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The first command Paul gives in order to “work out your salvation,” is not do things without grumbling. This seems odd, since for most modern Evangelicals there are far worse sins than grumbling! Paul is, however, making an allusion to the wilderness Tradition and the grumbling of Israel.

Stop ComplainingEvery Sunday School kid knows that Israel grumbled in the wilderness (or, if you are old enough, “they murmured,” cf. 1 Cor 10:10). The noun (γογγυσμός) refers to under-the-breath complaining, “an utterance made in a low tone of voice,” whispers and secret talk (BDAG), always with a negative connotation. Imagine trying to get a bunch of Junior High students (who are all about looking cool) to play a particularly dumb looking game. When they are in JrHigh, you can actually hear the rolling of the eyes. The muttering and whispering complaints start right away.

“Disputing” can refer to a rational exchange of ideas, offering of various opinions in order to discuss an issue. This sounds nice, but in the New Testament the word is usually synonymous with quarreling. In the context of the wilderness generation, the command they are disputing is God’s commands as revealed through Moses at Sinai!  In the wilderness God told the people to go and take the land, but they complained and disputed that command (let’s go back to Egypt, let’s camp here, etc.)  Again, think of that pack of JrHigh kids, all offering reasons why they are not going to do what you told them to, offering excuses and alternatives. Chaos will ensue!

Because of their grumbling and complaining, the wilderness generation is usually called a “crooked and twisted generation.” The first noun (σκολιός) refers to being twisted, usually morally. Peter used the word in Acts 2:40 to refer to Israel in their rejection of the Messiah, Jesus called that generation “wicked and adulterous.”  The second noun (διαστρέφω) is another vivid metaphor for the present world, it refers to something that is deformed or distorted, perhaps misleading. Paul used the word in Acts 13:10 to describe Israel’s on-going resistance to the Holy Spirit.

By setting aside the distorted attitude of the Wilderness generation, the believer will be acceptable on the day of Christ.

  • Blameless (ἄμεμπτος) is used in Gen 17:1 to describe Abraham, 12 times describing Job. In both cases, the men can be described as having moral character, but they are not perfect or sinless. There is nothing in their character or behavior that might be considered “worthy of judgment” before the Lord.
  • Innocent (ἀκέραιος), a word used to describe something that is not mixed with some other substance, “pure.” Gold, silver, and platinum are often extracted from the same ore, but they are more valuable if they are separated. If the right process is used, the extracted gold is more pure and therefore more valuable.
  • Without blemish (ἄμωμος) is a close synonym for blameless (translated as such in Eph 1:4, “holy and blameless”). The word is used for a lamb brought to be sacrificed (Num 6:14, for example).

The one who is blameless on the Day of Christ is simply a child of God! Paul does not say here “if you achieve a 75% rating on your holiness score, you get to go to heaven.”  He says that you will please your Father on the Day of Christ because you are his loved child!

 

In Phil 2:12, Paul said believers ought to “work out” their salvation in fear and trembling. I suggested in a previous post that Paul’s point in this very difficult verse is something like “cultivate your salvation in order to bear fruit on the Day of Christ.” God saves by grace through faith, adopts us into his family, and then creates an environment for his children so they are able to bear the kind of fruit that pleases their Father in heaven.

This work/fruit is for God’s “good pleasure,” not ours.  The noun (εὐδοκία) has the sense of being pleased with someone, perhaps as a parent is pleased with their child’s successes. I have attended several piano recitals and honestly, no one plays as well as my kid. All the others are really bad. Since I am a typical parent, I am “well pleased” when my child plays, whether she is the best or not!

If the believer is to “work out their salvation in fear and trembling” and whatever work they do is for God’s pleasure (not theirs), does this mean God is going to command us to do things that are unpleasant to us? Something dangerous? Something harmful? Too many Christians dread service to God because they think God is out to torture them with some horrid and embarrassing task.

In the context, Paul has just finished describing the humility of Jesus as he was obedient even to death on the cross. In verse 17, Paul himself is obedient even to the point of imprisonment and death. So yes, God might very well expect you to be obedient to him in a dangerous situation. But looking ahead to two more examples in the letter, Timothy and Epaphroditus are both examples of humble service and obedience to God’s will. Both were willing to do what was required to fulfill their calling.
In the context of first-century Philippi, the fact that the believers are separate from the world may mean they are facing opposition. Perhaps they are suspected of disloyalty, for not being good being good members of the Empire, or at the very least, they are really quite weird! Different was dangerous in the Roman world, so to serve a God that did not have a temple or priesthood, to reject the gods of one’s father or the gods of the community, was to put yourself in danger!

Obedience to God does not necessarily mean he is going to send you to die in Africa; humble service is the way the child of God ought to live their lives all of the time. That might mean living a life that challenges the assumptions of a prevailing culture, but it usually means living a life dedicated to God regardless of the situation (Phil 4:10-13 will make this even more clear). In fact, it in the comfortable Western church, it is easy to say you are willing to be a martyr since it is highly unlikely you will ever have to give your life for Christ.

Honestly, which is harder, saying you are willing to give your life in the service of the Gospel, or being kind to your neighbor? Treating someone with a significantly sinful lifestyle with respect and love? Humbling serving someone who is completely undeserving of respect and completely unaware of your sacrifice on their behalf?

Lazy Christian

Paul’s command to “work out our salvation” might come as a surprise (v. 12). Paul is so adamant elsewhere that we are not saved by works, but rather grace through faith. In fact, this verse has been the source of a great deal of post-Reformation theological discussion. But Paul does is not talking about working for your salvation, or working to keep your salvation, but rather to continue obeying God, as the members of the church at Philippi are already doing.  Paul assumes the church is already obedient to God’s commands and they are already following the model for obedience is Jesus (vv. 5-11) and Paul (v. 17).

God At WorkTo “work out” (κατεργάζομαι) often refers to producing something agriculturally, perhaps “cultivate” fruit is a possible source for this metaphor (LXX Deut 28:39, Ezek 34:3, 36:9, Odes 1:17).  That is the point of the word in Romans 7:17-18, sin is like a seed that produces an evil behavior.  People talk about “cultivating a relationship” in business. This means making contacts and doing little things that will eventually result in a sale. The goal is a sale, but there are dozens of smaller contacts along the way that build up to closing the deal.

Salvation is a completed fact when someone accepts Christ as their savior, they are “justified” before God, but (obviously) they are not yet sinless nor have they arrived in Heaven yet.  “Working out one’s salvation” can be understood as cultivating what God has already done so that it yields fruit at the appoint time.

The believer is to cultivate their salvation with “fear and trembling.” Paul used this phrase in Eph 6:5 (“slaves, obey your masters with fear and trembling”) and 2 Cor 7:15, referring to how that church received Titus. In both cases there is a real fear of punishment for wrongdoing.  The Old Testament occasionally describes salvation and service of the Lord in terms of fear (Ps 2:11, for example).  There are a number of examples, however, of dread falling in the nations when they encounter God (Exod 15:16, Isa 19:16).

Paul has already mentioned the church’s fear of oppression from the culture in 1:28, it is possible this fear and trembling refers to the dread the members of the church have as they face ridicule and pressure to conform to Roman culture.

Even though Paul says we are to “work out” our salvation, it is God who is doing the work in the life of the believer (v. 13). The believer is not left to their own to cultivate their salvation, it is in fact God who “wills and works” in us. God is the one who is at work in the life of the believer, enabling the believer to grow spiritually. While he does not mention the Holy Spirit in this verse, this is exactly the same sort of thing we read in Galatians or Romans, that one is enabled by the Holy Spirit to do the will of God (Rom 12:1-2, for example).

Remember the junior high science fair? I know a Middle School principal who called the Science Fair “parent’s projects” since most of the winning projects were largely the result of dads with power tools and too much time on their hands. A parent could do all the work, but they should not be proud of the child for winning the award, and the child will not develop the maturity and skills needed to succeed in life. But if a parent helps the child and provide them what they need to succeed, then the parent can be legitimately proud when their child wins the award and the child will grow from the experience (even if they lose to the kid whose parents cheated).

In a very similar way, God provides the believer with all they need to succeed in their spiritual life, to “cultivate their salvation” and produce real fruit that will make God proud when he judges our works at the resurrection. We are more mature for the struggles we endured during that cultivation.

 

Jesus humbled himself by taking on the nature of a human. While humility is often seen as a virtue in modern culture, people did not “humble themselves” in the Greco-Roman world. Someone who was humble was lowly and weak, even servile. That man should humble or belittle himself is rejected. To suffer misfortune and humble oneself “is quite unnecessary, vain and irrational”  (Plutatch De exilio, 1 (II, 599b). In the Hebrew Bible, to “be humbled” is associated with punishment. God humbles the proud (1 Sam 2:7).  The word appears in LXX Isa 53:8, describing the humiliation of the suffering servant.

Not only did Jesus become a slave, he was a slave who was executed by crucifixion, the most shocking horror in the Roman world.  Jesus therefore goes from the highest place imaginable, equality with God, to the lowest, death on the cross.

Because he was obedient and suffered innocently, God vindicated Jesus exalting him to the highest place imaginable. The verb Paul uses for “exalted” (ὑπερυψόω) is not the usual one in the New Testament, it only appears here, but it also in Ps 96.9 (the verb is repeated many times in Odes 8:52-88). It is possible Paul has this verse in mind in Phil 2:9-11, the Most High  ὁ ὕψιστος of that verse is God himself, and he is exalted above the earth and far above all other gods. This exaltation refers to the resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15), but also the ascension in Acts 1 and Rev 4-5.

Because he was obedient and suffered innocently, God gave to Jesus the highest name imaginable. In the Roman world the name of the emperor was venerated as divine on coins and inscriptions. Yet Jesus has been given a name that is above every name, including the Roman emperor! And because he was obedient and suffered innocently, God will put everything under the Lordship of Jesus.  Heaven, earth, and under the earth all will acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.

CaesarAll this implies that Caesar is not the true lord of this world.  Paul was not anti-Rome, although his gospel did subvert the social order by advocating Jesus as the Lord.  As I read Paul, I think Hellerman (Embracing Shared Ministry, 168) is right that Paul is not consciously anti-Imperial, he in no way was advocating some sort of rebellion against the Empire. But the Gospel was so radical that it would erode the Empire if that Gospel practiced consistently. Perhaps the sad story of Church history is that by the time Christianity was the majority religion, it had become thoroughly Roman with respect to honor and status.

Jesus is therefore the true Lord of this world and all of creation ought to recognize that lordship. It is quite remarkable that Paul never suggested the Christians openly rebel against Rome. That would have been a futile effort since there were so few Christians. What he did tell the Philippian church is that they ought to have the same attitude as Jesus. This sort of humility was counter to the Greco-Roman world and slowly brought down the Empire.

More important, this sort of humility is counter to Western/American culture, even in the church. If Paul says “Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not,” should we also say, “Jesus is Lord, America is not”?

It seems every word in Philippians 2:5-11 is theologically important . That Jesus “emptied himself” is one of the most discussed since it is not immediately clear what it means to become empty when one is “the form of God.”

The meaning of “emptied” is important here. The verb (κενόω) refers to setting the status described in verse 6 in order to be obedient.  While there is a great deal of theological weight placed on this word, it usually focuses on how Jesus (as God) could set aside certain attributes of God while he lived as a human.  I do not want to downplay those discussions, but they do distract from what Paul’s main point is in the cultural context of the Roman world of the first century.

Roman TogaThe phrase is better understood in terms Roman status, especially in the practice of wearing the toga by Roman elite. Jesus set aside his honor and prestige as “form of God” when he became the “form of a servant.” Perhaps the use of the toga in the Roman world illustrates what Paul may have had in mind.  The toga was a sign of elite status in the Roman world. Hellerman makes the point that this would be equivalent to a Roman senator setting aside his toga (his mark of status) and taking on the rags of a slave (also a mark of status). Because of that humble obedience, Jesus is exalted to the highest status imaginable, even above the emperor of Rome! That Jesus is called Lord is counter to a Roman world where Caesar is Lord and worshiped as a god (Embracing Shared Ministry, 167).

So when he “he emptied himself.” Jesus “divested himself of his prestige or privileges” (BDAG). It is as if he voluntarily set aside his toga, the sign he was the highest ranking Lord in the universe.  Rather than divesting himself of divine attributes, the idea Paul has in mind the humility Jesus had in the incarnation, so much so that the God of the universe could set aside that status in order to serve others.

Rather than having the form of God, Jesus took on the form of a servant. The ESV translates this as servant, but it is the same word as “slave,” the lowest possible social class in the Roman world.

Dobby in ragsJesus therefore set aside the toga, and picked up the rags of a slave. By way of analogy, think of the Roman emperor stripping himself of the finest clothing available to a Roman citizen and putting on the stained and flea-infested rags of the lowliest slave. (Think of the the rags of Dobby the House-Elf!) Just as the status of a Roman citizen was evident by what they wore, so too the clothing of a slave signal his status. Even a slave with some social standing would not dress in a toga!

The social status of a servant was always viewed negatively in the Roman world.  In modern western culture, a person at a store might say something like “I am at your service” in order to indicate their willingness to help someone. In the Roman world, this would be a shameful expression; the social status of a servant was not worth considering. Yet Jesus was by nature God and he voluntarily took on the nature of a human.

This idea of a “leader as a servant” or “God as a servant” would be counter-cultural in the first century. A leader would not be humble  nor would they ever consider serving others of a lower social class. The modern church is used to hearing about “servant leadership” and Christians are continually encouraged to serve in their churches and communities. Like the church at Philippi, members of local churches still struggle to serve others with “the mind of Christ.”

It is hard to over-estimate the theological importance of Phil 2:5-11. Paul’s original intention may not have been to create a theological statement when he described Jesus as the “form of God.” Even though this passage is foundation for a correct understanding of Jesus, Paul assumes the church agrees with his theological statements about Jesus. He is drawing out a practical implication for “living a life worthy of the Gospel” (1:27-2:4) from this important theological statement: serve one another with the same attitude of Christ Jesus.

Corporate Ladder

A Corporate Ladder?

The noun Paul uses to describe Jesus’ outward appearance (μορφή) is used twice in the passage: Jesus goes from “form of God” to “form of servant.”  While the word refers simply to “what something looks like,” it is used to describe the outward appearance of a god. Philo used the word to describe Caligula as “dressed up as a god” (Leg. 110). Most cultures have some sort of system of social stratification that can be discerned from what people wear. Joe Hellerman describes well the Roman emphasis clothing as an external sign of one’s social standing (Embracing Shared Ministry, 142).  For the most part, one could tell social status by the clothes a person wore. A slave, for example, could not parade around in a toga, nor would a wealthy Senator and leading Citizen of Rome dress in rags like a slave.

Jesus was “equal with God.” This parallel phrase uses “equal” (ἴσος). While the word often is used for two things that are equal (for example, Luke 6:34), it appears in several theological important passages.  In John 5:18 Jesus is accused of making himself “equal with God,” something the Jewish religious authorities though worthy of death! Some Greek and Roman rulers claimed to be equal with God. In 2 Macc 9:12, Antiochus claims to be “equal with God” (ἰσόθεος), Appian described the honors Augustus gave to Julius Caesar as “equal with God” (BCiv. 2.148, cited by Hellerman, 143).

But that equality was not “a thing to be grasped.” A “thing to be grasped” (ἁρπαγμός) refers to asserting a title or putting forth a claim for something, or something to be exploited. Think of someone who “makes a claim” for a legal settlement, they think they are entitled to compensation so the “make a claim.” The King James Version had “did not think it robbery,” reflecting the idea of grabbing at something.  Maybe another way to think of this is a benefit that gives you an advantage over other people, maybe handicapped or expectant mother parking at the mall. This is a “status” that allows someone to take an advantage over others.

Paul describes Jesus in this verse as occupying the very highest rank imaginable by anyone in the ancient world, he was in fact God. Yet that position and rank was not something he insisted upon, as the Romans would have done. He set aside that rank in order to humble himself.  The Roman world was based on extreme social stratification. There was a rigid social order in the Roman world, from the extreme minority elites who had virtually all the power to the majority slaves who had absolutely no power.

This humble attitude of mutual submission, even to people of a lower social class, flies in the face of the Roman world, and as Hellerman points out, it flies in the face of power relations within the church (p. 99). Paul’s main point here is to encourage the believer to serve other believers without respect to their rank or position in society. This includes everyone in a local church, including the pastor!

The larger a church grows, the more need there is for power structures reminiscent of American corporate business models. A church could have a “CEO Pastor” who is paid (respected) like CEO in a major business. Perhaps they think of themselves as too busy “casting vision” to drive a van for the youth group, or play games with the elementary kids, or teach a small Bible study, or weed the flowers on a work day.

The pastor worthy of respect is the one who sets aside his title, respect and power, and serves others, doing tasks that might be “beneath” their position.

Paul’s appeal in Phil 2:1 is based on what the church already has. The ESV translates these short phrases as conditions (“if there is any….”) This does not mean Paul is unsure of the state of the church in Philippi. The Greek syntax does not express uncertainty and might be translated as “since there is…”  For example, I might say “If it is morning, if coffee is made, then I am going to drink a cup of coffee.” In this case, the sentence is really, “Since it is morning….”

Encouragement in Christ can refer to both comfort and exhortation. The noun (παράκλησις) is something that emboldens you to act (BDAG). The context will make it clear if the word refers to encouraging the timid to act or exhorting someone who needs to be corrected. One side of the word is tenderly comforting a person who is hurting, the other is a swift kick in the pants to motivate a person the right direction!

Wille StargelComfort from love may refer to consoling for a person who is hurting in some way, it is a “friendly word” (TDNT 5:820) . The noun (παραμύθιον) appears in the LXX only in Wisdom 3:18, referring to people who will have no comforter on the day of Judgment. Encouragement and comfort naturally go together. In 1 Thess 2 Paul uses the concepts of mothers and fathers to describe his ministry with that Church, gentle like a mother, encouraging like a father.

Participation or fellowship in the Spirit may refer to the close association all Christians have because the share in the same Holy Spirit. Since all believers have the same Spirit, they ought to have complete unity.

Affection and sympathy are both deep emotional responses one typically has for someone you genuinely love. Affection (σπλάγχνον) originally referred to the inner parts of a person, their bowels or entrails, where emotions are felt most strongly. Sympathy is also a stronger word than in English, οἰκτιρμός is the deep compassion God has for humans (1 Kings 8:50, Zech 7:9, רַחֲמִים). Taken together, the words refer to genuine, “heartfelt sympathy” for one another.

Does this mean there is no room for dissent? American culture almost requires people to have different ideas and opinions, Paul sounds like a cult leader who will squash any dissent!  One criticism Atheists sometimes use is the vast differences between the various denominations of Christianity. Which Christianity is the real one? Compare a traditional Catholic to a radical Protestant and there are very few things that seem the same.  There are good reasons for these differences, but the differences should not obscure the similarities. There are non-negotiable beliefs that make one a Christian (God, Scripture, Jesus, Atonement) and others that are simply differences created by culture and history.

Far from demanding conformity in everything, unity in the church functions like it does in a real family. There are similarities and differences, but what ultimately counts is the family!  The first believers may have been ostracized by their families when they became Christians. If that is true, the church becomes their adopted family. Paul’s description of the church as a family highlights the similarities yet allows for differences. Some have the view that the church is a kind of factory producing identical clones and squashing thought and dissent. This is not at all Paul’s point here!

Since the church is a family, the members of the family ought to be supportive of one another, characterized by the same sort of grace and forgiveness one experiences in an ideal family. This requires humble service from all members of the community, including the leaders. In fact, the best example of humble service is in fact Jesus himself.

 

If the church is living their lives worthy of the Gospel, they will be striving together for the gospel and not frightened by any opposition they face. The verb Paul uses here is cognate of ἀθλέω, “to compete in a contest,” implying strenuous action. The book of 4 Maccabees 17:14ff uses this word group to describe martyrs, and the cognate (ἄθλησις) appears in Hebrews 10:32 to describe the hard struggles of the church at Rome as they were persecuted by civil authorities. By the end of the first century, Clement describe the apostles who had given their lives for the gospel as “contending to the death” (1 Clem 5:2).  Paul uses a form of the word that stresses the unified action of a team (συναθλέω) with a prefix which is something like the English prefix co-. They are “co-strivers,” hence the ESV’s “side by side.” The related noun (συναθλητής) refers to a fellow athlete (LSJ).

The church does not have reason to be frightened by their suffering.  The verb Paul chooses to use in this verse (πτύρω) is not the usual word for fear in the New Testament. While it can be translated “terrified,” it is better translated “shy.” In secular Greek it was used of horses that were shy, easily frightened, etc (D.S.2.19). Since it always appears in the passive, and in this case the agent of the passive verb is “opponents,” it is probably best to translate this “do not let yourself be intimidated by your opponents.”

Tiananmen SquareWhy would the Philippians be intimidated? They are a tiny minority with a view of the world that is radical in Greco-Roman. They have no temple, priesthood, or sacrifice. They do not worship the gods in Philippi, nor do they even recognize their existence! They worship in homes, sharing food and fellowship with people of various social classes. Remember the photograph of the man in Tiananmen Square. One man stood in front of the tanks, refusing to move. This one man stood alone against an ultimately powerful force. The Philippian church is something like that man, a single example of a Christian community in the vast work of Roman Philippi.

Paul’s call, therefore, is for the Christians at Philippi to live a life that is consistent with the Gospel. In the context of Philippians, this means unity of heart and mind as well as willingness to suffer for the sake of the Gospel.

In fact, by living a worthy life, the church will suffer for their faith (v. 29-30). Contrary to public expectations of success, a life worthy of the Gospel will lead to conflict with culture, resulting in suffering. A Roman would compete for honor, but he expected to win! Paul says here that even if the church is doing everything right, they are going to suffer loss.  This is the same conflict Paul is fighting. He is in chains on account of the Gospel of Christ, yet he has already described this “loss” as a “gain.”

“The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that Christians are suffering persecution in more places today than any other religious group; between 2006 and 2012, Pew says, they were targeted for harassment in 151 countries— three-quarters of the world’s states.” (From Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed, see also Paul Marshall’s original story at The Weekly Standard.) While it is hard to look at suffering of innocent people as a gain, from the perspective of this passage, it is if people are suffering on account of their testimony.

Paul’s encouragement to life a life worthy of the Gospel anticipates his description of Jesus in chapter 2. Just as Jesus humbled himself and took on the form of a servant, so too the church at Philippi must humbly serve others.

 

CrossPaul begins the next section of the letter to the Philippians by calling on the church to live a life worthy of the Gospel.

By living a worthy life, the church will stand firm in one spirit (v. 27-28).  One’s “manner of life” (πολιτεύομαι) refers to being a good citizen. If someone was a Roman citizen, there were a number of expectations for proper behavior in the public forum. This refers to both a legal responsibility as well as conduct in public. By analogy, a “good citizen” in America pays their taxes and votes in elections, properly registers and insures their car, etc. You cannot call a person who refuses to pay taxes, breaks the Law regularly, or runs around burning American flags a “good citizen.”

“Manner of life” can be used as a metaphor for living in accordance with the Law. In 3 Macc 3:4, for example, it describes the way of those Jews who had kept themselves separate with respect to foods, but had gained a good reputation for various good works. But these differences were so significant that they fell under suspicion as “hostile and greatly opposed to the government” (3 Macc 3:7) and eventually the government oppressions the Jews because their “manner of life” was so different than the Greeks in Egypt (3:11-30).  The same sense of the word appears in 4 Macc 2:8 where one whose “manner of life” conforms to the Law stands in contrast to a number of typical vices. Josephus refers to keeping the Law, but also paying the Temple tax and other civic duties (Ant. 12.142). The word appears in other Jewish literature to describe proper conduct of life with respect to the Law. It is not insignificant that the Jews in 3 and 4 Maccabees were perceived as hostile to their culture and were persecuted for their “manner of life”

To have a manner of life “worthy” of some ideal is a common way of expressing the goal of spiritual life in the New Testament. Perhaps this might be thought of as “live up to an expectation.” For Roman citizen, the expectation is to live like a Roman citizen should; for the one who is “in Christ,” they are to live worthy of the Gospel!  Paul begins the second half of Ephesians with similar words (“walk in a manner worthy of the calling”); in 2 Thess 2:12 he encourages his readers to “walk worthy of God” (cf. 3 John 6); in Col 1:10, it is “walk worthy of the Lord;” in Rom 16:2, it is “walk worthy of the saints.” Deissmann reports this word was used on inscriptions in Pergamum (Biblical Studies, 248). Athenaios, a priest of Dionysus and Sabazius, is extolled as “worthy of god.” Whatever these priests did, they were considered good examples for other worshipers.

The goal in Philippians 1:27 is the Gospel of Christ. The one who is “in Christ” is not a citizen of Rome. Nor should they conform their lives to the Law quite like the martyrs in 3 and 4 Maccabees. Their loyalty is to the Gospel of Christ only. Everything the individual Christian or local church does ought to be viewed through the grid of the Gospel.

 

Paul expects that his imprisonment will not end in shame (v. 18b-20).  Paul’s desire is to be free of this legal threat, to be delivered from the charges and return to the ministry to which he has been called.

Paul’s expectation is that everything that has happened will turn out to be his salvation. The word here is used literally for getting out of a boat (John 21:9, ἀποβαίνω). The word comes to be used as a metaphor for getting an expected result: “things turn out as planned.” “Deliverance” is usually translated salvation, the word does not always mean “salvation from my sins,” sometimes it means “saved from a bad situation.”  “Eager expectation” (ἀποκαραδοκία) is a rare word only found in Christian writings, although the verb appears in Herodotus for “awaiting the outcome of a war” (vii.163, 168).  Paul used the word in Rom 8:19: all creation has an “eager expectation for revealing of the sons of God.” The impression the reader has is of Paul looking forward to his release so that he can return to his long-delayed mission.

Philippians-1-21Being under house arrest is something most people in the Roman world would consider “shameful.” Shame in the Roman world was serious, people would do all that they could to avoid something that brought them shame awhile at the same time trying to increase their honor in society. This pursuit of honor often took precedence over wealth or love. Just to be under house arrest for any reason was shameful. To be in prison for preaching the story of a man who was crucified (the ultimate shame) would be enough shame to doom most people.

Yet Paul He has “full courage” that “Christ will be honored in my body,” implying that things might not go as well as he hopes. Even if he should die as a result his trial, death is still a gain! (v. 21-24) This is one of the most cherished passages in Philippians because it expresses the hope that when we die, we will be with Christ, which is “far better.” Paul’s life is defined as “Christ.” Whatever he does in this life is for Christ and Christ alone. Roman life was defined by their pursuit of honor. Whatever a Roman might do in order to gain honor for themselves, yet Paul willingly gives up in order to reach others for Christ.

“To die is gain” runs counter to how a Roman person would think. If Paul dies, then he proves his shame! Many famous Romans chose to commit suicide rather than accept greater shame, “death before dishonor.” Socrates is an example of this, although much closer to the time of Paul Cato the Younger killed himself in 46 B.C. because his army was defeated by Julius, so too Brutus, who killed himself in 42 B.C. after it was obvious Octavian would prevail (Brutus participated in the assassination of Julius, Octavian’s adopted father). Both Seneca and Nero killed themselves a few years after Philippians was written (A.D. 65 and 68).

This anticipates what Paul will say about Jesus in the next chapter. Jesus is the ultimate example of “to die is gain.” Paul is not talking about a “noble suicide.” Just as Jesus gave his life on behalf of others, Paul is also willing to lay down his life so that the Gospel will continue to advance.

Paul is “hard pressed” between these two good things. If he lives, he can continue the ministry to which God has already called him, especially to continue working with the Philippian church in order to build it up spiritually. Paul is not expressing some sort of morose acceptance of his impending death, nor is he giving up on this life because of his hardships. If he is not executed, he will continue his mission; if he is executed God has already raised up other leaders who will continue to preach the Gospel.

Because he expects the gospel to continue to advance, he prays for the Philippian church to continue to grow spiritually (v. 25-26). In spite of his imprisonment and competition of rival preachers, all that matters to Paul is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

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Phillip J. Long

Phillip J. Long

I am a college professor who enjoys reading, listening to music and drinking fine coffee. Often at the same time.

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