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Philippians, The Letter of Paul to the

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Philippians, The Letter of Paul to the

    The Church at Philippi.

    The letter that bears the title “To the Philippians” was addressed to the church in Philippi, an important city in Macedonia (Map 14:D2). The emperor Octavian had made Philippi a Roman colony and gave to its citizens the rights and privileges of those born and living in Rome. According to the account in Acts, the church in Philippi began as follows: Paul, on his second missionary journey, left Asia Minor for Macedonia, came to Philippi, preached the gospel; Lydia, a prominent woman from that area, and a few others became Christians. The church apparently was first housed in Lydia's home (Acts 16.9–40). In spite of its small beginnings, it grew and became an active Christian community, taking an important part in evangelism (Phil. 1.3–8), readily sharing its own material possessions, even out of deep poverty (4.16; cf. 2 Cor. 8.1–5), and generously sending one of its own people to assist Paul in his work and to aid him while he was in prison (2.25–30). Paul visited this church on at least three occasions (Acts 16.12; 2 Cor. 2.13; Acts 20.6).

    Author and Date.

    No writer in ancient times and scarcely any today question that Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians. But from where did he write it, and when? On these questions there is divergence of opinion. Most scholars hold that Paul wrote the letter from Rome; others have suggested Corinth or Ephesus; a good case can also be made for Caesarea. But from wherever Paul wrote, it had to be a place where he was in prison, where there was a Roman praetorium (i.e., emperor's palace, or a provincial governor's official residence; see 1.12, 13), and where there were members of Caesar's household (i.e., the royal entourage at the palace or at any provincial capital; see 4.22). Hence, Rome (ca. 60 CE) or Caesarea (ca. 58 CE) are the most likely places, since each had a praetorium with its royal staff, and in each Paul is reported to have been jailed.

    Integrity.

    An increasing number of scholars consider Philippians to be not a single letter but several—at least two, possibly three—woven into one. The disjointed nature of the letter as it stands (note the abrupt transition in tone and content between 3.1 and 3.2); Paul's leaving his “thank you” to the end (4.10–20); and Polycarp's reference in his own letter to the Philippians (3.21) to Paul's having written them several letters, are some of the reasons for suggesting that Philippians is a composite made up of different letters, or letter fragments. But the abruptness noted above is hardly an argument against the integrity of Philippians, for it is not inconsistent with the characteristics of private speech, nor with Paul's style (cf. Rom. 16.16–18; 1 Thess. 2.13–16). And though Polycarp mentions that Paul wrote several letters to the Philippians, he apparently knew and used none other than this.

    Contents of the Letter.

    Paul begins his letter with the typical greeting (1.1–2), and continues with thanksgiving to God and prayer for the Philippians' continued growth in love and good works (1.3–11). He makes known to them how the gospel has advanced even while he is in prison (1.12–18), and assures them that he will be released and will return to Philippi (1.19–26). He begs them to live worthily of the gospel in unity, harmony, and generosity without grumbling or complaining, keeping always before themselves Jesus Christ as the supreme model for any moral action (1.27–2.18). He exhorts them further by describing the qualities of Timothy and Epaphroditus, and he promises to send both to Philippi (2.19–30). He warns them against evangelistic Jews or judaizers, whose teaching and practices are contrary to the gospel (3.1–19), and concludes the letter by making a final appeal for unity (4.1–3), offering suggestions as to how Christians should think and act (4.4–9) and thanking the Philippians for their numerous gifts to him (4.10–20). He closes with salutations (4.21–23).

    The Hymn.

    Philippians 2.6–11 is an exquisite example of an early Christian hymn, used and probably modified by Paul for his purposes here. Its interpretation has long been debated. Differences in interpretation revolve primarily around two Greek words, harpagmos (2.6) and kenoō (2.7). Some understand the former to mean “a thing to be held on to,” and understand Christ as possessing equality with God, but not clinging to it as something he might lose (see the Jerusalem Bible). Others understand it to mean “a snatching after” and see Christ as a second Adam, who unlike the first refused to grasp after being equal with God (see the NEB, and cf. Gen. 3.5). More recently, some have shown that harpagmos is part of an idiomatic expression referring to an attitude of mind one has toward that which is already possessed. Thus, Christ is seen as not regarding his being equal with God as a condition to be used (NRSV: “exploited”) for his own benefit.

    The other word, kenoō, often translated as “to empty,” also means, “to make powerless,” “to pour out.” Some see this as an act of the human will of Jesus, the last Adam. “He made himself powerless,” that is, he deliberately chose the lot of fallen humanity. Others, however, understand this as an act of the will of the preexistent, divine Christ.

    The vocabulary and tone of the hymn, as well as the context in which it is placed, argue for the interpretation that sees Jesus Christ as preexistent, divine (“in the form of God”), equal with God, but who nevertheless refused to take advantage of all this for his personal gain. Instead, in that preexistent state, he willed to pour himself out, to serve by becoming human. He considered being equal with God not as an excuse for avoiding service and redemptive suffering but as that which uniquely qualified him for these tasks. Thus, God exalted him and gave him the highest name in heaven and on earth, the name “Lord.”

    If the hymn is about Christ, it is also about God, making clear the true nature of God. The Christ of the hymn shows by both his attitude and actions that for him to be in the “form of God,” to be “equal with God,” meant that he must give and spend himself. The hymn, then, makes it clear that God's true nature is not selfishly to seize but openhandedly to give.

    Understood in this way the hymn fits perfectly into the context of chap. 2. Whereas the Philippians were acting selfishly, living with a grasping attitude (2.3–4), Christ's attitude and actions were exactly the opposite. So Paul appeals to them to bring their conduct into harmony with the conduct of Christ. Here is a splendid example of Paul's method of encouraging the Christian life by presenting sublime theological truth.

    Gerald F. Hawthorne

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