Introduction to Philippians

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1 Introduction to Philippians Context and Purpose I want you to know how to study an epistle, not just read it. Some people focus just on the commands of the letter, because they know it is important to obey God s commands. But the commands are derived from the theology of the letter. If you focus only on the commands and neglect the theology, then you are trying to change in your own power, never allowing the transformation that comes through the renewing of our minds when the Holy Spirit interacts with the Word of God in you. You also will begin to live like the Pharisees, very legalistic about following the rules, but never developing a heart like God s. Other people focus just on the theology of the letter, because they know it is important to understand the big picture. But the author is using the theology as the basis of the commands. If you focus only on the theology and ignore the commands, while you might understand God better, you still are not applying it to your life, and thus you become puffed up with knowledge instead of sanctified in God s grace. Another problem some people read casually until they find something they like. e.g. Philippians 4:6-7 says, Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. This is a very nice verse, and people like to memorize it so the Spirit can bring it to mind when they are feeling stressed. But if this is all you get out of Philippians, you are missing a lot. And if you take these verses out of context, you might even miss the meaning of those verses! Philippians has some beautiful passages, poetic even, but to get the full value out of the scripture, we need to study the whole letter not just the pretty parts. Other people focus in on something that looks important. e.g. Philippians 2:5-11 says, Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. This is an important passage! V.6 proclaims Jesus shares an essence and an equality with God the Father! V.7 insists that Jesus was fully man as well as fully God. V.8 says his death on the cross was in obedience to the will of God the Groben Introduction to Philippians p.1

2 Father. Wow! That is a lot of deep stuff in a short space! But if this is all you get out of Philippians, you still are missing a lot. And if you take these verses out of context, you might even miss the point that Paul is using them to make. Philippians has several incredibly revealing theological passages, but we need to see the message of the whole of the letter, not just a few of its parts. What we have to do is ask ourselves why Paul, with Timothy, wrote this letter. We know from Acts that they founded the church in Philippi on the second missionary journey, and revisited the church on the third missionary journey. So now we need to figure out what would compel them to write this letter to the Philippians. What was the need for writing? Why was it so urgent to write instead of waiting until they could visit again? Why did God think this letter was so important that it should be included in the New Testament? You see, Paul is not firing off a friendly letter here. Maybe he wrote such friendly letters, but God did not put them into the Bible. What we have here is a letter with a purpose, with a point to make. We need to figure out what that point is. Explain handout The author is writing because the reader is facing some sort of problem. There is an antagonist or group of antagonists from within the church or outside of it who are using bad theology to pressure the reader to act bottom-line [fleshly], and so act wrongly toward themselves, God, other believers, the antagonists, and/or the lost. To counter this problem, the author is going to use good theology to exhort the reader to act top-line [on God s revelation], and he will provide some top-line commands as examples of how the reader can act rightly toward themselves, God, other believers, the antagonists themselves, or the lost. The first thing I do when I study an epistle, is to read through it and note down or highlight anything I can about the writer and reader. E.g. from Philippians, I can find out that the writers are Paul with Timothy [1.1]. I can see that they are believers [3.3, 20-21] who consider themselves slaves of Christ [1.1]. I also can see that Paul is in prison in Rome as he writes this letter [1.7, 13-14, 17; 4.22], yet he continues his ministry from there [1.13] and with great results [4.22]. I can see that he knows the readers personally [1.3; 2.12] and affectionately [1.8; 4.1], that he is concerned for them [2.28], and so he is sending back their messenger to him, Epaphroditus [2.25, 28], and soon hopes to send Timothy to them as well [2.19, 23]. About the readers, I can see that they are believers in Philippi [1.1; 3.3, 20-21], who are generally obedient [2.12] and who have been supportive of the gospel mission all along [1.5, 7; ]. Groben Introduction to Philippians p.2

3 I can also see that they are now suffering, apparently from persecution [1.30]. Figuring out the antagonists is sometimes easy, sometimes not. We have to consider anyone the author speaks out against. In this letter, it is a little hard, because he seems to speak out against multiple types of people. Paul does give us some clues, but we will go into that later. The next thing I do is read through again and note down any direct commands. Sometimes there are quite a few! So once I have them all written down, I try to group them by type and target. By target, I mean, who is affected if I act this way? For example, in this letter Paul gives several commands about how to treat other believers, as well as commands about how to treat spiritual leaders, antagonists, and more even about how to approach life oneself. By type, I mean, what is the essence of the command? For example, in this letter, Paul s commands about how to treat other believers could be grouped into two categories: there are several about acting in unity and a few about caring for each other in humility. I make special note of any commands that are phrased in the negative. Why would the author use negative phrasing when he mostly uses positive? It is possible that he is countering what the antagonists have said. e.g. consider if I was writing a letter to you after I have gone to Dallas. Maybe I have heard that everyone in the church has doubled their giving and now you as a body are not sure what to do with all that money. I might write and suggest to you that you support those who want to go to seminary to further their ministry skills, that you fix the leaky gutters over the back door near the all-purpose room, and that you hire more staff to expand the ministry s capacity. But what if I wrote, Don t put the money in the bank, safe for a rainy day, for that shows a lack of faith in God s provision and an unwillingness to put his resources to work for the gospel. Why would I put that in my letter? There must be some reason I think this is a consideration, and so I am trying to counter it. So I list these negative commands separately, as possibly countering antagonist commands. At this point, we can get a bit of an idea of what the letter is about. We know who is writing and who is reading. We can see the pattern of the author s commands to get an idea of what he is aiming at. We can see the pattern of the antagonist s commands to get an idea of what he is aiming at. We also can look for other clues. For example, the Greek form of letters in those days would begin with listing the author, the reader, and then a prayer or statement of thanksgiving. Paul often exploits this format to state his agenda. Groben Introduction to Philippians p.3

4 e.g. in Philippians 1:3-8, right after his greeting, Paul discusses what he is thankful for, and we find he is focused on how eager the Philippians are for the gospel mission and for living out the gospel life. Then, in Philippians 1:9-11, he says, And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. This gives us a hint at what he wants to address: issues of discernment, righteous living, and the gospel gift of righteousness. The next thing I do is go through the letter again, noting all the theological statements. Again, I try to group them by type, and I look for any negative arguments as clues to the antagonist s theology. This is where highlighting comes in handy. I already have my letter marked up in yellow for personal information, pink for commands, and orange for anything that seems negative or about the antagonists. That makes it a lot easier to find the theological statements, which I highlight in blue. Another factor in looking at the theology of the letter is to look for the sources of the author s theology and of the antagonist s theology. E.g. Paul quotes the Old Testament in Philippians 2.10, so I know he is drawing on the Old Testament for his theology. He also refers repeatedly to Christ s gospel, so that too is a source of his theology. I note that Paul calls the antagonists dogs, evil workers, and the false circumcision, so I deduce that they are fleshly, legalistic, and working counter to the gospel; thus, they have sources of their theology of the flesh, the Old Testament Law, and evil [probably filtered through their culture]. One last thing: It helps if you have some resource to help you connect things in this letter to the rest of the Bible. Tools such as cross-reference or study Bibles, atlases, good commentaries or study guides, Bible software, or access to good Bible research on the Internet, all can help fill in the background to the letter. Building the Argument All this work is just to give us a proper frame of mind for going through the letter line by line. When we go through it line by line, what we want to do is see how the author is building his argument to achieve his purpose, and how each piece fits in. That will protect us from the possibility of taking some passage out of context and thus not interpreting it correctly. It also will protect us from missing the whole point, missing the forest by focusing on the trees. Groben Introduction to Philippians p.4

5 Let me pause here to ask, what do you think Philippians is about? Most people say it is about joy. To be sure, Paul mentions having joy or rejoicing at least ten times in this short letter. But consider: 1.4: Paul has joy because they are participating in the mission of sharing the gospel. 1.18: Paul rejoices because in his suffering the gospel mission is accomplished. 1.25: They will have joy because Paul honors God by continuing his gospel mission. 2.2: Paul will have joy if they stand in unity for the gospel, even though they have to suffer for it : Paul rejoices and exhorts them to rejoice despite his suffering because he is doing his work of sharing the gospel. 3.1: They are to rejoice because of the gospel gift of righteousness. 4.1: They are the cause of Paul s joy because they stand firm for the gospel. 4.4: They are to rejoice because they have the gospel s deliverance regardless of their physical suffering. 4.10: Paul has joy because they support his gospel mission even though it requires sacrificial suffering. There is a lot about joy, but it has a specific context: Paul argues that they can rejoice despite their suffering, because they have the deliverance of the gospel, they have been saved, they are being sanctified, and they will be resurrected and glorified. Furthermore, joy comes from focusing on eternal spiritual realities, not from earthly circumstances [as most people would argue on the bottom line]. Thus, we might construct an outline that emphasizes suffering for the gospel, not joy! Introduction It is good that they support the gospel mission. Paul s Example Paul is willing to suffer and die for the gospel Therefore you should be willing to suffer for the gospel. Christ s Example Christ suffered and died for the gospel Therefore you should live up to and for the gospel Spiritual leaders are willing to suffer and die for the gospel. The Deliverance of the Gospel The gospel is a grace-gift of righteousness through faith You should value the gospel enough to live up to it as Paul does. Groben Introduction to Philippians p.5

6 Application You should stand in unity, trusting in and defending the gospel You should identify with Paul as the missionary of the gospel. Conclusion Evidence of the success of the gospel despite circumstances. That is not the only way to organize the letter. But it might be closer to the point Paul is making than the disjointed outlines you will find in most commentaries and study guides. I think a lot of commentators lose sight of the forest by looking at the trees. Here is my plan for coming weeks. I want to go nice and easy through this letter, line by line, considering what Paul means by each statement while also being mindful of understanding how it all fits together. I have no timetable for this, we will take as long as we need to. When we get to the end of the letter, we will then take a week or two to consider how it all fits together, what God wants us to get out of it, and how we should be affected by it. I suggest you might read the letter this week and make some notes about the items on the handout chart. That will get your mind prepared for our discussion next week. Next week, we will look at an overview of the letter. Then we are off for two weeks: Easter and another missionary visit. So we will begin going through Philippians 1 on Groben Introduction to Philippians p.6

7 Antagonist Author uses Poor Theology to pressure Reader to exhort Good Theology uses to act in the flesh, using to act on revelation, using Self Antagonist s Commands God Believers Author s Commands Antagonist Others Groben Introduction to Philippians Handout

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