The aging Apostle Paul breathes in the damp air of the cell around him. It is pungent with body order and human waste. Whether imprisoned in Rome or Ephesus – I lean toward Ephesus1 – the conditions would have been equally distasteful. Still, Paul’s mind wanders not to his own circumstances as much as it does to those in the budding church plants in Ephesus, Colossae, and Philippi.
Called the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul remained faithful to his own tribe. His thoughts were never far away from the plight of the Jewish people and how he might share the great news that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah who had brought an end to captivity, not only for the Jews but for all humankind. His detractors would not hear Paul’s alleged blasphemy and many would trail him from city to city instigating trouble in their wake.
How he agonized, restricted to the squalor of a prison2, as he thought about his friends without. I hear that pain resonate in Paul’s words to Philippi. Though tagged as the epistle of Joy by many, chapter three begins with a diatribe – a critical form of speech that can utilize irony or abusive language. Confined? “Yes.” Quiet? “No.” Paul would have his say.
Dogs! Evil doers! Mutilators of the flesh! No, dogs were not loveable lap companions. They were mangy street scavengers. Dog is a descriptor reserved for your enemies. Goliath called young David a dog. I’m pretty sure Goliath was not concerned with minding his words. Evil doer. That may not sound too impolite but imagine dedicating your entire life to a cause you believed to be right. These opponents of Paul believed they were right. I believe I am right (i.e. right with God). Yet, I have gotten a couple of those creepy anonymous letters in my day reminding me that my doctrine is false. Worse, people I know have used the dreaded phrases “false teacher” or “of private interpretation” when speaking to me. I would rather be called a dog. Next, there is mutilator. That sounds like the name of one of the Decepticons. Paul’s play on words here is absolutely wicked. It, “is the most ‘cutting’ (Ha ha) epithet of all.”3 Gorden Fee explains that Paul’s usage of an alternate Greek word in this context derides his opponents in a way that would be highly offensive and personal.4
Then Paul goes nuculer (I know I misspelled it. I’m also swaggerin’ like George W. Bush when I say it). He trots out his impressive resume. Having served in the highest echelons of the Jewish community, there are few who could top him. He wads it up with a flourish, arcs it across the room, and rings the waste can with it while he screams and signals that it was a three-pointer by calling it a steaming heap of skybala.5 That’s right. Paul smells it all day every day. He has been locked up in a dungeon. It was probably one of the first words that came to mind. Sanitize it all you want with English translations like rubbish, trash, dung, or my favorite “street swill.” Fecal matter is universally offensive.
Why so emphatic? Some might even ask, “why so hateful?” Paul was up to his metaphorical ears in it. And, maybe he sat in it a time or two. He was sitting in prison awaiting trial because he had the audacity to say that, “Jesus is God and he loves you whether you are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. You are free, the captivity has come to an end. Sin and death have been defeated. A whole new creation is underway and you are God’s beloved co-creator in this new world.” The irony of Paul’s physical circumstances could not have been lost to him at the moment he penned these caustic words found in the third chapter of Philippians. For me, that is why this is the epistle of joy. Paul is laughing a belly shaking laugh. He has stepped into the light and though this present age can be abysmal; it is not the final chapter. God has written an epilogue to this story and the names of those who confess Jesus as Lord are found inside rejoicing.
I believe Paul was so carried away with the Spirit and the gravity of the moment that no other words could properly convey his strong displeasure for any who would define righteousness in terms of rites, sacraments, and forms rather than in terms of knowing Jesus. He is the heart of the matter. Like Paul’s complaint about his contemporaries who had traded in the substance of a real relationship with God for the shadow of ritual, we should have an equal amount of indignation with the institutional church that so much of the de-Christianized culture around us observes to lack “humility and virtue.” according to a recent article in the Washington Post.6
The article entitled, The End of Casual Christianity responds to the Pew Research report regarding the Changing Religious Landscape. Many such articles have been written of late that discuss what some call troubling and others label affirming. One phrase within the Post would likely find agreement with a large majority. “…we are certainly seeing the collapse of casual Christianity and of religious belief as a civic assumption.”7
Why? I do not claim to have all the answers to this. But, I believe the sharp uptick among people who claim no religious affiliation is a response to a perception that institutional Christian culture has lost touch (i.e. going to church, performing acts of worship with correct form, always asking for money to build a building, or the many reports of abusive church leaders). Whether the perception is accurate or not makes no difference. The narrative is written and it will continue to stick unless we do something.
Now, Paul didn’t abandon the Jewish way of life. For instance, he continued to self-identify as a Pharisee many years after his encounter with Jesus. He participated in temple life. At the heart of many of his letters, one will find Paul soliciting money to be taken back to the temple in Jerusalem. What Paul did was re-interpret everything in his life through the story of Jesus. His ethnic and party affiliation were redefined in Jesus. His religion (where religion is understood as a verb in the first-century sense) was redefined in Jesus. And, his offerings were redefined in Jesus. When not in prison Paul could be found taking up a collection for the temple of God which he understood to be the people of God who were suffering.
Paul’s well-chosen words were about the “we will do it my way or no way” attitude of his opponents whose tradition and ritual had become their god. Neither tradition or ritual are inherently wrong. Simply, they are vehicles and not the destination. By way of explanation, I love one of the core values of a sister church plant here in New England. The family known as OceanPointe Christian Church says, “We will do anything short of sin to reach people who don’t know Christ.” A year ago when they held their first public gathering my family and I joined the celebration and witnessed that message being lived out in the community. Today, Jesus is being proclaimed throughout Newport, RI and this little group is making a big difference.
Paul’s “S-bomb” is not directed at particular church practices that glorify God and fit the culture and time. I don’t think you have to end your capital campaign for a new building. I am not into shaming a person for wearing a suit and tie or sandals and shorts at a gathering of the church. It’s not our business if a woman leads an assembly in prayer or if a gay couple joins a gathering to celebrate Jesus. We need not concern ourselves with whether one group of Christians is all out to share Jesus with the incarcerated and another points their compass toward a rich suburb. But, without reservation we should all notice our blood pressure escalating and the interjections crowding our thoughts when someone seeks to impose the opinions and preferences from their culture / sub-culture upon another. Jesus said drowning wasn’t good enough for such a person. Paul suggested they castrate themselves. Speaking of Paul, let’s give him the last word.
Now, in these last sentences, I want to emphasize in the bold scrawls of my personal handwriting the immense importance of what I have written to you. These people who are attempting to force the ways of circumcision (Note from Eric: you might include other words here…interest group, dress codes, worship style…) on you have only one motive: They want an easy way to look good before others, lacking the courage to live by a faith that shares Christ’s suffering and death. All their talk about the law is gas. They themselves don’t keep the law! And they are highly selective in the laws they do observe. They only want you to be circumcised so they can boast of their success in recruiting you to their side. That is contemptible!
For my part, I am going to boast about nothing but the Cross of our Master, Jesus Christ. Because of that Cross, I have been crucified in relation to the world, set free from the stifling atmosphere of pleasing others and fitting into the little patterns that they dictate. Can’t you see the central issue in all this? It is not what you and I do—submit to circumcision, reject circumcision. It is what God is doing, and he is creating something totally new, a free life! All who walk by this standard are the true Israel of God—his chosen people. Peace and mercy on them! (Galatians 6:11-16, The Message).
1 I think there is good evidence for the Ephesian provenance of the Prison Epistles and I have written about the subject in the past. Though the most detailed sources are early 20th Century, Fitzmeyer picked up the banner for this theory in 2000 in the Anchor Bible Series. If my suggestion interests you I will be glad to share more sources. For now I leave you with the most recent. Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Letter to Philemon. The Anchor Bible, vol. 34C. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
2 Who is the person that suggested Paul had some sort of penthouse set-up as he awaited trial? I have heard the sermons suggesting Paul would sit in some sort of apartment on house arrest. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of corroborating research for that theory. Roman citizen or not, Paul was likely treated with very few dignities. I love the expression on Paul’s face in Rembrandt’s painting, but I seriously doubt he would be surrounded by furniture. Likely, he sat chained to a wall scribbling his notes that were carried out at least on one occasion by a slave named Onesimus.
3 Fee, Gordon, Philippians: The IVP New Testament Commentary Series,. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1999 p. 133.
5 My working title for this blog was, S#*t Paul Said: Turning the Church Right-Side-Up. After having several people review the article, I decided on an endnote. One of my reviewers reminded me that the evidence for Paul’s usage of vulgarity in Ph 3:8 is in no way settled. He cited several of the best scholars: Witherington, Fee, Silva, Hawthorne, Bruce, & Theilman who have disagreed with the idea that vulgarity is intended. There are other voices on the matter and the aforementioned scholars will acknowledge the specific meaning of the word skybala (σκύβαλα) is uncertain in its context. My source for understanding the term as at least offensive and likely vulgar is the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) by Kittel et al. The TDNT first explains Paul’s threefold usage of the word hegoumai (ἡγοῦμαι) translated “consider” beginning in the latter part of verse seven. They demonstrate the use forms a crescendo…consider lost, consider lost, consider skybala. Then Kittel specifically notes that “The choice of the vulgar term stresses the force and totality of this renunciation.” Further, the word seems to be most frequently associated with fecal matter in the context of Hellenistic Judaism. Josephus uses it in reference to the manure piles that the Jewish people ate so that they might subsist during the Roman siege of Jerusalem (Wars of the Jews). Symmachus’ Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible included the selection of skybala in the following passages of Ez 4:12,15. So, I did not pull this out of thin air. There is certainly strong evidence for the word to mean dung or fecal matter. And, there is good reason to believe it could be used in a vulgar sense though this is in no way conclusive.
6 Gerson, Michael, Washington Post, The End of Casual Christianity, 25 May 2015. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/rweb/commentary/the-end-of-casual-christianity/2015/05/25/75e6b06c-009f-11e5-833c-a2de05b6b2a4_story.html?tid=kindle-app on 1 June 2015.