Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

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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.