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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers


- Philippians

by Charles John Ellicott







I. Time, Place, and Occasion of the Epistle.—The indications of the time and place of this Epistle are unusually clear. It is written by St. Paul “in bonds” (); in the Prætorium (Philippians 1:13), that is, under the charge of the Prætorian guard; it sends greeting from the “saints of Caesar’s household” (Philippians 4:21); it expresses an expectation of some crisis in his imprisonment (Philippians 1:20-26), and a confident hope of re-visiting Philippi (Philippians 1:26; Philippians 2:24). All these indications place it in the Roman imprisonment of St. Paul—which we know (Acts 28:30) to have lasted without trial or release for “two whole years,” and which certainly began about A.D. 61. The date of the Epistle must therefore be fixed about the year A.D. 62 or 63.

Nor is the occasion of the Epistle less obvious. The Church at Philippi now, as at an earlier time (), had sent contributions to St. Paul’s necessities, under the distress and destitution of imprisonment, when he was unable to maintain himself by the labour of his own hands, as he had formerly done at Thessalonica, Corinth, and Ephesus. Epaphroditus, their messenger, through his affectionate exertions on St. Paul’s behalf, had fallen into dangerous illness, and on his convalescence had been seized with home-sickness, aggravated by the uneasiness of knowing that his danger had been reported to his friends at home (Philippians 2:25-30). St. Paul, therefore, sent him back with this Letter, the immediate object of which was to convey his thanks and blessing for the generosity of the Philippians, and to commend warmly the devotion of Epaphroditus, which had been in great degree the cause of his illness.

II. The Church to which it was written.—Of the first preaching at Philippi we have a full and graphic account in Acts 16, where a description of the history and character of the city itself will be found in the Notes. The preaching began, as usual, from a Jewish centre, but this was only a proseuche, or oratory (Acts 16:13)—not, as at Thessalonica, a synagogue (Acts 17:1); and the whole history shows no indication of any strong Jewish influence. The first convert named is Lydia, an Asiatic of Thyatira, not a Jewess, but “one who worshipped God”—a “proselyte of the gate.” The first opposition came not from the Jews, as at Thessalonica (Acts 17:5-6; Acts 17:13), but from the masters of the “damsel possessed with a spirit of divination,” simply because by the exorcism of the Apostle the “hope of their gain was gone.” The accusation levelled against St. Paul and his companion was one which was intimately connected with the peculiar position of Philippi as a Roman colony—a fragment (as it were) of the imperial city itself. We note, indeed, that at this very time (Acts 18:2) “Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome,” and it is at least probable that this decree of banishment might extend to the Roman colonies, as distinguished from the ordinary provincial cities. Accordingly, in the accusation itself stress was laid on the fact that the accused were “Jews,” and the charge was that they preached a religio illicita, involving customs which it was “not lawful for the Philippians to receive, being Romans” (Acts 16:21). The Church was therefore, mainly a Gentile Church—the firstfruits of European Christianity—and its attachment to the Apostle of the Gentiles was especially strong and fervent. The Philippians alone, it appears, offered—certainly from them alone St. Paul consented to receive—those contributions to his necessities, which elsewhere (see Acts 20:33-35; 2 Corinthians 11:7-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:8) he thought it best to refuse for the gospel’s sake.

The foundation of the Church had been laid amidst a persecution, in which the Roman magistrates, with a characteristic dislike of all foreign superstitions likely to lead to uproar, and a characteristic disregard of justice towards two or three obscure Jews, simply played into the hands of mob violence. The step which St. Paul afterwards took of asserting his citizenship and forcing the magistrates to confess their wrong-doing () looks like a precaution to render the recurrence of arbitrary persecution less likely after his departure. But we gather from this Epistle (Philippians 1:27-30) that the Church had still, like the sister Church at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 2:14) and the other Macedonian churches (2 Corinthians 8:2), to undergo “the same conflict” of suffering from “their adversaries,” “which they had seen in him.” It grew up under the bracing air of trial, with a peculiar steadfastness, warm-heartedness, and simplicity, apparently unvexed by the speculative waywardness of Corinth or the wild heresies of Ephesus or Colossæ. Again like the Thessalonian Church, its dangers were mainly practical (see Philippians 3); the Judaising influence was probably foreign and not very formidable; the tendencies to Antinomian profligacy (Philippians 3:17-21), to some division by party spirit (Philippians 2:1-4; Philippians 4:2-3), to occasional despondency under trial (Philippians 1:28), hardly appear to have affected the Church widely or seriously. In its condition, accordingly, St. Paul could rejoice almost without reserve, of sorrow or anxiety.

Of St. Paul’s subsequent visits to Philippi we have no full record. We cannot doubt that he visited the city on his way from Ephesus to Macedonia and Greece, on the third missionary circuit (Acts 20:3). The common tradition, exceedingly probable in itself, dates the Second Epistle to the Corinthians from Philippi on that occasion. We know (Acts 20:6) that it was from Philippi that he started, some months after, on his last journey to Jerusalem. At a period subsequent to this Epistle, we learn (1 Timothy 1:3) that St. Paul, apparently after a visit to Ephesus, “went into Macedonia” after his first captivity, and so, no doubt, fulfilled his hope of re-visiting this well-loved Church. After this we have no notice of the Church in history till we read of their kindly reception of Ignatius on his way to martyrdom, and study the Epistle of Polycarp to them, written shortly after, mainly practical and hortatory, and implying, with but slight reservation, a still strong and vigorous Christianity, and a constant grateful memory of the great Apostle. (See, for example, Philippians 1—“I rejoiced greatly with you in our Lord Jesus Christ, because ye have adopted the imitation of true love. . . . because the firm root of your faith, celebrated from ancient times, remains even until now, and bears fruit unto the Lord Jesus Christ;” Philippians 3—“Neither I nor any like me can follow out fully the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul, who, when he came among you, taught accurately and durably the word of truth.”) Tertullian also alludes to it (de Præscr. xxxvi.) as one of the churches where the “authentic letters of the Apostles”—no doubt, this Epistle itself—were read. Afterwards we have little reference to it in Church history. Like Colossæ, it sank into insignificance.

III. The Genuineness of the Epistle.—External Evidence.—The evidence for the genuineness of the Epistle is very strong. In all ancient catalogues, from the Muratorian Fragment (A.D. 170) downwards, in all ancient versions, beginning with the Peschito and the old Latin, it is placed among the undoubted Epistles of St. Paul. In Christian writings, before the end of the second century, knowledge of it may be distinctly traced; after that time it is quoted continually.

Thus, in the Apostolic Fathers, to say nothing of slighter indications which have been noted (as by Dr. Westcott, Canon of the New Testament, Philippians 1, and Dr. Lightfoot, in his Introduction to this Epistle), St. Polycarp, in his Epistle to the Philippians (Philippians 3), expressly declares that St. Paul, “when absent, wrote letters to them, by searching into which they can still be built up in the faith,” and speaks of them as “praised in the beginning of his Epistle” (chap. 11). Nor are there wanting expressions in his letter (such as the “using our citizenship worthily of Christ,” “the enemies of the cross,” the “rejoicing with them in the Lord,” the “not running in vain,” &c.) which not obscurely indicate reference to the text of our Epistle itself. Again, Dr. Lightfoot quotes from the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a Judæo-Christian work, dating early in the second century, certain expressions—“the form of God” and the “fashion of men” (see Philippians 2:6), the “luminaries” of heaven (see Philippians 2:15), and, above all, the unique phrase “the bowels (heart) of the Son of God” (see Philippians 1:8)—which indicate unmistakably knowledge of this Epistle.

Perhaps the earliest direct quotation of it is in the celebrated Epistles of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne (A.D. 177), on the martyrdoms in the persecution of Marcus Aurelius (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, v. 2)—where we find the great passage: “He being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God,” &c. Then, as in other cases, the habit of quotation begins in Irenæus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian, and continues afterwards unbroken. Tertullian, as we have already seen, apparently speaks of the Letter as being read as an Apostolic letter in the Philippian Church; and in his controversy with Marcion (v. 20) so quotes it as to show that it had escaped the destructive criticism and arbitrary mutilation in which Marcion so constantly anticipated the critical scepticism of later times.

(a) , compared with Romans 14:11.

(b) , compared with Romans 6:5.

(c) Philippians 3:19, compared with Romans 16:18.

(d) Philippians 4:18, compared with Romans 12:1.

(e) , compared with 2 Corinthians 11:22, Romans 11:1. It may be noted that in all these cases there is similarity with difference—the characteristic of independent coincidence not of imitation.

It is, therefore, not surprising that, even in the freest speculation of the higher criticism, there are but few examples of scepticism as to the genuineness of this Epistle.

IV. The main Substance of the Epistle.—(1) The Picture of the Writer and the Receivers.—The first and simplest impression made by this Epistle is the vivid portraiture which it gives us of St. Paul himself—especially in the conflict of desire for the death which is the entrance to the nearer presence of Christ, and for the longer life, which will enable him to gather a fuller harvest for Christ—in the striking union of affection and thankfulness towards the Philippians, with a dignified independence and a tone of plenary authority—in the sensitiveness to the sorrow and inactivity of imprisonment, overcome and finally absorbed into an almost unequalled fulness of joy in the Lord. Side by side with this, we are next struck with the picture which it gives us of the Macedonian Christianity at Philippi—not unlike that of Thessalonica, though, it would seem, less chequered by fanaticism or disorder, and certainly singularly accordant with the Macedonian character, as it paints itself at once speculatively inferior and practically superior to the Greek, in the pages of history. The Philippian Christianity is pre-eminently vigorous, loyal, and warm-hearted, courageous and patient, little disturbed either by speculative refinements or speculative inventions, hardly needing any warning, except against the self-assertion which is the natural excrescence of earnestness, or any exhortation, except to a deeper thoughtfulness, which might “overflow into knowledge,” and prove “the things which are really excellent.” There is no letter of St. Paul’s so absolutely free from the necessity of rebuke, and, accordingly; there is none so full of joy, in spite of all the circumstances of suffering and anxiety under which it was written.

(2) The Condition of the Church at Rome.—The next great subject of interest is the light thrown by this Epistle on the progress of the Church at Rome during St. Paul’s imprisonment. Of his preaching to the Jews, the Asiatic Gentiles, and the Greeks, we have plain historical record in the Acts of the Apostles. That record fails us at the moment when he reaches the great centre of heathen civilisation at Rome, simply telling us that his imprisonment was not allowed to be a hindrance to his preaching, first (as always) with the Jews, then, on their rejection of the gospel, to the Gentiles who were “willing to hear it.” Now, we know by the history of the Neronian persecution in Tacitus that, less than ten years after St. Paul’s arrival in Rome, the Christians were already “a vast multitude,” not only in the Eastern home of their religion, but in the metropolis itself. While we perceive from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that, before that arrival Christianity was firmly established in Rome, and suspect that the ignorance of the Jewish leaders concerning “the sect everywhere spoken against” (Acts 28:22) was in great degree affected, yet we cannot but see that these ten years must have been years of rapid progress, in order to justify, even approximately, the description of the Roman historian. Naturally, we conclude that St. Paul’s presence, even in his prison, must have given the chief new impulse to such progress, and inquire eagerly for any indications of his actual discharge to the Romans of the debt of gospel preaching which he had long ago acknowledged as due to them (Romans 1:14-15). To this inquiry almost the only answer is found in the Epistle to the Philippians.

There we learn that, as we might have expected, St. Paul’s bonds “turned out” to the great “furtherance of the gospel.” Wherever his prison actually was, it gave him opportunity of influence over the Prætorian guards, and all the rest of the world, civilian or military, who frequented their quarters; it gave him access, moreover, to those of Caesar’s household—that large community of the domus Augusta which included all varieties of occupation, character, and rank. That the earlier Christianity of Rome was largely under Jewish influence we learn from the whole argument of the Epistle to the Romans; and it has been often remarked that the names included in the long list of salutations in the last chapter show a preponderance of Greek nationality in the converts themselves. But of those who came under the spell of St. Paul’s presence, probably comparatively few would be Jews, although indeed at this time, through the influence of Poppæa, the Jewish element might be more than usually prominent in Caesar’s household; and while the greater number of that household who came in contact with him would be slaves of various nationalities, still, in the higher officers and among the Praetorian soldiery, many would be of true Roman origin. Remembering the friendship of Seneca for Burrhus, the Prætorian Prefect at the time of St. Paul’s arrival, and the former conduct of Gallio, Seneca’s brother, towards the Apostle at Corinth, many have delighted to speculate on the probability of some direct intercourse between the Apostle of the Gentiles and the philosopher of the later and more religious Stoicism, who was then the leader of higher Roman thought. But, however this may be, and whatever may be the real weight of the apparent similarities to familiar Stoic phraseology traceable in the Epistle (see , and Notes thereon), those who remember the eagerness of Roman society at this time for new religions, new mysteries, and even new superstitions, from the East, will find no difficulty in believing that one who was placed, by the circumstance of his imprisonment, in the imperial court itself, might easily have produced a deep impression on men of Roman birth, perhaps of high Roman rank.

This new Christianity would therefore probably be of a type, more purely Gentile, less predominantly Oriental, than the Christianity to which the Epistle to the Romans was addressed. Of the division between the old and the new the Epistle shows traces, in the description of those who preached Christ “of good will” to St. Paul, and those who preached in “factiousness and vain-glory;” for it seems clear, from his rejoicing that “every way Christ was preached,” that the division was as yet one of mere faction and party, not of the contrast of false with true doctrine, which we know that he treated with stern, uncompromising severity. (See ; Galatians 1:6-9.) Like all such divisions, it probably marked and justified itself by some differences in religious teaching and religious life: but if these existed, they did not go down to the foundation. The time, indeed, was not far distant, when the fall of Jerusalem, and the obvious passing away of the whole Jewish dispensation, struck the final blow to the existence of Judaism in the Christian Church. In spite, therefore, of this division, it seems clear that at the time of the Philippian Epistle Christianity had advanced, and was advancing, with rapid strides. “The city which is in heaven” was already beginning to rise from its foundations in the “great Babylon of the Seven Hills,” now the very type of the kingdom of the earth, destined hereafter to be, even visibly, the metropolis of Western Christianity.

(3) The main Subjects of the Epistle.—Turning to the teaching of the Epistle itself, the main interest centres round the great passage in the second chapter (), which is the very creed of the Incarnation, Passion, and Exaltation of our Lord Jesus Christ. This has been noticed already in the General Introduction to the Epistles of the Captivity, and is dealt with in detail in the Notes on the passage. Here it need only be remarked that its advanced Christology is made the more striking by the occasion of its occurrence, which is, in point of form, simply incidental, in enforcement of the familiar exhortation to follow the mind of Christ Jesus in humility and self-sacrifice; and that the singular simplicity and clearness of its enunciation of truth stand to the profounder and more mysterious teaching on the same subject in the Epistle to the Colossians, much as, in later times, the simplicity of a Western creed stands to the greater subtlety of an Eastern. Next in interest, though after a long interval, is the light thrown (in Philippians 3) on the obstinate persistence in Macedonia of the old Judaising influence, elsewhere decaying or passing into new forms; and the appearance both of the pretensions to perfection (Philippians 3:12-16) and of the Antinomian recklessness (Philippians 3:17-21)—sometimes associated with these pretensions, sometimes in revolt against them—with which we are but too familiar in subsequent Church history.

(4) Analysis of the Epistle.—A full analysis will be found in each chapter. A shortened general sketch of these analyses we have subjoined as usual.

1. The First Section (original Letter?).


(a) Salutation ();

(b) Thanksgiving for their “fellowship” in the work of the gospel, specially shown towards himself ();

(c) Prayer for their fuller knowledge and increase of fruitfulness to the end ().


(a) The progress of the gospel through his bonds, stimulating preaching of the gospel, partly in good will, partly in strife, but in any case a cause of joy ();

(b) His own division of feeling, between desire to depart, and a willingness to remain for their sakes, which he knows will be realised ().


(a) To steadfast boldness under persecution, now present or imminent ();

(b) To unity of spirit in the humility and self-sacrifice of “the mind of Christ Jesus” ().


(a) His humility in the Incarnation: stooping from the form of God to the form of man ();

(b) His second humility in the Passion (Philippians 2:8);

(c) His exaltation above all created being ().


(a) Final exhortation to obedience, quietness, purity, joy with him in sacrifice ();

(b) Mission and commendation of Timotheus as St Paul’s forerunner ();

(c) Mission and commendation of Epaphroditus ();

(d) Final “farewell in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1).

2. The Second Section (Postscript?).


(a) Against Judaism, by the example of his own renunciation of all Jewish privilege ();

(b) Against claim of perfection, again enforced by his own example ();

(c) Against Antinomian profligacy, as unworthy of the “citizens of heaven” ().


(a) To unity ();

(b) To joy, thankfulness, and peace ();

(c) To following of all good, in the fulness in which he had taught it ().


(a) Rejoicing in their renewed care for him ();

(b) Remembrance of their’ former liberality ();

(c) Thanks and blessing ().