Philippians Introduction

Paul, Philippi and the church there

The Philippi to which Paul went in the course of his missionary work was a significant place in a number of ways. Not only was it an important city in the Roman province of Macedonia, but it had the special status of being a Roman colony (Acts 16:12). This meant that it was like a little piece of Rome abroad. The Latin language was used; Roman law controlled local administration and taxes; many aspects of public life went on as in Rome itself and most of the officials had the same titles as in Rome.

The known history of Philippi, however, goes back a long way. Before 360 bc a small Thracian village stood on the site. The city itself was founded and its name given to it by Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, as he realized the strategic nature of the site. Philippi came into the hands of the Romans in 168 bc after the battle of Pydna. In 42 bc Antony, after he and Octavian had defeated Brutus and Cassius, settled some of his disbanded veterans there, and thus made Philippi a Roman colony. Then in 30 bc, when Octavian had defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the famous battle of Actium, he sent further ‘colonists’ from Italy to Philippi, to make room nearer home for the settlement of his own war veterans. The strong consciousness of the privileges of Roman citizenship in Philippi is seen in Acts 16:20–21, 35–39 and is probably reflected in the letter in 1:27 and 3:20.

Paul’s preaching of the gospel in Philippi represents for us what was probably the first apostolic work of evangelization in Europe. For the apostle it would have meant working in a strategic centre of a Roman province which had not previously heard the gospel. According to the record of Acts 16:9–10, Paul went there (together with Silas and Timothy) in response to a vision in the night in which he saw ‘a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” ’ As the story of Acts 16 unfolds we read that in Philippi Paul found no synagogue, but on the Sabbath he discovered a ‘place of prayer’ by the riverside, where a group of women gathered. One of these women, Lydia, ‘a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira’, appears to have been the first convert, and she opened her home to Paul.

We see something of the pagan background in Philippi when we read of ‘a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future’ and who ‘earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling’. Paul and Silas were condemned to prison through the anger of the slave-owners when, with the evil spirit exorcized from the girl, they saw that ‘their hope of making money was gone’. The pretext for the condemnation of Paul and Silas was that they, as Jews, were throwing the city into an uproar and advocating customs which, their accusers piously said, were ‘unlawful for us Romans to accept or practise’.

The partnership in the gospel, the persecution and the largely Gentile background of the Philippian Christians (all of which are brought out in the letter) are thus seen in this record in Acts 16 of Paul’s first visit to Philippi.

Although we do not have many details, it is clear that from that first visit to Philippi Paul left behind a devoted group of Christians. On Paul’s third missionary journey recorded in Acts we read of his spending time again in Macedonia (Acts 20:1), and that most probably would have involved a visit to Philippi. Then after a time in Greece, he was back in Macedonia, and Acts 20:6 tells us specifically that Paul set sail from Philippi to return to Jerusalem.

The time and place of the writing of the letter

It is completely clear from reading 1:12–26 that Paul was in prison when he wrote. Philippians, together with Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians, have been called his ‘prison letters’. In 2 Cor. 11:23 he speaks of having been frequently in prison. From the record in Acts we know that he had sustained periods of imprisonment in Caesarea and in Rome, and on the basis of what we read in such passages as Acts 20:18–19; 1 Cor. 4:9–13; 15:31–32; 2 Cor. 1:8–10; 4:8–12; 6:4–10; 11:23–27, it is thought that he may well have been imprisoned in Ephesus also. Reasons have been put forward to support each of these places—Caesarea, Ephesus and Rome—as the likely place of Paul’s imprisonment when he wrote to the Christians at Philippi.

The most important arguments for Caesarea being the place where the letter was written are:

1. Acts 23:25 speaks of the imprisonment at Caesarea being in the praetorium of Herod (niv, ‘Herod’s palace’), and the letter speaks of the fact that Paul was ‘in chains for Christ’ becoming clear through the whole praetorium (niv, ‘palace guard’) as well as to others (1:13).

2. The two-year imprisonment in Caesarea (Acts 24:27) would have given time for the communications between Paul’s place of imprisonment and Philippi that the letter implies (see below).

3. In Phil. 1:7 Paul writes of a defence that he had made, but he was still in prison. It was certainly the case in Caesarea that he made a defence of himself before Felix, and then continued confined for those further two years.

4. In this letter Paul makes no mention of the collection for the poor in Judea which was so important at earlier stages in his work. When he was in Caesarea those gifts had already been delivered in Jerusalem, and so in Philippians he could write of ‘gifts’ without alluding to this collection.

There is some strength in these arguments. Over against them it must be said that in Caesarea Paul was not facing the immediate possibility of execution, but a journey to Rome to stand on trial before the emperor, because of his ‘appeal to Caesar’ (Acts 25:11). The alternatives of death and release of which he writes specifically in 1:20–24—and in the case of the latter the hope of a visit to Philippi (see 2:24)—were not really alternatives before him during this time in prison in Caesarea.

If we accept the probability of an imprisonment in Ephesus, we could recognize the strength of the following arguments for that being the place of the writing of Philippians:

1. The letter indicates at least four journeys between Philippi and the place of Paul’s imprisonment: the first took news of his situation, then Epaphroditus came to Paul from Philippi, a message went back to Philippi to tell of Epaphroditus’ illness, and subsequently news was received of the Philippians’ concern for him (2:25–30). The journey from Philippi to Ephesus would have taken some seven to ten days, and so it would not have been difficult for all those journeys to have been made.

2. Acts 19:22 tells us that Timothy was sent from Ephesus to Macedonia, and this would fit in with Phil. 2:19–22.

3. From the passages mentioned above as arguing for Paul’s imprisonment in Ephesus, it would seem that he did indeed face the threat of death there (cf. Phil. 1:20–23). It is, however, questionable whether Paul would have faced a long imprisonment in Ephesus, and imprisonment of the time needed for such situations to develop as are described in 1:12–18.

4. When Paul was in Ephesus he certainly contemplated, and indeed fulfilled, the hope of travelling to Macedonia and Greece. On the other hand, it is asked whether Paul could have written 2:24 from Rome, as it seems that at that time his eyes were turned westwards and he did not expect to come further east again (see Acts 20:25 and Rom. 15:18–29).

5. There are thought to be greater similarities between this letter and Paul’s earlier letters rather than his later ones. In particular the problems of the Judaizers that he deals with in Galatians and Romans continued to concern him.

6. It is thought that such passages as 1:30 and 4:15–16 view the first preaching of the gospel in Philippi as much more recent than the eleven or twelve years that would have been involved if Paul was writing from Rome.

If the letter was written from Ephesus, its date of writing would have been about ad 54–55. If it was written from Caesarea, it would have been between 57 and 59. While there seem much greater strengths in the arguments for an Ephesian rather than a Caesarean origin of the letter there remain strong arguments to favour the traditional view that the letter was written from Rome:

1. In Rome, as long as Paul awaited trial before the emperor, there were the two possibilities that lay before him, acquittal and release, or being condemned to death. These are the two alternatives of which Paul writes in 1:19–26.

2. Although journeys between Rome and Philippi would have taken longer than between Rome and Ephesus, they need not have taken longer than seven or eight weeks each.

3. Although when Paul thought of going to Rome, he had in mind going further west to Spain (Rom. 15:23–28), there is evidence to suggest that while in Rome the apostle’s thoughts were turned back to the lands east of him where he had laboured already, and where the churches that he had founded were in great need of help from him.

4. While there are similarities between Philippians and earlier letters of Paul, there are also conspicuous differences, and even in the time of the letters to Timothy and Titus the church was still in danger of the Judaizers’ legalism.

5. Although explanation can be given to the ‘praetorium’ (1:13) and ‘Caesar’s household’ (4:22) in relation to Ephesus (or even Caesarea), both expressions would more naturally be used in Rome.

6. The absence of any mention in Philippians of the collection for the Jerusalem Christians has been mentioned above as an argument for a Caesarean origin rather than an Ephesian one. It is also a strong argument for Rome, if Caesarea is ruled out, as the place of writing. From 2 Cor. 8:1–5 and 9:1–4 we see the involvement of Macedonian Christians in that whole undertaking, and so silence in relation to it would suggest it was a thing of the past.

If we settle for Rome as the most likely place for the letter to have been written, we should probably date it about ad 62, towards the end of the period of Paul’s imprisonment of which Acts 28 speaks. For our understanding of the letter, however, the location is less important than the appreciation of the fact that it was a letter written out of the experience of sustained imprisonment.

The reasons for writing

As we read the letter to the Philippians we realize that there were a number of reasons that prompted Paul’s writing:

1. He wanted to acknowledge the gifts that his friends in Philippi had sent to him (4:10, 14–18).

2. He wanted to give news of his own situation, and especially to give the assurance that his imprisonment had by no means involved a set-back for the gospel (1:12–26). He also wanted to tell them of his plan to send Timothy with further news (2:19–24), though he had the hope that he would be free to come himself.

3. He needed to explain why he was sending Epaphroditus back, when the Philippians had apparently intended that he should remain with Paul and help him in whatever way he could (2:25–30).

4. News had come to him that there was party spirit and potential disunity in the church at Philippi, and the apostle wanted to urge them to live and act and witness in the unity of the Spirit (1:27; 2:1–11; 4:2–3).

5. Paul also realized that there was a danger of the Philippians being influenced in the direction of Jewish legalism, and so he wanted to make it abundantly clear to them that this would be a basic contradiction of the gospel (3:1–11).

6. He seems also to have been aware of the dangers of a wrong idea about reaching perfection (3:12–16), and of the pressures of materialism on the Christians at Philippi (3:18–21).

7. His writing was also an opportunity to encourage Christians to suffer bravely, to live in single-mindedness and to trust their lives to their Lord in all things and under all circumstances (1:27–30; 2:12–18; 3:17–21; 4:4–9).

The theology and themes of the letter

Most of the letter deals with practical issues of Christian living rather than with Christian beliefs as such. As in all Paul’s letters, however, what he says as instructions about discipleship is related to things at the heart of the Christian faith, such as the centrality of the cross (3:18), the work of the Spirit (1:19) and the Christian hope (1:6, 10; 3:20). There are sections of the letter, however, where strong and clear statements are made about the person of Christ and about the way of salvation in Christ. In 2:5–11 the facts of Jesus being of the very nature of God and yet becoming truly and fully human are unambiguously stated. Paul says that after Christ’s stooping to our humanity and going even to death on the cross, ‘God exalted him to the highest place’ and uses words of that exaltation that are taken from an OT passage that speaks of every knee bowing before God and every tongue acknowledging him (Is. 45:23).

In 3:4–10, as Paul compares his pre-Christian ambitions and the life that he found in Christ, he makes clear that ‘righteousness’ (being in the right with God) is not possible by one’s own acts of obedience to the law or faithfulness in outward observances. It is possible only through Christ, by a ‘righteousness’ that is entirely God’s gift and grace, and made available by the suffering and death and resurrection of Christ.

In what is said about Christian living there are certain dominant notes in the letter:

1. Joy. The noun ‘joy’ or the verb ‘rejoice’ are used sixteen times in the letter. Paul speaks of joy in prayer (1:4), joy in the fruit of his work (4:1) and joy in suffering, even facing death (2:17). He rejoices where there is unity and fellowship (2:2), finds joy in the gifts of his friends (4:10) and has joy when he knows that others are preaching Christ (1:18). He encourages his readers to rejoice in their faith and in their relationship with the Lord (1:25; 3:1; 4:4), and in their receiving and welcoming a brother in Christ (2:28–29).

2. Fellowship and unity. Paul writes with gratitude for the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel from the beginning (1:5), as they shared in God’s grace enabling the defence and the confirmation of the gospel (1:7). It was a fellowship ‘of giving and receiving’ that he had known with the Philippian Christians (4:15). He encourages them to continue ‘standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel’ (1:27, nrsv). It would make the apostle’s joy complete if they were ‘like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose’ (2:2). He wanted to be sure that the church at Philippi was not allowing its fellowship to be marred by selfishness, pride or party spirit (2:1–4). Where there was disagreement between members, help needed to be given so that the unity and fellowship and witness of the body was not spoilt (4:2–3).

3. Paul’s spiritual ambition. No letter shows this more vividly. We see the completeness of Paul’s commitment to Jesus Christ, and his single-minded desire to know him and make him known. This is shown most clearly in 3:7–14, but alongside that passage we should set Paul’s hope and longing expressed in 1:20 that he would never be ashamed, but with courage make sure that Christ would be ‘exalted in [his] body, whether by life or by death’. In 4:11, 13 he can speak of his contentment in any circumstances, any deprivations, any difficulties, as long as Christ strengthened him to bear them and Christ was being glorified through them.

How the letter came to be written

Those who examine the NT documents closely ask questions that belong to literary and historical criticism: Is this the genuine work of the one whose name it bears? Was it all written as a letter as it purports to be? In the case of this letter these are fairly academic questions. No serious doubts are felt about Pauline authorship except by a tiny minority of scholars. There are three questions, however, that deserve brief attention.

1. Might 2:6–11 have been an early Christian hymn, taken up and quoted by the apostle as appropriate to his letter? These verses, with the humiliation and exaltation of Christ as their theme, are rhythmic in form, and scholars have arranged them in six stanzas of three lines each. We have highly poetic passages in some of Paul’s other letters (like 1 Cor. 13), but these verses read rather like a quotation, deeply relevant to the purpose of the section but not originally composed for it. We have other examples of hymns or credal fragments being used in NT letters (e.g. Eph. 4:4–6; 5:14; 1 Tim. 1:17; 3:16; 6:15–16; 2 Tim. 2:11–13). This appears to be a similar but longer example of such a quotation. There are words here not used elsewhere by Paul, some are not found anywhere else in the NT. If the hymn were composed by someone other than the apostle himself, this would also account for the incarnation and the work of Christ being described in a somewhat different way from that with which we are familiar from Paul’s other writings. On the other hand, we cannot rule out the alternative that Paul himself was the author. We should certainly see 2:6–11 as a hymn in praise of Christ, perhaps by Paul, perhaps by someone else, but if so, taken by the apostle and made his own and appropriate to its context in this letter.

2. In the midst of 3:1 we have a sudden break in subject matter that some have suggested is best explained as an indication of a completely different letter being inserted into the one that we have been reading up to this point. There is certainly a break in the argument, but there are other examples of that kind of thing in Paul’s letters. If this were part of another letter set into an earlier one, it is hard to see where the interpolation ends. A more probable explanation would seem to be that whether fresh news came to hand from Philippi, or the apostle’s mind was turned to this ever-pressing problem, he saw fit to warn his readers afresh of the menace of those who substituted law for grace as a means of acceptance with God. Having done this, he then moved to the final things that he wanted to say to the Philippians.

3. Some have asked whether 4:10–20 might belong to an earlier letter on the grounds that Paul would hardly have waited so long to acknowledge the gift brought from Philippi by Epaphroditus, and in any case he might have been expected to express this gratitude early on in his letter. There is some strength in this argument, but against it we can say that there may have been an acknowledgment of the gift in an earlier letter, of which we do not have a copy, and here Paul’s gratitude is simply repeated. We should also be aware of the sensitivities involved in the way that Paul needed to express appreciation and at the same time to emphasize the fact that he was not dependent on their gifts (see the notes on 4:10–20). Because of these sensitivities we could understand why Paul left this delicate subject to the end of his letter. The probabilities would seem, therefore, to point against interpolation theories about the writing of Philippians.

We have in Philippians, as R. P. Martin puts it, ‘a window into Paul’s personal and pastoral character’, and also ‘a case-study of one early Christian congregation with whom Paul cherished fond and enduring relationships’ (R. P. Martin, Philippians, NCB [Oliphants, 1976], p. ix).

While the letter to the Romans has gripped people’s minds down the centuries and enabled them to see the wonder of the gospel of salvation in Christ, this letter to the Philippians has brought inspiration and courage to many facing hardship and persecution for the sake of the gospel, and so has made an incalculable impact on the lives of men and women.

Further reading

J. A. Motyer, The Message of Philippians, BST (IVP, 1984).

R. P. Martin, The Epistle to the Philippians, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1987).

———, Philippians, NCB (Oliphants/Eerdmans, 1976).

G. B. Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison (OUP, 1976).

G. F. Hawthorne, Philippians, WBC (Word, 1983).

niv New International Version

cf. compare

OT Old Testament

nrsv (New) Revised Standard Version

NT New Testament

NCB New Century Bible

BST The Bible Speaks Today

TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary

WBC Word Biblical Commentary

Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Flp 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.