Notes on Prayer: Philippians 2:1-4

Philippians 2:1-4

Paul frequently uses the language of prayer in the exhortatory sections of his letters, framing the exhortation to believers in terms of a wish or request which he would make to God. The customary verb for prayer in the New Testament is proseu/xomai, a compound middle deponent verb from eu&xw + the prefixed preposition pro/$ (“toward”). Fundamentally, in a religious context, it means “speak out toward (God)”. However, when referring to a specific request made to God, often the noun de/hsi$ is used, even as Paul does at a number of points in his letters—see especially here in Philippians (1:4, 19; 4:6). At 4:6 he uses proseuxh/, related to the aforementioned verb, together with de/hsi$; the former denotes the act of speaking to God, the latter the specific request(s) being made. In 1:9, Paul clearly states that he prays to God on behalf of the Philippian believers, with his specific request—the goal and purpose of his prayer—being:

“…that your love would go over (and above), more and more, in (deep) knowledge and all insight”

This love which is manifest in wisdom and understanding—the true knowledge of God—is characteristic of the believer who is complete; and it is Paul’s fervent wish that all believers would come to be complete in Christ (cf. verses 10-11). It is not just a question of the character and development of the individual believer, but also of believers in community, united together as the body of Christ. This is realized in the Spirit, but the goal is for such unity to be demonstrated within the local community—the congregation or local group(s) of believers—as well. Paul’s experience in founding and guiding congregations, however, had taught him all too well that it can be a most difficult (and at times painful) process to see this ideal of unity in the Spirit realized within the local congregation at a practical level. He very much has this challenge in mind as he begins his line of discussion in chapter 2.

Though prayer is not mentioned, as such, in 2:1-4, there can be no doubt that Paul’s exhortation here is fully in keeping with the prayer-request expressed in 1:9ff. He re-emphasizes his wish for unity among believers in 2:1-2:

“(So) then, if (there is) any calling alongside in (the) Anointed, if any impulse of love alongside, if (there is) any common bond of the Spirit, if any entrails (of compassion) and (feeling)s of mercy, you must make full my delight, (in) that you should be of the s(ame) mind, holding the s(ame) love, like souls (united) together, being of one mind…”

Paul understood that the sort of unity he desires for believers requires a willingness to sacrifice one’s own interests for the good of others. This kind of self-denial, an attitude of meekness and humility, is part of the active work of the Spirit in and among believers (the “fruit of the Spirit”, Gal 5:22-23ff), but it requires a receptivity on the part of the believer, a willingness to be guided and transformed by the Spirit of God and Christ (Gal 5:16, 25, etc). For this reason, Paul introduces in verse 3 the ideal of a unifying humility among believers in Christ:

“…(with) nothing (done) according to selfish work [e)riqei/a], and not according to (a desire for) empty esteem [kenodoci/a], but with a lowliness of mind [tapeinofrosu/nh] (you should) be (one)s leading (by) holding others over themselves”

The syntax of the last phrase, in particular, is difficult to render literally in English; but the goal clearly is for believers to conduct themselves in a manner that puts the interests of other believers (in the community) over their own. This point is elucidated in verse 4:

“…(with) each (person) not looking at the (thing)s of himself [i.e. his own things], but (instead) each (person should look at) the (thing)s of others.”

How often do we pray in this manner—for the needs of others rather than our own needs? It is, however, a fundamental principle of Christian prayer in the New Testament, as discussed in recent notes in this series. A prayer for the needs of others more properly reflects the Spirit of God at work in us (cf. the previous study on Rom 8:26-27), and we can be confident indeed that such a prayer, under the guidance of the Spirit, will be answered by God.

This brief study on Phil 2:1-4 is preparatory, in certain respects, to a series of daily notes I am now beginning on the famous “Christ hymn” of 2:6-11. I recommend that you follow along with these notes, as they will help to expound and illustrate the teaching and exhortation Paul gives here in vv. 1-4. Verse 5 is transitional in this regard, and this is where the series of critical and exegetical notes on the passage will begin.

Notes on Prayer: Luke 18:9-14

This is a special Thanksgiving Day edition of the Monday Notes on Prayer. When we speak of thanksgiving, it is usually meant in the sense of giving thanks to God. The Greek verb for this is eu)xariste/w (and the eu)xarist– word group). It properly refers to showing good favor (xa/ri$) toward someone; however, in a religious context, it is typically used in the sense of a person being grateful (or thankful) for the favor shown to them by God. The majority of occurrences of the verb (24 out of 38) are in the Pauline letters, most frequently in the opening greeting and introduction (exordium) of the letter. The verb is rare in the Gospels; apart from its use in the Last Supper scene (Mark 14:23 par), and in the similar context of the Miraculous Feeding episode (Mark 8:6 par) where there are also eucharistic overtones, it occurs just three times, twice in Luke (17:16; 18:11).

In these notes, we have been studying the teaching and example of Jesus regarding prayer, most recently in the sayings, parables and other details unique to the Gospel of Luke. There are two distinct traditions in 18:1-14—the parable and saying(s) in vv. 1-8 (discussed in the previous study), and the parable in verses 9-14. As it happens, the verb eu)xariste/w occurs in this passage (v. 11), as an example of the wrong way to give thanks to God.

Luke 18:9-14

The narrative introduction to this parable (v. 9) establishes the context for it, with the reason for Jesus’ telling of it. The setting of the illustration itself (v. 10) is simple and straightforward, and it specifically involves prayer:

“And he also said this (illustration) cast alongside toward some (of) th(ose) having persuaded upon [i.e. convinced] themselves that they were just [di/kaio$], and making the remainder (of people) out to be nothing: ‘Two men stepped up into the sacred place to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray], the one (was) a Pharisee and the other a toll-collector.'” (vv. 9-10)

The Temple-setting of the parable is fully in accord with the role of the Temple in Luke-Acts, emphasizing it as a place for prayer and worship of God, rather than the (sacrificial) ritual of the Temple-cultus. For more on this, see Part 1 of the article “The Law in Luke-Acts”, and also Parts 6-7 of “Jesus and the Law”. The afternoon hour for public prayer (c. 3:00 pm), tied to the time of the evening sacrifice, features prominently in two narratives (1:10; Acts 3:1; cf. Mishnah tractate Tamid 5:1). As is typically the case, the idiom of prayer is expressed by the verb proseu/xomai, “speak (out) toward”, i.e. toward God.

The two contrasting figures in the illustration are a Pharisee and a toll-collector (telw/nh$). Pharisees are mentioned frequently in the Gospels as opponents of Jesus, or as those discussing/debating points of Law (Torah) with him; they are representative of the religiously devout and observant Jews of the time. The “toll-collector” was a local agent for the Roman administration in the provinces, collecting indirect taxes (i.e. tolls, customs fees, etc). As such, they were traditionally associated with corruption and exploitation, in addition to the ‘impurity’ related to their work on behalf of the pagan government; for faithful and observant Jews, the toll-collector became a stock figure-type representing “sinners” (Mark 2:15-16 par). The telw/nh$ is mentioned most frequently in the so-called “Q” material of Matthew and Luke, and other Lukan passages (Lk 3:12; 5:27-30; 7:29, 34 pars; 15:1; 19:2ff).

In the parable Jesus gives the prayer offered to God by each of these two men, continuing the contrast. The prayer of the Pharisee is as follows:

“The Pharisee, (as) he was standing, spoke out these (thing)s toward (God) toward himself: ‘God, I give (thanks) to you for (your) good favor, that I am not as the remaining (one)s of men—(those) seizing (things), without justice, (partner)s in adultery, or even as this toll-collector (here)—(for) I fast twice (during) the Shabbat-week, (and) I give a tenth from all (thing)s whatever I acquire.'” (vv. 11-12)

As is proper in prayer, the Pharisee gives thanks to God (using the verb eu)xariste/w, cf. above), in gratitude for the favor and blessings shown to him. However, the incorrect orientation of his prayer is indicated through a bit of wordplay that is lost in most translations:

pro\$ e(auto\n tau=ta proshu/xeto
“he spoke out these (thing)s toward (God) toward himself”

In conventional English, this would be rendered “he prayed these things about himself”, translating the first preposition pro/$ in the sense of “about, regarding”. However, the real implication, based on the actual wording, is that, while speaking toward God, the Pharisee is really speaking toward himself—i.e., the focus is not on God, but on himself. How is this done? First, he separates himself from the remainder (loipoi/, pl. “[one]s remaining”) of humankind; this reflects quite typical (and natural) religious thought—there are the devout and faithful ones, and then all the rest who do not show the same care or concern for God. A similar sort of prayer is recorded in the Talmud (b. Ber. 28b, j. Ber. 2.7d). The Pharisee rightly attributes his religious devotion to God, at least in terms of the form of his prayer (i.e. thanking God for His favor), and properly echoes the traditional idea of Israel (the faithful ones) as the chosen people of God. What is especially bad, in the context of the parable, is the way that he includes the toll-collector standing nearby as a “sinner” merely on the basis of his profession. On this point, compare the Zaccheus episode (19:7ff), and the Synoptic tradition in Mark 2:15-16 par.

The second aspect that is highlighted has to do with the Pharisee’s declaration of his religious devotion, marked by regular fasting and tithing of his possessions. This may be related to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-13), where charitable giving and fasting are two of the three typical religious activities (along with prayer) emphasized by Jesus. There, too, he makes a clear contrast between outward action and inner attitude, things done publicly and in secret. Jesus’ disciples are not to behave in these matters as many other religiously-minded people do. For more, see the earlier study on Matt 6:5-8. In spite of the Pharisee’s customary use of the verb eu)xariste/w, he appears to be emphasizing his own religious devotion rather than the favor (xa/ri$) of God.

The toll-collector’s prayer comes in verse 13:

“But the toll-collector, having stood far off, did not wish not even to lift up his eyes unto heaven, but (instead) struck his chest (as he stood), saying: ‘God, (please) you must be accepting to(ward) me a sinful (man)!'”

It should be noted both the similarities, but also the stark differences, between the Pharisee and toll-collector, in (a) their position as they pray, and (b) the content and focus of their prayer. First, their position. They both are said to be standing, using the same verb (i%sthmi), but described very differently:

    • For the Pharisee, a single word is used—aorist passive participle sta/qei$ (“was standing”)—with nothing, apparently, in his position or posture to indicate humility before God. The circumstantial passive form, rather Lukan in style, suggests that the Pharisee has placed himself in a prominent position.
    • For the toll-collector, an active perfect participle is used (e(stw/$), along with the modifying adverb makro/qen (“[from] far off”), presumably meaning that he stood in the back of the courtyard. Moreover, his attitude toward God is also described vividly in other ways—unwilling to raise his eyes toward heaven, and beating his chest (as a sign of sorrow). His posture is one of humility and repentance.

With regard to the description of the prayer itself, the situation is reversed: the Pharisee’s is lengthy (by comparison), and the toll-collector’s extremely brief (just three words). They both begin the same way, addressing God—o( qeo/$ (“[O,] God…”)—at which point the prayers diverge. The Pharisee declares his faithfulness and religious devotion. The toll-collector does not feel that he can offer anything comparable, but instead, refers to himself precisely as the Pharisee would regard him, as a “sinner”, or, to be more accurate, as a sinful person (compare Peter’s admission to Jesus in 5:8). Moreover, he offers no thanksgiving to God for the favor shown to him; rather, he fervently implores God to show favor. He uses an imperative form of the verb i(la/skomai, related to the noun i(lasmo/$. These words are extremely difficult to translate accurately, and consistently, in English. The basic idea is religious, and involves God being appeased so as to accept a person (their offering, etc) and treat them favorably. Essentially, the toll-collector is asking God to accept him, to be gracious and show favor to him, in spite of his sinfulness.

“I relate to you (that) this (one) [i.e. the toll-collector] stepped down into his own house having been made right (in God’s eyes), alongside the other (one who was not)—(for it is) that every (one) lifting himself high will be set (down) low, but the (one) lowering himself will be set (up) high.” (v. 14)

The conclusion of the parable is straightforward, and features a reversal-of-fortune motif common to many of the parables (as also in the Lukan Beatitudes, etc). Things were “made right” for the person considered to be a “sinner”, while the “just-ness” of the seemingly devout and faithful person was not confirmed. This reflects two sides of the dikaio– word group and the verb dikaio/w. Just as the two men “step up” into the house of God (Temple), so now they “step down” each into his own house, but with different results. For the toll-collector, things “have been made right” between he and God, while the Pharisee, who considered himself to be right and just (di/kaio$) in God’s eyes was not declared to be so, as a result of his action and attitude in prayer. The parable concludes with a proverbial saying also found, in a different context, at 14:11.

It seems likely that Jesus was not addressing this parable to other such Pharisees, but to his own disciples, instructing (and warning) them much as he does in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:1-13). The contrast in the parable is extreme—the humble and repentant “sinner” will be accepted by God over the person who is religiously devout—but the main point is actually quite simple: Jesus’ followers (believers) are to behave with humility before God, especially in prayer and other religious matters.

The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:5

Matthew 5:5

The third Beatitude in Matthew (Matt 5:5) has no counterpart in Luke:

Maka/rioi oi( praei=$, o%ti au)toi\ klhronomh/sousin th\n gh=n
“Happy the meek/gentle (ones), (in) that they will receive the earth as (their) lot”

This saying is virtually a quotation from Psalm 37:11 (indicated by the underlined words above): “But the lowly ones [<yw]n`u&] will possess the earth/land and will delight themselves upon an abundance of peace”. In the Septuagint (LXX), the first portion of Psalm 37:11 [36:11] reads:

oi( de\ praei=$ klhronomh/sousin gh=n
“But the meek/gentle (ones) will receive the earth as (their) lot”

There are two basic points of interpretation in this Beatitude:

    • The precise meaning and significance of the adjective prau+/$
    • The expression klhronomh/sousin [th\n] gh=n

oi( praei=$

Prau+/$ has the meaning “gentle, mild, meek”. The adjective itself occurs only three times elsewhere in the New Testament (Matt 11:29; 21:5 [quoting Zech 9:9]; and 1 Pet 3:4); however, the related noun prau+/th$ (“meekness, gentleness”) is found more often (1 Cor 4:21; 2 Cor 10:1; Gal 5:23; 6:1; Eph 4:2; Col 3:12; 2 Tim 2:25; Tit 3:2; James 1:21; 3:13; 1 Pet 3:15). Jesus’ saying in Matt 11:29 is fundamental for and understanding of the Beatitude here:

“Take up my yoke upon you and learn from me, (in) that [o%ti] I am meek/gentle [prau+/$] and lowly in the heart, and you will find rest/quiet anew for your souls”

Here we find the same adjective (prau+/$) connected with an expression (tapeino\$ th=| kardi/a|, “lowly in the heart”) which is similar to that in the first Beatitude (ptwxo\$ tw=| pneu/mati, “poor in the spirit”).

An examination of the context of Psalm 37:11 shows the following details related to the Beatitudes:

    • Contrast of the righteous and the wicked (cf. the model Beatitude of Psalm 1)
    • Theme of trust in the Lord (vv. 3-6) which is related to righteousness (v. 6, 16, 25, 30, 37, 39)
    • The righteous as poor and needy (vv. 14, 16, 25), but sustained by the Lord (v. 19, 40)
    • The differing fates of the righteous and wicked (v. 2, 9ff, 37-38)
    • The righteous will be happy and “blessed” (v. 4, 11, 22)

For other instances of the word in the Old Testament (LXX) with the sense of humility and meekness, see Psalm 25:9; 34:2; 45:4; 76:9; 146:6; 149:4; Isa 66:2; Sirach 1:27; 3:17-20; 10:28; 36:23, etc.

In Greek philosophy, meekness/gentleness is seen as a positive virtue, often contrasted with anger and brutality (Plato Phaedo 116c; Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 4.5.1-4; Epictetus Enchiridion 42; for other references and bibliography, see Betz, Sermon, pp. 126-127). In Jewish tradition, Moses (like Socrates) was an ideal sage who possessed the virtue of meekness and humility (Num 12:3; Sirach 45:4); and the word could also be related to the mercy of God (i.e., his gentle chastisement, cf. Philo The Worse Attacks the Better §146). It was in early Christianity especially that meekness/gentleness came to be extolled in ethical instruction (1 Clement 13:1-4; Didache 3:7-8; 5:2; 15:1; Ignatius Trallians 3:2; Ephesians 20:2; Polycarp 2:1; 6:2; Hermas Commandment 5.2.6; Diognetus 7:4, etc.), largely as a result of Jesus’ saying in Matt 11:29 and here in the Beatitude.

klhronomh/sousin [th\n] gh=n

The verb klhronome/w (klhronoméœ) means “to have/hold by lot [klh/ro$]”, especially to receive (something) as a possession, i.e., to inherit. The reference in Psalm 37:11 [36:11] is colored by the idea of the allotments of land for the twelve Israelite Tribes (see Num 26:55; 33:54; Josh 14:1-2; 16:4, etc.). Also the Hebrew verb vr^y` (y¹raš, “possess”) in Ps 37:11 can have the sense “take possession of” or “dispossess”, and is used in relation to the Israelite conquest of Canaan; clearly, then the idea of possessing/inheriting the (promised) land is present (Hebr. Jr#a#, like Grk. gh=, can be rendered “land” as well as “earth”). Currently the “wicked” (i.e., the wealthy, powerful, ambitious, unscrupulous and violent) possess the “land”, but in the end (the age to come), it is the righteous (the meek and gentle ones) who will inherit. But how exactly should we understand the “earth/land” here in the Beatitude?

First it is necessary to look at the verb klhronome/w as it is used in the Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament.

So the verb—along with the related nouns klhronomi/a (“inheritance”) and klhrono/mo$ (“heir”)—is almost exclusively used in reference to inheriting the kingdom of God (and eternal life). One might assume it carries the same meaning here in the beatitude; however, the distinction between heaven and earth here (cf. also the Lord’s Prayer, Matt 6:10), suggests that “inherit the earth” is not entirely synonymous with “kingdom of God/Heaven”. The difficulty stems, in large part, from differences in eschatological imagery and conception related to the “Age to Come”. The Old Testament Prophets often used concrete images of earthly blessing—long life, health, wealth, prosperity, etc.—to describe the future Age (cf. Isaiah 65:17-25 as a prime example among many). This symbolism came to be wrapped up with the idea of the restoration of Israel and the Messianic Age in later Jewish (and early Christian) thought. At the same time, the kingdom of God in terms of the eternal presence and dwelling-place of YHWH (in heaven) continued as a fundamental eschatological theme. That early Christians could conceive of both an earthly (Messianic) and eternal (Heavenly) Kingdom is apparent especially in the book of Revelation (chapters 20-22); earnest and devout believers have struggled to harmonize and relate the two concepts ever since.
(For a similar difficulty within the New Testament itself, see the parallel saying of Jesus in Mark 10:29-30 / Matt 19:28-29 / Lk 18:29-30)

The ancient context of the Beatitude form (on this, see the earlier article) suggests an eschatological afterlife setting throughout. It would, I think, be a mistake to interpret Matt 5:5 as referring to a concrete earthly (this-worldly) blessing. For the righteous (believer), to “inherit the earth/land” is a distinct aspect of the eternal heavenly reward, drawn from traditional (Scriptural) language. The idea that believers even now realize something of this inheritance is not specified by Jesus in the Beatitude, but it will become an important dimension of Christian teaching—cf. especially the Pauline teaching clarified in Eph 1:11-14: the promise of inheritance is preserved by the presence of the Spirit in us.