Have you noticed how ‘success’ keeps getting redefined? In a Western culture cruising on the ‘wealth/celebrity/image’ highway, it could be the way someone dresses, the car they drive, the size of a bank account or number of diplomas on the wall. And worse, such criteria change constantly.
The Letter to the Philippians is Paul’s way of providing an alternative to such shifting sands, and teaching us across the centuries of a permanent standard of success: to boldly follow Christ.
Before going into detail about how he did this, a word about New Testament epistles. Paul’s letters are one-way conversations, as if we were listening to someone on a phone and construe what a conversation is about based on what we overhear. This epistle tells us that Paul’s Philippian readers are unnerved by his imprisonment. It’s to this mindset that Paul writes.
First, why was Paul’s imprisonment so difficult for the Philippians? Because of the first century’s criteria for success: honor above all else. Honor was a pivotal value in the ancient Mediterranean world and applied more to men than women. An example is in Luke 14:8 – 10 where Jesus tells a story of guests invited to a wedding banquet. His story follows what he observed at a dinner party in a leading Pharisee’s home to which he and the others were invited. The guests carefully chose the places of honor, trumping any other concern such as food, drink or talk. “Foodies” would not have been at this party!
Returning to the dilemma of the Philippians, they must have assumed that Paul’s recent imprisonment meant his honor had been lost, replaced by its dreaded cultural opposite, shame. So in addition to concern over Paul’s physical safety, it was this underlying assumption of shame that the Apostle needed to simultaneously address and educate them away from.
“It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20, NRSV).
Paul is teaching, through his example, that success in life means standing firm in your beliefs, supporting one another, sharing the Gospel with those who have never heard its healing message, and remaining undaunted by opponents. (See the rest of this chapter for his full teaching.) Paul knows he has met all these spiritual criteria, even to the point of converting his Roman guards, and helps us understand that fidelity to Christ is the ultimate success. And yes, it looks very different than achievement in any other facet of life. Through his own imprisonment, Paul reaches across the centuries to tell us that regardless of challenges faced– heartbreak, sickness, death of loved ones, whatever – each hurdle is a way to show our love for Christ and each other.
Paul’s tenderness and obvious affection for the Philippian Christians lifted them to a whole new understanding of what prosperity and success looked and felt like. It is this Christ focus that makes Philippians such a loved epistle.
For those who have challenges with the harsh image often attached to Paul, the Letter to the Philippians is a new view of a more relaxed and deeply loving man who shepherds his flock with tenderness and encouragement. And he continues to mentor us today in a society that sorely needs to remember what true success looks and feels like.