New Testament Words and Verses
Philippians 1:12-18, Clarity and Confusion
One of the key features of Paul’s literary power in Philippians is his skillful mixture of familiar language (e.g., his exhortation to the recipients to speak the word of God) with new concepts (e.g., the idea of imprisonment as “advancing” the Gospel. προκοπὴν, “advance” or “progress” literally means the cutting down of what is ahead). Whereas Paul’s goals may seem straightforward and uncontroversial he manages to rub up against opponents wherever he goes. Here he only vaguely, and confusingly, describes them, but we will look at his language below. The two major points from these verses are: a) his ability to see prison as an asset; and b) his characterization of his opponents. A word on each.
Imprisonment as an Asset for Paul
He doesn’t explain why he is in prison or how long he expects to be there. But just as in our day prison epistles are especially prized (e.g., Bonhoeffer’s prison letters and papers; Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birmingham jail letter), so we see why this letter would have appealed to readers back then, as well as now. In a word, Paul is able to see his prison experience as an opportunity—both for proclaiming the Gospel and for encouraging wavering brethren to take heart and continue in the path of Christ. He chooses the rare but vivid word προκοπὴν (1:12) to describe the nature of his imprisonment. It is an occasion for “advance” or “progress.” Though προκοπὴν only appears three times in the entire NT, one other appearance is also in Phil. 1, where Paul refers to the readers’/hearers’ progress and joy (1:25). That is, at the beginning of the passage and in the next passage, the experience of “advancing” the Gospel is on the Apostle’s mind. This “advance” of the Gospel is not just because it encourages steadfastness in the community of Philippi; it has had repercussions in the royal household, the praetorian guard. They now know his imprisonment is for Christ. Verse 13 literally reads, “so as a result my chains are manifest to be in/for Christ in the entire praetorian guard. . .” The advance of the Gospel encourages the brethren and gives testimony to the royal guard of the power of this new religion. The brethren now fearlessly (ἀφόβως) dare (τολμᾶν) to speak the word of God (v 14)
Of course we don’t have the records from the praetorian guard to know whether they would have concurred with Paul’s assessment or not. We don’ know whether they would even have understood the sentence “My imprisonment is for Christ.” Most likely not. Paul and his ilk were most likely just typical rabble rousers to them. Several decades later a puzzled Roman official in Asian Minor (Pliny) was shaking his head at the stubborn obstinacy of some of the Christian prisoners.
Paul and the Opponents
We can understand Paul seeing his imprisonment as an opportunity for the advance of the Gospel. We begin to lose our grip on understanding when Paul introduces his opponents. Paul isn’t interested in introducing them to us, their names, backgrounds, doctrines, message. He just says that some preach Christ out of “envy and strife” but others do it out of ‘good pleasure/good will” (v 15). It is interesting to me that when preachers divide the world into the bad guys and good guys that they never place themselves in the former category. So we can assume that it is the “bad guys” who are controlled by envy and strife. Not very helpful.
And Paul’s unhelpfulness continues. The good guys preach out of love (naturally), but the bad guys do it ἐξ ἐριθείας (I’m leaving that untranslated for now), just trying to add to Paul’s miseries. Paul is remarkable, and somewhat self-centered, in that he even manages to interpret his opponents’ preaching of the Gospel as about him (v 17). Let’s retreat to his language for a minute. The contrast is between preaching ἐξ ἀγάπης and ἐξ ἐριθείας. It isn’t really clear how to translate the latter. Is it “spite”? “ambition?” “party-spirit”? All these have their defenders, It is perhaps best understood in the context of another contrast that may shed light on its meaning, in verse 18. He says that in every situation, εἴτε προφάσει εἴτε ἀληθείᾳ, Christ is proclaimed. We see that ἐριθείας and προφάσει occupy the same verbal field just as the contrasting words ἐξ ἀγάπης and ἀληθείᾳ (“love” and “truth”) are close companions.
So, how do the opponents, the guys that are motivated by “strife and jealousy” preach? Well, since ἐξ ἐριθείας. should be interpreted as opposite to “out of love,” we render it “out of a desire to fight” or ‘seeking a feud.” Then, the προφάσει, which usually is translated “in pretext” (contrasted with the “truth” of Paul’s words), probably should be rendered “false or bad motives” to contrast with the “truth” of Paul/his people.
They, the bad guys, are trying to add to Paul’s tribulations (θλῖψιν), but he shows himself superior by rejoicing in their proclamation, claiming that Christ is preached by both parties, and this leads him to rejoice. One wonders about this. . .If he puts down both the motives and content of the “bad guys” but then says he rejoices in what they say. . .well, we don’t really know what to believe or what that means.
So, we have clarity on the point that Paul wants to see his imprisonment as a chance for the Gospel to make progress. He also believes his imprisonment helps embolden some of his supporters in speaking the Gospel. But when he describes the opponents, we lose any sense of clarity. But I don’t begrudge Paul for ineffectively discussing his opponents. Plato isn’t much better.
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