September 23, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians

John F. FinkSt. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, sometimes termed “the letter of joy,” is read as part of the Office of Readings next week, the 26th week in Ordinary Time. It is a short four chapters, but it reveals Paul’s sensitivity and love for his converts as well as insights into his doctrine of justification.

Paul had good reason to love the Philippians because Philippi was his first Christian community in Europe. It is located in northeastern Greece, and was named for the father of Alexander the Great. The area became Roman in the second century B.C.

We know from the Acts of the Apostles that Paul arrived in Philippi— along with Silas, Timothy and Luke—in 49 or 50. After making some converts, he and Silas were imprisoned for a while—Paul converted his jailer—and then were asked to leave the city.

He went to Thessalonica but, from then on, the Christians in Philippi continued to support him with financial aid. He thanks them for that aid in Chapter 4 of this letter, telling them that they were the only ones who did so.

Paul was again in prison somewhere when he wrote this letter. It could have been in Ephesus, most likely in 55, or Caesarea in 57 or even Rome between 59 and 63.

He thought there was a possibility that he might be martyred while in prison, and he wasn’t sure whether he preferred life or death. “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain,” he wrote. “If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose” (Phil 1:21-22).

He then encourages the Philippians to remain steadfast in the faith. He told them to stand firm against their opponents, although he doesn’t name the opponents at this point. They were probably pagans.

In Chapter 2, he begins by appealing for congregational unity, telling his listeners to be united in heart, humbly regard others as more important than themselves, and look out for the interests of others. They should, he said, have the same attitude as Christ.

Then follows one of the earliest Christian hymns, quoted here by Paul. It is my favorite Bible passage, and begins, “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God something to be grasped” (Phil 2:6).

At the beginning of Chapter 3, the letter seems to be coming to an end. But then Paul apparently received some disturbing news in the form of false teachers—or because another letter was inserted here. He says, “Beware of the dogs! Beware of evil workers! Beware of the mutilation!” (Phil 3:2). He is talking about those who insisted that Christians had to be circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law.

He recites his autobiography, and tells his listeners to be imitators of him.

Finally, Paul urges the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord always and to “keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you” (Phil 4:9). †

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