Thinking Biblically – Reading the Epistles

Thinking Biblically – Reading the Epistles

What does it mean to thrive?  What does it mean to live abundantly?  Was Tolkien right?  Is it true that all that is gold does not glitter, that not all who wander are lost, that the old that is strong does not wither, that deep roots are not reached by the frost?  Paul’s implicit answers to questions like these, permeate this ancient and famous expression of hope.  So, let’s take a moment to walk through it, so that we can drink from the wells of this ancient, divine wisdom, and hear the message of hope beyond hope, abundance beyond abundance.

The purpose of this series is to explore how to interpret scripture carefully and faithfully, using different passages as case studies in how to interpret scripture passages of different genres.  As always, the first question one ought to ask is “What genre is this?”  Philippians is an epistle, it’s a personal letter.  Epistles, which make up the wild majority of books in the New Testament, are personal letters.  This epistle is a letter written by Paul (and Timothy, although Paul is primary author) to the congregation of the church in the city of Phillipi.   It is a deeply personal letter written from a missionary and Apostle to a church which supports him and a group of people whom he knows and loves.  It is deeply personal. Just take a look at these two passages from the beginning and right near the end of the letter.

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:

 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 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 from the first day until now.  I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

– Philippians 1:1-6

You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once.  Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.

– Phillipians 4:15-18

It even sounds like we are reading one side of a conversation, because we are.  Philippians is a letter that Paul wrote from prison, offering encouragement, teaching, and assurance that he is alright, to his friends in Phillipi.

Phillipi was a Roman colony city.  Unlike Jerusalem, which was under military occupation by the Romans, Phillipi was a Roman colony, which was popular among retired Roman soldiers.  The congregation was likely made up primarily, or perhaps even entirely, by Roman converts.  Before their conversion they were protected by the Roman military, instead of persecuted.  Roman culture was one of egotism and excess, where ego and excess often shaped their view of greatness and the good life, and now they worship Christ, the crucified savior whose greatness was shone not in a military victory, like Julius Ceasar, nor blood and guile like his successors, but in a sacrificial death on a cross.1

In what is perhaps the heart of the letter, Paul points them to the glory of  Christ, glory which reveals the “glory” of Ceasar as nothingness, the “strength” of Ceasar as weakness, and the “abundance” of Ceasar as emptiness. 

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,  make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

 who, though he was in the form of God,

    did not regard equality with God

    as something to be exploited,

 but emptied himself,

    taking the form of a slave,

    being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

    he humbled himself

    and became obedient to the point of death—

    even death on a cross.

 Therefore God also highly exalted him

    and gave him the name

    that is above every name,

 so that at the name of Jesus

    every knee should bend,

    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

 and every tongue should confess

    that Jesus Christ is Lord,

    to the glory of God the Father.

– Phillipians 2:1-11

That is greatness, that is abundance, that it what it means to thrive: to live like Christ. “All that is gold does not glitter”; the most valuable things are not wealth and material prosperity.  “Not all who wander are lost”; not everything which seems pointless is, a shameful, degrading death, which seemed like a horrible end, was just the beginning, which lead to the greatest accomplishment that has ever been made.

With this in mind, as he ends the letter Paul assures his friends with these words:

I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress. – Phillipians 4:10-14

“The old that is strong does not wither.  Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”  That is his message.   How ever cold the winter, however the wind made howl, these roots which Christ has cultivated, grow deep and by his grace they will not break.  It is not, “I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to”, but “whatever happens, by the grace of God I can endure.” Essentially, Paul’s message in the midst of his suffering is “It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishment the scroll.  Though I am not the master of my fate, Christ is the captain of my soul.”

It is a message of hope, not in our ability to bring about some desirable set of circumstances, but hope which transcends our circumstances. Our hope is in the crucified savior who conquered sin, and death, and ascended in glory to live and reign forever. Last week, Doug made a very important point, which bears repeating here tonight, because it resonates with the message of hope in Philippians 1:13: our hope is not in any politician, any president or supreme court justice, our hope is in Christ alone. Whoever sits in the White House, who ever rules any country, Christ is still king of the universe, and by His grace, we stand, come what may.

Fix your eyes upon Christ. Whatever the world may throw at you, however tired you may be, however cold the winter may grow, “The old that is strong does not wither. Deep roots are not reached by the frost”. Christ’s strength will pull you through, and these roots – which Christ has cultivated, and tends even now – grow far to deep for the frost. Whatever you face, whatever lies ahead, remember whose you are, and remember that your LORD and savior goes before you, and He will carry you through. Amen.

  1. In the video’s above, at this point I went on a tangent about vomitoriums as an example of Roman excess. It turns out that such things did not actually exist. Romans did, however, eat while lounging and would let their scraps drop on the floor to be picked up by slaves. For more information see: https://www.history.com/news/vomitoriums-fact-or-fiction

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