Structure of Philippians

Structure of Philippians July 20, 2017

What follows is a rough structural analysis of Philippians. Rough, but perhaps it illuminates:

A. Joy in imprisonment, 1:1–16

B. Live like citizens of the gospel, 1:27–30

C. Have the mind of Christ, 2:1–11

D. Shared joy, 2:12–18

E. Timothy and Epaphroditus, 2:19–30

D’. Rejoice in the Lord, 3:1

C’. Paul’s kenosis, 3:2–16

B’. Citizenship in heaven, 3:17–21

A’. Joy and contentment in all circumstances, 4:1–23

As I say, rough. But there are some striking parallels, especially as we move to the center of the letter. The links of B and B’ are not as clear in English, but in both passages Paul uses political terminology to describe the Christian walk. “Conduct yourself” in 1:27 is politeuomai, and “citizenship” in 3:20 is politeuma. N. T. Wright has long pointed out the parallels between Christ’s self-emptying in death (2:5–11; C) and Paul’s renunciation of Jewish privileges (3:2–16; C’). Paul follows his own exhortation in striving for the mind of Christ, and then he exhorts the Philippians to follow his example (3:17). 

In 2:17–18 Paul rejoices (chairo) and shares joy (sugchairo) with the Philippians, then urges them to rejoice (chairo) and share their joy back with him (sugchairo). In 3:1, he returns to that exhortation: “Rejoice (chairo) in the Lord.”

That leaves 2:19–3o at the hinge. On any analysis of Philippians, this section occupies a central position. And that is odd, since in this section Paul doesn’t talk about himself or the Philippians, much less the gospel itself, but about Timothy and Epaphroditus, both assistants of Paul’s who have been sent to Philippi. It’s the sort of thing that is more typically tacked onto the end of Paul’s letters.

Of Timothy, Paul expresses the wish to send him soon, since he is the only one “of kindred spirit” who will truly look out for the Philippians (2:19–24). He also sends Epaphroditus, a fellow laborer and soldier for the gospel, who had worked himself sick providing for Paul. 

What are these two paragraphs about messengers doing at the center of Paul’s letter? First, nestled between Paul’s hymn about Christ’s self-emptying (2:6–11) and his own (3:1–16), Paul speaks of two other servants who have the mind of Christ. Epaphroditus in particular has poured himself out for Paul and the gospel. Paul says that he himself has been poured out like a drink offering (2:17), and uses similar sacrificial language in connection with Epaphroditus, who brought the “fragrant aroma” and “acceptable sacrifice” of a donation from Philippi to Paul (4:18). Epaphroditus lives up to his name, “Lovely,” as does Timothy, “Honor to God.”

Second, Paul himself cannot come to the Philippians, but he sends messengers to gladden the saints and advance the work in Philippi. There will be no Pauline parousia, but there is a parousia by proxy. Ephaphroditus’s appearance has a particular frisson. He was “sick to the point of death” but “God had mercy on him” (2:27). He has passed through the grave to new life, and so his appearance to the Philippians will be like that of Jesus’ to His disciples after His death. Epaphroditus’s ministry is an enacted proclamation of the gospel, his appearance in Philippi a small-scale resurrection. Jesus obeyed to the point of death (mechri thanatou); following His Lord, Epaphroditus has emptied himself, obedient to the point of death (paraplesios thanato), and so God raises him from his death-bed.

By placing these two servants at the center, Paul inverts standard ancient hierarchies. Not even Jesus, with His heroic self-emptying at Calvary, nor Paul, with his dramatic renunciation of all “fleshly” privilege, stands at the center. Sharing the mind of Christ doesn’t have to take heroic form in martyrdom or ascetic self-denial. It can take the form of humble obedience and service, not a martyr’s death but sickness produced by overwork. 

By placing these two servants at the center of his letter, Paul adds a layer to the moral theology of the letter: Have the mind of Christ who emptied himself; follow the example of Paul who renounced ancestral privileges; and—at the peak—receive and imitate the humble service of Timothy and Epaphroditus.

That’ll preach.

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