The Letter of Philippians is written by the Apostle Paul to a church that he had helped start when on his second ‘missionary journey’ described in the book of Acts (Acts 16:6-33).
The Philippian church was the first he had a part in starting, and the first on mainline Europe. It had a dramatic start. Around AD49 Paul travelled with his friends, Luke, Timothy and Silas across Europe looking to preach the Gospel wherever they could, but particularly in the towns and cities, where there were most people. They visited the town of Philippi, a Roman city in eastern Macedonia (modern day Greece). It was their custom to seek out a synagogue because this is where the Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire worshipped. The Jews had a basic understanding of God and might be persuaded that Jesus was the one predicted by the prophets, and so enter into a relationship with Jesus themselves. But there was no synagogue in Philippi: the town had a place of prayer instead. It was here that they found a group of God fearing women, including Lydia, a local business woman who responded to their message about Jesus and welcomed them to her home.
But their progress was soon to be hindered. A slave girl who worked as a fortune teller followed Paul and his team around and eventually Paul cast an evil spirit out of her. But without the spirit, she became useless to her handlers. They angrily brought Paul and Silas before the authorities, claiming that they were stirring up trouble. They were beaten and placed in prison.
Undeterred, Paul and Silas sang praises to God that night, and were interrupted by an earthquake which so shook the prison that it opened the doors and freed the prisoners. Paul and Silas were thus able to leave, but not before the jailer and his family were also added to the church. It would seem that Paul leaves Luke in charge of the work at Philippi, maybe with Timothy as his assistant, made up mostly of non-Jews. It is highly probable that Paul would have visited the church once more, Philippi being the place from which he sailed on a later journey (Acts 20:6). It is likely that the letter is written a decade after the church was planted when Paul is imprisoned in Rome (AD59-61) a period in which Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon are also written.
Paul always takes the opportunity to remind fellow believers of the glorious privilege of being connected to Christ and this Letter is no exception. He reminds them of their partnership in the Gospel, and how pleased he is that others are preaching this same Gospel, even though they are unfriendly towards him.
But he has other duties in mind too.
The Philippians had remained supportive of Paul in the previous 10 years and, when hearing of his arrest, sent one of their members, Epaphroditus to him with a financial gift (4:18). Epaphroditus had questions for the apostle; in particular about teaching the church had received from people with a Jewish background. They insisted that new Christians needed to keep aspects of the Jewish law, including circumcision.
The letter expresses Paul’s thanks for the financial gift but it is also clear that he needs to explain something to the church. The church hoped Epaphroditus might assist Paul, in prison in Rome, and Timothy’s return to them. Timothy had worked at the church and was evidently well respected. But Paul chose to send Epaphroditus, who had been seriously ill, back to them, and keep Timothy. He explains this to them in the Letter, to smooth over any disappointment. He answers the query concerning the Jewish teachers robustly, saying they are wrong to insist on keeping the Law.
Why read it
Find reasons to rejoice
Different forms of the words joy, rejoice, and gladness appear in 15 of the letter’s 104 verses.
We can all find it tough to live as a Christian. But Paul reminds us that we have reasons to rejoice, even if we are in tough times. Paul was in prison and so not able to do the many things that he wanted to do. Nevertheless he chooses to fill his mind with good things, especially the ways that God loves and supports him. The Letter will help you fix your mind on the great truths of the Faith.
See Jesus as your example
Sometimes we can feel fed up with other Christians who don’t act as we would like. Paul uses what may have been an early Christian hymn in 2:7 to explain how we should behave towards one another. It gives a description of how Jesus, God the Son, enters our world, dies and is now exalted. He is our wonderful example. If He could do this for us, how much easier is it for us to seek to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ?
It’s your faith that counts
We can easily think that the things we do must make us acceptable to God. But God accepts us solely on the basis of our faith. We cannot earn our salvation as Paul makes very clear in this Letter. But having come to faith, we do need to continue to work out our salvation. We have new life in Jesus but this needs to be well nurtured by prayer and Bible reading and fellowship with other Christians and personal witness. This includes of course reading this Letter.
|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|