Saturday, January 19, 2008

The occasion of the letter

Before studying a NT letter, those who are serious about finding joy in the Bible will do this: they will read through the letter several times and try to answer the following questions:
  1. Who is writing the letter?
  2. To whom is he writing it? Are they primarily Jews or Gentiles? Rich or poor? Mixture perhaps?
  3. What is the relationship between the author and the recipients as revealed in the letter? Are they getting along? How close are they?
  4. What can we learn about the author's situation and the recipients' situation by putting the clues together from the letter itself?
  5. What are the specific occasions behind the letter? Is it something that's happening on the author's side that moves him to write? Or is it something happening to the recipients themselves? Maybe both?
  6. What are the various sections to the letter?

Always answer these questions before starting to study one verse in the letter. You can cheat a bit and look at someone else's answers, but it's much more fun to do this on your own and then check your results at the end. Anyone can do this!

In my last post we tried to answer question six. If you look at Steve's posts (follow his links) you will find answers to many of the questions in one through five. But I want to devote a post entirely to the questions of #5.

Why don't you take 15 minutes, grab your Bible and piece of paper and pen, and read through Philippians and see what you can find. Then join me in the next paragraph for the results I found when I did this.

First thing we discover is that something "has happened" (1.12) to the author—Paul. He is in imprisonment: "my imprisonment is for Christ" (1.13). Read all of 1.12-18. Not only that, but it seems he is in imprisonment in Rome. What evidence do we have for this? In 1.13 he mentions "the whole imperial guard (praetorium)". And then in 4.22 he closes: "All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar's household." Plus there is the converging evidence of Acts 28.

So Paul is suffering for the gospel under Rome, which sets us up for a huge discovery: so are the Christians in Philippi! We quote Paul in full:

29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Philippians 1.29-30, ESV)

The Philippians as well are suffering for his sake in the same conflict that Paul is presently in. They are, as Paul could say, "all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel" (1.8). Philippi was, after all, a Roman colony (Acts 16.12), despite being situated in Macedonia. As they contend together (1.7, 1.27) for the gospel they are thus struggling against the very same "opponent" (1.28) as Paul is: Rome.

So the Philippians and Paul are suffering together externally from Rome. Hence one of the major themes of the letter is to "stand firm" (1.27, 4.1) and not be "frightened in anything by [their] opponents" (1.28), nor "be anxious about anything" (4.6) because "it has been granted to [them] that for the sake of Christ [they] should suffer for his sake" (1.29). It is in this context that Paul writes "Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all" (2.17).

But that's not all. Going back to Paul's situation, we not only discover that he is suffering from people on the outside (of the Christian family) but he is also suffering from people on the inside (of the Christian family), from his own brothers and sisters:

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. (Philippians 1:15-17)

And then we discover that as with Paul, so are the Philippians. Two sisters, Euodia and Syntyche, are obviously at odds in a prominent and potentially harmful way (4.2-3). Hence the major theme on unity in this letter. The are to stand firm in one spirit, striving side by side for the faith of the gospel" (1.27). They are to be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" (2.2):

3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Hear also 2.14-15:

14 Do all things without grumbling or questioning, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.

So the central occasions to this letter, the happenings that drove the Apostle Paul in the Spirit to write this letter to the Philippians, were things going on in their lives in both places. Both parties were suffering externally under Rome, and both were facing disunity on the inside. So Paul writes a letter that exhorts them to stand firm for the gospel together. And the centrepiece and heart of his argument is not an argument, but a story. The story of the one who suffered externally from those who should have been on the inside. The story of the Christ who put others interests first, and eschewed all pride, humbling himself, and becoming obedient unto death:

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: 8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: 10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; 11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11).


Other things:

  1. Paul's imprisonment led the Philippians to give him a gift (1.7, 4.15). So Paul also writes to thank them for this (4.10-19), and to re-commend the bearer of the gift (4.18) and the bearer of this letter back to them (2.25-30). In the sense the letter functions as a letter of acknowledgement and a letter of "re-commendation".
  2. Paul all too familiar with the Judaizers too, and writes to warn his friends of them (3.1-3), even though these false teachers are likely not in Phillipi (yet).
  3. Fee detects a waning in the hearts of the Philippians in their expectation of the coming of the Lord and the future he will usher in. Thus the eschatological theme in this letter (1.6, 1.9-11, 2.16, 3.11-21, and possibly 4.5).


Additional notes:

  • for those wanting more help on studying letters in the NT, or any other genre in the Bible, see the books by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart: How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, and How to Read the Bible Book By Book.
  • again, I am indebted to Fee's commentary for connecting some of the letter's clues for me.

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