New Testament Words and Verses
The "Warm" Language of Philippians 1:3-11
Philippians is the favorite Pauline Epistle of many people. Not only is it dripping with theological sophistication (e.g., the Christ hymn of Phil. 2), and personal narrative (e.g., Paul’s past experience of life in Phil. 2 or his plans for the future in Phil. 3-4), but it breathes a spirit of optimism, gratitude and abundance. His vocabulary of desire, especially in Phil. 1, shows us that Paul is not only a thinker of significant stature but a person of passion, heart, and incredible ambition. The purpose of this essay is to unpack some of the language in Phil. 1:3-11 that has endeared Philippians to many generations of readers and students.
Some Literary Features of Phil. 1:3-11
Notice first the liberal use of the word “all” in these verses. Sometimes it can seem a bit stylized, but the repeated “all” gives the impression that Paul simply would love to reach out and embrace his hearers in one big hug. He gives thanks for them in all/every remembrance (1:3) of them. But that isn’t enough. In the next eight words are three appearances of “all”: “always in all/every prayer of mine on behalf of all of you” (1:4). We have a two verse reprieve, and then “all” ramps up again in verse 7, with two mentions. First, we have “all” when Paul says it is right for him to think good thoughts about all of them and, second, he stresses his joint fellowship with all of them. Then, in verse 8, he calls on God as a witness of his great desire and affection for all of them. Finally, in verse 9 he wants his hearers to abound in all perception. Eight times in nine verses. Surely he is conscious of this device, which one might call an “inclusion device.” He birthed the congregation at Philippi (or he was its “midwife”); now he wants to include them in his prayer and thoughts.
Then, there is a fine combination of words of stability and words of motion. Part of an author’s brilliance in mastering a language and modes of writing is the ability to describe the power of movement as well as motionlessness. For example, when Virgil paints his unforgettable description of the Greeks pouring out of the Trojan horse in Book 2 of the Aeneid, he neatly balances verbs of stability and verbs of action. The horse is just “standing” there, but the horse “pours out” (fundit) the armed men (armatos; 2.328-329). Both are signs of destruction that is coming.
Paul is able to capture both motion and stability in these verses. The first is evident in verse 6. Faith “moves” in verse 6, where Paul is confident that the one who “initiated” (ἐναρξάμενος, literally, was “in (you) at the beginning”) will bring things to a successful “conclusion” (ἐπιτελέσει) at the day of Christ. This movement of faith is to be understood in the context of faith’s groundedness or stability. In the next verse he expresses his gratitude for their being “fellow partners” (συνκοινωνούς) with him in both his “defense and confirmation/stability” of the Gospel (ἐν τῇ ἀπολογίᾳ καὶ βεβαιώσει τοῦ εὐαγγελίου). Paul is deeply aware of a faith that moves or travels from the moment of receipt of the message until the day of Christ; he is likewise aware of the stability or confirmation of the message in the truthful present.
Then, he employs several “warm” words. We have the standard “give thanks” in verse 3, but then there is the appearance of “joy” (μετὰ χαρᾶς), “fellowship” (ἐπὶ τῇ κοινωνίᾳ), “their holding him in heart” (ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ ὑμᾶς), his mention of them as “fellow partners” (συνκοινωνούς) and, especially, the verb “I long for/greatly desire” (ἐπιποθῶ). The verb ἐπιποθῶ appears along with the highly visual words ἐν σπλάγχνοις Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ of verse 8. That last phrase is traditionally translated as “in the bowels of Christ Jesus” but that meaning, though quaint, probably needs to be updated—the deep affections of Christ. Warmth is also communicated by his emphasis on “abounding” in verse 9, the “more and more of verse 9, and the presence of “love” in verse 9.
A Few Special Words
Finally, striking to me is his use of words that rarely appear in the New Testament in the culminatory words of this fine introduction. He wants them in verse 9 to abound more and more “in deep knowledge and in all perception.” The very engaging and challenging phrase ἐν ἐπιγνώσει καὶ πάσῃ αἰσθήσει suggests that Paul is, as it were, praying for them to develop a deeper and different level of perception about life and faith. It is almost as if he wants them not just to “abound” but to put on new glasses to see the world. It is “deep” knowledge (I want to give emphasis to the preposition before the noun) as well as “all perception” (αἰσθήσει is a NT hapax).
But we can’t leave the topic of interesting word choices without mention of verse 10, where the Philippians are urged to test (δοκιμάζειν) and thereby determine “what is excellent” (literally, hat things make a difference, τὰ διαφέροντα), so that they can become εἰλικρινεῖς καὶ ἀπρόσκοποι at the day of Christ. The translations usually given for these words:
“honest and straightforward” or
“pure and blameless” or
“sincere and without fault”
are all adequate, but they don’t fully capture the sense of absence of mixture in the first and the lack of stumbling blocks in the second. That is, εἰλικρινεῖς comes from the realm of clarity of sunlight. This clarity means the absence of mixture of any kind of darkness or obstruction. Some kind of impressive integrity, purity, and unalloyed sincerity is in view. ἀπρόσκοποι consists of the alpha privative and then the typical word for “stumbling block.” The underlying verb means to “stumble” or “strike against.” Thus, the desire of Paul is for believers to manifest deep sincerity and faithfulness, and to be those who do not stumble.
This warmth of language sets the tone for one of Paul’s most impressive letters. Close consideration of his literary devices and word choices helps us unpack the enduring and endearing appeal of the letter.
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