Among the extant epistles of Paul there is none more genial in its attitude and more revealing of the author than the epistle to the Philippians. Like an excerpt from an intimate diary, this short letter, occupying about three pages in the average copy of the Bible, speaks of the fulness of Paul’s Christian experience and contains some of his ripest teaching. Although it is not primarily theological in character, it deals with an aspect of the Incarnation that has kept theologians arguing about it for years. Probably Paul would be quite dismayed if he knew how much controversy his seemingly incidental reference to the selfemptying of Christ had aroused.

History And Authorship

From the earliest times that the epistles of Paul were quoted, Philippians has been known to the Church. There are allusions to it in the writings of Ignatius and Polycarp, early in the second century, and the later writers of that century, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, all mention it. The authorship of Philippians has never been seriously questioned, for it bears the unmistakable imprint of Pauline thought and experience.

Date And Origin

The exact date of Philippians is uncertain, but it was probably written toward the close of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Some commentators like G. S. Duncan have argued for an Ephesian imprisonment about the time of the third journey, around 55 or 56. If Paul were imprisoned in Ephesus during or at the end of his three-year ministry there, neither his own writings nor the tradition of the Fathers has preserved any certain evidence of it. Internal evidence indicates that he wrote it when the issue of his case was still unsettled (Phil. 1:22, 23; 2:7). He was certainly confined to prison (1:7), and had probably just had his first hearing, so that his case had come to the attention of the palace officials (1:13). His enemies had taken advantage of his detention to promote their own cause, preaching Christ insincerely (1:16), while his friends had boldly come to his defense. Paul himself did not know what to expect. Death was quite possible, and he was ready for it (1:23), but he felt reasonably sure that he might be acquitted, and that he would be able to return to Philippi (1:25 f.).

The letter was written as a note of thanks to the church for having sent him support both in his past ministry in Macedonia (4:15,16), and during the imprisonment (4:14). Epaphroditus had brought their message (4:18), and had been taken ill at Rome (2:25–27). Paul had sent him back with this note after the delay of his illness, with the recommendation that they receive him well. He expected to send Timothy a little later, as soon as the outcome of his imprisonment should be decided (2:19–23).

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The church at Philippi was the first founded by Paul in his Macedonian campaign on the second journey, about the year 51. Upon receiving the call to Macedonia (Acts 16:9, 10) he and his party, including Luke, sailed westward from Troas to Asia Minor, and landed at Neapolis, the present port of Kavalla. From there they proceeded to Philippi, the largest city in that immediate region, and a colony of Roma. As a colony, it was under Roman law, and was regarded as an extension of Rome itself. It was largely populated by retired Roman legionaries, and the inhabitants prided themselves on their Roman citizenship. There were very few Jews in the city, not enough to build a synagogue.

Paul began his ministry in a prayer-meeting of Jews and Jewish proselytes held by the river bank. There he met Lydia, a wealthy shopkeeper, who became interested in his message. She entertained Paul and his party in her home, and became one of his first converts. Paul’s cure of a demon-possessed slave girl aroused the enmity of the owners, who could no longer use her profitably for fortune telling. They aroused public antagonism against Paul and Silas on the charge that they were Jews, whose message was subversive of Roman loyalties. They were seized, beaten, and thrown into prison without legal action, but were freed by the intervention of God through an earthquake at midnight. The jailor was converted. The next morning the magistrates of the city, upon learning that they were Romans, came down to the jail to release them. This public apology removed the stigma of the arrest, and the party was allowed to leave the city in peace (Acts 16:13–40).

According to the account of Acts, Luke seems to have remained behind as the pastor of the church and as a general evangelist in Macedonia and Achaia, for at this point in his narrative the pronoun shifts from the first person (“we”) to the third (“they”). He rejoined Paul when he returned to Philippi (Acts 20:6) about three years later. In the meantime his ministry at Philippi may have had a powerful influence on the church in promoting its loyalty to Paul, when, as Paul says in this very epistle, he was beset by enemies within the church who were seeking to undo his work.

Structure And Content

Because of his imprisonment which had curtailed his evangelistic and pastoral activities, Paul was deeply concerned with the progress of the gospel in the Roman world. There were other preachers, of course; but he felt responsible for maintaining the integrity of the churches which he had founded and for carrying the message to the farthest bounds possible. Spain was in his mind when he wrote Romans (Rom. 15:28) just before his arrest at Jerusalem. Now, three or four years later, he is still seeking “to reach forth unto those things which are before” (Phil. 3:13).

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The theme of “the gospel” runs through Philippians like a current in the ocean. His relation with the church is “the fellowship in the gospel” (1:15). His preaching is “the confirmation of the gospel” (1:7). His career is “the progress of the gospel” (1:12). His conflicts are “the defense of the gospel” (1:17). Ethical conduct is determined by the standards of the gospel (1:27), and the body of truth that Christians hold is “the faith of the gospel” (1:27). The labors in which Paul and his associates are engaged are “the service of the gospel” (2:22), and he speaks of the women of Philippi “who laboured with me in the gospel” (4:3) … In fact, so closely was his entire career bound up with this subject that he called the beginning of his campaign in Macedonia and Achaia “the beginning of the gospel” (4:15). Paul used the term in several senses. It denoted his message about Christ, the content of Christian faith, the sphere of Christian service, and the purpose of his whole career.

Philippians may be divided into several fairly well-marked sections, though its composition is much less formal than many other of Paul’s epistles. Nevertheless, there is a discernible outline in this epistle.

I. Salutation to the Philippians 1:1, 2

II. Paul’s Relationship to the Church 1:3–11

III. Paul’s Plan for the Church 1:12–2:30

A. Personal Prospects 1:12–26

B. Personal Requests 1:27–2:30

1. A Plea for Unity 1:27–30

2. A Plea for Humility 2:1–11

3. A Plea for Witnessing 2:12–18

C. Arrangements for Messengers 2:19–30

IV. Paul’s Warning Against Legalism 3:1–21

A. Personal Experience 3:1–16

B. Personal Plea for Loyalty 3:17–21

V. The Final Word 4:1–23

A. Concluding Injunctions 4:1–9

B. Thanksgiving for Favors 4:10–20

C. Salutation 4:21–23

Philippians is not so thoroughly logical an epistle as Romans or Galatians because it is written for a different purpose. It is non-controversial, and is much more like a conversation than like a debate or a lecture. Paul opens it by chatting informally about his imprisonment. He is grateful for the work that God has begun among the Philippians, and is confident that He will continue to carry it to completion. Paul wants them to know that his imprisonment has not blocked the progress of the gospel. On the contrary, it is becoming known in official circles, and many have begun to proclaim Christ publicly, whether out of sympathy for him, or whether as rival preachers. He is quite encouraged by the prospects, and wants the Philippians to know that his chief concern is the honor of Christ.

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There is no outstanding heresy or abuse in the Philippian church that calls for correction, but Paul wants his readers to maintain their courage, and not to be frightened from their calling in the gospel by the fact of his imprisonment. Since Philippi was a colony of Rome, any action of Roman courts would be immediately effective there. Perhaps some of the people were wondering whether the church would be declared illegal if Paul were condemned. He urged them to conduct themselves as good citizens (1:27—Greek: politeuesthe) of the gospel.

The passage in chapter 2 is worth more than passing comment. Paul used the picture of the humiliation of Christ as a pattern for the Philippians. The modern church has made it a crux interpretum of doctrine. We should note that Paul was not arguing the case for the Incarnation; he was assuming it. He was not seeking to explain it metaphysically; he was using it as an illustration. The very fact that he does so indicates his acceptance of the pre-existence of Christ and his high view of Jesus’ person. Christ, existing in that form which expressed the reality of his Godhead, voluntarily laid it aside for a different form which expressed the status of a bondslave, and in the outward appearance of a man he endured the death of the cross for us. Paul does not mean that Jesus was only a phantom, but he wishes to convey the idea that in the garb of human flesh Deity was resident. The Incarnation did not strip Jesus of his rights, but he laid aside certain of his powers in order that he might live the life of man. By so doing Deity was not degraded, though he suffered humiliation; rather, humanity was exalted as he became the Lord of heaven and earth. The point of the illustration is that if Deity could voluntarily accept humiliation to make the gospel possible, we should have the same attitude for the sake of making the gospel known. “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14), and we, in turn, “hold forth the word of life” (Phil. 2:16).

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A second important message in Philippians is the first part of the third chapter, where Paul describes Christian experience in autobiographical terms. He tells how he, a thorough Jew, steeped in the law and filled with zeal for it, found in Christ a gain greater than the loss of his prestige and influence in Judaism, and a motivation far stronger than that of the law. Christ became his righteousness, and in the power of His resurrection and in the fellowship of His sufferings he found a new and more abundant life.

The Philippian church seems to have been threatened by a legalistic type of Christianity somewhat akin to that which had disrupted the Galatian church about a decade before. There are not lacking hints that Paul’s antagonists had not been completely silenced in the Galatian controversy, but that they had pursued him throughout his missionary career. In the second epistle to Corinth he complains about those who have attacked both his preaching and his person (2 Cor. 11:3–6, 13, 22, 23; 10:10). They had reappeared at Rome (Phil. 1:15, 16). The Philippian church had not been led astray completely as had the Galatians, but he was aware of the danger which might overtake them, and he was seeking to avert it.

In order to make clear the nature of the gospel he cited his own experience. He had been brought up in strictest conformity to legal righteousness. He could trace his ancestry back to Israel, the “prince with God” who had been changed by God’s power. He came from Benjamin, the smallest but one of the most vigorous of the twelve tribes, and he was named for Saul, the Benjamite king of Israel. Although he had lived in a Greek city, he was a strict Hebrew, maintaining the language and customs of his people. He had been circumcised on the eighth day as an infant, so that he was no proselyte. He had adhered rigidly to the observance of the law. His zeal had been manifested in his persecution of the church, and his career before the public eye was blameless.

Surely so respectable a citizen and so upright a religionist would be quite well satisfied with his attainments. He found that there was something lacking which could be satisfied only in Christ. Christ became his righteousness, so that he stood before God clothed with a holiness not his own (3:9). Christ became his life, so that in power and in suffering he drew upon Christ’s resources (3:10). Christ became his goal; for as the runner speeds his way toward the tape and the judge’s stand where the prize will be awarded, Paul pursued his quest of following Christ (3:13, 14).

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His closing exhortations enforce this same principle. He urges the Philippians to follow him, and to avoid those “who are enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things” (3:18, 19). In his conclusion in this section of teaching he incorporates another illusion to the local social background. The passage beginning, “For our conversation is in heaven …” should be translated, “For our citizenship is in heaven …” (3:20). Just as the Philippians were politically citizens of Rome, though living in Philippi, so we are a colony of heaven. Our citizenship is there, even though we may be living in the world as “registered aliens.” Our conduct should be measured by the standards of our native land and not by the customs of the place of sojourn.

The last chapter of Philippians contains chiefly exhortations to unity, to trustfulness, and to prayer. Its great promise, “My God shall supply all your need …” (4:19) is linked with Paul’s personal thanks for all the gifts that the church has sent him. As they have supplied him, so God will supply them. As Paul closes this epistle, he succeeds in communicating his triumphant spirit to his friends, for he assured them that through his ministry there are saints even “in Caesar’s household” (4:22). In spite of his imprisonments he has carried the gospel forward, and has been able to bear an effective testimony to the imperial court in Rome.

Tools For Study

Old, but still one of the best commentaries on Philippians is J. B. Lightfoot’s St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. The volume in the International Critical Commentary by Vincent will provide ample discussion of the problems of introduction and of the Greek text. For a rare combination of scholarship and spiritual insight, try H. G. C. Moule’s Philippian Studies. The new one-volume commentary by Davidson, Stibbs, and Kevan has a clear, brief treatment of the epistle, with an unusually good introduction. A. T. Robertson’s book, Paul’s Joy in Christ, has some helpful homiletical suggestions. The development of the theme of the gospel may be found in Tenney’s Philippians: The Gospel at Work.


Dean of the Graduate School

Wheaton College (Illinois)

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