The MOST Theological Collection: Commentary on the Pauline Epistles (The Thought of St. Paul)
"Chapter 5. Letter to the Philippians"
There are three chief views as to the place and time of the composition of this letter. (1) The older, traditional view held Paul was in prison in Rome. This view notes that the letter mentions praetorians and those of Caesar's household. If written from prison in Rome, the date would be 61-63. (2) Paul was in prison at Caesarea about 58 A.D. However the arguments for this view fit also for Ephesus equally well. (3) Paul was at some time in prison at Ephesus. Inscriptions now show that there were praetorians there, and also persons of the household of Caesar there, caring for the imperial Asiatic treasury. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:30-32 seems to speak of facing possible death at Ephesus.
Considerations of travel time fit best with Ephesus. For the letter seems to imply three or four trips between Paul's prison and Philippi. If Rome, it would be a trip of four or five weeks; if Ephesus, only six or seven days.
Philippi was a rather young city, as cities went in those days. It was founded in 358/57 by Philip, King of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great. The city by Paul's day had a heavy Roman population. In 42 Anthony defeated Brutus and Cassius there. Paul founded the first European Christian Church there on his second mission, probably about 50 A.D. The names Paul mentions in this letter seem to be largely gentile names.
After starting the Church there, Paul seems not to have visited again before writing this letter. While he was preaching at Thessalonika, about 50 A.D., the Philippians sent money on two occasions. Now, while Paul was in prison, they sent another gift, carried by Epaphroditus. Paul writes to thank them and to warn strongly about Judaizers (3:2): "Watch out for the dogs. Watch out for the doers of evil. Watch out for the mutilation." (He meant circumcision).
All today agree that this letter really was by Paul. But there is a problem about its rambling, disjointed character. Letters in general are apt to lack unity and order. But this letter goes farther.
As a result, some think what we have is really two or three letters joined together. The most impressive argument is this: St. Polycarp wrote also to Philippi. And in 3.2 he speaks of the letters that Paul wrote them -- in the plural.
Some proposals have been made to separate out the two or three letters, but the results are not very convincing.
Summary of Philippians 1:1-11
Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ, wish grace and peace to all the holy ones at Philippi, with the Bishops and Deacons.
Paul always gives thanks to God for them when he recalls them in every prayer, for they share in promoting the Gospel from the beginning even till now.
Paul is confident that the God who began a good work in them will bring it to completion, until the day of the return of Christ at the end.
Paul says he has reason to think this about them, for they are all fellow sharers in the grace, in his chains, and in defending and strengthening the Gospel. He longs for them in the love of Christ, and prays that their love may abound still more in knowledge and discernment, so they may choose the things that are better, and may not stumble, even until the end, since they are being filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Christ.
Comments on 1:1-11
Paul does not hesitate to call himself a slave, even though he glories in the dignity of a son of God. Each term brings out part of the rich reality. Slave helps us see that we owe everything to God, and He could require our service without any reward -- we just owe it to Him. Yet in His goodness He does reward beyond what any creature would dream of if it had not been revealed: the promise of the share in the divine nature in the vision of God.
We note Paul mentions bishops and deacons -- but not priests. The terms, especially bishops and priests, were very fluid at this time, they were not precise technical words.1 Episkopos merely meant overseer -- deacon meant servant -- presbyteros meant elder. It take time for technical terms to develop precision.
Holy ones means those who are set aside for God by the covenant. Grace is any gift from God to man, as we explain more fully in the glossary. Peace means general well-being.
We have something theologically very important here: Paul assures them that God who has begun the good work in them, by bringing them to the faith, will bring it to completion. As we saw in 1 Thessalonians 5:24, this is a promise of the grace of final perseverance. The same assurance is given in 1 Corinthians 1:5-8. The Council of Trent (DS 1541, 1566) insists we cannot be sure we will have this grace. Paul does not differ -- he insists God will provide, or offer it. We could reject it, and then we would not have it. Trent in the same DS 1541 teaches that "God, unless we fail His grace, just as He began a good work in us, so He will complete it." We notice the Council is really quoting Philippians 1:6. Paul in his turn, in 1:10, urges them to avoid stumbling -- again, it is one thing for God to offer the grace of perseverance -- another for us to have it, for we can reject it, and so stumble. Trent, historically, was speaking against the foolish notion of infallible salvation of the Lutherans who held if we take Christ as our personal Savior, we are infallibly saved after that. The article in the standard reference work, Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament on save does not even mention such a sense as that "infallible salvation."
Summary of Philippians 1:12-30
Paul wants them to know that his situation -- being in prison -- has turned out well for the Gospel. For some Christians, encouraged by Paul's courage, speak more boldly. Still others, hating Paul, preach Christ just to stir up the Romans to kill Paul. Even this, says Paul, has a good effect: as long as Christ is still preached, one way or the other.
As far as he is concerned personally, if he is allowed to live, that is a chance to live for, to preach Christ. If he dies, he can be with Christ. But to stay in the flesh is more needed for souls, thinks Paul. He really cannot make up his mind which to prefer.
He says he has confidence (probably be is speaking in the spirit of a coach in the locker room before a difficult game) that he will live and come back to them. Meanwhile he urges them to live their lives worthy of the Gospel. They should not be frightened. The opposition is a sign that the opponents will be destroyed, by the just God, and that those faithful to Christ will be rewarded.
Comments on 1:12-30
We notice the broad attitude of Paul. He does not say he hopes those who preach Christ out of hatred will be stopped. No, the important thing is that Christ be preached.
As for himself personally, Paul shows a magnificent attitude. He does not pay any attention to his own feelings -- just to what is good for souls. So he cannot make up his mind whether to hope for death, to be with Christ, or life, to serve Christ by helping souls!
In saying he would like to be dissolved and be with Christ, Paul is showing he believes he could be with Christ between death and resurrection. He has similar thoughts in 2 Corinthians 5. These have occasioned many unfortunate debates. For clarity and convenience, we will comment on both passages here, for the thought is similar.
The majority opinion holds that: 1) the Jews up to perhaps the 2nd century B.C. had no idea of survival after death at all, 2) neither, then, of course, would they have any idea of retribution, reward and punishment, after death. The minority opinion is the opposite on both points.
At the bottom of the majority view is the notion that the ancient Hebrews had only a unitary concept of the human being -- instead of knowing we have body and soul, two parts, so that the soul can be with God even without the body. This view insists there is only one part, a body, which gets breath. The Old Testament word nefesh -- sometimes translated as soul -- has a broad span of meanings, including breath. So a man would be only a body with breath. Really, the unitary notion has to imagine annihilation after death, for the only part, the body, goes to pieces.
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary in §77:174 strains so far as to say that the thought of survival did not take deep root in Jewish thought even after the text of Wisdom 3:1: "The souls of the just are in the hand of God." It says the Essenes may have believed in immortality and, "certain New Testament passages may [italics in original] refer to immortality." The writer ignores the explicit testimony of Josephus on the Pharisees, in Antiquities 184.108.40.206, plus all the texts of Paul. The Commentary also forgets the words of Jesus to the Sadducees in Matthew 22:23-33 in which He proved survival, and also, in Luke 16:23-31 Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Both are surviving death, one in punishment, one in reward. Again, in Matthew 10:28 Jesus warns: "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell." Clearly, Jesus speaks of two parts of man.
To avoid a two part picture of man, some of these writers think we already in this life, if we are with Christ, are taking on our resurrection body (they claim to see this in 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul says, in a very human way, that he would like to have the glorified body put on on top of the present body, so as never to be without a body). But Paul himself rejects any such notion. In Philippians 3:12 and in 2 Timothy 2:17-18 he rejects a notion then around that the resurrection had already taken place. (Of course it is now fashionable for many to say that Paul did not write 2 Timothy. The reasons given are poor, as we shall see later).
There are some extreme opinions that are somewhat similar -- which yet seem to hold for a survival of some sort: Pierre Benoit, in "Resurrection: At the End of Time or Immediately after Death?"2 wrote on p. 112 that Paul is not thinking of an immortal soul. For him, as throughout the Bible, the soul is as mortal as the body. "Actually it dies through sin." But God can re-create the life it once had lost.
This leads to some confused and confusing statements. On p. 107 Benoit says that in 2 Corinthians Paul, after heavy trials, takes heart from the belief that even without this body and in a state of nakedness he will already be with Christ. He thinks the idea in Philippians is similar, but says that Paul does not say clearly how he understands this life with Christ outside the body. Benoit adds that Paul later will say that the Christian has already risen. He is thinking of Ephesians 2:4: "Even though we were dead because of our transgressions, He made us alive again together with Christ . . . and He raised us up again together [with Christ] and made [us] to sit together [with Christ] in heavenly places." Also Colossians 3:1-4: "If then you have been raised up with Christ, seek the things that are above. . . . For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God."
Benoit seems to be at least close to the ideas of W. D. Davies3 who writes on p. 372 that Paul the Pharisee would think that after death he would be in the Age to Come only in its first phase. He would have no body until the resurrection, although participating in blessedness. But Paul the Christian would believe that the Age to Come eternally existent in the Heavens had already appeared in its first stages in the Resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection body, the body of the final Age to Come was already being formed, since Paul had died and risen with Christ and was already being transformed. So at his death Paul would already have another body. So Davies thinks that there is no room in Paul's theology for an intermediate state of the dead. So great was the unity of Christians with Christ that just as Christ Himself had already passed into the eternal order, so had Christians too. Davies then appeals to Colossians 3:1-4 which says the Christians had already risen with Christ and although still living in the flesh, yet they are 'dead' and their 'life hid with Christ in God.'
Benoit and others sadly misunderstood Paul. Already in Romans 6:3-84 Paul gives his favorite theme of syn Christo, with Christ: that is, we are saved and made holy if and to the extent that we are members of Christ and like Him. In His life, two phases -- first, a hard life, suffering and death -- secondly, glory. The more we are like Him in phase one, the more in phase two. In the texts we quoted from Ephesians and Colossians Paul speaks of us as having died -- he does not mean that we physically died -- so neither does he mean we have physically risen. He means we have died to, given up, the old way of life dominated by the flesh, and now live the life of the spirit, and should live our lives with the outlook of one who has emerged from the grave on the last day -- how different everything will look to us then!
The Minority View: Holds that at least very early the Jews not only knew of survival, but also of retribution in the future life. The chief reasons are the following:
1) Flavius Josephus, noted Jewish writer (37 -- c.100 A.D.), in Jewish War 2.8.14 tells about the Pharisees in his day, that they held "every soul . . . is imperishable, but the soul of the good alone passes into another body, while the souls of the wicked suffer eternal punishment." He says of the Sadducees: "As to the persistence of the soul after death, penalties in the underworld, and rewards, they will have none of them." But, Paul was a zealous Pharisee.5 So he would hold this view which Josephus attributes to the Pharisees. Most of the people followed the Pharisees.
2) It is generally agreed that by the second century B.C. Jews came into contact with Greek ideas, which clearly held for the two parts of man. It is true, the Greek ideas, such as those of Plato and Aristotle do not entirely match our two part concept. Yet they were enough to help suggest the truth to the Jews, especially along with the case of the Maccabean martyrs, in the time of the persecution by Antiochus IV (for example, 2 Maccabees 6-7) which showed that if there were no reward and punishment in the future life, God would not be just. This experience would have forced a rethinking by the Jews -- if indeed they ever did hold the unitary concept. Hence Judas Maccabeus in 2 Maccabees 12:43-46 has a collection taken to have sacrifices offered for the souls of the dead in battle.
The belief in survival and retribution is definitely reflected in Wisdom 3:1 and following: "The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them . . . they are in peace."
3) Mitchell Dahood, in the introductions to each volume of his three volume translation of the Psalms in the Anchor Bible, gives evidence from new translations, worked out with the help of Ugaritic parallel words, to show a very early understanding of the afterlife.6 It is generally admitted that Psalm 73:24 can imply afterlife and even retribution: "You will guide me with your counsel, and afterwards, take me in glory." Interestingly, the Hebrew for take is laqah, the very same verb used in Genesis 5:24: "Enoch walked with God and he was no longer here, for God took him." A somewhat similar thought seems to be found in Psalm 16:10-11. Also, Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, in the article on immortality says: "The idea of a possible return to life gained wider and wider acceptance. The Israelites could not remain unaffected by the Canaanite belief in the death and resurrection of a divinity who symbolized the life of nature."7 For the Jews were living in the midst of the Canaanites after the Exodus. Also, the Jews spent some centuries in Egypt, where the idea of a future life was very vivid. E. P. Sanders, in his introduction to his translation of the Testament of Abraham8: "The idea that the soul separates from the body at the time of death, and that it is the soul that goes either to salvation or punishment is relatively widespread."9
There is also the debated text in Job 19:25-27 in which Job says he is certain that his goel, his vindicator, lives and that at last he will stand forth upon the dust and from his flesh will see God. This cannot mean in the present life, for in 7:6-7 he says he has no hope for this life. It could mean merely a resurrection, without implying survival before the resurrection but in 14:22 Job says that the flesh of the dead one is in pain -- implying survival.
In addition, Qoheleth 12:14 could easily imply future retribution.
4) As to the unitary concept, it is important to hold to precise theological method. In theology one may meet two facts, both well established. Yet they seem to clash with each other. We recheck our work,but if it is correct, then we hold onto both, without straining, until the time when the means of reconciliation appears. So in this matter there are two facts (1) man is, and appears to be a unity; (2) yet there is survival and retribution. Item #1 was evident at once; item #2 seems to have been at least implicit very early if not from the start -- see the evidence above, especially the argument given by Jesus Himself from "I am the God of Abraham. . . ." So the inspired writers, guided by inspiration, expressed both points, and sometime later -- at least by the 2nd century B.C., learned how to fit the two together. We may well suspect that the Hebrews were groping, that they did not have a clear idea of two parts, yet they did not mean annihilation. Jesus in refuting the Sadducees cited the words of God to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:6): "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." And Jesus added: "He is not the God of the dead but of the living." So from these Old Testament words the Hebrews at least could have learned -- if they did not know it before -- of survival.
For certain, very early, the Jews believed in necromancy, consulting the dead. That of course implied that the dead had not been annihilated. Even if we say mediums were frauds, yet the fact that the Jews consulted them shows their belief in survival. Necromancy was forbidden (cf. Lev 19:31; 20:6,27; Deut 18:11; 1 Sam 28:9-19) Saul consults a medium, who does bring up for him Samuel from the realm of the dead. It may be objected that some texts say the dead know nothing about what goes on on the earth: Qoheleth 9:5-6,10; Job 14:21. But the case of Samuel was special, he had been a great prophet, and surely God could on occasion as He wills give such knowledge to one who has left this life. (A soul in heaven knows all that pertains to it by the vision of God; those not yet in heaven have no natural means of knowing what goes on on earth). In Babylon and Greece there was also necromancy.10
Summary of Philippians 2:1-11
Paul urges them in Christ to make his joy complete by being harmonious among themselves, by avoiding self-seeking and vain glory. In humility consider each as better than self. Let each look to the interests of others, not their own. To sum up, he wants them to imitate the attitude of Christ. Even though He was in "the form of God" He emptied Himself, that is, in becoming man He did not cling to equality with God. Rather, He made it a policy not to demand exemption from any human suffering. He took on the "form of a slave." He would not use His divine power for His own comfort, but only for others. He obeyed to such an extent as to die on the cross. But as a result of this, the Father exalted Him, giving Him the name that is above every name. Now at the mention of the name of Jesus, everyone in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth should bow to Him, and every tongue should confess that Jesus is Lord.
Comments on 2:1-11
The opening exhortation is simple: imitate the humble selflessness of Jesus.
He even tells them to consider others better than themselves. This can raise a problem. If I am in a room with nine others, should I say to each of the nine: "You are better than I?" And then should each of the nine say the same to the others, and to me? Of course this would not work out.
Paul is depending on a psychological point. If I come to know myself very well -- quite a long-range task for anyone -- I will know not only what things I may have done that are objectively, in themselves, sinful or wrong, I will also know my own interior (probably not perfectly even then), so as to have a gauge on my responsibility resulting from the combination of the objective rating of my acts plus my interior dispositions. But when I look at another, all I can really know is the objective, outward rating of an action. For example, if I see someone kill another, I can say: That was objectively murder, gravely wrong in itself. But can I know the person's interior dispositions -- how much he may have been affected by various things, for instance, was he really out of his head at the time? (We are not thinking of the often false claims of temporary insanity made in courts).
A very holy person, coming to know his own weakness and many falls, may get the impression: "I wonder if others are as bad as I am? I have received such graces!" (Any sin is worse after receiving many graces than in a person who has received less). This is psychological, but the experience of the Saints shows it is realistic. This is all that Paul means here.
Paul describes the attitude of Jesus a in poetic set of lines, 6-11. These may be an old liturgical hymn, or something Paul himself composed. If they are an older hymn, did Paul modify it? Some scholars are confident they can tell what modifications Paul made, even though we do not have the older hymn. They try to do this by noting characteristic and uncharacteristic kinds of wording in the hymn, and by claiming to see differences in theological presentation. They think the soteriology (doctrine about redemption) fits with a more primitive preaching in Jerusalem than with Paul's -- all of this is very subjective, and not very convincing. (If we were sure the original hymn was in Aramaic, then we admit such a line as verse 10: "Those in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth" would hardly fit Aramaic, and so would be a modification, probably by Paul).
More important questions are raised about (1) the meaning of the expressions "form of God" and "form of a slave" in this hymn, and (2) the meaning of the words, "He did not cling to or grasp at equality with God."
There are different opinions about the phrases "form of God" and "form of a slave." There are four chief opinions: (a) The phrases refer to the external glory of God, and to the external appearance and resultant treatment given a slave. (b) They refer to divine nature and to human nature. (c) These phrases reflect the ideas of the Rabbis about Adam -- God created first (as mentioned in Genesis 1:26) a perfect man, then (as in Genesis 2-3) a sinful man. Jesus existed at the beginning as the heavenly man. He humbled self in obedience, and now gets equality with God, which He did not grasp at as "robbery." (d) These lines do not speak of a preexistence of Jesus. They say Jesus, unlike Adam, did not grasp for equality with God, but surrendered His life to God.
The third and fourth views are rather fanciful, lack solid support. But either of the first two views would be acceptable -- that the form of God means divine nature, or that it means the glory that belonged to the divine nature. This latter view would imply possession of divine nature. Even if we take the word to mean divine nature, Jesus of course could not give up the divine nature, but He could only give up the exemptions from suffering He could have claimed as a result of that divine nature. A striking instance: Jesus comes to John to be baptized along with sinners. John protests; Jesus says it is proper to fulfill everything that is right.
The second question is closely intertwined, the meaning of equality with God as something to be clung to or grasped at. The Greek phrase here is ambiguous, for two reasons. First, the word harpagmos is very rare in Greek, and so the sense is less clear; second the Greek to einai isa theo is an ambiguous structure, not reproducible literally in English. The result of both things is this: It could mean (1) He did not grasp at equality with God (as if He did not already have it); (2) He did not think equality with God was something to be held onto. Rather, He gave up claims to exemption from suffering on the basis of divinity (as said above). The second, of course fits the true thought. Those who want to say Paul did not clearly speak of Christ as God would prefer the first rendering. Please recall what was said in the first paragraph of the comments on chapter 1 of First Thessalonians.
The general sense is clear: Paul urges them to imitate the humility of Christ, Who did not cling to what He had a right to, but humbled Himself so far as the death of the cross, and so was exalted by God because of this.
Some, especially charismatics, become exultant over the idea that Jesus became Lord. Of course He always was Lord in His divinity. But since He chose in emptying Himself to give up the use of divine power for His own comfort, He seemed to lack things until after His resurrection, when He said (Mt 28:19): "All power is given to me in heaven and on earth." He always had that power, but as human He would not use it until then, except to heal the sick.11
Text of Philippians 2:12-13
Because of the critical nature of these lines, we give the actual text instead of a summary. Verse l2: "And so, my beloved ones, just as you have always obeyed, not only as when I am present, but much more now in my absence -- with fear and trembling work out your salvation." Verse 13: "For it is God who works in you both the will and the doing, according to [His] good will."
Comments on 2:12-13
To work out salvation with fear and trembling does not mean to be greatly frightened, "I might be eternally lost!" No the phrase, with fear and trembling, had been overworked. Such things happen in any language, and then they lose their force. We gather this about our phrase from 2 Corinthians 7:15, where Paul says of Titus: "You received him with fear and trembling." Really, relations with Corinth had been bad -- so no fear and trembling. It means merely "respectfully." Again Psalm 2:11 says: "Serve the Lord with fear,and rejoice before Him; with trembling pay honor to Him." We note the combination of fear, trembling, and rejoicing. Also, later in Philippians, (3:1 and 4:4) Paul says "rejoice in the Lord," even with the "fear and trembling."
As we shall see, when we act, doing either good or evil, we use the power of God, the First Cause. This calls for great respect of course. He is not responsible for the evil; we might consider an electric outlet. The power company provides power, but the customer decides which way it is to be used.
We note too in passing that to speak of working out salvation hardly fits well with the Protestant notion that one can be infallibly saved by just one act, "taking Christ as your personal Savior," after which no matter how much one sins, salvation is still infallibly assured.
Most versions seem to be reluctant to bring out the full force of the Greek here -- as we did in our version. For it seems to say that God causes the free decision of our will -- leaving us with a great problem, of course. Thus one version says: "It is God who begets in you any measure of desire or achievement." We notice that between desire and achievement there is a decision of the will -- the version we cited simply omits it. That could imply that we alone cause the decision, God does not. So we could do good without grace, which is Pelagianism. So we need to study the matter carefully.
We translated the Greek energein as works, that is, produces. That Greek verb commonly in Paul means a supernatural force at work.
We translated the Greek thelein as will, rather than desire.
In 5th century B.C. Athens, the word could not mean will, in the sense of a decision of the will. It meant desire. But Paul is centuries later, and the words have changed sense. It still could mean desire, but also in Paul's day it could mean a decision of the will.
How can we know which it means? The Second Council of Orange was a local council, but because of special approbation of Pope Boniface II, it has the force of a general council in its decrees. That Council helps us greatly in its Canon 4 (DS 374): "If anyone contends that God waits for our will to be cleansed from sin, and does not confess that the fact that we will to be cleansed happens in us through the infusion and operation of the Holy Spirit in us, he resists the Holy Spirit Himself who said through Solomon, 'The will is prepared by the Lord' [Proverbs 8:35], and the Apostle [St. Paul] who preaches in a salutary way: 'It is God who works in you both the will and the doing, in accord with good will." The Council was writing against the heresy of Pelagius, who said we do not need grace for salvation. Now if St. Paul meant that God causes only the desire, and not also the act of will, then we would not need grace for the act of will -- and we would have Pelagianism, which denied the need for grace.
So, difficult as it is to see, we must admit that God causes in us even the good act of will.
The Fathers of the Church knew a good philosophy can help much in studying Scripture. They, not knowing Aristotle, used Plato and found much help. St. Thomas Aquinas steered us to use Aristotle. Now Aristotle would reason thus: Suppose I am at one point on the earth, and want to travel to another. First I must have the capacity for the travel. If the trip is made, then that capacity is filled or fulfilled. He liked the words potency and act instead of capacity and fulfillment -- the labels are not important. The idea is evident, even if one does not accept Aristotle's system in general. But then we notice that this rise from potency to act is found whenever there is any change at all. We call it a rise because at the start there is some emptiness on hand, which would like to be filled or fulfilled. So there is added being at the top of the rise. Question: Where does the added being come from? No one lifts himself off the ground by his shoelaces -- he cannot give himself what he does not have. So if I am causing the change, where did I get the added being? Perhaps I had some of it in stock, as it were, within me. But where did that part of me get the added being? I must look to an outside source. But where did it get it? -- and I might picture a long or short chain of sources. But until I find a source that does not labor under the problem of getting up to act, I have not solved the problem -- rather, a larger load to pull is being accumulated. That being that finally explains, provides the power, is what Aristotle calls the First Cause, or God. He does not have to get up from potency to act, He simply is up. He simply is actuality.
But now, we add to what Aristotle gave us: When I make a decision of my will -- there is a rise from potency to act. Clearly, at the start of the power chain must be God. So it is He who works in me both the will and the doing. (The doing also involves such a rise). He does this, says Paul, "according to [His] good will." That is, as He pleases. As the Council of Orange said, He does not have to wait for me. Rather, He causes my desire to be cleansed of sin!
Now we can see: we need the power of the First Cause, God, when we make a decision, good or evil. So we surely must "work with fear and trembling" that is, with great respect.
But, how do we reconcile this with free will? Sometimes in theology we meet two statements that seem to clash. We must then recheck our work. But if we do not find any error, then we must avoid forcing either statement. We must say that there can be mysteries in divine things. So we will hold onto both, hoping someone sometime will find how to put the two together.
The first truth was that God causes the good decision. The second truth is this: Even though God causes the good decision of my will, yet Scripture constantly urges us to return to God. 2 Corinthians 6:1 says, "We exhort you not to receive the grace of God in vain." So I must be able -- somehow -- to determine whether or not His grace comes in vain.
How put the two things together? Theologians have labored -- and wrangled -- for centuries over this. Has the Church given the answer? No, only a fragment of it (DS 1554). However, it does seem an answer can be found. For a new proposal, please see this author's Our Father's Plan, chapter 18. Here is a sketch: God sends an actual grace to me, and with no help from me it does two things: it causes me to see something as good, and then, almost automatically, it makes me favorably disposed to it. When these two things are in place, I could not make a decision to accept the grace -- Philippians 2:13 stops that -- but I could reject. If I do not reject, that is, if I make no decision at all (not even a decision not to reject) then grace continues in its course, and works in me both the will and the doing, in such a way that at the same time I am cooperating with grace, by power being received at the same moment from grace.
Now we can see the basis for humility. In view of what we have just said of our total dependence on God, we see that if one accepts the explanation proposed using Aristotle's framework, we would have to say that if I have a ledger for myself, and on the credit page I want to write what I have contributed in the rock bottom sense (that is, what I have not received from God, but have made up entirely by myself) to doing good -- it is a zero, the lack of a decision against grace. How much self-esteem does that justify? But there is also a debit page, the number for my sins. Those are my own, not received from God. So my self-esteem goes below zero.
Humility leads me to accept this at every level of my being -- for there is a danger that like the Pharisee in the temple, I might use words like his, "O God I give you thanks . . .," while really, at least subconsciously, be grabbing credit for myself.
This text is most helpful to dwell on, for spiritual growth. It helps one to see that every bit of good I am and have and do is God's gift to me (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:7). So St. Augustine is terribly right when he says (Epistle 194.5.29): "When God crowns your merits, He crowns nothing other than His own gifts."
Could we weaken the force of these verses by noting that there is a Hebrew pattern that attributes to direct action of God that which He really just permits? There is such a pattern. For example, in 1 Samuel 4:3 (literal version of the Hebrew) after a defeat, the Hebrews said: "Why did God strike us today before the face of the Philistines?" -- even though they knew it was the Philistines who had hit them.
But we cannot say verses 12-13 are such a pattern -- for the text of the Council of Orange, and the philosophical reasoning, both demand the stronger understanding. To weaken it that way would be, again, Pelagianism.
Summary of Philippians 2:14-29
Paul urges them to act in a blameless way, without grumbling, in the middle of a twisted and perverse generation. They, in contrast, seem like stars in the world. He wants them to hold to the word of life so when Christ returns, Paul can be proud of them, and can say he did not work in vain.
Paul returns to the thought: perhaps the Romans will execute him. Then he will be a sacrifice for their faith. He would be glad of that. But yet, he hopes to send Timothy to them soon, for he wants to hear a good report about them. Timothy is selfless, concerned about them, unlike so many who seek their own things, not the things of Christ. But they have experienced Timothy. He has been like a son to Paul. So he will send him as soon as he sees how things will come out for himself. But Paul has confidence in the Lord that he will soon come to see them. Meanwhile, he sends Epaphroditus, his fellow worker to them. He had been dangerously sick, almost died. But God spared him, so Paul would not have grief on top of grief. He urges them to receive him with joy in the Lord and appreciate a man who would risk death for the work of Christ, to help Paul.
Comments on 2:14-29
The brotherly love of Christians would stand out in the midst of the selfishness of many -- not all -- pagans. Paganism ran on principles so different from those of Christ. In this sense Paul can speak of a twisted and perverse generation. In Ephesians 5:15-16 a similar thought: "See that you walk carefully, not as though unwise, but as wise persons, redeeming the time, for the days are evil." In Romans chapter 1 Paul will give a dreadful litany of the vices of the gentiles, and in the first few lines of chapter 2 he will imply -- as we will see later -- that every one of the pagans does all these things. Yet Paul knows that they do not all do all these things. For in 1 Corinthians 6:11, after a smaller, less dreadful list of mortal sins, he said: "Certain ones of you were such." In other words, not all the Corinthians -- even in a city famed for its licentiousness -- were that wicked. How can we reconcile the seeming clash? We need to recall our comments on Galatians 2:15-21 on focusing. The view Paul uses in Romans is a focused one. In it the law makes heavy demands, in fact, individual items in the law make a heavy demand -- but that gives no strength -- so all must fall, fall into each individual sin. But in the de facto view, though it remains true that the law gives no strength, yet help is available, from another source, from the grace merited by Christ (offered in anticipation of His death even before He came). With it, not all are so wicked. Hence the view of 1 Corinthians 6:11. Here and in Ephesians 5 in the most factual way possible we have to say that the principles of the world are opposite to those of Christ, and hence can be called perverse.
We notice again that Paul shifts back and forth -- on the one hand he knows the Romans may kill him; on the other hand, he shows a kind of confidence that it will not happen.
The Epaphroditus Paul speaks highly of here should not be confused with Epaphras mentioned in Colossians 1:7 and 4:2, the one who first brought the faith to Colossae.
Summary of Philippians, Chapter 3
Paul urges them to rejoice in the Lord. It is easy for him to write to them, and they need the protection, for they must watch out for the dogs, the evil doers, those who mutilate the flesh (circumcision). Christians are the ones with the real circumcision, not made in the flesh, but in the spirit.
The Judaizers boast of their fleshy credentials -- Paul could match them: He was circumcised on the eighth day, he came from the nation of Israel, from the elite tribe of Benjamin. He was a Hebrew of the Hebrews, i.e., the real thing. He was so zealous for Judaism as to persecute the Church. He kept the Jewish law perfectly.
But now the things he used to consider as privileges of being a Jew -- he considers them a loss, in comparison to Christ. Really, not just Jewish things, but everything is to be considered as a loss in comparison to the outstanding knowledge of Christ. Paul gladly takes the loss of anything and everything -- all things are so much dung in comparison to having Christ. He wants to gain Christ, to be found in Him, not depending on himself for justification, but on faith in Christ. Paul wants to know Christ and the power of His resurrection, and to share His sufferings so as to be like Christ in His death. In that way he hopes to arrive at the great resurrection at the end. He has not, of course, reached it, nor does he claim to be perfect. But he pushes on, to try to grasp it, since he was grasped by Christ on the road to Damascus. So he forgets what is behind him, and stretches ahead to the goal, the crown of the calling he has from God in Christ. He urges them to live in accord with the understanding they have reached.
To that end they should imitate him, Paul, for he imitates Christ. Yet many live like enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end will be destruction. Their God is the belly, their glory is in their shame, they think of the things of this earth.
In contrast, the citizenship -- way of life -- of the Christian, is in the heavens. From there our Savior, Christ, will come, and will transform this lowly body and make it like His glorious body, by the power by which He can make all things subject to Himself.
Comments on Chapter 3
Paul is insistent on the need to rejoice in the Lord -- he will repeat it in 4:4. St. Francis de Sales speaks of the "fine point of the soul."12 He means that in a human there are various levels of operations, both in the flesh and in the spirit. We might think of a 25,000 foot mountain. It can happen that on some days the lower slopes will all be engulfed in storm and blackness, while the tip of the mountain sticks out above the clouds, into calm and sunshine. So too it is possible for one who is very devoted to Christ -- as Paul was -- to be in great distress in all the lower levels of his being, but yet on the fine point that sticks out above the clouds, there is a peace that nothing can take away.
Some think it is "un-Christian" to say anything harsh to anyone. They do not notice that Jesus Himself called the Pharisees a "nest of vipers" (Mt 23:33), and said they were like whitewashed sepulchers (Mt 23:27) -- pretty on the outside, inside filled with rottenness and dead men's bones. When there is need, one can and sometimes should use harsh words. So Paul here, for the protection of his converts, calls the Judaizers dogs -- Jews commonly called pagans dogs. And he speaks of circumcision as a mutilation! Christians have the spiritual circumcision, cutting off the love of things of the world.
Paul even asserts that before his conversion he kept the Jewish law perfectly. We recall his words in Galatians 2:16, implying that no one can keep the law. In the focused view (we explained that in comments on Galatians 2:15 ff.), no one can -- but in the factual view, with the help of Christ's grace, one can do it. Paul even before he knew Christ, had that help offered to him, and he used it.
There are two ways of speaking of the things of the world -- on the relative scale, or on the absolute scale. On the absolute scale, we say they are all good, for God made them good. They have added dignity from the fact that in the incarnation Christ took on a created nature, used created things.13 Some today try to say: Since they are all so good, there is no value in voluntarily giving up anything! This notion is devastating, it undermines religious vocations (which call for giving up things) and leads to ruined marriages (making people immature by always doing only what feels good, only as long as it feels good. But then, since marriage must be a permanent commitment, they are incapable of that, having grown up never holding themselves to anything they did not like at the moment).14
Paul here speaks on the relative scale, that is, in comparison to Christ, everything on earth is so much junk, even dung. It is in this sense that older writers used to speak of the nothingness of creatures, or of despising the world, or contempt of the world. They did not mean to deny the goodness of creatures on the absolute scale -- they spoke on the relative scale. And they were keenly aware that even though creatures are good, they can also be "thorns" as the parable of the sower calls them. And they thought of the words of Christ about the camel and the needle's eye.15 The more one acts on the view that Paul proposes here, the more he is likely to gain that peace on the fine point of the soul mentioned at the start of the comments on Philippians 3. And the greater will be his power of spiritual eyesight.
We notice too that Paul here says he has not yet reached the resurrection of the dead. Of course not -- but there were people in his day who said it had already come.16
Here again Paul tells them to imitate him, and thereby to imitate Christ. This is not a case of pride, a lack of humility in Paul. He understood deeply with a realized knowledge his own nothingness -- the sort of things we saw in explaining 2:13 above -- that every bit of good he is and has and does is simply God's gift to him (cf. 1 Cor 4:7). For most people, however, to speak as Paul does here would be dangerous, a temptation to pride, for not many have the deep realization of their own nothingness in comparison to God. The words, "Let not your right hand know what your left hand does" apply well here, i.e., do not dwell on any good you do. You might begin to grab undue credit at least subconsciously.
Paul speaks of some who are enemies of the cross of Christ -- those who follow the unfortunate spirituality of giving up nothing, of whom we spoke above, would be an example today. Such a spirit was surely around in Paul's day too. But more specifically, he might mean the Judaizers here -- then the belly would allude to dietary laws, and shame to circumcision. But he might also mean libertine Christians.
Paul also speaks of Christians as having a citizenship in heaven. This in the spirit of Hebrews 13:14 -- "We have here no lasting city, but look for one that is to come."
We look forward to the resurrection, when our bodies will be transformed -- the more we are like Christ here in phase one, that of His hard life, suffering and death -- the more will we be like Him in glory, in the transformation of the resurrection.
We notice too that Paul speaks of Christ as going to "transform" our bodies. His Greek here uses, in a compound form, the same root (morphe) as that which he used in speaking in Philippians 2:6-7 of the "form of God . . . the form of a slave." Here he means more than outward appearance -- so we have an indication, inconclusive but interesting, that Paul really means divine nature . . . human nature in 2:6-7.
Summary of Philippians, Chapter 4
Paul, as usual at the end of an Epistle, gives some exhortations. He wants them to stand firm in the Lord. He urges Evodia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord, to avoid disagreements. He asks his fellow worker to help these women who have helped him with the Gospel, and also Clement and the other apostolic workers whose names are in the book of life. Again, he urges them to always rejoice in the Lord. Let their generous attitude be known to all. The Lord is near. Avoid needless cares. In every prayer let them make their requests, with thanks, to God, and then the peace of God which is beyond understanding will keep their hearts and minds in Christ. They should hold to everything true, venerable, righteous, pure, lovable, deserving of good report, virtuous, and praiseworthy. Hold to what they have learned from him, Paul.
He is glad that they thought of sending some help to him. He does not mean he is in need -- he has learned to be content with little or much, with being in lowly state or in abundance. He can do everything in the one who gives him power.
But it was good that they did help in his trouble. Only the Philippians have helped him since the beginning of his preaching in Macedonia. Once or twice they have sent things to him to Thessalonika.
Paul does not mean he needs or wants the gifts -- no but he wants them to have the growing spiritual credit for having helped him. Their gifts are like a sweet odor of sacrifice. God will take care of their needs.
He sends greetings to all the Christians. The brothers who are with him send greetings, especially those of the household of Caesar.
He prays that the grace of Christ may be with their spirit.
Comments on Chapter 4
This is an easy chapter, largely the exhortations Paul usually gives at the end of an Epistle.
We gather that some women helped Paul in his work. He does not use the word deaconess, and even if he had, the words bishop, priest, deacon are generic, not technical at this period. At any rate, Canon 19 of the General Council of Nicea in 325 mentions deaconesses, but says they are not ordained.
It seems that two of the principal Christian women there, Evodia and Syntyche, were quarrelling. Paul urges them to stop it. We do not know who is the fellow worker or colleague Paul mentions without naming him -- it could be Epaphroditus. The Clement mentioned here could be the one who later became Pope Clement I -- Eusebius, Church History 3.15.1 thinks it is. Clement I, in his letter to Corinth, written about 95 A.D. says Peter and Paul were of his own generation.
The "Book of Life" seems to mean merely those who are on the way to final salvation. It need not be identified with predestination. (We will discuss predestination in connection with Romans 8:29 ff.) There are mentions of a Book of Life in Exodus 32:32, Revelation 3:5 and 13:8.
The word we translated above as "generous attitude" is epieikes in Greek. Justice leads one to give to others what they have coming, no more, no less. This virtue urges one to give a bit more than is strictly required.
When Paul says that the Lord is near, it could mean He is always present. Or it could mean that we are now in the final epoch of God's dealings with man -- there is to be no further regime to supplant the Christian regime, as Christianity supplanted the Mosaic regime.
Paul shows great detachment -- in Roman jails, one was much dependent on outsiders for food. (Prison terms of years' length were almost unknown.) Paul is glad to get help, could get along well without help.
He says that in general the churches where he preached did not give him material help. He supported himself by tentmaking at night. He thought this would make his preaching more acceptable -- when we see how much trouble he had with the Corinthians, we wonder. Often people want a two-way arrangement, they do not like to be merely receivers. This is a psychological point which Paul seems to have missed.
In saying he is glad about their spiritual credit, he implies merit. Even though the basic justification is given without any merit, as Paul constantly insists, especially in Galatians, yet, after that, having the dignity of sons of God, one can establish a claim to reward (merit) in a secondary sense -- for in the most basic sense no creature by its own power could possibly establish any claim on God. It is possible only when God freely makes a promise, as if to say: If you do this, I will do that (cf. Exodus 19:5). Really, our merit is sharing in the claim Jesus established, which we have inasmuch as we are His members and like Him. (Please recall our comments on this in the Supplement 2, after Galatians 2:15).
Those of the household of Caesar need not be high ranking people -- the term could include minor functionaries, often just freedmen.