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Commentary on The Letter of Saint Paul to the Philippians

1:1 Paul: Both the author of the letter and the founder of the Philippian Church. Paul has no need to assert his apostolic authority because the Philippians already revere him as their spiritual father. He stresses instead his service to Christ. Timothy: A member of Paul's missionary team when he first established the congregation in Philippi (Acts 16:1-40). Already acquainted with Timothy (Phil 2:22), readers will soon see him again (2:19). bishops and deacons: The spiritual leaders of the Philippian Church. Because the titles of bishop ("overseer") and presbyter ("priest") were sometimes used interchangeably in the earliest days of the Church, it is possible these Philippian bishops were simply the local priests in charge of the congregation (Acts 20:17, 28; Tit 1:5-7). In any case, they fulfilled the priestly and pastoral ministries of teaching, governing, and presiding at worship, while the deacons served as their assistants and devoted themselves to charitable works (1 Tim 3:1-16). This is the only time that Paul addresses the hierarchy as distinct from the laity in his letters. Back to text.

1:2 Grace to you and peace: A standard greeting in the epistles of Paul (Rom 1:7) and the seven letters of John in Revelation (Rev 1:4). Back to text.

1:3-11 Paul opens most of his letters with thanksgiving and prayer. Here he is overjoyed at the Philippians' faithful commitment to his ministry expressed through their prayer support, encouragement, and tangible assistance (1:19; 4:14-18). His gratitude for the Philippians rises to God (1:6) along with intercessions for their spiritual growth (1:9) (CCC 2632, 2636). Back to text.

1:4 joy: One of several themes that punctuate the letter (1:18; 3:1; 4:4, 10). Elsewhere Paul lists joy among the fruits produced in us by the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22; CCC 1832). Back to text.

1:6 began a good work: Paul is confident that his readers' end will correspond to their beginning, i.e., that the graces of their Baptism will lead them to the glory of eternal life. Though God initiates and completes this whole process (2:13), he also asks us to cooperate with his help by striving for holiness (Heb 12:14) and working toward salvation (Phil 2:12). Paul is not saying that the Philippians can be absolutely assured of their salvation any more than he is (3:12-14; 1 Cor 9:24-27) (CCC 1996, 2008-10). day of Jesus Christ: The Day of Judgment, when the Lord will come again in glory to reward or punish every thought, word, and deed done in this life. See note on 1 Cor 1:8Back to text.

1:8 God is my witness: An abbreviated oath-formula that Paul uses to assure readers of his sincere affection for them (Rom 1:9; 2 Cor 1:23). Back to text.

1:9 love: Not a passing emotion or sentiment, but the grace that moves us to lay down our lives for others as Christ did for the world (Rom 5:8; 1 Jn 3:16). Its opposite is "selfishness" (Phil 2:3). Here and elsewhere Paul prays for an increase of love in the hearts of his readers (1 Thess 3:12; 4:10) (CCC 1822-26). Back to text.

1:13 praetorian guard: An assembly of elite troops stationed in the palace of the Roman emperor. The soldiers apparently know that Paul has been imprisoned as a Christian and not as a criminal. Members of the imperial household are likewise acquainted with his cause and may have converted as a result (4:22). Despite Paul's chains, the gospel he preaches continues to spread unfettered (2 Tim 2:9). Back to text.

1:17 thinking to afflict me: Paul's imprisonment sparks opposite reactions: some are emboldened to defend the gospel as he does (1:14), while others try to worsen Paul's hardship by undermining his ministry (1:15). Nevertheless, even pretentious competition cannot dampen Paul's joy at the success of the gospel (1:18). It is important to recognize that these insincere preachers are not false teachers, otherwise Paul would never rejoice in the spread of their message (Gal 1:7-8). Back to text.

1:19 Spirit of Jesus: Because the Spirit proceeds from both the Father (Jn 14:26) and the Son (Jn 15:26), he is called both the Spirit of the Father (Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 2:11) and the Spirit of the Son (Rom 8:9; Gal 4:6; CCC 244-46). turn out for my deliverance: A subtle but distinct echo of the Greek version of Job 13:16. • Job is defending himself against the accusations of his companions, who reasoned that his many hardships and afflictions must be punishments for his sins. Paul, in the midst of his own trials, shares the confidence of Job that the Lord will vindicate his innocence despite the chains that bind him and the charges laid against him. Back to text.

1:21 to live is Christ: Paul places himself entirely in the hands of God. This alone gives him confidence to face the uncertain outcome of his trial. Whether the legal proceedings bring him release or execution, he believes that Christ will be honored through him. Paul's dilemma is that both alternatives will turn out for the good: either he will come to know Christ in the fullest way possible as a martyr, or he will continue to make Christ known as a missionary (1:22-24) (CCC 1010, 1698). Back to text.

1:23 be with Christ: Paul does not hide his preference for martyrdom, since death is the doorway to eternal happiness. • According to Catholic teaching, the souls of the faithful departed enter immediately into God's presence for personal judgment (Heb 9:27). They now rest in the interim period between bodily death and bodily resurrection, which is followed by the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46) (CCC 1005, 1011, 1021). Back to text.

1:26 coming to you again: Should Paul be released, he plans to celebrate his vindication with a visit to Philippi (2:24). Back to text.

1:28 your opponents: Possibly the Roman veterans of Philippi, as they would be fiercely loyal to Caesar and thus critical of those who honor Jesus as "Lord". See note on Phil 2:11Back to text.

1:29 believe in him: Even our faith is a gift of divine grace (Acts 18:27; Eph 2:8). suffer for his sake: Suffering brings great benefit to ourselves and others. On the one hand, it purifies us of selfishness and makes us sharers in Christ's redemptive work (3:10; 2 Cor 1:5; Col 1:24; 1 Pet 1:6-7). On the other, it pushes the gospel into the world as believers bear witness to the Lord Jesus through persecution and martyrdom (1 Cor 4:913; 2 Cor 5:11). Scripture depicts suffering as a privilege (Acts 5:41) and so challenges us to embrace it and not simply endure it (Rom 8:17; 1 Pet 4:12-16). Back to text.

2:2 the same mind: An appeal to share a common outlook on Christian living and a common vision for Christian unity. This ideal can become real only if humility and service take the place of pride and selfishness among them (2:3-4) (CCC 2842). Back to text.

2:6-11 Possibly an early Christian hymn. Christ is the focus of the meditation, which follows the storyline of his Incarnation (2:7), his humiliation (2:8), and his exaltation (2:9-11). The lines are rich in theological as well as moral content, as they articulate the mystery of Christ and set him forth as the model for Christian living. Reflection on Christ the "servant" (2:7) is meant to inspire us to be servants of one another (2:4; CCC 461, 520). • The hymn depicts Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. In the disturbing vision of the prophet, this messianic figure submitted himself to the violence and abuse of his people until he poured out his life in sacrifice for human iniquity (Is 52:13-53:12). Some theologians also detect a subtle contrast between Jesus, who humbled himself to become man, and Adam, who asserted himself in order to become like God (Gen 3:5; CCC 411) (CCC 713). Back to text.

2:6 though he was: Could also be translated, "because he was". • There is a close relationship between the divine and human life of Jesus, so that the human actions of Christ in history reveal the mystery of his divine activity in eternity. By pouring himself out to the Father in death, he displays how his love is poured out to the Father in the dynamism of life within God. The loving obedience of Christ is thus an act of divine revelation, showing the world the life-giving love that flows from Person to Person in the hidden embrace of the Trinity. See note Jn 14:31. the form: The Greek term morphē, used here to assert the divinity of Christ, is used again in the next verse to assert his full humanity (2:7). Some take the "form of God" to be equivalent to the human "image" of God in Gen 1:26, but this is unlikely because the passage concerns the preexistent life of Christ before he entered the world as a man. Back to text.

2:7 emptied himself: The Greek verb kenoō means "empty out" or "render void". The idea is, not that Christ divested himself of divinity when he united himself with humanity, but that he restricted his rightful exercise of certain divine abilities during his earthly life and accepted certain limitations of the human condition. In effect, the Son of God made himself poor in order to make us rich with his grace (2 Cor 8:9) (CCC 472). • Christ emptied himself by compressing the glory of his Godhead within our smallness. What he always was remained perfect and incomprehensible, but what he assumed was in proportion to the measure of our nature (St. Gregory of Nyssa, Against Apollinarius). Back to text.

2:8 death on a cross: The ultimate indignity. Death by crucifixion was the most awful and degrading form of criminal execution in the ancient world. The Romans reserved it for slaves and insurrectionists. See note on Mk 15:24Back to text.

2:9 exalted him: By raising him from the dead, enthroning him in heaven, and clothing his humanity with divine glory. A similar destiny awaits all who humble themselves as Jesus did (3:21; Lk 14:11). Back to text.

Word Study

A Thing to Be Grasped (Phil 2:6)

Harpagmos (Gk.): A rare term that is never used in the Greek OT and is found only here in the NT. Occurrences of the word in secular Greek refer to "robbery". Its meaning in Phil 2:6 is a matter of considerable debate. Four interpretations represent the leading views of ancient and modern times. (1) Some, like the Latin Fathers, take it to mean "something seized". Jesus did not consider equality with God something he had aggressively acquired for himself, since it belonged to him by nature and right. (2) Others, like several Greek Fathers, understand it to mean "something held fast". On this reading, Jesus did not regard his divine prerogatives as a prize possession to which he needed to cling at all costs. (3) Still others prefer the meaning "something to be seized that is not already possessed". The point here is that Jesus, as a man, did not see the prerogatives of God as something he should reach for or seek to acquire. (4) Lastly, and perhaps most convincingly, some interpret this term as part of a Greek idiom that means "something to be exploited for personal gain". This reading would indicate that Jesus, unlike so many ambitious rulers of the ancient world, did not view his divine dignity as something to be used for selfish purposes. Rather, the eternal Son lowered himself into history to come among us as a servant (Lk 22:27; Rom 15:3, 8; Phil 2:7).

2:10 every knee should bow: An allusion to the divine oath in Is 45:23. • Yahweh swore that all peoples, to the very end of the earth, would acknowledge his Lordship and bow before him in homage. Paul moves Christ into the center of this prophecy as the divine Lord destined to be revered by all. heaven . . . earth . . .under the earth: The three principal realms in the world view of ancient Israel (Ex 20:4). Homage will come from all creatures great and small—the angels and saints above, the family of man and beasts spread over the earth, and the dead and the demons of the underworld. Back to text.

2:11 confess: I.e., acknowledge. Included in this open declaration is the account we give of our lives on the Day of Judgment (suggested by Paul's interpretation of Is 45:23 in Rom 14:10-12). The Hebrew version of Isaiah indicates that this confession will be given in the form of an oath. Lord: The divine title given to Yahweh throughout the Greek OT. The same title was used for Roman emperors. Neither the divine honor it accords to Christ nor the challenge this poses to Caesar would be lost on Paul's readers (CCC 446-50). Back to text.

2:12 work out your own salvation: I.e., make continued efforts at living the gospel and pursuing your heavenly reward. The statement assumes that while our initial salvation had nothing to do with our works (Eph 2:8-9), our final salvation depends on a lifetime of keeping the faith (2 Tim 4:7-8), following the commandments (Mt 19:17), persevering in good works (Rom 2:7), striving for holiness (Heb 12:14), praying in earnest (1 Thess 5:17), and fighting against the forces of evil (Eph 6:11) and the selfish demands of the flesh, which drag us down (Rom 8:13; 1 Cor 9:24-27). This obligation is so serious that we pursue it with fear and trembling, i.e., with a sense of awe at serving the living God and a sense of dread at the prospect of sinning against him (Ex 20:18-20; Ps 2:11-12). Encouragement comes in the next verse, where Paul reminds readers that God's grace is working actively within them both to desire (intention) and do (act) what pleases him (Heb 13:20-21; CCC 308) (CCC 1949). • When Paul commands them to "work", he addresses their free will. When he adds "with fear and trembling", he cautions them against boasting as if their good deeds were their own. If you fear and tremble, you will not boast of your good works, since it is God who works them within you (St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will 21). Back to text.

2:15 perverse generation: An excerpt from Deut 32:5. • Deuteronomy 32 is the famous "Song of Moses", a poetic lawsuit that begins by indicting Israel for its apostasy and ingratitude during the Exodus. Paul's appeal to do all things "without grumbling" (Phil 2:14) is a reminder of how the Exodus pilgrims murmured and complained through the wilderness (Ex 15:24; 16:2; 17:3; etc.). Learning from their mistakes, we are challenged to live luminous lives in the midst of an unbelieving world (Mt 5:14-16). Back to text.

2:16 the day of Christ: The Day of Judgment. See note on Phil 1:6Back to text.

2:17 as a libation: Drink offerings of wine and oil were poured out to the Lord every morning and evening as lambs were sacrificed on the Temple altar in Jerusalem (Ex 29:40-41; Num 28:7). For Paul, martyrdom is a more perfect act of worship (2 Tim 4:6) and the fullest expression of what it means to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1) in imitation of Christ (Eph 5:2; CCC 1070). Back to text.

2:19 Timothy: One of Paul's trusted companions (1:1) present with him in Rome. He hopes to send Timothy to Philippi to encourage the Church and report back on their circumstances. His proven character and genuine interest in others make him well suited for the task (2:4, 21). The Philippians already know Timothy, because he was one of the founding missionaries of their Church (Acts 16:1-40). Back to text.

2:22 son with a father: Paul sees himself as a spiritual father. Converts like Timothy are "sons" who were "brought to life" through his ministry. See note on 1 Cor 4:15Back to text.

2:24 I myself shall come: Paul plans to visit Philippi if and when he is released (1:25-26). Back to text.

2:25 Epaphroditus: The messenger who carried the Philippians' financial gift to Paul in prison (4:18). He is now sent back to Philippi to update the congregation on the apostle's situation and deliver this epistle. He endured a near-fatal sickness while visiting Paul in Rome (2:27). messenger: The Greek reads "apostle". Its meaning here is broader than usual (2 Cor 8:23). Back to text.

3:1 the same things: Refers either to the preceding instructions or, more likely, to the following warnings (3:2-21). Paul had apparently addressed the dangers of false teaching with his readers in person or in a previous letter. His purpose here is more to protect them than to correct them, since no indication is given that the Philippians themselves have embraced any dangerous teaching. Back to text.

3:2 mutilate the flesh: An allusion to the Judaizers, a band of Jewish Christian missionaries who demanded circumcision and adherence to the ancestral traditions of the Old Covenant as indispensable requirements for salvation (Acts 15:1-5). Paul opposes their effort to bring believers under the yoke of the Mosaic Law. See note on Gal 5:1Back to text.

3:3 true circumcision: The spiritual circumcision of the heart performed in Baptism (Col 2:11-12). • This covenant procedure was prefigured by the ritual circumcision of the foreskin (Gen 17:9-14) and was announced in advance by Moses as a sign of the messianic restoration (Deut 30:6). See note on Rom 2:29Back to text.

3:4-5 Paul boasts impeccable credentials in the face of Judaizing missionaries trying to discredit his theology and mission. He was circumcised in accordance with the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 17:9-14); his tribal affiliation with Benjamin makes him a true Israelite (2 Cor 11:22); his ancestry as a Hebrew (from Eber, Gen 11:16) makes him a pure-blooded Semite (from Shem, Gen 11:10); and his zeal as a Pharisee linked him with one of the strictest renewal movements in Judaism (Acts 22:3; Gal 1:14). Paul is confident these facts will silence the rival claims of any Judaizing competition that makes its way to Philippi. See note on 2 Cor 11:22Back to text.

3:6 zeal: Sometimes expressed through violent action in the OT. Ancient defenders of Israel like Phinehas and the Maccabees were revered for their commitment to this philosophy (Num 25:6-13; Sir 45:23; 1 Mac 2:23-26; 3:8). Paul's zeal as a Pharisee was unleashed on the early Christians, whom he persecuted as traitors to the hopes and ideals of Judaism (Acts 8:3; 1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13). After his conversion, he realized this zeal was tragically unenlightened (Rom 10:2). blameless: Faultless in his outward commitment to the Jewish way of life (Lk 1:6). God asked this of Abraham in his preface to the covenant of circumcision (Gen 17:1). • Paul could have fulfilled the Law outwardly, for fear of punishment, and still transgressed the Law inwardly through evil desire (St. Augustine, Answer to Two Pelagian Letters 1, 15). The apostle lived innocently according to the external righteousness of the Law, not according to the righteousness of faith, which pertains to the heart and makes a man pure (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Philippians 3, 1). Back to text.

3:7 I counted as loss: Paul renounces the resume he built up in Judaism. The benefits of being a Pharisee are counted as trash compared to the blessings he received from Jesus (3:8). The point is that God's gifts to us in Christ far exceed in greatness and worth anything we can give back to him (CCC 428). Back to text.

3:9 righteousness: A distinction is made between legal righteousness, which persons under the Old Covenant tried to attain by faithfulness to the Law (Deut 6:25), and divine righteousness, which we receive through faith in Jesus Christ under the New Covenant (Rom 5:17). For Paul, legal righteousness is not a saving righteousness because it depends on human effort apart from the inward grace of God. This distinction is also set forth in Rom 9:30-32 and 10:3. See note on Mt 5:20Back to text.

3:12 made me his own: Christ took possession of Paul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-19). Back to text.

3:14 I press on: The life of faith is compared to a race, where the prize of salvation has yet to be won since the competition is still in progress. Paul is encouraging readers to summon their energy and charge ahead after holiness (Heb 12:14). See note on 1 Cor 9:24-27Back to text.

3:17 imitating me: Paul knows that his witness will leave a more lasting impression than his words. He appeals to readers to follow his example as he models his own life after Christ (4:9; 1 Cor 11:1). • Imitation of the saints is a practice long revered in the spiritual tradition of the Church. The heroism of holy men and women can inspire a deeper commitment in others who contemplate their extraordinary faith and generosity of life. Back to text.

3:18-19 Paul attacks unidentified opponents. Whoever they are, they are slaves of gluttony, shamelessness, and worldly ways of thinking. Paul weeps because their indulgence in earthly pleasures is holding them back from heaven and hastening their doom (1 Cor 6:9-10). Back to text.

3:20 our commonwealth: Many residents of Philippi are honored recipients of Roman citizenship. Civil privileges such as these are only a dim reflection of the benefits they possess as Christians. Believers are citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, enrolled among the angels and saints in the family of God (Heb 12:23) (CCC 2796). See introduction: Destination. Back to text.

3:21 like his glorious body: Christ will complete his work of salvation in us when he transforms our frail and mortal bodies into glorious and immortal ones like his own (CCC 999). See note on 1 Cor 15:42-44Back to text.

4:2 agree in the Lord: Paul bids two individuals, Euodia and Syntyche, to resolve their personal differences before tensions become more serious. The cause of this friction is left unspecified, and the two women are otherwise unknown. Back to text.

4:3 co-worker: The Greek, here rendered as a descriptive title, can also be translated as a personal name, "Syzygus". Whatever the case, Paul is asking a particular individual to facilitate a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Euodia and Syntyche (4:2). Clement: Otherwise unmentioned in the NT. Early Christian tradition identifies him as Clement of Rome, the fourth bishop of Rome (after Peter, Linus, and Anacletus) and the author of an ancient epistle known as 1 Clement (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3, 15-16; St. Jerome, On Illustrious Men 15). the book of life: A registry of the saints kept in heaven (Dan 12:1; Lk 10:20). God alone knows the complete list of names since he alone made the entries (Ex 32:32). Back to text.

4:4 Rejoice . . . Rejoice: Repeated for emphasis. The joy of the Lord is produced in believers by the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22) and can flourish despite trying circumstances and even crushing misfortunes (Mt 5:11-12; Jas 1:2). Paul exemplifies this in Philippians, where a spirit of gladness dominates the tone of his letter even though he is writing from prison. Back to text.

4:5 The Lord is at hand: Probably refers to the near presence of Christ at all times rather than to his scheduled return at the end of time (Ps 145:18; Mt 28:20). This ready access to Jesus through prayer should encourage believers to seek his help and consolation in times of need (Phil 4:6; Eph 6:18; Heb 4:16). Back to text.

4:7 the peace of God: The tranquility of heart and soul that comes from Christ (Jn 14:27). Paul insists that if we pray about our problems rather than worry about them, God will post a guard around our minds to protect us from the doubts and disturbances that weaken our confidence in his fatherly care (1 Pet 5:7). Jesus gives similar instructions in Mt 6:25-34 (CCC 2633). Back to text.

Word Study

Excellence (Phil 4:8)

Aretē (Gk.): means "goodness" or "moral virtue". The term is found only four times in the NT but was commonly used by the philosophers and moralists of Greek antiquity. Peter uses it to describe the "wonderful deeds" of the Lord displayed in the gospel (1 Pet 2:9). In another place, he specifies that God's power works in us to produce lives of "excellence" and "virtue" through grace (2 Pet 1:3, 5). When Paul uses the term, he challenges us to ponder all that is virtuous in order to crowd every impure and unworthy thought out of our minds (Phil 4:8). This implies a close relationship between contemplation and conduct, so that wholesome meditation can be an inspiration for exemplary living (Wis 8:7) (CCC 1803).

4:13 I can do all things: I.e., Paul can endure the extremes of earthly life, from peace and prosperity to affliction and destitution. The hidden source of his strength is not in himself but in the Lord Jesus, who enables him to take everything in stride and live detached from the need for physical comforts (Mt 19:26; Jn 15:5). Back to text.

4:18 the gifts you sent: The tangible assistance delivered to Paul by Epaphroditus. His appreciation goes out to the Philippians for this sacrifice of their resources (Heb 13:16). Paul's situation in Rome, where he lived as a prisoner in his own rented quarters, would have made their monetary assistance all the more welcome (Acts 28:16, 30). According to Phil 4:15-16, the Philippians were consistently generous in supporting his ministry in this way. Back to text.

4:19 God will supply: Generosity is richly rewarded by the Lord (Lk 6:38; 2 Cor 9:6-8). Back to text.

4:21 brethren who are with me: This wording includes Timothy (1:1) and others not mentioned by name. Back to text.

4:22 Caesar's household: The gospel was gaining ground not only among the emperor's soldiers (1:13), but also among his hired servants. Paul must have been proud to say that the gospel of Christ's Lordship was echoing throughout the halls of the Imperial palace. This detail lends solid support to the view that Philippians was written from Rome. See introduction: Author and Date. Back to text.

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