New Testament Words and Verses
Philippians 3:1-7, One
Paul has done or urged a number of things already in this letter but three of the most important are his appeal for unity (2:1-4), his emphasis on Philippian obedience (2:12-18) and his plans to send Timothy and Epaphroditus to visit the Philippians, if he can’t come himself (2:19-30). Though the Christ hymn has a powerful, pervasive and persuasive beauty to it (2:5-11), my sense is that what really is at stake here is Paul’s concerns for Philippian obedience. He has seen how efforts to disrupt his ministry elsewhere, such as in Corinth, have created or threaten to create chaos. He would like to keep that from happening in Philippi.
The Flow of 3:1-7
His emphasis on obedience in 2:1-4 is now supplemented by a memorable autobiographical narrative in 3:1-7. But in order to get there, he attacks unidentified foes (a staple of his writing) and then uses the concepts of circumcision and boasting as the means of talking about his past. Whether it is a real or imagined past is debatable and probably not able to be confirmed one way or the other. What is impressive is how Paul uses a particular narrative of his past to deny the importance of that past. This is a lot of stuff. Let’s begin with his introduction. 3:1 says:
Τὸ λοιπόν, ἀδελφοί μου, χαίρετε ἐν κυρίῳ. τὰ αὐτὰ γράφειν ὑμῖν ἐμοὶ μὲν οὐκ ὀκνηρόν, ὑμῖν δὲ ἀσφαλές.
“Finally, brethren, rejoice in the lord. To write the same thing to you is not onerous for me (i.e., I am not reluctant to write about them), but is safe for you.”
The sentence is a bit jarring, even though its sentiment is familiar. Its familiarity comes through the emphasis on “rejoicing,” as the verb χαίρω appears disproportionately frequently in Philippians (more than 10% of NT appearances). So, rejoicing is the order of the day. But what is/are “the same thing/same things”? Urging them to rejoice? To be obedient? We don’t know what the “same things” are, but the sentiment is expressed through the two adjectives at the end of the sentence: ὀκνηρός and ἀσφαλές. It is not onerous for me, but is safe for you. These are perhaps among the last two adjectives one might have expected here.
ὀκνηρόν can mean several things: shrinking in fear or being timid or reluctant or hesitant. It can also mean idle or sluggish. The word appears two other places in the NT, once in Matt. 25:46, where Jesus tells a parable in which a man excoriates his servant as “lazy” (ὀκνηρέ). Then, Paul uses the word in Rom. 12:11, where it is contrasted with σπουδῇ, “with haste” or “with diligence.” So, the “lazy” meaning is established in Greek literature and in the NT, but it can’t mean that in Phil. 3:1. Rather it must occupy the realm of reluctance or timidity. So, Paul isn’t reluctant to say these things. But even if that is the right translation of ὀκνηρός, how does that “fit” here? Most NT translations go with “it is not a trouble for me. . .” or “not burdensome” for me. But we still don’t know why it might be construed as a trouble that he has to deny that it might be? Well, if this is unsatisfactory, it is also unclear why he would use ἀσφαλές, safe, in reference to his audience? It is “safe” for them. Because it keeps them from abandoning their obedience to Paul? So, we don’t know what “the same things” are; we don’t know why he might be reluctant but overcomes his reluctance to write about them. We don’t know why these things are “safe” for the hearers. Just a jarring first verse. Which is why everyone ignores it to try to get to the “good stuff.”
Well, if you think you were going to get to the good stuff after an unsuccessful start with verse 1, you are wrong. Paul urges his people to watch out for some folk, especially “the dogs.” Ah, maybe this is the reason for his emphasis on safety in verse 1. There are “dogs” and “evil workers” all around. We have a little more specificity when we learn they are likely the κατατομή, another NT hapax that no doubt comes from the world of circumcision. Are there people around who teach that circumcision is necessary for the life of faith? Perhaps they had t-shirts with a dagger or knife on them, emphasizing as it does the covenant obligation to circumcise all males at eight days. I might have been sympathetic to these folk, since there is no reason at this point to believe that the solemn injunctions of Genesis 17 have been abrogated.
But Paul no doubt has encountered other preachers who seek the Philippian loyalty and obedience (hence his emphasis on obeying HIM); the Philippians should not listen to them. They are mutilators—that really is the best translation of κατατομή. They aren’t really interested in your best spiritual interests but just are trying to slice you to bits in the name of faith. Religious difference, I think, has to degenerate into name calling, invective and attack especially if you are in a world where you are going after the same potential followers, and that number might be somewhat limited. There just isn’t any “polite” way to treat the people who are after the same people you are. . .
Paul will not deny the importance of the word “circumcision”—that would have been even too radical a thought for him, but he will say that he and his friends are the “true circumcision.” Thus they will appropriate a concept that is at the heart of Jewish identity, say that it means something completely different from what the people who have lovingly followed it for more than a millennium thought it meant, and then say that it really is of no value for salvation. Who, then, really is the dog?
Philippians 3:1-7, Two
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