Philippians is a letter that overflows with joy and thanksgiving. Paul thanks the Philippians for their gift which was brought by Epaphroditus. He was sick but now has recovered and is returning to Philippi. Paul is content in any situation, even in prison, and he is thrilled that people are hearing about and accepting Christ.
I’m reading David deSilva’s An Introduction to the New Testament. While most introductions go book by book, giving the bare facts of date, authorship, and what the book is about, deSilva strives to show the cultural and social settings in the lives of the apostles and their readers. When we look at a text from the Bible we often (more often than we like) think, “Why does he say that?” That same question applies here. In a letter so full of joy, “Why, then, did Paul speak about those who ‘preach Christ out of envy’ (Phil 1:15–18), the Judaizing missionaries whom he calls ‘dogs’ (Phil 3:2), and those Christians who live as ‘enemies of the cross of Christ’ (Phil 3:18–19)?” (656).
If you don’t remember those verses I’ll give you a refresher.
1. Those who preach Christ out of envy; 1.15-18
“Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.”
2. The Judaizing dogs; 3.2-3
“Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh….“
3. The Christians who live as enemies of the cross; 3.18-19
“For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
Friendship and Enmity
DeSilva says that that fact that this is a letter of friendship actually helps us to figure out Paul’s motives.
In the ancient mind friendship is directly related to enmity. ‘Constant attentiveness to friends automatically meant constant watchfulness of enemies’. Since their friendship is based on mutual commitment to shared values and ideals, the bond of friendship—not just between Paul and the church but among the Philippian Christians who have begun to experience internal conflict—can be strengthened by the awareness of others who do not share these values, who are in fact committed to contradictory values. History has repeatedly shown that a group’s internal cohesion and cooperation can be enhanced by drawing attention to the ‘real’ enemies outside the group (656–657).
By having Paul refer to the “dogs” and “evil workers” (3.2) and the “enemies of the cross of Christ” (3.18), Paul is reminding the Philippian Christians “of those who are truly unlike them, thus reminding them of their essential unity and commonality” (657). Paul presents these three groups as contrasts against a “true Christian mindset” (657). While the “dogs” are “evil workers” who “mutilate the flesh,” Paul places him and the Philippian Christians on the same team by saying that they together are “the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (3.3). And then Paul presents the virtuous behavior of a mature Christian in 3.7-16.
Rather than living in strife, rivalry, and selfishness as the rival preachers do (1.15a, 17), the Philippian church is to be of the same mind, have the same love, being in full accord and of one mind (2.1). They are to look out for the interests of others (2.4) just as Christ did when he became a servant who obeyed God and died on the cross (2.5-8). He did this in the midst of an adulterous and sinful generation (Mk 8.38), just like crooked and twisted generation the Philippian believers live in (2.15). The situation in Philippi, then, does not involve rival Christian teachers; rather, Paul makes frequent and brief references to “enemies” in order to build up unity and cooperation within the group (657).