New Testament Words and Verses
Philippians 2:12-18, Paul's Exhortation, One
After the dramatic and powerful ideas of the Christ hymn in 2:5-11, Paul takes a break in this section from ideas and moves towards exhortation. It is actually a good rhythm to establish, since a steady barrage of ideas, while sometimes appropriate, leaves a lot of people rolling their eyes, but a continual series of exhortations makes even the most eager follower say, “Is there some priority here?” Thus, a balance or alternation between concepts and command, ideas and implementation, can be most powerful.
The Basic Idea
It was surprising to me after reading this section multiple times to realize that it only is about one thing: ‘obey what I say.’ Paul is away from his beloved congregation, imprisoned in fact, and thus not only is concerned about how they live but for the potential dangers they face. Good teachers are always interested, and a bit fearful, that their students may just “go south” on them; Paul is concerned that his congregants continue their loyal ways.
He expresses that concern by placing the word υπήκουσατε, “you have obeyed” front and center in verse 12. The phrase it appears in is: “Just as you have always (πάντοτε) obeyed (υπήκουσατε). . .when I was present. . .” but then, after an intervening line, he says, ἀλλὰ νῦν πολλῷ μᾶλλον ἐν τῇ ἀπουσίᾳ μου or “but now so much the more in my absence.” The point is that he wants them to keep on obeying, and to do so even more now.
Lest his readers miss this, he repeats the same idea in verse 14, though coming at it from a different angle. There the idea is that they do all things χωρὶς γογγυσμῶν καὶ διαλογισμῶν, “without grumbling and (excessive) discussion.” Paul has an understanding of the way things will work; their task is to obey, not to complain and not even to discuss things very extensively. The word διαλογισμός, which I rendered “excessive discussion” is really simply the common word for a discussion or a reasoning process involving back and forth exchange of thoughts. That Paul will want to preclude this is understandable, but when put in the context of the “be obedient” word, we see his interest.
Paul’s Self-Sacrifice for Them
And, if this isn’t enough, he also stresses how much he has given the congregation. He uses three powerful words derived from the vocabulary of liturgy and sacrifice to emphasize how much he has done for them. The whole phrase is worth quoting (v 17):
Ἀλλ’ εἰ καὶ σπένδομαι ἐπὶ τῇ θυσίᾳ καὶ λειτουργίᾳ τῆς πίστεως ὑμῶν,
“But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifices and loyal ministry of your faith.”
My translation is a little clunky and rocky because, in my judgment, so is the underlying Greek. But the picture is clear: Paul is being “poured out” on their behalf as if he is some kind of “sacrifice.” The expected reaction is, ‘Oh my, obey the guy! Do whatever he says! He has given so much for us!’ Paul certainly isn’t one to shy away from emphasizing what he has done for people. Maybe we should take a hint from him.
Playing with the Central Idea
Paul doesn’t just say, repeatedly, “Obey me!” He cloaks his idea in attractive language that tries to balance out the seemingly aggressive demand for obedience. That is, he will say “Obey!” in verse 12, and even obey “with fear and trembling,” a common biblical hendiadys, but then he will say that they are to work out this obedience because God is at work in them. Wonderful. God at work, working for their benefit, working their salvation. Yes! They certainly can embrace this idea and this makes it easier to agree to obey Paul.
Then, in the second instance of demand for obedience (verse 14), where they are told not to grumble or engage in excessive discussions, the benefit of this kind of activity is quickly given: so that they may be “children of God” in the midst of a corrupt and perverse (this time a very sophisticated hendiadys-- σκολιᾶς καὶ διεστραμμένης, or “bent/perverse and “perverse/tangled up”) generation, among whom they shine like lights in the world.
Finally, when Paul talks about the tremendous sacrifice he has made on their behalf, and how he is about ready to be offered up on the altar of sacrifice, he quickly moves from that rather grim topic to one of rejoicing. He uses two verbs for rejoicing, and he repeats them so that in thirteen words of vv 17-18 we have four “rejoicing” verbs. The tone, then, is “Even if I am sacrificed for your faith,” then “I rejoice and I will rejoice with you, and in the same manner you rejoice and rejoice with me.”
Thus, the last word of this section is “rejoice together with me,” but the not-so-subtle agenda of Paul in this section is “Obey.” He has, however, skillfully calibrated his words so that the obedience appears to be rather painless and, when the sacrificial language is brought in, necessary. They obey, and they get all kinds of benefits, spiritual benefits that is, through the obedience. That is one of the enduring contributions of St Paul.
Philippians 2:12-18, Two
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