Many, many scholars believe Philippians 2:5-11 is a Christ-hymn or early creed of the Christian church that Paul is citing, but Gordon Fee argues convincingly that this passage has a Semitic parallelism structure, not a Greek hymn structure, and is in keeping with Paul’s usual style. But the debate rages on and is reflected in different Bible translations: the NIV, NET and NLT offset the text as poetry, the ESV, NASB and NKJV include it in the paragraph as prose.
We shall leave these scholars to their debate until someone unearths the sheet music. In the meantime, let’s look at the basic structure of this passage and see what Paul is drawing our attention to at the centre of the chiasm. I’ve highlighted the key words that show the parallel or contrasting ideas.
I teach middle-school, and let’s face it, eleven- and twelve-year-olds aren’t always the most attentive listeners. However, one guaranteed way to cause a hush to fall on the room is to say, “Want to hear a story?” Suddenly all eyes are locked on me and if the story is good enough, it brings the whole group together. I am a “good enough” teacher, but Jesus was a great teacher. Crowds flocked to hear him speak. “He spoke with authority, unlike their teachers of the Law.” Clearly, he wasn’t droning out long theological treatises. If you read the Sermon on the Mount discourses in Matthew 5 and Luke 6, he shocks, he questions, he unsettles, but above all, he tells unforgettable little stories people had to puzzle over. We call these parables, which literally means comparison in Greek.
Jesus didn’t invent the parable, but he used them so often and so effectively he’s become synonymous with this genre of story. But what makes a parable a parable? Why did Jesus rely on this type of story to get his message across?
There are three basic genres in the New Testament: history (Gospels & Acts), epistles and apocryphal prophecy. The Gospels are arranged in the order Jerome and other ancients thought they had been composed, Matthew first, John last. Then there is the book of Acts, written by Luke, that recounts the beginnings of the Christian church. The following books, or epistles, are arranged, oddly enough, from longest to shortest. The New Testament closes with a lengthy series of visions, a revelation, about the end of the world seen by the apostle John while he was exiled on the island of Patmos.
So what are the guiding principles for better understanding and appreciating our reading of each one?