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.
Paul then permits the Philippians to have a unique look into his innermost being, to see the turmoil of his soul as he yearns equally for death on the one hand, because life has become a very heavy burden and death would bring him into a closer, more intimate fellowship with Christ, and for life, on the other hand, because to go on living would mean for him continued productive work in general and in particular would serve to meet the very great need of the Philippian church. He cannot make up his mind.
• Gerald Hawthorne
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And I’m going to keep that celebration going because I know how it’s going to turn out. Through your faithful prayers and the generous response of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, everything he wants to do in and through me will be done. I can hardly wait to continue on my course. I don’t expect to be embarrassed in the least. On the contrary, everything happening to me in this jail only serves to make Christ more accurately known, regardless of whether I live or die. They didn’t shut me up; they gave me a pulpit! Alive, I’m Christ’s messenger; dead, I’m his bounty. Life versus even more life! I can’t lose.
As long as I’m alive in this body, there is good work for me to do. If I had to choose right now, I hardly know which I’d choose. Hard choice! The desire to break camp here and be with Christ is powerful. Some days I can think of nothing better. But most days, because of what you are going through, I am sure that it’s better for me to stick it out here. So I plan to be around awhile, companion to you as your growth and joy in this life of trusting God continues. You can start looking forward to a great reunion when I come visit you again. We’ll be praising Christ, enjoying each other.
What’s tomorrow look like for you? What do you anticipate when you look toward your future?
Think about those questions, and then put yourself in the Apostle Paul’s sandals at the time when he wrote to the Philippians. Imprisoned, facing a trial, unsure of what the outcome would be — for many of us the future would not appear bright. We might find ourselves anxious, fearful, despondent, or desperate.
It could be that the mere fact of not knowing would set us on edge; the waiting, the wondering, the uncertainty of it all. Many of my hospice patients seem to come to a place of peace and acceptance once they know that the end is near. But the waiting, the vigil, the not knowing…that’s often the agonizing part.
Some of us who like to be in control and have some kind of say about our circumstances (and really, who doesn’t?) would likely feel a growing frustration being in a position of weakness and helplessness.
As Simon and Garfunkel sang, “Every way you look at it, you lose.”
Except Paul didn’t see it that way. According to today’s text:
- He was rejoicing, celebrating.
- He was convinced God would keep him going until his work was done.
- He believed that the Philippians’ prayers and the power of the Spirit would prevail.
- He was sure that whatever happened to him would bring greater honor to Jesus the true King.
- Even if the worst fate on earth — death — should take him, he would just move on to something better.
- In fact, Paul sees himself in a win-win situation. Whatever he might face personally, he would end up a winner with Christ.
- The options he sees are both good: either he will die and be with Christ, or stay on and be available to serve God’s family.
- At this point, he thinks he’ll survive and carry on in God’s mission.
Now, let me be the first to say that I have heard myself and a lot of other Christians talk this way — unconvincingly. It sounds like cliches. It sounds like someone who is unrealistic, emotionally immature, incapable of being truly serious about how brutal and painful this world can be. The response comes too quickly, too easily, too generically. The face shows no worry lines, there’s no limp, no hard-won victory scars from battling disappointment, discouragement, and fear.
I believe a legitimate expression of these bright, positive, hopeful words must ordinarily emerge from a place of darkness and distress. Paul is not like the actor whose personal life is in shambles, yet he puts his hands up to his face, forces himself to smile, and says to the mirror, “Ok, c’mon, it’s showtime!” Paul is not putting on a happy face for the crowd.
His life praying the psalms must surely have ingrained the passionate feelings and language of lament into his heart. I think he might even have written the words, “to die is gain,” with tears in his eyes.
And then, only then, the surge of hope and a smile.
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Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians – Friends in the Gospel