Studies in Philippians
THE AFFAIRS of Paul, the slave of Christ Jesus, at the crisis which introduced the present administration of God's transcendent grace, are of extraordinary interest and importance to those who wish to walk in accord with the will of God. As the framework of Philippians shows, he discusses his affairs twice, in two balancing sections, one near the beginning, and the other at the end of the epistle. First he brings up his bonds in Christ (1:12- 18). Corresponding to this he speaks of his strength in Christ (4:13). In the early part of the epistle he dilates on his indifference to death (1:19-26). In the latter he declares his complacency in want. Besides this, in each section, he touches on the experience of the Philippians, their suffering with Paul (1:27) and their care of him (4:10).
PAUL'S BONDS IN CHRIST
The vast divergence between the kingdom and the present is graphically set forth by the bonds of Peter and Paul. Herod had Peter bound with two chains, besides the four quaternions of soldiers to guard him (Acts 12). Paul, in Rome, seems to have been bound with only one chain (Acts 28:20; Eph.6:20; 2 Tim.1: 16) with a single soldier to guard him (Acts 28:16). Yet God is not hindered by man's might. He acts in accord with His spiritual plans. The kingdom is a display of His power on earth. Hence its chief representative must be freed. The present is a display of God's weakness, hence Paul is not set at liberty by miraculous means. To Peter God sends His messenger. The very gates of the jail opened to him spontaneously. He is extricated out of the hands of Herod. So long as the kingdom was being heralded, Peter had power superior to all of earth's rulers.
And, so long as this kingdom was the subject of Paul's preaching he also was freed from jail, as at Philippi itself (Acts 16). But now that the kingdom has been definitely rejected by the Jewish nation, God has changed His mode of operation, so that it is quite the reverse. The symbol of the evangel becomes a chained ambassador (Eph.6:20). Nothing else could so graphically illustrate the fact that God is conciliated toward this warring world. He is for peace with mankind, and even the most flagrant provocation, such as the imprisonment of His ambassador, will not change His attitude toward it. So, for two whole years at the commencement of this economy, God stages a picture which portrays its essential features.
To us, with our dull minds and feeble apprehensions, this change in the outward fortunes of God's chosen witness may not mean very much. But this was especially real to the Philippians, as Paul's release from prison, with the accompanying earthquake, must have been one of the most cherished memories of the jailor and all the members of the ecclesia at Philippi. At first sight it would seem to them, as it does to most of us, that Paul's imprisonment must be a great hindrance to the evangel. Not merely that he himself could no longer go about to make it known, but that his sufferings would intimidate others, so that the evangel would cease to be heralded at all, or at least with far less boldness than before. All of this arises from a failure to realize the vast change the evangel itself had undergone, which made so striking a contrast in its symbolic expression.
With this in mind we are able to understand why Paul assures the Philippians that his affairs were no hindrance, but rather had come to be for the progress of the evangel. Since they had given the message such hearty support, this would be most welcome in their ears. Paul has not been robbed of an audience. Quite the contrary. He has been brought to the most desirable audience that could be found. The whole praetorium heard of him. This was not necessarily, as some translations have it, the "palace" of the emperor, but the guard, which had an enormous influence, and may have been used by God as a means of spreading the evangel far more effectively and expeditiously than if the apostle had been at liberty. He came into touch with Caesar's very household (4:22).
It may also have been intended by God to serve notice on the political powers that this evangel could not come into conflict with their authority. The kingdom message and the mixed message of the church in these degenerate days are a menace to the governments of the earth, but the true evangel for today has no right to interfere with this world's politics. Can we not see all this in the fact that Paul was put under the power of the Roman guard in the capital city itself? There was no friction there, and this may have been a great help in allaying suspicion elsewhere, for the Romans were quick to crush any sect which had political aims. Moreover, Paul was allowed many privileges. Perhaps it was the gift received from Philippi which enabled him to hire a house of his own (Acts 28:30).
It is only as we realize that Paul's bonds are in fullest accord with the evangel in its latest form, that we are able to appreciate his insistence on boldness in making it known. A prisoner of Caesar's can hardly be bold. But if the bonds are in Christ, and according to God's will, and calculated to advance the evangel, then it may be heralded freely and boldly, as it is fitting that it should. Hence Paul asked for prayer that he might open his mouth with boldness, to make known the secret of the evangel, for which he was conducting an embassy in a chain, that in it he should be bold, as he must speak (Eph.6:19,20). We have every reason to think that this prayer was answered, and that, though he was bound, the evangel was free and was heralded with the utmost fearlessness.
Nor was Paul alone in this. The majority of the brethren, instead of being timid in their heralding lest they also be put in a chain, are more exceedingly daring to speak the word of God fearlessly. They realized that God had placed Paul in an ideal position to defend the evangel. Here he could "teach that which concerns the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness, unforbidden" (Acts 28:31). The evangel wins its way in the very capital of its enemies. This must have been a very great consolation and encouragement to him. Instead of his imprisonment becoming the death blow of the glad tidings, it is the signal for fresh confidence and new delight.
So great became the confidence—one is almost tempted to say carelessness or recklessness—that some even pretended to preach Christ in order to bring Paul into trouble. Possibly their faction did not realize the full truth of the secret of the evangel, and heralded a semi-kingdom mixture as many have done since, to which the authorities could rightly object. Be that as it may, even their envy and strife, so unbecoming to those who pretend to proclaim peace, even that does not hinder the evangel, for Christ is announced nevertheless. Hence Paul is rejoicing in the advance of the evangel, which seems to make better progress against the wind than with it. May we also learn this lesson, and rejoice that neither foe nor friend can find a means of defeating His gracious purpose in Christ Jesus our Lord.
PAUL'S INDIFFERENCE TO DEATH
To magnify Christ is the one object now before His aged slave, and he tests everything which comes to him from this standpoint alone. Of course the great question before him and before his friends, the Philippians, is the outcome of his imprisonment. He must face the possibility that the verdict will be death. But this does not disturb him. Either life or death must be met in the same way. He is concerned rather that he may not be put to shame in anything, that even the fear of death shall not make him timid, that his customary boldness in making Christ known may not be lacking as he faces the fate of a martyr.
So he weighs all the possibilities and finds that he has no real choice in the matter. Living, to him, meant Christ. Dying, as a witness for Christ, would be gain to both himself and the cause of Christ. If he lives, there will be fruit from further efforts. Whether these will equal the results of a martyr's death could not be known, so he does not give his preference (1:22). At this point the attentive reader of the usual versions finds that Paul goes on to contradict what he has just been saying. He has made it clear that he is indifferent, yet he now goes on to say that he is in a strait betwixt these two, which is quite the opposite of indifference. But then he makes it clear that he is not in a strait at all, but prefers to "depart" (which must mean death). This, he says, is far better. In brief, he wished to be convicted, yet made every effort to defend himself!
The lack of all consistency in the passage, as ordinarily translated, is matched by its utter lack of conformity to the original, in which there is no such confusion of thought. What Paul has said as to his own attitude is not denied. He is quite complacent as to the outcome of his trial, so far as he himself is concerned. Yet from their standpoint he realizes that his continuance in the flesh would be of more advantage. Therefore he is confident that he will remain and abide for their progress and joy of faith, that their glorying may be superabounding in Christ Jesus, through his presence with them again. He was later released, and doubtless was with them as he had hoped. But, as this part of his career is not symbolic of the present grace, it is suppressed in the Scriptures. We are to look upon him as bound in body but free in spirit to the last.
When I was in Rome I was surprised to find that the statues of Paul usually put a sword in his hand, until my guide explained that it was customary to depict each of the saints with the instrument that caused his death. Judged by the other relics in Rome, especially the traces left by Peter (who never was there) we may be quite certain that Paul was not executed with the sword, if he was killed at all. The legends to this effect cannot be substantiated by the Scriptures. This relieves us of another incubus of theology, the mythical second imprisonment of the apostle. All such additions to the sacred text are mischievous and altogether unnecessary for faith.
Paul, in characterizing his death, speaks of it as a libation, a dissolution (2 Tim.4:6). This has no suggestion of violence, as is the case with Peter. The course and outcome of Paul's trial is given us in his second epistle to Timothy. "At my first defense no one came along with me, but all abandoned me. May it not be reckoned against them! Yet the Lord stood beside me, and He invigorates me, that through me the heralding may be fully discharged, and all the nations should hear, and I am rescued out of the mouth of the lion. The Lord will be rescuing me from every wicked work and will be saving me for His celestial kingdom..." (2 Tim.4:16-18). These words seem to show clearly that he was released, and that his confident words to the Philippians were fulfilled.
In view of all these facts the ordinary renderings, which make Paul desirous of death, are to be viewed with suspicion. In that case his release was "far worse" than his death! A concordant rendering, as usual, disposes of all of the difficulties. Paul was not in a strait betwixt life and death, but there was pressure from both which took him out of them. The accurate, literal rendering is I-AM-beING- pressED YET OUT OF-THE TWO. Neither life nor death has the attractive power of another, a third alternative—to be together with Christ. This is what should always be before our hearts, as it was with Paul. This is the solution to the question, life or death? The answer is neither. Rather let us have immortality when we are together with Christ, for it, rather, is much better.
Death is not far better than life, and Paul could not have made such a statement. This whole passage has lost its force because the church has lost its proper expectation. Death was always banished from the presence of Christ when He was on earth. No one goes to Him in death. If any did they would be dead no longer. It is His presence which calls them back to life in the resurrection. Let us be like Paul. Between life and death we would not choose, but rather let us yearn for that gracious and glorious event which is ever imminent—the presence of Christ and our gathering together unto Him.
Paul's experience with the evangel, as well as his varying supply of material support had taught him one of the most blessed of all lessons—that of contentment apart from prevailing circumstances. He had learned to be content in that in which he was (4:11,12). Humbled and hungry, or superabounding and satisfied, he did not wish it otherwise. The reason was that he had been initiated. This word mueoo is closely connected with the word mystery musteerion. In earlier eras God not only hid what He purposed in the future, but, as a result, it was unknown why He dealt as He did with His creatures. Since He has made His purpose fully known, we have the privilege of going behind the scenes, and know that every detail of our experience has a blessed sequel, hence do not wish to change aught in the least. We know why God sends us wealth and want, and we are content, even if it does not suit our souls.
THE PHILIPPIANS SUFFER WITH PAUL
Philippi was a Roman colony, so that it was a Rome in miniature and much would be made of the duties as well as the privileges of citizenship. Paul uses this as the basis of his exhortation for the future. They have heard of his concerns. Now he hopes to hear of theirs, that they are standing firm in one spirit, one soul, competing together in the faith of the evangel (1:27). Later on he uses this same figure to enforce the great truth that their citizenship belongs to the heavens (3:20). But here we have rather the unity or community of effort which should characterize every local company of believers who seek to spread the glad tidings. Not only is there the sevenfold unity of the spirit to unite them (Eph.4:3-6), but there should also be a unity of soul and of effort in service.
Faithful heralding of the evangel is bound to stir up opposition. It reveals the destruction of the stubborn as well as the salvation of those who believe, notwithstanding its insistence on peace, and that God is now conciliated, so that all may be reconciled to Him by simply receiving the proffered gift of Christ. The city that flogged and imprisoned Paul because he had done a good deed, which interfered with the sordid gains of a few of their number, would not hesitate to mishandle those who followed in his steps.
There is one thing which is even better than serving our blessed Lord, and that is to suffer for His sake. It seems to be a special grace granted to the faithful, more especially as they have fellowship with Paul and with the struggle which came to him when he first made public the present secret administration. Much of this suffering arises from the great changes which were introduced and because only a few cut cleanly with the past. Others held on to it with its religion and fleshly prerogatives. This was aggravated as time went on. All Asia and eventually nearly all the saints everywhere forsook Paul and his final message. The few who have had even an inkling of it have had to suffer, not merely from unbelievers, but from their own fellow saints.
These are not the sufferings of the apostle which came to him from lack of support, or danger, or his many enemies. These could not touch him now. But they were none the less real and painful. In this very epistle he speaks of envy and strife and faction (1:15,17), of evil workers, of the maimcision (3:2), of the many whose walk made them enemies of the cross, who are disposed to the terrestrial (3:18,19). And if such were present in his days, what must be the case today? Is there envy or strife or faction? Are there evil workers, Judaizers, enemies of the cross among the saints now? Are some disposed to the terrestrial? Very few of us are not included in these terms. If Paul were present he would be a great sufferer, even if he had no wants and endured no afflictions. And so it will be with us if we are fully in fellowship with him (2 Tim.3:12).
Paul lamented over the enemies of the cross. What a lamentation there would be if any number of the saints were so sensitive at the present time! Even where the death of Christ is preached, the manner of it, and its utter condemnation of the flesh and the world are seldom seen in our conduct. And celestial citizenship has been exchanged for terrestrial dominion or service, with good government or social reform or sanitation as its aim. It is simply that we whose eyes are opened to these lamentable conditions have been hardened to them. If we were not callous our suffering would incapacitate us for service.
But ours is not to dwell upon such things, but rather on the side of rejoicing. The suffering will have a glorious compensation in the future. And the present is never without ground for joy. To correspond with the section which speaks of the Philippians' suffering with Paul, we find him rejoicing greatly that their disposition toward him had found expression. In the living language of the epistle it is compared with a plant which was waiting for warmth in order to bloom. Now that their disposition had blossomed in their contribution, he has occasion to rejoice greatly.
Such were Paul's affairs at the beginning of this economy. And, in a very real sense, such are his affairs today. The difference is only one of degree. It is only as we are in living sympathy with his way at this juncture that we will be able to walk and please God under the very special conditions which pertain to the present grace. I will not apologize in the least for going into his affairs in some detail. It can hardly be overdone. When so much time is spent in following in the footprints of Christ when He was ministering to the Circumcision, leading to endless perplexity, it is high time that we consider the conduct of the one whom God has given as a model for us who are of the Uncircumcision. This alone will enable us to walk worthily of the special and supernal calling with which He has called us.
A. E. Knoch
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