Philippians 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Present: Paul's Imprisonment Advances the Gospel

Remarkably, Paul says little about himself personally in this opening reflection. The Philippians, of course, already know about his imprisonment, evidenced by their recent gift. Thus his present focus is not so much on himself--he probably expects Epaphroditus to fill them in on personal matters--as it is on how he views what has happened to him, very likely with an eye toward them and how they are handling their own adversity.

The passage has two closely related parts (vv. 12-14, 15-18a). Paul begins by turning the Philippians' attention immediately to the progress of the gospel, which his confinement has helped along in two ways: his captors and guards have been made aware of Christ (v. 13), and believers in Rome are more actively proclaiming Christ (v. 14).

Although this second matter is a cause for joy, it has not been without some personal wounds, which leads to the second part: a subparagraph flowing out of verse 14, in which he reflects on the twofold motivation--envy and goodwill--behind this renewed activity (v. 15). Verses 16-17 reiterate these in reverse order, in terms of love and selfish ambition directed toward him. But verse 18, where he expresses his response to this activity, is the obvious concern of the whole passage: Christ is being proclaimed, and in that Paul rejoices. Although suffering, Paul is scarcely languishing in prison.The Gospel Advances Both Inside and Outside Prison (1:12-14) Those who are fully alive because of the gospel, who in Paul's language have nothing yet possess everything (2 Cor 6:10), exist as a constant threat to those whose minds are set on merely earthly things. Leave Paul alone and he and his companions will be those who have turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6); put him in prison and he turns Caesar's elite upside down (Phil 1:13), not to mention Caesar's very household (4:22). To paraphrase Brutus, "Yon Paul has that lean and hungry look; he talks too much. Such men are dangerous." Here is a person not just making the best of his circumstances but actually turning them around for the glory of God. No wonder joy abounds.

The opening clause (v. 12) offers all kinds of clues as to the nature and structure of the letter. First, Paul begins with the exact words found in scores and scores of ancient letters, especially so-called family letters: I want you to know, brothers [and sisters]. Second, what has happened to me ("my circumstances/affairs"), which also occurs frequently in these letters, serves as a key to the macro structure of Philippians, at least the first half (see 1:27 ["about you" your affairs], 2:19 [your affairs] and 23 [my affairs]). This is exactly the stuff of letters of friendship in the Greco-Roman world.

Third, the word advance ("progress" in v. 25), otherwise rare in Paul's letters, frames the present set of reflections, thus serving as a microstructural key to verses 12-26. In verse 12 his imprisonment has served for the progress of the gospel; in verse 25 his expected release will serve to further their progress in the faith.

For Paul, of course, this is the language of evangelism. In a world of religious pluralism, where evangelism has become something of a dirty word, we must not give in to the temptation to downplay this dimension of Paul's life in Christ. Evangelism was his "meat and potatoes" (or "rice," in the case of Asian Christians)--and not, as Christians are sometimes accused, because he was insecure or had a deep psychological need to be right and thus had to convert others so as to bolster his own convictions. Rather, he was a believer in the truest sense of that word: one who believed not only that the gospel is God's "message of truth" (Gal 2:5, 14) but that it contains the only good news for a fallen, broken world.

Paul himself is directly responsible for the advance of the gospel throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else (Phil 1:13). Palace guard refers to the emperor's elite troops (his "green berets" or security police) stationed in Rome. They guarded Paul around the clock but would have given him access to visitors, to the writing of letters and to other routine affairs. Since they rotated on a basically four-hour shift, Paul would have had access to several--or many--of them, from whom eventually the whole guard came to know the reason for his bonds, that he was in chains for Christ.

It is not clear to whom everyone else refers--most likely another group of people outside the Praetorian Guard who had dealings with imperial affairs. Thus anyone in Rome who had occasion to know about Paul's confinement had also come to learn that it had to do with his being a propagator of the nascent Christian faith.

We should not miss Paul's obvious delight in this mild triumph regarding his arrest, the same kind we find at the end of the letter when he sends greetings from "all the saints, . . . especially those who belong to Caesar's household" (4:22). While this might be interpreted as a kind of one-upmanship, Paul's concern was to encourage the Philippians in their own current suffering, resulting in part from their lack of loyalty to the emperor. To the world--and especially to the citizens of a Roman colony--Caesar may be "lord"; but to Paul and to the believers in Philippi, only Jesus is Lord (2:11), and his lordship over Caesar is already making itself felt through the penetration of the gospel into the heart of Roman political life.

At the same time, Paul is also indirectly responsible for the evangelism presently occurring outside prison (1:14). Again he emphasizes my chains, which have served as the immediate cause of newfound boldness among the brothers and sisters in Rome. Paul's reflection on this matter is remarkable indeed. Though he would surely prefer freedom so that he himself might evangelize, he recognizes that God has used his curtailment to prod others. The rejoicing that ensues (v. 18) must be taken seriously. Here is one for whom the gospel is bigger than his personal role in making it known.

Thus the majority of believers in Rome have found new confidence in the Lord (see note). The Lord, of course, is the risen Lord Jesus Christ, who is both the ground of their confidence and the content of the word which they have been emboldened to speak more courageously and fearlessly.

This probably reflects the situation in Rome in the early 60s, when Nero's madness was peaking and the church there had begun to fall under suspicion, as Nero's pogrom against them just a couple of years later bears witness. The present situation in Rome for the followers of Christ had perhaps (understandably) led them to be more quiescent than was usual for early Christians. For good reason, then, Paul joyfully explains to the Philippian believers that the net effect of his imprisonment has been to give their Roman brothers and sisters extraordinary courage to proclaim Christ, at the heart of the empire itself where storm clouds are brewing.The Gospel Advances Despite Ill-Will (1:15-17) These surprising sentences follow hard on the heels of verse 14, directly modifying most of the brothers [and sisters] (literally, "some, on the one hand, . . . others, on the other hand"). They describe two kinds of evangel-ism, in terms of motivation, taking place in Rome in response to Paul's imprisonment. They are surprising in part because nothing in verse 14 prepared us for this, and in part because of Paul's description of the second group and his attitude toward them. The description itself is set forth in a nearly perfect chiasmus (ABB' A' pattern):

A Some preach Christ because of envy and rivalry (v. 15)

B Others out of goodwill (v. 15)

B' The latter do so in love because they know my imprisonment i
s on behalf of the gospel (v. 16)

A' The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely,

supposing they are causing affliction in my bonds (v. 17)

The emphasis lies with the A/A' clauses, with those who are trying to inflict suffering on Paul. But even though it smarts personally, Paul will have none of it--the supposed affliction, that is. Rather (v. 18), he rejoices because Christ is proclaimed on all sides; for him "to live is Christ" (v. 21), hence his ability to rejoice.

Evangelism is now expressed in terms of "preaching Christ." The pure motive of some who do so is goodwill and love, meaning love for Paul. They see that Paul can no longer be involved in preaching Christ publicly, so they have stepped in to pick up the slack. Among these we should probably number those whom Paul greets in Romans 16:3-16, many of whom he there applauds for their "hard work in the Lord."

Along with Paul himself, they understand his imprisonment to be appointed by God: I am put here for the defense of the gospel, words that echo verse 7 and anticipate the (apparent) tribunal referred to in verses 19-20. Thus these friends among the Roman house churches see their role as filling the gap--with regard to evangelism--for a wounded comrade in arms, as it were, who has been divinely appointed to defend the gospel at the highest level of the empire.

This surely reflects the heart of Paul's understanding of his ordeal. From the Roman point of view, Paul is on trial over a matter of religio licita (whether Christians are still under the banner of Judaism), or perhaps of maiestas ("treason"--because they proclaimed another than Caesar to be Lord?--see Acts 17:7). From Paul's own point of view, the gospel itself is on trial, and his imprisonment is a divinely appointed defense of the gospel at the highest echelons.That is exactly where the others have got it wrong. Their preaching of Christ is predicated on envy and rivalry and selfish ambition, aiming at gain for themselves in a personal battle against Paul. They are therefore preaching Christ, but from false motives. They suppose, incorrectly, that they will stir up trouble (thlipsis; cf. 4:14) for me while I am in chains. They think in terms of Paul, his imprisonment and his affliction; he thinks in terms of the gospel, for whose defense he has been appointed. Hence although they are probably something of an annoyance, they cannot really get at Paul; even their "impurity" (v. 18; NIV false motives), Paul recognizes, still advances the gospel!

Our dilemma is how to square his attitude toward these people with what he says elsewhere about those who oppose him and his gospel. The key probably lies with the two words translated rivalry and selfish ambition (eris and eritheia), especially since the latter term, which is infrequent in Paul's writings, appears again in 2:3, where he is urging a united mindset among the Philippians. The fact that these people are preaching Christ, but do so hoping both to afflict Paul and to gain personal advantage over him, means that they cannot be preaching a rival gospel--against which Paul inveighs so strongly in 3:1-3. Therefore they must be fellow believers, but those who have personal animosity toward the apostle.

The best guess as to who these people might be is to be found in Paul's letter to the Romans, where he is concerned about Jew and Gentile forming one people of God as they "follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 15:5-6). That letter in effect tried to do two things: to get Jewish Christians to see how Christ brought an end to the law as a means of relating to God, and to get the Gentiles to moderate their behavior toward the Jewish believers on matters that did not count. Hence most of the letter is written from the perspective of his being an apostle to the Gentiles, trying to show that Christ and the Spirit have brought an end to the significance of Jewish boundary markers; yet the sections of exhortation, especially 14:1--15:13, are written from the perspective of the Gentiles with regard to their acceptance of Jews.

Despite Paul's insistence that the gospel is "for the Jew first" and his affirmations about Christ's being in continuity with things Jewish (Rom 9:3-5; 10:4; etc.), he also says enough things to make Jewish Christians anxious about his way of expressing the gospel. If so, then Romans was effective only in part. Our passage suggests that some of the Roman believers took considerable exception to Paul.

Even though Paul would disagree with these people's understanding of what Christ has accomplished, the difference between what Paul says of them here and what he says elsewhere can be attributed to two factors. First, in every other case (2 Cor 10--12; Gal; Phil 3) where Paul speaks strongly against Jewish Christian opponents, they are trying to convert his churches ("his" in the sense that he founded them and has apostolic responsibility toward them) to their way of understanding Christ. In the present case, of course, the church in Rome is not his own in either sense just noted. Second, the clear difference between this passage and the others is that here his opponents are evangelizing, proclaiming Christ to others (probably fellow Jews) who have not yet believed in him. The others are itinerants involved in "sheep stealing" pure and simple. For them Paul has only anathemas.

Very likely the reason for Paul's including these words here is related to a situation of internal unrest in Philippi. As Paul now writes to Philippi, he does so in light of the local situation in Rome. In 1:27 he exhorts the Philippians to contend for the gospel in one Spirit as one person; in 2:3 he urges that they "do nothing out of selfish ambition"; in 2:13 he reminds them that God is at work in them "to will and to act" for the sake of his goodwill; and in 2:21 he remembers again that some "look out for [their] own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." It seems reasonable to suppose that some strife on the local scene has heightened Paul's concern for the situation in Philippi. Thus with verses 15-17 he anticipates the exhortations of 1:27--2:16 and 4:2-3.So What? (1:18a) Here is the evidence that verses 15-17 are something of an aside--probably for paradigmatic reasons. Paul began this paragraph by explaining that the net fallout of his imprisonment has been to advance the gospel. That, and that alone, is the cause of his joy: Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. His joy is not over his imprisonment as such; that kind of morbid "thanking God for all things" lies outside Paul's theological perspective. No, the pain is there, and some are indeed preaching Christ from false [impure] motives.

Paul's joy stems from his perspective--his ability to see every pirouette both for its own beauty and for its place in the whole dance. He had long desired to go to Rome, so that he might share with the Roman believers his understanding of the gospel and proclaim Christ to those who did not know him (Rom 1:11-14; cf. 15:23). Now he is there, although in circumstances not of his own choosing. But neither are these circumstances a cause for complaint, but for joy, because God in his own wisdom is carrying out his purposes, even through Paul's imprisonment. After all, some years earlier he had written of himself as "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing"--precisely because, although "having nothing," he yet possessed "everything" (2 Cor 6:10).

In Philippians 2:17-18 Paul will encourage the Philippians to rejoice with him, even if it means that his present circumstances are a form of libation, a sacrifice poured out to God on their behalf. Here he anticipates that exhortation to rejoice in the midst of difficulty, by offering himself as a pattern for them to follow.

It would be easy to dismiss this passage (vv. 12-18) as Paul's simply putting the best possible face on a bad situation. But that would be to miss too much. Paul can write things like this because, first, his theology is in good order. He has learned by the grace of God to see everything from the divine perspective. This is not wishful thinking but deep conviction--that God has worked out his own divine intentions through the death and resurrection of Christ, and that by his Spirit he is carrying them out in the world through the church, and therefore through both Paul and others.

It is not that Paul is too heavenly minded to be in touch with reality or that he sees things through rose-tinted glasses. Rather, he sees everything in light of the bigger picture; and in that bigger picture, fully emblazoned on our screen at Calvary, there is nothing that does not fit, even if it means suffering and death on the way to resurrection. Such theology dominates this letter in every part; we should not be surprised that it surfaces at the outset, even in this brief narrative.

Second, and related to the first, Paul is a man of a single passion: Christ and the gospel. Everything is to be seen and done in light of Christ. For him both life and death mean Christ. His is the passion of the single-minded person who has been apprehended by Christ, as he will tell the Philippians in 3:12-14.

Third, Paul's passion for Christ has led him to an understanding of discipleship in which the disciple takes up a cross to follow his Lord. Discipleship, therefore, means to participate in the sufferings of Christ (3:10-11), to be ready to be poured out as a drink offering in ministry for the sake of others (2:17). Paul's imprisonment belongs to those trials for which "we were destined" (1 Thess 3:3) and thus come as no surprise.

Interestingly, these three theological realities are what also make for Paul's largeness of heart. True, he lacks the kind of "largeness" for which religious pluralists contend. Is that because such pluralists have not been apprehended by Christ and the gospel, as God's thing--his only thing--on behalf of our fallen world? Unfortunately, and ironically, such pluralism often has very little tolerance for the Pauls of this world! But in Paul's case it is his theological convictions that lead both to his theological narrowness, on the one hand, and to his large-heartedness within those convictions, on the other--precisely because he recognizes the gospel for what it is: God's thing, not his own. And that, it should be added, also stands quite over against many others who think of themselves as in Paul's train but whose passion for the gospel seems all too often a passion for their own "correct" view of things.

At stake for the Philippians--and for us, I would venture--is the admonition finally made explicit in 4:9: to put into practice for ourselves what we hear and see in Paul, as well as what we have learned and received by way of his teaching.

Previous commentary:
Paul's Affairs: Reflections on Imprisonment

Next commentary:
The Future: For Christ's Glory and the Good of the Philippians

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