< December 06, 2009 >

Commentary on Philippians 1:3-11

 

"Friendship is essential to the soul."

This is the motto of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, a black Greek-letter organization founded at Howard University in 1911. A similar statement could be made about Paul's friendly letter to the Philippians. Much of this letter is about reconnecting and strengthening a relationship that is important to both sender and recipient. This relationship appears to be particularly important to the apostle since he is in prison: "for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel" (1:7).

It is common for the apostle to begin his letters with an expression of thanksgiving (1:3-5). What is interesting about this statement of thanksgiving is that Paul uses the verb deomai twice (deēsis, translated "praying," and deēsin, translated "prayers"). The verb describes some sort of lack or deficiency, and so by extension means "to request" or "to beseech." The more common term for prayer in Greek literature is proseuchē. For example, in Philippians 4:6 he says, "By prayer (proseuchē) and supplication (deēsis) with thanksgiving (eucharistia) let your requests be made known."

In this instance, we understand Paul to mean a petition, although he doesn't tell us immediately what the content of his request is. Many scholars believe that the content is supplied in 1:9-11: that their love may "overflow more and more." The apostle adds that he makes these requests "with joy." This is unparalleled among Paul's thanksgiving statements. In fact, many scholars point to joy as the hallmark of this letter.1 Joy, here as in all of Paul's writings, comes with the gospel through the Holy Spirit. In 1:25 it parallels "progress" in faith.

Another interesting use of verbiage in this expression of thanksgiving is koinōnia, translated "sharing" here. Translated variously in the New Testament, although usually as "fellowship" or "partnership," koinōnia is a word that expresses the essence of Christianity. Meaning something held in common, as opposed to something "private," koinōnia refers to the community and its participants (e.g., the state or the commonwealth). Greek philosophers used it and related words to refer to the social order. For example, Plato's ideal republic had communal, not private, property.

In the New Testament, the book of Acts highlights a similar community ideal when it says the Jerusalem church held "all things in common" (2:44). Here in Philippians, Paul's use of koinōnia sounds similar to the Pythagorean maxim that friends have all things in common. This is why scholars maintain that friendship is at the heart of this letter. The church is a community of active participants, each holding a similar status (whether "brothers and sisters" or "friends"), and having fundamental things in common. That is, the church is a community because of God's call (see 1 Corinthians 1:9), as well as the justification, reconciliation, and sanctification that come through the crucifixion (see 1 Corinthians 1:17-18, 30). More explicitly in Philippians 1:5, this "sharing" (koinōnia) is in the gospel; meaning the Philippians shared by supporting the preaching of the gospel financially -- an idea of koinōnia found in 2 Corinthians 8:4 and 9:13 connected to the collection for the church in Jerusalem.

He goes on to say that he is "confident . . . that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ" (1:6). For Paul, the koinōnia of believers is the "work of God" (see Romans 14:20; 1 Corinthians 9:1). In this case, the "good work" is the collection or financial support provided by the Philippians. The idea of this being a good work is more Greco-Roman than Jewish because they saw wealth as a gift from God that enabled one to share with others. Thus, the Philippians are the work of God -- the expression of a true koinōnia -- because like true friends they share their financial resources with Paul and, presumably, with one another.

He says it is "right for me to think this way about all of you" (1:7). The verb phronein ("to think") by the time of Paul referenced the notion of "practical wisdom" (phronēsis). It was connected to virtues like wisdom, justice, courage, and moral insight -- a divine gift. This is because, at least in the way Paul uses it, the mind was understood to be capable of having a relationship with self as well as with others, including God. The apostle will urge the Philippians to "think the same thing" (Philippians 2:2; 3:16; 4:2), "think this" about Christ, themselves, and others (2:5; 3:15), as well as to think of "heavenly" rather than "earthly" things (3:19). Since the way one thinks is intimately related to the way one lives, this idea of phronēsis further underscores the communal dimension of this letter. Thinking and acting (i.e., "sharing") in concert are the activities of friends.

Paul goes on to draw out the relationship of friendship between himself and the Philippians when he says, "for all of you share in God's grace with me," another employment of the term koinōnia in this letter. That is, the congregation, by sharing its resources with Paul as only true friends can do, is in partnership with the apostle in his vocational goal. Two important things are being contrasted here. "Defense" (apologia) and "confirmation" (bebaiōsis) are both technical terms derived from the legal sphere. Apologia implies the negative. Bebaiōsis implies the positive, which is why it is translated as confirmation. Thus, the Phippians' support enables Paul to be a witness not only in the jail cell but also in the courtroom.

As I said, friendship is at the heart of this letter. The love that is philia is what makes true community (koinōnia) possible, especially as described by Aristotle in his Politics. It involves activities that express commonality, thinking and sharing things in common. As described by the apostle, friendship is a spiritual matter.


1Terms from the verb chairein appear 16 times in Philippians.