Introduction: Have This Mind: A Primer on the Cruciform Life (Philippians)

by Jul 4, 20160 comments

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The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians poses a riddle. Paul is imprisoned, chained 24-hours a day to Roman imperial guards (Phil. 1:12–13). His life hangs in the balance, so that the sentence he awaits may free him to be reunited with his beloved brothers and sisters at the church in Philippi (Phil. 1:25–26; 2:24), or it may condemn him to death by execution (Phil. 1:20). Beyond the walls of the prison, Paul has somehow made enemies who seek to afflict him by preaching the gospel as Paul’s rival—not out of a genuine love for Christ, but out of selfish ambition to advance themselves at Paul’s expense (Phil. 1:15–17).

Regarding the church at Philippi, Paul has very little reason to be encouraged about the progress of the church that he himself planted a decade earlier. Instead, he has received word that his beloved congregation is coming apart at the seams, since the Philippians have begun living in a way that stands contrary to the demands of the gospel (Phil. 1:27), acting out of selfish ambition and conceit (Phil. 2:3), working only half-heartedly toward their spiritual growth (Phil. 2:12), flirting with temptation toward the twin evils of legalism (Phil. 3:2–3) and licentious living (Phil. 3:18–19), and permitting open conflict to persist in their midst (Phil. 4:2–3).

Given Paul’s difficult, harrowing, anxious circumstances, as well as the emotional and spiritual anguish from his pastoral heart for the Philippians, we would understand if we found him bitter, complaining, and nervous in this letter. But in fact, we find nothing of the sort. Where Paul’s chains chafe against his skin and bruise his frail body, and where enemies oppose him in his ministry, he nevertheless rejoices (Phil. 1:18). Where he lives every moment of his life under the threat of the death penalty, his confidence in his coming salvation only increases (Phil. 1:19–20). Where Paul is anxious about the spiritual growth of the Philippians, he rejoices over the financial gift they have sent to him as a sign of their renewed concern for him (Phil. 4:10).

How could any human being possibly respond to such an extraordinary degree of suffering with such an unwavering demeanor of contentedness? What is the secret behind Paul’s overflowing joy? How could Paul possibly have the emotional energy to exhort the Philippians to rejoice in the midst of their suffering, given all the suffering that he must endure? Paul’s outlook, attitude, and behavior represent a complicated riddle that cannot be unravelled easily—or, even naturally. Human nature simply does not provide the depth of emotional and spiritual resources that Paul draws on to write this letter.

Read the rest of the introduction here.