Commentaries on Philippians
Here again a real letter from Paul, personal, full of attention and tenderness that Paul sent from prison to the community that had always been the most concerned for his well-being. More than once Paul counted on their material assistance, showing the confidence he had in them. Usually, in order to avoid any suspicion of personal interest, he preferred to earn his living while continuing his mission. In this letter we have the famous page: “Let the same project that was in Christ Jesus be found in you.”
We have just said it is a real letter from Paul. Actually, all in it does not follow, as if fragments of several letters from Paul had been combined. We shall draw attention to it as we proceed: 2:19, 21; 4:1. It may well be a question of two short letters, one where Paul wanted to give his news and to thank, the other a warning, in the same style as the letter to the Galatians.
When Paul’s letters were gathered together, the most important were arranged according to length: Romans, Corinthians, Galatians. Then came those we call “captivity letters.” It is there we have Philippians between Ephesians and Colossians as if the three had been sent from the same prison. Yet there is every reason to think that Philippians was not written when Paul was in Rome, about 60 A.D., but several years earlier, more like 56 A.D. Perhaps he was at that time imprisoned in Ephesus.
• 1.1 With their bishops and deacons. In Acts we saw how the apostles used to establish a community, a church, in every city where they proclaimed the Gospel. They did not leave without having established a council of leaders, called presbyters, or elders, according to Jewish custom. After a few years bishops, or supervisors, stood out: they may have been the leading members of the council of presbyters. They were not then like today’s bishops.
As to the deacons, they were in charge of various services in the community. And may have done missionary work in areas that did not yet have a community.
God began such a good work in you, I am certain that he will complete it in the day of Christ Jesus (v. 6). The end for which they long is always the manifestation (2 Thes 1:7), or the visit, or the Day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 1:8). No work is done without the expectation of the day when there will be all that one dreamed about. There is no Christian life where someone is content with looking forward to his retirement or feels fulfilled because he has a country house or because the family is growing up without a problem. Let us stop saying these first Christians still had the “illusion” of an early return of Christ. They wanted to meet him personally and be transfigured by him. That is an illusion only for those who enclose themselves in oases of peace within a world in crisis.
Knowledge and discernment… A good heart and generosity are not everything in Christian life. We are not saved, we do not reach our true stature, we are not remade as God would like us to be, unless clarity has guided generosity. It is the same for world salvation. God calls us to discover new ways. We need to reflect, to be attentive, what we could call “revision of life,” in order to discover what is positive and negative in our daily life, work relationships, social duties, leisure. This reflection, however, is not sufficient: among God’s gifts, there is spiritual knowledge that gives us a fresh vision of the order of values and of the will of God.
• 12. Paul is not only persecuted by the Jews: even in the Church “false brothers,” delighted he is in prison, see in this situation the possibility of increasing their own importance. The problem is one for all times: the great names of the apostolate have spent half of their energy in limiting the harm caused by rivals or by powerful groups in the Church. Paul, however, is gifted with wisdom: he sees that even if many do for personal interest what they believe they are doing for God, he knows how to turn it to account.
I am hopeful, even certain, that I shall not be ashamed (v. 20). Paul’s concern is that his trial and his appearances should serve to reveal Christ’s message to the authorities.
Christ is my life. It is quite trendy to say that Christians should “understand the world” and be “fully human.” This is true in a certain way, but it does not say everything. God’s love increases in us through the gift of ourselves to persons and to tasks that he entrusts to us, but as the love of God grows, the desire of Christ and eternity takes root with it: this desire makes us like strangers in the world.
Paul would like to see his friends but not for that will he linger over fraternal meals in which his friends would try to provide him with a warm atmosphere. His deep desire is for what he still lacks: to meet Christ in his glory (see 2 Cor 4:16 and Phil 3:10).
I desire greatly to leave this life and to be with Christ (v. 23). Thus, those who say that a person ceases to exist at the time of death and only recovers life in the resurrection at the end of times are wrong. See 2 Cor 5:8 also.
• 27. See how throughout this paragraph Paul invites the Philippians to fully share his own struggle: he is in prison, but they must remain in the front line of the battle. What does he expect? First that their community be a true one (v. 27). Unity is a decisive sign for those who see us from the outside. Uphold the faith of the Gospel with one heart. Whether there be a persecution or not, people from the outside will try to divide us.
• 2.1 Unity is often supported by a shared feeling of being the best, or the strongest, or having to contend with another group: in that way many religious groups maintain their strength, their discipline and the efforts and sacrifices needed for this. All that is also found in Christian groups, but it should not be, for we have another spirit (Lk 9:55). With us, unity will follow from much humility and understanding of others. Here, Paul gives the secret of Christian co-existence: look for what is humble and do nothing through rivalry or for glory.
In a hymn which is a sort of creed, Paul proposes the example of Christ: his path from God to man, from rich to poor, from first to last, from master to servant.
The Lord Jesus desired to identify with the most humble, the most afflicted, the most despised. Such were Jesus’ attitudes and they must be those of his followers, the Christians. A desire to identify with the most humble and to share with them is the motivation for a truly evangelical life.
In this we must differ from the majority of people who are mainly interested in their personal or family fulfillment. Their ambitions are legitimate, and who among us does not share them at least partly? Yet they have been devalued by Christ by the simple fact that he took the opposite way.
He did not claim equality with God: the mystery of God’s Son who became a mortal man and gave up God’s Glory, although he could have preserved it even in his human life. Since Christ was to be the New Man, glorified by God and placed above everything, his being subject to misery and limitations was a way of being reduced to nothingness.
God exalted him. The humiliation and obedience of Christ were the condition for receiving his glory. He gave him the Name (of God), that is, he made him fully enjoy in his human nature the divine Power (or Name).
• 12. Continue working out your salvation with fear and trembling. It is not a matter of being afraid of God. Paul has just urged his readers to rejoice, since they no longer have the spirit of slaves to make them fearful, but the spirit of sons and daughters (Rom 8:15).
Paul, in fact, has just recalled Christ’s sacrifice and he draws this conclusion: take your life very seriously (this is the meaning of fear and trembling: as does the one who carefully carries a precious load). Be aware that God is at work in you through these good desires that come to you. Live in the presence of God.
• 19. Paul usually deals with personal matters at the end of his letters. Here he seems to interrupt the subject of his letter that he will take up again in 3:1. Paul announces two visits to the Christians of Philippi.
Timothy is Paul’s assistant; he is entrusted with several missions to the communities. It seems that Timothy did not have much authority and could be easily humiliated by those who disliked Paul’s direction.
As to Epaphroditus, he was a Christian from Philippi who had left his family, spent his money and faced risks in order to go and visit Paul. The community of believers must pay attention to its most committed members, who have little means, in order to assist them. The Church sometimes presents as examples, militants from the working class or peasants who were quite forgotten by their brothers and sisters in the faith during their lives.
• 3.1 The discourse of Paul seems to be interrupted here. Paul begins a violent polemic against ill-converted Jews who keep repeating that one must first be faithful to the laws and customs of the Old Testament in order to be a good Christian.
Beware of the dogs…! (v. 2) Paul applies to the Jews, proud of being the chosen people, the very insults that they reserved for non-Jews. Jews were sealed by the circumcision, but they mocked people of other religions who incised their skin (1K 18:28).
Through what Paul says concerning his faithfulness to Judaism, we know something of his past. He was born in Tarsus to a Jewish family who had left their country and had settled there, in “Greek” territory, where they dedicated themselves to business. His parents were wealthy and well thought of since they had the dignity and the rights of Roman citizens (see Acts 22:28). Along with Greek culture, Paul received religious education from the Bible and the Jewish people. He saw firsthand the pagan feasts and sacrifices, but was proud of belonging to God’s people, of being circumcised and instructed in God’s promises to his race. His parents sent him to Jerusalem to study Scripture and the Law with the great masters of his time (see Acts 22:3).
He was a model of strict Pharisee. He did not meet Christ but did meet the early Christians. Because he was faithful to the religion of his ancestors, he believed it was necessary to persecute, imprison and even kill those preaching a new doctrine and deceiving (so he though) the people, since they proclaimed a false, defeated and crucified Messiah.
At times, Paul must have had doubts (Acts 26:14), and increasingly so, when he felt duty bound to increase repression. The Pharisees were against the death penalty. To hesitate or go backwards was to recognize that God had taken another road than the one where he himself had been the defender of God’s cause. Worse still: with Jesus, never more would he be the just man but rather the pardoned sinner. When Jesus forcefully entered into Paul’s life, it was a matter of losing all and Paul from then on accepted to regard as garbage all that he had been proud of.
Forgetting what is behind me (v. 13). Paul only wanted to “forget.” Forget his merits and his gains (in the judgment of others) so as to receive more fully the free grace of God; forget what he already knew of God and be available for new experiences.
I want to know him. The greatest thing for Christians is not to perform miracles, or to speak in tongues, but to know Christ and meet him as a living person. I want to experience the power of his resurrection. All of us would like to feel the presence of God and to see him in some way, but the way to experience his power that transfigures us is by sharing in Christ’s sufferings (2 Cor 1:3-5).
All of us who claim to be perfect (v. 15). See what was said in 1 Cor 2:6. Paul speaks ironically again about those who believe they belong to a superior class of Christians, while he would not dare consider himself to be perfect (v.12).
Finally, he insists on the resurrection. Because we know that our bodies (or persons) will be raised and that the universe will be renewed, we must put passing things in their place: food, wine, sex—all must stop being the idols that enslave us.
• 4.1 Once again the theme is interrupted; this passage seems to be the continuation of 2:19–3:1.
The Book of Life (v. 3) is a common Jewish term meaning those who will be saved (Rev 20:12).
Fill your minds with whatever is truthful, holy, just, pure, lovely and noble (v. 8). Paul continuously repeats that it is not enough to avoid what is forbidden. Let us discover this free and open attitude of a believer who knows that God speaks to him in a thousand ways through others. How many examples before our eyes each day! What great, noble and true things there are in this world about which we speak negatively! Let us accept what is good, wherever we find it, even among unbelievers.
• 10. Paul thanks the Church of Philippi for their help. He, who is so jealous of his independence and anxious not to seem to take advantage of others under the pretext of religion, accepts what his real friends give him.