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.

Idolatry 1

I want to begin a series of posts on the topic of idolatry. The fact that idolatry is considered a sin in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity–maybe in some forms of other religions too–raises several interesting questions.

First, I want to point out what monotheism and the rejection of idolatry does not mean, at least in the religion of the Bible. It does not mean intolerance.

A few years ago, in an address at Harvard, Gore Vidal made this remark: “The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism.” Why? Because, in his view, monotheism is responsible for intolerance and therefore war and strife among nations.

The world has seen it’s share of religious intolerance, hatred, and war. The point I want to make, though, is this kind of intolerance is not based on the teaching of the Bible.

First, in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament–the commandment against idolatry is given to people who have voluntarily entered a covenant relationship with the God of Israel, who is also the universal God of all people. When Israel is unfaithful to the covenant with God, God sends prophets to call them back to faithfulness. These prophetic indictments against unfaithfulness and idolatry are not given to other nations.

When the prophets speak to other nations, they call them to universal standards of justice and human rights. The prophets do not condemn other nations for practicing the wrong religion, but for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The New Testament does portray the mission of the early church with the apostles calling people from all nations to turn from “vain idols to the living god.” They use persuasion, not force to proclaim the good news. The Gentiles who worship their own gods defended the apostles: “These men are not blasphemers of our goddess.”

I am not saying that the Bible teaches tolerance for idols in the sense that serving idols is just as valid as believing in the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ. I am saying that it does not encourage violence against those who practice other religions.