Saturday, May 16, 2015

Suffering and Triumph: An Analysis of Philippians 1:12-30

Paul’s words in Phil. 1:12-30 are often used as a reminder for Christians to “persevere” and “be faithful”; these words, though certainly helpful, are often chanted by brothers and sisters who believe they are in dire straits. Ancient suffering is viewed as superficially equivalent within a first century Western context, and this raises the concern of death in v.21-24. It has become necessary to revisit the paradoxical themes of triumph and suffering within Paul’s personal letter to Philippi.

The letter genre that seems to fit Philippians 1:12-30 is paranetical topoi and maybe gratitude. This is could be due to Paul’s emphasis on “joy” and “rejoicing” throughout this section. 1:12-30 is the follow-up from 1:1-11, beginning with “I want you to know.” This phrase implies a break between sections, moving us in a new direction and suggesting that Paul is intending to update his readers after assurances and prayers (V.8-11). The themes in v.12-30 (joy, love, goodwill) are hinted at in v.1-11 and are to be more fully developed in v.12-30.

Paul’s brief reference to his “imprisonment” (v.13-14) suggests that he was likely under the authority of “the whole imperial guard” (v.13).[1] Where would there be bases of operation for this “impartial guard? Paul speaks of πραιτωρίῳ and some other cognates (c.f. πραιτώριον) appear in Matthew (27:27), Mark (15:16) and John’s (18:28, 33; 19:9) gospels during the crucifixion narratives. Is this theological intentional and significant?

While Paul’s precise location is nebulous, his comments about the motivations of those who profess Christ (v.15-17) are clear and may push readers of Paul to carefully consider the motivations of those who preach the gospel, (“proclaiming from envy and rivalry vs. goodwill” and “love”) since it does not seem to concern Paul as of now (v.18; though see 3:2). Was this an ethnically diverse congregation? Paul ultimately believes that how “Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true,” he will rejoice (v.18-19).

Once Paul has spoken of his hope in deliverance (v.19-20), he then turns to his desire “not to be put to shame.” This phrase echoes Psalm 119:6, where the Psalter proclaims that those look upon God’s commandments “will not be put to shame.” This phrase appears throughout Psalm 119 (c.f. v.31, 46, 80 and 116). Paul’s hope is to exalt Christ with his body, through life or death. In the backdrop of imprisonment, the πραιτωρίῳ, possible disunity amongst the believers (4:2-3), and the opponents in Philippi (1:27-28; 3:2), Paul’s joy is manifested in “boasting” only of Jesus Christ and—subsequently—not of Rome. This will lead to the Christ “hymn” in 2:6-11 where the exaltation of Christ is hinted at already in 1:20 where Jesus “will be exalted (μεγαλυνθήσεται)…whether by life or by death.” Paul will exalt Christ by his death by the manner of his life and by his sufferings (v.21-24). His desire to be “with Christ” may be a Christological claim, possibly echoing Hosea 11:12: “But Judah still walks with God and is faithful to the Holy One [my emphasis].” The echo may illustrate Paul’s relationship with Christ as a suffering one who was yet faithful.

The references to “flesh” (v.22, 24) and “body” (v.21) may illustrate that Paul does not believe that σὰρξ and σώμα may to be used interchangeably and I wonder if this reveals that Paul does not have an entirely negative view of σὰρξ. Rather, he views it as something preferable. The comparative adjective κρεῖσσον is translated as “better” (NRSV; CEB) and “is more necessary for your sake” (NASB). Is Paul thinking from a dualist or monist perspective here?

Suffering is dominant in the Old Testament (Ps. 4:2; 9:13 with its reference to “shame”). Paul may also be invoking the servant song in Deutero-Isaiah 52:13-15 as an intertext, where the servant “shall be exalted and lifted up.” In essence, the “suffering” of Deutero-Isaiah 53:3, together with Paul’s repeated emphasis on “boasting” and “joy” throughout Phil. 1:12-30, establish the paradox of gladness in suffering for the sake of Christ. This may also be a reference to martyrdom, as Paul intimates elsewhere that the dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thess. 4:17). Imitation is thus a primary point for Paul here, and Christ will be the ultimate example of imitation in ch.2. Because of Paul’s conviction of this (v.25-26), he participates with the Philippian community, sharing with them “abundantly” as they boast “in Christ Jesus.” The Old Testament backgrounds demand further research.

The use of the adverb Μόνον in v.27 may indicate that Paul has moved away from his circumstances and applies the previous section to the Philippians. The emphasis on unity (“one spirit”… “one mind”) illustrates the probable conflict brought by “opponents” in v.28. This is the first time Paul has said he’s heard of troublemakers in Philippi, and there is little indication about how he’s heard of these adversaries (c.f. 1 Cor. 1:11), though his co-worker Epaphroditus may have told him these things while in his presence (2:25; 4:18).

God has given believers the chance “to believe” (πιστεύειν) but also “to suffer” (πάσχειν). These two active infinitives suggest that Paul views them as a consequence of the other: belief, followed in conjunction (ἀλλὰ καὶ) by anguish. Paul’s conclusion asserts that modern Christians who have not suffered—unlike many of their ancient brothers and sisters—should reevaluate their lives in light of ancient tragedies. We do not come to Christ in order to have a safe reality; we come to Christ because He is the only King that saves. Paul brings his argument around with a bittersweet reminder that he is still in his previous condition (v.30).

Paul’s suffering has still not ceased, despite his continual joy.


[1] πραιτωρίῳ (imperial guard) is elsewhere used in its dative neuter singular form in Acts 23:35: Paul is to be placed in Herod’s headquarters, which may suggest Rome or Ephesus as a possible place of writing.

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