by Barry Newton
Had Paul ever read the handbook ascribed to Demetrius outlining the standardized techniques for shaping behavior and communicating friendship through letters? While we do not know the answer, we know the world in which Paul lived, breathed, studied and interacted.
It was a world where professional scribes, who if instructed to write a letter encouraging appropriate behavior, would use personal examples from the author to model the desired lifestyle. It was an environment where pagan moralists taught others how to live by calling them to “imitate” personal models.
In such a world, Paul opened his letter to the Philippians with the typical flair and characteristics of an ancient friendship letter, albeit in a Christianized form. Accordingly, following his thanksgiving for them Paul relieved any concern they might have for him. However, this letter’s purpose was not merely: “I’m doing OK. How are you?”
Conflicts from without and within this church were threatening their unity. (Philippians 1:27-28; 4:2) Desiring to help his dear friends avoid the self-centered mire of grumbling and disputing which normally erupts when people feel attacked, his own prison predicament could provide them with a wonderful learning opportunity.
As Paul described his imprisonment he also unveiled his mindset. His attitude illustrated how someone will live when he or she looks not only to one’s own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Yes, he wore the shackles of a prisoner. Some were even maliciously preaching Christ hoping to cause him greater trouble. In spite of these circumstances, Paul could rejoice. People were hearing what they needed most; they were learning about Christ. Paul was focused on their well-being!
Philippians 1:12-18 is biography with a purpose. Even in the stress of conflict, rejoicing is possible if a profound love would drive their lives. From the motives of those outside of prison preaching Christ to the example of his own mindset, Paul would repeatedly contrast love against selfish ambition throughout this letter.
Paul’s imprisonment provides one illustration for us what it means for “love to abound more and more in knowledge.” (Philippians 1:9)
by Barry Newton