What’s It All About? (Phil 1:20-26)

Paul has such faith in Christ that he is sure he will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” and that he has no reason to fear death. Death is gain because he will see the one who gives his life meaning face to face.

But until then Paul finds meaning in life here and now. He finds meaning in his work and in his relationships. Paul’s work is spreading the Gospel, planting churches, and providing continuing pastoral care and leadership for the churches. He is confident God still has work for him to do, and he will continue to find meaning and joy in his work.

Most of us are not apostles, but if we are Christians two things are true: One we all have a part in sharing God’s love with those who cross our paths, especially those for whom we have a responsibility. Second, any honest work can be a holy calling, a vocation through which we may benefit others and glorify God.

Paul’s work involved people whom he came to love deeply. He found meaning in those life-long relationships with fellow believers in cities all around the Mediterranean world.

He also found a sense of satisfaction in what God had accomplished through him. Paul often speaks of boasting and pride in a paradoxical sense. He knows pride is a sin that is associated with arrogance and jealousy. But he also understands that one can boast in the Lord, and so he is proud of what the Lord has accomplished through him.

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Philippians 1:19-20 Confident of Victory

It seems that the date of Paul’s trial is near.  Paul will be led from his rented home where he is serving house arrest and taken to the tribunal to be heard by Caesar himself, where Paul will defend the Gospel and his role as an ambassador for Christ.  At the end of the trial either Paul will be allowed to leave a free man, vindicated by Caesar’s court, or he will be led away to the place of execution.

Paul has no human way of knowing the outcome, and he claims no explicit revelation from God: no vision, no clear inner voice, no word of prophecy.  He does, however, have the confidence of faith.  His faith gives him the confidence that God still has a purpose for his life on earth, in particular encouraging his faith family and especially those who are both friends and brothers and sisters from Philippi.  His hopes will not be realized automatically but through the prayers of his friends and the workings of the Spirit.

Regardless of the outcome of his trial before Caesar, Paul has the hope of final vindication before the throne of Jesus; but his faith is also inspired by the examples in the Psalms of those who expressed their hope for God’s deliverance in this life and on this earth.

Paul’s situation is ambiguous and his hope is ambivalent.  We should expect some ambiguity in his language, and it is present throughout this passage (Phil 1:15-26).  Paul confidently expects his trial to result in his salvation.  Normally he uses the word to express the ultimate consummation of a believer’s faith, which will happen when Christ reveals himself to the world as both Savior and Judge.  You could say Paul is hedging his bets, because he is assured of salvation in that sense.  But he is also using the word in the context of God’s deliverance of the faithful from their temporal and earthly enemies, a context seen so frequently in the Psalms.

If David’s faith could give him the hope of triumphing over his enemies, was Paul not entitled to expect the same result?  He is not seeking personal revenge over his enemies—but he does trust that God will grant him a personal victory.  Paul will emerge from the ordeal as a conquering hero.  Paul uses the language and imagery of a military victory parade.  In fact—here’s where some of the linguistic ambiguity comes in—he uses the terms that otherwise normally refer to the Second Coming to describe his anticipated return to the Philippians, in verse 26.  He speaks of his parousia palin.  Apart from reference Christ’s triumphant return, the expression was used in military and political circles to describe the glorious arrival of Caesar, accompanied by his retinue, to a Roman city.

The word parousia is a compound from a prefix meaning “with, beside” and a the verb eimi, which is a homonymn/homograph meaning either “I am” or “I arrive”.  So parousia can mean either “being with” or “presence” or else “coming to (someone’s presence)” or “arrival.”  It is used in the second sense here, and in the context of a victorious appearance.

Since we sometimes fail to appreciate literary subtlety, irony, and imagery, I should point out that Paul’s militant, triumphal imagery is metaphorical and paradoxical language.  The battle from which he hopes to emerge victorious is a spiritual battle, and the weapons that lead to triumph are faith, love, and prayer.  And the defeat of his enemies may well be that they are brought to their knees in homage to Paul’s Lord and become willing captives to him as Paul himself is.

If Paul’s greatest hopes were realized, and if we were able to see the event, we would not see a conquering hero–except through the eyes of faith.  We would see a little old man with scars on his body, dressed in well warn clothing, being unceremoniously released onto a dirty Roman street, perhaps to be greeted by a handful of friends.  But they would have the eyes of faith and would be quietly rejoicing in Paul’s triumph.

Linguistic Trivia–Translating τα σπλαγχνα

Meaghan Smith, an alumna of MCC and now working as an exegetical checker with an SIL Bible translation team in Ethiopia, was on campus today.  She spoke to my Greek class about issues in translation, and the words τα σπλάγχνα in particular in Philippians 1:8.  The words are mostly metaphorical for what we call “the heart” and refer to affection, sympathy and compassion, or other tender emotions.  That part is easy enough for translators.  In Philippians 1:8 it’s simply a matter of asking “How do speakers [of the target language] express that?

But we also got to thinking about the non-metaphorical use of the words.  Like our word “heart” ta splanchna literally refers to internal organs, but the question is “which organs?”  I have told my students (and you, gentle readers) that the splanchna are the organs above the diaphragm, i.e., the heart, liver, spleen, and so forth.  We looked it up in class this morning and found that according to Lowe and Nida, the splanchna are “the intestines.”  Have I been giving misinformation?

After class I went to TDNT and found that in classical usage the words do refer to the “nobler organs” (I find the quaint, almost Victorian expression interesting).  In fact, Homer refers to sacrifices in which the splanchna of sacrificial sheep are the heart, liver, and so forth which are cooked and eaten by the celebrants as part of the sacrificial ritual.

So maybe I was right after all?  But Lowe and Nida point to the one non-metaphorical usage in the NT, where Judas fell headlong and his splanchna burst out.  It seems more likely that the lower organs would be dislodged by a precipitous fall than the ones protected by the ribcage and held up by the diaphragm.

So now we have the question of synchronous or diachronous linguistics?  Well you have to go with the usage more contemporaneous with the source you are comparing–if there is enough evidence.  But I would still ask whether this one passage is enough synchronous evidence or not.  My one complaint about Lowe and Nida is that the lexicon does not cite any contemporary evidence outside the New Testament.

One other trivial issue.  A couple weeks ago Michael Halcomb was asking for onomatopoeic expressions in Greek.  I have always thought σπλάγχνα made an interesting sound, but I’m not quite sure it qualifies as onomatopoeia.  Did Judas’s noble or ignoble organs go SPLANCH! when he hit the rocks at the bottom of the cliff?

These questions are just curiosities, thought don’t really affect the meaning or translation of the passage in Philippians.  But I had a professor once who said you might learn something useful as a by-product of pursuing things not so obviously useful.

Next time I will return to more edifying thoughts–more honorable, pure, and noble themes–when I return to the Epistle to the Philippians.  In the meantime I’m interested in what some of my linguistically inclined friends think.  How would you translate σπλάγχνα?  Is it a good case of onomatopoeia?

Philippians 1:12-18

1:12 But I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that my circumstances have led rather to the progress of the Gospel.  Early followers of Jesus addressed one another as adelphoi, “brothers and sisters” because of the family bond they had through their common faith and life.  The practice is common in many religions and other movements where adherents share a common purpose.

It was common for Jews too to refer to each other using family language, both because of their common spiritual heritage and because of their ethnic bonds, but faith in Jesus transcended national and ethnic boundaries.  Family language is more than a metaphor among followers of Jesus, they are part of the family of God.

In Greek grammar, the masculine gender is used for groups that may include either gender; so adelphoi is appropriately translated “brothers and sisters.”  In this epistle we know by name two of the women included in the group of brothers and sisters, namely Euodia and Syntyche (4:2).

Verse 12 forms a transition from Paul’s description of his prayer to informing them of his circumstances, that is, his imprisonment.  Rather than what they might think, his confinement has served to advance the Gospel.

The message itself, is described in the imagery of an army waging peace, a progressive movement advancing toward victory.  The Gospel is the story of Jesus, his faithfulness to the father, his love displayed on Calvary, his victory over death, hatred, and sin, his power to create a new humanity who follow him in the way of peace and love.  The Gospel story and the transformation that follows in its wake, is being furthered by Paul’s sufferings, in two ways:

1:13     First, it has become obvious even in the capital city, even in the emperor’s inner circle that Paul is a prisoner for Christ.  They might never have heard of Christ or Paul had he not been brought to Rome as Caesar’s guest; or at least they would not have had accurate information.  It is true, there were Christians in Rome before Paul, and it is true that they had been attracting some attention.  Vigorous debates had been going on in Rome among Jews who followed Jesus as the Christ and Jews who did not.  The result was misinformation.

But God had come up with a plan to infiltrate Caesar’s elite Praetorian Guard.  Probably at least four teams of two guards were kept with Paul daily.  He may have been in chains; but they were a captive audience!  Under house arrest Paul had freedom to meet with other believers, members of the synagogue, or interested parties.  He had freedom to pray, read Scripture, dictate his letters, hold conversations—and the guards couldn’t help overhearing.

When they were alone with Paul, they may have asked questions.  The learned that Paul himself and his fellow Christians were honorable people, not criminals; their only crime was finding the meaning of life in Christ.  Further they learned the content of the Gospel.  At the end of the letter, Paul will drop a little surprise (4:22).

1:14 Second, The majority of fellow believers in Rome have gained courage from the inspiration of Paul’s strength during his imprisonment and have become far bolder in speaking the Word fearlessly.

The word they are speaking is the story of Jesus Christ, how he defeated sin, death, and hatred by enduring them on the cross and rising again, how he will come again to finish the work of transforming all creation into the place where God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, and how he empowers his followers through the Spirit of God to live a life that is a foretaste of and witness to the glory and victory that is to come.  The word is not yet written down in the four Gospels or any creed, but it has been summarized in creed-like confessions and hymns, and is contained in a recognized body of traditional teaching.

When they speak the word, they are not proselytizing, they are evangelizing.  That is they are not are not trying to convert people from one religious-ethnic identity to another; they are sharing the Good News of God’s transforming power.

1:15-16  Paul shares here the surprising news that some who are proclaiming Christ are doing so from corrupt motives, the motives of political ambition and personal rivalry.  They were Christians who envied the honor that others gave to Paul and the influence he had.  They saw his confinement as a chance to promote their own careers.

Of course for Paul apostleship was not rewarded with prestige or wealth (1 Cor 4:9-13), but others imagined they were contending on a Christian cursus honorum.  It’s not clear how they hoped to add stress to Paul’s bondage.  Maybe they claimed to preach only a “spiritual” Gospel with a Jesus who was no threat to Caesar’s lordly rule on earth—implying that Paul was in fact a threat to the public order?

Paul’s response is somewhat surprising given his vehement rejection elsewhere of those who preach “another Jesus” or a false Gospel (Gal 1:6-9 and Phil 3:2).  It may be that the essential message proclaimed by his enemies in Rome was correct; only their motives were suspect.

Paul was content to leave the judging of those up to God.  Maybe had he been free, he would have confronted them to their face; maybe he would have counseled them or prayed with them.  Lacking that freedom, he left it up to God.  In the meantime he would also commit the results of their preaching up to God and rejoice that the name of Christ is being proclaimed.

1:18     Of course, only a few were preaching the Good News from bad motives.  Most were sincere and motivated by love for Jesus and love for his apostle as well.  Paul had double reason to rejoice at this fact.

Philippians 1:2-11

1:2 Timothy joins Paul in a customary but genuine prayer for the Philippians to experience God’s grace and peace.  Grace is God’s love in action, empowering, uplifting, redeeming, and enabling us.  Peace is the state of harmony and well being that was God’s original intention for all his creation.  These blessings come from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who are inseparably linked together.

1:3-6 Paul now adds his own prayer, though Timothy of course would join in spirit and add his amen.  I thank my God at every memory of you, or “every time I remember you.”  Paul no doubt continued to observe the Jewish practice of having set hours of prayer every day, but he also “practiced the presence of God,” living his life in a continued awareness of God’s presence.  In this sense, it is possible to pray without ceasing, to pray with one’s eyes open, to pray short prayers specifically for others whenever you think of them.  Prayer for others is not a burden but a joy, and since we cross paths with so many others we can never run out of people to pray for.

When we pray for others, we are sometimes disappointed and we may wonder “What good does prayer do?”  Prayer is first of all a way of caring, a way of sharing someone else’s burden.  It is also true that sometimes surprising things happen when we pray.  Prayer is also a way of tuning our hearts to God.  As we become more experienced in prayer and walking with God our prayers will become more and more in line with God’s desires, and we should expect to see more and more of our prayers answered.

Paul is thankful for the community’s participation (koinoniain the Gospel from the first day until now.  Koinonia refers to the spiritual fellowship we have with each other and to the active participation and sharing in an activity.  When Paul first came to Philippi he received hospitality from Lydia and the jailor, and many other unnamed believers.  They had also contributed financially to Paul’s mission in other places and had continued that support in his imprisonment.  They had experienced the blessings that come from the Gospel.  They had shared the Good News with their neighbors and continued to do so in spite of opposition.  The Gospel is the news of what God has done for the world through Jesus Christ.  In Jesus Christ God had fulfilled the promises found in Isaiah:

You who bring good tidings to Zion . . . lift up your voice with a shout . . . say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”  See the Sovereign LORD comes with power . . . He tends his flock like a shepherd (Is 40:9-11).

Paul had seen the evidence of God’s work in their hearts, and he was convinced that God would finish what he started and they would be found strong and faith on the day when Jesus Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, to renew the earth, uniting heaven and earth, to call the wicked to account, and to reward the faithful.

Salvation is God’s work, and God can be trusted to finish what he starts.  A Christian should never be presumptuous–God expects us to participate in what he is doing in our lives.  But we should never be anxious.  We have good reason to have confidence in God.  It is true that we can never see completely into another person’s heart, and that people often surprise and disappoint us.  But we can see on people’s faces and in their actions a consistency in spiritual growth (or lack thereof).  Paul had seen the reality of their faith and has good reason for confidence in them personally.

1:7 Therefore he adds, it is right for me to think this way for all of you because I have you in my heart.  Greek is often more precise than English, but in this case it is more ambiguous.

Paul uses an infinitive construction in which the subject and object both use the same grammatical form (the accusative), so the last clause could also be translated, “because you have me in your heart.”  A painfully literal translation would be “because of the to have me in the heart you.”

The immediately following context would support the translation “because you have me in your heart,” but recent research into the usage of infinitive clauses tends to support “because I have you in my heart” as the translation.  Both ideas are true, but Paul probably had one in mind.

Paul’s confidence in them is based on the personal relationship he has with them and the knowledge he has of their character.  They have been partners with him in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel as well as in his imprisonment.  The work of the Spirit of Christ in their lives manifested in “the fruit of righteousness” is the confirmation of the Gospel.  Their confession of faith and steadfast faithfulness is their participation in the defense of the Gospel.  The best apologetic is a believing community from whose lives flows the love of God.

1:8God is my witness” is an oath.  Paul evidently did not see this as a contradiction of Jesus’ words “let your yes be yes.”  Paul uses this kind of oath when he wants to express something strongly, sometimes when his motives or truthfulness has been challenged.  Here the physical separation caused by his imprisonment causes a frustration that leads Paul to say, “God is my witness how I long for all of you with the passionate affection of Christ.”  The Greek word splankhna, refers literally to the organs in the chest (lungs, spleen, liver, etc.) where emotion is deeply felt.  Metaphorically it conveys intense compassion or affection, so I have translated it “passionate affection.” Maybe “the passion of Christ” would convey the idea just as well.

Bible translators tell amusing stories about where in the anatomy emotions are perceived to be experienced in different cultures.  Some peoples say “I love you with my kidneys,” for example.  (The expression found in the KJV certainly is not help for today’s readers.)

1:9-11  Paul summarizes his personal prayer for them:

  1. that your love may overflow more and more.  Here agape expresses a deep concern for the well being of other people, their spiritual as well as physical well being, now and into eternity, that unconditionally seeks their best interest, while respecting their integrity as free and responsible individuals.  Believers are commanded and empowered to love one another and to love their enemies with this kind of Christ-like love.
  2. in all knowledge and ethical sensitivity.  The word aisthesis (whence the English aesthetic) indicates perception, insight, and moral sensibility.
    • A rabbi dealing with an ethical issue today illustrates this kind of sensitivity with a parable: “A woman comes to me with a question about a chicken).  I ask her to tell me about her life, her family . . . ”  What he means is that he will not apply a cookie-cuter ruling to everyone.  It depends on the need of her family and her financial resources.  If they are a poor family, rather than letting the children go hungry, the rabbi will find a way to make the chicken kosher.  If she is wealthy he will say, “just buy another chicken.”
    • The teaching in the Bible is written to help us form this kind of ethical sensitivity.  It is not to give us dueling verses or a weapon to bash people over the head with.
  3. so that you will think critically and make the best decisions,
    • The verb dokimazo means examine, test, prove, or approve; ta diaphoranta the things that are distinguished, excellent, preferred.  In the context of “knowledge and ethical sensitivity” Paul is referring to critical thinking and learning from experience.
    • Love that overflows needs to be guided by wisdom, knowledge, experience, and critical thinking to produce results that really benefit the ones loved.
  4. and so you will be pure and blameless in the day of Christ,
    • Clear thinking and wisdom that comes from experience will also help followers of Christ examine their own motives and actions so they can avoid self-deception and falling into harmful patterns of behavior.
    • On the day Christ is revealed to the world, there will be no partiality: regardless of religion and nationality every person will be held accountable for the life he or she has lived.  All will have to answer how they have responded to the gifts and opportunities they have been given and to the needs they have faced or avoided.
    • Those who turn to God and seek forgiveness can be assured of receiving it.  However, we would hope to have more to show on the day of judgment than a blank slate.  How have we treated those considered “least” by the world but “brothers or sisters” by Jesus?  Have we loved God with pure hearts?
    • There is a paradox here, of course.  Those who do the right thing from pure motives will be rewarded: but having pure motives means not seeking a reward.
  5. filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ and returns to the glory and praise of God.
    • Through faith we are united to Christ and his righteousness becomes ours.  We are “counted righteous” by God and, as we become aware of the presence of Christ in our lives, we become more righteous in our motives and behavior.
    • The fruit of righteousness is the natural outgrowth of a relationship with God.  It consists of qualities such as “love, joy, peace, goodness, kindness, gentleness,” the renunciation of violence or revenge, seeking to live at peace with all people, and similar Christ-like behaviors, attitudes, and commitments.  See Rom 12:9-21; 14:17-18; Gal 5:22-23.
    • God is glorified when hurting people are healed, when those who are lost are found; when people find wholeness and salvation through a relationship of faith and love with God through Jesus Christ, when children, women, and men understand and respond to God’s love for them.

“Not Even Wrong” is an expression Christopher Hitchens was fond of.  I believe the original expression was “not even false.”  The idea comes first from analytic philosophy, according to which some statements are true, others are false, and others are merely nonsensical.  This idea was taken over into science where it led to the idea that a theory must be testable and, at least in principle, “falsifiable.”  If there is no way a theory could be tested and produce a result that is either true or false, it is “not even false,” it is a worthless theory.

In this sense, two ideas commonly asserted by the aggressive atheists of this new millennium are not even false.

  1. The first is the idea that faith and reason are irreconcilable opposites, that faith requires one to leave his shoes and his mind at the door.  In fact faith requires critical thinking.  I don’t want to promote stereotypes, even positive ones, but everyone knows Jews have been disproportionately overachievers in academics.  Could it be because centuries of debate over the meaning of the commandments in the Torah have created a culture of critical thinking?  Could it be that teaching that study (even secular study) is an act of devotion to God have created a climate that values the intellect?
  2. The second is the idea that Christians serve God out of cringing fearor for base motives of a future reward, that they live a life of drudgery mindlessly following rules and regulations first formulated in the bronze age.  This total misunderstanding of the motivation for Christian behavior so misses the point that it is not even wrong, it is not even close to reality.
    • Unfortunately there are Christians who share the above misunderstandings.  Religion in general does poison nearly everything, it constantly distorts the reality of the relationship God desires to have with us.  From Genesis to Revelation, the prophets and apostles of God fight against religion as it is actually practiced by most of mankind in their day, including those who understand themselves to be the people of God.

Philippians 1:1

1  Timothy joins Paul in wishing grace and peace to the Christ followers in Philippi.  Timothy is not a co-author (Paul uses the 1st person singular throughout the Epistle and will speak later of Timothy in the 3rd person), but he is a witness and vouches for Paul’s authority and the authenticity of the letter.  He is also a role model for the Philippians (2:19-24) and will be a personal delegate from Paul to them.

Paul and Timothy are servants of Christ Jesus (douloi Christou Iesou), a phrase modeled after the Old Testament expression eved YHWH, which is a position of great honor.  They willingly acknowledge owing their lives to Christ and being owned by him “in whose service is perfect freedom” and therefore though they are servants to all they can never become slaves of men.

In Galatians 3:26-4:7 Paul explains why the word “slave” is inadequate to describe our relationship with God.  Jesus also taught that we are “no longer slaves but friends.”  We are heirs and friends having a freedom and authority that slaves could never dream of–this applies to those who are slaves “according to the flesh,” in their earthly, worldly status.

The believers are saints (hagioi, holy people) because they have been claimed by God through Jesus Christ for his own purposes.  Their lives are dedicated to God and their behavior is becoming more holy and righteous day by day. To us sainthood or holiness sounds other-worldly, but to become holy really means becoming authentically human, becoming all we were meant to be, being whole and upright, and wholly motivated by love.  It is holy to embrace the joys of life with enthusiasm and zest; it is also holy to fully experience grief and pain, and to share both experiences, joy and pain with others.

The word hagioi also points to future victory: the saints will come again with Christ when he establishes his kingdom and will reign with him.

At the coming of Christ the righteous dead will be raised and given glorified bodies, and the faithful living on earth will receive glorified bodies and will be visibly “raptured” briefly, caught up in the air to meet Christ as he descends, and then get in line behind him as he returns to the earth in victory, where he will be recognized by all who have ever lived.  The imagery of the second coming of Christ “with his saints” is derived from Daniel’s vision and is expressed in the imagery of a Roman conquering hero’s victory parade.  (See Dan 7:25-27, Jude 14, 1 Thess 5:14-17.)

There is no evidence in the Bible for a “secret rapture” of the saints before a great tribulation on the earth.

Of course the saints will not just sit around in the meantime waiting to escape from the world.  They are called to be a Holy Nation, God’s people on earth who experience and demonstrate the reality of his kingdom here and now.  They live at peace with one another in the presence of God, praying for their enemies, showing compassion to the poor, the lonely, the needy, healing the sick, driving out destructive forces that keep God’s creation from flourishing as the creator intended.  (See Ex 19:5-6, 1 Pet 2:9, Eph 3:10, Matt 10:1, Luke 4:18-19.)

God’s holy people are elsewhere called by a name derived from Athenian democracy, ekklesia (usually translated church) the assembly of free citizens who have an equal right of free speech (parrhesia in Greek).  Each believer has spiritual authority and freedom, and the assembly decides local issues by discussion and consensus, voting or other democratic procedures.  The believers form an egalitarian community (Matt 23:8-12, Gal 3:28).  Paul’s letter is addressed to them, to all the saints; but the saints do have leaders and the leaders are not excluded.

Paul greets the saints with the bishops and deacons.  The English word “bishop” actually comes from the Greek word episkopos.  Drop the initial vowel and the ending, then change the initial /p/ to it’s voiced equivalent /b/, and after fifteen hundred years or so, you get bishop.  The original Greek episkopos, however, did not originally refer to a powerful office (like the chess piece) but to a function of leadership and care giving.  A bishop was one who oversaw or looked after others.

Other evidence from the New Testament indicates that the terms “elders” and “bishops” (presbyteroi and episkopoi) were either synonymous or overlapping.  Those with wisdom and experience in living godly lives were respected as elders, and the elders were appointed to the function of overseers.  In the New Testament, that is in the first century, there was always a group of elders in each church.

By the early second century a distinction was made between the bishop (singular) and the council of elders (still plural), in each church, with the bishop serving in a role identical to that of “pastor” in a local church today.  By the third and fourth centuries, the bishop was the leader of the largest church in a city, then in a region, and exercised authority over all the churches in his region.  By the sixth century the bishop of Rome had claimed to be the “first among equals” over the bishops of the other great cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople.

But in the early church, the term episkopos did not refer to a hierarchical authoritarian office.  The overseers of the congregation provided spiritual care for individuals and families, looked after the sick and needy, taught the congregation and led worship, and helped direct the overall administration of the local church as the members sought to please God and reach out more effectively among their neighbors.

We know that the twelve apostles were men, although women played a prominent role in the ministry of Jesus and were in fact the first to preach the Gospel of the Risen Christ to the apostles.  We know that the bishops whose names were recorded in the second centuries and beyond were men.  But Gordon Fee and others have pointed out that there may have been women in the earliest church who exercised the role of providing spiritual care and direction.  Fee mentions Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2 and Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2.

Phoebe is described as a diakonos and a prostatis, the latter term having a meaning similar to that of episkopos, one who “stands before” another, giving aid, spiritual or physical care, or leadership and direction.  We know from 1 Cor 11 and 14 that women exercised the function of speaking “for the edification, encouragement, and instruction” of the church, a function described as “prophesying.”

Any group, no matter how egalitarian, needs leadership, guidance, and support.  Leadership in the early church arose in at least three forms:

1) Spiritual maturity and wisdom was recognized, and elders possessing such qualities were appointed to offices called “elder” or “bishop.”

2) Charismatic gifts gave individuals the ability to exercise various roles, including speaking, teaching, and leadership roles.  These gifts were recognized and evaluated by other believers.

3)  Persons who were prominent in the larger (civic) community had means, including houses large enough to host the church, and influence, such as connections with city leaders to provide some protection, legitimacy, and support to the church.  These persons provided a kind of natural leadership in the churches.

Over time no doubt some of these roles faded, some merged, and occasionally there was some conflict among them.

Deacons were servants in the church who took care of the poor, but also became ministers of the word of God.  The Greek word diakonos originally referred to a waiter or server, who served meals in a private home.  The original idea is one who “waits on a table.”  But then bankers also had tables, so sometimes financial managers were called diakonoi.  Those who served the congregation by feeding their souls, bringing them the bread of life, were also called diakonoi.

It seems the first deacons are those described in Acts 6, young men full of the Spirit, of wisdom, and of faith, who were chosen to deliver meals to the widows in the growing Jerusalem congregation.  They no doubt prayed with them, listened to them, encouraged them and were encouraged by them, and grew in their faith as a result.  The first deacons named went on to become ministers of the word and evangelists, including the first martyr Stephen.

The Greek word diakonos (plural diakonoi) gramatically is of common gender, the same form applies to masculine and feminine nouns.  Phoebe is called a diakonos of the church at Cenchrea.

One reason the bishops and deacons are mentioned could be that they were officially in charge of collecting, managing, and sending the offering to Paul.

Introduction to Philippians

Paul wrote his letter to the church at Philippi for three main reasons:

  1. As a Newsletter to inform them about his circumstances and his decision to send Epaphroditus back to them.
  2. As a Pastoral Letter to encourage them to be strong in their faith in spite of opposition, to have confidence that Paul is in God’s hands and whatever happens will advance the cause of Christ, to be united by being humble and thinking of others.
  3. As a Thank-you letter for a gift they sent him.

The most likely setting is the house arrest in Rome, as described in Acts 28.  Paul is under constant guard by Roman soldiers, but he is free to receive guests.  In this way Paul continues his ministry of teaching and writing letters.  He also has a unique opportunity to share the Gospel with Caesar’s Imperial guard.

Philippi is on the main highway going east from Rome, about 800 miles. Despite the distance, there was evidently quite a bit of communication back and forth between Paul and the community of believers.  The church at Philippi sent Epaphroditus to deliver a financial contribution to Paul’s ministry and to stay and serve as his personal attendant.  His duties would include doing mundane things like going into town to buy groceries for Paul, paying the rent on Paul’s house, arranging meetings with church leaders in Rome, and helping Paul in other ways.

When Epaphroditus arrived he brought Paul news of the congregation back in Philippi.  The news was mostly positive, but Paul learned of a few problems: There were some quarrels among members, in particular two women named Euodia and Syntyche.  There was also anxiety about Paul’s fate and also some concern for their own future if their founder was to be condemned as a criminal.  They were also experiencing some opposition from their neighbors.

Epaphroditus became seriously ill while with Paul.  When the church back home heard about it they became anxious for him.  When he learned of their concern it broke his heart.  Paul prayed for him, and God graciously healed him, but now Epaphroditus was now desperately homesick so Paul made the decision to send him home, bearing Paul’s letter in his hand.

Paul’s mission to Philippi is described in Acts 16.  There were evidently fewer than 10 Jewish men living there when Paul arrived.  Women played a prominent role in the society of Macedonia (the region of which Philippi was the most important city).  Women formed the core of the church and continued to have leadership roles in the church.  A girl whom Jesus delivered from demon possession through Paul’s ministry, Lydia, a wealthy business woman, and the Philippian jailor’s family are the first people described in Acts as becoming followers of Jesus.

The city of Philippi was founded by Philip, king of Macedon and father of Alexander.  Later it became a Roman Colony and was settled by retired Roman soldiers.  Influenced by their soldier neighbors, the people of the city were strong, independent, ambitious, and patriotic.  Emperor worship and recognition of the gods of Rome would be a part of civic life in the city, creating tension between the Christ followers in the city and their neighbors.

The letter was preserved by the early church because of Paul’s importance as the Apostle to the Gentiles; and so it was incorporated into the New Testament Canon.  Although it was written to one specific church, it has significance for followers of Christ at all times and places.

Philippians is one of the most positive and joyful letters in the Bible.  It doesn’t teach positive thinking in general, but confidence in Christ.  It is not wishful thinking, it recognizes suffering and opposition but also expresses confidence based on what Christ has already accomplished and on what he has in store for those who love him.

In Philippians we see Paul’s personal devotion to Jesus Christ and Paul’s Christology.  Jesus is the one who left a position of equality with God to become a servant and die for us on the Cross.  He is also the one who was exalted and given the “Name above every name” and the one to whom every knee will bow.  For Paul he is the meaning of life and the hope beyond death.

As Christians live out their life of faith and gratitude to Christ they experience confidence through facing opposition, they experience fellowship with Christ through suffering, and are daily filled with joy.