The Epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians
D- Topics of the Epistle
1:1–2 Introduction: grace and peace
1:3–11 Prayers of thanksgiving and greetings
1:12–20 Evangelization despite imprisonment and shackles
1:21–26 Torn between evangelization (remaining in the flesh) and desire to depart (be with Christ)
1:27 – 30 Exhortation to steadfastness in the Faith and endurance of sufferings
2:1–4 Like-mindedness and unity of love in humility
2:5–11 Christ is our role model
2:12–18 Work out your salvation
2:19–24 Promise to send Timothy for outreach
2:25–30 Epaphroditus carries Paul’s epistle
3:1 A calling to joy
3:2–4 Judgment of evil-workers and defense of his ministry
3:5–11 St. Paul the apostle is portrayed as the example of transformation from righteousness of the Law, to righteousness of the Faith
3:12–16 Forget the past and look towards the future
3:17–21 Awaiting the final salvation
4:1–3 Last instructions and messages to the servants
4:4–5 Rejoice! The Lord is near!
4:6–7 Only, pray
4:8–9 Concerning Christian thought
4:10–20 Concerning the Philippian Church’s offering, and the mystery of sufficiency
4:21–23 Concluding salutations
E- Interpretation of the Epistle
1. Introductions: grace and peace (Phil. 1:1, 2)
In several other letters, St. Paul introduced himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ (1:1 in each of Romans, 1st. and 2nd. Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians and Colossians); in this case, however, since his heart was filled with love for those to whom he was writing, he introduced himself as the servant of the Christ Who honored him, not only by choosing him, but also by redeeming him neither with silver nor gold, but with nothing less than His precious blood (1 Corinthians 6:20 & 1 Peter 1:18, 19). This title puts St. Paul in the same category as all the other servants of God, our forefathers and prophets: Abraham (Psalm 105:6, Jeremiah 7:25 & Amos 3:7), Job (Job 42:7), Moses (Joshua 1:2, 7, 13 & 15, Psalm 105:26 & Daniel 9:11), Joshua (Joshua 24:15 & Judges 2:8), David (Psalm 78:70, 89:3, 20 & 144:10), The Three Youths (Daniel 3:17), and Daniel (Daniel 6:20)
He also considers his beloved disciple Timothy to be a “co-sender,” and grants him the same titles of which he is proud, namely, a good soldier, an obedient servant, and a faithful evangelist of the Lord. Together, they become “the two servants of Jesus Christ.”
At the same time, St. Paul bestows on members of the congregation of the Church of Philippi the title of “the saints in Christ Jesus,” i.e. the “elect,” or those chosen by, and dedicated to, the Lord. This is the same title given to the children of Israel (Exodus 19:6), the Old Testament’s priests (Leviticus 21:6), the firstborns of the children of Israel (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15, Luke 2:23), the holy of holies (Exodus 26:33 & 40:10), and the tithes of the land (Leviticus 27:30, 32). In the New Testament, this title characterizes all believers in the Lord, since they are His elect; being the Lord’s chosen, they thus derive their lives from Him, just as the vine gives life to its branches (John 15:1). Their principles, mannerisms, and goals are dissimilar to the worldly people. The source of their individuality and different lifestyle stems from their being “in Christ Jesus” (this is the precise expression which St. Paul used 48 times in his epistles).
“…with the bishops and deacons…” St. Paul arranged that the bishop (Episcopos or overseer) is God’s steward (1st Timothy 1:17) in whose charge rests an entire diocese, with all its churches and ministers, setting the example for them in faith and conduct in accordance with the Bible. In 1st Timothy 3:2–7, we find all the necessary qualifications which St. Paul set for a bishop. In the Church’s infancy, there were no clearly defined boundaries between bishops and, presbyters (priests or elders, see Acts 11:30, 14:23, 15:2, 4, 6, 22, 23, 16:4, 20:17 & 21:18); conditions for their ordainment were the same. The Book of Acts (20:17) recounts that St. Paul met with the elders (priests) of the Church of Ephesus, and later, in the same chapter (20:28) referred to them as overseers() which means, literally, “bishops.” We also note that in St. Paul’s epistles, the expression “bishop” is usually used in the singular sense, as opposed to “elders (priests),” which is used in the plural sense. This suggests that churches within a particular region would normally have several elders, but would fall under one bishop. With the passage of time, however, and with the advent of the age of synods (councils), a distinction evolved between the ranks of “bishop” and “priests”: the former ordains the latter as well as the deacons. Deacons were initially appointed to serve the tables, when the Church was first instituted (Acts 6:3-6); subsequently they became the priests’ and bishops’ companions, and their qualifications were specified (1st Timothy 3:8-13).
“Grace and peace” Most of St. Paul’s epistles start by his petition for “grace and peace,” the greatest gift that could be granted by God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. “Grace” is God’s rich, free, grant, which the world is incapable of giving. “Peace” is the abundance of comfort, certainty and enjoyment of Christ’s constant presence, even in the midst of temptations and tribulations; it also represents the continuity of our relationship and reconciliation with God.
In the Greek-style of greeting, “grace” was commonly used; “peace,” on the other hand, was more common in the Hebrew style. St. Paul thus combined both the western and eastern styles, in the biblical sense.
2- Thanksgiving, greetings, and prayers (Phil. 1:3–11)
For the Philippians, St. Paul had nothing but feelings of affection, joy and happiness, since they accepted the Gospel at the outset starting with Lydia, the seller of purple, and her companions, followed by the Philippian jailer, plus all their families. This was followed by waves of converts over the years – hence the formation of this Church, from which St. Paul did not conceal his feelings of longing and fond memories; he is “confident.....that He Who has begun a good work......will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:6)
In their turn, the Philippians were ever-present with St. Paul, irrespective of his jail, shackles and unceasing evangelization; they are the lasting partakers with him in grace. In his prayers for them, his primary preoccupation was the steady growth of their love for the knowledge of God, of their understanding of the word of God, and of their understanding of God’s plan for their salvation; this would facilitate their discernment of what constitutes a departure from the Faith, and what would be inconsistent with the instruction they had received. Ultimately, they would remain steadfast in their faith and submission to the Lord, until His coming, being filled, in Christ, with the virtues and fruit of righteousness. This path, rather than promoting self-esteem and pride, exhorts the glorification of God, and the exultation in giving Him thanks. (Phil. 1:7-11)
3- Evangelization despite chains and imprisonment (Phil. 1:12–20)
We read in Acts 25:11 that, because St. Paul appealed to Caesar, he was led to Rome, thus fulfilling the Lord’s promise to him: “Be of good cheer, Paul; for as you have testified for Me in Jerusalem, so you must also bear witness at Rome.” (Acts 23:11) He initially was lodged in a Roman barracks, and was subsequently allowed to live in a rented house, guarded by a Roman soldier. During the two-year period spent in that house, he was also permitted to receive visitors (Acts 28:16, 30). The concluding verses (30 & 31) of Acts 28 state: “Then Paul......received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.”
We thus see that neither the prison’s walls and chains, nor the constant presence of guards surrounding him, prevented St. Paul from preaching the kingdom of God and witnessing for Jesus Christ, both to his visitors and to his prison guards, all of whom were affected by his steadfastness and instruction. He writes to the Philippians saying (quite unexpectedly): “....the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel,” (Phil. 1:12). He goes on to say that his jail and shackles, for Christ’s sake, have illuminated the path of the knowledge of the Lord not only to those who visited him in his house and/or prison, but also “.....to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest,” (Phil. 1:13). He is truly “an ambassador in chains” (Ephesians 6:20), and his jail and chains were indeed for evangelization’s sake. It is likely that acceptance of the Faith by some of the guards had emboldened some of the servants who accompanied him to “speak the word without fear.” (Phil. 1:14) How great is this blessing, and how wondrous is this grace which promotes the work of God even through the “chains (or bonds)” (Phil. 1:7, 13, 14, 16) and the sufferings using them for the propagation of the Faith among the soldiers of the decaying empire, and for transforming the prison and prefecture (palace) into a church transmitting the good news of salvation to the entire world!
St. Paul points out two directions concerning evangelization and evangelists: some of his co-evangelists were motivated by envy, jealousy, bias, and competition against him, especially during his jail confinement – the instruction they were offering might have been mixed with Jewish scriptural tradition, demanding that Judaism be the first step towards belief in Christ; another group was driven by their quest for the glorification of God, the salvation of souls, the love and support for Paul their jailed leader, and the desire to compensate for his absence “knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel.” (Phil. 1:15-17)
St. Paul goes on to say that, in contrast to the first group’s belief that they “add afflictions to my chains” (Phil. 1:16), his primary preoccupation is the glorification of Christ and the preaching of salvation; he rejoices in proclaiming Christ “whether in pretense or in truth [in other words, whether insincerely/impulsively, or genuinely with a pure heart].” (Phil. 1:18) This will continue to be the source of his joy unto the end. (Phil. 1:18) All this leads to his deliverance in this world from all his hardships, and to his eternal salvation, through their prayers and the support of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Christ. (Phil. 1:19)
Here St. Paul stands tall before all servants: a great example of austerity and selflessness, such that the glorification of Christ becomes the goal of evangelism, superseding any other goal. St. Paul’s hope and conviction were that his witnessing for Christ would never be rebuffed, whether he is confined within a prison’s four walls, or whether he is free to roam the wide world from Jerusalem to Rome, bearing the message of salvation. His ultimate goal is that the name of Christ be exalted, whether he is alive and preaching Christ in this world, or whether he is dead for Christ’s sake, and on his way to the kingdom to be crowned. (Phil. 1:20)
(To be contd.)
() - This is the meaning which St. Peter intended when he described the Lord as being “the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25). Furthermore, in St. Paul’s epistle to Titus (1:5 – 9), he wrote: “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you – if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife........For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed,.......” Here, again, “elders” are described as “bishops.” If Titus is thus the bishop, then the others would be the elders; a bishop in this context is an overseer (literally), rather than someone having a particular rank.