Our generation seems unusually blessed with an abundant crop of capable, informed, devout biblical scholars who give themselves to expounding the Scriptures for today’s Christians. Matthew Harmon is one, and we are happy to see his work coming to print. Harmon (Ph.D., Wheaton College) is Professor of New Testament Studies at Grace College and Theological Seminary. He was one of the principle editors of the impressive Studies in Pauline Epistles: Essays in Honor of Douglas J. Moo (see our interview here) released late last year, and his new commentary on Philippians promises to be a well-used resource for New Testament studies also. As I’ve been through it I have been continually more impressed – and blessed. It is easily accessible yet exegetically precise, broadly informed, and highly suggestive for preaching. Really an excellent commentary. I wouldn’t doubt that many preachers will find this to be their favorite and most helpful.
Today Dr. Harmon talks to us about his new work.
Books At a Glance (Fred Zaspel):
First, tell us how this commentary came about? I assume you’ve taught through this book in the classroom? Is it something you have been working on for some time?
When I first began to pursue God’s call on my life to teach Scripture, I dreamed of having the chance to write a commentary at some point in my life. But I never expected it to come within two years of finishing my Ph.D.! Tiberius Rata, my colleague here at Grace, connected me with the great people at Christian Focus and they invited me to write on Philippians for their Mentor series.
I spent about five years writing this commentary, and during those years I’ve had numerous opportunities to teach Philippians. At Grace I’ve taught through both the Greek and English text of Philippians several times, as well as in Sunday School classes in my home church. Right now I am teaching through it again for a class at Grace, and my home church is currently preaching through Philippians. What a joy it has been to soak myself in this letter over the past several years!
Books At a Glance:
Paul’s letter to the Philippians seems always to be a Christian’s favorite. Perhaps you could explain for us some reasons why this is so.
I can think of at least four reasons why believers throughout the centuries have loved Philippians.
First, Philippians has one of the most beautiful descriptions of Jesus Christ in the entire NT. In 2:6-11 Paul portrays the glory of Christ displayed in his pre-incarnate state, his incarnation, his obedience and sacrificial death on the cross, and his exaltation. How can our hearts not be stirred to worship when reading this?
Second, Philippians stirs our longings for our heavenly home while calling us to live in light of that hope. Three times Paul specifically refers to the day of Christ as motivation for how we should live our everyday lives as believers (1:6, 10: 2:16). But our hope rests in the fact that one day Christ will return to transform our bodies and consummate his kingdom rule here on the earth (3:20-21).
Third, Philippians provides a model of single-minded focus on Christ that inspires us as believers to strive towards (1:21; 3:1–4:1).
Fourth, Philippians provides a model of experiencing joy in the midst of difficult circumstances.
For these and many more reasons, Philippians has long been a favorite for believers.
Books At a Glance:
“Joy” has often been identified as a leading – if not the overall – theme of Philippians. What is the role of this theme in Paul’s letter? How is it significant?
While I do not believe that joy is the central theme of Philippians, it is extremely important. In Greek various forms of words for joy or rejoice occur sixteen times, arguably the highest concentration of this terminology in any Pauline letter. Paul prays for them with joy (1:4) and anticipates retuning to them ‘for your progress and joy in the faith’ (1:25). His joy will be completed if the Philippians adopt the same mindset as Christ Jesus Himself (2:2). Paul also instructs the Philippians to receive Epaphroditus back ‘with all joy’ (2:29). He even goes so far as to refer to the Philippians as ‘my joy and crown, whom I long for’ (4:1).
Even more significant are the number of times that Paul either rejoices (1:18; 2:17; 4:10) or calls others to rejoice (3:1; 4:4). Sometimes he does both at the same time (2:17-18)! The call to rejoice is all the more striking in light of the difficulties that both Paul and the Philippians are experiencing. Some are preaching Christ out of impure motives, yet Paul simply rejoices that Christ is proclaimed (1:15-18). The possibility that he might die for his faith was very real, yet he rejoices in being a drink offering and calls for the Philippians to rejoice with him (2:17-18). The Philippians are facing opposition to the gospel (1:27-30), the threat of false teachers (3:2-21), and internal strife (4:2-3). Such joy in face of hardship makes it clear that biblical joy goes far beyond surface level happiness. It is rooted in the Lord Himself (3:1; 4:4).
Books At a Glance:
Explain how, as you state, the gospel is the organizing theme of Paul’s epistle to the Philippians.
Although the word “gospel” (euangelion) itself occurs nine times in Philippians, its significance extends well beyond its occurrences. In the opening section of the letter Paul describes the progress of the gospel through his own ministry in partnership with the Philippians (1:1-26). The main body of the letter focuses on joyfully living as citizens of God’s kingdom in a manner worthy of the gospel (1:27–4:3). Paul then concludes the letter by calling for the Philippians growth in the gospel and thanking them for their ongoing partnership in gospel ministry (4:4-23). From start to finish, the driving force in Philippians is the gospel itself. Paul evaluates his own life and circumstances in light of it, works tirelessly to advance it, and calls the Philippians to shape their lives according to it.
Books At a Glance:
Describe your commentary for us. What is distinctive about it? What is your approach? Who is your target audience?
My goal was to write the kind of commentary that I want to use when I study Scripture. The starting point is to determine the original meaning that Paul intended to communicate to the Philippians. That requires using the necessary exegetical, literary, historical, cultural, and theological tools. But I also wanted to indicate how Paul’s message applies to us as believers today. So although I have tried to write this commentary in such a way that any believer will benefit from reading it, my focus has been the pastor, the Sunday school teacher, the missionary, and the small-group leader. To that end I have tried to keep discussion of more technical issues in the footnotes.
Perhaps one of the more distinctive features is that each literary unit concludes with a section labeled Suggestions for Preaching, Teaching, and Application. In this section I state the main point of the passage, provide a possible preaching/teaching outline, and highlight different aspects of application.
Books At a Glance:
Having written this commentary, and having taught through Philippians yourself, what advice would you give preachers who are looking to work through this epistle with their congregations?
No matter where you are at in the letter, I would encourage the preacher to keep a few things in mind.
First, keep Paul’s circumstances in view as you talk about the repeated emphasis on living joyfully as citizens of God’s kingdom. This will prevent your people from misunderstanding joy as a Christian version of “Don’t worry be happy.”
Second, the Christ hymn (2:5-11) is the theological nerve center of the letter. Or, to use another metaphor, it is like a large rock that is thrown into a pond, with ripples emanating throughout. As you help your congregation see the connections throughout the letter back to the Christ hymn you will fan into flame their affections for Christ and empower them to “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12).
Third, Paul emphasizes the mindset we as believers should have. Paul uses a verb that has the sense of an intentional way of thinking about specific circumstances and life in general (1:7; 2:2, 5; 3:15, 19; 4:2, 10). As such it is loosely comparable to our modern concept of worldview, though it moves well beyond the intellectual to include the totality of how we experience and interpret the world. Philippians shows us what the mindset of Christ looks like in everyday life.
Finally, Paul helps us understand what it looks like to live in anticipation of the day of Christ. As believers we have already joyfully confessed that Jesus is Lord, but still must wait for the day when all of creation does so (2:9-11). We are already citizens of God’s kingdom, but we are still waiting for our Savior to return and transform our fallen bodies (3:20-21). It is this tension between the “already” and the “not-yet” of our salvation that characterizes the life of the Christian.
Books At a Glance:
What other projects are you currently working that we can expect to see in the future?
I’m currently working on a short commentary on 2 Peter and Jude (ESV Bible Expositional Commentary) as well as a full scale commentary on Galatians (Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation). Lord willing both of those will be finished and published in the next 2-3 years. I have co-written a book with my friend Ben Gladd entitled Making All Things New: Inaugurated Eschatology for the Life of the Church (Baker), which is an attempt to flesh out in practical terms how the already/not-yet should shape the life and ministry of the church. It is tentatively scheduled for a Spring 2016 release.
For those who are interested in seeing what I am working on, they can check out my blog (www.matthewsharmon.com) and/or follow me on Twitter (@DocHarmon).
Editor’s Note: You may also like to see our interview with Matthew Harmon and Jay Smith on the festschrift they edited in honor of Douglas Moo.
Buy the books
PHILIPPIANS: A MENTOR COMMENTARY