The Epistle to the Philippians
The church at Philippi started inauspiciously with a Gentile businesswoman, a Macedonian jailer and their households (Acts 16:12-40). This occurred in about AD 50 when, as part of Paul’s second missionary journey, he first brought the gospel to Europe (cf. Acts 16:9-10). About a decade later, Paul writes a warm and personal letter to the church at Philippi. This occurred in about AD 61-62 when, as part of his first Roman imprisonment, Paul wrote the last of the four “prison epistles”. By then the church at Philippi had grown to include not a few women, a true companion and many saints in the household of God (Philippians 1:1; 4:2-3).
Themes of Partnership in the Gospel and of Joy
From the outset of his ministry in Europe, the Philippians entered into partnership with Paul in giving and receiving (4:15). Twice when he was at Thessalonica and once when he was at Corinth, the saints at Philippi ministered to Paul’s needs (Lightner 1983:647). Now about a decade later, the Philippians sent Epaphroditus to again minister to Paul’s needs (2:25; 4:10-14, 18). Through this epistle Paul in turn ministered once more to the saints, with both Epaphroditus and Timothy returning to be with them (2:19-24, 28). ‘From the first day until now’, Paul and the Philippians had a joyful ‘partnership in the gospel’ (1:5b).
Despite being in jail in Rome, Paul uses the words “joy”, “rejoice” and “glad” frequently. These words occur about 15 times in this epistle (Lightner 1983:647). Another topic often mentioned is the gospel. References to the gospel occur nine times in this epistle (1:5, 7, 12, 16, 27 (twice); 2:22; 4:3, 15; Tenney 1985:326). It is the gospel of Christ that sets us free into a joyful new life.
The ‘great theological contribution of Philippians is its revelation of the mind of Christ’ (Bailey & Constable 1999:412). When Christ, who is of the very essence or form of God, took on human form, He placed the independent use of His divine rights and attributes under the will of God the Father (2:6-8; cf. Fruchtenbaum 2005:4, 10). Being found in human form, Christ humbled himself further by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (2:8). When Christ, who now has both the divine and human natures, ascended into heaven, He started to again use His divine rights and attributes independently as He wills. There is no greater demonstration of selfless humility and sacrifice than that of Jesus Christ.
Despite being a short epistle, references to the Lord Jesus Christ appears often. ‘In a total of 104 verses, there are 51 references to the Lord Jesus by name’ (Constable 2017:3). The whole of Paul’s life was centred on Christ: ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ (1:21). References to partnership or fellowship appear six times in this epistle (1:5, 7; 2:1; 3:10; 4:14, 16). This joyful participation in the gospel comes from fellowship with Christ.
The structure of this epistle emphasises its central theme, ‘the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel’ (Swift 1984:237). The salutation (1:1-2) can be pared with the closing benediction section (4:21-23). The main body of the letter (1:27-4:9) emphasises a unity and steadfastness based on the ‘humble, self-emptying, self-sacrificing mind [of Christ] after which the Philippians are to pattern their relationships’ (Swift 1984:245). Joining the structure is both the lengthy prologue (1:3-26) and the corresponding epilogue (4:10-20). From beginning to end the structure of this epistle is ‘essentially chiastic’ (Constable 2017:3; cf. Black 1995), calling all Christians to walk worthy of the gospel ‘if they expect to further the work of the gospel’ (Swift 1984:250).
The Lord added to the Church when He saved the Macedonian jailer and his household (Acts 16:31-33). This happened in about AD 50 on the night that Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God in a European jail (cf. Acts 16:19-34). About a decade later, Paul again finds himself in a prison, rejoicing in Christ as he writes the epistle to the Philippians. All this is based on Christ’s work at the cross, where He provided redemption to all imprisoned by sin and death. The unstoppable and exalted Christ is building his Church and all those whose citizenship is in heaven awaits the return of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 3:20).
Bailey, M.L. & Constable, T.L., 1999, Nelson’s New Testament Survey, Thomas Nelson, Nashville.
Black, D.A., 1995, ‘The Discourse Structure of Philippians: A Study in Textlinguistics’, Novum Testamentum 37(1):16-49.
Constable, T.L., 2017, Notes on Philippians, 2017 edition, Sonic Light.
Fruchtenbaum, A.G., 2005, ‘The Incarnation’, MBS054, Ariel Ministries.
Lightner, R.P., 1983, ‘Philippians’, in J.F. Walvoord & R.B. Zuck (eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, bladsye 647-666, David C Cook, Colorado Springs.
Swift, R.C., 1984, ‘The theme and structure of Philippians’, Bibliotheca Sacra 141(563):234-254.
Tenney, M.C., 1985, New Testament Survey, revised edition, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids.
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