Updated: Jan 24, 2019
Pastoral Intern Jared Smith
The Apostle Paul’s epistle to the church in Philippi is one of his four epistles written while he was imprisoned (along with Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon). The church at Philippi was very dear to Paul, being that it was the first church that he planted in Europe (Acts 16:6ff). By God’s grace, Paul had success in preaching the gospel there. The first person to be converted in Philippi was a woman entrepreneur who worked in textiles named Lydia. Also, during another imprisonment, Paul and his ministry partner Silas experienced the conversion of a Philippian jailer, preaching the gospel of Christ while they were miraculously freed from prison. It is very likely that Paul visited the church in Philippi several times to minister and care for them, which would also explain his close relationship with them.
The setting of the city of Philippi would be akin to our surroundings. Philippi was a patriotic city, being re-founded by Antony (and later Augustus), and populated by military veterans. The city experienced privileges in comparison to others. Philippi was exempted from significant forms of taxation and received privileges of land ownership. The city had a wealth of venues and entertainment including a theater, a large forum, shops, a sports facility, and pagan temples. It is helpful to remember that the churches that were established in the New Testament are situated in cities much like ours. There would have been many distractions and temptations available to lure the Christian church away from its primary calling and mission: proclaiming and living in light of the gospel of Christ Jesus. In a stable city like Philippi, it would have also been tempting to look to government for security, but the Christian church is called to look to the only true king, Jesus Christ, for security, which in turns puts them at odds with the surrounding culture.
Unlike many of Paul’s letters, in which his intervention via epistle is necessary due to an unforeseen controversy or sin, the letter to the Philippian church has no specific controversy to write of. Paul’s letter to the church is one rather of great joy and thankfulness. Twelve times, Paul uses the word “joy” (or “rejoice”) to speak of the Philippians. He begins his letter by writing how grateful he is to the church for supporting him in ministry and his time in prison (1:3-11). Their support is evidence of their maturity in the faith. Paul sees his imprisonment as an example to the church of what it looks like to be a servant of Christ in difficult times. Paul realizes that the church is experiencing persecution, yet encourages them to continue to proclaim Christ just as he does in his chains. He is so eager to see the Philippians that he is conflicted on embracing imminent death – because it is a great joy for himself to be with the Lord – or to remain in this life since it would be of great benefit to the church (1:18ff).
The apex of the epistle is the hymn (or confession) recorded in 2:5-11. Paul writes of the humility of our Lord Jesus Christ who “being the eternal Son of God, became man” (WSC 21), “being born, and that of a low condition…undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death of the cross (WSC 27), yet who rises again on the third day, sits at the right hand of God the Father, and is coming to judge the world at the last day (WSC 28). Paul sees this as not only a doctrine to be preached and believed, but one to be emulated by the church. One such example of this type of humility was Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus was a member of the Philippian church who was sent by the church to bring necessities to Paul while imprisoned. Either before or during his journey, Epaphroditus drew ill but still completed his task of ministering to Paul. Paul is eager to send both Epaphroditus and Timothy to Philippi to encourage the church there. The humility of the Lord Jesus, and of men like Paul is to be contrasted with the “dogs” who proclaim their own righteousness instead of Christ’s (3:2ff). These men are not to be emulated but rather rejected.
Paul concludes his letter by writing that he wants to see unity within the church, particularly between Euodia and Syntyche (4:2f). He calls the church to continual thankfulness and prayer, girded by the reality that God will provide for their needs. He points to himself as the prime example of knowing what it is to live with much and little (4:12f), knowing that “my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (4:19).