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Bible Commentaries

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

- Philippians

by William Barclay



The Letters Of Paul

There is no more interesting body of documents in the New Testament than the letters of Paul. That is because of all forms of literature a letter is most personal. Demetrius, one of the old Greek literary critics, once wrote, "Every one reveals his own soul in his letters. In every other form of composition it is possible to discern the writer's character, but in none so clearly as the epistolary." (Demetrius, On Style, 227). It is just because he left us so many letters that we feel we know Paul so well. In them he opened his mind and heart to the folk he loved so much; and in them, to this day, we can see that great mind grappling with the problems of the early church, and feel that great heart throbbing with love for men, even when they were misguided and mistaken.

The Difficulty Of Letters

At the same time, there is often nothing so difficult to understand as a letter. Demetrius (On Style, 223) quotes a saying of Artemon, who edited the letters of Aristotle. Artemon said that a letter ought to be written in the same manner as a dialogue, because it was one of the two sides of a dialogue. In other words, to read a letter is like listening to one side of a telephone conversation. So when we read the letters of Paul we are often in a difficulty. We do not possess the letter which he was answering; we do not fully know the circumstances with which he was dealing; it is only from the letter itself that we can deduce the situation which prompted it. Before we can hope to understand fully any letter Paul wrote, we must try to reconstruct the situation which produced it.

The Ancient Letters

It is a great pity that Paul's letters were ever called epistles. They are in the most literal sense letters. One of the great lights shed on the interpretation of the New Testament has been the discovery and the publication of the papyri. In the ancient world, papyrus was the substance on which most documents were written. It was composed of strips of the pith of a certain bulrush that grew on the banks of the Nile. These strips were laid one on top of the other to form a substance very like brown paper. The sands of the Egyptian desert were ideal for preservation, for papyrus, although very brittle, will last forever so long as moisture does not get at it. As a result, from the Egyptian rubbish heaps, archaeologists have rescued hundreds of documents, marriage contracts, legal agreements, government forms, and, most interesting of all, private letters. When we read these private letters we find that there was a pattern to which nearly all conformed; and we find that Paul's letters reproduce exactly that pattern. Here is one of these ancient letters. It is from a soldier, called Apion, to his father Epimachus. He is writing from Misenum to tell his father that he has arrived safely after a stormy passage.

"Apion sends heartiest greetings to his father and lord Epimachus.

I pray above all that you are well and fit; and that things are

going well with you and my sister and her daughter and my brother.

I thank my Lord Serapis [his god] that he kept me safe when I was

in peril on the sea. As soon as I got to Misenum I got my journey

money from Caesar--three gold pieces. And things are going fine

with me. So I beg you, my dear father, send me a line, first to let

me know how you are, and then about my brothers, and thirdly, that

I may kiss your hand, because you brought me up well, and because

of that I hope, God willing, soon to be promoted. Give Capito my

heartiest greetings, and my brothers and Serenilla and my friends.

I sent you a little picture of myself painted by Euctemon. My

military name is Antonius Maximus. I pray for your good health.

Serenus sends good wishes, Agathos Daimon's boy, and Turbo,

Gallonius' son." (G. Milligan, Selections from the Greek Papyri,


Little did Apion think that we would be reading his letter to his father 1800 years after he had written it. It shows how little human nature changes. The lad is hoping for promotion quickly. Who would Serenilla be but the girl he left behind him? He sends the ancient equivalent of a photograph to the folk at home. Now that letter falls into certain sections. (i) There is a greeting. (ii) There is a prayer for the health of the recipients. (iii) There is a thanksgiving to the gods. (iv) There are the special contents. (v) Finally, there are the special salutations and the personal greetings. Practically every one of Paul's letters shows exactly the same sections, as we now demonstrate.

(i) The Greeting: Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Php_1:1 ; Colossians 1:1-2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1.

(ii) The Prayer: in every case Paul prays for the grace of God on the people to whom he writes: Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; Php_1:3 ; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:2.

(iii) The Thanksgiving: Romans 1:8; 1 Corinthians 1:4; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:3; Php_1:3 ; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:3.

(iv) The Special Contents: the main body of the letters.

(v) Special Salutations and Personal Greetings: Romans 16:1-27; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Corinthians 13:13; Php_4:21-22 ; Colossians 4:12-15; 1 Thessalonians 5:26.

When Paul wrote letters, he wrote them on the pattern which everyone used. Deissmann says of them, "They differ from the messages of the homely papyrus leaves of Egypt, not as letters but only as the letters of Paul." When we read Paul's letters we are not reading things which were meant to be academic exercises and theological treatises, but human documents written by a friend to his friends.

The Immediate Situation

With a very few exceptions, all Paul's letters were written to meet an immediate situation and not treatises which he sat down to write in the peace and silence of his study. There was some threatening situation in Corinth, or Galatia, or Philippi, or Thessalonica, and he wrote a letter to meet it. He was not in the least thinking of us when he wrote, but solely of the people to whom he was writing. Deissmann writes, "Paul had no thought of adding a few fresh compositions to the already extant Jewish epistles; still less of enriching the sacred literature of his nation.... He had no presentiment of the place his words would occupy in universal history; not so much that they would be in existence in the next generation, far less that one day people would look at them as Holy Scripture." We must always remember that a thing need not be transient because it was written to meet an immediate situation. All the great love songs of the world were written for one person, but they live on for the whole of mankind. It is just because Paul's letters were written to meet a threatening danger or a clamant need that they still throb with life. And it is because human need and the human situation do not change that God speaks to us through them today.

The Spoken Word

One other thing we must note about these letters. Paul did what most people did in his day. He did not normally pen his own letters but dictated them to a secretary, and then added Ws own authenticating signature. (We actually know the name of one of the people who did the writing for him. In Romans 16:22 Tertius, the secretary, slips in his own greeting before the letter draws to an end). In 1 Corinthians 16:21 Paul says, "This is my own signature, my autograph, so that you can be sure this letter comes from me." (compare Colossians 4:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:17.)

This explains a great deal. Sometimes Paul is hard to understand, because his sentences begin and never finish; his grammar breaks down and the construction becomes involved. We must not think of him sitting quietly at a desk, carefully polishing each sentence as he writes. We must think of him striding up and down some little room, pouring out a torrent of words, while his secretary races to get them down. When Paul composed his letters, he had in his mind's eye a vision of the folk to whom he was writing, and he was pouring out his heart to them in words that fell over each other in his eagerness to help.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


Introduction To The Letter To The Philippians

We are fortunate in one thing in our study of Philippians--there are practically no critical problems involved; for no reputable New Testament critic has ever doubted its genuineness. We can accept Philippians as undoubtedly an authentic letter of Paul.


When Paul chose a place wherein to preach the gospel, he always did so with the eye of a strategist. He always chose one which was not only important in itself but was also the key point of a whole area. To this day many of Paul's preaching-centres are still great road centres and railway junctions. Such was Philippi which had at least three great claims to distinction.

(i) In the neighbourhood there were gold and silver mines, which had been worked as far back as the time of the Phoenicians. It is true that by the time of the Christian era they had become exhausted, but they had made Philippi a great commercial centre of the ancient world.

(ii) The city had been founded by Philip, father of Alexander the Great, and it is his name that it bears. It was founded on the site of an ancient city called Krenides, a name which means The Wells or Fountains. Philip had founded Philippi in 368 B.C. because there was no more strategic site in all Europe. There is a range of hills which divides Europe from Asia, east from west and just at Philippi that chain of hills dips into a pass so that the city commanded the road from Europe to Asia, since the road must go through the pass. This was the reason that one of the great battles of history was fought at Philippi; for it was here that Antony defeated Brutus and Cassius, and thereby decided the future of the Roman Empire.

(iii) Not very long after, Philippi attained the dignity of a Roman Colony. The Roman Colonies were amazing institutions. They were not colonies in the sense of being outposts of civilization in unexplored parts of the world. They had begun by having a military significance. It was the custom of Rome to send out parties of veteran soldiers, who had served their time and been granted citizenship, to settle in strategic road centres. Usually these parties consisted of three hundred veterans with their wives and children. These colonies were the focal points of the great Roman road systems which were so engineered that reinforcements could speedily be sent from one colony to another. They were founded to keep the peace and to command the strategic centres in Rome's far-flung Empire. At first they had been founded in Italy; but soon they were scattered throughout the whole Empire, as the Empire grew. In later days the title of colony was given by the government to any city which it wished to honour for faithful service.

Wherever they were, these colonies were little fragments of Rome and their pride in their Roman citizenship was their dominating characteristic. The Roman language was spoken; Roman dress was worn; Roman customs were observed; their magistrates had Roman titles, and carried out the am ceremonies as were carried out in Rome itself. They were stubbornly and unalterably Roman and would never have dreamt of becoming assimilated to the people amidst whom they wert set. We can hear the Roman pride breathing through the charge against Paul and Silas in Acts 16:20-21: "These men are Jews, and they are trying to teach and to introduce laws and customs which it is not right for us to observe--for we are Romans."

"You are a colony of heaven" (King James Version), Paul wrote to the Philippian Church ( Php_3:20 ). Just as the Roman colonist never forgot in any environment that he was a Roman, so they must never forget in any society that they were Christians. Nowhere were men prouder of being Roman citizens than in these colonies; and such was Philippi.

Paul And Philippi

It was on the second missionary journey, about the year A.D. 52, that Paul first came to Philippi. Urged on by the vision of the man of Macedonia with his appeal to come over and help us, Paul had sailed from Alexandrian Troas in Asia Minor. He had landed at Neapolis in Europe, and thence made his way to Philippi.

The story of Paul's stay in Philippi is told in Acts 16:1-40; and an interesting story it is. It centres round three people--Lydia, the seller of purple; the demented slave-girl, used by her masters to tell fortunes; and the Roman jailor. It is an extraordinary cross-section of ancient life. These three people were of different nationalities. Lydia was an Asiatic, and her name may well be not a proper name at all but simply "the Lydian lady." The slave-girl was a native Greek. The jailor was a Roman citizen. The whole Empire was being gathered into the Christian Church. But not only were these three of different nationalities; they came from very different grades of society. Lydia was a dealer in purple, one of the most costly substances in the ancient world, and was the equivalent of a merchant prince. The girl was a slave, and, therefore, in the eyes of the law not a person at all, but a living tool. The jailor was a Roman citizen, member of the sturdy Roman middle-class from which the civil service was drawn. In these three the top, the bottom and middle of society are all represented. No chapter in the Bible shows so well the all-embracing faith which Jesus Christ brought to men.


Paul had to leave Philippi after a storm of persecution and an illegal imprisonment. That persecution was inherited by the Philippian Church. He tells them that they have shared in his bonds and in his defence of the gospel ( Php_1:7 ). He bids them not to fear their adversaries for they are going through what he himself has gone through and is now enduring ( Php_1:28-30 ).

True Friendship

There had grown up between Paul and the Philippian Church a bond of friendship closer than that which existed between him and any other Church. It was his proud boast that he had never taken help from any man or from any Church, and that, with his own two hands, he had satisfied his needs. It was from the Philippians alone that he had agreed to accept a gift. Soon after he left them and moved on to Thessalonica, they sent him a present ( Php_4:16 ). When he moved on and arrived in Corinth by way of Athens, they alone again remembered him with their gifts ( 2 Corinthians 11:9). "My brethren whom I love and long for," he calls them, "my joy and crown in the Lord" ( Php_4:1 ).

The Occasion Of The Writing Of The Letter

When Paul wrote this letter he was in prison in Rome, and he wrote it with certain definite objects.

(i) It is a letter of thanks. The years have passed; it is now A.D. 63 or 64 and once again the Philippians have sent him a gift ( Php_4:10-11 ).

(ii) It has to do with Epaphroditus. It seems that the Philippians had sent him not only as a bearer of their gift, but that he might stay with Paul and be his personal servant. But Epaphroditus had fallen ill. He was sick for home; and he was worried because he knew that the people at home were worried about him. Paul sent him home, but he had the unhappy feeling that the people in Philippi might think Epaphroditus a quilter, so he goes out of his way to give him a testimonial: "Receive him with all joy, and honour such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ" ( Php_2:29-30 ). There is something very moving in the sight of Paul, himself in prison and awaiting death, seeking to make things easier for Epaphroditus, when he was unexpectedly and unwillingly compelled to go home. Here is the peak of Christian courtesy.

(iii) It is a letter of encouragement to the Philippians in the trials which they are going through ( Php_1:28-30 ).

(iv) It is an appeal for unity. It is from that, that there rises the great passage which speaks of the selfless humility of Jesus Christ ( Php_2:1-11 ). In the Church at Philippi there were two women who had quarrelled and were endangering the peace ( Php_4:2 ); and there were false teachers who were seeking to lure the Philippians from the true path ( Php_3:2 ). This letter is an appeal to maintain the unity of the Church.

The Problem

It is just here that the problem of Philippians arises. At Php_3:2 there is an extraordinary break in the letter. Up to Php_3:1 everything is serenity and the letter seems to be drawing gently to its close; then without warning comes the outburst: "Beware of dogs; beware of evil workers; beware of the concision." There is no connection with what goes before. Further, Php_3:1 looks like the end. "Finally, my brethren," says Paul, "rejoice in the Lord" and having said finally he begins all over again! (That, of course, is not an unknown phenomenon in preaching).

Because of this break many scholars think that Philippians, as we possess it, is not one letter but two letters put together. They regard Php_3:2-21 and Php_4:1-3 as a letter of thanks and warning sent quite early after the arrival of Epaphroditus in Rome; and they regard Php_1:1-30 ; Php_2:1-30 ; Php_3:1 and Php_4:4-23 as a letter written a good deal later, and sent with Epaphroditus when he had to go home. That is perfectly possible. We know that Paul almost certainly did, in fact, write more than one letter to Philippi, for Polycarp, in his letter to the Philippian Church, says of him, "when he was absent he wrote letters to you."

The Explanation

And yet it seems to us that there is no good reason for splitting this letter into two. The sudden break between Php_3:1 and Php_3:2 can be otherwise explained in one of two ways.

(i) As Paul was writing, fresh news may have come of trouble at Philippi; and there and then he may have interrupted his line of thought to deal with it.

(ii) The simplest explanation is this. Philippians is a personal letter and a personal letter is never logically ordered like a treatise. In such a letter we put things down as they come into our heads; we chat on paper with our friends; and an association of ideas which may be clear enough to us may not be so obvious to anyone else. The sudden change of subject here is just the kind of thing which might occur in any such letter.

The Lovely Letter

For many of us Philippians is the loveliest letter Paul ever wrote. It has been called by two titles. It has been called The Epistle of excellent Things--and so indeed it is; and it has been called The Epistle of Joy. Again and again the words joy and rejoice recur. "Rejoice," writes Paul, "again I will say rejoice," even in prison directing the hearts of his friends--and ours--to the joy that no man can take from us.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

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