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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Reading through Philippians

The Address ( 1, 1–11 )

The opening line names Paul and Timothy as senders of the letter, but the speaker quickly changes to “I” in verse 3, for Paul is really the author. Timothy will be mentioned as an ideal companion in 2, 19–24 . The address is unique among Pauline letters in its acknowledgment of local leaders by title, “overseers and ministers,” which by using later meanings of the words could also mean “bishops and deacons,” but there is no evidence that the connotations later brought to those words are active here. Nevertheless, the address shows the beginnings of official titles and functions in the church.

A thanksgiving ( 1, 3–8 ) and a prayer ( 1, 9–11 ) complete the address. This is one of the longest and most beautifully developed of the Pauline thanksgivings. It introduces the themes of joy and community, themes that recur throughout Philippians. The paradox expressed in this letter is that the intense suffering experienced by Paul and the Philippians pales in comparison to the confident joy they share. Although separated because of Paul's imprisonment, and threatened on all sides, Paul and the Philippians are “partners,” participating together in the spread of the gospel message. Paul draws strength from the Philippians' affection and display of concern for him. He prays ( 1, 9–11 ) that they will be strengthened and that their love will grow even amid hardships. Together they all await the “day of Christ,” which Paul longs for and strains forward to obtain.

The Body of the Letter ( 1, 12–4, 20 )

Paul's Situation and the Progress of the Gospel ( 1, 12–26 )

Paul links faith in suffering and the spread of the gospel. Nowhere is this link more eloquently expressed than in Philippians 1, 12–26 where he refers to the effect his own imprisonment has had on the progress of the gospel message. Paul rejoices that even his enemies are using the opportunity represented by his present circumstances to energetically pursue the spread of the Christian message. For him, the priority is that “in every way…Christ is being proclaimed” ( 1, 18 ). This position stands in some contrast to his insistence elsewhere, even in 3, 2–3 of this letter, that only he has the right gospel. Paul speaks of joy even though he is in prison and the outcome is uncertain. He could be facing death. As a committed and passionate apostle, Paul worked tirelessly to promote acceptance of the gospel message by Gentiles everywhere. Now, in prison, Paul is equally peaceful, knowing that even should he die the preaching will be continued.

If 1 Corinthians, especially chapters 1 and 2 , represents a theoretical development of Paul's theology of the cross, Philippians represents Paul's own faith as he lives this theology. The wisdom of the cross is that God's power is made perfect in weakness. By this transforming power of the cross, Paul's brothers and sisters take encouragement from his imprisonment and preach the gospel all the more fearlessly. By the wisdom of the cross Paul considers death to be “gain,” and what he formerly considered “gain” to be “rubbish” (see 3, 7–8 ). Imprisoned, Paul draws strength from the community. He speaks with confidence and joy, expressing hope that is firmly rooted in God.

Exhortations for Community Unity and the Example of Jesus ( 1, 27–2, 18 )

As he does in several other letters, Paul expresses concern that the opposition the Philippians experience will threaten their faith. He knows of internal divisions among these Christians. By appealing to them to have a common mind and heart, Paul alludes first to his own suffering and imprisonment and then to the example of Christ.

The beautiful hymn about the abasement of Christ of 2, 6–11 is probably taken from an already existing piece of early Christian poetry with which the Philippians are familiar. It recalls their source of encouragement, and is a cherished expression of faith in the redemptive aspects of Christ's suffering and death. The example of Christ's death must, above all else, influence the believing community in its own practical acceptance of and obedience to God's will. Thus, Christ who “emptied himself” is the example of behavior for the Philippians who are having trouble preserving unity in the congregation. Further, Christ by his death became “Lord” so that all who profess his Lordship are subject to him. In homage they recognize that they are brothers and sisters, members with one another of one believing community. So Christ is the example and the empowerment of selfless, mutual service in the church. Following the hymn, Paul draws out some implications: the Philippians are to remain blameless and innocent in the midst of adversity and wickedness, waiting for the day of Christ ( 2, 16 ). Conceiving of the Christian life as a liturgical sacrifice, Paul says that even though he is “poured out as a libation,” (wine that is offered in sacrifice) he rejoices. He asks only that the Philippians share his joy.

Travel of Paul and Assistants ( 2, 19–3, 1 )

The travel account given here and other indications suggest relatively free and frequent exchanges between the prisoner, Paul, and the Philippians. This would be more easily understood with an imprisonment closer to Philippi than to Rome, hence the Ephesian theory. The news about Epaphroditus's illness and recovery seem to indicate different visits. He probably came from Philippi and was not able to continue his apostolic work because of illness. Timothy is extolled as an ideal assistant, a second example of unity after Jesus. The trust among Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus stands in contrast to the squabbling between Euodia and Syntyche and other members of the Philippian community ( 4, 2–3 ).

Digression and Warning ( 3, 2–4a )

The abrupt change of tone and content between the first two chapters of Philippians and the strong warning in 3, 2–4 is one of the strongest arguments that these were originally separate communications. Even so, a skilled rhetorician could also just as abruptly switch topic and tone in order to get his audience's attention. This sudden theme of resistance to those who agitate for the Gentiles to be circumcised, presented in an insulting tone, is brief and does not reappear in this letter.

Example of Paul ( 3, 4b–21 )

After presenting the example of Jesus and then in a lesser way of Timothy, Paul now proposes himself as example of one who knows how to give up privilege and status for the good of others. He gives us some of our best biographical information about himself, then reflects on the consequences of his encounter with Christ. Using athletic imagery, Paul encourages the Philippians to strain toward the goal of a “perfect maturity.” He urges them not to regress into the past, seeking glory in shame (possible allusions to circumcision) or in other practices of the “flesh” such as observances of certain dietary rules. These, Paul says, are earthly things. Paul himself used to glory in his religious accomplishments, but since his conversion he no longer regards these as significant. Indeed, his former system of valuing is “rubbish” compared with his new way of seeing things in Christ. This is the wisdom of the cross. Those who do not accept this wisdom are “enemies of the cross” ( 3, 18 ).

Specific Appeal to Unity ( 4, 1–9 )

Paul turns to an internal crisis that is just as destructive and threatening to the community. He begins chapter 4 by urging the Philippians to live in harmony, a theme he had already developed in chapters 1 and 2 . But now he is specific in his appeal to unity, and all the previous rhetoric on the subject may be leading to this climax. There is a conflict between some leading women of the community, Euodia and Syntyche, and Paul solemnly begs them to stop. What position these women occupy we do not know, but their division is obviously central to the community's problems, so they may be significant leaders. Paul addresses a comrade and enlists the help of an otherwise unknown man named Clement to aid in the reconciliation of these women, for the betterment of the whole community.

A Thank‐you Note ( 4, 10–20 )

Paul expresses thanks for the help received from the Philippians and sent with Epaphroditus. He adds, however, that his gratitude is not so much that he was personally aided as that the Philippians' generosity is “profit that accrues to your account” ( 4, 17 ). Paul testifies to his own indifference and ability to do without. Yet he humbly accepted aid not only to alleviate his own need but as a symbol of the affection that linked him to the Philippians. Paul speaks of this aid in liturgical terms, referring to it as “a fragrant aroma…a sacrifice, pleasing to God” ( 4, 18–19; see also 2 Cor 2, 14–16 ). This is the ancient language of liturgical offering and sacrifice. The idea of an offering of mutual love and aid by Christians to one another as a “liturgy” appears also in Romans 12, 1–2, and 15, 17–20 .

Conclusion ( 4, 21–23 )

The conclusion of the letter sends greetings to everyone there from everyone here. The reference to “Caesar's household” is to the vast imperial network of civil servants that were present in every major city. We know from this reference that there were Christians among them.

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