“I want you to Know Brothers, that…” 01

12 02 2009
2004ish - Carolyn - work appreciation - reworked
Image by ClintJCL via Flickr

(I must apologize. With thesis, teaching an intensive then straight into semester I was down for the count over the last few weeks and the blog suffered. I’m really sorry (not least to Con and Rick!). But I am back now and…)

I don’t know if you realize it, but there is a golden key to understanding Paul‘s letters! It may sound too good to be true, and some people will say it is. But I’ll let you be the judge.

Letter’s in the first century followed a form just like letters today (see the picture). Here’s an example of ancient form:

Petronius Valens to Ptolemaios, my most honored father, greetings.

Most of all, I pray you are well, as at Alexandria I also [prayed] to Sarapis that you live for many years until having grown up I return your kindnesses; for you are worthy of these good things.

I wish you to know that on the twentieth I returned to barracks ten days before my furlough. Therefore I ask you, father, to compel Alima to pursue (the matter of the cloths)…

The above letter looks amazingly similar to Paul’s letters: “Paul… to the Church in Rome… grace… First I thank my God… I do not want you to be uninformed brothers that…” One part is particularly interesting: “I want you to know, that…” (or equivalent). This formula occurs in almost all Paul’s letters and it is meant to be the place where the writer alludes to the purpose of the letter. This ought to be where Paul states why he is writing! Yet it is often ignored or dismissed because we think – “that can’t be it.” What happens when we take this formula seriously? That will be the topic of next few articles, starting with Romans.


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4 responses

12 02 2009
Michael Bid

I know the feeling: I’ve had end of semester marking, paternity leave week, M.Th intensive, paternity leave week part II, and back to work on Monday!

Good intro to ancient letters!

13 02 2009
Dave McL

interesting. looking forward to the next installment.

13 02 2009

Yay! This sounds like fun. Looking forward to it.

22 02 2009


As we’ve spoken in person, I think you really are on to something here. In fact, I think 1:12-14 clarifies the intent of the entirety of the letter; at least as much as, if not more so, than Galatians 1:11-12 clarifies THAT letter.

I happened to read Philippians this afternoon for my own reading schedule. I did not pick up anything about his worrying about losing their support, which is the angle you took in your December post. This is not to say you’re wrong; I just didn’t see that in my initial reading.

What I did see is that I think Paul is concerned about fractures in the church; not from parties, like in 1 Corinthians, but from selfishness (cf. 4:1-3, 2:1-4). The sun- prefix occurs lots and lots of times here.

Anyway, I’m rambling. Here’s my 2 cents: 1:12-14 states that Paul wants them to know that his apparently miserable circumstances actually turned out to be a means of the furtherance of the gospel (and thus, by implication, the same will be true of their “setbacks”). They need not fear not looking out for themselves (2:4), because that difficulty, like Paul’s chains, like the selfish teachers of 1:15ff, like the sickness of Epaphroditus in 2:26, will be a means of furthering the gospel.

Thus, the whole letter, I’d argue, is about how apparently bad circumstances work for eternal good (and thus give great grounds for rejoicing, which most people acknowledge is a major theme of the letter).

A subpoint he really wants to tie into this “all things working together for the gospel” idea is the fellowship of the believers along the way. Note the unity of the brothers and the believing praetorium in 1:13; the fellowship emphasis of the introductory prayer (e.g., 1:5); the like-mindedness commanded in 3:15; Timothy, Epaphroditus, Euodia, Syntyche, and Clement as fellow-workers (2:20, 2:25, 4:2, 4:3).

In fact, I’d say it’s this all things working together for the gospel that allows them to be selfless like Jesus (ch. 2), that assures Paul of their fellowship and endurance (1:6-8), that allows Paul to toss aside the goods of Judaism (3:1-14), that lets him not be anxious and to be content in all circumstances and to be mighty for anything in the One who strengthens Him (4:6-14).

All in all, I think 1:12-14 does indeed bring a coherence to Philippians that is not forced, that makes sense of the contents of the letter, that really helps unpack it. Now, feel free to tear me to shreds; iron sharpens iron! Looking forward to discussing it more in coming weeks, Lord willing.

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