Introduction to Philippians
General background to the letter
This letter was written by the Apostle Paul to the church in Philippi (Phil 1:1), a leading city in ancient Macedonia in the northern part of Greece. Although Greece had fallen under the rule of the Roman Empire, it remained a centre of culture and learning and most educated people of this time spoke Greek.
It is likely that Paul wrote this letter towards the end of his first imprisonment in Rome in AD61 (Phil 1:7, 13-14) as he said that the resulting trial could lead to his death (Phil 1:20). It is a very personal letter, written in the first person, and Paul used “I”, “Me” and “My” more than fifty times in four chapters. The letter is addressed to “all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons” (Phil 1:1). So, it is written to the whole church, but especially to the church leaders who will have responsibility to see the letter put into practice.
Philippi and the church
Many Roman citizens, some of them retired soldiers, had settled in Philippi and the city had been made a Roman Colony. This meant that Philippi had a Roman aristocracy and constitution, with direct access to the authority of Rome in the form of the city’s government.
Paul established the church during his second missionary journey (Acts 16). He had a vision of a man from Macedonia asking him to come and help them, so Paul travelled to Philippi via Neapolis to begin the work. When he arrived he found no synagogue, but there was a place of prayer on the riverside where women gathered and Lydia became one of the first converts.
Philippi had a pagan background (as seen in the slave girl who predicted the future Acts 16:16-18) and the church was largely comprised of Gentiles from varying pagan religious beliefs. The church included many women (possibly friends of Lydia) and some, like Syntyche and Euodia, did not always agree (Phil 4:2). This church had strongly supported Paul at the beginning of his ministry, but as he travelled further afield their support had dwindled. However, news of Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem and subsequent imprisonment in Rome had reawakened their interest and Epaphroditus was sent to Rome with gifts for Paul, and a commission to care for his needs (Phil 4:18, 2:25).
Why did Paul write this letter?
There were several reasons why Paul wrote this letter.
He wanted to say thank you for the generous gifts that the Philippian church had sent him through Epaphroditus (Phil 4:10, 14-18). He also wanted to explain why he was sending Epaphroditus back to them, even though his commission to care for Paul was not yet completed (Phil 2:25-30). Paul knew that the Philippian church were concerned about his situation, and he wanted to tell them how his imprisonment was going (Phil 1:12-18) and what his immediate future plans were (Phil 2:19-24).
He also wrote to encourage and guide the Philippian church. He had received news about potential disunity within the church (Phil 1:27, 2:1-11, 4:2-3), and he had heard that the church was in danger from Jewish legalism (Phil 3:1-11). He also wanted to encourage the church to be single minded, and to keep on living out the Christian life (Phil 1:27-30, 2:12-18, 3:17-21, 4:4-9).
Major themes of Philippians
Whilst much of this letter deals with very practical issues of Christian living, there are several dominant themes which permeate the text.
A major theme that runs throughout the letter is the advance of the gospel (the good news about Jesus Christ), and our responsibility to see it continue. Paul spoke of partnership in the gospel (Phil 1:5), defending and confirming the gospel (Phil 1:7, 16), the advance of the gospel (Phil 1:12) and its certain completion in our lives (Phil 1:6). In speaking about the part that we each play as individuals in the spread of the gospel Paul encourages us to live in a manner worthy of the gospel (Phil 1:27), to consider the interests of others (Phil 2:4), to prove ourselves by serving in the work of the gospel (Phil 2:21-22), to risk everything for the sake of the gospel (Phil 2:30) and to be driven by the gospel centred desire of knowing Christ better (Phil 3:7-15). Paul did not define the gospel directly, but we can see it clearly in the language he uses (for example – Phil 2:8, 3:9).
Another important theme of this letter is “Joy” - The noun “joy” and the verb “rejoice” are used sixteen times over the course of four chapters! Paul’s personal prospects in Rome were not pleasant. He was under house arrest awaiting a trial which could easily result in his sudden execution, and his enemies were actively seeking to undermine his work. However, Philippians is never depressing or pessimistic! Paul rejoiced as he remembered the Philippians (Phil 1:3), he rejoiced because Christ was preached both sincerely and hypocritically (Phil 1:18), in the growth of unity and humility in his followers (Phil 2:2), in his personal sacrifice (Phil 2:17) and in the gifts and goodwill of his friends (Phil 4:10). All through this letter Paul’s joy of faith shines out against the sombre background and difficult circumstances.
Paul spoke of “the importance of fellowship and unity for the church”. He gave thanks for their unity (Phil 1:5, 7, 4:15), encouraged them to stand firm (Phil 1:27) and to be like minded (Phil 2:2). He told them to guard against selfishness, pride and disunity (Phil 2:1-4) and urged them to protect their unity and fellowship (Phil 4:2-3).
Finally, we can see “Paul’s spiritual ambition” more clearly here than in any other letter. He spoke of longing that he would never be ashamed and that for him “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:20-25). Paul has poured all of himself into the work and yet he is glad and rejoices with them (Phil 2:17). He considered everything lost to know Jesus better (Phil 3:7-11) and he committed every part of himself to the work “to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:12-16). He has learned the secret of contentment in all circumstances (Phil 4:11-12) and boasted that “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” (Phil 4:13).
Why should I read this letter?
Many Christians are very focused on getting through each day, and lack Paul’s longer term spiritual focus and ambition. We need to read Philippians because Paul’s life is a lived example that God wants every one of his people to copy. We have not lived the Christian life to the full if we cannot cry out “To live is Christ and to die is gain”, and we will not be prepared to meet life’s challenges if we are not ready to forget what is behind and strain towards what is ahead. To cry with Paul “I want to know Christ” is to get to the root of what life is all about.
However, this letter is also important because many Christians do not naturally live lives full of Joy. We focus on the negatives and problems, rather than the amazing results of God’s presence and work. We need to be reminded that we have good reason to rejoice and to be joyful.
This letter challenges us to ask if we are playing our part in the advance of the gospel. Do we live our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel? Have we risked everything to do our part to advance the gospel? Are we driven by that gospel centred desire to know Jesus better each day? We need to ask these difficult questions of ourselves, must be willing to listen to what God says to us, and ready to correct error in our lives.
People are naturally divisive (a result of sin) and find it easy to disagree and go their own way. Philippians reminds us that unity is important in the church, and should be an important part of our Christian lives.
Philippians speaks into those areas of our lives where our sinful nature encourages us to replace God’s way of doing things with our own. This is important because our solutions to life’s problems will always let us down!
1:3-11 Thanksgiving and prayer
1:12-26 The advancing gospel
1:27-2:18 Living for the gospel
2:19-30 Two examples of gospel men - Timothy & Epaphroditus
3:1-4:1 Paul’s example of gospel living
4:2-9 Paul’s call for us to go and live gospel lives
4:10-20 Thanks for the Philippians support of both him and the gospel
4:21-23 Final greetings