Monday, February 13, 2012

Reading Philippians Missionally: Part One

Paul penned his letter to the Philippians to encourage and shape them for God’s mission in the world. Reading Philippians missionally involves hearing the text. In Philippians Paul models an incarnational and missional approach to proclaiming the Gospel.

The principal exhortation in Philippians is found in 1:27 “Only live as citizens worthy of the gospel of the Messiah.” The main body of Paul’s letter is 1:27–4:1. After Paul makes this exhortation in 1:27-30, Paul then offers three examples of what this sort of lifestyle looks like: Jesus (2:1-18), Timothy/Epaphroditus (2:19-30), and Paul himself (3:1-16). Paul closes out this teaching section by calling for the Philippians to imitate these models as the means to living and standing as citizens of heaven (3:17–4:1).

The wording of the wording the initial exhortation is important. The main verb (politeuomai) in the 1:27a is an imperative that means “live as a citizens.” Its noun cognate (politeue) is found in 3:20 “our citizenship is in heaven.” In Paul’s other writings, he uses the Greek work (peripateo) meaning “walk/live” (1 Thes 2:12; Col 1:10; Eph 4:1) in similar expressions. Why does he use this particular exhortation “Live as citizens of the Gospel of the Messiah” in his letter to the Philippians?

First, the missiological setting of Philippi set the stage for this vocabulary. Philippi was a Roman colonial city where many veterans of the Roman army resided. Many of its residents (including some of the Christ followers) enjoyed Roman citizenship. This was a significant and important status in the Empire. Roman citizens enjoyed rights and privileges as a favored minority in the Empire. Being citizens of Rome was central to the ethos of Philippi. The Philippians were a privileged citizenry. Thus, by using the language of citizenship, Paul captures a meaningful word for Roman citizens and deploys it skillfully to call the Christians of Philippi to embrace a different sort of status and citizenship. Paul begins with what the Philippians understand as the epitomy of life: living as a citizen of the Empire and subverts this by replacing allegiance to Rome as the highest calling with the ethos and vision of a different way of life: living as a citizen of heaven. A fundamental insight of the book of Philippians is this: the status that one embraces sets the limits of one’s capacity to reach others with the Gospel. Roman citizenship is a set of privileges that one enjoys and is able to exploit for his or her benefit. Gospel citizenship is a privileged relationship with God through Jesus that unleashes one to lay aside personal benefits for the sake of God’s mission and for the good of others.

Second, Paul is clear that this is the key command in his letter. Most of our English translations begin v. 27 with “only.” The idea here is this: pay attention to this one thing or only one thing. In other words, if the Philippians can embody this one exhortation, they will be living well. This is emphasized by the framing use of “our citizenship exists in heaven” (3:20) near the end of 1:27–4:1. Paul begins and ends this large block of teaching with a reference to citizenship. Paul is challenging the Philippians to rethink their notion of citizenship with its privileges in the Empire and embrace to new citizenship with Kingdom of God as God’s missional people in the world.

Third, the nuance of the imperative “live as citizens of the Gospel of Christ” is emphatic. It stresses this way of life as a continuous action. We may capture this by translating the clause “live continually as citizens worthy of the Gospel of the Messiah.” Paul is stressing that this calling is a moment-by-moment existence. It is not a one time or occasional activity. It is the essence of being Christ followers in Philippi. The shift is one of allegiance from being citizens of the Roman Empire to being and living as a citizens of heaven.

Fourth, Paul’s goal is missional. Paul’s wants the Philippians to embrace this new mode of life so that he may hear about the Philippian’s Gospel shaped actions (1:27b-28). The principal witness according to Paul will be the Philippians “standing unified (“in one spirit”) contending for the Gospel without being intimidated by foes. The stress on unity as a witness will weigh heavily in Paul’s subsequent argument. The people of God in Philippi are to present a corporate witness to the world that is vital and powerful. The shift from living as citizens of the Empire to living as citizens of the kingdom of heaven is the key means of reaching the city of Philippi with the good news about Jesus.

Last, Paul does not shy away from the reality of suffering and hardship due to the Gospel for the Philippian Christ followers (29-30). This is not suffering in general or suffering due to ill chosen actions. The suffering Paul is describing is suffering because they are allied with Jesus the Messiah. Paul’s initial entry into Philippi stirred up opposition (Acts 16:16-40). The Philippians Christ followers are now experiencing similar troubles as Paul. If Paul’s current troubles were with the Empire (1:12-26), it may be that the Philippians were also running into conflict with Roman citizens in Philippi who honored the Emperor alone as Lord. The confession “Jesus the Messiah is LORD” (2:9-10) is a bold and daring one in the context of an Empire that crushed all opposition. To have an allegiance above the state was risky. But profoundly the Philippian’s ability to stand together as the body of Christ serves as a sign to the very ones seeking to do them harm (1:28).

Read Part Two

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