The Epistle to the Philippians

By Peter T. O'Brien
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (1991). xli + 597 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Irv Busenitz
3.2 (Fall 1992) : 230-231

It is the aim of this series to "demonstrate the value of studying the Greek New Testament and help toward the revival of such study" (x) as well as "to serve those who are engaged in the ministry of the Word of God" (xi). Attempts to balance these are not always successful; yet, for the most part, O'Brien has achieved this in his volume on Philippians. The book is a well written, in-depth exegetical commentary on the epistle. The author's penchant for a thorough elucidation of the text, including a diligent presentation of the various viewpoints on different issues, provides an excellent foundation for understanding the epistle. He clearly sets forth his own viewpoint on each issue, supporting the tenets of his conclusion from the Greek text. The extensive use of footnotes and the Scripture index are very beneficial as well.

He begins not with introductory matters but with an extensive (twenty-page) bibliography, providing a "who's who" list of resources. From there the author turns to a thorough treatment of the book's setting, authorship, and date. He discusses the background of the Roman colony, the intricacies of its religious heritage, and the coming of the gospel with the arrival of the apostle Paul. He argues against those who call into question the climactic story of the Philippian jailor's conversion and the events surrounding it (cf. Acts 16). He contends at some length for the unity and integrity of the epistle, carefully reviewing the evidence both for and against (10-18). With clarity he details the views on the letter's date and place of origination, concluding that the evidence favors the Roman imprisonment around A.D. 62 (18-26).

The writer suggests that Judaizers are Paul's opponents in both 1:15-17 and 3:1 ff. In the latter reference, a more hostile group of Judaizers is in view than in the former. But the enemies in 1:27-28 are heathen inhabitants of Philippi, who threatened persecution of believers (26-35).

O'Brien devotes nearly one hundred pages to the humiliation and exaltation of Christ in 2:5-11 (186-271), discussing the passage both as a unit and in its component parts. He regards its literary form as "a traditional hymnic or poetic piece" (189). He notes that the passage belongs unquestionably in its present context, with its vocabulary anchored in what proceeds and what follows and with its prefiguring of themes that occur later. "In fact, it fits its present context so well that it is hard to see it detached from it" (202). He also includes a number of appendixes covering issues such as "taking the form of a bondservant" and "He poured Himself out to death" (Isa 53:12).

"Work out your salvation . . ." (2:12-13) is the subject of an equally thorough and in-depth treatment. The author concludes that the "salvation" of which Paul speaks here is not in a sociological sense to describe the spiritual health of the Philippian Church. Rather, it is "an exhortation to common action, urging the Philippians to show forth the graces of Christ in their lives, to make their eternal salvation fruitful in the here and now as they fulfil their responsibilities to one another as well as to non-christians" (280).

Overall, O'Brien's work is a valuable contribution and deserves wide circulation. The serious student will find it a most helpful resource.