Do you ever worry about running out of things? Full disclosure: I do. But not things like money or food. I worry about running out of things to do or learn. I’ll drag out a task just to delay that moment when I complete it and have to ask, “What do I do next?” The possibility that time does not exist in heaven still unnerves me, as if the world had finally run out of events–or the prospect of a heaven that’s just endless repetition of the same activities, as if God had run out of new and interesting things to have happen. And historically, I have worried that maybe there was nothing to begin with. I worry that maybe I’ll come to the end of my life and discover that not only have I run out of me, but moreover there was no me to begin with, that there wasn’t anything, that God is nonbeing and heaven is union with him in illusory existence’s own self-annihilation. I fear running out of reality.
What’s good enough for you? What’s worth committing to? Paul wrote more than one letter explicitly dealing with legalism, especially first-century Judaism’s Torah-based legalism. And while he doesn’t hit the problem as aggressively in his letter to the Philippian church, it’s still a concern: he warns his readers about “evil workers,” the “false circumcision,” even calling them “dogs” (2). These individuals are committed to adherence to the Law, thinking they can make the grade based on their own works. What’s good enough for them? Being good enough.
The first eight verses of Philippians 2 loom large in my high school memories. I loved the passage, memorizing the third and fourth verses, committing to its ethic of unselfishness–or at least advocating for it. I knew my attempts to live up to Jesus Christ’s standard of sacrificial giving would inevitably fall short, but I made his example my goal anyway. Eighteen years of adult experience have opened my eyes to how hard it can be to give yourself to others, and part of me wants to remark on my high-school self’s idealistic naiveté. But I gotta give the kid credit: at least he tried. I’ve had periods in my adult life, like years, where I did as much living for self as I could hide.
Welcome to a new letter from Paul. He wrote this one to the church at Philippi while he was imprisoned at Rome. As I read through the first chapter, I found myself asking: how am I gonna talk about this one? Paul’s all over the place! One moment he’s expressing his gratitude for the Philippian church, then he’s talking about preaching the gospel to his captors while he’s imprisoned, then he’s talking about how some people are preaching the gospel out of selfish motives but he doesn’t care because people are still hearing the truth about Jesus Christ. And that’s not the half of it–he’s got more to say about suffering and sacrificing and how faith manifests itself in action, to the point where I ask myself, what’s the theme here? Is there a theme? What ties it all together? Then it hits me: the theme is Jesus Christ himself.
On the whole, this All the Paul study has surprised me. I expected to encounter more friction between me and Paul; I’ve never been quite the Paul enthusiast that some of my church peers are. In my thirty-ish-year history with his writing, at times certain passages have struck me as too authoritarian, while others have seemed too theologically nebulous, too Greek, borderline pantheistic. But in tackling All the Paul here, while I’ve had to grapple with a few passages, on the whole I’ve been able to take something valuable away from each passage, dig up some good stuff and share it with you. And then Paul starts talking about slavery.
Paul is heavy on the commands in this chapter. Continuing his exhortations to moral behavior from the last chapter, he uses fifteen imperative verbs in the space of thirty-three verses, and if we expand the category to include implied commands and participial phrases used to convey normative behavior, we get something like twenty-five instances. Bottom line: that’s a lot you gotta do.
This bar is so aggressively dark that I could not concentrate on the text while eating it. But to get to the text: in today’s chapter, Paul returns to the metaphor of the body that he hinted at in yesterday’s passage (3:6) and developed more fully in 1 Corinthians 12, as we’ve seen. He underscores the importance of growth within the body, and encourages his readers to higher standards of behavior as an expression of how they’ve come to know Christ.