Paul's letter to the Philippians is not a treatise on theology. Rather, it is a personal letter dealing primarily with personal matters that concern the Christians in Philippi for whom Paul has the greatest affection ( 1:7 ). And yet Paul, whose mind is filled with thoughts of God, Christ, the Spirit, salvation, resurrection, and the new world to come, cannot write even the briefest of letters without thinking and writing theologically. Hence, when he discusses any aspect of life in its many and varied dimensions he views it always in light of God and what God has done and is doing in the world.
God. The noun "God" appears twenty-four times in this short letter a fact that makes it clear that for Paul, God is at the very center of things! The word he uses for God, theos [qeov"], the Greek translation of the Hebrew elohim [yihl\a], reveals that Paul sees in this one appellation all the wide-ranging ideas of the Old Testament. God for him is the Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, the Master of the universe, transcendent above his creation, himself life and the author and sustainer of life, Father, the one set apart from all other beings, sole, supreme, and sovereign. He is God, theos [qeov"], the One before whom all people should reverently bow in awe. Glory and praise belong to God ( 1:11 ; 2:11 ); worship is to be given to God ( 3:3 ); sacrifice is to be made to God ( 4:18 ; cf. Rom 12:1-2 ); doxologies are to be sung to God ( 4:20 ); prayer is to be directed to God ( Philippians 1:3 Philippians 1:9 ). God, for Paul, is distinct from every other person or thing, unique.
And yet God is not so distinct, so wholly other, that he has absented himself from his world, possessing no interest in it or in the lives of those whom he has created in his own image. On the contrary, Paul understands that God is so close and so intimate that those who believe in him are free to speak of him as "my God" ( 1:3 ; 4:19 ). He is aware, too, that God is continuously breaking into human history, constantly at work in the lives of his people to create within them both the desire for and the power to achieve the good ( 2:13 ).
Epaphroditus's sickness is to Paul still further evidence of the immediate presence of God and of his willingness to act in individual human histories. When this special friend is restored to wholeness Paul notes that "God had mercy on him; and not on him only but also on me" ( 2:27 ). He is convinced that God stepped in and put an end to this near-fatal illness. It is Paul's overwhelming conviction that God is transcendent and thus not at all entangled in the web of human problems. Yet he is also immanent and thus free and able to extricate humans from these problems. This realization gives Paul great incentive to pray for his friends ( 1:9 ) and strong confidence to encourage his friends to do the same to worry about nothing but to pray about everything ( 4:6 ). God, for Paul, is present and mindful of the needs of his people, ready and able to fill up what they lack from the boundless richness of his resources in Christ Jesus ( 4:19 ) if that should be his will.
Paul also knows that God broke into human history in order to undo the damage that had been done as the consequence of sin by reconciling the disobedient to himself and by acting to provide salvation for all sinners. God is holy, God most high, but not so high and holy that he will not step down to involve himself in human affairs. Most profoundly God stooped down in the person of his incarnate Son to save his people from destruction and to provide for them the very righteousness he demanded from them. Thus God for Paul is not only Sovereign but Savior of sinful humanity ( 1:28 ).
Christ. The preeminence of Christ pervades Philippians, not in any structured, formal way but in almost every comment the apostle makes, even in the most mundane of them. Seemingly the whole of Paul's thought is affected by the power and presence of the Christ who had changed his own life so radically (see 1:21 ; 3:4b-10 ), and thus everything he writes, every bit of advice he gives, every word of encouragement he offers he does in the name of Christ and in the reality of his living presence.
Although "Jesus" was the name given to this special person by an angel ( Matt 1:21 ), and used so frequently in the Gospels, Paul is not inclined to use it, at least by itself. And never does he do so in his letter to the Philippians except once, and that in a hymn he may be quoting ( 2:6-11 ; see esp. v. 10).
"Christ" is the designation Paul prefers to use when speaking or writing about this most significant person in his life. Perhaps it is because this word, "Christ" (Gk. christos [Cristov"]; Heb. masiah [jyiv'm]), meaning "the Anointed One, " held in it the hopes and dreams of those generations before him hopes and dreams that now at last had come to realization.
The word "christ" was an ancient designation for almost any person chosen and equipped by God to do God's special work in the world ( 1 Sam 16:1-3 ; 1 Chron 16:22 ; Isa 45:1 ). David, a man "after God's own heart, " was God's "christ" in this sense, as were the kingly descendants who succeeded him ( 2 Sam 22:51 ; Psalm 89:35-36 ). But when the Davidic monarchy eventually was overthrown and Israel was in disarray, a promise came of a future king, a greater descendant of David, the Christ par excellence whose rule would be surpassingly righteous ( Isa 9:6-7 ; 42:1-4 ; Ezek 34:23-24 ). The darker Israel's history became, the brighter burned this hope for such a deliverer, a mighty king, son of David, anointed of the Spirit, a king whose kingdom would be great, an eternal kingdom of goodness and justice ( Isa 11:1-5 ).
What was different in the writings of the New Testament from those of the Old Testament and the literature between the Testaments is that the Messiah, the Anointed of the Lord who was to come, had come and could be identified. He was Jesus ( Luke 1:31-33 ). But contrary to expectations he was not a warrior-king, establishing his rule by force of arms, bringing political deliverance to Israel from the oppressive power of foreign invaders. And for this reason his coming was either overlooked or rejected by many. Rather, Jesus was God's humble servant, the Anointed of the Lord, sent not only to Israel but to the world, to show them his strength by his weakness; his power to save people, not from Rome, but from death by his own death upon a cross; his ability to reverse the destructive forces not of the emperor but of the Evil One by his resurrection from the dead. He was God's Anointed, God's "Christ" par excellence!
Paul came to understand all this as a result of having encountered the living, resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, who, in a moment, had transferred him out of the kingdom of darkness, freed him from the power of evil, saved him from his sin, and gave him life instead of death. It was this message, then, that he preached to the Philippians: God's action to save the world through Christ, the long-expected Messiah ( Philippians 1:15-18 Philippians 1:27 ; Philippians 3:9 Philippians 3:18 ). Paul is so overwhelmed by the majesty, love, goodness, and mercy of Christ that he sees no reason for his existence except "to be for Christ" ( 1:21 ).
Although Paul is reluctant to use the name "Jesus" by itself, he nevertheless frequently links it with the title "Christ" ( Philippians 1:1 Philippians 1:6 Philippians 1:8 Philippians 1:11 Philippians 1:26 ; Philippians 2:5 Philippians 2:21 ; Philippians 3:3 Philippians 3:12 Philippians 3:14 ; Philippians 4:7 Philippians 4:19 Philippians 4:21 ). In this combined name he makes it clear to his friends at Philippi that the longed-for deliverer, the long-awaited Savior, the hope of ancient Israel and of the world, the Messiah, was Jesus of Nazareth.
And this "Jesus Christ" whom he preaches is also Lord ( 1:2 ; 3:8 ; 4:23 ), declared to be so by God himself ( 2:11 ). Because of the willingness of Jesus Christ to humble himself, to pour himself out for others, to obey the will of his Father even to the point of accepting death because of this attitude and action on his part, God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, "Lord, " so that at this name every knee should bow in reverence and awe ( 2:6-11 ). "Lord, " then, is the title that for Paul best puts into perspective who Jesus Christ is. It is the title that the earliest church settled upon ( Acts 2:32 Acts 2:36 ) and which Paul also chooses to use ( Philippians 1:2 Philippians 1:14 ; Philippians 2:11 Philippians 2:24 Philippians 2:29 ; Philippians 3:1 Philippians 3:8 ; Philippians 4:1 Philippians 4:2 Philippians 4:4 Philippians 4:10 Philippians 4:23 ). By it he is able to say that Jesus is divine, that he shares the very nature of God ( 2:6-11 : "Lord" in the Old Testament was the Greek word that translated the Hebrew, "Yahweh, " "Jehovah"). "Jesus Christ is Lord" becomes Paul's creed, the creed he lives by. As Lord, Jesus Christ is to be served. As Lord he is to be obeyed. Paul sets the whole course of his life to fulfill this freeing obligation, and he encourages his friends at Philippi to do the same. For he knows that the one who is the "slave" of Christ is the one who is truly free ( Rom 6:17-23 ).
Salvation. The need for salvation is made very clear in the pages of the Bible, for here it is spelled out that people, made in the likeness of God, formed to worship and enjoy God, made to live in harmony with God and with one another, created to corule with God, and like God to be crowned with glory and honor, find themselves sadly alienated from God and from each other, enemies of God, hostile toward one another, dethroned, adrift in the world they were intended to rule, afraid, desperate, traveling away from the light toward the darkness, headed for destruction. It is against this backdrop that Paul's remarks to the Philippians about salvation are to be understood, especially as they are articulated in chapter 3. To be sure, he does not use the word "salvation" in this chapter. Nevertheless the idea of salvation is present in his thinking all the way through as he shares his own life's history, describing by means of it the beguiling nature of sin and its devastating consequences. Put simply, Paul says in essence that all people, himself included, are sinful and cannot possibly extricate themselves from this ultimate human predicament of sin by their own personal pedigree or moral endeavor. But what is humanly impossible is possible with God. God himself has acted to save. And he has done it all through Christ!
Instead of the word "salvation" Paul prefers in Philippians 3 to use a word that certainly includes the idea of salvation but exceeds it in meaning. The word he chooses is "righteousness, " a word borrowed from the Old Testament and expanded upon by him. "Righteousness" for Paul is God giving back to people that which sin took away from them and more ( Rom 5:15-18 ), the ultimate goodness he demands. It is his raising human beings again to that high standard of their humanness that he had originally designed for them. It is the full restoration of humans to their right relationship with himself. It is reconciliation.
But this righteousness, Paul makes clear, is not attainable by personal endeavor. It is the "righteousness of God" ( 3:9 ), by which Paul in effect states that this is a righteousness that has its origin with God, a righteousness that God has taken the initiative to provide out of his own great love even for those hostile to him ( Rom 5:10 ), a righteousness that people cannot possibly buy, earn, or merit. It is a righteousness that comes from God freely and without charge through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and through faith in Jesus Christ ( 3:9 ).
The person of Christ, then, is central to this righteousness. For by Christ and only by him God has worked in a truly indescribable way to save human beings, to reconcile them to himself, to bring them out of slavery to sin, out of desperation and despair into hope, out of death into life. All that people could not do for themselves because of their weakness and sinfulness God did for them through the life and death and resurrection of Christ ( Php 3:4b-9 ; 2:6-11 ; Rom 1:17 ; 3:21-28 ).
Faith. The proper response to God's good news is faith ( 3:9 ). But when Paul speaks of faith as the proper response he does not mean that faith is some new kind of "work" that people have to do, or some new kind of action they must undertake to earn God's favor. For Paul faith is a glad and open admission that we cannot earn God's approval by meritorious effort but rather a simple reaching out of empty hands to receive God's free offer of forgiveness, grace, and love in Jesus Christ. Faith is the "Yes" of our whole personality to the personal address of God in Christ.
Sanctification. Righteousness (salvation) was God's action in Christ to recreate people in his image and likeness, an image that had been savagely marred by sin ( Col 3:10 ). Righteousness for Paul is both an accomplished fact and a continuing process. He makes it clear that the Philippians are "saints" ( 1:1 ) and that God looks upon them as such not only "as if" they were righteous but as indeed righteous by virtue of their being "in Christ." And yet he also makes it clear that this being righteous, good, noble, and true not only involves the intervening action of God, but also a moral striving on the part of Christians, a movement toward moral goodness that they themselves are responsible for. True, God is at work in their lives through the Holy Spirit. But Christians must also work ( 2:12-13 ). Such a process of growth in the Christian life, in theological terms, is called sanctification.
This dynamic aspect of sanctification is so very important to Paul that he cannot imagine leaving it to chance or intuition. Hence, running throughout this brief letter are numerous uses of the imperative mood, where he appeals directly to the will of every Christian reader. Among other things he urges his friends to forget the past with all of its successes and failures and live full out, stretching forward to what is ahead, straining toward the goal of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus ( 3:13-14 ).
He urges the Philippians to pray with thanksgiving so that they might keep their equilibrium and direction in a world heaving with anxiety-creating situations ( 4:6 ).
He urges them to discipline their minds because he knows that how people think determines how they act, that thought governs conduct. And so he tells them to think about things that are true, to focus their minds on things that merit respect, to ponder things that are just, to reflect on things that are pure, to dwell on all those things that are lovely, amiable, attractive, winsome, to think long and hard about those things that are likely to draw people to the faith and help them grow in the faith ( 4:8 ).
He urges the Philippians to act ( 4:9 ). It is not enough for Christians to think lofty thoughts. They must put these good thoughts into practice. Thought and action, mind and body working together must be inseparably linked ( 4:8-9 ). But Paul wants them to act in a certain way, in accord with what they have learned from him, in harmony with the traditions he has passed on to them, in keeping with the gospel of Christ ( 4:9 ; cf. 1:27 ).
And finally he urges them to keep focused on Christ and continually to adopt for themselves the attitude that was in Christ Jesus. For this one who was in the form of God did not consider the equality he shared with God something to be exploited for his own advantage. On the contrary, he poured himself out to benefit others; he became a human being and set himself to serve; he humbled himself and did not put himself at the center, but he determined wholly to obey God. Hence, God honored and exalted him. It is Paul's passionate desire for his friends that this same attitude of mind that controlled Christ's actions controls their actions also. As Christ had set his own interests aside and had given first place to the interests of God and people, so those who follow Christ must put the interests of God and people first. For Paul, steady, constant reflection on the course that Christ took results in the "ought to be" becoming a reality in the Christian pilgrim's progress, in the movement toward sanctification.
Joy. No person can read Paul's letter to the Philippians and miss the note of "joy" that runs like a refrain throughout it ( Philippians 1:4 Philippians 1:18 Philippians 1:25 ; Philippians 2:2 Philippians 2:17 Philippians 2:18 Philippians 2:28 Philippians 2:29 ; 3:1 ; Philippians 4:1 Philippians 4:4 Philippians 4:10 ). And yet joy is no shallow word. It carries deep theological meaning. Joy is not mere happiness. Nor is it the absence of pain or emotional distress ( 2:27 ). When one carefully examines the contexts of this recurring word, one begins to see that when Paul talks of joy he is in reality describing a settled state of mind characterized by peace an attitude that views the world and all of its ups and downs with equanimity, a confident way of looking at life that is rooted in faith, in a keen awareness of a trust in the living Lord of the church ( 3:1 ; Philippians 4:4 Philippians 4:10 ; cf. 1:25-26 ). In other words, joy for Paul is an understanding of existence that can include both elation and depression, delight and dismay, affliction and ease, prosperity and poverty, because joy is that which enables the Christian to see beyond the circumstances of life to the sovereign Lord who stands above all circumstances and has ultimate control over them.
Gerald F. Hawthorne
Bibliography. L. Cerfaux, Christ in the Theology of Saint Paul; J. D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making; G. F. Hawthorne, Philippians; idem, Word Biblical Themes: Philippians; R. P. Martin, Carmen Christi: Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship; C. F. D. Moule, The Origin of Christology; P. T. O'Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians; J. Ziesler, Pauline Christianity.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Philippians, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".