Wednesday, May 10, 2006

New Testament Reflections: Philippians 1:3-6

Philippians 1:3-6 (part 1)

Prayers and Thanksgiving

Okay, the past four days has yielded enough comments and emails to prompt me to continue the series. I appreciate the encouragement of everyone. Here's the next installment to the series.

Text and Translation

I-give-thanks to-the God of-me upon every [the] reminder of-you
Ευχαριτω τω θεω μου επι παση τη μνεια υμων

Always in every petition of-me in-behalf-of all of-you, with joy
παντοτε εν παση δενσει μου υπερ παντων υμων, μετα χαρας

the petition making, on-the-basis-of the fellowship/participation
την δεησιν ποιουμενος επι τη κοινωνια

of-you into/in the gospel from the first day until the now/present
υμων εις το ευαγγελιον απο της πρωτης ημερας αχρι του νυν

being-confident-in this same-thing, that the-one having-begun
πεποιθως αυτο τουτο, οτι ο εναρξαμενος

in/among you-all a good work will-perfect/complete [it] until
εν υμιν εργον αγαθον επιτελεσει αχρι

[the] day of-Christ Jesus
ημερας Χριστου Ιησου

1:3 Paul gives thanks (eucharisto, from whence we derive Eucharist; “a giving of thanks”) to God (literally) upon every reminder he has of the Philippians. This may mean “every time I am reminded of you, I thank God”; or, more likely, “every time I pray to God about you, I thank Him for you.” Giving thanks to God for his readers is not unusual in Paul’s letters (cf. Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 1:4; Col 1:3, 1 Thes 1:2; 2 Thes 1:3; Phm 4; 2 Tim 1:3). But in this case there is a special reason for it, and indeed, it acts as the occasion for (not to say the theme of) the letter; namely, Paul’s thankfulness for the monetary gift to Paul from the Philippians by the hand of their messenger, Epaphroditus. This gift, first alluded to in 2:25 and 30, is explicitly mentioned only at the very end of the letter where it becomes the focal point of the chapter (4:10-19), and where it is finally made clear that this is what prompts Paul to write. The thanksgiving at the beginning of the letter combined with the explicit mention of the gift at the end forms a sort of extended inclusio that encompasses the entire letter and ties both ends together.

1:4 In every petition to God that Paul makes in behalf of the Philippians he does so with joy. This is quite an accomplishment already, given Paul’s present circumstance. As he writes this letter Paul is sitting in a cold, dark, dank prison cell awaiting trial (see 1:13-14). Yet, he expresses “joy” and ‘rejoicing” no fewer than a dozen times in this letter. It is this mindset of Paul that he attempts to impart to his readers throughout, and it becomes clear that his joy has nothing whatever to do with the circumstances in which he finds himself.

1:5 The basis for (epi; or perhaps cause of) Paul’s joyful thanksgiving is the Philippians’ participation (koinonia) in the gospel. That this koinonia is no mere static and passive position in Christ but refers instead to an active partnership with Paul in the work of the gospel is evident on a number of counts. First, the addition of the phrase from the first day until now makes little sense unless activity is envisaged; likely, their continued assistance to Paul in his work of the gospel, which assistance Paul brags about on a number of occasions (4:14-16; cf. 2 Cor 8:1-5; 11:8-9). Second, Paul characterizes this koinonia in the very next verse as a good work that continues to progress and be perfected. Third, Paul alludes to this koinonia again a few verses later in the context of their being co-partakers (or partners) with Paul of the grace of the defense and confirmation of the gospel (1:7; cf. 1:27-30).

1:6 Paul has summarized the progress of the Philippians, and has praised the strides they have made from the first day they became participants in the gospel till the present day; but what of tomorrow and beyond? Here Paul expresses his confidence about their future, no doubt based on what he has seen from them in the past; namely, that their progress will continue precisely because it is not the result of some self-conjured ability, but rather the work of God himself—the one having begun a good work in you. And because their progress is the work of God, they will not, indeed cannot falter—he will perfect it, and he will continue to do so until the day of Christ Jesus. The use if the plural pronoun throughout indicates Paul has the Philippian church as a whole in mind, rather than specifically its individual members, and that the “progress” he envisions is not one of personal spiritual growth per se, but spiritual growth that occurs corporately. He confirms this in a later appeal to a corporate “striving together” for the defense of the gospel (1:27).

Having said all that, corporate church growth can scarcely take place apart from the spiritual growth of the individuals that comprise that church. Indeed, the latter is the very sine qua non of the former. Hence, whatever application can be made of Paul’s words to the church corporate can and should be made to the individuals that make up the church. Consequently, God will continue to perfect the good work of this church—and each memberuntil the day of Christ Jesus. For the Philippian audience, their “day” is cut short and their “perfection” is accomplished through death. And although it is a fact that the NT writers anticipated that the return of Christ would happen in their own day, Paul’ statement is gnomic in nature and is therefore not intended for the Philippians alone. It applies to all on this side of “the day of Christ Jesus” in whom God has initiated a “good work.”