I had the great honor of asking Nijay K. Gupta, a prolific author and highly respected New Testament scholar, some questions related to Paul, the gospel, and Philippians. Gupta is the author of Paul and the Language of Faith (2020, forward by James Dunn) and Reading Philippians (also 2020), both superb resources that I highly recommend.
My questions are in bold.
There is a divide among Christians on what role politics plays in our lives and in the church. Some want to steer clear of political discourse while others might be guilty of identifying more with politics than with Christ. How does Philippians speak into this, if at all? What does Philippians have to say about politics?
As you know, Paul, Philippians uses political imagery for the Christian life (Phil 1:27; 3:20-21). But Paul never talks about political figures by name (like Claudius or Nero). The imagery of the polis (civic life) in Philippians is all about having a mindset of caring for a community and putting the needs of the whole above and beyond my own selfish desires. Paul probably borrowed ideas and imagery from familiar Roman civic values that overlapped with early Christian values to remind the Philippians that it just makes sense to care for others in order to make all of society better for all of us.
Philippians happens to be extremely quotable. What are some verses and/or concepts from this letter that you hear commonly misquoted and misinterpreted, and can you unpack them in their proper context?
Well, the most popular one is “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength” (Phil 4:13). This is used as a motto for sports or any form of personal success. There is some truth to the idea we can rely on God’s strength to accomplish difficult things. But in Philippians in particular, Paul is in prison facing an unknown future, and he didn’t say: “I know the All-Powerful God will break me out!” No, in Phil 4 he talks about God’s comfort and provision when he is going hungry and experiencing material scarcity. The idea that Paul was offering was not that God will enable me to accomplish anything, but rather that God will take care of me and get me through the hard times—and hard times there will be (says the chained apostle).
This is important to know because we need to remember that neither Jesus nor the apostles believed in or promised an “easy” Christian life. Suffering is meant to be a normal part of being human in a broken world, and Christians aren’t protected from that materially, at least not always. God does miracles, then and now, but not to make us comfortable or “successful” per se, but to remind us of his love and his gospel that triumphs over evil, sin, and death.
I would paraphrase Phil 4:13 as something like: “God-the-Powerful will get me through any and all hard times.”
Can you speak into the tendency to reduce Paul’s letters to abstract theology? Why is this prevalent and how can we avoid this?
Paul’s letters are “packaged” in the Bible (sometimes “leather-bound”!), and this can give us the impression the Bible is a collection of doctrinal teachings. It is not. We can try to detect broader theological commitments and concepts that Paul held based on what he writes, but at the end of the day his letters are letters. We need to do the hard work to figure out the setting and context and what has occasion-specific relevance and what is more broadly relevant to us.
Another reason we struggle with this is the “versification” of the Bible. I actually like having the Bible broken into verses for the purpose of being able to reference things easily, BUT it can also lead to atomistic interpretation, where we take verses out of context and put them on t-shirts, daily devos, posters. This de-contextualizes those individual verses—and that can lead to misunderstanding and using the texts to reinforce our own thoughts, rather than listening to God speak through Scripture. It is important to put those individual verses in their literary context (the whole letter) and their historical context to avoid mis-interpretation.
Certain verses in Philippians can be interpreted as promoting self-loathing (2:3-4 is just one example). How do you approach Paul’s teachings on humility?
Good question! First we need to get what Paul meant by “humility.” It is not really about one’s sense of self (not for Paul). Put another way, “humility” wouldn’t exist for Paul if there was only one human left in the world. When Paul talks about being humble, he doesn’t mean a low self-esteem. Imagine in the Roman world that whenever you walk into a room with people, you scan the space and immediately rank everyone in the room in order of importance. Then you talk to the most important people and try to get into their good graces, especially the people you consider more powerful or higher “status” than yourself. That is basically how it worked in Paul’s world. Paul said to that, “No way. Don’t treat people as tools to increase your own value. Treat each as a precious creature God created. In fact, turn first and foremost to the ‘least of these.'” That is what he means. Break the power cycle by giving honor to those whom culture ignores or disrespects. We can do this kind of thing today by giving honor and attention to groups that are often neglected, rejected, or shamed.
Some may consider Paul somewhat of an isolationist (“I just need Jesus”) and even a sort of stoic. What, if anything, is wrong with this picture? What did Paul have to say about friendship?
So much! Not so much about friendship (he doesn’t really use that language explicitly), but certainly he addresses relationships a lot. The funny thing is, Paul was almost never alone! Even in prison, some people shared his imprisonment, perhaps as fellow “inmates” or maybe through visitation. We can say he was a “people” person. We see this in Philippians when Paul talks about his fellowship with Epaphroditus and Timothy (ch 2), but I think it is even more clear in 2 Timothy. In 4:9-16 he shares with Timothy his discouragement that so many of his Christian ministry partners have left him (Demas, Crescends, Titus). He asks for Timothy to visit him, along with Mark. He adds, “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but all deserted me” (2 Tim 4:16). He needed support, and they were not there for him.
We need to get it out of our heads that Paul was a loner. He was quite the opposite.
What is Paul’s response to the problem of evil, human suffering, and societal unrest?
I think Paul’s response would be quite simple: if Christians loved each other and everyone else in imitation of God’s love for us, the whole world would know peace. Love, for Paul, is a determined attitude of generosity and concern for the other, like the love we have for our kids “no matter what.” Paul did not address “political” issues head on, his concern in his own time was with the church (Gal 6:10). He saw this great potential in the church to transform the world with love. I keep going back to Bishop Michael Curry’s homily on love. Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhV0PL49d3Y.
In Reading Philippians, you write, “Paul was something like a theological physician, stepping in to diagnose and treat churches with problems.” If Paul were somehow transported to our modern evangelical churches, what might he see as in need of diagnosis/treatment and what might he resonate with?
There are several things we could talk about here, but I will pick just one: whole-life commitment to Jesus. Paul would look around and see people calling themselves “Christians” but not really fully committed to Jesus or the Church. For many, Christianity is something they check on a census box, or a reflection of their heritage. It might involve a social culture on Sundays or holidays. But Paul saw his religion as a massive, every-second-of-every-day commitment to listen to God and obey God.
So, what is our “problem?” We live in an age of distraction? We are over-committed to activities, clubs, and events? We don’t take time to really worship and listen to God? We don’t have deep relationships? We don’t feel the weight of our need to participate in the gospel mission? Probably all of the above. Paul was not a grump, but he was a realist and a straight shooter: Christians, take your faith seriously, dive in, get your hands dirty. It’s gonna mean giving up things, but you gain so much more in Christ.
Blogging regularly at Crux Sola, Dr. Nijay K. Gupta (PhD, University of Durham) has earned himself a renowned reputation within Pauline studies. A gifted and sought-after lecturer, he is Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary, Chicago. Currently serving as the Editor-in-Chief of the Bulletin for Biblical Research as well as the Co-Editor of The Bible in God’s World series along with Scot McKnight, Dr. Gupta is the author of such works as Prepare, Advance, Succeed: a Guidebook for Getting a PhD in Biblical Studied (2019, 2nd edition), Colossians (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), as well as 1 & 2 Thesalonians (Zondervan Critical Introductions to the New Testament, 2019).