The letter to the Philippians is more personal than any other letter written to New Testament Churches. This letter is filled with encouraging the church more towards being conformed to the image of Christ. There is no harsh rebuking in this letter. This is interesting considering on where the letter is written from. “The theme of Philippians is that believers should disregard things of earth and count all things loss in order to win Christ – not that we win salvation through good works, but that we should obtain the fullness of life by losing all things on earth in order to have a greater hold on things eternal, and that we might glorify Jesus by bearing much fruit.”1 Every disciple should strive to glorify Christ whether in life or death.
The letter begins, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”2 There is no question that Paul is the author of this letter. “Paul begins his epistle with a customary greeting, which includes a prayer. This greeting, with characteristic intensity, reveals the commanding passion of Paul’s life-his devotion to Christ.”3 However, Timothy’s name is also mentioned in the greeting of the letter. Why is this? “Though Paul was alone divinely inspired, he joins Timothy with himself, to express his own humility, and put honour upon Timothy.”4 Timothy is probably the most well known disciple of Paul. Paul had taken Timothy with him on various journeys when Timothy was just a babe in the faith. Now, one can assume that for Timothy’s name to be included with Paul’s in the greeting to the letter to the Philippian church, that Timothy has matured in his faith as he has conformed more to the image of Christ. The fact that Paul writes the letter to the Philippians is not highly debated. “He was an apostle by the Lord’s call, occupying a unique place as His special messenger to the Gentiles. But he never stands aloof in complacent dignity apart from others who are engaged in the same ministry.”5
At the time of the writing of the letter to the Philippians, Paul was a prisoner. This fact can place the date of the letter anywhere from A.D. 53-61. There are three places that Paul most likely wrote the letter from. Ephesus, Caesarea, and Rome. Paul was in Ephesus for three years (Acts 19). This would date the letter between A.D. 53-55. The Ephesus theory is not widely supported. Paul was never imprisoned in Ephesus. “On the whole, therefore, the Ephesus theory does not seem to have sufficient foundation to dislodge the traditional view that Philippians came out of Paul’s first imprisonment at Rome. It seems, however, to be separated from the other prison Epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon), because it was carried by a different messenger and reflects circumstances apparently somewhat later than those relating to the other three Epistles (his case was actually in court).”6
The imprisonment in Caesarea does not seem like the place most likely for Paul to have written the Epistle to the Philippian church. The Caesarean theory has not been widely accepted because there is no real proof supporting it even though Paul was imprisoned there for two years. The most likely place Paul would have written this Epistle is while he was imprisoned in Rome. “The traditional view places the writing of Philippians during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome during A.D. 59-61 (Acts 28:30). This is the most natural understanding of ‘palace guard’ (1:13) and ‘Caesar’s household’ (4:22). Paul’s trial was evidently going on during the writing, and its outcome could bring either life or death.”7 Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown say this about the city of Philippi and date of writing, “Paul, with Silas and Timothy, planted the Gospel there (Acts 16:12, etc.), in his second missionary journey, A.D. 51. Doubtless he visited it again on his journey from Ephesus into Macedonia (Acts 20:1); and Acts 20:3,6, expressly mentions his third visit on his return from Greece (Corinth) to Syria by way of Macedonia.8 This writer agrees with most theologians that the date of writing for this Epistle was around A.D. 59-61 while Paul was a prisoner in Rome.
One could not tell from the way that this epistle is written, that Paul was actually in a Roman prison at the time. The book of Philippians is filled with joy and encouragement to live for Christ. It is possible that the church of Philippi was Paul’s favorite of all his church plants. “Philippi was located in Macedonia about ten miles inland from the Aegean Sea. The original settlement was called Krenides (presumably because of the presence of a good water supply, inasmuch as the name means ‘springs’), but in 356 B.C., the name was changed by Philip II, king of Macedonia (359-336 B.C.), when he enlarged the city with many new inhabitants and considerable construction.”9 The city was originally a mining town because of its location to the gold mines in the mountains. The city government closely resembled a democracy. Gromacki explains the city of Philippi in New Testament times, “The city was located on a fertile plain about nine miles from the Aegean Sea, northwest of the island of Thasos. Neapolis served as its seaport. In New Testament times it was regarded as ‘the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony’ (Acts 16:12), but Thessalonica was actually the capital of the Roman province. Its inhabitants were Roman citizens who had the rights not only to vote but also to govern themselves.”10 Matthew Henry notes that before Philippi was turned into a Roman colony, it was also known for some famous battles, “Near this place were the Campi Philippici, remarkable for the famous battles between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, and that between Augustus and Antony on one side and Cassius and Brutus on the other.”11 The city of Philippi was nearly destroyed by an earthquake around the year 619. Gromacki gives details on the city in modern times, “Today the city lies in ruins. The site has been excavated by archaeologists who have uncovered a marketplace, the foundation of a large arched gateway, and an amphitheater dating back to Roman times.”12 Though Philippi no longer exists, it was once a thriving city that housed the first church plant in Europe and it was the place Paul cherished.
The church of Philippi brought out the joy and affections of the apostle Paul. Paul was so near and close to the hearts of the congregation at Philippi that they were compelled to send a messenger and gift to Paul while he was imprisoned. “The Philippian church sent Epaphroditus to Paul with a gift from the congregation (4:18) and with instructions to minister to his needs through personal service (2:25). He also must have brought news of the progress and problems of the church.”13 Gromacki explains that the church was concerned about Epaphroditus because he became ill, they were also concerned about Paul’s ministry because they were afraid his ministry was dead while he was in prison, “Paul learned about the spiritual needs of the church through conversations with Epaphroditus and with those who came to Rome with the report of the church’s concern over the illness of Epaphroditus. First, Paul wanted to relieve their anxiety over the circumstances of his imprisonment (1:1-30). They thought that the apostle’s ministry had been brought to an abrupt stop, but Paul assured them that God was using the episode for the advancement of the gospel.”14 The church had every right to be concerned for Epaphroditus. It is possible that when the church sent him to Paul that it took about a month to travel the eight hundred mile journey from Philippi to Rome. Epaphroditus became ill while in Rome and could not make the journey back to Philippi until he recovered from his sickness. Paul wrote the church in Philippi to show them gratitude and thankfulness for the gift he received and to give them and update on the condition of Epaphroditus. Another reason that Paul wrote the church in Philippi is to let them know that just because he was in prison did not mean that his ministry was dead. Bell and Campbell say, “Paul was ‘in chains for Christ’ (Philippians 1:13), but his work had been helped by his imprisonment, not hindered. The imperial guard was hearing his message, and other people were stepping up to speak where Paul couldn’t. Paul realized that some such preachers were motivated by selfish ambition, but he wasn’t bothered as long as what they said was true and other people got to hear the message.”15 Paul’s ministry did not stop because he was in prison. He did adapt his ministry to fit his current environment. Paul was ministering to the imperial guard and it became known that Paul was in prison for Christ. Paul was telling the church that his imprisonment had already been planned out to bring glory to Christ. Paul was also writing to tell the church that there may be a visit by Timothy (2:18-24). Wuest says about Timothy, “The name ‘Timothy’ is a combination of two Greek words which together mean, ‘he who honors God.’ The Greek word for ‘honor’ has in it the ideas of reverence and veneration. Possibly, his grandmother Lois was responsible for the naming of the child, and also for much of the religious training he received, so that when Timothy grew to manhood, he exhibited those qualities in his life. These were the qualities which perhaps attracted Paul to the young man.”16 Another purpose of the epistle is the warning given to beware the teachings and doctrines of the Judaizers (3:1-4:1). Paul closes the letter in Philippians by telling the church that God would supply all their needs (4:19) and expressing greetings to the whole congregation.
Place of Writing
The epistle to the church in Philippi was written from a prison under the control of the Roman Empire. Grant expounds on how the Romans went from republic to Empire, “With the civil wars and the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., the Roman republic came to an end, and his heir and successor Augustus became the architect of the Roman empire, reigning from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14. For peoples subject to, or allied with, the Roman state, this change in the form of government did not make a great deal of difference, except that in the early years of the empire the power struggles which accompanied the decline of the republic seemed to have come to an end, and tax-collection by private companies, often accompanied by extortion, was replaced by tax-collection by civil servants.”17 As more and more territory was acquired, Rome benefited from the conquest, “In creating here and there such colonies Rome knew what it was doing. The advantages were mutual: not only did the colonists receive many privileges, as has been shown, but also Rome profited by this arrangement, for thus its frontiers were being safeguarded against the enemy and its veterans were being rewarded.”18 When it came to religion, Rome was very open to the worship of multiple gods, “As the empire expanded, and came to include people from a variety of cultures, the worship of an ever increasing number of deities was tolerated and accepted. The imperial government, and the Romans in general, tended to be very tolerant towards most religions and cults, so long as they did not cause trouble. This could easily be accepted by other faiths as Roman liturgy and ceremonies were frequently tailored to fit local culture and identity. An individual could attend to both the Roman Gods representing his Roman identity and his own personal faith, which was considered part of his personal identity.”19 This was not always the case. Once it was realized that Christianity was not a sub-section of Judaism, the emperors felt that they needed to stop the spread of this religion. “Nero (ruling from 54-68 C.E.) was one of the first to actively persecute Christians. And indeed, after the great fire that took place during his reign, the Christians caught much of the blame.”20 Nero was in power when Paul was in the Roman prison. Paul was eventually placed under house arrest and was allowed to continue his ministry for some time. Some theologians believe that Paul was killed under the order of Nero as Nero’s way of trying to put an end to Christianity.
Philippians 1:21-26 says, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.”21 This writer truly believes it is definitely possible for a disciple to get to a point in their walk with God where they can truly be torn with whether or not it is better to be with Christ or stay and be used by God as a vessel to accomplish what He has set before them as Paul stated in verse 21. Either way, in life or death, it is Paul’s goal for God to be exalted. God will always get the glory in all things including life and death. A relationship with Christ can be so intimate that one longs to be taken from this life and be present in eternity with Him. Piper says, “The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.”22 Realizing that a disciple can actually enjoy God changes how they might live their Christian life. This is one’s ultimate act of worship. Paul was not telling the church in Philippi that he did not want to be with them or that he did not love them but simply that he loves Christ more and longs to be with Him. It is a good thing to help people and be an example of how they should live but as verse 23 says, being with Christ is far better. Longing to be with Christ, shows that Paul had his priorities in order. It also shows what a miracle Christ did in Paul’s life. Paul used to be a Pharisee. A Pharisee was a man who was part of the leading and religious sect in Judaism but they were also blind to the truth of Christ. “The Pharisees’ understanding of God and the law make them blind to the true claim of religious life in Jesus. As Jesus warns the disciples not to be like the Pharisees, modern Christians also need to guard so that we do not harden ourselves against Jesus by our own traditions.”23 Paul was also a persecutor of Christians and God transformed him to an apostle that had the most zeal and passion for Christ. Paul truly hungered and thirsted after righteousness. He was relentless in his passionate pursuit of Christ and he was not afraid to show that to others. Paul was committed to living a life that honors God and encouraging others to do the same. In verse 24, Paul knows that it is not yet his time to go and be with Christ as much as he would like to. Paul loves his work and one can see this by the way he writes to the church in Philippi. Paul did not consider his ministry miserable work. Paul loved what God had called him to and that love allows him to strive to be his best in his going and making disciples. MacLaren has this take on Paul’s devotion, “There are no taskmasters with whips to stand over the heart that responds to Christ and to His love. But hope and joy, as well as love, are the animating motives which make sacrifices easy, soften the yoke that is laid upon our shoulders, and turn labour into joy and delight.”24 Gaebelin says this about verse 24, “Yet the apostle also recognized another standpoint from which his future might be viewed. His remaining alive would offer a certain advantage to his Philippian readers. He does not state specifically what this advantage was but the obvious reference is to the ministry he might still perform for them.”25 Verse 25 is interesting. In the immediate sense, it was more important for Paul to stay with the church then to be with Jesus and Paul wrote to the Philippian church as a man that knew he was going to be set free. Did this come as part of some kind of divine confidence? Paul’s relationship with God was so intimate that one might assume such a thing. As part of Paul’s continued ministry to the church, the congregation would grow in their discipleship process and this would bring greater joy. Verse 26 says that the church, because of Paul would have ample cause to glory in Christ. Gaebelein expresses his thoughts on this verse, “The ‘joy’ in Paul’s thought here was their ‘ground for boasting or glorying.’ The emphasis is not on the action itself, but on the basis for it. As the Philippians would experience the progress and joy that Paul’s labors among them would produce, they would have new and greater reasons for overflowing with joy. This reason for glorying would be found ‘in Christ Jesus,’ of course, but its immediate occasion would be ‘on account of me,’ said Paul. His ministry among them would enable them to see more clearly the riches of their salvation in Christ.”26 All disciples should long to be with Christ but continue with all joy in the work that God has called them to and be content in it. There is no way to measure the impact a person will have on another person’s life or the joy that it will bring to said person. God is jealous of our affections and He desires that we give Him our complete obedience. After all, that is the only way to experience true joy in the Christian life.
Bell, James Stuart and Stan Campbell, The Complete Idiot’s Guide To The Bible, New York: Penguin Group Inc. 2005.
Dunnam, Maxie D. The Communicator’s Commentary Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Waco: Word Books, 1982.
Gaebelein, Frank E. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 11, Ephesians through Philemon, by Homer A. Kent Jr. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.
Grant, Robert M. A Historical Introduction To The New Testament, New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1963.
Greene, Oliver B. The Epistle Of Paul The Apostle To The Philippians, Greenville: The Gospel Hour Inc. 1965.
Gromacki, Robert G. New Testament Survey, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2004.
Hendriksen, William, New Testament Commentary Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
Henry, Matthew, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, vol. VI, Acts to Revelation, McLean: Macdonald Publishing Company, 1985.
The Holy Bible, ESV version, Wheaton: Crossway, 2001.
Ironside, H.A. Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians,
Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1982.
Jamieson, Robert, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary On The Whole Bible, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967.
Maclaren, Alexander, Expositions Of Holy Scripture, vol. 15, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982.
Mounce, William D. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.
Piper, John, Desiring God, Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2003.
Wuest, Kenneth S. Wuest’s Word Studies, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988.
1Oliver B. Greene, The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, (Greenville, SC: The Gospel Hour, Inc., 1965), v.
2Unless otherwise stated, the English Standard Version will be used consistently throughout this paper.
3Maxie D. Dunnam, The Communicator’s Commentary, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, (Waco, TX: Word Books Inc. 1982), 258.
4Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary On The Whole Bible, vol. VI, Acts To Revelation, (McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Company, 1985), 723.
5H.A. Ironside, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, Combined Edition, 1982), 13.
6Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 11, Ephesians through Philemon, by Homer A. Kent Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 98.
8Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Commentary On The Whole Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967), 1300.
9Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 11, Ephesians through Philemon, by Homer A. Kent Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 95.
10Robert G. Gromacki, New Testament Survey, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 255.
11Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary On The Whole Bible, vol. VI, Acts To Revelation, (McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Company, 1985), 722.
12Robert G. Gromacki, New Testament Survey, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 256.
13Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 11, Ephesians through Philemon, by Homer A. Kent Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 98.
14Robert G. Gromacki, New Testament Survey, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 259.
15James Stuart Bell and Stan Campbell, The Complete Idiot’s Guide To The Bible, (New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc., 2005), 310.
16Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies From the Greek New Testament, Volume II, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 26.
17Robert M. Grant, A Historical Introduction To The New Testament, (New York, NY: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1963), 247.
18William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary Exposition of Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 7.
20James Stuart Bell and Stan Campbell, The Complete Idiot’s Guide To The Bible, (New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc., 2005), 288.
21The Holy Bible, ESV version.
22John Piper, Desiring God, (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2003), 28.
23William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary Old & New Testament Words, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 510.
24Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, vol. 15, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1982), 9.
25Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 11, Ephesians through Philemon, by Homer A. Kent Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 116.
26Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 11, Ephesians through Philemon, by Homer A. Kent Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 117.