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Introduction to Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians

Table of Contents

General Info

Like all of the other Pauline epistles, the title of the book comes from the name of the recipients.  The church at Philippi was Paul’s pride and joy.  It was the first church that he established in the European continent.  The Philippians were very generous in supporting his ministry and the saints in Jerusalem.  Thus, the Book of Philippians was the most personal and informal letter composed by Paul to a church; an emotional, cordial and encouraging correspondence as if written to an old friend.

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Brief Survey

After a brief introduction, Paul speaks of his gratitude to God for the Philippians and prays for their continued spiritual growth.  He then provides an update of about his recent imprisonment, which resulted in the spread of the Gospel.  He encouraged the Philippians to be strong in their faith and to live for Christ, regardless of the situation.

In the second chapter, Paul advises the letter’s recipients to humbly imitate Christ by serving and supporting each other, and promises to send Epaphroditus and Timothy to them soon.  In chapter three, he warns the Philippians against the false Gospel based upon keeping the law as a means of salvation, relates the story of his own conversion from Judaism and the Mosaic Law, and councils them to be spiritually united with Christ instead.  He then advises his readers to “press on toward the goal” of becoming more like Christ.

In the final chapter, Paul continues to encourage the Philippians to fill their lives with prayer and joy, even in the face of persecution and hardships, meditating on heavenly things and being content in all circumstances.  He thanks them for the gifts that were sent, and ends the letter with a doxology of praise to God.

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Key Verses

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (1:21)

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!  Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (2:5-11)

I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ…  Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (3:8,12)

Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice! Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (4:4,6-7)

I can do everything through him who gives me strength…  And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. (4:13,19)

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Author, Date and Recipients

Paul is the stated author of Philippians, and very few have questioned his authorship.  It is supported by internal person references as well as the unanimous testimony of early church fathers such as Polycarp, Ignatius, Tertullian, and Irenaeus.

Paul wrote this letter from prison.  Some place the location at Ephesus (53-55AD) or Caesarea (~60AD).  Although he experienced much opposition and suffering during his three years at Ephesus, there is no mention in the Bible of any incarceration.  Caesarea is also unlikely due to the statements about his possible imminent death (1:20) since, being a Roman citizen, he could appeal to Rome (which he did).  Therefore the best evidence, including the mention of the praetorian (1:13) and Caesar's household (4:22) leads to the conclusion that Paul was imprisoned in Rome when the letter was written, probably 60-62 AD.  During the writing of Philippians, Paul was probably under house arrest in his own rented house (Ac 28:14–31), rather than in the Mamertine dungeon, where he wrote 2 Timothy shortly before his death a few years later.

The recipient was the Church at Philippi, a prosperous Roman community named after King Phillip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.  Paul, Timothy, Silas and Luke (who joined them at Alexandria Troas) visited the town on their second missionary journey (Acts 16).  Luke stayed behind when the others left (Ac 17:1) leading many to believe that he pastured the church during its first few years.  Many have also speculated that Philippi was Dr Luke’s hometown.

The population consisted primarily of Gentiles, including many retired Roman soldiers, who were given some land in the area, which would explain Paul’s use of some military terminology and the absence of any OT quotes in the letter.

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Historical Background

Philippi was the site of the famous military victory by Antony and Octavius, defeating Brutus and Cassius in 42AD.  It was then settled as a Roman colony in 30 BC during the reign of Augustus Caesar.  The city’s residents were therefore declared Roman citizens, giving them land ownership privileges of the fertile agricultural land and exempting them from certain taxes, which resulted in the aforementioned settlement of many army veterans.  Modern archaeological finds indicate an ingrained Roman culture and thriving economy during Paul’s day.

Paul’s first visit to Philippi was due to a vision he received during his second missionary journey (49-52 AD).  In the vision, a man begged him to “come over to Macedonia and help us” (Ac 16:9).  Paul, along with his traveling companions Timothy and Silas, concluded that God had called them to preach the gospel there, so they picked up Luke at Troas and eventually arrived at Philippi.

The account of the planting of the church at Philippi is found in Acts 16.  We suggest reading this chapter prior to beginning Philippians.  It appears the church consisted primarily of Gentiles meeting in houses, since a synagogue is not mentioned.  It’s also evident that Lydia and many other women played significant roles within the church.  After Paul left, the Philippians became his most faithful supporters.  As noted in Acts 20, Paul visited the church again a few years later during his third missionary journey.

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30 or 33 (1) Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, Pentecost
~ 46-48 Paul’s first missionary journey
~ 49-52 Paul’s second missionary journey (Philippian church planted)
~ 53-57 Paul’s third missionary journey
~59-60 Paul’s voyage to Rome
~ 60-62 Paul imprisoned in Rome, writes Epistle to the Philippians
~62-65 Paul released and goes on fourth missionary journey to Spain (according to tradition)
~ 64-67 Paul imprisoned and martyred in Rome
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

Paul’s immediate purpose in writing this letter was to thank the Philippians for their gift upon learning of his detention at Rome.  One of their brothers named Epaphroditus brought the gift, and spent some time assisting Paul, suffered and recovered from a serious illness, and was now returning to Philippi.  Paul makes use of this occasion to send this letter of encouragement to fulfill several other purposes, namely to report on his current circumstances, to encourage the Philippians to stand firm in the face of persecution, continue to grow in their faith, avoid quarreling amongst each other, and to rejoice regardless of their circumstances.  He also warns the Philippians to beware of the false teachers in their midst.  These probably included both Legalists (Judaizers who taught that observance of the Mosaic Law was required for salvation), and Libertines (Antinomians who taught that, since a person is saved by grace, he or she can completely ignore God’s moral law).

The most common theme, which permeates throughout the letter, is joy.  The noun “joy” (Gk chara) or the verb “rejoice” (Gk chairein) appears a total of sixteen times.  The epistle has often been called Paul’s “hymn of joy”.  In the ultimate sense, we could say that the main theme is “grace”, since it is the grace of God which allows us experience peace and to “rejoice in the Lord” in all circumstances.

Other key themes are the importance of prayer (1:3-11, 4:5-7), following the example of Christ (2:5), the humility and exaltation of Jesus the Messiah (2:6-11), the old vs new covenant (3:3-11), and spiritual growth (3:12-4:1).

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 Interpretation Hints and Challenges

Paul addresses no major theological or moral problems relating to the Philippian church in the letter.  It is primarily a letter of encouragement to his friends during tough times of suffering for their faith.  There are however, a few things we can mention which might enhance the understanding of the reader

The opposition to the church was probably related to the city being a Roman military settlement.  This should be further understood in the context that, the concept of friendship was more intense in Roman culture than in our modern Western society.  In those days, an enemy of a friend automatically became one's enemy also.  Thus, Paul’s "enemies of the gospel" (3:18-19) must become the Philippians' enemies also.  As mentioned above, these were probably either Jewish legalists, Gentile libertines, or both.

While Paul concentrates on practical exhortations and warnings in his letter, each are theologically based.  He contrasts justification by faith against legalism, contends for spiritual growth and a heavenly outlook, and solidly grounds his joy in Christ.

Paul also inserts what was likely an early church hymn in 2:5-11 (quoted in the "key verses" above).  Knowing a couple of Greek words will help make the meaning clearer.  In verse 5, Jesus "being in very nature God", the word nature ("form" in other English Bible translations) is the Greek word morphe.  This word designates the very essence or character that makes a person or thing what it really is.  This verse therefore emphatically states that Jesus is God, possessing every attribute and quality of the Father.  The phrase "made himself nothing" comes from the Greek kenosis, or the "self-emptying" of Himself at the Incarnation.  This has been misunderstood by many to mean that He emptied Himself of His deity, but He merely temporarily and voluntarily set aside certain divine privileges, subjecting Himself to the guidance of the Father and the Holy Spirit.

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1:1 – 1:11 Greetings, Thanksgiving and Prayer
1:12 – 1:30 Paul’s Circumstances
2:1 – 2:18 Imitating Christ in Humble Service
2:19 – 2:30 Paul’s Associates in Ministry
3:1 – 3:11 True vs False Gospel
3:12 – 4:1 Pursuing Christ
4:2 – 4:23 Exhortations, Thanksgiving and Final Greetings

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