by Rev. Ian Arnold
It’s a question that has been asked ever since the Epistles were written, as to how their status is to be regarded alongside the Gospels. Are they on a par with them? Do they have the same authority?
The thing to remember is that the Epistles were letters. This is what the word “epistle” means. As we have them in our Bibles (22 in total) the majority were written by the apostle Paul. He wrote letters to encourage, to challenge, to explain, to chastise, to clarify issues, to advise plans for travelling and to comment on the Christian way as he understood it.
It’s one way of looking at this to keep it in mind that while the Gospels are source material; the actual word of God (se Luke Chapter 5:1); the Epistles are all about the application of that source material written in the very early years of the Christian era in response to the challenges and problems, uncertainties and discouragement, muddled thinking and even disputes which arose and which were brought to their attention. Without doubt the authors of the epistles deserve our admiration. They didn’t have libraries of reference books to consult or the solutions to precedents to follow. It was unchartered territory they were working in.
Within them (the Epistles) are some memorably beautiful teachings and things said which are as relevant today as they were first written. And, as we shall see, Philippians is very much a case in point.
Probably written around A.D 55 Philippians was written by the apostle Paul (then in prison, by the way) to give encouragement to what was a splintered, quarrelling and one time persecuted group of Christian converts in the Macedonian city of Philippi. The Church as such had been founded by Paul during his second missionary journey. (See Acts Chapter 16:12 to 40). And the immediate cause of him writing this epistle was that news had reached him not just of the disunity among the members there, but of the suffering they had experienced from persecution and the way Gnosticism had infiltrated some of the thinking there. (See Chapter 3).Upbeat, as is the overall tone of the epistle is, acknowledged the suffering reported to him, urged unity (Chapter 2: verses 1 to 4), encouraged steadfastness, challenged the members to be light bearers, commended Timothy and Epaphroditus to them and insisted on the reality of the Lord’s resurrection, something Gnostic thinking didn’t allow for. (see Chapter 3: verses 1 to 13).
The inspiration for two well-known hymns are in Philippians, these being, “At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow” (Chapter 2: verse 10) and “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Chapter 4: verse 4).
Also, summing up, is one of Paul’s magnificent and memorable exhortations.
“Finally brethren”, he wrote, “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue or if there is anything praiseworthy, meditate on these things.”(Chapter 4:8)
From New Church Teaching we know that we are inundated by a colossal variety of thoughts continuously cascading into our minds, some dark and some light, some insidious and some generous, some mean spirited and some charitable, some which are full of complaint and some which are full of gratitude, some decidedly negative and some decidedly positive, some from hell and some from heaven. And the important thing is that we can choose- even if sometimes only with difficulty- which to dwell on. Paul is highlighting this, urging those early Christians and Christians ever since, where we best and more fruitfully focus. When we do this is what draws heaven close to us and drives away hell.