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I. The Place of Paul's Imprisonment
The final of the four prison epistles is Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Rejoice in all circumstances is the theme that many have identified for this epistle and that theme which is also an imperative takes on all the greater significance when we remember that Paul is in prison. The map of Paul’s second missionary journey reminds us that he founded the Philippian congregation not long after crossing over from Asia to Europe and according to the Book of Acts, it was the first location in which he pauses for a period of time which extended accounts of his ministry are provided for us. That is not quite the same extent as Ephesus or Corinth but nevertheless with a greater amount of interest to attract tourist to this day where the ruins at Philippi have been preserved, as they have been unearthed and reconstructed shows us a little of the physical surroundings in Paul’s day. Here, one can see the columns (refer to the provided slides and photos) to what once formed a massive archway and gate to the wall portion of the city of Philippi and perhaps to the road that ran down to the river, Gangites, where Lydia was baptized. Not far from the gate was the market place called the Agora, a typical center for activities of a Greco-Roman town. (The ruins show many paving stones, columns, walls, even buildings, ancient streets and roads within the city of Philippi). This was where Paul & Barnabas were put in jail for the night and an earthquake happened, opening the doors of the jail in Acts 16.
When the first three prison epistles were introduced: Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians, we made reference to the debate among scholars and also to one early church tradition concerning the place of Paul’s imprisonment but we also referred the reader to our textbook for more details promising to make some additional audio comments about this issue when we came to Philippians because of those who claim locations other than the traditional site of Rome. And it is Philippians where a slightly larger number of people at times do choose something other than Rome. Of those arguments, the least put forward is the option of a Caesarean imprisonment. This is Caesarea Marasmus by the Mediterranean Sea in Israel. To its credit the Caesarean argument does acknowledge that Acts describes serious threats being made against Paul’s life which necessitated his removal from Jerusalem to Caesarea which again kept Paul from agreeing to be transferred back to Jerusalem for a follow up time with the Sanhedrin. When that offer was made to him following his two years of imprisonment in Caesarea by the sea, these very serious and genuine threats against Paul’s life would fit the tone and tenure in Philippians in which Paul seems to disclose a very genuine possibility that he might die before being released from his imprisonment.
In favor of the Caesarean theory, there is also a certified historical presence of an official Roman guard made up of Roman troops and commanders, not merely those from other subjugated parts of the empire which would account for Paul’s statement in chapter 1:13, sometimes translated as palace guard saying that he was in chains for Christ. The Greek word is a Latin translation of the word pictorium. On the other hand the distance between Caesarea and Philippi seems to be considerable too vast for all of the travel that takes place between Paul’s emissaries Timothy and Epaphroditus. It’s difficult to fit Paul’s hopes for release despite the temporary despair he seems to go through and therefore a quick visit back to communities he had evangelized. In fact the majority of Paul’s letter to the Philippians as we mentioned in conjunction with plots against his life does seem to have more of the sense that he is not expecting the quick kind of release the other prison epistles can be interpreted as implying and that a closer location would be more probable as well.
The next most likely hypothesis is that of an Ephesians Imprisonment. And while this has been suggested for the first three prison epistles by some, a considerable larger number of scholars do like this hypothesis for the letter to the Philippians. Now we have Paul very close by but yet not so close as if he was writing the Book of Ephesians from and Ephesian imprisonment where there would a need for the kind of worry, say over an Epapthroitus imprisonment. Now we have a location that is very realistic for all the comings and goings and yet not so close that it makes the traveling back and forth by the emissaries almost unnecessary.
Even though there is a Biblical support for the Caesarean imprisonment, not so for an Ephesian imprisonment. From one way of interpreting Paul fighting wild beasts at Ephesus in 1st Corinthians 15, despairing of life itself in 2nd Corinthians 1, even though there are better ways of interpreting those texts (referring to the textbook) and the most damaging for the Ephesian Imprisonment hypothesis; there is no evidence from antiquity of any high level Roman leadership, no formal praetorian guard, even if Paul is using the language non-technically or loosely, the question comes to whether he would have tolerated such an Ephesian imprisonment any longer than he tolerated the Philippian imprisonment, precisely during a period he is writing to the church in Philippi. This leaves an ancient and modern hypothesis of a Roman imprisonment, from Craig Blomberg perspective, still as the best hypothesis. This has been the most dominating church tradition throughout history as references to Caesar’s household makes the most sense. The weaknesses do mean that Paul’s plans to travel westward ultimately in the direction of Spain, disclosed from the Book of Romans. After coming to Rome, it would have changed since a Roman imprisonment unlike a Caesarean imprisonment means that he cannot visit any of the churches’ previously evangelized. On the other hand, he did not originally plan to come to Rome as a prisoner. Two years and some in Rome under these circumstances could very easily have changed his earlier plans. It is also true that the time is short during the two year period or perhaps slightly less to all of the comings and goings of people in Rome hearing about Paul’s plight returning to Philippi with an offering being taken up and Epaphroditus travelling part of the way overland, arriving and passing on the gift and becoming ill for an extended period of time with the Philippians becoming concerned about him. And presumably others are arriving with additional news, then with Paul taking the time to pen this epistle.
What difference does it make, we might ask? Well, it certainly doesn’t prevent us from understanding the main points of Paul’s teachings. But it does help us to clearly date the letter, which would be different from other imprisonments. It also provides us with details of Paul’s imprisonment and its severity and what information he has access to and perhaps the most encouraging feature in the assumption of a Roman imprisonment, the idea of how well the Gospel has spread, even in the very heart of the empire, in the capital of the oppressive imperial enemy, even extended to the very household, the extended group of close associates of Caesar himself (4:22).
II. Key Verses
More important for the historical context of Philippians is a series of passages reflected on in a series of key verses of the Philippians context from PowerPoint slides. We have already alluded that Paul has had to contemplate the possibility of dying, to him which seems the very real possibility that he might die during this imprisonment though he writes, beginning in 1:21,
‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me, yet I don’t know which I prefer: I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far, but it is more vital for your sake that I remain in the body. And since I am sure of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for the sake of your progress and joy in the faith, so that what you can be proud of may increase because of me in Christ Jesus, when I come back to you. Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ so that – whether I come and see you or whether I remain absent – I should hear that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, by contenting side by side for the faith of the gospel.'
Paul goes back and forth in his thinking for what he believes God is telling him about his coming fate as a human being with all the normal desires he doesn’t relish, the finite limitation of a frail human body, the sufferings he has experienced for his Christian faith. Nevertheless, he is willing to continue in this life because he recognizes the important role God has given him as key missionary to the gentiles. God has likewise given him the conviction that his work is not yet done so that he will continue to live on. In 2nd Corinthians 5, significant in terms of Christian doctrine the probability that points to and intermediate states of disembodiment for believers who die before the Lord’s return and thus are not immediately reunited with a resurrection body until the coming of Christ. The language of verse 22, if I’m to go on living in the body, would be unusual if he immediate experienced a new body in the world to come. Chapter 2:17 also demonstrates the serous situation which Paul’s found himself in this imprisonment, even though he came to the conviction that he would continue to live. The severity of his circumstances and the possibility that he might not be released from prison causes him to use the metaphor which we will see again in 2nd Timothy when in fact his death does follow: ‘even if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. The drink offering refers back to one of the Levitical sacrifices. And of course the sacrifice, itself, even as a metaphor suggesting that the death in this context of Paul, he feels like he is heading down hill toward that end. But, nevertheless, he rejoices, a theme that prevails in this letter and he rejoices too and he describes what is often identified as rival features in 1:15 – 18. The words Paul use here says that it is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry but others out of goodwill. The latter do so from love because they know that I am placed here for the defence of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. There is no hint in this context of significant doctrine on orthodoxy such that the rival teachers are not preaching the truth Gospel, but rather that their motives are wrong. They are trying to advance their own ministries and grow their own churches, perhaps thinking that Paul will not be able to, since he’s in prison and therefore they can outdo him, he who was the apostle to the gentiles. And we see this throughout the history of the church. Over time, many churches have collapsed and ministries closed and today people attend churches for many different reasons other than geography. It’s very easy for rivalry and false motives to come into place.
However, if the message is correct, Paul says that we can rejoice. It’s still not ideal but it’s a far cry from namely, false teachers that Paul speaks about in Philippians 3:2-6 where he says, ‘beware of dogs and evil workers and of those who mutilate the flesh! For we are the circumcision, the ones who worship by the Spirit of God, exalt in Christ Jesus, and do not rely on human credentials, though mine too are significant, If some thinks he has good reason to put confidence in human credentials, I have more: I was circumcised on the eighty day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, A Hebrew of Hebrews, I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. This is like the language of Corinthians 10 – 13 and references to Jewish credentials suggest that once again we have the problem of the Judaizers inflicting their heresy on the Philippians community. Paul calls them dogs and evil workers who mutilate the flesh, referring to circumcision. He refers to those of the spiritual circumcision, who boasts in Christ Jesus. Paul continues to match and exceed those with so called Jewish credentials. Then in verse seven, he considers these gains as liabilities for the sake of Christ. Verse 3:17-19 is more opaque. Some commentators would see this as yet a third separate group of opponents, those who are enemies of the Cross and of Christ. Those whose destiny is destruction: God is their stomach and glory is their shame because their mind is sat on earthly things. Is Paul referring to some Hellenistic philosophy here in verse 19? Or is this a reference to the dietary laws of the Judaizers; or again, the laws of circumcision? This question remains open, at least until there is new information on it. And lastly there is the issue of Roman hostility as Philippi was a Roman colony being given a measure of self-government and along with other Roman benefits. Remember that Paul ask that his treatment be made known publicly as that may be behind those in 1:28 who oppose the Philippian Christians.
III Philippians Outline as a Family/Friendship Letter
What else should be said about an introduction to this letter? The outline, at one level, reads more like a conventional Hellenistic letter than others that has been surveyed. Yet, at another level, has sections that break from the traditional information followed by an exhortation pattern. Commentators are relatively agreed as to the individual segments of the letter but to question whether or not they form a pattern. Loveday Alexander, a Jewish scholar as well as Hellenistic letter forms for many years and a professor at the University of Sheffield identified what she believed as a form of a family letter. Other following her, discerned the rough structure being similar to what was called a friendship letter. What that, we may suggest a short address and greetings, a typical prayer of thanks and blessings on the recipients. And then information of a personal nature that one would expect from a friendship letter. There was a reassurance of the well-being of the one sending the letter and requests of reassurance from those who are receiving it. And since someone had to carry the letter from one place to the next, there had been different people going back and forth on different occasions between Philippi and Rome. It would be natural to provide information of these people. At that point, one would simply go onto the closing of the letter but we see at this point two more distinctive sections emerge not typically found in this kind of letter but attributable to the specific circumstances and two most immediate reasons why Paul pens this friendly letter in the first place. The news that Judaizers had arrived which triggered a special warning beginning in chapter 3 and the ‘thankyou’ that never comes out in so many words for the gift of money, undoubtedly because of the culture of reciprocity of patron and client relationship which would obligate Paul to return that debt to the Philippian church. Thus Paul walks a ‘tight rope’ in 4:10-20 between wanting to demonstrate his gratitude, yet at the same time insisting on his contentedness and ability to live both in plenty and want so that the Philippians don’t feel obligated to continue to meet his needs. This, significantly is the context for a common memory verse out of Book of Philippians, namely verse 13 that speaks of Paul’s ability to do all things in Christ, despite periodic abuse of this verse when taken out of context, it doesn’t mean Paul has super human physical abilities to call upon like present day TV superheroes. It doesn’t mean that on a spiritual level, he can summon up the ability to have any spiritual gift that he wants, though tragically many well-meaning Christians want to do things which they are not gifted and unwilling to listen to mature council of Godly Christians will fall back on such a verse, taking it out of context and then rush off to do something, only to fail. In context, it means nothing more than God can enable us to be content in all circumstances and most significantly and most strikingly in poverty and lack of our physical needs being met. Only after this section is complete, does Paul then conclude with the final part which is consistent with the characteristics of a family letter and final exchange of greetings to third parties and a closing wish for health.
IV. The Philippian Hymn
As with all of the books we are surveying, there are so many more things we could say about Philippians but by far the most extended passage in this letter is what has been called the Philippian hymn. It’s very similar to the issue to what we refer to as possibly the Colossian hymn in Colossians 1:15-20, a very poetically metrically rhythmically structured passage of tightly packed closed condensed Christological doctrine in a way that suggests a confession of faith or creed and perhaps because such items were often part of the text of early Christian hymnody, a Philippian hymn. Today the trend seems to be that Paul most likely composed this himself. He certain may have but if you defended perhaps in no more detail by anyone by Raph Martin in a series of commentaries and monographs over his distinguished career who also spent a fair amount of time at the University of Sheffield. It still remains in my opinion, reasonable compelling, because when one analyses the structure of the structure of this text as on the next two PowerPoint slides, one can divide it exactly in half or stanza can be divided into three sub-sections, each of which is conceptually a self-contained unit of thought ending at a place where one would expect and those stresses in turn can be equally divided logically into breaking points of three syllables each in the originally Greek.
We can see that the first stanza refers to the condescension of Christ, refusing to cling to his privilege and status, exercising full use of his divine attributes at the right hand of God, the Father from all eternity past and ignominiously taking on human flesh largely poor middle class life style and ultimately the agony of the passion and crucifixion. Then in the second stanza, we see the other half seeing the pattern go up again and Christ is exalted and re-enthroned and in fact demonstrated publically to be Lord in a way that was not true even before the incarnation. But in between the halves of the Vee shaped structure of the Philippian hymn is one line that breaks every one of the patterns of symmetry just described. It creates an extra two accented syllable lines right between the two stanzas. Even death on a cross which is in fact what Paul in Corinthians 2:2 said was the very heart of the Gospel before him when he determined to know nothing among the Corinthians except Christ crucified. Why Paul would create such a structure and not permeate it even more or preserve the symmetry and yet high light the centrality of the Cross is a bit of a puzzle. But if this was an existing piece that he knew many or all of his audience would know, he didn’t feel he should tamper with its symmetry, its teaching in any other way than the least collecting of the integrity of the hymn but the absolute most emphatic way to high light Paul’s distinctive emphasis. It would be to do what he did where he did it where he did it with this brief line.
V. Philippians 4:6-8
We return finally to one last slide. Again, out of many other things that could be mentioned in Philippians 4:6-8, a beautiful tender touching passage: ‘do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God and the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things. Verse 6, one of the most precious commands and promises and then in verse 7, in situations of anxiety regarding prayer, regarding the contentment that God can provide irrespective of the nature of it. Respective of the nature of his understanding and then beautiful call in terms of where we are to fix out attention, both an antidote for anxiety but in all situations in life as well, especially the fallen world around us which shows so much ugliness and cruelty, wickedness and sinfulness. A lovely little letter; seemingly a bit choppy and disjointed in form which led to theories of partition and disunity. No doubt our comments in this lecture more so than other lectures have seemed a bit more disjointed for that very reason. But whether we take selected texts, whether reading verse by verse, rapidly or leisurely or studying it with meticulous care, the theme that we cannot escape is that of rejoicing in all circumstances, good and ill, freed and imprisoned, anxious or at peace, rich or poor, Paul rejoices and he insists and affirms confidently that he will continue to rejoice, even when death may be imminent. That’s not possible except through the supernatural Holy Spirit of God in Christ which he makes available to us when we turn ourselves over to Him and yield our spirit to His spirit.