Letter B – Imprisoned in Ephesus (Rome?) - Phil 1:1–3:1 and 4:2–9

Paul was held in prison (1:13), in the official residence of the governor of Asia – ‘the praetorium.’ It seems that he had certain freedom. He was not placed in solitary confinement. He could communicate with his collaborators, who were held with him (Phil 2:19; Philem 23; Col 4:10). One of them may have served as the secretary he needed to write the letters to Philippi, Colossae and Philemon. The outsiders such as Epaphroditus were able to visit him. However, there was a possibility of being executed (Phil 1:2—25). And he confess that death greatly appealed to him, not because he was tired of life or afraid of suffering, but because it would mean union with Christ. To die and be with Christ is the best option, but that is not adequate basis for a decision. The decisive criterion in Paul’s moral judgment is not weather a course of action is good or bad in itself, but whether it will empower or injure one’s neighbor. The needs of the Philippians and others make it imperative to choose life and struggle (Phil 1:24).

The recognition that he was still needed perhaps contributed to Paul’s conviction that divine providence would ensure release in the near future (Phil 2:24). As soon as he regained his freedom, Paul planned to make a visit to Philippi (Phil 2:23–4).

Tensions at Philippi

There was a dispute between Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:2). Both of these ladies had participated in the spread of the gospel, ‘they fought at my side for the gospel’ (Phil 4:3), and evidently felt that their talents and devotion had earned them an authoritative role in the nascent church. Such ambition would be irrelevant unless they both had supporters. It is natural, therefore, to think that each headed a house-church, as did Phoebe at Cenchreae (Rom 16:1–2). Their competitive attitude produced a disruptive spirit, which endangered the future of the community.

A liturgical hymn

Since the beginning of the twentieth century it has been recognized that the rhythm and formulation of Philippians 2:6–11 make it stand out from its present context in the letter. We do not know in which community the hymn originated, but in all probability it was one which had been founded by Paul. The strong emphasis on the deliberate choice involved in the self-sacrifice of Christ – ‘he emptied/humbled himself’ – reflects the perspective of Galatians 2:20, ‘he loved me and gave himself for me (cf. Gal 1:4). The insistence that Christ became Lord is echoed in 1 Corinthians 15:45; Romans 1:3–4 and 14:9. The hymn grew out of Pauline teaching. The original hymn reflected to a great extent Paul’s vision of Christ. He accepted what is said, but made explicit what he felt was lacking.

v.6a – Who being in the form of God
v. 6b – Did not claim godly treatment
v. 7a – But he emptied himself
v. 7b – Taking the form of a servant

v. 7c – Being born in the likeness of men
v. 8a – And being found in shape as a man
v. 8b – He humbled himself
v. 8c – Becoming obedient unto death (death on a cross – added by Paul)

v.9a – Therefore God super-exalted him
v.9b – And gave him the supreme name
v.10a – So that at Jesus’ name every knee should bow
(v.10b – in heaven, on earth, and under the earth – added by Paul)
v.11a – And every tongue confess ‘Jesus Christ is Lord.’
(v.11b – to the glory of God the Father – added by Paul)

Paul’s message was always simple. This caused problems in Galatia, and would again at Corinth. He did not believe in a speculative theology. All that was necessary, in his eyes, was to understand what Christ had done for us and to act accordingly. What this meant in practice was a matter for each community to decide. He had made this clear to the Galatians, and says the same thing to the Philippians; ‘work out your salvation in fear and trembling, for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Phil 2:12–13). The depth of Paul’s conviction that the local church should be autonomous in its development is underlined by his willingness to learn from it, not only by way of challenge but, as in the case of the hymn, by way of formulation. The hymn gave dramatic, memorable formulation to his thought, and he acknowledged it publicly by citation.

Christology of the hymn

In Galatians the Judaizers put stress on the figure of Abraham. Paul had to react to it by stressing the role of Christ. In the case of the hymn Christ is presented as a new Adam. The insight of the hymn can be summarized without great difficulty. As the righteous person beyond comparison, Christ was the perfect image of God. He was what Adam should have been, the inspiring illustration of what God intended a human being to be. Christ’s sinlessness gave him the right to be treated as if he were god, that is, to enjoy the incorruptibility in which Adam was created. This right, however, he did not use to his own advantage. On the contrary he gave himself over to the consequences of a mode of existence inaugurated by fallen Adam. He freely chose the life of a slave which involved suffering and death, the state which Adam experienced as punishment. Although in his human nature Christ was identical with other members of the human race, he in fact differed from them because he had no need to be reconciled with God. It was this which enabled him to become their savior through obedience and death. Therefore God exalted him above all the just who were promised a kingdom, and transferred to him the title and authority which previously had been God’s alone. He became the Lord, whom every voice must confess and to whom every knee must bow.

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