Philippians: Rejoicing In the Face of Uncertainty

1:1 - 3:1 Third Letter

This part of the book is a carefully composed and reflective message on how to live in the face of uncertainty. The tone suggests that Paul is uncertain whether he will be allowed to leave prison other than by his death.

1:1-2 Goodwill and harmony

Paul sends his wishes for goodwill and harmony. Goodwill shared among God and God's people is the lifeblood of Christ's people living in an uncertain world. Harmony is the hallmark of a people who have filled their lives with goodwill. These wishes are more than greetings to Philippi; they are the essence of Paul's message to them.

1:3-30 A Fruitful Life

1:3-11 Joy in God's work with Paul's friends

In our culture, it is common to say grace before a meal. Paul shouts "Grace!" in conversation with God each time he remembers the Philippians. They have had goodwill toward Paul's work for God and they have worked in harmony with him. Paul takes joy in his friends, but his joy is only a resonant echo of the goodwill which is yearning in the depth of Christ. God has planted love, and knowledge, and discernment. What God has begun in the lives of these people will certainly continue to grow until they are filled with the fruit of right living with Jesus.

1:12-19 Joy in God's conversion of bad motives

The authorities intended prison to stop Paul's work. God intended his imprisonment to spread the good news of Jesus and to give courage to the Christians. By Paul's example, many have been inspired to speak fearlessly. Others preach but intend their preaching to advance themselves. God intends all their preaching to advance the gospel. In this Paul is joyful and will be joyful.

1:20-26 Joy in life or death

What will be the fruit of Paul's life? Paul's living body is an instrument for the majesty of Christ. The doubts and uncertainties of the moment are real enough; they can be seen in Paul's tone and subject. Nevertheless, Paul cannot be threatened with his life. If he dies, he goes to Christ, which is all he could want. But if he lives, he may accomplish fruitful work in concert with his friends and fellow laborers.

What happens to Paul is, therefore, not really important. Whichever way the future lies, Paul's life will bear the fruit of Christ.

1:27-30 Joy in living with purpose

The Philippians can support each other by standing together – with each other, with Paul, with Christ – in the same confidence and common purpose which Paul is demonstrating in his own life. They can join in the same race which Paul is running – or, rather, which they saw and now hear about in his life.

2:1-18 and 4:4-9 A Joyful Life

2:1-5 The fruit of living in unity

The Son, Father, and Spirit enter into the Philippians bringing strength, encouragement, and partnership at the very deepest levels of their lives, culminating in complete unity and singleness of mind. Such deep unity grows through the practice of yielding to one another, just as the each aspect of the Trinity yields place to the others.

2:6-11 The fruit of Christ's way of life

Christ is the supreme example of how to live. "What did Jesus do?" Christ, who had everything, held onto nothing, gave up all that he had, took on humility and obedience. What is the fruit of such lowliness? "Jesus Christ is Lord" over every being in creation.

2:12-18 The Philippians' fruitful lives

Continuing to work at their own spiritual health, the Philippians will find working with their work. Avoiding complaining and arguing, they will avoid the twistedness of others. Offering in their words and lives the message of life, the Philippians will brighten the world as stars brighten the night.

If Paul's life is taken by the Roman government, his death would enhance the offering which the Philippians make through their faith. For this reason, his death would be a fruitful end to his life. Thus Paul and his friends have the opportunity to rejoice together in the grace of Christ.

4:4-9 Find a better way

If there is joy is such an outcome, surely we are able to rejoice in every circumstance. The Lord is near; know gentleness toward everyone. Rather than give your life to worry, give your needs to God and let God provide. Focus on real and serious matters, things which are Godly, holy, and praiseworthy. Then you will be a prisoner in Jesus and enjoy the peace from God.

2:19-30 Timothy and Epaphroditus

Paul is frustrated at having to send others, rather than be able to travel himself. He is also discouraged by the attitude of others, which sounds suspiciously like church politics. Still, he enjoys the personal and professional support of his protege Timothy and is hopeful of being encouraged by reports from his long-time friends in Philippi.

Epaphroditus, too, worked at Paul's side and came with a commission from the church at Philippi. His mission may not have been as successful as hoped. He was seriously ill and he is now thinking of home. Paul writes a bit formally, and almost as if to excuse Epaphroditus for returning.

3:1b-4:3 Second Letter

In this section, Paul is rash and reactive, beside himself at the reports he heard about the church in Philippi. The author's attitude is different, far from the reflective rejoicing of the third letter and the restrained pleasure of the first letter, yet the underlying message remains unity with Christ.

3:1b-11 Beware the dogs! Beware the cruel workers! Beware the mutilation!

Paul is upset! What is going on in Philippi? Are they listening to these dogs who insist on circumcism? If there were any value to following the details of Jewish law, then it would be Paul, not these others, we should follow. But Paul holds all of it as so much dung and throws it out.

What is the circumcism which matters? Not the one in the body but the one which we have, the one that comes from the Spirit. What really matters is the change in our lives that comes from faith in Jesus. Living and dying like Jesus is the path that unites us to Jesus in his rising also. This is what Paul has chosen.

3:12-21 Travelling the Right Road

3:12-16 Reaching forward

Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Are you earnestly striving after it? [¶425, Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (1992)]

None of us have achieved this unity with Jesus fully. We are earnestly striving toward it. Jesus has done his part to help us arrive there. We don't want to start running a different race, but rather to focus our thoughts on the stretch in front of us. To the extent that we close to the goal we can have this thought.

3:17-21 Being on the right team

Join with those of us who are members of Christ's team. Others are on the appetite team; their end is destruction, they glory in their shame, their thoughts are worldly. We are citizens of heaven, the city of the Lord Jesus. He will transform us, and not only us but everything.

4:1-3 Move Forward

The Philippians are Paul's siblings, the ones he loves and yearns over, the joy and crown of his life; how deeply he desires that they stand firmly with Jesus. But there are disagreements now. There are fights and battles, perhaps, which led to the reports to Paul which so upset him. In any case, the duty of those involved, and all the rest, is to heal the division and to recover the team spirit.

4:10-23 First Letter

This letter is an acknowledgement of a gift toward Paul's work. The tone is somewhat restrained or even a bit formal, as if Paul had been out of touch with Philippi for some time and is surprised by the sudden outreach.

4:10-16 Note of appreciation

The gift of the Philippians has arrived, after (it seems) a long time without much contact. For some reason, Paul seems leery of sounding too much like a mission fund-raiser. He emphasizes that it is not any lack on his part that makes this gift important. The thought and effort are what make this gift a beautiful thing which they share with him. In this, they have resumed a tradition of investing in Paul's missionary work.

4:17-20 Written receipt

Picking up on the concept of investment, Paul writes out a receipt for the gifts which Epaphroditus delivered to him. In God's accounting system, this is a true investment in Christ's business which will pay pay back dividends richly.

4:21-23 Greetings

Paul sends his greetings and blessing to everyone who is holy in Jesus, and he is joined in this by all those with him.


† A note on 4:4-9

It is entirely possible that 4:4-9 belong at the end of the second letter. In that case, Paul is continuing his advice on moving forward and echoing his words on following his own example. This is reasonable enough thematically, and agrees with the Greek text as we know it.

The tone and word choice are dramatically different from the rest of the second letter, and seem to me to be highly consistent with the first 2 chapters. These points lead me to believe that these verses were inadvertently separated from the rest of the third letter when the second letter was inserted into the text.

‡ A note on 2:19-30

I've accepted the idea that Paul's comments about Timothy and Epaphroditus are an appendix to the main letter. The theme, tone, and wording are distinct enough that they could also be from another letter.

Paul's brief comments on Epaphroditus put me in mind of the attempt of John and Charles Wesley to be missionaries to the southern American colonies. They came, they were willing and eager enough, but it became clear this was not the mission field in which God would give them success. The text does not require a similar interpretation in the case of Epaphroditus, but would be consistent with a parallel experience.

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