Philippians has been a letter I’ve returned to many times over the last 20 years or so. Not particularly by my design, more that it has at various points seemed the most appropriate place to go. Every year in January, we have at All Souls what we call our Partnership Sunday – a chance to review and reflect, a moment to recommit and reshape one’s priorities. And as I was working out what to do, it struck me forcibly that Philippians covered so many of the areas that needed saying, all in one place. So I made the rather rash decision to try to offer an overview of the whole letter in 30 minutes.
Rather than taking some of the themes for which it is perhaps best known (eg joy, fellowship in suffering etc), I’ve always sensed that its primary concern has been with the unity in the gospel of the congregation. For apart from the presenting issues inspiring Paul to write it (his having to send Epaphroditus home, his gratitude to the church for their gifts and his desire to allay their concerns for him in prison), the pressing problem is their unity in the gospel and resistance to non-gospel teaching. How revealing it is to contrast how Paul treats his trouble-making fellow preachers in Rome (Phil 1:17-18) with those false teachers in Philippi that he starkly dismisses as dogs and mutilators of the flesh (Phil 3:2-4). But the saddest but most sensitive problem is the falling out that has happened between 2 church members, Euodia & Syntyche (Phil 4:2-4). Who knows what it was about or who was ‘more in the right’ etc etc? That’s immaterial. We don’t need to know. The whole letter is an impassioned appeal to work together (as they had done in the past) because their divisions make them easy victims of the external pressures from persecution and internal challenges of false teaching.
Our gospel unity must never been taken for granted – but nor must it ever become an end in itself, or even an idol. For Paul never insists on unity at all costs – the gospel gives clear boundaries to it. And it is into this that God calls us to be partners – a key term in the letter (koinonia – κοινωνία – translated ‘partnership’ or sometimes perhaps misleadingly as ‘fellowship’ – used in Phil 1:5, Phil 2:1 and Phil 3:10).
Anyway, you can catch the full talk here – but for those who are interested, here is the outline:
1. The Urgency of Unity: PERSECUTION
- Paul’s Predicament (1:13-14)
- The Philippians’ Situation (1:28-29)
- The Philippian Stress Fractures (4:2-3)
2. The Foundation for Unity: CHRIST
- Paul’s indiscriminate Love (1:1,4)
- Gospel-worthy conduct (1:27)
- United with Christ (2:1)
3. The Path to Unity: HUMILITY
- All a question of attitude (2:5)
- Or selfish ambitions (1:17, 2:3)
- Our models:
- Paul (1:17-18) who follows…
- Christ himself (2:5-11)
- as do Timothy (2:19-24)
- and Epaphroditus (2:25-30)
4. The Boundaries of Unity: GRACE
- Imperative Unity with Troublemakers: Preachers of the Cross (1:18)
- Impossible Unity with False Teachers: Enemies of the Cross (3:2-4, 18-20)
It is to this end that I believe Paul was motivated to pray that extraordinary combination of requests for these dear friends of his – for we don’t oftenseehow necessarily integrated love and knowledge are:
This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight (1:9)
Incidentally, I noticed that the Simple Pastor has been working on the letter too, and it was from that I got the idea of making a wordle from the whole letter. Here’s the result of my go at it. It is quite telling…
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Interesting wordle. I wonder, though: would the other Pauline epistles be that different? Of all the biggish words I see here, my guess is that only “rejoice” and “whatever” would be disproportionately larger here. But prove me wrong!!
yes it’s a fair point…