What If Paul Hadn’t Written Philippians? We’d Miss 4 Things
"Philippians offers a treasure trove of 'good news' to the church today even as it spoke welcome words of comfort, encouragement, and exhortation to the first-century believers in Philippi," says Lynn H. Cohick in her new commentary. (21)
Philippians is the second inaugural volume in the new commentary series, The Story of God Bible Commentary. Like every volume in this new series, Cohick's Philippians explains each passage in light of the Bible's grand story, connecting it to the Church's Rule of Faith and seeking how this particular Pauline epistle compels us to live in our world.
But what if this book hadn't been written? Have you ever asked this imaginative question of various books of the Bible? Cohick does. She wonders "what if Paul had not written his letter to the Philippians? What if Philippians was absent from our New Testament?" (1)
If it was absent, Cohick insists we’d miss a greater understanding of 4 important “characters”: the character of God; the character of salvation; the character of the believer; and the character the Church.
The Character of God
First of all, we’d miss a majestic portrait of the character of God. In particular, Cohick insists that “His character shines forth in the Christ hymn, which displays the self-emptying, non-grasping, humble servant who is Christ Jesus.” (1) Christ divinity is narratively defined as "kenotic and cruciform in character," (1) as Michael Gorman contends elsewhere.
But this shining portrait isn’t merely limited to Jesus’ divinity and humanity. Instead, it shines because it reveals that “God’s very nature is self-emptying and self-humbling.” (emph. added, 1) Cohick quotes Bauckham here to underscore this marvelous, if not unexpected, portrait of the self-humbling God: “humiliation belongs to the identity of God as truly as exaltation does.” (1)
And that self-emptying and self-humbling portrait of God sits at the base of the second “character” Philippians vaults in front of our attention, the nature and character of salvation itself.
The Character of Salvation
“Accomplishing such salvation,” Cohick writes, “required humiliation and obedience, suffering and death on a cross.” (1) And the image that Paul gives in Philippians to describe what happens because of that salvation is participation, "for the emphasis is on believers indwelling in Christ.” (13)
Cohick grants this participatory language, usually in the form of “union with Christ,” is complex and nuanced, but insists that the theological reality of “union with Christ” best describes Paul’s theological emphasis. (13) We could even say “it functions as Paul’s theological ‘shorthand’ for the actions of God the Father and Christ the Son in our redemption and new life.” (13)
This rich, pregnant theological motif is characterized by several facets: it involves union, participation, identification, and incorporation into Christ’s life; it suggests attaining relationship with God through Christ is possible; the prepositions Paul employs (e.g. “in,” “by,” “with,” “through,”) present different angles from which to view that relationship with Christ; there is a locative sense in which the realm of Christ is emphasized; there is a causal sense in which something is true because of Christ; there is a dynamic sense in which we are found in Christ.
Cohick does make it clear that such union is not identical with the union the Son enjoys with the Father, and the two with the Spirit, commonly refered to as Perichoresis (literally, "circle dance"). The illustration she puts forth is rather brilliant:
we can imagine the church’s indwelling or abiding with the Trinity much as a couple dances together holding their baby in their arms. The baby has no power to dance in herself; she is completely dependent on her parents. Yet, through the actions of her parents, she is also participating in her parents’ dance (probably with a big smile!) (14)
What a fresh, innovative, inspiring way to talk about the character of salvation we enjoy—and, yes, with a big smile!
So if our salvation is characterized by union with Christ, what’s the goal of that union?
The Character of the Believer
In a word, the aim of our union with Christ is transformation. "The goal of union with Christ is not a happier, more prosperous life here and now; indeed, Paul speaks of participation in Christ's sufferings (3:10)...As Colijn remarks, 'For Paul, being in Christ is not a transaction but a real spiritual union between Christ and the believer that determines the believer's identity and shapes all of the believer's life.'" (14, 15)
But what shape is the believer's life to take? Nothing short than the shape of God Himself; God's character is to become our character. "If God's character is self-giving and self-humbling, believers should expect their own journeys to reflect selflessness and generosity." (2) Philippians makes it clear that Jesus's story reshapes our story.
“Seven times in this short letter,” Cohick reveals, “[Paul] repeats the call for a mind-set or disposition that rightly reflects the character of those who claim to be followers of Christ.” (7) And this mind-set is inextricably linked and springs from the reality of our salvation, being both in Christ and from God’s self-humiliation. This letter is no "self help booklet about gaining prosperity or success." (2) Rather it pushes the Philippians to take an eternal view about their life, a life that's characterized by the same sufferings and struggles that characterized the Savior's life.
Yet our journey toward transformation isn't merely about the here and now. Cohick makes it clear that Philippians has a decidedly eschatological bent. "Eschatology sounds a consistent note throughout each chapter" because the sort of transformation of which our union provides "is accomplished only at Christ's return." (15)
The Character of the Church
Finally, Paul's letter to the Church at Philippi reminds believers that their individual story is "inextricably tied with other believers who make up the local church." (2) For Paul the key characteristic that should define the church is unity, which Paul encapsulates in his descriptive term koinonia.
As Cohick explains, "This unity means more than laboring together on community service projects, as important as such outreach is. A Christlike attitude includes serving other believers, sharing godly love, and pursuing the good of others." (2-3) It also means avoiding schisms and pursuing harmony through self-giving love.
Several years ago I traveled to Ukraine for a ministry opportunity. I was struck by how the Ukrainian church, at least the non-Orthodox church, strove for radical unity. One pastor shared how his church's growth was mostly through conversions because of the barriers he erected for so-called church-hoppers. If a Christian from another church wanted to join, he grilled them with questions that bespeak the unity for which Paul argues. He questioned why they were breaking fellowship and sacrificing the unity of the church, all so they leave one church for his church. He recognized that unity was crucial for the Ukrainian Church's survival as much as it was for the Philippian Church. We should recognize the same.
We commonly think of koinonia as fellowship or partnership. Another word Cohick uses is friendship to describe and challenge how we conceive of our togetherness. Philippians challenges our way of thinking about friendship and community in several ways: (11-12)
- The friendship Paul talks about is not a matter of like-minded people merely gathering for a specific purpose
- Friendship in church is not something we decide to enter into; Philippians stresses that Christ chose us, which reshapes friendship as service, not self-enrichment
- Community in the church shifts the focus from our stories to God's story
- The focus of Church growth shifts from building homogeneous communities to building rich, complex, heterogeneous ones
- Friendship is one of God's ways to mature us as believers
Cohick's newest commentary is a worthy contribution to the study of this important Pauline epistle, particularly as she expounds upon these four "characters." Next week I'll explore in more detail how we discover them in Cohick's commentary and how they contribute to Paul's letter.
Until then, pre-order this important contribution today and also download and enjoy a free eBook based on its content, called Eager Expectations. What does Paul mean when he writes "To live is Christ and to die is gain?" And how can we share in that same unshakeable confidence? Find out when you get Cohick's FREE new eBook on Philippians.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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