Certainly anyone acquainted with Romans scholarship is aware of the perennial problem of determining the purpose of the letter (last will and testament, conflict resolution, practice speech for Jerusalem, ambassadorial letter, compendium of Christian doctrine, etc…). contrast this with, let’s say, 1 Corinthians: we know how Paul knew of the problems and we basically know what problems they had. But, what about Philippians? Though much, much shorter than 1 Corinthians and Romans, its purpose (and even its provenance) is a bit of a mystery. Is it a warning letter about opponents (3.2ff)? Is it about community and unity (especially as it is addressed to the church leadership and Euodia and Syntyche are called out)? Is it mostly just a ‘thanks’ for the gift? Is it mostly a commendation for Epaphroditus – job well done, but this guy ain’t doin’ so well…? Is it more or less an update on his situation? (There seems to be more plots in here than an episode of LOST!) Morna Hooker has recently floated the idea that Philippians may be a record of Paul’s gospel-message in light of the possibility of his demise – not unlike some theories about Romans (as she admits). But, I think that choosing just one of these is myopic and arguing for all at the same time is unhelpful.
There is, I think, a meta-theme that can contain all of these – ‘the faithfulness of God and the plea for a renewed faithfulness to him.’ It seems that Paul can rejoice because of the Philippians because they have been faithful to God and to him. Even in times of difficulty and affliction, they persevered. But, a number of issues started to chip away at their loyalty. Outside opposition became more disconcerting and questions about their religious practices became harder to answer. Inner factions (or divisive tendencies) began a rift in their cohesion. And, perhaps the straw that broke the camels back – the APOSTLE PAUL is in prison and almost certainly going to die. THE GOSPEL AGENDA HAS BEEN COMPROMISED. The Philippians thought to themselves – what have we gotten ourselves into? This train has de-railed. They knew the Christ-story – his suffering, death, and resurrection. If they believed in him, they could join in following a new Lord of Glory. But…now what?
Paul’s response was on several levels. First of all, his imprisonment did not hinder the progress of the gospel-mission. In fact, it propelled it in unimaginable ways. Second, there is no PLAN B. The story of Christ (his suffering, death, resurrection) was still part of the plan. In fact, it was the plan – but the Philippian believers (as well as Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus) had to not just enter into the story, but re-live it personally huper Christou (for Christ’s sake/on behalf of Christ; 1.29).
Paul’s imprisonment still confirms God’s faithfulness. Their persecution does not hinder the gospel. Even the preaching at Paul’s expense does not hinder it! But Paul continually reminds them that God’s faithfulness is only perceptive to the trained eye (Phil 3.3). S. Fowl underscores Paul’s repeated use of phroneo in Philippians which refers to the appropriate mindset, attitude, perspective, worldview, outlook, perception, epistemology, etc… What the world sees as a corpse, Paul sees as a sacrifice (2.17). What the world sees as dimwitedness, Paul sees as light (2.15). What the world sees as utterly weak, Paul sees as inexhaustively powerful (3.8-11).
I am sure debates will continue regarding Paul’s opponents (whether real or hypothetical), his attitude towards death, his authorship/transmission of the Christ-hymn, the literary integrity of the letter, the meaning of exegetical puzzles (like the ones whose ‘god is their belly’, 3.19), etc…But, I hope some interpreters will continue to take a step back and try to get an overall picture of the letter. This is my contribution to the ‘Philippians debate’.