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Philippians 2:1922, 2530; 4:1518comment (0)

May 1, 2008

By James R. Strange

Related Scripture: Philippians 2:1922, 2530; 4:1518

Assistant Professor of Religion, Department of Religion, Samford University

Philippians 2:19–22, 25–30; 4:15–18

The church at Philippi was the first that the Pauline missionary team (we know the names of Paul, Silas and Timothy) founded in Europe on the so-called “second missionary journey” (Acts 16).

In the letter to this church, Paul indicates that he is writing from jail (Phil. 1:7, 13–14, 17), evidently a frequent problem in the Pauline mission (2 Cor. 11:23; According to an early second-century bishop named Clement, Paul was imprisoned seven times). Consequently it is difficult to pin down the date and place of composition, and scholars are divided among Ephesus (supposing an otherwise unknown imprisonment in A.D. 45–55), Caesarea (58–59) and Rome (61–62). In the letter, Paul displays a great fondness for the members of this church; he mentions their generosity (Phil. 1:5; 4:15–18) and frequent communication with him (Phil. 1:26–27; 2:19, 23, 25–30; 4:18).

The full section is Philippians 2:18–3:1a, as the framing calls to “rejoice” indicate. In the present focal passage, Paul indicates that he wishes to send Timothy — whom he names as co-sender of the letter (Phil. 1:1) — to Philippi so that Timothy can bring good news about the Philippians back to him.

Paul praises Timothy by contrasting him with other people (presumably also itinerant missionaries) who show interest in the Philippian believers but for ulterior motives. By contrast, the Philippians know Timothy’s character from the church’s founding, and Paul appeals to that knowledge in his commendation.

There is a power in this kind of affirmation. Its ugly cousin is gossip, which elevates those “in the know.” A pernicious example is so-called “prayer requests” that air a fellow Christian’s dirty laundry. Gossip shames the unlucky soul who is its object and tears down the community as well, for who would choose to be vulnerable in such a place? Paul deploys the same power of communication but for the opposite aim: his praise will spread to those who don’t know Timothy, so that when they do meet him, they may have the pleasure of confirming the good things Paul says about him. By writing his appreciation to be read aloud, Paul sends a blessing ahead of a person he loves and he builds up the community.

Something similar happens when Paul praises Epaphroditus, whom he will soon send back to the Philippians with the letter he’s writing. But the text also shows the mutual concern that Paul and the Philippians share. The Philippians initially sent Epaphroditus to Paul to bring him news and minister to him, and indeed Epaphroditus became Paul’s “brother, co-worker, and fellow soldier.” Then he nearly died of some illness, and it was Paul’s turn to minister.

Paul mentions three reasons for sending Epaphroditus back: to relieve Paul’s own anxiety about Epaphroditus’ well-being, to bring joy to the Philippians and to see Epaphroditus properly thanked for serving Paul in the Philippians’ stead. Again, mutual praise of someone esteemed by all builds up the community.

The same themes carry through to the end of the letter: affirmation of individuals, gratitude for acts of kindness and appreciation for the bond of mutual care. As is common, before his farewell, Paul’s final act is to pray a blessing on the Philippians.

In these three passages, readers witness Paul practicing the moral deeds he urges the Philippians to take up in Philippians 2:1–4 and 4:8. Also the passages show the first-century network of Christian communication in action: messengers crisscrossing the empire bearing news (some good, some bad), exhortation and instruction.

In effect, they were extending Christian communities beyond their own cities and showing the koinonia — caring for one another and working toward a common purpose — that was so crucial for Christianity in its beginning. It is still crucial.

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