Life is full of contrasts: night and day, male and female, heads and tails. But contrasts aren’t necessarily opposed. Night and day are parts of the same natural cycle. Male and female are equally created in the image of God. Every coin has two sides.
Wisdom literature commonly points out such paradoxes. Should a fool be answered according to his own folly (Prov 26:4–5)? The answer is not a simple yes or no, but something more complex. Wisdom consists, in part, of knowing how to sort out the truth.
Philippians isn’t Wisdom literature by any stretch, but it bears the stamp of a wise author. Throughout the letter, Paul teaches that what appear to be conflicting opposites can hold together—if only we can reorient our point of view:
Joy and Suffering (Phil 1:12–14)
Philippians is sometimes called the “Epistle of Joy,” despite Paul being on death row, awaiting his final appeal. By the usual standards, Paul’s joy would seem illogical—delusional, even. But from the perspective of advancing the gospel, his imprisonment is not an impediment, but a great opportunity that affords him access to parts of the Roman Empire that he could never reach otherwise. Spreading the gospel in this way gives Paul deep satisfaction, even if it ends with his own death (2:17).
Good Motives and Bad (1:15–18)
Some people preach Christ from good motives, and some preach from “envy and rivalry” and “selfish ambition.” In Philippians 1:18, Paul says the Greek equivalent of “so what?” The preachers’ motives hardly matter, because the gospel can advance through any intentions, good or bad.
Life and Death (1:21–26)
Even the ultimate distinction of life and death is irrelevant from Paul’s Jesus-centered perspective. Dead or alive, he will be with Christ. His true concern is how much he can directly benefit the Philippians.
Deity and Humanity of Christ (2:5–11)
God and people are categorically different, but in Christ these two natures are united. In this theologically dense passage, Paul demonstrates that the opposition he observes in his own life and in the lives of the Philippians are reflections of Jesus’ nature. Jesus is both king and servant, exalted and humiliated, God and man. These opposites are not in conflict but are fully integrated within the person of Jesus.
Paul’s Presence and Absence (2:12)
It doesn’t matter whether Paul is with the Philippians or in prison—his instructions endure and should continue to be obeyed.
God’s Work and Your Work (2:12–13)
When it comes to living out your faith, who puts in the effort, God or you? Paul doesn’t choose a side here but essentially says, “You work it out because God is working it in.” This same idea appears in 1:6: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.”
Gain and Loss (3:7–12)
Paul doesn’t have much in the way of worldly goods. It’s interesting that what Paul counts as “loss” in this passage isn’t just his possessions or status, but also his prior acts of religious piety. Whether his past is spiritually rich or poor, Paul isn’t keeping track. Instead, he keeps running forward “to make [the resurrection from the dead] my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (3:12). His ambition—as expressed in his prayer for his audience—is that “love may abound more and more” (1:9).
Euodia and Syntyche (4:2–3)
We don’t know what conflict separated Euodia and Syntyche, but Paul didn’t think it necessary to declare a winner. Instead, he reminds these two women that it’s not about taking sides. The important thing is that they have been working “side by side” for the gospel. With their perspective properly reoriented around advancing the gospel (and not their own interests, see 2:4), the disagreement, whatever it is, should dwindle to nothing.
Ease and Hardship (4:11–13)
The verse “I can do all things” emblazons coffee mugs and T-shirts. Yet it isn’t about achieving personal ambitions. Paul sees no difference in his ability to spread the gospel whether he is being abused or blessed. His ability depends not on his own strength but on God’s.
In light of the cross, the gospel, and the person of Christ, what do these distinctions matter? There is only one that does: whether a person is in Christ (1:27–30). Paul warns his audience to be on guard against all who “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” (3:18). Such people err by seeing unity where it does not exist, or by failing to properly distinguish glory from shame or earthly things from heavenly things (3:18–20). Paul has given up everything to proclaim that Christ’s atonement can erase even the terrible difference between “those evildoers” and “God’s holy people” (3:2; 1:1). As the gospel advances, the enemies of Christ are converted into family, one by precious one—and that is cause for great rejoicing, no matter what.