Introduction to Philippians

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
http://www.jesuswalk.com/philippians/0_intro.htm
Audio Audio Version (14:16)

For a short letter of only four chapters and 104 verses, Paul's Letter to the Philippians is amazingly profound. At one level it is a poignant epistle from a jailed apostle to a beloved supporting church. At another level it contains an exhilarating hymn of Christ's humility and exaltation, a glimpse into Paul's intense passion to know Christ, and a discerning reflection on prayer and the peace it brings.

The City of Philippi

Macedonia and Asia Minor, Location of PhilippiThe letter was written to Christians in the Macedonian city of Philippi. Its history goes back to 361 BC, when a number of Greek settlers took over the obscure Thracian village of Krenides ("springs"). Philip II of Macedon, the Father of Alexander the Great, annexed the whole region in 356 BC and formally established Philippi as a city bearing his own name. It was fortified with an extensive city wall, part of which still survives. A garrison stationed there made it a military strong point to guard gold from the nearby mines, which enriched Philip by 1000 talents of gold each year.

Philip II of MacedonThe Romans conquered Macedonia in 168-167 BC. In 42 BC, Mark Antony and Octavian defeated the Roman Republican forces of Brutus and Cassius (remembered as the assassins of Julius Caesar). The victors settled many of their veteran soldiers in Philippi and established it as a Roman colony, which grew still more when additional former soldiers were given land there.

Philippi was given the high honor of the ius Italicum ("law of Italy"), which meant that it was governed by Roman law, its citizens were Roman citizens, its constitution was modeled after Rome's, its architecture copied Roman styles, its coins bore Roman inscriptions, Latin was widely used, and its citizens wore Roman dress.

In spite of a strong Roman influence, the city's religious life was quite diverse. It included monuments reflecting emperor worship, plus Greek gods and their Roman counterparts, especially Jupiter (known in the Greek world as Zeus). The local Thracians worshipped the goddess Artemis, while there were also sanctuaries to Egyptian gods, especially Isis and Serapis, and to the Phrygian Cybele, known as the great Mother-goddess. There was a small Jewish community, but probably not a regular synagogue congregation which would have required ten men. Instead, several women met outside the city on the Sabbath for prayer (Acts 16:13).1

The Church at Philippi

Dream in which St. Paul received the Macedonian callThe Gospel came to Philippi sometime around 49 to 52 AD. On the Second Missionary Journey, Paul and Silas were "kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia" (Acts 16:6). They tried to go into Bithynia, "but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them" (Acts 16:7). They finally reached the coast at Troas, where Paul had a vision of a Macedonian begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us" (Acts 16:9). Paul took this as God's call.

Paul and Lydia, stained glass in the Church of Lydia, PhilippiIn Philippi, Paul and Silas met some women praying on the Sabbath at the river, led by Lydia, "a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshipper of God" (Acts 16:14). She welcomed Paul's message, was baptized with her household, and invited the missionaries and a cluster of believers into her home, where the tiny church began to grow.

One day they were met by a slave girl who prophesied from an evil spirit. Finally Paul turned to her and said to the spirit, "In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her." With their slave girl no longer able to prophecy, her owners had Paul and Silas flogged and thrown in prison for "throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice" (Acts 16:20-21). Supposed site of jail that housed Paul and Silas in PhilippiAt midnight an earthquake opened the prison doors and the jailer was converted and baptized with his household in the middle of the night. At daylight, Paul and Silas were thrown out of town, but not before a church had been established.

After Paul and Silas left, Luke may have stayed on in Philippi.2 Paul kept in touch with the Macedonian churches through Timothy (Acts 19:21-23; Philippians 2:19-20) and visited them twice more, probably during the autumn of 54-55 and again in the spring of 55-56 (Acts 20:1-3).

The church at Philippi provided financial and material support several times during Paul's journeys. He bragged to the Corinthians about their generosity:

"We want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.... They gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will" (2 Corinthians 8:1-5).

They shared with Paul a "partnership in the gospel from the first day" (Philippians 1:5). Paul recalls, "In the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need" (4:15-16). The warm Letter to the Philippians is strong evidence to this deep love between the apostle and some of his dearest converts.

Author

Paul's authorship of Philippians was unanimously supported among the Church Fathers and has rarely been challenged in our day. Nearly all scholars accept this as a genuine letter of Paul.

Date and Place of Composition

Paul in Prison, by Karen Anne GraeserBut there's no unanimity on the date and place of composition. Clearly it was written by Paul when he was in prison (1:7, 13, 14), a serious imprisonment (1:20-24, 30; 2:17), expected to end in a trial that could result in his death if convicted. In their attempts to fit this imprisonment into a chronology of Paul's life, scholars have presented cogent arguments for each of three possible locations and dates:

  • Ephesus (ca. 54-55 AD),
  • Caesarea (57-59 AD), and
  • Rome (60-62 AD), the traditional view.

The Mediterranean World in Paul's Day

Fortunately, it doesn't matter greatly to the teaching of Philippians which it was. In my exposition, I'll refer to Rome as the place of Paul's captivity, which is the place of composition I deem most likely.

Opponents

Their are several opponents mentioned in Philippians: (1) rival Christian preachers (1:15-18), (2) non-Christians who oppose the Gospel (1:1:27-28; 3:18-19), (3) Euodia and Syntyche, members at Philippi who are feuding with each other (4:2-3), and (4) a group who Paul refers to as "those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh" (3:2). This latter group has spawned a multitude of identifications. It seems pretty clear, however, that these are Judaizers, that is, "Jewish Christian missionaries from outside the congregation who wanted Gentile Christians to become Jews in practice," particularly by having them circumcised.3

Occasion and Purposes

Paul's immediate concerns in writing this letter are:

  1. To recommend to the Philippians one of their number, Epaphroditus, who had come to help him in prison, but had fallen ill and was being sent home.
  2. To let the concerned Philippians know about the current state of Paul's welfare.
  3. To prevent the Judaizers from persuading the Philippian Christians to submit to circumcision.
  4. To encourage the Philippian believers to quiet their dissention and be united.

Through the letter, however, Paul does much more than this. He provides the inspiration and encouragement of a friend, mentor, and fellow believer who finds Christ's strength and peace while struggling with opponents, anxiety, physical needs, and fear for his life. To see how a man, an apostle, meets obstacles and overcomes them in Christ, makes this letter very relevant for our day, too.

Themes

Paul develops several themes in Philippians -- joy and fellowship among others.

Rejoicing

Joy, the Greek noun chara, "the experience of gladness,"4 "rejoicing, merriness."5 like its verb form, chairō, "rejoice, be merry,"6 is related to the noun charis, "grace, favor," originally, "that which delights."7 Sometimes Christians act as if Christianity were a sorrowful religion. It is not. It is a religion of joy and love. Joy and rejoicing are key and frequent words in Philippians.

1:4

" In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy…."

1:18

"The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice…."

1:25-26

"Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me."

2:2

"Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose."

2:16-18

"But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me."

2:28-29

"Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him…."

3:1

"Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!"

4:1

"Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!"

4:4

"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!"

4:10

" I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me."

For Paul, joy is a key component of the Christian life -- a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and "joy in the faith" (Philippians 1:25). "The kingdom of God is ... righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). This is not just a present joy in the midst of trials, but a joy that will reach its completion in the future Kingdom of God.

Fellowship

Koinōnia is another keyword in Philippians. "Partnership" (NIV), "sharing" (NRSV), and "fellowship" (KJV) is the Greek noun koinōnia, "close association involving mutual interests and sharing, association, communion, fellowship, close relationship." It is used often to describe relationships with God and with others in the Christian community," as it does here. It sometimes edges into the meaning of "participation, sharing," as in 3:10 "sharing his sufferings" and in the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 10:16).8 Here are its occurrences in Philippians.

1:5

"I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now."

1:7

"... All of you share in God's grace with me."

2:1

"... if any fellowship with the Spirit...."

3:10

"I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings...."

4:14

"Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles."

4:15

"Not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only."

Unity and Selflessness

The Philippians, beloved as they are by Paul, have some bickering and dissention going on. You can see this thread going throughout the short letter, sometimes subtly, by inference, and sometimes head-on. 

1:15-17

Paul tells about Romans preaching with envy and rivalry in order to speak to the Philippians about the same issue in their midst.

1:27

Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel.

1:27

Stand firm in one spirit, with one mind, striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.

2:2-4

Be in full accord and of one mind, same mind, same love. Do nothing from selfishness. Care about the interests of others.

2:5-11 Jesus' self-humiliation and exaltation by the Father used as an example of humility needed within the church.

2:14

Do all things without grumbling or questioning.

2:21

They all look after their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.

3:2-3

Judaizers trying to impose circumcision on the Philippians.

3:3-8

Confidence in the flesh, one's pedigree, holiness, and status.

3:17-19

Imitate me and those who live according to my example. Earthly focus vs. heavenly one.

4:2

Exhorts Euodia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord.

4:8-9

Honorable, upright living, modeled by Paul.

In Christ

One of the characteristic phrases in Paul -- and, incidentally, John's writings too -- is "in Christ" or "in the Lord," the common Greek prepositional phrase en Christō or en kuriō. Here the preposition en is used to designate a close personal relation in which the object of the preposition is viewed as the control influence. So the preposition en here means, "under the control of, under the influence of, in close association with."9 We see this phrase again and again in Philippians. Paul anchors all of the Christian life in one's relationship to Christ.

1:1

"To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi…."

1:14

"Most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged…."

1:26

"Your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me"

2:19

"I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon…."

2:24

"And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon."

2:29

"Welcome him in the Lord with great joy…."

3:1

"Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!"

3:3

"For it is we who are the circumcision … who glory in Christ Jesus…."

3:8-9

"That I may gain Christ and be found in him…."

3:9

"The righteousness … that which is through faith in Christ…."

3:14

"I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."

4:1

"You should stand firm in the Lord…."

4:2

"I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord."

4:4

"Rejoice in the Lord always."

4:7

"And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

4:10

"I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me."

4:21

"Greet all the saints in Christ Jesus."

Outline

Philippians: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, JesusWalk Bible Study Series
Available in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats

We'll be studying the Letter of Philippians over a period of nine weeks. Here's the outline:

  1. Approve What Is Excellent (1:1-11). Partnership in the gospel, choices.
  2. For Me to Live is Christ (1:12-30). The witness of imprisonment and purpose for living.
  3. He Emptied Himself (2:1-11). Humility and exaltation. A study in who Jesus is, and the nature of the incarnation.
  4. God Is at Work in You (2:12-18). The dynamics of salvation: our part and God's part.
  5. Christian Character: Timothy and Epaphroditus (2:19-30). Character of Christian workers.
  6. That I May Know Him (3:1-11). What it means to "know" God.
  7. Pressing Toward the Goal (3:12-4:1). The urgency of God's call, citizenship in heaven.
  8. Rejoice in the Lord Always (4:1-9). Dealing with worry and stress.
  9. A Partnership in Giving and Receiving (4:10-23). Learning contentment in Christ, stewardship


References

  1. O'Brien 3-5.
  2. The first "we" passage in Acts concludes at Philippi in Acts 16:17.
  3. O'Brien 33.
  4. BDAG 1077.
  5. Hans Conzelmann, "chairo, ktl.," TDNT 9:359-372, especially 360.
  6. BDAG 1074-1075.
  7. Conzelmann, op. cit.
  8. BDAG 552-553.
  9. BDAG 327-328.

Copyright © 1985-2014, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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