Our church has just completed preaching through the Epistle to the Philippians, so I have been reading through this letter recently. While reading through this book an interesting pattern, known as a chiasm, began to emerge in the first two chapters. A chiasm is a literary device used by the writer to draw attention to an idea or point that they want to emphasize. It relies on repeating an idea or ideas in a sequence and then reversing their order. The pattern for a simple chiasm might be drawn as
In this structure A and B represent two ideas. We can see that as one reads the reader is first introduced to the idea A, followed by the idea B. As they keep reading they are presented with the idea B again, followed by A. The idea or statement in the center of this literary device, represented here by C, is the point that the author wishes to emphasize.
In the Epistle to the Philippians the first two chapters give us a possible chiasm as follows:
A – the example of Paul in being obedient and willing to die (1:12-18)
B – the example of Paul putting others first (1:19-26)
C – the example of Christ putting others first (2:1-5)
C – the example of Christ being obedient and willing to die (2:6-11)
B – the example of Timothy putting others first (2:19-24)
A – the example of Epaphroditus being obedient and willing to die (2:25-30)
While I find this structure in the letter compelling, it would not be prudent to push this observation too far because we cannot know for certain that Paul intended to use this literary device in the letter. But as we read the letter with this structure in mind we do find that all of the examples (Paul, Christ, Timothy, and Epaphroditus) emphasize the same two characteristics. As Christians we are to (1) put others ahead of ourselves and (2) we are to be obedient and willing to die for the sake of Christ. Also in its favor is the fact that this structure draws the readers’ attention to Jesus as the primary example of these characteristics.
What is the main point that Paul wants to emphasize with this literary device? The same one that is accentuated throughout the letter.
In addition to thanking the Philippians for their gifts, Paul is urging the readers to “let [their] manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27) by avoiding apostasy and remaining faithful to Christ. We can see this through the repeated need to stand firm/hold fast throughout the letter (1:27-28; 2:16; 3:16; 4:1). And, it is, after all, because of the gospel of Christ that both Paul (1:13) and the Philippians (1:29) are suffering which makes the need to endure “in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” a pressing reality. If this is the main point of the letter, we find the same theme is underscored by the use of the chiasm, drawing our attention to the need to remain faithful (or obedient) to the “point of death” just like Christ.
In order to encourage the readers to stand firm, Paul will call on the readers to “walk according to the example you have in us” (3:17). In tough times looking to the example of others can be helpful. Especially people we know well. And the Philippians personally know Paul who is willing to endure death to advance the gospel (1:19-26; 2:17; also Acts 16:11-40). They also know Timothy, a proven servant in advancing the gospel (2:22). And Epaphroditus, who is one of their own, is willing to risk his life for the work of Christ (2:30). All of these people are held up as examples to be imitated. But, the reason Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus are worthy of being copied is because they are following after Christ. The chiasm emphasizes this, highlighting our best example Christ, just as Paul wrote in another letter – “be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
Through this literary device, Paul is able to draw his attention to Christ, encouraging the readers to remain faithful and be willing to die for the sake of Christ when confronted with persecution. He is worth suffering for (3:8) and is our primary example of how we are to act when times are tough so that we may “shine as lights in the world.”