I’ve almost been defeated.
I’ve been plugging away over the last ten days or so at this #30daysofPaul reading challenge, writing about these little note-like missives from Paul. Sections of 2 Corinthians, the letter to Philemon, the Epistle to the Philippians: all these have been light on the theology, and heavy on personal notes and minutiae and specific instructions and answers to questions.
There is only so much one person can say about this stuff.
And today was almost the day it got me.
I’ve been thinking and thinking on this passage since yesterday afternoon, and after 18 hours of fruitless reflection, I was ready move on to Romans.
And then I pulled out my handy, dandy Interpreters Bible set.
Thank goodness for fifty year-old scholarship.
So, let’s think about the big picture here.
Paul’s seven+ authentic epistles weren’t written in a vacuum. They did not spring forth fully formed, free of any context and or personality traits. Paul wrote these in a specific time, to a specific audience, with a specific purpose in mind. His writings have very little to do with guiding the faith of American Christians in the 21st century, and very much to do with addressing the needs of his congregations and friends.
I know, you’re saying “duh, we’ve already been over this.” But I think it’s important to point out again. We get into the weeds of these Epistles sometimes, and we lose sight of the purpose Paul was writing with. We start pulling out individual phrases and verses to back up an argument or make a point, and we lose sight of the big picture.
So Philippians: what was Paul’s purpose in writing this letter?
According to my Interpreters Bible, it is widely held that Paul was writing a letter of thanks in response to a large monetary gift from the church at Philippi, as referenced near the end of the letter. It seems the church raised a large sum of money, something that took a lot of work, to send to support Paul.
Now, we have seen elsewhere that Paul wasn’t much of one for accepting money for churches. It appears he made an exception for Philippi, at least in this case, perhaps because he saw how much work and pride they put into their fundraising. But there is still a note of embarrassment from Paul, a hint of the uncomfortable feeling he had in accepting money. This has been Paul’s consistent attitude throughout his ministry, and in fact, in previous letters, he had always had a point of pride in acknowledging his refusal of funds from the churches he supported.
(A quick side note here: I know that for the purposes of this #30daysofPaul study, Philippians has been split up, and 4:10-20 was actually the first thing we read from this letter. I don’t have a copy of The Authentic Letters of Paul, the book this study comes from, so I have no idea why this decision was made. I trust the authors and their reasonings in reconstructing the chronology of Paul’s letters, but I’m going to ask us to focus on the original composition of this letter, as handed down to us in the Bible. Maybe they got it wrong, and this is how the original letter flowed, or maybe an ancient compiler thought it would work better if that was the last bit included from Philippi: whatever the reason, for the purposes of my point, we are going to view the letter as an uninterrupted whole.)
Back to my point: this is supposedly a letter of thanks from Paul to his benefactors in Philippi. But go read the letter as a whole, or at least skim the headers. I’ll wait while you do.
We don’t see much reference to that gift, do we?
In fact, it’s not really mentioned until the end, in chapter 4. The rest of the letter is a status report on Paul’s situation, and exhortations to live humbly and be a light to the world, and some information about Timothy and Epaphroditus.
If this is a letter of thanks for a gift,
it’s kind of an odd one.
I think this emphasis is deliberate. Something we can discern about Paul is that he took the words of Jesus on money and wealth very seriously. Paul agreed that money is the “root of all evil,” and I think he always wanted churches to keep the focus off finances and on serving one another. If he asked them to send money to another church, or to support the leaders in Jerusalem, it was about spreading and nurturing the Christian faith.
Paul is shifting the emphasis of his church at Philippi with his letter. They have sent him a large sum of money, and while they probably wouldn’t come out and say they expect it, they surely believed that Paul would write a gushing thank you letter, talking about how generous they are.
But Paul doesn’t want them becoming about the money; he doesn’t want them to make their fundraising prowess their chief gift to the world. Instead, he moves the focus to the things that are important for the church.
Thinking of others, especially those in distress.
Living with the humility that Christ showed.
Becoming a light to the world.
Keeping their eyes on the cross.
In 4:8 he makes this point most explicitly,
whatever is true,
whatever is honorable,
whatever is just,
whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing,
whatever is commendable,
if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.”
That’s what Paul wants their focus to be.
Live in the example of Christ.
Serve, and be served.
Be generous, not for the praise it engenders, but because it brings the Kingdom a little
Don’t lose sight of the big picture.
Paul had a purpose in writing to Philippians. But I don’t think it was the purpose they expected.
Next: Philippians 3:1b-4:3