Stories live in us. And we, in turn, live in them. As philosopher Stephen Crites once argued, human experience has a narrative or story quality to it. Even if we’re only dimly aware of it, we make sense of our lives through big and small stories that meaningfully knit together the present moment with a remembered past and an anticipated future. That past can be recent (what just happened) or distant (how I was raised, our family history, and so on) as can the future (what I think is going to happen next versus where my life is going overall). But stories hold it all together as they teach us their morals: whether the world is good or evil, the importance of relationships, the consequences of actions.
In recent posts, I’ve suggested that Paul uses “echo-location” (my term for intertextuality) in his letter to the Philippians: he echoes Old Testament texts in order to locate his readers inside the ongoing story they tell. That’s why certain passages in Paul may sound odd to our modern ears; if we’re not familiar enough with the stories Paul has in mind, these textual echoes hold little meaning for us.
Paul’s pastoral concern is that the Philippians need to get past the personal antagonisms in the church in order to maintain their unity and a positive witness in a hostile environment. He could just say, “Stop fighting” — and in a sense, he does. But he also says much more. Living in a way that honors the gospel, “working out” their salvation, means transforming the way they see their lives. It’s no longer simply about what they thought they were pursuing in life, their ambitions and conceits. It’s about re-imagining themselves as characters in the story of God.
Thus, while Paul tells them to stop “murmuring and arguing,” he does so while repeatedly echoing stories and language from the Old Testament. Here is the passage again:
Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world, holding forth the word of life so that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. (Phil 2:14-16, NRSVUE)
“Murmuring,” as we’ve seen, recalls the constant grumbling of the Israelites against Moses and God in the wilderness, a costly expression of disobedience. They are the negative example to avoid. But there are also positive examples to emulate. “Blameless,” for example, may echo God’s words to Abram, when he renamed him “Abraham” and made the covenant of circumcision: “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen 17:1).
The phrase “crooked and perverse generation” then echoes Deuteronomy 32:5. It is part of Moses’ farewell speech to the Israelites, shortly before his death. Unfortunately, the phrase is actually applied to the Israelites themselves. As they prepare to enter the promised land, the people are reminded of their past rebellion and warned not to repeat their folly. By contrast, however, Paul flips the script, echoing the language of Deuteronomy to describe the Philippians’ unbelieving neighbors, and not the Philippians themselves. In this way too Paul anchors their current experience in stories from the past.
But he also anticipates the future, or where the story is going. The reference to shining like stars comes from the book of Daniel, a prophecy about the resurrection that is yet to come:
Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. (Dan 12:2-3)
From death to life, from creation to new creation: those who are wise and faithful, those who live transformed lives in accordance with the gospel, will one day shine as brightly as the stars God hung in the sky. Note too that Daniel speaks of leading people to righteousness. When Paul, therefore, echoes Daniel and speaks of the Philippians “holding forth the word of life,” is he speaking of evangelism? If so, then living out the reality of their salvation doesn’t just mean bearing up under the pressure of persecution: it means reaching out to your persecutors.
The reference to the prophecy of Daniel then sets Paul to thinking about the future: his own, and that of the Philippians. He anticipates the “day of Christ,” the time when Jesus will return and settle accounts. And on that day, Paul wants to be able to “boast” that his ministry bore fruit. That might sound a little strange for someone who in earlier verses makes such a big deal out of humility!
But here, too, we might hear an echo from the past. When Paul speaks of boasting, he doesn’t mean empty boasting, mere braggadocio. He means “boasting in the Lord,” taking delight in the things that delight God. He says as much in 1 Corinthians 1:31, and this in turn echoes the prophet Jeremiah:
Thus says the LORD: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom; do not let the mighty boast in their might; do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord. (Jer 9:23-24)
Genesis and Deuteronomy. Daniel and Jeremiah. Paul’s worldview, his pastoral imagination, is thoroughly shaped by the Old Testament. His understanding of those texts, of course, has been deepened and reworked by his encounter with Jesus and the gospel. And yet, as he guides and counsels the Philippians, he still wants to immerse them in the ancient yet ongoing story of God: a story that begins with creation, runs through the ups and downs of a covenant relationship with his people, and anticipates a glorious ending.
How does this apply to us? What difference would it make to think of ourselves as characters in God’s story instead of the other way around? Let’s explore that together in the next post.