Essay / Theology

Philippians: Sweet and Unsystematic

Philippians is among the sweetest books of the New Testament. It is a short letter from Paul to a congregation that he obviously feels and expresses great affection toward. In 1898, JB Lightfoot, the Bishop of Durham, said that Philippians is “not only the noblest reflexion of St. Paul’s personal character and spiritual illumination, his large sympathies, his womanly tenderness, his delicate courtesy, his frank independence, his entire devotion to the Master’s service; but as a monument to the power of the Gospel it yields in importance to none of the apostolic writings.” Its characteristic vocabulary is inspiring and encouraging just to skim. It uses the word “joy” or “rejoice” about a dozen times.

It is indeed friendly, warm, affectionate, encouraging, and sweet. It is also very loosely organized, moving from thought to thought without following a strong outline. In Philippians, Paul is not marshalling arguments against any particular heresy or problem, which would give the letter a certain unity like that of Galatians or Colossians. He is also not writing to instruct in an orderly way, which would give it a unity like that of Romans or Ephesians. Instead he is writing to encourage and commend, which imposes no particular order on the various things he wants to say. Make no mistake, it is an intensely theological letter, but no outline will make it yield its teaching. One scholar said, “In its unsystematic structure it rivals II Corinthians.”

As a result of these two features “its sweetness and its unsystematic shape,” Philippians may be the book of the New Testament most likely to be chopped up and mined for quotes. If you underlined or highlighted in your high school Bible, like a good young Christian would, check out your own underlining. If it’s like mine, you will find that you underlined here a verse, there a verse, as they jumped out at you with a zap of encouragement. “He who began a good work in you…” “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable…” “Rejoice in the Lord always…” “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you…”

As a result, Philippians is in the odd category of being a favorite neglected book. Most of us have experienced Philippians as a loose collection of favorite verses, without much sense of what binds it together, or of what distinct contribution it makes as a book to our understanding of the Christian life. But it’s a book worth spending concentrated time with, to soak in its unique power. Its central idea can probably be seen best at the point where Paul describes Christ’s condescension in order to encourage the church to have the mind of Christ in their selfless service and Christlike humility. Paul writes from this perspective, and it makes Philippians a great help in seeing our lives correctly in this “crooked and depraved generation.”

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