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New Testament: Philippians

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Saint Paul

This artfully composed letter centers around two early Christian hymns (or confessions) that proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Around these two centers, the Apostle Paul identifies the reality of life in Christ for the Philippian Christians who will soon experience persecution for the sake of the gospel, just as Paul experiences this reality in his own imprisonment. The letter also emphasizes the joy that life in Christ brings to all believers in spite of the outward circumstances of persecution and life in the world.

So What?

Writing in the midst of his imprisonment and possibly facing martyrdom, Paul proclaims that his identity is in Christ. The reality of life is always centered in Christ, as Paul states, "For me living is Christ, and dying is gain" (1:21). Identity in Christ is the source of joy in Paul's letter to a people under persecution for the faith. Jesus Christ has claimed us as his own.

Where Do I Find It?

Paul's Letter to the Philippians is the eleventh book in the New Testament. It is situated in the midst of the "Pauline corpus," the collection of letters attributed to the Apostle Paul (the books of Romans through Philemon).

Who Wrote It?

The Apostle Paul, along with Timothy, wrote Philippians from a setting of imprisonment.

When Was It Written?

The letter expresses the imminence of Paul's death and his anticipation of a wave of persecution reaching toward Philippi. It appears, then, to be written toward the end of Paul's life while he was under house arrest in Rome, around 61-63 C.E.

What's It About?

The focus of the letter is centered in early hymns or confessions about Christ (2:6-11; 3:20) as it calls believers joyfully to live according to Christ's pattern of a servant and to expect his return as Lord and Savior.

How Do I Read It?

The letter calls readers into a living relationship with Christ, no matter what state of life one is experiencing. The endearing relationship between Paul and the Philippian community expresses the joy of life centered in Christ. The letter provides a way of understanding the living dynamic of the Christian community in the world as it faces whatever threats are present. In spite of opposition and persecution for the faith, we are called to live faithfully to the gospel because our true citizenship exists in heaven.

AUTHOR: Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament

I. Opening Greetings (Philippians 1:1-2)
In a section that, in partnership with the letter's closing verses (4:21-23), forms a ring around the letter, Paul and Timothy greet "all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi."

II. Opening Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession (Philippians 1:3-11)
The letter's authors thank God for the Philippians and intercede on their behalf. These prayers express the intimate, personal relationship that the writers share with the believers in Philippi.

III. Life Centered in Jesus Christ as Servant and Lord (Philippians 1:12-2:30)
In a section structured in a concentric pattern, beginning and ending with mention of Paul's imprisonment and proclamation, Paul acknowledges the reality of persecution for the sake of the gospel. At the center of this section, bracketed by discussion of the reality of life in Christ, is a hymn that proclaims Jesus Christ as servant and Lord of all (2:6-11).

IV. Life Centered in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (Philippians 3:1-4:9)
This section is also structured in a concentric pattern, beginning and ending with Paul expressing concern for issues in the Philippian community and identifying issues that detract from the centrality of Christ by focusing on the self. At the center of this section, surrounded by calls to live in expectation of the Lord's return, is an early Christian hymn or confession that proclaims Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (3:20).

V. Closing Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession (Philippians 4:10-20)
Prayers voice thanksgiving for the Philippians' life in Christ and the riches that are present in Christ.

VI. Closing Greetings (Philippians 4:21-23)

The letter concludes as it begins, with greetings. This completes the book's overall concentric literary pattern.

AUTHOR: Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament

The location of Philippi is strategic as the first center of Christianity in Europe. The city was located on the Egnatian Way, the east-west land and trade route through Macedonia that connected to the Appian Way, which led to Rome. Paul was a master of planting the gospel in strategic locations in the Mediterranean world. The city of Philippi had been designated a Roman colony (Acts 16:12), which granted the same status for its citizens as those living in Rome.

Paul was also a master of letter writing, composing through the hand of a trained scribe. His letter would be read in public to an audience, perhaps by a trained orator. Paul crafted this letter in such a way that the recipients who heard it read aloud could recall its contents. Imbedded in the letter, and thus in a public reading, are memory devices that would serve to recall the flow and structure of Paul's thought and theology. Evidence of this can be seen in the pattern of concentric circles that structure the letter, leading readers to two centers where early Christian hymns proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord (2:6-11) and Savior (3:20).

Epaphroditus, who was sent by the Philippian congregation to support Paul in his imprisonment, bore this letter back to his home community. The Philippians had heard reports that Epaphroditus had not carried out their highest intention of service to Paul, but had become seriously ill. This led them to think that he had only compounded Paul's already grave situation. Paul knows differently in the ministry he has received from Epaphroditus. Paul sends the letter with Epaphroditus to Philippi, giving him his highest commendation: "He came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me" (2:30). Epaphroditus is the embodiment of Christ's servant ministry in physical weakness, even as Christ "became obedient to the point of death" (2:8).

AUTHOR: Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament

Commercial language. Paul concludes the letter with a prayer of thanksgiving for the participation and partnership in the gospel that he and the Philippians share (4:10-20). To express the binding reality of this relationship, Paul draws on words that come directly from the commercial world. The words translated "shared with me" (v. 15) literally express "opened an account"; "giving and receiving" (v. 15) literally express "debit and credit"; "gift" (v. 17) literally expresses "profit"; "profit" (v. 17) literally expresses "interest"; "accumulates" (v. 17) literally expresses "draws interest"; "paid in full" and "fully satisfied" (v. 18) literally express "complete settlement." With this language, Paul states that he has invested the gospel of Jesus Christ with them. If Paul thought his investment of the gospel carried a risk, he claims that he has been completely compensated in the partnership of their mutual ministry. Paul does not seek profit from his investment, but what comes to him is the complete settlement of an account of debit and credit, an account that increases in interest and accumulates. Paul has been paid in full from his investment of the gospel with them.

Imperial language. The theme that Paul might soon experience death runs through this letter. Paul also prepares the Philippians for a wave of persecution that might soon be present for them. It would be likely that the persecution of Christians in Rome under Emperor Nero, during the last years of his reign (61-68 C.E.), would move quickly to Philippi, which had close ties with the imperial capital. Residents of Philippi, "a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony" (Acts 16:12), would take special notice that the spread of the gospel had increased through Paul's imprisonment insofar as "it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that [Paul's] imprisonment is for Christ" (Philippians 1:13). Paul concludes the letter with greetings from the community were Paul is imprisoned: "All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor's household" (4:22). These imperial references would be of interest to the Philippians, indicating that Paul's presence is acknowledged in the highest places of military and civil office in the Roman Empire.

Military and athletic language. Paul's rich use of language is reflected in his use of military and athletic terms. The Greek word translated "to spread" and "progress" (1:12, 25) reflects a strategic military movement of soldiers "advancing" on an enemy. The phrase "put here for the defense" (1:16) literally refers to a soldier who is assigned as "a sentinel on duty," one who remains on watch and is relieved of duty only when a replacement is sent. "Standing firm" (1:27) likewise reflects the stance of one who is unyielding in the call to duty. "In no way intimidated" and "opponents" (1:28) refer to military or athletic images on a field of either military engagement or athletic competition. "Evidence of their destruction" (1:28) literally refers to the "omen" or "sign" of destruction, with reference to the crowd in an arena giving the thumbs-down sign to the gladiator, sealing the fate of the victim. The words translated "striving side by side" (1:27) and "struggle" (literally, "agony" in 1:30) signify intense engagement in either battle or athletic competition.

Present and future realities in Christ. Paul's opening prayers of thanksgiving (1:3-8) and intercession (1:9-11) for the Philippians flow together with a joy that is distinctive to the new life that Christ gives. Language of time pervades these prayers, as Paul refers to the Philippians' faithfulness "from the first day until now" (1:5) and prays with assurance that "the one [God] who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ" (1:6). Paul's present "defense and confirmation of the gospel" (1:7) also anticipates a time that is coming soon: "so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless" (1:10). Paul's prayer of intercession calls the Philippians to live independent of present realities, as he reminds them of the joy and hope that are centered in "the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God" (1:11).

Sacrificial language. Paul includes sacrificial language in his opening prayer: "so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless" (1:10). The sacrificial reality is present for Paul and the Philippians: "For he [God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well--since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have" (1:29-30). Paul uses the language of sacrifice (2:1-5) to prepare the Philippians to hear the Christ hymn, which expresses their identity in Christ's death and exaltation (2:6-11). Sacrificial language also follows the Christ hymn: "But even if I [Paul] am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you--and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me" (2:17-18).

AUTHOR: Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament

The centrality of Christ. The Philippian letter is very carefully written and centered on two early Christian hymns, proclaiming who Jesus Christ is as Lord (2:6-11) and Savior (3:20). These two centers of the letter call the Philippians from lives of self-centeredness to experience the gift of life centered in one's identity in Christ

Issues affecting the community of faith. Paul voices his concerns for issues present in the Philippian community in 3:2-19 and 4:2-3. Warnings in the letter introduce Paul's concern for what is taking place in Philippi. His desire for the reconciliation of Euodia and Syntyche likewise expresses his concern.

Joy and rejoicing. The word joy has a rich meaning in Philippians. Paul's prayers for his readers are "with joy" (1:4); joy is centered "in faith" (1:25); joy is complete in being "of the same mind, having the same love, being of full accord and of one mind" (2:2); joy is in welcoming Epaphroditus back "with all joy, and honoring such people" (2:29); the Philippians themselves are the reason for Paul's "joy and crown" (4:1). Likewise, the call to rejoice is a rich expression of the joy that Paul experiences even in the midst of his imprisonment, because of the reality of the living presence of Christ.

Self-centeredness. Paul describes three concerns that indicate a self-centered life, a life not oriented to the gift of salvation in Christ. The first concern expresses: I earn my own salvation (3:2-11); the second: I am already perfected (3:12-16); and the third: I will do what pleases me (3:17-19).

AUTHOR: Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament