Category Archives: Philippians

Philippian Math

Philippian Math (12.9.17)

You might not think it, but sometimes math can be a helpful Bible study tool! I used some basic arithmetic to verify something I suspected as I read Philippians recently, finding that the numbers did indeed confirm a significant difference in the ways Paul used his words in this letter. Since I think the results have implications for our reading of this and other epistles, I thought I’d share the process I followed and the results I came to, and then I’ll leave you with some questions to ponder.

In all of Paul’s epistles you will find elements of theological instruction, imperatives (or marching orders), as well as some personal notes. If I asked you which of these verbal styles were most prevalent in his writing, you’d probably guess instruction, followed by imperatives, with personal notes a distant third. Not so in Philippians.

As I began reading this letter a couple of weeks ago, I decided to interact with the text in a brand new way. Sometimes a familiar book or passage demands a novel approach, if we’re going to make sure we’re paying attention to it and not just skimming because we think we already know what it says. So this time, I gathered two pens and a pencil and set about copying out the whole epistle, bit by bit, color coding the different kinds of writing that I encountered.

My black pen recorded the theological indicatives. But I realized quickly that the old categories of “indicative” and “imperative” weren’t especially helpful after all, because only some of the indicatives in this letter are generalizable instruction about God and his ways; other writing that is technically in indicative form gives information about people and events personal to Paul and his contemporaries (e.g., “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.”). I wanted to distinguish the personal information from the general, so for this category I only counted theological instruction that would be as relevant to believers today as it was in the first century.*

I also discovered that some of Paul’s theological writing did not fit easily into any of my original categories. How are we to label his written prayers for his original readers? They are not marching orders; they are certainly personal, but they also point to unchanging truths about God and what he loves and is capable of doing for his people. I decided to count Paul’s prayers among the theological indicatives, noting that they indicate things that any Christians at any time may reasonably ask of God to do for them or for others.

My green pen copied out the marching orders. Here again I had need to distinguish between very personalized commands (“I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord”) and those that could be generalized to all believers (“Rejoice in the Lord always”). This required some judgment on my part, and others might have categorized some of the verses differently.

Finally, I scribed with pencil the personal notes that Paul conveyed to his friends in Philippi. Some of these messages, like the entreaty mentioned above, named specific people that Paul and the Philippians knew in common, while others rehearsed Paul’s own personal history and recent experiences as an imprisoned missionary. Often Paul’s words explored the emotions associated with his relationship with these believers (“It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart”) or with the Lord (“My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better”).

Having set myself this task, I was delighted by the challenge of sorting and identifying various kinds of writing, even within a single sentence. For example, here’s how Philippians 3:15 came out in my notebook:

I judged that the first line, an “invitational” (first-person) imperative, could apply to Paul’s later readers as well as to his contemporary ones. The second phrase seemed to be personally addressing his specific audience, and the third told me something that God was capable of doing (and indeed was pleased to do) for believers. Again, someone else may have made different judgment calls about these words and the kind of writing they represent. At any rate, by pursuing this tri-color analysis, my attention was certainly caught and held by this familiar little letter in a way it had never been before.

So where does the math come into the picture?

As I mentioned above, our assumption about the New Testament epistles is that they are there to teach us what we need to know about our Trinitarian God and about being the church. So, given this overarching purpose, we’d expect that theological indicatives and general imperatives would have precedence in Paul’s writing, because these two styles address our needs as later readers. But as I transferred this brief letter into my notebook, I found that I was using my pencil more than either of my pens. Was it possible, I wondered, that in Philippians Paul’s personal notes to a specific church took priority over instructing and directing the church in general?

To verify my suspicion that this was so, I used the online resource Bible Gateway to copy and paste the words of Philippians (in the ESV translation) into a Word document, arranged according to the same categories that I had designated by my three handwritten colors. I eliminated the verse and chapter numbers (because Word registered these as individual words), took a word count of each section, and did a little math. Here’s what I found:

Theological Indicatives:        673/2165 = 31% of total words

            Marching Orders:                  327/2165 = 15% of total words

            Personal Notes:                     1165/2165 = 54% of total words

Even granted differences between translations or in the judgment of readers regarding the three categories, you can clearly see that there is a significant jump between the number of words Paul devotes to Christian instruction and the number of personalized words he offers to his friends.

Why does the math matter here? An awareness of what Paul purposed to do with his words in this epistle should lead us to ask some follow-up questions, if not consider some implications for ourselves as readers. For example, how does the distribution in Philippians compare with other epistles? Is our general assumption about epistles—that they are primarily intended to instruct and direct Christians at all times and in all places—gathered from those other letters, while Philippians is the anomaly?

Also, how shall we process all of the personal messages in Philippians (and in the other NT epistles)? Here personal notes make up 54% of what we read whenever we study this letter. Is there any take-away for me from that 54%, or am I just expected to look on these sentences as artifacts of a distant place and time? Can I learn from these words indirectly something that I should know or do for my Christian walk, or is there no purpose to these personal notes other than Paul’s original connection with his friends, leaving me to take away only what I can get from the other 46% of the letter?

I won’t attempt to answer these questions definitively here, but I leave them for your consideration. It’s possible that we may need to adjust our assumptions about what the words are doing in a NT letter. If the personal notes are just meant to tell us about history, then we should not put too much weight on them for guidance in our individual lives as Christians. That’s not what they were primarily intended to do.

Yet here are these very personal messages, preserved for us to read and for our benefit. At the very least, they reflect a reality of relationship that we too have come to know in the family of God. Paul’s affection for his Philippian friends is an expression of the tenderness of Christian friendship that we have experienced as well, and his desire to let them know all about his internal and external struggles is echoed many centuries later by our own sharing of our very lives with our brothers and sisters.

So at the very least, that 54% of the letter to the Philippians humanizes the great Apostle for us, and affirms our own humanity.


* It’s certainly a possibility that people in other times and places might likewise “preach Christ from envy and rivalry” or “from good will.” However, there is no question that when Paul wrote the words he was referring to people right there and then. I therefore categorized this statement as a “personal note,” rather than a general indicative, because of Paul’s specific reference to historically contemporary individuals.

All biblical quotations taken from the ESV. Verses quoted in this post come (respectively) from Philippians 3:15, 4:2, 4:4, 1:7, 1:23, and 3:15.

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Filed under Applying the Scriptures, Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Epistles, Historical Context, Paul, Philippians

What Are You Studying?

Pastors, teachers, and other students of God’s Word, you might enjoy supplementing your studies with some unique and accessible commentary.  My Bible Journal posts have followed the haphazard course of my own studies recently, largely focused on the New Testament.  Here’s an attempt to organize my offerings for you.  Please pass these links on to others if you think they would be helpful!

Remember, you can follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo, or sign up for email notifications (see the button below).

Bible Journal entries are listed below under the relevant books or sections of the Bible.  Find a match with what you are studying, and read along!


Bible Study Strategies (Audio)

Genre Judgment Calls

Pickup Theology

Redemptive-Historical Reading

Self-Evaluation Tool

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology



Christ in the OT

The Messiah in the OT


Christ in the NT

Christ Jesus Our Lord

Invitational Imperatives (various Epistles)

Providing Perspective (various Epistles)


General Gospels

Eyewitnesses to a Transfiguration

Mapping the Parables

On the Unforgivable Sin

Prompted Parables

Prophetic Puzzle Pieces

Samaritan Stories

“Shhh – don’t tell!”


Mark is Longer


Death Meets Life at the Gates of Nain

“Follow, Fast!”

The Cost of Salt


Curious Questions (Woman at the Well)

Naming Names


Paul the Governed (see also Romans)

Prison Diary (Acts 16)

Greek Gods in the NT (Acts 16-19)

Take-Aways from Philippi (Acts 16)

Rome Meets Paul

Before Speaking, Listen (Acts 17)


Mutual Autobiography

What Paul Said About Jesus (Comprehensive Chart)

Paul on Jesus, Part 1 (The Lord of Time)

Paul on Jesus, Part 2 (History, Salvation, Obedience)

Paul on Jesus, Part 3 (Benefits & Realities)


Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Galatians)

Paul the Governed (see also Acts)

The Metaphysical Situation (see also 1-2 Corinthians)

1-2 Corinthians

Fortune Cookies

Pickup Theology

Riff on 1 Cor. 13

The Metaphysical Situation (see also Romans)


Examining Ourselves


A Tale of Two Jerusalems

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Romans)

In Step with the Spirit


Military Mnemonics


Providing Perspective


The Mouse that Roared



Chronology and Meaning (see also Galatians & Romans)

A Topical Concordance of James (includes link to pdf resource)

1 Peter

Providing Perspective

123 John

Euphemistic Faith


Hang On ‘Cause Jesus Wins

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, 123 John, Acts, Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Christ, Ephesians, Epistles, Galatians, Gospel of John, Hebrews, Instructing the Body, James, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Old Testament, Parables, Paul, Peter, Philemon, Philippians, Redemptive History, Romans, Synoptic Gospels, The Revelation

Paul on Jesus: Part Three

[Texts:  Paul’s life and letters]

To wrap up my summaries of Paul’s teaching on Jesus (Part One and Part Two having covered History, Salvation, and Obedience), I’d like to focus on the Benefits delivered to believers in Christ and the new Realities of our spiritual location “in Christ.”  My comprehensive chart of what Paul had to say about Jesus can be accessed here, if you’d like to see these ideas in more detail.

On my chart, I am calling “Benefits” those things that are presently in our possession through faith in Jesus, as well as those things that are promised to us in the future (but are no less certainly ours!).* For the most part, these are intangibles; yet even as the bread and drink of Communion are physical reminders of a real but untouchably distant historical event, so are our physical bodies reminders of the real, material future blessings of resurrected life in the New Heavens and New Earth.  In other words, all that we are unable to experience with our senses now will one day be thoroughly realized in our bodies, relationships, and world.

Some of the invisible Benefits belonging to believers are improvements on the old order of things, as set out in the Hebrew Scriptures:  freedom from the law of sin and death; inclusion, if we are Gentiles, in the promises and family of the great patriarch Abraham; access to God in the first place.*  Other Benefits trump the oldest enemy of every human being, Death itself: for in Christ, Paul assures us, we have already died and been made alive with never-ending life; and though we will die physically, we shall yet hope to live again in our resurrected bodies.

Still other Benefits explain our present situation, however contrary to evidence these truths may seem:  we are adopted children of God; we are gifted by God for service and with the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit; and we have the blessings of comfort, joy and encouragement in Christ.  Truly, as Paul says himself, we by Christ’s poverty have become rich.

Finally, the Benefits of life in Christ include our salvation from judgment and extend to the formation of our characters into his likeness.  Righteousness and holiness, flowing from our deliverance from the power of sin, law, and death, will increasingly mark the people of God.  And in all of our challenges and changes, we are guaranteed to find ourselves safe in the love of our Father God.

Knowing these Benefits is the key to bearing the Realities of the Christian life, which, Paul does not hesitate to admit, will often be painful and sorrowful in our broken world.  Those believers whose political and social settings most closely resemble Paul’s own will best be able to appreciate the power of these truths for the shouldering of suffering.

While some of the Realities that I have listed on my chart rather cross over into the Benefits category (e.g., belonging to Christ, having already been buried and raised with him, being members together of his body), other Realities do not feel like Benefits at all.  Our close identification with our Lord, both individually and collectively, opens for us the possibility of suffering, an experience that Paul knew only too well.  He recognized in his imprisonment, maltreatment and hardships the fulfillment of a prophecy once made about him by the Lord himself:  “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name,” and he identified the same in the lives of his friends:  “For the sake of Christ you not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”

It’s the phrase “for his sake” that puts the Realities in perspective.  Since for our sake Jesus was condemned, bringing into being the Benefits that Paul celebrates, our temporary sufferings for his sake can be borne in grateful response and the confident hope of receiving unshakeable life at the end of our story.  Without this perspective, no believer over the whole course of Christian history could have withstood the cruel persecutions devised by the world. By God’s grace, Paul’s life and letters provide us with a verbal picture of the noble soldier who bears all for the sake of his Commander in Chief.  Let’s learn from him, and keep on standing firm.


*It would actually make just as much sense to call these Benefits “Realities” of the Christian life; but here I’ve used the “Reality” category to collect those things that we experience in this life because we are believers, as well as for a few more invisible and intangible implications of belonging to Christ.

*I’m not going to give you the verse references in this post!  If I did, your eyes would skim these paragraphs and you wouldn’t really read these amazing statements.  (Am I not right?)  You see if you can remember the specific verses that I’m referring to.  If you can’t, look up these ideas under the Benefits and Realities categories on my chart “What Paul Said About Jesus.”

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, Acts, Biblical Theology, Christ, Ephesians, Epistles, Eschatology, Historical Context, Jesus, Paul, Philemon, Philippians, Redemptive History, Romans

Providing Perspective (Part 2)

[Text: Philippians]

Among the most difficult of persuasive tasks is the work of convincing someone to keep believing something in the face of physical pain.  What words will be strong enough to counter the terrifying anticipation and experience of bodily brokenness—especially when the hurt can be avoided simply by denying a belief?  Paul’s letter to the Philippians, expressly intended to bolster frightened believers, powerfully equips his friends to persevere by offering a God’s-eye perspective on their circumstances.

In my last post I explored how Peter’s first letter exemplifies the job of the epistolary writers, who sought to provide perspective that promotes persevering performance in the believers they addressed.  Like 1 Peter, Philippians is clearly addressed to Christians who are suffering fearful persecution, and it’s another excellent example of writing that persuades via perspective.

This context of persecution is something we may miss, though, if we’re accustomed to treating the Epistles section of the NT as an Inspirational-Verses Mine.*  Phrases from Philippians have captioned many a motivational poster (think of “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and “Don’t be anxious about anything…”), and if you read through the whole letter you’ll probably bump into a large handful of similarly familiar sentences.  As powerful and gracious as these verses already are to us, understanding their context allows us to discover their even higher purpose, which was to equip Christians to face the pain of physical persecution with courage and hope.

Paul’s own situation when he wrote to his friends in Philippi was hardly comfortable.  He begins the letter with news from his prison cell in Rome, reassuring his readers that even this unhappy circumstance “has really served to advance the gospel.”  His self-conscious example sets the stage for what he needs to get across to them in their own time of suffering.  It’s not clear exactly what is happening to the church in Philippi, but these clues suggest that whatever it is, it’s scary:

[Do not be] frightened in anything by your opponents.

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

[You are] children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,  holding fast to the word of life.

The phrase “it has been granted to you” indicates that it isn’t always the case that Christians will suffer physically; even in those early days, some individuals and groups would have to face more dire situations than others, according to the sovereign plan of God.  It happened that these particular believers needed some especially persuasive perspective in order not only to stand fast in their faith during this persecution, but also—what might be the harder task—to do so with truly gracious care for one another.

You can find examples of a God’s-eye perspective throughout the letter, but I especially like Philippians 2 for its concise interweaving of lofty themes and tender encouragement toward a collective commitment to Jesus.  While we may be inclined to focus on the doxology-like poem describing Christ’s kenosis (or “emptying” of himself) in vv.5-11, keep in mind the purpose of even these famous theological phrases. Through them, Paul calls his friends to count the benefits of their location “in Christ” and so be motivated to stand firm, not in opposition to each other, but considerately and in all humility (which is the key to stepping aside from rivalry and disunity).  In other words, he exhorts them to decide among themselves to believe together, and then strive side by side for the sake of the gospel.  He’s building a band of brothers with these words, and so the Christ-theology that we find here, though rich and true, is only incidental to his main purpose.

Two other familiar imperatives, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” and “Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” also need to be set firmly in the context of it having been “granted” to them to suffer and be engaged in conflict.  Are these soldiers going to press onward, or will they drop back?  According to Paul, they have every incentive to press on and hold fast to the word of life, not recanting even though they’re in a dangerous spot there in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.  In fact, running away from the fight (and hence the faith) would have much, much worse consequences than the persecution they are suffering—no wonder this outworking of their confession is to be accompanied by “fear and trembling”!

The essence of the motivation offered here by Paul is a reminder of true though invisible things, both historical and current.  Beginning with their location in Christ through their faith in his person and work, believers should recall that they have an unlimited store of encouragement, comfort, love, affection, sympathy, and participation in the Spirit to bolster them in these anxious days.  The Captain they follow is risen, alive, and exalted, and it only awaits God’s pleasure before the whole world inevitably bows the knee to him.  Meanwhile they can devote themselves to his service, knowing that God himself provides his children the willingness and energy for this high calling of continuing to love one another in the face of suffering.

Paul ends this section of his letter (our chapter 2) with news of himself and their mutual friends Timothy and Epaphroditus, again providing his Philippian friends with flesh-and-blood examples of faithful perseverance.  The personal connection would surely have appealed to these believers, as they considered how much these men, whom they loved and admired, were willing to suffer for the work of Christ.  Their special shared history with Paul accounts for his feeling free to spur them on to good works with words like “make my joy complete,” and “obey…so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain,” obviously calculated appeals to the persuasive power of mutual autobiography.

Though it may not be “granted” to all of us to suffer persecution for the faith during our lifetime, recognizing the troubled context of these Philippian Christians should put these famous favorite phrases into perspective for us.  If those believers were called to such a high road in the midst of dire circumstances, then surely we, with our relatively puny instances of suffering for the faith, can manage to stand firm in one Spirit without rivalry or grumbling.  After all, we, too, have every incentive to do so.

And, come to think of it, if we ever do find ourselves suffering through a season of painful persecution, we can be especially glad that Philippians is so easy to memorize.


*See my earlier post, Fortune Cookies, for some commentary on memorizing Bible verses out of context.

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Filed under Biblical Genres, Biblical Theology, Christ, Epistles, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Paul, Philippians