Question and Answer with Dennis E. Johnson on Philippians

Learn more about Philippians in the Reformed Expository Commentary series

philippians bible commentary

Dennis E. Johnson (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) was professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California and associate pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Escondido, California, until his retirement in June 2018.

Dr. Johnson taught at Westminster Seminary California from 1982 to 2018. He previously pastored Orthodox Presbyterian churches in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and East Los Angeles, California. He has served as moderator of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church General Assembly and Presbytery of Southern California, moderator of the South Coast Presbytery in the Presbyterian Church in America, member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Committee on Christian Education, and Trustee of Covenant College.

Dr. Johnson preached and taught in various countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

He is the author of Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation, Let’s Study Acts, and Walking with Jesus through His Word: Discovering Christ in All the Scriptures. He is also coauthor of Counsel from the Cross and editor of and contributor to Heralds of the King: Christ-centered Sermons in the Tradition of Edmund P. Clowney. He has contributed essays to Theonomy: A Reformed Critique; The Pattern of Sound Doctrine; Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry; Resurrection and Eschatology; and Speaking the Truth in Love. He is a contributor to the Reformation Study Bible and the English Standard Version Study Bible.

Dr. Johnson and his wife, Jane, have four married children and many grandchildren. They now live in Dayton, Tennessee.

1. What previous research and/or personal interests led you to this project and helped prepare you to write this commentary on Philippians?

I had taught a course on Paul’s epistles for 16 years before the editors of the Reformed Expository Commentary invited me to contribute a volume in the series. One distinctive of the REC is that its exposition of biblical books originates in sermons preached to Christ’s people. Even as a young Christian (adolescent), I had loved certain passages in Philippians (such as 1:21 and 4:13), and I had preached some passages in Philippians in church settings. I was attracted to this little letter by a series of conference in which a friend showed us the centrality of Christ in each of the four chapters, and in every pastoral issue that Paul addresses. But I had never preached straight through the whole book. So from the point when we signed the book contract, I made it a point to preach successively through Philippians with every invitation I received. During those months of preparation, I also enjoyed teaching an evening elective course on Philippians for a group of seminary students and Christians from our community. I think they learned through me, and I know I learned from them!

2. Who is the intended audience for this commentary? Would it benefit pastors? professors? students? lay Christians in the local church?

Like every REC volume, a main target audience is pastors who preach regularly to the church. Our goal is to provide an exegetical resource, grounded in solid research into backgrounds and a careful reading of the text and weighing of other scholars’ views—but, more than that, we want to provide a model of how serious interpretive labor should come to expression in preaching that connects directly with hearers in the pews. Seminary students need examples of biblical study expressed vividly and pastorally. Since these chapters originated as sermons preached in local churches, they should be edifying to lay Christians, too…if I’ve hit the target that the REC aims for!

3. What is unique about this commentary? What contribution does it make to studies of Philippians?

Claiming to make a “unique” contribution is risky, since I’ve learned so much from others. Perhaps what is distinctive, at least, is a particular combination of two themes: First, Paul addresses every pastoral issue confronting his beloved Christian friends in Philippi (he enjoyed a special bond of affection with the Macedonian churches in Philippi and Thessalonica) by taking them to the centrality, grace, sufficiency, and preeminence of Jesus Christ. Second, Paul addresses their issues by presenting his own response to those same issues, in his own experience, as an example that the Philippian Christians could and should imitate. In effect, Paul tells them: “whatever your issue, Jesus is the answer. Let me show you how.” Let me illustrate. The Philippians were confronted by opponents and suffering for their faith in Jesus (1:28-30). Before Paul mentions their sufferings, he gives a report on his own: now in chains, awaiting a verdict from the emperor that could lead to Paul’s release or his execution (1:12-26). His purpose is not just to relieve their anxiety for him, but (more importantly!) to show them how he “processes” suffering: it’s all about Christ being preached (by himself to the Praetorian guard, but also by others in Rome) and about Christ being exalted in Paul’s body, whether he dies or lives. Again, it seems that the Philippians (much as Paul treasured them) were tempted to selfish ambition and self-centered priorities, so they grumbled and argued (2:1-4, 14-16). Paul knew of Christians in Rome who preached Christ out of unworthy motives—selfish ambition, trying to compete with Paul (1:16-18). Paul didn’t let them bother him, because Christ was preached—and he knew that Christ himself had embraced the humility of self-sacrifice for his and the Philippians’ sake (2:5-11). And Christ’s mindset had transformed Paul himself as well as his fellow-servants Timothy and Epaphroditus (1:25-26; 2:17-30). Paul’s strategy is the same as he addresses the threat of Judaizers: “Only Christ’s righteousness counts—I speak from experience” (3:1-11). And the threat of complacency: “I keep pressing ahead to know Jesus better—so should you” (3:12-21). And the temptation to worry, posed by lacking resources: “I have learned the secret of enjoying plenty or enduring poverty, because Christ strengthens me in every condition of life. He will provide your every need, too.” (4:4-20). Again and again, Paul says, “Whatever your ‘issue,’ the remedy is Christ. Let me show you how, in my own experience.”

4. What section or passage of this commentary was particularly memorable to research and write? Why?

I had researched the majestic Christological hymn (perhaps a hymn) in 2:5-11 as part of my Ph.D. dissertation in the late 1970s. But it was both a challenge and a great encouragement to return to it and delve even more deeply into that mystery: the One who has eternally been the Father’s equal, the fullest and most personal revelation of God, embraced human nature; and, even more humbly, the slave’s role; and, even more humbly, obedience to death; and , even more humbly, to the shameful death of the cross. And even as the Son had glorified the Father in his suffering, the Father was delighted to exalt this self-humbling Son, placing him above all, to be worshiped by every creature on bent knee and with confessing tongue. Astonishing!

5. What personally edified you in writing this commentary, increasing your affections for Christ?

Obviously Paul’s portrait of Christ in 2:5-11 increased my affections for Christ greatly. I also found Paul’s opening of his heart to set an example for others—his Christ-oriented response to suffering from enemies, and to competition from fellow-believers, and to challenges to one’s self-image, and to tight budgets—quite a challenge as I examined my own heart, and as I considered that, as a shepherd-teacher in the church, I should be able to say with Paul (humbly, knowing that I have not arrived, 3:12): “Let those who are mature think [as I think]” and “join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (3:15, 17).

6. Besides your commentary, what are your top recommended books (commentaries or otherwise) on Philippians?

Gordon Fee (New International New Testament Commentary)

Peter O’Brien (New International Greek Testament Commentary)

Moisés Silva (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament)

Walter Hansen (Pillar New Testament Commentary)

7. What is next for you? What project are you currently working on? How can people follow your work and ministry?

Journeys with Jesus: Every Path in Scripture Leads Us to Christ (P&R) an abridgment of Walking with Jesus through His Word; Discovering Christ in All the Scriptures (P&R, 2015), came out in May 2018.

Volume 12 of the ESV Expository Commentary, containing my commentary on Hebrews was published in July 2018 (Crossway).

A couple of weeks ago I submitted introduction and notes on Philippians for the Grace and Truth Study Bible (forthcoming from Zondervan)—Al Mohler is general editor.

My next project may be an introduction to Biblical Theology (redemptive-historical hermeneutics)


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