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Paul’s Letter to the Philippians
a.d. 61 – 62
by Paul, under house arrest, from Rome
49. A Beloved Church
Colossians and Ephesians and what they reveal in the life of Paul, and the high visions of Christ and his Church that they portray, set the stage for the crowning work of Paul’s life, written, as has been noted, at or about the same time—his towering letter to the Philippians.
Making such a claim, it is remarkable that we know so little of Paul’s visits to Philippi, of which there were apparently at least two, maybe more, during his second and third missionary journeys. There is no information on any but the first. That is found in Acts 16.
As a Roman colony inhabited mostly by Roman citizens, Philippi was a miniature version of Rome itself. Though not the capital, it was considered one of the leading cities of Macedonia. Because of this, few Jews lived in the city, and there was no synagogue. It was unique in this regard out of most of the cities Paul visited. There was no “base” from which to begin building a Christian ministry. However, Paul and his companions found a group of women gathered by the riverside for prayer on the Sabbath. One of these was a businesswoman by the name of Lydia who apparently became the first Christian convert in Philippi and opened her home to Paul.
Wherever he went Paul caused a stir, Philippi was no exception. Before long the city was in an uproar and Paul and Silas were flogged and thrown into prison. Then follows the dramatic account of the earthquake and the doors of the prison opening and the jailer’s attempt to kill himself. Finding Paul and the other prisoners still there, he asked Paul the immortal question, “What must I do to be saved?” He and his family were then baptized and entertained Paul and his group with food and drink.
Though nothing more is known of how the church in Philippi grew after such dramatic beginnings, this brief account is certainly one of the most memorable of the New Testament. However, Paul’s later letter deals with people and issues not mentioned in Acts 16, and nothing in Luke’s account concerns anything that can be connected to the letter. So we are left without that interesting interweaving of individuals and circumstances that makes much in Paul’s other writing so intriguing. All that can be deduced is that the church in Philippi took root and became the only one of the young churches resulting from Paul’s preaching that continued to support his work financially. As anyone in Christian ministry would attest, this is no insignificant fact and provided a basis (obviously not the only one) for Paul to keep in touch with the people there.
One other minor detail is worthy of note in light of what was discussed earlier about organization and structure in the early church. Paul’s mention of bishops and deacons in his greeting shows how early this systematization had taken root. The doctrinal and organizational codifying of the early church as an orderly religious “system”—for good or ill, whatever one thinks of its development along such lines—truly stands alongside the missionary spreading of the gospel through the Roman empire, as Paul’s lasting and most permanent legacy to the Christendom that grew on foundations he established.
date and circumstances of writing
For this, and other reasons, Philippians is not so closely linked with the other captivity epistles and stands alone in its own right. That Paul speaks so plainly about his potential death certainly would seem to date it late in his life. He is still apparently under “house arrest,” yet some of the people around him have changed, and he does not appear so optimistic about a soon release and being off to Spain. Donald Guthrie suggests that his trial may even be underway and “he is awaiting with some sense of imminence the pronouncement of a judgment which could issue in life or death.” (New Testament Introduction, pp. 527-8)
This general dating alongside the other captivity epistles, besides the tone of a “farewell address” at the end of his life, is in my view strengthened by what I read as an amplification of his Colossians perspective of Christ as the image of God. These are mature theological issues raised in the second chapter (Christ’s “divine nature”), and echo both Colossians and Ephesians (unity). The theme that runs through the whole letter of Paul’s vision of the “high call” of God, toward which goal he “presses on” is similar to the overarching vision portrayed in Ephesians.
There is, however, a school of thought which places the writing of Philippians much earlier, in the mid-50s, during a potential Ephesus imprisonment rather than at Rome. (It is not known that Paul was actually imprisoned in Ephesus as a result of his trouble there, but it remains a persistent theory. This is one of those major areas of speculation and analysis, mentioned in the Ephesians Introduction that “brevity” forced me to bypass, but which has many intriguing aspects, including the early-church tradition that Paul actually may have faced lions in the Ephesus amphitheater!) Paul’s concern in Philippians about the Judaizing problem, certain of his allusions to places and upcoming travel plans, and his remarks to some of the Philippians themselves, seem to coincide both with an earlier era in Paul’s life and a nearer location where travel to and from Philippi would be easier and more frequent. Scholars note as well that the unique linguistic style of Colossians and Ephesians are not apparent in Philippians, which seems to bear more resemblance to the Corinthian correspondence. Add to this that Luke and Mark and Paul’s other close companions whom he repeatedly mentions in his other writings from Rome are all conspicuously missing from Philippians. Timothy is the only constant through three of the four letters. All these factors convince many scholars that Philippians must have been written long before the Roman imprisonment. There is, in fact, a building shown as “Paul’s prison.” An earlier imprisonment, however, is a difficult theory (though not insurmountable; there were also praetorians in Ephesus) to reconcile with Paul’s end-of-life reflections and mention of the “praetorian guard” and “Caesar’s household,” as well as Luke’s complete silence of it in Acts (in an account full of prison stories).
Therefore, even though there remain unresolved questions, most scholars still hold with the traditional date and circumstances of writing with the other captivity epistles. But of the several books and commentaries and Bible encyclopedias that I find helpful and generally reliable, I find it interesting that opinion is about split. The questions of from where and when of Paul’s four captivity epistles remains unresolved and debated but without the usual line of demarcation between liberal and conservative scholars.
the multiple letter theory
No discussion of Paul’s letters would be complete without some theory or controversy about the text itself. Romans has its difficulties concerning the last two chapters. The Corinthian letters are thought to have originally been four. The latter portion of Mark 16 is clearly problematic. To some Ephesians sounds too impersonal to be a letter to the church at Ephesus with whom Paul was intimate. And so it goes.
Philippians also comes with such a theory. No one seriously doubts Paul’s authorship. Questions regarding Epaphroditus and his movements, when he came to Paul and why, his sickness, the concern of the Philippians, and related logistical issues—including Timothy’s movements—present difficulties in explaining precisely when and why the letter was written. And several notable shifts in style, topic, and tone disrupt the flow and seem to jar against the overall unity of the letter. The most unsettling of these occurs after the first verse of the third chapter and is impossible to miss—a sudden tirade that sounds like the old Paul, not the new more mellow Paul.
Though some argue on behalf of an underlying theological continuity sufficient to overlook these sudden shifts, there are also other possibilities to which various authors have pointed through the years in explanation. The sections which some interpret as having a different original source and as having come from Paul’s hand at different times, include:
Whereas some see the first example (2:6-11) as a separate “hymn” added later, I read it as the glorious and triumphant summation of what Paul began in Colossians. It flows perfectly out of that whole earlier train of thought about who Christ is, then carries it to the climax as Paul finally breaks into the inspired revelation of what will be the eternal result of Christ’s work. If, indeed, the textual critics are right in isolating 2:6-11 as not belonging to the original letter to the Philippians, then it assuredly must have been part of Colossians, in which case its power would be even greater! Place those verses, for example, between Colossians 1:27 and 28, or between Colossians 2:9 and 10. At either place, it flows like a seamless strand…as it also does where it comes in Philippians.
I do, however, find the early section of the third chapter disturbing in its reversion to the old critical and boastful Paul whom I would like to think by this time has begun to be a little less irritable toward those of different view. I would make the “out-of-sync” division a little different than any of the above—3:2-3:11. These ten verses indeed ring to my ear from an earlier time. Whether this makes the whole letter earlier, or indicates that this small section may have originally come from a separate letter, I leave you to consider.
The following analysis is presented, not as advocating any of the possibilities set forth, but to illustrate for you some of the options scholars have considered. It should be noted that the author below holds to the earlier Ephesus theory, which he (elsewhere) freely admits (a rare factor I appreciate and respect most highly in a commentator). This obviously tends to slant his final remarks in that direction.
Though no one today questions seriously whether Paul wrote Phil. There is renewed debate about the composition of the letter…Those convinced of the unity of Phil. offer psychological theories to explain Paul’s abrupt change of mood—e.g. an interval between dictating 3:1 and 3:2 during which he spent a sleepless night or received an unexpected report of difficulty in Philippi which he felt must be treated immediately…
The 2nd type of answer comes from those who seek a literary solution and therefore see here an editorial joining of 2 or 3 separate letters or parts of letters. On this hypothesis various attempts have been made recently to divide Phil. into its constituent parts. All these agree that a 2nd letter begins with 3:2 (or 3:1b) but do not agree on where it ends or on whether it is the only other letter. Most who see a 3rd letter find it in 4:10-20, which they view as Paul’s thank-you note written immediately after Epaphroditus’ arrival with a gift of money from the Phil. church (2:25-26). But 4:10-20 follows naturally after 2:25-30 and before 4:21-23. Probably there were only 2 letters, reconstructed as follows:
Letter A, 1:1-2:30; 4:10-23;
Letter B, 3:2-4:9 (3:1 may be an editorial splice; no one really knows what to make of it, including those who believe there is only one letter).
Letter A is virtually complete…We have only the latter part of Letter B. It was occasioned by an invasion of Paul’s churches by Christian teachers who were undermining his interpretation of the gospel…Because this problem grew much more serious in Corinth, what Paul wrote in II Cor. 11-12 helps to explain letter B, which was evidently written during that same period from Ephesus (or Corinth?) letter A probably came from Ephesus. (Leander E. Keck, The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible, p. 846)
50. Eternal Childship
the glory of philippians—joy, thankfulness, excellence,
and universal eternal childship in the fatherhood of jesus christ
That is a long section title, but I wanted to include all those elements that raise Philippians in my estimation to the very highest level of inspiration in illuminating the fullness of what the Christian life is.
For most, joy is the predominant theme, and Paul’s obvious warm affection for his readers. Indeed, joy and rejoice are used together more times in Philippians than any other of Paul’s letters. But neither “joy” nor the other above words—thankfulness and excellence—fully capture what I can only call the dazzling brightness and luminescence of this outburst of bliss and serenity and passion that emerges from Paul. (If we allow ourselves to look beyond Paul’s continued preoccupation with himself—1:16-17, 26; 3:17; 4:9—and his outburst in 3:2-9!) When I wade into Romans, I find myself slogging along as if through thick sand. When I open to Philippians, I almost have to squint and shield my eyes from the intensity of white light!
Equally significant is the continuing portrayal of Christ begun in Colossians, climaxing in the stupendous declaration of universal confession of Philippians 2:10-11. Both Judy and I find what are among our favorite passages of Scripture in this book—mine right here, and hers in Philippians 4:8.
Colossians is viewed as providing the great Pauline statement of Christology: He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.
To my mind, Colossians and Philippians must be read as a unity. For in Philippians 2:6-8, Paul continues the illumination of the nature of Jesus Christ, adding to what has come before the imperative revelation of why Jesus is to be exalted. It is because he was a humble and obedient Son! He did not glory in his lofty place with God, or (as it would later be interpreted) as being very God himself. Rather he humbled and emptied himself, took upon himself the form of a slave, and became obedient unto death.
That he existed in what Paul calls “the form of God” (note: he does not say that he is God, but that he existed in the form of God,) meant nothing to Jesus. He did not count “equality with God a thing to be grasped.”
It is his obedient Sonship, not his equality with God, that is the basis for the exaltation of his name above every name. I think this stunning truth has something very powerful to say to those who revere the Trinity more than they revere the example of the Lord’s Sonship.
Philippians completes the image of who and what Jesus Christ was and is, what is the nature and source of the salvation he brought to the world, and what will be the eternal result of that salvation.
I said earlier that I was unsure of being able to discover an ironclad description of the Trinity in Colossians. Neither do I find it here in Philippians. Paul may come at once both closer and remain more divergent from it at the same time. The sixth verse of chapter two is fraught with potential controversy. Did Paul intend to mean that Jesus was indeed “equal” with God, but did not grasp at it…or did he intend to mean that he was not equal, being a humble servant and Son, and so knew better than to grasp at it because such a place did not belong to him? Recalling Paul’s insistence in Colossians that Jesus was the “first-born” only adds to the difficulty. If he was born, then the Father obviously preceded him.
No wonder the Trinity is hotly debated, and will remain so!
A major deviant teaching in the church—to which Calvinism, evangelicalism, and many aspects of Protestantism in general have been very susceptible—is the elevation of Christ above the Father. This takes the Trinity a step further and actually makes Christ preeminent among the three. Paul’s teaching about God’s wrath in Romans and the necessity of Jesus saving us from the wrath of the Father certainly doesn’t help. Such a false schism in the Godhead actually derives from misapplications of many of Paul’s own teachings. Paul cannot be said to endorse such a view for an instant.
Here in Philippians Paul exposes this preeminence of Christ above the Father as the lie it is. Though I do not find a categoric case in favor of the Trinity in Philippians, what I do find, adding still one more to the many reasons I love this particular letter of Paul’s, is Sonship—a beautifully articulated yet utterly concise illumination of what is to be our attitude toward Christ, and toward our own sonship.
Not only do we here discover the perfect, beautiful, and harmonious working between Father and Son long before later doctrinalists got hold of the thing and derived a doctrine to seal in formularistic cement which they called the “trinity,” Paul goes to the heart of the actual relationship between Father and Son. He shows how sonship functions and how we are to model our lives after that of Jesus.
Though it is not referenced as his specific text, I cannot but believe that George MacDonald derived the germinal idea for his towering theological contribution to Christian thought, “The Creation in Christ,” from Colossians and Philippians.
paul—what a man!
In Philippians (which argues to me in favor of a writing around the same general time as both) I find a synthesis of the highest and best themes from both Colossians and Ephesians. I envision Paul’s writing the first two, along with Philemon, and then, as some time passes, perhaps as long as a year, even Paul himself is stirred and deepened and moved by what he has written.
I can testify to this process, as I am certain every one of you can as well. There are occasions when something simply “comes out” from mouth or brain or hand without foreknowledge. That the inspiration of the Holy Spirit has prompted it, there can be no doubt. You pause in awe at the very wonder of the thought. It goes back into you…deep…into the heart now instead of the brain…and slowly begins a work of changing you.
Such is God’s method with those who are truly listening with their inner ears to what the Spirit would say. It is to this ongoing process of growth in the inward parts that Jesus continually spoke of when he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” It is because of the intrinsic nature of this inner process, and the necessary obedience that accompanies it, that spiritual growth will never be, and can never be, primarily intellectual. Analysis will never uncover the deep truths of God.
I envision this perhaps happening with Paul. The very themes of Colossians and Ephesians grow and deepen yet more within him, and take on added personal import. Perhaps something changes in the nature of his imprisonment. Perhaps his trial has indeed begun. He is still hopeful of being released, and of visiting Philippi again. At the same time, there is the possibility the end may be near. For all these reasons he reflects back on his life. He is full of warmth, love, joy, gratitude…because of God’s work in him, and because of God’s work in those many whose lives he has been privileged to touch.
At last he begins to dictate a new letter, this time to the Philippians. Timothy is still with him, and he opens, not with his apostleship but with servanthood. As he speaks, the high themes of Colossians and Ephesians pour out of him with even greater sublimity—the eternal result of Christ’s humble Sonship (“every knee will bow”), the growth and unity of the body of Christ (and his own) into the very image of Christ himself (“I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God”), above all the supreme joy and peace Paul feels (“and again I say, rejoice!), climaxing with the most exalted and noble exhortation to flow from his mouth, if not to be found in the entire New Testament:
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, thing about these things.
It may be that some of Paul’s writings are convoluted and difficult to understand. But this is surely one of the loftiest expressions ever spoken by human tongue or written by human hand. No Socrates nor Plato nor Shakespeare ever captured the beauty of language nor the high reach of the human consciousness so succinctly nor beautifully as in these thirty-six words.
It is for this reason that I hold brother Paul in such high esteem. Whether or not he was right to take upon himself the title of apostle, my negative reactions to his boastfulness, my outrage at his public rebuke of Peter and Barnabas, these and my many quarrels with points of his method, theology, and doctrine are all matters of the intellect. I explore them in order to help us demystify the Scriptures, to see Paul as the man he was, and to helpfully (I hope) undermine the horrendously damaging perspective of Pauline infallibility that has led to so many erroneous foundations for various untruths through the history of the church, not the least of which is the damaging influence of his own example at Antioch.
But the inner man, the Paul of the heart, the man who is my cherished brother in the inherent unity of faith…ah, what a man! And what an example!
It all comes to a climax here. We see at last what God has been making of Paul all along—making of him because, with all his human weaknesses, Paul was obedient. He was a human lump of clay not only willing to submit to the hand of the potter, but eager to do so. Eager for nothing so much as to be made to conform to the image of his Lord! The passion with which he desires Christlikeness pours out of him like the fragrant perfume he speaks of in connection with the Philippians.
How many charges of imperfection might be brought to bear against me, as a weak, fallible, inept, selfish, ambitious man whose judgment has sometimes been so dreadfully misguided…a frail sinful human being. Whatever I may have said about Paul that seems negative, tenfold can be said about me! In our quiet, humble moments in our own prayer closets, we all know this about ourselves. Paul knew it too. We are all in this together.
But our human weakness is not the end. God is at work! Paul shows us how that work takes place in a human son or daughter of God.
In the end, when I am reflecting upon my life, may I also be able to say that I have fought the good fight and run the good race. May I be worthy of Paul’s example. May it then be my inner man that will at last shine through, a heart that desires nothing more than Christlikeness, a heart that at last knows the joy of gratefulness in all things, the peace that surpasses comprehension. May it be my heart God sees, not the weak outer crust of my humanity…as I believe Philippians reveals of Paul—a man by whose life of obedience, combating his own flesh at every turn, the Holy Spirit has gradually transformed into the very “image of Christlikeness” he so eloquently wrote about.
In the final analysis, notwithstanding the flurry of diverse opinion about whether it was written from Rome or Ephesus, or whether there really were Letters A, B, and C, there really are not as many factors of potential controversy or discussion surrounding Philippians as some of Paul’s other letters. There is not so much to analyze. Paul speaks for himself. To attempt any further to take apart Philippians 2:10-11 or Philippians 3:12-14, or Philippians 4:4-8 would only diminish the radiance of their glory.
Let us all read this wonderful letter slowly, prayerfully, gratefully…and let its truths sink quietly into our hearts.