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Two matters are taken up in these opening sentences. First (v. 10a), Paul rejoices over their renew-ing the first feature of friendship, giving and receiving. But having expressed that in terms of at last, he is quick to caution that they must not hear him wrongly (v. 10b). He knows that the long hiatus in this tangible evidence of their partnership in the gospel was due to the lack of opportunity. Second (vv. 11-13), Paul wants to make sure that they do not understand his joy as based on need. This demurral is his way of reminding the Philippians that theirs was true friendship, without utilitarian origins based on mutual usefulness.
1. Their Gift—Friendship Renewed (4:10). There is nothing quite so buoyant to the weary soul as an unexpected visit from an old friend. No wonder as Paul turns to express gratitude for their gift, he starts by telling them that he did then what he has been urging them to do throughout: "I rejoiced" (NIV rejoice) greatly in the Lord. The reason for his great joy is expressed with a botanical metaphor, meaning to "blossom again"—like perennials or the spring shoots of deciduous trees and bushes. After a period of some dormancy in the matter of giving and receiving, the Philippians have thus renewed this dimension of their friendship with Paul. The adverb at last likewise implies a hiatus in their giving, not meaning—as he suddenly realizes they may take it—"finally, at last," as though he had been expecting something in the meantime, but points to the conclusion of the hiatus. Thus "now, finally, you were able to do what for a long time you could not."
This in turn is expressed in language special to this letter: to show concern for me. Here begins a series of word repetitions and wordplays that appear regularly in this final section of the letter. The verb phroneo appeared first in the thanksgiving (1:7) to refer to Paul's "feeling this way" about them. Elsewhere in the letter it means "have a (certain) mindset." Here it carries the sense of a mind set toward the care of another; hence the NIV's you have been concerned. This is made certain by the qualifier indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. Two points of grammar indicate he is trying to deflect possible misunderstanding of the first clause. He begins, first, with a contraction that picks up your concern and intensifies it; second, both verbs in this clause are Greek imperfects, implying a continual concern for Paul with a likewise ongoing lack of opportunity to do anything about it. Together they mean something like "with reference to which [concern] you were indeed continually concerned." Thus he recognizes—and acknowledges—that the hiatus had nothing to do with their lack of concern but with a lack of opportunity.
2. Paul's "Need" and Christ's Sufficiency (4:11-13). Typically, Paul adds qualifier to qualifier, now putting the entire event into christological perspective. It would be wrong for the Philippians to infer that he rejoiced over their gift because I am in need, that his joy was over their gift as such, as though it had to do with finally being able to eat again. Rather, his joy is over friendship's having had opportunity to blossom again; and their friendship, he points out further, is not utilitarian in the sense of what he can secure from it.
Here is the second in the series of word repetitions and wordplays. He had told them in 2:30 that he did have "lack"—of their presence!—which was made up in part by Epaphroditus's coming. Now he says that his joy is not over their filling his "lack" in the material sense (although he gladly acknowledges in 4:18 that he was "filled to the full" by their gift). But that also calls for further explanation; so rather than take up the matter of what his joy is all about (which comes next in vv. 14-17), he instead goes on to elaborate why their ministering to his need was not the reason for his joy.
And with that he launches into one of his finer moments. With the language of Stoicism still ringing in his own mind (from v. 8), he moves into the Stoic stronghold of autarkeia (contentment based on self-sufficiency) and transforms it by means of the gospel into "Christ-sufficiency." To be sure, the outward expression and inner result between him and the Stoics appear much the same; but in fact Paul and Seneca are a thousand leagues apart. The Stoic's (and Cynic's) sufficiency or contentment comes from within; Paul's comes from without, from his being a man in Christ, on whom he is totally dependent and thus not independent at all in the Stoic sense. Because Paul and the Philippians are both "in Christ," neither is dependent on the other for life in the world; but also because they are both "in Christ," Paul received their gift with joy.
He begins with the premise: I have learned to be content [autarkes] whatever the circumstances. The rest is explanation. His circumstances run the gamut from being "humbled" (NIV in need) to "abounding" (NIV have plenty). These are then elaborated—and partly repeated—in light of his present imprisonment as well fed or hungry and, now in reverse order, "abounding" (NIV in plenty) or "lacking" (NIV in want). Although we do not know how much hunger he experienced before Epaphroditus arrived, he does pick up the verb "abound" again in verse 18 specifically to refer to how the Philippians' gift has altered his circumstances: I have received full payment and abound (NIV and even more); I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent.
By starting with I know (by experience) what it is to be humbled, Paul says such an "un-Stoic" thing that one suspects he is making sure his premise is not understood in a Stoic way. Not only is "humbled" not the ordinary verb for being in need, it is in fact something to be avoided. Some Stoics may have reveled in "want"; none of them could tolerate the "humiliation of humility." Thus even though the broad term is used to embrace his being in need, with this word Paul is also embracing a way of life similar to that of his Lord (2:8; cf. Mt 11:28), a way of life that finds expression elsewhere in his various "hardship lists" (e.g., 1 Cor 4:11-13; 2 Cor 6:4-10).
The broader vocabulary of need and plenty implies "in every which way"; so in light of his present circumstances he specifies, whether well fed or hungry. The Philippians themselves have often been party to his being well fed: when he and his coworkers lived in Philippi under the generous patronage of Lydia (Acts 16:15) and when the Philippians repeatedly supplied his material needs in Thessalonica (Phil 4:15 below) and Corinth (2 Cor 11:9), and perhaps elsewhere. But in a prison system where prisoners must secure their own food supply, he also has had plenty of opportunity to go hungry. Indeed, he has learned the secret of both, a verb used primarily for initiation into the mystery cults. Thus "I have gotten in on the secret of both having a full stomach and going hungry."
But Paul is neither reveling in the one nor complaining of the other. His various hardship lists make it clear he had experienced "plenty" of "want." But in contrast to some of the Cynics, he did not choose "want" as a way of life, so as to demonstrate himself autarkes; rather he had learned to accept whatever came his way, knowing that his life was not conditioned by either. His relationship to Christ made them both essentially irrelevant. Thus he concludes: I can do everything through him who gives me strength. With that he transforms his very Stoic-sounding sentences into a sufficiency quite beyond himself, in Christ, the basis and source of everything for Paul. Thus "self-sufficiency" becomes contentment because of his "Christ-sufficiency."
Here is a much-used sentence from Paul that is often taken out of context and thus abused. While everything seems to be all-embracing and is often applied to one's activities (especially those that are personally demanding—athletics, learning to drive and the like), in context it refers primarily to living in want or plenty. Paul finds Christ sufficient in times of bounty as well as in times of need! Thus, rather than being a christianized version of the Stoic ideal, this passage points up the absolute Christ-centeredness of Paul's whole life. He is a man in Christ. As such he takes what Christ brings. If it means "plenty," he is a man in Christ, and that alone; if it means "want," he is still a man in Christ, and he accepts deprivation as part of his understanding of discipleship.
Given the context, this brief autobiographical moment probably also serves as a paradigm. He has just urged them to practice what he both taught and modeled (4:9). In the midst of their own present difficulties, here is what they too should learn of life in Christ, that being "in him who enables" means to be "content" whatever their circumstances.