Friday, April 29, 2011

Philippians 3:1-9

Read the Text

3:1Consequently, my friends, be glad as people of God. Repeating myself is not tedious to me but for you it is a preventative.
2You Gentile men need to watch out for the hungry-for-blood dogs, the ones who do the dirty deed; watch out for the Excision. 3On the contrary, we are the Circumcision: the ones who serve through God’s spirit and have their basis for boasting in what Christ Jesus has done instead of confidence in a fleshly status; 4I, however, do possess the basis for confidence in a fleshly status. If any other man suggests he is confident in the flesh, I can outdo him:
5I was circumcised on the eighth day;
I am from the race of Israel;
My family is from the tribe of Benjamin;
I am a Hebrew from a long line of Hebrews.
When it comes to the Torah, I’m a Pharisee;
6When it comes to zeal, I persecuted the followers of Jesus;
When it comes to correctness in obedience to Torah, I’m irreproachable;
7Whatever advantages I had, I consider them unprofitable because of Christ in my life. 8In fact, I consider every advantage of life to be unprofitable because of the far superior knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Sovereign. It is because of him I have discounted the value of every advantage of life – and consider them to be a pile of garbage – in order that I might profit from my relationship with Christ. 9I also want to be evaluated by my relationship to Christ: not because I have a right-standing based on God’s covenant in the Torah, but a right-standing because of the faithfulness of Christ, the right-standing God has brought about based on faithfulness.

Think about the Text

Paul comes to some sort of conclusion here that thematically calls back to 2:17-18 before the recommendation sections for Timothy and Epaphroditus. He implies that he is repeating himself, but we aren’t told whether what precedes or what follows is repetitive.
Paul’s admonitions in 3:2 allude to the judaizers who want the gentile male followers of Jesus to become circumcised as an identity marker indicating their inclusion in God’s covenant people. Paul begins by calling them dogs. This may just be an insult, since dogs and pigs are frequently used metaphorically for unclean animals. What this context about a dog has in common with a few others is blood (1 Ki. 20:19; 22:38; Ps. 67:24). Perhaps Paul is depicting judaizers as men who are, in a sense, “out for blood” or “blood-thirsty.” Paul also calls them the Excision (“mutilators of the flesh”). The base word in Greek is the same as the word for circumcision with a different prefixed preposition. In the case of circumcision, the preposition implies cutting around, while the former term implies chopping off. In Gal 5:12 Paul is even more explicit, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!”
Paul alludes to the biblical concept of a more important form of circumcision, which is to circumcise the heart (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; 9:23-26; Rom 2:28-29; Gal 5:6). He considers uncircumcised gentile followers of Jesus to have experienced a spiritual circumcision of the heart and have a greater basis for their place in God’s covenant.
Paul establishes his own qualifications as an observant and respectable Jew as a way of saying he is just as good as the judaizers who want to compel Gentiles to become full proselytes to Judaism as a way of being included in God’s covenant people. Paul’s self-praise lists the type of elements included in praise speeches (encomia), such as what stock a person comes from, the person’s education and upbringing, and their deeds.
In the past people have assumed that Paul begins in v. 7 to say that everything he had as a Jew is worthless, nothing more than garbage. It does seem like Paul, as a philosophical guide, has adapted himself to his audience of gentiles. Often he identifies so closely with gentile followers of Jesus that he can say “we.” Paul does not say in his letters that Torah, the covenants, and the promises are now null and void. Quite the contrary. The point Paul is trying to make here is that these types of advantages or gains, whether they are Jewish or Greco-Roman, they are not contributors to a person’s spiritual maturity or progress in the development of the soul. They are not the “things that make a difference” (Phil 1:10). For example, Epictetus (Discourses 1.30) talks about someone who goes in to see the emperor, while recognizing there is Another who sees from above. The One from Above asks what this person learned as a student about “exile, bonds, death, and disgrace” – all potential threats from an emperor. The reply is that they are “indifferent,” using a term similar to Paul’s category. When that “Another” asks, “And the end (telos), what is it?” the person replies, “To follow thee.” The young man then makes the claim about these indifferent things, “All this is nothing; but I have been preparing myself for something great.”
Paul argues in Romans that gentiles are able to be included in God’s covenant through participation in Christ Jesus. The faithfulness of Abraham brought God’s blessing and covenant to Abraham’s descendants. In the same way, the faithfulness of Jesus Christ brings reconciliation to the gentile nations and their inclusion. Paul explains that his relationship with God is not based as a Jew, who belongs to God’s covenant people with the Torah as means of knowing how to live as God’s covenant people. Paul’s covenant relationship is the same as the gentiles, with whom he has adapted himself, based on the faithfulness of Christ.
“faithfulness of Christ” (faith in Christ) – There is a growing scholarly consensus that the proper translation of this grammatical expression of Paul is the “faithfulness of Christ” rather than “faith in Christ.”

Meditate on the Text

Can you think of groups that place demands on Christians: To be a Christian you should talk this way, look this way, act this way. How much of our cultural baggage could be stripped away until we get down to what’s most important about living as a follower of Jesus?
Imagine that you carry a backpack that contains all of who you are. It’s very heavy and needs to be lightened. You have three piles. One contains those things that make you the good person you are. On the opposite is the pile of things that are your vices, the things that bring out the worst in you. In the middle is a pile of what’s left over. These things don’t contribute to your virtue but they’re not necessarily evil either. What’s in this pile? Your finances, good looks, health, job status, some pleasures, reputation? Would you be able to forget those things and just pack the good pile into your backpack?

Live the Text

Pay attention to the way people present themselves. What is important to each person and is it something that contributes to virtue, to vice, or is it simply something that has no positive benefit or destructive effect.
Work on lightening your load throughout each day. Worrying and being anxious about things that are outside of your control is futile. Determine to have your mind be lighter by the end of the day and more focused on things that matter most.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Philippians 2:25-30

Read the Text

25I consider it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus – my brother, co-worker, comrade-in-arms; your apostle and minister of my need. 26My reason for sending him is that he is missing you and feeling distraught, since you have heard he was ill. 27In fact, he was so ill he nearly died. However, God showed him mercy – not just him but me too, so I might not have grief heaped upon grief. 28For this reason I sent him expeditiously, so that when you see him again you might be glad and I also might be without grief.
29Give Epaphroditus a warm reception and provide a place to such distinguished people. 30Because of his sense of obligation to what Christ is doing here, he almost died, risking his life so that he might take up the slack in your ministry to me.

Think about the Text

This section of Philippians also reads like a recommendation letter. You could remove the Timothy and the Epaphroditus sections without destroying the flow of the text or losing information on which some other part of the letter is based. What does make these two sections important to the letter and complete the argument Paul is making is the way in which they function as examples of the way of thinking Paul is suggesting. The Philippians need to exhibit a way of thinking that puts the needs of others before their own (Phil 2:1-4). They are then instructed to think the same way as Jesus (Phil 2:5-11). The Timothy section provides an example of someone who thinks the way Jesus thinks by making others preeminent. The Epaphroditus section also provides an example of someone who was willing to make the extreme sacrifice (same phrase “unto death” in Phil 2:8 referring to Jesus is repeated in 2:30 about Epaphroditus). When we understand the function of Paul’s rhetoric we see how the context fits together for the purpose of exhortation through examples.
Paul does not have the same relationship with Epaphroditus as he does with Timothy. Perhaps Epaphroditus is older. Paul considers Epaphroditus a brother rather than a son. He uses a military metaphor, “a fellow soldier” or “comrade-in-arms.” Paul also calls him an apostle, though the word is normally translated as “messenger” within the context.
A key aspect of the type of approach Paul alludes to in his philosophical language is the control or removal of the passions or desires. Paul refers to these as “degrading passions” (Rom 1:26) and “lustful passions” (1 Thess 4:5). Another word often used to describe this is emotion. An extreme view portrays philosophers like the Stoics as emotionless. This is not true, since they describe some emotion, like love and joy, as “good emotion/passion.” Paul talks freely of love, joy, and sorrow/grief. These are healthy emotions to have, when we don’t take them to the extreme and become dependent on them or allow them to control our lives in an unhealthy way.
Paul continues to return to the topic of his incarceration and the role the Philippians have had in providing care for him. People placed in prison were not well-cared for by jailers. They were dependent on family and friends to bring them food and clothing. If they became ill, which was often the case in squalid conditions, they could die without medical treatment provided by those caring for them. People in jail also needed money, since the level of care and security they received during their imprisonment was dependent on a system of bribery. Epaphroditus was providing the care Paul needed beyond what the Philippians were able to send to him.

Meditate on the Text

What metaphors represent your relationship to people you work with in areas of ministry?
What are you willing to risk for others? How do we balance self-care with care for others? Where’s the boundary between selfishness and selflessness?
Imagine there’s an award ceremony in which people are handed a ceramic figurine of the Apostle Paul (the Paulos award). Whom do you see walking across the stage to receive their award? Are they people you know in your own community? Would others nominate you for a Paulos?

Live the Text

You are God’s apostle today. To whom is God sending you? Try to find at least one person this week for whom you can be her/his apostle.
Think of the people you know who live in difficult circumstances because of illness, disease, poverty, unemployment, family crises, etc. Is there someone among these people for whom you can become a resource?
If you meet someone that deserves a Paulos award, show warmth, respect, and honor to that person.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Philippians 2:19-24

Read the Text

19God willing, I hope soon to send Timothy to you. I’m looking forward to putting my mind at ease when I know of your affairs. 20Timothy is a rare person, who will give careful attention to your affairs. 21People usually are concerned only with their own affairs and not the affairs having to do with Jesus Christ. 22You know how valuable he is, because he worked with me in the gospel ministry like a son works with a father. 23For this reason, to start with, I hope to send him immediately after I figure out what’s happening with me. 24Afterward, I am confident of the Lord’s will that I’ll come right away too.

Think about the Text

“God willing” (I hope in the Lord Jesus) – Paul’s language here seems nothing more than a colloquial idiom expressing in religious language a future wish.
“I know of your affairs” (lit. “knowing the things concerning you”) – Throughout the letter Paul uses an imprecise phrase “the things.” Paul doesn’t seem to specify what things he has in mind. We use the same expression, “How are things?”
Paul continues the “soul” language. In v. 19 he wants to be “good-souled” (“heartened” we might say). In v. 20 Paul says he has no one of “equal-soul” (we might say “there’s no one comparable”).
“give careful attention to your affairs” (genuinely concerned for your welfare) – Timothy won’t just pretend to be interested in what’s happening to the Philippians but will carefully meditate on their situation.
Although this section could stand on its own as a recommendation type of letter (a type listed by Greco-Roman rhetoricians), it seems to follow closely on the preceding section giving Timothy as an example. This chapter begins with the exhortation to focus on “the things” of others (Phil 2:4). What follows is the prime example of selfless thought, which should be the manner of life to which we aspire (Phil 2:5). Paul now presents Timothy as a good example of someone who does that.

Meditate on the Text

You’ve probably asked someone to write a letter of recommendation for you related to employment. What would someone say about you if they were writing such a letter to introduce you to another church?
Think of people you know. Do you know what’s going on in their lives? Have you heard them talk about their circumstances but let your mind wander or spend your time thinking about what you were going to say next? Let your mind play a slideshow of people you know and remember the kinds of things they’re going through.
If your pastor wanted to send someone to go visit a person, are you the kind of person at the top of the list?

Live the Text

Ask a few people how things are going with them. Listen carefully to what they say. Determine to remember details of what they said, pray about the circumstances, and then make sure to follow up with them in a few days.
Be attentive to thoughts about other people’s lives. When someone crosses your mind, stop to send an email, post something to them on Facebook, write a letter, make a phone call. If you know someone is in the hospital and you’ve been meaning to visit them, take the time this week to attend to their needs.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Philippians 2:12-18

Read the Text

12So then, my beloved friends, in the same way as you’ve always listened to me – not only when I’m present with you but even more now in my absence – generate your own moral health with all due diligence. 13For God is the one who energizes you to have the will and way to be what God wants.
14Practice all these principles without bickering and quarreling, 15so that you might be honest and decent people, God’s innocent children living in a time of perversity and decadence. Within it you shine like the stars in the universe.
16By your consistent way of life I will have a basis for honor at Christ’s day of judgment. The quality of your character will prove that I did not run the race of life uselessly or that I labored unprofitably. Quite the contrary. 17Even though my sacrificial actions are like a libation of wine poured out as a sacrifice and ritual for your faithful lives, I am elated and celebrate with you. 18Similarly, be elated and celebrate with me.

Think about the Text

“generate your own moral health” (work out your own salvation) – This phrase has always been a difficult text to interpret and translate. If salvation is considered to be a spiritual experience in which the believer assents to a doctrine about the divinity of Jesus and is born again by God’s grace and not by works, then how can Paul tell the Philippians, whom he has already called saints, to work to produce their salvation?
This expression is only used elsewhere one place in Greek literature. Euripides, the 5th century Athenian poet, wrote in the tragedy, “The Children of Herakles,” “Why then do you hesitate if you can secure safety for the city and for your descendants?” It is in this play that Macaria, a daughter of Herakles, volunteers to be a sacrifice to Persephone to save the city from military attack. Macaria speaks, “Nay, if these be slain and I alone be saved, I have no hope in any wise of being happy. ... Conduct me to the scene of death, crown me with garlands, and begin the rites, if so it please you; then be victorious o'er the foe, for here I offer my life freely and without constraint, and for my brothers and myself I undertake to die. For I, by loving not my life too well, have found a treasure very fair, a glorious means to leave it.”
We tend to think of “salvation” primarily in contexts we know from the First/Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). Most often salvation has to do with rescue from danger. As Jews, who read and wrote Greek, used the Greek concept of salvation, the term is used in contexts of ethics or morality to mean a therapeutic healing of the soul through a process of change. This process appears in Paul’s language of work. Our expression “work out” has the verb with a prefixed preposition to mean bringing about an effect through motion. In Phil 2:13, “it is God who works in you,” Paul uses the same root with a different prefixed preposition to refer to the energy applied in the human soul by which God produces change.
In Plato’s work, Theaetetus 153.b, he has Socrates drawing a parallel between the action necessary to strengthen and improve the body and the same effect needed for the soul. Rest and idleness spoil the body, but the body is “preserved (saved) for a long time by motion and exercise.” The exercise of the soul is described as a “mental habit.” Socrates then concludes, “Is not the soul informed, and improved, and preserved (saved) by study and attention, which are motions...?” As early as Plato and during the time of Paul and later, Greco-Roman moral philosophy uses the language of salvation in moral contexts to describe the improvement of the soul by the exercise of the mind in making proper moral judgments. This is the context in which Paul is urging the Philippians to practice their way of thinking in a way that improves the soul.
“Practice all these principles without bickering and quarreling” (Do all things without murmuring and arguing) – Just because Paul admonishes them not to bicker and argue doesn’t mean Paul knows they are. This way of interpreting the text is called mirror reading: whatever someone says not to do means the audience is doing the reverse. This is only speculation without confirmation from some other text.
“By your consistent way of life” (holding fast to the word of life) – Paul does not depend on the Philippians to know the date when they were born again as a basis for their condition at the judgment. This expression and many others Paul uses implies that followers of Jesus are continually to be maturing toward the goal. Salvation is an ongoing process (1 Cor 1:18; 15:1-2; 2 Cor 2:15; 7:10; cf. 2 Thess 2:13; 1 Pet 1:9; 2:2).
“a basis for honor at Christ’s day of judgment” (boast on the day of Christ) – Paul is not seeking to be proud of his efforts but to anticipate that a future judgment about his life’s work will result in the honor of a job well done. He is not content with simply doing his best. His job is not done until the people to whom he ministered have reached their final reward and they are proof of the vitality and effectiveness of his labor. Paul uses metaphors of athletics, labor, and religious ritual to communicate the kind of ministry he has and its intended consequences.

Meditate on the Text

Imagine your soul and see the sign “Under Construction.” How would you imagine what’s under construction and how far along the work has come? Is it a large complex already? Does it look like a mall or a cathedral? A sports pavilion or a sanctuary? Is it a retreat center with an indoor pool or a shack with an outhouse? If you could see the blueprint for a mature soul, how much more work do you need to do?
Try to imagine it’s your turn to stand before the judgment. All of the people to whom you ministered in some way are asked to step forward as witnesses. Would this be an event at which you would feel honor and joy, or would you be ashamed that your life had little effect?

Live the Text

Whenever you see signs of road construction or a building going up, let it remind you of your continuing work on yourself.
As you meet people this week, think about whether that person would make a good witness to the effect of your life.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Philippians 2:5-11

Read the Text

5This way of thinking should be patterned on Christ Jesus:

6The one existing in the role of a god,
did not seek to grasp equal status with a god,
7but demoted himself,
taking the role of a slave.

Having been born in the same way as humans
and looking like any other human,
8he debased himself,
choosing to be willing to die [even the death of crucifixion].

9So God promoted him
and granted him a rank above any other,
10so that before Jesus all would show deference [heavenly, earthly and subterranean]
11and the voice of all acclaim that Jesus Christ is Sovereign [for the honor of Father God].

Think about the Text

“This way of thinking should be patterned on Christ Jesus” (Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus) – When we read a phrase like “let this mind be in you,” it sounds very mystical. We think of the “mind of Christ” and how we can implant that mind within our own brain. Here again Paul is talking about “prudential thinking” (phronesis). We are to think the same way that Jesus thought, not intellectually but with the same moral judgment or practical wisdom.
Paul’s language in Phil 2:6-11 reads like poetry. We might infer that Paul is quoting this early hymn. Scholars differ on how to arrange the lines to reconstruct the poetry. Here I am adapting the lines as Jerome Murphy-O’Connor has suggested (Paul: A Critical Life, p. 225), though the translation is completely my own. I also follow him in his suggestion that extended lines might give evidence of Paul adding a gloss (explanatory phrase) to complete the meaning.
The hymn functions as an explanation for the way in which Jesus gave greater regard to others than to himself. We need not conjecture that the hymn is making a theological statement about the substance of Christ’s nature. For example, one does not change the material substance of the body to become a slave. Theologians have called this “emptying” of Christ the kenosis. It is a mistake, however, to take the language to mean Christ emptying himself as if he is a container which can be emptied of its contents. The form of a slave refers to the role of a slave. For someone to take that role voluntarily would be to lose one’s status, in other words, demote oneself. Consequently, the hymn first talks of the role and status of a god, which Christ did not choose. Rather, Christ demoted himself to slave status.
In the second strophe or stanza, Christ’s humanity is the topic. In this same way, a human who is willing to die the death of a common criminal debases (humbles) him- or herself. If we are correct about the addition, Paul adds the further explanation that this was the death of crucifixion. The Greek term refers broadly to forms of torture and execution in which a pole was used. The Greek word for cross (stauros) has nothing to do with cross-beams. This became the terminology based on the Latin translations. Rather, a stauros is a pike, a long sharp pole inserted into the body of the one who would be planted like a tree in the ground as a warning and threat to others. For whatever reason, the Romans began attaching people to the poles rather than inserting the poles into people.
“God promoted him” (God highly exalted him) – The context is one of role, status, and rank. As a result of Jesus’ willingness for self-sacrifice and to be demoted and debased, God then promoted Jesus to the highest rank. The incarnation and exaltation story here is not one of Jesus simply returning after his death to what he was previously. This is the language of Jesus earning the right to be Lord and to be shown deference and acclaim by all beings in the universe.
The language of Jesus being exalted to heaven reminds some scholars of the apotheosis of Roman emperors. They infer that Paul’s language about Jesus has some similarities to ascriptions given to Caesar. They draw the conclusion that the context for the status and role of Jesus is the empire. Scholars will list names attributed to Caesar and let you make the inference. In fact, there is very little support for this line of thinking. Caesar is not the only human to experience apotheosis or divination. In Greek and Roman literature the figure of the hero or sage also attained divinity and a home in the Isle of the Blessed. Since Paul’s context is Greco-Roman moral philosophy, this fits much closer to Paul’s line of reasoning. The last two chapters of Fourth Maccabees describe the honor and divine reward given to those who endure suffering. The main in Phil. 2 relates to phronÄ“sis, the forming of rational judgments, making the best choices. Similarly, Fourth Maccabees contains the author's statement about the purpose of the document, "The subject that I am about to discuss is most philosophical, that is, whether devout reason is sovereign over the emotions. So it is right for me to advise you to pay earnest attention to philosophy. For the subject is essential to everyone who is seeking knowledge, and in addition it includes the praise of the highest virtue-- I mean, of course, rational judgment (phronÄ“sis)" (4 Macc 1:1-2).

Meditate on the Text

Imagine you could take Jesus’ “thinking cap” and put it on your own head. How would you think differently about life?
Think through the hymn as a narrative. What happens in scene one? Scene two? Scene three?

Live the Text

See how many ways this week you can give preference to others. Let the other driver pass you and get in front of you. In the store, offer to let someone else get in line in front of you. In a discussion or argument with someone, quickly offer, “You may be right.” Say to a spouse or family member when there is a disagreement over who was responsible, “It was probably my fault.”
Think about the famous WWJD (What would Jesus do?). How does this change any decisions you make?