“So, I rejoice in the Lord greatly for even now you have blossomed in your thoughts for me. You did think about me, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I am in poverty, I have learned in everything to be self-sufficient.”
I have ranted more than a few times in this series of reflections about our modern Bible translator’s tendency to express the idea of thinking and reasoning in terms of feelings and emotion. In verse 10 the word in question is frone/w (phroneo), which means to think or to form a reasoned opinion. Yet, as we have often seen, the ESV, the NIV, and the NASB have chosen to use the term “concern” and the KJV and NKJV have used the words “care.” While it is most certainly true, given all that Paul has already written, that when the Philippians thought about Paul and about his situation, these thoughts did evoke concern, that is an inference from the text, not what Paul wrote. Further, while we might also argue that concern should be considered a thoughtful activity, in our culture it often is nothing more than an emotional response to difficult events in the lives of those around us. So, concern is not out of line, yet the concern that is being expressed is a thoughtful concern based on reasoning through the situation their beloved friend, Paul, was in.
The last clause in verse 10 is a little awkward in English. What does it mean that they did think about Paul but lacked opportunity? The Greek word that is translated as “opportunity” is ajkaire/omai (akaireomai), which refers to the time or opportunity to act upon something. In this case, to act upon what they perceived that Paul had need of while Paul was in prison. So, he is saying that he is aware that they had been thinking of him all along, but now, in sending Epaphroditus with their love gift, they had opportunity and acted upon the thoughts that they had.
Paul reminds them that he has not been utterly impoverished but in all things he has learned to be self-sufficient (he has a marketable trade that he often used to provide for his own needs). Many of our Bibles, again, translate this as “content,” conveying that in all situations Paul knows how to be content in his trust for God…that is certainly what is being communicated in the two verses that follow this one…but not so much here. This term only shows up once here in the New Testament, but also shows up 5 times in the Apocrypha as well as once in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which helps us to discern its meaning. Literally, the term aujta/rkhß (autarkas) is derived from the Greek words aujto/ß (autos — or self) and ajrke/w (arkeo — meaning to be satisfied or to have that which is sufficient for one’s needs) — thus, “self-sufficient” as has been suggested by some scholars.
When looking at the Old Testament and Apocryphal uses of the term, it seems to be used in one of two ways, either to refer to being satisfied with the provision given (content) or that of being able to endure hardships. Thus, the idea of contentment is a legitimate translation of the term as reflected in most of our modern translations. At the same time, one must ask why Paul what Paul is doing during these times of hardship — namely, we know that he is working to provide for his needs (see Acts 18:2-3 and 2 Corinthians 11:9). One might argue that I am inferring just as I charged many of our translators of doing when they rendered “think” as “concern” above, and that charge would be accurate were the literal meaning of the term not before us, which reflects the idea of self-sufficiency.
The purpose of this point is not to parse hairs but to illustrate that Christian contentment does not mean that we sit back and just rest in whatever circumstances we may happen to be in. No, as a Christian, when we are in need (real need that is), we should strive to meet that need with the skills that we have or even by learning new skills.
In many cases, Christian missionaries were expected to learn a trade before they went onto the mission field. It was a means by which they could support themselves in the context and culture that they were ministering. For many small Christian churches today, pastors are bi-vocational, providing the majority of their own financial needs through a trade while serving a church that is not in a position to support them (this I did in my first calling right out of seminary). It is certainly the right of the pastor to have his needs provided by his flock (1 Corinthians 9:18, 1 Timothy 5:17-18), but because of the needs of the congregation, it is also his right to refuse that compensation. Too often Christians fall into the trap that conveys almost a poverty mindset — God will provide so I can be content! Indeed, God does provide, but often he provides through the sweat of our brow and the labor of our hands. In the end, we need to be content, but recognize that often our contentment comes through work.