Philippians Commentary Q & A with Author Mark Keown

7 Questions on Hebrews in the Lectio Continua Commentary Series

philippians commentary coverMark J. Keown (Th.D., Laidlaw College) is a Senior Lecturer in New Testament at Laidlaw College in Auckland, New Zealand.

Other than writing the Philippians volume in the Evangelical Exegteical Commentary series, Dr. Keown is the author of Discovering the New Testament: An Introduction to Its Background, Theology, and Themes (Volume I: The Gospels and Acts) and Jesus in a World of Colliding Empires, Volume One: Introduction and Mark 1:1-8:29: Mark’s Jesus from the Perspective of Power and Expectations.

Dr. Keown is an ordained minister and served at Greenlane Presbyterian Church from 1997-2003.

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

I became a Christian in my mid-20s and was very active in evangelism. I studied theology at Bible College on NZ, and in a class a lecturer stated that Paul never tells churches to preach the gospel, only mentioning individuals. He mentioned some scholars considered that he didn’t expect churches to be proactively evangelistic. Hence, I did my ThD on the question of whether Paul wanted congregations to share the gospel. I found Philippians a letter in which I believe Paul does urges his congregations to be evangelistic (esp. Phil 1:12–18a, 27–30; 2:15–16; 4:9) and this led to my first book, Congregational Evangelism in Philippians in which I defended this position. This gave me a good foundation to write the commentary.

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

The purpose of the EEC commentaries is to work from the Greek and produce an academically rigorous work that can be used by academics, Christian leaders and thinkers with Greek, in particular. However, I believe the commentary is worthwhile for all Christians with an interest in Philippians. My commentary has a good deal of analysis on the Greek language but is written with an eye on those who cannot engage with the Greek. I have a couple of friends who are reading it without any real theological training, and they are finding it useful. There are also sections on Biblical Theology and Devotional aspects which are helpful. Hence, I believe it will be valuable to all who are serious about growing in their understanding of the Scriptures.

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

Some of the unique features are these. First, in recent times, the point of writing has been debated vigorously—did Paul write from Ephesus or Rome? This leads many of the more recent commentaries to be a bit bland in terms of what is going on in Paul’s setting. Convinced by the traditional view and arguments and the imperial dimensions of the letter, I opt for Rome and rather than writing a commentary that is vague on Paul’s situation, I assume it and push it. I look closely at the situation Paul is in while in Rome and how that might have affected the letter. One example is the influence of Poppaea Sabina on Nero at the time of writing, and how that might lead him to persecute Paul more fiercely. I also date the letter as late as AD 63 rather than in the period of Acts 28:30–31. I really push the Roman setting.

Second, I further defend the perspective argued in my earlier book, strengthening my arguments concerning the appeal for the Philippians to continue to engage in evangelism in their community and more widely. I note that the whole letter is missional in the sense that the central issue in the letter is a conflict between two co-workers and key church leaders, Euodia and Syntyche. As such, unity or partnership in mission is critical to understanding it. The western church has tended to see mission as an overseas thing. It is not. It starts as we leave our Christian gatherings and engage. Philippians is a treasure trove of ideas for how we do it well.

Third, I really emphasise what I call the “Christ-pattern.” That is, what is commonly called, cruciformity. In my read of Philippians, Phil 2:5–11 lies at its theological heart. Philippians 2:5 summons us to have the mindset Christ has and had in his mission to save his world. Philippians 2:6–8 explains what this is. I dig into this passage, discussing the meaning of the form of God, harpagmos, equality with God, self-emptying, self-humbling, and argue that Phil 2:6–8 challenges us to a new way of being human while revealing who God is and what he is like. We are thus summoned to take on the same mindset and live selflessly, sacrificially, as servants, suffering even to death, in humility and love, serving the world. This is our central call. The examples Paul gives in the letter are all evangelistic, and all embody this Christ-pattern: the well-motivated Romans (Phil 1:14–18), Timothy, Epaphroditus, the Philippian co-workers in their history, and Paul himself. The negative examples do not, either violating the ethics of the gospel (the poorly motivated Romans) or its theology (the Judaizers, the enemies of the cross). Sacrificial service and partnership in the gospel is the summons of Philippians.

Timothy, Epaphroditus, the Philippian co-workers in their history, and Paul himself. The negative examples do not, either violating the ethics of the gospel (the poorly motivated Romans) or its theology (the Judaizers, the enemies of the cross). Sacrificial service and partnership in the gospel is the summons of Philippians.

Fourth, I posit the idea that Phil 1:19–26 may be premised on Paul having an escape plan if things do not go well in his trial. There is a dilemma for interpreters: Paul appears to be in danger of dying, yet, Paul knows he will be released. I look at the options in scholarship and explain why they are unsatisfactory. I reject the idea of bribery but wonder if the dilemma is solved if Paul has decided that if he needs to, he will escape (something common). I have published another article exploring this further.

Fifth, every Greek word in Philippians is explored to a level I have not seen in other commentaries, in terms of background at least. Extensive research is done in wider Greek sources, the LXX, Pseudepigrapha, Philo, Josephus, and of course, the NT. This gives a great basis for understanding the semantic range of these terms and possibilities. I found some really interesting connections in doing this research, enabled by contemporary software.

Sixth, following older scholars, Fee, Ware, and others, I seek to argue that 2:16a should be translated “hold forth the word of life.” Then, unlike others, I push this and propose a range of motifs that this excites as we consider the possibilities that flow from this. There have been some rather strange scholarship seeking to shut down this idea that needed exposing (acknowledging that there are other possibilities to my interpretation).

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

The part that moved me the most was the so-called Christ-hymn in Phil 2:5–11. In my earlier work on Philippians, I had not engaged seriously at an academically critical level with the passage as it is a minefield and did not greatly affect my research question. For the commentary, I really dug into it, as one must do, into one of the hardest and most rewarding passages in Scripture. I wept at times as I realized what its implications are for human existence. I realized afresh that our God is astonishing. The passage tells us what God is like. He is a Servant. He did not need to create, but he did. He does not need us, but he made us in his image. Then, when we rebelled, he sent his Son. Philippians 2:6–11 nestled as it is between two passages telling us what attitudes we are to have as we engage in Christian community and mission, is the most important verse in Paul for ethics. It summons us to the life I mentioned in the previous question. It calls us to question all forms of power that self-aggrandize, that use force, that manipulate, that do not reflect Christ. It can only be understood regarding empire and its patterns.

The hymn articulates the patterns of God’s reign, which do not rely on armies, good looks, charisma, arrogance, violence, manipulation, intrigue, wealth, and the like. The hymn challenges such things found in Satan, Adam, the rulers of the ancient empires such as Alexander and the Caesars, leaders in churches, and political leaders today. It speaks of cross-bearing for a world, taking up our crosses and towels and following Jesus. I realized afresh that cruciformity undergirds the ethics of the whole NT. It shapes how Paul lives, ministers, and preaches. It should shape our lives and churches. I was moved to become a better person walking in the pattern of Christ.

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

Aside from what is mentioned above, the whole experience has edified me. Writing a technical commentary is grueling. There is the thrill of initial discovery and then the hard work of writing it. As Paul says in Phil 3:10, he wants to share in the sufferings of Christ. In Rom 5, he tells us that such suffering grows us. I have grown from the experience.

When I was a young Christian, I set out to do theological training thinking I could know everything (typical youthful optimism). I have learned that I can’t. Commentary writing takes you deep into a text, digging, turning over rocks, pausing, exploring. As you do, links explode from the text into other Scripture, your own life, the historical setting, the surrounding culture, and so on. Every Greek word and phrase is literally a repository of possibilities. Doing this commentary challenged me to go to another level, and it is great. I encourage all who can to learn the biblical languages. Discipline yourself, take time to dig, grow, learn, and it is amazing what will come.

As I have mentioned, the Christ-hymn has reshaped me, causing me to question my motives as a person, leader, and Christian scholar. It has forced me to confront my own arrogances and seek the humility Paul calls for in Phil 2:1–4—to renounce selfish ambition and empty-glory and to truly try to live in the pattern of the cross. It has made me a better husband as I have seen the link from Phil 2 to such passages as Eph 5:21–6:9, which is a summons to the paterfamilias of the home to be a joyful servant to his wife and family.

My passion for evangelism is rekindled as I read Paul urging the Philippians to stand firm in one Spirit, contend for the faith of the gospel, refuse to be intimidated by opponents, emulate Christ, Timothy, and Epaphroditus, imitate his own example, and repair their relationships. I am amazed by the courage of these pioneer Christians. In Phil 1:12–18a, Paul is in prison in Rome, and Nero’s craziness is on the rise. His life is in danger. Yet, he does not withhold the gospel but is delighted that it is advancing among the prison guards and into the wider community. Even though some other Christians want him dead and preach Christ to make it happen, all he does is delight in the gospel. The gospel is his priority, more than his life and needs. This must be our take on life. This resonates with the example of Christ, and to this I and we are called.

There is a range of other things like Paul’s passion for prayer, monetary giving, unity, refuting false gospels, and of course, joy, that summon us from Philippians. All have shaped me and I pray will shape readers of the letter and my work.

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

I hate answering questions like this because it is like the end of an event where you want to thank others, but you are afraid to because someone is missed out. Still, I understand the question and apologise to anyone I miss out on. To be honest, there is not one work on Philippians that I have read that does not add value and fresh insight. I honor all who from sincere hearts, explore God’s word, and value the writers serving God across the world and time.

The older commentary by Lightfoot is superb with his grasp of the ancient setting. I have always resonated with Fee with whom; I usually see eye to eye. Hansen’s is very helpful. The revised WBC commentary by Hawthorne and Martin is very good and technical. In some ways Reumann’s AB commentary is overly dense, yet, it gives brilliant leads into the options and places to look. Even though it has been withdrawn for plagiarism, O’Brien’s commentary is still worth using giving such a good summary of the main views. I hope that it can be revised with the plagiarism dealt with, so it can have joint publication. Of the German commentaries, Schenk is very good and technical. I also found Ulrich Müller helpful and Gnilka had some good insights. Bockmuehl is really good as is Witherington’s commentaries (as always). Otherwise, I would recommend the work of Schnabel (on mission but helpful), Ware (The Mission of the Church), Hellerman (his commentary and Reconstructing Honor), Martin (Carmen Christi), and Peterman (Paul’s Gift).

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

Since my commentary on Philippians, I have published Jesus in a World of Colliding Empires (Wipf and Stock) which explores Mark’s Gospel from the perspective of Empire. It was the combination of teaching Mark at Laidlaw College and my research into Philippians that led to me recognizing that Mark’s Gospel and Phil 2:5–8 resonate together. Jesus must be understood as inaugurating an empire that is antithetical to the empires of the world then and now. We Christians, especially in countries where we dominate the political landscape, have to realise this afresh.

I have also published Vol. 1 of an introduction to the NT called Discovering the New Testament (Lexham). Volume 2 and 3 are in production. This is developed from my work teaching Introduction to NT in my college and should be completed by 2019 or 2020. It is also available through the Logos platform. It differs from others in that it blends a lot of thematic and theological ideas into the usual things we expect from an introduction (hence its length).

My next major project is a multi-volume work an exploration of evangelism in the Bible beginning in the OT and then working across the NT: Synoptics, John, Paul, Hebrews, the General Epistles, and Revelation. This will explore a range of questions like who did evangelism, how, when, why, what they preached, and how it relates to mission more broadly.

I have also drafted commentaries on Galatians and John 1–8 with a view to building on the John work as I teach it. I am also most of the way through a commentary on 1 & 2 Thessalonians. These commentaries are not as technical as the EEC one, and more useful for pastors, etc.

There is also a range of smaller article-length works based on conference papers that I am working on which will come out in due course.


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