Working Things out in Philippians

I’ve been off for about a month — the holidays, RSV, interim ministry, and other things. Part of the time I’ve been preparing to lead a Zoom bible study on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. I’ll offer that study on January 11, 18, and 25, and February 1, from 7 to 8:15 CST. Let me know if you’d like to attend. Here’s a draft of an introduction to that study for anyone who’s interested.

With fear and trembling,” Paul writes in Philippians 2:12, “keep on working out your own salvation…”[1] This small phrase is enough to make some orthodox Protestant Christians flip right to Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The words in this text seem to be infected with the dreaded “works righteousness” virus to which such orthodox Protestant Christians have been taught to be allergic.

But don’t worry. That’s not Paul’s agenda in these words. It’s safe to keep on reading.

Instead, Paul urges the Philippian Christians to keep on praying, thinking, talking, arguing, studying, and behaving their way into their life together in Christ. In fact, reading Paul’s Letter to the Philippians closely and carefully is a way for us to “keep on working out our own salvation.”

The Letter to the Philippians is much loved as a devotional resource and a preaching gold mine. Chapter 4 of the letter supplies its own cottage industry of plaques, samplers, posters, and other tchotchkes in so-called “religious” stores. The letter is a well-known source of inspiration and encouragement.

But it is, I think, underutilized as a resource for theological reflection and growth. Theologians tend to focus on the rough and tumble arguments of Galatians, the majestic sweep of Romans, and poetry of First Corinthians, or the high church language of Ephesians.[2] The Letter to the Philippians tends to be ignored – with the exception of the astonishing hymn to Christ in chapter two. But even that breath-taking poetry tends to be limited in the liturgical calendar to the status of a theological footnote on Palm/Passion Sunday.

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is a work of theological density, complexity, and subtlety in its own right. Paul’s insights in this letter are compact and cryptic, taut and tantalizing, both allusive and a bit elusive. There’s a lot in this little letter to “keep on working out.”

For example, as soon as Paul appears to have fall off the “grace alone” wagon, he gets right back on in Philippians 2:13. “For God is the one working in you all,[3]Paul and his colleagues continue, “both to will and to work according to [God’s] good intentions.” As we study together, it is God working through us to accomplish what God intends. God does not want to work through us without us, so we are invited to be part of the work.

You will benefit greatly from meditating on the words of this letter in your prayers, thoughts, and devotions. I know that I do. No deep digging is required to receive that benefit. You will grow in faith, hope, and love as you hear sermons based on this letter. No further study is needed for such growth to happen. But there are spiritual and theological treasures buried in this letter which will reward the disciplined digger. I hope you will unearth some of those treasures along the way.

Disciplined digging always leads to both challenges and surprises. The Letter to the Philippians contains social and political dynamite mixed in with the spiritual and theological gold. If we encounter a few explosions along the way, I am confident we will survive them together. And once the dust clears, we will likely see things uncovered in the text and in our thinking that could be found no other way.

We are going to read the letter primarily as an event of speaking and listening. Paul’s letters are oral and aural documents that have come down to us in written transcripts. That will be a new insight and method of interpretation for some. It may be hard to trust or grasp at first. But the insights that come from this interpretive perspective will be worth it, I assure you.

Paul is intent on continuing to teach the Philippian Christians, and us, not only what to think but, more importantly, how to think. As we reason and reflect together, I’m going to point out some of the Greek words in the text of the letter. In just a moment, we’ll get better acquainted with the verb I translate as “keep on working out.” But first, I should say a word about Greek words.

I come from a tradition that trains pastors in the basics of the “original” Biblical languages – Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. I am one of a minority of my colleagues who is grateful for that training and has continued to use it over the last forty years of sermonizing and Bible study. It’s often tempting to use the Biblical languages as a way to impress people with “how much I know.” If that’s how it seems to you, I apologize. That’s not my intention. Sometimes we preachers appear to use the Biblical languages to pull theological rabbits out of our hats, especially when confronted with difficult texts and challenging issues. I hope I’m not guilty of that homiletical sin too often (but it has happened).

The Biblical languages can reveal information about a text not found in an English translation. It is often the case that a text can be translated in several ways – none of which can be conclusively demonstrated to be “The Correct Translation.” It is always the case that translation requires interpretation. There is only rarely a one-to-one correspondence between a Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic word and some English equivalent. So, translators are always making (informed, we hope) interpretive choices when rendering a text.

Yet, as the Italian proverb puts it, “Traduttore, traditore” –”The translator is a traitor.” Every interpretive choice leaves out other choices which may be just as accurate and bring a different sense to the text. That’s why it’s important to look at a number of translations and interpretations. And that’s why I find it helpful to work – still as a rank amateur – with the ”original” languages of the text.

But I digress. The verb is “katergazesthe.” It can mean to commit an act, either admirable or shameful. It can mean to produce or create or bring about a thing or a state of being. It can mean to work out something. It can also mean to overpower or subdue or conquer. This “working out” is supposed to be work. If reading and reflecting on the Letter to the Philippians sometimes makes your temples throb or your palms sweat, then you’re probably on the right track.

As I said earlier, Paul is teaching us not only what to think but how to think. That’s why one of the important word groups in this letter comes from the Greek terms with the root, “phrone—.” We’ll talk about this in some detail soon enough. But the word group has to do with having a particular “mindset” or “worldview.” Paul tries to form the Philippian Christians and members of his other congregations to see, experience, and interact with the world in a particular way – with the “mindset of Christ.” As we work things out, we may come to a deeper appreciation of what that phrase means for us.

In particular, Paul is trying to help the two leaders of the congregation, Euodia and Syntyche, to work out what having this mindset together means. It may be that these leaders are having a dispute. Or it may be that the congregation is not following their lead very well. In either case, Paul urges them to have the same mindset as they exercise their leadership in the community.

This reminds us that Paul’s letters are not dry theological tomes reserved for academic theologians. The Letter to the Philippians is just that – a letter to real people who lived in the Greco-Roman city of Philippi some time after the middle of the first century CE.[4] We’ll go into more detail about these Philippians as we work things out together. But we will always be looking around to find hints about their lives and loves, their fears and frustrations, their work and play, their hopes and joys.

Yes, especially their joys. If there is one overarching emotion that energizes Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, it is indeed “joy.” That might seem odd for a while. After all, Paul is writing from a Roman prison and doesn’t know if he will be released or even if he will survive. The Philippians are experiencing threats from the local authorities and divisions within their own congregation. Their leaders may be fighting. Their fair-haired boy just about died when he visited Paul in prison. Paul uses words for suffering, struggle, persecution, trial, and tribulation. The heart of his great hymn in chapter intones “even death on a cross.”

In the face of all that, Paul urges the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord always and in all ways. This is not joy after the suffering and struggle have passed. This is not the joy of a near miss when trial and tribulation have headed off in another direction. This is joy in the midst of suffering. Coming to appreciate that joy in the Letter takes more than a bit of working out as well.

As we read and reflect on this letter, we know history matters. But, as Laura Nasrallah writes, “the past is not contiguous with history.”[5] My first academic training was as an undergraduate historian. I wanted to recapture the past and to know how things came to be the way they are now. But historical “re-construction” isn’t possible. Too much of the relevant data and details simply is not available. The best we can hope for is an informed, careful, and humble attempt at historical “construction” – telling a story that is faithful to and makes sense of the data and detail we have.

I will make a clumsy attempt at a bit of that reconstruction in the words that follow. Please don’t think that I believe this is “how it happened.” I have some reasons to think that there might have been some similar events, but any resemblance to reality would be purely dumb luck and cannot be verified in this life in any event. So, I’m trying to have a bit of creative fun, to be modestly interesting, and to spark some creative working on your part as we go along. So, let’s see what we can work out together – both with fear and trembling, and with humility and joy.


[1] Unless otherwise noted, all translations in the text will be mine. You will note differences from whatever translation you might be using. If you work with the Greek text, I invite you to look at the text and see if you agree with the translation. If not, I’d encourage you to look at several translations of the text. Compare them to my translation and to one another and see what you think.

[2] Scholars debate the authorship of some letters historically attributed to Paul and his colleagues. The undisputed letters of Paul in the Christian testament include Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon. Other documents historically attributed to Paul, such as Ephesians, may have been written by associates or students of Paul following his death in the early 60’s CE. But all of that is for another time.

[3] I use “you all” in my translations, not to be folksy, but rather because modern English has no way to distinguish between “you singular” and “you plural.” The majority of the “you’s” in Paul’s letters are plural, but not all. It will be worth noting which is which in the translations.

[4] I use the accepted designations of “CE” (the Common Era) and “BCE” (before the Common Era) to label dates that you may be accustomed to seeing as “BC” (before Christ) and “AD” (anno domini, the year of our Lord). These designations are more inclusive of the large part of the world that is not tied to a “Christian” demarcation of time.

[5] Nasrallah, Archaeology and the Letters of Paul, page 17.

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