Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians: Friends in the Gospel
Note: When passages are quoted at the beginning of new sections, I will be using The Message translation because of its conversational, friendly tone. You can compare this version with others, as well as have access to Gordon Fee’s commentary, at Bible Gateway.
There is nothing else quite like this passage in Paul’s extant letters. Very likely, since his and their present suffering stems from the same source—the Roman Empire—he intends much of this to serve as paradigm. Here is how they too should respond in the context of their present difficulties.
• Gordon Fee
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I want to report to you, friends, that my imprisonment here has had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of being squelched, the Message has actually prospered. All the soldiers here, and everyone else, too, found out that I’m in jail because of this Messiah. That piqued their curiosity, and now they’ve learned all about him. Not only that, but most of the followers of Jesus here have become far more sure of themselves in the faith than ever, speaking out fearlessly about God, about the Messiah.
It’s true that some here preach Christ because with me out of the way, they think they’ll step right into the spotlight. But the others do it with the best heart in the world. One group is motivated by pure love, knowing that I am here defending the Message, wanting to help. The others, now that I’m out of the picture, are merely greedy, hoping to get something out of it for themselves. Their motives are bad. They see me as their competition, and so the worse it goes for me, the better—they think—for them.
So how am I to respond? I’ve decided that I really don’t care about their motives, whether mixed, bad, or indifferent. Every time one of them opens his mouth, Christ is proclaimed, so I just cheer them on!
Some people are pessimists who see the glass half empty. Others are optimists, they see the glass half full. Paul saw life through sacramental eyes: in the midst of his very real and very troubling circumstances, he envisioned another reality at work. Paul saw the glass — no matter how much was in it — filled with heaven.
That doesn’t mean that Paul was “other-worldly” in his approach to life, far from it. He did not ignore, deny, or explain away the hardships of life, a characteristic far too common among today’s Christians. Rather, as Gordon Fee says in his commentary, “One can scarcely miss the focus of Paul’s concern, here and always: Christ and the gospel.” Like a team athlete who fights through personal pain and keeps his focus on the overall picture of winning the game, remembering that the victory is not up to him alone but that he is one part in a much bigger team effort, Paul exemplifies for us a persevering kind of faith, not a Pollyanna kind of faith.
1:12-18 is the first part of a passage that goes to 1:26. It is where the body of Paul’s letter begins. He turns from the introductory greetings to giving news about himself, his circumstances, and his perspectives on what is happening vis a vis his mission as an Apostle.
A key word, as Fee observes, is the word usually translated as “advance,” or “progress,” or “prosper” (1:12, 1:25).
- The focus of the first paragraph (1:12-18) is that Paul’s imprisonment has, surprisingly, ended up advancing the gospel.
- The focus of the second paragraph (1:19-26) is that, despite Paul’s mixed feelings about living vs. dying, he thinks God will let him live to help the Philippians further advance in their faith.
Paul knew his calling and lived to fulfill it for the One who called him. This is a big part of what he means when he says, “For me, to live is Christ…” (1:21).
Reading that, we may get the idea that Paul was relentlessly “driven” with regard to his mission. I think that word has too many contemporary negative connotations to apply here. We speak of someone who is “driven” today is one who often puts projects ahead of people and uses people as tools to accomplish them, who may do whatever it takes to get the job done, even cutting ethical corners, or who is so singleminded about succeeding that he/she comes to think that he/she is unique and indispensable.
None of these apply to Paul and the apostolic mission. Paul’s mission, because it is about advancing God’s kingdom, is one of love, with people whom God loves at the very center of the project. So if Paul is driven to do anything, it is to lay down his life for the benefit of others as his Lord did. Paul’s kingdom mission is also about truth, purity of heart, and integrity. He would rather go to prison than sacrifice and bring shame upon the name of his Lord. And Paul knows that this kingdom mission does not depend on him. He is deeply aware that anything he has and does is because of God’s grace, and that there are many others given similar vocations (see Romans 15:20; 2Corinthians 10:12-18). In our text today, we can even see Paul rejoicing that the name of Christ is being proclaimed by those who are doing it from less than noble motives! (One may assume that the self-aggrandizing spirit of these preachers has not yet tainted the message to any great degree, for then Paul would certainly be singing a different tune.)
Many people revere Paul as a thinker, a theologian. But I have always admired him more as a pastoral figure. It is passages like this that lead me to feel this way. It shows a person alive with love, purpose, and spiritual perception. And one who cares enough about his friends to write them from prison to encourage them with a report like this.
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Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians – Friends in the Gospel