Inkblots from Philippians

The following verses or partial verses from Philippians have in my experience been used in isolation from their literary context(s).  There are many of these “offenders” in Philippians!  The ones in bold are those I think could stand as “poster children” for the disease of “inkblotitis” (Dr. Greg Fay’s term).

Although I rarely use the NIV on this blog, its largely familiar wordings will serve illustratively here.  As you scan these, please consider how easy it is to think you understand of what they “mean” apart from the surrounding thoughts in their full context.

Chapter 1

I thank my God every time I remember you.

18b  The important thing is that . . . Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel.[1]

Chapter 2

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: [2]

12b  continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. [3]

14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, [4]

17a But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering . . . [5]

Chapter 3

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.

10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

12b-14  I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. . . . 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

18-19  For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.

20 But our citizenship is in heaven. [6]

Chapter 4

2b  be of the same mind in the Lord.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [7]

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.


[1] 1:27 may be a “verse” that, when ripped from its context, hasn’t actually strayed too far from its original import in its current-day application.

[2] Here, I am passing over the famed 2:6-11 passage, although it, too, is frequently understood outside its Philippians context.  This text is considered by most scholars to be some type of ancient ode or hymn (whether originally sung or not, whether original with Paul or not) text.  Its exalted poetry is legendary, and it stands on its own to some extent, although it is imbued with additional/different meaning when seen within the contextual shape of Philippians.

[3] Here’s an exceptionally convicting bit of non-exegetical, personal history:  I once spoke a message—translated on the spot into another language, even—that forced a separate theology onto this passage, ignoring its own context altogether. The theology I was “pushing” was a good one, I’m convinced, but nonetheless was a theology unrelated to this particular context.

[4] Oh, the numbers of parents who have quoted this one to their grumbling children!

[5] I know a song, “Would You Be Poured Out Like Wine,” that came from this, but the rest of its words had nothing directly to do with Philippians, insofar as I can remember.  Now that I think about it, the song might have mixed two contexts, since it used the specific word “wine,” which is not used here.  Perhaps a little latitude for the songwriter who knew that the word “drink” doesn’t sing all that well?  Or perhaps the songwriter was leaning on historical rather than literary context (I’m not at all sure), understanding that wine was what was used in the “poured drink offering”?

[6] True confession:  I quasi-intentionally take this one out of context myself, and probably will continue to do so.  Although recognizing that these words find their most valid illumination within the context of Philippians, I feel that they succinctly state an important concept that all Christians would do well to take in.

[7] It might not do much harm to take this one out of context.  In suggesting that, I would lean a little on the “anything” and “every” language:  perhaps this is duly taken as more broadly applicable.  Yet its original meaning is to be found within the context of the letter to the Philippians.

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