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In Chapter 2, verses 1-11, of St. Paul's letter to the Philippians, the Apostle exhorts his followers to be faithful to Christ. Christ is, as always, the point of the Pauline letters -- and arriving at Christ, whether through exhortation, logic, works, or affection and charity, is the sole aim. Paul points the finger in all matters to the divine Son of God, thanks Him for all things, and for Him suffers all things. What makes the letter to the Philippians especially meaningful is the robust affection that these disciples maintain for their teacher, Paul. As Joseph Frey tells us, "The church at Philippi was St. Paul's first foundation on European soil…The occasion of [the letter's] composition can be gathered from the Epistle. Learning that St. Paul had been cast into prison, the church at Philippi, in order to assist him, sent Epaphroditus with a sum of money and with instructions to remain beside the Apostle as his companion and servant."
Nonetheless, realizing that Epaphroditus was becoming ill, the Apostle returned him to Philippi with many thanks and some directives for the faithful: namely that they should "compose their dissensions" and beware "Jewish converts who wished to make Old Testament practices obligatory for Christians."
Exactly how these dissensions ought to be composed has been discussed in different ways: this paper will analyze Philippians 2:1-11, examining its context, intent, meaning, and different interpretations -- highlighting both the positive and negative aspects at the same time.
Putting Philippians in Context
J.A. Sanders reminds us that "of the first eleven verses of Philippians 2 A.B. Bruce once said, 'The diversity of opinion prevailing among interpreters is enough to fill the student with despair, and to afflict him with intellectual paralysis."
The reminder, however, may not have to seem quite so heavy if we ourselves remember to place the Epistle in its proper context by assessing the author's intent (if the fallacy of authorial intent does not apply to our exegesis here).
Therefore, before beginning an interpretation of the text it may be behoove us to consider the light in which it was written and the special relation that Paul had with the Philippians. This relationship was one of dedicated service and tender love, reciprocated on every level (or at least on as many as the Philippians themselves could manage -- for St. Paul himself seems to sense that they require reminding of the nature of the Christian way and to bear in mind the same love of Christ that he himself possesses and strive for the same spiritual unity). The occasion of this love may be described in different ways: for example, St. Paul came to Philippi following "the vision of a man of Macedonia calling for aid"
-- and in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke tells us of the many works that Paul performed among the Philippians. Nor was Paul only among them on one occasion. Frey tells us that "on at least two other occasions Philippi had the joy of welcoming its beloved Apostle," stating that "the people were deeply attached to St. Paul, helping him by alms in his missionary work."
From this context of deep affection, we can surmise that the Apostle's concern for the Philippians rose indeed to a level of human charity that would inspire these words in the Epistle: "I give thanks to my God in all my remembrances of you."
This is a letter to a friend -- much more so than, for example, the Pauline epistle to the Ephesians which is almost systematic in its delivery and discourse.
The letter to the Philippians, on a spiritual level, is no less full of instruction, but on the human level there is discernible a note of candid and true concern which can only be the consequence of first-hand knowledge and love. To suggest, as some do, that this Epistle promotes anti-Semitism is to mistake Paul for a hate-monger. Paul's epistle is not against Jews per se, but against false teaching -- and that is important for us to remember.
How to Read the Scripture: the Author's Intent
John MacArthur states that the will of God is found in Scripture.
To elaborate on MacArthur's point, one may say explicitly that it is in the Bible that one can find out what it means to be a Christian. It is, after all, from Scripture that we learn the various sayings of Jesus, after whom Christians model themselves. And it is Jesus who tells his followers to know and do the will of God: "Seek first the kingdom of God" is Christ's command for all of us who want to know what to do in this life.
It is no secret that Scripture was written by Christ's disciples -- but tradition tells us that it is the inspired word of God. Scripture itself has been handed down to us through the centuries by the Church. It was the Church who first gathered all the books of the Bible and gave its authoritative pronouncement that these books were the inspired Word of God and that they alone constituted the written deposit of faith -- to which nothing more would be added till the end of time. The Church, however, retained sole authority over the Bible -- and all interpretation was performed by it. Such was the case throughout the centuries. Thus, there was one doctrine and one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
Vernon Staley states that "it is upon the authority of the Church, and upon that alone, that we know what is Scripture, and what is not."
Staley quotes Dr. Pusey, who says, "We acknowledge that Holy Scripture is the source of all saving truth; but it does not therefore follow that everyone, unguided, is to draw for himself the truth out of that living well."
The deposit of Faith was passed down from Christ both through Scripture and Tradition: "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen."
Thus, while the Church Fathers gathered the books of Scripture together, they also passed on through Tradition the deposit of Faith to which all Christians should adhere. Yet, the modern age oftentimes rejects tradition, which leaves Christians with the Bible only for guidance.
Negative Interpretations: Emphasizing Key Phrases
With that in mind we may look at Luke T. Johnson's bitter analysis of what he calls "the scurrilous language used about Jews in the earliest Christian writings" -- which are, in his mind, "a hurdle neither Jew nor Christian can easily surmount."
Here is a better example Jewish apologetics than of Christian exegesis -- a trait that is all too common in a day of political correctness, wherein anything that does not speak of "egalitarianism" is immediately suspect.
But Paul's epistle to the Philippians is not written to promote Enlightenment ideology or revolutionary egalitarianism. Paul was not a revolutionary -- he was a Christian: and anything or anyone that stood in the way of Christ was, for him, an obstacle to Christ. This is the root of Paul's exhortation, for example, of the Philippians to guard themselves against false teachings by Jewish converts seeking to restore Old Testament practices now rendered obsolete in the light of the Christ.
Yet, Johnson would have us believe that Paul is, rather, an anti-Semite: an astounding claim since Paul was himself a Jew! Thus we must view Johnson's remarks negatively, for he finds the epistle to be "a source of shame (finally) to Christians, and a well-grounded source of fear to Jews."
Such a statement can only be true if one is reading them in the light of modern political ideology. If one reads them in the light of Christian charity, Christian zeal, and Christian duty -- the epistle becomes a much more meaningful text. Sadly, Johnson admits that this is not the light in which he reads them ("I am not doing theology…") -- instead telling us that he is only analyzing the text "historically and literally" -- which is enough to say that he is reading it from a modern perspective and judging it according to modern social and philosophical doctrine.
He does not accept it as a doctrine unto itself -- which is how it is intended to be taken!
Paul is not writing so as to be judged according to the light of false doctrine -- he is writing to displace the false for the true -- and the true doctrine is Christ Himself, whom the Jews reject. Contention there cannot help but be: Christ Himself states, "I bring not peace but the sword."
It is to this same Christ, that Paul exhorts the Philippians to respect and love above all things: "At the name of Jesus every knee should bend of those in heaven, on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus…[continue]
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