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Philippians Overview

Authorship and Date

There is virtually no doubt that Paul wrote this letter, and the majority of scholars agree that he wrote it while in prison in Rome around 61 or 62 AD.

Some scholars feel that Paul may have written Philippians from another city during another imprisonment (ex.. Caesarea). The problems with the letter’s origin being in Rome revolve around the length of time Paul was in Rome (2 years according to Acts 28:30) and the number of visits to and from Philippi during that period—not to mention the visits Paul was planning, according to Philippians. For example, there must be enough time to have: (1) someone sent from Paul to inform the Philippians that he was in prison; (2) the Philippians send Epaphroditus to Paul with their gift for him; and (3) someone dispatched to Philippi with the report about Epaphroditus’s health. There are also three other visits mentioned in letter: (1) Epaphroditus takes the letter to Philippi; and (2) Timothy is to make a round trip to Philippi and back to Rome.4

It is estimated that it would take 3 to 6 months to travel from Rome to Philippi. To accomplish all of these back and forth communications would be a tight time line.

Historical Context

The City of Philippi

Philippi was a city in eastern Macedonia established by the king of Macedon, Philip II, in 356 BC on the site of the Thasian colony of Krinides or Crenides (Greek for “Fountains”), near the head of the Aegean Sea at the foot of Mt. Orbelos about 8 miles north-west of Kavalla, on the northern border of the marsh that in antiquity covered the entire plain separating it from the Pangaion hills to the south of Greece.1

King Philip of Macedon’s objective of founding the town was to take control of the neighboring gold mines and to establish a garrison at a strategic passage: the site controlled the route between Amphipolis and Neapolis, part of the great royal route which crosses Macedonia from the east to the west and which was reconstructed later by the Roman Empire as the Via Egnatia.1

Philippian miners extracted huge sums of gold from those mines. Since Philip’s son, Alexander (the Great), conquered much of that part of the world and brought Greek culture to the whole region, it may not be too much to say that the gold of the Philippian mines bankrolled the Hellenization of the known world.8

The city recognized its dependence on the mines that brought it its privileged position. This wealth was shown by the many monuments that were particularly imposing considering the relatively small size of the urban area. It had a forum laid out in two terraces on both sides of the main road, and a large theatre to hold Roman games. There is an abundance of Latin inscriptions testifying to the prosperity of the city.1

Philippi was also known as the site of a great military victory, one deciding the fate of the Roman empire. It was there that Octavianus (later Augustus Caesar) and Antony defeated the forces of Brutus and Cassius, by which the republican party was completely subdued.10

During the Roman period Philippi was a “miniature Rome” under the municipal law of Rome and governed by two military officers who were appointed directly from Rome.1 This meant that the laws of Rome applied in Philippi, and citizens of Philippi automatically possessed Roman citizenship with all its valuable legal privileges, including exception from taxation. Macedonian provincial government had no authority there, and Philippi was directly under the control of Rome. Legally Philippi may as well have been physically located in Italy.8

The religious life of those in Philippi was marked by very syncretistic practices including the worship of the emperor (Julius, Augustus, and Claudius), the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis, as well as many other deities.4  The city also enjoyed good agriculture, strategic location and travel routes, and a famous school of medicine.8

It is estimated that in the First Century Philippi contained about 2,000 people.1  The city was inhabited predominantly by Romans with many Macedonian Greeks and some Jews.6

Founding of the Church in Philippi

Luke’s account in Acts of the start of the church at Philippi is one of the most extensive accounts of the planting of a church in all of the New Testament.5

In 49 AD, after parting ways with Barnabas, Paul started on his second missionary journey with Silas. They initially visited Tarsus (Paul’s birthplace), then Derbe and Lystra, where, they met Timothy, and decided to take him with them.

Paul and company then traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia but where “kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia” (Acts 16:6). So they went to the border of Mysia and tried to enter Bithynia, “but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them” (Acts 16:7).

Next they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas, where Luke joined them. While there, Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9).

The party then sailed from Troas some 60 miles or so to the island of Samothrace, and then sailed the rest of the way across the Aegean Sea to the port city of Neapolis. It is yet another ten-mile trek from Neapolis to Philippi.5

In AD 49 or 50, Paul arrives in Philippi accompanied by Silas, Timothy and Luke. Paul is believed to have preached for the first time on European soil in Philippi.

There were not enough Jewish men (i.e. 10) in Philippi to have a synagogue. This being the case, Paul  went to the Gangites River (or the Crenides river), approximately 1.5 miles away, in hopes of finding a Jewish “meeting place.”Places for prayer were erected by the Jews in the vicinity of cities and towns, and particularly where there were not Jewish families enough, or where they were forbidden by the magistrate to erect a synagogue. These proseuchae or places of prayer, were simple enclosures made of stones in a grove, or under a tree, where there would be a retired and convenient place for worship. The closeness to a river was likely to accomodate ritual washing.

The first convert in Philippi was a wealthy business woman from Thyatira named Lydia (or perhaps simply a Lydian lady) who was a dealer in purple cloth and a proselyte to Judaism (Acts 16:14). No men seem to have been present when Paul and the rest came upon a small group of women who had gathered for prayer.5

While in Philippi, Paul’s exorcism of a demon from a slave girl caused a great uproar in the city, which led to the arrest of Paul and Silas and a public beating (Acts 16:16-24). They were jailed for being Jews who advocated practices which were illegal for Roman citizens (most likely the worship of “unapproved” gods). An earthquake caused their prison to be opened that night. When the jailer awoke, he prepared to kill himself thinking all the prisoners had escaped and knowing that he would be severely punished. Paul stopped him, indicating that all the prisoners were in fact still there. The jailer then became a Christian (Acts 16:25-40).Paul didn’t easily forget the difficulty of this experience (1 Thessalonians 2:2).

Paul and Silas left the city shortly thereafter and traveled to Thessalonica. It is evident that Luke was left behind since the “we” section does not continue in Acts.9

The Philippians supported Paul financially several times during his ministry. At least twice in Thessalonica (Philippians 4:14-16); once to Corinth, (2 Corinthians 11:8-9); and once to Rome, (Philippians 4:10-18).2

Paul visited Philippi on two other occasions, in 55 AD and 57 AD (Acts 20:1-6). On these journeys Paul was raising funds for the Jerusalem church, since the Philippians had already given so much to Paul’s ministry, he asked nothing of them. But they insisted, even though they themselves were poor (cf. 2 Cor. 8:1-5).9

Some believe that Paul wrote his Second Letter to the Corinthians at Philippi, and possibly his First Letter to Timothy.2

Audience

The Philippian church appeared to have several strong women leaders. Lydia, the first convert, was a woman of means, and her home may have been the church’s first meeting place. Paul mentions two other women in this letter: Euodia and Syntuche who “contended at [Paul’s] side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of [Paul’s] co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.” (Phil. 4:2)

It is considered that the majority of the Macedonian converts in the Philippian church were very poor (2 Cor. 8:2), though the very first converts were of all classes (Acts 16).

The names of the members of the Philippian community are largely Gentile: Epaphroditus, Euodia, Syntyche, and Clement (2:25; 4:2,3).6

Though there didn’t seem to be many Jewish believers in Philippi, Paul was still wary of the Judaizers, a party of Jewish Christians in the Early Church who held that circumcision and the observance of the Mosaic Law were necessary for salvation, and wrote to the Philippians to steer clear of their teachings.

Major Themes

Generosity

Paul seems to have written this letter as a “thank you” letter to the church in Philippi in response to their gifts.5 Paul was so impressed with the Philippian’s generosity that he used them as an example to other churches (2 Corinthians 8:1-5; 9:1-5). Paul appreciated that they were a church committed to support the proclamation of the gospel. According to Paul, this was a church others would do well to imitate.5

Suffering

Philippians is also written to give a proper perspective on unjust suffering, persecution, and even death. Paul memorably writes, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” The Book of Philippians spells out just how this expression should define our perspective.5

Joy

Paul mentions joy or rejoicing 15 times in this letter (on average “joy” or “rejoicing” appears every 7 verses). This is even more significant considering Paul wrote this letter while in prison in Rome and chained to a Roman guard.7 No doubt the Philippians would remember that Paul had ended up in prison when he first evangelized Philippi. And that while in prison, he and Silas sang praises to God.13

Below are some concepts Paul found joy in:

  • The joy of prayer (Philippians 1:4)
  • The joy that Jesus Christ is preached (Philippians 1:18).
  • The joy of faith (Philippians 1:25).
  • The joy of seeing Christians in fellowship together (Philippians 2:2).
  • The joy of suffering for Christ (Philippians 2:17).
  • The joy of news of a loved one (Philippians 2:28).
  • The joy of hospitality (Philippians 2:29).
  • The joy of finding our confidence in Christ (Philippians 3:1).
  • The joy of remaining steadfast in the faith (Philippians 4:1).
  • The joy inherent in every gift (Philippians 4:10) as an expression of another’s caring. 11

Humility as a Means to Unity

Paul admonishes the Philippians to live humbly as servants of Christ (2:1-11). He appeals to them on the basis of membership in the body of Christ (2:1-4), reminding them that selfishness hurts everyone. Then he weaves an early Christian hymn (which they probably had sung many times) into the fabric of his argument. The Carmen Christi (2:6-11) functions as a reminder for them to follow in the steps of Christ: if he who was in the “form of God” could humble himself, what right do believers have to refrain from doing the same thing? Further, after Christ “emptied himself” (by adding humanity, 2:6-8) God exalted him (2:9-11). The implication, if this is part of Paul’s argument, is that God will exalt believers who also humble themselves.9

Remaining Faithful to Jesus Despite Opposition

Paul takes on two groups opposing him in this letter.

The first is an unnamed group of believers in Rome who are jealous of Paul’s success. Paul doesn’t condemn their message, just their motives.9

The second group is likely in Philippi, perhaps part of the church already. They are the Judaizers who believed that to become a true follower of Jesus one had to become a Jew first.  This group had already infected the churches of Galatia. And, as the Acts record shows, they hounded Paul wherever he went. Not only this, but the evidence from Paul’s letters shows that they had infiltrated—or were about to infiltrate—several of his churches (cf. 1 Thess. 2:13-16; Phil. 3:1; etc.).9

Paul points out that he had the proper Jewish credentials (3:3-6), just as his opponents did, but that all of it was useless for attaining salvation.  The basis of a right relationship with God is through faithfulness in Christ (3:9) and the true goal is Christ’s resurrection power (3:10-11).9

Discussion:

  • Many have called Philippians a “thank you” letter from Paul for their support. Who would you write a thank you letter to for helping you grow in your faith?
  • What does the fact that Philippi was a wealthy city, but that the first church there was largely poor, tell you about how God worked in that culture? What does that tell you about how God may be working in our culture? What parallels are there between 1st century Philippi and 21st century America?
  • In Acts God seemed to redirect Paul towards Philippi. The church he would establish there would be one of his ministry’s best supporters. What does this tell you about God and the “open” or “closed” doors that you might encounter in your life?
  • The church in Philippi was founded through women converts, and women were still a strong core of their leadership a decade later. What does this tell you about the role of women in the Early Church? How is that different or similar to their role in churches today?
  • Joy is a strong theme in Philippians. What is joy? What are your experiences with it? How is it different than happiness? How sustainable is a joyful attitude? Is there a time that you found joy in the midst of an unpleasant situation?

References

  1. City of Philippi
  2. Catholic Encyclopedia
  3. Epistle to the Philippians
  4. Herrick’s Commentary
  5. Deffinbaugh’s Commentary
  6. Malick’s Commentary
  7. Newton’s Commentary
  8. Hagelberg’s Commentary
  9. Wallace’s Commentary
  10. Barnes’ Commentary
  11. Coffman’s Commentary
  12. Easy English Commentary
  13. Constable’s Commentary
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