Here again a real letter from Paul, personal, full of attention and tenderness that Paul sent from prison to the community that had always been the most concerned for his well-being. More than once Paul counted on their material assistance, showing the confidence he had in them. Usually, in order to avoid any suspicion of personal interest, he preferred to earn his living while continuing his mission. In this letter we have the famous page: “Let the same project that was in Christ Jesus be found in you.”
We have just said it is a real letter from Paul. Actually, all in it does not follow, as if fragments of several letters from Paul had been combined. We shall draw attention to it as we proceed: 2:19, 21; 4:1. It may well be a question of two short letters, one where Paul wanted to give his news and to thank, the other a warning, in the same style as the letter to the Galatians.
When Paul’s letters were gathered together, the most important were arranged according to length: Romans, Corinthians, Galatians. Then came those we call “captivity letters.” It is there we have Philippians between Ephesians and Colossians as if the three had been sent from the same prison. Yet there is every reason to think that Philippians was not written when Paul was in Rome, about 60 A.D., but several years earlier, more like 56 A.D. Perhaps he was at that time imprisoned in Ephesus.
•1From Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to the saints in Philippi, with their bishops and deacons;
to you all in Christ Jesus:
2May grace and peace be yours from God, our Father, and Christ Jesus the Lord.
3I give thanks to my God each time I remember you, 4and when I pray for you, I pray with joy. 5I cannot forget all you shared with me in the service of the Gospel, from the first day until now. 6Since God began such a good work in you, I am certain that he will complete it in the day of Christ Jesus.
7This is my hope for you, for I carry you all in my heart: whether I am in prison or defending and confirming the Gospel, you are with me and share the same grace.
8God knows that I love you dearly with the love of Christ Jesus, 9and in my prayers I ask that your love may lead you each day to a deeper knowledge and clearer discernment, 10that you may have good criteria for everything. So you may be pure of heart and come blameless to the day of Christ, 11filled with the fruit of holiness that comes through Christ Jesus, for the glory and praise of God.
Christ is my life
•12I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has served to advance the Gospel. 13Actually the whole praetorian guard, and even those outside the palace, know that I am in chains for Christ. 14And what is more, my condition as prisoner has encouraged most of our brothers who are now emboldened to proclaim the Word of God more openly and without fear.
15Some, it is true, are moved by envy and rivalry, but others preach Christ with a good intention. 16These latter are moved by love and realize that I am here to defend the Gospel. 17The others announce Christ to challenge me. They do not act with a pure intention but think they are making my prison more unbearable. 18But in any case, whether they are sincere or showing off, Christ is proclaimed and because of this I rejoice and have no regrets.
19I know that all this will be a grace for me because of your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Christ. 20I am hopeful, even certain, that I shall not be ashamed. I feel as assured now, as before, that Christ will be exalted through my person, whether I live or die.
21For to me, living is for Christ, and dying is even better. 22But if I am to go on living, I shall be able to enjoy fruitful labor. Which shall I choose? 23So I feel torn between the two. I desire greatly to leave this life and to be with Christ, which will be better by far, 24but it is necessary for you that I remain in this life. 25And because I am convinced of this, I know that I will stay and remain with you for your progress and happiness in the faith. 26I will surely come to you again, and give you more reason for being proud of belonging to Christ Jesus.
Stand firm in faith
•27Try, then, to adjust your lives according to the Gospel of Christ. May I see it when I come to you, and if I cannot come, may I at least hear that you stand firm in the same spirit, striving to uphold the faith of the Gospel with one heart. 28Do not be afraid of your opponents. This will be a sign that they are defeated and you are saved, that is saved by God. 29For through Christ you have been granted not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for him. 30And you now share the same struggle that you saw I had and that I continue to have, as you know.
Imitate the humility of Jesus
•1If I may advise you in the name of Christ and if you can hear it as the voice of love; if we share the same spirit and are capable of mercy and compassion, then I beg of you 2make me very happy: have one love, one spirit, one feeling, 3do nothing through rivalry or vain conceit. On the contrary let each of you gently consider the others as more important than yourselves. 4Do not seek your own interest, but rather that of others. 5Your attitude should be the same as Jesus Christ had:
6Though he was in the form of God,
he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped,
7but emptied himself,
taking on the nature of a servant, made in human likeness,
and in his appearance found as a man.
8He humbled himself by being obedient to death,
death on the cross.
9That is why God exalted him
and gave him the Name which outshines all names,
10so that at the Name of Jesus all knees should bend
in heaven, on earth and among the dead,
11and all tongues proclaim that Christ Jesus is the Lord
to the glory of God the Father.
•12Therefore, my dearest friends, as you always obeyed me while I was with you, even more now that I am far from you, continue working out your salvation “with fear and trembling.” 13It is God who makes you not only wish but also carry out what pleases him. 14Do everything without grumbling, 15so that without fault or blame, you will be children of God without reproach among a crooked and perverse generation. You are a light among them, like stars in the universe, 16holding to the Word of life. I shall feel proud of you on the day of Christ on seeing that my effort and labor have not been in vain. 17And if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I rejoice and continue to share your joy; 18and you likewise should rejoice and share my joy.
•19The Lord Jesus lets me hope that I may soon send you Timothy, and have news of you. With this I will feel encouraged. 20For I have no one so concerned for you as he is. 21Most follow their own interest, not those of Christ Jesus. 22But Timothy has proved himself, as you know. Like a son at the side of his father, he has been with me at the service of the Gospel. 23Because of that I hope to send him to you as soon as I see how things work out for me. 24Nevertheless the Lord lets me think that I myself shall be coming soon.
25I judged it necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, who worked and fought at my side and whom you sent to help me in my great need. 26In fact, he missed you very much and was still more worried because you had heard of his sickness. 27He was indeed sick and almost died, but God took pity on him and on me, sparing me greater sorrow. 28And so I am eager to send him to you, so that on seeing him you will be glad and I will be at peace. 29Receive him then with joy, as is fitting in the Lord. Consider highly persons like him, 30who almost died for the work of Christ; he risked his life to serve me on your behalf when you could not help me.
Do not turn back to the Jewish law
1Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.
•It is not a burden for me to write again the same things, and for you it is safer. 2Beware of the dogs, beware of the bad workers; beware of the circumcised. 3We are the true circumcised people since we serve according to the Spirit of God, and our confidence is in Christ Jesus rather than in our merits.
4I myself do not lack those human qualities in which people have confidence. If some of them seem to be accredited with such qualities, how much more am I! 5I was circumcised when eight days old. I was born of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin; I am a Hebrew, born of Hebrews. With regard to the Law, I am a Pharisee, 6and such was my zeal for the Law that I persecuted the Church. As for being righteous according to the Law, I was blameless.
7But once I found Christ, all those things that I might have considered as profit, I reckoned as loss. 8Still more, everything seems to me as nothing compared with the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord. For his sake I have let everything fall away and I now consider all as garbage, if instead I may gain Christ. 9May I be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but with the righteousness that God gives to those who believe.
10May I know him and experience the power of his resurrection and share in his sufferings and become like him in his death, 11and attain through this, God willing, the resurrection from the dead!
12I do not believe I have already reached the goal, nor do I consider myself perfect, but I press on till I conquer Christ Jesus, as I have already been conquered by him. 13No, brothers and sisters, I do not claim to have claimed the prize yet. I say only this: forgetting what is behind me, I race forward and run towards the goal, 14my eyes on the prize to which God has called us from above in Christ Jesus. 15Let all of us who claim to be perfect have the same way of thinking, but if there is something on which you differ, God will make it clear to you. 16Meanwhile, let us go forward from the point we have each attained.
17Unite in imitating me, brothers and sisters, and look at those who walk in our way of life. 18For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. I have said it to you many times, and now I repeat it with tears: 19they are heading for ruin; their belly is their god and they feel proud of what should be their shame. They only think of earthly things.
20For us, our citizenship is in heaven, from where we await the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, the Lord. 21He will transfigure our lowly body, making it like his own body, radiant in glory, through the power which is his to submit everything to himself.
Agree with one another and be happy
•1Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, you my glory and crown, be steadfast in the Lord. 2I beg Evodia and Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. 3And you, Sycygus, my true companion, I beg you to help them. Do not forget that they have labored with me in the service of the Gospel, together with Clement and my other fellow-workers whose names are written in the Book of Life.
4Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again: rejoice 5and may everyone experience your gentle and understanding heart. The Lord is near: 6do not be anxious about anything. In everything resort to prayer and supplication together with thanksgiving and bring your requests before God. 7Then the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
8Finally, brothers and sisters, fill your minds with whatever is truthful, holy, just, pure, lovely and noble. Be mindful of whatever deserves praise and admiration. 9Put into practice what you have learned from me, what I passed on to you, what you heard from me or saw me doing, and the God of peace will be with you.
•10I rejoice in the Lord because of your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me before, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11I do not say this because of being in want; I have learned to manage with what I have. 12I know what it is to be in want and what it is to have plenty. I am trained for both: to be hungry or satisfied, to have much or little. 13I can do all things in him who strengthens me.
14However you did right in sharing my trials. 15You Philippians, remember that in the beginning, when we first preached the Gospel, after I left Macedonia you alone opened for me a debit and credit account, 16and when I was in Thessalonica, twice you sent me what I needed.
17It is not your gift that I value but rather the interest increasing in your own account. 18Now I have enough and more than enough with everything Epaphroditus brought me on your behalf and which I received as “fragrant offerings pleasing to God.” 19God himself will provide you with everything you need, according to his riches, and show you his generosity in Christ Jesus. 20Glory to God, our Father, for ever and ever: Amen.
21Greet all who believe in Christ Jesus. The brothers and sisters with me greet you. 22All the believers here greet you, especially those from Caesar’s household. 23The grace of Christ Jesus, the Lord, be with your spirit.
• 1.1 With their bishops and deacons. In Acts we saw how the apostles used to establish a community, a church, in every city where they proclaimed the Gospel. They did not leave without having established a council of leaders, called presbyters, or elders, according to Jewish custom. After a few years bishops, or supervisors, stood out: they may have been the leading members of the council of presbyters. They were not then like today’s bishops.
As to the deacons, they were in charge of various services in the community. And may have done missionary work in areas that did not yet have a community.
God began such a good work in you, I am certain that he will complete it in the day of Christ Jesus (v. 6). The end for which they long is always the manifestation (2 Thes 1:7), or the visit, or the Day of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 1:8). No work is done without the expectation of the day when there will be all that one dreamed about. There is no Christian life where someone is content with looking forward to his retirement or feels fulfilled because he has a country house or because the family is growing up without a problem. Let us stop saying these first Christians still had the “illusion” of an early return of Christ. They wanted to meet him personally and be transfigured by him. That is an illusion only for those who enclose themselves in oases of peace within a world in crisis.
Knowledge and discernment… (v. 4). A good heart and generosity are not everything in Christian life. We are not saved, we do not reach our true stature, we are not remade as God would like us to be, unless clarity has guided generosity. It is the same for world salvation. God calls us to discover new ways. We need to reflect, to be attentive, what we could call “revision of life,” in order to discover what is positive and negative in our daily life, work relationships, social duties, leisure. This reflection, however, is not sufficient: among God’s gifts, there is spiritual knowledge that gives us a fresh vision of the order of values and of the will of God.
• 12. Paul is not only persecuted by the Jews: even in the Church “false brothers,” delighted he is in prison, see in this situation the possibility of increasing their own importance. The problem is one for all times: the great names of the apostolate have spent half of their energy in limiting the harm caused by rivals or by powerful groups in the Church. Paul, however, is gifted with wisdom: he sees that even if many do for personal interest what they believe they are doing for God, he knows how to turn it to account.
I am hopeful, even certain, that I shall not be ashamed (v. 20). Paul’s concern is that his trial and his appearances should serve to reveal Christ’s message to the authorities.
For to me, living is for Christ (v. 21). It is quite trendy to say that Christians should “understand the world” and be “fully human.” This is true in a certain way, but it does not say everything. God’s love increases in us through the gift of ourselves to persons and to tasks that he entrusts to us, but as the love of God grows, the desire of Christ and eternity takes root with it: this desire makes us like strangers in the world.
Paul would like to see his friends but not for that will he linger over fraternal meals in which his friends would try to provide him with a warm atmosphere. His deep desire is for what he still lacks: to meet Christ in his glory (see 2 Cor 4:16 and Phil 3:10).
I desire greatly to leave this life and to be with Christ (v. 23). Thus, those who say that a person ceases to exist at the time of death and only recovers life in the resurrection at the end of times are wrong. See 2 Corinthians 5:8 also.
• 27. See how throughout this paragraph Paul invites the Philippians to fully share his own struggle: he is in prison, but they must remain in the front line of the battle. What does he expect? First that their community be a true one (v. 27). Unity is a decisive sign for those who see us from the outside. Uphold the faith of the Gospel with one heart (v. 27). Whether there be a persecution or not, people from the outside will try to divide us.
• 2.1 Unity is often supported by a shared feeling of being the best, or the strongest, or having to contend with another group: in that way many religious groups maintain their strength, their discipline and the efforts and sacrifices needed for this. All that is also found in Christian groups, but it should not be, for we have another spirit (Lk 9:55). With us, unity will follow from much humility and understanding of others. Here, Paul gives the secret of Christian co-existence: look for what is humble and do nothing through rivalry or vain conceit (v. 3).
In a hymn which is a sort of creed, Paul proposes the example of Christ: his path from God to man, from rich to poor, from first to last, from master to servant.
The Lord Jesus desired to identify with the most humble, the most afflicted, the most despised. Such were Jesus’ attitudes and they must be those of his followers, the Christians. A desire to identify with the most humble and to share with them is the motivation for a truly evangelical life.
In this we must differ from the majority of people who are mainly interested in their personal or family fulfillment. Their ambitions are legitimate, and who among us does not share them at least partly? Yet they have been devalued by Christ by the simple fact that he took the opposite way.
He did not regard equality with God (v. 6): the mystery of God’s Son who became a mortal man and gave up God’s glory, although he could have preserved it even in his human life. Since Christ was to be the New Man, glorified by God and placed above everything, his being subject to misery and limitations was a way of being reduced to nothingness.
God exalted him (v. 9). The humiliation and obedience of Christ were the condition for receiving his glory. He gave him the Name (of God), that is, he made him fully enjoy in his human nature the divine Power (or Name).
• 12. Continue working out your salvation “with fear and trembling”. It is not a matter of being afraid of God. Paul has just urged his readers to rejoice, since they no longer have the spirit of slaves to make them fearful, but the spirit of sons and daughters (Rom 8:15).
Paul, in fact, has just recalled Christ’s sacrifice and he draws this conclusion: take your life very seriously (this is the meaning of fear and trembling: as does the one who carefully carries a precious load). Be aware that God is at work in you through these good desires that come to you. Live in the presence of God.
• 19. Paul usually deals with personal matters at the end of his letters. Here he seems to interrupt the subject of his letter that he will take up again in 3:1. Paul announces two visits to the Christians of Philippi.
Timothy is Paul’s assistant; he is entrusted with several missions to the communities. It seems that Timothy did not have much authority and could be easily humiliated by those who disliked Paul’s direction.
As to Epaphroditus, he was a Christian from Philippi who had left his family, spent his money and faced risks in order to go and visit Paul. The community of believers must pay attention to its most committed members, who have little means, in order to assist them. The Church sometimes presents as examples, militants from the working class or peasants who were quite forgotten by their brothers and sisters in the faith during their lives.
• 3.1 The discourse of Paul seems to be interrupted here. Paul begins a violent polemic against ill-converted Jews who keep repeating that one must first be faithful to the laws and customs of the Old Testament in order to be a good Christian.
Beware of the dogs…! (v. 2) Paul applies to the Jews, proud of being the chosen people, the very insults that they reserved for non-Jews. Jews were sealed by the circumcision, but they mocked people of other religions who incised their skin (1 K 18:28).
Through what Paul says concerning his faithfulness to Judaism, we know something of his past. He was born in Tarsus to a Jewish family who had left their country and had settled there, in “Greek” territory, where they dedicated themselves to business. His parents were wealthy and well thought of since they had the dignity and the rights of Roman citizens (see Acts 22:28). Along with Greek culture, Paul received religious education from the Bible and the Jewish people. He saw firsthand the pagan feasts and sacrifices, but was proud of belonging to God’s people, of being circumcised and instructed in God’s promises to his race. His parents sent him to Jerusalem to study Scripture and the Law with the great masters of his time (see Acts 22:3).
He was a model of strict Pharisee. He did not meet Christ but did meet the early Christians. Because he was faithful to the religion of his ancestors, he believed it was necessary to persecute, imprison and even kill those preaching a new doctrine and deceiving (so he though) the people, since they proclaimed a false, defeated and crucified Messiah.
At times, Paul must have had doubts (Acts 26:14), and increasingly so, when he felt duty bound to increase repression. The Pharisees were against the death penalty. To hesitate or go backwards was to recognize that God had taken another road than the one where he himself had been the defender of God’s cause. Worse still: with Jesus, never more would he be the just man but rather the pardoned sinner. When Jesus forcefully entered into Paul’s life, it was a matter of losing all and Paul from then on accepted to regard as garbage all that he had been proud of.
Forgetting what is behind me (v. 13). Paul only wanted to “forget.” Forget his merits and his gains (in the judgment of others) so as to receive more fully the free grace of God; forget what he already knew of God and be available for new experiences.
The greatest thing for Christians is not to perform miracles, or to speak in tongues, but to know Christ and meet him as a living person. I want to experience the power of his resurrection. All of us would like to feel the presence of God and to see him in some way, but the way to experience his power that transfigures us is by sharing in Christ’s sufferings (2 Cor 1:3-5).
All of us who claim to be perfect (v. 15). See what was said in 1 Corinthians 2:6. Paul speaks ironically again about those who believe they belong to a superior class of Christians, while he would not dare consider himself to be perfect (v. 12).
Finally, he insists on the resurrection. Because we know that our bodies (or persons) will be raised and that the universe will be renewed, we must put passing things in their place: food, wine, sex—all must stop being the idols that enslave us.
• 4.1 Once again the theme is interrupted; this passage seems to be the continuation of 2:19–3:1.
The Book of Life (v. 3) is a common Jewish term meaning those who will be saved (Rev 20:12).
Fill your minds with whatever is truthful, holy, just, pure, lovely and noble (v. 8). Paul continuously repeats that it is not enough to avoid what is forbidden. Let us discover this free and open attitude of a believer who knows that God speaks to him in a thousand ways through others. How many examples before our eyes each day! What great, noble and true things there are in this world about which we speak negatively! Let us accept what is good, wherever we find it, even among unbelievers.
• 10. Paul thanks the Church of Philippi for their help. He, who is so jealous of his independence and anxious not to seem to take advantage of others under the pretext of religion, accepts what his real friends give him.