Prayer is the channel of our blessing, our success and the spread of the gospel. That's Paul's point as he encourages these women to agree with each other, even though he was out there in the field doing the preaching, getting shipwrecked and being thrown in prison, he knew that if all he did was going to have any effectiveness, it would be because of those very honored persons who prayed with him, for him, and contested with him for the sake of the gospel.
So at the end of this year, I would like to do a "Paul kind of thing" - in almost everyone of his letters he requested that the churches would pray for him and for the ministry of the gospel. He viewed those who prayed with a special honor and he saw that prayer ministry as essential to any success he experienced in ministry.
And so, I would like to ask you, encourage you, one last time in this year to pray for me as your pastor, to pray for my protection and health, but even more, to pray that God work wonderfully in our congregation, bringing the truth of the gospel to light, so that we together might grow in his grace, that the cause of the gospel may be advanced among us.
And pray for all the different works of ministry that go on around us, for the Sunday School programs, for the education and outreach programs, for the ministry that happens in the context of fellowship and through music. Pray, Pray, Pray. And as you pray, pray together and agree with one another, because as we contend for the gospel as one, in harmony of purpose and Spirit, the power of our prayers will certainly surprise us because behind the power of prayer stands the power of God!
Let me conclud with one more illustration. Who here has been in a canoe by themselves on a windy day? (Allow opportunities for answers) What happened? (Description from less experienced canoeists will include having a great deal of difficulty in getting the canoe to head upwind. It will tend to turn broadside and capsize.) Leaving the task of prayer and ministry to your pastor is the same as leaving him out on a windy lake by himself. It is a gargantum task. Join with him, be athletes with him for the sake of the gospel.
(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.