Most of us give Paul a pretty bad rap. He’s an angry, judgmental, woman hating, piece of trash that misunderstood, distorted, or worse created his own Gospel.
But I think we get him wrong. We’re blinded by our own 21st Century ideologies and preconceptions and fail to recognize the world that he lived and operated in.
As we begin a series on the book of Philippians, we need a little context first.
Paul, the Pharisee of Pharisees, the Hebrew of Hebrews, the holiest among the holies, encounters Jesus on a dusty road and has his life changed. He becomes an ambassador for the Gospel of Jesus taking grace, peace, and hope to Gentiles around the world.
And during his journey he made a stop at the little town of Philippi. Small but important, Paul sought out a synagogue in which he could worship and preach. Finding none (meaning there were less than 10 Jewish men in the town) he and his companions went to the river (the alternative meeting site when there weren’t enough men) and prayed with a bunch of women (worthless pieces of property in his day) and did the only logical thing (planted a church with them). No men? No problem. The message is Good News for everyone, after all.
In Philippi, Paul also experiences his first prison term and the harshness of what it will mean to follow God.
And yet, when he writes his letter to the Philippian house churches, this is his most encouraging and loving letter. He writes with a personal fondness that isn’t found in any other letter.
So what’s going on?
And this last point makes me think of ancient Hebrew altars of remembrance. Those places where patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith built up stone altars to remember a God encounter, except that Paul says that it’s not just the good times where we experience God, it’s also the bad.
So while imprisoned in a Roman jail, Paul writes the Philippian church and tells them to rejoice at what is happening, because God’s Good News is still advancing. While chained to a wall, Paul rejoices that Jesus rose from the dead, and that it actually means something. Surrounded by soldiers who at first wanted him to die, Paul is ecstatic that they have now (because of his imprisonment) had the chance to hear of the hope found in Jesus.
So we misunderstand Paul because we assume that he is egotistical, narcissistic, and full of fire and brimstone. But as I read Philippians, that’s not the message I get from Paul. I get someone who is so sold out to Jesus he couldn’t care less what happens to him, as long as it extends the reach and scope of the Kingdom of God.
So I think that just for a second we need to step back from the edge of insanity and cut Paul some slack. Maybe we’ve just misunderstood him. Maybe it’s not him whose gotten it wrong, it’s us. Maybe when we hear Paul say something that offends us, we need to remember that this is a man who planted churches with Jewish women, a rich Gentile-woman cloth dealer, and a demon possessed teenager (Acts 16). So maybe, just maybe, we need to suspend judgment of Paul long enough and question ourselves. If Paul has given up everything for the sake of Jesus, and he says something that offends me, just what nerve is his touching that bothers me? What is he asking me to give up that I don’t want to? How am I seeking to keep control of my own life where Paul has already resigned God’s will over his own?
Because I’m pretty sure if I were in prison, the last thing coming out of my mouth would be, “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel…Yes, and I will continue to rejoice…Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…”
What did you think? What did I get right? Did I miss anything? Chime in below!