It’s absolutely wrong to ‘rank’ books of the Bible. But if I were to do so (just hypothetically) Philippians would be in my top three.
I love the letter of Philippians. Over years of following Jesus, God has encouraged me through it time and time again. This buoyant epistle has restored my joy. It has rebuked my stubborn pride and helped me regain my focus. This letter has revealed so very much of Jesus, and the manner of life I’m called to in him.
Yet preaching the book of Philippians is another kettle of fish. This letter (IMO) is not easy to preach. In preparing notes recently for our preaching team, I was reminded of the scale of the challenge. Philippians may only be 4 chapters (and 109 verses) long, but summarising it is no mean feat.
Speaking of main themes, it’s become a hardened dogma in many preaching circles to insist upon identifying one. Every sermon we’re told should have ‘a big idea’, and every book of the Bible should be studied till it yields one.
These big ideas of books, incidentally, have fast become an ‘interpretive orthodoxy’ all in themselves. So Romans (as we all know) is about the gospel. Exodus is about redemption. Hebrews is about sticking with Jesus. And 1 John gives us tests of assurance.
Of course sometimes these big ideas are challenged. A few years ago, I heard a preacher quite persuasively argue that the theme of 1 John is not the testing of assurance. 1 John was written to reassure believers. It is not so much an exam to be passed, as it is the test results!
To a great extent, I don’t have a quibble with these sorts of summaries. I believe in the notion of authorial intent and reject the idea that there are an infinite range of meanings to texts. I’m not convinced that we should all be ‘finding different things’ biblical material; it seems to me that many Bible books do have a rather obvious theme.
And when applied to sermons individually, I agree with Mark Dever that normally “the point of the passage should be the point of the sermon.” From a communication perspective we might also add that sermon unity often aids listener clarity.
My question, however, is whether such unity is always present. To use Dever’s terminology, can we always isolate the point of the text?
I would argue that this can’t always be the case.
Take our uninspired communications as an example. When I text message a friend, I may be communicating one idea (“I’ll see you at 7”). But in a longer communication I will often intend to communicate multiple ideas. The email to a friend might be designed to: 1) cheer them up, 2) give them my news, and 3) offer a piece of advice.
Now if (for some unlike reason) future generations were to stumble across my email, they might surmise that one of these purposes was my main point. But I can tell you now I was actually trying to convey three things. Each point had similar weight and value in my mind.
To further the argument, I return to my recent forays into Philippians. Philippians is a particularly difficult letter when it comes to the elusive ‘big idea.’ The trouble arises partly because Paul is not writing primarily with a doctrinal or ethical purpose (Philippians is a thank you letter). It is also questionable whether we can confidently identify a theme verse or central passage in the letter (though people will make their case for 1:27-30, or 2:1-11, or 4:10-20). There are a number of repeated ideas in Philippians, but are these necessarily the main idea? (eg. I don’t think Philippians is just a letter about joy).
The confusion continues when we turn to the commentators. While there are shades of overlap, there is a surprising range of opinions about the letter’s core-theme. So depending who we read, Philippians is about:
- the gospel of Christ and the community of Christ (Walter Hansen)
- a letter of friendship, emphasising the gospel, the Trinity, Christ and eschatology (Fee)
- standing firm in gospel unity and following role models (St Helen’s Philippians notes)
- unity, opposition, eschatology and the person of Jesus Christ (Motyer)
- multiple purposes – 6 (O’Brien)
- “manifold”: warning against error and encouraging them in the face of pagan opposition (Thielman)
- to encourage a spirit of unity among them (FF Bruce)
This range of “takes” on Philippians illustrates the challenge of always finding a definitive big idea. I am not extrapolating from this that we toss out the attempt. I am querying whether this is always possible. Perhaps what we need is a little more humility in some cases. We need to stop trying to sound as if we have ‘cracked’ the meaning of a clearly complex book.
I believe there is a wonderful unity to Scripture. But I’m not so sure that the Triune God always communicates one idea at a time.Tweet