Letter from a Philippian Jail, Easter 6

Letter from a Philippian Jail, Easter 6

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

May 6, 2018

Read Philippians 1:1-18 (CEB)

Introduction 

Sometimes the most meaningful words come from jail cells.

Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail , for example, was a declaration of necessity of nonviolent struggle for civil rights.

The apostle Paul was not a stranger to prison cells.  A few weeks ago, we talked about Paul and Silas being in prison in Philippi.  Now, he is sitting in another jail cell, this time with Timothy.  He decides to write a letter to the church in all of all places, Philippi. Being in jail might make one rather angry, but Paul’s letter to the Philippians is filled with joy and gratitude. His entire letter is one that exudes joy. Paul is not in denial, he is quite aware of what is going on.  But he is focused on the joy that Christ brings in his life, even life inside of a jail cell.

Today, we focus on the open notes to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul’s Ode to Joy.

Engaging the Text

 While Paul waited for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to find that the city was flooded with idols. 

-Acts 17:16

Paul starts things off in verse 1 with his greeting, “Paul and Timothy, salves of Christ Jesus.”is

The word “slave” can be a fraught word in American culture.  Our history of slavery of African Americans can make the word, slave, one that is troublesome. Many tend to use the word “servant” in place of slave and indeed, the greek word or slave, doulos, is sometimes considered the greek word for servant. However, some Greek resources say doulos means “someone who belongs to another; a bond-slave, without any ownership rights of their own. ” The word servant in greek is diakonos (where we get the word, deacon). But the original Greek says “slave.”  What is Paul getting at here?

Doulos doesn’t simply mean “slave” but “bond-slave.” What’s the difference?  Not as much as you might think:

 

“Bond-slave” arises from the same origin and is a direct (albeit emphatic) synonym to “slave,” again meaning an owned or purchased slave, one bound to a master as opposed to a free person. These words aren’t used today outside of Christianese, which lends them to easier misunderstanding. The translations that use “bond-servant” are actually trying to distance themselves from the KJV, which simply uses “servant,” which isn’t really the right word to translate δοὐλος today, since “servant” in modern English implies a free person in distinction from a slave bound to an owner. But many translations are a bit twitchy about using the word “slave” in these cases due to the extremely negative connotation attached to this word today (thanks to our history of race-based slavery). Thus, some 20th Century translations elected to go with the somewhat archaic but more precise “bondservant” (NKJV & NASB) or “bondslave” (again the NASB, which isn’t consistent w/its rendering of this word).

This led to the fanciful interpretations going back to the “voluntary” slave of Exodus 21, explaining that this is why Paul would call himself a “bondslave” as opposed to just a “servant” or “slave.” Of course, it’s all completely wrong. Paul simply uses the basic Greek word for “slave.” There’s no inherent notion of volunteerism in this word—it’s the same word that was used for a slave that was purchased at a slave market or from another owner—nor is this a unique word, as the archaic translation “bondslave” might suggest. Rather, Paul merely uses the basic word for a person who is owned by another person.

When Paul uses the word “bond-slave” he is differentiating from the word “debt-slave.”  Again from Jason Staples:

“Bond-slavery” is the more severe enslavement—a permanent one in which one is owned as property, as opposed to debt-slavery, which was to be limited in its timeframe. Either way, by Paul’s day, the debt slavery outlined in Exodus 21 (and the practice of voluntary slavery) had long ceased; in his introduction, Paul was straightforwardly using the standard word for “slave.” It is extremely far-fetched to think of this as an intentional reference to Exodus 21, and it’s even more unlikely that his audience (who were accustomed to hearing δούλος in everyday speech) would have connected Paul’s self-identification as a slave to ancient Israelite slavery regulations.

So, when Paul says that he and Timothy are slaves to Christ Jesus, he means what he says.  Again, that can be troubling to modern readers, especially in the American context and especially to modern African Americans (like the writer of this reflection).  But it’s important to remember what Paul is getting at here. This is not an endorsement of slavery in any time, but it is a description of Paul’s relationship to Jesus, that Jesus is his Lord and Master. He is not simply loyal to Jesus, but bound to Christ, he is claimed by Jesus and can’t just do as he pleases.

It’s also important to remember that Paul uses the same word, doulos to describe Jesus in chapter 2.  Jesus gave up his status to become not even a servant but a slave.

Paul is showing a similar humility. Paul is a well-travelled evangelist and could have presented himself in that way . Instead he presents himself as low on the pole. Paul then calls the Philippians “God’s People” or “holy people.”  The Greek word used here is , hagioi, which means “saints.” In modern  usage, we think of saints as special people, like Saint Francis or Saint Augustine.  But Paul is using the word saint or holy as one that is set apart. Paul is probably thinking of his ancestors as was written in Exodus 19:5-6 that if the people of Israel kept God’s commandments, they would be a holy (set apart) people. Paul is calling out the church at Philippi for living differently, living so differently that they are noticed. The late Disciples of Christ theologian and pastor Fred Craddok further explains:

The letter is to “all the saints in Christ Jesus.” The term “saints” or “holy ones” refers primarily to God’s act of claiming them as God’s people, consecrated, bound in a covenant (Exod. 19:6; Deut. 7:6). It is in a derived sense that the term came to refer to the moral character of those so set apart, but this secondary meaning should not be negated in order to underscore the primary one. Paul knew perhaps better than we how easily grace can degenerate into sentimental “acceptance” without moral earnestness.2

Another theme that factors in this first chapter of Philippians is the concept of koinōnia, or partnership.  What you notice in today’s passage is how Paul doesnt’ see his ministry as a one-man show.  Instead he sees himself as part of a larger team working for Christ. He is in ministry with Timothy and Silas, and he sees the Philippians as partners in ministry. “ I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now,” he says in verse 5. They are praying for Paul and preaching the gospel themselves in their home town. Paul prays that they might grow in Christ, maybe hoping they would grow to become preachers and teach this to others. And because they have shown love to Paul, he is showing love right back at them. It is a relationship of mutual admiration and prayer.

The final thing to talk about here is Paul’s imprisonment.  Putting Paul in prison might seem like a way to slow the movement of the Spirit, but instead of stopping the gospel, it only expanded. Some are spurred on by Paul’s imprisonment to spread the good news far and wide. Others use the gospel for their own selfish ends. This should bother Paul and it probably does, but he is also happy. “What do I think about this? Just this: since Christ is proclaimed in every possible way, whether from dishonest or true motives, I’m glad and I’ll continue to be glad.”

 

Conclusion

There is a lot in this passage that we never got to talk about.  But we learn in these opening passages what it means to be a Christian: to be one that is bound to Jesus, that is a saint, and is happy even when the gospel is used for less than honorable ends.

We began this talking about Martin Luther King and his writings from a southern jail.  King is an example of what it means to live as a “slave” for Jesus, living as Jesus did, giving up status to become a slave for Jesus…even unto death.

Martin Luther King was born Michael King.  He visited Germany when he was a child.  His father, also named Michael, was so taken by the trip and by the German religious leader, Martin Luther, he returned to the states and changed his name and his son’s name after the famous pastor.  The younger King said it was hard to live up to his namesakes’ legacy in the South he grew up in.

King realized he was in service to something much larger than himself. He was a slave for Jesus Christ in order to bring freedom for African Americans if not all of America that was bound to racial prejudice and a system that kept African American’s down.

The night before he was assisnatied in Memphis, King gave his last speech that showed his obedience to Christ. While others were seeking his life, he expressed joy in the face of danger:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live—a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.3

How are we living? Do we see ourselves as “slaves” to Jesus? Do we know that we are not alone in our work to spread the gospel? Can we express joy even in the darkest of times?

2. Craddock, F. B. (1985). Philippians (p. 12). Atlanta, Ga.: J. Knox Press.
3. Cohick, L. H. (2013). Philippians. (T. Longman III & S. McKnight, Eds.) (p. 31). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

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