1. Background to Philippians

  • Author: Paul during his imprisonment (1:7, 12-14, 17). Traditional view is Paul is writing from Rome (1:13, 4:22) near the end of his first Roman imprisonment around AD 61. He would have written Ephesus, Colossians and Philemon during this time also.
  • Intended Recipients: Christians in Philippi (1:1)
  • Current Circumstance and Historical Situation: The church in Philippi was the first church Paul founded in Europe (Acts 16:12ff). The initial converts were Jewish (Acts 16:13-15), but it appears many were Gentiles. Although they were poor, the Philippians were the only ones that supported Paul financially (4:15).
  • Paul’s Purpose:
    1. Thanksgiving for their financial gift (4:10-19)
    2. Explanation regarding Epaphroditus (2:25-30)
    3. Updating his personal circumstance (1:12-16)
    4. Warning regarding false teachers (3:2, 18-19)
  • Overall Theme: Divine Joy (1:4, 18, 25; 2:2, 17-18, 28-29; 3:1; 4:1, 4, 10). χαίρω is used 9 times in the book. χαρά is used 5 times.

2. Structure – Philippians Chapter Summary

  • Chapter 1: Paul gives thanks to God for the church of Philippi, and he shares his joy amidst difficult circumstances to encourage the Philippians to continue to live is a worthy manner.
  • Chapter 2: Paul exhorts them to have unity through Christ–like humility, persevere in good works, and properly receive Timothy and Epaphroditus.
  • Chapter 3: Paul warns them against evil and false teachers, reminding them to follow Paul’s faithful example and fixate on their heavenly citizenship.
  • Chapter 4: Paul gives some final exhoration and thanks them for their support through financial giving and sending Epaphroditus.

3. Philippians Book Outline1

  1. Paul’s Greeting (1:1-2)
  2. Thanksgiving and Prayer for the Philippians (1:3-11)
  3. Paul’s Circumstances (1:12-26)
    1. Paul’s Imprisonment (1:12-18)
    2. Paul Torn Between Life and Death (1:19-26)
  4. Living in a Manner Worthy of the Gospel (1:27-2:18)
    1. Unity in Contending for the Faith (1:27-30)
    2. Unity Through Christlike Humility (2:1-11)
    3. Purity in the Midst of a Wicked Generation (2:12-18)
  5. Timothy and Epaphroditus (2:19-30)
  6. Warnings Against Error (3:1-4:1)
    1. Warning Against Confidence in the Flesh (3:1-11)
    2. Pressing On Toward the Goal of Our Calling (3:12-21)
  7. Exhortations and Encouragement (4:1-9)
  8. The Philippians’ Generosity (4:10-20)
  9. Closing Grace (4:21-23)

4. Historical-Cultural Background of Philippi

City of Philippi2

A city in Macedonia, northeastern Greece, ca. 17 km. (10 mi.) inland from the Aegean Sea and NW of the port city of Kavala (ancient Neapolis). It was first occupied in the 6th century B.C.E. by settlers from Thasos who named it Krenides (“the springs”) because water sources in the region were abundant. The particular feature which drew settlers to the area was the enormous deposits of gold discovered in nearby Mt. Pangeo. The site was renamed Philippoi by Philip II of Macedon (Philip the Great, father of Alexander the Great) ca. 358 when he established a settlement of Macedonians to protect the gold mines from looters. Philippi was brought under Roman rule in 168.

The archaeological site of ancient Philippi lies on the Via Egnatia, which runs through it. Excavations have revealed ruins of Roman baths at the end of a colonnaded street, basilicas on either side of the street, temples, a Roman forum, a 4th-century theater which the Romans renovated for gladiatorial contests, remnants of several Christian churches, and an acropolis which gives evidence of occupation for the Macedonian to the Byzantine ages. The rocky slope on the north side of the road is dotted with numerous inscriptions, shrines, reliefs, and votive carvings which represent numerous religions, myths, cults, and deities that were part of this vibrant and pluralistic society. These include religious movements that spread widely throughout the Mediterranean (e.g., the veneration of Isis and Osiris) as well as purely local deities (e.g., Bendix and the Thracian rider-god).

Philippi was the site of one of the most significant military engagements in Roman history. In a series of battles there in 42 B.C.E., Mark Antony and Octavian (later endowed with the title “Augustus”) conquered the republican forces of the assassins of Julius Caesar, Cassius and Brutus. In some ways this battle marked the turning point between the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. The poet Horace fought in this battle, on the side of Cassius and Brutus, though he reports that he threw away his shield and ran for his life when his defeated leader Brutus killed himself. Little more than a decade later, when Augustus defeated Antony, his sole remaining competitor for Roman rule, at the battle of Actium (31 B.C.E.), Augustus turned Philippi into a Roman colony which he named Colonia Julia Augusta Victrix Philippensis. Here he planted veterans of the civil wars and the supporters of Mark Antony whose lands he took over and whom he dismissed from Italy. Special privileges were allowed to these Roman colonists, such as exemption from taxes and the right to own and market property.

According to Acts 16:9 Paul had a vision that he was to leave Asia Minor and come to Macedonia. He landed at Neapolis, where the major Roman highway, the Via Egnatia, came to its end. Ca. 50 C.E. he, Luke, and Silas came to Philippi and established a Christian fellowship there, founding the first church on European soil. He returned to the city on his second and third journeys. Paul found Philippi to be a cosmopolitan area, with Romans, Greeks, Jews, and people of quite diverse national and ethnic derivation. Because a considerable portion of the citizenry were Romans who enjoyed special privileges as colonists, Paul encountered there a community with a pronounced devotion to and pride in the Roman Empire. The political and religious loyalties of the people appear to have been an issue for Paul. Only in Philippians does he use language that speaks of civil or political identity, when he tells his readers to live in a way that is worthy of the gospel of Christ (Gk. politeúesthe; Phil. 1:27) and when he reminds them that they are citizens of heaven (políteuma; 3:20). Paul appears to have been trying to get the Philippian Christians to see themselves as Christians first and Romans second, not Romans first and Christians second.

Citizens of Philippi3

Philippi was already a very old and historic city when Paul arrived and later wrote his letter to the Christians there. Philip of Macedon had built it in 358–57 BC. on the site of an ancient Thracian city located eight miles from the sea in a spring-filled, fertile region. He fortified it and named it after himself. Later Philippi became part of the Roman Empire and was made one of the stations along the main overland route connecting Rome with the East. Destroyed by wars, it was rebuilt by the Emperor Octavian, who established it as a military outpost, populated it with veterans of his wars, made it a Roman colony and gave it the ius italicum —the highest privilege obtainable by a provincial municipality. Consequently, as the citizens of Rome, so the citizens of Philippi could buy and sell property, were exempt from land tax and the poll tax and were entitled to protection by Roman law. Thus it was that when Paul made his first journey to Europe, he purposely neglected the port city of Neapolis to begin preaching the gospel in the small but more important city of Philippi of the first district of Macedonia (Acts 16:12).

Philippi was inhabited predominantly by Romans, but many Macedonian Greeks and some Jews lived there as well. Its people were proud of their city, proud of their ties with Rome, proud to observe Roman customs and obey Roman laws, proud to be Roman citizens (cf. Acts 16:21). Twice in this brief letter Paul makes statements that capitalize on this fact: “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27), where the verb he uses for “conduct yourselves,” politeuesthe literally means “to live as a citizen, to live as freepersons,” even “to take part in government.” By choosing this word Paul seems to be appealing to their pride as Roman citizens, and to be extending this idea now to the church, the new community to which they belong, and of which they must be responsible citizens, abiding by its law of love. Paul’s other statement is in 3:20: “For our citizenship politeuma is in heaven…” Here again his choice of the word politeuma recalls what he said in 1:27 and suggests that once more he is reflecting on the civic status of Philippi as a Roman colony, and reminding the Philippians that they now belong to a higher, more important, more enduring commonwealth. Choosing Philippi, thus, as the place to launch the gospel on European soil fitted in with Paul’s mission strategy of selecting important cities of repute and strategic location as ideal centers from which the good news of the gospel might radiate out.

Church of Philippi4

Paul came to Philippi as the result of a vision he had while he was in Troas. He saw a “man of Macedonia” and heard him say “Come over … and help us.” Immediately after the vision Paul and his party left off their attempts to go into Bithynia and decided instead to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called them to preach the gospel there (Acts 16:9–10). According to the Acts account the first convert to Christianity in Philippi was a woman, Lydia. Although Lydia was a pagan, she nevertheless was a God-fearing person who had been attracted to the lofty ideals of the Jewish religion (Acts 16:14). But when she heard Paul preach the gospel and, as Luke said, God opened her heart, she put her faith in Jesus Christ and along with her household was baptized (16:14–15). These people became the nucleus of the church at Philippi, and while meeting in the home of Lydia they showed great kindness in their generous hospitality to Paul and his companions, prevailing upon them to come and join this household and stay with them (Acts 16:15).

The only other Philippian converts mentioned in Acts were the Roman soldier, who guarded the jail where Paul had been put in prison, and his household (Acts 16:30–33). But the extraordinary circumstances in which the jailer became a Christian generated within him such affection for Paul and Silas that he washed their wounds, brought them into his house and spread his table with food for them to eat.

The reactions of these two people, one a distinguished and wealthy woman and one a Roman soldier, and of those around them toward the apostle set the tone for the relationship that was to endure between the church at Philippi and Paul. It is obvious from this brief letter, no doubt one of several he wrote to the Philippians, that not only did he have a deep affection for the Philippians, but they as well for him (cf. 1:7; 4:16). When he addresses them he does not do so as “Paul the apostle” but only as a servant of Christ Jesus—he had no need to convince them of his authority. This is not to say, however, that there were not things happening in this church that grieved Paul and against which he raised his voice. Apparently there were divisions between groups of people there (1:27; 2:2), with people who were selfish, conceited and looking out only for their own interests (2:3–4). There were people who were murmuring and grumbling (2:14) and people who simply could not get along with others (4:2)—and all within the church. In a gentle fashion, holding up before them the way of the Christ, he graciously calls them back to harmony and mutual concern one for another.

Little else is known about the composition of the church in Philippi, but names such as Epaphroditus, Euodia, Syntyche and Clement—all mentioned by Paul as members of this church (Phil 2:25; 4:2–3)—indicate that this first Christian church on European soil was made up largely of Greeks. Furthermore, it is safe to infer that from its inception women played an important role in this church, even in its leadership. Not only was its first convert a woman, a woman of wealth and influence (Acts 16:14), but it is possible that all the other women who had met with Lydia for prayer by the riverside even before Paul came to Philippi (Acts 16:13) also were led to faith in Jesus Christ by her example and testimony. It is a fact worthy of note that of the four Philippians mentioned by name in this letter, two of them are women and are designated by Paul as women who worked hard alongside him in the proclamation of the gospel (Phil 4:3).

  1. David Lang, Greg Ward, and Sean Nelson, eds., Outlines of the Bible Books, Accordance electronic ed. (Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, 2015), paragraph 2258. ↩︎
  2. Richard A. Spencer, “PHILIPPI,” Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 1048-1049. ↩︎
  3. G. F. Hawthorne, “PHILIPPIANS, LETTER TO THE,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 707-708. ↩︎
  4. G. F. Hawthorne, “PHILIPPIANS, LETTER TO THE,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 708. ↩︎

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