Friday, December 26, 2014

Philippians: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.

Can you find Philippi on this map of ancient Greece?

Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi was written some time in the 50s C.E.  This is another of the “captivity letters” which Paul says he wrote from prison.  The town of Philippi was named after Philip II (father of Alexander the Great) and was located in the Roman province of Macedonia (northern Greece today).  Because the letter was presumably written from captivity, one of its major themes is perseverance despite obstacles and suffering.  Paul urges the Philippians to follow his example, to beware of “opponents”, and to strive for humility and unity, based on the example of Jesus (and Paul himself).

Philip II of Macedon, founder of Philippi

Throughout the letter, Paul urges the Philippians to right thinking and behavior, so that they will fare well on “the day of Jesus.”  What he means by this is the end of the world apocalypse when Jesus will return as king and judge of the world.  It is evident from Philippians and other letters that Paul firmly believed that this apocalypse was imminent and would happen in his lifetime.  This did not, of course, happen.  I presume that Christians today are still waiting for this apocalypse.

Christian Apocalypse

As elsewhere, Paul privileges “spirit” over “flesh.”  He writes: “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better, but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”  Paul views his physical, bodily existence as a kind of necessary evil, but clearly prefers to exist as spirit (i.e. physically dead).

Spirit vs. Flesh

Throughout the letter, Paul warns his audience against “opponents” who threaten his message about Jesus.  In chapter 3, Paul identifies (at least some of) these opponents.  He writes: “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh.  For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh.”  As in other letters, Paul’s bitterest foes are Jewish Christians who encourage converts to follow Jewish rituals (like circumcision) and to observe the Torah.  Paul calls these people “dogs”—a harsh insult.  As with other letters by Paul, this would inspire later Christian antisemitism.


Perhaps the most moving and poetic element of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is the so-called “Christ Hymn”:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.


Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus glorified with God.

Paul encourages the Philippians to follow the example of Jesus by being humble and self-sacrificing: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”  As with other letters, Paul ends with “shout outs” to various individuals in Philippi.  He also thanks the (relatively poor) church in Philippi for their financial and material support, a statement which contradicts his claim in other epistles that he takes no payment for his ministry.

Artifacts from ancient Philippi

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