Many biblical scholars believe that Apostle Paul's letter to the Philippians was a thank-you letter to the congregation who assisted him in founding the first Pauline Church in Europe.
The letter was written to express gratitude to the parishioners of Philippi Church, to strengthen their faith, and to inspire them to spread the gospel. The letter employs language that encourages persuasion. The convincing efficacy of Paul's efficient communication was recognized by Saint Augustine, Calvin, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and Thomas Aquinas. Philippians 2:1 was a probatio in the letter, while Philippians 2:6-11 was a poetic retelling of Christ's narrative. The hymn's religious significance... “Humiliation of the incarnation and the cross did not stop being God, rather became Father of the world, of Jesus and Christians’ (Thomas Aquinas 374). The narration speaks of how Christians should seek serve others. The theologians recognized Paul’s complex communication process through written communication. It is evident that Paul used cognitive (logos) and emotion (pathos) appeals in Philippians 2:9-11. The rhetorical effect of the letter sought to complex a vision that would offer the parishioners a model of conduct.
Paul was in jail when he wrote the letter to the Philippians between 60 to 63 C.E. It was during the reign of Roman Emperor Nero (54 to 68 C.E) when Paul wrote to the Philippi congregation. Paul lived under the rule of several rulers including Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The Philippians suffered under the rule of the Roman Empire, particularly in the religious practices. The earlier emperors did not encourage emperor worship. At the same time, the rulers did not discourage imperial cults and other god’s worship that began during Julius Caesar’s reign (Patout 203). Caligula and Nero's controversy demanded themselves acknowledged and worshiped like gods. Caligula had his portrait and likeness images in temples and synagogues found in the empire. Harold intervened and stopped Nero’s likeness placed in the temple of Jerusalem. The reign of Nero and Caligula was full of excesses that led to the killing of hundreds of Philippians Christians.
The evils by the Roman Empire rulers aimed at self-promotion. The Roman citizens and other citizens expressed their dissatisfaction with the excesses of the rulers. Paul was against outright genocide perpetrated by Nero and Caligula against early Christians. In addition to preaching the gospel of Christ, Paul was well versed with teachings of other philosophers such as Aristotle, Seneca, and Socrates. The Carmen Christi as stated in the Philippians 2:5-11 was good evidence that the message meant to appeal to Gentiles and Jews and stop the spread of imperial cult (Hellerman 12).
Paul re-maps the social and political order in Philippians 2: 9-11. The author reminds the earthly leaders that Jesus Christ reigns above them. Paul recognized that Jesus Christ was devoted to His service to the people. In verse 9, it was the last step that Paul noted the journey of Jesus from glory and glory. Jesus’ humility in verses in 9-11 coincides with early verses of 6-8 which were the foundation of His exaltation. Therefore, God bestowed upon Jesus Christ the name that is above every other name. However, Saint Augustine objected the exaltation of Jesus as his soul was beatified since conception. Jesus therefore merited no exaltation or glorified from the passion (Thomas Aquinas, 312). Christ’s name was above the rulers such as Nero and Caligula who were claiming the status of deity. Subsequently, in verse 9, Paul captured the attention of the readers while addressing the Roman laws and imperial cults that led to the displaying of names and images of the ruling Emperor. Paul described that Jesus Christ was a humble servant and His name was above Nero.
Paul in verse 10 noted, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” The image and name of Christ were above the earthly and temporal rulers (Gregory of Nyssa 102). Bowing was not a common practice in Roman or among the imperial cult practices. Caligula attempted to institute such practices in the empire to affirm his self-proclaimed deification. The ruler faced serious criticism from writers of the day. Paul like other writers would not be kind to deification or sharing disdain of such hubris. In verse 11 Jesus Christ as the Son of God is worthy of adulation because His powers are great and are well above the realm of the temporal rulers. The Roman Empire occupied an extended part of the world yet many readers understood that only handful of people would confess that Nero was a god. However, the name of the humble servant spread among all people.
Paul’s activities resemble great American revolutionaries such as Thomas Paine who wrote to encourage people to rise against tyrannical governments. Calvin and St. Gregory of Nyssa were not free of political and social conditions during Paul’s era. Prior to conversion, Paul was a religious zealot and murdered many Christians during his crusades. In Philippians 2:9-11, however, created a serious conflict with Roman Empire’s view of the world. Paul did not argue against people participating in Roman societal activities (Patout 203). Paul intended to alter the social status and structure encouraging Philippi parishioners to continue with the spread of the gospel.
Paul is urging the readers to follow Christ’s examples and teachings. Following the teachings meant that parishioners will have the motivation, ensure growth and survival of the church. The perpetuation and existence of the church depended not only on parishioners’ good works but also monetary donations. The belief and practices of the Christian church countered the Roman-Greco social norms. The Philippi church’s congregation cut across social strata and gender. In Philippi and other cities of Roman Empire citizens were coerced to participate in imperial cult celebrations and public contributions. Additionally, Philippi had predominant religions other than imperial cults worship. Like other religions, Christianity blended easily into every public celebration requiring passive public publication. The Christians from affluent levels found it difficult to maintain low profiles especially in the provision of financial gifts to imperial cult temples. However, Philippians 2:6-11 viewed God as the sovereign ruler (Thomas Aquinas 465).
Like many other religions in the Roman Empire, Christian practices place deity above the rulers and do not threaten the offices of the earthly sovereigns. In Gospel of Mark 12:17, Jesus taught the Pharisees on contribution to the earthly rulers and to God. Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what belong to Caesar, and give God the things that belong to God.” This was a clear indication that Christ objected not the rule of Rome. Paul did not encourage revolt or trying to prevent Christians’ participation in society (Fitzgerald 102). Paul meant to offer a vision, guidance and encourage allegiance to Jesus Christ and behavior and norms controversial Roman-Greco practices. Unlike the cult practice, the survival of the church would depend on commitment, participation, and contribution from Christians.
The Philippians suffered under the rule of the Roman Empire, particularly in the religious practices. Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians while serving a jail term because of his involvement in the spread of Jesus Christ’s teachings. Jesus’ humility in verses in 9-11 coincides with early verses of 6-8 which were the foundation of His exaltation. Therefore, God bestowed upon Jesus Christ the name that is above every other name. The author reminds the earthly leaders that Jesus Christ reigns above them. At the same time, Paul re-maps the social and political order in Philippians 2: 9-11. The gospel of the Lord would still continue even when the earthly imposed foreign gods in their empire. The rhetorical effect of the letter sought to complex a vision that would offer the Philippi parishioners a model of conduct and overcome the earthly rule.
Burns, J. Patout. Theological Anthropology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1981. Print
Calvin, John, Library of Christian Classics. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1958. Print.
Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Print. [available in Many are Called]
Fitzgerald, Allen D., ed. Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999. Print.
Hellerman, Joseph H. Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi As Cursus Pudorum. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.
Gregory of Nyssa. The Doctrine of the Resurrection. Print. pp. 103-121