PHILIPPINS 1: 12-25
For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that my situation has in fact worked for the advance of the joyful message. My ‘chains in Messiah’ have become well-known, not only to the whole Praetorium, but to all the rest as well. And the majority of the brothers and sisters who trust in the Lord are emboldened by my chains to speak the message without fear. Some of them do so out of envy or as polemic, others announce Messiah from goodwill. These act out of love, knowing that I will stand firm in defense of the joyful message; those, on the other hand, publicize Messiah insincerely to cause dissension, intending to add pains to my chains.
So what? In either case, as pretext or as truth, Messiah is publicized; and I am happy about this; and I will continue to be happy, for I know that this will assist God’s rescue of me, thanks to your prayers and the bonus of the spirit of Jesus Messiah.
I have a confident hope that I will not be made to lose face by anything, but that Messiah may be honoured boldly in my body, always as now, by my life or by my death.
For to me, living is Messiah, and dying is profit.
But if my life in the flesh is going to be fruitful, I don’t know what I should choose; I am strung out between two choices, the desire to die and be with Messiah, which is much the better; or to remain in the flesh, which is more necessary for you. And since I am persuaded of this, I know that I will arrive and abide with you all, so that you may advance and be joyful in trust; and that your boasting about me in Messiah may be over the top, because I have arrived amongst you once again!
Much of what I want to say is included in this translation, so I’m posting it now.
J Peter Bercovitz, A Wesleyan Professor from West Virginia who died in 2005, was a graduate of New College, Edinburgh, the rival of my own Alma Mater, Trinity College Glasgow. His work on the life of St. Paul has been an influence on me over many years. An attractive presentation of his main arguments can be found at: paulonpaul.org
In particular, he identifies Ephesus as the place of Paul’s arrest, and as also his working HQ for at least two years, from where he wrote a number of letters including Philippians. I think this is a hypothesis which fits the evidence well, and I have therefore adopted it in all my own work on Paul, including my fiction about him, published on Kindle as “Paul: An Unauthorised Autobiography” under my own name.
Paul’s reference to his chains or bonds is rhetoric rather than realism – only occasionally did the Romans put prisoners in restraint, usually for spectacle or humiliation, and Paul was simply detained pending instructions. Nor did the Empire have prisons as we now know them for convicted felons, who were subjected to corporal punishment, exile, or death. Probably Paul was under arrest in the Praetorium complex, or on the house of an Ephesian believer. Nobody should conclude from this information that Paul did not suffer much. Almost certainly he was flogged with the brutally prepared flagellum, often used as a warning to non -citizens who had been accused of crime or troublemaking, a warning which could mutilate or kill the victim.
In all probability Paul found an existing assembly of believers when he first arrived in Ephesus, but became their “emissary” through his prolonged presence there. There also he received the Philippians messenger Epaphroditus, with their gift of money for his ministry.
Here Paul notes the benefit of his public deprivation of liberty. The officials and high-ranking soldiers know the reason for his arrest, namely his public preaching of Jesus as Messiah, which may have led to bitter disagreement from some of the Jewish community in Ephesus. That has been a problem but Paul knows how this opposition from his fellow Jews has helped to publicize his message. Paul knew that in that situation there were people who might preach Jesus as Messiah solely to insult the Jewish community or to bring Paul into disrepute, but he welcomes even false evangelism as assisting his own. Paul reckons that this opposition works towards his own “soteria” which is usually translated as “salvation”, that is, God’s rescue of Paul from sin and death. It may mean that but it could rather refer to God’s rescue of Paul from his imprisonment. This latter meaning fits better with Paul’s recognition of his friends’ prayers as contributing to his rescue.
Can we take Paul seriously when he says he would prefer to die and be with Jesus? There is often a kind of grandstanding in Paul’s image of himself but I think if we cannot trust his sincerity in this matter, we must doubt it altogether. I think he did feel death as desirable and his continuing life in this world as justified only by his usefulness to others. In that spirit he looks forward to visiting Philippi and enjoying their welcome. There is a challenging heroism in this passage, which is all the more impressive for being stated so matter-of- factly.