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Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

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The Phronema of Gospel Citizenship, Philippians 1:27-2:4

27 Only, be worthy citizens of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or while absent I hear of you, that you are standing firm in one spirit, as with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents, for to them it is a clear sign of their destruction, but of your salvation, and this from God. 29 For to you has been granted for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 as you experience the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

2:1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort of love, any fellowship in [community of] the Spirit, any heartfelt compassion and kindness, make my joy complete in that you think the same, having the same love, being one in soul and thought. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves, each of you not looking to your own interests, but [also] to the interests of others.

(The above is my own “literal” – but still readable – translation, made with reference to the most commonly used English translations. The commentary that follows below is my own, except for aid from my lexicon resources.)

The Phronema of Gospel Citizenship

VERSES 1:27-30

It is perhaps the curse of Christianity that from the very beginning it was subject to divisions and conflicts. We live with those divisions today. Even the Philippian community, so unified, so free of the divisions that Paul encountered in Corinth and elsewhere, nevertheless had to deal with “opponents” who are not identified or named by Paul, though there are hints in chapter 3.

  • Paul understood very well that he was writing to Greeks, and Greeks were always and still are very political. So he uses political language as he begins this paragraph. The paragraph in question (verses 27-30) is one sentence in the Greek; and the main verb in this sentence is πολιτεύεσθε. This verb comes from the noun πολίτης, citizen.
  • The opening phrase is impressive, but it is inadequately translated in most English versions: “Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” in the NRSV is typical; or the NIV’s “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” English translations miss the political echo that is at the heart of this statement.
  • The verb πολιτεύομαι is brilliantly defined in the Louw-Nida Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains: to conduct oneself with proper reference to one’s obligations in relationship to others, as part of some community — ‘to live, to conduct one’s life, to live in relation to others.’ By ignoring the political connotations of the verb, most English translations simply fall into the individualistic mindset of contemporary Christianity. Yes, “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel” (NRSV), “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (NIV); but always in relation to others in a community. Politics for the ancient Greeks was not a matter of political parties – though political parties come very easily to Greeks – it was a matter of civic responsibility and accountability. The King James Version is interesting: “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ.” I assume the word “conversation” meant more in 1610 than it does today, but at least it captures a little of the Greek mindset, since Greeks like to talk – especially politics! (Even the Bible tells me so! Consider Acts 17:21. Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.)
  • The translation adopted here is mainly due to my friend Mike in Scotland, who was the first to alert me to the possibility of using the word “citizen” in this passage. A “citizen of the gospel”: what a marvelous thing to be – although Mike’s version is more striking: “Only be good citizens of Messiah’s Joyful News.” And it means quite simply to inhabit the gospel (the Good News) fully, assuming all responsibilities – just as a citizen of a country assumes all the responsibilities of belonging to that nation. And of course citizenship always implies civic responsibility.
  • If the Philippians are facing opponents, their unity in the πολίτευμα, politeuma, is their greatest strength – just as citizenship entails the protection of the nation. Paul returns to the theme of citizenship later in this epistle, in 3:20, where he writes “our citizenship (πολίτευμα) is in heaven.”
  • Every year at the Easter midnight Liturgy we read the extraordinary Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom. And I have always had trouble translating one phrase in that homily: Ἀνέστη Χριστός, καὶ ζωὴ πολιτεύεται. The usual translation, and the one that I also have adopted over the years, is: “Christ is Risen, and life reigns.” But Chrysostom uses the same verb πολιτεύομαι that Paul uses here in Philippians with very similar or identical meaning I would presume. The usual translation is okay, but what would be a better translation? The English language is very inadequate when it comes to translating the Greek genius of turning nouns into verbs – as here, where πολίτης → πολιτεύομαι.
  • The Philippians’ citizenship in the gospel gives them the strength to strive for the gospel – just as the citizens of a nation fight to defend their country against enemies. But the Philippians don’t strive as soldiers; rather they strive as if they were one soul, μιᾷ ψυχῇ. And their striving will most likely result in suffering, just as Paul himself suffered. Will this suffering come from their “opponents” or from the Roman authorities? It really doesn’t matter, as long as the suffering comes from faith in Christ and “for the sake of Christ.” Again here we see Paul’s total identification not only with the gospel (the good news), but with Christ himself and his passion. And “passion” is a word that applies to Paul in all its meanings.

VERSES 2:1-2:4

Paul smoothly transitions into preparing his readers for what is coming, the great Christ Hymn of verses 6-11. He piles on words and phrases that can only inspire and are the direct result of being “citizens of the Joyful News”. Shouldn’t this section describe the church in all its manifestations? Isn’t the church the community that is inhabited by “citizens” of the gospel (the good news, Joyful News)?

  • He begins with what could easily be described as a catalogue of Christian virtues – and virtues that directly refer to Christ’s own “conversation” in life (to use the KJV word): παράκλησις (encouragement) ἐν Χριστῷ, παραμύθιον (comfort) ἀγάπης, κοινωνία (fellowship, communion) πνεύματος, σπλάγχνα (compassion), οἰκτιρμοί (kindness).
  • Παράκλησις – paraklesis, encouragement – only has meaning for Paul when it is “in Christ”, ἐν Χριστῷ en Christō. It doesn’t come only from Christ himself; it comes from the mutuality of a community that is “in Christ”! Paul is not writing to individuals; he is writing to a community that are one spirit, one mind, one heart. That unity is the source of encouragement.
  • Παραμύθιον ἀγάπης – the comfort of love, agape. Agape love for Paul was, of course, the height of the Christian lifestyle and attitude to life. See 1 Corinthians 13: Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends… So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. Reading this passage one can understand how Paul here in Philippians connects comfort, paramythion, with love, agape – the comfort is the comfort that love provides. But agape is not only the love between humans; it is also human love for God; and it is the love of God for human beings. And it is the love that binds the Trinity. How often in the Gospels – especially at the Baptism and Transfiguration – God the Father proclaims “this is my beloved son” – ἀγαπητός, agapetos.
  • In one particularly arresting passage, Paul writes: ὃς ἐρρύσατο ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ σκότους καὶ μετέστησεν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ υἱοῦ τῆς ἀγάπης αὐτοῦ (Colossians 1:13 – which leads to another Christ Hymn similar to the one here in Philippians 2:6-11). So here in Colossians Christ is not the more conventional “beloved son” but “the son of his love”! Only Paul could write such a phrase. It is also important to note that in the Colossians passage, it is again the idea of a citizenship that is clearly implied: God has taken us from citizenship in the powers of darkness to citizenship in the kingdom of the son of his love! Again here most English translations take the easy way out by translating “his beloved Son” instead of the literal “the son of his love”; the KJV says “the kingdom of his dear Son” – Ugh! The NIV’s “the Son he loves” is not better. There is something more organic, more from the guts of God, to call Jesus “the son of his love”. Just as a human child is the result of the love of two people, so also the eternal Son of God is the eternal result of God’s love. Paul brings us much closer to the inner life of the Trinity with such a phrase than all the fancy words of the Nicene Creed ever could. This is the problem with our theology: it took biblical language and imagery and turned it into Greek philosophical terminology, a development which itself contributed hugely to the breakdown of Christian unity!
  • Κοινωνία – communion/fellowship, koinonia – is the unique gift of the Spirit, πνεύματος. As in 2 Corinthians 13:14, where Paul wrote: Thegrace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
  • Σπλάγχνα, splaghna, is coupled with οἰκτιρμοί, oiktirmoi, by the conjunction καὶ. The conjunction καὶ does not bring a list to an end. It joins σπλάγχνα and οἰκτιρμοί as a couplet that conveys deepfelt compassion. Note how Paul combines the same words in Colossians 3:12, ἐνδύσασθαι σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ – “put on heartfelt compassion.” This is compassion that is moved from the depths of one’s being, from the σπλάγχνα. Paul does not stay at the level of nice talk, he goes for maximum impact.
  • The catalogue of virtues in verse 1 leads Paul to begin the transition to the Christ hymn, primarily through use of the verb φρονέω, phroneō. Encouragement, comfort, fellowship and compassion – yes, all these, but Paul’s joy will only be complete if on top of these they share the same love and vision.
  • Paul uses the verb φρονέω twice in verse 2 and then climactically in verse 5 where it enables him to lead straight into the Christ hymn. φρονέω – an amazing, multifaceted verb in the ancient Greek, together with several derivatives, like φρόνησις, φρόνημα, φρόνιμος, etc. – all ultimately deriving from φρήν, usually in the plural φρένες “diaphragm.” Originally this was regarded as the seat of intellectual and spiritual activity. The diaphragm determined the nature and strength of the breath and hence also the human spirit and its emotions. In Homer φρένες means “inner part,” “mind,” “consciousness,” “understanding” etc. and like the other terms for inner organs it is the agent of spiritual and intellectual experiences. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 9, page 220) By the time Paul was writing, the verb usually carried the meaning of setting one’s mind on something and developing an attitude, a disposition, after careful thought.
  • Romans 8:6 – “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The word translated as “to set the mind on…” is φρόνημα, phronema. For Paul and for the ancient Greeks, φρόνημα was not simply about thinking – just thinking never killed anyone, or almost never. To set the mind on something, meant for Paul and the ancient Greeks the action that goes with the mind’s thinking – more broadly, the life that goes with the mind’s thinking. And later in this chapter 8 of Romans, Paul says something even bolder. Verse 27: And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. τὸ φρόνημα τοῦ πνεύματος is the key phrase.
  • So in Romans 8, that simple word, φρόνημα, phronema, is used by Paul in such a way as to unite our approach to thought and life with God’s own Spirit. When we come to Philippians 2:5 – Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ – Paul is basically saying, be united with the Spirit of God so that you can live as Christ lived. “Have the same mind” (or, attitude) is the usual translation, and it falls short, as translations usually do. But to be fair to the various translations, they do try to express the Greek without resorting to long, convoluted sentences. Every translation makes compromises in order to be readable. It’s usually a trade-off. And I’ve done my own trade-offs in my translations here.
  • Paul uses the verb φρονέω ten times in this letter to the Philippians, which is more than he uses it even in the much longer epistle to the Romans (9 times in that letter)! In all the remaining epistles of Paul, the verb occurs only 4 times in all. Clearly, Philippians and Romans were very much epistles of phronema! (Don’t ask me to explain what I meant by that last statement.)
  • Verses 3 and 4 build on the phronema and lead directly to the Christ hymn. In the first part of this letter (what we call chapter 1) Paul acknowledged and thanked the Philippians for their support and their work with him in upholding and promoting the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, in what we call chapter 2, he is addressing their personal and communal life principles, and he uses the verb φρονέω in order to emphasise that citizenship in the gospel of Christ is not just about promoting a message of salvation, but about living in that message of salvation, living in accordance with how Christ lived. He will explicitly make that point in the next, all-important section of this wonderful letter to a wonderful community of Christ followers.

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The φρόνημα of the Cross


One of seventeen crosses representing the seventeen who were shot and killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Fla., are arranged in the Pine Trails Park during a candlelight vigil, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

The cross is the stumbling block for most people who turn away from Christianity or refuse to accept its vision of God. How could God be so cruel as to demand such a thing? How could God allow his son to die such a horrible death? Of course to even ask a question such as, How could God allow his son to die such a horrible death, does put our own questions in perspective: How could God allow the shooting at the Parkland high school, or at Sandy Hook? How can God allow thousands of refugees to drown every year in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to flee war and starvation?

Well, before we get to the God question, let’s answer these questions with one single word: Evil. Evil men shot to death those students at Parkland and Sandy Hook. Evil governments and human traffickers are responsible for those refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. And of course it was evil men who put Jesus to death on the cross.

But where is God in all this? To invoke free will, as we Orthodox usually do, is a cop-out. We Orthodox like to get to resurrection, to Easter, so we try to get through talk of cross as quickly as possible. We even boast that we are the resurrection church – while the western churches talk too much about the cross and the blood of Jesus. The blood of the western churches does get to be rather much; but too much resurrection and theosis talk in the Orthodox Church also falls short of any answers we can offer to the God question.

Attendees pass a wooden cross as they arrive at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, in Parkland, Florida. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

We can’t rush to the resurrection. We have to go through the cross first. Jesus tells us today that if we want to follow him we must pick up our cross and follow him. What is this cross? Is it some catastrophe that falls to us in our home? Is it a deadly illness we have to go through? Some struggle that overwhelms us? “This is my cross… This is your cross…” we casually speak about our problems and each other. Maybe something might be “my cross” or “your cross,” but not necessarily the cross Jesus has in mind.


Paul said it very clearly in a great passage in his letter to the Philippians:

Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (Philippians 2:5)

φρονέω – an amazing, multifaceted verb in the ancient Greek, together with several derivatives, like φρόνησις, φρόνημα, φρόνιμος, etc. – all ultimately deriving from φρήν, usually in the plural φρένες “diaphragm.” Originally this was regarded as the seat of intellectual and spiritual activity. The diaphragm determined the nature and strength of the breath and hence also the human spirit and its emotions. In Homer φρένες means “inner part,” “mind,” “consciousness,” “understanding” etc. and like the other terms for inner organs it is the agent of spiritual and intellectual experiences. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 9, page 220)

But in ancient Greek these words all had to do with attitude, mindset, attitude to life

Romans 8:6 – “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The word translated as “to set the mind on…” is φρόνημα, phronema. For Paul and for the ancient Greeks, φρόνημα was not simply about thinking – just thinking never killed anyone, or almost never. To set the mind on something, meant for Paul and the ancient Greeks the action that goes with the mind’s thinking – more broadly, the life that goes with the mind’s thinking. And later in this chapter 8 of Romans, Paul says something even bolder. Verse 27: And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. τὸ φρόνημα τοῦ πνεύματος is the key phrase.

That simple word, φρόνημα, phronema, is used by Paul in his letters in such a way as to unite our approach to thought and life with God’s own Spirit. So when Paul says in Philippians, Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, he is basically saying be united with the Spirit of God so that you can live as Christ lived. “Have the same mind” (or, attitude) is the usual translation, and it falls very short.

The cross is not some particular problem or sickness we have to bear; or something God sends to test us – another very popular idea – and in my opinion thoroughly pagan. The cross is not a problem or an instrument of death. The cross is a way of life. That’s what Paul is saying when he wrote to the Philippians to have the same mind, the same mindset, the same approach to life, that was also in Christ Jesus.

This is what the two disciples walking to Emmaus could not wrap their heads around. They didn’t have the φρόνημα of the Holy Spirit in them until Jesus opened their minds on the road and then their hearts when he broke bread with them at the dinner table. And there, their minds and their hearts were united and they understood; they saw Jesus. They understood what was at the very heart of the universe. Stephen Hawking and his fellow physicists will hopefully some day discover a theory of everything. But for us and for all eternity, from the very beginning of time, the Cross is at the heart of the universe. It reveals God without the need for religion.

Jesus did not take the shortcut – Hey, guys, it’s me, I’m risen, forget about the cross and everything else that happened in Jerusalem these past few days. No, he had to take them through the whole history of God’s ways; he had to educate them in the φρόνημα of the Spirit before they could understand the resurrection, before they could see him as the resurrected one.

So, to return to the God question, we cannot even begin to ask the question unless we have the φρόνημα of the Spirit. But we can answer some questions. Where was God at Parkland or Sandy Hook or the Mediterranean crossings? How could he allow such horrible deaths and killings? Where was God at Auschwitz? He died in the gas chambers, some Jewish writers have asserted. Where is Jesus when those refugees are drowning? He is drowning with them. Where was he when those students were gunned down? He was killed with them. That is the φρόνημα of the Spirit – to see life through the lens of the cross; which is the lens of reality, rather than some make-believe fantasy. We are to see life – all life – as completely wrapped up ἐν Χριστῷ, “in Christ”. He tells us in today’s Gospel reading to pick up our cross and follow him; but in fact it is he who is still bearing the cross.

The cross IS the core truth of Christianity. Other religions have resurrection. The Moslems believe in a resurrection and a judgment. But they don’t have the cross. And I don’t mean as an ornament, a symbol, a slogan.

The cross is a way of life – the way of life that unites us with Christ. How that life unfolds will be unique for every one of us. Carry your cross and follow Christ – means accept the calling, accept the φρόνημα of the Spirit.


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Philippians 1:12-26

Paul’s circumstances advance the gospel  12 I want you to know, brothers [and sisters], that the things that happened to me have instead served the advance of the gospel, 13 so that my chains have been revealed to be in Christ in the whole praetorium and to all the rest, 14 and most of the brothers [and sisters], having become confident in the Lord by my chains, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and strife, but others from good will; 16 these out of love, knowing that I am in this place for the defense of the gospel; 17 while the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, thinking to cause distress in my chains. 18 What then? Only that in every manner, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that this will lead to my deliverance through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be in any way put to shame, but that in all boldness now as always Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if to live in the flesh, this means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two, as I have the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 while to remain in the flesh is more necessary for the sake of you. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

The above is my own “literal” – but still readable – translation, made with reference to existing standard English translations. 

VERSES 12-14

These three verses have one purpose: to reassure the Philippians that Paul’s imprisonment is not a setback for the work that is jointly theirs – the work of spreading the gospel, for which he has just praised them as partners.

  • The phrase τὰ κατʼ ἐμὲ literally means “the things concerning me”. For clarity, I have translated in a more conventional way.
  • Having opened the letter by addressing his readers as “saints”, he now resorts to the usual, familial term that he employs throughout his letters: ἀδελφοί – brothers [and sisters]. The Greek word is literally translated as “brothers” but it is gender inclusive, so “and sisters” must be clearly understood. This is a recurring problem in the English language, but not in the Greek. Modern translations that substitute “beloved” or “friends” to avoid the gender issue or to sound modern and informal are simply wrong and are missing an important dimension of Paul’s relationship to all his readers…and to us!
  • Paul boldly claims that his imprisonment, rather than being a setback, is actually a help to the advance, προκοπὴν, of the gospel. This is the major statement in this section of the letter, and clearly not something that can be understood according to normal logic. But the logic of the gospel and the kingdom is rarely normal. As Jesus so often claimed in various parables and teachings, including the Beatitudes, the last shall be first. And as Paul himself claimed in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” One translation of Colossians 2:15, and the one I prefer, says this: He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [i.e., the cross].” The cross is at the heart of Paul’s presentation of the gospel, and here in Philippians and elsewhere he identifies his own sufferings with the sufferings of Christ on the cross. As we shall see he makes some extremely bold, even strange, statements in this letter.
  • The phrase ἐν Χριστῷ (en Christō) is one of Paul’s greatest contributions to Christian vocabulary. It is literally translated as “in Christ” and is meant to express in very compact form the life of the believer being included in the life of Christ. The phrase is shorthand for what Paul says more fully in Galatians 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” It is a great pity that most modern translations turn Philippians 1:13 into something like: “it has become known…that my imprisonment is for Christ,” or, “that I am in chains for Christ.” Certainly Paul suffered for Christ; but here I believe it is the central idea of in Christ that is Paul’s meaning. As his entire life is wrapped up in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, so his imprisonment is in Christ – it is embedded in the redemptive power of the gospel. No wonder he can say that his imprisonment advances the gospel!
  • Paul’s mention of the praetorium has led to many different interpretations and has supported different theories as to where Paul was imprisoned when he wrote this letter. Did he write from Rome in the early 60s? Then the praetorium could even refer to the imperial guard. Did he write from his imprisonment in Ephesus around the year 55? Then it could refer to the local cohort of Roman soldiers. Regardless, Paul’s meaning here is to say that his imprisonment is having an impact even among the Roman authorities that were responsible for his arrest and imprisonment. Reumann calls Paul’s imprisonment a “Trojan horse” in Caesar’s authority and system of government.
  • As we come to the continuation of Paul’s thought in verse 14, one might be tempted to say: Okay, Paul has this confidence about his imprisonment, but how can he extrapolate his thinking to “most of the brothers and sisters”? Because that’s what he is doing in verse 14. He is saying that his imprisonment has given confidence to the majority of fellow believers to speak without fear. Again, it is the exact opposite of what we would expect. When the leader of a movement is thrown into jail it usually results in fear, even hiding, among the followers. We saw this when the disciples of Jesus went into hiding after the crucifixion. It is hard to know exactly what reality Paul is describing here; or whether he is doing some hortatory overstatement to exhort, inspire and reassure his readers.

VERSES 15-18

The boldness and confidence that Paul speaks of in verse 14 ranged over a wide variety of responses to Paul’s gospel, and that leads to the next four verses. We know from all of Paul’s letters that there was wide disagreement with Paul on how the gospel of Jesus Christ should be proclaimed and in what circumstances.

  • Envy and strife – φθόνος (fthonos) and ἔρις (eris) – were two of the most commonly named vices in ancient Greek ethics. Strife in particular was an especially big political vice that kept the ancient Greek states from ever attaining unity and harmony. The Greek propensity for divisiveness became an immediate problem for the Christian church from day one, so to speak. We see disputes and factions clearly identified by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:12-13 – “What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apol′los,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
  • Paul is not naïve, he knows that some preach the gospel for selfish reasons or personal gain. But he rises above the factionalism of others – as long as the gospel is preached! This may be a difficult thing to accept, especially in our cynical age when we see so many Christian ministries driven by greed and materialism and preach a gospel that is not the gospel.

VERSES 19-26

Paul is consumed by the gospel. Even his desire to be with Christ is tempered by the need to spreak the gospel. It’s an amazing passage.

  • Paul rejoices. And he will continue to rejoice. This is the epistle of joy.
  • What follows, however, is hard for most of us to relate to. Was Paul a fanatic, after all? He wants to die and be with Christ, but is willing to continue living for the sake of the Philippians and the gospel. The “deliverance” he speaks of in verse 19 – σωτηρία, soteria – is it a deliverance from prison, or the eternal deliverance that comes with dying in Christ? The Greek word σωτηρία lends itself to both interpretations, and it is thus better translated as “deliverance” instead of “salvation”, which carries more doctrinal/theological baggage.
  • Paul’s statement about Christ “magnified” in Paul’s body is simply beyond comprehension – and he knows that. That’s why he makes the claim with parrhesia, boldness. The word comes from two roots: pan (“all”) + rhesis (“speech, word”); thus, “(freedom) to speak all”. Parrhesia was an important aspect of political freedom in ancient Greece; it described free and open speech by citizens. Freedom of speech was certainly not the invention of the European Enlightenment or the U.S. Constitution! But it was more than freedom; it was free speech made with boldness, fearlessness. It is with boldness that Paul makes his assertions. And it does take a great measure of boldness to say that Christ is magnified in Paul’s body! In Colossians 1:24 he goes even further with even greater boldness: Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church…”
  • Paul’s statement in verse 21 is an echo of the bold statement he made in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” I can’t imagine anyone else in the 2,000-year history of Christ discipleship who had a more intimate fellowship with Jesus Christ. Paul’s language of identification with Christ is uniquely bold in the Bible.


Philippians 1:3-11

Paul’s Thanksgiving & Prayer for the Philippians. I give thanks to my God at every remembrance of you, praying always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now, confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will complete it at the day of Christ Jesus, as it is right that I should think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart, you who are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of understanding, 10 to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.


Εὐχαριστῶ τῷ θεῷ μου ἐπὶ πάσῃ τῇ μνείᾳ ὑμῶν – I give thanks to my God in every remembrance of you

  • Paul thanks God – which for him meant not just gratitude in the conventional sense for benefits received. No, much more, he thanks God in his every remembrance of the Philippians! How wonderful. He is grateful to God every time he thinks about the Philippians. How different from the usual reasons people have for thanking God.

πάντοτε ἐν πάσῃ δεήσει μου ὑπὲρ πάντων ὑμῶν, μετὰ χαρᾶς τὴν δέησιν ποιούμενος – always in every prayer of mine for you all, with joy making prayer

  • Notice the repetitive, alliterative use of various forms of πᾶς: πάσῃ… πάντοτε… πάσῃ… πάντων – equivalent in English to “every remembrance…every time…every prayer…every one of you” (Hellerman, from Reumann).
  • Every remembrance of the Philippians and every prayer for them are done with joy. “Joy” is the theme that dominates this epistle, forms of the word occurring about 16 times in this short epistle.

How extraordinary is verse 3, and how it reveals Paul’s heart to us. He thanks God every time he remembers the Philippians; he is constantly at prayer for all of them; and he does it with joy. We all pray for our loved ones and friends. But how often do we do it with joy? How often do we thank God in our remembrance? We thank God when prayers are answered. But do we thank God when we experience the joy of thinking of someone dear to us? We watch Facebook videos of children in our families and we smile. But do we thank God as we watch those videos and smile at them? Most of us don’t pause to thank God. Paul did; even in the mere act of remembering people. We too often think of Paul as harsh, demanding and judgmental. This letter shows us another side of Paul; it shows us the wide open and joyful heart of this great apostle.

ἐπὶ τῇ κοινωνίᾳ ὑμῶν εἰς τὸ εὐαγγέλιον – because of your partnership in the gospel

  • The preposition ἐπὶ introduces the reason for Paul’s thanksgiving and his joy. He is grateful and rejoices beause the Philippian Christians have partnered, participated, in Paul’s spread of the gospel. Paul uses the word κοινωνία three times in the letter to the Philippians (1:5, 2:1, 3:10), each instance significant in its own way. Here at the beginning of his letter, Paul does not specify how they have partnered with him in promoting the good news (εὐαγγέλιον), because he doesn’t have to; they know! But it will become clearer later in the letter to us too. Paul presents the gospel of Christ’s saving death and resurrection using a variety of images and formulations across his letters. In Philippians, Paul will surprise us with a powerful presentation of what Christ did for us and for our salvation.

ἀπὸ τῆς πρώτης ἡμέρας ἄχρι τοῦ νῦν – from the first day until now

  • The Philippian Christians have shared in Paul’s spread of the gospel faithfully from the beginning, continuously to the present when Paul is writing. Their faithfulness and perseverance are among the reasons that Paul holds them in his heart so dearly and why he thanks God for them – not so much for helping him, but for helping the spread of the gospel. Even when Paul is most self-absorbed, he is always at the service of the gospel. He is consumed by the mission to be the apostle to the gentiles, apostle to the Mediterranean world. His greatest love is for those individuals and communities who have shared his passion for the gospel. His greatest disappointment and criticism were reserved for those individuals or communities (most notably the Galatians) that failed to embrace the gospel fully or departed from it. The gospel is everything for Paul, and in this letter to the Philippians he will go on to say some very bold things to express his passion for Christ and the gospel (for example in 3:8).


πεποιθὼς αὐτὸ τοῦτο – fully convinced of this very thing

  • The verb πείθω designates the sense of being persuaded, fully confident in something. Confidence, like joy, is a recurring theme in Philippians. The αὐτὸ τοῦτο combination points forward to what follows in this verse.

ὅτι ὁ ἐναρξάμενος ἐν ὑμῖν ἔργον ἀγαθὸν – that he who began a good work in you

  • Though Paul expresses great gratitude for the Philippians and recognizes their constancy and faithfulness from day one, he knows that ultimately it is God who is at work in and among them. He doesn’t name God, but clearly God is implied. He is certainly not referring to himself – even though his work was responsible for the beginning of the Christian faith in Philippi (cf. Acts 16). No, Paul is not the referent here. It is always God who begins a good work.

ἐπιτελέσει ἄχρι ἡμέρας Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ – will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus

  • And it will be God who will bring it to completion. In Isaiah 55:11, God memorably asserts: “so shall my wordbe that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” Note the use of the preposition ἄχρι here, in parallel with the similar use in the previous verse. There the ἄχρι pointed to the present, as it designated the duration of the Philippians’ work for the gospel. Here the ἄχρι points to an indefinite future, “the day of Christ Jesus,” when God will complete the work that God began. The minute Paul shifts the attention from the Philippians to God, the time scale and the frame of reference broaden, expand to an undefined realm. The day of Christ Jesus of course referred to the consummation that will come when Christ appears again (what we call the Second Coming). Did Paul expect the day of Christ to occur in the near future? In some of his letters that is clearly the case. Philippians was written near the end of his life, while he was in a Roman prison, and it is possible that his expectation of that day had receded further into the unknown future.


καθώς ἐστιν δίκαιον ἐμοὶ τοῦτο φρονεῖν ὑπὲρ πάντων ὑμῶν – as it is right for me to think this of all of you

  • The beginning of verse 7 with the adverb καθώς seems a little strange grammatically. And why does the Nestle-Aland edition of the critical text – the standard for all serious study of the New Testament – capitalize this word? I prefer to see here a continuation of the thanksgiving that started in verse 3; hence I prefer not to capitalize καθώς.
  • Addendum: On closer investigation, it is possible that the capital letter was a misprint in the digital version of the Nestle-Aland 28th edition which I have in my Logos library. The raised period at the end of verse 6 is equivalent to a semicolon in English, hence not the end of a sentence. My hard copy of the UBS 5th edition, which is known to be identical to the Nestle-Aland, does not capitalize καθώς. So I’m tempted to think that the capital is either a misprint in the digital version of the Nestle-Aland or some other quirk. When all is said and done, I’m confident in my choice not to capitalize καθώς and to treat it as a continuation of the same sentence that began in verse 3.
  • What is the frame of reference for this conditional opening? Most translations avoid the problem by rendering the beginning of this sentence as It is right… But if I am right in questioning whether it is even a new “sentence” in the Greek original, I choose to translate: as it is right… or, proper, justified.
  • As it is right for Paul τοῦτο φρονεῖν… What is τοῦτο? Clearly what has come before: the gratitude and joy that Paul feels for the Philippians, and his conviction that God would complete the work that God began among the Philippians.
  • The verb φρονέω was of major significance to Paul. He used it 23 times in his letters, and ten of those times were in this letter to Philippians. It is the verb with which he launches the most imporant section of this letter (2:5). It’s a strong word for the act of thinking or pondering, and it couples nicely with the equally strong phrase ἐν ἐπιγνώσει in verse 9.
  • Note again the all-inclusive reference to all the Philippians: ὑπὲρ πάντων ὑμῶν.

διὰ τὸ ἔχειν με ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ ὑμᾶς – because I have you in my heart

  • In the Bible, the heart does not designate the literal body part. The heart is the center of the human being, the inner self, including: the will, the emotions, the desires, the mind, the intellect, etc.

ἔν τε τοῖς δεσμοῖς μου καὶ ἐν τῇ ἀπολογίᾳ καὶ βεβαιώσει τοῦ εὐαγγελίου – [for] in my chains and in my defense and confirmation of the gospel

  • The word δεσμοῖς (chains) is the first reference to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, from where he writes this letter. This begins a long prepositional phrase that culminates in recognizing their participation in everything that has happened to him: his imprisonment, his defense and confirmation of the gospel.

συγκοινωνούς μου τῆς χάριτος πάντας ὑμᾶς ὄντας – you [being] communicants with me in grace

  • In verse 5 Paul recognized the κοινωνία of the Philippians (their fellowship, participation, communion) in his work for the gospel. So here he elevates the thought with this beautiful word, συγκοινωνούς. Not only are they in communion with Paul’s work for the gospel, they are in communion together with Paul in grace! They are communicants with Paul in grace; they share the same grace, the same favor with God, the same saving grace, the same kindness that Paul has received. And not just some of them – but πάντας, all of them! This is an amazing statement. This is how deeply Paul considered his own work of spreading the gospel and how profoundly he saw the Philippians’ sharing in that work. He now has a bond with them that is not just human affection, but is an experience of being in communion together in the grace of God. A magnificent statement of deep Christian fellowship. Where today can such fellowship be found?
  • Of course these last two clauses must be translated in reverse order to make sense.


μάρτυς γάρ μου ὁ θεὸς – for God is my witness

  • Paul calls on God as his witness – not about external facts, but as a witness to the inner feelings and convictions that Paul has been expressing and will express immediately following:

ὡς ἐπιποθῶ πάντας ὑμᾶς ἐν σπλάγχνοις Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ – that I have great affection for you all in the affections of Christ Jesus

  • When the Gospels referred to Christ’s compassion, they invariably used the verb σπλαγχνίζομαι, which comes from the noun σπλάγχνα – literally, the intestines of a person, the guts. When Jesus was moved to compassion it was a gut reaction, as we might say today. In the depths of his being he was moved to action. His love and affections for human beings was in the depths of his being, in his guts. So it’s good to use the word affection(s) twice in this verse, to directly connect the affection of Paul for the Philippians with the affection that Christ himself has for these people. It is with the affections, with the gut love, of Christ that Paul loves the Philippian Christians. A truly marvellous statement of Paul’s heart. In no other epistle does Paul expose his heart as beautifully as he does in this letter.


Καὶ τοῦτο προσεύχομαι, ἵνα ἡ ἀγάπη ὑμῶν ἔτι μᾶλλον καὶ μᾶλλον περισσεύῃ – And this I pray, that your love may more and more abound

  • The word ἀγάπη was rare in classical Greek writers. It was used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the so-called Septuagint, LXX) to translate the Hebrew ’hb, and was thus distinguished from the common Greek words eros and philia. It was used for God’s love for his people (as in Deuteronomy 7:8 – it is because the Lord loves you…) and also for the two commandments to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5 – and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might) and the neighbor (Leviticus 19:18 – you shall love your neighbor as yourself). Jesus, of course, famously combined these two commandments (Matthew 22:36-40).
  • Paul does not name an object for the Philippians’ ἀγάπη. Does he have to? If they are co-communicants, συγκοινωνοί, with Paul, Paul is praying that their love, their participation in the gospel, their fellowship in grace, may all abound and overflow; the verb περισσεύῃ indicates overflowing, excessive abundance. The double μᾶλλον further emphasizes the excess: “that your love may more and more excessively abound (or keep growing).”

ἐν ἐπιγνώσει καὶ πάσῃ αἰσθήσει – in full knowledge and every insight

  • The preposition ἐν marks the area in which ἀγάπη moves. The ἀγάπη that Paul identifies in the Philippians operates with knowledge and insight. It is focused love.
  • The knowledge Paul speaks of here, ἐν ἐπιγνώσει, is a full knowledge, based on direct experience. The ἐπί prefix does signfy a focused knowledge.
  • The πάσῃ αἰσθήσει designates every insight and understanding that is necessary for their ἀγάπη to abound.

It is remarkable how extensively Paul describes the operation of love. This is true ἀγάπη, in the fullest New Testament sense. Without any reference to the Gospels, Paul here exhibits a total understanding of Christ’s love and transfers that love to his fellowship with the Philippians, as he and they together work for spreading the message, the good news (the gospel) of Jesus Christ. Love is the only attribute that should define the “slave” of Christ Jesus.


εἰς τὸ δοκιμάζειν ὑμᾶς τὰ διαφέροντα – so that you may discern the things that are superior

  • The verb δοκιμάζω signifies the act of examining and judging something as genuine or worthy. The participial verb τὰ διαφέροντα designates things that are different – but different in the sense of superior. So Paul is praying that the Philippians will exercise their love to discern/approve those things that are superior. So the love that Paul describes here is a love that is overflowing in knowledge and insight and is able to judge and approve the things that are superior, the things that really matter!

ἵνα ἦτε εἰλικρινεῖς καὶ ἀπρόσκοποι εἰς ἡμέραν Χριστοῦ – so that you may be transparent and blameless

  • I owe the translation “transparent” for εἰλικρινεῖς to a friend in Scotland with whom I exchange theological insights. The noun εἰλικρινής is formed from two roots: εἵλη and κρίνω. The feminine noun εἵλη refers to the sun’s heat and light; the verb κρίνω means to decide, to judge or choose one thing over another. So the noun εἰλικρινής came to mean, unmixed, without alloy, pure. The image is of holding something up to the bright light of the sun to confirm that it is without stain or impurity. Thus, we get the commonly spoken idea of bringing something to light. It’s an easy jump to transfer the image to moral purity; hence my friend’s translation as “transparent”. Thus, when we are judged at the day of Christ, εἰς ἡμέραν Χριστοῦ, we may be held up to the light and be found transparent to the light, no spots or stains to block the light of judgment. That is the idea of the word εἰλικρινεῖς in this verse. Shouldn’t our lives always be “transparent”?
  • Likewise, the word ἀπρόσκοποι comes from the verb προσκόπτω or the noun προσκοπή, both of which designate the idea of stumbling, causing offense. With the α- prefix, it becomes the idea of not causing offense, not causing others to stumble; or the Philippians themselves not stumbling, not failing in the faith. Both transitive and intransitive senses are possible. In all this, of course, Paul is addressing the community as a whole, as we’ve already seen. Paul throughout has been addressing a community, not individual members – a very important thing for us to remember in an age of individualistic morality and faith.


πεπληρωμένοι καρπὸν δικαιοσύνης τὸν διὰ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ – filled with the fruit of the righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ

  • Throughout the Bible, God looks for fruit, results, of our faith and morality. So here too, after praying for the love, discernment, moral purity and blamelessness of the Philippians, he adds his prayer that they may be filled to the fullest extent, πεπληρωμένοι, with the fruit of righteousness, καρπὸν δικαιοσύνης. “Righteousness” is one translation of δικαιοσύνη. But equally valid is the translation “justice”. But this is too big a topic for discussion here. Righteousness / justice … but it comes from/through Jesus the Christ. He is the means by which we produce fruit worthy of our faith. Jesus himself made this clear in John 15:5 – I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

εἰς δόξαν καὶ ἔπαινον θεοῦ – to the glory and praise of God.

  • The fruit of righteousness results in glory and praise of God. Again, in John 15, we hear this from Jesus himself: My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples (verse 8). Some scholars make a big deal of one textual variant, θεου και επαινον εμοι, found in 𝔓46, an important papyrus from around the year 200, thus an early witness to the text of the New Testament. Because it is such an early artifact, scholars are prone to give it extra weight. But it is a lone witness to this textual variant and most translators and scholars prefer the text found in the majority of manuscripts, including all authoritative codices of the Bible. But 𝔓46 is nevertheless earlier than all the codices and all other witnesses to the text. Is it conceivable that Paul would have written “to the glory of God and praise of me”? Within the Greco-Roman world (and the church world of today, sadly enough) public honors and recognition were standard practices. But would Paul fall into those standard practices? Didn’t he just pray that the Philippians pursue τὰ διαφέροντα, the things that matter, that are different, that are superior? The standard text is to be preferred over this intriguing variant in the very important Chester Beatty papyrus, 𝔓46.

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Philippians 1:1-2

I begin here a commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. I will be using the Greek text as given in the 28th edition of the Nestle-Aland critical text. For the English text I will be using whatever translation seems closest to the Greek, and I will make my own modifications wherever appropriate to get even closer to the Greek text. I have done a fair amount of reading in commentaries, but this is basically my own interpretation of the Epistle, verse by verse, word by word; so I will not make many references to specific commentaries. However, the one resource that I will be using quite consistently as a guide through the Greek text is Philippians, by Joseph Hellerman, in the series Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, published in 2015. I also make reference to the volume on Philippians by John Reumann in the Anchor-Yale Bible Commentaries series (2008). I own this volume, but it is so large that my few references to it are based more on Hellerman’s references to it.

Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus, to all the holy [ones] in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


Παῦλος καὶ Τιμόθεος δοῦλοι Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ – Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus

  • Σαῦλος was Paul’s “synagogue name” from birth, Παῦλος his name in the Greco-Roman world. Jews in the Greek world adopted names that sounded similar to their Hebrew names. Acts 13:9 is the first instance where he is referred to as Paul. Note the casual way this is done: But Saul, also known as Paul…)
  • Τιμόθεος was a common Greek name: “one who honors god.” He was Paul’s young protégé, first introduced in Acts 16:1, as the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek.
  • Δοῦλοι – slaves, servants. Most of the times that Paul used the words δοῦλοι or the singular δοῦλος, it was with the customary secular meaning. But in a few of his letters (Romans 1:1, 1 Corinthians 7:22, Galatians 1:10, Ephesians 6:6, Colossians 4:12, Titus 1:1) he uses one or the other of these two words in the same way as here in Philippians 1:1. Let us not fail to remember the incident in Philippi (Acts 16:17) of the slave girl who referred to Paul and his companions as “slaves of the Most High God,” δοῦλοι τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ὑψίστου.
  • Paul instead refers to himself and Timothy as δοῦλοι Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, offering no possibility of confusion with any pagan “most high god”! Paul is the “slave of Christ Jesus” Christ of course is the Greek version of the Hebrew Messiah, both meaning “the anointed one.” But it is very possible that Paul could have been using it in the sense of the personal name or title ascribed to Jesus, since his readers most likely were not familiar with the Hebrew background of the title. Thus, Christ Jesus analogous to Caesar Augustus? That possibility has been raised by some scholars, and I’m inclined to agree.

But without indulging in linguistic or mystical extrapolations, the word δοῦλος for Paul was simply a maximalistic synonym for disciple. A disciple is a δοῦλος of Jesus Christ. Interesting that in all Orthodox liturgical practice, we use the word δοῦλος to describe every member of the church – e.g. at communion, at all other sacraments, at funerals, at many of the prayers of the Liturgy, etc. However, the English translations we use all say “servant” or “servants”. Servant is an accepted translation of δοῦλος, less radical than “slave” to be sure. But how shocking would it be if we started saying “The slave of God _____ receives the body and blood of Christ”? Slavery was perhaps less shocking in the ancient world than it is today, but Paul’s language is bold any way we look at it.

But here is something else to consider. In John 15:15, Jesus says to his disciples: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (RSV translation) The words translated as “servants” and “servant” are precisely δοῦλοι and δοῦλος. Was Paul violating the intention of Jesus. Should Paul have written, “Paul and Timothy, friends of Christ Jesus”? No, I think Paul was completely correct. Jesus was referring to “servants”; Paul wrote “slaves”! There is a profound difference. A servant is not bound; he or she merely serves. A slave is bound/bonded – in Paul’s case to Christ. The two lexical meanings of δοῦλος come in very handy when translating John 15:15 and Philippians 1:1.

πᾶσιν τοῖς ἁγίοις ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ τοῖς οὖσιν ἐν Φιλίπποις σὺν ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις – to all the holy ones [saints] in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi with the overseers and deacons

  • The adjective πᾶς is used eight times in this letter, surely an acknowledgment of the unity that existed in the Philippian church.
  • He addresses the ἁγίοις – the holy ones, the saints, carrying also the Old Testament meaning of “set apart” as a people special to God. This was customary language for Paul when he addressed fellow believers. In his other letters he uses the word by itself, but here, perhaps to draw a verbal parallel with δοῦλοι Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ, he writes τοῖς ἁγίοις ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ. This can be seen as another indication of how close to his heart he held the Philippian Christians. It is extremely important to note that he only uses the word ἁγίοις in the plural when referring to believers in Christ, never in the singular, ἅγιος. The singular is only used to refer to God. Christians are not holy as individuals; they are holy as a community/communion in Christ Jesus. The communitarian commitment and vision of Paul is impossible to miss. Note the persistence of this language in the Liturgy: Εὐλογημένη ἡ εἴσοδος τῶν Ἁγίων σου – Blessed is the entrance of your saints (holy ones); Tα Ἅγια τοῖς Ἁγίοις – the holy [gifts] for the holy [people of God].
  • ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ further articulates how Christians are “holy” – as a community “in Christ Jesus”. Of course every individual believer’s life is “in Christ”, as Paul often says about himself as well. But only as a community can believers be “holy in Christ”!
  • σὺν ἐπισκόποις καὶ διακόνοις, literally “with the overseers and deacons.” The word ἐπίσκοπος in the decades after Paul came to mean “bishop”, and that has remained its meaning for over 1,900 years. But Paul is not talking about bishops and deacons in the way we use those titles; he is talking about church leaders and ministers/servants/assistants. Deacons were first introduced in Acts 6, where their primary duty was to distribute food! Overseers, as the name implies, were the leaders of a local community – nothing to do with the later office of bishop. These were functions, not titles of privileged status. What was forgotten when “bishops” became privileged rulers over the church was what Jesus had said: The truly great is the one who is servant, διάκονος, and the one who is really first is the one who is slave, δοῦλος, of all (Mark 10:43-44). Nevertheless, this letter is the only one in which Paul singles out “overseers” and “deacons” – perhaps indicating that already some form of organization was emerging in some of the early Christian communities.


χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη – grace to you and peace

  • This is Paul’s standard greeting in ALL his letters (with slight modification in his two letters to Timothy).
  • Χάρις meant “a beneficent disposition toward someone” according to a standard lexicon; in other words, kindness. As summarized by Reumann in his commentary, in the Greco-Roman world, this beneficence was bestowed by the gods and the Roman emperors. “Grace” is the straightforward literal translation of χάρις, but even some Reformed and Protestant scholars caution against reading “grace” with the theological weight the Protestant Reformation gave to that one word.
  • The word εἰρήνη, peace, in the Greco-Roman context meant pretty much what it means today. As Reumann sums up, the pacification of the world by the Roman armies was called the pax Romana. The ideology of universal peace and prosperity under Rome and the emperor was disseminated throughout the empire by coins bearing the terms Securitas, Salus, Concordia, and Libertas (“security”, “safety”, “concord”, and “freedom”). In the Hebrew background of the New Testament, the word for peace is shalom, a state of wholeness and well-being, both spiritually and physically, as well as materially. Both the Greek and Hebrew senses were important in Paul’s messages to all his congregations.

ἀπὸ θεοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν καὶ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ – from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

  • I adopt the customary capitalization of god, father and lord when used in the Christian sense of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This is customary in English, but it is not in the original texts. There was no capitalization in the Greek text of the New Testament. Even in modern Greek, capitalization is not always adopted.
  • Here is where Paul parts company with the Greco-Roman attributions of χάρις and εἰρήνη. They don’t come from the Roman Empire or the godds of the empire or the Emperor himself – but from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The interplay and opposition of Roman and Christian terminologies and theologies are constant factors in Paul’s thinking.

It has been understood for a long time that Paul intentionally used language that opposed imperial terminology with the lordship of Jesus Christ. And that is important in today’s context, where the Bible gets so easily confused with nationalist slogans, where flag and cross so easily co-habitate in the mental and visual horizons of so many Christian churches in Europe and, notably, in the United States; despite the fact that there is no national church in this country and no establishment of religion in the Constitution.

The question that hits me as I end this instalment of my commentary is simply this: Am I a “servant” or a “slave” of Christ Jesus? I drew a distinction in this commentary between these two translations of the Greek δοῦλος. What do they mean to me personally? How am I servant? And to whom or what am I a servant? How am I a slave of Christ Jesus?

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Paul at Philippi – Systemic Deception Unmasked

Acts 16 marks the point in time when the infant church moved beyond the confines of what we today call the Middle East and Turkey. The Aegean would prove to be the cradle of Christianity as we know it. The shores of the Mediterranean would be where Christian theology would develop over the next several centuries.

  1. The Macedonian Vision (16:6-10)

We have a vivid description of Paul’s fumbling to find his next mission. Twice the Holy Spirit stopped him from pursuing further missionary work in Asia. Finally Paul and his companions end up at Troas, on the coast. There they receive their marching orders from the Spirit, but in the form of a nighttime vision (or dream?) of a man of Macedonia, begging Paul to cross the sea into Europe. Paul understood the vision but no action was taken until there was concurrence – συμβιβάζοντες – that the vision was indeed of divine origin. Group discernment was crucial. Verse 10 marks the beginning of the ‘we’ mode of narrative in the Book of Acts. It is thought that the ‘we’ sections of Acts represent those segments of Paul’s travels when Luke, the author of Acts, joined the missionary group.

Wall icon of Paul’s vision at the chapel of the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at Chambésy, outside Geneva in Switzerland. This is a starkly modern interpretation of the scriptural passage (Acts 16:9). It combines a modern industrial image of Macedonia with a very traditional iconographic image of Saint Paul across the water from the industrial image that beckons him. This is the kind of iconography we need more of today as an evangelistic tool. But we must be careful not to impose a modern contrast between Europe and Turkey-Middle East to Paul’s time. The entire area was united by a common cultural heritage.

  1. Arrival at Philippi – Lydia (16:11-15)

Paul and his companions arrive in Philippi around the year 48. True to their usual practice as devout Jews, they look for a place of Jewish worship on the Sabbath, but they presumably acquainted themselves with the city and its people before the Sabbath (cf. verse 12), as Paul would do later in Athens (Acts 17:16-23).

It does not appear that there was a synagogue in Philippi, but Paul found a place of prayer. Literally, the Greek text does not say “place of prayer”; it simply says “prayer”. In the mind of the author, prayer defined a place; there was no need in the Greek text to write “place of prayer”! The “prayer” was found outside the gate of the city by the river.

How does a place become prayer?

The gathering at prayer was a group of women. Paul and his companions sat down and talked with them. Were they all Jewish? We are not told. But Paul’s usual practice when entering a new town was to speak first to local Jews before going to the Gentiles. Lydia was among the gathered women – a prominent woman in the town and a woman of some means to be trading in the very expensive purple cloth. She was from Thyatira in Asia (today’s Turkey). So perhaps she had her first contact with Judaism in her home town. She was a worshiper of God. In other words, she was a “God-fearer” (θεοσεβής), a common term for Gentiles who were drawn to worship or honor the God of Israel. Luke tells us that the Lord opened her heart so that she paid close attention to Paul’s teaching, thus emphasizing the divine initiative in Lydia’s conversion.

Did God override Lydia’s free will in opening her heart to receive Paul’s teaching? No the choice was hers how to respond to Paul’s teaching. God opened her heart so she would pay careful attention to Paul, but the decision to become a disciple of Christ was hers. She and her entire household were baptised. No prolonged catechism, as became the custom in subsequent church development, just preaching the simple good news of Jesus Christ. Indeed, nothing ecclesiastical is needed when the Spirit is moving!

Lydia’s immediate response was to offer gracious hospitality to Paul and his companions. She was very persuasive – παρεβιάσατο ἡμᾶς, Luke tells us. The verb here represents a forceful action. She was indeed very persuasive. Hospitality is a perfect response to God’s initiative. Hospitality defines the mutuality of our story with God.

  1. The troubling spirit of a slave girl (16:16-24)

The main incident in Philippi involved a slave girl who had a “spirit of divination.” The Greek text refers to πνεῦμα πύθωνα, a python spirit. The python was a snake that was associated with the oracle of Apollo at Delphi in Greece. The high priestess at Delphi – called the Pythia – gave oracles while in a trance or state of ecstasy (μαντευομένη).

The English translation is rather misleading: “One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl…” This sounds like a chance encounter. But the Greek text implies something perhaps more confrontational: Ἐγένετο δὲ πορευομένων ἡμῶν εἰς τὴν προσευχὴν παιδίσκην τινὰ ἔχουσαν πνεῦμα πύθωνα ὑπαντῆσαι ἡμῖν = “It transpired as we were going to the prayer a young girl with a python spirit encountered us.” The verb ὑπαντάω can mean “go out to meet, draw near” – in other words, an intentional encounter, not a chance encounter! As a matter of fact, the verb has a second meaning: to oppose, to meet in battle. This was not a chance encounter! This was a confrontation between the Spirit of God that was guiding the apostles and a spirit of deception.

The girl was not just a slave to her masters, who made money off her, but also to the spirit that drove her divinations. She followed Paul and created a confusion between the God of Israel and the highest god of the pantheon of popular belief – whoever that highest god was; Zeus, perhaps, in Philippi? A cult of Theos Hypsistos is well attested in cities of the Aegean and Propontic Thrace in the middle of the first century. As the pagan philosopher Celsus would later put it, “I think that it makes no difference whether we call Zeus the Most High [ὕψιστος], or Zen, or Adonai, or Sabaoth, or Ammon like the Egyptians, or Papaeus like the Scythians.” Confusion of spirits is very much still with us. Syncretism is attractive to many people, especially self-identified “spiritual seekers.” Paul could not tolerate such confusion.

The poor slave-girl followed Paul for many days. Paul heard her; he heard her cries as cries for liberation. Do we hear the cries of the powerless on our way to “prayer”? Does pious, religious god-talk keep us from seeing the oppression of people? Ministry in the name of Jesus releases people from oppression, especially poor women, and gives voice to those who are voiceless. Who are some of the voiceless in today’s world?

Paul is “annoyed” the NRSV translators put it. The Greek says διαπονηθεὶς, deeply pained, disturbed throughout his being. He experienced not only anger at the deceptive spirit but also pain at the captivity of the girl. He performs an exorcism in the name of Jesus Christ. The Most High God is not Zeus or any other supreme being, but the God who works σωτηρία – salvation, deliverance – by the name of Jesus Christ.

The reaction to the exorcism is immediate and vicious. The girl’s masters, the authorities and magistrates, and the crowds – κύριοι, ἄρχοντες, στρατηγοί, ὄχλος – and later also the ῥαβδοῦχοι, the policemen [literally, the rod carriers], all ganged up against Paul and his companions. Their entire social order was under threat – a magnificent example of commerce, politics and religion working together to keep a system going when threatened by new teaching! This is a powerful scene. It clearly echoes the scene at the judgment and crucifixion of Jesus, where religious and political authorities were joined by crowds.

  1. Conversion of the Jailer (16:25-34)

The prison scene is beautiful and needs little commentary. Here it’s an earthquake that sets the prisoners free, unlike in earlier imprisonments in the Book of Acts where an angel opened the prison doors (5:19 & 12:7). Another household baptism takes place and the jailer, just like Lydia, offers hospitality to the apostles. The jailer’s question to the apostles, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” echoes the rich ruler who asked the same question of Jesus: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, etc.). Although perhaps the jailer is not thinking of eternal life. Salvation carried many meanings for a pagan such as the jailer. Or, the author has put his question in terms that a Christian reader will understand. We must always be careful about how much of our current beliefs we read into ancient texts.

  1. The Denouement and Departure (16:35-40)

By morning, the apostles are back in jail. But the magistrates clearly want Paul and his companions to be let out of prison so they can go on their way – the quicker the better. The jailer himself understands this to be the intention and advises Paul to leave the city. But Paul will not go quietly. As Roman citizens, they meant to expose the illegal acts of the local authorities. They received an apology from the magistrates, who nevertheless asked them to leave the city – surely an echo of Luke 8:37, where the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave after he healed the demoniac. A return visit to Lydia to encourage her and the brothers and sisters with her and a farewell to Philippi. But Paul will be back on his next journey in the Mediterranean lands (Acts 20). And a few years after he established the Christian faith in Philippi he wrote a beautiful letter to the community in Philippi.

The Philippi episodes clearly unmask the collaboration of commercial, political and religious forces to keep a society ordered for the benefit of the powerful. Isn’t this the state of the world as we know it? How should Christians respond to the exploitation of the poor?

What does Acts 16 say about the ease with which societies point to foreigners as the reason for economic and social problems? Xenophobia was part of the established order that the authorities wanted to protect in Philippi.

Paul and Silas prayed and sung in prison – and the foundations of the prison were shaken. When God’s people pray and sing powerful things happen – but only when they are not for our own spiritual edification! This is the key that is missing in so much of today’s Christianity. Paul and Silas were singing and praying – and the other prisoners were listening. A community was being formed right there in prison. And this community should shake the foundations not only of that prison, but of the system of incarceration in general. That has not happened. Christians are among the most eager supporters of prison systems. Is there a difficulty here that we’re not seeing? That we are not debating?

At the end of Philippi sojourn, Lydia’s home becomes a house of ex-offenders! What does this say about the ways our society treats ex-offenders? How should the church reach out to prisoners?

The Philippi sojourn raises profound political and socio-economic questions that are still pertinent to the situations that prevail today in society. Do we have the courage to confront these questions?

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The Truth About Repentance


I read an incredible story in the Washington Post.  A man is trying to get his son’s death sentence commuted to life. What was the son’s crime? He conspired with two other men to kill his parents and his brother! The mother and brother were killed and the father barely survived. The father forgave his son from the beginning, and is now begging the governor of Texas to commute his son’s death sentence. In many ways it reminds me of the Gospel parable of the prodigal son.

It’s a story of sin, self-awareness, love and repentance.  Who is more prodigal, the son in his sinfulness or the father in his forbearance and love? I’ve asked that question in other sermons in the past, and my answers is of course the father, he’s the real prodigal in this story, and he reflects the prodigal, excessive love of God the Father and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ. One could even call Jesus the prodigal son of his Father. Prodigal in love, humility and self-sacrifice.

We read this parable every year as part of the church’s preparation for Lent. But the monks, who over a thousand years ago decided what Gospel readings we would read at the Liturgy, got it wrong. This is a story of repentance, but not the kind of repentance monks preach.

I turn to Romans 2:1-4 for a particularly enlightening passage:

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

Focus on that last statement: Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? This question strikes me as the key we have ignored. We are taught by church tradition that repentance is about us grovelling to God and begging for forgiveness, which God then gives to us because he is kind and loving. Paul says it’s the other way around: It’s God’s kindness and goodness that leads us to repent! A very crucial difference, in my opinion.

Paul didn’t use the word μετάνοια very often in his letters, probably because he was very aware how people are prone to take it legalistically, which is precisely the way it has been taken for most of church history. Paul uses the word here in Romans and in only two other places:

2 Cor 7:9-10 Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. Crucial contrast: ἡ γὰρ κατὰ θεὸν λύπη…ἡ δὲ τοῦ κόσμου λύπη.

2 Tim 2:25 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance so they may come to knowledge of the truth.

So Paul basically says that two things lead to repentance: God’s kindness and the grief that comes from God κατὰ θεὸν. The only repentance that has any chance of producing genuine faith is the repentance that arises from God’s kindness and the grief that God plants in our souls. It is not repentance that we manufacture in ourselves in order to bargain with God.

What kind of repentance did the prodigal son experience in the parable? He was hungry, he missed being in his father’s home where he could eat anything and as much as he wanted. “But when he came to himself,” Luke tells us, he decided to return home. He came to himself, εἰς ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἐλθὼν. That’s not repentance; that’s just awareness of how hungry he was and how well fed he was at his father’s home!

He goes home, speaking his well rehearsed speech – as a form of bargaining – to his father, who doesn’t even listen to it. The father is not interested in grovelling and long speeches. He has been waiting in love and ready to pour all his kindness on his son. He doesn’t even say I forgive you. He is all kindness and love. And it is here, I believe, that repentance happened in the son, although the parable says nothing more about him. I bet he also experienced that godly grief that Paul wrote about. It’s left to us to picture the scene and what transformation happened in the soul of that young son. The older son objects to the easy way the father took his son back, and the father teaches him also the ways of God.

This is repentance, dear friends: To receive the love and kindness of God. Let the kindness of God lead you to repentance. If Lent this year does nothing else than reveal the kindness of God it will be a transformational. time. Let it begin here at the Liturgy, where God waits to embrace us and clothe us with love and mercy and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

AFTERWORD: A friend told me about a Fresh Air story he heard this morning on NPR. It concerns a white supremacist who changed his ways because of the kindness that was shown him by people that he targeted with his racism. It is a perfect example of kindness leading to repentance! Here are his own words:

What it came down to was receiving compassion from the people that I least deserved it [from], when I least deserved it. Just before I left the movement, I opened a record store to sell white-power music that I was importing from all over the world. In fact, I was one of the only stores in the United States that was selling this music. And I also knew that to stay in the community and get their support I would have to sell other music. So I started to sell punk-rock music and heavy metal and hip-hop and when the customers came in to buy that music, who were often African-American, or Jewish, or gay, at first I was very standoffish, but they kept coming back.

The community, even though it’s Chicago, everybody knew what I was doing, everybody knew how hateful I was and how violent I was, but these customers came in despite that. And over time I started to have meaningful interactions with them, for the first time in my life.

In fact, I had never in my life engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the people that I thought I hated, and it was these folks who showed me empathy when I least deserved it, and they were the ones that I least deserved it from. I started to recognize that I had more in common with them than the people I had surrounded myself for eight years with — that these people, that I thought I hated, took it upon themselves to see something inside of me that I didn’t even see myself, and it was because of that connection that I was able to humanize them and that destroyed the demonization and the prejudice that was happening inside of me.