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Philippians 1

Scripture: Philippians 1:1-30

Overview:

  • Paul and Timothy say, “What’s up?” to the members, elders and service volunteers at the church in Philippi.
  • Paul says that he’s stoked when he prays about the church in Philippi because they’ve been partners with him since the beginning, and he’s confident they’ll stay on this good path until the very end.
  • He then says that when he prays for them, he prays that they fall more and more in love with God the more and more they understand his ways and display God’s character to the world.
  • Paul then reassures the church that his arrest and impending trial isn’t an indication that things are going bad for the gospel, on the contrary it means the kingdom of God is advancing. It’s going so well, in fact, that Caesar’s own guards now know about Jesus, and some people are starting to have the courage to preach the good news of Jesus openly.
  • Paul then says, “Yeah, there’s some schmoes out there preaching about Jesus with the hope that it will somehow make my circumstances worse, but hey, Jesus is being preached, so that’s cool.”
  • Paul goes on to say that like Job in the Old Testament, he’s a good dude to whom bad things are happening, and in no way is he going to let Jesus down and give up. Uh huh. No way. No matter how the trial turns out (freed or fried), Paul is going to make sure Jesus gets center stage.
  • But, giving it his best guess, Paul thinks he’s going to survive this ordeal and be able to see the Philippians again, and then they’ll be able to party down about how cool God is together.
  • Paul then moves on to say, “No matter what the outcome is for me, you all need to act as one team, one people, focused on one goal. Don’t get spooked by the opposition you’re facing. Your circumstances are like mine. Suffering unjustly for being a good person is what Jesus did, so that’s what we’ll do too. Hang in there, like I’m doing.”

Historical Context:

Overseers and Deacons

First century churches didn’t have one specific leader, rather they had a group of elders, or overseers, appointed to run the church.

Deacons (literally, “servants”) were members of the church who had been appointed to manage services to the community (such as the distribution of food for the widows).

Paul rarely addresses the leadership of a church directly in his greeting. In Philippians, Paul may have mentioned these two groups specifically as a means of saying “thank you” to those who sent the gifts (generally a job of the deacons). Paul may have also mentioned them because there was some conflict between the deacons and overseers. Some commentators suppose that the appeal Paul makes to the two women, Euodia and Syntyche (4:2), to get along was because they were representatives of each group and the rivalry they may have they had.

Opposition to the Gospel

Paul mentions two groups that are creating difficulty for himself and the Philippians. The first are “some who preach Christ out of rivalry” in Rome (where Paul is) and who suppose they can “stir up trouble for me while I’m in chains” (1:15, 17). The second are people in Philippi that that Paul says the church should be unafraid of because “they will be destroyed” (1:28).

With regards to the first group, there were Christians in Rome before Paul arrived. When Paul arrived some of the other Christians may have lost some of their standing as leaders in their community. Given the tone of the letter Paul wrote to the Romans, they had some theological conflicts as well. There are a few motivations they may have had for opposing Paul:

  • The Roman Christians were jealous and wanted to attract attention to themselves again. 4
  • They may have argued that if Paul’s gospel was true that he wouldn’t be in prison. 6
  • Some of the Christians may have simply wanted to distance themselves from Paul (perhaps for their own safety) or diminish his influence (due to theological differences).

The second group of people lived in Philippi. Once again are multiple options as to their identity:

  • As indicated by Paul’s emphasis on Jesus as “lord” and “savior” (two titles reserved for the Roman Emperor), there may have been citizens of Philippi who were advocates of the cult of the emperor and were putting pressure on the Christian Philippians because their allegiance was being given to another “lord”. 6
  • Considering how concerned Paul was in general about Jews and Gentiles forming one people of God, the Philippian community may have been having difficulty with Judaizers–Jews who required Gentiles to follow the Jewish law in order to become a Christian. Paul often taught Jewish Christians to see that Christ brought an end to the law as a means of relating to God, and instructed Gentiles how to moderate their behavior toward the Jewish believers so as not to offend them.1

Praetorian Guard

Paul says that it is evident throughout the “whole palace guard” (literally, the praetoria) that he is in chains for Christ (1:13). The Praetorian Guard was a group of ten thousand hand-picked soldiers, concentrated in Rome, originally established by the emperor Tiberius. These soldiers had double pay and special privileges and eventually became very powerful politically.3

One of the responsibilities of the Praetorian Guard was to watch over the prisoners who had appealed to Caesar, such as Paul. A soldier would have been literally chained to Paul, day and night, in Paul’s rented house where he was under house arrest. It is interesting to think that the soldier to whom Paul was chained might have been Nero’s bodyguard the day before; or one of the executioners of Octavia (Nero’s wife) who then carried her head to Poppaea (Nero’s mistress).2

Job and Psalms

Paul uses Old Testament quotes and allusions to tell the Philippians that his imprisonment isn’t because he has done something wrong and God is punishing him. Rather that he, like the Job and King David, is a righteous man unjustly persecuted.

First, the phrase Paul uses in 1:19, “this will turn out for my deliverance,” is a quote from the Greek Old Testament of Job 13:16.6

Job 13 contains one of Job’s more poignant speeches, where he argues against the perspective of his friends who insist that his present situation is the result of hidden sin. Job knows better and pleads his cause with God, in whom he hopes and before whom he affirms his innocence. Indeed, the very hope of appearing before God in this way would be his “salvation,” because the godless shall not come before God (Job 13:16). And “salvation” for Job means “I know I will be vindicated” (v. 18).1

Second, when Paul goes on to say that he will “in no way be ashamed,” but have “sufficient courage” (1:20)  he picks up the language of Psalm 34:3-6 where David thanks God for delivering him from all his fears and taking away any possibility of shame, and Psalm 35:24-28 where David speaks about the vindication of God’s people.6

In biblical Greek “ashamed” has little to do with inner feelings resulting in embarrassment but with the disgrace of failing to trust God—or more often, the disgrace that the humble who do trust will not experience, despite present appearances to the contrary. Paul’s present usage appears to be echoing this motif from the Psalms, where the same words (“shame” and “be exalted”) often stand together in the same passage.1

Paul is telling his readers that he is experiencing no “shame” from being in prison; rather his hope is that Christ will receive honor however the trial turns out.1

Observations:

  • Paul characterizes himself and Timothy as “servants (Greek: douloi) of Christ,” a favorite title of early Christian leaders (James 1:1; 2 Peter 1:1; Jude 1:1; Rev. 1:1). Undoubtedly the background for the concept of being the Lord’s slave or servant is to be found in the Old Testament scriptures. It was used of national Israel at times (Isa 43:10), but was especially associated with famous personalities such as Moses and the prophets.It is notable that Paul does not call himself an apostle as he does in almost every other letter. Here he emphasizes his humility not his authority.
  • Holy people” (or “saints” as it is often translated) is one of several Old Testament terms used to designate Israel that was appropriated by New Testament writers. Its origins can be traced to the covenantal setting of Exodus 19:6, where God addresses Israel as his people, “a holy nation”—a people consecrated and subject to Yahweh and his service. Its New Testament usage most likely derives from Daniel 7:18, where God’s end-time people, who receive the kingdom as an eternal inheritance, are called “the saints of the Most High.” Their becoming “God’s holy people” is the direct result of their relationship to Christ Jesus; they are the saints in Christ Jesus. Christ Jesus is responsible for their becoming the people of God.1
  • “Every time I remember you” indicates that Paul was praying for them at set times, according to his Jewish heritage. The Jews of Paul’s day regularly prayed: 1) In the morning, in connection with the morning sacrifice (9:00 am); 2) at the ninth hour in connection with the evening sacrifice (3:00 pm); 3) at sunset (~6:00 pm).6
  • Paul prays that their love may abound more and more in “knowledge and depth of insight” (1:9). The primary sense of the word translated “knowledge” is not so much “knowledge about” something as the kind of “full” or “innate” knowing that comes from experience or personal relationship. The second word translated “insight” denotes moral understanding based on experience, hence something close to “moral insight.1
  • “the day of the Lord” is an expression drawn from the Old Testament and carries with it both negative and positive aspects. In Joel 2:1-2 the prophet refers to the day of the Lord as a day of judgment and wrath, as well as blessing and salvation (Joel 3:14-16). Both of these senses are present in the writings of Paul.6
  • From the Roman point of view, Paul is on trial over a matter of religio licita (“illegal religion”—to determine whether Christians are still under the banner of Judaism), or perhaps ofmaiestas (“treason”—because he proclaimed another than Caesar to be Lord?—see Acts 17:7). From Paul’s own point of view, the gospel itself is on trial, and his imprisonment is a divinely appointed opportunity to preach it at the highest echelons.1
  • The term “sincere” (Greek: eilikrineis) can be translated as “without spot” and refers to moral purity. Originally, the term was derived from two words: 1) “sun” and 2) “judge.” Together the sense was “tested against the light of the sun,” “completely pure,” and “spotless.” The picture may be of someone bringing a garment or the like out into the sun to see if there be any stain or spot on it.6  In Latin, the word “sincere” means “without” (sin) “wax” (cere). Italian marble vendors and certain merchants of porcelain fell into the habit of hiding flaws in their merchandise by filling cracks and blemishes with a certain kind of wax; but the more reputable dealers advertised their wares as sin cere (without wax); and from this derived the meaning of the English word “sincere.” The true meaning of it is “without deception” or “without hypocrisy.”7
  • “Blameless” (Greek: aproskopos) has to do with being ‘blameless’ in the sense of ‘not offending’ or not causing someone else to stumble.2 This concept should be taken in the sense of community connectedness, rather than individual piety.  Paul is concerned with both liberalism and conservatism in that individuals may be so polarizing and prideful in their beliefs that they drive a wedge in the community (“cause someone to stumble”) rather than promote unity.
  • The phrase “decide what is best” carries the idea of “proving something as credible, worthy, or true by testing it.” It was used to refer to the testing of metals and coins to appraise their worth.6
  • Paul says that his imprisonment actually will help “advance” the gospel. The noun translated “advance” (Greek: prokopen) was a technical term from the nautical world meaning “to make headway in spite of blows” referring to a ship at sea striving against the wind.6
  • The same Greek word translated “depart” (analuo) is used to describe the release of a prisoner from his bonds (Acts 16:26), a military unit striking camp (literally, “move a tent”), and sailors releasing a boat from its moorings.2
  • Paul hopes the Philippians will “stand” firm in one spirit. The term “stand” (Greek: stekete) was used in the context of military battles referring to “soldiers who determinedly refuse to leave their posts irrespective of how severely the battle rages.”6
  • When Paul uses the phrase “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy…” (1:27) he is leveraging a political metaphor for citizenship–one that the Philippians would’ve known well. Rather than using his ordinary Jewish metaphor “to walk (in the ways of the Lord),” Paul appeals to the Philippians pride in having been made a Roman colony and therefore Roman citizens. Paul urges them to live out their citizenship in a way that is worthy of the gospel of Christ. What is intended by this wordplay is something like, “Live in the Roman colony of Philippi as worthy citizens of your heavenly homeland.”  Not only does it appeal to their own historic pride as Philippians, but now applied to their present setting, it urges concern both for the mission of the gospel in Philippi and especially for the welfare of the state, meaning in this case that they take seriously their “civic” responsibilities within the believing community. Their being of one mind and heart is at stake; disharmony will lead to their collective ruin.1
  • The word translated “frightened” (1:28) refers to “spooking” horses.1

Discussion:

  • It would be very natural for Christians in Rome and Philippi to view Paul’s imprisonment as a result of him doing something wrong and being punished by God. After all, if God was on his side, wouldn’t he protect Paul? Paul argues the very opposite: it is an indication of his rightness that something wrong is happening to him. The injustice happening to him is the means by which God will share the good news of his love for the world. Why do you think we equate safety with God’s favor? How does “losing” by the world’s standards look like “winning” by God’s standards? How do we know if we are in the right or wrong if bad things are happening?
  • Paul prays for the Philippians that he hopes their “love will abound” as they grow in depth of insight to determine what is “best.” What does Paul mean by this? What is the connection of “abounding love” to discernment? What is the connection of the joy Paul emphasizes he has with the knowledge of his own circumstances?
  • Why does Paul condone people preaching about Jesus “out of selfish ambition”? What impact does the motives of Christians have on the power of God’s message? About whom might Paul say this about today? Who is furthering the kingdom even if we don’t like their motives? And why does Paul condone those “selfishly” preaching Jesus in Rome but tell the Philippians that their opponents in Philippi will “be destroyed”? What is the difference between the groups?

References:

  1. IVP commentary
  2. Constable’s commentary
  3. Robertsons’ commentary
  4. Easy English commentary
  5. Hagelberg’s commentary
  6. Herrick’s commentary
  7. Coffman’s commentary
  8. Barnes’ commentary
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