New Testament Words and Verses
Philippians 1:19-24, More Brilliance and Confusion
In my previous essay on Philippians 1, I noted the interplay between Paul’s brilliant use of the imprisonment theme to fuel, rather than retard, faith and his confusing references to other preachers. With respect to the latter, I argued that it was hard for a reader to understand how Paul can rejoice at the preaching of others when he has described them as motivated by jealousy and strife, and when he describes their proclamation as the opposite of truth, though it isn’t easy to translate the word προφάσει in v 18. I rendered it as “false or bad motives.” So, I ended the last essay with mixed feelings about Paul: delighted, as always, because of the vigor of his personality, boldness of thought, and forthrightness of expression, but a bit confused when he turns to his opponents.
That confusion continues in these verses. We begin with Paul’s sensitive verbal treatment of the theme of salvation. He uses a broad and rare vocabulary to describe his present and future hope, but then, beginning in verse 21, he becomes confusing as he takes us on a journey debating the virtues of dying over living. It might be best, in order to see his “sensitive verbal treatment” of the first theme, to give the Greek and then a translation of vv 19-20.
19 οἶδα γὰρ ὅτι τοῦτό μοι ἀποβήσεται εἰς σωτηρίαν διὰ τῆς ὑμῶν δεήσεως καὶ ἐπιχορηγίας τοῦ πνεύματος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ 20 κατὰ τὴν ἀποκαραδοκίαν καὶ ἐλπίδα μου, ὅτι ἐν οὐδενὶ αἰσχυνθήσομαι ἀλλ’ ἐν πάσῃ παρρησίᾳ ὡς πάντοτε καὶ νῦν μεγαλυνθήσεται Χριστὸς ἐν τῷ σώματί μου, εἴτε διὰ ζωῆς εἴτε διὰ θανάτου.
“For I know that this will eventuate in my salvation—that is, through your prayer and the provision/supply of the Holy Spirit, according to my earnest expectation and hope, so that in no way and in nothing am I ashamed but, with all boldness, as always and also now, Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether through life or through death.”
This is all one sentence in Greek, and I have tried to keep my translation close to the actual flow of the text, even though it may appear a bit disjointed in English. Three eye-catching or unusual words arrest our attention. First is ἀποβήσεται, which I rendered “eventuate.” Its basic meaning is to disembark from a ship; here it suggests nothing that precise, but rather the “coming off” or “departure” of events in his life. The flow of these events will result in salvation. Second is ἐπιχορηγίας, the “supply” or “provision” of the Holy Spirit. Paul is confident that their prayers and the Holy Spirit’s supply will lead to his salvation. But just as ἀποβήσεται had a precise meaning in disembarking but has been used by Paul in a more general sense of how something will turn out, so ἐπιχορηγίας comes from the world of the chorus or dance (χορός), but with the prefix meaning to “supply the chorus,” so that the verb stresses the notion of provisions or supplies. Here, of course, it is the provision of the Holy Spirit, but the word came from another venue. Finally, the rare word ἀποκαραδοκίαν, which I rendered “earnest expectation” is the first term of a hendiadys and functions to move the discussion from prayers and supply to the end result of that process: the hope of salvation.
These two verses then close with vintage Pauline remarks. Because of these realities he speaks with great freedom and boldness (the word παρρησίᾳ carries both meanings) so that Christ will be magnified in his life and death. We knowingly nod when we read παρρησίᾳ, for that is the word that Luke chose to describe Paul’s speaking with great freedom/boldness/confidence in Rome at the very end of Acts (28:31). We think, ‘Hm. . .Luke has really heard Paul well.’ Thus, he begins with a brilliant exposition of his hope, employing rare but useful words to capture his confident expectation.
Confusion Enters (1:21-24)
Just at the height of his game, so to speak, Paul crashes. Well, that may be too harsh an evaluation, but he changes the tone of his words because of the suggestive phrase at the end of verse 20: εἴτε διὰ ζωῆς εἴτε διὰ θανάτου, “either through life or through death.” Christ is magnified for him in both of those situations. But the mention of the contrast between life and death leads him on a discussion on whether he would rather live or die at the present. I suppose that living in prison may offer the occasion for more focused thinking on that theme, since death appears closer than when one has full freedom, but here is how he does it. . .
He begins with statement that is no doubt theologically correct:
21 Ἐμοὶ γὰρ τὸ ζῆν Χριστὸς καὶ τὸ ἀποθανεῖν κέρδος.
“For me, the act of living is Christ and the act of dying will be gain.”
The extremely abbreviated thought probably means that his continuing to live provides a better opportunity to serve Christ, even though his death means that he will cease the struggles that come with that service—and hence it can be called a “gain.” Verse 22a confirms this interpretation, where Paul says that if he lives, it will lead to the “fruit of work” (καρπὸς ἔργου), which is probably shorthand for “fruitful service.”
So far so good. But then it becomes a bit problematic. At the end of verse 22 he says, “But I don’t know what I will choose.” Huh? When did Paul, or anyone else, expect that he was going to have to make or even want to make a choice about living or dying? There is nothing in the text to give us the impression that this is Paul’s choice. But he goes on as if he is truly weighing whether to die or keep living. Is he thinking of suicide? Of egging on his captors to “off” him? How is death even in the picture for him? He says he is “hard pressed” to make a choice (verb is συνέχομαι, which appears a dozen times in the NT, and generally means to “compel, control, constrain, press upon someone”). That is, Paul is using a very strong verb to suggest that he is facing an extreme moral dilemma of whether to live or die.
But we have to be scratching our heads by now. What is the dilemma? Has the “choice” of death been offered to him? But in fact it isn’t a real choice, even though Paul gives the impression that it is. He quickly retreats from the two alternatives and tells them that he will keep living because it is better for them if he does (v 24). Actually he says it is “more necessary” for them if he stays alive. Thanks, Paul. Phew. I thought you were going to kill yourself. Thanks for “sacrificing” yourself to stay alive so that we can benefit. We owe you big time.
Paul then quickly leaves this theme, which I think he hasn’t handled very skillfully, and returns to safer territory—urging the hearers to stand firm in faith, to strive together in the faith of the Gospel, and not to let fear control them. That, indeed, is where Paul shines, and not in a false debate over whether he ought to live or die.
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