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Live a Life Worthy of the Gospel


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Review of Finding Joy: Paul’s Encouraging Message to the Philippians, by John Brunt.

In his trail-blazing commentary on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, author John Brunt is participating in a sustained conversation with other scholarly commentaries on this letter, thus opening up further avenues for interpretation. Confessing that he has spent his life—whether in a classroom or in a church—teaching, Brunt establishes an amiable dialogue with his readers, but he conducts a serious study. He instructs readers to have a notebook or a computer file and several versions of the letter at hand in order to be engaged with what they are reading.

Finding Joy consists of an Introduction, a section titled “Looking Back at Philippians,” and sixteen chapters in each of which six or seven verses of the text are analyzed. Each chapter begins with instructions to read the section under consideration in two or three versions and write answers to several questions on the reading. Each ends with questions about how to internalize what has been learned, how to interpret it in reference to statements of Paul in his other letters, and a list of scholarly resources for further illumination.[1]

Given that Brunt asks his readers to read different versions of Philippians before studying a chapter of his commentary, it is somewhat surprising that he does not identify the default version he uses. In his discussion of texts, Brunt frequently makes reference to the New International Version’s rendering in order to justify his interpretation. Behind the title page, the abbreviations of various versions are identified with full bibliographical information, but throughout the commentary no biblical quotation is identified by a version’s initials, with one exception (141).

In his doctoral dissertation for Emory University, Brunt argued that Paul should be read for his ethics, instead of his theology. The apostle’s letters are pastoral and aim to instruct how to live as servants (slaves) of the Lord Jesus Christ. This commentary on Philippians gives Brunt, the pastor, ample room in which to demonstrate Paul’s pastoral sensibilities. Like Paul, who was both a pastor and an intellectual, Brunt engages his readers in serious conversations, assuming and respecting their rational faculties. One of the themes he identifies both at the beginning and at the end of the book (18, 174)—and highlights throughout—is the way in which “thinking and the mind” play an important role in the Christian life. He also makes several references to Paul’s sense of humor. He finds Paul frequently saying things with an ironic tongue in cheek. Without a doubt Paul was a master of the use of irony, especially in his multiple rhetorical questions. In a couple of the instances identified by Brunt, however, I did not find it.

On several occasions, Brunt takes into account different interpretations of a detail in the text or in the circumstances that may have caused Paul to write what he did. After a brief description of the arguments used to support each interpretation, Brunt regularly opts for the traditional one, with the qualification that he is doing so “in full knowledge” that there is good evidence supporting others. For example, when Paul was in chains waiting to hear the verdict of his trial, he confessed that he could not make up his mind as to whether he preferred to be condemned to death or to be set free (Phil 1:22-23). His ambivalence has been interpreted in quite different ways. Brunt thinks that it “is one of the most difficult passages to be found in Paul’s letters” (52). After a brief review of the various interpretations suggested, before giving his own interpretation, Brunt tells his readers, “[W]hat follows is one person’s attempt to make sense of it. . . . [E]valuate it from your own prayerful study and try to reach your own conclusion” (55).[2]

At the core of Brunt’s book is his interpretation of Paul’s understanding of suffering and joy as conjoined experiences. His title, Finding Joy, promises a solution to this puzzle. He builds on the view that on account of their faith, which he defines as “personal commitment to corporate Christian experience and belief” (67), believers are justified by God and find themselves in a close personal relationship with Christ. It is difficult for them, however, to find meaning for their suffering. Brunt argues that Paul is telling them that their suffering is a “privilege,” a “gift of God.” It is “a sign to believers of their salvation by God” (68).

As slaves spreading the gospel, they suffer “for Christ.” The gospel tells them what Christ has done for them, and this knowledge imposes on them a mission to preach it to others. Brunt writes, “[F]ew people ever have such a single vision about anything as Paul did about the gospel” (43). For him, whether the gospel is being preached by one who is ambitious for power and fame (with the intention to dishonor Paul) or by one who does it out of goodwill and love, it does not matter (Phil 1:15-18). Paul rejoices that in either case the gospel is being preached. Suffering for Christ while extending the reach of the gospel identifies Christians with the pattern of Jesus’s life. Their suffering “not only assures them of His presence to help them endure but also binds them to Him and to the pattern of death and resurrection revealed by Him. . . . It is the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection that gives meaning to suffering for Christians” (175).

Analyzing the way in which Paul changed his mind about the way humans may relate to God, Brunt points out Paul’s confession that what he once considered to be assets that made him a righteous person, he now finds to have been liabilities that sidelined him. He now counts those assets as “refuse” and “dung.” He came to understand that what is needed is “not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ” (Phil 3:9). Brunt recognizes that when Paul refers to faith, he always uses a genitival phrase, “faith of Christ,” and justifies translating it as “faith in Christ” by reading it as an objective genitive. That is, Christ is not the subject who has faith, but the object of someone’s faith. Admitting that a significant number of scholars have argued that this is a theologically informed reading with no basis in the Greek, Brunt ends the discussion affirming, “Paul is speaking of a righteousness that comes through the committed trust the believer places in Christ” (124). He bases his interpretation on Philippians 1:29.

In this section of the letter, Paul is aware that his readers are facing opponents, and he instructs them to “stand firm in one spirit, as one person [psyxé] fighting together without fear in the faith of the gospel.” In that case, what they are doing and the actions of their opponents will be public exhibitions [éndexis], respectively, of their salvation and their opponents’ destruction under the wrath of God (see Rom 1:18-3:19). The basis for Paul’s advice to stand firm together and fight their opponents is that “to you it has been granted as a free favor [by God] on account of, in reference to [hypér] Christ not only to place faith toward [eis] him but also to suffer on account of, in reference to [hypér] him” (Phil 1:29). Note that Paul did not write “faith of Christ” but “faith toward him.” Christians, who are the beneficiaries of what God did through Christ and live “in the faith of the gospel,” exhibit what God did to exhibit his righteousness on account of the “faith of Christ.” Their suffering when combating opponents is not suffering “for” Christ, but suffering on account of the gospel of Christ. According to Paul, the gospel is not information that must be believed for a person to be justified before God. It is “the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith. . . . For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from [ek] faith toward [eis] faith” (Rom 1:16). In other words, the power of God’s righteousness is being revealed from the faith of Jesus facing death at Pilate’s court to the faith of persons who adopt the faith of Jesus and crucify themselves with him. It would seem, then, that combating opponents and suffering is not suffering “for” Christ. It is a public demonstration of their participation in the passion, the cross, and the resurrection of Christ.

Paul was a pharisaic apocalyptic Jew who became an apocalyptic slave of his new-found Lord Jesus Christ. Apocalypticism was the theological development that made it possible to defend the prophetic notion of God’s retributive justice. Within the apocalyptic horizon—in which the notion of the fall of creation under the power of sin and death is basic—it seems to me that it was not necessary for Paul to find meaning for suffering. In the fallen world, the world of “the flesh,” where “Satan is the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4), suffering and eschatological death are givens. This means that Paul is not concerned with explaining how it is possible for humans who live “in the flesh” to become righteous before God. What needs to be explained is how it can be said that God is just when the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper.

Paul can affirm that God is just because of the way in which he understands what God did in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ within an apocalyptic perspective. Of course, from the point of view of the flesh, the crucifixion was the execution of a Jewish Messiah, and all the disciples who witnessed it decided to go back to their fishing business on the Sea of Galilee. For Paul, however, Jesus was the incarnation of a spiritual being in “the form of a god” who decided to empty himself of his position in the chain of being and to take “the form of a slave” way down the chain. Living “in the likeness of man,” he was without sin, and facing death he had faith in God. His death was not a biological death at the hands of Roman soldiers. He died the eschatological death brought about by the powers of the spheres, the principalities, powers, and dominions—“the rulers of this age,” who keep humanity in slavery to sin and death (1 Cor 2:8). The eschatological death of a sinless man caused God’s incursion into the kingdom of death to raise Christ from among the dead. Christ’s faith in God when facing crucifixion opened the door for God to fulfill his purpose to give life to his creatures and make Christ the Final, the Ultimate [ésxatos] Adam who, having been raised, “became a life-giving Spirit” (1 Cor 15:45).

This way of understanding the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is possible only by faith. By interpreting it this way, Paul is radically revising the usual apocalyptic understanding of the fulfillment of the prophetic Day of the Lord. Instead of sending locusts, drought, or foreign armies as judgments on the Israelites, God steps in personally to judge his people. What was expected to happen at the end of the present historical timeline—God establishing his kingdom—Paul believes already happened when God revealed his justice at the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Those who by faith crucify themselves with Christ now live on account of his faith and, like Christ, they are raised by God to new life by the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead and established the new creation (Gal 6:14-15). A new condition is already available.

My reading of Paul shows him to be the apostle of the new creation. In order to receive life from God while living “in the flesh” in our world that is under the power of sin and death, it is necessary to have the faith that Christ had in God when facing death and crucify oneself with Christ. It is only those who have died with Christ that God raises by the power of the Spirit to new life in him (Rom 6:4). As Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live; but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live in the faith, that is that of [té toú] the Son of God, who loved me and entrusted himself [paradóntos eautón] to God on my behalf [hypér]” (Gal 2:20). While living “in the flesh,” Christians live “in the faith of Jesus.” “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. . . . The death he died, he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:8, 10-11). That is the Christian way of life: dead to sin and alive to God. By crucifying themselves with Christ, those who participate in his faith in God when facing death die, like him, to eschatological death and are raised by God to eschatological life in the eschatological Adam.

Brunt’s interpretation of Paul’s letter to the Philippians would have benefited if he had followed the instruction he gave to his readers: check your reading of Philippians with what Paul says in his other letters. He makes no reference to Paul’s apocalyptic understanding of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. In one instance, he misuses what Paul says in Romans in order to support a misreading of Philippians. By saying that Jesus had formerly existed [hypárxon] “in the form of a god,” the hymn quoted as authoritative by Paul was not saying that Jesus was by his “very nature” God, but that is what Brunt claims (80). He goes on to say that the hymn says that “Jesus took ‘the very nature’ of a slave.” The hymn goes on to say that he was “made in human likeness” and was “found in appearance” as a human being. Brunt points out that the last two descriptions in the hymn have been interpreted by some to suggest that Christ was not fully human, and he counters, “that is not the intent of the hymn.” He refers to Romans 5:14 in order to prove that the word “likeness” is also used of Adam. The word “likeness,” however, serves to describe how something is perceived by an observer, not its nature. It makes it possible to distinguish different forms of a thing. In Philippians 2:7, the word homoiómati serves to describe what the divine being who emptied himself became like—not to describe his nature. In Romans 5:14, homoiómati is used to describe different types of transgressions. Those who died between Adam and Moses transgressed without a law. Adam transgressed an explicit command. Even though their transgressions were not alike, they all died.

Moreover, in Romans 5 Paul describes Adam as a túpos of the one who was to come, that is, as being an early version of one on whom a humanity was constituted. The humanity constituted in Christ, however, was of a totally different nature from the one constituted in Adam. His was condemned to die; Christ’s was empowered to live. Thus, rather than translate morphé as “the very nature of,” as if it were a synonym for the “ideas” of Plato, it should be read in reference to the “likeness” [homoiómati], the “external show,” the “guise” [sxéma], the other words used in the hymn to describe the being who, according to Paul, was “born of a woman.” The same context informs the description of his existence “in the form of a god.” Reading “form” as a Platonic idea, Brunt could be doing exactly what he considers unwarranted: reading the hymn for theology rather than ethics.

On the basis of his translation, Brunt describes the trajectory taken by this divine being as going “from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low and back to the highest of the high” (79). He does notice that taking him back up, God acts with exuberance, described by three superlatives: he “highly” exalted him, gave him a name “above” every other, and made every creature in heaven, earth, and under the earth subject to him. Obviously, he did not have these things before. The three things God did placed him higher than where he had been before he emptied himself of his divinity. Brunt overlooks this exploding description of his exaltation. Furthermore, contrary to Brunt’s interpretation, in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul points out that at the Parousia “after destroying every rule and every authority and power” having “put all things in subjection under his feet” . . . “then the Son himself will also be subjected to him . . . so that God may be everything to every one” (1 Cor 15:24-28). So neither at the beginning nor at the end, according to Paul and the hymn, was or is the divine being used by God to give life to his creatures at “the highest of the high.”

Brunt believes that Philippians provides its readers with a pattern for their lives. The suffering of Christ ended up in a glorious resurrection. Christians should understand their present suffering as something caused by their internalization of the pattern of Jesus’s life. Knowledge that all the suffering in this world, particularly that connected with the spreading of the gospel to bring salvation to others, is not just experienced by one person, but is experienced by all the members of the church. The Christian community is the body of Christ, so its members do not suffer alone. Christians suffer “surrounded by a body of believers” and therefore rejoice in their suffering (95). Besides, their suffering is a sign of their salvation by God (68). “The privilege of suffering for Christ is granted to them by God” (69). Following the pattern established by Christ in his death and resurrection, Brunt affirms, Christians who have placed their “committed trust” in Christ (124) respond to God’s gift with joy. Thus the Christian ethic is an ethic of response to God’s grace (67).

The hymn that serves as the basis for Paul’s advice provides the pattern for his ethic. It is the pattern of one who “being in the form” of a god did not grasp for “equality with God.” The temptation he faced was not to hold firmly what he had, but to reach out for what he did not have. When confronted with the temptation faced by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the divine being in “the form of a god” dismissed it. The first couple chose to reach out for something they did not have: “equality with God.” They fell for the temptation. The protagonist of the hymn, instead, emptied himself of the divinity he possessed and became the lowest of the low, dying—as Paul himself adds—the most ignominious, dishonorable, cursed death, that was brought about by a cross. On account of his disinterest in climbing up the chain of being and his decision to go down the chain to the last link available to human beings, Christ was exalted by God to a position higher in the chain of being than the one he had occupied. His trajectory was exactly the opposite of Adam and Eve. They coveted “equality with God,” and God punished them by removing them from access to the tree of life. Now they no longer were just mortal. They were now condemned to die. On the basis of the pattern established by the being who was in “the form of a god,” Paul’s advice to the Philippians is “in humility count others better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3): don’t seek to be more than you are; don’t look down on your neighbors. Paul quoted the hymn as a foundation on which to advise: “don’t go after powers you don’t have. God is the source of all our strength:” “God is at work in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).

Brunt finds joy by realizing that after rational consideration of the gospel, one comes to full conviction and makes a mental commitment to Jesus. Those who make this commitment see that the life of Jesus presents the pattern for life, which brings about joy in suffering. This way of interpreting the text overlooks Paul’s repeated reference to the fact that those who find joy in suffering are those who have crucified themselves with Christ. They are not suffering “for” him, but because, while still living “in the flesh,” living also in Christ, and not “according to the flesh,” they are, like Christ, subjects of interest to the “rulers of the world.” They are participating in the passion of Christ, but at the same time are being empowered by the gospel to live in the new creation, in which Christ is the Final, Ultimate, ésxatos Adam. Christian joy does not come from having found a pattern for life. It comes from the power of the Spirit that gives life to those who are crucified with Christ, and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Living by the power of the Spirit is living in freedom from the power of sin and eschatological death (2 Cor 3:17; Rom 6:18). The freedom for which Christ “has set us free” is the source of unsurpassed joy in the Christian life.

Brunt is to be commended for this most welcome field guide to the letter of Paul to the Philippians. He opens up several important avenues for further exploration of the riches in the text. Among them is the way he links the Christian life to life in society. To have Christ living within does not require that a Christian be withdrawn and reclusive; it should make the believer sensitive to the needs of others. Brunt points out quite effectively that the gospel is non-hierarchical: raceless, genderless, and universal. He emphasizes that the Christian community is one in which everyone is valued and there is ample room for dialogue. Unfortunately in the Adventist Church today, those who serve as teachers in its vast educational system must exercise self-censorship in order to fulfill their vocation as servants of the young. They, at times, feel that they are passive accomplices of theological dictators who pretend to have access to the mind of God. I hope that the publication of Brunt’s book by an official Adventist publishing house signals progress toward a study of the Bible that renders its message relevant to those living in the twenty-first century. The church’s function is not to be the custodian of the past, but the prophet of the present, opening the future for successful Christian living by the power of the gospel that brings life to God’s world. At present the church needs to serve as a place where the joy of living in the freedom that Christ makes available is promoted by the power of the Holy Spirit. Any freedom depends on the power that supports it, and Christian joy is the result of the Spirit’s power that gives eschatological life now.


Notes & References:

[1] Brunt points out that the book owes its origin to an invitation from George Knight to write a commentary on Philippians for a series on the New Testament he was editing, and he thanks Knight for having provided him with the structure of the chapters. For some reason, the projected series got scratched before it was published. The book under review is a revised version of the original written for the planned series. Brunt thanks “the editors of the Pacific Press Publishing Association for their excellent work in editing the present manuscript” (8). It is somewhat of a surprise that the short biographical sketch of the author on the back cover omits that Brunt was the senior pastor of the Azure Hills Church in California for thirteen and a half years, unless the marketing department thought that information wouldn’t help sales.

[2] In this same vein, Paul told the Thessalonians, “Do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thes 5:20-21), and to the Corinthians who had disorderly worship services, he wrote, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (1 Cor 14:29). In another context he wrote to them, “I speak to you sensible men [phronímois]; judge for yourselves what I say” (1 Cor 10:15). The Christian community is to be a community where the right use of the mind transformed by the Spirit (Rom 12:2) holds court, and Brunt, like Paul, is fully aware of it.


Herold Weiss is professor emeritus of religious studies at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, IN. His latest book is The End of the Scroll: Biblical Apocalyptic Trajectories.

Title image credit: Pacific Press.

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