This week we did something rather different, closer to a conventional Bible study but with the twist that we read a whole book of the Bible at once to get a more holistic feel.
This is probably the fourth time I’ve read Philippians and as far as I can tell there is nothing particularly special about it. It is certainly nothing like as important to Christian doctrine as is Romans or the letters to the Corinthians. Written in approximately 60 AD when Paul was imprisoned (probably in Rome) it is a reply to the eponymous Greek church community he had set up, who had been the only ones to send aid to him during his incarceration. It’s possible that Paul died soon after writing it. This is the version we read.
Here are some thoughts we had:
Being in the form of a letter it is only one side of a conversation.
It is very personal, full of examples from his own experience (this applies to most of the Pauline epistles).
We felt uneasy that he speaks of God as “his God” and says that people will be rewarded for giving to him. Likewise he cautions people for causing him trouble.
I liked that at 1:15 Paul points out that not all Christians are good as some are Christians for the wrong reasons. But some of us were shocked (in a negative sense) that he then says (verse 17) that intentions don’t matter as much as consequences. This doesn’t sound very Christian.
2:5-11 is a very early example of a developed Christology, and some scholars think it to be a hymn which pre-dated the letter. There does seem to be confusion about the nature of the Trinity at this point in time, however, as at 1:19 the Spirit (which we understand as the third person of the Trinity) is identified with Jesus Christ (the distinct second person of the Trinity). The final verses of this section suggest a universalist understanding of salvation:
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Thus it is a his most humble moment, at the moment of the crucifixion that Christ is most exalted. Glory is about giving things up. Like Jesus, Paul is keen to state his credentials as a Jew, but he uses harsh words to distinguish himself from those factions of the church that are more culturally Jewish (3:27). Later on in the letter, it appears that Paul was applying the ’emptying out’ model of the hymn to himself. He no longer needs the law or Jewish culture- he may be in chains, but doesn’t need anything but God.
I found the summary on Wikipedia helpful: “While Paul’s opening prayer is for love (1:9), based on knowledge of Christ, his final prayer is for the peace of God (4:7), which surpasses all understanding. Thus the concepts of love, knowledge and peace are jointly developed in the epistle.”