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Philippians, Epistle to

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PHILIPPIANS, EPISTLE TO

1. The Church of Philippi . St. Paul visited Philippi on his second missionary journey, and founded there his first Church in Europe. The names in Philippians 4:2 f., probably those of early converts, lead us to infer that the Gentile element continued strong from the days when the Church began in the house holds of Lydia and the jailor ( Acts 16:12-40 ). It is only by the exercise of much imagination that the character of the city a Roman colony enjoying the jus Italicum , and therefore with a sense of its own importance can be discerned in the letter, though probably the fact that St. Paul was a Roman citizen, and the virtual apology with which he was sent away by the prætors, may have had some effect on the subsequent treatment of the Christians. As one of the Churches of Macedonia referred to in 2 Corinthians 8:2 ff., it was doubtless in deep poverty, but is held forth along with them as a model of liberality. St. Paul seems to have treated the Philippians in an exceptional way, by accepting from them support which he ordinarily refused ( 2 Corinthians 11:7 ff., Philippians 4:16 ). He must have visited Philippi at least three times ( Acts 16:12 , 2 Corinthians 2:13 , Acts 20:6 ), and he always found his own love reciprocated by the Church, and experienced a unique joy in their fellowship with him for the furtherance of the gospel ( Philippians 1:3-8 ). The Apostle’s ascendency in the Church was never questioned, as in Corinth. There were, it is true, rivalries in the congregation, especially, it would seem, among some of the active women of the Church, and St. Paul does not hesitate to use the most powerful of Christian motives to give force and direction to the shaft that he aims at discord ( Philippians 2:1-11 ). But, unlike the Churches of Galatia, Philippi had not been disturbed by a severe attack from the Judaists, though the Apostle sees threatening indications of their approach ( Philippians 3:2 ; Philippians 3:18 f.). The Church was organized with bishops and deacons, from whom St. Paul seems to have received the people’s gift ( Philippians 1:1 ), which they sent by Epaphroditus, probably with a letter. In no part of his missionary field, so far as we know, did he find such a pure Christian life. They were ‘lights in the world’ ( Philippians 2:15-16 ), and the Apostle’s ‘joy and crown’ ( Philippians 4:1 ).

2. Situation of St. Paul. The Apostle is a prisoner ( Philippians 1:7 ; Philippians 1:13-14 ; Philippians 1:17 ). It appears that his imprisonment had become more rigorous since the Philippians received their first word concerning him; and it must have been of some duration, because there had been several communications between them ( Philippians 2:25-30 , Philippians 4:10 ). They are distressed by the fear that the gospel will suffer through his strict confinement and possible martyrdom. But this imprisonment, instead of hindering the gospel, has really led to a more eager preaching of Christ by the Christians of the city of Rome. The motive of this increased activity was sometimes an unworthy emulation of the Apostle, and there must have been those in the Church who refused to acknowledge his leadership, being aroused by the success with which ‘his bonds became manifest throughout all the Prætorium and to all the rest’ ( Philippians 1:12-18 ). He has come to be recognized as no mere disturber of the peace ( Acts 24:6 ; Acts 25:8 ), but as a preacher of a religion different from that of the Jews, and one which had already reached Cæsar’s household ( Philippians 4:22 ). His defence has been partly made, and he is full of hope of a speedy acquittal ( Philippians 1:25 ff.), though the possibility of martyrdom hangs like a cloud in his sky, bright to his own view, but casting a shadow upon his readers’ joy ( Philippians 1:19-30 ).

It has been assumed, in accordance with the overwhelming opinion of scholars, that St. Paul was at the time imprisoned in Rome; but some say in Cæsarea. The chief reasons for the Roman imprisonment are (1) that the wide-spread activity on behalf of the gospel by friends and enemies of the Apostle involves a larger Church than seems to have been in Cæsarea; and (2) his own conviction that his acquittal is near. With this view the indications of Philippians 1:13 and Philippians 4:22 most naturally agree. ‘Prætorium’ might, indeed, mean Herod’s palace, which was used as the headquarters of the Roman governor in Cæsarea, but the words ‘in the whole Prætorium’ seem to point to the bodyguard of the Emperor, though Mommsen supposes that the conditions are best realized if the words imply that St. Paul was handed over to the judicial prefects of the Prætorian guard, who presided over the supreme Imperial court in Rome. No sufficient proof has been adduced that the word was used for the Emperor’s palace in Rome, or for the barracks of the guard. Also ‘Cæsar’s household’ ( Philippians 4:22 ) probably means the attendants of the Emperor in Rome, including those of high rank and slaves.

Assuming that the letter was written from a Roman prison, what is its relationship to Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon the other letters of the captivity? Some hold that these were written from Cæsarea while Philippians was sent from Rome, but most assign all these Captivity Epistles to Rome. There is, however, no unanimity as to whether Philippians preceded or followed the others. Some of the most distinguished English and American scholars put Philippians earliest, for the reason that in style and language it is very much akin to Romans, while Ephesians and Colossians are more like the Pastorals, and their atmosphere is quite different from that of Romans and Philippians. There is much force in this, though Ephesians also presents strong similarity to Romans. But the situation of the Asian Churches, invaded as they were by a new type of error, might have called forth new themes in a formal Epistle like Ephesians, while Philippians is a friendly letter to an old Church whose life was apparently now for the first time being threatened by the Judaists, with their gospel of legal righteousness. Nor would the year or so which on this supposition elapsed between Phil. and Eph. account for the difference between them. The question of priority may not admit of final decision, but in Philippians St. Paul’s imprisonment seems to be nearer its end than in the other letters. Hort, who is in favour of the priority of Philippians, holds that the request to Philemon to prepare a lodging is not to be taken in a ‘crude literal sense,’ and that in the contemporary Colossians there is no expectation of a speedy release. Also in Philippians St. Paul has no friends upon whom he can depend, except Timothy (cf. Colossians 4:7 ff. with Philippians 2:20-21 ). An additional reason of less weight in favour of placing Philippians last is, that a somewhat long duration of St. Paul’s imprisonment is involved by the communications of the Philippians and their anxiety at the change in the rigour of his captivity.

In regard to the date of Philippians, a further difficulty emerges because of the uncertainty of the Pauline chronology, but since a.d. 61 is the most probable year for the Apostle’s arrival in Rome, this letter may, though not without hesitation, be assigned to a.d. 63. In this letter St. Paul refreshes his lonely spirit by perfect freedom of fellowship with his favourite Church. Rome was not so homogeneous, nor did it acknowledge his gospel so whole-heartedly as the Churches of his own creation; thither would come Christians of every shade of opinion Judaists, Hellenists, Petrinists, and sympathizers with St. Paul. It is doubtful whether the Church of Rome was ever of a thoroughly Pauline type; for, notwithstanding the change effected by the Neronian persecution, that Church could not have soon become so decidedly Petrine had it originally been strongly imbued with the Pauline Gospel. This letter shows us a very active and varied missionary effort in the capital partly by St. Paul among the Prætorians and in the Imperial household, partly by his friends, and to some extent by others who probably preached to the Jews and their proselytes.

3. Contents of the Epistle

(i.) Greeting , Philippians 1:1-2 . Paul and Timothy salute the saints of Philippi, together with their bishops and deacons.

(ii.) Introduction , Philippians 1:3-11 . St. Paul is constantly moved to thanksgiving for their generous fellowship with him in the furtherance of the gospel from the beginning, and they are all ever on his heart where Christ dwells. His prayer for them is that their love may abound in knowledge and insight as to what befits the Christian life, that so they may live sincere and blameless lives until Christ comes.

(iii.) The present condition of St. Paul , Philippians 1:12-26 . His imprisonment has, contrary to expectation, led to the spread of the gospel, partly by his being chained to the Prætorian guards, partly through a new courage among his friends, and partly through envious rivalry. He, however, rejoices because he is assured that in answer to their prayers the Spirit of Christ will enable him to glorify his Lord whatever be the issue of his imprisonment; he does not know what to desire, though he believes that he will be acquitted and will work for their Christian welfare.

(iv.) Exhortotions to the Philippians to walk worthily of the gospel , Philippians 1:27 to Philippians 2:18 . No hostility must deter them from maintaining the gospel in a spirit of unity, for ability to suffer for Christ is a sign of Divine grace to them and of ruin to their enemies. An appeal is also made to them, by all that they have experienced of Christian love, to complete his joy by living in fellowship, and to exhibit that unselfish mind which prompted Christ to come to earth and die for them. Wherefore He is now exalted to be worshipped by every creature. By reverent obedience let them work with God and effect His will of good towards them, so that at the last day the Apostle and his beloved Philippians may rejoice in what the gospel has done for them.

(v.) The promise to send Timothy, and the commendation of Epaphroditus to the Philippians ( Philippians 2:19-30 ).

(vi.) Christian progress through the knowledge of Jesus Christ , Philippians 3:1 to Philippians 4:1 . To sum up his letter, the Apostle would say, ‘Rejoice in the Lord.’ But, as though suddenly reminded of a danger, he returns, even at the risk of wearying them, to a warning against the judaists dogs, evil workers, mutilators of the flesh. He who believes in Christ alone as a sufficient Saviour is the true Israelite. St. Paul, who had enjoyed every Hebrew privilege, knows of how small value they were for attaining true righteousness, and now he boasts only in Christ. For personal knowledge of Him he will gladly lose all else, in order that he may get the righteousness which is from God by faith, and in close union with Him may realize the meaning of His sufferings, death, and resurrection. Christian perfection is still in the distance, but all who have been laid hold of by Christ must respond by striving eagerly for perfect fellowship with Him. The mature Christian must keep on in the path of progress, and not be misled by teaching which will end in an earthly goal and the rejection of the cross. St. Paul and his followers are to be their example, for their Commonwealth and its ideals are above, whence Christ will soon come to transfigure them into His likeness. Wherefore let this Church, which will be his crown at that day, stand fast in the Lord.

(vii.) Conclusion , Philippians 4:2-19 .

( a ) Exhortations to Individuals to unity ( Philippians 4:2-3 ). Possibly ‘yoke-fellow’ ( Philippians 4:3 ) refers to Epaphroditus, or more probably it should be translated ‘Synzygus,’ a proper name. ( b ) St. Paul their example for Christian joy and conduct ( Philippians 4:4-9 ). (c) Thanks for their gifts and for their many past favours. Contented as he is with whatever God sends, he might have done without them, but they will add interest to the account of the Philippians, and he gives them a receipt in full which God will acknowledge ( Philippians 4:10-19 ).

(viii.) Doxology and final greetings ( Philippians 4:20-23 ).

4. Purpose and Characteristics. Epaphroditus had fallen sick at Rome before his work of love for St. Paul was done, and the news, having reached Philippi, cast the Church into anxiety; Epaphroditus in his turn having heard of their alarm has grown home-sick. St. Paul uses the occasion of his return to set their mind at rest about his own imprisonment for the gospel, and to deal with some affairs about which they had informed him. The letter is so thoroughly personal that it has no plan or any single aim. He thanks the Philippians for their gift, crowning many acts of generosity towards him, and yet, lest they should feel that he was too dependent upon them, he reminds them that it is their spirit that he values most. Again he warns them against a Judaistic gospel, and is urgent in seeking to compose personal jealousies of two of the women workers. His gospel is the only one, and it is the gospel of love. His union with Christ fills him with love and contentment, and thrills the lonely prisoner with joy , which may be called the note of the Epistle, and he hopes by this letter to Impart some of this spirit to the Philippians also. Should the view that St. Paul was not acquitted be correct, this letter might be called ‘his last testament to his beloved Church’; but there is good reason to believe that his hope of release was fulfilled.

Philippians is an excellent example of the Pauline method of sustaining Christian life by doctrinal truth which is the outcome of personal experience. Human thought has made few nobler flights into the mystery of redemption than Philippians 2:6-11 , but it is used to exalt the homely duty of sacrifice in the ministry of fellowship. Like 2 Corinthians 8:9 , the dynamic of the truth lies not in an intellectual interpretation of the mystery of Christ’s personality, for little is told further than that He was in His nature essentially Divine, and enjoyed the prerogatives of Divinity; but it lies in the fact that St. Paul had learned from his own Intercourse with the risen Christ His extraordinary power and grace as the eternal, Divine Son of God. Everything earthly becomes worthless in comparison with the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, his Lord. The contrast between His earthly life of suffering and death and the eternal, glorious existence involved in the vision of the risen Lord, has become the religious motive of supreme efficacy. Similarly in php Philippians 3:8-11 ; Philippians 3:20-21 the doctrine is deduced from experience, and is to be wrought into character. The emphasis on the practice of virtue, especially in Philippians 4:8-12 , is said to reflect the finest contemporary teaching of the pagan world, but the form is pervaded with the purest Christian spirit.

5. Authenticity and Integrity. The objections urged against this Epistle by Baur and his followers are not seriously regarded to-day, and have been abandoned by all but a few extremists who start from certain presuppositions as to primitive Christianity, and are offended by the tone of Philippians 3:17 , Philippians 4:9 , as well as by the abrupt transition in Philippians 3:1-2 . The recurrence of the motives, ideas, and language of the great Pauline Epistles, and the external evidence of its use from the early sub-Apostolic age, make it unnecessary to consider the objections in detail. More plausibility attaches to the theory that the Epistle, as we now have it, consists of two letters, which are joined at Philippians 3:2 , the last two chapters being probably earlier and addressed to different readers. In support of this, appeal is made to Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians ( Philippians 3:2 ), where the words ‘who also wrote you letters’ are held to prove that they had not then been united. But in itself this supposition is baseless; and Polycarp, who knew apparently only our letter, may either have heard of others which St. Paul wrote to the Philippians or have employed the term loosely; or perhaps he was referring to a collection of St. Paul’s Epistles used widely for edification by all the Churches. The abruptness in Philippians 3:1-2 , however, is explained by the fact that St. Paul is expressing himself freely in an intimate letter to his friends, and perhaps it was partly due to something in their letter to him which he suddenly remembered.

R. A. Falconer.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Philippians, Epistle to'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/p/philippians-epistle-to.html. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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