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Working through Philippians: Paul’s Dilemma

Paul’s Dilemma—1:12-30

Paul wanted the Philippians to know that his imprisonment had not stopped the advance of the gospel.  First, the whole praetorian guard was abuzz with the message of Jesus the Anointed due to Paul’s influence.  Second, other preachers (“brothers”) had been emboldened despite Paul’s chains; they spoke the word of God without fear, motivated by love (1:12-14).  Third, for reasons unknown, some had taken an adversarial posture to Paul and were attempting to exploit his imprisonment and thereby inflict him with their own injury (1:15-17).   Despite their partisan preaching, the imprisoned apostle was encouraged and pleased.  The reason is this: no matter what their motivations were, Christ was being preached in places and in ways that promised a great harvest for the gospel.Paul

If you read between the lines of Paul’s letters, it seems he expected to be released soon from his chains.  The Spirit of Jesus working together with their prayers would lead to his deliverance.  Still, what he wanted more than anything was to honor Christ in his body, whether in life or in death.  He wrote famously: “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain” (1:21).  This was his dilemma; he was pressed between the two (1:23).  On the one hand, he could go on living; life in the flesh, even in prison, meant that Christ would have his body through which to live.  On the other hand, he desired to depart this flesh and to be with Christ, a state far better for him personally and perhaps even the gospel.  If his imprisonment had meant the advance of the gospel on so many fronts, how much more his death might lead to even greater progress.  Some have wondered whether Paul was contemplating suicide or forcing his martyrdom, chosing the time and place of his death rather than falling prey to Roman cruelty on their terms.  This sounds strange to modern ears, but in the ancient world suicide did not have the stigma we associate with it.  In some cases it was a “noble death,” the lesser of two evils.[1]  What seems sure is that Paul felt he had some control over his life and death at this time.  For now, he would choose life, not for his sake, but for the sake of the gospel and for the Philippians (and likely his other churches). Noble Death by Tabor

Philippians 1:27-  Live consistent with the gospel

So Paul was confident he would live, be released and make his way back to Philippi to aid in their progress and joy in the faith.  Whether he was present or absent, he urged them to live lives worthy of the gospel.  For Paul this meant a radical unity of spirit and mind in the presence of diversity, the continual threat of self-interest, and the potential  threat of active opponents (1:27-30).  The gospel of reconciliation required that they stand firm in one spirit and strive together, as if they were a single soul, for the sake of the good news.  Not only had God granted them the gift of faith, leading to salvation, but they also were gifted to suffer for Christ’s sake.  This meant entering into Paul’s sufferings and imprisonment as well as facing their own adversaries.

The unity Paul desired for the Philippian church was consistent with the call they received to be “in Christ.”  It was not baseless or powerless.  It acknowledged the presence of Christ’s comfort, the motivation of love, the participation and power of the Spirit, and the reality of divine mercy and compassion (2:1).  Given these spiritual resources, it was well within Paul’s right to ask them to fulfill his joy by having the same mind, same love, and the same soul (as it were).  On a practical level, this meant (a) doing nothing from selfishness, (b) considering the surpassing value of others over oneself and (c) looking out for the interests and needs of others rather than constantly self-seeking.  The most persistent nemesis of the church’s unity is found in the members’ personal agendas and lack of humility.

Next time we will consider the Philippian hymn, an amazing passage which many believe was an ancient Christian hymn sung or chanted in churches around Paul’s mission.  With it Paul makes Jesus “the lordly example” of what a life of humility and service look like.

[1] See James Tabor’s excellent book,  A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom among Christians and Jews in Antiquity 

Working through Philippians

Over the next few weeks I plan to work my way through one of Paul’s best known letters, the letter to the Philippians.  Some of these thoughts have been published earlier in the book I co-authored with Randy Richards and Rodney Reeves, Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters and Theology (InterVarsity, 2007).  I expand them significantly here.   I welcome your comments.  Rediscovering Paul cover

A few initial thoughts

The letter to the Philippians is often referred to as “the epistle of joy.”  The title is well deserved because “joy” and its sister traits abound in the letter from beginning to end.  Despite the circumstances attending the letter—Paul’s imprisonment, the threat of false teachers and apparent rifts in the congregation—Paul prayed with joy (1:4), endured incarceration with joy (1:18), instructed the Philippians on how to fulfill his joy (2:1-11), pondered the possibility of his death with joy (2:18) and admonished them to live joyfully (3:1; 4:4).  For the apostle joy is not a mood that can be worked up or attained apart from faith; it is the gift and the fruit of the Spirit.   Joy (Greek, chara) is the by-product of the work of divine grace (Greek, charis).  Those who have received God’s favor through Christ Jesus are able to experience joy even in the midst of suffering.  Therefore, joy is not dependent on favorable circumstances; it is based upon “the Lord” and his work in our lives.  That is why Paul encouraged them to rejoice “in the Lord.”  The Lord is both the cause and the sphere of life’s joys.  Moreover, a believer is able to rejoice in suffering with the full assurance that these hardships are producing a wealth of patience, character and hope (Rom 5:3-4).  Joy’s sisters are hope and peace.  Hope manifests in joyful waiting for the fullness of salvation at the parousia (Phil 3:20-21).  Peace, according to Paul, protects our hearts and minds by turning anxieties into thanksgivings (4:4-7).

Philippians 1:1-11

Paul addressed “the epistle of joy” to the saints at Philippi “with the overseers (episkopois) and ministers (diakonois )” (1:1).[1]  This is the some of earliest evidence we have for the division of labor and shared leadership in the early church.  Although we cannot distinguish accurately the functional differences between overseers and ministers[2], this is clear evidence that “offices” existed at this time.  Based upon its use in other places, we may conclude that overseers engaged in a ministry of teaching and providing general leadership and guidance to the churches.  Similarly, “ministers” took on teaching and preaching responsibilities in the church and may have served as traveling missionaries.[3]  The fact that Paul listed “overseers” before “ministers” in Philippians 1 and 1 Timothy 3 may indicate a fledgling hierarchy in the making.

In other letters Paul described ministry functions in terms of spiritual gifts or charisms (e.g., 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4).  Because of this–and perhaps modern anti-institutional bias–some interpreters have tried to distinguish sharply between charism and office.  They theorize that Paul’s charismatic, Spirit-led communities lost their “enthusiasm” giving way to less dynamic, hierarchical institutions.  According to this perspective, the loss of charism was inevitable as time progressed and regrettable.  Some have even used this as part of a developmental model to argue that letters like Philippians, 1 Timothy and Titus—letters that refer to established offices–were written later, perhaps even into the second century AD.   But are charism and office so different as to be mutually exclusive?  Not at all.  First, even in those letters where charism figures prominently (especially 1 Corinthians), some gifts are considered higher gifts.  Prophecy is always ranked first among the charisms.  Furthermore, the gifts themselves are under the control of the gifted.  They are to use them to build up the congregation in an orderly fashion.  Second, most scholars today agree that Philippians is a genuine letter of Paul written just a few years after 1 Corinthians.  The letter clearly depicts a church where overseers and ministers were active, recognized and set apart from the rest of the congregation for a continuing work of leadership, preaching and teaching in the church.  They may have even been paid for their service.[4]  In the end, no good reasons exist to suggest these leaders in Philippi were somehow less Spirit-led or Spirit-gifted than Paul’s other congregations.  The work of the Spirit does not necessarily contradict order and hierarchy.

In a sense Philippians is a celebration of the friendship and partnership that existed between the apostle and the first church founded in Macedonia.   In his thanksgiving he set the tone of the letter by explicitly citing “your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (1:5) as the basis for his gratitude toward God.  Paul was confident that the one who began the good work [in that partnership] would complete it at the day of Christ Jesus (1:6).  The apostle concluded the letter by thanking the Philippians for their recent financial gift.  In so doing they became “partners in his affliction,” namely, his imprisonment for the sake of the gospel (4:14).  This was not a new arrangement but a renewal of concern for their imprisoned founder.  Indeed no church partnered with Paul in the ministry more than the Philippians (4:15).  They were partners in the gospel and in God’s grace (1:5, 7).  They shared the fellowship of the Spirit (2:1) and hopefully would imitate Paul in seeking to share the sufferings of Christ (3:10).  From first to last, this letter celebrates their partnership and, no doubt, deepened their resolve not to abandon Paul in his time of need.

[1] Some translate episkopos with “bishop” and diakonos with “deacon.”  We must be careful not to read later church polity and ecclesiastical offices back into Paul’s Christian communities.

[2] Paul provided instructions for the qualifications for “overseers” and “ministers” in the Pastoral letters (1 Timothy 3) but he did not set up any sort of “job description.”

[3] Ellis, Pauline Theology: Ministry and Society, 95-96.

[4] Ellis, 95-96.

Richard Bauckham to Deliver A. O. Collins Lectures, HBU

A.O. Collins Lectures

Featured Guest: Professor Richard Bauckham

Tuesday, November 5, 2013 7.00 pm, Belin Chapel

The School of Christian Thought is pleased to announce that Professor Richard Bauckham will deliver the A. O. Collins Lecture for fall 2013.bauckham

 Professor Bauckham’s title for this lecture is: “Mark’s Topography: The Cognitive Map of a Capernaum Fisherman”

The geographical information in Mark’s Gospel, especially about Galilee, has often been thought to be confused and certainly presents some problems. The lecture uses the idea of a ‘mental map.’ The way we construct our spatial environment in our minds is very different from the maps we see on paper or on screen. A close look at Mark’s geography shows that it makes very good sense if it reflects the mental map of a Galilean fisherman based in Capernaum.

A Brief Biography:

Richard Bauckham was until recently Professor of New Testament Studies and Bishop Wardlaw Professor in the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and is now Professor Emeritus at St Andrews.  He was born in London in 1946, and educated at Downhills and Merryhills primary schools and Enfield Grammar School. He then studied at Cambridge, where he read history at Clare College (gaining a B.A. Honours degree, first class, and a Ph.D.), and was a Fellow of St John’s College for three years.  After teaching theology for one year at the University of Leeds, he taught historical and contemporary theology for fifteen years at the University of Manchester, before moving to St Andrews in 1992.  He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.  He retired in 2007 in order to concentrate on research and writing, and is Senior Scholar at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, where he does some teaching for the Cambridge Federation of Theological Colleges. He is also a Visiting Professor at St Mellitus College, London. From 1996 to 2002 he was General Editor of the Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series. He is an Anglican (but not ordained), and was a member of the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England for some years. In 2009 he was awarded the Michael Ramsey prize for his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and in 2010 the Franz-Delitzsch-Award for a volume of collected essays, The Jewish World around the New Testament. He has traveled widely giving lectures and conference papers. Though his permanent home is now in Cambridge, he returns to St Andrews frequently. When he can find the time, he writes poetry, and has also written two children’s story books about the MacBears of Bearloch (published on his website:

His published works include:

  • Jesus and the God of Israel (Eerdmans, 2008)
  • Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2008)
  • Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (T & T Clark, 2000)
  • 2 Peter, Jude in Word Biblical Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 1983)
  • The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (Baker, 2007)
  • The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge, 1983)

The lecture will be held in Belin Chapel in the Morris Cultural Arts Center on the campus of Houston Baptist University.

The A. O. Collins lectures began in 1993 with the goal of bringing recognized scholars to address the university community in current trends in theology, religious studies and philosophy.  The series is named for Dr. A. O. Collins who chaired HBU’s Department of Christianity and Philosophy until his retirement in 1990. Over the last two decades, due to the generosity of former students and friends of the university, top scholars from around the world have lectured on our campus on a wide range of topics on religion and philosophy.

Some of our past lecturers have included:

Dr. James H. Charlesworth, Princeton Theological Seminary

Dr. Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

Dr. Charles Talbert, Baylor University

Dr. Ellen T. Charry, Princeton Theological Seminary

Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson, Emory University

Dr. Alan Segal, Barnard College, Columbia University

Dr. Samuel Proctor, Duke University

Dr. John Howard Yoder, University of Notre Dame

Dr. James W. McClendon, Jr., Fuller Theological Seminary

Dr. Michael J. Gorman, St. Mary’s Seminary

Dr. Larry Hurtado, University of Edinburgh

Please join us for this lecture.  It is an important event for our campus and community.  Should you have questions, please contact the acting chair of the Department of Theology, Dr. Ben Blackwell, at 281-649-3000.


Paul and Scripture (Part 2)

Scripture in Paul’s Day

We have used “Scripture” and “Old Testament” interchangeably.  That is because the books Paul called “Scripture” are roughly equivalent to what we call today the “Old Testament.”  The phrase “Old Testament” is, of course, a Christian expression inspired by Paul’s discourse (2 Cor 3:14).  Many scholars refer to this collection today as the Hebrew Bible because of the pejorative connotation of  “old” in OT.  But Paul didn’t use either expression; he used the word graphē (translated “writings” or “Scripture”) to refer to the collected, sacred writings of Israel. rembrandt-saint-paul-in-prison

Paul encountered the Scripture primarily in the synagogue.  The synagogue served not only as a center for worship; it also provided the meeting place for boys and men to study Torah.  Literary references in the period to Scripture refer to the law, prophets and the rest of the books (see the prologue to Sirach).  This indicates that the threefold division of the present Hebrew Bible has ancient roots.  Since the Scripture was written in Hebrew, Aramaic-speaking Jews needed it translated into their language.  These translations took place at first informally after the Hebrew text was read in the synagogue.  Later generations of Jews formalized these translations and codified them in the Aramaic targums.  A similar procedure likely produces the Greek versions that distill eventually in the Septuagint (LXX), the standardized Greek Old Testament version used by early Christians.[1] 

Close analysis of Paul’s quotations and allusions to Scripture demonstrate that the apostle depends more heavily on Greek versions than Hebrew.  Although he referred to himself as a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Phil 3:5), the fact that he writes his letters in Greek may account for some of his dependence on the Greek versions.  An earlier generation of scholars addressed the issue of whether Paul’s OT citations were closer to the Hebrew masoretic text or the Greek Septuagint.  They assumed that Paul drew from standardized Greek and Hebrew texts.  The variations in the quotations from those standardized texts were interpreted as memory lapses or Paul’s interpretive comments.  Recent work has set aside this working assumption and shown that the Hebrew and Greek biblical texts were not standardized at this time.  In particular, the biblical manuscripts founds among the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit the fluidity of the textual tradition within a single community’s library.[2]

When quoting Scripture explicitly, Paul often uses a variety of introductory formulae.  Here are several examples:

 “it is written” (gegraptai)        29 times

“the Scripture says”                6 times

“for it is written in the law of Moses” (1 Cor 9:9)

“as it is written . . . and again it says . . . and again . . .  and again Isaiah says” (Rom 15:9-12)

“and David says” (Rom 11:9)

“first Moses says . . . then Isaiah also says boldly” (Rom 10:19-21)

“now the righteousness from faith speaks in this way” (Rom 10:6)

Obviously there is no one way Paul introduces a scriptural citation.  In some cases there is no introductory formula even when quoting a passage explicitly (e.g., 2 Cor 10:17; Gal 3:11-12).  Parallels to Paul’s introductory formulae in later rabbinic texts suggest that the apostle’s practice of quoting Scripture is not unique.  He stands within the stream of Jewish exegesis.[3]

[1] The Letter of Aristeas is a legendary account of the origins of the Septuagint.  It tells the tale of seventy scholars summoned to Alexandria by the king to produce a systematic translation of the Pentateuch in the 3rd century BC.   It is more likely that the Greek Old Testament developed in three phases: (1) extemporaneous oral renderings of the Hebrew into Greek are (2) later standardized before they are (3) written down.  Even after being written down, however, the textual tradition remains fluid.  Perhaps a fourth phase is the standardization of the written text.

[2] For example, E. C. Ulrich,”The Qumran Biblical Scrolls—The Scriptures of Late Second Temple Judaism,” in T. H. Lim (ed.), The Dead Sea Scrolls in their Historical Context (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000), pp. 67-87.

[3] Ellis, 48.

Paul and Scripture (pt. 1)

Paul’s theology developed in large part due to charismatic exegesis, i.e., Spirit-inspired interpretations and proclamations of Israel’s sacred Scripture.  For the apostle the gospel of Christ fulfills God’s promises to Israel.  The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus are “according to Scripture” (1 Cor 15:3-8).  This does not mean that the OT predicts the death, burial and resurrection of the Messiah.  It does mean that Paul finds the story of Jesus a compelling climax to God’s covenant with his people.  In this sense all of Scripture finds it focus in the man from Nazareth.St. Paul 

Paul is a man immersed in Scripture.  He speaks its language.  He thinks, hopes and imagines in its symbols.  He writes his letters with it resonating in his ear.  Like a tuning fork it provides for him pitch, even as he produces the timbre.  He situates his discourses within the symbolic world created by Israel’s sacred texts. But already these Scriptures are awash in intertextuality with fragments of earlier stories echoing in the later chambers of sacred words and promises.   Paul continues the intertextual practices of his ancestors in faith, extending Scripture beyond their day to his own, finding its fullness in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul’s considered the Scriptures “holy” and prophetic (Rom 1:2).  They are the oracles of God entrusted to Israel (Rom 3:1-2).  He proclaims that all Scripture is God-breathed and beneficial for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16).  He appeals to Scripture at key moments as the final word (Galatians 3-4).  When God speaks, that settles the matter.

When writing to his churches, Paul used the OT in three ways: (1) quotations, (2) allusions and (3) appropriations of theological themes. Some of these are intentional; others appear to be unintentional.  But this is what you would expect from someone steeped in Scripture.  Although it is not possible to distinguish accurately between a quotation and an allusion, most scholars have concluded that Paul cites the OT approximately ninety to one hundred times in his extant letters.  He quotes from sixteen books altogether, but mostly from the Pentateuch, Psalms and Isaiah.  The majority of his citations are found in Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians.  Allusions to Scripture are more numerous; sometimes just a few words can conjure up the appropriate biblical image for Paul to make his point.  There are some letters without explicit citations; still one finds echoes of scriptural themes and appropriations of biblical imagery in nearly all the apostles correspondence.