I’ve reached the final chapter of Paul’s letter to the church assembly at Philippi, which I am translating with a brief commentary.
So, brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, my crowning joy, stand firm in the Lord, as I have taught you, my dears.
I call on Euodia, and I call on Syntyche, to agree in the Lord. Yes, and I’m asking you also, my true workmate, to bring these women together, for they have shared my hard labour for the Joyful News, along with Clement and the rest of my team, whose names are in the Book of Life.
Be happy in the Lord; I’ll say it again, be happy! Treat all people with kindness; the Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything, but in all matters let God know what you need, by eager requests, giving thanks. And the peace of God which surpasses all intelligence, will keep watch over your hearts and minds, in Messiah Jesus.
Finally my dears, all things true, all things worthy, all things just, all things pure, all things lovely, all things admirable – any excellence deserving praise- think on these things. As for the things you’ve learned and received and heard and seen in me, do them; and the God of peace will be with you.
This is one of my favourite passages of Paul, because it reads as genuinely tender, pastorally delicate, and ethically profound.
The opening sentence is as much an ending of the previous section as it is an introduction to this one, which seems conceived as final, but is in fact followed by Paul’s thanks for the gift sent to him at Ephesos by the Philippian Assembly. Its language tumbles over itself to express Paul’s affection for the Asssembly members. Paul is not above using affection as a tool of persuasion, but sentences like this remind us that all his letters contain avowals of love, and that even his anger is fuelled by love. In this letter the repetition of “IN the Lord,” “IN Messiah Jesus”etc. shows how routine is Paul’s conviction that the life of faith is a life shared with others and with God, a “koinonia”, meaning a joint enterprise.
He then turns to the specifics of pastoral concern about a disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche. He pleads for their agreement and asks one of his chief supporters to act as a go-between. The koinonia must be mended. Many scholars have noted the historical importance of this passage as evidence of women’s ministry in the Philippian Assembly. Paul says they have shared his effort for the the Joyful News, his apostolic ministry. The church should hold to this evidence rather than Paul’s subsequent nonsense – if indeed it is by Paul- about women being silent in the Assembly. We should also note how far beyond usual custom this pastoral concern goes. Paul, a Jewish man, is confidently interfering in the lives of (probably married) Philippian women! This in itself reveals the radical nature of Assembly relationships.
I am not altogether happy with my translation, “Be happy in the Lord” because the Greek verb has the connotation of expressing happiness. But “rejoice” is no longer a contemporary usage, and I’m sure that Paul is commanding a happy faith. Given how often he speaks of weakness and suffering in the life of faith, this is an important moment of balance: confidence in God brings happiness, as does the shared life into which the believers have entered. Paul literally says, ‘Let your kindness be known to all people’ but I think this is a fancy way of commanding it. The family affection experienced in the Assembly is to be shown to all people. Issues of justice can be let go because the Lord who brings justice is near. Paul saw this nearness as temporal: Jesus would return as Lord, perhaps in his lifetime. That was a mistake, but the nearness of the Lord and his justice is a permanent feature of faith. God’s urgent desire for justice on the earth is felt as a positive pressure by all people of faith. The happiness of believers is seen in their free speech to God, which expresses their real needs as well as their real gratitude. The anxieties which make others unhappy, because they are retained within the person, can be freely expressed by believers to God. This exchange takes place as part of a relationship with God which the believer experiences as peace, as a fundamental wellbeing which goes beyond anything that human intelligence can grasp. But it is important to note that the peace issues from a relationship in which real needs can be articulated.
The final paragraph is a splendidly unusual moment in Paul, where he adopts the classic virtues of the Greek culture into the family of faith. This kind of list goes back to Plato and Aristitle as well as owing something to Stoic philosophy. Aspects of human action and experience which are good in themselves while pointing beyond themselves to a source of goodness are named one by one, so that they can be appreciated singly as well as together. The specifics of Christian faith, from its tradition to its representation in Paul’s ministry are laid out in advance of the succinct command, “do them.”
The section closes with a reminder of the blessing of God’s peace.
Images are of the Greek Goddess of wisdom, Athena.