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Commentary : Philippians 1:1-11

Paul writes to the Philippian church in Macedonia. It was the first Christian congregation which he founded in Europe and for this reason may have been especially dear to him. Philippi was an important city strategically placed on the Roman road, via Egnatia. It commanded the route from Asia to the West and was a military and commercial centre (cf Acts 16:12). According to a Latin inscription one of the commercial activities seems to have been production of purple cloth. We recall that the business woman, Lydia, seller of purple goods, together with her women companions were Paul's first Philippian converts. Lydia gave Paul and his group hospitality (Acts 16:15). Women appear to have been active in the primitive Philippian Christian community (cf Phil 4:2-3).
Paul appears to be in prison either in Rome or Caesarea or Ephesus. It is possible that this was the last of his "captivity epistles" preceding his death (cf Phil 3:12-16). Thus this letter may be "a classic utterance of the mind of the martyr"1 written to prepare his friends to persevere in the faith after his departure.
Prison was more often used for detention of accused persons prior to trial rather than a punitive measure. Detainees were better treated than other prisoners and Paul as a Roman citizen may have received some privileges. Nevertheless, incarceration must have brought many hardships. We may compare the description of Paul and Silas in prison in Philippi (Acts 16:24 where their feet are in stocks). Yet Paul's letter is full of hope, joy and peace.
The prayer falls into three main sections: -vv. 3-5 Paul's continual thanksgiving and supplication for his fellow evangelists; vv. 6-8 his statement of their close relationship in grace both with regard to spreading the Gospel and to Paul's own imprisonment; vv. 9-11 the specific goal of his intercession and his doxology to God.
Hebrew Scripture Background
Although there is neither quotation nor allusion to the Old Testament in this passage the Hebrew concept of hesed may well be in Paul's mind. Hesed comprises the love, loyalty, human respect and commitment which are essential in a covenant relationship. 2 According to Glueck it encompasses "reciprocity, mutual assistance, sincerity, friendliness, brotherliness, duty, loyalty and love." These are certainly Paul's sentiments in this epistle. Hesed is predicated not only of human beings but of God.
Paul's intercessory prayer for his covenant partners may be compared to Abraham's prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18); Moses' intercession for the people (Ex 32:30-4); Elijah on Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:9-14) and, perhaps, the agonizing supplications of Jeremiah who identifies himself with those for whom he is pleading (Jer 14:7-9 and 19-22). Intercession in the biblical sense usually implies a relationship, often intimate, between the supplicant and the individual or community for whom s/he is praying .
Paul's Prayer and Exhortation
This passage is an excellent example of Paul's intercessory prayer. In v. 3 he refers to thanksgiving and making mention of the Philippians. "Making mention" or "remembering" was a very important concept in Jewish/Christian prayer. "To remember" means to evoke the presence of the other. We can imagine Paul, perhaps clothed with his prayer shawl, yermulka3 and phylacteries offering serious and profound prayer for his converts, almost making them physically present.
His intercession is closely associated with thanksgiving. Johansson (cited by Wiles,4 12, n 2) sees thanksgiving for another as a "mediatorial function of witnessing to the good deeds" of another, especially in a forensic setting. We may compare the style of official letters which praise the virtues of individuals to a ruler. Beardslee (Wiles 13, n 1) suggests that Paul's prayers are prophetic in nature and are bound up with the fate of the community and the implementation of God's plan of salvation. Wiles (17) sees prayers as "a living action within a dynamic nexus of mutual responsibilities before God."
Paul places his prayer in the context both of the election, commission and community (koinonia) of these early Christians, obviously through their baptismal confession, and of their eschatological hope, namely, the second coming of Christ.
Paul's earnestness parallels that of Abraham, Moses and Elijah. Paul calls God to witness to his love (or hesed) and compassion (splagchnois, the seat of the emotions) for his people just as Elijah called on the witness of God for his commission in 1 Kings 17:1. Paul speaks of his passionate love being Christ's own love. We may compare the Philippian hymn in Phil 2:5-11 which witnesses to the extreme self-sacrifice of Christ. We gain the impression of an intimate fellowship between Paul and the Philippians He recognizes them as loyal fellow workers in spreading the Good News. He prays that their hesed will multiply and overflow.
Special Words
Ta diapheronta means "things that really matter" or "what is excellent" (cf Rom 2:18). This may be a contrast with ta adiaphora (indifferent matters), a topos among the Cynics and Stoics. By this they meant something midway between virtue and vice, ethically insignificant. The Philippians will be able to judge the things which matter from the insight gained through love. Eilikrineis denotes tested in the light of the sun, sincere, pure, and reflects Plato's and Epictetus' philosophy, a looking beyond the things of this earth. Aproskopoi means blameless, without giving offense. Wiles (205) says "under the clarifying light shed by impending death, he (Paul) sees past, present, and future in a unifying flash of insight that seems to foreshorten the rapid progression of the eschatological age." Paul mentions the Day of Christ twice showing thereby that his mind is focused on eschatology and/or his own impending death (cf. 2:15f). Yet his tone is one of joy similar to the expectancy and thrill which is so brilliantly portrayed in our first reading which also throws into high relief justice and glory.
Practical Consideration
What kind of letter would you write to your fellow Christians before your impending death?
Does our intercessory prayer bear a prophetic character placing the good deeds of our covenant partners before God?
Josephine Massyngbaerde Ford University of Notre Dame
1. F.W. Beare, Epistle to the Philippians, HNTC (New York, 1959), p. 26. 2. See N. Glueck, Hesed in the Bible (Cincinnati, 1967; Sakenfeld, 1978 and Hills, 1957). 3. It is difficult to date these practices. 4. G.P. Wiles, Paul's Intercessory Prayers, SNTS monograph series 24, Cambridge: CUP, 1974.