Epistle to the Philippians
Greetings and a prayer for Philippians - Philippians 1:1-11
Apostle Paul and Timothy greet the congregation in Philippi. Paul had summoned Timothy from Lystra to be his fellow worker. Lystra is located near Konya, which is in the southern part of what we now know as Turkey. At first Timothy traveled with Paul and Silas to different places, strengthening congregations. Philippi was Timothy’s first missionary destination where a new congregation was born. In his letter, Paul says that he is planning to send Timothy to Philippi. Timothy is being mentioned at the beginning of the letter because of this plan and because they are working together as partners.
The first missionary journey to Philippi was in the early 50s. The conversions of two households are described as the fruit of the early work in Philippi. The first was the conversion and baptism of Lydia and her household (Acts 16: 13-15). The second happened when Paul and Silas were being held captive and they proclaimed the gospel to the jailer. As he believed, his whole household was also baptized. (Acts 16:16-40)
The letter to the Philippians was sent while Paul was in captivity. This was around the years 57-61, depending on the place of captivity. As the letter goes on, there are various hints about where Paul might have been writing his letter. These hints will be addressed with each respective passage.
Because some time had already passed since the first missionary journey, the congregation had already had time to become established. The fact that Paul mentions many servants and pastors in the greetings proves this. This also makes it evident that the congregation has grown considerably. This growth is reflected in Paul’s words about how the Philippians have joined in spreading the gospel from the very beginning. Moreover, as the letter goes on, Paul mentions how the congregation in Philippi has supported his work in many ways, which is also a way to be involved in spreading the gospel.
In his prayer, overjoyed Paul gives thanks to God for how the congregation in Philippi has made progress in many ways. Not a lot of big issues within the congregation can be gathered from the letter. Some individual people Paul encourages to live in harmony (Philippians 4:2). However, as he gives thanks he also prays for the love within Philippians to grow. This growth is also the main subject of the letter. It is always possible to grow stronger in the love evoked by Jesus Christ.
In the letter, there is a clear exhortation to serve one another more and more for which the role model is Christ himself (Philippians 2:1-8). Later Paul brings himself out as a role model and points out that he has not become perfect either - only Christ is perfect. Paul will do everything in his power to become perfect and the basis for this endeavor is Christ and his work (Philippians 3:10-17). These are all ideas through which Paul wants to help the growing of love within Philippians. In addition, Paul brings up Timothy and Epaphroditus as examples of good and Christ-like servants.
In the next passage Paul goes over the motives of proclamation. Inner motives are usually hard to see on the outside. The letter specifically mentions different ministers which may imply that Paul wanted to awaken the ministers to analyze their own inner motives. It is, as we know, the ministers’ most important duty to proclaim the word of God.
Motives of proclamation - Philippians 1:12-18
Paul being captured has been a shock to anyone who has heard about it - including the Philippians. Hence Paul wants to emphasize the upsides of him being in captivity.
The word “pretorium”, bodyguard, has been used in the letter (Philippians 1:13). Pretoriums and such staff belonged to either the caesar or governors. Hence we can conclude that Paul’s captivity was either in Ephesos, Caesarea or Rome where Paul is known to have been held captive. (Acts 19:23–40; 23:23–26; 28:17–31)
Paul wasn’t held captive long-term in Ephesos. After having spent a short period of time in Caesarea, they waited a long time for Paul to be sent to Rome. In Rome, after his time in prison, Paul was allowed to live in his own rental apartment for two years. However, this was not freedom but a house arrest, which was constantly supervised by Roman soldiers. The text that covers this time period talks about a freedom to proclaim the gospel. (Acts 28:30-31). Time spent in Rome was therefore fruitful in many ways. According to Christian tradition Paul was killed at the hands of Caesar Nero in 63 or 64 AD. As he was a Roman citizen, this happened by sword, not crucifixion like the other apostles were killed. The persecution of Christians by Nero began in 64AD and it lasted up to 68 AD.
If Paul is in Rome, 9000 people would know the reason behind his imprisonment. Regardless, Paul has been able to proclaim the gospel to a huge crowd that would not have been easy to reach in other circumstances. Many proclaimers have also gained newfound courage from this unexpectedly great situation.
Surely also in Philippi the jailer’s family’s conversion gave new passion to proclaim the gospel even in difficult situations. It definitely had been in God’s wondrous guidance that Paul and Silas had proclaimed in prison and through which the whole household had converted to Christianity. This is how Philippians had gained courage to proclaim without fear. This fearlessness can be seen in the growth of the congregation. These are the situations that show clearly how God works and guides in all situations. Nothing else will invoke courage like knowing that we are in God’s good care. Another important fact is later added by Paul: even death is not a loss, since that is how one will be joined with Christ. (Philippians 1:21-23).
During Paul’s imprisonment, many Christians had been proclaiming Jesus Christ with false motives. False motives will not destroy the proclamation if the message is right. Paul is happy about all proclamations, regardless of whether the motive is true or false. Right proclamation will always help the progress of the Kingdom of Christ, because the word of God is effective and it cannot be ruined by people’s inner motives.
For the proclaimer himself a wrong motive is not good. Paul mentions different kinds of motives, some of which are also in the letter to Galatians, which lists the consequences of the acts of the flesh. (Philippians 1:15, 17; 2:3; Galatians 5:19-21). All of them should be crucified along with Christ (Gal. 5:24). Because these motives are being discussed in the beginning of the following chapter, it can be concluded that Paul is urging the proclaimers in Philippi to check their own motives. The letter is indeed directed at the leaders of the congregation whose job is to proclaim. Everyone ought to check their inner motives of proclaiming and take any false motives to Jesus. This is how love can grow in a proclaimer’s life too.
The same battle is being fought in different places - Philippians 1:19-30
The Philippians are praying diligently for Paul. In many letters Paul urges to pray for himself and for others. Paul asks for opportunities and courage to proclaim in different situations as well as for the right words to use (Ephesians 6:18-20; Colossians 4:2-3). All of this has come true especially well in the imprisonment that he is facing now. Paul continues to wish that he can keep proclaiming in this difficult situation. This calls for intercession.
In his letter Paul ponders upon whether life or death would be better for him. To die would mean to be with Jesus but living would give him more chances to help Philippians grow as Christians. Paul has already been imprisoned for some time and he is also waiting for the final verdict. The fact that he does not know what is to be expected in the future conveys this idea. This uncertainty makes Paul think about whether life or death is better in this particular situation.
In the following chapter there is strong encouragement to keep other people above yourself and to work in another person’s interest in addition to your own (Philippians 2:3-4). The example for all of this was Jesus Christ himself when he lowered himself to serve other people. Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself (Matthew 22:37-39) is reflected here. Later Paul says that he and others who behave as he does should be seen as role models (Philippians 3:17). This chapter tells us that even in prison Paul keeps thinking of other Christians, which is an example of Paul’s exemplary conduct.
Luke, who worked with Paul, has written the Gospel of Luke and its sequel Acts of the Apostles. The Gospel of Luke is addressed to Theophilus (Luke 1:3). Theophilus can be either an actual name, someone generally interested in God or it can be an alias for a high-positioned Roman official. Either way, this is how Luke has battled alongside Paul.