I had the great honor of asking Dr. Joe Hellerman (PhD, University of California) a few questions about the letter to Philippians and its relevance for today. An authority on New Testament (NT) studies, Dr. Hellerman is the author of Philippians (B & H, 2015), a commentary in the Exegetical Guide to the New Testament series and a resource which I highly recommend.
Some have taken Paul’s “your citizenship is in heaven” to mean that we are to avoid earthly attachments, others seeing this as a call to avoid patriotism. What exactly is Paul getting at when writing this phrase? How would the Philippian believers have understood it?
I don’t find either option—avoiding earthly attachments or patriotism—as particularly helpful here, because Roman citizenship was different in at least two distinct ways from citizenship in a modern nation-state.
First, as Rome transitioned from a republic governed by a senate to a principate ruled by a single individual, citizenship was increasingly viewed as loyalty to a person—the emperor—rather than loyalty to the state.
Secondly, and perhaps even more important, Rome was an honor culture, highly stratified into numerous status groups. And Roman citizenship was a highly prized status marker. In fact the only status distinction more defining than that between a Roman citizen and a non-citizen was the social chasm between a freeborn person and a slave. Philippi was more culturally Roman, in this regard, than anywhere Paul ministered in the Greek East, and Roman citizenship was a prized honor: more than half of the gravestone inscriptions unearthed at the settlement boast that the deceased was a Roman citizen.
Paul’s attitude toward his own Roman citizenship best illuminates the meaning of the phrase “your citizenship is in heaven.” In Acts 16, Paul and Silas submitted to treatment—a beating and imprisonment—they could have completely avoided had they informed the magistrates of their citizenship at the beginning of the story. At a time when the emperor (Claudius) made pretending to be a Roman citizen a capital crime, Paul and Silas pretended not to be citizens in order to preserve a level playing field for all in Philippi—citizen or non-citizen, slave or free, man or woman—to respond to the Gospel.
I believe the Philippians would have heard all this as a profound challenge to the status-conscious, socially stratified, culture in the colony. And I also think they would have heard a subversive challenge to the authority of Caesar.
Finally, I think the Philippians would have found an explanation for Paul and Silas’s radically counter-cultural approach to status in the picture of Jesus (Philippians 2:6-11), who, like the missionaries, did not regard his social status as “something to be used to his own advantage” (v. 6). More on this below!
In light of many biblical passages encouraging lament following a tragedy, what are we to make of Paul’s words to a suffering community to “rejoice always?”
This question, of course, goes far beyond the bounds of Philippians. We should note that the suffering in view in Philippians is suffering for the sake of the Gospel. But, with some qualification, I think we can apply what we learn from the letter to suffering in general.
As Christians, there is an important place for lament within the time-bound limits of our temporal existence. Even Paul anticipated the possibility of having “sorrow upon sorrow” over experiences this side of eternity. The beauty of God’s story, however, is that there is a broader, eternal perspective. And as I tell the folks in my congregation, because (and only because) God’s story has a happy ending, our story has a happy ending, as well. Paul kept his eyes on the prize (1:22; 3:11–14, 20–21). I think it’s fair to assume that Paul’s eternal outlook helped him to rejoice in adverse circumstances.
But Paul was not about to wait until that happy ending to live in God’s story. One of the keys to finding joy in life is to rejoice about the right things. Because Paul was so deeply embedded in God’s story of redemption in Christ, what caused Paul to rejoice more than anything was proclaiming the good news about Jesus. In God’s sovereignty, he discovered he could do that anywhere—even from a Roman prison. As a result, he could rejoice in the worst of circumstances (1:18).
Finally, I think we have some evidence in Philippians of the familiar truth (cf. Romans 5 and James 1) that we can find joy in our suffering because suffering brings us closer to God. Thus, in Philippians 3:8–10 Paul connects suffering with both “gaining” and “knowing” Christ this side of eternity.
The so-called “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2 is commonly referenced as a proof-text of the preexistence of Christ. Is this all that’s going on, or is there more to the text?
It’s tough to know where to begin—or end!—my response this question, since I’ve written so much about these six verses (2:6-11). So, I’ll just offer a little teaser here.
Paul clearly and unequivocally refers to Christ’s pre-incarnate state (a better expression than “preexistence”) in Philippians 2:6, so I have no problem citing the text in support of this crucial doctrine. I don’t think this was Paul’s point, however. Nor do I think that ontological Christology, traditionally conceived was on Paul’s mind when he wrote 2:6-11, although I think one can make a secondary argument for the deity and humanity of Christ from the passage.
All this ought to be quite obvious. After all, Paul begins the passage by challenging the Philippians to be like Jesus (2:5). We can hardly share Jesus’ ontology—not his deity, at any rate. Careful study of the terms in the passage also calls into question the traditional approach. I am convinced, for example, that the NIV is wrong to translate morphe theou (literally “form of God”) as “very nature God” in 2:6. The expression refers simply to outward appearance, which was huge status issue in Roman antiquity.
What 2:6-11 is about, in my view, is how we are to use our social capital, or any privilege we might have, for that matter. Jesus, who was at the very top of the social pecking order of the universe (Paul’s point in v. 6), did not regard his position as the pre-incarnate Son of God as “something to be used to his own advantage” (v. 6; NIV). Rather he “valued others above himself” (2:3). We are to do the same.
So, in the final analysis, Philippians 2:6-11 is about relationships among the people of God in the local church—not the deity and humanity of Christ. The “payoff” for the text has to do with ecclesiology, not Christology traditionally understood.
If you could condense Philippians into a sentence or two, what might that look like? What do you feel the main message of this letter is, in a nutshell?
Philippians is essentially a letter of gratitude occasioned by a gift sent from Philippi, in which Paul touches on a number of key issues related to the Christian life. As a result, I find it difficult to summarize the main theme of the letter in a sentence or two. The command in 2:5, read against the picture of Jesus in vv. 6–11, probably sums up Paul’s challenge to the Philippians as well as anything:
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”
For the common layperson who wants to deepen his or her understanding of Philippians, where would you have them start? Any pointers?
Here is a challenge that can shed light not only on Philippians but on much of the epistolary literature in the NT:
Whenever you see a command or promise, or read the word “you,” read it as an address to a community (“you,” plural), rather than to an individual. Consistently applied, this will completely transform your understanding of Scripture and your view of the Christian life.
Let’s try it out on Philippians 4:19 — And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
Notice what happens. Suddenly, every need of yours become the needs of the church, and the promise is given not to individual believers in isolation from one another but, rather, to a community that has sacrificially contributed to the ministry of the gospel (see 4:15–18).
Thank you for your time!
Having taught at Talbot for over a decade, Dr. Joe Hellerman is the author of When the Church was a Family as well as Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today. Dr. Hellerman currently teaches on the side, and enjoys playing keyboard in a classic rock band. He also serves as a team pastor at Oceanside Christian Fellowship in California.