Friday of week 30 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Phil 1:1-11

Today we begin reading what is possibly the most attractive of all the Pauline letters. It is full of so many good things, some of which we will enjoy during the rest of this week and the whole of next week. All the commentators mention the spirit of joy which pervades the letter. This is all the more striking as it was written from prison.

The city of Philippi, situated in Macedonia, north of Greece, was named after King Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. It was a prosperous Roman colony, which meant that the citizens of Philippi were also citizens of the city of Rome itself. They prided themselves on being Romans, dressed like Romans and even spoke Latin. The fact that it was primarily a Roman colony may explain why there were not enough Jews there to permit the establishment of a synagogue. We remember Paul had to meet with some Jewish woman in the city by a river bank (Acts 14:13) and perhaps this is why Paul does not quote the Old Testament in the letter.

According to Acts 16:11-40, Paul, along with Timothy, Silas, and others, had visited this city some years before (about 50 AD) during his second missionary journey and founded there a church for whose members – most of them Gentiles – Paul shows special affection and deep longing (Phil 1:8; 2:19,24).

Although the letter was written in prison, we are not exactly sure which prison but now it is thought that it was very likely in Ephesus. Rome is thought to have been too far away to make easy communication with Philippi (in Macedonia, northern Greece) practicable. (No emails or telephones in those days!) When we think of Paul in prison, we are inclined to think of Rome but, in fact, he was in prison a number of times in different places.

The Letter opens in the conventional style of the day, identifying the sender, the recipient(s) and giving a greeting. It comes from Paul and Timothy, although it is understood that Timothy is mentioned in courtesy as a valued colleague and not as co-author.

They identify themselves modestly not as “apostles” but as “slaves” of Christ Jesus, servants of the Gospel. Paul usually refers to himself at the beginning of a letter as an “apostle”. Here he substitutes a term suggesting the unconditional dedication of himself and Timothy to the service of Christ. It is also possible that, in view of his warm relationship with the Philippians, he wishes to stress his status as a co-servant rather than emphasise his apostolic authority.

The letter is addressed to the “saints”, that is, all the baptised members of the community as well as their “overseers” and “deacons”. This is the only place in Paul’s writings where church community leaders are explicitly mentioned as recipients of a letter.

“Saints” means people set apart (by their allegiance to Christ) but does not indicate they are ready for canonisation! We know that many of them had shortcomings which Paul did not hesitate to point out when writing to them.

“Overseer” is a translation of the Greek word episkopos (‘episkopos) and literally means one who ‘oversees’ or ‘supervises’. In Greek culture the word was used of a presiding official in a civic or religious organisation. Here it refers to a man who oversees a local Christian community. The equivalent word from the Jewish background of Christianity is “elder”. The terms “overseer” (episkopos) and “elder” (presbyteros, presbuteros) are used interchangeably in Acts. The duties of an overseer were to teach and preach, to direct the affairs of the church, to shepherd the flock of God and to guard the church from error.

From the 2nd century on it would be the term used for a “bishop”, the leader of a local church. It had not have this meaning in the early church although development can already been seen taking place in the Pastoral Letters (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus). At Philippi, however, (and at Ephesus, according to Acts 20:28), there was more than one episkopos and their precise role is not certain.

“Minister” is a translation of the Greek term diakonos (diakonos) and used frequently in the New Testament to designate ‘servants’, ‘attendants’, or ‘ministers’. The “deacons” are the “overseers'” assistants, who take care of the more practical areas of church administration.

Generally, their service was meant to free the elders give full attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. The only two local church offices mentioned in the New Testament are those of “overseer/presbyter” and “deacon”.

Paul refers to himself and to other apostles as ‘ministers of God’ (2 Cor 6:4), or ‘ministers of Christ’ (2 Cor 11:23). In the Pastoral Letters (e.g. 1 Tim 3:8,12) the diakonos has become an established official in the local church. As with the episkopoi, the diakonoi at Philippi seem to represent an earlier stage of development of the office and again we are uncertain about their precise functions. In Rom 16:1, Phoebe is described as a diakonos of the church at Cenchreae, leading to speculation that there were women deacons.

Later, ‘overseer’ and ‘presbyter’ will become divided into the distinct offices of ‘bishop’ and ‘priest’. Our word ‘bishop’ is a distorted form of the Greek episkopos; our word ‘priest’ a distorted form of the Greek presbyteros, from which also comes ‘presbyter’, ‘presbytery’, and ‘Presbyterian’; ‘deacon’ comes from the Greek diakonos.

Paul opens the letter by thanking God and praying with joy when he remembers all the Philippians have done for the spread of the Gospel from the very day of their conversion right up to the present. They have done this both by the material help they gave to poorer churches and because of the sufferings they have gladly endured for the sake of the Gospel. The word ‘joy’ will recur many times in the letter. Prayers of joyful thanksgiving for his readers’ response to the Gospel are a hallmark of the opening sentences of Paul’s letters

Paul is confident that what Jesus, who “began a good work in them”, will continue right up to the day he returns again at the end to bring all his own to himself. Paul is confident, not only of what God has done “for” the readers in forgiving their sins, but also of what he has done “in” them. “Work” here refers to God’s activity in saving them. It is God who initiates salvation, who continues it and who will one day bring it to its consummation.

Paul’s strong feelings of affection for them stem from their common sharing in his “privileges”: both his prison chains and his work in defending and establishing the Gospel. They did this by sending Epaphroditus with financial gifts to Paul. For this he is deeply grateful. They had become one with Paul in his persecution. Not surprisingly, they have a “permanent place” in his heart and he misses them so much, loving them with the same love that Jesus extends to them.

He longs for them “with the affection of Christ Jesus”. The deep yearning and intense, compassionate love exhibited by Jesus himself and now fostered in Paul by his union with Christ. This affection reaches out to all impartially and without exception.

Then comes a lovely prayer which he makes on their behalf. It is one we, too, can use for each other:

May your love for each other

increase more and more

and never stop improving your knowledge

and deepening your perception

so that you can always recognise what is best

so that you may be pure and blameless

for the day of Christ,

filled with the fruit of righteousness

that comes through Jesus Christ

for the glory and praise of God.

May your love increase more and more: real love requires that it continue to grow to fullness and maturity.

Never stop improving your knowledge: like love, it must constantly grow and deepen in wisdom and understanding.

Deepen your perception: growing in practical discernment and sensitivity. Christian love must be rooted in knowledge and understanding.

Recognise what is best: one of the consequences of growing in love is the ability to see where the good really lies.

Pure and blameless: the goal of every Christian and one always to be reached out to.

The day of Christ: when the goal will be perfectly realised and when we will be called to account for our service to the Kingdom and the Church.

Filled with the fruit of righteousness: what is expected of all Christians.

For the glory and praise of God: the ultimate goal of all who believe in God.

It is similar to a prayer we saw in the Letter to the Ephesians.

Our love for God is never a given; it is something which must constantly grow and grow.

Love alone is not enough: the gift of discernment is also very precious. It is the skill by which, with God’s help, we can see more clearly which choice is closer to God’s will, so that we “can always recognise what is best”. Christian love is not a mere matter of devotional feeling; it is rooted in knowledge and understanding.

Only in this way can we become “pure and blameless” and be ready for the “Day of Christ”. That is the Day when, with his help, we will reach the “perfect goodness” which is for the “glory and praise of God”. If only we could realise that here and here alone is the purpose of all our living!

Let us say that prayer of Paul for ourselves and for all those around us.

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