The Apostle Paul's letters contain both content (teaching, encouragement, rebuke, commands, etc.) and emotion. For example, in II Corinthians he is sorrowful that the church questioned his sincerity, and in the Galatian letter he was surprised that the church had so quickly turned away from the true gospel. The epistle to the Philippians is no different.
- It has content: instructions about spiritual maturity and what a mature Christian says and does.
- It has emotion: Paul uses the words joy or rejoice 17 times in this short epistle.
Unlike other letters that he wrote in which he was responding to questions or problems being experienced by the various churches he planted, the Philippian letter was written and sent primarily in response to a gift that he had received from this church. In it he also includes news about his and his co-workers' status in Rome, and finishes with an encouragement to pursue a mature Christian lifestyle.
His attitude, therefore, is that of a proud parent joyfully writing to an obedient and successful child encouraging him to continue growing in Christian virtue and maturity.
History and Geography of Philippi
The city of Philippi was 10 miles inland from its harbor city, Neapolis, in the region of Macedonia and located on a major Roman road, the Via Egnatia. It was named after Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great's father. In 42 BC, it was made into a Roman colony and as such was intended to be a miniature version of the city of Rome. In 31 BC, Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire, transported a large number of Roman veterans to Philippi and granted it the "Lus Italicum" status which placed it on par with colonies located in Italy.
This meant that Philippi was governed under Roman, rather than local Greek law. People who were born in the city received Roman citizenship, protection under Roman law and were exempt from certain taxes. For example, they were not required to pay land tax or the poll tax which was a personal levy on every citizen regardless of income or property.
Philippi was a place where a Roman character had been imposed over what was originally a Greek city. The language spoken there was not Greek but Latin. The city was governed by two officials who were answerable to Rome. Philippi was an island of Roman culture, privilege and politics located in a sea of Greek language, history and towns. Its population at the time was about 10 to 15 thousand people, 40 percent of these were Roman citizens while 60 percent were Greek. The Greek population consisted of peasants, farmers, service providers and slaves.
Philippi was typical of first century cities where people worshiped various gods and had many pagan temples. In Acts 16:13 Luke mentions that Paul sought out a "place of prayer" and found a number of Jewish women gathered for worship. This detail suggests that there were not many Jewish men in the city since Jewish tradition (Mishnah Megillah 3b,5a) required at least 10 men to form a synagogue, and this had not yet been accomplished. It was, therefore, into this Roman/Greek hybrid city that Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke journeyed in the year 49-50 AD.
The First Converts at Philippi
Paul gives no information concerning the establishment of the church at Philippi in this letter. These details are contained in the book of Acts where Luke's first-hand experience gives us an informed account of how this church came to be. In chapter 15 of Acts we read that Paul and Barnabas returned to their home-base church in Antioch having completed their first missionary journey, and after a time there decided to return to the mission field.
1. Dispute — Acts 15:36-40
Paul proposes that he and Barnabas return to the mission field in order to strengthen the churches that they planted on their previous journey. They have a disagreement at this point because Barnabas wants to bring his cousin, John-Mark, with them as they had done on their previous trip. Paul opposes this plan because the young man had left them to return home before they had completed their first journey.
The issue is settled as Paul chooses Silas to work with him and Barnabas takes Jean-Mark under his wing and returns to Cyprus, his original home. This is only speculation on my part, but it seems that Paul had outgrown the mentor relationship that he and Barnabas shared and considered Silas a more suitable partner for himself at this stage of his ministry.
John-Mark, on the other hand, still affected by his failure to keep up on the first journey but willing to try again, was in need of a good teacher and mentor like Barnabas.
Through God's providential care, an incident that threatened to break up one team of missionaries actually produced two teams of workers. We also learn that John-Mark went on to serve both Paul and then the Apostle Peter in later years, and eventually wrote one of the gospel records (Gospel of Mark).
2. Timothy is Recruited
41And he was traveling through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. 1Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, 2and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium. 3Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. 4Now while they were passing through the cities, they were delivering the decrees which had been decided upon by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem, for them to observe. 5So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily.
- Acts 15:41-16:5
We see that Paul had two objectives on this second journey:
- To read and explain the letter sent by the Apostles concerning the circumcision issue.
- To strengthen the faith of the young Christians in the churches that he and Barnabas had originally planted.
They also added Timothy to their number and he was probably given the tasks originally done by John-Mark. Note that despite championing the right of Gentiles to become Christians without the obligation of being circumcised (this was the issue that the Apostles' letter to the churches dealt with), Paul circumcised Timothy (whose father was Greek and a non-believer). This was necessary (not for Timothy to become a Christian - he was already a Christian) to permit Timothy entry into synagogues where Paul preached since uncircumcised men were not allowed access and it was known that Timothy's father was a Gentile. Timothy's circumcision, therefore, eliminated a potential roadblock to Paul's ministry among the Jews.
3. The Spirit's Guidance
6They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; 7and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; 8and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. 9A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." 10When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
- Acts 16:6-10
Notice how quickly Luke describes this journey. From their starting point in Antioch of Syria to Troas, their final destination, it is 785 miles (1220 kilometers)! Luke describes the trip in only a few verses, but their overland route could have taken them several months to complete. In those days the Roman road system permitted fairly safe travel and people like Paul walked 15 to 20 miles a day (24-32 km). They stopped at inns, stayed in the home of friends and sought out the hospitality of synagogues along the way.
Aside from their work in the churches they had established on their first trip, much of their journey was a failed attempt to go eastward. The "Spirit preventing them" could mean a variety of setbacks or obstacles that blocked them from successfully preaching the gospel in the Eastern regions. These obstacles could have been things like washed out bridges, long stretches where there was no place to stay, illness, lack of funds or simply a message in a dream or vision. All we know is that Paul was convinced that God would not allow them to preach where they originally intended to go.
Once they arrived at the coastal city of Troas, however, Paul had a vision that finally provided the direction that they were seeking. The dream was general in nature (come to Macedonia with no details of who, where or how), but Paul's faith was strong enough to act based on this limited instruction.
4. Philippi — Acts 16:11-40
In his vision, Paul saw a man of "Macedonia" calling out to him for help, so he and his companions set out from Troas and head for the city of Philippi which was a leading center in the Macedonian region. Once there, they sought out a place where the Jews might gather so they would have an opportunity to preach.
13And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled. 14A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. 15And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay." And she prevailed upon us.
- Acts 16:13-15
With these baptisms the church was established in Philippi.
16It happened that as we were going to the place of prayer, a slave-girl having a spirit of divination met us, who was bringing her masters much profit by fortune-telling. 17Following after Paul and us, she kept crying out, saying, "These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation." 18She continued doing this for many days. But Paul was greatly annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, "I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!" And it came out at that very moment.
19But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the authorities, 20and when they had brought them to the chief magistrates, they said, "These men are throwing our city into confusion, being Jews, 21and are proclaiming customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe, being Romans."
22The crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore their robes off them and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods. 23When they had struck them with many blows, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to guard them securely; 24and he, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.
- Acts 16:16-24
In the preceding verses Luke describes an incident that resembled what took place in Cyprus during the first missionary journey. There, Paul struck blind a sorcerer who was trying to hinder his work. In Philippi he casts out an evil spirit from a girl who had been following them about and drawing attention to their ministry. Paul, not wanting a witness from a girl possessed of an evil spirit, quiets her by casting it out. This led to a riot stirred up by the girl's handlers who made a living using her occult skills. Paul and Silas were dragged before the judges, beaten and put into prison with their feet securely locked into stocks. The only difference here was that their imprisonment was not caused by the Jews.
25But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; 26and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone's chains were unfastened. 27When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!" 29And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, 30and after he brought them out, he said, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"
31They said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." 32And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. 33And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. 34And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.
- Acts 16:25-34
Notice that the jailer had some knowledge of the faith because the earthquake and the fact that none of the prisoners escaped moved him to ask the same question that the crowd on Pentecost Sunday asked Peter, "Brethren what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37).
Luke records only a summary of what Paul taught him (faith in Christ would save him). Notice, however, that the very first thing the jailer does after confessing his faith is submit to baptism - just like the crowd at Pentecost (Acts 2:38-42). Luke doesn't mention that Paul taught the jailer and his household about baptism, but the fact that this is the first thing he does after acknowledging his belief demonstrates that this is what he was taught concerning his proper response of faith to the gospel message.
35Now when day came, the chief magistrates sent their policemen, saying, "Release those men." 36And the jailer reported these words to Paul, saying, "The chief magistrates have sent to release you. Therefore come out now and go in peace." 37But Paul said to them, "They have beaten us in public without trial, men who are Romans, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they sending us away secretly? No indeed! But let them come themselves and bring us out." 38The policemen reported these words to the chief magistrates. They were afraid when they heard that they were Romans, 39and they came and appealed to them, and when they had brought them out, they kept begging them to leave the city. 40They went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia, and when they saw the brethren, they encouraged them and departed.
- Acts 16:35-40
Luke adds the interesting postscript that the magistrates sought to release them quietly. Paul, at this point, reminds them of his Roman citizenship and the illegal manner in which they were treated. He then refuses to leave unless publicly released by the judges themselves. He may have done this to avoid future accusations that he had escaped from prison and was still wanted by Roman authorities.
And so, to avoid their own charges of improper arrest and imprisonment of a Roman citizen, the judges release Paul in a public and legal manner. Paul makes a farewell visit to Lydia, his initial convert at Philippi, then travels to Thessalonica to preach the gospel there.
Authorship, Occasion and Date of Philippians
There is little doubt that Paul the Apostle was the author of this letter since he named himself and his co-worker, Timothy, in the opening verse. Early church leaders (Clement, 95 AD and Ignatius, 107 AD) mentioned this letter and Paul's authorship in their writings concerning the church of that era. There have never been credible or successful challenges to Paul's authorship.
Occasion of its writing
Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians during his first imprisonment in Rome. We know that after two years of detention at Herod's Palace in Caesarea by the Sea he had appealed to Caesar's court for a judgment on his case since both Roman governors (King Felix and King Festus) had refused to release him because they curried the favor of the Jewish leaders who wanted to kill Paul (Acts 24:27; Acts 25:1-3).
He was eventually sent to Rome and Luke writes in Acts that he was under house arrest there for an additional two years while awaiting his trial at Caesar's Imperial Court (Acts 28:30). He was guarded by only one soldier and free to receive visitors who came for teaching and training. This situation would then explain several references made in his letter to the Philippians:
- His influence for the gospel on the Praetorian Guard (elite soldiers who served as personal bodyguards to the Emperor or to high-ranking government officials (Philippians 1:13)).
- The travel of both Timothy and Epaphroditus from Rome and Philippi to bring news and information from the church to Paul and then back to the church at Philippi (Philippians 2:19-30).
- His gratitude for their financial help in the past and a recent gift sent to him at Rome while in prison and delivered by Epaphroditus.
This letter then includes greetings, news, teaching, encouragement and an acknowledgement for a recent gift from the church at Philippi.
Paul is in Rome between 60 and 62 AD awaiting trial before Caesar. He seemed confident that he would be released (Philippians 1:25) and looked forward to continuing his ministry among them. The letter was written during this time period and delivered by Epaphroditus, one of the helpers who had originally brought the gift from the church to Paul in Rome. While Epaphroditus was in Rome he fell seriously ill, however, when he recovered Paul sent him back to Philippi with the letter he had written to them.
There are other theories about the date and place of writing. Some think he wrote it from Ephesus in 49 AD or Caesarea in Herod's Palace in 58-60 AD, however, the 60-62 AD date from Rome accommodates most of the additional information we have about the church at that time and is the conclusion of most scholars.
Outline of Philippians
There are various ways of outlining or dividing up this epistle. There is no one "official" outline that must be used. The outline we will use in this study is based on the theme that I believe the letter follows: Maturing in Christ. Based on this theme, therefore, the outline is as follows:
- Greeting — 1:1-2
- Paul's Prayer — 1:3-11
- Paul's Condition — 1:12-26
- Maturing in Christ:
6 Examples of Christian Maturity — 1:27-4:9
- Closing Remarks — 4:10-23