Category Archives: Philippians

Fridays in Philippians – Fellowship in the Gospel (1:5)

NOTEThis is a condensed excerpt from my forthcoming (2014) commentary on Philippians.

When Paul speaks of partnership in the gospel, he uses the word koinōnia, which is usually translated fellowship in the NT. He uses the term in a variety of ways to express shared experience among believers with each other and God. His understanding of koinōnia is relentlessly gospel centered and Christ-focused, to such a degree that Paul can assert (via a rhetorical question) that believers and unbelievers cannot experience true fellowship (2 Cor 6:14). Instead believers have been called into fellowship with Christ (1 Cor 1:9), and they experience that fellowship by partaking the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 10:16) as well as suffering for Christ (Phil 3:10). Believers also experience fellowship with the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:13; Phm 1:6).

The Philippians have been participants in the advancement of the gospel. But this more active sense of participation in the gospel must not be severed from the passive sense of mutual experience of the benefits of the gospel in their own lives. It is because the Philippians first shared in the benefits of the gospel with Paul that they were then empowered to participate in the advancement of that same gospel so others might also share in its benefits.

In a day when the term fellowship is loosely applied to any time believers gather together for any purpose, it is essential to regain the biblical understanding of fellowship. What distinguishes true biblical fellowship from simple shared interests and experiences among non-Christians is the gospel centered nature of biblical fellowship. As such it is oriented around encouraging, exhorting, teaching, praying, giving, suffering, etc. with fellow believers in an effort to follow Christ. “The heart of true fellowship is self-sacrificing conformity to a shared vision…Christian fellowship, then, is self-sacrificing conformity to the gospel. There may be overtones of warmth and intimacy, but the heart of the matter is this shared vision of what is of transcendent importance, a vision that calls forth our commitment.”[1]

[1] D. A. Carson, Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 16.


Fridays in Philippians – Prayer with Joy (1:4)

NOTEThis is a condensed excerpt from my forthcoming (2014) commentary on Philippians.

When Paul prays for the Philippians, he does so with joy. The related ideas of joy (chara) and rejoicing (chairō) are a major theme in Philippians. In contrast to happiness, which is rooted in circumstances, joy is a deep-seated confidence and delight in God and his promises that transcends circumstances.[1]That is why although Paul is in Roman custody awaiting trial he can rejoice in the progress of the gospel (1:18, 25; 2:17-18) and call the Philippians to rejoice (2:18; 3:1; 4:4) despite suffering persecution (1:27-30) and facing internal conflict (4:2-3). Paul’s prayers for the Philippians do not spring from dutiful obligation but from the joy he finds in God and the Philippians’ fellowship in the gospel.

Are your prayers for others marked with joy?

[1] “Joy for the biblical writers is not primarily a mood or an emotion; it is not dependent on success or well-being or outward circumstances” (Bockmuehl, Philippians, 59).

Fridays in Philippians – Peace to you (1:1)

NOTEThis is a condensed excerpt from my forthcoming (2014) commentary on Philippians.

When Paul uses the word peace it must be understood in light of its OT background. Peace (Heb. šālǒm, Grk. eirēnē) means not merely the cessation of hostility, but includes the ideas of wholeness and completeness.[1] Often in the OT prophets it is a one-word shorthand for the resulting state of God’s eschatological salvation (e.g., Isa 32:15-18; 48:18; 52:7; 53:5; 54:10).[2] Many of the NT authors adapt and develop this idea, including Paul. He uses eirēnēin a way that reveals the “already – not yet” dimension that is characteristic of much of his theology. So while believers already have peace as a result of God’s justifying decree (Rom 5:1), it is still something that must be pursued in their lives (Rom 12:18; 14:19; 2 Cor 13:11; Eph 4:3; 1 Thess 5:13; 2 Tim 2:22). Peace is both an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22) as well as the by-product of a mind set on the Spirit (Rom 8:6). But ultimate peace awaits the final day and as such forms part of the Christian hope (Rom 2:10). So far from being a stereotyped greeting, peace communicates the profound truth that we who once were enemies of God are now at peace with him through the blood of Jesus (Col 1:19-23).

[1] See TWOT, 931.

[2] For more on this idea and its importance in Paul, see Harmon, She Must and Shall Go Free, 52-54.

Fridays in Philippians – Grace to you (1:1)

NOTEThis is a condensed excerpt from my forthcoming (2014) commentary on Philippians.

When Paul greets his congregations with the word grace (Gr. charis), he is likely adapting the standard Greco-Roman greeting (chairein, which meant “Greetings”). By grace Paul refers to the undeserved blessing and favor that God bestows on sinners. In fact, it is not so much undeserved as ill-deserved. In other words, it is not merely that human beings do not deserve God’s favor, but that we have done everything to deserve the exact opposite of God’s favor—his wrath. For Paul the word grace at times seems to function as shorthand for all that God has done for his people in Christ. Perhaps that is why nearly all his letters end with the expression “Grace be with you” (Phil 4:23).

Do you realize the staggering nature of God’s grace to you? And as recipients of it do you extend that same grace to others?

Fridays in Philippians – Are You a Saint? (1:1)

NOTEThis is a condensed excerpt from my forthcoming (2014) commentary on Philippians.

As evangelicals we often talk about ourselves as “sinners saved by grace.” While this statement is true, the Bible also describes believers as saints. According to its consistent use in the NT, the term translated saints (hagios) refers to all believers, not a special class of individuals who are super-spiritual as in the Roman Catholic tradition. The term simply means “holy ones” or those “set apart” for God’s special purposes,[1]so in that sense every Christian is a “saint.” This language is drawn from the OT (Exod 31:13; Lev 11:45; 19:2; Dan 7:18, 27), and particularly Exodus 19:5-6, where God refers to Israel as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Believers’ status as “holy ones” stems from the fact that God himself is holy (Lev 11:44 1 Pet 1:13-16). So believers demonstrate that they are set apart for God’s special purposes by living lives that reflect (albeit imperfectly) the moral purity of God himself. So while the focus of the term is on the believer’s status/identity because of their faith in Christ, those who truly have that status will reflect it in their lives (Heb 12:14).

[1] See BDAG 2.d.β. Fee suggests translating hagios as “God’s holy people” which he explains as “believers in Christ as constituting God’s people, set apart by the Holy Spirit for God’s purposes and distinguished as those who manifest his character in the world” (Philippians, 65).

Fridays in Philippians – Paul’s Self-Identity (1:1)

NOTE: This is a condensed excerpt from my forthcoming (2014) commentary on Philippians.

When Paul opens his letters, he always includes a description of himself. Here in Philippians 1:1 that description is servant of Christ. This translation is slightly misleading, since the Greek word doulos refers to a slave rather than a hired servant.[1] This is one of Paul’s favorite titles, though it is phrased in a variety of different ways. The moniker reflects his conviction that he belongs to Jesus Christ and is completely at his disposal. It may also reflect Paul’s conviction that Christ dwelling in him was fulfilling the mission of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 49:6 to be a light to the nations, bringing salvation to them (cf. 2 Cor 5:20-6:2; Gal 1:10, 15-16; 2:20; Col 1:24-26; see also Acts 13:46-48).[3] But Paul also applies the title “servant” to his coworkers in ministry, including Timothy as he does here (cf. also Col 4:12; 2 Tim 2:24-25). The prominence of the title may also stem from Jesus’ own teaching that those who desire to be great must be servants, following the pattern of Jesus himself (Mark 10:43-45). More importantly this title also anticipates the description of Christ in 2:7 as one who took “the form of a servant” in an act of self-sacrificial love for others. The work of the ultimate servant Jesus Christ creates servants who are empowered to love and live as he did.[4]

Is the category of servant/slave at the heart of your self-identity as a Christian?

[1] For a helpful description of slavery in the Roman empire, see J Albert Harrill, “Slavery,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid; Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), 1124-27. On the spiritual significance of slavery as a metaphor for the Christian life, see Dale B. Martin, Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990) and Murray J. Harris, Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ (NSBT 8; Downers Grove: IVP, 2001).

[3] This is most clearly seen in Galatians. For a fuller treatment, see Matthew S. Harmon, She Must and Shall Go Free: Paul’s Isaianic Gospel in Galatians (BZNW 168; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010), 103-22. Of course, given the prevalence of slavery in the ancient world the Philippians would also have heard this description in light of that; see O’Brien, Philippians, 45; Fee, Philippians, 62-63.

[4] This idea of the work of the Servant of the Lord creating servants is drawn from Isaiah 40–66; see further Matthew S. Harmon, She Must and Shall Go Free: Paul’s Isaianic Gospel in Galatians (BZNW 168; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010), 71-75.

Fridays in Philippians – The Church in Philippi

Acts 16:6-40 describes the events surrounding Paul and his ministry team of Silas, Timothy and Luke planting the church in Philippi.

Once Paul leaves Philippi in 49/50 A.D., we have only passing references to the church at Philippi.[1] Likely within a year of leaving Philippi Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he boldly preached the gospel despite suffering and being mistreated in Philippi (1 Thes 2:2). Writing to the Corinthians around 54/55 A.D., Paul intended to visit Corinth after passing through Macedonia (1 Cor 16:5). About a year later Paul explains to the Corinthians that he had originally planned to visit them on his way to Macedonia, and then again on his way back, but his plans changed (2 Cor 1:16). After looking for Titus in Troas, Paul returned to Macedonia (2 Cor 2:13), where he engaged in further ministry (Acts 20:1-2). After three months in Greece, Paul passed back through Macedonia on his journey to Jerusalem in 57 A.D. (Acts 20:3). Accompanying him were several delegates from various churches tasked with delivering the money Paul raised from various churches to help poor Jewish Christians in Judea (Acts 20:4-5). While these companions went ahead of Paul to Troas, he and Luke remained in Philippi through the Feast of Unleavened Bread (early April) before sailing on to join them (Acts 20:6). From there Paul eventually made his way to Jerusalem, where he was arrested in the temple courts (Acts 21:27-36). After three years of imprisonment in Caesarea, Paul appealed his case to Caesar and was subsequently transferred to Rome (Acts 23:23–28:31).

What was the church at Philippi like?[2] The fact that there was no synagogue in Philippi strongly suggests a predominantly Gentile congregation. Luke singles out Lydia, a Gentile worshiper of Yahweh, as an important early convert (Acts 16:14). As a seller of purple goods she had the means to house Paul and the rest of his missionary team during their initial visit (Acts 16:14-16). The jailer and his family were also among the first converts in Philippi (Acts 16:31-34). As noted above, he was likely either a public slave or a freedman rather than a retired soldier. And while we cannot be sure, it is certainly possible that the slave girl that Paul exorcised the fortune telling demon from eventually became part of the congregation. Beyond that Acts does not provide much information, though Luke does note that Paul and Silas left Philippi only after “they had seen the brothers” (Acts 16:40). The impression left is of a small group of believers, left under the care of Luke and perhaps Timothy as well.

By the time that Paul writes to the Philippians over a decade later, a different picture emerges. The church now has overseers and deacons (Phil 1:1), and has partnered with Paul in the advancement of the gospel on more than one occasion (1:5; 2:25-30; 4:10-20). Indeed, their generosity was such that Paul used them as an example to spur the Corinthian church to give generously (2 Cor 8:1-5). They are clearly a source of great joy and encouragement to Paul (Phil 1:3-8). A number Philippians served alongside Paul in gospel ministry at various points, including Euodia, Syntyche, Clement, and the mysterious “true companion” (4:2-3). And Epaphroditus even risked his life to minister to Paul’s needs while in prison (2:25-30).

Of course, the Philippian church was not perfect; they were experiencing tensions both internal and external. Internally, the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche was apparently concerning enough for Paul to take the unusual step of calling them out by name to resolve their differences (Phil 4:2-3). He even calls for others to get involved to solve the dispute. There are also strong hints that a lack of unity was hindering the growth of the church, as Paul makes several appeals for unity (e.g., 1:27; 2:1-4; 3:15; 4:2-9). Externally they faced some form of persecution, likely from pagan neighbors or perhaps even the civil authorities (1:27-30). Paul also warns about the possibility of false teachers who promote adherence to the Mosaic Law (3:2-7), as well as “enemies of the cross” who are on the path to eternal destruction (3:18-19).

Yet despite these challenges, the church at Philippi overall appears to be healthy. In contrast to the extensive problems in Corinth and the dire threat of apostasy in Galatia, the church at Philippi seems to be on solid footing.

[1] Parts of the chronology that follows is dependent on D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 420-25, 47-48.

[2] Our answer to this question focuses on the biblical text. But attempts have been made to speculate on the socio-economic and ethnic makeup of the church as well. While such attempts have their place in making sure that our assumptions about the Philippian church are consistent with what we can reconstruct about Philippi, it is unwise to place too much weight on such reconstructions. For an example of a responsible and restrained reconstruction, see Oakes, From People to Letter, 55-76.

Fridays in Philippians – Pauline Authorship

The opening words of the letter identify Paul and Timothy as the authors of this letter (1:1).[1] But after the initial greeting the predominance of first person singular pronouns,[2] the emphasis on Paul’s circumstances (1:12-26; 4:10-23), and the commendations of Timothy (2:19-24) and Epaphroditus (2:25-30) make it clear that Paul is the de facto author. Church fathers as early as Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 200), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215), and Tertullian (160–240) attribute the letter to Paul. In his letter to this same church Polycarp (69–155) makes reference to Paul writing to the Philippians (Pol. Phil. 3:2), and at points seems to even echo the language of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Pauline authorship has rarely been challenged even by the most critical of scholars.

Yet the role of Timothy should not be overlooked. He appears to have been converted under Paul’s ministry in Derbe and Lystra during Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 14:8-23).[3] On his return visit a couple of years later during his second missionary journey, Timothy joined Paul’s ministry team (Acts 16:1-5). Soon after Paul and Timothy—along with Luke and Silas—planted the church in Philippi (Acts 16:6-40). In the years to come Timothy became Paul’s most trusted ministry colleague, a kindred spirit who shared Paul’s heartfelt concern for the church (Phil 2:19-24). Paul sent him on various missions to maintain contact with and address problems in the various churches Paul had planted (Acts 17:14–15; 18:5; 19:22; 20:4; 1 Cor 16:10; 1 Thess 3:1-6). He was with Paul during his imprisonment in Rome (Phil 1:1; 2:19-24), no doubt serving as Paul’s link to various churches. At some point after Paul’s release from house arrest in Rome, Timothy and Paul were together in Ephesus for some time before Paul left for Macedonia (1 Tim 1:3). When Paul was eventually re-arrested and knew he was soon to be executed by Nero, he wrote his final (extant) letter to Timothy, asking him to visit him as soon as possible (2 Tim 4:9, 13, 21).

But if Paul is the de facto author of the letter, why does he mention Timothy in the salutation? While it is possible that Timothy acted as Paul’s scribe for this letter, there is no way of proving it. Based on what is known about how letters were written in the ancient world, it is certainly possible that Timothy provided input on the content of the letter.[4]At the least Paul includes Timothy in the authorship of the letter to prepare the Philippians for the news that he will be sending Timothy to Philippi as soon as he sees how things go with him in Rome (Phil 2:19-24).

[1] Other Pauline letters list “co-authors” as well: 1 Corinthians (Sosthenes), 2 Corinthians (Timothy), Colossians (Timothy), 1-2 Thessalonians (Silvanus and Timothy), and Philemon (Timothy).

[2] According to a search in Bibleworks 9, there are 66 first person singular verb forms compared to just four first person plural forms. In each of those four verbs Paul is referring to all believers including himself (3:3, 15, 16, 20).

[3] Timothy is not mentioned in this account, but elsewhere Paul refers to him as his “true child in the faith” (1 Tim 1:2).

[4] For more on letter writing in the ancient world and the implications for studying the Pauline epistles, see E. Randolph Richards, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing: Secretaries, Composition, and Collection (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004)

Fridays in Philippians

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?