Philippians 4:10-13 and Contentment

I had an interesting talk with a man at church recently. He shared with me that the first church he attended after accepting Christ was a “health and wealth” type church. If something “bad” happened in your life, there was an assumption that you had sinned and were being punished for it. On the other hand, if you had good health and a decent salary, you must be doing pretty well spiritually. I do not have much patience for this sort of theology since it is a bad application of a few texts from the blessing passages of the law mixed with some American optimism, and occasionally a greedy pastor or two.  In fact, I am not sure how anyone could believe that God will automatically bless you for proper behavior or curse you for your sins after reading Philippians 4:10-13.

I think that most people can agree that Paul the Apostle is a “model” Christian. If you can’t agree with this, go read 1 Thessalonians 2 where Paul himself tells his readers to follow his example as a “model” of Christ. Paul is in fact a man who was so led by the Spirit of God that he is virtually responsible for Christianity in the western world, 13 letters in the NT and a major influence on Luke and Acts.  One cannot discuss “Christian theology” without discussion Paul.

Yet in Philippians 4 he says he knows what it means to be in want, he knows what it means to be “brought low.”  At the writing of this letter Paul is in prison and it is entirely possible he will die as a result of this imprisonment.  I am not sure that it can get any lower than that!  Yet Paul does not connect his present suffering with any behavior, with any “curse” of God for something he has done or not done.  His suffering is exactly what God has planned and he could not be happier about it.  Rejoice! Paul says, and again, I say, Rejoice!

Mega ChurchWhat is remarkable is that Paul says he has learned the secret to being content in all circumstances, whether blessed with “health and wealth” or blessed with painful suffering physically. That secret is that any success he has is not his at all.  He can only be successful through Christ, who strengthens him.  The way Paul expresses this is interesting.  The verb μυέω is only found here in the NT, but it has the sense of being let in on a secret which is a dark mystery.  It is used of the mystery religions which had elaborate rituals are deep secrets that only the really advanced people understood.

Perhaps this is a hint from Paul that one does not learn the secret to contentment without a lengthy initiation, and that initiation is a road filled with suffering and heartbreak.  You do not learn the secret of contentment by being blessed with wealth, you learn in by making due with very little indeed.

Here is a lesson American Christianity needs to learn quickly. Perhaps it is not the church with money and power which has learned the secret of contentment after all, but the little country church will no money and only a few loyal believers.

Philippians 4:1–3 – Euodia and Syntyche

women_fightingPaul does something unusual in Philippians 4, he specifically names at least two leaders in the congregation have some problem hindering the church. Specifically, Euodia and Syntyche need to demonstrate unity. For Paul to specifically name people is very unusual since the letter would have been read publicly to the whole congregation. He treats them equally by repeating the verb twice (“I encourage Euodia, I encourage Syntyche”).

We know nothing about these two women, although there have been a few Christian writers who denied they were women, perhaps because Paul called them co-laborers, and a few who have wondered if they were actual people! But the pronouns throughout the three verses are feminine, so very few (if any) modern scholars deny Paul is talking about two women who worked with him in Philippi.

  • Syntyche is a feminine name in Philippians, but it appears in inscriptions as a masculine. The early Christian writer and bishop of Antioch Theodore of Mopsuestia (ca. 350 – 428) therefore tried to argue this refers to a man rather than a woman. He went as far as to identify Syntyche as the Philippian jailer from Acts 16!
  • Euodia is also a common name in the Greco-Roman world (BDAG cites Greek grave inscriptions on Cyprus); the name means “prosperous” or “successful,” sometimes in the context of a journey. Like Syntyche, the name has a masculine and feminine form.
  • The Tübingen School interpreted Euodia and Syntyche as symbols for Jewish and Gentile Christians (for a summary, see Gillman, “Euodia (Person),” ABD 2:670). If this was the case, the Syzygus is the one who unifies the two opposing sides of the early Christian church.

The motivation for making Syntyche into a man is to avoid the implication that an early church like Philippi had women leaders on a level with Paul.  These women are not opponents of Paul nor are they false teachers: their names are “written in the book of life.” This is a common way of describing someone who have suffered for their faith yet remained faithful (Dan 12:1, Rev 3:5). This may therefore be a hint the church has suffered for their faith and these two women were instrumental in guiding the congregation through that difficult time.

Verse three asks someone in the congregation to help the women to work through their dispute. The Greek word (σύζυγος) has sometimes been interpreted as a name (Syzygus), a name which would mean “yoke-fellow” if it is a name at all. The name does appear in Greek literature as a description of a wife (T.Rub 4:1, for example), so sometimes Syzygus was thought to be Paul’s wife! (She is Paul’s loyal wife, left behind in Philippi, perhaps Lydia herself.) Paul also calls on Clement and the “rest of my fellow workers” to help the women to reconcile.  We know nothing of Clement. Although it is the same name as a bishop of Rome in the late 90s, it is unlikely to be the same man.

eudoiaandsyntychePaul clearly loves and respects these fellow-workers (v. 1), but he does strongly encourage them to set aside these difference.  He uses a strong word for his affection for the church: he earnestly desires to see them (ἐπιπόθητος). The church is Paul’s “joy and crown.” This is similar to saying “pride and joy” today, the church is something Paul can boast about and on the day he stands before the Lord he can consider the church a victor’s crown.

In summary, Paul deeply cares for the church at Philippi and wants them to endure in the trails they will face. Because he loves them so deeply, he needs to call out two people who are causing disunity. But the whole church needs to have the same sort of unity as well; everyone is to “think similarly.”

 

Philippians 3:12–17 – Pressing On to the Higher Calling

In order to reach the goal to which he has been called, Paul does not look back at any of his achievements but keeps his attention fixed on the goal God has placed before him. Forgetting what lies behind. To “forget” (ἐπιλανθάνομαι) is fairly clear, although this word can mean “do not think about it” or “do not concern yourself with it.” When someone thanks you for a simple favor, the response is often “forget about it.” What we mean is, “don’t be concerned about it, whatever I did is not that big of a deal.”

Paul may refer to his persecution of the followers of Jesus after the resurrection, since he likely had a great deal of guilt and remorse for his attacks on the earliest church. This is very preachable since most people have some guilt over the things they have done in the past. Pastors can use this as an opportunity to encourage people to forgive themselves as Christ forgave them and not dwell on the past.

In the context of Philippians, however, he may refer here to his heritage as a well-trained and highly respected Jewish leader, someone who could claim to be “blameless” with respect to righteousness according to the Law. He has just described his “boast” (vv 4-6) even though he now considers it a loss compared to what he has in Christ.

But there is another factor in “forgetting what lies behind.” Paul was called to be the “light to the Gentiles” by the risen Lord Jesus himself.  Jesus gave to Paul a unique commission and revelation and has directly guided him on a number of occasions. He has already planted many churches and is responsible for spreading the Gospel throughout Roman Empire, he has already written letters which will eventually become a major component of the canon of the New Testament. Paul could review his life in Christ and conclude he has made a spectacular contribution and served God better than anyone else in the first century. These “good things” have to be set aside as well, “forgetting what is behind” must include everything including these things that might be counted as bearing much fruit for God.

Finish LineSecond, Paul is “straining forward” to what lies ahead. This word (ἐπεκτείνομαι) only appears here in the New Testament, although it is the compound form of the more common word (τείνω) for stretching something or pulling tight on something (like reins, a helmet strap, both from Homer).  Since this is a compound form, the meaning is probably intensified, stretching for something that is just out of your reach, so far that you pull a muscle in your shoulder.

There might be a hint of an athletic metaphor here, since a runner “strains forward” to cross the finish line first, often making a final push to win the race. In 2012  U.S. Olympic trials, Allyson Felix and Jenebah Tarmoh “both crossed the finish line in 11.068 seconds.” Neither of the cameras shooting 3,000 frames per second clearly showed a winner. If either runner had been distracted just a little, or looked to the side a fraction of a second would be lost and the other runner would have clearly won the race.

This is the kind of focus Paul is talking about in Philippians. If one is straining for what is ahead of them, their focus is not on what is behind them, or even what is around them at the moment. They are completely focused on the goal, crossing the finish line and winning the prize. A runner cannot think about who is behind them or running alongside them, they can only focus on the future goal of finishing the race and winning the prize. For Paul, this means the terrible things he had done as well as his admirable service for the cause of Christ. This also means he cannot focus on his opponents who are also running the race (even if they are not completing as properly as Paul is).

It is important understand what Paul is saying here. He forgets whatever is in his past, both good and bad, so that he can run the race set out for him unhindered. This means the one who is in Christ must set aside both negative baggage as well as positive achievements. Paul does this as best he can, considering his former life as an advancing young Pharisee to be rubbish, but also all of his achievements since meeting Christ on the road to Damascus. He has planted churches and developed leaders who will carry his ministry on well after his death. One could argue without Paul, the church would have never spread out into the western Roman Empire as it did. Yet that huge accomplishment is also rubbish to Paul!

 

Philippians 3:7–11 – Everything is Rubbish!

Paul develops an accounting metaphor in Philippians 3:7. All of his achievements listed in the previous verses count for nothing when it comes to his position in Jesus Christ. On one side of the ledger is his human achievement, on the other is the sake of Christ. He writes them off as a loss in comparison to knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord.

Human achievement is “loss” or “rubbish.” Loss (ζημία) can refer to a financial loss, as in Acts 27:10 (Paul predicts the shipwreck and “much injury and loss”). In the Septuagint, 2 Kings 23:33 used the word to refer a heavy tribute imposed on Judah by Pharaoh Neco when he took Jehoahaz captive. The word can refer to a financial penalty (a heavy fine, for example). In this context, Paul is saying that all of human achievement was a huge loss when it came to knowing Jesus and the power of the resurrection.

money_down_toiletImagine someone who buys an antique at an estate sale, investing a significant amount of money because they were certain it was worth far more (maybe a Civil War Rifle or a colonial document). They take the antique to the Antiques Roadshow and have it examined by an expert and it turns out to be a worthless fake. The person would take a huge loss since they cannot resale the item and recoup their investment. It is still a nice antique and might look nice good hanging over the mantel. It can still be enjoyed and valued. But it is really a total financial loss.

In a similar way, Paul’s “heavy investment” in training as a Pharisee and his dedicated practice of Judaism as a Pharisee have turned out to be a loss if the return on the investment was “righteousness before God.” He still has the value of a thorough knowledge of the Scripture and the satisfaction of a life well lived, good moral values and work ethic, etc. But with respect to being right with God, that investment is a total loss.

RubbishThe second word Paul uses here is more picturesque. Rubbish (σκύβαλον) refers to refuse or garbage, the sort of thing the dogs would scavenge. Often refers to excrement (Josephus, JW 5.571, “sewers and cattle dung”; Sib.Or. 7.58, “the mournful refuse of war”). The word appears in the medical work of Aretæus the Cappadocian, Causes and Symptoms of Acute Disease (SD 2.9), in a section entitled “On Dysentery.” The third edition of Bauer’s Lexicon (BDAG) glosses the word in this context as “It’s all crap.” It is no coincidence Paul is more or less saying the opponents as “dogs” who they are still rooting around in their own skubalon!

It is important to understand Paul correctly here: Paul is not saying Judaism is bad, or that Jews keeping the Law is bad, or that Torah is “garbage.” He is saying that keeping the Law does not make one right with God, only faith in Jesus Christ will do that. In Galatians he will address the reasons why a Gentile is not under the Law, but here his point is only that human achievement (whether good or bad) counts for nothing with respect to being right with God, knowing the “power of the resurrection” or obtaining salvation at the resurrection of the dead.

The righteousness that counts is the righteousness that comes “through faith of Christ” (v.9). There is a serious interpretive issue here in verse nine. The ESV and the NIV both translate the line as “through faith in Christ Jesus” although “in” is not the natural way to read the text. “through the faith of Christ” is a better rendering of the Greek, but what does this mean? (Yes, this is the classic pistis christou debate!)

There are two options here. Paul might mean “the faith that I have in Jesus’ sacrifice saves me from sin.” On the other hand, “the faithful act of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross saves me from my sin (through the faithful obedience of Christ on the cross).” Since both of these options are taught in Scripture (you do place your faith in Jesus, Eph 2:8-9) and Jesus was faithful when he humbly submitted to death of the cross (Phil 2:5-11), it is possible most people do not catch Paul’s subtle teaching here. In the context of Philippians, Jesus is the one who humbly submitted himself to the Father and was obedient to death, Paul has submitted to the Father and suffers in prison at the moment; Epaphroditus humble serves the church at Philippi at the very moment even though he has suffered.

It is difficult to have Paul’s attitude toward personal achievement. In the Roman world, one would naturally boast of their achievements and claim honors for themselves. In contemporary American culture, humility is a virtue, but we still like to boast about our achievements. University professors put their PhD up on their office walls, athletes have personal trophy cases, pastors humble-brag about attendance in their church. How would our ersonal lives be transformed if we really had the attitude of Christ Jesus and set aside our honor in order to serve others? Do we really need to consider all our achievement to be “crap”?

 

 

Philippians 3:4–6 – Paul’s Confidence in the Flesh

Paul’s opponents may have claimed to be better qualified to explain the role of the Law for Gentiles because of their heritage and training. This is more or less equivalent to someone who claims to be an expert because they graduated with a PhD from Harvard as opposed to a certificate from DeVry Institute (Fill-in your own institutions here.) Paul therefore takes a moment to boast about his personal heritage and achievements. Paul claims in Philippians is that he is a proper Jew who excelled in the practice of Second Temple Judaism more than anyone else of his generation. To use a phrase from the Harry Potter universe, Paul is claiming to be a proper Jew rather than some Mudblood.

First, he was circumcised on the eighth day. This indicates he comes from a family that is keeping the Jewish traditions despite living in Tarsus. It is possible that there were Diaspora Jews who did not keep this tradition or even did not circumcise their boys.

MudbloodsSecond, he is a member of Israel. This connects Paul to the covenant as a member of Abraham’s family. Paul was not a Hellenistic Jew from Tarsus pretending to be a Greek, but rather a Jew who was well aware of his heritage as a child of Abraham.

Third, he is from the tribe of Benjamin. This is significant because not every Jew in the first century could claim to know they were from a particular tribe. Paul’s Jewish name “Saul” is taken from the first king of Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin, and Paul’s teacher in Jerusalem, Gamaliel, was also from the tribe of Benjamin.

Fourth, the phrase “Hebrew of the Hebrews” can be taken in several ways. This phrase may mean that Paul was born of true Jewish blood, that there is no Gentile in his linage. It is sometimes suggested that Paul is referring to his ability to speak and read Hebrew. Not all Jews spoke the language, especially in the home. If there is an increasing specificity in the list of descriptions, then perhaps Polhill is right and Paul is saying he is from an extremely Jewish family, one that still speaks the language at home (Paul and his Letters, 26).

Fifth, with respect to religion, he is a Pharisee. Second Temple Judaism had a number of sub-divisions, not exactly like modern denominations but that is a fair way to think about them. Sadducees and Pharisees are the two most well known in the New Testament, but there were several others. There are many ways to define the groups, but Paul’s emphasis might be on faithfulness to the Law and loyalty to Israel. Pharisees were not simply observant of the Law; they thought deeply about the Law and guarded themselves against breaking the Law unknowingly. They really could claim to be “blameless” with respect to law

Last, with respect to zeal, Paul says he was a persecutor of the church. Zeal has become a Christian virtue in modern Church-talk, usually equivalent to strong emotional response in worship. But that is not at all Paul’s point here. He is zealous for the Law and the traditions of his people in the same way the Maccabean Revolt was zealous for the Law. In that case, they fought the Greeks for the right to keep the Law. More important, they were willing to enforce the Law for Jews, including circumcision. Paul’s zeal was not a warm feeling of love for God, he was violently opposed to Jews who claimed the Messiah was crucified by the Temple authorities; he was willing to use physical abuse to convince people this Messiah did not rise from the dead.

Paul is, in the words of J. B. Lightfoot, making a progressive argument. A convert to Judaism may be circumcised, someone with some Gentile in his linage might claim a tribal affiliation, but Paul is a pure-bred true Jew! If anyone in the Second Temple period could boast about their heritage it was Paul.

These achievements are important since they contribute to who Paul is in Christ. His education and training in the Hebrew Bible are the foundation for this evangelism and all of his writings. He is just a zealous serving Christ as he was pursuing the church of God. Yet (like Jesus) he sets these achievements aside in order to be called a servant of God.