The Opponents in Philippi

In his commentary on Philippians, Gordon Fee pointed out that as many as 18 different suggestions have been made for the identity of the “opponent” in Philippians.  In this case, the identity of the opponent may provide a bit of a hint to the date of the letter.

Paul begins to deal with these false teachers” in chapter three, although those who preach the gospel from impure motives in chapter one are likely the same group.  One of the more common  identifications of the false teaching is that they are Judaizers, similar or identical to those in Galatia.  Certainly circumcision is an issue (3:2), and the fact that Paul boasts in his own credentials as a law-observant Jew might imply that his opponents have a similar boast.  It is possible that these are Jewish teachers trying to re-convert the Jewish Christians or Gentile God-fearers trying to encourage gentile converts to join them in keeping the law.

If the book was written in the early 60’s from Rome, it is surprising that the issue of Gentile conversion is still a major issue.  The issue seemed to be settled after Acts 15; for it to arise again nearly twelve years after the Jerusalem Conference seems unlikely.  As such, this is a good argument in favor of the early date of the book, written from an Ephesian imprisonment (Polhill, P&HL, 166).

On the other hand, if Philippians was written from Rome in the early 60’s, it is only a few years before the outbreak of the war against Rome in Palestine.  This was a time of extreme nationalistic pride and hopes for an independent Israel.  If this period was anything like the Maccabean period, it is possible that circumcision for those within the Jewish covenant was emphasized.  We are on the same sort of ground as Galatians (are the Gentiles converts to Israel)?  If they are, then they must conform to the covenant and be circumcised.  Even as far away as Rome, it is possible that Diaspora Jews saw the boundary markers of circumcision and food laws as non-negotiable for the Jewish people, including those who were ethnically Gentile and sought to align themselves with the Jewish Messiah Jesus.  (Even if the letter is written five years earlier in Ephesus these factors may still be important.)

Another suggestion which has merit is that of David deSilva.  Based on his reading of Philippians as a “letter of friendship” he has suggested that the opponents of Paul in the letter are not actual opponents in the church, but rather Paul is “using a common strategy for building up unity and cooperation within a group: warning about the presence of hostile and dangerous groups on the outside, against whom the Philippians need to present a united front” (deSilva, “No Confidence In The Flesh” Trinity Journal 15:1 (Spring 1994): 31-32)

On balance, I tend to agree with Polhill and date the letter early.  While the evidence for an Ephesian imprisonment is thin, there is enough to lead to me believe Philippians at least was written from Ephesus in the mid 50’s rather than Rome in the early 60’s.  (The other prison epistles were written from Rome, but that is for another time!)  The “opponent” in Philippians 3 is therefore a real threat to Paul’s converts who are encouraging a return to their Jewish roots. This is more or less the same “context” as Galatians, although perhaps with less intensity.

If the opponents are in some way related to the Judaizers of Galatians, who might this effect our reading of 1:27-30, where Paul places an emphasis on living a “worthy life” in the face of false teachers?  Or 1:15-18, which seems to say that there are some (perhaps the opponents, but maybe not) who preach the Gospel out of impure motives – but it is still the gospel!

Perhaps this is more controversial, but how ought we apply this in a present context?  I have occasionally said that I think the word heretic gets thrown around a bit too easily these days,  What would the Paul of Philippians say about controversial teachers such as Rob Bell?

10 thoughts on “The Opponents in Philippi

  1. I tend to want to agree with both Pohill and Phil Long here in saying that Philippians was written sometime in the 50’s while Paul was in house arrest in Ephesus. I also tend to agree, based on the date I place on the letter to Philippi, that the ‘false teachers’ were the Judaizers that were close to or the same group of people that Paul talked about in his letter to the Galatian church. In chapter 3 Paul goes into detail boasting about who he is, what he is, and what he has done. All of this is based on him as a Jew and being circumcised. He brags about this because, and it is clear, that the ‘opponents’ in Philippi at that time were preaching circumcision and trying to convert or re convert Jewish and Gentile Christians back to basic Judaism where you followed such laws as circumcision “The “opponent” in Philippians 3 is therefore a real threat to Paul’s converts who are encouraging a return to their Jewish roots. This is more or less the same “context” as Galatians, although perhaps with less intensity” (Phil Long).
    “If the opponents are in some way related to the Judaizers of Galatians, who might this effect our reading of 1:27-30, where Paul places an emphasis on living a “worthy life” in the face of false teachers?” (Phil Long).
    I feel that if we are to look at this from the a point of view that we are talking about the Judaizers that were in Galatia, these verses would mean so much more than just mere motivation. Paul commands them to stay worthy to Christ and to stand firm, stay together, to not veer from the path due to those who preach different from the Gospel of Christ. In that, Paul says “This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God” (Phil. 1:28b). Paul is reiterating here that he is right and that those who believe what he is saying are also right and will be saved. More so, those who are preaching otherwise will be destroyed. Paul is motivating the people of Philippi to stay strong, but in the same breath is standing firm saying to ignore those who are preaching different because they are not worthy if they are preaching different than that of what Christ has said. Saying that these Jewish people (that are probably higher up in status) are not worthy of Christ, is some powerful stuff to say the least.
    I think that in verses 1:15-18 Paul is really trying to state that there are people that are preaching that may not necessarily be speaking falsity but at the same time, some of their ‘theology’ is a bit off. They may not have understood the concept of this ‘new gospel’ having been brought up and living in a place and a time where the only thing they knew was God was for Judaism. It is true that if you were a Jew then you should obey the Law that God put in place for you. This is what the Jewish people preached. I also believed that this is what the ‘opponents’ or ‘false teachers’ preached. They knew no different. However, if you were a Gentile you did not need to follow the Law but you were still under God through His grace. This is the part where they may not have completely understood. To put in in a more modern way, we could say that there are people out there that are mere ‘infants’ in their understanding on theology and because of that, when they speak theology they cannot grasp all of the accurate details and concepts. It would be like me talking about the End Times. I do not completely understand it and therefore I would be preaching truth if I said things like “the Lord is coming back, and those who are not saved will be punished’ but I would not be speaking full truth because I do not know or have not placed a full understanding on the full picture of what will happen.

  2. I don’t really know nor do I care when it was written, and I fail to see why that is important. Can someone please shed some light on this? (No sarcasm intended). Beyond that I would like to get to the Rob Bell part of this post. I figure Paul would react in one of two ways Mr. Bell.

    First possibility: Paul would walk up to Rob and slap him in the face (If he got past Bell’s body guards that is) claiming that Rob is bearing false witness and preaching a false gospel. I can see this happening because Paul was rather blunt with what he liked to say. If, in fact, Rob is some sort of heretic and everything he says is nothing but lies and deceit, then I’m sure Paul would have done this, but I’m not so sure Paul would have reacted in this way at all.

    Second possibility: Paul would walk up to Rob and give him a giant hug! Paul was all about shaking things up. His reasons for shaking up the world at that point were a tad different than Rob’s reasons, but they are essentially doing the same thing. Paul is telling people a new gospel, a gospel that is true and is full of saving grace. I would say that Rob Bell is doing something similar. Rob shakes up the current mundane, stereotypical, tradition rich church. He is asking questions that are forcing Christians to actually understand what they believe, and in essence, helping us to discover our faith all over again.

    So, I’d say Paul would be excited with Rob’s “controversial” ways and would give him a hug. Or if Paul isn’t the touchy feely type, at least write Paul a nice letter!

  3. I would say that both passages that P Long has listed above, Philippians 1:27-30 and Philippians 1:15-18, concern the same threat. The 1:15-18 passage deals with the heart of the person preaching the gospel is right or not. They may be preaching it to be seen preaching or they may be doing it to truly glorify God. While in 27-30 Paul is writing about those who would oppose the gospel. Paul says tells the Philippians to live according to the gospel of Christ no matter what others would say or believe about that gospel. This leads me to theorize that there may have been more than one threat against the church or that Paul was just addressing problems that existed but were not necessarily plaguing the Philippian church. This coudl also be supported by the overall tone of the letter. In Galatians the Judaizers were deceiving the church and were causing problems there. But in Philippians it does not appear to be the case. The letter is one of encouragement in which Paul commends the Philippians. This position however is not definitive enough to support a date for the letter.

    As for the application, since I am not Paul it is hard to state what Paul might say of some of today’s more controversial teachers. It is easy for us to say Paul would say this or that but we don’t know for sure. And it really depends on who the specific person is and if they are really teaching the true gospel. Paul says “Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached;” (Philippians 1:18). If Paul disagreed with their theology he might discuss it with them and show them how they were wrong. But if the teacher were in any way adding to or taking from the gospel of Christ Paul would come down on them without mercy as he wrote in Galatians “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed,” (1:8).

  4. It is highly unlikely that Paul would be pleased with Rob Bell. Chris, you might want to revise your statement because what you are suggesting is that Rob Bell is introducing a new gospel like Paul did by way of your sentence structure… which is not even almost true. And yes, while Bell is asking questions, he gives no closure to them. Paul does the same thing, but also gives closure to his questions, thereby giving guidance to people in order to keep them from erring. Romans 6 is the perfect example of this. If Rob Bell were to follow this example, we might have a different story but as it is, Bell simply leaves the issue open for individual interpretation with no guidance… which is not Pauline at all. Paul would most likely approach Bell with gentle but firm correction but knowing Bell’s style, it would be surprising of Bell admitted error…

    That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the opponents in Philippi were Judaizers… The fact that Paul even brings up his Jewish pedigree in 3:2 may hint at Judiazer influence, but I think that he is more using his Jewish status as an example for his citizenship analogy and how he considers it worthless in comparison to his citizenship in heaven.

    • Culture plays a role as well though Jason. Paul’s culture was much different than ours is today. Now a days, if you approach someone, or a group of people, and you tell them what is correct and what is incorrect, then they tune you and and don’t listen. Rob understands this and that is why he doesn’t have closure…

  5. I believe that Paul would react to Rob Bell in a neutral perspective. Like Chris, I believe that Rob Bell loves to shake things up. He lives to get people red in the face and spitting fire because it takes a congregation from passive to passionate! Paul is shown to be a very passionate man, and finding a man such a Rob Bell that inspires passion in others, I believe that Paul would be grateful. However, I am not extremely knowledgeable in Rob Bell’s theology, so I cannot begin to try to imagine how Paul would react theologically speaking. And it is this theology of Rob Bell’s that I would imagine would have Paul in an uproar,if he disagreed, more than anything else. Paul says in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things.” These are the things that God is calling us to be through Paul, and all of us, including Rob Bell and Paul, are under this calling- to look at whatever is right, and to really think about it.

  6. I would like to begin by talking about the “modern day Judiazers”. The only reason why I read Rob Bell’s latest book is because it stirred up so much controversy. Like Courtney said, He indeed asks questions that made you think, get angry, and question some beliefs you grew up with. Is what he did even wrong? One verse that struck me as interesting is verse Philippians 1:17, which says, “the former preach out of selfish ambition.” Is Rob Bell writing books for the good of the church or to make a load of money? Is he doing it to feel good that all people go to heaven? Is he writing to be a well loved pastor because he won’t ever talk about punishment, judgment or Hell? At first I thought Bell might be doing it to make people take a good hard look at their faith with a right motive. However, since resigning to make a t.v. show it makes me think that money and fame might be getting the best of him. In verse 18, Paul goes on to say that the ambitions don’t matter if Christ is preached. So what would Paul say to Mr. Bell? Does it matter that he is preaching something a “little” different than the traditional gospel. I am pretty sure Bell believes in the work or Christ on the cross but I think Paul has to disagree still even though he might preach about Jesus. In my opinion Bell downplays the important of Jesus if Hell isn’t eternal. Paul stresses what Christ did for us and why it is so beautiful. Paul’s Gospel is Jesus, while Bells Gospel is Yay Jesus!!!… but if you don’t want him, don’t worry.

    I think Bell is almost opposite from the Judaizers. The Judaizers stress obeying the law while Bell doesn’t care about any of it. If you follow it great but if not God still loves you. But what about all the other people that are supporting the emerging church? Can you go to bars and porn conventions for ministry? Can your church be in a bar? Even though it think this is about impossible I think Paul would be all for it. From the letters Paul wrote it seems like he was a passionate man for Christ. No matter how, he wants the gentiles to be reached and that is exactly who some emerging churches are pursuing.

  7. “Stand firm… without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you” is a message that can be an effective thought and mind-set in today’s world (Philippians 1:27-28). Much has changed but, so little has changed as well. Yeah the faces and forms of opposition have changed but, they are as strong and they can be as close to home as ever as well. It seems very insightful to recognize what cause Paul to teach certain things in the letter to the Philippians. This thing that caused Paul to teach this way is important to know because it gives different meaning to verses like: “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame (Philippians 3:19).” According to Polhill the reference to the “stomach” could be talking about the food laws that some teach contrary to what was revealed to Paul and Peter. The reference to “shame” according to the same author most likely is talking about the “shame” in circumcision (p.168). It is general knowledge that there are many other verses where the context needs to be known more clearly especially in reference to Paul’s letters. Without understanding the context of the opposition in this letter during that time more opposition can be created in our times as well because of improper interpretation.

  8. Rather than Rob Bell, this passage actually made me think of other mega-church pastors whose preaching is not so much controversial, but useless.

    [IGNORANCE ALERT – I am about to make a stereotype (a few stereo types actually) with virtually no verifiable personal knowledge of its (their) accuracy.]

    I get the impression that some (many? most? I really don’t know, see my alert above) very public mega-church pastors have created fabulous growth in their churches by telling people a semi-Biblical version of what they want to hear. They preach the Gospel, which is good, and they tend to get rid of a lot of things that get in the way of people coming to church, so there is a part of me that really wants to congratulate them, and praise them for a job well done.

    However, I often tend to question their motives (not to mention the quality of their product). Do they really desire for people to be saved? If they do, then why? Do they want fame as evangelists? Do they somehow seek to work their way to their own salvation with their works of evangelism? Do they just like being the center of attention? Are they, or the people in their congregations even Christians? Most of these questions, I have absolutely no way of accurately knowing an answer to, and Paul seems to cut all of these questions off at the get-go.

    Going solely off of this section of scripture, Paul seems to be of the opinion that, provided the Gospel these men preach is in fact true to the Scripture, none of these questions are particularly relevant. If only 10% of the people they believe they are leading to Christ are actually coming to faith through their ministry, then it none of these other questions matter. The Gospel is being preached, nothing else matters.

  9. Any person who say there is no God is truly a fool in every sense of the word even the devil believes and tremble james 2:19

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