In Sunday school this week we looked at Paul’s prayer for the Philippians in 1:8-10, and since then it has been on my mind. Since we’re translating through Philippians in my NT103 class at DTS, I was looking at the Greek on Sunday morning as we discussed the prayer, and I was struck by the abundance of words that emphasize excellence in the prayer. I think Paul does that for a reason, to set the stage for the rest of his letter which is about choosing what is best over what is simply good.
Let me briefly show you what I mean as best I can from the Greek. Here is the passage:
8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Paul starts off by saying that he yearns for the Philippians – the Greek is επιποθεω (“epi-potheo”), and that επι (“epi”) at the beginning is the preposition for “above” or beyond – it sort of intensifies the longing and desire. So Paul epi-yearns for the Philippians, and prays that their love will abound still “more and more” (μαλλον και μαλλον) in knowledge (which is literally, epi-knowledge, επιγνωσις – “epi-gnosis”) and all (παση – “pase”) discernment, so that they will be able to determine what is excellent (διαφεροντα – “dia-pheronta”). The point is, in all of this language Paul is using all of these compound words with “epi” or other intensifiers added onto them to show the importance of excellence.
This then sets the stage for the rest of the book, in 1:12 Paul talks about how his imprisonment has brought about “more” proclamation of the gospel. In 1:21-26 Paul wrestles with whether to die and be with Christ, or live and help the Philippian church – which is better, more excellent? He chooses the one that will be more necessary, the better one. He also says that having the gospel preached out of envy and strife is worthy of rejoicing, but having it preached out of love is better (1:12-19)!
In chapter two you have the great Christ Hymn in verses 6-11, where Paul demonstrates that Jesus chose the more excellent way and was exalted high above all others by God because of it. Ironically, there is a play in the mind here since humility is the way to exaltation. Then in the last part of 2:25-30, you have Paul showing how Epaphroditus went above and beyond the call of duty and risked his life for the church at Philippi, because he realized what was more excellent.
Then in chapter 3, Paul places himself into the same sort of paradigm in the Christ Hymn of chapter two, showing that he had all these things to glory in, but he counts them nothing in light of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus. He sees that Jesus is better than everything he had before, even though it was good – he had quite the resume! But compared to Jesus, it was nothing (3:2-11). He then encourages us in the rest of chapter 3 to forget what’s behind and look forward, to what is better, more excellent .
Then in chapter 4 he talks about putting our minds on all that is “above” and things that are excellent, as opposed to worrying about other things (4:8-9). And he finishes by saying that God has amply and abundantly supplied him with all that he has need of, and he is confident that God will continue to do so (4:10-20).
So this first prayer of Paul sets the stage for the whole book of Philippians: it’s all about excellence. There are things that are good, but there are things that are better, more excellent. Don’t settle for what is good, but go for what is excellent. It reminds me of two of my favorite quotes:
“The good is always the enemy of the best.”
–Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest
“Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is what sin is. The struggle to submit is not a struggle only to submit but a struggle to accept and with passion. I mean, with joy. Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joy–fully armed too as it’s a highly dangerous quest.”
–Flannery O’Conner, “The Habit of Being”
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Flannery O’Conner mentions both excellence and joy in this quote, since joy is the other great theme I see in Philippians. Let us, as those who follow Christ, be marked by excellence and joy in all that we do!