I had the great honor of asking Dr. Stephen Fowl a few questions about Paul’s letters to the Philippians. The author of a commentary on Philippians (which I heartily recommend!) as well as Ephesians, Dr. Fowl is proffesor of theology at Layola University Maryland in Baltimore.
Because of the context of a letter like Philippians, could you take some time describing how prison in the ancient world differed from our modern conception of it?
Stephen: Roman imprisonment was horrible, but it was not used either as punishment or as part of a philosophy of rehabilitation. The Romans used prisons as places to hold someone while they figured out the next steps. If someone was disobeying a judge’s order, they stayed in jail until they agreed to obey. If the Romans felt someone was deserving of death, then they stayed in jail until the time and manner of death could be determined. As a result, there was really little interest in the welfare of prisoners. Most Roman jails would have been more like we imagine dungeons: Dark, airless, cold in winter, hot in summer, no running water or sanitation. Poor and inadequate food was the rule. It was very hard to survive a long stint in jail without friends and resources on the outside. This raises perhaps the most important element of Roman imprisonment: it altered relationships. The shame and dependence of the prisoner altered that person’s relationships with their family, friends, and co-workers.
You see indications of this in Philippians. For example, Paul wants to make sure the Philippians understand that his imprisonment is due to his commitment to the gospel. He is not a common thief, for example. There is also this delicate balancing act that Paul seeks to carry out in 4:10-20, acknowledging the Philippians financial assistance without shifting the nature of their friendship in Christ.
Paul writes to the Philippian believers that their “citizenship” is in heaven. Does Paul mean by this that we are to avoid earthly attachments and avoid patriotism (or enthusiasm for one’s country and culture)?
Stephen: Paul is all about attachments. He cares deeply and is deeply attached to his churches and he wants them to be equally attached to each other. Indeed, in 1:27 he tells them to “order their life together in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Paul is deeply committed to helping the Philippians and all his churches order their connections and commitments to people, places, and things, in a manner appropriate to their calling as people of Christ.
At the same time, Paul wants the Philippians and all Christians to understand that their ultimate allegiance is to a “heavenly commonwealth.” Anything that threatens to weaken or undermine that allegiance has to be relativized and subjected to this primary allegiance. All humans have multiple and often overlapping sets of allegiances. The question for Christians then and now is how to make sure these allegiances are put in their proper order relative to this supreme allegiance. Sometimes that must mean breaking or abandoning some allegiances. Other times, it means loosening our attachments to certain allegiances.
The key to doing this well lies in 2:5 where Paul urges the Philippians to adopt for themselves the pattern of thinking, acting, and feeling displayed to them by Christ. They are charged to develop a Christ-focused practical wisdom. This is the long work of a lifetime, but it is the only way to keep our allegiances in their proper relationship to our participation in Christ’s heavenly commonwealth.
Paul writes to not be anxious about anything and also exhorts the suffering Philippians to rejoice in all things. Of course Paul writes this suffering in prison. What is the implication for Christians during times of suffering?
Stephen: All Christians should be very careful about offering explanations for all forms of human suffering. Learning to be silent is sometimes what is called for. In a world that is hostile to the gospel as Paul’s was, it was crucial that Paul and the Philippians lived in a way that made it clear that any suffering the state imposed on them was because of their commitments to Christ and not something else.
Let me recount a brief story to make this point. I had a friend in graduate school in the mid -80s who came from South Africa which was in the midst of its anti-Apartheid struggle. He left the country a few steps ahead of the police. One of the first things we all noticed about him was that he was extremely scrupulous about observing all the copyright laws around photocopying. When I asked him about it he said that in South Africa the police were always watching them to find a pretext to arrest them. They wanted to make sure that if they were arrested, it was for the right reasons. Paul would understand that sentiment.
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?
Stephen: Not easy.
You have entered into a lifelong journey of friendship with Christ. God will make sure that you complete that journey. To do so well, you will need to adopt Christ’s pattern of thinking and living. This is hard and it will change everything including the ways you think about your prior life. Finally, you cannot journey closer to Christ without at the same time drawing closer to your brothers and sisters in Christ.
What do Christian individuals and communities miss out on when they don’t understand Philippians? How is Philippians relevant to today?
Stephen: Philippians offers strong wisdom about how to live in a world that is indifferent or hostile to the gospel. As our world begins to manifest some of those same types of hostility, Christians must not seek to re-establish a comfortable position in our culture. Instead, they should hear Paul’s call to a life and practice of communal fidelity regardless of the consequences.
Thank you for your time!
A respected New Testament scholar, Stephen E. Fowl is the author of many books related to the study of Scripture including the soon to be released Idolatry, which deals with how idolatry in presented in the bible and how believers lapse into idolatry. His commentary on Philippians is one of the best I’ve come across, brilliant and engaging, bringing Philippians to life.
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