Upon reading this letter, it soon becomes apparent that it is different from the other letters that Paul wrote in that it is impossible to draw out of the letter one general theme which the apostle is making for the church of Philippi. In this, one of his most personal letters, he touches on many subjects which are of importance for the Philippians as well as the church today.
THE CHURCH OF PHILIPPI
While on the second missionary journey, Paul, Silas, and Luke were called by the Holy Spirit to labor in the Church of Philippi. Having gone through Phrygia and the region of Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the Word in Asia. They turned instead to Bithynia, and even there the Holy Spirit suffered them not to preach (Acts 16:6, 7). The direct word came to them at Troas when the Macedonian man appeared to Paul in a vision, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). After two days’ journey by ship, they came to Neapolis and then overland for eight miles they came to Philippi. There the need for help became apparent. Since Paul’s custom was to preach to the Jews first, he sought out the place where they gathered. The Jews were too small in number to have their own synagogue, hence they assembled by the River Gangites. It was here the Holy Spirit led Lydia and her household to true faith (Acts 16:13-15). Subsequently, the Roman jailor and his household were converted after the earthquake at midnight (Acts 16:25-40).
From the evidence given us in the Bible, we conclude that the congregation at Philippi was composed mostly of Roman Gentiles. There is no reference to any Jewish opposition, which was so common throughout Paul’s missionary work. This tells us that the potential Jewish membership was small to begin with. The names of the members of the church mentioned in this letter are Greek or Roman: Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25), Euodias and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2), Clement (Phil. 4:3). Since this was the first church established in Europe, it has special meaning for the Gentiles of all ages.
It is also interesting to note that the women of the church receive considerable attention in this letter. Looking back we are reminded that the initial contact with this church was through a group of women gathered by the river (Acts 16:13). The first convert was a woman (Acts 16:14, 15). Two women are mentioned in the letter as being in disagreement (Phil. 4:2). Specific reference is made to other women in the church (Phil. 4:3). This may be attributed to the great influence Lydia had upon the church.
Paul sustained a close and warm friendship with the church of Philippi. The members of the church were considerate of Paul and demonstrated their love for him repeatedly. Paul makes special mention of this to the Corinthian church: “Moreover brethren, we do you to wit of the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia; how that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality” (II Cor. 8:1, 2). On four different occasions the congregation of Philippi came through with money to help Paul in the hour of his need. Twice they sent him help just after he left them for Thessalonica (Phil. 4:15, 16). During his ministry in Corinth, he had material need and he refused to take it from the Corinthian congregation but gladly received it from the church of Philippi (II Cor. 11:8, 9). Now also, the Philippians had sent Paul help while he was imprisoned at Rome (Phil. 4:10). Paul reciprocated this love by visiting the congregation repeatedly. It seems that Paul chose to visit the church of Philippi whenever he had special need. With them he found comfort and solace. There was spiritual closeness. We may notice that Paul made the following visits to the church: after writing the First Corinthian epistle, he went to Philippi to await the response; after the riot in Ephesus, he retreated to Philippi; he celebrated the week of Easter A.D. 58; and after the first Roman imprisonment he retreated to Philippi. This letter also reflects upon this close fellowship which Paul enjoyed with this church. “Always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:4, 5). He extols their sincerity: “Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). The warmth of the love he had for them is expressed, “Therefore, my brethren, dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord my dearly beloved” (Phil. 4:1). We can certainly conclude from this that Paul loved the church of Philippi and felt very close to them.
DATE AND AUTHOR
The apostle Paul designates himself as the author (Phil. 1:1). By mentioning Timothy in verse one, he does not mean to tell us that Timothy wrote it in conjunction with him, rather that Timothy was present with Paul and also extended like greetings and sentiments to the church. There is no dispute over Paul’s authorship.
In trying to determine the date, we are able to learn from the letter itself that it was occasioned by the generosity of Philippi in sending Epaphroditus to Rome. Evidently the Philippians had lost contact with Paul for some years. Nevertheless, when they heard that he was in prison in Rome they immediately reacted by sending Epaphroditus, perhaps their pastor, though we cannot be sure of his identity. He not only cheered Paul by his presence, but he also brought a love offering from the church. While in Rome, Epaphroditus became very sick, so sick in fact that Paul feared his death and interceded before God for his life (Phil. 2:25-30). God spared him and he was about to return home to Philippi. This gave Paul opportunity to send this letter with him, a letter in which he could express his thanks to them for their love shown to him once again and also to encourage them to carry on the work of the Lord.
There is plenty of internal evidence that shows conclusively that the letter was written during the Roman imprisonment, more than likely .after he wrote Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians. TheInternational Standard Bible Encyclopedia sets forth seven reasons for believing this. We summarize them as follows:
1. At least four trips were made between Philippi and Rome, a distance of some 700 miles, before Paul wrote this letter: someone carried the news of Paul’s imprisonment to Philippi, Epaphroditus brought the gift from Philippi to Rome, news of Epaphroditus’ illness was taken from Rome to Philippi, and a letter of sympathy was returned from Philippi to Rome. This involved considerable time, since these trips were not made in immediate succession.
2. Paul makes reference in this letter (Phil. 1:13) to the fact that the gospel had been preached amongst the Praetorian (Roman) guards. This too must have taken some time.
3. In addition to this, Christ was preached extensively throughout the city of Rome. A church had been established there and already some party spirit had taken over this church (Phil. 1:15-17). One doesn’t think of this taking place in a couple of years.
4. Luke was well known to the Philippians, yet he does not send his greetings in this letter and he surely would have done this if he were there. He was present when Paul wrote Colossians, as was Demas (Col. 4:14). Paul promised to send Timothy to Philippi, “since he had not one like minded” (Phil. 2:20). If Aristarchus, Luke, or Demas were there, Paul could not have said this. They were there when Paul wrote the other later prison epistles.
5. His prison conditions were worse than his first imprisonment. At that time he was in a hired house, had his friends around him, and he could preach freely. Now, he was confined and lonely.
6. Paul wrote as if his case would be decided soon,Philippians 2:23, 24. He was facing his final trial. This was not his expectation when he wrote the other letters.
7. Paul included in his greetings to the saints which are in Philippi mention of the bishops and deacons, (Phil 1:1). This was characteristic of his later letters, hence this letter is linked with them.
This evidence carries weight and leads us to conclude that this was Paul’s last letter to the churches. It is significant that his parting word should be to his beloved Philippi. The date stands then somewhere around A.D. 63 or 64.
As we stated before, we cannot draw any one theme or central message from this letter. It is a personal letter from Paul to a dear congregation whom he loved and to whom he desired to express that love a final time.
This is not to say that there are not specific points that Paul desired to make in this letter. We can enumerate two of them (Tenney, Bible Survey).
First, Paul emphasized the importance of the gospel. There are nine references to the gospel: Phil. 1:5, 1:7, 1:12, 1:16, 1:27, 2:22, 4:3, and Phil. 4:15. It was his privilege to preach Christ crucified and risen (Phil. 2:8), and by faith in this Savior the saints have righteousness before God (Phil. 2:9). The apostle glories in this gospel to the very end.
Second, Paul sets forth this great theme with joy. The entire letter rings with the positive note of joy. This is remarkable in view of his imprisonment and imminent death. Over against these adversities, Paul is confident in the joy that flows from the gospel. He remembers the love of the Philippians with joy (Phil. 1:3); he rejoices in that Christ is preached (whether in pretense or truth) Phil. 1:18; he expresses joy over the humility pf the saints (Phil. 2:2); he even says it is reason for joy if he become a martyr for the sake of the gospel (Phil. 2:17); and finally he expresses joy that the Philippian church remembered him with their gifts while he was in prison (Phil. 4:10).
What a lesson there is for us in this letter which we do well to read and study. We who have so much freedom and enjoy so much luxury, still do so much complaining. For shame! May our eyes be opened to understand that in the world we must expect tribulation, and even that experience is not for our destruction, but our salvation.
Not material prosperity, not worldly fame, but the gospel is the cause for our eternal joy.