We and the other users of the Uniform Series are studying Philippians 1:12-21 for Sunday, January 20 – the first week of a three-week focus on Philippians, as a matter of fact. It’s an old joke around my house that my favorite Bible text is the one I’m working on, but honestly, Philippians really IS a personal favorite.

[Before I checked out the 2014 Bible Gateway readerships’ top 10 most-read books, and the Bible Society’s 2017 top 5 poll, I would have said it was everyone else’s, too. Maybe I was under the influence of the “false-consensus effect.” But, after admitting I was wrong, and after noting that the Bible Gateway methodology almost certainly favors long books over shorter ones which no doubt puts a short epistle at a disadvantage, I’ll still say that my anecdotal evidence tells me that a lot of people besides me like Philippians a lot.]

Anyway, now that you know how I feel, here are my notes on this week’s text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The book of Philippians is a letter from Paul to the church at Philippi. Philippi is a city in the Roman province of Macedonia, and Acts 16 relates the story of events that befall Paul and his traveling companions on their mission trip to Macedonia, on which Philippi is the first stop. So, that Philippi.

There seems to be no dispute about Paul’s authorship of the letter, and no question that Paul is in prison when he writes it, but there’s some question about the date of the letter, because some difference of opinion about where Paul is imprisoned – whether in Rome, during his final imprisonment, or in Ephesus, during an earlier one, or maybe elsewhere. So the letter could have been written as early as 50 CE, or as late as the early 60s CE. We might feel Paul’s words are all the more poignant if we imagine him to have written the letter later, from Rome, when he might have had a sense of his own imminent death. But the guiding issues and concerns of the text seem likely to be similar no matter when precisely it was composed.

Some readers have proposed that the current text has been edited from what might have been three original letters. That argument emphasizes what seems like an abrupt shift in the flow of the writing at the beginning of chapter 3, along with noting that it’s odd that Paul doesn’t thank Epaphroditus and the Philippians until the very end of the letter (Philippians 4:18), especially since he talks about Epaphroditus up in chapter 2 (Philippians 2:25-30). This makes some sense – and yet, in either case, the single-letter hypothesis or the three-letter hypothesis, the text we have before us hangs together as a document praising and encouraging the community at Philippi, and urging a particular kind of attitude towards living the Christian life.

Our text comes early in the letter, immediately following the opening and a section in which Paul gives thanks for the new church. It presents Paul’s take on what’s going on with him – how he’s thinking about his own imprisonment “for the sake of the gospel.” That will be followed by exhortation to live worthy of that gospel, the illustration of the mind of Christ (spoiler alert: the text for next week), more exhortation, more illustration of the proper mind, this time from his own case, an appeal for the resolution of the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche, and other concluding remarks. So – we might be able to read this text as the first in a set of related illustrations of a general argument: the goal – the achievement of God’s purposes, the glorification of God through Christ – reframes human experience, giving us a different set of standards for evaluating everything.

CLOSER READING: There is one word that repeats a lot in this text: Christ. Paul’s imprisonment is for Christ (v13), which thankfully now “everyone” knows; Christ is being proclaimed (v15, 16, 17, 18), over and over, from various motives; the Spirit of Christ will bring about deliverance (v19), ultimately Christ will be exalted (v20), and in the end, “living is Christ” (v21).

It’s all about Christ. That is, not about Paul.

[Considering that this is a letter from prison – it would be possible to imagine a letter from prison that includes a good deal more complaint than this. Paul’s criterion for evaluation is not “how do I feel?” or “how am I doing?” but “is the gospel spreading?” (v12) And he presents this to his readers as the first thing to be aware of.]

We might ask ourselves how the “brothers and sisters” (NRSV; Greek “brothers”) are “made confident in the Lord” by Paul’s imprisonment. It would be easy to see how things could go the other way: that Paul’s imprisonment could have been a deterrent. Paul doesn’t explain this any more precisely. Maybe once people see that “we can do hard things” it becomes easier to take the risk?

Another repeated word is rejoice – which will be a recurring theme in this letter. Paul rejoices that Christ is being proclaimed, and announces that his rejoicing will continue.

The deliverance he anticipates (v19) at first glance seems to mean “getting out of prison” but quickly takes on the possible meaning of “deliverance” from life in this world (v20). The discussion in vv19-26 puts what we are likely to see as a given – that survival, self-preservation will be a person’s ultimate priority – into Paul’s different frame: Christ is glorious, being with Christ is most desirable, doing what’s best for others is the first priority …

Once again, it’s all about Christ. That is, not about Paul.

After the emphasis on proclamation in vv15-18, we might read Paul’s references to “speaking with all boldness” and the “flesh” and “body” in vv20-24 as a variation on that proclamation: that he sees his living and his possible dying, his entire being, as a proclamation of Christ at this point.

Christ is the priority. That changes how Paul views everything else, in this case specifically imprisonment, and the possibility of death – or, not dying and having more work to do – all of which might be approached as suffering, but in which Paul finds cause for rejoicing since his focus is on what all of this is doing relative to the top priority of proclamation of Christ.

So, I’m reading this as an implicit message to “get our priorities sorted out.” Which made me think of this, of course:

mosaic painting of Saint Paul writing