COMPANION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT - The New English Bible. By A E Harvey. - © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press, The Syndics of the Cambridge University Press. 1970. - Prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2014.


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P46. Gal.17-Phil1.


The events which accompanied Paul's first visit to Philippi are dramatically told in Acts 16 and are also referred to by Paul, with some indignation, in 1 Thessalonians (2.2). Despite this violent beginning, the Philippian church had evidently taken root and flourished; and although Paul was only able to pay it one, or possibly two, subsequent visits (Acts 20.2; 2 Corinthians 2.13), it more than once provided him with generous financial support, and its record of faith and loyalty elicited this, the warmest and most affectionate of Paul's surviving letters.

The city of Philippi was an important one, being the first station on the Egnatian Way leading from Asia to the Adriatic (see the map on p. 464). Along with the indigenous Greek inhabitants, it contained many families from Italy who had been settled there by the Romans during the first century B.C. These families now constituted a considerable Latin element, and had given the city a distinctly Roman character. There was also a Jewish community, too small, it seems, to have been able to build itself a prominent synagogue (Acts 16.13), but able none the less to exert some pressure upon the Christians.

It is clear from the text that when Paul wrote this letter he was in prison, awaiting trial. The traditional view is that this captivity was at Rome, and that Philippians, like Colossians and Philemon, therefore belongs to the last period of Paul's activity; and this provides a reasonable explanation of the circumstances which are alluded to in the letter. On the other hand, the journey from Philippi to Rome was a long one, and the mail must have taken several weeks; yet messengers had passed between Paul and the Philippians at least twice before this letter was written (2.25-6); and since we do not know the details of earlier imprisonments (such as Paul alludes to in 2 Corinthians 11.23), we cannot rule out the possibility that the letter was written from a place much nearer to Philippi, such as Ephesus, at an earlier period in his life.


The apostle and his friends

| << | salutation | thanksgiving | to me to live is christ | humility | shine! | timothy & epaphroditus | true righteousness | pressing towards the mark | exhortations | acknowledgment of the gift & final greetings | >> |

Chapter 1.

The opening of the letter follows the usual convention (see above on Romans 1.1), and does little more than name the sender and the recipients; but there is one remarkable addition: including their bishops and deacons (1).

The Greek words used here for bishops and deacons are the same as those which subsequently became the names of established orders of ministry within the church; but in Paul's time their meaning may have been somewhat different. It was not until early in the second century that a threefold ministry of bishops, presbyters (priests) and deacons was established in any part of the church, and it did not become universal until the beginning of the third. During the first decades of the church's existence the organization seems to have been much less uniform. According to Acts, the church in Jerusalem was governed, first by the apostles, and then by "elders"; in Corinth, there do not seem to have been any clearly defined offices at all; and only in the letters to Timothy and Titus do the titles "bishop" and "deacon" reappear. The most we can say is that some sort of precursors of the later bishops and deacons had already been established at Philippi.

Thanksgiving for the record of the church to which he is writing and a prayer for its continuing progress stand at the beginning of many of Paul's letters: the pattern is the same in Colossians, in Ephesians, and elsewhere. The tone here is particularly warm. The part you have taken in the work of the Gospel (5) may be a reference specifically to the material contributions made by the Philippian church (4.15-16); but Paul at once goes on to indicate other reasons for his gratitude—the general progress of the Philippians, their solidarity with him in his present critical circumstances, and his conviction that their faith is such as to last unshaken until the imminent Day of Christ. And so Paul longs to see them, with the deep yearning of Christ Jesus himself (8)—not, that is to say, as if Paul imagines his own emotions to be similar to those of Jesus, but rather with that depth of feeling which is due to the unique relationship which now holds between Christians (and especially between Paul and his converts) who are incorporate in Christ Jesus (1). ← The detailed interpretation of this passage is a little obscure—see the footnotes in NEB; but the general sense is clear enough.

Meanwhile Paul was in prison. The word praetorium (here rendered headquarters (13)) might have been hoped to yield some indication of where exactly Paul was; but unfortunately the word has several possible meanings. If Paul was in Rome, it would probably imply that he was under the custody of the Praetorian Guard, that is to say the Emperor's household troops; if he was in a provincial capital, it would mean the official residence of the Roman governor (these possibilities are allowed for in the NEB footnote). In any case, his imprisonment might have been regarded by many as a serious check to the progress of the gospel. Paul, on the contrary, could show that it had been in the main a source of encouragement, and even if some of his personal rivals had taken advantage of his absence in prison to advance their own reputation—what does it matter? One way or another ... Christ is set forth (18).

But Paul was not merely in prison, he was on trial for his life. Job, brought near to the point of death by his misfortunes, had been anxious above all that he should not die in disgrace: convinced of his innocence, his most earnest prayer was, not for an escape from death, but for this innocence of his to be recognized. "The issue of it all will be my salvation", he said, "in that no deceit shall come into God's presence" (Job 13.16 in the Greek version of the Septuagint). Job's only concern was to maintain the justice of his cause. Paul, by alluding to this verse (the issue of it all will be my deliverance (19)) placed his own ordeal in the same light: the important thing was not whether he lived or died, whether he was released or condemned, but only that he should have no cause to be ashamed (20), and that, whichever way the human judgement went, the truth of Christ should shine out clearly. He was so sure that this would happen that the imminent possibility of death did not affect his mood: Yes, and rejoice I will.

But suppose he was in fact to die, had he personally no fear of death? Paul was not one to take lightly the seriousness of the judgement which must follow death, nor was he disposed to assume too easily that his future destiny was assured (3.12-14). But at the moment of writing his consciousness of union with Christ was so intense (to me life is Christ (21)) that, brushing aside all theoretical schemes of the after-life (such as that in 1 Corinthians 15), he seems to have envisaged his own death as an immediate escape into a still closer relationship with Christ; and only the obligation he felt to stand by his churches kept alive in him a desire to be spared.

The following paragraphs (1.27-2.18) amount to a brief sermon addressed to the Philippians, of which the theme is: let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ (27); and a number of different arguments are used. First, the Christian life is painted in the colours of a battle: contending as one man for the gospel faith. The longer the battle lasts (and Paul did not expect it to last very long) the clearer will become the line of demarcation between the opposing forces, and on the day of judgement the essential thing will be to be found standing on the right side of the line. Those who have remained faithful—without so much as a tremor (28)—can be assured of their salvation; whereas those who have been opposing the Gospel will be able to infer from the very faithfulness of the Christians that what they have been opposing is indeed the truth, and so will be convinced, even before the judgement, that they are on the wrong side of the line, that their doom is sealed. (The same point is made more elaborately and more ruthlessly in 2 Thessalonians 1.6-10). Paul's first visit to Philippi (Acts 16.16-24) was a notable demonstration of the kind of opposition which Christians must expect, and which the Philippians may still have been having to face.

Chapter 2.

Paul's second argument is a highly personal one. Fill up my cup of happiness (2). Life in Christ is an experience binding men and women closely together; if it is real at all, it inevitably makes the Christian particularly sensitive both to the excellences and to the shortcomings of his fellow-Christians. So Paul begs that his own happiness may be increased by the mutual love and personal humility of the Christians at Philippi.

Thirdly, there is the example of Christ himself—or rather (following the main text in NEB as opposed to the footnote) there is a vital implication of the Christian's life in Christ (5). The passage which follows has a marked poetic quality in the Greek, and a kind of symmetry of construction which suggests that it may have been a transcription of an existing poem. Not that Paul could not rise to great heights of eloquence himself; but the poetical form, combined with certain peculiarities of diction, suggests that the passage may be, not a piece of original Pauline thinking about the nature of Christ, but a fragment of a hymn which had come to be used in the worship of the earliest Christian communities. If so, Paul is quoting from this hymn, perhaps with slight modifications, in order to press home the point of his sermon.

The theme of the hymn is the humility and obedience of Christ; but these are not thought of as marks of Jesus' character that might be illustrated by known episodes from his earthly life, but rather as clues to the understanding of who Jesus was and what he did. The story is taken up (as at the beginning of John's gospel) long before his human birth. Christ humbled himself (8), not just by his demeanour on earth, but in a more significant, almost metaphysical, sense, in that he willingly and deliberately exchanged ← The meaning of verse 7 is not clear. The most natural sense of the Greek words is that at some specific moment Jesus could have made himself equal with God, but chose not to. Such a moment could perhaps be thought of in the context of the myth of Adam, whose sin was precisely to "snatch at equality with God" (Genesis 3.5): Christ, the Second Adam (Romans 5), could be seen to have resisted the identical temptation. Alternatively, the words may be taken in the sense given by the footnote in NEB: " He did not prize his equality with (rod" that is to say, having always been equal with God, he was prepared to forgo this equality in order to assume the nature of a slave, Both interpretations presuppose that Christ existed before he became man; the first describes this pre-existence in terms of a myth, the second in terms of an eternal metaphysical relationship with God. But many other interpretations are possible. his rightful equality with God for the nature of a slave (7)—that is, for a human existence exposed to everything which might befall such an existence: not death only, but the extreme humiliation of death on a cross (8). This, beyond anything which a merely human being could perform, was supreme obedience, supreme humility; as a result of it (therefore is emphatic in the Greek (9), beginning the second strophe of the poem and thereby showing that this was the important thing about Jesus, the key to his nature and work, the point at which divinity and humanity touch) God raised him to the heights and gave him the paramount honour which, in Isaiah (45.23), God reserves for himself: "To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear" (10). Yet this exalted position, above all earthly, infernal and even heavenly beings, was no usurpation by Jesus: it was still to the glory of God the Father (11).

All this has theological and metaphysical implications; but the passage betrays no interest in these. It may also owe much to the ideas which were implicit in Jesus' use of the title Son of Man, or to the "suffering servant" motif in Isaiah 53—not to mention more remote antecedents which have been suggested by scholars; but these lie so far beneath the surface that they can no longer be clearly distinguished. What is before us is a brief poetical statement, such as a hymn or an act of worship might have contained—perhaps an example of the way in which the earliest Christians sought to explain to themselves the significance of the life and work of Jesus. They studied it, not so much for instances of divinely inspired virtue, as for traces of the grand design which underlay it—the obedience and self-humiliation of a divine being who had abandoned his status of equality with God, descended to the depths of human suffering and ignominy, and only then been restored to his rightful place in the whole created universe. It was obedience on a divine and cosmic scale, the supreme obedience of Jesus Christ, to which Paul was appealing when he wrote, So you too, my friends, must be obedient (12).

Obedient to what? When Paul was present in Philippi it may have seemed easy enough to grasp this obedience as obedience to the apostle's personal authority. But the real object of the Christian's obedience was perhaps seen more clearly now that he had left them. The motive of their new life was now experienced as having nothing to do with Paul's authoritative personality. It is God who works in you (13)—yet in such a way that he allows complete freedom of response. However paradoxical it might seem (in view of the initiative which God had undoubtedly taken) it remained true that you must work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.
The last section of this short sermon, like the first, is conceived in the light of the coming day of judgement. When that day comes, the Christians must be sure that their conduct has been such as to place them in the right camp: is not (as the scriptural phrase has it, Deuteronomy 32.5) in a warped and crooked generation, but as faultless children of God (15). Thus, not only do they already have a radiance and a message which distinguishes them from all other men, ← This is an approximate paraphrase; the precise bearing of the metaphor in verse 15 is a little obscure. but, on that same day of judgement, they will stand to the credit of Paul himself when he too is called to account for his career. Paul may die before that day; but his death (in a metaphor probably based on pagan sacrifices as much as on anything Jewish or Christian (17)) will be only a part of that sacrifice which they are making themselves: it need neither separate him from them, nor impair their mutual joy.

Two envoys were to maintain contact between Paul and the Philippian church. One, Timothy (19), had already been entrusted with a delicate mission to Corinth (1 Corinthians 4.17), and is here given an eloquent testimonial; the other, Epaphroditus (25), belonged to the Philippian church, and we know nothing about him and his misfortunes beyond what we read about him here and at 4.18.

Chapter 3.

And now, friends, farewell (1). This looks like the end of the letter; but there is still a serious issue to be dealt with which causes Paul to change his mind and continue; and by way of transition he adds some rather colourless words (to repeat what I have written ...) which may in fact have been something of a commonplace, a trite way of apologizing for returning to a familiar topic (the Greek words form an almost perfect line of verse).

Beware of those dogs (2). Whenever a Jew said this, he was usually expressing his contempt of non-Jews (much as Jesus did, though somewhat more politely, in Matthew 15.26). But Paul here turns the expression round, and flings it back at those Jews, or their sympathizers among the Christians, who were endeavouring to impose upon the church the necessity of accepting the rite of circumcision (which Paul, with an untranslatable play upon words, sarcastically calls mutilation).

The pressure being exerted upon the church at Philippi must have been similar to that which provoked a major crisis in Galatia. In both churches the trouble was caused by those who "insisted on circumcision". But there is a difference. In Galatia, the pressure seems to have taken the form of a threat of actual persecution by the synagogue; here, there is a suggestion of a more subtle kind of propaganda. We are the circumcised, says Paul (3); and we can probably overhear the attacks of the outraged Jewish community, who would be taunting the Christians and saying, "you do not have circumcision, you have no temple and no sacrifices, you have no religious tradition in which you can put your confidence". To which Paul replies, "we are the true circumcised, we have all the things you are so proud of—but not in the same sense as you have them; and in any case the essence of our religion is that we put no confidence in anything external". (For other examples of this propaganda, see Colossians 2.11; 1 Peter 2.5-10.)

If this was the answer of the ordinary non-Jewish Christian, it may well have seemed to the Jews somewhat evasive, as if, lacking the advantages which the Jews believed in, the Christians were reduced to pretending that they possessed the equivalent in their new religion. In Paul's mouth, on the other hand, the argument was formidable. He, if anyone, could argue from strength:

(i) circumcised on my eighth day (5)—the regular time for this ceremony (compare the circumcision of Jesus, Luke 1.59), without which no male could be regarded as a member of the Jewish people;

(ii) Israelite by race—that is, both parents born Jews;

(iii) of the tribe of Benjamin—there is slight evidence that a certain distinction, or some exceptional purity, was held to belong to this tribe;

(iv) a Hebrew born and bred—the word Hebrew may be slightly more specific than the commoner word "Jew": it may mean either that the family came from Palestine (and there is an early tradition that Paul's parents had moved to Tarsus from Gischala in Galilee), or that, unlike most Greek-speaking Jews of the Dispersion, they still knew Hebrew (see the footnote in NEB).

So much for his ancestry. His conduct and way of life, before his conversion to Christianity, were equally irreproachable from the Jewish point of view:

(i) his attitude to the law (6) was that of the Pharisees, who considered that no part of the law was outmoded, but that it was all capable of interpretation in such a way as to be manifestly practicable, and who went to great pains to bring their lives into conformity with its detailed requirements;

(ii) in pious zeal, a persecutor of the church—that is, ruthlessly opposed to any apparent deviation from Jewish orthodoxy;

(iii) in legal rectitude, faultless.

Paul, therefore, could meet his Jewish opponents on their own ground. For sheer Jewishness, he could stand comparison with any inhabitant of Palestine, a fact he did not hesitate to exploit to the full whenever he found himself in dispute with the Jewish authorities. But this Jewishness of Paul also had its ambiguous side. Despite the strength and consistency of his Jewish upbringing, he was also capable of behaving, when in gentile company, exactly as if he were a Gentile himself (as he tells us himself, 1 Corinthians 9.19-23). Such adaptability was exceedingly un-Jewish; and his Jewish opponents may well have asked, was he or was he not going to continue to call himself a Jew? Equally, his Christian friends may have wondered whether, despite all this talk of "putting no confidence in anything external", Paul was still in fact "relying" on his parentage, his circumcision, and his Pharisaic education. To this question Paul gives an unequivocal answer: he has only mentioned these things for the purpose of the argument, in order to silence the taunts which the Jews were aiming at uncircumcised Christians. His real opinion of them he expresses in violent language—all such assets I have written off (7) ... I count it so much garbage (8).

What was it that Paul regarded as of such overwhelming value that he was prepared to write off all the advantages of race and upbringing which his fellow-Jews set such store by? It is not sufficient to answer, his Christianity, for his opponents evidently thought of Christianity as a system of beliefs which could be held in addition to reliance upon the "externals" of the Jewish religion, whereas Paul was thinking of something which replaced all these. Part of the answer was the righteousness which comes from faith in Christ (9), a conception which is not explained here, but which is familiar from Romans and Galatians, and which excluded all "reliance upon the law" and confidence in externals. But Paul also gives another, much more surprising, answer: all is far outweighed by the gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (8). Only here does Paul speak in such intimate and personal terms of "knowing his Lord"; and we must ask, in what sense did Paul "know" Jesus? Not, it seems, in the sense that he was acquainted with Jesus on earth—if he had ever in fact seen Jesus, he attached no importance to it. ← This is often thought to be the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5.16. The NEB renders this verse to yield a somewhat different sense; but in any case Paul's silence about the earthly Jusus is notable. His "knowledge" was more of the kind associated with many popular forms of religion, in which the supreme object of all rites and ceremonies was to "know" the deity in a mystical sense. For Paul, this meant not so much knowledge about God as a relationship with him, such that "to know God" was almost equivalent to "being known by him" (Galatians 4.9, where the same word "know" is translated 'acknowledge' in the NEB). It involved an experience (whether personal and unique, as on the Damascus road, or more generally conveyed through other experiences, as seems to be implied in Romans 6) of the power (10)—the reality and efficacy—of Jesus' resurrection, a sense of solidarity with Jesus in suffering, and the hope of ultimately sharing in the glory.

In certain Greek religions the devotees were promised "knowledge" as a result of certain initiations, having attained which they would be "perfect". Paul's momentary use of the language of such religions might have aroused a similar expectation; after initiation by baptism, the Christian might feel himself to have reached perfection (12). But of course this was not so—not even in Paul's case, though he, under the imminent threat of martyrdom, could plausibly claim to have followed Christ to the end. No, it is not to be thought that I have already achieved all this. Yet the analogy of initiation into a "mystery religion" was not without its value. In the Christian life, some will be more mature than others (15)—Paul deliberately uses another form of the technical word which is translated reached perfection in verse 12. Those who have not yet got so far may still think differently, but so long as their progress is maintained, they too will soon reach the point at which God will make plain to them what at present is known only to those who are mature. Meanwhile, there is no excuse for anyone to slacken his efforts: let our conduct be consistent with the level we have already reached (16).

Agree together, my friends, to follow my example (17). Without explanation, Paul's example might have been somewhat ambiguous. He seemed ready enough to make a point of his pure Jewishness, but equally ready to feel himself free from Jewish regulations; and he used language about "knowing" Christ which could suggest that he belonged to a special class of initiates and had already achieved perfection. But now, having forestalled any such misunderstandings, Paul could safely offer himself as an example to his converts, some of whom, to his deep chagrin, had been placing a disastrously licentious interpretation upon tlie gospel principles of "freedom" and "knowledge". Their behaviour amounted to having their minds set on earthly things (19); whereas Paul thinks of Christians as, by contrast ... citizens of heaven (20), which means, not that the body, with all its appetites and shame, is irrelevant to Christian ethics (which was the usual excuse for licentious behaviour among Christians), but on the contrary that the existing body is the material out of which our deliverer will fashion us a new body on the Day of his coming.

Chapter 4.

Therefore, my friends (the almost inevitable sequel to any mention of that Day, see above on Romans 13.12), stand ... firm!

There follows a brief paragraph on domestic matters (2): a quarrel between two women in the church, an appeal to an unknown comrade (3) to help in settling it, and a reference to other faithful members of the church, whose names are in the roll of the living (a conventional expression: see below on Revelation 3.5).

And here the letter appears to be coming to an end, with a series of more or less unconnected exhortations and expressions of affection (4-9). But a further section (10-20) is added (it may possibly have been originally a separate letter altogether, placed at this point by an editor) by way of thanking the Philippians for their financial contribution. The passage is very laboured. There can be no doubt that the Philippians had made generous contributions for Paul's support during his earlier travels (2 Corinthians 8.14), and had now sent a fresh present with Epaphroditus. It is also clear from the Corinthian letters that Paul could not have managed without such support. But Paul seems to have been afraid that, if he thanked them profusely now, he might either give the impression that their previous gifts had been inadequate, or else that he still wanted more; so he goes out of his way to deny both, and at the same time shows considerable embarrassment at having to accept anything at all. Hence the protestations that, personally, he could stand any degree of poverty (I have learned to find resources in myself, a cliche (11) of popular philosophy), and hence perhaps also the rather surprising piling-up of technical 17,18 business terms (the profit accruing to you ... my receipt... I am paid in full (17,18)) in order to conceal his embarrassment behind a formal mode of speech. To round it off, he describes the Philippians' gift, not just as a piece of ordinary generosity, but in the cult-language of the Jerusalem temple as a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God (18).

While Paul was in prison (whether at Rome or elsewhere) the people he saw most of were presumably soldiers and junior civil servants (many of whom would have been technically slaves of the Emperor). Evidently Christianity had already spread to many of those who belonged to the imperial establishment (22).