Two letters from Paul to congregations for whom he had very different messages:
Galatians addresses a time when the early Christian movement was struggling with its identity and mission. Paul is angry and direct in his “advice”. His passionate effort to solve the problems the Galatians are facing is quite evident.
Philippians presents a very different Paul. It would be easy to imagine that the first European church, comprised of many gentiles would also suffer identity problems. And, this letter finds Paul in prison. However, his message is overwhelmingly concerned with the joy he is experiencing in his belief that the Philippians are continuing to follow his teaching and will, indeed, result with their experience of the peace of God.
Meet Our Professors
Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament
Harry Attridge has made scholarly contributions to New Testament exegesis and to the study of Hellenistic Judaism and the history of the early Church. He has published numerous books, authored book chapters and articles in scholarly journals, and has edited 11 books, including Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, First-Century Cynicism in the Epistles of Heraclitus, The Interpretation of Biblical History in the Antiquitates Judaicae of Flavius Josephus, Nag Hammadi Codex I: The Jung Codex, and Psalms in Community. Dean Attridge has been an editorial board member of Catholic Biblical Quarterly, the Harvard Theological Review, the Journal of Biblical Literature, and the Hermeneia Commentary Series. Before coming to Yale, Dr. Attridge was Professor of New Testament Studies and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame. He has served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature since 2001. He holds degrees from Boston College (A.B.), Cambridge University (B.A., M.A.), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Harvard University (Ph.D.).
David L. Bartlett
David L. Bartlett was the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches, USA, Bartlett served as the senior minister of congregations in Minnesota, Illinois, and California. From 1990 to 2005, Bartlett served at YDS on the faculty as well as in administrative roles including Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Dean of Academic Affairs. Bartlett has published numerous books and scholarly articles. It is with great sadness that we note his passing in late 2017.
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Paul’s letter to the Galatians is unique among the letters of Paul that have been passed down to us in the New Testament. Unlike the other letters, which begin with thanksgiving and move to encouragement, Galatians begins with outraged astonishment and moves through admonition. It ends almost as brusquely as it begins, though throughout Paul’s pastoral affection for the Galatians occasionally shines through and his hope for them remains evident.
We cannot be sure exactly whom Paul had in mind when he addressed his letter to the churches at Galatia. “Galatia” was the name for a Roman territory. Paul could either be writing to inhabitants of the southern part of this territory, in southern Asia Minor, or he could be writing to ethnic “Galatians”—Celts who lived in the northern part of the province. Serious scholars disagree about which is more likely, trying to draw both internal evidence from our letter and external evidence from the Book of Acts. If we were sure about the intended recipients we might also be able to make a more informed guess about the date of the letter and along with that its temporal relationship to other Pauline writings, especially Romans. It would be nice to know the location of the intended recipients of this letter, but even without that information we are able to make some fairly clear inferences about Paul’s relationship to these churches.
From the evidence of the first part of Galatians, Paul had not intended to include this territory as part of his mission work. Rather when he was on his way elsewhere he was waylaid in Galatia by illness. “You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” (4:13-14). It is also clear that he took advantage of this apparent setback to preach the gospel among the Galatians and became the founder of the churches there.
The Situation of the Galatian Churches
Our discussions of Galatians will center on the disappointment Paul expresses toward the churches he founded, and we will want to explore some of the details of this disappointment in our conversations. We can make some preliminary observations about what has happened in Galatia. When he founded churches there, Paul insisted that God’s good and saving work in Jesus Christ was a gift available to all people to be accepted by faith. For Gentile converts to the church this meant that they were not required to follow the regulations of the Jewish law. In particular male Gentile converts were not to be circumcised, and Gentiles who became followers of Christ were not obliged to observe Jewish dietary laws.
After Paul had left Galatia to continue on his evangelistic journeys, other Christian leaders came in and tried to improve on his version of the gospel. Perhaps they wanted to argue that Paul had got the gospel wrong. More likely they suggested that what he said was all right as far as it went, but it did not go far enough. Gentiles who followed Jesus became heirs of the heritage of Israel and therefore they were expected to display the markers that set Jews off from the pagan society around them. Male followers of Christ were to be circumcised. Believing families were to keep kosher table at home and Christian churches were to observe dietary laws at congregational meals as well. Paul believed that if Gentiles took on the burden of these practices they rejected the Gospel he had preached; they rejected Christ himself.
What Kind of Letter is this?
Over recent decades a number of scholars of early Christianity have noted that there was a variety of different kinds of letters that were employed by Christian and non-Christian writers alike. While it seems unlikely that Paul wrote Galatians with a guidebook for letter writing in hand, there is no doubt that he was influenced by the rhetorical practices of his time. Even in our time business letters tend to follow a different format than more personal letters, and agenda driven-emails are different from gossipy Facebook postings.
Not surprisingly, Paul’s letter employs strategies appropriate to different kinds of first century discourse. In part, he is trying to persuade the Galatians to follow the way of the Gospel he has preached. In part, he is trying to provide evidence that puts his opponents and their “gospel” on trial. Hans Dieter Betz of the University of Chicago wrote a major study of Galatians. In that book he argues that Galatians is an apologetic letter, modeled after the rhetoric of a trial: “In the case of Galatians the addressees are identical with the jury with Paul being the defendant and his opponents the accusers” (Betz, 24). Paul is thus trying to persuade the readers to come to a verdict about the opponents who dispute his gospel. Betz also suggests that the letter may be a kind of magic letter. If the readers disobey its injunctions they will be cursed (Betz, 25). Paul’s willingness to curse his opponents is clear enough in Gal 1:8-9, but Betz goes further to suggest that if the members of the community read Paul’s letter and still return to their lives under the “elemental spirits of the universe” they have chosen spiritual death instead of life (See 4:8-10).
The Issues addressed
There are at least three interrelated issues in Galatians. The first is the issue of the freedom of the Gospel. Do Gentiles who convert to follow Jesus take on the responsibilities of the law, especially—or perhaps exclusively—circumcision and dietary regulations?
Second is the issue of Paul’s own authority. We shall see that his opponents not only disagree with his version of the gospel; they call into question his right to interpret the gospel at all. They call into doubt the validity of his apostleship, and much of the letter is a defense of Paul’s right and obligation to represent Christ to the community.
Third is the question of the shape of Christian life in Galatia in the light of the Gospel. As with his other letters, Paul takes the final sections of Galatians to spell out for his hearers the ways in which the faithful life is distinguished both from a kind of licentious excess and from a slavish obedience to the law. It is obvious even from this brief description that Paul’s exhortations for Christian behavior follow directly from his understanding of the freedom-giving Gospel.
The commentators sketch out somewhat different versions of the structure of the letter—based in part on its analogy to forms of ancient rhetoric and in part on its own particular function and themes. Carl Holladay provides a helpfully simple outline of the general movement of the letter:
Opening Introduction: 1:6-10 (we will write about the “missing” Thanksgiving when we discuss chapter one).
Statement of facts 1:11-2:14
Final peroration 6:11-18 (including the final benediction)
All this fits well with Betz’s suggestion that the letter can be seen rather like an address at a trial. But over against this backdrop the letter also has its own more pastoral movement—Paul defends his apostleship and authority (1:1-2:21). Paul instructs his flock 3:1-5:12. Paul exhorts them to faithful obedience to the gospel as he understands it (5:13-6:18). (Holladay, 334-335)
Time and place
Unfortunately we do not know exactly when or where Paul wrote Galatians. He has obviously moved on with his missionary program and does not intend to return to Galatia in the near future to straighten them out. He wants the letter to do that. Galatians was almost certainly written before Romans (which revisits and revises some of its themes) but how long before remains unclear.
T. Wright, “The Letter to the Galatians: Exegesis and Theology (2000),” Ch. 18 in Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978–2013 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013) 191–215.
Louis Martyn, “Paul’s Opponents in Galatia,” in A Wayne Meeks and John T. Fitzgerald, eds., The Writings of St. Paul (New York: Norton, 2007) 235–41.
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I. Chapters 1 & 2: Paul’s Personal History
In the opening chapters of Galatians, Paul lays the ground for his argument against the teaching of his successors and opponents. In order to do this, he needs first of all to remind the Galatians of the grounds and the validity of his own authority as an apostle. Hans Dieter Betz in his analysis of the rhetorical form of Galatians says that this section consists of an exordium—an introduction to the themes of the letter, and a narration, a narrative account of the facts that bolster Paul’s claims that he is an authentic preacher of the gospel and that the gospel he proclaims comes not from his own wisdom or even his own benevolence but from God through Jesus Christ.
The Salutation 1:1-10
The standard form of salutation for a letter in Paul’s day begins with the introduction of the author and the designation of the recipients. Typically Paul does not simply state his name in this salutation; he states his credentials. As in Romans 1:1, 1 Cor. 1:1, and 2 Cor 1:1, Paul introduces himself as an apostle, and as in Romans and 1 Corinthians he reminds the audience that he is an apostle because he has been “called.”
Soon he will include his version of the story of his call, but first of all in Galatians he wants to make absolutely explicit what is implicit in Roman and the Corinthian letters as well: His apostleship comes from God, and only from God. It is not that he protests too much, but he certainly protests a great deal; and we can begin to suspect what we will soon discover, that his opponents have been raising questions about the validity of his claim to apostolic authority.
“Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead.” (1:1)
The brief description of his apostleship reminds the Galatians of who Paul his. His address to them reminds them of who they are: “and from the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself up for our sins, to set us free from the present evil age.” For Paul the history of the cosmos is divided between the present age and the age to come. The good news is that in Jesus Christ, the age to come, God’s triumphant rule, is even now breaking in on the present evil age. The bad news, as we shall see, is that the Galatians keep trying to fall back into the very age from which Christ has come to rescue them.
With 1:6 we come to a surprising feature of this letter—a telling silence. In Paul’s letter to the churches the salutation is always followed by a prayer of thanksgiving for the congregation to whom he writes. So for instance in Philippians, Paul follows the salutation with these words: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel.” (Phil 1:3-5)
We do not know for sure whether the Galatian Christians who heard this letter knew of Paul’s habit of moving from greeting to thanksgiving. The use of a thanksgiving early in the letter was characteristic not just of Paul’s letters but of many letters at the time. Surely they were taken aback when, instead of praising them for their steadfastness in the gospel, as he did the Philippians, Paul writes:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to another gospel.” (1:6). Imagine or remember a letter from someone you love and admire. You open the letter hoping for commendation and receive condemnation instead. For the Galatians the reasons for the condemnation will soon become clear. They have deserted Paul’s gospel, which is the only true gospel. The Galatians are to be condemned; those who have led them astray are accursed. The transliteration of the Greek sounds familiar to English speakers to “let the one who led you astray be anathema.” (1:9)
Paul’s testimony: his call 1:10-24
Paul tells of his call for at least two reasons. First of all he himself becomes an example of the radical shift from the present evil age to the new age of grace and mercy. From being a persecutor of the church he has been turned into its staunch defender. He has not fallen back into his old ways; nor should the Galatians.
Second, Paul wants to make clear that he does not derive his apostolic authority or the gospel that he preaches from any human source, especially we shall see, from the apostles who knew Jesus during his earthly ministry. Paul deliberately sets himself in the great tradition of the prophets. His description of his own call to apostleship very closely echoes Jeremiah 1:4-8. For this reason and because of its context in Galatians, students of Paul have wanted to refer to this as his call narrative, not his conversion narrative. He does not change religions so much as he changes vocations. (A more elaborate and dramatic version of this story is presented in Acts 9:1-19, 22:6-16 and 26:12-18.) Because this is the story of Paul’s prophetic call and of his particular mission to the Gentiles it may be preferable to translate Galatians 1:16 as the NRSV note suggests: “(God) was pleased to reveal his son in me.” That is, by means of my proclamation.
Paul’s testimony: His relationship with the earlier apostles (2:1-10)
What is perfectly clear in this section is that Paul wants to emphasize that his authority comes entirely from the risen Christ and not at all from those who were apostles before him, particularly Peter, James the brother of Jesus, and John, who were leaders of the church in Jerusalem.
What is not clear is why Paul feels it necessary to stress his independence so completely. One plausible guess is that the teachers who have followed after him in Galatia claimed that their teaching is congruent with the teaching of those earlier apostles and that by correcting Paul they are in fact enforcing the gospel that the prior apostles rightly proclaim.
Paul’s defense is twofold. Its two claims are somewhat in tension with one another, but this is not surprising given his strong sense of his independence and his estimation of his authority. First, he wants to insist that he does not need the approval of the apostles in Jerusalem. In the section leading up to our passage he says that he did visit Jerusalem three years after his call but he did not stay long and he did not ask for approval.
Second, he wants to insist that though he does not need the approval of the apostles in Jerusalem, he in fact has that approval. Those apostles not only approved his ministry, they made clear their approval of a gospel that did not require adherence to Jewish law by the fact that they accepted Titus, a Gentile, as one of their fellow believers without insisting that he be circumcised.
Paul’s attitude toward the earlier apostles seems relatively respectful but hardly reverent. In fact the tricky phrase in 2:9 suggesting that Cephas, James and John “were acknowledged to be pillars” might also be translated “they were reputed to be pillars” or perhaps even, “the so-called pillars.” Reading the text in that way would prepare us for the dispute between Cephas and Paul that lies just ahead. (Cephas is the Aramaic that is translated into the Greek, Petros, and into the English, “Peter.”
As Paul remembers the conversations in Jerusalem, the pillars required only one thing of him in his ministry, that he would remember the poor in Jerusalem, that is, he would collect an offering from the Gentile congregations for the sake of the “poor” Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. A review of his letters will reveal how seriously he took that mission. (See for example 2 Cor 8 and 9; 1 Cor 16; Rom 15). It would seem that the discussions reported in Acts 2 are the same conversations reported in Acts 15, so scholars ask why. Two insights may help: First, Acts is written some decades after Galatians, sometime after the dispute about the mission to the Gentiles has been largely resolved in favor of a Gentile mission. Furthermore, throughout his work, the author of Acts wants to stress the unity of the church in ways that perhaps underplay some of the more evident tensions of Galatians 2. Second, as J. Louis Martyn suggests, Paul is not writing to the Galatians primarily to report the debate between Antioch and Jerusalem, nor to validate his larger missionary activity with Barnabas; he is writing to validate the gospel he has preached to the Galatians and his right to preach that gospel. (See Martyn, 208-211)
The Narrative Continues: Paul and Cephas at Antioch 2:11-21
With every good reason we wish we had Peter’s version of this story. As in so many anecdotes from the pulpit then and now the author emerges as the hero of his own reminiscence. The situation is fairly clear. Peter has come to visit Paul in Antioch where there were Gentile believers. When he was on his own, Peter was perfectly content to eat what the Gentiles ate without worrying about any dietary restrictions. But when some delegates came from James (by happenstance? As spies?), Peter withdrew from the Gentile meals eating only kosher food with the Jerusalem contingent, and he dragged other Jews including Paul’s close companion Barnabas into what Paul calls Peter’s hypocrisy.
In Paul’s version of the story Paul gets the last word: “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews.” (Gal. 2:14). In this telling of the story Paul makes a couple of points. First, he has stayed true to the Jerusalem agreement as Peter has not. Second, Peter himself by his behavior approves of the very law-free Gospel that Paul’s successors are opposing among the Galatians.
We have to acknowledge that if Paul were to read his criticism of Peter in the light of some of his other writings he might have to acknowledge that Peter had a point. In both 1 Corinthians and Romans Paul admonishes Christians not to let their fellow Christians stumble as a result of their own Christian freedom. If a Christian’s faith is strong enough to let her eat food sacrificed to idols, she ought to refrain from such eating if it would scandalize her more scrupulous brother. (See 1 Cor. 8:7-13; Romans 14:13-23.) In many ways Peter is doing exactly what Paul will elsewhere encourage “strong” Christians to do: not let his freedom be the occasion for another’s dismay.
Perhaps it was the case that by the time he got to writing Romans, Paul was more willing to concede Peter’s point. The Jerusalem agreement seems to allow for admission of Gentile believers to the Christ community, perhaps on the grounds of the universal vision of passages like Isaiah 49:6, 60:1-7. The decision to admit Gentiles to the community apparently did not specify how such Gentiles are to behave when they are in fellowship with Jews. Can they serve shrimp cocktails (or the first century equivalent) at the pot luck after a prayer service? The issue was not decided in Jerusalem. Paul thought it was all right to eat such meals. The men from James thought it was not. Peter tried to hold everyone together, as Paul does in 1 Cor. Perhaps by the time by the time he wrote that letter and the letter to the Romans, he had learned some lessons.
Because our early Greek manuscripts include no punctuation or paragraphs we cannot be sure whether Galatians 2:15-16 is the punch line of Paul’s speech to Peter or the beginning of the more general claim he makes to the Galatians at the conclusion of this narrative section. In either case the implication for the Galatians is broader than the discussion of the incident at Antioch. The question has now become: “How are we justified” or to put it too simply “How do we enter a right relationship to God.” The answer is through Jesus Christ. In his crucifixion Christ opened up a new way to God, not through obedience to the Law but through trust in Jesus, who put the law to death but is himself alive in the lives of believers and in the community of the church.
It is much debated whether in v. 16 Paul is saying that the Galatians are justified by their faith in Christ or by Christ’s faithfulness to God. The Greek phrase is entirely ambiguous. It may be that there is less at stake here than the debates would indicate. What is clear enough in Paul’s writings throughout is that our justification, our getting right with God, depends first of all on Jesus Christ (whether best understood as his faithfulness or as his obedience)? But we lay hold of that righteousness through our faith, through our trust. The details of the vocabulary are less importance than the centrality of the claim.
It is that claim that Paul will elaborate in reminding the Galatians of the Gospel that he preached and that they are in danger of abandoning.
Bernard Lategan, “Is Paul Defending His Apostleship in Galatians: The Function of Galatians 1:11-12 and 2:19-20 in the Development of Paul’s Argument,” NTS 34 (1988) 411-30.
Debbie Hunn, “Christ versus the Law: Issues in Galatians 2:17-28,” CBQ 72 (2010) 537-55.
Questions for Discussion:
- Paul bases his certainty on his role as an apostle and on his call from God. In the denominations which we represent we have noticed that sometimes people claim calls from God that lead them in very ungodly ways. And sometimes apostolic succession does not guarantee apostolic wisdom. How do you think about the role of authority and the place of leaders in your own church or denomination?
- Very few Christians today argue about the continuing validity of circumcision or even about dietary requirements based on the Pentateuch. Are there issues in your communities where Christians have claimed that there are marks or practices of the Christian that sets us apart from the world around us? How do you evaluate these arguments?
- Martin Luther said that Galatians was his Katherine von Bora—his wife’s name. That is, of all scripture, this was the one book he clung to with all his heart. That is because Galatians insists most strongly that our right relationship to God depends on faith. How do you think Paul understood faith? How do you understand it? Was Paul onto something? Was Luther?
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II. Chapter Three: Arguments about the Law
The first two chapters of Galatians told the story of the origins of his work as an apostle and how that work related to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. The account concluded with Paul’s dramatic declaration of what now defined his life; Christ, who died for him and now lives in him (2:20-21). The next chapters draw out the implications of that fundamental principle for the Galatians and the issue that now confronts them: whether, in order to be heirs of the promises that Paul proclaimed, they needed to become members of the covenant community of Israel and be circumcised.
An Opening Gambit 3:1-5
One common rhetorical technique was to begin an address with a “captatio benevolentiae,” a bit of flattery that would win the favor or good will of the audience. Paul begins his argument instead with an arresting challenge, calling his addressees “foolish” and “bewitched” and asks whether they have forgotten what they should have learned from him: gospel of Christ crucified (v. 1). He continues in this vein for several verses (2-4), recalling things that the Galatians had experienced through his missionary activity. Central to this experience is the gift of the Spirit (vv. 2-3). What Paul has in mind includes what the Galatians experienced as “miracles” (v. 5), but it also probably included the kind of ecstatic worship that Paul treats in 1 Corinthians 12-14. In any case, at the heart of Paul’s argument with the Galatians will come an appeal to their experience of baptism (3:27-29) and prayer (4:6) that will be the most persuasive arguments that he advances in his efforts to dissuade them from pursuing circumcision. Before he reaches that climactic appeal, he offers a series of arguments based on interpretation of scripture, sometimes fanciful to our sensibilities, to make his case.
The Story of Abraham 3:6-9
Paul begins by offering a reading of the story of Abraham (vv. 6-9). He will use the same basic construal of Genesis when he takes up the issue of faith and the Law in Romans, 4. Paul’s reading attends closely to the wording of certain key verses in Genesis, but also assumes an important point about the sequence of the story. Paul begins (v. 6) by citing Gen 15:6, that Abraham (still then called Abram in Genesis) “believed” or “trusted” and that belief/trust was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” Paul draws the inference from that wording that the descendants and heirs of Abraham are people who believe, which is what the Galatians did when they heard him proclaim the gospel. According to the account in Genesis, Abram was not yet circumcised when his “belief” was “reckoned as righteousness.” His circumcision only takes place in Genesis 18, when he also receives the new name of Abraham. Therefore, the Galatians should conclude, circumcision is not necessary to be “reckoned righteous” with God.
The inference that believers are the descendants of Abraham counters any claim that either physical offspring or adherents of the covenant of circumcision are the true descendants of Abraham. Paul reinforces this construal of the heirs of God’s promises by appeal to the beginning of the story of Abram when he was called from Ur of the Chaldees (Gen 12:1–3). At that time God promised Abram that he would become the father of a great nation and that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3) through him. Paul now (v. 8) cites that verse. Its vision of God’s universal beneficence is not simply an argumentative move but is a core conviction of the apostle, perhaps based on such prophetic visions of universal salvation as are found in Isa 55:3-5; 56:2-8; 66:18-23.
Blessing and Curse 3:10-14
Paul now shifts gears and engages in another scriptural text, taking a form of argument that he might have learned in education as a Pharisee and giving it a Christological twist. He begins by citing Deut 27:26, the last of twelve curses that conclude Moses’ delivery of the Torah to the Israelites. Paul cites the text with its plain meaning: anyone who does not obey the commands of the Torah will be cursed. Paul then immediately finds another verse, from Hab 2:4, that stands in tension with the verse from Deuteronomy. In its original context, the prophet draws a contrast between “the proud,” about whom he says, “Their spirit is not right in them,” with “the righteous [who] live by their faith.” Paul takes the last phrase out of context and cites it as a general principle, which could also be translated “The righteous by faith will live.” However, the verse is construed, it confirms the principle that Paul had already highlighted in his retelling of the story of Abraham: “life,” with all that entails, and “faith” are intimately connected. To make quite certain that the contrast of two principles is clear, Paul cites another verse Lev 18:5, which associates “life” and “doing”: “Whoever does the works of the law will live by them.”
Paul has established what seem to be two contradictory principles in scripture, a move paralleled in rabbinic interpretation. The usual next step was to cite a verse that would somehow overcome the contradiction and Paul makes precisely that move. He cites Deut 21:23, a comment that concludes the rule that someone punished for a capital offense should be removed from the tree on which he has been hung on the day of the execution and not left hanging overnight. The concluding comment of that passage simply states that “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
Paul’s creative move is to apply this verse from Deuteronomy to Christ, who was hung on the tree of the cross. If he was so hung, he was, by definition, “under God’s curse.” What remains implicit is how this verse solves the dilemma of the contradictory verses. Various theories about Christ’s death as an act of atonement have attempted to fill in the gap. Paul’s understanding is probably reflected in a comment he makes in 2 Cor 5:21, that God make “him to be “sin” who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In other words God treated Jesus as an offering for sin, to lift from his brothers and sisters the burden of sin. Paul does not need to spell out how he understands that transaction to have taken place, whether God was punishing sinners vicariously, satisfying some abstract need for retribution for evil, or doing something else. Paul assumes that his Galatians readers will immediately see that the resurrected, and hence vindicated Christ cannot be under a curse. Therefore the curse imposed by the Law for not abiding by it has been eliminated by God’s act in Christ. Thereby, “we,” Abraham’s heirs in faith from all the nations, might have “the promise of the Spirit” (v. 14).
The argument in this section of Galatians strikes moderns as difficult both in its logic and perhaps in the theories of atonement to which it might be appealing. Paul apparently decided that the argument did not work as well as he thought it might. When he came to treat the same issues in Romans 4, he abandons the complex argument made here and uses instead a simpler and more straightforward appeal to God’s forgiveness of sin (Rom 4:6–8), citing a single scriptural text (Ps 32:1-2).
An Argument from History 3:15-18
Paul styles his next move as “an example from daily life,” although this simple example involves two word plays and an appeal to the history of Israel. He begins by citing the example of will or “testament” (Greek, diatheke) and makes the point that once a will has been ratified, i.e., certified by a legal authority as binding, no one adds to it or annuls it. Paul may oversimplify here, ignoring the possibility that someone might change a will, and an ancient lawyer might object that what he meant to say was that no one can change a ratified will on his own, without obtaining further legal authorization. Yet the basic point is clear. What makes the general point applicable to the situation of the Galatians is that the word for “will/testament” is also the word used for the “covenant” between God and his people. That “covenant” for Paul is a diatheke that cannot change, because it has been ratified by God himself. But where, in what part of scripture is the intent of that diatheke to be found?
Before Paul responds to that question he engages in a bit of wordplay that will point to the answer. He appeals to another text of Genesis where God makes a promise to Abram and his descendants of an inheritance, the kind of thing that would be in a testamentary document. In the passage in questions (Gen 13:15), God promises to give what would become the land of Israel to Abram and his offspring. The word used for “offspring” is a collective noun, literally “seed,” which is grammatically singular in number, both in Hebrew and in the Greek that Paul cites. Paul exploits that grammatical point to claim that the promise was made not to many people, but to one person, i.e. Christ (v. 16). The argument seems artificial, even playful, but such arguments find many parallels in rabbinic interpretations of scripture. A serious point is made with a playful literary device.
Paul goes on (vv. 17-18) to explain what the serious point is. Here he appeals to the facts of history. The Torah, the Law, which contains the commandments and its promise of blessing and curse, was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. That event was some “four hundred years” after the covenant (or will/testament) that God gave to Abram. That covenant/testament contained as its “inheritance” the “promise” (v. 18) of blessings to all nations. That promise of universal blessing not only remains valid but has been realized in Christ.
Some Loose Ends regarding the Law 3:19-22
Paul’s argument raises further questions, which he now tries to answer. The first is what the Torah or Law was for, if it came so late after the establishment of the testament/covenant. It was, Paul claims, part of a holding pattern, put in place “because of transgressions,” until the recipient of the promise, the singular “offspring” came (v. 19). As often in this chapter, Paul’s argument is elliptical. What he no doubt intends, and will soon specify, is that the Law was put in place to restrain sin, although later in Romans he will suggest that it could be used as an instrument of sin (Rom 7:7–13). Paul adds, almost as an afterthought, a consideration that denigrates the status of the Law. It was, as Jewish tradition about the events at Mount Sinai suggested, given through the mediation of angels. It therefore had a chain of transmission (v. 20) implying that it does not offer the immediacy of access to God available in the life of the Spirit.
Paul then makes clear (vv. 21-23), in response to a rhetorical question, in what way the giving of the Law was “because of transgressions.” Does his position imply some sort opposition between the Law and the promises of God? “Certainly not,” he says. The law simply does not provide the life that the gift of the Spirit does. What it does is to offer a restraint, “imprisoning” or “locking things up” under sin, until the coming of Christ.
Paul uses another metaphor to make the same point, that the law functioned as a “disciplinarian,” (Greek, paidagogos, a slave in charge of children), no longer needed since the maturation of its wards produced by Christ’s coming (v. 24).
Become Children of God and Heirs of the Promise 3:23-29
The chapter ends with the first of two balanced appeals to the experience of the Galatians. They have, in Christ, become “children of God through faith” (v.v. 25-26). The incorporation into the reality that is Christ took place through the rite of baptism. Paul alludes to what probably took place as part of the baptismal ritual, when initiates where given a new clean garment after being dipped in the water, symbolizing their being “clothed … with Christ” (v. 27). Paul then cites what may have been a formula used in the baptismal ritual, indicating that all old oppositions and distinctions had been eliminated. “In Christ,” in the community formed by faith, there is no distinction of nationality, social status, or gender. All are one, a marvelous vision that Christians have been ever since trying to understand and to live.
Paul concludes this section of his argument (v. 29), by picking up the themes that have run through the chapter. Belonging to Christ guarantees that the Galatians, though uncircumcised, are indeed Abraham’s offspring and heirs of the promise God made in Gen 12:3 to bless all nations through him.
Debbie Hunn, “Why therefore the Law: The Role of the Law in Galatians 3:19-20,” NovT 47 (2013) 355-72.
Stefan Nordgaard, “Paul and the Provenance of the Law: The Case of Galatians 3:19-20,” ZNW 105 (2014) 64-79.
Questions for Discussion:
- Do you find Paul’s appeal to scripture convincing? Do you find yourself arguing about scripture with contemporaries? If so, how important is it to make clear what your presuppositions about scripture are?
- Paul’s other appeal to the Galatians is based on their experience. How persuasive do you find such arguments today? Can such arguments have any force when people debating a point do not share the same experience?
- What is your understanding of the Old Testament in your own life? Would you read the Abraham story the same way as Paul?
- If Paul is correct that the experience of life “in Christ” is important for understanding Christian belief, how would you describe experiences of that life that you have had.
Yale Bible Study
III. Chapter Four: An “Allegory” of Hagar and Sarah
Galatians 4 continues with themes that we have seen in in the first three chapters. Paul continues the narrative account of his apostolic authority by speaking directly of his role as teacher to the Galatians. He expands on his understanding of the law as a mark of the old age, the age of spiritual infancy, and he continues and elaborates his exposition of the story of Abraham as an example for the Galatian Christians and as a foreshadowing of the Gospel.
The Implications of Baptism (continued) 4:1-7
We have seen that for Paul baptism is the initiation of believers into a new age where old distinctions and old loyalties give way to the life of faith, a life foreshadowed by the promise to Abraham in Genesis 15.
One of the great themes of Galatians is the distinction between the present evil age of the cosmos (1:4) and the New Age in Jesus Christ, which is breaking into the old era and transforming history. Directly parallel to this is the claim that the Galatians have moved from their spiritual infancy to their spiritual maturity. They are no longer kept under bondage to old ways or subject to autocratic guardians. They are now mature, adult, and able at last to be full-fledged heirs of God’s promises.
What strikes us is that Paul draws a direct parallel between the “infancy” of the Galatian believers and the “infancy” of Israel. In the old age (in the age of their immaturity) both the Galatian Gentiles and the Jewish people have been subject to the rule of powers less than God and perhaps even inimical to God.
The Jewish people (as we have seen) were subject to the law, which was either their jailer or their guardian or their tutor, but which in any case kept them under its powerful thumb until they were old enough to break free, or more accurately to be set free in Jesus Christ. But now we notice that the Galatians, who were mostly Gentiles, were also “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.” We ponder what it is in the history of these Gentiles that corresponds to the law in the history of the Jewish people. What were their elemental spirits? (see also 4:9 below) And why is it that when they threaten to turn to the law the Galatians threaten to re-turn to the elemental spirits? It would seem that the worship of elemental spirits includes attention to times and seasons—nature worship for Gentiles? A considerable amount of labor has gone into trying to determine more specifically what Paul means by this reference to the cosmic elements. What we can say is that Paul wants to hold that Jews and Gentiles alike have been held subject to something less than God while awaiting God’s revelation through the coming of His Son.
The capstone to the discussion of adoption through Jesus Christ is found in Galatians 4:6-7. Paul, who often argues by interpreting scripture, here makes his point by interpreting the experience of the Galatian churches. In their worship these Greek speaking Christians call out the Aramaic word, “Abba!”, Father. Perhaps this refers to a spirit filled aspect of worship when believers cry out in spontaneous prayer; perhaps it refers to the communal saying of the Lord’s Prayer, “Abba, Father, hallowed be your name.” In any case the prayer becomes the proof that these are God’s adopted children, no longer subject to the guardianship of the law or of pagan worship. More than that, because all Christians join in the same prayer, they are all adopted children of the same father. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female.
So act like God’s (mature) children 4:8-20
Galatians 4:8-12 revisit the subject of the elementary powers. While it is difficult to specify what these powers might be, it is clear that, like the law, they have held childish believers under bondage until they were visited and redeemed by the real God, the God of Jesus Christ. For Christians the earliest “liberation theology” is the claim that it is Christ who liberates believers from the bondage to false sovereigns (pagan gods? The Jewish law?) and sets them free precisely in their allegiance to the true God.
In 4:13-20 Paul returns to the narrative of chapters 1 and 2 and brings his story up to date. Now at issue is not his apostleship more generally but his apostleship to the Galatians. Paul makes two related points about his ministry among the Galatians—how deeply he was devoted to them, and how deeply they were devoted to him. He not only sounds exasperated; he announces that he is exasperated (v.20). It is clear enough what has happened to diminish the strong early bonds of affection: the opponents have come in and in urging the Galatians to take on the law they have denied the value of Paul’s Gospel. Furthermore, they have denied the value of the Galatians’ faith by insisting that the Galatians are lacking in one important way—they have not been sufficiently obedient to the law. “They want to exclude you so that you may make much of them.” (17)
The final image of this passage is powerfully gender bending. Paul has been insisting that the Galatians are adopted children of God; now they are his “little children” too. His love for them is at least as powerful as that of a father for his children because Paul is the mother who has given them birth. Those birth pangs should have ended when the Galatians came to faith; now because they are denying faith Paul suffers new pangs and prays for a new birth.
The allegory of Sara and Hagar 4:21-31
Paul has reversed gender expectations by comparing himself to a mother giving birth. Now he reverses ethnic expectations. Perhaps the teachers have made much of Abraham as a forerunner of the faith, noting the fact that in Genesis 17 Abraham receives circumcision as a sign of the covenant. It is at least as likely that Paul turns to Abraham (as he will again in Romans) because Abraham is the protagonist in the scriptural verse Paul loves above all others: “And Abraham had faith in God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (our translation; Genesis 15:6 quoted in Gal. 3:6). Blessedly for Paul’s purposes, this decision of God to reckon Abraham as righteous takes place two chapters before Abraham submits to circumcision and is based, Paul would say, not on any work that Abraham performed but on his trust in God’s promise.
In any case, Jewish Christians (or Christians who wanted Gentiles to take on aspects of the Jewish Law) would not be surprised by Paul’s turn to Abraham, nor to his eagerness to reflect on the story of the two mothers of Abraham’s sons—Sara and Hagar. What would surely have shocked these Jews or Judaizers was the reversal of the usual claim. Sara is the mother of Isaac, child of the promise. Hagar, a slave woman, is the mother of the slave child Ishmael. Sara’s children are the Jewish people. Hagar’s children are the Arabs and other Semitic folk who surround them.
It is a little unclear how Paul pulls off this astonishing reversal (if he does) but it has something to do with the imaginative reframing of Hagar in connection to Sinai—which was not in Judea or Samaria but in the Arabian Peninsula. [One suggestion is that “G” is pronounced like “Y”, so Hagar sounds like HaHar, which would be “The Mountain” in Hebrew. What is “the” mountain? Sinai, of course.] If this is Paul’s claim, the argument is based on a bad pun. Once he has made this surprising move, Paul can go ahead to claim that the children of Sara are the Gentiles, because the Gentiles are the result of God’s promise to Abraham—“you will become the father of many nations” (Gen 17:5—which both in the Hebrew and the Greek can be translated as “the father of many Gentiles.”)
In any case for Paul Hagar is the mother of slavery and those who follow her (the Jews or Judaizers) are enslaved. Sara is the free woman and her children are free of the law and therefore free indeed.
The brief quotation from Genesis 21:10 in 4:30 surely includes a less than subtle suggestion for the Galatians in relationship to their Judaizing teachers: “But what does the scripture say, ‘Drive out the slave and her child…’”
Notice how many metaphors and themes come together here. Childhood is a kind of slavery and adulthood is the mature freedom of an heir. Bondage—imprisoning people both to the elemental spirits and to the Law—is that from which Christ has come to set people free. Abraham is the prototypical believer, trusting in the promises and not relying on the law.
Furthermore, the distinction between living according to the promise and living according to the flesh drives us back to the distinction between Flesh and Spirit expanded richly in Galatians 5.
The odd allegory becomes a way to weave together the images of the epistle and to reinforce the urgency of Paul’s exhortation. In 5:1 he will move from Sarah and Hagar to the strongest claim of the epistle.
John Goodrich, “Guardians not Taskmasters: The Cultural Resonances of Paul’s Metaphor in Gal 4.1-2,” JSNT 32 (2010) 251-84.
Mark Gignilliat, “Paul, Allegory and the Plain Sense of Scripture: Galatians 4:21-31,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 2 (2008) 135-46.
Questions for Discussion:
- In your own life and the life of your congregation what might the pilgrimage from spiritual childhood to Christian maturity look like?
- Paul uses the Old Testament here in ways that would win the approval of no seminary or college professor of Scripture today. When he says that for freedom Christ has set us free, does he mean that we are free to interpret scripture to make the point we want to make? What are the limits and possibilities of Christian freedom when it comes to reading the Bible?
- The same Greek word can be translated as “belief” or as “faith.” In what ways might each of these terms be fitting to the claims Paul wants to make, and to our own communities?
Yale Bible Study
IV. Chapters 5 & 6: Faith Working Through Love
Paul’s goal in Galatians is to convince his Gentile audience that it is God’s plan that they may participate, as Gentiles, in the new reality that God has created for humankind in Christ. He argued in Chapter 3 from scripture that, since God’s first promise to Abram, it was the divine plan to bless all nations. Any curse imposed by the Law on disobedience to its commands had been removed by the death of Christ. Gentiles, as well as Jews, were now lead to salvation by that death (Gal 3:6–26). He then argued from the experience of the Galatians themselves that they knew the reality of which he spoke. They had been baptized, an event which introduced them to the new reality of life in Christ and eliminated any former distinctions among them (3:27–29). The Galatians experienced the reality of their relationship to God as his children in their prayers to their heavenly Abba (4:1–7). Paul had encouraged them to act on this conviction (4:8–20). He summarized his appeal with an ironic “allegorical” illustration, using the figures of Hagar and Sarah and their children Ishmael and Isaac, to symbolize two groups of people, the Ishmaelite “slaves” to old earthly ways and the Isaac “children” who were heirs of the promise of freedom. He begins chapter 5 by drawing the hortatory conclusion that his little comparison suggested. His rhetoric is powerful and has been echoed by many throughout Christian history: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1). But what does this freedom entail? The remainder of the letter, which is largely devoted to ethical exhortation or parenesis, attempts to answer that question.
The Implications for the Debate about Circumcision 5:1-15
In case the point of his argument has been lost in the intricacies of Biblical interpretation and symbolic language, Paul now makes the point clearly and directly: Christ will be of no benefit to the Galatians if they become circumcised (v. 2). Why? Because by doing so they are becoming members of the covenant community bound to obey the Law (v. 3). Some interpreters have wondered whether the argument here is compatible with the report that, according to Acts 16:3, Paul himself circumcised Timothy, who had a Jewish mother but Gentile father. The historicity of that report in Acts has been questioned, but it is certainly possible. Paul is not opposed to Jews being circumcised; and Timothy, with his Jewish mother, could well have counted as a Jew. Paul’s fundamental point is that circumcision is not necessary for Gentiles. God has another plan for relating to those outside the chosen people. The Galatians by seeking circumcision are denying that claim. They in fact “cut themselves off from Christ” (v. 4). He then puts the point more positively, and quite forcefully: “In Christ,” i.e., in relationship to him in the community of faith, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything.” It does not matter whether one is a Jew or a Gentile, whether one observes the requirements of the Law or not. What counts in this new circumstance, this new creation, is “faith working through love” (v. 6).
Paul, like other ancient authors, often structures his arguments and appeals in a kind of circular or “chiastic” fashion, beginning and ending with a theme and sandwiching another theme in the middle. So it is in this section of the epistle. The first appeal to reject the appeal to be circumcised ended with a focus on love and Paul will return to that theme in vv. 13–15. In the middle (vv 7–12) he reflects briefly on himself and his community in Galatia. Why, he groans, do they not obey the truth? (v. 7). Surely it was not something that he said (v. 8), but someone else, a bit of nasty “leaven” in the dough of their community, is to blame (v. 9). Paul must sense that whoever is teaching another line has also been saying things about Paul. His rhetorical question in v. 11 seems to point to the criticism. Someone is apparently claiming that Paul himself has been teaching circumcision. This may be due to reports like the one about the circumcision of Timothy in Acts 16. If that is true, asks Paul, why is he being persecuted? What he has in mind here is probably not persecution from Roman authorities or Gentile opponents, whom he certainly had, but rejection of his message by leaders of Jewish communities, events alluded to in 2 Cor 11:23–25.
If he had been preaching that circumcision was necessary for believers, then “the offence of the cross” would have been removed. Paul’s phrasing is condensed, but the basic concept behind the phrase is central to his preaching (see 1 Cor 2). The death of the Messiah on a cross is a scandal, but by that event and vindication of the crucified one in resurrection, God has intervened in human history in a decisive way, making available his gracious love to Gentiles as well as Jews. To insist on circumcision as a condition of being a “child of God” is to deny that truth. In exasperation Paul concludes his reflection with a nasty comment, wishing that those who were teaching what he deemed false should not stop at cutting off their foreskins; they should “castrate themselves”! (v. 12).
The other half of the “sandwich” returns to the theme of freedom (v. 13), but now with a qualifying warning. By claiming freedom, Paul is not invoking a principle of moral libertinism, as apparently some Christians of the second century were claimed to have done. It is not the case that in Christ “anything goes.” Love remains the norm that guides behavior, and in fact the whole of the Law, the Torah of Moses, may be summarized (v. 14) by one verse from the Holiness Code of Leviticus, Lev 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Disrespectful behavior toward one another is not compatible with such a command (v. 15).
Flesh and Spirit 5:16-26
Paul’s exhortation continues by picking up an antithesis between “flesh” and “spirit” that had appeared in his allegory of Hagar and Sarah (e.g., 4:29). This is a pair that Paul uses in other contexts to frame his reflections and exhortations (Romans 7–8; Phil 3:2). He begins by setting up the basic opposition between the two (vv. 16–17). Although the terms recall ancient philosophical discussions of the makeup of a human being, Paul’s use of the terms has a more ethical twist. The “flesh” is not simply the organic body, but the whole realm of human striving and desire. The “spirit” is not simply the spark of “soul” within, but the realm of light and truth over which God rules. Living “in the Spirit,” inspired by and attempting to be in conformity with the principle of love articulated in v. 14, leads to certain kinds of behavior, certain kinds of virtue. Living according to the opposite principle leads to vices and sins. Paul begins with a catalogue of the latter, which are, he says, “obvious.” What he lists is indeed a roster of that which any Jewish teacher and many Gentiles teachers would agree are moral problems, although Greek philosophers probably would not include “idolatry” in their list (vv. 19–21).
The contrasting list (vv. 22–25) is labeled the “fruits of the Spirit” (v. 22), most of which consists of widely recognized forms of virtuous behavior. It is, however, striking that Paul includes “joy” as a fruit of the Spirit. We don’t usually think of “joy” in the same category as we do such behavior traits as “patience” and “kindness,” but Paul clearly put a heavy emphasis on “joy” as a characteristic of life “in Christ” (cf. Phil 4:4–7).
More Implications of Faith Working through Love 6:1-10
The final chapter of Galatians continues the exhortations, with a series of focused recommendations that exemplify the general principles that Paul has pronounced. To live a life guided by love, a life “in the spirit” one should deal charitably with one who has committed a transgression (v. 1). And by the way, avoid the temptation yourself! One should “bear one another’s burdens,” thus fulfilling the “Law of Christ” (v. 2). This is a very general principle that can apply to various kinds of economic, physical, and emotional needs. Paul does seem to have a particular circumstance in mind, at least to judge by his next comment about those who “deceive themselves” with delusions of grandeur. Perhaps he is thinking of those who do not want to bear others’ burdens. They do not want to be involved in poor relief, in visiting the sick or those in prison, they do not want to give to his collection for the poor. Such people in particular must “test their own work” rather than their neighbor’s (v. 4). Racing ahead, Paul says that “everyone must carry their own loads” (v. 5), which seems to stand in tension with the admonition that he has just made to bear one another’s burdens. Given what he has just said about the attitude of some who do not want to “bear others burdens,” he really seems to suggest here that to “carry one’s load” is equivalent to taking up one’s share of the common responsibilities for those in need.
The next verse (v. 6) asking pupils to care for those who have taught them sounds like an afterthought, or perhaps an interpolation inserted into the letter at this point by someone who has been in the position of a “teacher.” This is precisely the kind of thing that Paul himself took pride in not doing (1 Cor 9; 2 Cor 11:7–11).
The final verses (vv. 7–10) in this sequence serve as a general summation of the exhortation, weaving together the contrast of “flesh and spirit” and the common ethical notion of sowing and reaping the fruit of virtue.
Paul makes a point of saying that he himself has taken up the pen (v. 11). Presumably he has been dictating up to now. His parting shots include criticism of those who are offering a different teaching (v. 12), a disparaging comment about their ability to obey the law (v. 13), claiming that they just want to “boast” about their Galatian converts. Paul contrasts himself with them, identifying what he boasts in (cf. 2 Cor 11-12), not unexpectedly, the “cross of Christ” (v. 14). He repeats from 5:6, the notion that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything. They fall into the category of what Stoic philosophers call “adiaphora,” ethically neutral matters. What counts now is (v.15) the “new creation,” the new reality that has been established “in Christ.” That reality, of course, is “faith working through love” (5:6). Paul offers a blessing on those who participate in this reality and on the “Israel of God” (v. 16). Some have read Paul here, like later Christians, redefining “Israel” here as a label for those who are “in Christ.” Instead, it seems likely that Paul, in the reconciling final moments of this letter corrects some of his harsh statements about opponents. His argument, he suggests, is not meant to denigrate those who live according to the Mosaic covenant. They, the Israel of God, deserve peace and mercy, the same peace and mercy that Paul understands God to have offered to all peoples. That same reverence for his heritage and yearning for the fulfillment of God’s promises to his people will mark his lengthy reflection on the place of Israel in God’s plan in Romans 9–11.
Paul concludes with another very personal remark, saying that he carries the “marks of Jesus branded on his body.” Exactly what they were is not clear. The may be the scars from the lashings that he received (2 Cor 11:24–25) or perhaps he refers to the “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7), whatever that was. A final prayer for God’s grace, often echoed in our liturgies, ends the letter (v. 18).
James Edwards, “Galatians 5:12: Circumcision, The Mother Goddess and the Scandal of the Cross,” NovT 53 (2011) 319-337.
Todd A. Wilson, “ ‘Under Law’ in Galatians: A Pauline Theological Abbreviation,” JTS 46 (2005) 362-391
Questions for Discussion:
- Is Paul’s framing of the ethical responsibility of followers of Christ adequate? How does “faith” relate to living life appropriately?
- Is the notion of “fruits of the Spirit” meaningful? What do you see as the hallmarks of the life of believers whom you know?
- Paul’s arguments about the relationship of Faith and the Law has often affected the relationship between Christians and Jews. If you were explaining Galatians to a Jewish friend, what would you say?
Yale Bible Study
Paul’s brief Epistle to the Philippians offers encouragement and advice to a community he had founded some years previously. Two passages from the letter give beautiful expression to core convictions of the Christian movement: the “hymn” of 2:6-11 that celebrates the story of Christ’s self-emptying, and the calls to “rejoice” and to persevere in a life of virtue in 4:4-9, but throughout the text Paul’s pastoral sensitivity and rhetorical power are evident.
The letter feels somewhat disjointed. It seems to come to a conclusion in 3:1, but then continues, with a somewhat more severe tone than was evident in the first two chapters. Many scholars believe that our canonical text may in fact be a combination of what were originally two separate letters written by Paul. These scholars suggest that the letters joined together by members of Paul’s missionary team who were responsible for publishing a collection of his letters after his death. Other scholars recognize the disjointed character of the letter but suggest that this feature may be caused by circumstances in which Paul was writing and that the letter was composed not at one sitting but over a period of time. Whether one letter or more, there are common themes that run through the whole of the letter as it has been preserved.
Paul’s Situation: Prison
Paul’s situation as he writes to Philippi is difficult. He is in prison, guarded by Roman soldiers (1:12-14, cf. 4:22). A similar situation obtains for three other Pauline letters: Philemon (1), Colossians (4:18), and Ephesians (3:1). The location of this imprisonment is somewhat uncertain. A colophon or appended paragraph found in many ancient manuscripts of these letters suggests that Paul was in Rome. If so, the letter would have been written in the 60’s, when Paul was a prisoner in Rome (Acts 28:16). An alternative view holds that Paul was writing not from Rome, a considerable distance from Philippi, but from a time of imprisonment during his years of missionary activity in the Aegean area in the mid 50’s. Although the account of his work in Acts does not mention such an event, it is clear from Paul’s references in 2 Corinthians (6:5; 11:23; cf. the “death sentence” mentioned in 1:8-9), probably written from Ephesus around 56 or 57, that Paul had spent time in jail during those years. The ancient opinion about a Roman location for Paul’s prison was probably based on the references to the “praetorium” (1:13) and the “household of Caesar” (4:22), but there were Roman garrisons, labelled “praetorian” in other cities (Jerusalem: Matt 27:27; John 18:28-19:9; Caesarea: Acts 23:35), and slaves or freedmen in provincial service might be counted as part of the “household of Caesar.” Another “prison epistle,” Philemon, makes most sense on the assumption that Paul is not far from the household from which the slave Onesimus had come (v. 10; cf. also Col 4:9); Ephesus is a likely candidate for the location of Paul’s imprisonment when writing that letter.
The addressees of Philippians were apparently Gentiles converted to the new faith by Paul on what Acts describes as his “second missionary journey,” when he first evangelized in Europe (Acts 16:16-40), another place where Paul experienced prison. Philippi had been founded in the fourth century BCE by King Philip II of Macedon, from whom it took its name. It was refounded as a Roman colony, populated with veterans of the Roman army, after the battle of Philippi in 42 BC, where Octavian, later Augustus Caesar, and his ally, Mark Antony, defeated Brutus and Cassius, assassins of Julius Caesar. Like many of the other cities where Paul conducted his apostolic activity, Philippi was very much part of the Roman Empire.
Paul’s correspondence with his Philippian converts treats three issues. One is the very practical matter of offering a word of thanks for support he has received (4:10-19). He is also concerned about a threat to the community from external sources (3:2) and difficult relations within the community leading to division. In addition to thanksgiving, he offers advice aimed at reinforcing positive relationships and advocates harmony through a celebration of shared values. Those values are focused on Christ’s sovereignty, more lofty than anything that Rome offers, which in turn grounds eschatological hope.
Pheme Perkins, “Philippians: Theology for the Heavenly Politeuma,” in Jouette M. Bassler, ed., Pauline Theology, Vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 89-104.
Katherine Grieb, “Philippians and the Politics of God,” Interpretation 61 (2007) 256-69.
Charalambos Bakirtzis and Helmut Koester, Philippi at the Time of Paul and After His Death (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998).
Peter Oakes, Philippians: From People to Letter (SNTSMS 110; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
John Reumann, Philippians: A New Introduction with Translation and Commentary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
Ben Witherington, Friendship and Finances in Philippi: The Letter of Paul to the Philippians (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994).
Yale Bible Study
I. Chapter 1: A Friendly Letter from Prison
Salutation and Thanksgiving: Phil 1:1-11
As we would expect in a letter marked by friendship and written in deep affection the opening verses serve to reinforce the ties between Paul and the congregation.
In the salutation of v. 1 Paul does not refer to himself as an apostle. Perhaps this is because unlike Galatians, our letter gives no indication that his apostolic authority was being challenged. And unlike the situation in Romans he has no need to introduce himself to the Philippians or to remind them of his status among them (compare Gal 1:1, Romans 1:1).
Paul links himself with Timothy, who will appear later in the letter. Paul almost always travels with a retinue and though we have every reason to believe that the letter was written or dictated by him, Timothy joins in the greeting and presumably in the following message. Both of these figures are known as servants, or slaves, of Jesus Christ. The Greek word (doulos) would be the same and while for good obvious reasons we find the term “servant” to be more palatable, Paul time and again will claim that he belongs body and soul to Jesus Christ.
The addressees are the “saints.’ There is no implication in Paul’s letters that the “saints” are a subgroup of believers. The believers are themselves saints. The word can perhaps best be translated as “holy ones,” and the Christians are holy not because they have achieved full sanctification but because their identity is being shaped by the holiness of God in Jesus Christ.
We are not sure who the “bishops and deacons” or “overseers and deacons” were (1:1). Based on the evidence of 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, we can guess that these early Hellenistic churches did not have a fixed structure with carefully defined offices and rules for succession (compare the Pastoral Epistles, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus; these were probably written at a somewhat later stage in the churches development.) What we can be sure of is however informally leaders have begun to emerge in the congregation and their offices have received titles, these titles are quite likely borrowed from the titles of offices in the guilds or assemblies of the larger society.
“Grace” and “peace” are the blessings Paul regularly bestows on his readers, and represent a short hand way of talking about the free gift of loving acceptance and the reconciling comfort that believers are given by God in Jesus Christ.
A study of Paul’s letters reveals that usually the salutation is followed by a rather extended thanksgiving, here vv. 2-11. Typically Paul uses his opening prayer to introduce to his audience to some of the main themes of the letter which will follow. It is rather like the pastoral prayer that is directed to God but contains a few useful reminders to the congregation as well. “O God, we remember that in this season of giving, our church, too, asks us to pledge more generously.”
Here the prayer combines explicit thanksgiving with implicit exhortation. Paul is genuinely grateful that in this congregation he has found not only a flock for his shepherding but true partners in the affirmation and spreading of the gospel. His prayer is that their love might grow from more to more, which might indicate as we shall see in the following chapters, that there was still an issue of contentiousness, on the one hand, and of disputatious arguing on the other.
The terms that the NRSV translates as “knowledge” and “full insight” in v. 9 suggest that love is not only an emotion but depends both on clear eyed knowledge of the other and clear- headed attention to what is morally right and fitting. When Paul suggests that by this love the Philippians will “prove their faith” he means that they will test it out, approve it, and find it approved finally by the gracious God.
The whole context is, as so often for Paul, eschatological. The final proof of faithfulness will come in “the day of Christ.” And the result of that faithfulness will not be only praise for the saints, but glory for God who sanctifies them.
Paul’s circumstances: 1:12-26
Paul reiterates what he has already indicated: that he writes from prison. Contained in his description is a claim that becomes fundamental to Pauline Christianity: faithfulness is sometimes made manifest in suffering, and God’s power is sometimes made perfect in our weakness (compare 2 Cor. 12:9).
In this case, specifically, Paul’s apparently dire circumstances have emboldened other Christians to speak and his plight has touched the lives of unbelievers, even unbelievers in high places. When Paul speaks of those who seem to preach an unworthy Gospel, he may be referring to other Christian preachers who see his imprisonment as a sign of failure rather than an opportunity for evangelism. In any case, he is not here nearly so exercised with these critics as he is with the opponents in 2 Corinthians or in Galatians. However crookedly they proclaim the gospel.
In v. 16 Paul introduces the theme which will be so important again as he brings his letter to the close. He rejoices and calls others to rejoice. Since he writes this from prison, perhaps contemplating his own death, it is quite clear that the joy of which he speaks is not the comfortable happiness of material advantage: it is something deeper, more lasting.
In vv. 18-26 Paul contemplates his own immediate future. In what is probably his earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians, Paul seems entirely confident that he will be among the living when Christ returns in his glory. (See 1 Thess. 4:15) Now, perhaps because Christ has tarried, perhaps because Paul is growing old, perhaps because imprisonment represents a deep threat to his well-being, he begins to ponder the possibility of death before the end of time. In his perhaps rhetorical balance between whether it is better to go or to stay, what is clear is what will be clear in the letter to the Romans, either in death or in life he will belong to God (see Romans 14:8).
The precise content of the suffering the Philippians are undergoing remains unclear, but in this suffering they are united to Paul and perhaps by implication to Jesus as well. Again we are not clear on who the opponents are, but we are clear that there is a present dimension to Paul’s understanding of judgment and salvation. The persecution actually works to the judgment of the opponents and toward the sanctification of the believers. What the enemies intend for evil God uses for good. This of course is already Paul’s own story in this epistle, and in the larger framework of his writing, it is Jesus’ story, too.
N. Clayton Croy, “‘To Die is Gain’ (Philippians 1:19-26): Does Paul Contemplate Suicide?” JBL 122 (2003) 517-31.
Stanley K. Stowers, “Friends and Enemies in the Politics of Heaven: Reading Theology in Philippians,” in Jouette M. Bassler, ed., Pauline Theology, Vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 105-121.
Questions for Discussion:
- As is clear in so much of his writing Paul encourages the Philippians to be faithful in part because he believes that Christ will come again soon. Most of us do not live with Paul’s confidence that the end of the age is coming, but are there ways in which we can still be instructed by his urgency?
- Can you think of instances when difficult circumstances actually lead to growth in faith and perhaps even to the furtherance of the gospel?
- How do we understand the relationship between love and knowledge? What are the ways in which our zeal for doing what is right could be enriched by greater attention to knowledge and moral insight?
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II. Chapter 2: A Hymn Celebrating Christ
In the second chapter of Philippians, Paul continues the encouraging message that he had begun in chapter 1. He opens with an appeal to his community to be of the “one mind,” grounded in love (v. 2). Such love will manifest itself in looking to the interests of others (v. 3). Paul’s strategy is to shape the “mind,” or fundamental attitude of his community, by cultivating certain core values, exemplified by the “mind” of Christ.
The Christ Hymn
To help him build the kind of shared values which he desires to inculcate, Paul tells the story of Christ in a remarkable passage (vv. 6-11), shaped in balanced cadences and replete with rich vocabulary. The literary qualities of this passage have suggested to many readers that Paul is here citing a “hymn” used by him or his congregations in their worship life. Further support for the notion that Paul is citing received material here is the fact that there is tension between the affirmations about Christ contained in the passage and affirmations about Christ in other parts of Paul’s letters, for instance, Rom 1:3-4, which focuses squarely on the final stage of the Christ story, his exaltation to heavenly status. The rhetorical force of the hymn depends instead on the details of a more complex account of Christ’s origins, human existence, and exalted state.
The hymn begins (v. 6) with a brief sketch of Christ’s initial condition “in the form (morphe) of God,” a condition that is immediately equated with having “equality with God.” Some interpreters of the hymn suggest that all that is meant by this phrasing is that Christ was a man like Adam, made in God’s image (Gen 1:27), but on such a reading it is hard to make sense of the sharp contrast in the next verses between Christ’s initial state and his taking “human form.” Rather this initial verse expresses the sense that Christ was a heavenly being before taking on human flesh. The roots of that “high” Christology probably lie in the idea held by many of his followers that Jesus was an incarnation of divine Wisdom.
Beginning with a hymn in Proverbs 8, Jewish authors had long celebrated the figure of Wisdom (in Hebrew: Hochmah, in Greek: Sophia). Ben Sira, the author of a book of wisdom written at the end of the third century BCE also celebrated the figure of Wisdom (Sirach 24), and finally equated it with the Torah of Moses (Sirach 24:23-24). At the end of the first century BCE or early in the first century CE, an Alexandrian Jew wrote the Wisdom of Solomon in Greek and celebrated Wisdom (Sophia) in terms derived from Stoic philosophy, as an emanation from God that pervades the world and holds it together (Wis 7:22-8:1). Near the same time the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo developed an elaborate interpretation of how God relates to the world through word (Logos) which is another name for his Wisdom. This kind of thinking clearly influenced other early Christians who tried to make sense of the connection of Jesus to God (John 1:1-18; Hebrews 1:1-4), and it probably is at work behind the “hymn.”
Christ, in any case, did not consider this status of “equality with God” (cf. John 5:18) something “to be exploited” (NRSV). The Greek word used in this verse, harpagmon, is unusual and has generated continuous scholarly debate. The root of the word has to do with “grasping.” Some interpreters, who take the position that Jesus is being presented as a new Adam, did not consider a state of equality with God as a goal to be attained, a prize to be snatched. Those who see the image of a divine figure such as Wisdom in the background understand Jesus not to consider his equality with God something to be held on to, or, as the NRSV’s translation suggests, something to be used to his own advantage.
The next verse (v 7) seems to support the second reading of the previous verse. The hymn now portrays Christ as “emptying” himself. The root of the Greek verb, ekenosen, has been used as a label for the image of Christ painted here. His “kenotic” or “self-emptying” action has been a focal point for theological reflection. The simple plot of the hymn suggests that this action involved a disregard for high status and a willingness to engage in solidarity with those who suffer. Some theologians have pushed the notion to suggest that Christ somehow divested himself of his divinity, but the hymn is not working with the metaphysical framework of later theologians who tried to make sense of Christian claims about Christ’s full divinity and humanity. The main point of the hymn is made by the three balanced affirmations: Christ was in the “form of slave,” “born in human likeness,” and “found in human form.” He was, says the hymn, fully human.
The servile status of this human being may evoke the image of the “suffering servant” sketched by the prophet Isaiah (Isa 52:13–53:12). Paul does not explain why Jesus died on a cross or what the effects of that death were. The possible allusion to Isaiah may evoke the notion of vicarious suffering. As the prophet says, “by his (i.e., the servant’s) bruises we are healed” (Isa 53:5). Yet Paul does not, here or elsewhere, work out a theory of atonement. A similar account of Christ’s adoption of a slave-like status appears in the foot washing scene of the Fourth Gospel (John 13), where the action of Christ is presented as a model for the disciples to follow. Paul will pursue a similar line of applying the hymn.
The “emptying” or abandonment of lofty, divine status did not end with the incarnation of the one who was “equal to God.” He humbled himself (v. 8) in an act of obedience that lead to his death, and here Paul seems to add a phrase to the hymn that he was using, “death on a cross.” Paul elsewhere focuses on Christ’s death on a cross as an, if not the, essential part of his Gospel, particularly in 1 Cor 2:1-5, where he celebrates the paradoxical quality of that good news.
The hymn so far has traced a downward movement, from divine status, to human, slave-like status, to a miserable and shameful death on a cross. The movement now (v. 9) pivots and turns upward as the hymn celebrates the vindication of the executed. Jesus was given a name to be reverenced by one and all (v. 10), a name that is finally specified in v. 11. Jesus, who is the “Christ,” the Messiah, is also “Lord” (Greek: Kyrios). That is, he bears the very name that the Greek translation of the Bible had used for the Tetragrammaton (יהוה), which we usually render today as Yahweh. In other words, precisely because of his solidarity with suffering humanity, Jesus has now been revealed as “equal to God.”
The hymn that Paul cites thus not only makes a claim about Christ, preexistent, incarnate, and exalted. It also makes a claim about who God is, how God reveals himself, and where God is to be found, in solidarity with suffering humanity. The claim of this hymn, with its celebration of Christ’s exaltation, is particularly striking in its original context, a Roman colony that would have regularly celebrated the “divine” status of another figure, the Roman emperor, whose glory was most decidedly not revealed in his identification with the lowly.
Drawing implications from the Hymn
Paul applies the lessons of the hymn in a general way (vv 12-13), telling his congregation to “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.” What Paul has in mind is probably the awesome yet fascinating mystery of which the hymn has spoken. One who is “divine” has given himself for others, suffered for them, and by doing so he calls others to similar action.
The phrase “with fear and trembling,” which may evoke Ps 55:5, also inspired a famous piece of theological reflection, by Søren Kierkegaard of 1843, although the Danish philosopher applies the line not to Paul and his congregation in Philippi but to Abraham at the “Binding of Isaac” (Genesis 22).
Paul continues with a somewhat more pointed admonition to act “without murmuring and arguing” (v. 14). Here he may have in view a situation of tension within the community that lead him, in this or a related letter, to admonish Euodia and Syntyche to be “of the same mind in the Lord” (4:2).
His further call to the community to be “blameless and innocent,” that they should be “without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (v. 15) may suggest something of the social reality in which his addressees found themselves. By accepting Paul’s Gospel message, and paradoxical affirmation of a glorified Messiah who had been executed as a Roman criminal, they had put themselves at odds with their environment. They probably took their fair share of ridicule for their faith, but Paul is offering them consolation that they have chosen a better path, a way of virtue that conformed to the reality of God revealed to them in Christ.
Paul makes his admonition personal. The fidelity of his congregation provides assurance to him that he had not “run in vain” (v. 16). Their endurance is a cause of his joy (v. 17), even if his own situation is dire and he, like the Christ whom he has just celebrated, is “being poured as a libation over the sacrifice.”
The remaining verses of the chapter (vv. 19-30) attend to practical matters, the kind of things that often conclude a letter, one reason that many scholars see the letter ending here. Paul first tells the Philippians that he hopes to send his close companion, Timothy, to them. Both the Book of Acts (Acts 16:1-3; 17:14-15; 18:5; 19:22; 20:4) and Paul’s own letters (Rom 16:21; 1Cor 4:17; 16:10; 2Cor1:1, 19; 1 Thess 1:1) attest the important role that Timothy played on Paul’s missionary team, often serving as an emissary for Paul to keep in touch with his congregations.
Paul also sends to the Philippians one Epaphroditus (vv. 25-30), who had been sent by the Philippians to assist Paul in prison (v. 25), and who apparently had become quite ill (v 27). Paul asks the Philippians to rejoice in his return, particularly because he “came close to death for the work of Christ” (v. 30). Paul’s language here is touching and ties these personal remarks back to the hymn at the center of this chapter. Although we cannot be certain, it is likely that Epaphroditus was either a slave or a freedman of one of the households in Philippi. His action on behalf of Paul was doing “the work of Christ” in more than one sense. He exemplified in his person as well as his action the kind of self-giving service that the hymn celebrated. His return to the Philippians, perhaps delivering this letter and its famous hymn bore eloquent testimony to Paul’s gospel.
Adela Yarbro Collins, “Psalms, Philippians 2:6-11, and the Origins of Christology,” Biblical Interpretation 11 (2003) 361-72.
Joel Green, “‘Although/Because He Was in the Form of God’: The Theological Significance of Paul’s Master Story (Phil 2:6-11),” Journal of Theological Interpretation 1 (2007) 147-69.
Hannah Stewart, “Self-emptying and Sacrifice: A Feminist Critique of Kenosis in Philippians 2,” Colloquium 44 (2012) 102-110.
Questions for Discussion:
- The “Christ Hymn” of Philippians 2 has been described as the core, the summary, or the “master narrative” of Paul’s gospel? Do you recall other places in his letters that might bear out that claim? Are there elements of Paul’s teaching that you know from other letters that are missing here?
- How do you react to the image of Christ presented in the Christ hymn? Are there elements of that image that are problematic?
- How useful is it to keep in mind the Roman context of this chapter when thinking about what Paul is trying to say?
- Is there “fear and trembling” in your reaction to this or other scripture?
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III. Chapter 3: A Stern Warning
True Circumcision 3:1-11
The shift just after Philippians 3:1 seems rather abrupt; a move from the practical word about Epaphroditus to a surprisingly stark and sober warning. 3:1 looks like the end not only of the preceding paragraph, but almost like the end of the main letter itself. Scholars who think that Philippians is a composite of two original letters find some of their evidence here.
The theme of rejoicing has already been evident and will mark the conclusion of our epistle as well. But now having been told to rejoice, the Philippians are told to look out.
We cannot be sure who the dogs are who mutilate the flesh (3:2), but the mutilation of the flesh is almost certainly a reference to circumcision. It seems most plausible that Paul has in mind here opponents rather like the opponents he decries in the Letter to the Galatians, Jews or “Judaizers” who insist that the new covenant in Jesus requires some attention to the old covenant in Moses, especially to the rite of circumcision.
When Paul says that those of us who boast in Christ are the true circumcision he certainly intends to include the Gentiles in the Philippian churches. True circumcision is not a matter of the flesh but of the spirit, indeed of God’s own Spirit.
Paul moves from a very narrow understanding of confidence in the flesh—confidence in the validity of circumcision to a much richer understanding of “flesh” as the realm of human achievement and misplaced self-confidence. Both here and in Galatians it seems as though Paul understands the distinction between this (passing) age and the (glorious) age to come, as the distinction between the age of the flesh and the age of the Spirit. Those who boast in Christ are empowered to live by the Spirit even in this time that is passing away; they have a foretaste of the kingdom.
Because “flesh” is no longer simply circumcision but the whole realm of human achievement and self-confidence, Paul is now enabled to tell us how he would have every right to boast in the flesh—were he to take advantage of that privilege. It is a frequent rhetorical device of Paul to tell us that he doesn’t intend to mention some achievement or accomplishment and thereby, of course, mentions it anyway. He has no confidence in the flesh, but if he did, what a story he could tell! He starts with the particular sign of fleshly life, circumcision and then extends the range to the host of ways in which he was an exemplary member of his community. He was so zealous that he persecuted the church; he was so righteous that he was blameless.
Many readers have noticed that this self-description by Paul of his life prior to his call as an apostle does not fit very well into a popular image of Paul. In that image, Paul was trying desperately to obey the law in all its particulars. He found that total obedience impossible and was plagued by guilt until (perhaps reading Genesis 15) he discovered that he was justified by faith, not by keeping the law. This reading is influenced in fact by the belief that Romans 7:24 “Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?” is an autobiographical statement about Paul’s own earlier frustration when he tried perfectly to keep the law. This reading of Paul’s life also comes rather close to the way in which Luther understood Paul and exceedingly close to the way in which Luther understood Luther.
There is a growing consensus that in this passage Paul is not being autobiographical but is talking about the condition of humankind apart from the grace of Christ and what our text in Philippians suggests rather is that Paul was a confident and even boastful law-keeper, rejoicing in his successes and not obsessed with his failures.
This brings us to what Paul does want to affirm, not that his life as a loyal Jew was guilt-ridden or awful, but that it was called into question by the immeasurably greater gift of grace in Jesus Christ.
In the verses that follow (vv. 7-11) there is some dispute whether righteousness comes through the faith of the believer or through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. The Greek phrase pistis Christou might mean either one. What is clear is that however we decide that issue, the righteousness we receive from God is first of all God’s gift in Jesus Christ and only secondarily a matter of the believer’s faith. But the fact that the believer’s faith is subsidiary to Christ’s gracious death and resurrection does not mean that that faith doesn’t count. (See Paul on Abraham as a kind of proto-Christian in Gal 3 and Romans 4. There it is clearly the faith of the believer that is reckoned as righteousness.)
Paul’s prayer for redemption is that he might be conformed to the image of Christ, participate in Christ’s drama. He has already told us that he is undergoing suffering. Now we see that that suffering participates in Christ’s suffering. As Christ died and rose again, Paul’s hope is that he might finally participate in Christ’s resurrection. The language here is somewhat different than the confident final resurrection hope of 1 Thessalonians 4 or 1 Corinthians 15. The “somehow” makes Paul sound doubtful of his own destiny as he seldom is. The claim that he already lives part of Christ’s resurrection life reminds us that for him, the new age, the age of the Spirit, the age of the Risen Christ, has already begun.
Life in Hope 3:12-21
For Christians who believe that once saved we are always saved and for Christians who want to claim that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers on the cross and in our baptism, it may seem a little puzzling that Paul here seems to speak about growing in Christ. Here Paul seems to sound less like Martin Luther and more like John Wesley with his belief in continuing growth in holiness for the faithful. This probably suggests that we need Luther and Wesley and a host of others in our interpretive conversation.
In vs. 15 Paul returns to the exhortation of 2:2, asking the Philippians to “be of one mind.” Whether we can read back into chapter two the evident disputes and troubles of 3:17-21 is not altogether clear. What seems clearer is that these verses at the end of chapter 3 take us back to the dogs and evil workers, the party that lives by the flesh. When Paul says that their glory is their shame it seems likely that he is referring to circumcision and the boasting that goes with that. Yet now fleshiness also includes some kind of attention to the belly. In Galatians Paul seems concerned with issues of keeping a kosher table, but at least on first reading it seems odd to equate scrupulosity about diet with making a god of our bellies. It may well be that Paul has in view here more than one kind of fleshiness. On the one hand, we can be fleshly by our over attention to the rules; on the other hand, we can be fleshly by ignoring the rules in gluttony and other forms of licentiousness. The exact referent for Paul’s warnings remains somewhat unclear.
What is clear is that Paul contrasts the children of the flesh, who are citizens of this age and this world and bound for destruction, with the children of the Spirit who are citizens of the heavenly realm (sojourners for now) and bound for glory.
The brief but powerful reference to the returning savior who will come down from that heavenly realm to make the world subject to him recalls the much fuller description in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28. Both passages remind us that Paul’s deep hope was bound to his strong expectation. The Age of the Spirit will overcome the age of the flesh and occupy its kingdoms. Christ will reign over all. The strong affirmation of the hymn in chapter two now moves toward the strong hope of the promise in chapter three; God has given Jesus the name which is above every name. All things will be subject to him; and every tongue proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Todd A. Nanos, “Paul’s Reversal of Jews Calling Gentiles ‘Dogs’ (Philippians 3:2): 1600 Years of an Ideological Tale Wagging an Exegetical Dog?” Biblical Interpretation 17 (2009) 448-82.
Scott Ryan, “The Reversal of Rhetoric in Philippians 3:1-11,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 39 (2012) 67-77.
Questions for Discussion:
- How do you or your church understand the relationship between redemption in Jesus Christ and continued progress in obedience, or holiness, or sanctification? Are we supposed to get better as Christians as we go along?
- For Paul the “fleshly” life seems to have included confidence in circumcision and some kind of dietary mistake—maybe gluttony. Where are places in our own lives when we seem to have put our trust in passing (and even self-centered) values?
- Is the suggestion that our stories participate in Christ’s story—his death and resurrection—still a persuasive way of thinking about the Christian life? What other understandings of our relationship to Christ might seem persuasive to you?
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IV. Chapter 4: Rejoice, Now and Always
The final chapter of Philippians deals with some practical matters, including the message of thanks for support from Paul’s congregation. It also offers some advice and words of encouragement that have resonated to this day in Christian life.
The opening verse (v. 1) is really the conclusion to the admonition that concluded chapter 3, where Paul had urged the Philippians to follow his example and think of themselves as citizens, not of an earthly empire, but of the realm where Christ ruled. His admonition now is simply to “stand firm.” This is the kind of exhortation that would have sounded familiar to the Philippians as Roman citizens, and perhaps veterans of the Roman military. But their station is not on the front lines of a line of battle, but “in the Lord.” What that means had been spelled out by the Christ hymn of chapter 2, the willingness to engage in humble service of those in need.
Within this exhortation Paul addresses the congregation in words that show his confidence in them and also sound themes important for the letter. The Philippians are, he says “my joy and crown.” The “crown” evokes a scene of victory in an athletic contest, the kind of image that Paul uses elsewhere (Note the same language at 1 Thess 2:19; for the notion of life as a race see 1 Cor 9:24; cf. 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 4:7). In the first chapter Paul had also expressed his pride in the life of the Philippian community (1:1-11). “Joy” has been a theme that runs through the whole letter (or letters). Paul rejoices in the proclamation of the gospel (1:18). He yearns to share the joy of the Philippians’ faith (1:25). He urged the addressees to welcome Epaphroditus with joy (2:29) and he had called on them to rejoice (3:1). He will soon issue that summons again (4:4-7).
Before Paul develops the theme of rejoicing he has words of admonition for two women in the community, Euodia and Syntyche (v. 2). Their names in Greek might be translated as “Fragrant” and “Lucky,” not names that one would associate with the upper classes in Roman society. Whatever their social standing, the fact that Paul singles them out for attention suggests that they have been playing leading roles in the Philippian community. In that regard they would resemble many other women who bore significant responsibility in the early Christian groups founded by Paul. These women include:
Prisca, with her husband Aquila, a fellow worker with Paul (Rom 16:3; 1 Cor 16:19; cf. Acts 18:2-26 and 2 Tim 4:19),
Junia, who with her husband was “prominent among the apostles” (Rom 16:7),
Chloe, whose “people,” probably members of her household, delivered to Paul a letter from his Corinthian converts (1 Cor 1:11);
Phoebe, a “deacon” of the Church at Cenchreae, the port of Corinth (Rom 16:3), who was probably the first recipient of a copy of Paul’s letter to Rome;
the anonymous women who “pray and prophesy,” i.e., lead worship, in the Corinthian community (1 Cor 11:5).
Paul goes on (v. 3) to speak of Euodia and Syntyche as companions who have “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel” and lists them with other “co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.” Euodia and Syntyche are not marginal participants in the life of the Philippian church or in Paul’s missionary endeavors; their dispute, whatever its basis, was a cause for concern. Their disagreement, unlike the kinds of differences in the community at Corinth about issues such as eating sacrificial meat, or proper behavior at the worship assembly, apparently did not rise to the level that required Paul to discuss theological principles, as he did in 1 Corinthians. The dispute may simply have been a conflict of strong personalities. Paul, in any case, encourages the two women to “have the same mind.” Whether this admonition is from the same original letter or not, in giving this advice Paul probably has in mind the advice that introduced his Christ hymn (2:5), the summons to have the “same mind” that was in Christ.
While Paul admonishes Euodia and Syntyche to get along, he also addresses an unnamed third party, “my loyal companion” (v. 3), asking him to assist the women. This address to an anonymous single individual may be another indication that what we have as a single letter combines fragments of more than one letter of Paul. It is also possible that Paul made assumptions about the mechanism of delivering his correspondence that are not explicit or transparent to us. Paul’s letters were not delivered by a public postal service, but by his emissaries, people like Timothy and Epaphroditus (2:19-30). They would have carried the letter to the community, which probably met as a house church in the home of one of members of the community. Paul may have had that householder in mind as one who could mediate whatever dispute had arisen.
After delivering his gentle admonition, Paul returns to his call to “rejoice” (vv. 4-7). His call perhaps echoes the frequent summons in the Psalms to rejoice (e.g., Ps 48:11; 64:10; 97:1, 12; 118:24) or the prophetic commands to rejoice in the salvation that God had or was about to accomplish (Isa 25:9; 65:18; Joel 2:21, 23; Zech 2:10). Paul is so taken with this summons to joy that he emphatically repeats it twice in this one verse (v. 4). Paul’s insistence on joy, even in the midst of suffering and sorrow is not unique to Philippians. It also appears in an emphatic way in 2 Cor 6:10. In the midst of a long catalogue of the tensions in his life between appearances and reality.
Paul’s insistence on joy paralleled in the farewell discourses of the Fourth Gospel (John 14:28; 15:11; 16:20-24, 33; 17:13) give expression to an eschatological hope that has implications for the present reality of the believer. Paul makes clear the ground of his joy in the next verse (v. 5) when he reminds his congregation that “The Lord is near.” Paul firmly believed that he was living in the last days and that he would soon see the promises of a transformation of the world with Christ’s return in glory (cf. 1 Thess 4:13–18; 1 Cor 7:26–31). Yet for Paul joy was not simply a response to a hoped for reality. It was also something that he thought could and should be cultivated as part of the life of the spirit that believers now lived. That seems to be implied by the admonition that he offers just before referring to the coming of the Lord, when he advises the Philippians to “let your gentleness be known to everyone.” The association of joy and gentleness recalls Paul’s famous description in Gal 5:22 of the characteristics of life lived in the Spirit, as opposed to the flesh. His description of the “fruits of the spirit” begins with love, immediately followed by joy, works through other virtues or states, and concludes with “gentleness and self-control.” For Paul, joy is part of a larger picture, an emotion perhaps, but also an attitude, a stance, that is based in the experience of God’s presence in his beloved community and intimately tied to the other virtues or stances appropriate to that set of relationships. Paul’s remarks of joy throughout Philippians is part of that general celebratory stance toward joy characteristic of his thinking.
In his next bit of advice (v. 6) not to worry but to pray, Paul echoes the teaching of Jesus to imitate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air (Matt 6:25–34; Luke 12:22–32) and to offer petitionary prayer to a gracious heavenly father (Matt 6:7-13; Luke 11:2–4).
Paul offers a bit of encouragement often cited in Christian worship, assuring the Philippians that if they so act, the “peace of God” will be with them. Like “joy”, peace is something that Paul often celebrates, as the result of being “justified” (Rom 5:1), as a characteristic of life of the Spirit (Rom 8:6; 14:17; Gal 5:22). Like joy it is both gift (Rom 15:13) from the God of peace (1 Cor 14:33), for which one may pray (1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; 6:16; 1 Thess 5:23), and something to be pursued (Rom 14:19; 2 Cor 13:11).
The peace of which Paul speaks “passes all understanding” (v. 7). It is a divine mystery, not reducible to ordinary human experience. Paul will often use similar language to highlight the transcendent dimension of his gospel (Rom 8:31-39; 11:33–36; 16:25; 1 Cor 2:9; 15:51).
Paul begins his attention to some practical matters with another reference to rejoicing (v. 10), this time his own. The cause of that rejoicing is the concern shown for him by the Philippians who had apparently sent him some support. Paul eventually gives thanks for that aid (v. 14). Before doing so he assures the Philippians that was not really needy. Sounding rather like a Stoic sage, he indicates that he knew how to deal with depravation (vv. 11–12). Paul may sound a bit too self-assured here, but he is not above boasting in his own ministerial style when it serves a rhetorical purpose (1 Cor 9) and sometimes does so with heavy irony (2 Cor 11–12). Here his reference to his own ability to cope, coupled with the word of thanks may be designed to forestall any further gifts from the Philippians. While grateful for their support, he does not want to put himself overly much in their debt, precisely the kind of concern he claimed in 1 Corinthians.
His final paragraph reinforces that stance. He expresses gratitude for previous gifts (vv. 15–16), when he was conducting missionary activity in that part of northern Greece (cf. Acts 16–17). He highlights the fact that the Philippians alone among the churches of the region were supportive (v. 15). But he is not seeking any further gift. He is quite satisfied with what Epaphroditus has brought (v 18), a gift that he describes with terms taken from the Temple cult, a “sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (v. 18). In that description Paul uses a strategy, to equate generosity with a sacral act; that may have been part of his own fundraising ability, long imitated by leaders of Christian communities. Paul had used to good effect his ability in raising money for the poor in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8-9; Rom 15:30-32), a major focus of his ministry among the Gentiles of the Aegean region.
After giving thanks for their support, Paul expresses his hope that God will return their favor (v. 19). A prayer, giving glory to God, a final greeting and wish for God’s grace conclude the letter (vv. 20-23).
L. Gregory Bloomquist, “Subverted by Joy: Joy and Suffering in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians,” Interpretation (2007) 270–282.
Stephen E. Fowl, “Know your Context: Giving and Receiving Money in Philippians,” Interpretation 56 (2002) 45-58.
Wendell Willis, “The Shaping of Character: Virtue in Philippians 4:8–9,” Restoration Quarterly 54 (2012) 65–76.
Questions for Discussion:
- How do you assess Paul’s work as a pastor, mediating disputes, encouraging and offering gratitude for reasonable support, expressing solidarity with his congregation?
- Does Paul’s “theology of joy” make sense? Can joy be understood not only as a reactive emotion but also a stance or virtue to be cultivated?
- Can we learn anything about living a Christian life from Paul’s attention to “peace” as well as joy?
- Since we do not share Paul’s apocalyptic hopes for an immediate return of Christ, can we share his vision for Christian life?