As some of you may know, I am currently working on a commentary on Philippians in the Mentor Series published by Christian Focus Publishers. I have been working on this project on and off for about 4 years and hope to send it off to the publisher within the next year. To hopefully whet your appetite for the commentary, I am starting a new feature called Fridays in Philippians. Each Friday I’ll share some brief thoughts from either a particular verse, a key theme, or perhaps even the historical/cultural background.
But today I want to start by explaining what I hope to accomplish in writing a commentary. The starting point for me is to determine the author’s intended meaning. I want to understand as best I can what Paul communicated to the Philippians. To do that requires studying the words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, and arguments within four different levels of context: literary, historical/cultural, canonical, and redemptive-historical. Let me explain what I mean by the last two.
By canonical context I mean taking into account what other biblical books have to say. Priority must be given to Paul’s other letters, since they help us understand what and how Paul thinks. But we must not neglect what the rest of Scripture says since God is the author of all 66 books.
By redemptive-historical context I mean taking into account where a passage of Scripture falls within the overall storyline of the Bible. Paul writes as an apostle of the risen Jesus who eagerly awaits the return of Christ and the consummation of all things. He also writes at a time when not all of the New Testament books had been written.
Once I have determined the author’s intended meaning, my goal is to determine how the text applies to God’s people today. While strictly speaking Paul did not write this text to me (I’m not a Philippian!), the text is written for me as a member of God’s people. What Paul says to the Corinthians about the Old Testament is true for us as new covenant believers: “Now these things [i.e. Israel’s failures in the wiulderness] happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11). Similarly, Paul writes to the Romans “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4).
Thus my approach begins with the historical-grammatical method, but it does not end there. I am convinced that once the historical-grammatical foundation is laid, the interpreter must then apply all the available tools of biblical theology (typology, tracing themes, exploring OT backgrounds, etc.) to achieve a fuller understanding of the text. Of course, many others before me have studied Philippians so I seek to draw upon the insights of others who have gone before me (a combination of historical theology and Wirkungsgeschichte [the study of the effect the text has had on readers throughout the ages]]). The process is not complete until the text has been integrated into the larger categories of what Scripture teaches elsewhere on the same subject (systematic theology) and suggestions are made for how the text applies to the lives of believers today (pastoral theology).
Of course, while in theory the process just described is linear, in reality it is more of a spiral. My preexisting understanding of biblical theology, historical theology, Wirkungsgeschichte, and systematic theology not only inform each other but also my exegesis. When there is dissonance between them the choice must be made as to whether I have misunderstood the text or my biblical, systematic, or pastoral theology needs to be modified.
Of course, whether I succeed or not is up for others to decide. But my prayer is that by clearly explaining what the text means and how it applies to our lives as God’s people, Christ will be exalted, God’s people will be transformed, and the gospel will advance. Would you join me in praying that God would be pleased to do this through this commentary?