LETTERS OF ST. PAUL: Philippians
[Christ Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. Phil 2:8
“Don’t skip to Phil 2:6-11 too quickly!” Surprising advice for a short four chapter epistle nudged in between Ephesians and Colossians? Not if you’re trying to figure out what Jesus meant to St. Paul. But if you just want to hit one of the earliest Christian affirmations of who Jesus is, go for it! But beware— Phil 2:6-11 has some hotly debated interpretation issues. Is this the earliest Christian affirmation of the divinity of Jesus? Experts debate whether “though he was in the form of God” (2:6) refers to Jesus’ having a divine nature or to his divine-given glory or status.
Paul took this early Christian hymn and skillfully inserts it at a crucial point in this letter. In chapter 1, Paul reflects on his suffering for the gospel of Christ. This was not a “memory” exercise— he was in jail when he composed this letter (mid to late 50s or early 60s A.D.) Nor was it irrelevant to the history of the church at Philippi (located near the Aegean Sea, along a commercial route stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea): early in his ministry Paul had been mistreated there (1 Thes 2:2). Yet, Paul’s perspective is circumspect: given all the sufferings of Christ Jesus and his followers, he encourages the church community at Philippi to have the same “mind” that Jesus exhibited in the hymn— and to keep faith in adversity and humility in love (2:1-4).
Like 2 Corinthians, some scholars think that Philippians is an edited compilation of three letters: 3:2-4:3; 4:10-20; and 1:1-3:1 plus 4:4-9, 21-23. This speculation derives in part from the nature of 3:2-4:3— it’s a bit more sarcastic and self-congratulatory. Paul tells why he has considerable reason to “boast in the flesh” (3:4). Nevertheless, he tempers his bragging with a little gospel-induced-realism: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (3:7).
His realism does not let him ignore those who proclaim their faith in Christ out of “envy and rivalry” (1:15) and others who are against the cross of Christ (3:18). He has no desire to punish them (1:18; 3:18) even if his language can be caustic (3:2). Rather, he exhorts his brothers and sisters: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (4:8). Not a bad thought.