Paul’s Countercultural Worldview in Philippians

The newest volume in the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series is Philippians by Mark J. Keown. In his epistle to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul addresses internal struggles and external pressures that the church faced. In this volume, Keown shows how Paul appeals to Christ’s exemplary acts of humility and sacrifice to encourage believers to live worthy of the gospel in every aspect of life. Through rigorous examination of the original Greek text and engagement with the latest scholarship, Keown delivers an in-depth commentary on Philippians that captures the message of Paul’s letter for believers today.

It can be easy to think that Paul’s encouraging message to the Philippian church is simple to understand and apply. But examining the first-century context reveals a deeper underlying message countercultural to the Graeco-Roman world. In this excerpt from the introduction, Keown relays the importance of this Roman backdrop to this letter, showing us how Christians must be defined by the gospel and not by the values of the world.

It is important for students of Philippians to understand the importance of Rome, Roman rule, and Roman values to understanding Philippians. Philippi was a Roman colony, modeled on Rome; effectively, they self-consciously sought to be a mini-Rome. As such, Rome lies at both ends of the conversation. Knowledge of Roman imperial power and rule, along with Roman social values, underlies the appeal of the letter. This plays in two important ways: power and Christian life.

First, the clash between Christ and Caesar should be considered. The Christ hymn forms the theological center of Philippians. Without a doubt its language and thought stand in direct opposition to Roman notions of power. In Philippians, it is Jesus who is Savior and Lord, rather than Caesar, with whom these terms were regularly associated. Jesus is patron to the Philippians, supplying all their needs. He is their protector who will intervene and deliver, heal and sustain in suffering. He is the head of the military force of Christian soldiers who operate with the values of the kingdom and not military might. He reigns in love rather than force. His obedience to death is both the salvation of the Philippians and their example of how to live in a world obsessed with power. He renounced rank and status, preferring to empty himself, and become a doulos, the lowest of the low, to serve humanity. This pattern of power through love and service, and not direct political or military force or status and rank, undergirds the Christ-pattern and the positive examples splashed through the letter. Believers must cling to this Christ, not turning aside to Jewish notions of law, or Roman notions of materialism and licentiousness. Knowing him, being found in him, believing in him, saves. Believers must not be drawn away to the ways of Rome, but must, like Paul, press on in him to win the prize. This “in Christ” living is total, including experiencing his suffering and death (Phil 3:10), while being sustained by the resurrection Spirit until the resurrection of the body. Notably, in a letter from Rome to “little Rome,” Christos is still his favored name for Jesus. Nothing in Greek or Roman literature can be utilized to fully contain the notion of a crucified Jewish Messiah.

Second, the values and lifestyle of believers, while set and engaged in the Graeco-Roman world, are to be defined by the gospel and not by the values of Rome. They are to “live as citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27). They are not to be characterized by selfish ambition, envy, rivalry, vain conceit, self-centeredness—seeking to move up the Roman or Christian pecking order to achieve status and power. Rather, they are to lay such things down, and be humble, loving, living as servants and living the Christ-pattern. They are to suffer in and for Christ, even to the point of death. Remaining faithful to the gospel of grace, they are to be relentless in their unity, standing in love, proclaiming Christ, pressing on as they live and share the gospel. They are to renounce grumbling and arguing and, as they live out the Christ-pattern, to be lights to the world in a “crooked and depraved generation.” They are not to succumb to self-reliance through legal observance or licentiousness, but trust in the coming Savior. They are to be reconciled where they are divided; they are to show gentleness, to rejoice, to be at peace, trusting God to answer prayers. They too have transformed minds, pondering the good things of God and his world, emulating Paul in all they say and do. They are to live in utter dependence on God the patron, trusting him that no matter what their material situation, he will provide.

The letter then is utterly subversive and countercultural. Written under the nose of Nero’s elite to the center of one of his prize colonies, it challenges Rome and its values, implies its eventual transformation or downfall as the gospel radiates through it, and encourages the Philippians to live out their days trusting the true Caesar, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Philippians is now available in Logos digital format. The two-volume print edition is forthcoming in October.

Written by
Jake Mailhot

Jake Mailhot is the product manager for Lexham Press. He also writes about baseball and lives in Bellingham, WA.

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